The earliest memory Jess has of a musical is from the age of five. She was sick, all sniffly and full of cold and boogers, and her grandmother was looking after her.
In her memory her grandmother is no more than a flowery blue dress reaching up into heights five year-old Jess can't even dream of. She's the scent of lavender and soap and love. She smooths her astonishingly soft hands over Jess' forehead and makes soft soothing noises.
Jess has made a cocoon of blankets on the couch; her face barely peeping out and Percival (the stuffed dog she wouldn't be parted from at that age) clamped firmly under her arm. Her grandmother kneels down beside her and puts her head to one side.
“Do you know what I'm thinking, Jess?” her grandmother asks, pulling the blankets back a little.
Jess hasn't been talking much (and that's how her Mom knew how sick she was) so she just shakes her head: no, she doesn't know.
“I'm thinking I'll share with you my secret get better movie,” she says. She brings the hand around that was tucked up behind her back and waves a video in front of Jess. There's no cover and Jess can't see well enough to read the words stamped on the front.
“Whenever I feel sick,” her grandmother says, shuffling across the floor on her knees. “Or unhappy or lonely – this is the movie I watch. It's one of my favourites. I think you'll like it too.”
She pushes the video into the VCR and presses play before returning to lever herself onto the couch beside Jess. Jess looks up at her and she smiles, her grandmother had the best smiles, and gestures at the television.
Jess looks back to see the lion roar, hear the music start and watch three people with umbrellas and yellow raincoats stand with their backs to the screen.
A little under two hours later Jess is in love.
Jess tried to shake as much of the water off her umbrella as she could before going into the apartment. Winston would complain if she got too much water on the floor, Schmidt would probably fall over and Nick would roll his eyes and end up mopping up after her. Which wasn't fair, really, because it was raining a lot and what was she supposed to do? Magic herself from place to place?
(No matter how hard she tried the whole red shoes-click your heels together thing had never quite worked for her.)
“Hey, guys, I'm back,” she said as she propped the closed umbrella by the door as she went in, shucking her rain coat and hanging it on one of her pegs on the rack. “I found the pasta, Schmidt, but it's not the same brand that you asked me for – I don't think they even make that one any more.”
She stomped over to the kitchen and dropped the bag she'd been carrying onto the bench. It toppled over as the heavy bottle of coke tipped over. She frantically pulled it upright to stop it from rolling off the bench and taking everything else with it.
“I couldn't find the coffee you like, Nick, so I got another brand – I know you always tell me not to but I had this one before at Paul's and it was really nice,” Jess continued despite no-one answering her. “Also, Winston? There wasn't any orange and mango juice so I got you pomegranate instead. It's really good.”
Jess stopped talking and looked up to find the three of them just staring at her. She frowned at them and resisted the urge to run to the bathroom and see if she had something on her face.
“I know you guys don't like it when I substitute other things for what you want,” Jess said, pulling things out of the bag ('Why don't we just order online?!' Nick had said last time, when she brought him chocolate instead of the floor cleaner he wanted.) “But sometimes the store just doesn't have what you want. You really need to stop being so specific all the time.”
“Jess,” Nick said, interrupting her stream of consciousness. “Schmidt has something to say to you.”
“What?” Jess looked at Schmidt, raising her eyebrows. “Wait – is that my phone?”
“You left it here,” Schmidt said, holding his hand out. “I know I shouldn't have but I answered it when it rang before because, you know, it could've been important and I didn't want you to miss out on something important and it said 'Mom' on the display so I thought I could at least maybe take a message?”
“Breathe, Schmidt,” Winston said, slapping him on the back. Schmidt made a face at him.
“Oh, I'll just ring her back,” Jess said, coming around to take her phone from Schmidt. He wouldn't let go when she tightened her fingers around it.
“Yeah, you really should,” Schmidt said. “Jess – your Mom says – she said that – your -”
“You're kinda freaking me out here,” Jess said, tugging on her phone.
“Jess,” Nick said, and his eyes were warm and compassionate and that really couldn't be a good thing. “Your Mom said your grandmother died last night.”
Schmidt's fingers went slack on the phone at same time as Jess' did and it hit the floor with sharp sort of noise, skidding away from them.
“My – no, she can't be,” Jess said, clasping her hands together and twisting her fingers around each other. “She was fine last weekend. I spoke to her yesterday! She said she had something to give me on Saturday. She was – she sounded -”
Jess' throat felt like it closed over and she choked on the stream of words. The guys surrounded her, Nick pulling her against his chest and the other two putting their hands on her back. She fisted her hands into Nick's shirt as the tears started and that was all that she knew for a long time.
They watch all sorts of movies together over the years but their favourites are always musicals and their favourite of favourites is always Singin' In The Rain. Her grandmother has all of Gene Kelly's musicals on tape, and all the tapes are worn, but Don Lockwood is her favourite of all his roles.
Jess likes Cosmo best of all, loves his dancing and his comedy, but she also loves Kathy. She tells her grandmother that she wants to be just like Kathy when she grows up; famous and pretty and dancing and singing.
“Don't you want the handsome man, too?” her grandmother asks.
“I don't think it's that important,” she says, aged eight and a half. “I think Kathy's happy because she has friends who love her. I'd like to have my own Cosmo and Don one day.”
“Wouldn't we all,” her grandmother says, smiling and ruffling Jess' hair.
“Oh, Jess,” was all Cece said when Jess opened her bedroom door to her. She pulled Jess into a hug and held her tightly for as long as Jess let her.
It was a long time.
Cece was the only friend Jess used to bring to see her grandmother. Her grandmother liked Cece and they'd spend afternoons playing in her back yard before coming in to pick a tape out of the bookshelves that formed her grandmother's collection. They're some of Jess' favourite memories.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Cece asked when they curled up side by side on Jess' bed.
“Nick said he'd come,” Jess said, tracing the pattern on the cover. “I – I don't think I'll be able to go if you're there.”
Cece nodded and that's why Cece would always be the best of Jess' friends: Jess never had to tell her everything. She knew that if Cece came with her to help her Mom pack up her grandmother's stuff that she wouldn't be able to hold it all together. There were too many memories.
“Do you want to sing?” Cece asked and Jess wanted to smile but it felt as though the mechanism that allowed her to smile was broken.
“I do,” Jess said, sighing. “But I don't. I don't want to do anything. Except maybe go back in time and spend more time with her.”
“I think that's normal,” Cece said, reaching a hand out and stroking it down Jess' arm. “She was a cool lady.”
“The absolute coolest,” Jess nodded. She burrowed against the blanket more and Cece moved her hand to Jess' hair.
“Do you want me to sing?” Cece asked. Jess almost smiled again.
“You're terrible,” Jess said, making a face.
“Then maybe it'll make you laugh and you'll feel better for at least a little while,” Cece said with a little sideways shrug.
“Thank you for trying,” Jess said, grabbing Cece's hand and tangling their fingers together. Cece took that for the permission it was and started singing a truly awful version of Lucky Star.
Jess didn't laugh. It did, however, feel like the pressure crushing her chest eased. Just for a moment.
It was enough to let her breathe for what felt like the first time in days.
When she's a teenager Jess tells her grandmother her theory about Cosmo and Kathy and Don all living together after the movie finishes. Her grandmother raises an eyebrow and tells her that's a very unconventional way to think about it.
“The thing is, right,” Jess says, the film paused on the TV. “That it's not fair if you think of Cosmo being left all by himself while they go off and be famous. What if they take him with them, though? Then everyone's happy.”
Jess is probably the happiest teenager there's ever been. She doesn't know why she's always so cheerful when all her peers are writing bad poetry and wearing a lot of black and pretending to be sad all the time. She thinks maybe it's because her grandmother makes being like that seem silly.
“Are you suggesting that they become a sort of trio?” her grandmother asks and there's a tone in her voice Jess doesn't understand until she's much older.
“Why not?” Jess says with a shrug. “That's not such a weird idea, is it?”
“It's not,” her grandmother says, smiling. “It's a very interesting one.”
Jess' grandmother has never dismissed Jess' ideas or imaginings. She thinks this is probably why she loves her grandmother more than anything else in the world.
Her grandmother mother was living in a small apartment when she -
The apartment was small, anyway, and Nick was vocally surprised by just how much stuff Jess' grandmother has managed to fit into it. Every item in the apartment had sentimental value for someone in the family. When Jess arrived to help her Mom sort through some of it her Mom had barely made a dent.
They went through boxes and tins and bags of things – at one point Jess found a scrapbook with all her school reports in – and Nick moved heavy stuff around while talking with her Mom. It was the first time Jess' Mom had met one of the guys and her unsubtle questioning of Nick would've made Jess smile any other day.
Nick moved a box off the table in the kitchen and found a bag that he brought to Jess immediately. It had a post-it with 'For Jess' written in green ink stuck to it and Jess' hand shook when she took it from him.
“This must've been what she was going to give you,” Nick said quietly. Jess nodded and tried not to notice her Mom watching quietly from the other side of the room.
Jess pulled a wrapped parcel out of the bag and let the bag flutter to the floor. She saw Nick visibly restrain himself from bending to pick it up. The wrapping paper was old and faded, crinkly with time, and Jess wondered just how long her grandmother had been keeping this for her. She unwrapped it carefully, the parcel smelled of lavender and soap and love – the scent her grandmother took with her wherever she went.
“Oh,” she said, though it came out more like a cut-off sob. It was the tape, the one they'd nearly worn out when she was a child.
“I thought she -” Jess started, squeezing the tape so tight in her hands that she could feel the old plastic shifting.
Jess had thought the tape had been thrown away the Christmas she bought her grandmother a proper, new copy of the movie. She'd saved her pocket money for a month to be able to afford it. Her grandmother had smiled wider and brighter than she'd ever seen her when she unwrapped it.
“She must've kept it,” Jess said, looking up at her Mom. She held her tape up and her Mom smiled; a weary, tear-stained smile.
“Singin' In The Rain,” her Mom said. “She used to play the music for me when I was sick. She'd describe the bits in between. Practically act out the movie. Always made me feel better.”
Shock made Jess drop the tape and this time Nick did bend to retrieve it, holding it out to her.
“She – she said it was our secret,” Jess said, the pain in her chest suddenly too much to bear. “It was special. Just for us. She promised.”
“Jess,” her Mom said. “Just because she -”
“Why would she lie – she never,” Jess knew, somewhere, that she was over-reacting but she couldn't stop, her heart pounding in her ears and her sadness pouring out in rage. “Did she always lie? What else did she do with you that she did with me? How could she do this to me?”
“Jess,” Nick said, reaching a hand out. Jess shrugged away from him.
“I told her everything but she didn't tell me everything. Why would she do that? How could she – and how could she just die without letting me say goodbye? Why would she give this to me if she didn't know she was going to die?”
“Please, Jess,” Jess' Mom's voice sounded like broken glass. “Don't do this -”
“I – I can't,” Jess said, shaking her head. “I have to – I can't be here. I have to go. I just. I need to go.”
Jess ran. She couldn't hold onto herself as her perceptions of her grandmother shifted around her. Had she always just been humouring Jess? What did that mean?
Who was Jess if the woman she'd built herself on had lied to her?
“Do you think three people could live together in a relationship?” Jess asks when her grandmother answers the phone. She's in her junior year of college and sick with exam flu and Singin' In The Rain is paused on her roommate's TV.
“Are we talking about Don, Kathy and Cosmo again?” her grandmother asks. She always puts Don first because she knows Jess will always put Cosmo first.
“Yes,” Jess says, sniffing loudly. “They could, couldn't they? Cosmo obviously loves Don and Don loves Kathy. I think Kathy loves both of them, in a way, so why couldn't Don love Cosmo too?”
“It's unconventional,” her grandmother allows. “Why do you think it would work?”
“They compliment each other,” Jess says, settling back on the couch. “Don keeps Cosmo from going too far and Cosmo keeps Don on the ground. Kathy gives Don a sort of love he never thought he could have and supports Cosmo in dealing with Don's ego. Cosmo does the same for Kathy. Don is the base Kathy can build her career off.”
“Kathy could be a star on her own,” her grandmother says. “You mustn't forget that.”
“So maybe she uses Don for that,” Jess says. “Maybe the way Don and Kathy compliment each other is simply by loving each other.”
“There's no greater way to compliment someone, after all,” her grandmother says in that slightly teasing tone of voice she uses sometimes.
“I think they'd work,” Jess says. “I think it could work. Some people have more love than one person can support.”
“I think you might be right,” her grandmother says. “Always remember that, Jess.”
“I will,” Jess says, feeling better.
“Good,” her grandmother says.
The funeral service was lovely. At least Jess thought it was, she doesn’t remember very much of it. She remembers gripping her Dad’s hand so tight that it must have hurt. She remembers her Mom choking back tears as she tried to explain how special her mother was. She remembers singing, barely, and the choir sounding beautiful behind her.
Her memory picked up with painful clarity when they were burying her grandmother. Standing in the unseasonable rain, dark grey skies pouring water on their heads, watching the priest performing the last parts of his ceremony and everyone who loved her grandmother pausing to drop a handful of muddy earth into the grave. Her heart hurt in her chest.
She dropped her own handful of mud, carelessly moulded into a pie shape, into the grave when it was her turn and said goodbye to one of the most important people in her life.
She’d forgotten her umbrella but she stood in the rain anyway, long enough for the gravediggers to half fill in the grave. She was a little surprised, really, that they'd work through the rain but she supposed the graves had to be filled as soon as possible. There was probably a danger of subsidence or similar term. She tucked her hands into her soaked sleeves and leant against a tree to watch.
Jess could hear whistling, she realised. She blinked her eyes and shook her head, she had no idea how long she’d really been standing there but she could feel her hair plastered to face. The whistling was familiar.
She knew that tune.
Jess swallowed against the sudden lump in her throat when she looked up to see Nick, Schmidt and Winston standing on the other side of the grave. Her grandmother’s grave. Each of them wore a yellow rain coat and great huge rain boots. They were holding umbrellas over their heads and watching her while they whistled.
They weren’t smiling but she could feel the warmth of their empathy. It made her lips quirk up a little and Nick’s followed suit for the briefest of moments. They spun around on cue and struck poses, Schmidt including some unnecessary jazz hands, and Jess surprised a laugh out of herself.
Now they smiled.
“You're here,” she said, her voice breaking from misuse. They nodded, straightening out of their poses.
“We should’ve been here from the start,” Nick said, shrugging his shoulders.
“You don’t have to -” she started but Schmidt cut across her.
“We do,” he said, making a frown that was only for himself. “Your Grandmother was important to you. That makes her important to us too.”
Jess had thought she had no more tears left in her but there was something hot and prickling at the back of her eyes.
“So here we are,” Winston said, spreading his arms. “How about we escort you home, warm you up and feed you all the ice cream we have?”
Jess felt the smile that spread across her face reach right down to the very centre of her. She nodded, unable to speak for the moment, and let them come around the grave and pull her in with them. She found herself with her arms linked into Nick’s and Winston’s and startled another laugh out of herself when Nick tried to stop Schmidt from linking arms with him on the other side.
“Fine then,” Schmidt said, making a face at Nick. “I get to be Gene Kelly.”
“How does that even make sense?” Nick exclaimed, his voice rising an octave.
“It makes perfect sense,” Schmidt said, striding out in front of them and spinning his umbrella over his head. “I’m singin’ in the rain-”
“Schmidt!” Nick's shout was loud in Jess' ear but Schmidt continued singing as if he hadn't heard.
So Jess joined in.
Jess loses count, in the end, of just how many times she watches Singin' In The Rain with her grandmother. Hundreds, she figures, and when she sits down that sunny afternoon in September it's just the same as every other time. Her grandmother's hands are still soft, even though they're wrinkled, and she still smells of lavender and soap and love.
It's perfect, really, and she's so glad that her last memory of her grandmother is of holding her hand and singing along loudly.
The yellow raincoats were piled up by the door and the umbrellas thrown in the bathroom. Schmidt and Winston argued their way into the kitchen, fighting over who made a better Don Lockwood, and Nick disappeared. Jess stood, suddenly bereft of their company, and shivered as she became aware of just how hard she'd been rained on.
“Towel,” Nick said, reappearing and thrusting one of her own towels at her. She took it absentmindedly and rubbed ineffectively at her hair.
“Hey,” Nick said, stepping in close and putting a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay?”
It should have been a stupid question. It should have made her angry. It wasn't, though, and it didn't – she knew what Nick was really asking.
Are you going to be okay?
“I think -” she said, twisting the towel in her hands. “No, I know I will.”
“Good,” Nick said, his lips twitching up into a smile. “Because I'd hate for you to cry all over me while we watch the movie.”
“Watch the -” Jess looked past Nick, finally noticing the battered VCR sitting on the floor in front of the TV. Schmidt and Winston were already sprawled on the couch, Winston balancing a huge bowl of popcorn on his lap, and looking at them expectantly.
“But I don't have a copy,” Jess said, more bewildered than she usually was when they did something like this.
“Yeah you do,” Nick said, pressing a tape into her hand. It was -
“This is my Grandmother's,” Jess said, running a hand over it. “I left it -”
“I went back,” Nick said. “Your Mom gave it to me. She knew you'd want it.”
“I do,” Jess said, quietly. She clutched the tape to her chest for a moment before passing it back to Nick. “Just – let me get changed. Then we can watch it.”
In her room Jess stripped off her wet clothes and rubbed the rain out of her skin with as much vigour as she could muster. She put on the sweatpants and old t-shirt she hadn't worn since the others dragged her out of her Spencer funk, the soft material instantly comforting.
She joined the guys on the couch, sitting in between Schmidt and Nick, and tucked her feet up under herself. Nick put an arm around her and gave her a quick squeeze. Winston hit play and the MGM lion roared into life.
She laid her head on Nick's shoulder as Winston declared Cosmo his favourite to Schmidt's complete dismay and Nick laughed to himself.
It was perfect.