Nick’s seven and they’re at the racetrack and this guy’s yelling at his dad, this big guy with shoulders like a fire truck. Walt gives Nick this wink, this little secret wink, and Nick’s neck starts to shake and his head jerks back and forth and Walt starts yelling, “Nick, Nick! What’s wrong?” The guy runs away when Nick falls down on the ground and starts kicking his legs against the dirt.
Afterwards, Walt buys him a sundae with extra hot fudge and pats Nick’s head. “That was a real show, Nickels, a real show.” Seven-year-old Nick sucks at a maraschino cherry and smiles.
They end up having to take the red-eye from LAX to Midway, so they have to be at the airport at midnight. Schmidt puts Nick’s ticket on his AmEx, which Nick feels bad about for five minutes until he remembers that his dad is dead and then he feels bad about other things. He tries telling everybody that they don’t have to come—the flights are too expensive and they’ll be missing work—but everybody just sort of shushes him and pats him weirdly on the shoulder. Jess makes him a lot of tea that he doesn’t drink. Schmidt packs his bag for him, pulls out his meager array of dress clothes and keeps mumbling something about “clean lines.” Winston rubs the back of his head and goes to pack his own stuff.
On the phone, his mom had sounded so strange, her voice too high and her words too quick. “Yourfather’sdead, itwasaheartattack, comehome.” He’d forgotten how much thicker her accent gets when she’s upset, how it makes her sound like she’s talking right out of her nose. He’d focused on that, on the South Side vowels, instead of anything else.
The flight’s only half full and Nick and Jess’ seats are in the back section of the plane. Schmidt and Winston are in the emergency row toward the front, and when they split up, Schmidt pulls Nick into this completely unnecessary hug that makes him feel very uncomfortable.
“Coach is for people who’ve never owned real suede, Nick, I’m sorry I couldn’t do better.” He looks cut up about it, the way Schmidt gets focused on the weirdest stuff sometimes, like if Nick were in first class then this flight wouldn’t be horrible. Like the fact that his knees will be jammed into the back of the seat in front of him is why he feels like he’s going to cry.
(He hasn’t cried. Well, his eyes had been a little wet when he’d gotten off the phone with his mom, but that’s it. He hadn’t made any of his usual crying noises, so he doesn’t think it counts.)
Nick’s sitting next to Jess, who keeps not looking over at him really conspicuously, in that way that lets him know that she’s worried about him. (Her eyes take up 3/4ths of her face, he can’t help but notice when she keeps darting them real quick in his direction.) He wishes she’d stop looking at him even while he’s grateful to have her there, like he’s indignant that she’s worried but he also kind of wants to hold her hand. It’s confusing. He balls his hands into fists and crosses his arms in front of his chest instead, and then they turn off the cabin lights and he leans his head back and tries to sleep. Even with his eyes closed, he can feel Jess worrying about him.
There’s a family in the row in front of them, a woman and a man and a little boy who is refusing pretty loudly to go to sleep. Nick glances over and he can see Jess watching them, see her peering between the seats to get a better look. Sometimes he forgets that Jess used to be a teacher, that she spent all day with little kids and tried to help them become real people. (He fundamentally doesn’t trust children. They have such tiny hands.) He’s watching Jess watch the little boy and he wonders, with a weird kind of urgency, how much she misses teaching, whether she thinks about it every day or just sometimes, and he wants to ask her but he doesn’t.
The kid in front of them still won’t settle down, so the dad unclicks his seatbelt and drags him into his lap. He’s probably four or five, which Nick thinks is a little bit big for lap-snuggles, but the kid immediately goes limp and quiets down. Nick can see the kid’s arms wrapped around the guy’s neck and he can just hear the guy’s voice over the thick roar of the plane’s engine, talking real quiet to his son.
It takes Nick a stupid amount of time to realize he’s crying, that the reason his cheeks are wet is because he’s started leaking from the eyes. He only notices when Jess puts her hand on his elbow, leans toward him and says, “Nick? You okay?”
“I’m fine,” Nick says automatically, even though it’s really obviously not true. He can feel this hot wave of pressure building up in his stomach, pushing against his chest and toward his windpipe, and the stale, recycled plane air makes him feel suddenly itchy and claustrophobic and hot. Jess keeps looking at him with those wide, worried eyes, like he’s one of her students about to have a panic attack because he can’t remember the capital of Vermont. He hates the way she’s looking at him and he wants to bury his head against her shoulder and sleep for a week.
Nick rubs his hands over his face and pulls uselessly at the clasp on his seatbelt. “This buckle is a safety hazard! I am a citizen! This is supposed to be American Airlines!” He finally gets the fucking thing unbuckled and he pushes up out of his seat. “I am now free to move about the country,” he says in this ridiculous, heaving voice, and he stands up and darts back toward the empty bathroom four rows behind them.
He has a lot of memories of his dad, and the good ones are butting up against the bad ones and he feels like his head’s going to pop. He sits down on the lid of the airplane toilet and thinks about shoveling snow with his dad and his brother, the three of them making Jamie into a real snowman, their mom yelling that everybody was going to get frostbite even while she laughed. He puts his elbows on his knees and drops his head into his hands and his eyes are still leaking, even when he stops thinking about the snowman and starts thinking about having to fight with the electric company to turn their power back on after his dad disappeared to Atlantic City for a few months. (He gives himself ten breaths to get his shit under control. It takes him fifteen.)
Nick isn’t at all surprised when he hears a knock on the bathroom door, or when he hears Jess say his name. “Nick?”
He uses the shitty airplane toilet paper to wipe off his face and blow his nose, which he knows Jess can hear, which is probably the reason why she pulls the door open a crack and looks in at him. He wants to be irritated or annoyed—god knows there’s nothing he finds more comforting than being annoyed—but he just drops his head again and stares at his feet. All the pressure in his chest is gone, and there’s nothing there now but this ten-ton ache.
It’s a good thing Jess is tiny because when she steps into the bathroom and lets the door close behind her, the already impossibly small space gets infinitely smaller. Nick shifts away from her and sighs. “Jess, you shouldn’t be in here.”
Jess’s feet are in between his feet where she’s leaning back against the door. “I know.”
“The flight attendant’s going to think we’re fooling around.” Nick’s still thinking about his dad in the snow and his dad skipping out on them and he has the strongest urge to fix a sink; he doesn’t need to add ‘fooling around with Jess in an airplane bathroom’ to his already overcrowded and confusing mental pictures. He really hopes Schmidt and Winston didn’t see her follow him in here.
“We’re not fooling around,” she says, “you’re crying.”
Jess has the boniest knees in the world and Nick’s just sitting there staring at them. Her voice sounds sad and caring and Nick hates it as much as he doesn’t. He thinks about wrapping his hand around her stupid bony knee—not, not anything else, just, fitting his thumb against that dip beneath her kneecap. That’s all. He finally looks up at her, and he’s probably a mess, red eyes and splotchy face. “So that’s a no to the really sad mile high club?”
Jess gives him a watery smile. They’re somewhere over Nevada, probably, or Idaho, one of those wide open cowboy states, and Nick lowers his head again and keeps his hands to himself and doesn’t cry.
They get to Chicago right at dawn and the plane’s dipped down beneath the clouds, swooping low over the lake and on toward the city. Jess has her head tipped toward his shoulder, her eyes closed and her breathing even, and Nick can see the sky pinking up, the streaks of light on the horizon.
In front of them, the little boy still has his arms wrapped tight around his father’s neck. Nick feels Jess’ shoulder rub against him, feels her elbow twitch where it’s pressed against his on the armrest.
He closes his eyes and tries not to think about his dad’s face and how this doesn’t feel anything like coming home.
He spends the whole first day trying to plan the funeral, thinking about white limos and peanut butter and banana sandwiches and white sequined capes. His mom keeps sneaking away to go smoke in the backyard and Jamie keeps crying really loudly for ten second stretches every half hour.
Schmidt and Winston help his brother get some of dad’s stuff out of the garage and Jess keeps the kids entertained. She sets up a craft table in the dining room and they all make a tower out of the empty beer cans in the garage, a fort or something with stacks of High Life and PBR. He doesn’t have time to think about much of anything, which is its own kind of nice.
After dinner, he can hear the tower come crashing down and his mom yelling at everybody. It feels a little more like normal. Not exactly though. Not quite.
Nick spends the whole second day trying to keep his family from imploding, which is hard to pull off when everyone’s emotions are already at eleven. He makes it through breakfast alright, and then lunch just barely, and by early afternoon he has to get away for awhile or he’s going to probably lose it.
He finally manages to sneak away to his room. Downstairs he can still hear the kids yelling and Jamie’s periodic wails, but he can also hear himself think for the first time all day. He sits down on his bed and puts his head in his hands and after a few minutes, he realizes that maybe this was a bad idea, that being alone with his thoughts is actually worse, because he can’t stop thinking about the Christmas when his dad let Nick and Jamie help string lights and they ended up shorting out the electricity in the whole neighborhood. Walt had gone around with bottles of booze for everyone on their street, spent the Saturday before Christmas with Jamie and Nick trailing behind him with bottles of probably-stolen bourbon in Jamie’s red wagon. Walt had stopped and had a drink at every house. Everyone should’ve been mad at them, but Nick remembers sitting on shag carpet and watching his dad knock one back with all their neighbors, his dad’s laughter getting louder and louder every house they got to.
That’s what he’s thinking about when Jess finds him—Walt and his easy laughter and the times he was actually around. Jess peeks her head around his doorframe and then steps inside. She doesn’t say anything when she shuts the door behind her and comes to sit next to him on the bed. She looks around the room at his photographs and his beat-up novels and his baseball trophies from high school, and he feels like he ought to be self-conscious about it but mostly he just doesn’t care. She’s already seen some pretty weird shit.
Nick’s in his parents’ house on his old bed, and Jess is sitting on the blue sheets he remembers from being 15 and a shitty little teenager, and the house still smells the same but everything is different. His dad’s dead. And he doesn’t want to talk about it, and he doesn’t want to talk about anything else, but he does want to hold Jess’ hand, to reach down and grab it where it’s laying on the bed between them.
So he does. He lets his breath out real slow and lays his hand over hers, slots their fingers together, palm to palm. He doesn’t look at her. She sits very still for a second and then curls her fingers up around his. The bed squeaks when she shifts toward him, and Nick remembers that squeak, remembers Jenny Aberdeen in the eleventh grade and how she used to come over to “study,” how they had to be so, so quiet so nobody would hear. It’s so strange to think about back then, to be here with Jess now, with her hand so small against his. He wants to tell her about Christmas and the bottles of bourbon, about making Jamie into a snowman, but he doesn’t know how.
Jess’ thumb slides over the back of Nick’s hand and her voice isn’t much more than a whisper. “I’ve been talking to Jamie,” she says. The bed squeaks again. “I’ve been trying to work on the eulogy.”
Nick doesn’t want to talk about the eulogy. He doesn’t know how to tell her about the bourbon and the snowman, and he doesn’t know how to tell her about Atlantic City and the electric company. He has all these words, but when he needs them they’re just not there, and so he just kisses her instead. Jess freezes for a second, the rest of whatever she was going to say getting caught up with the way her lips are pressed against his now, and then she unfreezes and wraps her arms around him.
Nick’s got one hand on Jess’ waist and she has her hands tangled in the sides of his shirt and they’re laying down on the bed sideways, their legs dangling over the edge. (It’s impossible not to make this bed squeak, Jenny Aberdeen must’ve been a sex ninja.) Jess is kissing him and talking at the same time, trying to say his name while he works at her lower lip. “Nick, Nick,” she says, and he moves from her mouth to beneath her jawline. “Wait a second,” she says. Nick stops with his lips against her neck and his thumb skimming underneath her sweater and just over her hipbone. Her hips push against his when he touches bare skin and it makes him warm all over.
Jess smoothes her hands down his sides and says real quiet, “You okay?”
Nick lets out a breath against her neck and thinks about saying yes and thinks about saying no and can’t decide which of those answers is the right one. Her hips are still pressed against his. He still feels warm all over. His dad’s still dead. It’s still very confusing. “I’m fine, Jess,” he says, even though he’s probably not.
Jess shifts beneath him—not away, not exactly closer. “I just want you to know—”
“I know, Jess,” he says. His thumb pushes down against her hipbone. It makes her tip her head back, her neck stretching out beneath his mouth, and he goes back to kissing that spot right above where her neck meets her shoulder. She slides her hand along his back, beneath his shirt, and her nails are short and blunt against his skin and her hands are cold. (She’s always warm in California, but they’re in Chicago now, in his parents’ house in his childhood bed, and Jess’s fingers are icy when they press against the flat of his back.)
Nick’s mouth is still busy against her neck but Jess is still talking, her words coming out all breathy. “I just wanted to say—”
“Okay, Jess, just—”
“But I’m trying to tell you—” and then her voice hitches up when Nick slides his leg between her knees, and why is he wearing pants right now, why is everybody wearing clothes?
He pushes up onto his elbow and kisses her right this time, his tongue in her mouth and his hand against her cheek. “Okay, Jess, tell me,” he says. His lips are frantic against hers and her chest is pressing up against his. “Just use fewer words?”
There must be something awful about his face when he says it—even Nick can hear the stupid fucking way his voice cracks in the middle—because Jess’s eyes go all soft and she frowns just a little, but she doesn’t say anything. She nods, her hand still worked up the back of his shirt, and then she kisses him.
It’s not tender, not exactly. Her nails kind of dig into the skin between his shoulder blades and she makes this noise in the back of her throat that snaps nearly every bit of reserve Nick has. He grinds down against her and her hips jerk against his and their hands are everywhere. It’s not the most romantic thing Nick’s ever done on this bed, but it’s certainly not the least romantic either.
(It doesn’t go much further than Nick’s hand fumbling dumbly beneath the hem of Jess’s skirt and Jess’s fingers pulling uselessly at the buttons on Nick’s jeans. Jess’ fingers won’t stop shaking and she’s got on those fucking tights and then goddamn Jamie’s bounding up the stairs and yelling out from the hallway, “Nick! We gotta pick an engraving! I want to get something that rhymes!” They don’t say anything while they straighten their clothes. Jess is finger-combing her hair and when he meets her eyes in the mirror, they’re mostly just sad.)
Nick’s gone all night. He spends hours in every bar he snuck into when he was in high school, drinking bourbon he can’t afford and not thinking about his dad as hard as he can.
The bathroom in the funeral home is a lot bigger than the bathroom in the airplane, but Jess still has her toes pressed up against his feet. Her hand’s still cold like it was before, but it feels good now, pressed up against his cheek. The room’s almost not even spinning.
Even though she says it’s not her mad-face, it feels like Jess’ mad-face. She doesn’t sound mad though, not when she says, “I’m going to be there, and I’m going to hold your hand, and I wanted to tell you that last night but you ran away.”
He doesn’t tell her he’s been running away since long before last night, but she’s been around awhile now, so he’s pretty sure she already knows. He doesn’t tell her that he’s spent the past decade hating his father, or that he’d give his right arm to have A Father’s Love back for awhile. He doesn’t tell her that every time he kisses her, it’s scarier than law school and Caroline and unfinished zombie novels combined.
And he doesn’t tell her this, but: Jess’ Elvis is horrible. Everything about it is wrong and she looks more ridiculous than he’s ever seen her look before. (Which is saying something. Things can get really, really stupid.)
It’s hands down his favorite version of this song. Like, by a mile. He doesn’t tell Jess that, either.
On the flight back to LA, Schmidt and Winston are in the row in front of them, bickering about whether Schmidt can pull off a moustache like Walt’s. (He definitely can’t.) Jess’ elbow is pressed up against his on the armrest and the backs of her knuckles keep scraping against his wrist. Streaks of sunlight chase them out of Chicago and all the way back home.
Nick’s had “In the Ghetto” stuck in his head for three days and he can’t stop picturing his mom doing hip thrusts. It’s not great. He’s not a hummer, he’s not a guy who hums, but he’s pouring himself coffee and it just kind of happens. His voice is high and squeaky and terrible.
(The only thing worse than a song stuck in Nick’s head is a song stuck in Jess’ head. Last year there was some terrible lady-pop-rock thing that she could not stop singing, the same stupid line over and over. Winston still calls it the Kesha-pocalypse of Twenty-Twelve. As horrible as that was (and it was, it was horrible) this is much worse.)
Jess is sitting on the couch watching a movie but she looks over at him when she notices the humming. She doesn’t mention it. Nick takes his coffee and flops down on the couch in his usual spot, the cushion in the corner with the perfect imprint of his ass. His one accomplishment.
Jess has stopped asking him if he’s okay. He knows it’s probably not because she thinks he’s fine. She’s watching one of those Oceans movies, one where everybody talks real fast and looks great in a suit. He takes a sip of his coffee and kicks his feet up.
“Schmidt was obsessed with these movies,” Nick says. They’d been living together when the last few came out, which had been frankly horrible. “He wore a suit all the time for months and talked a lot about hustles and lookie-loos.”
Jess laughs to herself, just a little. “Did he start calling women dolls, too?”
“Few black eyes,” Nick says. “Almost made it worth it.” Nick watches George Clooney on the screen, a confident conman in a thousand dollar jacket. “I used to think Walt was so cool,” he says. Maybe there ought to be some preamble, Nick thinks, but it’s been a weird couple of days. He looks over at Jess and she doesn’t seem thrown at all, so he keeps talking. “Like a grifter. Like Paul Newman in The Sting.” He’d thought that for a long time, actually, that his dad was so awesome. “His shirts were always so shiny.”
Jess scoots her hand across the cushion toward him, like maybe she’s reaching out, but she stops halfway there. Nick stares at her knuckles and the way her hand flexes against the leather. “I’m really glad I got to meet him,” she says.
He wants to reach out and grab her hand and tell her all the things about Walt he couldn’t say at the funeral. He wants to press her back against the cushions and not say anything for awhile. He wants to be able to call his dad.
Jess turns back to the movie, to the slick men who are everything and nothing like Walt Miller. “Why In the Ghetto?” Nick asks. On the screen, Brad Pitt’s sucking down a shrimp cocktail. Jess looks confused. “Why In the Ghetto? Why not something more funeral-y?”
Jess shrugs a shoulder up and down. “You think Walt would’ve liked something else?”
Nick leans his head back against the couch. Maybe he’ll tell Jess about the sundaes with extra fudge, and the Christmas they spent delivering bourbon, and the way her hand six inches away from his makes him feel like his chest is on fire. Walt would probably want him to.
Nick slides his hand across the couch cushion—just an inch. Not all the way. “No, I think it was perfect.” He spends the next hour watching the movie and watching Jess watch the movie, his hand an inch away from hers the whole time.