"Done!" she said triumphantly, putting down her pink pen. Other than the fact that hers was color-coded – and if there was an actual logic behind the code, he'd eat the NYU course catalog – and his was black-and-white, they were identical. It wasn't that they had to be joined at the hip; it just made sense, they'd agreed, having a study buddy as they both eased back into school and tried to get their basic requirements, plus Art History 101, out of the way. "We should celebrate."
The cherrywood table in the study was strewn with papers and folders, and Mindy had, as usual, dressed for the occasion, wearing a little polka-dotted cardigan and some non-prescription glasses that only emphasized the brightness of her eyes. He didn't think he would ever understand how her mind worked. "Let's go dancing," he said.
Her face lit up. "Yes!" she said. "We are going to close the place down!"
He ordered in instead of cooking, and they hit Tan Tru late enough that the place was in full swing. He liked that Mindy never pulled the don't-you-know-who-I-am card to get in, even though he was a little bothered that all of the bouncers she smiled at smiled right
back; it was totally unprofessional of them. The strappy pink thing she was wearing shone under the lights, serving as a homing beacon for every sleaze in the place to try to feel her up, so he held out an arm and tucked her in close. She curled in so her back was pressed up against his front, draped her arm on top of his, and they moved, the music pounding everything out of his head so that all he could do was be with her, in that moment, and not let go.
"I can never decide between pancakes and waffles," Mindy said as she slumped dramatically in the diner booth.
"Mmm," he agreed, looking for a waitress who would hand him a gallon-sized vat of coffee; he was getting too old for this dance-until-dawn thing, but Mindy had a way of talking him around.
"Danny," she said seriously. "That was your cue." He cocked an interrogative eyebrow at her. "I said, 'I can never decide between pancakes and waffles,' and you were going to say?"
"Oh! I was gonna say, you order one, I'll order the other, and we'll split them both." He nodded, feeling very pleased with himself. "Except I want eggs."
"Baby, I'll make you eggs any time you like," Mindy said, giving him the finger-guns.
"Yeah? We haven't gone over how to make eggs." Belatedly, he wondered if she'd been quoting something.
"I can read, Danny," she said, with great dignity. "I can follow a recipe."
"Then you should know I can make you pancakes whenever," he responded.
"Blueberry pancakes?" she asked hopefully.
"Let's get out of here," he said, catching her hand across the table.
She tucked up against him on the subway, shivering in the relentless A/C, and he kept his arm around her the whole way home, sharing heat in a long line down their sides and thighs. The early-morning air was warming slowly, and he caught their reflection in the storefront windows, a girl in bubblegum pink and a guy next to her who didn't shine nearly as bright.
He was so busy looking at her that it took her gasp to get him to understand something was wrong. He followed her gaze to their stoop. Standing there was a man with a bouquet of what had to be two dozen pink roses. "Tom," he heard her say under her breath, and felt her body stiffen even as her hand went up and she started straightening her messy hair.
This Tom guy stood there, draped along the railing of their house like he'd been invited, and watched them, smiling, as they walked up the stairs. Mindy stumbled a little on the third step, and Danny caught her and left his arm around her waist; the guy had bad news written all over him, and he had to be one of the schmuck exes who hadn't made
Mindy's list of three trustworthy men.
Mindy squeezed his arm but gave him a look that he couldn't quite read. Was he supposed to be just her escort for the night, or her roommate, or her bodyguard, or her boyfriend, or what? He dropped his arm and took a step toward the guy, still not sure if he was gonna shake his hand or pop him one in that punchable face, when he saw the bag at Tom's feet.
"I caught the redeye," Tom said. "I missed you so much, babe."
Right. Danny shouldered his way past to unlock the front door.
"Tom, it's, uh, good to see you!" he heard Mindy say. "Do you want to come in?"
Danny went straight to the kitchen and tortured himself by waiting to hear what would happen next. He'd been about to make pancakes, hadn't he? He'd have kicked off his shoes, rolled up his sleeves, and made her blueberry pancakes, topping them with warmed-up blueberry jam for her and maple syrup for himself, and then he might even have dropped into his bed still sticky from the sugar and happy from the day they'd
had. Danny stared at her course schedule, held against the fridge with his Verrazano Bridge magnet, and listened to their voices get closer.
"Not a day goes by –" Tom said, and Danny, leaning up against the wall of the kitchen closest to the living room, rolled his eyes, until Mindy interrupted Tom's poetic nonsense.
"Did you want some coffee? Water?" Danny grinned. That was not the tone of someone being swept off her feet by the one that got away.
"N- no, Mindy. I want you."
"Tom," she said quietly, like that was all she'd been wanting to hear, and Danny fidgeted. He wasn't about to let Tom run him off, but there was such a thing as giving Mindy her space; he peeked out and saw them standing near the coffee table, Tom reaching out to pull her close.
"Hey, I'm gonna go check on the boiler," Danny said, brushing by close enough that her hair fluttered. Let Tom figure out their relationship from that little proclamation, indicating that he lived there too, he thought; choke on it, Tom.
The basement was cooler than the rest of the house, but the air was still heavy and thick. Danny did a couple of laps, patting the walls and throwing punches into the air; being an ass who lashed out with his fists still came way too easily to him. So Mindy came into money and that guy up there thought he just had to snap his fingers to get
her back? No fucking way. She'd had nothing and no one and had made her dreams come true on her own – she was living in New York, about to start college, had some "bangable" guy on her TV every night, and . . . and what? She was his friend, the best friend he'd ever had, and that hadn't exactly been in the cards. Maybe she did want to be loved, and maybe she wanted this Tom guy to do the loving.
The boiler had been brand-new when he'd installed it and didn't need servicing, but he thought better with a tool in his hand. He picked up his favorite wrench and hefted the weight of it, felt his hand curling around it like it'd been made for him.
He nearly dropped it when his phone rang.
"Richie! What's wrong, why are you up so early?"
"Nothing's wrong, Danny. Hello. Breathe," Richie said, the sarcastic little shit. "I know you're up early most days and I wanted to talk to you as soon as I could."
"Why?" he asked.
"Because I'm happy. And I know you're happy when I'm happy, so here I am, spreading cheer."
"Just got off the plane," Richie said, and Danny wondered if everybody he and Mindy had ever known would be getting on a flight to New York imminently. "You want to meet at Ma's or at your place?"
He had to think. "Uh, get on the E – no, catch a cab." Wait, what the hell was wrong with him – he couldn't just start throwing Mindy's money around. "No, get on the E, transfer to the 1, and I'll meet you near Mazzini." Richie groaned. "Don't argue with me. I'll see you in an hour."
He was still clutching the wrench like it was a security blanket. He slipped it back inside his toolbox and headed up the stairs, trying not to think what it would mean if he found the living room empty and her bedroom door closed.
He didn't have to after all; Mindy and Tom were both still in the living room, on the couch. She had her knees up, her arms around her bent legs, and Danny knew that the position was not just a way to avoid contact but also an attempt to warm herself up. Tom, of course, hadn't caught on, and the jackass was leaning his arm against one of the blankets they'd bought for when late-night movie-watching turned into spending the night on the luxuriously comfortable couch. They both looked up when he walked into the room, and her face was so worn out that Danny had to rip the blanket out from under Tom's elbow.
"Richie's here," he said quietly into her limp curls when he was close enough to drape the thick cotton over her.
"He's here?" she asked, perking up. "Are you bringing him home?"
The rush he got from hearing her say the word so casually meant that he had to have gotten it wrong; she had to mean Staten. "Yeah."
"Awesome! I have to take a shower and get ready!" she said, and he couldn't doubt her any longer. She'd meant here, their home, and she wasn't going anywhere with Tom, whose face was just beginning to pinch into a disbelieving frown.
"Yeah, me too." She grinned at him, her full-on Mindy-grin, and he decided he was mean enough to mess with Tom just a little. "Go get the water running, babe; I'll be there in a minute."
"Danny," she said, her voice caught between shock and laughter.
"Scoot," he said. "I'll make sure Tom finds the door."
She really had showered in his bathroom, the lunatic, and now she smelled like his soap and his dandruff shampoo and somehow it worked on her, like maybe those scents weren't as masculine as the packaging had made him think. His towel had been damp when he'd wrapped it around his hips, and that'd felt weirdly intimate.
"Whoa," she said, mid-yawn. "The Castellano genes are top-shelf."
"That hot dude smiling at you is your brother, right?" He turned his head and saw Richie, not waiting patiently by the bust of Mazzini, but carrying a duffel in his hand and racing toward him. Richie dropped his bag and caught him up in a kiss and hug.
It had been months since he'd really talked to the kid, and Danny couldn't get his arms to loosen up. Richie didn't seem to be in a hurry to stop hugging him either. "What's the good word?" he asked, arms still full of his baby brother.
"I'm finishing school early," Richie said, "and I –"
"Hey, wait," Danny said. "Sorry, this is –" He looked over to where he'd seen her last, but didn't see Mindy. He pivoted sharply and there she was, sitting on a nearby bench.
"Sorry!" she said, scampering up, pushing the hood of her purple sweatshirt down. "But Castellano hugging is kind of a spectator sport, and I didn't want to get in the way. Hi!" she said, sketching a wave at Richie. "I'm Mindy."
"It's nice to meet you, Mindy," Richie said, like the good kid he was, and Danny felt pride swell his chest. This, right here, was proof that he didn't fuck everything up.
Mindy's stomach growled, and Richie's chimed in too. "They didn't feed us on the flight," Richie said apologetically.
"Someone was supposed to make me pancakes this morning, but didn't," Mindy said. "I might allow that someone to take me to Vito's for all the pancakes I can eat. If someone's brother is cool with that?"
"Absolutely," Richie said. "Danny, come on, get the lead out, the lady's starving."
"What the hell, Danny?" Richie said as soon as Mindy was out of earshot, off to the ladies' room to wash the powdered sugar off her face. "Who is this girl, and what happened with Christina?"
Danny had always meant to figure out what to tell Richie about Mindy, but he'd never gotten around to it. The Christina part was easier to tackle, because that was how much his life made any kind of sense these days. "Christina cheated on me. I found them, and I walked out."
Richie slid an arm around him and took a long sip of his coffee; it looked like he was buying himself time to formulate his next question. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Danny shrugged. "I didn't want to do it over the phone, and you had school and all this other stuff going on, and it didn't make sense to drag you away from all of that just because I fucked up."
"How does Christina cheating mean you fucked up?" Richie sounded disappointed, of all things, and it was too much.
Danny looked up, and there was Mindy, heading back to their booth, and he'd never been more grateful for her sense of timing. "If I got home fries, would you guys split them with me?" she asked. "I need something salty to balance out the sweet."
"You should try Danny's potato-chip pie," Richie said, and Mindy turned big, wounded eyes on him for having held out on her.
"Not a word of this to Ma," Danny said, when he and Richie were on the ferry. "She doesn't know about Christina."
"Or Mindy," Richie said, and Danny sort of nodded. "So tell me about Mindy."
"Mindy –" he started, then stopped, considering. "Well, you met her. She's like a force of nature." Richie was shaking his head and frowning. "What? She kind of planted herself in my life and, I don't know, it made as much sense as anything else." Richie still looked unconvinced, and Danny cast about for something to tip the scales. He smacked Richie's chest with the back of his hand. "Hey, you'll like this. I'm starting college in a couple of months. NYU. Mindy and me, 'non-traditional students.'"
"Alright, alright," Richie said, his hands up in surrender, "I might not see how, but she's obviously a good influence on you. College, man!"
Danny smiled and said, "What's this about you graduating early, brainiac?" He only half-heard Richie's response, wondering instead how Richie could have missed Mindy's gravitational pull.
He got to hear the whole story again anyway, because Ma was so excited to have her baby boy back that she made him go through it a couple of times. Danny looked at them both, smiling at each other as candlelight flickered on their faces, and thought that he hadn't seen Ma looking so good in a very long time. He wasn't going to spoil the
moment by talking about what he'd lost.
When he got home in the morning, Mindy was sitting at the kitchen counter, disconsolately eating something out of a plastic baggie. He'd kicked his shoes off at the door, and he'd been not exactly tiptoeing but still pretty quiet, so he was surprised when she spun around on her stool, beaming.
"Danny! You're home!" she said. "I've been missing that weird rattling sound you make when you breathe."
He laughed. "I've been missing . . . having all my weird noises cataloged, I guess." He peered at the bag, but he still couldn't figure out what her fingers were dexterously picking from the bag and popping into her mouth. "What are you eating?"
She pulled a face that was probably supposed to get his guard down. "I figured I'd try blueberry pancakes myself. It was not . . . a notable success. However! I have discovered the greatest snack of all time, Danny. Frozen blueberries. Try one."
He picked a plump one from the few on her outstretched palm and popped it in his mouth. It was intensely sweet and deliciously cold, and he snaked his arm around her to get to the bag. "Nuh-uh, mister," she said, laughing and holding the bag at arm's length, trying to spin away from him. "Mine, mine, mine," she sang, and it hit him then, after a day spent with his ma and brother, that it was unfair that this girl wasn't part of a big, boisterous family, that she was alone.
He couldn't ever be enough for her, but he could at least try to make it up to her and treat her like his kid sister.
He gave her a noogie, and she shrieked with laughter. "Get off me, you weirdo!" she chirped, looking flushed and delirious with delight. "Dannnny!" She surrendered, finally, dunking her hand back in the bag and presenting a generous handful to him; he had her pinned against his front, his arms crossed over her chest, so he dipped his head to nibble them directly off her palm. "Oh my god, it's like being at a petting zoo," she said.
He laughed and grunted, letting her go to pound his chest like a cartoon gorilla.
"Easy there, Donkey Kong," she said. "You'll never guess what I got from Amazon."
He fell asleep against her shoulder while watching Die Hard, but he woke up with his head in her lap and her fingers playing absently in his hair, the giant black TV off and showing only their reflection.
"You know," Mindy said, twirling a lock of hair around her finger, and he could never get why she needed curlers, because now, when she hadn't brushed her hair or even changed out of her nightie, it tumbled down her back like she was in a shampoo commercial, "this is not what I imagined my life in New York would be like." She sounded like she was still half-asleep, her face soft and her eyelashes all tangled.
"Oh, yeah?" Danny asked, hearing the first few drops of rain hit the skylight. So much for going for a run in the park.
"Yeah, when they told me I'd won, that I was going to have money in the bank for the rest of my life, I, I don't know, I guess I pictured myself descending on Manhattan, queen of the socialites, invited to every party, getting targeted by paparazzi, having designers fight over who got to design my gown for the Met Ball, where I'd be rocking
some crazy headpiece and looking totally fierce. Like somehow all of this" – she gestured to the length of her body – "would be transformed into centerfold hotness." She shivered a bit when thunder boomed out. He scrounged around for the fuzzy socks she'd kicked off the night before and handed them to her. "I forgot that I don't know how to get into that world," she said, drawing on the socks and wiggling her toes.
"You still can," he said, her dreamy face making him say the dumbest thing possible. Of course she could – she didn't need his permission. "I mean –"
"I know," she said, digging her toes under his thigh, even though they couldn't possibly still be cold. "But this is better. I never let myself dream of having a family again."
Something in his chest went whoosh and he found himself smiling at her like an idiot.
"Danny?" she said, more tentatively, and that should have warned him, because when did she ever pause before rushing in? "Do you want me to hire somebody to find your dad?"
"No!" he said. She hadn't meant to sucker-punch him; it was like she'd tripped and instinctively grabbed him and they'd both fallen down the stairs, with her landing on top of him and him taking the full brunt of the fall. He had to think of it like that. "No." She was only trying to help, and there was no doubt in his mind that she had a heart big enough to forgive anyone who walked out on her, but he was nowhere near that level of enlightenment.
He'd take her to meet Ma, and then she'd understand everything Alan Castellano had walked out on, and why he couldn't just walk back in.
"Ma, this is Mindy," Danny said. "Mindy, Ma – Angelina Castellano."
"It's so nice to meet you," Mindy said, and he could hear her confusion about how to address his mother.
"She goes by Angie," he said, and Mindy nodded but didn't test it out. Good thing, because Ma was giving him a look like she had when he'd stolen skates from Castorini's Sporting Goods, and he immediately felt guilty without knowing why. Ma was entirely capable of yelling at him in front of company, so he had to act fast. "I'm gonna make some iced tea," he said, knowing Ma would want to do it herself, so he led the way into the kitchen and hoped that the walls would somehow be thicker now than they’d ever been before.
"How could you bring her here?" Ma asked, outrage sparking in her voice even before
the door stopped swinging. "Bad enough you walk out on your wife, but you bring the girl you're stepping out with to my house, and I'm supposed to just pretend that this is all fine –"
"What?" he asked. "Mindy's not – that's not – Ma, you really think –?"
"What am I supposed to think? Christina you never bring here, but suddenly, there's someone named Mindy on my couch!"
Christina had never once come out to Staten with him, and Ma didn't like to make the schlep to the city. "Mindy's my friend, Ma. She took me in when Christina cheated on me and I had to leave." That was underselling it, but it was simple enough to understand.
"How come I never heard of this friend before?" Ma asked, before the rest of what he'd said hit her. "Christina cheated? Oh, baby," she said, drawing his head down and kissing his head and cheek, like he was four years old again. "My sweet boy. She never deserved you."
He pulled himself free. "How can you say that? You loved her!"
"No, baby, I loved that she made you happy. I loved that you looked at her and saw your babies' mama. You think I thought anyone was good enough for my Danny?" She held his head between her strong hands, every callus on them familiar to him. "You're not with this Mindy?" she asked, and he shook his head, eyes fixed on the crucifix pendant he and Richie had bought her years ago. "Who is it, then? Who's making you look happy?"
"I look happy?"
"Who's the girl?" she persisted.
"The only girl is Mindy," he said, and she gave him a long, hard look.
"Weren't you making iced tea?" she asked, finally.
"Not for Mindy – she only likes that mix crap."
"With all the sugar?" Ma asked, horrified. "Go, sit with your guest. I'll make coffee – will she at least drink that?"
"Only with biscotti," he admitted, and Ma reached for the tin.
He found Mindy looking at his wedding portrait, hanging on the wall next to Richie's high school graduation picture, and he looked at it for the first time in years, seeing Christina's slender body draped in white lace, his hand clutching at her waist, the collar of his rented tux gaping slightly. There'd been a running joke that they looked like all of the top-of-the-cake bride-and-groom figurines, all of them for some reason being a dark-haired guy and a light-haired girl. They'd looked like something out of a fairy tale, apparently.
The photographer had loved Christina, Danny remembered; they'd talked for what felt like hours about how best to compose the portraits, with Christina saying she didn't want to end up looking like Barbie next to Ken. He remembered not understanding a word of their easy conversation, too amazed that she still hadn't come to her senses and left him to do more than smile at her and fall more in love every time she caught his eye and smiled back.
"Hey," he said, and Mindy turned around, searching his face.
"Did you ask her?"
"Ask Ma? Ask her what?" he asked, wondering if her question meant she really hadn't heard any of Ma's accusations.
"About your dad, Danny," Mindy said.
"She's better off without him," he said.
Mindy nodded but kept her eyes fixed on him. She had a little bit of that Ma look, he realized, enough to make him feel guilty even when he'd done nothing wrong. "Okay, cool," she said, and then Ma came in from the kitchen with coffee and biscotti on a tray and they all sat down together, Ma next to Mindy on the couch, relegating him to the wing chair.
Danny saw Ma eyeing the clock and remembered she needed to take her pills. "Dan –" she said, gesturing, but he'd already gotten up to fetch the big box, identical to the one she used for buttons and pins when she did the mending.
"Angie," Mindy said, cutting into Ma's story about what Stevie Guarancini was up to, breaking his poor mother's heart, "sorry, but do you have indigestion?"
"Yes, but it's nothing like Minna's. You remember, Danny, how that woman suffered?"
"It might be because you're taking anti-inflammatories and anti-coagulants together," Mindy said, pointing to a couple of compartments in Ma’s pill-box. "Those are contraindicated – I'm surprised your doctor prescribed both."
"No," Ma said, "Dr. Ortolini – oh, did I tell you, Danny, she's out on maternity leave with her third, God bless her – prescribed the pink ones, and that Dr. DiBattista, the big-shot who's too good to look at you when he's talking to you, prescribed these yellow ones."
"That's irresponsible!" Mindy said angrily, and Danny would not have bet a penny on Tony DiBattista if Mindy ever found him. He looked at her, still rooting around in the pill-box, biting her lip in concentration; she looked different when she was really thinking and not just sassing him or drooling over some movie actor. Mindy looked up at Ma and the two of them went through every pill in the box, rearranging and redistributing them as they talked.
"So you're a doctor, darling?" Ma asked after a pause, shifting gears like only she could do, laying a hand on Mindy's arm. Danny saw Mindy hesitate and finally look up from the pill-box with damp eyes. He caught himself holding his breath, hoping Ma would see it too, how much Mindy missed having a mother.
"I wanted to be," Mindy said. "I was just a home-care worker."
"Still better than that Anthony DiBattista," Ma said with a sniff, then squeezed Mindy's hand and smiled at him.
This was a bad idea, because both of them were way too competitive. But she'd said she wanted to be out and about in the city before school started the next day, and they'd ended up in Bryant Park again, this time heading for the ping-pong tables and finding one that wasn't in use.
"Sixteen-fourteen, me," he said, preparing to serve.
"Excuse you," Mindy said, hands on her hips. "Cheater, it's fifteen-all."
"I don't have to cheat," was all he said, letting his tone say the rest.
"Daniel Delusional Castellano, you have got to be kidding me."
"Sweetheart, the only game I'm playing is ping-pong," he said, letting his words walk with a little Staten swagger. "And I'm winning."
"Okay, enough. Just serve."
He whipped the ball at her and she returned it with interest. Mindy crowed every time she scored a point, and they waged war.
It was satisfying to beat her – he got to pick the movies for the next month. It was even better when they teamed up to beat a couple of cocky kids in a rousing game of doubles, even if the only reward was listening to Mindy's ridiculous, chirpy trash-talk and watching a grin grow on her face, lit by the last rays of the setting sun.
"Ugh, I'm already exhausted," Mindy said, pressing her face into his shoulder.
"We're just sitting there, listening to these guys talk about the rest of the semester," he pointed out; if she was feeling nervous, there was no point in saying the same thing, because two people panicking over how much they'd bitten off wouldn't help anything. It was only the first day. "Come on, just Art History left," he prodded, shrugging his shoulder to wiggle her face a little.
"Never give a pep talk again," she instructed him, doing a brisk about-face to walk toward their last class.
Danny laughed. "I shouldn't have to. You're the boss, right?"
"Damn straight," Mindy said. She wrenched open the auditorium doors and Danny waited, knowing by now that she needed to get all of her first impressions off her chest. "Danny, this professor – you have to see him. He looks like if Voldemort and Jason Statham had, like, an evil baby."
"What does that even mean?" he asked, shouldering her aside to get a look. He froze when he caught sight of the man standing at the podium, adjusting his glasses and clicking a remote at the screen instead of at the projector. "That's him – that's the guy."
"What guy?" Mindy asked, squeezing her head past his chest. "Oh," she said, then caught hold of his hand. "Come on, we'll switch sections. We don't need a hairless cat
teaching us art history. Or" – she looked at him, her face serious, her thumb drawing circles on his skin –"we don't have to take art history at all. We're carrying a full load anyway."
"No," he said. This was pretty much the only thing she'd asked him for, and he wasn't gonna punk out. "Let's find a different section."
"Fuck you, Glenn Jennison," Mindy said. "I bet you're not even a real Ph.D." She led the way to the registrar's office, where she had already acquired a fan club. That was a habit of hers, he'd found, even if she had no idea.
He was surprised to find that school came pretty easily – he certainly didn't remember being an honor student back in high school. But he'd had baseball, a couple of jobs, and girls to juggle, plus Ma and Richie to take care of on top of everything back then, and now all he had was classes and cooking with Mindy. He was like a monk these days, if monks jerked off; there was no way he was going out looking for anyone when just the thought of going to bed with someone new practically gave him a panic attack.
He wondered why Mindy wasn't looking for someone. She'd had boyfriends, and she deserved someone to make her happy. She didn't even say much about the guys in their classes, at least not when compared with the enthusiastic running commentary she kept up on the men in the movies.
Maybe she just wanted to concentrate on getting her degree and becoming a doctor like she'd dreamt of, back when her dad was alive, or even before her mom died. She nudged him out of his thoughts and back into their bio lab.
"Danny, Danny, have you ever seen anything so gross?" Mindy asked, sounding cheerful rather than disgusted, as she watched their fat white grub writhe on the twig in the examination tray.
"It looks exactly like the glob of lotion you squirt out every morning when you get all dramatic and say, 'As God is my witness, I'll never be ashy again!'"
Her outraged gasp was kind of hilarious. "It does not! Thanks a lot, now I have to find a new, non-white kind of lotion!"
"Good luck with that, weirdo," he said, still setting everything up for their lab.
"Pardon me, might I join you?" he heard, and looked up to see that British guy, Jeremy, leaning over from the next lab station. "My grub has gone a bit peculiar, I'm afraid."
"Sure!" Mindy said, smiling at the guy like nothing could have made her happier. "Jeremy, right?"
"Jeremy Reed. And you are Mindy, I believe. Charmed."
Danny rolled his eyes at the thought of making time over an educational experiment about a worm. The guy clearly thought he was James Bond, but then what was he doing in Bio 101 with the rest of them? "And this is Danny," Mindy said, nudging him, so he nodded politely.
"I'm not quite as charmed to meet you, I must say," Jeremy said, dropping Mindy a flirtatious wink, and Danny knew things were going to get weird when she didn't laugh in the guy's face.
"Do you like Jeremy?" Mindy asked, dropping a dollop of strawberry-rhubarb jam on the English muffin Jeremy had left behind and finishing it off.
"He's fine," Danny said. "I told him I'd make him an omelet, didn't I?"
"You did," Mindy agreed, but she wasn't smiling. Guess Jeremy wasn't rocking her world.
"Should I not have? Did you want him out of here quicker?"
"No, that's not it," she said. "I guess I just wanted to make sure you didn't feel weird about having another guy in our kitchen."
It was a little late for that. "You're allowed to date," he said, aware that there was something he was missing.
"We're not dating," she said carefully. Did she mean – oh! "We're just hooking up. He's not looking for a commitment."
"Someone he has to treat nicely, you mean," Danny said, anger building inside him. "And you went for that?"
"It's not as easy as you think, getting what you want," Mindy said quietly. He slid her omelet from the pan and put the plate in front of her. As usual, she let it get cold waiting for him, just so they could eat together; as usual, he split both omelets and ate half her
cold one while waiting for his own to cool.
"Are you gonna go?" Mindy asked when they got home on Tuesday afternoon. "To the thing?" she pointed with her chin at the flyer he'd stuck in his jacket pocket.
"I don't even know what it is," he said, pulling it out and smoothing the crumpled paper.
"That Jillian girl seemed to really want you to go," she observed, hanging up her jacket and holding a hand out for his. "She basically tackled you on the quad."
"Guess they don't get a lot of people coming out for their experimental theater," he said, reading the flyer Jillian had forced into his hand. "God, this sounds awful. Who wants to see The Golden Girls redone by naked kids?"
"Easy, Grandpa, you're still in your twenties," Mindy said, sounding a little more cheerful; she liked teasing him about his age and reveling in the fact that she was five years younger than him.
"Not for long," he pointed out; thirty was only a few weeks away. He looked up from the flyer to see her wearing her plotting face and pointed at her. "Mindy, no. No party, no buying any expensive gifts."
"Chill, Keith Mars," she said. "I won't buy you anything. Even though I'd be the best sugar mama in the world, basically."
"You're a nutjob," he said, not expecting her face to fall. "What, Min? What's wrong?"
"Nothing," she said. "I just – I just really miss taking care of someone, that's all."
Was she crazy, that she couldn't see how much care she took of him, even if he wouldn't let her pay for everything? "Wait here," he said, glad that it was Tuesday, because that meant there'd be orchids for sale on Park Avenue. He ran until his heart felt like it would burst out of his chest and slowed when he found the first sidewalk table of potted flowers. Most of the orchids were pink – light and dark – or white, but there was one in the last row that was the yellow of her favorite pajamas with little flecks of the same blue he'd painted her bedroom. Ten bucks and it was his, and he ran home clutching his prize.
She looked up from her homework – she was testing how accurately she'd memorized the periodic table – with a smile so radiant that he wished he'd bought out the whole table.
"How do you even know who Spiderman is?" Danny asked. He was not going to put away his newspaper to engage in this ridiculousness, even if it made him smile.
"Because Tobey Maguire is totally adorbs bangable," she said, like that was a completely reasonable response; the sad thing was, he'd kind of expected something along those lines.
"And why were we even talking about Spiderman?" he asked, trying to remember how this whole conversation had started.
"Because I said, don't get mad, and don't get worried that I've been bitten by a radioactive spider, but I'm suddenly displaying super-strength."
"Right," he said, sighing. "How?"
"I was scrubbing the sink in my bathroom – yes, I scrub, Danny, look at my cute little bandana! – and my, um, hand went through the sink."
"What?" He dropped the paper and reached for her hand, remembering at the last second to be gentle. Her arm was round and firm in his grasp, the skin a little reddened but not scraped or broken. "What happened?"
"Danny, I'm giving you as clear a narrative as I can muster," Mindy said. "My hand just went through the sink. I'm like She-Hulk. Rawr."
"So why did you bring up Spiderman?"
"Because I can't remember how Hulk got all Hulky, and I look way better in purple pants anyway."
"Yeah, you do," he said. He glanced up from her arm to her face and felt her pulse, under his fingers, accelerate a little. He frowned. "Are you sure you're okay?" He let go when she nodded. "Good. I'll clear away the broken sink and we'll go get a new one on Saturday."
"Danny, long time no see, man!" Hector said when they walked into Home Depot.
"Hey, man," he said, offering his hand while Mindy whispered, "I didn’t know you were famous, Danny!" She looked totally sincere, too, her heart-shaped sunglasses pushed up and her eyes wide. "Yeah," he said, answering Hector, "it’s been a crazy year. I’m not working there anymore."
"Got a better offer?" Hector said, looking at Mindy's hand on his arm, and Danny was abruptly aware of how close they were standing, and how she smelled like his stuff again – he'd declared her bathroom off-limits until he replaced the sink.
"Yeah," he said, and saw her smile out of the corner of his eye. "Take care, Hector."
He steered Mindy toward the bathroom sinks with a hand on the small of her back, ignoring the smirk she was wearing.
"Daniel I-Got-This-City-Locked-Down Castellano, did you just say I was a good thing in your life?" she asked, beaming at him.
He'd never been good with words, but she should know in case he got hit by a bus tomorrow. "You're the best thing in my life, Min. Did you want a pedestal or a cabinet sink?"
When Jeremy murmured something to Mindy in the middle of Bio about Friday night being date night, Danny didn't let himself look over at either of them. So what if his birthday was tomorrow? All he'd said was that they were going out to Staten and Ma would make a special dinner. He could deal with Jeremy in the morning.
But Mindy said, her voice soft but her tone clear, "But we're not dating, and I'm busy anyway. I can't."
Danny snuck a peek: Jeremy looked gobsmacked and Mindy looked resolute. It was a good look on her.
He wondered what her big plans were for the night.
When they got home, she acted like she had no agenda at all. They made spaghetti with onions – he cut the onions and rubbed the tears out of his eyes with his shoulders while she got the pasta going like a pro – and ate, then settled in to do their homework.
"It feels like cheating," she said, and he looked up, startled. "To use you as my
partner when we're filling in Punnett Squares. It's too easy."
It took him a second to get what she meant. There were only brown-eyed, black-haired people in both of their family trees, and their imaginary kids would certainly be the same. "You're not fantasizing about some blue-eyed blond guy, like Captain America?" he teased.
"Not for procreation purposes," she said, finishing the last diagram. "So, big day tomorrow – what's the plan?"
"Nothing big. I told Ma we'd get to Staten around four. I might get up early, go for a run."
"Don't?" she asked.
He sighed, but it was like being a kid again, wondering what the next day would bring. At least she'd promised not to buy him anything, so he could rest easy knowing there wouldn't be one more thing he could never pay her back for waiting for him.
He woke up late – Mindy'd turned off the alarm on his phone, the little sneak – and wandered out to the living room, still in his t-shirt and pajama bottoms. "Danny!" she shrieked, and he turned his head to find her down on the floor, surrounded by wrapping paper scraps and twisted bits of scotch tape. "Get out of here!"
"Sorry, sorry," he said, laughing and putting his hands up. "I'll just sit in my room in the dark until you say it's safe to come out."
"God, you're so difficult!" she griped, and he beat a retreat to his room, grinning all the way down the hallway.
Twenty minutes later, there was a knock on his door. He sprawled more comfortably across the bed and pretended he hadn't heard a thing.
"You suck, Danny!" Mindy said. He waited. "Come on, this is heavy!" she said and he scrambled for the door.
"Gotcha!" she said, bounding in and holding a tray. "That damsel-in-distress bit gets you every time, huh?"
"What every time?" he asked. She'd made him breakfast in bed, the omelet perfectly fluffy and the toast just the right shade of brown and the orange juice freshly squeezed. "Are you kidding me with this?"
"Yes, Danny. I made this for myself, just to eat it in front of you. Dummy."
"Yeah, okay," he said, "I just wanted to say that this is perfect. This is exactly what I wanted."
"Really?" she asked, smiling. He took the tray from her, bracing for her hug. Some of the orange juice slopped over from the force of her squeeze. "Happy birthday, Danny," she said, kissing his cheek.
He turned his head and gave her a little peck on her smiling mouth. Setting the tray down, he pushed the blankets out of the way and climbed back into bed. "Come on," he said, "help me out here. I'll make round two."
Before she got on the bed, she dug around in the pocket of her robe – this one was ridiculously soft, besides being the color of a Creamsicle, and he thought that one of these days he'd have to build her an extra closet just for her robes and pajamas, or maybe convert the third floor from living quarters to storage space – and pulled out a small package, poorly wrapped.
"I didn't buy you anything," she said before he could even voice his protest. "I've been wanting you to have this, and you can't say no on your birthday."
"I think you mean I can't say no to you on your birthday."
"Both, actually. And in general," she said. "Here. Please."
He dropped the toast, wiped his hands on his hips, and took the package. It fit easily in his palm and it was heavier than it looked, but not like a brick or anything. It would be just like her to get something he'd said he liked, pretend it was for herself, and then
give it to him, but he couldn't remember expressing an interest in anything recently; he'd learned his lesson.
She was really terrible at wrapping things; there were twisted crumples of tape everywhere. Danny looked up to see her chewing nervously on a slice of his toast, her eyes huge. He reached out, pulled a stray bit of tape from her hair, and stuck it on the discarded wrapping paper. "Nutjob," he said fondly. The box was plain and black, providing no clues.
When he opened the box, the scent of cologne rose up, and Danny saw a watch inside, resting on a thick cotton pad. It had a square gold face that said Titan and no numbers, just little beads of gold. His fingers looked too big and clumsy when he reached for it. "How can I take your dad's watch, Min?" he asked.
She tried to smile, but her eyes were tearing up. "Because I asked you to," she said, taking it from him and clasping it on his wrist. "It suits you."
He grabbed her hands before she could go anywhere. "Thank you," he said, and his lips found the one tear that had spilled onto her cheek.
When they got out to Staten, he saw Ma's eyes go right to the watch, but before he could say anything, he was grabbed from behind. He twisted and saw Richie, who hugged him and said, "Mindy flew us up. Happy birthday."
Mindy didn't even have the decency to look guilty. "What?" she said. "I didn't buy you anything."
She had a killer poker face – it turned out that getting Richie to call his old Staten crew and get everybody into a club to dance all night long didn't count as buying him anything either.
It was more fun than he could've imagined, seeing all the guys – his first best friends, his first detention buddies, his first teammates – again, seeing all the girls – his first wet dream, his first kiss, his first rounding the bases – who'd once upon a time gotten him all hot and bothered, and Mindy, in her tight yellow dress, was in the middle of it all, knocking back shots with Stevie and Louie, dancing with Richie and his boyfriend Benny.
He grabbed her when a killer song came on and didn't let go until his feet were sore.
"Danny!" Mindy protested finally, flushed and laughing, and he followed her outside, where the bass wasn't pounding right through his body and thumping all of his thoughts out of his head. "My hair's a mess," she said, pushing back the curls that had fallen out of place, and he flipped open his wallet and pulled out the flat pack of bobby pins he'd started carrying around because she switched purses so often she couldn't keep track of what was in each. She took her time, pulling a bobby pin free, tucking it into her mouth for safekeeping, winding her hair tight, and finally sliding the pin in place. She did it over and over, and with each repetition, he remembered laughing with her, dancing with her, holding her, feeling a rush when she smiled at him like he was still being fantastic to her and she couldn't imagine him ever being different.
She took her time and he waited for her, waited until she'd pinned her hair back up and
patted everything like she was satisfied, before pushing his hands into her hair – dislodging all of those damn pins – and kissing her long and deep.
She tasted like chocolate-cake shots, and he probably tasted like the maple-smoked bourbon she knew he liked, but all he could think of was how lush she felt in his arms, soft and yielding and heated. His hands were cupping her face, her hair spilling over his fingers, and she had her hands on his ass, drawing him closer; he couldn't remember a more spectacular moment in his life. Until she came up for air, her face flushed and her voice sunk to a whisper that got him shivering: "Daniel Darling Castellano," she said, her lips back at his throat, "I was hoping you'd catch on soon."
"I'm here," he said, setting his mouth to hers again and surging forward until her back hit a wall and there was nowhere for him to go except closer to her. He wanted to chase every moan of his name back down her throat, and as Staten fell away around them, leaving the night to envelop them together, he gave in to the temptation.
"Danny, seriously!" Mindy said. "I'd never have pegged you for such a horndog." She pushed him onto the table in their study – he was glad now he'd insisted on a sturdy one, made of solid wood, not pressboard – and kissed wherever she damn well pleased. "You're insatiable."
She didn't sound too upset about that.
"Yeah, well," he said, gesturing at her, and her face went all soft and delighted again. Like an idiot, he pressed his luck. "You were saying?"
Her mouth left his neck and he felt bereft. "I need to study if I'm gonna finish at the top of the class."
"Whoa, whoa," he said, leaning up on his forearms. "I'm in that class too."
"Yes, and?" she asked, giving him a look over the top of her completely unnecessary glasses.
"So maybe I'll be on top," he said, giving her ass a squeeze for emphasis.
"I do like you there," she said musingly, "but it's not like I'm just gonna roll over and let you have it."
Enough. He was too turned on to keep going with the argument, so he just lifted her back on top of him, where she belonged.
"You wouldn't let me get away with saying I want to nail some actress or the character she's playing," Danny pointed out, in an entirely reasonable manner. He knew he was winning the argument when Mindy pouted into the popcorn.
"I'm not saying I'm gonna run off and bang this guy. Objectively speaking, Tom Hardy is ridic bangable. I'm just stating the facts, Danny!"
He couldn't help sounding jealous, because he was. "So we've had crazy, delicious, adorbs, and ridic bangable so far. How many other kinds are there?"
Her eyes widened like she was surprised he was protesting and she stroked her hands down his back, pulling up his thin t-shirt. "It doesn't matter, Danny," she whispered in his ear.
He crossed his arms; he wasn't going to make this too easy for her, and he was keeping his shirt on as long as she was wearing hers. "Why not?"
She swept her tongue into his mouth then, without warning, and kissed him deep and wet. Mindy was unabashedly good at that, uninhibited and honest. "Because, Daniel Love-of-My-Life Castellano, you're all kinds of bangable."
"Prove it," he said, and she turned that halogen-level grin on him, and he was basically doomed. What a way to go.
He had no idea how Mindy'd gotten Ma to share her coffee cake recipe, but there it was, in Mindy's curvy handwriting, on the fridge under one of her Tiffany stained-glass magnets.
The knock on the door sounded when she turned on the oven, and they looked at each other for a minute, worried that the oven was making weird sounds.
"It's the door," she said, realizing and pushing him out of the kitchen. "Go. I got this."
She probably did; she could do anything she set her mind to. "I'm going, I'm going," he said, stealing a kiss before he left.
There was a woman with a clipboard on the doorstep, and he braced himself, ready to hear about green energy or abortion rights or something else he and everyone else at NYU agreed with anyway. But she just said, "Daniel Castellano?" When he nodded, she handed him an official-looking envelope that had Ma’s address crossed out and the new one in messy block letters. "I like the flowers," she said, pointing to the window-box of daisies he'd gotten Mindy from the greenmarket over the summer; he was going to have to bring those in before winter weather killed them.
"Who was it?" Mindy asked when he returned to the kitchen.
"Some messenger. She gave me this," he said, holding up the envelope and ripping it open. "Jesus –" he said, taking a step back from the papers spilling on the table. Divorce papers – Christina was suing him for divorce.
He'd pushed all thoughts of her out of his head when he’d walked out, and since then he’d been acting on impulse, letting his feelings determine his actions; all that had done was to put Mindy in the middle. He was such a shit.
"Hey," Mindy said, dropping the container of sour cream back on the counter next to the mixing bowl. "What is it?"
"Christina," he said.
"Oh," she said. Then she got close and squeezed him so hard he could barely reciprocate. "Don't. Don't sign them yet. We'll find a lawyer, make sure she didn't pull something else."
"Min –" was all he got out. "I'm so sorry."
"Not your fault, dummy. I knew from the minute I met you that you'd be my best friend. That was out of our hands. This was our choice."
"I love you, Mindy," he said, letting her hold him up, just for a second.
"I know that too," she said. "Top of the class, remember?"
They made the call to the lawyer who'd fought to get Mindy her winnings in a short enough time for her to move to Manhattan before she had to renew her old lease. Mindy chatted with the guy, teasing him and sounding so much like her regular self that Danny had to take a second look at her drawn face to be sure that Christina's shot had
hit her too.
It scared him, to know that it was because of him that she could be hurt so badly. It humbled him, to hear her explain to the guy that Christina was wrong about him being incapable of loving anyone, that he had a mom and a brother and a girlfriend who could prove that false in a hot second. Mindy was the extraordinary one; he was just the
lucky one who'd answered a simple question. Danny couldn't put together even one coherent sentence, but the lawyer seemed to get that he couldn't find the right words. He promised to look over the documents Mindy had emailed him and hung up.
Neither of them moved. "When Harry Met Sally . . .?" Danny finally offered, wanting to erase her bruises. It was her version of comfort food.
So maybe his was having her in his lap, willing to be touched and ready to remind him she loved him back. "Hey," he said into her hair, just before the credits rolled. "We got them beat."
"Mmm?" she murmured, her mouth fluttering against his neck.
"They waited for New Year's. We got it together before Halloween."
She went stiff for a second, then started giggling even as she straddled him gracelessly on the couch, her hands trying to unbutton both their shirts at once.
"Let me," he said, breathing her deep. She was panting against his neck when he stopped. "Bedroom," he said, smiling into her dazed eyes. He swatted her bottom lightly. "Either one. I plan to take my time with you."
She frowned a bit and it took her a second to find her footing. But by the time he pulled off his shirt and stood up too, she was steady, and she teased him all the way to his room – trust her to pick the one further away – by dropping her clothes one piece at a time, like a breadcrumb trail.
He was the luckiest person he knew.
"Oh, Danny, you're so fine, you're so fine you blow my mind, hey Danny, hey-hey, hey Danny," Mindy sang in the shower. He could see her pretending his shampoo bottle was a microphone through the frosted glass doors of the stall. It didn't make her singing any better.
"That's a terrible song," he said. "Sing some Springsteen."
"Ugh, you're such an old man," she said, trying to pull him into the stall without getting water everywhere. It didn't work even a little. Danny laughed at her frustrated frown, only to sputter when the water bounced off the wall to hit his face. "This is one of those dirty May/December relationships."
He sputtered some more. "How can this be a May/December relationship when you're only five years younger than me? We're not that far apart on the calendar; we're like, um, Arbor Day and Memorial Day."
"Was Arbor Day a big thing for you, Danny? In the sixties? All the hippies and their flower power?"
"Shut up," he said, finally climbing into the stall with her.
Of course she didn't. "So you admit I'm as fun as a three-day weekend and you're –"
There was only one way to get her to stop, so he kissed her. When he pulled back, she looked happy, beautiful, all his. "Are you gonna wash my back?" he asked. "We've got class in an hour."
"You might have class, but I don't," she said, and sank to her knees.
"Oh, Min," he said, cradling her head in his hands.
"You're too old to make this last, I bet," she said, kissing his thighs.
"That's not age; that's love," he said.
"Nice save, my friend," she said, smiling at him up the length of his body. "You're not gonna last a New York minute." She was probably right about that, but he was going to reciprocate if it was the last thing he did. Playing hooky once wouldn't hurt their GPAs, and he had plans for his best friend – plans for the rest of their lives, actually.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think!
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/441651.html.