And Whether Pigs Have Wings
Henry had long ago decided it was futile to pretend that the woman who set the food on the table, pinched his cheek with her hot hand, and said, "Eat! Eat!" with a Korean accent was not his mother. Charmonique was the only friend he'd ever had that he trusted enough to bring back to the restaurant anyway, and she always seemed to get a kick out of seeing his mother, all five feet of her, scolding and praising him in turn.
Right now, Charmonique was being uncharacteristically quiet. He took another look at her through the steam rising from the platter of food. "What's up?" he asked. "Is your grandmother okay?"
Char narrowed her eyes. "Is she emailing you again? I knew getting her a tablet was a bad idea."
He didn't mention that Ms. Mae's personalized poker tips had turned the tide on the running game he had going with the staff all summer, and he'd won big in the end, saving up a nice chunk of change, enough for his books for the whole year. He needed to send her some flowers. "No, you just look . . . different."
Before he'd opened his big mouth, she'd been looking dreamy, like she was still feeling the last rays of summertime sun instead of getting ready to buckle down for their last year of college. Looking at her, he saw the same girl he'd met the first day of freshman year, excited for a new adventure and more than ready to drag him along.
"I met someone," she said, smiling shyly up at him. "For real."
"That's great!" he said, because too many of her other boyfriends had definitely not been "for real," and she deserved better than that. He'd maybe drop Ms. Mae a line just to make sure she approved of this one, and that he wasn't a clown like the rest. "Is that why you were basically AWOL this whole summer? I only got two emails from you."
"Between putting together the application for the internship, spending time with my granmama, skyping my folks, and seeing Mitchell, I had no time. You were probably out making deliveries anyway."
"That's true," he acknowledged, gingerly dishing out the baked rigatoni. His arms were still sore from hauling platters of meat and pasta up endless flights of stairs; there didn't seem to be a single elevator in the city that was in good working order.
"You got my favorite!" Charmonique said, practically singing, and toasted him with her soda. A trilling melody sounded, and she grabbed her phone. She frowned down at the screen and held the smartphone out to him. "Do you recognize this number?"
Even if he could have seen through the glare on her screen, the answer would almost definitely have been no. He only knew a handful of phone numbers by heart and his flip-phone held the rest, whereas Char had basically a photographic memory. He shook his head and then said - when had he turned into his mother? - "Ignore it. You should eat before it gets cold."
Charmonique laughed indulgently at him, like he was a particularly cute pet, and pinched his cheek. He hated it when she did that; he should have dodged more quickly. "I'll be real quick. Hello?"
He thought maybe it was the mighty Mitchell, given how her face lit up, but after she said "yes" about a dozen times, she said, "He's here with me now." That put paid to the notion that it was her new man, because as much as she might have missed him, Henry knew there was no way she'd interrupted prime doing-the-dirty time to tell Mitchell all about the rock-solid academic partnership she'd forged with him. "I'll tell him right away," Charmonique said, beaming at him. She disconnected and put the phone down only to pick up her fork and dig into her food. "Don't think you're getting away with this particular nonsense," she said, gesturing with a surprisingly threatening tube of pasta at his hair. "It's like the minute I leave town, you forget how to style yourself to look your own age."
He already had a baby face, and he knew it, so it was only logical to try to age himself up a little with a more conservative hairstyle - "Wait a minute," he said, catching himself before he started justifying what he did with his own damn hair out loud, "are you really not going to tell me what that call was all about?"
"Oh, that?" Her smile grew very cat-that-got-the-canary. "We got the KinderKare internship!"
"Char -" he said, and she held out a fist, so they bumped and blew it up, and then got through the platter of rigatoni in record time.
There were times when he thought he was crazy for trying to finish two majors, write an honors thesis in English, serve as the RA for his floor, and take on an internship all in his senior year of college, but he'd set his hand to the wheel and he was not a quitter. Not even when it meant that he was alone in the library on a Friday night. Charmonique had gone off with a flower in her hair to meet Mitchell, who was driving into the city from the shore, and he had a thick biography of Keats to get through.
He only had the weekend to get it done; the internship started Monday and by next weekend he wanted to be on the trail of footnotes, chasing them from paper to paper. It made him feel like a detective, following clues others might overlook. He got out his notebook and a pen and settled in for the long haul.
"Duuuuude," Billy said, hooking an arm around his neck and slurring beer breath into his face, "did you see the senior chick on my floor? Oh, yeah, Daddy likes."
Henry neatly unhooked the arm and propped Billy against the brick wall. "Even if she is a senior, she must be new to the school to be in Pickering. You're her RA, you can't make a move."
"I'd give it all up for her," Billy proclaimed drunkenly. "All the glory, all the fame, for one sweet taste."
"That's inspiring, truly, but maybe you could take the volume down several notches."
"Fiiiirecroooootch," Billy sang up at the moon.
"Okay, that's enough," Henry said, deciding he didn't need to stick around for any of this; he and Billy weren't friends, and he should have been asleep an hour ago anyway.
"'Okay, that's enough,'" Billy mimicked, moving his arms robotically. "Dude, if a real redhead isn't enough to get you going, what the fuck is? Are you gay?"
"No, I'm not," he said, wishing he were brave enough not to respond to Billy's puerile taunting.
"So you are hittin' that!"
"That big girl, Chamo- Chirmi- whatever. Henry has jun -"
Henry walked away then, swiping his keycard with unnecessary force and slamming open the door, before he had to hear that asshole actually utter the racist-as-fuck words "jungle fever."
The Corporate Structure textbook from his class sophomore year had praised Sam Saperstein's innovative ideas, but the flesh-and-blood Saperstein was not exactly Henry's idea of a CEO. He was young, probably the same age as his assistant Joan, and the first thing he did when they showed up Monday afternoon was dance Charmonique all around the floor with all of the Financial Analysts, singing her name to the tune of - Henry kind of wanted to die - "Superfreak." But then, after he'd twirled Charmonique into her seat in the FAs' bright and spacious shared office, he'd come back and held Henry's face in his hands and studied him closely.
Henry could remember the last time his face had been cupped between two warm palms. It had been his grandfather, nearly ten years ago, just before he left his grandparents' flat in Seoul. The air had been thick with the scents of bananas and tea and jackfruit, and his grandmother had been puttering in the kitchen, making him a snack he could eat at the airport; his grandfather had held his face and said, in his broken English, "You are a very good boy." At the time, it hadn't meant much, but he'd never seen his grandparents again, and now here was his boss, looking deep into his eyes like he had nothing better to do. Henry squirmed.
"You've got the soul of a poet, by gum!" Saperstein finally proclaimed, sounding thrilled by his own discovery. "We can't waste talent like that! Joan, get this young man to Marketing, post-haste!"
His cheeks still squished by Saperstein's surprisingly soft hands, Henry couldn't speak to thank him for the opportunity. At the first touch of Joan's hand on his elbow, his face was released. He opened his mouth, but Saperstein waved him off. "Tut-tut, my boy! You're going to spin straw into gold for me! Ha, that's three for three with the new interns! Joan, I think a congratulatory quinoa is called for."
"Yes, sir," she said, smiling like she thought her face might crack if she moved her mouth more than a millimeter, which Henry found refreshingly professional of her. The office wasn't a place for fun and games, after all.
"Wait," he said, before Joan could efficiently stride away after showing him to a small office dominated by floor-to-ceiling windows. "Who's my manager?"
"Faisal is the head of marketing, but he's on sabbatical this year. You can report to Mr. Saperstein or to myself, if he is unavailable."
That seemed more than a little odd, but Joan appeared disinclined to expand on the topic. Henry tried a different question. "I thought there were only two internship positions available, and Charmonique and I filled them. Who's the third intern?"
Joan pursed her lips, looking a lot less professional all of a sudden. "She's from your school too; Mr. Saperstein's an alumnus and only recruits from there. He said he was playing a hunch, bringing this girl on. You probably won't meet her; she's been placed with Sales."
"I see," he said, rolling up his sleeves and dismissing the third intern from his mind. "What's my first task?" he asked, and Joan plunked a plastic bottle of children's cough syrup in front of him.
"What are the odds of us getting your mom to give us dessert too?" Charmonique asked in an undertone.
Henry was surprised - that had not been a small platter of Macaroni Rosa they'd polished off - but turned his head to look over the back of their booth. "I'll go find out," he said.
He returned, triumphantly bearing a plate loaded with cannoli. "I'm Henry, and I'll be your waiter tonight," he said.
"It's a good thing you're so damn cute, because otherwise you'd get no play," Charmonique said. She'd been saying things like that since they'd met freshman year at the special orientation for scholarship kids at which it was impressed upon them that the school had a particular rule for them: one strike and you're out.
"You sound like my mother," he grumbled.
"That's because, like me, she's a very wise lady," she countered, snagging one of the cannoli and delicately sucking a chocolate chip out of the sweet ricotta filling. She moaned in appreciation, and Henry decided to wait her out; he'd been here before, watching Charmonique bop along to a song only she could hear, totally engaged in what she was doing, which at that moment was savoring every last bite of her meal.
More quickly than he'd expected, she was back, patting her mouth with her napkin. "So, you still haven't met the giraffe?"
"The other intern," Charmonique said sternly, as if they were continuing a conversation they'd already begun, and he should have been able to keep up.
"I'm not psychic," he muttered under his breath. Char booped his nose, which might actually have been worse than the cheek-pinching. "Why are you calling her the giraffe?"
"Because she's got legs from here to here" - Charmonique's full wingspan, including inch-long lacquered nails, was impressive, and indicated an intern roughly the size of the Abominable Snowman - "and you really can't miss her. I don't know how you have."
A giant intern didn't sound like much to get worked up about. "Uh-huh. Fascinating." There - see how she liked her sarcasm turned against her.
Charmonique just laughed indulgently at him. "You won't know what hit you when Eliza gets a load of you."
His brain was pretty useless until about noon, which was why he scheduled all of his big lecture classes for the mornings and the seminars for the afternoons. It was also why he and Charmonique were an unbeatable team, because she was the very definition of a morning person, so they had one brain operating at optimum capacity at all times.
Still a little sleepy, he unthinkingly threaded his limbs into the workout clothes he'd laid out the night before - planning was essential for the designated times his brain went kablooey - and blearily stumbled over to the little sink to brush his teeth and wash his face. The cold water jolted him enough to grab his keycard, room key, and Walkman before he left.
Charmonique had scrawled, at the beginning of the year, a note on the whiteboard on her door, and it was still up now: Today is not the day, Henry. Don't even think about it. He laughed at the sight of the familiar curlicues making up his name, and the heart she'd drawn underneath, and resigned himself to going to the gym alone again.
He'd somehow timed it right, so he got the good treadmill that morning, furthest away from the TV that was constantly blaring E! Henry had absolutely no desire to keep up with the Kardashians, and their voices had a way of cutting through all of the tuneage on his carefully curated mixtapes. His dad's old Sony Walkman was a bright splash of yellow on top of the treadmill's display panel, and he started to jog to the sounds of "Eye of the Tiger."
He didn't know what he usually looked at when he was running - some kind of tunnel vision happened and he mostly stopped seeing in order to concentrate on his breathing - but a flash of something bright caught his eye and he looked through glass walls into a small classroom, where a girl with the reddest hair he'd ever seen was dancing by herself. She wasn't especially coordinated or polished, but she was definitely getting in an aerobic workout. Maybe she didn't realize people could see her?
Or maybe, he thought, picking up the pace as "Sultans of Swing" started up, she just didn't care.
With only two weeks left until midterms, he was kicking himself for trying to take Financial Engineering, which he absolutely didn't need, just because Charmonique did for her Finance concentration. He hooked his chin over her right shoulder, and she hmmed quietly and questioningly. "None of this makes any sense to me," he hissed at her, which didn't stop the serene flow of her pen as she took copious notes on pink-lined graph paper.
"And yet," she murmured.
"And yet," he agreed, knowing she'd beat it all into him somehow. Numbers made sense to her in a way they just didn't for him, but he'd made his peace with it. There was no point getting upset about it, not when he had like eighteen other things on his to-do list. Senior year was no joke, and it felt like it was just flying by.
"Hey," she said as they were filing out of the lecture hall, "I told Eliza she could take the bus over to KinderKare with us."
"Oh," he said, still blinking - an hour of staring at projections on a screen was not helping his dry eyes - "that's fine."
"And maybe you could spend some more time with her once we're there," Charmonique sing-songed.
He stopped in his tracks, finally piecing together why she kept mentioning the World's Tallest Intern. "Why are you so determined to pair me up? I've got plenty on my plate, thank you very much."
She shrugged but continued to beam fondly at him, and he didn't have the heart to keep questioning her, because she clearly just wanted him to be as happy as she was. "When's your next phone date with Mitchell? And when am I meeting this guy in person?"
"Tonight, and this weekend."
"Sounds like a plan." He actually had to work over the weekend, but he could rearrange the schedule a bit for his best friend.
Eliza wasn't that tall, Henry thought; it was just that she was wearing five-inch stilettos like that was completely normal attire for a college student heading off to an unpaid internship. Plus a sinfully tight aqua-colored dress that had a hemline short enough to show off nearly all of her stockings, which had a dizzying pattern of stars on them. He felt a sudden burst of kinship with Joan, who'd pursed her lips at the thought of Eliza, and wondered what on earth Charmonique had seen that would make her think this girl would even be interested in him. Or vice-versa.
She was very beautiful, though.
A much more troubling thought occurred to him then. If Charmonique's matchmaking skills were on the fritz to this extent, what did that mean with respect to Mitchell? Unable to control himself the way he had every other time her man's name had been mentioned, Henry started singing the waka-chika theme the MST3K bots had made up for the movie Mitchell under his breath, stopping when Charmonique elbowed him sharply. He’d forgotten that he'd made her watch last year's Turkey Day MST3K marathon with him, and that Mitchell had been the big finale.
Eliza had hair like fire, big and bright and so red. "Hi, Henry?" she said in a voice lower than he'd expected, as they walked toward her at the bus stop. "I've, um, heard so much about you." She had a purse that looked like it probably weighed half of what she did slung over her shoulder and both her arms behind her back in some awkward contortion, maybe to balance out the drag of that purse.
"Me too. It's nice to finally meet you," Henry said, reaching out a hand. It took a long moment for her to disengage whatever it was she was doing behind her own back and bring her hand around to shake his. He got a little buzz when their hands met and he looked up into her improbably brown eyes. Charmonique would kill him on the spot if he didn't at least try to get to know this girl; he could make a little bit of an effort. "I hear they've got you in Sales?"
"Yeah," she said, "it's kind of fun in theory, but from shadowing Serena, it looks like it's basically pandering to all these dudes who think you should faint at their feet just cause they got through medical school." She made a big, extravagant whoop-de-doo gesture, and he couldn't help smiling a little. He didn't need to be Sherlock Holmes - or even his actual favorite, Dr. Watson - to deduce that all of her gestures were likely to be extravagant.
"Do they actually think all women want to marry doctors?" Charmonique asked.
"Totes," Eliza said, butchering the English language, and Henry felt his smile slip.
"Hello," a curly-haired guy said, doing an actual double-take at the sight of the three of them walking into KinderKare together. Actually, scratch that, the guy's eyes seemed trained on where Eliza's hand was looped around his arm; she hadn't even asked, just latched on, but Henry hadn't minded that much, because those shoes had to be killing her to walk in.
"Can I help you?" the guy asked. "Please say you're in need of my assistance."
"Nope," Eliza said, smiling sunnily at the guy, "I know where I'm going, and it's on Henry's way, so."
He might as well do it right. Henry offered his other arm to Charmonique, who took it with alacrity. The surge of smugness he felt died down when he saw that the guy wasn't being a total ass about being denied; he just pulled off a courtly bow and waved them off with a hand on his heart and a deeply intoned, "Ladies." Henry nodded, pleased that the guy was behaving respectfully. Wait a minute. He wasn't a lady. Henry looked back and saw the guy raise an eyebrow at him.
Fifteen more minutes, Charmonique's email read at the end of the day. That was fine; Henry had the bus schedule memorized, even if none of the bus drivers did, and they'd still be able to make the last off-peak bus and save a dollar apiece. He was willing to bet that Eliza would make something of a production of packing up for the day, so he headed over to the Sales cubicles, which were mostly deserted. Did the salespeople actually do anything productive with their days?
He was taken aback to find himself looking past Eliza's back, luxurious hair tumbling down over a straight spine, to see the curly-haired guy from that morning sprawled across her desk and flirting extravagantly. Restraint was obviously not in this fellow's dictionary.
"Transferring for your last year of college has gotta be rough," the guy was saying.
"Well, I'd run through all the farmboys and wanted to see what a big-city man was like," Eliza said teasingly. At least he hoped she was teasing. Yes, she was laughing at herself, which was sort of charming.
"Farm - were you a farmgirl? Oh, you're getting a little Mary Ann in my Ginger fantasy. That's totally doing it for me." When Henry couldn't control his instinct to scoff, the guy looked up and winked at him. What was his deal? "Looks like your chaperone's here. Catch you tomorrow, babe."
Eliza turned to see him, smiling at him before Henry could wipe the befuddlement off his face, and said, "Bye, Freddy. Hey, Henry - I'm ready to go."
"Uh, sit tight," he said, looking at his watch. "Charmonique needs ten more minutes."
"Coolio," she chirped, and whipped out her smartphone. From the way it was angled in her hands, he thought she took a picture of him, but he didn't hear that shutter sound, so he guessed not. He pushed the thought out of his mind and made up an agenda for the weekend that would let him meet all his obligations and still leave time for a little relaxation. He was going to be working for the weekend.
This early on a Saturday morning, the computer lab was no more than half full, so he had time to check his gmail after downloading and printing the papers he'd found in the footnotes of the critical analysis of Keats's odes.
Henry, the email on top said, Charmonique tells me you will be meeting Mitchell this evening. I expect a detailed report from you, young man, sent with all possible speed and thought. -Mae Whitaker
Damn, Ms. Mae still had that high-school principal authority; he felt himself sit up straighter as his eyes took in her words. There wouldn't be any way of deceiving her, since she was the one who'd pointed out most of his tells. He spared a moment to be thankful his mother hadn't yet discovered email, or worse, Skype - she never had asked how Charmonique stayed in touch with her parents, serving in Afghanistan - but mostly just hoped Mitchell was a total rock star who valued Charmonique the way she deserved.
If he was going to sit in his room until six for his RA hours, spend most of the night making deliveries, and take the time to get to know Mitchell in a way that would satisfy both Charmonique and Ms. Mae, he needed to buckle down and get some work done.
The knock on his door pulled him out of brainstorming topics for his thesis. He'd picked Keats because of the freshness of language - even when the rhymes clanged or the structure was awkward, it was clear that the poet had been sincere, that the words had poured out of him - but picking a direction in which to go was proving more difficult. There was a phrase in Keats's letters that sounded promising - and there was that knock again. His whiteboard said he was available to act as an RA now, so he heaved himself up from his bed with a sigh and opened the door.
There was a tiny freshman girl on the other side, actually wringing her hands, which he'd never seen anyone do in real life before. "Hi, um, Henry?" she said, her eyes darting to the whiteboard to confirm his name.
"Yes," he said, standing aside. "Come in." He pointed her to the extra chair and pulled out the one tucked under his desk for himself. "What seems to be the problem?"
"It's my roommate? Laurel? She sleeps all day, and I don't think she's going to class, and when I get home, there are always empties in the trash?" She looked at him expectantly, and seemed to deflate when he didn't say anything for a minute. "I mean, I know I'm not her mother - you know, forget it -"
"No," he said, finally remembering himself and trying to smile kindly at her. The poor girl had dark circles under her eyes, and she didn't need any additional stressors like an RA who let underage drinking slide. "You're doing the right thing - a good thing - and being a real friend. What's your name?"
"Dae," she said, finally untangling her hands from each other.
"Okay, Dae," he started, recalling his training, "do you know if she's got family or friends who are local?"
The next knock woke him - he definitely should not have been sleeping, but the desk wasn't nearly as convenient as the bed - and he yawned and scratched the back of his head on his way to the door. Being an RA meant he got, free of charge, a single with a sink, so he had to earn it and not just leave the poor freshmen to fend for themselves. Fixing that thought firmly in his mind, he swung the door open.
It was Eliza, in another pair of spectacularly eye-catching tights and something slinky over it, a large clump of dirt in her hands.
"Eliza!" he said, more surprised than he should have been.
"Henry!" she said, mocking him with a big smile on her face. "Nice hair."
His hand shot back up, frantically trying to smooth down whatever weirdness was currently living on the top of his head.
"No, seriously," she said, walking into his room, "nice hair."
"Um, thanks. What's going on?" he asked, eyeing the dirt suspiciously.
"My pot broke, and I didn't want my poor little plant to die, so I thought you might have something I could stick him into." She extracted one hand from the dirt and gave him a three-fingered salute. "Resident Advisors: always prepared."
"That's the Boy Scouts," he said over his shoulder, looking in his closet for something suitable. The raw almonds he'd bought in bulk had come in a plastic tub; it was flimsy but even something temporary was better than nothing. He dug the tub out of the pile of things he needed to recycle and held it out to her.
Gratefully, she dumped the clump in, and at last he could see a small green shoot at the top of the heap. "What's his name?" he asked.
"Sebastian," she said, still not taking the tub from him.
Guessing she wanted to wash her hands, he stepped back, and she made a beeline for the sink. She backed up when he tried to put Sebastian's tub into her clean hands. "No, I think he'd be happier with you and your two windows."
"Eli - no. I have killed every plant I've ever come into contact with. I killed a cactus last year. Don't make me kill something when I know its name."
"I have faith in you, Henry," she said, sitting on his bed, long legs delineated by those ridiculous skyline tights kicked out in front of her. The blanket was mussed, his papers were everywhere, and the whole bed had to be warm from his lost body heat, but she leaned back on her hands and smiled up at him like she was at a photo-shoot in a room as gorgeous as she was. He shivered and turned back to his closet to find a sweatshirt. "I've heard all about you, so I know your sad botanical history and I'm still trusting my boy Sebastian to your TLC."
God, she was beautiful. "Is that reckless endangerment or just negligence?" he asked, trying to play along as he fumbled with the strings of his hooded sweatshirt.
"Ha! It beginssss," she said nonsensically. "Get over here."
"What? Why?" he asked, even as he took a couple of faltering steps in her direction. He might have a corner single large enough to accommodate an extra chair and boasting two windows, but it was still a dorm room, and those few steps were enough to get him within touching distance.
"Oh, you wanna do it standing up?" she asked, which made his brain short out momentarily - what the hell had Charmonique said to her to talk him up? - and when he came back to his senses, she was standing next to him, one arm looped around his shoulders and the other extended straight out in front of them. "Smile!" she chirped, taking a picture of the two of them.
The flash was blinding, making him blink rapidly. "What exactly are you documenting?" His maroon sweatshirt looked ridiculous next to her black-and-pink dress, he was sure.
"Easy on the fluttering lashes, Scarlett O'Hara," she said, then seemed to realize he wasn't doing it for effect. "Wait, are you really that bothered by the flash?" she asked, her hand hovering near his cheek. "Next time, I won't use one, I swear."
"Next time what? Where are you off to tonight?"
His vision had returned, so he was able to wave a hand in the air between them without accidentally smacking her or copping a feel. "You're all dressed up."
She looked down at herself, surprised. "Not really."
That was it. She wasn't human - no one could be comfortable in clothes that tight or shoes that high all the time. He hoped she at least had actual pajamas to sleep in. Or maybe she slept naked, which was probably pretty comfortable. No, wait, she must have a roommate.
"What are you doing?" she asked, tearing him away from lascivious speculations. He'd never been this, this typical before; he'd never thought a gorgeous girl willingly being so close to him would affect him like this.
"I'm" - he checked his watch and swallowed a curse - "supposed to be meeting Charmonique and her new boyfriend in fifteen minutes."
"For the official interrogation?" she asked, making a gesture he didn't recognize until she added the whipcrack sound.
"Yes," he admitted.
She didn't take the hint and leave, and he couldn't exactly start changing in front of her. "That's nice," she said, wistfully, "the way you guys look out for each other."
Stupid Freddy's stupid words echoed through his mind at that inconvenient moment - it really did have to be hard to transfer schools in your senior year. Without thinking about how his credit card had already been hit plenty by buying the semester's books, or what he was going to tell Charmonique, he spoke. "Do you want to come?" he asked, and her face lit up.
It felt like a date, walking Eliza home after dinner with Charmonique - who'd given him several significant glances and eyebrow swoops, looking enormously pleased with her matchmaking self - and Mitchell. Eliza's arm was tucked through his like it had every right to be there, and they were weaving a little on the sidewalk even though there hadn't been any alcohol on the table.
"So Mitchell was great, right?" he asked. He'd been impressed - relieved to be impressed - by the guy, who'd sat with his arm around Charmonique, not even sweating the inquisition thrown his way. Henry'd never been taken as a threat by any of Charmonique's boyfriends, and this was the first time he was actually okay with that.
"Yeah," Eliza said after a pause that meant she wasn't being sincere. Or maybe she was thinking about something else and he shouldn't read into her silences. He didn't actually know her much better than he knew Mitchell. "It's just - I don't know. Like, obvs, super-hot, but saying grace in a restaurant was kinda weird. Did he seem a little serious to you?"
Okay, that was a first, that he wasn't the one accused of being a killjoy. "I liked that he behaved with decorum. She deserves someone who takes her seriously." He was absolutely going to be able to set Ms. Mae's mind at ease.
"No, yeah, totes," she hemmed and hawed.
"Nothing," she said decisively. "I'd rather talk about you anyway."
How did she do that, make his mouth dry up with just a sidelong glance? What was she even doing with him?
"Really," he croaked, wondering if this was the way blisteringly hot girls made friends. Or maybe it was just her, and she had a way of making whoever she was with feel like he was the only guy in the world. He could smell her perfume, could feel how soft and yielding her body was given the way she was pressed against him, but stopping her, looking into her eyes, and kissing her seemed like possibilities as distant as a star above.
He cleared his throat and accidentally squeezed her arm. "When you said before that you've heard all the stories about me, does that mean you know about the -"
"The Brownie Acquisition, the Toothpaste Incident, the Conquering of Karaoke?" she reeled off archly, counting them off on long, slender fingers. "Yup, I've heard about them all." Her hair brushed against his cheek when she turned to smile smugly at him.
"Even the Streaking Spectacular?"
Her jaw dropped, and he was clearly an idiot, because he even thought her molars were cute. "No! Tell me everything!"
"Oh, I just made that one up," he lied, thankful that Charmonique had at least a vestigial sense of discretion. He had ammunition too; he could have spilled to Mitchell all about the Slip 'n' Slide Extravaganza.
"Why are you asking me when you really want to be asking Eliza?" Charmonique asked, singing the other girl's name.
"Shut. Up." He couldn't take it anymore, the way Eliza kept showing up at his door, looking like a million bucks, looking at him like he was her new best friend. He got that she and her roommate were a personality mismatch of epic proportions, but was that any reason for her to be there every time he turned around? He wasn't even her RA; she lived on the floor below his. She lived in his building and worked at his internship and had nightly visits with her plant that somehow lived in his room, and there was pretty much no escape from the effect she had on him, which was to knock his IQ in half and waste time fantasizing about her like a doofus. He'd actually had to set his alarm fifteen minutes earlier to jerk off before leaving the safe confines of his room every morning, because there was no way in hell he was going to have his body betray him in the middle of some seminar or, worse, at KinderKare. His one and only saving grace was that Eliza wasn't in any of his classes, so at least he wasn't failing the first semester of senior year. "Just tell me what you think."
"Is this for real?" Charmonique asked, picking up his sketchpad, where he'd drawn his idea for a new cough-syrup bottle and label. He nodded and she shook her head. "Offense fully intended: boys are so stupid. That said, this is a good idea."
"Now go tell Eliza, and she'll coo all over you, and then maybe you could finally make a move." Henry desperately wanted to know just where she got the idea that Eliza was secretly pining for him as pathetically as he was for her, because as his best friend it was Char's job to talk him down when he indulged in destructive fantasies that had the potential to sink his GPA.
"I don't think she's at her desk," he mumbled, not wanting to admit that the away symbol next to her name in the interoffice instant-messaging system had been driving him crazy for the past hour. He could so clearly imagine revealing his big idea to her, how her eyes would go wide with admiration, how she'd look up at him - in his fantasy, he was absolutely taller than her - and say something in that sultry voice about his big brain, and then kiss the breath right out of him. Eliza was ruining his life, and Charmonique, her dirty enabler, had abandoned all loyalty to him even though they'd been best friends for three years.
"Mm-hmm," Charmonique said. "Well, as fun as it's been to use my break listening to you, I'm gonna get back to work now."
Henry watched her go with regret - he could have at least brought her a coffee from the little kitchenette on his way over - and took a deep breath before heading over to Sales. Eliza was leaning back in her chair, eyes on her phone, and the inevitable Freddy was sitting on her desk, basically putting his crotch in her line of sight like a total tool. No dignity needed for jobs in Business Affairs, apparently. No work ethic, either.
He didn't want to wait around for Freddy to peel himself off her desk, so he turned and very nearly bumped into Joan. "I've got an idea for the cough syrup advertising," he said, wishing he hadn't let his words trail off apologetically; Charmonique had backed him up, so what else did he need?
"Excellent. Mr. Saperstein's free for the next fifteen minutes. Walk with me." Sounding confident certainly wasn't a problem for Joan.
Now was not the time to ask for a pee break. "Uh, yes, okay," he said, clutching his sketchpad a little closer to his chest.
Saperstein frowned, and Henry found himself faltering. "Run that by me again, son," Saperstein commanded with an orchestra conductor's extravagant gesture.
"Well, I was looking at the ingredients of the cough syrup, and saw eucalyptus oil was listed. And, as you know, sir, koalas famously eat eucalyptus leaves, and I spent a lot of time as a kid pretending to be a wild animal, so I thought -"
"You thought you'd encourage the next generation to dream big, to dream zoologically, by giving the bottle a koala shape?"
"It would, um, stand out on the shelves," he offered when the frown lines on Saperstein's forehead deepened.
"Wallykazam, so it would!" Saperstein mused. "I must admit, I got up to all sorts of monkeyshines as a lad. I would dream that I was a . . . stork."
"A stork, sir?" It was hard to picture, and he hadn't quite gotten the hang of Saperstein's sense of humor.
"There's nothing quite so majestic as a great bird. But a koala is acceptable too." Saperstein held the sketchpad up, examining it with a critical eye. "Not just a poet and a marsupial, but an artist as well. You're a veritable renaissance man, Henry."
There was no point in telling him he'd mostly played at being an elephant, and that for the one day the Henry-koala had existed, he'd pretty much just sat quietly with a book rather than climbing trees. "Thank you, sir."
"Wait," Eliza said, "you did what?"
"Pitched an idea to Saperstein," Henry said, because the adrenaline still hadn't worn off. He felt the movement of the bus and had to turn around and face the front so that he wouldn't hurl into Eliza's or Charmonique's lap.
"How did you even work up the nerve?" Eliza wanted to know.
"Baby boy just needed a pep talk," Charmonique said.
"'Boys are so stupid' does not count as a pep talk," he protested, turning just enough to see them out of the corner of his eye.
"Even though it's totes trulio," Eliza said, high-fiving Charmonique, and Henry recognized that he was outnumbered again.
"Do you say stuff like that to Don Draper?" he asked, clamping his mouth shut just too late to come off as smooth, as the guy who'd pitched to the CEO and not as the guy who was having a jealous conniption.
"He means abs-of-steel Freddy," Charmonique explained. "Because he's always draping himself over your desk." She fixed Henry with a commanding eye, not that he knew what she was willing him to do right there on the bus.
Eliza looked puzzled more than anything, like she hadn't noticed Freddy pretty much making a butt-groove on her desk. "Points for wordplay," she said, pulling the cord to request the next stop.
It was more than a little ironic that the topic he'd finally chosen for his honors thesis was what Keats called his "gordian complication of feelings" toward women, specifically how that complication informed his female characters, because all of the women in his life were confusing the hell out of him. Charmonique had been weirdly distant, leaving the room to take Mitchell's calls so often that they hadn't put in any real studying time this whole week. His inbox had unanswered emails from Ms. Mae and his mother kept asking him why he looked so tired these days. It all boiled down to Eliza, whom he hadn't seen since the Don Draper Incident.
He needed to stay up and get some work done, but his delivery shift had been long and exhausting, so he was in danger of falling asleep unless he gave himself something to do while he studied. He couldn't play music without writing the lyrics into his notes, and he didn't have the energy for a workout. His eye fell on the laundry bag stuffed taut, and he said hello to Sebastian, remembering from Biology 101 that plants responded well to conversation, as he started gathering everything he needed to do an extra-large load.
Somehow he managed to get the bag, his detergent, a dryer sheet, his roll of quarters, his keys, a notebook, a pen, and a book of Keats's letters down the stairs into the laundry room located directly below his dorm room. The wooden table was alarmingly rickety - it shuddered when he dropped his flimsy spiral notebook on it - and the one plastic chair had a long crack along the seat. Sighing, he loaded his clothes into one of the washers and dropped his quarters into the slots, then climbed atop the washer, hoping the rhythm would keep him awake as he read through the poet's letters one more time and hoping even more no one would see him perched there and think he was behaving like a desperate housewife seeking mechanical aid to get off.
He must have been concentrating fiercely, because he was halfway through the year 1818 when he felt the first touch, just a hand on his knee, and he started and whipped his head up, losing his grip on the book, which landed splayed on the floor.
"Eliza," he started, but unlike every other time he'd seen her, she didn't interrupt with a burst of speech that he only half followed. She was silent, a little frown wrinkling her forehead, and before he could ask her what was wrong, she hooked her index fingers in the belt loops of his jeans and slid him forward - his jeans just skated along the washing machine - for her kiss. Her mouth was sweet and firm over his, and the tiny fraction of his mind that wasn't shocked into blankness vaguely registered that her gold dress must not have much of a back, judging by the warm skin and thin crisscrossing straps his pioneering fingers kept encountering. If he only ever got to do one thing for the rest of his life, he wanted it to be kissing her, and he groaned into her mouth. If this was all a dream - well, kudos to his imagination, which had to be working overtime.
The rhythm of the washing machine rocking beneath him sped up, like it was as excited as he was, and he brought his hands up to cup her face and draw it even closer. The noise she made, halfway between a hum and a moan, was enough to get him to wind his legs around her waist.
The washer shuddered to a halt and a buzzer sounded, startling him into pulling his mouth from hers. He'd made a mess of her pinned-up hair, and one of the thin straps of her dress was slipping down to kiss her bicep. The shocked color of her swollen mouth should be what Crayola used for red, and he'd bet her lips were tingling like his. "What -" he started to ask, panting helplessly, looking up into her wide eyes. This absolutely had to be a dream; she still hadn't said anything, probably because even his libidinous subconscious couldn't imagine any plausible conversation.
It was the shock of his life when she did speak. "I couldn't keep waiting," she said carefully, like she was so buzzed on their kisses that stringing words together took a tremendous effort.
"I'm glad," he said stupidly, uncurling his legs from around her and standing on his own two feet - yes, okay, on his tiptoes - to kiss her again.
He had no idea what time it was when they stumbled into his room, whether it was still Friday night or maybe early Saturday morning. All he knew was that Eliza had kissed him out of the laundry room and up the stairs and had breathed out a tiny disappointed moan every time he pulled back to gulp some air - what was her lung capacity, anyway? - so he'd surged forward again, eager to pick up where he'd left off. It was crazy to think he was the one doing this to her - he'd always thought of himself as a great boyfriend on paper, but not someone who could drive a girl absolutely wild - but there was no other reason for her to be biting his lip and sucking his tongue and grinding against him except that she wanted to, and she wasn't slowing down.
They'd gotten so turned around he didn't know which one of them had been backed into the bed; all he knew was that they were suddenly horizontal. That strap of her dress that had been inching down before gave up the ghost and snapped to lie loose against her arm, exposing most of her left breast, and until he felt her slender fingers opening his jeans and sliding into his underwear, he kept his eyes on that prize. When he felt her touch, he dove forward, mouth against her bared skin, panting again, too inept to do much else. But she must have been wound up already because in a matter of moments she was crying out and the smell of sex in the air - and the thought that he'd worked her up to that point - had him coming right after her.
He'd come in his pants like a teenager with his first real live girl, and of course it had happened with this girl. Humiliated, Henry started to disentangle himself from her but she wasn't letting him go. She shifted so that her mouth was against his and kissed him again, softer this time. Eliza was peeling his sticky jeans and messy boxers off him and he gave up trying to figure her out and just went with it; he rolled them so she was on top to give her a way to escape.
Instead she dipped her head down to drop kisses on him. Gravity won out and her breast popped fully free of her flimsy dress, and he carefully smoothed down the intact strap to bare her other breast to him too. "God, Henry," he heard as he strained upward to kiss between them.
Eliza rocked up on her knees and did some complicated shimmy that got her dress completely off, leaving her in a pair of lacy underwear and some kind of complicated looking mostly backless contraption that was probably supposed to prop her breasts up but had stopped doing anything of the kind. She guided his hands to the lacing at her side and helped him pull it off. It was like armor in his hands, heavy and constrictive, and when he pulled it free he could see that it had bitten deeply into her tender skin. He put his mouth to all of the marks, his tongue tracing all the red indentations sunk into her soft skin. Closing his eyes, he breathed in the scents of her body, marveling at the way she felt so warm against his mouth. She had him sitting halfway up to be near her, and he felt her hands cradling his heavy head.
Henry skimmed his hands up the unbelievable length of her legs, over the delectable curves of her bottom, and past the scrap of lace she was still wearing. His fingers sank into the wet heat of her, and he knew he'd made the right move - going on instinct alone, completely unable to think his way through any of this unexpected encounter - when she grabbed his big ears like they were handles and kissed him, moaning into his mouth as her body clenched around his fingers. She was like a tidal wave, crashing over him and he gasped and tried not to drown.
As her shudders died down, she pulled her mouth free of his and licked, in small, delicate swipes, along his jaw and over his Adam's apple. "I knew it," she said, sounding hoarse and exhausted.
He tensed, waiting for a final pronouncement. Though why she was still nuzzling him if she had a complaint he couldn't tell.
"I knew you couldn't be so hot for no reason," she said, murmuring the words into his cheek, and he laughed aloud in relief. "Srsly," she said, swatting at his backside.
That got him confident enough to pull on clean shorts, run back downstairs, stuff his wet clothes in the dryer, and gather up his things. When he came back, Eliza had kicked off her heels, pulled on his Dial-a-Song t-shirt, and thrown herself over his bed, her face pressed inelegantly into his pillow.
She cracked one eye open and scrunched up her nose at him. "C'mere," she said. It was a tight fit, both of them in his extra-long twin, but he had no complaints.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think.
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/460926.html.