Brian had a habit of shamelessly wandering around with only his briefs on in the morning, (not that Jessica was complaining) and she assumed that was the reason for his conversation with Connor in the morning.
“So, even though you like how guys look, you don’t want to sleep with them?”
“Nope,” Connor shrugged, popping the p, and took another spoonful of cereal. Brian looked perplexed.
“Is it… Is it just because you haven’t found the right person?”
Connor rolled his eyes, though he was smiling a little. “Most people would think that, but no. I just don’t want to have sex. It doesn’t interest me, but it doesn’t repulse me either. It’s just who I am.”
Jessica sat down and tucked into her cereal, amused at Brian’s confused puppy dog expression.
“I hope I’m not making you uncomfortable with my questions,” he muttered, swirling his spoon around in his shreddies.
“No,” Connor promised. “I’m happy to help you learn, and you’re not being rude. I’m kind of surprised that you’re so open to all of this, if I’m honest. You did strike me as the typical jock.”
Brian shrugged. “I guess I used to be.” He frowned down at his cereal and said no more on the matter – Jessica and Connor exchanged a curious look. Interesting.
The weather turned cold soon enough, but it was no surprise. What had been a surprise was how good and long the summer was – even by early October the weather was still nice, particularly for this part of the country. Soon enough, the nights grew longer and longer, until Jessica woke up in the dark and walked home in dusk.
It was nice to meet people – Jessica made a lot of friends on her course and ended up meeting others through societies and her flatmates. She wouldn’t go a day without running into someone she recognised (for better or for worse…). This was probably her favourite bit of university – learning about many new people and their lives, finding what they had in common and taking an interest in what they didn’t.
Jessica found herself frequenting the student union cafe before class more and more often, and it turned out that James did the same – Jessica had several early morning classes, but James did only on a Thursday. So, without fail, each Thursday Jessica would find herself in the cafe. It was only today that, on a whim, she decided to talk to him – they hadn’t spoken for a fortnight, since the party.
“You again,” Jessica said, though she was smiling. James glanced up from where he was munching on a bagel and gave her a wave. He gestured to the seat opposite him and she sat.
“Me again,” he said when he’d swallowed. “What brings you here?”
“My stomach, mostly.” Jessica grinned across at him. “And apparently they have a good hangover remedy.”
James nodded. “I’ve heard that.”
Jessica stirred her drink around and glanced up at him. “So you’ve never had a drink?”
“I think I would die if I didn’t,” James said seriously.
“I meant alcohol, you dope.”
He chuckled. “In that case, no.”
“Can I ask why?” Jessica stopped her stirring and watched him carefully. She couldn’t deny she was curious. She knew people their age that didn’t drink, of course, and while she respected their decisions she never quite understood it. Even Kelsey rarely drank, and hadn’t been drinking much except the first night of Freshers, which was more than a month ago now. “Or is that too personal?” she asked, realising he had hesitated.
James shrugged. “Kinda is, kinda isn’t. We’ve briefly covered how my dad is an arrogant ass, right? Well, I’ve only met him a few times – and that doesn’t bother me – but both he and his dad are… Well. Gamblers, drinkers, that sorta thing. They’re not mean; I just don’t want to go down that path. Better safe than sorry.”
Jessica almost wished she’d never asked. “Is it appropriate to say I’m sorry, or…?”
James smiled at her. “Honestly, it doesn’t bother me. Mum has a husband who’s amazing, and my dad left the best thing he ever gave us – his mum. My nan is the best.” He tossed the rest of the bagel into his mouth. “I may be a little biased.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full. Gross.” Jessica groaned and covered her eyes when he opened his mouth. “How old are you?” she tutted.
“Twenty,” James sighed. “I feel so old.”
“So you had a gap year?” Jessica rested her head on her hand. “Wait – what is it you study?”
“Sounds difficult,” she observed.
“I’m fluent in French,” he shrugged. “Nan is bilingual and she taught me from an early age.”
“I should have expected that.” Jessica turned around as the door opened and saw Ashley saunter in, full of her usual confidence, and behind her Kelsey followed. It always struck her as odd, how insecure Kelsey was. She didn’t seem it at first glance. Jess turned back and found James looking at her with an eyebrow raised. “Fluent in the language of love,” she elaborated.
James smirked. “Yup, that’s me. Want me to show you some time?”
“Well, I have to see if you’re really as talented as you say you are,” Jessica said, without missing a beat. James’ smirk widened. “Because I really doubt it.” She picked up her empty drink and stood.
“Now, now,” she chided. “Let’s be a bit more spontaneous about this. Text me when you want some company, how about that?”
James laughed. “Very forward. I like it.”
“So do I,” Jessica said, and tossed her cup into the bin. “Go study!” she shouted over her shoulder. “Stop slacking.”
James’ laugher followed her out of the cafe, and moments later her phone buzzed.
How about tonight?
“Wait, wait – you’re booty calling the guy who slept with Kelsey?” Courtney pressed a few buttons on their revision aid, only pausing to flick an uncertain look towards Jessica.
Jessica shrugged. “Kels isn’t interested in him, and I am. What’s the problem?”
“Uh, I don’t know, sloppy seconds?”
Jess snorted and flipped her friend off. “Oh, come off it. You don’t like him. Why?”
Courtney was characteristically silent; Jessica wasn’t sure if it was the conversation or her actually concentrating on the questions on the screen.
“It’s not that,” she said eventually.
“You know all of your previous friends-with-benefits relationships have come about because you were friends with them first? I just – you worry about emotions coming into it, and I think the jump from booty call to a friends-with-benefit thing is a slippery slope, which will only mean it will end up to the stage where you don’t want it faster.” She paused in her questions and looked up at her friend. “Does that make sense?”
Jessica half listened to the study aid beep and say, in a robotic voice, some question about the metatarsals.”It does,” she said. “But eventually everything ends up with too many feelings. It’ll end eventually. It always does. I can’t let that stop me from enjoying it.”
Courtney sighed. “Why do you have such commitment issues? Marriage would suit you, I’m sure.”
“So would a tattoo,” Jessica grunted, smirking when Courtney got flustered and answered a question wrong. “But within five years I’d be bored of it, and a tattoo is just as hard, costly and maybe painful to remove as a marriage.”
Courtney rolled her eyes. “I know our experiences with marriages aren’t great – I mean, I guess my parents are still together, they’re just grumpy about it – but there are plenty of couples out there who still get along!”
Jessica shrugged and frowned. “For now,” she agreed. “Eventually it’ll go tits up. My dad’s going through his second divorce, and I remember how happy he was with Natasha at the beginning. People change. No point getting caught in something that’s meant to be for life.”
Courtney scoffed. “Who even believes this marriage for life thing nowadays, anyway?”
Jessica eventually responded to James’ text, and once she had his address she went on her way. His dorm wasn’t far from hers, and his dorm-mate Aiden let her in. Jessica knocked on his door and opened it when she heard his shout, and frowned around at his room.
“You haven’t exactly made yourself at home,” she noted. There was nothing of him there; no books, no photos, no mess. There were three pictures on the wall behind her and that was it.
James shrugged. “I’m only here for a year. No point putting effort into something that’s going to pass on soon enough.”
Jessica bit her lip. Courtney had put doubt in her head, and she couldn’t not say anything.
James’ eyebrows slowly rose, as if he was taking his time to digest her words. “I know,” he said evenly. “That’s all I thought this is and will be.”
And suddenly Jessica felt embarrassed by reading too much into his words. “Oh, sorry – it’s just – what you said there-”
James laughed. He had a good sound to his laugh, not like so many other people she’d met that tried to quieten themselves; James laughed freely and happily. “A room is very different to a relationship. Anyway, I’m putting effort into this to get something far simpler and easier than a girlfriend.” He grinned at her, a fleeting flash of white teeth, and then reached out with his hand. He left it there as a question.
Jessica walked home the morning after, delighting in the still nice weather (though there was a definite chill in the air) even though she felt gross and in desperate need of a shower. Her plan was to shower, eat something, and do some studying for the approaching exams in December. As soon as she walked in the door, she knew that wasn’t going to happen.
“What the hell Courtney, that was so out of line – I can’t believe you.” Ashley’s voice wasn’t loud; rather, it was deathly quiet and all the more scary for it. She was full of seething, dangerous rage, and Jessica reeled back at the sight of her friend almost vibrating and spitting with anger.
Courtney wasn’t any better for it, though less put together and more flustered. “You know I like you, and yet you flaunt what you have with Sam in front of my face!” She sounded distressed, and Jessica winced. Ah.
Ash’s nostrils flared as she took in a slow, deep breath. “One,” she began, voice still calm on the surface and deadly underneath. “I am not going out with Sam. I do not like Sam; we’re close friends, and I’m not going to explain myself to you. Two: you have no right to demand what I do and don’t do. You know I don’t like you like that, and you knew that I didn’t even when we slept together. Either get the fuck over this stupid crush, or stop being a fucking asshole about it. Your only other option is to stop considering yourself my friend.”
Courtney flinched back. Her face slackened with hurt and then rebounded like elastic, shaping itself into a hard stubbornness. She said nothing, didn’t even acknowledge Jessica’s presence, and turned on her heel to storm up the stairs. Ashley rolled her eyes heavenwards and muttered a few choice words under her breath, stomping into the living room.
Ashley glared over her shoulder, well aware that Jess was Courtney’s best friend. “Don’t make excuses for her; I’m too mad.”
Jessica held her hands up in surrender. “No, I just want to talk. Pull up a chair?”
Ashley sighed. “Sure, why not?”
“Look,” Jessica began, “I’m grotty and stinky and I really need a shower, so I’ll keep this quick.”
“Thanks,” Ash snorted.
“Courtney is my best friend, true, but I’ve been on your side of things every time. I know how annoying it is for someone to assume something or read into what happened during that one night or string of nights that wasn’t there. I know what it’s like for that person to blame me for hurting them when the cards were on the table already and they were the one to blame for ignoring that. And I know how much it sucks to have to tell a friend that it was never a relationship, never going to be a relationship, especially when they were so invested.” Jessica frowned and looked down at her hands that were prodding a bruise on her leg. “And while I understand why you reacted that way, it was harsh.”
Ash didn’t say anything so Jessica took a deep breath. “Courtney falls for people, hard and fast, but she will move on soon enough and things won’t be awkward. But the more you hurt her now the less likely she’s going to forget it. Please, it’s better to talk to her rationally about it then argue and say things you both might later regret.”
“You’re the voice of reason, Jess,” Ashley muttered, narrowing her eyes and picking off a bit of fluff from her skirt, “But I have a short temper. I’ll try and keep my cool, though Courtney exploding at Sam was out of line and I won’t stand for it.”
Jessica nodded. “That’s fair. I’m curious, though – Sam doesn’t exactly strike me as someone who needs to be defended.” She tried to make it into a joke but Ashley didn’t smile; she looked deadly serious instead.
“You don’t know him at all.” Evidently, she was to say no more on the matter, and left the room without another word.