Jess wrinkled her nose. “Nah, I’m meeting James at the park later. He’s going to quiz me.”
“Right,” Courtney said with a roll of her eyes. “Of course.”
Jessica was tired, grumpy and hungry. She glared over at her friend. “Okay, what do you mean by that?”
“Oh come on,” she scoffed. “You two are going out, right? You’ve just not told me.”
Jessica’s eyes widened. “We are not!” she insisted.
“About Jess and James?” she asked, sliding her plate onto the table. “Yeah, totally going out.”
“We’re not,” Jessica said again.
“Please, you haven’t so much as pulled another guy since this semester started, and you spend almost all of your free time with him. You’re completely smitten.”
Ashley snorted. “You’ve done everything but put a name on it, anyway.”
“Sure, just having fun,” Courtney rolled her eyes, sharing a knowing look with Ashley. “Jessica and James, in a tree, doing what they shouldn’t be -”
The childhood song made her snap. Her chair screeched back and she left her dirty plate on the table.
“Grow up,” she snapped over her shoulder, conveniently ignoring her own childish reaction.
Courtney was right, and it terrified her. She had spent the day thinking about what her friend had said, and every time she closed her eyes she swore that she saw her mum and dad, sitting eight year old Jessica on the sofa, and explaining to her what the word divorce meant.
When James finally arrived at the park, he noted Jessica’s strange mood. “Everything okay?” he asked cautiously.
Jessica shook herself out of her thoughts. She was sure that her heart hadn’t stopped thudding since her realisation this morning. “No,” she said faintly. Before James could ask, she forced herself to say the words. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“I think we’re getting too close, and this is not what either of us wanted.”
James still didn’t quite seem to grasp what she was saying. “So?”
“So, we should just be friends.”
“Aren’t you enjoying this?” he asked, still frowning.
“Yeah, but -”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“Jessica,” he said calmly, his face a careful mask of no particular emotion. “What’s the problem, here? We’re enjoying ourselves, and we’re not exclusive, so -”
“I haven’t kissed anyone else since New Year’s,” she interrupted.
“So? You can go kiss someone else at any time. I’m not bothered.”
“But I am!” She sounded a little hysterical and tried to calm herself. “I don’t want to.”
James stood, and she did also. He looked at her sadly. “You never get into a relationship, and you break these arrangements off before they go too far. Not because you’re worried that they’ll get feelings for you, but because you get feelings for them.”
“I like you a lot, Jess, but I always suspected that this would be how it ended. You’re terrified of getting hurt. Of someone else having power over you.”
Her stricken expression only deepened.
“That’s how life is interesting, Jessica. Getting hurt is a small price to pay for falling in love, or so I thought.” He shook his head. “You must be so lonely.”
“Stop it,” she said, voice breaking. The sound of it made his face soften.
He gave Jessica the opportunity to speak up and say otherwise, but it never came. He nodded his head; he hadn’t expected it.
“I’m happy being your friend, anyway.” He smiled up at her. “But I think I should go.”
Jessica, again, stayed silent. James’ lips pressed firmly together and he strolled out of the park, hands stuffed into his pockets. Jessica hoped that he wasn’t as calm as he had seemed, that his chest ached as much as hers did, and that he felt like crying as much as she did.
This was the better way, though; this pain would be better than feeling it further down the line, when she was more invested, more comfortable, more in love.
This was the better way, she told herself.
Jessica had thrown herself into studying with the goal of forgetting the heartache in her chest. She hadn’t dared tell Courtney or Connor that she was upset, though she suspected they knew anyway. Saying it out loud might make her regret it, and she couldn’t afford to do that. If it hurt now, it would be ten times as bad when it inevitably happened at some point down the line.
There were just some days she couldn’t even study, though. These were the days that she remembered the exact way he had looked at her when he had mused that she must be lonely.
She hadn’t been lonely before, but since he mentioned it she was more aware of it.
She needed a distraction. She needed to stop being lonely. She needed to get lost in someone else.
Obviously, Aiden was a no-go. She wouldn’t do that to Aja even if Aiden would ever look twice at another girl that wasn’t her. She quickly discarded a few other ideas, before settling on calling up a friend.
Ash stepped back. “When you said you wanted some company, I just thought you wanted a friend, Jess.”
Jessica was no stranger to embarrassment, but now she felt mortified. “This doesn’t have to get complicated.” The words tasted like ash in her dry mouth.
Ash made a face and shook his head. “I’m not that type of guy, Jess. I’m sorry.” There was a heavy pause. “You know, I’m sure if you were to talk to him-”
Jessica shut him down. “I’ll just go,” she said stiffly. “Forget this ever happened.”
Ash didn’t look pleased, but he nodded nonetheless. She turned tail and did what she was good at – running away.
“Jessica is pretty upset,” she tried.
“Jessica bought this on herself,” he grit out. “And Jessica is the one who has been ignoring me, not the other way round.” He was perfectly happy being her friend; more than happy, in fact. She was a good laugh and he missed her company. She just had to complicate things.
Ashley sighed and dropped it, continuing to write her notes while James stared blankly at the whiteboard.
“What’s up?” she asked, turning around and trying on her best chirpy smile. The roll of Ash’s eyes told her she was fooling no one, especially not herself.
Ash sidled up to her. “I talked to James today,” she said carefully.
For a horrifying moment, Jessica wondered if Ash was going to test the waters and see if she could pull James, or something. As quickly as the thought came, she shook it aside. Ash wouldn’t have even considered such a thing, and she sincerely hoped James wouldn’t either.
“Did you?” Jess asked, brushing her hair behind her ear.
“You didn’t,” Jessica sighed. “You just made me realise that I was too invested.”
Ashley frowned at her, a barely perceptible movement of her eyebrows and mouth, and then shrugged it off. “Well, it’s your life.”
“Yeah.” They stood for a moment in awkward silence, with Ash studying her intently and Jessica avoiding her gaze, until the door banged open again and salvation came in the form of Kelsey and Brian home from classes.
The morning routine has become rather dull without a warm body by his side.
What do you do in your free time when you suddenly have too much?
Maybe this was a good thing – maybe if she forced herself to spend time with him, she could get over him faster. Then she could get on with her life.
She set her shoulders and summoned up a smile.
There were a few topics of conversation on the tip of her tongue: about the girl he was seen with a few night ago (admittedly not her business); about the few texts he had sent to her that she had never replied to; about why he was okay with seeing her when she felt like someone had stolen the breath from her lungs whenever she thought of him.
“Evening,” she said instead. She’d brought this on herself, and for good reason. She couldn’t afford to change her mind now.
James looked amused. “It is indeed evening,” he said, leaning against the kitchen arch. “How are you?”
“Fine,” she squeaked. “And you?”
He didn’t have her pride. “I miss you,” he told her.
Shit, shit, shit, she hadn’t expected that, and it was like a punch in the gut.
The party wasn’t so fun, anymore.
Jessica swallowed. Maybe she could do this. She hadn’t wanted to lose him as a friend, just as much as she hadn’t wanted to admit her feelings – feelings that she had no idea if he reciprocated. Not that it mattered, she told herself sternly.
JESSICA HOPE: Okay, I think I could do that.
Seeing him did help, when she wasn’t tipsy and emotional. Jessica felt like she could do this, now. There didn’t have to be any painful feelings involved. Thank God for that.
Jessica grabbed a cue and grinned. It was a genuine smile this time. “I’m going to beat you this time,” she promised.
James’ teeth flashed. “Yeah, yeah, keep hoping, sweetheart.”
She could do this.
(She lost horribly).