Rory’s house is on the outskirts of Barnett. We hardly talk on the way there. He appears quieter than usual and it gets me wondering if that’s because I’m about to be introduced to his own living situation.
I can hear babies crying from houses in the distance, TV’s blaring and heavy traffic from behind the apartment buildings, flooding the street with life and noise.
Rory turns the key in the door and we step inside a narrow porch that smells of damp and old wooden furniture. He grabs my bike and places it under a small archway, leaning it against the brick of the wall so it doesn’t topple over.
“Sorry about the mess.” He gestures towards the messy shoe pile in the corner. “I would have tidied up if I’d known that we were having company.”
I meet his stare. “Rory, chill out. You’re acting really weird.”
He laughs once. “You’re right. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“Rory! Rory is that you?” a frail voice travels up towards us.
Rory opens the door slowly, revealing a chair, a dimly lit lampshade, a television and a single bed. An elderly woman is sitting in front of the TV screen, feet propped up on a puffy cushion. She doesn’t acknowledge either of us, until Rory stands in her line of vision and crouches down to speak to her.
His grandmother isn’t looking at him, she’s staring at me as I appear behind Rory. Her eyes are all wide and googly. She surveys me from head to toe, searching for any reason she should be worried about who her Grandson is associating himself with.
Her eyelids are weighed down and her movements are minimal. She is very frail looking, and her haggard face tells its own story.
“Who are you?” she demands, making me swallow.
“Gran, this is Skye...” Rory speaks for me. “She’s a friend from college. Skye, this is my Grandmother, Martha,” he says, breaking the deathly silence. I try to smile but fail. She continues to glance between us both, suspiciously.
“Should we get you into bed now?”
She nods and lets him pull her up. Martha wobbles from side to side, as they walk over to the mattress. She’s lowered down and I notice how gentle Rory is as he tucks her in.
“Is there any particular film you’d like to watch while I make dinner?”
Okay, I am seriously confused. I’ve never seen this side of Rory before. And he cooks? Whether he’s any good is another question.
“I want to watch Pride and prejudice,” his grandmother is saying, glancing towards me to check I’m still in the room and haven’t abandoned them.
Rory grabs me by the arm and we leave Martha to her TV series in peace. I watch him gather the pots and pans in the kitchen. Right now, he resembles a younger version of himself, the most vulnerable I’ve ever seen him. He’s just shown me a glimpse into his world and it doesn’t look at all glamorous or anything like I expected.
I realize in this moment, that we’re not so different. He’s got to care for his grandmother and juggle college at the same time. I understand how that feels. I’m in a similar position with my mother.
“My Gran isn’t used to having visitors,” he says, after a long second. “I don’t really bring anyone here.”
That’s hard to imagine. Surely, I can’t be the only girl that’s stepped into the Keaton household. It makes sense though, why he was so reluctant to bring me here in the first place. I jumped to conclusions and now I feel terrible.
“Can I do anything to help?” I ask, feeling useless and also extremely sympathetic towards him at this moment. That’s probably another reason why he doesn’t bring people to the house, because he doesn’t want them feeling sorry for him.
Rory glances over his shoulder. “You can put the CD player on if you want. And then you can come and help me chop these onions.”
“Onions?” I’m going to be a sobbing mess by the time we’re done here.
“Yup. A few tears won’t hurt anybody. We’re making a famous Keaton recipe... spaghetti Bolognese.”
I don’t want to be crying in front of Rory, willingly or not. I shouldn’t even be here in his kitchen, helping him make dinner for his grandmother.
I find the CD player and turn it on by the main switch. It comes to life as I press play and Dancing in the dark fills my eardrums.
I spin to him in surprise. “You’re a Bruce Springsteen fan?”
He rolls up his sleeves. “Guilty.”
“I’ve never met anyone close to my age that appreciates his music.”
“My Nan is a huge fan. I grew up listening to him.”
I watch as he places an onion down in front of me. I start peeling back the first layer.
“Have you ever been to a live concert?” he asks.
“Not really. Money has been pretty scarce. I was the girl that got left out in almost everything. My mother couldn’t afford to pay for school trips or prom dresses, so I missed out on those things.”
Crap. Where did that come from? Why am I telling him this?
Rory has stopped peeling the outer layer of his onion to look at me. I feel the heat rise to my cheeks in embarrassment. I didn’t mean to say all of that out loud.
“Gosh, sorry, you didn’t need to hear that. Let’s talk about something else.”
“I’ve been in a similar position myself,” he says, as I glance towards him. “Life can be hard, especially when you’ve got other stuff going on at home...”
Rory stops there, like he’s just revealed too much. “What I’m trying to say, is that you’re not on your own.”
I nod slightly. “I don’t think some people realise the impact their words can have.” I don’t want to sound depressing or negative, so I quickly add, “I mean, things have gotten better... for me.” Have they? “I sort of found a way to keep plodding along.”
I bottled my feelings and acted as if they didn’t exist. I would use my imagination frequently, to block out the mental images and pretend that I was fine... but I wasn’t.
That’s why, as I’m peeling back the layers of my onion, listening to a familiar song that reminds me of times I would much rather forget, standing in the presence of a boy that I realise I may have misunderstood, I know that I can’t let myself get too comfortable here. It won’t be permanent.
Rory’s eyes don’t stray from mine and I create a curtain between us with my hair. “Sometimes we have no choice but to plod along,” he says, making me release the breath I’ve been holding in.
I’m glad he’s not throwing questions at me. I don’t think I’d be prepared to answer them right now.
I clear my throat and start peeling the second layer of the onion. “So, you’re quite the chef then,” I announce, changing the subject. “Is there anything else I should know about you?”
Rory glances at me and then continues to cut his onion into smaller pieces. “I play guitar and sing sometimes.”
“Seriously?” I had not pinned him down as a musician.
“Yeah. I’m not brilliant or anything, but I know some simple chords and stuff. Music has got me through some really tough times.”
“Is that what you’re studying at college?” I realize that I’ve never asked him what course he’s studying.
“No. I’m actually on a plumbing course.”
Oh, well that’s different. “I thought that since music is your passion, you’d be doing something along those lines.”
“Nah, music won’t pay the bills, unless you’re rich and famous. I figured I needed to get a trade under my belt, so plumbing seemed like a good way to start.”
“Do you enjoy it?”
“I guess. What about you?”
Rory’s smile is playful. “What are you studying?”
He leans against the counter, earnestly. “Do you enjoy it?”
“I love it. I have a passion for writing.” I position my knife above the onion and slice it in half. “For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a writer. I love putting words down on paper and giving them meaning.”
“What do you like to write about?”
“Anything and everything. I hope that one day, I will become a writer. There’s so much I want to see. I feel like I haven’t fully lived yet.”
Rory nods. “Same. I’d love to backpack across the world someday. I don’t have a passport though, so that dream is sort of out of reach at the moment.”
We return to our individual tasks, talking as we move around the kitchen. Now and again, Rory will bump into me or our fingers will touch above the pans. He’s concentrating hard and it’s nice to just be in each other’s company and not expect anything to happen.
I’m in the middle of frying the onion, when I feel something wet land on my cheek. I reach to touch it and squirm.
“Ew!” I rub the red sauce between my fingers.
Rory’s laugh is getting louder from behind me and I realize he’s the one responsible for catapulting the tomato sauce at me.
“You’re going to pay for that!” I cry, turning the tap on and flicking water at him with my fingers. Rory dodges and ducks behind the counter.
Before long, we’re chasing each other around the kitchen table, firing food and making a mess. My stomach is hurting from laughing so badly. I don’t even want to think about how awful my hair looks, or how much sauce I’ve got on my face.
I stop to take a breath by the sink and feel a pair of muscular arms wrap around me. I stare at Rory and feel my face go up in flames. We stare at each other, breathing heavily.
“Get a room,” a small voice says from behind us.
My eyes shoot to the person that’s just entered the kitchen. A teenage girl is standing there, her eyes flickering from me to Rory. She has her school uniform on and loosens the tie around her neck, chucking it onto the table.
I jump away from Rory and tuck a strand of hair behind my ear repeatedly. “You might want to check on those onions by the way. They’re turning black,” the girl announces, waltzing past.
I glance down into the frying pan, to discover that she’s right. I totally forgot that they were still frying when we were engaging in our little food fight earlier.
“Damnit!” I rush over to the pan and quickly remove it from the hob. “Are they salvageable?” I ask Rory, hoping that we don’t have to start over.
“They should be okay,” he says, finally finding his voice again. “Jenny, I thought you were going over Daniel’s house after school.”
I take this time to observe Jenny. I can see the resemblance between her and Rory. The first thing I notice is the nose piercing, which is in the shape of a crescent moon. I find myself liking her instantly.
“Change of plan,” Jenny says, opening the fridge to grab an orange juice. “We had an argument today. He really pissed me off.”
“Watch your language,” Rory warns.
She points to me. “Is this your new girlfriend?”
I offer a shaky smile. “I’m Skye,” I croak. “And I’m not his girlfriend.”
“We’re friends,” Rory helps me out.
Jenny has one of those ‘I don’t believe you’ expressions. She’s probably used to Rory dating different people and therefore has trouble believing we’re just friends.
“Hm, well good luck with that. Anyway, if Daniel calls the house phone, tell him I’m not available... as in, I am never speaking to him ever again.”
“I’ll be sure to tell him that,” Rory says with a smile, as she slips out of the room.
“Your sister seems...” I search for the right word to describe her, “Wise.”
“She’s definitely something else.”
“How old is she?”
I didn’t know Rory had a sister and it suddenly dawns on me that I’m starting to enjoy his company a bit too much. I can’t let myself get too attached to someone that might eventually leave. In the end, they always do.