Nothing, in MJ's opinion, is worse than when Gwen leaves for weekend long business trips.
"You snore," MJ says petulantly across the table to one Peter Parker. "Like a tank."
He looks up at her ambivalently, his eyes still droopy with sleep, his hair sticking out in mussed, gravity-defying angles. "You're no picnic either," he says blearily, shoving his spoon back into his cereal.
"I don't snore."
"But you sure do talk an awful lot." He slurps his cereal in that disgusting, noisy way that only boys do, and wipes his mouth off with his shirtsleeve. "And whine."
With an indignant huff she slides out of her seat, excusing herself from the dilapidated card table that qualifies as their tiny apartment's "dining room." As a former theater major at twenty-three she considers herself lucky to even be able to pay rent on a New York apartment, luckier still to be living with her best friend, but unfortunately Peter Parker is part of that package deal.
Although she'd never admit it, sometimes it is nice to have him here. Gwen works normal hours, nine to five, and MJ always, always, always works at night, whether it's for some off-off-Broadway show that's paying her dirt, or for some nightclub as a promo girl for Budweiser where she makes her real money, but since Peter works such sporadic hours for the Daily Bugle she does have some company during the day time, at the very least.
That brief sentimentality is, of course, ruined the moment he opens his big nerdy mouth.
"Am I allowed to ask why you're wearing a helmet and aviators in the middle of July?"
She plops her plate in the sink and waits for the water to heat up so she can wash it off, almost wistful for the days back in Queens when she lived with her dad and had a functioning dishwasher. Almost.
"I have an audition," she says airily, flipping her hair back from under the helmet. "For Amelia Earhart."
"Word to the wise? Amelia Earhart probably didn't wear floofy pink dresses."
"I was going to change," MJ snaps, even though she hadn't been planning to, but unfortunately the twerp had a point.
She leaves the kitchen in a huff, to the tiny room that barely fits a mattress and hanging rack for all her clothes. It's a mess in here, a total catastrophe, but who can really blame her? The room is so tiny that there's no orderly way to arrange her stuff. Well, maybe if she were as tidy as Gwen she would figure it out, but how Gwen has the time or patience for that is beyond her.
She starts shoving hangers on the rack this way and that, trying to find a more suitable outfit option. It really does suck that Gwen totally ditched her with Peter for the weekend. He's the biggest bore on the planet, which is fine by MJ so long as Gwen is around to diffuse it, but apparently Peter had some bogus work reason for not flying down there with her and now MJ's stuck with him.
She finds a pair of skinny jeans jammed into the corner of the bed and pairs it with combat boots and some old dark green jacket, hoping it looks a little more legitimate for the occasion. In actuality she is grateful to Gwen, and begrudgingly grateful to Peter, too. She was maybe a few hours away from getting her ass evicted from the tiny apartment she was inhabiting in Brooklyn two years ago, after the three of them had all graduated, and Gwen had offered to let her live with the two of them in the spare room/closet instead of crawling back to her father's place. Gwen is one of the few people on the planet who knows what kind of shit she'd be coming home to, and how desperate she would have to be if living with her father again were her last option.
After she laces up the boots she checks the time on her cell phone. "Shit, shit," she mutters, bounding out of her room to the kitchen, where Peter is still reading the paper.
He looks up at her and raises his eyebrows. "You're aware that it's ninety-five degrees outside," he says, holding up the weather section the way she has only ever seen crusty old grandpa-types do.
"I'll suffer for my art," she says, shoving her purse onto her shoulders. "Like you and that death wish you have, hanging off buildings to take pictures of a guy in a unitard."
"He's not just a guy in a—"
"I'm late," she interrupts, wrenching the doorknob open. She stands there for a moment and says pointedly, "Well? Aren't you going to wish me luck?"
He rolls his eyes.
"You are so getting snubbed in my Oscars speech."
The truth is, MJ wants to be famous. She doesn't particularly care how, but it would be nice to be classy famous, like movie star famous or indie-singer-gone viral famous instead of that-girl-the-politician-cheated-on-his-wife-with famous. She figures she's in New York, right? So it's got to happen sometime. She's a good singer and she's a great actress. Everybody tells her so, but it doesn't really matter because she just knows it—when her mom was still around she would take MJ to auditions and she would get in front of those casting directors and shine.
MJ knows who she is when she's in the limelight. She knows it sounds vain, especially when her best friend is some kind of super brainy scientist saving the world with stem cell research, but MJ has no patience or interest for any useful subjects like science and math. If she did maybe she would enjoy the stability of a nine to five job and a regular paycheck, but after four years of sinking into debt for a theater degree she can't really turn back now.
It isn't exactly easy. Some weeks she'll find ten auditions and get rejected for them all, which isn't nearly as bad as the weeks where she'll only find one audition, pin all her efforts to it, and get rejected from it, too.
One particularly bad day the director cuts her off in the middle of her monologue and tells her she isn't right for the part.
"Why?" she asks. She knows the system, of course, that she is supposed to bow out gracefully and thank them for their time and hit the street to never be seen again, but she's tired and her feet are practically bleeding from racing uptown to get here and she's broke, she needs this job, how is this even remotely fair?
The casting director raises an impatient eyebrow at her. "It's your look."
"You called for a redhead," MJ seethes, "a short, perky redhead. Do I need to step a little closer to the table or are you blind?"
It turns out that he is, in fact, partially blind, and losing his sight to an incurable genetic disease, which is just typical. His assistant casts her out the door muttering words about calling security, about calling her agent, and she plucks the resume she gave him off the table on her way out and says, "I'd like to see you try."
Once she hits the street she immediately starts to cry. She thinks to herself that New York is probably the only city in the world that is convenient for street crying, because it happens so often that nobody seems to care. She pulls herself together before she gets home, texting Gwen along the way because she needs someone in her corner because really, how could she have possibly known the guy was actually blind?
"Here," says Gwen, shoving a pint of ice cream toward her when she sinks into a chair at the kitchen table. "Mint chip will make you feel better."
MJ feels her mouth water and her heart ache a little bit. "I caaaan't," she moans.
Gwen rolls her eyes. "Live a little."
It's tempting. But MJ shook about ten pounds off to make herself more cast-able after graduation and if she let herself cheat a little bit every time she felt the sting of failure, she'd probably be morbidly obese by now.
Her phone buzzes in her pocket again and she cringes. Already three missed calls from her agent. The irony is that she's been trying to get noticed in this town since she was sixteen, and the one time she blows up in a casting director's face will probably be the only time every takes notice. Before they proceed to blacklist her professionally all over the city.
"Oh, what the hell," says MJ, grabbing the pint. Her acting career is over anyway.
By the time Peter drops by that night on his way to work, Gwen and MJ are plastered to the couch in their Empire State sweatpants and watching syndicated sitcoms, a slop of melted ice cream in two pints perched on the cushions between them.
"Hello," he says cautiously, obviously trying to determine what kind of girl-related sadness has led them to this sluggish state of being.
Gwen gives him a cheeky smile, intentionally smearing chocolate ice cream on her front teeth. "Isn't it every boy's dream to come home to two shmexy ladies draped on the couch and waiting for him?"
Peter relaxes a bit once he realizes that whatever the problem is here, his girlfriend isn't the one who is upset. He plants a kiss on Gwen's chocolaty mouth and MJ cringes.
"Get a room, guys," she groans, throwing a pillow at them.
"Not a bad idea," says Peter, raising his eyebrows at Gwen, offering his hand. She takes a moment to set the ice cream pint down on the table and then takes it, hoisting herself off the couch to follow him.
"Ew, ew, ew," MJ chants, trying to ignore the somewhat bitter churn of her too-full stomach.
Neither of them say anything as the door clicks shut behind them. MJ makes a show of covering her ears, but whatever the two of them do in there, she rarely ever hears anything coming out of the bedroom. She pulls out the remote and turns the volume up on Friends, curling her knees into her chest and feeling an unfamiliar pang of loneliness.
It must be nice, she thinks, to have someone who loves you like that. MJ has had three boyfriends in the last year but none of them lasted more than a month. Peter and Gwen have been going steady for almost three years. Sure, in MJ's line of work it's hard to keep any guy for long, since she can never really go out at night and the only thing she can count on is that tomorrow will probably be even more unpredictable than the day before, so she doesn't even really want a boyfriend.
It's just. It must be nice, is all.
MJ ends up losing her virginity to a guy she hardly knows in a fancy hotel room above the theater where she played an extra in an opera. She figures she's twenty-three and it's pretty pathetic that she is the only virgin she knows, and besides, the guy seems nice enough, clean and well-to-do and probably about her age. The next morning she wakes up to a note from him saying that he has gone down to get some breakfast, and she uses the opportunity to throw back on yesterday's boots, leggings and chunky knit sweater and slip out unnoticed before he returns.
"You didn't come home last night," Gwen says accusingly the moment MJ walks through the door. "I called you like five times."
MJ isn't even sure which pocket of her bag her phone is in, or if she even has her phone at all. "I'm sorry," she says, "I really didn't—I'm sorry."
Gwen softens a bit, and searches MJ's face, waiting for an explanation. "Where did you go?"
"Nowhere," says MJ quickly.
Gwen's stare is incredulous, and MJ can't really blame her. MJ has never been one for keeping secrets and even if she were, she and Gwen tell each other everything, or at least MJ tells Gwen everything because it's not like Gwen has anything all that captivating to share when she's dating the biggest doofus on the planet.
"MJ," says Gwen, now looking concerned.
She shifts her weight onto her other foot, and glances into Gwen's bedroom. It's empty. Parker isn't home.
"I, uh—I had sex."
Gwen freezes, her eyes as wide as moons. "Sex?" she asks, laughing a bit, clearly taken aback with the blunt nature of MJ's announcement. "Wait—but—sex with who?"
She feels her cheeks starting to burn. She isn't ashamed of herself, really. She hadn't been saving it for anybody special, because MJ isn't exactly one of those believers in soul mates or destiny or anything like that, not after growing up with no mother and a deadbeat father. But waiting this long to punch her card or whatever seems to have given this whole virginity thing a build up it doesn't deserve, and now staring into the eyes of her straight-laced, goody-two-shoes best friend, the reality of what she just did is crashing in.
Gwen gasps, entirely misinterpreting the blush on MJ's cheeks. "Do I know him? Who is it?"
MJ shakes her head. "I don't … I don't actually know," she confesses.
The smile starts sliding off of Gwen's face until it becomes kind of crooked and reminds MJ of an unhinged window. "What do you mean, you don't know?"
MJ sets her bag down on the chair and heads toward the fridge, trying to seem blasé about the whole thing. "I don't know," she says, her eyes fixated on the vegetable drawer, grateful for the cold air on her face. "I mean, he was handsome enough. Well off. He invited me for a drink after the show and then one thing led to another, and … well."
There isn't even a pause before Gwen asks, "And you didn't think to ask his name?"
"He must have said it." In fact, MJ knows he did, and he must have expected her to be impressed by it from the way he said it. But she had been tired and hungry and a little bit buzzed on champagne and attention so she didn't commit it to memory. "I just forgot, is all."
"And then this morning?"
"I snuck out of the hotel room." MJ giggles after she says it, because it sounds kind of absurd, even to her. The giggle sounds a little too manic, though, so she clears her throat to end it. When she turns back around with the apple she intends to make breakfast out of, Gwen is still staring at her in disbelief.
MJ unconsciously curls her shoulders forward, feeling defensive. "What?"
Gwen's mouth is open but it takes her a moment to speak. "It's just, uh—didn't you—weren't you—wasn't that your first time?"
The lie rolls off her tongue so easily. "Course not," she says, shoving the apple into her mouth and taking an ambitiously large bite. She busies herself with chewing, trying to meet Gwen's eyes and accidentally letting herself slip back to a darkened hotel room with a pair of firm, strong hands and handsome brown eyes and a muscled torso she fell asleep resting her cheek against.
Who is this guy, anyway? Why, out of all the guys she has met over the years, did she choose him, and then why did she run off? He was perfectly nice to her. He clearly had no idea she was a virgin. He was going downstairs to buy her breakfast, for Christ's sake, and that was already at least three steps higher on the effort scale than any boyfriend of the past.
"I didn't realize," says Gwen carefully.
At first MJ is afraid that Gwen is offended at the idea that she lost her virginity some time in the past and didn't tell her. But then she sees the odd posture of Gwen's hand leaning against the table and the tilt of her chin and MJ realizes that Gwen just plain doesn't believe her.
Now she feels like an idiot. She doesn't know why it was so important that she lie about this. She just didn't want it to be a big deal, and by lying about it she made it one.
"I'm going to go to take a nap," MJ says. "You know. Late night and all."
"Uh-huh," says Gwen, still staring at her as she retreats. "Well. You'll have to tell me the rest of this story later, right?"
As she opens the door to her room she feels an unexpected squeeze in her chest. "Course I will," she says, and shuts the door behind her before either of them can say anything more.
"You left the toilet seat up," says MJ accusingly one afternoon, in the brief hour before Gwen gets home from work that she and Peter are, however unfortunately, stuck in the apartment alone together. "I could have fallen in and died."
"Oh no," Peter monotones, not even glancing up from his laptop.
"And what's with the blood in the sink? If you cut yourself shaving your nonexistent facial hair at least have the decency to clean it up."
Peter doesn't answer, fixated on the glowing screen and scrolling down a web page. MJ pouts, unaccustomed to being ignored, and starts reading over his shoulder, but it turns out it's just a page with a bunch of pictures of Spiderman.
"Obsessed much?" she asks. "Guess you didn't get your fill stalking the guy all day and night, huh."
"These aren't real pictures," says Peter, more to himself than to her. He keeps scrolling, the crease between his eyebrows growing more pronounced with every photo that flits by. "They're totally fake, that's not Spiderman, and he's going to sell these to my boss."
MJ squints at the pictures, but he's scrolling so fast she can't even tell if they are quality pictures or not. "Yikes," she says, trying to be sympathetic. "There goes your paycheck."
"It's not about that," Peter snaps.
She feels her lips thinning in irritation. She knows for a fact he doesn't talk to anyone else like this. He's so nice to his aunt and Gwen and their neighbors and she bets he'd be nice to someone trying to steal his wallet but he's just a dick to her.
"Somebody's panties are in a wad," she says, with the intention of irking him right back, but then he finally stops scrolling and she gets a good look. It's a clear picture of Spiderman pinning an old lady to a wall—except the old lady is caked in stage make-up and wearing an expression that looks rather ghoul-like, and there is noticeable pudge bursting from an underwear line on the Spiderman's otherwise legitimate looking costume.
"It's not funny," says Peter, snapping the laptop shut, getting up from the couch angrily.
"Aw, come on," she says, "it's pretty funny."
"They're giving Spiderman a bad rap."
"What do you care?"
"It's not—he's got enough going on with the cops after him, it's not fair," he says, sounding altogether too emotionally invested in this matter that, as far as MJ sees it, doesn't really concern him at all.
She sits on the now unoccupied couch and flicks on the television to find something to watch. "You're just mad cuz some bum is stealing your job."
The look he gives her is incredulous and condescending, and he opens his mouth to say something, visibly changes his mind and says instead, "Just forget it."
She hates this about him. She has spent her whole life trying to overcompensate and live up to expectations and for the most part it works for her, but whenever she talks to Peter he makes her feel childish and insignificant and stupid.
"Well," she says, "maybe this is a good thing. Maybe it's time to grow up and get a real job, Parker."
She isn't expecting the retort to come so quickly: "You're one to talk."
"Excuse me?" MJ's eyes flit over to him dangerously and he's scowling right back. "I might not be making bank, Parker, but last I checked I was actually doing something related to my larger life goals and the major I picked in college, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for you."
"Larger life goals?" Peter repeats, and it sounds dumb when he says it, like he's mocking her. "Please, tell me what selling Red Bull and auditioning for fitness tapes and just short of sleeping with casting directors is—"
He doesn't finish, his eyes widening as she smacks him clear across the face. The moment after it happens there is the strangest kind of silence and MJ stands there, furious with him, and stunned with herself, her hand stinging unbearably. It was clear that he saw her hand coming and let her slap him anyway, and it's clear now that it didn't hurt him one bit.
She should say something. "You're a jerk," is the most intelligent, biting thing she can come up with.
He deflates a bit. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that." And he seems genuinely sorry, like really embarrassed about it, and suddenly MJ wonders just how much Gwen told Peter about her escapades the other night.
The lock to the door starts clicking and they both turn their heads toward the noise. Gwen is home. She doesn't know why this whole thing suddenly feels like a different kind of wrong, why it would almost feel like getting caught if she knew they were fighting, but it's evident when she looks at Peter that he's thinking the same thing.
"Just forget it," she says lowly, mimicking him.
By the time Gwen walks through the door MJ is already headed back for the couch, Peter has collected his laptop and resumed scrolling, and everyone is all smiles for the rest of the night.
Peter lays off of her for a week or so after that, and they have formal and friendly conversations in the morning for Gwen's sake and completely ignore each other whenever she isn't around, which MJ is just fine with. The opera closes so she starts selling merchandise at a concert venue, then finds a job as an understudy in an off-Broadway play, and then one day, three weeks into it, the lead gets bronchitis and the secondary lead takes her place and MJ gets to take the place of the secondary lead.
It's the closest thing to a real part she's had since college productions so she texts everyone she knows—Gwen, of course, and her friends from school, and her friends from work, and even, at the last second, her father.
"You're sure you're ready to go?" the director asks her, a little disbelieving that MJ has had the lines and blocking so well memorized that she doesn't even need a run through.
Her heart is practically dancing in her chest, the tips of her fingers electric and on fire. "Yeah," she says, peering through the curtain to an audience of hundreds. "I'm ready."
It is a great performance. MJ is on, staring straight out into the abyss of the blinding spotlights, flawlessly executing every one of her character's scenes after weeks of falling asleep while thinking up the lines over and over again in her head. She takes her bows with a beaming flourish, feeling a rush of pride and satisfaction that she hasn't felt in years.
In the dressing rooms backstage the rest of the ensemble congratulates her and the director walks up and gives her a pat on the back, but she can't really hear any of it in her impatience to get outside to the lobby, where she is sure her friends will be waiting for her. She practically tears out of her costume, hardly breathing in her effort to hang it back up on the rack, and bursts out of the backstage area.
There are people milling about everywhere, still coming out of the show. Nobody recognizes her, not in her street clothes anyway, so MJ throws herself into the throng, thinking that any moment her eyes will lock on to a face that she knows. Thirty seconds pass, and then a minute, but MJ persists, even poking her head outside, thinking maybe they wanted fresh air.
The crowd starts to thin and with every group that leaves MJ feels a pit in her stomach wrench ominously, and even when it's evident that nobody is here, that nobody made it for her off-Broadway debut, she lingers in the front lobby, feeling too stunned to be hurt.
"See you tomorrow, MJ."
She remembers where she is and smiles wide at one of the stagehands, waving good-bye, her mouth feeling like stretched rubber. She clutches her purse to her side and pretends to be searching for her phone, and when she actually finds it she starts pretending to dial and presses the phone up to her ear to take an imaginary call, because her hands are shaking and her face isn't doing anything she wants it to and she suddenly needs to just look busy so nobody bothers her.
She takes a few steps out of the theater. Nobody's outside except someone slouching by a streetlamp, but MJ knows that slouch, and it takes a few moments for her to really come to terms with the fact that Peter Parker is standing outside the theater and staring into the glow of his phone.
At first she thinks it's just a coincidence, that he's waiting for someone here and has no idea that she just performed a rock's throw away, but she still takes a few hesitant steps toward him and he looks up like he is expecting her.
"Hey," he says, a little stiffly. "I, uh. Gwen couldn't come, so she told me I should."
MJ stands there, not sure whether she is miserable or grateful to see him. "Oh," she says, because he hasn't really said anything about the play, and she isn't sure what to make of him being here in the first place.
"You were really good," he offers, after an awkward pause. "I mean, I don't know anything about acting, but you did a good job."
It's probably the least meaningful compliment MJ has ever received, and it's probably because she is so disappointed that nobody else came, or because she has felt somewhat like damaged goods since the whole virginity thing, or even because of some lingering guilt for smacking him a few weeks before, but she rushes forward and hugs him. He isn't expecting it and takes a step back at the impact, and he's so tall that her head almost slams against his chest, but after a moment he puts a hesitant arm around her and pats her back.
"Thank you for coming," she says, willing herself not to cry into his stupid ironic shirt.
He does not seem to sense the magnitude of this moment at all, but he pats her back one last time definitively and says, "Yeah, I mean sure. It was fun."
She pulls away from him. The street is uncharacteristically quiet. She should ask where Gwen is, or why he even decided to come in the first place, or if he knows where the rest of their friends are, but she's just too tired and confused by this whole thing to care.
She sucks in the last of her lingering urge to cry by sniffing loudly and says, "So are you going to buy me a slice of pizza or what?"
He laughs, and the tension is somewhat eased for the first time in weeks. "We can get pizza but you're buying, princess. That ticket cost me ten bucks."
"Ten bucks well spent!" she exclaims, already heading toward the pizza place across the street. "Now you'll get to tell everyone you saw the beginnings of a star in the making."
"Lucky me," he says in that dry, sarcastic way. He opens the door to let her in and it strikes her that nobody has thought to do that for her in a very long time. She smiles despite herself, thinking that maybe Peter isn't all that bad, and even though she still firmly believes that Gwen is too attractive for him, her friend could do a whole lot worse.
With a slight sting of shame she remembers that night in the hotel room in vivid detail. She can't help but sneak a sidelong glance at Peter and wonder what it must be like to be Gwen, to have someone you loved so unquestionably that everything was important, everything mattered, every first time was monumental and memorable and shared.
Peter's looking at his phone. "Gwen says she's proud of you, and she can't wait for someone else to croak so she can come see you in a role next time."
MJ laughs and watches him text her back, biting his lip in concentration, devoting his entire attention to the task. MJ has had a lot of boyfriends in the past, and seems to have a new one waiting at the door the second the old one leaves, but nothing has ever felt permanent or real.
She wonders what it would take, for it to feel that way, and for some reason she thinks of Peter, of the way he looks at Gwen when she comes home from work every day. She thinks that if any man ever looked at her the way Peter looks at Gwen, he would be the one worth fighting for.