It felt weird to walk around Nikki’s home without her there with me, and yet I let out a sigh of relief as soon as I was out of sight. Too often, I felt like I wore a mask in front of others that was tiring to keep wearing. No matter how easy it was to speak to Nikki and her three friends, continuing conversation and being around others drained me.
I sighed, wondering if this was normal or if everyone was just exhausted by being in the presence of others. Probably not. Nikki had three roommates and she seemed fine. I had two that made me want to shoot myself. Granted, my roommates were nothing like Dom, Mikey, and Ray.
I slipped into Nikki’s room silently, fidgeting at the sudden silence that surrounded me. I could hear muffled conversation coming from the kitchen below me, but that was it. Even Nikki’s computers were turned off and quiet instead of whirring. I ended up sitting down on the carpet in front of her bed, not feeling comfortable enough to be anywhere else. I leaned against the bedframe, bringing my knees up to my chest and closing my eyes. I just needed a minute to clear my head before I went back down to be with the others again.
I was about to get up when I heard footsteps and looked up. Nikki stood there with an amused sort of look on her face. “You can sit on my bed, you know.” Despite her words, she came to sit beside me, mimicking my position.
“Are you okay, Corey?” she asked calmly.
I knew she wasn’t talking about my needing a moment to myself. “I’m sorry I called you yesterday,” I blurted. “I… it was an accident…”
“I’m not sorry,” she said surely. I was aware that she was looking at me, but I didn’t meet her gaze. “You needed help. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“But there is,” I murmured without meaning to.
“Why?” Nikki shot back perceptively.
I couldn’t answer right away. I didn’t know the right words to say, or if I should even answer at all. No one got under my defenses quite like Nikki did, and I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Either way, Nikki didn’t rush me, giving me whatever time that I needed to collect my thoughts.
Finally, I said, “People… let you down. They don’t always mean to, and that doesn’t mean they’re bad, but… people let you down. Asking for help means I’m dependent on another person and if I’m dependent on someone and they take advantage of me or don’t follow through…” I took a deep breath. “I’m… sometimes I think I’m the only person I can rely on.”
I didn’t know what made me say it. I was normally better about keep things quiet, but then again, I was never great with handling silences either. I lowered my gaze, resting my chin on my arms. I could feel my heart beating quickly out of anxiety. “I shouldn’t have said that,” I murmured. “That’s… so selfish. I know how bad it sounds.”
I expected Nikki to judge me, to tell me that I was being rude and self-centered. As much as I didn’t want to see the look of judgement on her face, I knew I had to look at her. I was just in time to see her leaning in to hug me.
I stiffened out of reflex, but she didn’t let go. It definitely wasn’t the time to be paying attention to how warm she felt against me, yet I couldn’t help it. She was solid in my arms. She was real. It was comforting. I allowed myself to relax as she squeezed me tighter. “You shouldn’t be so nice to me,” I said quietly.
“Of course I should,” Nikki said immediately. Her voice was right next to my ear. “Because everyone needs help sometimes, even if they don’t want to admit it.” She leaned back, leaving me feeling cold all of a sudden. Her hands stayed on my shoulders. “It’s takes a lot of strength to keep everything bottled up and to rely on yourself all the time. But sometimes, it takes a lot more strength to rely on others. Even if it was unintentional, you still talked to me when you called. I’m proud of you.”
She was smiling, looking down at me with light in her eyes. I didn’t know what to say. “But… I… that was so horrible of me to say…”
“That you have a hard time trusting people?” she asked for clarification. When I nodded, Nikki went on with that gentle smile still on her face. “Trust should be earned. You’ve just got to find someone worth giving your trust to.”
“Can I… trust you then?” I asked shyly.
Nikki’s smile seemed to light up the room. “I’ll do my best to earn it.”
We ended up sitting quietly for a few more minutes. I felt lighter now that I’d spoken, but I could still feel my anxiety creeping beneath my skin. From past experience, I knew it wouldn’t go away until I could be reassured that my relationship with Nikki hadn’t been damaged somehow. I fidgeted in the silence that descended upon us. I had always been bad with social cues, so I honestly didn’t know if this silence was uncomfortable or not.
“You’re the worrying type, huh?” she asked casually.
I winced. “That’s about right.”
Nikki hummed, getting up to grab a model sword she had hanging on her wall. “Careful, it’s sharp,” she said as she gave it to me and sat back down. “But I find it really hard to be worried when I’m holding a sword.”
I let my hands wander over the sleek black sheath. I chuckled, feeling some of the weight I was carrying lift off my shoulders. “It’s too bad I’d get arrested for having this with me all the time.”
Nikki laughed from her place next to me. “Well, even if you don’t have a sword, any time you’ve got a 911 on your hands or need someone to talk to, you’ve got me.” She smiled brightly, letting me run my hands over the intricate stitching on the hilt. It was impressive as it shone beneath my fingertips.
“You’ve got me too,” I said without looking at her, feeling too shy. “I’ve always been told I’m a good listener. I’m also really good at baking things for when people are sad.”
That earned me a chuckle. “That’s a skill that’ll always be appreciated around here.” She reached over to gently take the sword from me, going back over to replace it on her wall. As I watched, an old memory came to me.
“When I was a kid, my dad had two swords hanging on the walls. My older brother and younger brother thought it would be a good idea to have a sword fight. My younger brother ended up with a huge gash in his collarbone.” I smiled at the memory, thinking of my brothers’ apologetic faces and my mom cleaning up my brother with some peroxide.
Nikki looked back to me with raised eyebrows. “Seriously? Corey, you didn’t tell me you came from a family skilled in the art of swordplay.”
I laughed for real as she tugged on my arm to help me up. “I’m more skilled in the art of tripping over my own feet. I literally tripped and broke my arm when I was a kid.”
“You poor accident-prone girl,” she said with an affectionate shake of her head. “Now you have to tell me all about how you broke your arm though.”
The story of tripping on a sidewalk crack was much less interesting than most broken bone stories, but Nikki listened attentively as we walked back downstairs. She seemed incredibly interested when I told her that my arm still made this weird popping noise if I bent it just right.
Even Mikey seemed interested in that. With my permission, he felt the bones in my arm with great wonder, explaining things to me in medical terms that I didn’t understand. I nodded along, picking up some of it from anatomy classes and random nursing books my mom left around. Unlike when Jason touched me without my permission, I didn’t feel unsafe around Mikey. He was gentle with his touch, asking me if I was okay with him moving my arm around. I couldn’t help but to think that he would be a great doctor when he finished school.
If med school failed, Mikey could probably hack it as a chef too. The food he’d made was delicious, but of course, Nikki, Dom, and Ray didn’t miss a chance to be sure everyone knew which side dish they’d made. I smiled into my hand at their good-natured arguing and ended up blushing as they all praised me for my desert and requested I make another one for Christmas.
“Oh, you go home then though, right?” Nikki said with a frown. She was seated next to me at the round table, Ray on my other side.
I knew enough about Nikki’s family to know she’d had problems with them, but I didn’t know all the particular details yet. Dom explained it for me. “Nikki’s parents aren’t pleased with her life choices. They don’t think she’s got a real job.”
“That’s only their most recent problem,” Nikki muttered cryptically. “But I usually only go home for like a day or two. I can’t stand my perfect sister for longer than that anyway.” She looked put-out. I could relate. I grew up in the shadow of my older brother. Even when he royally screwed up by getting a girl pregnant in high school, he was still the favorite child.
I patted Nikki’s hand in solidarity. “I understand. I’ll probably only be gone for a week at most. Kurosawa always needs people to work the holidays, so I usually end up at home between Christmas and New Year’s.”
“Then you should come to our Christmas Eve videogame brawl,” Ray said cheerfully from my other side. “This year, I’m beating all of you.”
That started a whole new series of throwdowns and challenges. I smiled happily to myself, relaxing in the atmosphere. I was reminded of spending time with my brothers when we were young, playing videogames in the basement as soon as dinner was over. Nostalgia washed over me, pooling warmly in my chest and stomach.
“That’s a nice expression,” Ray said quietly to me as the other three continued to bicker over their relative skill levels. He was smiling. “I’m glad you were able to come. Nikki’s glad too.”
His gaze settled on her as she rolled her eyes at whatever Dom was saying. Mikey was laughing loudly. I smiled at her and looked back to Ray. He was giving me an interesting expression that I couldn’t decipher, although it wasn’t like the ones I got from Jason; it was soft and happy, maybe secretive?
I smiled back, a little confused. “She’s been really nice to me.”
“She cares about you,” he said back to me. I couldn’t help it if my heart jumped. There was no way he could have known, but Ray still said, “She seems to make you happy too.”
I wondered if my face was as red as I thought it was. I decided to ignore it. Instead, I nodded, unsure of what to say.
Ray didn’t seem to have a problem with my silence. He just kept smiling. “You might already know this, but Nikki will accept you, no matter what.”
I blinked at him, wondering if he was implying what I thought he was. Did he know I was a lesbian? There was no way he could have known unless he had a sixth sense. No, he was probably referring to something else. Maybe he knew about my panic attack yesterday. Maybe he knew what we talked about earlier, about my trust issues.
I fought back a wave of anxiety at someone knowing my secrets, resolving not to let it ruin my day. “She’s that type of person,” I said out loud to Ray, completely glossing over my own issues in the hope of steering the conversation elsewhere.
“You’re that type of person too,” he told me, leaning back in his chair. The way he was looking at me made me feel like he was looking right through me. I wondered if Ray was any good at interrogations.
I shook my head. “I can’t even accept myself,” I said bravely, even though he shouldn’t know what I was talking about. “The most I can do is to smile and hope I’m enough when someone needs my help.”
Ray patted my shoulder in a brotherly gesture. “And let other people help you when you need it.”
I fiddled with my fork, twirling it in my hand. “Nikki said the same thing to me.”
“Great minds,” Ray responded jovially, standing up to collect our plates and bring them to the sink. Everyone ended up migrating to the couch where a gaming system was set up and the four of them grabbed controllers. I was content to watch, but Nikki put her controller in my hand as she sat right next to me on the reclining chair.
“Sorry, those three are taking up the whole couch,” Nikki said loud enough for them to hear. “Is this okay?”
I was frozen for a moment. She was warm against my side as I relaxed into the chair. “This is great,” I said to her in a voice slightly higher than normal. I cleared my throat. “Um, don’t you want to play?”
“I’ve got to see your skills first,” she said wisely. She relaxed into me as her legs hung off the arm of the chair. I could practically feel my heart beating out of my chest as my sweater started feeling too hot. God, how I wanted to take it off, but I was afraid that would be too obvious.
I last about another five seconds before the heat became unbearable and I moved to pull it up over my head, revealing a loose white blouse that dwarfed my thin frame. Nikki relaxed into me again, but at least this time I didn’t feel like I was about to overheat. I only wished I knew if Nikki was flirting with me or not.
Admittedly, I wasn’t great with social cues, and I knew sometimes girls were just really affectionate with one another. Maybe Nikki was just being nice or something. I didn’t think I should automatically assume she had an interest in me; there was absolutely nothing about me that could be interesting. I was a dork with anxiety and a penchant for working too hard and always saying yes. She was probably being nice.
Yet I couldn’t shake how wonderful it felt to have her pressed up against my side. I sincerely hoped that she didn’t mind my sweaty hands all over her controller. At least she laughed along when I ended up dying about ten times in whatever game we were playing before Dom took mercy on me and put in Mario Kart.
I only played a few rounds of that before I took a break to let Nikki play. I ended up leaning onto her, feeling tired suddenly. Maybe the past few days of getting up early to work was finally catching up to me as I let my eyes slip closed, my mind floating somewhere between fully asleep and mostly awake. I only came back to full consciousness when Nikki shook me.
I blinked up at her groggily. “S-sorry,” I murmured, pushing myself off of her shoulder. My cheeks lit up red in embarrassment. Nikki didn’t look like she minded though.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said with a gentle smile. “Do you want me to take you home, Corey? You can sleep here too if you want.”
My heart leapt at the thought, my mind warring between the easy excuses that usually left my tongue and the desire to relax more with Nikki. I spied Dom, Ray, and Mike watching a movie on the couch, the videogame turned off. Everything was so casual here. It was like a world apart from the usual quiet of my room. It was almost hard to leave, and yet…
“I don’t have my uniform here, and I have an all-day early shift tomorrow,” I said apologetically. I was actually surprised that I felt bad about saying no at all; usually I couldn’t wait to get home after being away for an entire day.
Nikki was smiling at me though. “Working on the real Thanksgiving, huh? Hopefully it won’t be too busy,” she said kindly.
“With any luck, I won’t end up serving tables,” I sighed. “Marcus and Dana are so much better than me with that stuff anyway.”
I could feel Nikki tense a little from beside me, but she didn’t say anything. I frowned, unsure of what was wrong. Had I said the wrong thing finally? I ran the words I just said over in my head, trying to pick out what could have been wrong.
It was Mikey who asked, “By the way, um… are you friends with those two?”
“Yes?” I answered, making it sound more like a question. I didn’t know why he was putting so much emphasis on the “friends” part of that sentence.
Nikki shot him a glare. “Mikey,” she admonished, shaking her head as he smiled nervously. She turned to me, fidgeting. It was uncharacteristic of her, although I could see her tapping her fingers on her knee again. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, as if she was having trouble phrasing her next words. Carefully, she finally said, “They were curious about whether you were dating anyone.”
My face flared up red in embarrassment. “N-no, I’m not!” I was twenty years old; someone asking about my dating life shouldn’t have been such a big deal. I didn’t exactly have a dating life to ask about though. “I, uh, no I’m not dating anyone,” I amended more calmly. I had to hold my tongue to stop myself from saying something about being so far in the closet that dating was completely out of the picture. I didn’t even notice that they didn’t ask about Marcus, but about both him and Dana.
I couldn’t help but to feel everyone’s eyes on me. “Um… would you be able to take me home now?” I asked Nikki shyly, suddenly feeling uncomfortable.
“Of course,” Nikki said quickly, quietly heading up the stairs to grab my laptop for me. The only sound was the quiet voices on the television as I got up to get my stuff together.
I could practically hear the silent conversation Mikey, Ray, and Dom were having behind me, but I didn’t turn around. I slipped on my coat and took my laptop from Nikki when she came back downstairs. The ride home was quiet too. I felt like somehow, I’d messed up. I’d finally done it; I pushed even these amazing people away from me. My mind was reeling with anxiety as I tried to figure out what to say, but Nikki solved that problem for me.
“I’m so sorry, Corey,” she said, breathing out a sigh of relief. “They didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable either.”
I looked at her in confusion. “You didn’t make me uncomfortable. They didn’t do anything wrong either. It’s… um, I’m not good with… romance,” I stammered out awkwardly. “I thought I messed up…”
Nikki’s eyes flicked to mine before going back to the road. “You? That was all our fault. We had such a nice time and then we started to pry. You fit in so well that I guess we forgot we haven’t really known you for that long.” She pulled up to my building, parking like she did the last time. The headlights turned off and it was dark, with only the streetlights to light our way.
I looked over at Nikki, her features obscured in the shadows. She looked forward resolutely before turning to me. There was confidence in her expression, as if she was preparing herself for something.
“I had a really nice time, Nikki,” I said softly, feeling my heart start to beat faster.
Nikki gave me a little smile. “I’m glad. And Corey?” She waited until my eyes met hers before she spoke again. “It’s okay, to be who you are. It’s okay to not have your driver’s license. It’s okay to be anxious. It’s okay if you haven’t dated before. It’s okay if—”
She cut herself off, clearly with great difficulty. I swallowed. I wanted to ask what she was going to say. I wanted to know if she was about to say the two words I thought she would say: it’s okay if you’re gay.
I wasn’t brave enough. I couldn’t do it. All I could do was give Nikki a waning, tired smile. “Is it okay that I still text you?” I asked, trying to break the sudden tension that descended upon us.
Nikki smile back at me. “That’s always okay. Are we… okay?”
“Definitely,” I said, happy to reassure her. I didn’t know how to explain to her that I wasn’t uncomfortable with the question Mikey asked, but with my own inability to answer it. For now, reassuring her was enough as I stepped out of the car, waved goodbye, and went up to my room to collapse on my bed.
When my mind finally stopped whirring, I sunk into my pillows, remembering the happy way Nikki had been looking at me.