#21 He missed me, whatever that means
The next day, things between me and Khiêm and me are back to normal when we have breakfast together. He doesn’t bring up last night, and neither do I. We were just tired, I was a little buzzed, and I liked the way he made me feel. Safe, comfortable, real. That’s all it was.
Khiêm is taking the day off work to go see Jagger. Marcus picks him up in the afternoon for the three-hour drive. Rose and Gracie are leaving for college after the weekend, so Jagger will have to say goodbye to his girlfriend soon. He could use the support of his friends. Marcus and Khiêm don’t see their Jagger as much as they used to, so they’re both eager to spend some time with their best friend. It’s cute, the bromance those three have.
They invite me along, but I don’t think that Rose and Gracie want to see me their last weekend in town. I wouldn’t if I were them. They’re too nice to tell me to get lost, so I decide not to put them in that position. I hug Khiêm goodbye and wave as him and Marcus drive off, opting to stay home on my own.
I work on some designs for dresses and order some fabrics online so I can get started on making some new shirts for myself next week. I spend a lot of time googling making men’s clothes – something I hardly ever do – because I have a sudden surge of inspiration to make Khiêm a shirt as well. He’s not that much taller than I am, but he’s a little chubby, so most of his shirts are too long, since he buys them a size bigger than he needs in height. He likes his shirt baggy, and he looks okay in them, but he’d look even better in shirts that fit better. I’ve been pressing him to wear his own merch while he streams and vlogs, but those shirts don’t fit him all that well. I want him to feel handsome. As beautiful as he makes me feel when he tells me that I’m a strong, confident woman who doesn’t need men to validate her.
Excited about doing something nice for him, I get started on a few designs I started earlier this week, playing around with different fonts for the phrases from his podcasts that I want to print onto shirts and mugs. The one I love most is a sentence I heard in the podcasts he did last week with Gail, a girl who does make-up tutorials on YouTube. Gail told him about how her boyfriend didn’t like her getting lipstick all over his face when they made out. She was contemplating not wearing lipstick anymore, even though it made her feel beautiful, and she felt naked without it. Khiêm’s response had been firm and instantaneous: “Don’t change for anyone but yourself.”
It felt so much like what he’s always telling me when we talk about my insecurities, and Gail reacted exactly like I always do. She took a moment to think it over, seemed a little flustered, and then she told him that he was right. That there had been other little things her boyfriend didn’t seem to like about her, and how she’d been changing herself for him these past months, causing her to feel less and less like herself. Khiêm has that effect on people – he makes them realize what they should have known all along, empowering them to be better. To choose themselves over anyone else. Gail broke up with her boyfriend, and she sent Khiêm a case of beer to thank him for his help.
At the end of the night, I’ve got a beautiful design with that one simple phrase in bold letters, with a red triangle in the background. It’s a delta symbol, which means change in mathematics. It’s simple, and it will look great printed onto a mug, or a card even.
Once again inspired, I look up if the company he’s partnered with makes greeting cards as well. It does, and they’re beautiful, made of glossy paper that you can get in any shape and size. I design a heart-shaped card with the phrase on it, and print it on Khiêm laser printer to see what it would end up looking like.
It’s beautiful. He could probably create a whole series of cards with phrases from his podcast. Perfect for anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, the works.
Too hyped up to wait until he gets home tomorrow, I take a picture and send it to him. He calls me five seconds later.
“Holy fuck, Nia, that’s beautiful,” he says, sounding just as excited as I’m feeling. “Can we sell that?”
“Yeah, I want to do a whole series.”
“Fuck yeah,” he says right away. “You’re amazing. Every time I think that it’s not possible for you to get any more amazing, you do. How the fuck do you do that?”
I laugh, feeling my cheeks glow under his praise. “I don’t know. No one has ever said something like that to me before.”
“Then every other person you know must be certifiably insane, because you’re such a beautiful, amazing, smart, creative, competent woman.” He’s slurring his words a little.
“Are you drunk?” I ask, laughing.
“Of course I’m drunk,” he admits. “We were at a bar all fucking night. Oh my God, you’re never going to guess what happened, Nia.”
“What happened?” I ask, curious.
“Beatrice cheated on your brother.”
“Oh fuck!” My heart sinks. Poor Marcus.
“He found out when he saw a picture of her on social media. But that’s not the most fucked-up part of the night.”
“It’s not?” What else could have possibly happened? “Oh God, don’t tell me Rose and Jagger broke up!” I may have been trying to seduce Jagger only a few weeks ago, but all I want for him is to be happy, and from what I’ve seen and heard about them from Marcus and Khiêm, Rose is good to him.
“No, they’re nauseatingly sweet together,” Khiêm assures me. “Marcus hooked up with someone.”
“Who?” I ask. “Holy fuck, he cheated on Bee?”
“She cheated on him first,” Khiêm points out. “Marcus left the bar earlier tonight and went back to the motel with… Gracie.”
“Oh shit,” I can’t help but rush out. “Holy fuck, Marcus and Gracie? How did that happen?”
“She kissed him while Rose filmed it to post on social media to get back at Bee, but turns out they both liked that kiss too much to let go of each other.” He laughs loudly and a little maniacally, once again reminding me that he’s had a lot to drink. “So now I’m crashing at Tommy’s place, because no way can I stay in the motel room Marcus and I were supposed to share. I’m pretty sure he must be halls-deep inside of cute little bombshell Gracie by now.”
His words sting, but I don’t want to admit that, not even to myself. Cute little bombshell. He talks about all girls like that, doesn’t he? It probably doesn’t mean anything when he calls me lovely or sunshine or goddess. That’s just Khiêm. It’s got nothing to do with me.
“Get some sleep,” I tell him, not feeling up to talking to him anymore. “Sleep off the alcohol. “
“Yeah, probably a good idea. Hey, Nia?”
“Yes?” I reply, eager to hang up and crawl into bed. My good mood has evaporated.
“I missed you tonight,” he says softly, his tone completely different now. “I had a great time, but honestly… I’d much rather have been on the couch with you, watching Friends while you make those cute little noises when I stroke your hair.”
Oh fuck. What am I supposed to do with that? What does it mean?
“We can do that tomorrow,” I say, my voice sounding breathier than I intended to. God knows I wish he’d have been here with me tonight.
“Sweet. Goodnight, sunshine.”
“Night,” I reply, hanging up all confused.
He missed me.
I smile a little, but then I remember what he said about Gracie, and I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if my brother hadn’t taken Gracie back to the motel. Would Khiêm have tried to get with her? He’s a flirty guy, so I’m not sure if I should read into the things he says to me.
Part of me wants to, though. It’s wrong, and I’m not really attracted to him or anything, so it must just be because he makes me feel good about myself.
That must be it… right?
I go over to Marcus’ place for dinner, a bag full of groceries slung across my shoulder. He opens with a small smile, motioning for me to come in. We cook together like we’ve done a million times before, chatting easily about his work, our siblings, and TV shows we both watch. When the food is cooking and we’re sitting at the table with our glasses of water, I can’t help but finally ask him what I’ve been dying to know.
“How are you doing with the whole Gracie and Bee things?”
“Ah fuck,” Marcus grunts, dropping his gaze from mine. “Khiêm told you.”
“Yup. Now answer me, big bro. What the fuck are you doing?”
“I don’t know,” he says, pushing a hand through his hair the way he does when he’s nervous. “Bee and I took a break from each other after we both cheated, and we didn’t talk all week, but then she called me yesterday… She wants to get back together. She swears things will be different this time around. That she never truly realized she could lose me by pushing me away when she gets scared.”
“Bullshit,” I can’t help but say, giving him a hard look. “You’ve been together since you were 14, Marcus. I like the girl, I do, but I’m not buying it. She’s just trying to reel you back in.”
“You don’t know her the way I do,” he says quietly. “Her parents have a horrible relationship. They should just get divorced, but they’re very religious and they believe marriage should be forever. Bee has been listening to their fights since she was a little girl, and she’s scared that all relationships eventually end up that way. Every time I try to get more serious with her, it frightens her. I need to be patient with her.”
I feel for her, I do, because I know that your relationship with your parents can fuck you up – just look at me and Mom, and that’s not nearly as bad as what Marcus is describing – but that’s no excuse to treat my sweet brother like he’s disposable.
“Marcus, you’ve been patient for eleven years,” I remind him. “Either she commits for real this time, or you need to cut her loose. It’s been torture watching you pine for her all these years.”
He grunts and gets up to check on the food, not replying.
“You and Gracie…” I trail off, wondering how to phrase this so he won’t shut down. “What was that like?”
He chuckles softly. “I’m not going to talk to my little sister about my sex life. No offense, Nia, but that’s too weird.”
“I’m not asking how the sex was,” I reply, smiling a little as I sip my water. “Have you… have you ever been with anyone but Bee?” I’ve wondered that many times over the years. It always seemed like he just waited for Bee to come to her senses when she ran off and lived it up with other guys before coming back to Marcus with her tail between her legs. He’s 25, and he’s been broken up with so many times. Surely Gracie wasn’t the first girl…?
“I’m not a cheater,” Marcus says in a tight voice. “At least, I wasn’t until last weekend.”
“It’s not cheating to sleep with someone else when Bee breaks up with you, Marcus.”
He turns around to face me, his eyes burning with intensity. “I love her. I’ve loved Bee from the moment I first kissed her when I was 14. That hasn’t changed the past eleven years. Even when she’s not technically my girlfriend, even so much as looking at another woman feels wrong. So no, I’ve not been with anyone but Bee.”
“Until Gracie came along,” I add.
“Yes,” he confirms. “Until Gracie. I don’t know what the fuck to do with that, but if Bee truly wants me back and things will be different this time around… I can’t say no to that, Nia. I can’t.”
I understand what he means, but there is something in his expression that tells me this isn’t like all the other times. When he says Gracie’s name, there is something in his eyes that makes it clear that night with her meant more to him that he’s ready to admit to himself. Still, one night with a girl he connects with can’t beat eleven years with the girl he fell in love with when he was 14.
I don’t know Gracie all that well, and she hates my guts, so it would be weird if she and Marcus started dating. That being said, I’m so fucking done with the way Bee treats my brother than I’d be more than willing to grovel to get back into Gracie’s good graces to make things less awkward. Khiêm, Jagger and Rose all love Gracie, and I think the world of all three of them – even Rose. She forgave me when I most needed it but didn’t truly deserve it. She makes Jagger happy, who I know is an amazing guy. Those two things make Rose a great person in my book. If those three kind people love Gracie, she must be alright. She didn’t murder me for fucking Sebastian, after all, so she must have a kind heart behind the scowl she reserves for me.
“I get it,” I tell Marcus after a long stretch of silence. “Be careful though. Don’t let Bee pull her usual crap on you anymore. You didn’t put up with my crap when I was acting out. You called me on it. I had my reasons for acting like a slutty bitch, but you didn’t let that stop you from trying to get me to change. Promise me you will be the same with Bee.”
He smiles sweetly. “I didn’t help you to change, Nia. I’m pretty sure that was all Khiêm. I’m more grateful for that than I’ll ever be able to express to him. I got my sister back. You know I love you, always and forever, no matter how bitchy you get sometimes, or how many mistakes you make, but I have to admit… you’re a lot easier to be around lately. You seem… happier. More relaxed. Sweeter.”
“Yeah, that’s all Khiêm’s doing,” I admit. “And maybe… maybe a little of my own efforts, too. It was about time I stopped dicking around.”
“True,” Marcus replies right away. “And you’re right about Bee. I like Gracie, and we had an amazing connection, I’m not going to deny that, but it was only one night… I can’t throw away the relationship with the girl I’ve been with since I was a young boy. I just can’t. But this has to be it for us. Our last try. If Bee is all in, so am I, but I can’t keep doing this on-again-off-again thing with her. I need all of her, or… or nothing at all.”
I know it will be hard for him to stick to his guns, but I can tell he means it. Let’s just hope that Bee will follow through on her promises this time around. If she doesn’t, Marcus will not just lose Bee, but Gracie as well. I doubt she’s going to wait around for Marcus to get his head out of his ass. She’s a beautiful girl, and I doubt she’ll have trouble finding someone else to date.
The food is ready, so Marcus loads up our plates. We dig in, the conversation moving onto lighter topics. I tell him about Khiêm getting stains in his shirts all the time, how he always covers the couch with crumbs, and that he forgets to do his laundry all the damn time. Marcus laughs at my stories, and I find myself talking about my roommate way more than I intended to. It’s hard not to think about Khiêm when I’m not home. I love working with him, living with him, and hanging out with him after he’s done streaming. When we’re watching TV and I get tired, I curl up against him every single time, and he strokes my hair until I fall asleep. He carries me to be every night now, but we never talk about it. We never address the growing closeness between us. I don’t know why he tiptoes around the subject, but I know why I do.
I’m scared to burst the bubble.
Of course, I don’t tell Marcus about any of that. I stick to the fun stuff. The easy stuff. The stuff that doesn’t make my stomach churn and my heart race.
“It’s nice how well you two get along,” Marcus says when we’re cleaning the dishes. “I feel better knowing you’re living with him. He keeps you out of trouble. It’s good for him too. He loves having a bonus sister to joke around with.”
There it is again, that sharp pain in my chest as I realize that things between me and Khiêm are just friendly. He sees me as a little sister. I don’t know how I see him exactly, but certainly not as a brother.
“Yeah, he’s like an older brother to me,” I lie, not wanting Marcus to catch onto my confusion about his best friend. “Just what I needed.”