Letting out a nervous breath, Jess unlatched her seatbelt, her gaze on Henry’s building.
It was Saturday morning, and after talking to Laura last night, and conducting a little more debating with herself, she’d decided she would talk to Henry. And she’d thought it best to do it today. If she didn’t now, she’d put it off again.
A few minutes ago, she’d pulled into one of the visitor’s parking spots at Henry’s building. She’d then proceeded to sit behind the wheel of her Hyundai and stare out the windshield at his grey apartment building, psyching herself up to go in. She’d been doing that for long enough.
It was go time.
Grabbing her purse from the passenger seat where she’d tossed it, she got out of her car, slipped the strap of her purse over her shoulder and started across the small visitor’s parking lot towards the building. Her flip flops slapped at the heels of her feet with every step, as if spurring her on.
The humidity had returned today, the air heavy and close. With no clouds loitering in the sky, the sun glared down on her until she escaped into the lobby. Inside, the a/c quickly cooled her off as she turned to the intercom panel on the wall to her right, and buzzed Henry’s apartment.
“Hullo?” his voice came through the speaker, a moment later.
Jess cleared her throat.
“It’s Jess.” she announced.
There was a beat of silence, then a loud, prolonged buzz sounded, followed by a click.
Jess did a one-eighty, went through the door Henry had unlocked for her, and headed to the elevator. When she pushed the button, the doors opened right away, the elevator already sitting there.
She got on, pressed four, and spent the ride up nervously chewing on the inside of her cheek.
Things rolled to a gentle stop, the doors opened with a ding, and she stepped out, started down the hallway. Henry must have been listening for the elevator’s arrival because his door opened before she got there.
“Hey.” he said when she came to a stop in front of him, a mixture of apprehension and surprise on his face.
“Hey.” she echoed. “I, uh...” her gaze shifted into his apartment, back to him. “... I was hoping we could... talk.”
The surprise left his expression, the apprehension didn’t. Jess reckoned he’d probably guessed why she was there... and had been hoping that wasn’t why she was there.
Too bad. They were gonna talk.
“Uh, sure.” he murmured, stepping back and inviting her in with a hand gesture.
She crossed the threshold, waited as Henry shut the door. Things were quiet as he led her to his living room, as they settled on his sofa. She set her purse on the floor by her feet, her gaze taking a tour of her surroundings.
While she’d known where Henry lived, she’d never been in his apartment before. She was impressed with his taste in furniture and decor, was surprised by how neat and tidy the place was.
Josh could learn a thing or two about housekeeping from him.
Shifting a little, angling herself more toward Henry, she met his gaze, opened her mouth to start talking, but no words came out.
This is where you start talking, girl, she prodded herself.
“I just... I...” she began and faltered, her nerves pushing her thoughts out of reach.
This was not the time to have a brain fart.
She lined up her words again, took a breath, and pushed them out.
“I can’t stop thinking about...” she faltered before continuing. “... how you feel... about me.”
Holding Henry’s gaze, she gave him plenty of time to comment. When he didn’t, she continued, asking him one of the questions that had been bothering her since she’d learned he was attracted to her.
He’d said he’d had feelings for her for years... it was hard for her to believe he’d liked her for that long. It was even harder for her to believe what she’d begun to suspect - that his feelings had been the reason their relationship had changed years ago, that he’d put distance between them because he’d become attracted to her.
“When... did these... feelings start?” she asked.
Henry swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down.
“When I was fourteen,” he replied, cheeks pinkening slightly. “... you were twelve...”
Jessica nodded at his confirmation of her suspicions.
“I... noticed you... that summer.” he continued. “I felt...” he shrugged. “... pervy... I mean, you were twelve. And with you being Josh’s little sister...it was just... weird. So I... pushed you away.”
By being a jerk towards her.
Even with confirmation, it was still hard for Jess to believe that the last thirteen years... the whole time he’d been a pain in her ass... Henry had had feelings for her.
A frown took her mouth at the remembered hurt he’d caused her, when he’d started acting differently toward her.
The corners of Henry’s lips dipped too, his thoughts probably travelling the same track as hers.
They sat there, quietly regarding one another for a moment before she spoke.
“I can’t believe...” she murmured. “... all this time.” she paused. “I just - I wish you’d said something to me.”
She left the words - ‘instead of being an ass with me’ - unsaid.
Henry’s gaze dropped guiltily and a small part of Jess was secretly gratified to see that. He should feel guilty. Thinking on the years he’d spent antagonizing her, a scowl replaced her frown. That scowl was still on her face when his gaze lifted a moment later, returned to her.
“I guess I can... understand why you did what you did when we were kids...” she said, offering him that much charity. “... but we’re not kids anymore, Henry. Haven’t been for a while. Why didn’t you ever say anything?”
Why had he chosen instead to be a pain in her ass? The jerk. The idiot.
“I told you...” he said softly. “You’re Josh’s little sister, if we were to split up...”
“Yeah, I know what you told me.” she interrupted. “And I don’t buy it. You have to know I’d never try to get between you and Josh. You guys are best friends. I would never hurt you, or him, that way.”
“Oh, no...” he shook his head. “I know you wouldn’t.” he quickly assured her.
He let out a little snort.
“You wouldn’t have to. Josh would disown me if I ever hurt you... if things... didn’t work out between us.”
It was her turn to snort.
“You’ve been pissing me off the last thirteen years.” she pointed out dryly. “He hasn’t disowned you.”
Yeah. She knew it was. His teasing and antagonizing her was one thing... her brother let that slide, sometimes got in on it. But if Henry were to actually hurt her, she knew it would be a different story. Josh would be pissed.
Jessica thought her brother would get over it, but Henry obviously didn’t.
A feeling akin to dejection settled in her belly. She hadn’t realized just how much she’d wanted to explore this... mutual attraction between them... until now.
In the back of her mind, she’d thought it might have been kinda perfect, if she and Henry got together. They’d been really close as kids, before he’d broken their friendship. She’d imagined they’d be able to regain that closeness, revive their friendship, and thought they would have been good together, as a couple.
But Henry wasn’t willing to try.
So, she guessed, that was that. She couldn’t force him, and wouldn’t want to. Who wanted to be with someone they had to convince into taking a chance on a relationship?
Feeling uncomfortable now, her gaze drifted around Henry’s living room again.
She should get up, be on her way, but she couldn’t seem to make herself. Even though she already knew where they stood, leaving seemed to make it final.
“I just don’t think us... getting together is a good idea.” Henry murmured after a moment, bringing her gaze back to him. “I... I couldn’t stand it if we ended up... hating each other. Like my parents did.”
A-ha. She’d guessed right - Bill and Joan’s divorce had made Henry relationship phobic.
She felt for him... fear was an incredibly strong motivator. She could tell he obviously didn’t count on a happily-ever-after for them based on his somber expression.
“Half of all married couples get divorced.” he continued.
Everyone had heard that statistic.
And while it was true... in a way, it was also flawed.
“Statistics are tricky.” she mused. “They say half of all married couples split up... but what percentage of those couples that divorce are in a similar situation as ours?” she asked. “How many couples out of that fifty percent, have known each other as long as we have? How many were friends? How many are in similar financial situations? Similar backgrounds?”
Huh. Jessica had a point Henry supposed.
He’d never thought of it, but the details she’d mentioned, left out of general statistics, possibly altered the statistic for them personally... possibly improved it.
But... he still couldn’t risk it. He’d still rather be safe than sorry. Memories of his parent’s arguing sounded in his head and reinforced his ‘better safe than sorry’ stance.
Maybe he and Jess would make it for the long haul, like her folks had - or maybe things wouldn’t work out for them, like they hadn’t for his folks.
There were no guarantees. And he just wasn’t going to risk it.
“I’m sorry...” he murmured. “I just don’t think us getting together is a good idea.” he repeated.
Disappointment and resignation appeared in Jessica’s expression. She nodded an acceptance of his decision, a blush tinging her cheeks.
The two of them fell quiet, the moment awkward, a deja vu of their conversation at Greendale Park.
Jessica was the one to break the silence. She reached down and retrieved her purse, got to her feet. Looking down at him, she cleared her throat before speaking.
“I guess I should... get going.” she said and he nodded.
Berating himself for being a coward, he got up and saw her to the door. Before she started into the hallway, he stopped her with a gentle hand on her arm.
She turned to him, her expression giving away the fact she was hoping that he was stopping her to tell her he’d changed his mind, that he wanted to take a chance on them.
He cursed himself. He hated not being able to oblige her. He wanted to so badly.
“Are we... okay?” he asked, lowering his hand to his side.
Her face fell a little, the hope in her eyes flickering out before she put on a small smile.
That smile became puckish.
“You done with being a pain in my ass?” she asked, obviously trying to lighten the mood, smooth the awkwardness.
That brought a smile to his face.
“Done.” he nodded.
Jessica gazed up at him for a moment, a tenderness in her expression.
“Then we’re okay.” she said.
They shared another small smile, and she turned and started away and he let her.
He remained in his doorway, stoically watched her go, the loneliness he’d felt this morning - and off and on for years - returning like a freight train.
With Jessica’s every step away from him, an image became clearer and clearer in his head. An image of him... as an old man... at the end of his life... alone... and full of regrets.
Panic seized him, made his chest feel tight.
That panic screamed at him that he was making the biggest mistake of his life.
That panic had him changing his decision... he didn’t want ‘play it safe’... he’d rather take a chance on love - even though the very real risk of losing that love came attached - than settle for lifelong solitude, and regrets escorting him into his old age.
He was following after Jessica, his legs quickly carrying him down the hallway, before he’d even made the conscious decision to move.
“Wait.” he called, catching up to her.
Almost at the elevator, Jessica stopped and turned back to him, brows lifted in question as she watched him approach.
He stopped a couple of feet away and froze, his heart stuttering. He swallowed thickly, feeling off balance in the moment... about to do what he’d been afraid to do, had resisted doing, for so long.
How had he ever denied his feelings for all these years?
“I... I don’t want to hurt you...” he began, gaze steady on hers.
Jessica blinked, took a step towards him, that hope that had been in her eyes just a few moments ago returning.
“I don’t want to hurt you either.” she echoed, voice almost a whisper.
He swallowed again.
“... but...” he murmured. “... I don’t want to regret... not finding out what we... could have been... could have had.”
Jessica’s lips turned up at the corners in a soft smile.
“Me either.” she murmured.
They stood, staring at one another for a beat, then he took a step forward, and Jessica did the same, the two of them gravitating towards one another, closing the distance between them.
The panic that had besieged him, retracted its claws, that baneful energy repurposed by his body... felt now not as fear, but as excitement.
Excitement that he’d done what deep down, under his fear, he’d always wanted to do.
His gaze fell to Jessica’s mouth, to the shy smile that had bloomed across her face. He didn’t need a mirror to know he sported a matching smile.
The elevator dinged behind Jessica, drawing both of their gazes. His neighbor from across the hall, Ms. Cluse stepped out.
“Hello, Henry.” she smiled as she passed, nodding at Jessica politely.
Jessica smiled in return.
Henry waited until Ms. Cluse slipped into her apartment down the hall before asking Jess if she had plans that night.
She shook her head ‘no’.
“We could... have dinner.” he suggested shyly.
After years of dreaming about asking Jessica out, he would have thought he’d be more smooth in his delivery, more prepared... but, no. He was as awkward asking her out as he had been the first time he’d asked a girl out.
It was just such a surreal moment. A big moment.
“I’d like that.” Jessica said, her smile widening.
Happiness unfurled in his chest, a happiness he’d thought he’d never know.
Whenever he’d let himself daydream about taking Jessica out on a date, he’d always imagined taking her to a nice restaurant, the two of them enjoying some nice food, some nice wine, some nice conversation.
Of course, his daydreams tended to start out PG and end up XXX, the two of them going back to his place and falling into bed.
“Where would you like to go?” he asked.
“Maybe... Rigatoni’s?” Jessica proposed, brows lifting in question.
“Sounds good to me.” he concurred. “I’ll meet you there at... say... seven?” he asked.
“Kay.” Jessica agreed.
“Kay.” he echoed.
A little nervous chuckle escaped Jess. She hitched a thumb towards the elevator behind her.
“Okay...” she repeated. “I... guess I’ll get going.” she said, but didn’t move.
Henry nodded, and didn’t move either.
It was another moment before Jess started to turn away from him.
“I’ll... see you tonight.” she smiled.
“See you.” he smiled back.
He watched as Jessica went over to the elevator and pushed the button. It wasn’t on his floor anymore, and she turned back to him as she waited for it to arrive. His own happiness was reflected back at him in the way she looked at him, the way she smiled at him.
A ding announced the elevator’s arrival, and a second later the doors slid open slowly.
Shoving his hands in his pockets, Henry watched Jessica get on. She turned to face him once she was inside, held his gaze until the doors slid closed.
When their view of each other was cut off, he turned and headed back to his apartment, where he spent the rest of the afternoon, suffering with a serious case of anticipation and excitement.
A heady feeling.
A feeling he very much preferred to the fear and indecision and loneliness he’d been living with.