Juniper gathered her backpack and suitcase before exiting the train. It felt good to be back in the hustle and bustle of New York City after a quiet summer in Upstate New York with her parents.
It had been a wonderful summer, and her older brother, Jacob, had even made it home for a short break before heading back to the Peace Corps. It had been so nice to see him and hear all about his adventures in Zambia.
Briskly walking the few blocks to the Sigma Chi sorority house, Juniper soaked in the sun rays that energized her. The sooner she got there and unpacked, the sooner she could meet up with Ethan at the 1020 Bar.
After weeks of not getting to see her boyfriend, she couldn’t wait to be in his arms again. She knew that as the first-string quarterback and going into his senior year, Ethan would be busier than ever. But since he’d started practice again, it felt like they’d had no time to speak at all.
After lugging her suitcase up the front steps of the beautiful Brownstone, Juniper swung open the heavy front door to take in the simplistic entryway. The silence that followed echoed against the beautiful oak floors. It seemed she was one of the first to arrive. Not unusual, considering she always came as early as possible to get settled in and organized before her crazy schedule began.
As one of the senior members of the sorority house, it was her responsibility to welcome the newer members and get the ball rolling. She loved that about the sorority life—making new friends, developing a community, and showing the wide-eyed new students the ropes.
Taking the last few steps up to her third-story bedroom, Juniper opened the door to her familiar room and studied it with a warm smile.
As part of the Brownstones, each room was beautifully decorated, with a queen-size bed, and an antique writing desk in the corner, and an elegant side table. Her dresser held a small TV, which she never seemed to have time to use, but that was how she liked it.
Between classes, homework, her duties as head cheerleader, and her responsibilities on the Sigma Chi’s formal committee, she had room for little else in her life—and when she did find time, she preferred to spend it delving into the pages of a fantasy world, not staring at a screen.
It was nice to be back at her home away from home. She’d missed her sisters and couldn’t wait for the school year to start. Senior year was a big one, and while she still had no clue what she would do after graduation, she planned on fully enjoying her last undergrad year at Columbia.
Juniper quickly unpacked, tossing her clothes into their usual drawers and sliding the empty suitcase under her bed, before quickly freshening up in the bathroom down the hall.
The three-hour train ride had left her feeling grungy, and she thanked her lucky stars for what was probably the hundredth time that she happened to get a room on the same floor as the larger bathrooms.
Refreshed and dressed in her favorite rolled-cuff boyfriend jeans and an oversized off-the-shoulder sweater, Juniper ran a comb through her hair and added a touch of lip gloss to her oval lips. Makeup, on the whole, didn’t appeal to Juniper, as it seemed to overwhelm her face without adding much, but a light lip gloss never hurt. Running a comb through her long raven locks, she silently sent a thank-you to her mother for gifting her with the same thick, straight Thai hair her mom had.
As a child, Juniper had always loved watching her mother comb out her hip-length black hair at her makeup counter each night. And while Juniper could never manage to grow her own hair that long, each time she combed it, she thought back to those nights growing up.
The stairs back down flew beneath Juniper’s feet as she made her way to the door. The few short blocks to the 1020 Bar, where some of the guys from the football team met after practice on occasion, were familiar to Juniper.
She texted Ethan as she walked to let him know she was on her way. The streets of Manhattan were filled with people heading in all directions. She loved the energy of New York. Ever since the first time she’d stepped foot in the city at age sixteen, she’d felt at home in the crowd—so many people, so much potential. It felt like a living being in and of itself.
Juniper recognized the back of Ethan’s head as soon as she stepped through the doors of the 1020 Bar, and her heart skipped a beat. His golden hair and tall stature stood out even in the gloomy lighting of the familiar haunt. She loved his spontaneity and adventurous spirit. She never quite knew what would happen when they were together, but something about him drew her in. Like a magnet,
Juniper was drawn toward Ethan’s table, and her lips split into a wide grin as she faced him for the first time in weeks.
His blue eyes took her in, but rather than his usual confident smile that made the dimple on his chin pop, his lips remained straight and sullen.
“Hey,” Juniper said, suddenly less confident. She slid into the chair opposite him as the corners of her lips pressed into a shadow of their former happiness.
“Hey, you.” One corner of Ethan’s lips quirked up in a half-smile. “I ordered one for each of us,” he said, waving his hand toward the two bottles of Budweiser at the table.
A sweet gesture, though it surprised Juniper that he still didn’t know she preferred dark beers or cocktails to the common lager. They’d been dating for almost a year, after all. Still, she raised the bottle and cheersed him with thanks. “How was practice? Coach must be grilling you, huh? It seems you’ve barely had time to chat in weeks.”
“Uh, yeah. I mean, it’s not like first-string quarterback is a walk in the park. I have to fight hard every day for my position.” His eyes flicked toward the door before returning to hers.
His defensive tone took Juniper by surprise, so she tries to backpedal. After not seeing each other for so long, she had expected Ethan to be a bit more excited to see her, but she had never been the best at predicting his moods. “Oh, I’m sure. I know how much you want this and how hard you’ve been working.”
Juniper reached across the table to take his hands. She squeezed his fingers reassuringly. “So how are you? I’ve missed you.”
She smiled tentatively, trying to hold his gaze, but his eyes seemed to dance from one place to the next, seeming to search for something or determined to avoid her gaze.
“I’m fine. Look, Juniper. We need to talk.” Ethan removed his hands from hers and put them under the table. When his eyes met hers, they were cold and distant.
“Oh, okay.” Juniper leaned back, mirroring his posture as she fidgeted with the hem of her sweater.
Ethan huffed a breath as if preparing himself for his next statement. “Here’s the thing. You’re great—I mean, you’ve been great and all—but I just don’t think we’re going to work out.”
Juniper’s heart caught in her throat as her chest filled with icy rejection. “W-Why?” She hated the way her voice shook with emotion. It gave away her vulnerability.
“Well, if you must know, I met someone—I mean, I guess I already knew her, but I’ve started seeing someone else.”
“You started dating someone and didn’t bother to break up with me first?” Her tone turned stern, and heat crawled up her neck, warming her cheeks with emotion. “Someone you already knew? Who? If you already knew her, I must know her too.”
Ethan rolled his eyes. “Does it really matter?”
“Of course it matters,” she hissed. “I would like to know which one of our friends is taking my place—”
“Clara, okay? Are you happy now?”
Juniper’s head snapped back as if she’d been physically struck by the question. Clara? One of her closest friends and second-in-command of the cheer squad? She could hardly believe it. Clara could be sharp-tongued at times and had a quick temper, but they’d known each other since freshman year.
They’d earned their head positions on the cheer squad together, working grueling hours as teammates to reach their positions. They’d spent girls’ nights together watching chick flicks and eating popcorn over every free weekend they’d had since they’d met, long before she and Ethan had started dating.
How could Clara do something so hurtful? “Am I happy now? Did you seriously just ask me if I’m happy? You cheated on me with my best friend and had the gall to let me show up today, after weeks of ghosting me practically, to dump me. And now you expect me to be happy?”
“Well, what do you want from me? I was trying to be the gentleman and tell you in person. I did my best to let you down gently, but you just kept poking and pressing. You couldn’t be satisfied with how I wanted to handle things. You always have to dig and dig.” Ethan guzzled his beer and slammed the empty glass on the table.
Tears stung the back of Juniper’s eyes, and she sniffed to keep them from falling, but she refused to let him see her cry. “You know what? You’re right. Why keep digging? If you want to leave, then just go. There’s the door.” She waved toward the exit, dismissing him with the gesture.
“You know what, I will. I thought you might manage to handle this with a modicum of dignity, but if you want to be a bitch about the whole thing, then why bother. I’m out.”
Ethan shoved away from the table and snatched his letterman jacket hanging from the back of his chair. Slinging it over his shoulder, he spun on his heel and marched out the door, slamming it open with unnecessary force.
Stunned, Juniper sat in silence, her eyes round as she tried to absorb what had transpired before her. She knew Ethan could be selfish at times, but she had never expected him to go so far. And Clara, that hurt worst of all.
How could Clara choose Ethan over her? And what would happen at cheer tryouts? Could they set aside the elephant in the room and maintain a professional relationship for the team?
In the silence of Ethan’s departure, Juniper felt the flames in her cheeks and glanced around self-consciously as she tried to cool them with her palms. It didn’t look like she’d made a spectacle of herself aside from a few sidelong glances.
Juniper dropped her hands to tug nervously at the label on her beer bottle, picking a corner free. She lifted the bottle and took a long drink, willing it to assuage the tightness in her chest, then grimaced at the bland flavor. Setting the beer down, she pushed it out of reach.
“Would you like anything else?” the server asked, approaching with a tray trapped between her hand and hip.
“Uh, no that’s alright. Thank you though.” Juniper gave her a small smile.
With an apologetic look, the server set a bill down on the table before her. “Whenever you’re ready then.”
Getting dumped and having to foot the bill? Really? “Thanks.” Juniper picked up the slip of paper and glanced at it before setting the appropriate amount of money on the table.
Then she rose to depart. From the server’s expression, she doubted their breakup had been as private as she had hoped, and she didn’t want to wait around to see if anyone would talk to her. The door to the 1020 Bar swung outward, and a cool breeze whipped around her.
She hunched at the unexpected chill and wrapped her arms around her stomach, trying to hold herself together, but the pressure behind her eyes was too much. Juniper bit her lip to suppress her sobs as she stepped quickly toward the sorority house.
She kept her head down as she sped away from the bar, brokenhearted and humiliated in a way she had never imagined possible. Losing her boyfriend and her best friend in one blow? The betrayal cut deep.
As Juniper raced up the Brownstone steps and into the foyer, she bumped into Katherine, as her fellow Sigma Chi sister stepped from her first-floor room.
“Juniper!” Katherine burst with excitement. Then her face fell as she took in Juniper’s tear-stained face. “What happened? What’s wrong?” Katherine stepped up to wrap her arms around Juniper.
Compared to Juniper’s 5’6” frame, Katherine’s petite 5’2” felt so little, but the warmth of her hug eased the tension in Juniper’s chest ever so slightly. Juniper loved Katherine.
One year Katherine’s senior, Juniper had taken the bubbly blonde under her wing during Sigma Chi’s initiation process. They had struck up a quick friendship from the start. Katherine’s happy-go-lucky attitude always put Juniper in a better mood, and whether it was studying, planning sorority events, or spending the night on the town, Katherine was up for it all.
A sob burst through Juniper’s lips. She couldn’t hold it back any longer.
“Shh,” Katherine soothed, stroking Juniper’s hair. “Do you want to come into my room and tell me what happened?”
Juniper nodded and tried to pull herself together. Though the sniffles forced her to take shuddering breaths, she disengaged from Katherine’s hug to wipe the tears from her face.
Katherine guided Juniper by the elbow into her little first-floor room and onto the edge of the bed. Her blue eyes were round with worry as she sank onto the bed next to Juniper and took her hand.
“E-Ethan dumped me in the middle of 1020,” Juniper stuttered. She took a deep breath and let it out in a slow stream to try and calm her spasming chest.
“Oh, honey. That’s terrible.”
Juniper gasped a laugh. “Yeah, but the worst part is he’s been seeing my friend Clara behind my back and just decided it might be a good idea to break up with me now that I’m back in town.” Her words were bitter, and she bit her lip to stop her from bursting into tears again.
“Wait, Clara the redhead who used to come watch movies with us? The one from your cheer squad?”
Juniper nodded and glanced down at her hands.
“That witch! She stole your boyfriend and didn’t even have the nerve to tell you? How long have they been dating?”
A small smile tugged at Juniper’s lips. She loved how strictly Katherine adhered to a no-cussing policy. While she didn’t mind when Juniper cussed around her, it always made Katherine sound so young and innocent when she got mad.
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask. I would assume for the last couple of weeks since that’s when he started being distant, but I can’t be sure.”
Katherine huffed indignantly, flipping her waves of blond hair over her shoulder. “Well, good riddance to the both of them. If that’s who they turned out to be, then they deserve each other.”
Juniper gave a small chuckle. Katherine was so fiercely loyal, and Juniper couldn’t be luckier to call her a sister. She thought of Katherine as an actual younger sister in a way.
When Katherine had first started at Columbia, she’d made it clear that a sorority was something she’d always wanted to join. Growing up an only child, Katherine had longed for a sibling, and she’d done a wonderful job of finding one for herself by joining Sigma Chi.
The sorority was full of supportive girls who thought of each other as family. And while Katherine was a year behind Juniper in school, the two had developed a wonderful friendship that Juniper couldn’t picture her life without.
The contrast to her sudden ex-friend, Clara, made Juniper’s stomach twist. She tried to push thoughts of Clara and Ethan from her mind, but that was easier said than done.
As if sensing her spiral into depression, Katherine wrapped her arm around Juniper’s shoulders. “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you go put on your comfiest set of pajamas? I’ll go whip up some ice cream, and we can curl up on your bed, braid each other’s hair, and watch stupid chick flicks while we think about why you’re so much better off without stupid Ethan with his lame new girlfriend.”
Juniper laughed out loud at that. “That sounds really nice, actually.”
Katherine broke into a wide smile, and Juniper’s heart warmed. She was lucky to have such a good friend right in the same house and willing to spend the night letting Juniper cry on her shoulder.