This is a project I started a few months back that stalled out in the second chapter. On a nice long drive today listening to this story's theme song ("No Light, No Light" by Florence + the Machine, if you were wondering) on repeat, I found myself drawn back to Josh and Cohen and realized that I needed to start out with the way I should've, and wanted, to start out the last time but didn't. No guarantees that it won't still stall out somewhere...but the characters are coming through much more crisply for me now that I started them out where they initially asked to meet. *Trigger warning: a more-or-less tongue-in-cheek brief contemplation of suicide and mention of weapons.*
"I still don't think it's too late to find off-campus housing."
My father looks at me from across the futon frame we're carrying between us. Recognizing the thunderclouds that are gathering over his forehead, I duck my head and use it as an excuse to wipe my sweating face against my shoulder.
"What the hell is your problem, Joshua?" he barks. "Last spring you told us you wanted to come back to the dorms. Now for the past week you've been moping around and whining about wanting to live off campus. Look at me!"
I lift my eyes to his and work very hard not to flinch at his expression. "I'm sorry," I start to say, but he cuts me off.
"There's no choice anymore, Josh. This is it. I'm sorry" - his tone says he's anything but - "if you suddenly found out that all of your friends decided to move out of the dorms for their junior year or something, but you made the choice and now you're stuck with it for the rest of the year. Try again next year."
"And quit that goddamned mumbling!"
As we approach the door, my mom scurries around us to open it and I suppress another flinch as Dad backs into a room that's been partially moved into already. But when we get all the way in, we're the only ones here. Quietly, I release a breath I hadn't been aware of holding, and help Dad get the futon settled in against the far wall.
Straightening up and rubbing sweat from my forehead, I turn to survey the rest of the setup. The bed are bunked against the left-hand wall, the top bunk already neatly made up with white sheets and a comforter that looks like a rainbow used it to wipe its ass. My roommate has already laid claim to one of the twin desks pushed against the opposite wall, too, if the bamboo plant and the cup exploding with pens, pencils, and highlighters is anything to go by. There's not much I can do about his choice of bedspreads, but I discreetly wander over and spin the cup around before my parents have a chance to read the slogan. While, yeah, I would be thrilled if they suddenly decided that off-campus housing would be much better for me this year, there's no way in hell I'm having it go down as a repeat of high school's sophomore year.
"I'll make up your bed for you, honey," Mom twitters, already elbow-deep in the sheets and blankets we carried in on top of the futon. "Why don't you go out and grab some more boxes from the car?"
The three of us shuttle back and forth between the car and the terrace level for the better part of the next hour, until at last the car is empty and the room is full. Dad slams the hatch door shut behind the last box of clothes and shakes out his keyring in search of his car key.
"There you go, son. All ready for another year. I'm sure we'll see you at midterm break, but don't forget to call your mother in the meantime. You know how she worries."
"Oh, Rob, I was thinking we might help him unpack a little, or at least take him out to lunch before we go," Mom pleads.
"Beth, please. He's a big boy. He's done this twice already, and he knows how to hang up his own clothes. Besides, the cafeteria will be open later and that's why he wanted to stay in the dorms again this year." He shoots me another thunderous so-deal-with-it look before dismissing me and moving to the driver's door. "He'll be fine. You worry about him too much."
"You'll be fine?" Mom echoes, gazing anxiously up at me. She tugs at my sleeves, straightening hems that got folded during the moving madness. I don't think she's even aware that she's doing it. I shift the box of clothes to my hip and give her an awkward one-armed hug around her shoulders.
"I'm fine, Mom. Go home. I'll call you later, once I'm settled in, okay?"
"Okay." She flashes me a quick, small smile, squeezes my hand, and follows Dad to the front of the car. As the car starts up and pulls away from the curb, she rolls her window down and blows me a kiss. "Be safe sweetie. I love you!"
Finally. They're gone. I head back inside with my last box. As I trade the blazing late-summer sun for the dim coolness of the lobby, I blow out a breath, letting go of a weight heavier than any of the boxes we hauled in. August is a month with too many sharp little minutes. It's a torture sort of how I would imagine it would feel to be methodically turned into a human pincushion, except instead of my body, all of these minute-needles jab into my mind, my heart, my psyche. Ever since high school graduation, move-in day can never get here fast enough.
Except for maybe this year. Back at the room, I pause with my free hand on the worn brass doorknob, the muscles between my shoulder blades knotting anew. Maybe I should just kill myself instead. Seriously, I think there's something in the student handbook that says if you die during the school year, your roommate gets a four-point in every class as consolation. My roommate hasn't even seen me yet, and I doubt he would suffer that much grief over me. It would really be a win-win for everybody.
Not that I have any way of killing myself right now. Not out here in the hallway, unless there's some way to systematically brain myself to death with this cardboard carton of clothing. Either I have to go in the room just to look for a weapon - Hey, don't mind me, just here to try to kill myself. Don't suppose you packed a gun in with your toiletries? - or I have to wait until the cafeteria opens and I can get, like, a butter knife or something equally as stupid. Besides, what if he hasn't even come back yet? And then here I'll be when he does, sitting on the filthy brown dorm carpet outside of our room like a complete emo loser.
The voice jerks me out of my melancholy, and I glance to the right to see another guy just coming out of the next door. He grins over as he locks it behind him, then pockets the key and comes over, hand extended.
"You must be one of our suitemates," he continues as I drop the box in front of the door and automatically return the handshake. "I'm Nate. My roommate's Dan, but I doubt you'll see him around all that much. Girlfriend lives on the first floor." He lifts his eyebrows to indicate the floor above us.
"Josh," I reply. "I don't know if you've met my roommate. I haven't seen him yet."
Nate shakes his head. "Haven't seen anyone else around. Wanted to catch one of you guys, though, see if you had any plans about divvying up the bathroom cleaning."
"I can get it," I say. Maybe a little too fast, judging from the way his eyebrows are on the rise again. "Heh. I just mean I don't have a problem with doing my part. I can be kind of a clean freak sometimes. I guess if you guys are okay with stocking the TP, we can probably pick up some cleaning supplies and take care of that. And then if there's a problem or whatever, we'll just let you guys know."
"Yeah, man, that'll work. If you're sure you don't mind," he adds quickly.
I'm pretty sure if we rotated who cleans the bathroom, his turn would not be all that thorough. Possibly it would be completely nonexistent. While I'm still shuddering on the inside, on the outside I nod and reassure him that I definitely don't mind.
"All right, man. I gotta get going." He clasps my hand and pulls me into a swift, back-slapping bro-hug. "Good to meet you, though. Sure I'll see you around."
"Yeah. You too." Blinking at the unexpected contact, I sort of frozenly watch him head down the hallway and disappear into the terrace lounge before I manage to thaw enough to pick the box back up and let myself into my room. In the wake of Nate's enthusiasm, I have somehow managed either to forget that I share this room or to forget that my roommate might still not be here, so it's a funny kind of shock to be startled by still being the only one here when I walk in.
"Guess I should get some of this shit out of the way," I mumble, as though talking to myself will clear the embarrassment of being startled, even though nobody was here to see me and so I have no good reason to be embarrassed. Shaking my head, I crouch down to rip open the box I brought in with me, then slide open the closet door. My roommate has moved the single tall dresser inside and hung up his shirts and dress pants to the left of it, so I start hanging my shirts to the right.
Just as I'm moving on to jeans and tees and considering whether I really want to risk an eyeful of my roommate's underwear by going through the dresser drawers to see which ones are still available, the door bursts open behind me. I jump for the second time this afternoon, send up a quick thank-you to God for my being both in the closet and on the hinge side of the door so I couldn't be seen, and then ease my way to my feet.
"Hello - oh!" My roommate sees me and freezes, one hand still in the act of pushing the door closed.
"Cohen. Hello." My eyes flicker over him, from the blond skater-punk hair complete with a flop of bright pink across the side of his face, to the pierced lip, to the black ringer tee loudly proclaiming damn straight i'm not, to the wad of thin rainbow-hued rubber bracelets bunched around one wrist, to the bright yellow skinny jeans, all the way down to black Converse decked out with marker doodles and smiley-face shoelaces. It only takes a fraction of a second, but when I get back to his face again, he's not only recovered, but smirking.
"Like what you see?" he asks, and pops one hip.
"Should I like that I see that you're still a little slut?" I retort, words slipping out like goldfish and me without a net.
But Cohen doesn't even bat an eye. "Only for you, Joshie. But that was, what? Four years ago." He whistles in awe. "I learned. And I'm picking 'em better now."
The door swings open again, right on cue - what is this, fucking Glee? - and another guy strides in. He's about my height, which means he's got an easy four, maybe five inches on Cohen, with light brown hair and a swimmer's build that his tight t-shirt only accentuates. He wraps a lean, ropy arm around Cohen's waist, as casually as if he were resting it along the roof of his car.
Cohen's hand, the one attached to the wrist with all the bracelets, closes comfortably around the arm, pale against deep tan. "This is my boyfriend, Kayne. Kayne, this is Josh. My ex-best friend."