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Three months into the school year, I deemed myself as the happiest I had ever been. I was still required to visit the counselor, but I didn’t mind telling him all about my life. I had friends, lively ones I could do and say anything with. I wasn’t earning all A’s, but my grades were respectable and I was able to dance every day. I loved my new home and the life it enabled me to have. My comfort allowed my mind to wander to places it had been too anxious to venture to before. I, Isabella Mia Hales, developed a crush on a person, not a fictional character. I couldn’t believe it either. And believe me, I spent weeks in denial, trying to think myself out of my potentially disastrous predicament.
He wasn’t perfect – trips and spills were to be expected, he didn’t understand all of my references, and all of our interests weren’t identical or complementary. He wasn’t the biggest fan of reading, but he accepted my love for it and allowed me to pelt him with the meaningless facts I obtained. He was a huge fan of sports, particularly soccer, but I couldn’t care less. His casual clumsiness was oddly comforting; I was never too fearful of making a fool of myself to have a good time. His unique perspective was fascinating and he made an effort to research the cultural customs he was unfamiliar with. Milo was one of my best friends. I didn’t mean to look at him as more than that, but it happened. I needed to know what I was supposed to do next. Naturally, I turned to my most consistent source of guidance.
I climbed into bed with my laptop after speeding through my nightly routine. I signed into Skype. Her username was illuminated and featured a green dot to signal her availability. I clicked the ‘connect’ button and inserted my earbuds as I waited for our computers to be linked. My screen shifted from the “buffering” icon to the image of my visibly pregnant sister.
Audrey was seated on a couch in a stadium dressing room. Her hand was rubbing circles on her round belly, which was encased in a snug-fitting Fleeting Moment T-shirt. I could tell that she had been working; the tell-tell signs were there – her glasses were resting low on her nose and her hair was in a messy bun with a pencil sticking out of it.
“You’ve gotten so big!” I place my hand over my mouth.
“Everything’s swollen. I had an ultrasound shortly after our plane touched down in Dublin yesterday. I’m 24-weeks. They look like a baby, with a little face and everything. We finally know what we’re having.”
“Are you feeling okay? Where’s Ev?”
“Rehearsal. He’s not greatly missed. I have lovely ladies keeping me company.” She pushed her glasses up onto her face.
“You’re cooking me up a niece?” I smiled uncontrollably.
She nodded. “She’s right where she should be according to the doctor, but Ev’s panicking. He’s read all of the recommended material multiple times. He’s hired his sister to decorate her nursery. Even overseas, he’s on the phone with her multiple times a day, ensuring she’s following our specifications. He orders baby supplies between rehearsals and while we’re traveling. I’m not used to him being the serious one.”
“His little girl is no joking matter, apparently.”
“She adores him already. Whenever he talks to or sings to her, she kicks or calms down if she is kicking too much. He’s hardly sleeping. I need to figure out a way to force him to relax. It won’t end well if he doesn’t.” She adjusted a pillow behind her back. Her t-shirt rode up, exposing midriff.
“Your shirt’s working hard.” I teased.
“I’m six months pregnant and I’ve been scaling the globe for three months. Nothing fits and I’m done trying. How have you been, Sweetie?” She returned her hand to her swollen abdomen.
“Really well. I love it here. I’ve kept my weight on. You’ve seen my friends; I’ve sent you pictures. We went to the movies tonight. It was a lot of fun.”
“It sounds like it. What did you see?”
“Woodland Chainsaw Massacre.”
“That sounds awful.”
I giggled. “It was, but it set the mood for the Halloween dance tomorrow. We had a good time poking fun at its predictability.”
“I know about your costume. Do you have a date?”
“No, most of us are single. We’re going as a pack. But if I’m being honest, I’ll probably attempt to spend most of the night around Milo.” My cheeks warmed.
“Does my little Izzie Bee have a crush?” She beamed.
“Maybe. I have no clue what I’m doing. Help?” I whimpered, poking out my bottom lip.
“I’m not the best source of advice. I knew Everett for eighteen years before I started dating him. Our pace was glacial. Ev said he was painfully obvious about his feelings, but I was oblivious until he spelled it out. Has Milo done anything that could be construed as interest in pursuing more than a friendship with you?”
“Well, when I had that cold a few weeks ago, he brought me soup and watched movies with me. Tonight, he put his arm across the back of my chair. I sat back and it was like he was putting his arm around me. The bra I had on created cleavage. The guy seated across from me brought it to my attention that it was showing by staring. I was embarrassed. That’s when Milo did it. It could’ve been a comfort thing. I’m probably reading into nothing. I don’t think I want a boyfriend.” I relayed, meddling with my necklace.
“What do you want?”
“I don’t know. More? Never mind, it sounds silly when I hear myself say it aloud.”
“It’s tougher for people like us to form and maintain meaningful relationships. We have abandonment issues. As a defense mechanism, we spent years training ourselves to become distant when we feel there is a high risk of someone leaving us behind. We’re finally learning to undo it all. Give yourself a break.” She reassured with a warm smile.
“But I don’t want to miss out on what’s in front of me. This is my clean slate, Aud. I don’t want to apply my old life’s rules to it.”
“Do your best to explain your point of view. If he doesn’t understand or moves on to someone else, you’ll sustain a small blow to your pride, instead of a full-fledged broken heart.”
I picked up a section of my hair. I used my index finger to smooth the ends. “How did you do it?”
“He grown up with me. When our home life got worse, I shut him out. That really hurt him. I explained years later. He forgave me and helped me cope in a way only he could. He reminded me that I was still a kid and I didn’t have to take myself so seriously with him. I was having fun with an old friend. I didn’t expect to fall in love.”
“Or for him to knock you up right after you got married.” I joked.
She warded off a smile. “We’ve always talked about having kids. Biologically speaking, this is a good time for us to start. It was a happy surprise. Women all over the world throw themselves at him. I don’t know what I’d do if he did this to one of them.”
“Have you seen the way he treats his mother? He’d never do anything to hurt you.”
“He loves Viola more than anything. She can’t wait for her granddaughter. She has Katelyn planning a baby shower. She’s getting calls from both her and Ev, both of them are demanding perfection for a baby that won’t have an opinion for years.”
I giggled. “Kate should’ve never told them she wanted to be an interior designer. When’s the baby shower?”
“December. You’ll be home for winter break. The band will still be touring in Europe on Thanksgiving, but I’m coming back to the United States. We’re going to Florida.”
“To visit Yaya and Papi?”
“He’s becoming less and less lucid. I want to spend as much time with him as we can. She’s anxious to hear all about her great-grandchild and how you’re enjoying school.”
“Will Mom be there?”
“That’s good, I guess.” I looked down.
“Izzie Bee, –?”
“Yes?” I returned my eyes to her image.
“Her sobriety hasn’t been consistent. Both of us are pretty fragile at the moment. It’s best that she stays away.”
“Why does she do this to us?” Tears collected in my eyes.
“I don’t know.” She sniffled and dried her eyes with her fingertips beneath her glasses.
I wiped mine with the sleeve of my pajamas.
“Hon, are you crying?” I heard Ev off screen.
She buried her face in her hands instead of answering. He sat down beside her on the couch and pulled her into his arms. She rested her head on his chest. He rubbed her back and kissed the top of her head.
“I love you. I’m sorry.” I croaked. Everett noticed her computer for the first time. I signed off and shut the lid of my laptop.
I brought my knees to my chest and wrapped my arms around them. I took calming breaths to fight off the panic attack I felt coming on. I climbed out of bed when I had a firm grip on myself. I went to our bathroom with my tea kettle to fill it with water. I washed my face to remove the residue of my fallen tears. I dried off with my bath towel. I returned to my room after retrieving the water I went there to gather. I plugged it in and waited as it was heated.
My phone started ringing. I rushed to answer it before it accidentally woke up one of my roommates.
“Are you alright?” Everett asked me.
“Yes. Is Audrey? I asked about our mom. I shouldn’t have. I didn’t mean to upset her. It can’t be good for the baby.”
“Leslie’s never acted like it for more than a second, but she’s your mother. It’s natural to wonder about her. Both Aud and the baby are fine. You didn’t do anything wrong. I made her cry this morning by attempting to give her one of my shirts to wear. I’m the one in trouble.”
“Oh, Ev.” I tsked.
“I saw the shirt she has on and thought she’d be more comfortable in a bigger one. She sleeps in my shirts all the time. I gave her one she likes. She started crying and told me that was a cruel joke. She hasn’t spoken to me much today. I’m surprised she’s letting me hold her right now.”
“Be extra nice to my sister. She sensitive and I’m not there to hug her.”
“I love her and our daughter. I’m doing what I can for them. Aud told me one of your friends is a Fleeting Moment fan. We’re adding a few cities on the east coast to the end of our tour. One of them is in Boston.”
“Yeah, Elle loves the band, especially you. You should see her room, but I haven’t told anyone here that I know you. I couldn’t get away with handing out comp tickets.” I put a dry teabag in a clean mug. I poured my freshly steamed water onto it.
“You can tell them you won a contest. There’s a very slim chance of winning, but it’s probable. The winners are never announced publicly. We’ll act as though we’re meeting you for the first time.”
“You’d really go through all that trouble for me?”
“When’s the concert?”
“That’s perfect. Her birthday is the 7th. It’d be a dream come true for her to meet you and the guys.”
“Then it’s settled. I’ll have Jimmy mail tickets and backstage passes to you.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Why’d you stick around when she told you about our parents? And now that you’re famous, you could have anyone. Why are you still there for her – for us?” I threw my teabag into the trashcan.
“She’s always been stronger than me, even as kids. I could see that it was really hurting her. I wanted to prove to myself and her that I could step up and be dependable when it mattered. The reason we’ve stuck it out over the years is simple, really. I know what matters to me. I don’t want to take any of it for granted.” He answered with ease.
I can only describe what I heard next as a soft smacking.
“Are you making out with me on the phone?” I groaned as I picked up my mug.
“Blame her. I’m too tired to do more than follow her lead.” He yawned.
“You’re taking a nap. You don’t need to be anywhere for a few hours.” I heard Aud tell him.
“I’m not going to argue with her. Goodnight, Izzie.”
“That’s for the best. Night, Ev. I love all three of you.”
“We love you too.”
I climbed into bed with my tea and watched a movie on my laptop as I drank it. I went to the bathroom to clean my mug and brush my teeth. I snapped my retainer into place and went back to my room. I removed Christina from my purse and turned off my light.
I woke up close to noon the next morning. I joined my friends in the dining hall for Saturday brunch. Sitting down, I quickly noticed that Milo was missing.
“Where’s Milo?” I asked Ryan.
“Call from home. He was using more Italian than usual. It made it impossible to tell if it was good news or bad.” He answered between bites.
“We have to bring him food.” Nick reminded.
“That’s right.” Ry snapped in his direction.
“I don’t mind getting it.” I offered without thinking.
Most of the table stopped eating to look at me. I shifted my eyes to my plate as my cheeks warmed. “He brought me soup when I had the flu a few weeks ago.”
“He got one because he’s from the land of eternal summer and gave it to you.” Finn stated objectively.
“You were in rough shape for a while there. The minestrone he dished up was an insurance policy.” Sami added, chuckling to herself.
“Sue. You won’t be disappointed.” Ry recommended playfully.
“I think that’d create awkward tension in our dance marriage.” I retorted in the same manner.
“You’re dance partners?” Morgan smiled in my direction.
“As of yesterday. I’m calling him my dance husband from now on. Our height difference isn’t ideal, but Ms. G said ‘You dance big, Isabella, it be okay’.” I quoted, doing my best impression of her voice and body language.
“What’s it supposed to be?”
“I’m 5’6 barefoot. On pointe, I’m about 5’9. Usually, my partners are between 5’9 and 6’0. He’s 6’2.” I spooned a scoop of applesauce into my mouth.
“I think you’re perfect together.” Elle batted her eyelashes with a cheeky smirk. I nudged her with my shoulder as I flushed.
I enjoyed the remainder of brunch. I obtained a to-go box and filled it foods I knew he liked. I grabbed a bottle of his favorite juice. I walked to Warhol Hall alone. His roommates had business to attend to in varying locations on campus.
We had been alone before, plenty of times, actually, but it felt far more intimate after I realized I liked him. Butterflies were rapidly fluttering in my stomach when knocked on the door of his suite.
His phone was pinned to his ear with one hand. He used the other to open the door for me. He silently greeted me with a smile and ushered me inside.
“Do you want me to leave? I didn’t think you’d still be on the phone.” I whispered as he shut the door behind me.
“I will be done soon. Have a seat.” He gestured to the living room.
I noticed that he was watching one of the movies I let him borrow on mute with subtitles. I placed his food and drink on the coffee table. I made myself comfortable on the couch. He sat down beside me.
He spoke rapidly in Italian. The only word I understood was my name. He looked over at me.
I smiled. The corner of his lip contorted up, creating a small smirk. My heart pitter-pattered in my chest as his eyes held mine.
He blushed as he sputtered the last bit, breaking his interaction with me.
“Are you going to translate for me?” I watched as he put his phone in the pocket of his jeans.
“That might be a bit too forward. The language barrier was intentional this time.” He leaned forward to retrieve his meal.
“Now I’m forced to think you were insulting me to my face. Is it alright if I take this off mute? It doesn’t have the same impact as a silent film.” I pointed to the television.
“Sure. I hate it when my father has his assistant call to talk to me for him. I have known Will for the majority of my life, but there is a checklist he is required to cover. It feels impersonal. The picture, even silent, was enough to distance myself from the conversation.”
“Our dads sound like the same person. Wait, please say his name isn’t Stuart. When’s your birthday? I don’t want this to turn into a creepy version of The Parent Trap.” I picked up the remote to control the volume.
“Vincent. My birthday is July 22nd. What’s The Parent Trap?”
“Mine’s in April. We’re good. The Parent Trap is a movie. These two girls, one’s from England and the other is from California, meet at summer camp and find out they’re identical twins. They devise a plan to get their parents back together. They switch places and meet the parent they never knew, knowing they all have to be in the same location to be switched back.”
“I’m sorry. These parents split up a set of twins, didn’t tell them of their clone on the other side of the world, and made no attempt to contact the child they abandoned? Instead of rightfully hating them, the girls help the world’s most selfish people rekindle a romance?”
“Better yet, it’s a children’s movie. As a child, I saw absolutely nothing wrong with that plot. I thought it was so cool how they reunited their family. I even dreamed of finding a twin of my own one day and doing the same.”
“Thankfully, I am undoubtedly not your brother. I live with both of my parents. I’ve seen my birth documents. I was the only child born to them on that day and ever.” He unscrewed the cap of his drink.
“That’s good. Nothing dilutes a crush like incest.” I bantered thoughtlessly as he drank.
He started wheezing. My eyes shot to him. When I realized what I said, my eyes bugged and my mouth became a desert.
“I – that – uh, rewind?” I patted his back as he worked to dispel the liquid from his lungs.
My chest thudded and my stomach churned, absolutely humiliated by the turn of events.
He cleared his throat. “I rather not. I like you too.”
“You don’t have to say that. It makes everything that much worse. I should go –” I tried to stand up.
He took my hand, stopping me. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him though I felt him staring.
“It’s okay. There’s no harm in looking at me.”
“I don’t know if I can do this. I didn’t mean to say anything.” I admitted feebly, locking my eyes on the floor.
“Have I done something that would make you –?”
“I’m thinking of getting a tattoo on my forehead that reads, ‘Warning: Severe Mommy and Daddy issues’.” I used self-deprecating humor to withdraw emotionally, against my therapists’ orders.
“I think that would be a bit drastic. That is a surprisingly common ailment.”
“I don’t know. My mother’s dependency on narcotics and tendency to refer to me as a mistake on top of my father’s insane dedication to work and his new wife, who’s only three years older than my sister, make me feel pretty confident that it’s worth the plunge.” I spat sarcastically through the lump in my throat. Moisture wormed out of my eyes without my consent.
Instead of offering words to cheer me up, he remained silent and put his arms around me. I took calming breaths and used the arms of my sweater to dry my face. “I’m sorry.” I breathed. “That’s way too much information. The way I reacted wasn’t your fault. That’s what I should’ve said instead. I’m not good at this.”
“I take the title you gave me yesterday very seriously. As your dance husband, people expect me to know all about you. You cry. Now I know. It’s one less fact I have to make up to seem informed. Is there anything else you’d like me to say to make you sound cool?” He sparked one of our usual jokes.
I fought back a smile. “I’m a great swimmer. In reality, I only know how to not drown. If I was, I’d be unstoppable. Aquatic travel is the wave of the future.”
“Pun intended?” He smiled.
“Of course. Who do you take me for?”
He chuckled lightly as he settled back into his seat beside me.
“Since you shared, I’ll do it too to make you feel less uncomfortable. I used to get high on a daily basis — cannabis and pills mostly. I was expelled from my last boarding school for possession of them. I’ve been clean for months, but my parents still do not trust me. I’m a world away because they ran out of options and they are sick of dealing with me.” He said after a moment, taking on a much more serious tone.
I spared a glance in his direction. “Is that why his assistant called?”
“Yes, to remind that I’ll be tox-screened over Thanksgiving holiday.” He didn’t make eye contact with me.
“Are you going home for that?”
“No, it wouldn’t be worth it. It takes fourteen hours to get there. We are only off for four days. I’ll be staying in a hotel. Staff from home will fly in to ensure I stay out of trouble. My parents will not be making an appearance. It is not a day of significance to us.”
I shifted in my seat to face him. “Are you sure your dad’s name is Vincent? He sounds so much like mine.”
“I’m sure, just as I know I’ve eliminated the probability that we’ll be together by owning up to the common thread I share with your mother.”
“Have you ever lashed out at someone for little to no reason while high or drunk?”
“Never, it mellowed me out — does she batter you?” He lowered his voice and searched my eyes for the truth.
“No. I haven’t seen or spoken to her in years, but she was emotionally abusive. If you were an aggressive drunk or still got high, it would trigger unpleasant reactions in me.”
“I’m not and have not. I have tests and witnesses to prove it.” He solemnly vowed, keeping his eyes on mine.
I slowly closed the distance between us and pressed my lips to his. He kissed me back with the right combination of care and passion.
“Did that feel weird, like you were kissing your sister or something?” I pulled back a little bit, but we remained close.
He shook his head and moved in again. I lifted my hand and rested it on the side of his face as our lips slowly moved in sync.
“Cousin?” I breathed playfully when he broke away.
He shook his head and offered me a soft smile. “I have wanted to do that for a while.”
“I refuse to be your rebound.” I sat back on the couch.
“That’s not how I see you. My heart’s not broken.”
“I don’t think I’m ready for a full-fledged relationship.”
“What do you want?”
“A private trial run.”
“I need you to explain this Izzie custom to me.”
“We’ll test the waters in private to see if we can work as more than friends. If it turns out that we can’t, we can stop without all the backlash. Either way, we stay friends. I don’t want to lose that.” I elaborated. “And our friends can’t know.”
“Are you really ready for the unison ‘I told you so’ from Ryan and Elle?”
“He’d probably make a banner out of duct tape and put it on my bedroom door to drive his point home.”
“She would make a commemorative slide-show presentation with pictures and facts that lead her to believe we’d get together. She’d even add background music for the special occasion.” I giggled.
“To get this square, I can know you like me, kiss you when we’re alone, and be best friends with you everywhere else?”
“Yes. Too weird?”
“No, I love…it.”
“Mean.” I playfully swatted him on the arm.
“I couldn’t resist.” He kissed me on the cheek.
I smiled as I watched the movie.
“Will you be dancing with me tonight?” He asked, breaking the comfortable silence we were sitting in.
“Oh, yeah. It’s about time I taught you the art of dork dancing.”
“Dork dancing?” He looked over at me.
I gave him my full attention. “Mhmm. You’re in for a real treat.”
“I look forward to it.” A smile played on his lips.
“What did you tell your dad’s assistant in Italian before you hung up?”
“That he as correct in thinking I like you as more than a friend.”
“That was too forward.” I quipped lightly.
He stole a quick kiss.
I was trying to mask my grin. “You’ve got to be careful. I want to keep this quiet for as long as possible. I’m not particularly fond of your ex, but everyone else seems to fawn over her. I rather not hear the comparisons or her commentary.”
“She cheated on me this summer with Alex of all people. You’re the first person I’ve told personally. I’m confident she will be at a loss for words when it comes to the new recipient of my affection.” He drawled.
My eyes expanded. “You’re okay with that?”
“I had already broken up with her when I found out. I didn’t care for her as much as I should have. She lives for attention. Giving it or taking it away from her feels petty. I’ve decided to cut my losses.” He shrugged.
“A hint of maturity. Attractive.” I nodded my head slowly.
“It’s good you’re not mistaking it for full-bodied. I’m not ready to live up to that expectation.”
“Our friendship honesty policy is still in effect. We’re killin’ it when it comes to consistency.”
I didn’t know what we were exactly, but the fact that he was willing to figure it out meant a lot to me. I wasn’t expecting it to last forever. I’d always been aware of its non-existence. I was blanketed in a feeling of giddiness that often accompanies the exciting aspect of the unknown. I was anxious to see where our kindred spirits and playful banter took us.
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