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Save the Date
Author: Morgan Matson

Christmas

BREAK

I WASN’T SURE HOW IT had happened. But Jesse Foster was kissing me.

I was kissing him back, opening my eyes every few seconds to verify it was really, actually happening, to see the twinkle lights and garlands strung up around the basement, the Santa hat listing on the banister post, and sure enough, Jesse Foster above me, his hands in my hair, his brown eyes closed.

Usually, when something you’ve dreamed about your whole life actually happens, it’s a disappointment. The reality never quite lives up to the fantasy, where everything is perfect and you never get hungry and your feet never hurt. But this was everything I had ever imagined it would be, and more.

Whenever I’d had dreams about kissing him—and there had been a lot of these, starting from age eleven onward—everything had built up to the kiss. The moment he saw me, the words he said, the way it all seemed to go into slow motion as he bent his head toward mine. And then there had always been kind of a fade-out into blackness, and I’d start imagining the future, the two of us walking down the halls of Stanwich High together, his hand in mine, as he smiled happily at me.

But kissing Jesse Foster in real life was beyond anything I’d even known to dream about. He was an amazing kisser, to start with, putting to shame the four other guys I’d kissed, who’d been fumbling and hesitant. He was utterly in control, but would pause every now and then, looking down at me, like he was making sure I was okay—and I’d stretch up to kiss him back, losing myself in him once more.

The part of my brain that could still think of things beyond lips and hands and oh my god and Jesse Foster was trying to understand how I’d gotten here. I had known Jesse my entire life—when he was six and short for his age, with a mop of brown curly hair; with braces and glasses when he was twelve; and now, at nineteen, his hair cut short, his arms strong and muscular, his legs tangling over mine as he eased me underneath him. He was my brother Mike’s best friend, but it wasn’t like we’d ever hung out, just the two of us.

I was only here, in the Fosters’ basement two days after Christmas, because Mike hadn’t come home for the holiday. After what had happened in February, he hadn’t been home all summer—he’d stayed at Northwestern and done a summer program, and had skipped Thanksgiving. But up until the last moment, I hadn’t quite believed that he would skip Christmas, too. It was one thing to bail on Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. Not Christmas. But he hadn’t come home, texting on the twenty-third that his plans had changed. There was no other explanation.

My mother had channeled her anger and disappointment into cleaning, and when she got to Mike’s room, she’d found a box labeled JESSE STUFF and had handed it to me to do something with.

And even though I was beyond annoyed at my brother, I’d jumped at the chance. After all, this was a completely legitimate way to see Jesse, one that didn’t involve me concocting some excuse. I’d texted him, sending drafts to my best friend, Siobhan, first so he wouldn’t be able to see my three-dot bubbles going on too long, proof that I was hesitating and changing my mind. He’d texted back that people were hanging out tonight at his place and to swing by whenever, which I’d interpreted to mean nine thirty. When I’d gotten there, after changing my outfit five times and working for an hour on my hair to get it to look like I hadn’t spent any time on it at all, he’d waved at me cheerfully from across the basement, motioned for me to put the box in the corner, then pointed at the cooler of beers bobbing in melted ice water. I took a Natty Ice, but mostly just held it as I found myself in a conversation with one of Jesse’s roommate’s friends about how there are multiple timelines and the one we’re living in is but one example of potentially infinite parallel universes, and that if I wanted proof, I could find it on the Internet.

I’d nodded and tried to look like I wasn’t finding this ridiculous as I watched Jesse out of the corner of my eye. Siobhan called it my Jesse-dar, and she wasn’t wrong—I always knew where he was in any room, and how near he was. Jesse had been the center of the party, dominating the beer pong table, greeting people as they walked in the basement door, sitting in a chair backward and arguing intensely about the last season of Game of Thrones. Every now and then, he’d look over at me, and I’d smile and then pretend to be really interested in whatever conversation I’d found myself having, needing to prove that I could hold my own with his friends, that I wasn’t just Mike’s little sister.

But after two hours, I was ready to go. Jesse’s friends were starting to gather up coats and hats, the rain that had been on and off all day had started up again, and Jesse appeared very occupied with a girl in a red V-neck who was sitting close to him on the couch, her long black hair spilling like a curtain in front of them, shielding them from view. The bathroom in the basement was locked, so I headed up to the main house, which was quiet and dark, except for the white lights of a Christmas tree in the corner.

When I came back to the basement, I stopped short on the bottom step. I could faintly hear doors slamming and a car starting up. But mostly, I was focused on the fact that everyone else had departed, and Jesse was sitting on the couch. Alone.

“How long was I gone?” I asked as I crossed the room for my coat, and Jesse smiled without taking his eyes from the television, which I could now hear was playing some kind of sports recap.

“Come on come on,” he muttered, leaning forward. “Come—” Something sports-related and disappointing must have happened then, because he sighed and sank back against the couch. He turned off the TV, and then tossed the remote aside, leaving only the sound of the rain against the windows. Then he looked over at me and smiled, like he’d seen me there for the first time. “You don’t have to leave, Charlie,” he said, nodding at my coat. “Just because I’m a loser and all my other friends have deserted me.”

I dropped my coat like it was on fire, but then gathered my wits and made myself walk over to join him on the couch slowly, like this wasn’t a big deal at all and I really couldn’t have cared less.

Jesse didn’t move over from his spot on the middle cushion, so when I sat on the couch, I was closer to him than I had ever been before, except for two memorable occasions—when we’d been stuck in an elevator together at a laser tag place for Mike’s fourteenth birthday, and a memorable car ride when I was twelve and we’d been coming back from playing mini golf in Hartfield, all of us crammed into the car, and somehow, I’d ended up in the way back next to Jesse, Mike on his other side. And Jesse kept turning to talk to Mike, which meant he kept leaning into me, his bare leg pressing against mine. It had been a thirty-minute ride home, and the whole time, I’d prayed for a traffic jam, a road closure, a flat tire—anything to keep it going longer. So, as I sat on the couch next to him now, it was with full awareness that this proximity to him—voluntary, as opposed to car-logistic mandated—was a brand-new thing.

His arm had been draped across the top of the couch when I had walked over, and he didn’t move it when I sat down next to him. It even—and this was enough to make my palms start to sweat—seemed to inch down a little, closer to my shoulders.

“You want to watch something?” Jesse asked, leaning over to retrieve the remote from where it had ended up on my side of the couch, which meant he was leaning over me, across me, his arm brushing mine and setting off an explosion of stars in my head.

“Sure,” I managed, hoping that I sounded cool and composed and not like I was somewhere between elation and throwing up. Jesse smelled like fabric softer and faintly of the beer he’d been drinking, and when he’d retrieved the remote, he was closer still, and not moving away.

“Maybe a movie?” Jesse asked, pointing the remote vaguely toward the television but not moving his eyes from mine.

It was then that the penny dropped and I finally understood what was happening. I may have only kissed four guys, and the closest thing I’d ever had to a boyfriend was a tenth-grade relationship with my chemistry partner, Eddie Castillo, that had lasted all of three weeks, but I hadn’t been born yesterday. I suddenly knew exactly why Jesse had asked me to stay, why I was sitting on the couch next to him, and that it was absolutely not to watch a movie.

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