Authors: Kristen Kehoe
Tags: #Romance, #Love, #New Adult, #College, #changing POV
I slide my eyes over to her. “Swooning is for southern belles and old ladies.”
“And boys who can’t stay away from pretty redheads. You’re waiting for her again,” she points out before I can argue. “That’s not your style—not even close. I mean, you didn’t even wait for your prom date after the dance senior year, and you were sleeping with her.”
“Maybe that’s why I didn’t wait.”
“Are you trying to sleep with my roommate, Brooks?”
Now my eyes widen. “Christ, Nala, that’s not what this is about. And it’s none of your business.”
“Then what’s going on? I haven’t ever seen you this into someone, and don’t tell me it’s because you want to paint her. If that was the case, you would be painting, not swooning.”
Inside of my pockets, my hands clench into fists. Nala has been my family longer than Mal and Hunter. I knew her when she was a scrawny little five-year-old bursting her way into kindergarten—late the first day, because she had been at the beach. And I knew her as a crazy teen, the girl who fell and fell hard, but had no one to catch her; the girl who picked up the shredded pieces and put herself back together stronger than before she was ripped apart. I know who she is now, how she operates—and she knows me.
The me who doesn’t follow girls because my life is already controlled by enough people. The me who sees a subject, uses it, and moves on. The me who doesn’t let anyone else into my inner circle because I have the four people who matter most and no one else has ever been worth the time and effort.
She understands that the guy, whoever he is, who waits in parking lots and dorm rooms for a girl he barely knows, is a guy neither of us is familiar with.
“She makes me feel like I can breathe,” I finally say. “Something about her… it’s like she has opened a window and shown me a world I’ve never seen before, even though I’ve been living in it this whole time.” I look down at my feet. “I can’t explain it more than that.”
“You don’t have to,” Nala murmurs. I close my eyes because I hear it, the knowledge that whatever Jordan is to me, it’s too much. Already, it’s too much and Nala sees it too.
I hear footsteps approach us and Nala slaps me on the back, bringing me out of the wondering and into the present.
Jordan stops an appropriate two feet away from me, looking flushed and new in a pair of sky-blue jeans and a white shirt with a sort-of skirt on the bottom of it. She should look twelve—instead, she looks like summer, and all I want to do is take a breath of fresh air.
“Ready?” she asks. I nod, but I remember what I told Nala, and I can’t help but think that maybe I’m not.
“I’ve lived near the beach my whole life—I don’t know why this feels like it’s so new.”
I’m sitting on Brooklyn’s patio with a drink in my hand, watching the sun lower over the water. The boardwalk is still pretty busy, so there is the echo of voices and noise around us, but somehow, looking over the water and the boats, I feel quiet.
“You’re used to the rich beaches; Manhattan, Malibu, Venice, Hermosa. Beautiful beaches for beautiful people.” He sips his beer. “Mission beach is about living.”
I look away from the water to stare at him. “You’ve lived here your entire life, haven’t you?” He nods. “You didn’t want to go somewhere else? Leave for a while?”
For a minute, he stares out at the water, his jaw tight, and I think maybe he’s angry. Before I can apologize, backtrack, he’s shrugging his shoulders. “My life is here,” he says. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Where was your future really headed, Red? Not many Harvard-Westlake kids find themselves at a small private university in San Diego. Especially those who graduate with honors and several scholarships to better schools far away.”
I raise my brows, more amused than annoyed he Googled me. “Impressive research, counselor.”
“Asking a question isn’t interrogating you, Jordan.” His voice is flat, a little intense, but I’m learning that’s just who he is.
“Care to answer one from me first?” He hesitates slightly, judging whether or not he can give me that much power, and then nods. Maybe because of his hesitation, or his willingness to battle through his reservations, I don’t ask what I want. Instead, I smile. “Are you going to feed me tonight? Because I worked out with Nala today, and I’m down a few hundred calories at least.”
He pauses a second, as if checking to make sure I’m serious. Then he shakes his head, fishing his phone out of his pocket with a half-smile on his face. “Chinese?”
“Sure. We survived those burritos, I feel like we can survive anything.”
He makes the call, ordering enough food for six people. “Forty-five minutes,” he says. “Want to walk for a bit?”
“Didn’t I just tell you I already worked out today?”
The smile he gives is one I haven’t seen from him before—full and almost bordering on fun. It transforms his face, and suddenly, he isn’t sexy-and-serious artistic Brooklyn Novak, he is approachable and handsome. “Red, paddleboarding in the Cove is hardly CrossFit.”
“Do you know at one point she stopped paddling and started doing yoga?
On her board
.” I shake my head. “There I was, barely able to keep from capsizing while on my knees, and she’s contorting herself into these awkward and painful positions. And looking beautiful doing it,” I add.
He stands, holding his hand out to me. I sigh and place mine into it, letting him pull me to my feet. We walk on the sand along the surf, him closer to the water, me on the outside. I talk and he listens, giving one-word answers to the questions I ask him. I sneak glances at him, more curious now about who he is than I was before.
His hair is pulled off his face again, his scruff just thick enough to give him the look which says “I don’t care.” His shorts and T-shirt are like any of the others he’s worn in the past week, comfortably lived-in. Black T-shirt, camo shorts. It’s not just how big he is, or how he demands to be noticed without actually saying anything—it’s how controlled.
I’ve always had to work for quiet and calm. Being demure is a learned skill, one that I have easily forgotten in the days I have lived without my mother’s presence. Silence is not a part of who I am—I have nervous legs and an active mind. When I don’t remember to filter myself, everything I think and feel is said aloud. Brooks is the absolute antithesis of that.
He asks questions, but rarely answers them. He listens, and though I know he is taking in and absorbing everything I have said, he isn’t a reflective listener who makes comments or additions; there is no head nodding or affirmative glances from Brooklyn, just the silence and then another question.
Maybe that’s why when he actually speaks, when he offers a small smile or banter, I feel like it is genuine.
“You aren’t temperamental, are you?”
We’ve stopped, and are turning back toward his house. Brooks pauses mid-turn so we are face-to-face instead of shoulder-to-shoulder.
“How do you figure?”
I cross my arms, slightly chilled by the small amount of spray off the water. Whether he notices, or just can’t hear me, Brooks steps closer, blocking me from the water and offering me some of his body heat. It forces me to tilt my head back and look directly up at him.
“You have all of this control.” I uncross my arms long enough to motion to him, hands still in his pockets. “I just can’t imagine you throwing tantrums, saying bad words, breaking a paint jar or trashing a canvas.”
There’s that faint smile again. “I’ve never thrown a dinner plate in someone’s lap, if that’s what you mean.”
My cheeks heat, and I look down at my toes, lifting them out of the sand and dropping them again. And then I laugh, shaking my head. “Like I said, you’re not temperamental.”
“I broke ninety days of nicotine abstinence just to see if it would help me clear my head so I could paint.”
I glance up at him. “Did it?”
The intensity returns, and he looks straight at me before he shakes his head. “I don’t know—I never finished the cigarette because something more appealing than nicotine came about, and I haven’t let her go.”
He turns and starts back, slowing until I catch up. We don’t speak while we walk this time, and for once, I have no questions. I shouldn’t feel this way—flattered and interested and… whatever else is rolling through me right now. But I do. I want to stay here, on Brooklyn’s beach, staring at the ocean and watching him watch me while we figure each other out.
When we get back to his house, dinner is just arriving. He answers the door and I head back to use the restroom and wash my hands. I meet him on the patio, and he already has cartons spread out, chopsticks resting on a plate in front of my chair. The same chair which now has a sweatshirt on it.
“It’s cold,” is all he says, digging into one of the cartons. I sit down, slipping the sweatshirt over my head, feeling like a schoolgirl when I breathe in, drawing Brooklyn all the way into my lungs. If he notices, he doesn’t comment.
The sleeves hang well beyond my hands; I roll them back before straightening, crossing my feet at the ankles and reaching forward, taking the plate Brooks has loaded with food.
“I’m eating more than I ever have—even still, I don’t think I can finish all of this.”
He swallows his bite. “I can.”
We eat in silence for a few minutes. I take the beer he offers me, oddly pleased with the bitter taste. “Are you and Hunter doing anything interesting?”
I carefully fork up some rice with a piece of broccoli, sliding it between my lips and chewing. Brooks shakes his head, scooping in more food and chasing it with beer.
I wipe my lips before placing my napkin back on my lap. “Your turn for what?”
“You never answered me earlier. I came through with dinner, now it’s your turn.” He leans back, his beer in his hand, his plate near to empty of food. “Why San Diego and not Princeton?”
I wait for the ache—the longing I felt even days ago when I realized I was in a place I didn’t choose, when I thought my future was bleak and ordinary, hanging in front of me exactly as my mother planned and I always feared. Except… those feelings don’t surface, not even when I say what I didn’t to Nala that first day we hung out.
“I actually wanted Yale the most.” I set my chopsticks down and take another sip of beer before looking at him. “Princeton is good, and it’s growing in ranking and prestige, but Yale is always ranked nationally as one of the best universities. Since they have been around longer, a degree from Yale is just that much better.”
He raises his brows. “Is that what matters? Prestige?”
His voice isn’t accusatory, but I feel like there may be a hint of derision in it. I set my bottle down and fold my hands together. “When I was growing up, I didn’t really know any different. There was my life, and the life of everyone I knew, everyone around me, and they were the same. Houses on the beach, houses in the city, drivers to take me to and from school, a Mercedes at sixteen and a new one at eighteen…these were things I knew. But there was always something I intuitively understood, even when it seemed that no one else around me did, or that they cared enough to acknowledge it. You know what it was?” I ask and look up at him.
“That money can only get you so far.” I shake my head, because even still, I see how simple it is. “Money can get you things—great things—but if you have knowledge, brains, something to work for, you can earn your own money and go wherever you want. That was key to me.”
, I think. I just don’t know if my reasons for wanting freedom are the same.
He leans forward and sets his beer down with mine, resting his elbows on his knees. “Did you work for those scholarships, Red?” I nod. “What were you going to do at Yale?”
“Major in Computer Science and Mathematics… move on to creating algorithms that would impact the way we live, the way we spend time, and money, and energy. The way we try and change the world when really, we’re just shuffling things from place to place.”
“Is that possible?” he asks.
“Majoring in math?”
He shakes his head. “Changing the way we live, making it better? It seems like a lot of people want to do the exact same thing you do, only they never quite make it.”
I see it in his eyes—that something which makes him angry, resentful, a little closed off. Because I understand a little of what it feels like to have all of those emotions rolling around inside of me, I don’t ask.
“I think so. Maybe we’re getting it wrong now, but the only way to work toward something good, something right, is to cross out all of the wrong solutions on the way.”
“Is that what you’re doing? Crossing off the wrong solutions to prove where you belong?”
It takes me a minute, but when I finally answer, I share my first secret with Brooklyn Novak. “I don’t know.” And then, “I do know that I don’t want to be a teacher.”
The first time I paint Jordan, I use watercolors.
I cut out of work early, and even though I know he needed me to help demo, Hunter didn’t say anything. He understands how long it has been since I did anything which didn’t require a hammer and a tool belt. After an hour at the computer, I had the majority of Jordan’s pictures divided into folders, named only for her features. But it wasn’t the computer I wanted.
She had something else to say—and it had to come from me. Sketches are stuck to the magnet board behind my work bench—maybe twenty in all. There are profiles, lines, half-finished portraits. I left none of her face un-sketched, but when it came down to what I felt, I went to my easel.
Now, I’m using watered-down red, blue, and yellow to create her. I don’t often paint like this. Part of my style includes texture. I use material when I paint—I mesh a photo with acrylic paint, metal-grated materials, newspaper clippings, and oils. I use gesso and eggshells—I create a world a person can touch. Rarely do I use just canvas and paint. But with Jordan, with this first picture, it’s not about anything other than
. Long sweeping lines, head thrown back, hair in trails of color behind her, arms out wide.