Part of you is always traveling faster, always traveling ahead.
You were seven the first time you ran away from home. You made it all the way to Winston's house with your lunchbox full of Matchbox cars and you got to eat grilled cheese for dinner and play Hungry Hungry Hippos until your mom showed up to take you back.
You'd hoped it would be your dad but you get home and he's gone again. Even though he'd spent the weekend telling your Ma he wouldn't be, winking over at you as he said "You believe me, don't you, Nicky?" while you tried to hold Jamie at arm's length to keep him from pushing a drool-covered Fisher Price policeman in your ear.
Your hands are shaking and your pulse is racing and you almost can't concentrate on the open road ahead of you. All you want to do is look over at her in that crazy blue outfit and keep telling her how ready you are for this, for her, for the two of you.
"Hey Nick--" Jess says and there's something in her voice you've never heard before. "Pull over," she says, low and so full of promise all you can do is get off the road, pull to a stop as soon as you can.
You spend the whole month before you leave for school pretending like it's not happening. Not packing no matter how much your mom nags you about it. When you think about college, you get this feeling in your stomach like when you drank too much peach schnapps and threw up in the bushes by the high school parking lot.
It means staying up all night before you're supposed to leave, stuffing your clothes in trash bags to pile in your trunk. You finish just when your mom comes downstairs in her bathrobe, already teary. (Neither your dad or Jamie wake up and you're really freaking glad for that.)
"I don't know what we're going to do without you," she says, for the 412th time that summer and you feel just as shitty as the 411 times before. But she kisses your forehead and gives you a bag of peanut butter sandwiches and then there's nothing left to do except get in the car and drive. ("I don't know why you have to go so far away," your whole extended family's been grumbling all summer, and you haven't told anyone it's because Syracuse was the farthest away of every school you got into.)
The Gin Blossoms come on the radio while you're turning off your street, the early morning cool of late August spilling in through the car window that only cranks halfway down and you've got your two best hacky sacks, an eighth of weed in the glove compartment and you're wearing your sweet new tie dye shirt, so all the college girls you're gonna meet will know how chill and interesting you are. You feel lighter every single mile, the whole ten hour drive.
Things you learn in college:
1. If you offer to drive the super hot girl on your hall home for Thanksgiving, she'll beam and give you a big hug and her hair will smell so good you'll spend years getting half-hard every time you smell shampoo.
2. If you drive from Syracuse to Florida to Chicago, by the time you finish, it'll basically be time to head back to Syracuse again
The second time you miss your flight home for Christmas you don't even swear. You scrub a hand down your face and sink down against the airport wall and call your mom, feeling like shit about the immense bubble of relief in your chest.
"Ma -- Ma, I'm sorry -- Ma, there was traffic--"
She's mad and you're sorry. You listen to her yell at you and watch all the other holiday travelers rush around the airport and wonder how you're going to get back to the loft. Schmidt was your ride but you don't want the complaining if you ask him to turn around and come back.
By the fifth time it happens, you lie on the couch while your mom lights into you and you apologize and you can tell neither of you is paying full attention, that's how rote this feels. You don't say anything about how amazing it is every time you remember it's not the temperature of a Chicago winter outside.
There's a thud on the phone and your mom starts arguing with Jamie about how he's putting up the tree ("I told him to wait for you--")
Jess is puttering around the kitchen, baking something -- you're not sure if it's Paul-related Breakup Comfort Baking or Happy Holiday Baking and oh dear god, why do you even know there's a distinction? -- and gives you an encouraging smile. She holds up a carton of eggnog questioningly and you scrunch up your nose and shake your head violently. It's so sad. She doesn't even put booze in it.
Your mom and Jamie are still arguing and you raise your voice to get her attention.
"Ma, I gotta go," you say. "I'm real sorry. Say Merry Christmas to Jamie and -- everyone." You're sure-as-shit not gonna ask if your dad's decided to make an appearance this year.
Jess has her own glass of eggnog on the counter and while she's distracted with the oven you pour yourself a tumbler of rum. She laughs when she turns around and sees them on the island.
"A deconstructed eggnog," she says and you clink your glasses together.
One time, a few years ago, a bird got into the loft and couldn't find its way back out (to Schmidt's immense horror). It had pinballed around the living room in a panic, from closed window to wall to ceiling and back to window, while you all shouted and ineffectively tried to herd it in the right direction.
It's not that different than how your spring has gone: there was Winston with Shelby and Jess with Russell and all the Schmidt and Cece nonsense and you just-- standing still. Sitting on the couch, watching Jess dash back and forth getting ready for date night; sitting there still when you realize it's late enough that she's definitely not coming home.
So. You called Caroline. You called her and everything started going in high speed: looking at apartments with her; signing the lease; your abrupt group field trip to the desert because fuck fuck why have you committed to something so irrevocable? And then realizing it wasn't that irrevocable after all; the feeling in your chest when you got in the moving truck and turned it back towards the loft. Right back where you started.
You're so good at running even when there's nowhere to go: out the window, four floors up and this is one of the top stupidest things you've ever done, on that very very long list.
And then everything changes. You take off the coat and you're still being brave, still being very very stupid. But it happens before you can stop yourself and then. She kisses you back.
It's winter again the next time you do make it home. It's winter and it's Chicago, air so cold and dry it makes your nose bleed, and you're back home and your dad is dead.
Your dad is dead and you have absolutely no idea what the fuck you're doing. Just that everything feels horribly, exhaustingly familiar: Jamie being an idiot, your mom falling apart, everyone needing you to deal with a mess your dad made. Because he's not there to fix anything.
The wake after the funeral is full of the parents of people you grew up with, all calling you Nicky and giving you non-consensual hugs. There's food on every surface in the house and at least two variations on an Elvis-themed casserole, complete with peanut butter. (Godawful idea? BRILLIANT idea?)
You're still stuck in your suit, thinking about how this day already feels thirty hours too long, when someone hisses at you. It's Schmidt, in the kitchen doorway, scanning the room like he thinks he's some kind of secret service agent. When he meets your eye, he jerks his head toward the kitchen and disappears back through the doorway.
Winston and Jess are waiting there, wearing their winter coats, and for a bleak second you think they're leaving. But that doesn't make sense.
"We're making a break for it," Winston says, and Jess tosses you your reliable, duct-taped old parka.
"But my ma--" you say, even as you're putting it on and you can't finish the sentence before Winston and Schmidt have you by the arms, hustling you out the door.
The air hits you like a wall, so bitterly cold it's like you're feeling it with a whole new sense. The world sharpens up.
"You don't turn down a jailbreak, Miller," Jess says, cheeks already flushed from the cold.
They bundle you into the front seat and down to the bar and don't bring you back home 'til nothing feels quite real anymore.
There's this lump in your throat as you squeeze into the back of the car. You still have sand on your feet, gritty against the drugstore flip-flops you and Jess bought your first day here.
You don't want to go.
Already it feels like everything from home crashing back in on you: Schmidt complaining about a country that does gas prices in liters, Winston humming Life is a Highway off-key.
You remember this feeling: after the last time you were here -- the last time in Mexico, the last time they let you out of jail, the last time your life felt like it had taken an abrupt left turn -- you were hungover and defeated, full of the dull realization that you had to head north. Back to not having Caroline, back to having flamed out of law school, back to realizing you're never gonna be any more than where you came from. Also that cock fighting is fucking weird.
But now: Jess has your hand in hers and she squeezes it like she's reminding you.
"Penny," she says, and you know what she means and god have you ever known anyone like you know this girl?
"Sayonara, Mexico," you say, dragging a smile onto your face for her (and all right, that isn't hard). She's smiling back when she leans in to whisper, lips brushing the rim of your ear.
"First time we get a bathroom break, come meet me in the women's room."
Blood surges to your chest and your dick in the same hot rush and you pull her onto your lap without even thinking (hooray for death trap cars with no seatbelts!). She yelps and lets out a warm rush of laughter at the same time Schmidt starts yelling at you.
"I will pull this car over," he shouts, glaring into the rearview mirror and Jess rolls her eyes at you, still grinning.
"Sorry, dad," she says and climbs off your lap and back into her own seat, but not before giving a wriggle that's pure, intentional devilry. You widen your eyes at her in alarmed chagrin but all she does is ogle your lap, bite her lip, smirk back up at you. She's going to kill you and you're going to die a happy, happy man.
"183 miles to go," Winston announces from the front seat and you can't take your eyes off her face.
Bringing her home for the second time feels like bringing her home for the first time but with more of the good parts.
You drive her by your high school ("Olympic-level slacking was done in this parking lot, Jess.") and endure your mom showing her naked photos of you at an age that's definitely too old for you to be comfortable with (Jess laughs so hard she snorts and keeps laughing). It's way too cold to get busy under the school bleachers like you used to (giving ladies the full Nick Miller treatment) but you get to second base with her in your mom's minivan in the dark driveway, your hand up her sweater while she opens her mouth to you.
Every time all weekend you introduce her to someone as your girlfriend you hear the Mario-just-got-a-mushroom-and-upsized sound in your own head.
She wears this killer dress to Jamie's wedding and reception, Valentine red, and no matter where you are in the room, it's all you can see.
There's a hotel room waiting for you upstairs, since you're part of the wedding party; whatever DeAnn's dad made his money in (sausages?) it's seriously working out for you. By the time you pull Jess off the dance floor and get her upstairs, you can't get the dress off fast enough. She helps you peel it off her right inside the room door, then wraps her legs around your waist in her underwear as you stumble your way onto the bed.
She takes care of her bra as you tug down her underwear and then you're grabbing her ass and pulling her up, onto your face, as you tumble onto your back. She gives a shriek of laughter, just like the first time you did this and god, there's a memory you're never going to let go of as long as you live. Then she settles onto you and the world is all smooth thighs around your ears and the smell of her, the muffled noises she makes as she rocks on you, fallen forward a little with one hand on the wall over your head to keep herself upright. You use your hands on her ass to pull her even closer and kiss her open-mouthed, like you'll never get enough of her. You do it 'til she's out of her mind with it, making desperate, amazed noises, and you don't stop until you have her completely wrung out, 'til she falls sideways off of you whimpering that she can't come anymore.
Even at six in the morning, standing in line at airport security in her glasses and sweater, she's so pretty it's stupid. You tell her so, pulling her back against your front and nuzzling into her neck. She laughs and wriggles at your scruff against her jaw and puts her hands over yours, where they're looped around her waist. How did you go so long without being able to do this?
"Hey, I love you," you say, blurting it out without knowing you're going to, just like every time before. Each time it's a little less scary, a little more real, and the world keeps not ending.
She tilts her head back so she can look up at you, leaning against your shoulder.
"Me too, Mister," she says and the line moves forward, towards the plane and home.
You don't know you're losing her 'til it's already happened. There's a horribly familiar exhaustion in your bones though, so tired of fighting. A feeling like you want to crawl out of your own life, the way you wanted to when you were a kid and your parents would go 23 rounds without stopping.
It feels like a relief and like freefall at the same time. You go to work and you come home and she's either there or she's not and if she's not you don't know where she is and you can't even text her to ask. And when she is home, it takes all your energy to be even vaguely normal -- around her, around everyone.
You have that itchy skin panicky feeling, like you're ready to turn your car onto the highway and not stop 'til the gas tank runs dry. But Mexico's no good anymore. Maybe Canada instead. With your luck, though, you'd break down outside Portland.
You don't have to stay here: you could sleep in the back room at the bar like when you and Caroline were fighting. You could get the hot girls across the hall to let you rent their third bedroom if you maybe get Winston to talk up your handyman skills.
Instead you keep sleeping on the floor on the far side of your burned out bed. (Which is too goddamn symbolic for you to deal with. The bed where you undressed her that first time. Where you used to wake up on weekend mornings and have lazy, half-asleep sex with her pulsing on top of you, drawing things out) You listen to her huff in her sleep and get up in the night for the bathroom and hate yourself a little for not being able to walk away from even this.
You don't want to be here. But you don't want to go.
Summer comes and Jess goes. Home to Portland, just for a visit, but helping her load her car makes you feel sick to your stomach. When you come home that night, Coach and Winston are shouting at each other while they play Madden and Schmidt is blasting his techno-yoga mix from his room in protest and the apartment still somehow feels emptier than you can remember it.
Things get easier, then harder. Then somewhere in between. There's a heavy weight lodged between your chest and your throat, like permanent heartburn; something you're starting to get used to.
There's running away and then there's running away. Maybe you're ready to try something new.
It's June and you're home and your whole body hurts from helping Jamie put in the deck outside his and DeAnn's new place but you can't sleep. Maybe it's because you're not used to the sound of cicadas outside your window anymore: it was so cold when you were here for Jamie's wedding, and the time before that, for your dad. You'd forgotten that Chicago's a little nicer when it's not fucking February.
But more probably it's because last time you were here you had Jess with you, here in this bed and every time you close your eyes you see her biting her lip and grinning while she unbuttoned her pajama top and tossed her hair, half-sexy, half-teasing. Jerking off hasn't helped. Nothing really helps.
Instead you're holding her earring, the one she lost during Jamie's wedding weekend, which you found tonight by stepping right on it and swearing like a sailor. You know when she lost it: while you were having sex on the floor beside the bed, because your ancient bedsprings were too damn loud. Both of you laughing into each other's mouths at how ridiculous this was, wincing at how hard the floor was even through your old bedspread, shushing each other through the laughing.
You're sure she'll remember too: she spent five minutes afterward looking for it. Which is why you shouldn't have sent the text you just did: Found yr earring.
You're rolling the earring between your thumb and forefinger, wondering why you're the dumbest boy in the world, when the phone on your chest rings and you jump, knocking it onto the bed and then the floor.
"Jess?" you say when you manage to fumble the phone open to answer.
"Hey," she says, voice low like she's trying not to wake anyone up, even though it's not that late there yet. It's so stupidly good to hear her voice.
"How are the Oregonians?" you say.
"Same as always," she says. "Abby's driving me crazy. My mom's really into making her own almond milk. Today I saw a guy in the park with a typewriter. You would hate it." There's a beat before her last sentence, just long enough for you to hear. You scratch your jaw.
"Yeah, well," you say. "It sounds better than watching my brother and DeAnn make out every time she brings out another pitcher of Crystal Lite."
Jess laughs into the phone, and with your eyes closed and the phone against your ear she could almost be in the same room.
"Not even beer?" she says. "Rough life, Miller."
"There are rules about being part of this family," you grumble, and then wince. You'd spent most of Jamie's wedding dividing your focus between trying to keep him upright (a morning bachelor's party had been exactly as terrible an idea as you told him) and trying not to turn your back fully on DeAnn's brother Declan, the other groomsman, in case he decided to take a swing at you again. You're not sure your nose could take that.
But the minister had talked for ages about how this meant you were joining someone else's family and you realized your mom was looking back and forth between you and Jess, with an incredibly unsubtle smile, so pointed Jess went pink. You'd had to look away for a good thirty seconds and focus really hard on your Aunt Ruth, dozing off in the front row, before you could glance back at Jess. But the look she gave you when you did -- this tiny, private smile -- had made your heart start pounding so hard you totally missed your cue to give Jamie the rings you'd busted your ass making sure you didn't lose.
There's silence other end of the line and you wonder if she's thinking about that too.
"I wish I was there right now," she says, all in a rush and you sit up fast in the dark without meaning to.
"Yeah?" you says when you can find your voice.
"I mean-- Chicago, pizza, you know, and it's been raining here all week--" she starts, stumbling over her words and god, you love this girl, you know this girl.
"I wish you were too," you say, fast, before you can get in the way of yourself, and she stops.
"Yeah?" she says after a moment.
"Yeah," you say and lie back down, trying not to break the moment. There's a pause.
"Thanks for finding my earring," she says finally. You're still holding it and you press the post into the soft pad of your thumb while you try to think of what to say.
"Can I get it from you back home?" she asks and the word makes you breathe in.
"Yeah, sure," you say. "I'll bring it when I come home."