‘You have striking eyes,’ Joe finds himself blurting out one day. She does. Joe has found them beautiful and almost mesmerizing since the first day of class. In the weeks since then, of course, Joe has also gotten to know more about Nicole and everything he has learned has only made him more infatuated. She is shy about anything personal, but Joe has seen her get worked up while debating the professor. She has really strong opinions and almost becomes a different person when she takes the position of challenging the dominant historical narrative. Joe had appreciated her open-mindedness, and had quickly asked if she would be a revising partner. Nicole had blushed adorably before saying yes and giving him a smile that seemed to kindle warmth inside of Joe’s entire body.
So his abrupt compliment probably wasn’t as much of a surprise to Nicole for its existence so much as its abrupt entrance into their discussion about Christian expansion into the Balkan regions.
Nicole, usually shy, didn’t close up in embarrassment like Joe would have expected. She ducked her head, yes, but her lovely green-blue eyes met Joe’s as she said, ‘Thank you,’ very softly.
Her reaction gave Joe the courage to ask, ‘Do you mind if we hold hands?’
Joe had thought things were going well. There had been hand holding the last two weeks, and even kissing. Nicole still blushed prettily at compliments, but often returned them to Joe playfully. ‘That dress is a lovely colour on you. You look so pretty this morning,’ often was met with, ‘You look pretty today, too, Joe,’ or something similar.
So when Joe asks Nicole if she wants to be exclusive, he doesn’t expect a hesitancy. His heart feels perched on a ledge, teetering over an abyss, as he watches her watch herself fiddle with her fingers for a moment.
‘You need to know some things before we decide,’ she says. Joe doesn’t know what Nicole could be talking about. He knew of her falling out with her parents and that she lived with two married lesbian women. He knew she had struggled with her conservative Roman Catholic upbringing before leaving the Church, and her family had disowned her. He knew that she had some chronic health condition that she assured him was easily managed with a strict regime of medication. He knew milk and cheese did not agree with her. He didn’t have the foggiest idea of what she felt like she needed to confess.
‘My name wasn’t always Nicole.’
Joe, confused, only felt the tension ratchet up another notch. ‘My name isn’t Joe. You know that my real name is Yusuf.’
Nicole smiles but it kind of sad. ‘We went to primary together.’
‘Oh.’ Joe wrinkles his forehead as he tries to remember a little girl who could have matured into this perfect version of Nicole. ‘Did we? I cannot recall,’ he says with regret. A thought strikes him, and he groans. ‘Was I an arse to you? I went through this phase where girls were gross and hung out with a crowd of little dickheads. I thought I was fitting in, because it was better to tease other kids than be teased for being a brown Muslim kid.’
Nicole almost smiles but doesn’t. ‘I remember. And with hindsight I can understand that. But I had another name back then. Nicolò di Genova.’
It is not a lightning strike of revelation. More like sinking into a morass of quicksand or a warm bath of melted chocolate. He remembered Nicolò: a chubby kid who was teased a lot for his accent and shyness. Joe had felt empathy for him, another kid of immigrants whose family culture didn’t mesh with dominant society’s, but he had probably joined in the taunting more than he had ever tried to defend or befriend the boy.
The next step was to mesh Nicolò with Nicole. The similarities were there: hair color and complexion. Everything else was as different as over a decade of elapsed time guaranteed. Nicole’s hair fell to her shoulders and her body was slim. She was plainly intelligent and kind even as she preferred to maintain an air of distance from strangers.
Then there was the piecing it all together stage. Nicole née Nicolò, Joe, and a potential sexual relationship. Joe was modern and educated enough to know that what was between another person’s legs wasn’t his business, but Nicole was revealing this information because it would be Joe’s business. He wasn’t going to be crude and demand to know what Nicole had under her skirt: he was going to consider the options and gauge his responses to the possibilities first.
Nicole tried to pull her hand from his, but Joe held on. ‘This isn’t an automatic dealbreaker,’ he says. ‘Give me a moment, please?’
She (yes, Joe could and would only think of her as ‘she’ even with this revelation) looked surprised but nodded and stilled her movements.
Joe had imagined being naked with Nicole. He had let himself have fantasies while in bed or in the shower. Had imagined cupping her breasts and fingering her pussy and making her arch her back and moan. Did she have breasts? Could Joe picture himself kissing a flat chest, instead? Or even jacking off another person’s penis? He was relieved to find those mental images were still arousing as long as it was Nicole writhing and gasping under him.
When he looked back into Nicole’s face and saw the stress there, the same kind of drawn expression that she had had as she revised for midterm essays, he was almost as surprised by the strength in his voice as he said, ‘I still really like you. I believe we can work everything else out if you want to try. You would still be my girlfriend, Nicole.’
Tears shone in her eyes. ‘Really?’ She said, her voice hoarse but filled with hope.
‘If you can forgive me for being a bratty jerk back then.’
Nicole huffed out a laugh. ‘Of course. We were kids. You were dealing with your own situation. I wouldn’t expect a child to look beyond their own experience to empathize with another. Everyone is selfish at that age.’
Joe pulls Nicole’s hand to his lips. ‘You are the kindest person I have ever met. Your church lost a future saint when they didn’t agree to accept your choice.’
Nicole’s hand was so beautifully graceful as she wiped her eyes, the thin bangles tinkling on her wrist.
Knowing Nicole’s secret meant that she opened up her life to Joe with such sweet enthusiasm. She brought him to where she lived and he met Andy and Quynh.
‘I was part of an LGBTQIA group who did some programmes at secondary schools,’ Andy said. ‘Nicki and I kept emailing for a few months until she was kicked out of her home and Quynh and I let her live with us.’ She and Nicki exchange a fond look. ‘I decided to quit my job for Nicki. I didn’t want to look like I was trawling schools for wayward queer and NB kids to add to my harem.’
It seems to be an old joke between the three women. ‘I keep her busy on my own,’ Quynh says smugly.
Despite Andy’s claims that she didn’t have a harem, she did seem to be the centre of a group of teens and adults who trooped in and out of the Ngos’ home like it had a revolving door. Andy did individual and group counseling with many sessions done discreetly out of her home instead of the LGBTQIA youth centre. At first, Joe was careful to stay out of the way whenever he and Nicki spent time together there, afraid that the kids would be anxious to have a male stranger lurking around, but most of the kids were pretty fearless- at least when they were in Andy’s house.
‘Smells good,’ one black girl- individual, Joe mentally corrects- with an American accent says, coming into the kitchen where Joe was making dinner. Nicki had gone upstairs for a moment, so it was just the two of them in the room.
‘Thank you,’ Joe says, as she (he reminded himself that he shouldn’t assign genders and pronouns, but it was a rather difficult habit to break) sat at the table. ‘I’m Joe,’ he says. ‘He/him pronouns.’
‘Nile. No pronouns. Just Nile.’ Nile says. ‘So you’re the person Nicki’s been all gaga over all semester. She was all, “He’s so kind!”’ Nile clutches Nile’s hands to Nile’s chest and bats Nile’s eyes in a parody of swooning.
‘Not so kind as to feed people who enjoy giving him a hard time,’ Nicki says, entering the room and bopping Nile on the head with a sheaf of papers.
Joe smiles. ‘I am planning on feeding Booker, so I don’t see why I wouldn’t feed Nile as well.’
He had been a bit nervous to introduce his best friend to Nicki and Andy and Quynh. His roommate had always seemed like such an abrasive arse when he was pulled out of his melancholic moods to be introduced to new people. It must have been some of Andy’s psychology training that had made her magically open Booker up.
One morning Joe had been prepping Book with a crash-course on non-binary etiquette and getting flat stares from his French friend, and by the afternoon Booker had practically made himself a fixture at the Ngos’ home and proven to be a sensitive soul hidden under a very prickly exterior.
Joe had shaken his head and called Booker, ‘Just so... so... French!’ in exasperation and at a loss for words at having been so blindsided. Book had only smirked and said, ‘I have always been a bisexual demisexual male, Yusuf. You were the one who seemed so narrow-minded and heteronormatively masc,’ which had stunned Joe until he recovered enough to throw a pillow at him.
‘I just always thought you were a sad and misanthropic bastard and you still are a sad and misanthropic bastard,’ he said, but he didn’t put any real vitriol in his voice.
So now Sebastien ‘Booker’ Le Livre was a part of Andy’s large family of adoptees. And here Joe was, planning on feeding a good sampling of that group with an enormous batch of spag bol, brought into this odd family by the love of his life who was looking like an angel in a blue dress and fuzzy white cardigan.
‘You have such a generous heart,’ the angel says to him with a smile that is like a romantic wash of moonlight. ‘Feeding all of us oddballs, including Booker and Nile.’
Nicki must have put some of that fancy hand lotion on, because Joe got a quick burst of that floral scent through the haze of tomato and pasta-water steam.
‘You are perfect, ya amar,’ Joe says. ‘Nile,’ he adds teasingly, drawing out the pause to Nile’s mischievously attentive look, ‘...is probably lovely despite that obviously erroneous impersonation. But I have lived two years with Booker’s foul smells and frequent hangovers, poor attempts at humour, and misguided loyalty to a losing football team!’ He raises his voice on the last words because he can hear Book’s tramping tread in the hall.
‘Alas, the romance is dead,’ Booker deadpans as he fist bumps Nile and sprawls into the adjacent chair. ‘Sup?’ He says in a flat American accent. ‘How’d that coding project go?’
Joe turns back to the stove unable to stifle a grin at the happiness and warmth he feels.