Title: A Study of Reading Habits
Summary: Jess. Because change only goes so far. You are who you are.
A/N: As a warning, there's a lot of swearing. Book reference is Please Don't Come Back From the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos, and the title comes from the poem of the same name by Philip Larkin. Thanks to Arianna for being her awesome self. This is a one-parter.
It comes down to this: a Monday night and a cheap paper napkin. He wants to write the note quickly but he can't find a pen – not one fucking pen – in this piece of shit apartment he calls home. In the bathroom, he rummages through drawers until he finds her pale pink lipstick. He is about to use this, when he spots her black eyeliner stuck in the back, lodged in a hole in the wood. He yanks it out, but the god damn thing is too blunt.
He crawls under the bed, amidst dust bunnies and cookie crumbs because she eats in bed even when he begs her not to and it's endearing, fucking cute even. When he resurfaces empty-handed, his feet bump his suitcase, knocking it over.
Shoving his hand under the bureau, he brushes against dirty socks and the missing counterpart to her favorite pair of high heels, and he wants to pull it out to surprise her, but she's already thrown out the original shoe and it's all so fucking pointless.
Finally – finally – he finds a blue pen underneath the broken heater, but now he doesn't know what to say. There are the obvious apologies and well wishes, the promise to call or write, or – what might be better – the promise to never contact her again.
I'm sorry, he writes. This is for the best.
The napkin is ripped to shreds as he sits at the kitchen table, foot tapping against the one other chair in the whole apartment.
Everyone was right. Everyone I have ever met, everything they ever said. Except for you. You were wrong.
He's rubbing her nose in it. He's telling her what an idiot she has been over the years for hanging on. He might as well call her a stupid girl; foolish and naïve.
A new napkin, clean and white, rough against his fingers. He almost writes that he's gone to the moon, but a book reference at a time like this is fucking insensitive, salt in a wound he's just ripped open.
He gets up and paces the kitchen, but it's four steps one way, four steps the other. The narrow strip that holds the stove and refrigerator is cluttered and dirty, cobwebs spreading from corner to corner, an intricate city of spiders on the ceiling. He notices the sink is empty for once, she did the dishes before she left, washed and dried, stacked them neatly in the cabinets. He pulls out another napkin and writes, I hate you. Thanks for the fucking guilt.
He throws the napkins in the sink and turns on the faucet until the pile is a soggy white clump and dark ink runs through like streams of bile. He shuts off the water and a ring of black lines the drain.
He writes, I love you. I'll send money. Then he goes to pack.
He slouches in the corner of the elevator, fists clenched behind his back. He is having a heart attack while Rory rechecks her purse to make sure they have enough money.
"Jess?" She lays a hand on his arm. "Are you okay?"
He nods even though he is about to be sick. It's all connected, a chain reaction: heart palpitations, sweaty palms, tense muscles.
"I didn't know you weren't comfortable in elevators," she says. "I'm sorry."
He shakes his head and squeezes his eyes shut. Over and over he repeats that this sickness is all in his mind, but it worsens with each second until a blotchy red swarms his vision.
"Jess?" She kisses the corner of his lip, a finger on his chin. "Do you want to hear me speak whale? The sound of sea creatures can be very calming."
"I'm fine." His voice is tight as if squeezed out of a vise. He grabs her hand when the fear becomes too great for his body to handle.
"Do you want to go?" she asks. "We can go. I'll come back later tonight."
The elevator door opens and he bolts, dragging Rory behind him. The feeling recedes as the bright lights bounce off the linoleum, and he sees his reflection in the floor. "Let's just get what we need and go."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," he snaps.
They head to the children's section in silence. She pulls him into an aisle painted pink, stocked wall to wall with Barbie dolls.
"What do you think Mia will want?" Rory asks, referring to her four-year old sister and Jess's cousin. "American Idol Barbie or So You Think You Can Dance Barbie?"
"I don't know, Rory. Just pick one." His frustration is obvious, and he does nothing to hide it. He drops her hand, waiting for her to grab a box, so they can walk back to their crumbling apartment.
"Are you okay today?" she asks. "I mean, you're always an asshole, but you're acting especially weird."
The feeling returns with sudden intensity, and when he tries to take a breath, he can't. "I know about the test, Rory. I found the receipt." She looks away, hiding behind her hair. This is their relationship built on honesty and communication. "Just tell me."
"Jess." They are standing in the Barbie aisle at the local K-Mart with barely twenty dollars between them. He has had seven jobs in four months, and she always has a newspaper in front of her with red and green markers for circling potential jobs and cheaper homes. She takes his hand and lays it flat against her stomach. She says, "You're going to be a dad."
"What are you doing?"
He didn't hear the door open or close. He didn't hear her footsteps or the keys tossed onto the table, her shoes dropped in a corner of the hall. He clutches a shirt to his chest.
"Jess." She walks around him in a wide arc. She stares at the suitcase before looking up at him. "Jess?"
She finds the note on the bed, laid out over her pillow with care. After she reads it, she balls it up and holds it to her stomach. She looks pretty tonight, wearing a loose summer dress. Her hair is down and he wants to touch her and tell her how sorry he is.
She chokes and wipes her mouth. "Let me help you pack."
She raids his drawers, pulling out T-shirts and sweatshirts and old, faded jeans, sweatpants and boxers and undershirts. She packs him a sweater and a hairbrush before hurrying into the bathroom, where she grabs his toothbrush, razor, and aftershave – items he never even thought of. She returns on a second trip to retrieve shaving cream and an unopened bottle of gel.
She settles everything inside, each article of clothing unwrinkled, each toiletry zipped into its proper place. He watches thinking that someday she will make someone an excellent wife.
Even though Rory is twenty-five years old, Emily Gilmore drops her drink at the news. The amber liquid soaks the carpet and she barks out an unfamiliar name. A maid rushes in from nowhere, a dishtowel and stain remover in hand.
The glass crunches beneath Emily's heels as she paces back and forth, barely missing the maid's fingers. Jess watches from the sofa, Emily looking elegantly pissed off with primped hair and perfect posture, as the maid scrubs the rug on her hands and knees.
"You are not ready for children. You two aren't even married!"
"Grandma, I know you're upset, but – "
"You barely make enough to support yourself. Jess doesn't work!"
"Grandma," Rory interrupts. "You know Jess has a part-time job at – "
"How will you pay for all this? How will you continue working? This is your life, Rory. Your future!"
"Grandma." Rory stands and takes Emily's hands. She wants to reassure her grandmother that everything will be all right, but she doesn't have the right words.
"I can't talk about this anymore. You are ruining your life and I want no part of it." Emily shakes Rory off and storms out of the room.
"I want to name the baby Richard," Rory says quietly. The maid gathers the glass into a small pile, the shards dripping with the expensive liquid.
"And if it's a girl?" Jess asks.
"Okay," she says, not looking at him. "I think that's it."
"Rory." His voice is a breath of smoke in a burning building. She coughs to cover up a sob she can't suppress. "Rory." He says it again, and he wants an answer. He wants to kiss her goodbye.
"Don't say anything."
"Rory, I just – "
"You're an asshole." She throws his suitcase at him and it hurts, it really fucking hurts. It knocks the wind out of his chest and it lands on his toes, crushing them beneath a monumental weight. "Is there anything else you need?" She's crying now, tears carelessly spilling, landing on her dress, the center of her stomach. "Money? Dishes? Books?"
"Think about it," he says. "Do you really want me to be a father? You really think I can do this?"
"It doesn't matter what I think!" she shouts. "It's done. You are the father! There's nothing we can change, there's nothing to think about!"
"I can't do this."
"What's the excuse this time?" she snaps. "You're not good enough for me? Or is it your father? Have you lost your job again, or realized what a hole we live in? Tell me, Jess!" She pushes his shoulder, knocking past the suitcase. "Tell me the great epiphany!"
"Wrong answer." She sinks onto the bed, barefoot and childlike; she's still so tiny despite the small bump. "You said we're supposed to be together. You said I could count on you. You promised!"
"I don't know how to stay."
"Of course you can't stay!" she cries. "If you did, there would always be the question of how long. Every time you went out, I would wonder if you're coming back."
"I'm sorry," he says again.
"You ruined it," she whispers. "Do you understand? You ruined us."
This will never happen:
"What are you doing?" she asks quietly, running a hand through his hair.
"Waiting for the heartbeat." He is on his knees in front of her, ear pressed to her stomach. "Or to be kicked. Whichever comes first."
She tugs him into a standing position and kisses his cheek. "You're crazy," she whispers.
"Okay, so your breasts," he says, covering them with his hands. "Do we get to keep these? Like as a reward for all the nausea and pain?"
"I think the baby's supposed to be the reward."
"What about as a bonus? Like a consolation prize."
He squeezes and she winces. She is swollen and sore, with aching feet and an upset stomach. She's gained weight and her hair has grown too long, and she hates looking in the mirror.
"I like this." He has a palm on her stomach, and he feels a tap, the soft patter of life. "Watching your body change."
When she starts crying, he holds her close, and she chokes out that it's hormones.
In the darkness of the room, her skin gives her away, a pale glow like a nightlight in the middle of the bed. She is a heap of blue dress and brown hair, and he can hear her crying. Even like this he thinks she looks too expensive to live in this dump of an apartment.
The suitcase drags against the floor as he emerges in the kitchen. He drops his key on the counter alongside his most recent paycheck. He wonders if she will cash it or burn it with the lighter he left in the kitchen junk drawer.
The door is open and the suitcase is in the hall when he hears her pick up the phone in the bedroom. Leaning back against the frame, he waits for her voice but it doesn't come.
The lock clicks behind him. In the bedroom, Rory cries harder, her fingers clawing at the cord.