A/N: Just a slight warning – I'm tweaking some things that happen in season four, but they're very minor. So please don't send reviews like, "That didn't happen in season four!" Well, clearly, this whole oneshot doesn't happen in season four, so your point is void.
Standard disclaimers apply.
Oh, I'm just a stray dog now, I can't beg or bow
Just give me some direction
- Jack's Mannequin
Photographs and Phrases
Jess remembers reading somewhere that Southern California rarely gets rain in the summer, let alone torrential downpours. So waking up to the sound of rain pounding on the roof throws him off. In that wonderful place between sleep and awake, he thinks he's on the other end of the country, sleeping above his uncle's diner.
But he doesn't want to think about that; the east coast is the last place he wants to be, let alone think about, so he pushes it away mentally…while physically pushing three stray dogs that have entered his "room" with tails wagging and saliva-drenched tongues hanging out.
He shuts the door fast and ignores the scratching on the wood until he can hear the dogs pattering away.
Turning his attention to his blow-up mattress with his mused sheets and all his possessions surrounding him, he decides to possibly do the smallest amount of organization. Maybe see if he misplaced a CD in the wrong genre, or a novel in the wrong time period.
He searches through his books, still in boxes, a little peeved that some of them are missing. Ever since he moved in with Jimmy, Sasha, and Lily, Lily has taken the liberty of swiping some of his books to read behind dark cupboards.
Who's the Dodger now?
No. He chucks that thought behind a tightly locked vault where all references and miscellaneous thoughts that can somehow be related to a certain Gilmore girl fester. He can't think about her.
He can't think about what happened over the past year.
This is how his life went (the censored, okay version): he lived in New York City for his entire life until he was seventeen, upon which time he disappeared, and a year later ended up living in California, temporarily boarding with his biological father and his eccentric girlfriend and "adopted" daughter.
The part between living in the city and living in California doesn't exist.
But if that's true, then why is he staring at the spine of the book that he could never finish? When he lived in the city, he never looked at it twice; it was just a book in his massive collection that he couldn't stand to read.
But once he met Rory freaking Gilmore…
He pulls the book out of the box and throws himself onto the floor, allowing himself this one time to indulge in a nostalgic moment involving a phone call and a temporarily forgotten leather bracelet. It was almost like a symbol of her failing relationship with Dean, which constantly played in the background of Jess's relationship with Rory; it was quiet enough for him to get close to her, but loud enough to stop him from taking a real chance on her.
There's a torn piece of paper in it, marking the page of the last time he had read it. He's pretty sure that this was before he found out that Rory had left for Washington D.C. for the summer, still in a relationship with the Bag Boy.
So he picks up where he left off, ignoring the banging on the door declaring lunch. He always seems to lose his appetite when he thinks about Rory. Funny, back then, the thought of Rory made him restless, excited, and even passionate. Now it's just an aching numbness, and he thinks that by finishing this, he may be able to get some closure.
Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark.
Jess turns the page, even though he knows he has just read the last. It's a stupid habit, really; it's as if he's expecting more words to appear on the page. That the story will continue forever. Or maybe it's because he doesn't want whatever's left of his relationship with Rory to end along with the book.
What he sees instead is a Polaroid picture that embarrassingly makes his throat close up.
It's Rory. She's posing with a thumb up and a large smile, wearing his favorite Clash shirt. He remembers the exact day it was taken: he had just made her laugh about something, but she was unfortunately trying to drink coffee at the same time, so she ended up snorting it up her nose and spilling all over her blue sweater that matched her eyes perfectly.
He ended up laughing as well, a rare feat. And he distinctly remembers being up in the apartment with her as she confidently walked to his drawers and pulled out his shirts as if they were her own. He couldn't help but feel a little turned on by it.
And Jess is pretty sure that at that time, Rory was beginning to figure out when the perfect moments were to get him to do whatever she wanted, so she asked him sweetly for another cup of coffee, even though he distinctly told her that he had poured her the last cup.
But he didn't refuse her; he went back down to the diner to make a fresh pot. So he supposes that while he was in the diner, she had changed into his Clash shirt and took a picture of herself.
He briefly wonders if she remembers doing this, or thinks about it at all now.
With careful fingers, he pries the picture off the book to get a closer look. He then closes his eyes, remembering coming back up with the entire pot, knowing it would make Luke angry (always a plus) and nearly dropping it when he saw her in that shirt.
He remembers at the time thinking, "Holy shit, I think I actually love this girl."
He opens his eyes and tries to breathe again.
Flipping to the back of the picture, he's surprised to see her familiar neat handwriting in black marker: I'm so proud of you!
He stops breathing once more.
This is too much; he spent the past couple of weeks carefully blocking Rory out of his thoughts. But now…everything's crashing around him and all he can think about is her voice, the softness of her hair on his face, the brightness of her smile, the intensity of her blue eyes before they…
The door of his makeshift room is thrown open and Jess awkwardly slips the photograph in his back pocket. It's Lily, carrying her book light and novel in one hand while the other props her glasses higher up the bridge of her nose.
"Dinner," she says.
He lets out a small, inaudible sigh. Taking a last look at the worn paperback that holds a lot of painful memories, he asks, "Ever read Ayn Rand?"
She tilts her head to the side. "No. Why? Is she good?"
"No, she sucks, but I thought I'd give this to you; it's a waste of space."
"If you hate her so much, then why are you forcing me to read her work?"
He scoffs. "Look, just take the damn book."
She narrows her eyes a little, and it only amuses him. "You can't swear in the house." But she takes the book from him anyway. "I'll let you know when I start it." She then smiles at him. "I believe this was a moment." And before he can counter that, she turns on her heel and leads the way to the kitchen where Jimmy and Sasha are already sitting, scooping leftover Chinese food onto their plates.
"What were you doing all day? Didn't you hear us knocking for lunch? Now you may not need to socialize, but you do need food," Sasha says as Jess enters the room, already putting food on a plate for him, which kind of makes his chest ache a little. She's being so motherly.
"Nothing," he replies, picking up his fork and twirling some lo mein with it. In the corner of his eye he can see two stray dogs sitting down obediently, hoping for a noodle to fall to the ground.
"That's Mariano code for reading," Lily offers, spearing a piece of sesame chicken.
Both father and son smirk identically, and it kind of freaks Jess out a little. The smirk falls off his face and he focuses on eating.
He's unable to fall asleep…again. He's staring at the picture…again. And he's thinking about Rory…again.
He can't fathom how this happened; he was supposed to completely cut her out of his life. Leave nothing behind, take nothing along for the road ahead.
He never considered the possibility of her leaving something tangible for him.
So he thinks of what to do.
He can try and call Rory again, but that monologue she gave him at her graduation hurt a lot more than he's willing to admit. He doesn't want to hear a repeat when it already echoes in his head sometimes in the darkness of night, so he scratches that option.
Besides, she's traveling through Europe now; she wouldn't even get the call.
But there's the prospect of leaving her a message on her phone…except he doesn't like that either. It's so…not unoriginal…but it isn't him. He's not the kind of guy who leaves messages. He never did when they were going out so why would he start now? He scratches that option.
There's the possibility of writing a letter to her, but that's so damn cheesy he scratches that option too.
So what is he left with?
That damn photograph, taunting him to make a move.
He brings Hemingway to the beach, hoping to cleanse the palate after reading that terrible book the day before. He understands why Rory would like it…but that doesn't mean he's changing his original opinion of that political nut.
So he picks an empty bench, letting the background noise of the ocean waves crashing on the shoreline block every other extraneous sound out. He's beginning to kind of like it here, but he wouldn't stay forever. This isn't where he's meant to end up and he knows that. He may be very similar to Jimmy, but they're not the same.
He doesn't know how long he has been sitting on the bench, but at some point, he hears multiple clicks of a camera. After the first two, he dismisses it, assuming that it's a tourist. But then after five more, he starts to get a little suspicious. He raises his head from his book, surprised to see a woman holding a Polaroid camera, ready to take another picture. But now she lowers the camera and looks at him sheepishly.
"Sorry. It's just…you…and the setting…it's a brilliant contrast," she explains, taking a strand of loose blonde hair and curling it behind her ear. She looks a few years older than him, probably a student at the local university.
He doesn't know what to say to that and she takes his silence as a gesture to continue. If she had known him, she would've recognized the need to keep her mouth shut and walk away.
"I won't use them if you don't want me to…but do you want to see them?" She takes them all out anyway and shows him three that have developed completely. He has to admit that he does look extremely out of place with his dark clothes while the surroundings and everyone around him are bright and colorful. It was taken from a bit of a distance and it actually kind of works – it defines him.
"Could I take that one?" he finds himself asking, pointing to the distance shot.
She bites her bottom lip. "Well…"
"Either I get this picture, or you don't keep any," he states flatly.
She hands him the picture without any comment and walks away.
He stares at the picture for a long time, an idea forming in the back of his mind. He's sure she didn't mean for her photo to mean anything; it was just different way of congratulating him for finishing that book. But she inadvertently started something big: she's making him consider initiating a way to communicate.
He sits in his room again, the recently acquired photo flipped to its blank back. He's poising a black marker over it, waiting for the right words to come to mind.
It has to be short, obviously. He's Jess Mariano, a man of few words, and they always have to mean something.
What can he possibly tell her after leaving her without any notice? After calling her without making a sound? Should he apologize? It seems inappropriate. He had put her through too much emotional turmoil for her to even want to get back together with him. Besides, she's going to college soon, an ivy at that, and he will be nothing more than a memory of her high school days, of her past. He doesn't even deserve that, let along something more.
But she's a kind person. She won't hate him forever, or at all, he's pretty sure of that. So he comes up with his message and writes down quickly before he loses his nerve and tears up the photo.
Her trip around Europe was stimulating, fun, and exciting. It was exactly what she needed. She was kept busy enough to not pine over a certain hoodlum.
And that's when the thoughts of him stop. She doesn't let herself continue. He's not worth it, she convinces herself. But when she accidentally picks up a book on her shelf where he wrote in the margins, she's not quite sure.
"Oh spawn of mine! You've got a letter…a mystery one at that," Lorelai calls out from the kitchen.
Rory tosses the book onto her bed, mentally reminding herself to hide it somewhere so she won't pick it up again for a long, long time.
She opens her bedroom door to find Lorelai surrounded by the mail that Luke had kindly held for them throughout the summer. Lorelai is holding out the "mystery" letter and Rory tries to come up with a practical reason for it …but nothing really comes to mind. Who would send her a letter without a return address?
The envelope is plain and ordinary enough: a stamp of a cute dog, her name and home address on it. The left corner is empty, save for a dot, almost as if the sender considered writing on it, but decided against it.
The postmark says it's from California, and she doesn't know anyone from there.
"'Kay, thanks," Rory says with a puzzled expression on her face, already on her way back to her room.
"Tell me who it is!" Lorelai yells as Rory shuts her bedroom door behind her.
She sits on her bed, pushing the book to the foot of it so she can stretch her legs. But then it feels like a wrecking ball just crashing into her body. The book. The envelope. The handwriting. His handwriting.
No way. He wouldn't actually write to her…would he?
With great care, she begins to open the envelope before she realizes that they are no longer anything; that he ended everything. So she finishes opening it carelessly with a hint of anger, partially tearing the cute dog stamp.
What could he have to say to her? She's actually very curious about this. He's not the groveling person in the least, so she can rule out the possibility of him begging her to take him back.
Is the letter an apology? She can see him sending a two-word letter without a return address. But the whole letter thing is a little cliché.
What the hell is she doing? Trying to make guesses when the letter is in her hands. She reaches inside, surprised not to feel the familiar texture of paper, but the smooth surface of a photo.
She pulls it out and breathes in harshly.
Seeing a picture of Jess is more painful than the memories of him. At least in memories, she can alter them a little, make it seem as if that he wasn't really that good-looking or intelligent. But this photograph makes it factual; he is so darkly attractive and he is so intelligent and she can't change it. This picture is so him that she can't stand it.
And then she remembers the Polaroid picture she left him in his copy of The Fountainhead. Did that inspire him to do this? Reminded of that, she flips to the back of the photo, nearly choking in both sorrow and humor; as expected, only two words were written: I'm okay
There's no punctuation. No period, no exclamation (not that she actually expects something like that from Jess Mariano), not even an ellipsis. It's almost as if that statement is subject to change, or to be added on to.
She checks back in the envelope and a scrap of paper blends in with the envelope, but she can see it. In cramped writing is a simple address. So that's where Jess is; he's finally been pinned down. Or rather, he allowed himself to be, which she supposes is a rather large step for him. He always did have a tendency for mimicking his disappearing magic tricks. Does Luke know where he is exactly?
She doesn't know what to do about this. Does this mean that he wants to keep their relationship? No, she knows that he knows that he ruined what they had.
Actually, she realizes, that's not quite true. Somehow, after everything, she appreciates every beautiful and ugly moment of the past year. And even though she can't quite look back on these memories without tearing up, she's sure eventually everything will be bittersweet.
But the process of making Jess a painful wound to a tightly closed scar is being hindered by the existence of this photograph. She thought they were on the same page; that he wanted to let go, and she wanted to move on. Clearly, there was a miscommunication, which isn't groundbreaking for them.
She needs to talk about this with someone.
Not her mom, obviously. Lorelai didn't even try and comfort Rory, not really; she just wanted her to get over that "phase" of her life as quickly as possible. Lorelai never really took Jess seriously.
Rory kind of wants to talk to Luke, since they share an understanding; they both know what it's like to care for him and be hurt by him. But she knows Luke is probably still sore about Jess and how he failed him, something that she doesn't believe. Either way, she's not going to do it.
Lane! Of course, her best friend, Rory should be talking to her best friend about boys. So she takes out her cell phone from her back pocket and calls the Kim house.
"Hello, Kim's Antiques, my name is Lane Kim, what can I do for you?"
"RORY! Oh my God! Wait, I have to leave the house."
Rory laughs as she waits for her friend to come back.
"Okay. I can't believe you're home! I swear I've been dying without you! Tell me everything that happened!"
"Too much to say on the phone – come over!"
"The store closes in exactly thirteen minutes, and then I can come over."
"And…can you do me a favor?"
"Sure…if it's in my abilities…"
"Can you go to Luke's? There's a…camera up in his apartment. You know, a Polaroid. Could you ask him if I can borrow it?"
"Uh…sure…why can't you just get it yourself though?"
Rory looks down at her feet, hoping that Lane will realize that she's not comfortable with the idea of going up to Luke's apartment yet, especially if some of Jess's belongings are still there, or if the smell of his aftershave still lingers.
"Oh…oh…of course. God, I'm an idiot! Don't worry, I'll get it. And you better explain yourself as to why you need it in the first place."
"Okay, see ya soon!"
When Rory answers the door twenty-five minutes later, Lane pulls Rory into an extremely tight hug.
"Lane!" Rory laughs, wrapping her arms around her friend. "I've missed you so much. I wish I just stuffed you in my suitcase."
"You have no idea how much I wanted to go backpacking through Europe…but I did end up learning some cool drum solos and Zach wrote some promising songs…"
"Do you have the camera?" Rory inquires, interrupting Lane's rambling.
Lane whips her head around behind her. Apparently she dropped the camera in excitement a few moments ago. "Yeah, Luke said you can keep it, he has no use for it." She hands the camera over to Rory, who takes it as if it's made of glass and smoke.
"Where's Lorelai?" Lane asks.
"She went to get dinner."
"But…it's half past four?"
"You can never start dinner too early."
Rory ushers Lane inside the house, past the bags the Gilmore girls have yet to unpack, to Rory's bedroom.
"Okay, you haven't said one word about Europe yet, so something must've happened. You've been dreaming about this trip with your mom for so long! It was good…right?" Lane inquires, jumping onto Rory's bed, causing the book with Jess's marginal notes to plop onto the floor.
Rory stares at it for a moment, debating whether or not to pick it up. "I got a letter today."
Lane stares at Rory blankly. "Okay…"
Rory goes to her nightstand to grab the envelope, picture, and address and gives them all to Lane for her inspection.
Lane's eyes widen to the point that Rory thinks that her face will be forever frozen that way.
"There's writing on the back," Rory adds in an odd voice. She's trying to be unemotional about this, but she's failing and it's causing her voice to crack a little when she finishes her sentence.
Lane flips it over and this time her mouth drops.
"He gave me an address too."
Rory smiles a little. "Please string words together into a coherent sentence, I can't understand monosyl –" She stops herself right there, because she's beginning to state a complete lie; of course she knows how to understand monosyllabic communication. Jess is fluent in it.
Lane doesn't notice Rory's expression, which has fallen. "Well I'm sorry! You can't just expect me to think clearly after dropping this on me! You should've given me a warning or something!"
"Well, too late now." Rory sits down on the bed next to Lane. "I don't know what to do."
"Really? It seems like you do – you asked me to get the camera." A smile slowly forms on Lane's face. "You want to play along."
Rory opens her mouth to contradict, but nothing comes out.
"You do!" Lane laughs giddily for a moment, but then becomes extremely serious, throwing Rory off a little. "Do you still…?" Lane trails off, her eyebrows, which had lowered sometime before, rising again.
Rory bites her bottom lip. Why isn't she immediately saying what's supposed to be the right answer? "I don't know."
Lane nods with a smug expression. "Uh huh…"
"I need to think about it," Rory adds a little desperately.
"But…just in case…" She looks at the camera resting between them, an idea forming in the back of her mind. "Can you take a picture of me?"
It had taken Jess a good three hours to leave the house. Today he received his GED certificate in the mail (he passed with flying colors, notably earning perfect scores in the Language Arts sections), and Sasha and Jimmy took the liberty of throwing a small party.
But he wants to be alone now. Just him and a cigarette.
He sent the photo over a month ago. He knows that Rory should be home about now, so that means she must have received his letter.
He wonders what she's going to do. She has to know that he will not be staying in Venice Beach for long. In fact, he's been saving his money from helping out Jimmy at Dante's Inferno so he can begin his travels, something he's been drawn to ever since he first picked up Kerouac so many years ago. Although he always denies this, because it's such a cliché for someone with a reputation like his, he secretly wants to do this.
He thinks he can find out some things about himself. Now that he no longer holds a dormant hatred for his father, he feels like a small part of him is missing, like that defined a part of him, or his image, at least.
Maybe it's time for something different?
He ponders over what he wants to be. It's not like he plans on making a complete one-eighty on who he is; he's not suddenly going to be amiable and start wearing clothing that wasn't worn and frayed at the hems. There are certain things about him that will always be, that he can't change, and that he doesn't want to. He doesn't have to. Rory showed him that by getting close to him and not being repulsed by what she managed to see before he left.
He makes sure to get rid of the cigarette before entering the house. He knows how much the smoke bothers Sasha, but really it's for Lily's sake. Secondhand smoke is just as deadly; Sasha reprimanded him the first and only time he smoked in the house.
When he enters the house, Lily is right there, holding a letter in her hands. He hates when she springs up on people, especially when he's not expecting it.
"You got another letter," she says, holding the envelope to him.
He takes it quickly and nearly squeals, which is just about the most un-Jess thing he could've done. It's in her handwriting, her beautifully neat, round, smooth handwriting. But like him, she left the top left corner blank.
"Are you actually…smiling?" Lily inquires incredulously, but Jess brushes past her to the den and shuts the door behind him.
He runs a hand through his gelled hair and tries to calm his excitement. Maybe it's a picture of her flipping him off, and then on the back the words "FUCK YOU!" are written in bold red or black letters.
But she never said fuck before, and he doubts that she could even write the word in the first place.
He's coming down from his high regardless. This is monumental. One cruel gesture in the photo, or one cruel word can shatter whatever decency is left in him.
Shouldn't he just get this over with? Just open the damn letter, Mariano!
So he does, with extreme care. He closes his eyes and breathes in and out slowly before allowing himself to look at the picture.
It's Rory surrounded by over a dozen bags filled with clothes, art, knick-knacks and other things of the sort. She's wearing a shirt that says "When in Rome…" with her arms spread apart, showing off everything around her with a smile. He smiles at it.
The other side of the photo she wrote: Europe was incredible.
He checks in the envelope to see if she maybe left something else and he isn't disappointed. It's a scrap of paper with the address of what he supposes is her new dorm at Yale.
Jess is so happy that he feels his chest is quaking. And to his extreme embarrassment, his eyes are beginning to sting a little.
This sort of feels like being redeemed.
He leaves the room to look for Jimmy and Sasha, who are watching television together. They look up and he's trying to contain his happiness.
"Hey, I think I know what you can get me as a congratulations gift," Jess says, a happy grin breaking onto his face.
College is a little different than what she expected. Or maybe it's Yale that isn't what she expected. She loves her classes, but she finds herself not really branching out as much as she wanted to; with Paris sharing a dorm with her, it's rather difficult to befriend others who find her roommate terrifying. She doesn't blame them, really.
And although she loves her classes, she's struggling to keep up at only the third week of school. She's taking the same amount of classes as her grandpa did…and she was valedictorian at Chilton…so why isn't she succeeding?
She thinks that maybe she's just homesick. After all, it's a huge adjustment that takes time to adapt to. Besides, she's had some good fortune come her way: one of her try out articles was taken by the esteemed Yale paper and actually printed on a decent page, a first in the paper's history.
But at night, she looks at the picture of Jess for a long time before shutting off her light. For appearance's sake, she's reading a book, but in reality she's making sure that his entire being is catalogued and recorded into her mind, even though she's not quite sure why. It's not like they're…anything. She's not quite sure what they are exactly since pen pals seem so elementary school, even though she assumes that's all they are at this point.
All the same, she finds herself in an extremely better mood when she receives her mail and finds that familiar scrawl on one of the envelopes.
"What's with that grin on your face? You've been depressed for the past two weeks even though your article as a freshman made it to page three. Who's it from?" Paris demands, looking up from reading her textbook.
Rory promptly ignores her and makes her way to their shared room and shuts the door.
"Hey! You can't just shut the door on me! It's my room too!"
Rory sighs, but Paris isn't going to foul her mood. "I want some privacy for five minutes! Geez."
She opens this envelope gently this time, feeling giddy and excited. She's becoming that girl again, the one that she told him she wasn't going to be; waiting for his calls, pining over him. But maybe, she thinks, it's not such a terrible thing.
Pulling out the picture, she sees him holding some sort of paper to the camera with his trademark smirk. At closer inspection, in bold, cursive letters, the top of the paper says "High School Equivalency Certificate."
He has his GED now.
She flips to the back of the photo where he wrote: No biggie.
Tears fall down her face without the usual warning of stinging eyes and itchy noses. She quickly wipes them away and sniffles a little.
Paris comes storming into the room. "Are you crying? You have nothing to cry about! Paper, remember?"
Rory smiles. "No, it's…I'm happy, that's all. Really happy."
"Who's the letter from?"
Paris stares at Rory without expression. "You mean James Dean wannabe, Kerouac worshiper? I thought he…left? Became a bum?"
"Are you two still…?"
"No…I mean…we're not…" Rory trails off, not quite sure how to answer that. Are they still together? She supposes that the phone call on her graduation counted as breaking up with him…but those words weren't used. She remembers saying that she wasn't going to pine.
Paris is surprisingly nice when she says, "It's okay. You don't have to explain anything. I have to admit, I liked him so much more than Dean, the blockhead." And there she goes back to her regular self.
Rory laughs, but feels a little guilty for doing so. Dean's a sweet person.
"So I suppose that was what you've been staring at every night for the past couple of weeks."
Rory flushes. "What are you talking about?"
Paris rolls her eyes. "Please. You weren't reading. You were staring at something. A picture. Is it Jess? I bet it is." She has her knowing, smug expression on her face, and Rory finds it time to remove it somehow.
"Can you do me a favor?" she asks, putting the picture on her nightstand.
"Depends…" Paris says slowly, her eyes narrowed with paranoia.
"Do you mind taking a picture of me? Right now?"
"Now? You're a mess, you're crying. Even right now! Can't you stop?"
"I don't want to, I want…" She wants him to see what kind of effect his actions have on her because she thinks she's beginning to finally understand the inner workings of Jess Mariano.
His clothes, CDs, and recent book purchases are stuffed into that one canvas bag he's owned for so many years; his favorite books are in his backpack; all his cash and the two pictures of Rory are inside his jacket; the Polaroid camera that Jimmy and Sasha bought for him as a "Congratulations" gift is hanging off a strap on his shoulder; he's ready to leave. But before he does, he waits for her letter. Once that comes, he's out of this overly happy, sunny place.
So he's waiting by the mailbox, hoping that today will be the day that he can start getting himself together. This feels like sitting in limbo, and he's restless; he wants to move on to the next part in his life.
"You know you can stay here, if you want. We can enroll you into the local community college," Sasha says as she waters her plants. Ever since he started waiting outside by the mailbox, she would come out and tend the garden, almost as silent support. He's not very thrilled that she's breaking the silent code that they silently agreed upon. Or did he just think that it existed to begin with?
"Nah…I'm not fit for the whole college thing," Jess answers, shifting a little in his leather jacket. It's way too hot to wear it, but he's prepared to go.
"You're too much like Jimmy, and it's ironic because he wasn't there at all while you were growing up. Very interesting."
He doesn't say a word; he never knows exactly what to say when he's compared to Jimmy. Does he thank the person? Get pissed off being compared to a screw up? Jess isn't sure, and he doesn't think anyone will ever tell him what's appropriate or not. He has to decide what's right.
So he shrugs a little. He can't deny the similarities, and as he told Jimmy two months ago, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. And seeing Sasha and Lily and this house gives him a seed of hope, that one day he'll have that sense of peace.
One of the dogs comes over to him and sits on his feet. Jess grunts in annoyance at the extra heat, but scratches the back of her ear anyway.
"Do you have any idea…where you're going?"
But he feels sort of bad after a few moments. That worked back in Star's Hollow where there wasn't anywhere to go, but now…the territory just became a lot larger.
"Possibly Sal's journey backwards…I'm not copying him or anything. I'm not even starting at the right place. But you get the idea."
"What is it with the Mariano men and Kerouac?"
He's sure that it's a question that she doesn't expect him to answer.
The mail truck slows to a stop in front of the house and Jess's muscles tense. It takes a second for the mailman to stuff everything into the mailbox, but then he goes off, but Jess remains sitting.
He thinks staying here has been good for him. It was good to get to know the man that provided for half his DNA, and despite Jimmy's protests in the beginning, he did help him a little bit on getting his life to move in some direction, which included getting his GED.
He stands up and strides to the mailbox. He pulls everything out, and begins his search.
He tosses the other mail to the ground, much to Sasha's displeasure, and he begins opening the envelope, and when he sees the picture, he's thrown off.
She's crying in it. Whenever he felt his absolute lowest, it was usually when he made her cry, so his initial reaction to this picture is to throw himself off the nearest seaside cliff. But he realizes that she's smiling as well, a combination that he has never seen before. His eyes move off her face to see her holding a newspaper and she's pointing to an article.
He tries to put the pieces together, cursing himself for picking the camera that doesn't have a zoom function.
On the back she wrote: I have so many reasons to be proud.
It feels like someone stuck a hand in his chest and squeezed his heart. When he decided to take the GED exam, it was just so he could get a wider selection of jobs to choose from when he goes out on the road. He thinks he's beginning to realize how his actions do affect others around him, something that he has dismissed for all eighteen years of his life.
He doesn't hear Sasha coming next to him to pick up the forgotten mail. She looks over his shoulder.
"She's so pretty, even when crying."
Jess finds himself smiling a little. She is pretty. He misses her.
"Are you going to see her?" Sasha inquires softly.
Jess looks over to her, thinking of something to say, but then Jimmy and Lily are coming outside, wondering why they haven't come inside with the mail, until they realize Jess is holding the letter he's been waiting for.
"So…that's it?" Jimmy asks.
Jess nods as he puts the envelope and picture in his pocket. He'll decode it on the bus ride. "Yeah."
"Are you leaving now?" Lily queries, and the setting sun is glinting off her glasses, highlighting her bookishness.
He simply nods in response.
"Wait! Don't leave yet!" she exclaims before running into the house.
She comes back after a minute with a book in her hand. He doesn't know if he can fit one more book in his bag; he only packed his absolute favorites.
"I didn't really understand it…I'll have to try again in a few years. You can have it back now."
It's The Fountainhead. Even though in the beginning he planned on her keeping it, he takes the book back without a word, thankful, and puts it in his backpack; he makes room for it.
"Your margin notes are kind of irritating by the way, even though they're intelligent comments," she adds.
He gives her an amused half smile. And then she runs right into him, burying her face into the hot black leather of his jacket, binding her arms around his lithe waist. He's at a loss for what to do, but then he's reminded of better days when Rory would inexplicably kiss him or hug him. So he closes his eyes and places his arms around her, awkwardly patting her on the back after a moment, but she doesn't mind.
She then pulls away, wiping her eyes under her glasses. "Goodbye Jess. It was nice having another literatus in the house."
Jess chuckles a little under his breath. "It was nice meeting you too. Maybe we can have a real book discussion when you're older; you still have a long way to go."
"So do you," she retorts wisely, and he's wondering whether she realizes the double meaning in what she just said. "You promise?" she adds uncharacteristically like an actual ten-year-old.
He's never been very good at those. Luke could testify to that. But this isn't very serious, promising to talk about books in a vague future. He supposes that this is a good place to start.
"Yeah, I promise." He turns his attention to Sasha and Jimmy. "Uh…thanks, you know, for everything." He's not very good at showing appreciation, so he looks down at their feet. Anywhere but their eyes.
He looks up to see Jimmy wrapping an arm around Sasha's waist, and he's hit with the strong desire to be with Rory. But he can't be with her, not yet; he'll have to make do with photographs and phrases.
"Good luck," Jimmy finishes. He understands, he's probably the only one who does, and it gives Jess a little comfort that someone in the world understands, that's he's not crazy for doing this.
"Do you want us to drive you, save you some bus fare?" Sasha asks out of kindness.
Jess is about to decline, but Jimmy starts chuckling, as if the question is so silly, and for once, he seems his actual age, even a little older. All his experiences around the country…Jess wants to get to that point. Is Jimmy becoming a twisted sort of role model? That goes against everything Liz wanted for her only son, especially since the entire point of sending Jess to Star's Hollow was the hope for Luke to become his model.
As much as Jess cares for Luke, he knows that he could never be like him. While they may be compatible roommates, and while they may have some of the same characteristics that come with being a guy with Danes genes, there are far too many differences between them.
"I'll be okay," Jess says before hitching his bag on his shoulders, tightening his hold on his bag, and walking through the wooden gate and out into the world.
On the bus ride, he stares at the recently acquired picture of Rory holding a newspaper. Perhaps it's the Yale paper? She was on the paper at Chilton…and she does want to be a journalist…so that must be it. Her article made it onto the paper…she's one step closer to achieving her ultimate dream.
And what's his dream?
He pulls out On the Road and before he reads a sentence, two boys that look about his age run to the back of the bus to him.
"Dude! You like Kerouac?"
Jess shrugs, not wanting to deal with these people, or any people for the matter.
"Are you pulling a Sal Paradise? We are too! Do you wanna join us?"
Jess eyes their overgrown hair, tan faces, and lax movements with a bit of distaste. These people are hardly the type of company he could keep for more than five minutes.
"Come on! We've got some plans on where to stay for the first few days – we've done this before."
Jess wonders how that's possible since they can't be more than eighteen-years-old. But he shrugs it off, and only accepts because it may be good to follow some people that have already done it before.
But he sort of regrets it when they find a cheap motel to share. They're smoking weed, and Jess hates the smell of weed. It reminds him of his mother, and he doesn't want to think about her, or New York, or anything that can be related to what people would call "home."
So he leaves with the key and goes outside to smoke a cigarette in private. There aren't a lot of people on the streets at two in the morning here, wherever here is.
He thinks about his mother again, and scowls a little. She never really got herself together, and he's pretty sure that she won't in the future. It kind of makes him sad, just the tiniest bit.
Since when is he becoming sympathetic?
He's dueling with two different personas: the Jess that survived the harsh realities of the world from birth until seventeen; the Jess that scowls at everyone and pulls pranks to mirror the chaos in his own mind; the Jess that he's most comfortable with. And then there's the Jess that gives secret smiles to girls that see beyond the façade; the Jess that secretly curls himself into a fetal position at night after a potent nightmare; the Jess that holds back tears after a car accident that injures a person he cares about.
The Jess that sends pictures with messages on the back to ex-girlfriends.
He doesn't like being torn, and ever since she turned in her chair at her desk and greeted him with a large, welcoming smile, he felt his soul beginning to tear apart.
Finishing the cigarette, he tosses it and takes out another one. Despite the jolt of nicotine, he's still tired, so he finds an empty bench a few feet away and sits on it.
When his bottom hits the wood, he finally realizes that there's something in his back pocket that shouldn't have been there. He pulls it out and finds it's one of the notepads Luke uses to take orders. He must have forgotten about this pair of jeans until today. Funny, he didn't even think twice earlier. It's comforting; almost like the paperbacks he sticks in his other back pocket daily.
His hand reaches for the pencil behind his ear and thinks about that routine. He only agreed to work in the diner in the morning so he could see Rory; it was the only time he could see her during the week before they started going out.
His hand is hovering over the notepad, though he's not quite sure why. He feels as if something is burning in him, like he needs to scream. Usually this would come out in the form of pranks or minor criminal acts, but he can't do any of that now.
So he begins writing.
It's nothing really. Just him repeating that his life is a big pile of dog shit and he is the king of fucking things up. But it starts to change into why he thinks he's such a screw up and the details about his life in the city. All the boyfriends, the husbands, the neglect, the abuse may it be mental or…all the things he couldn't tell her.
So when he's done two hours later, he's finds himself feeling a little better, a little more at peace.
He's ditching dumb and dumber today.
"I'm not planning on going to Vegas," Jess states, watching their faces fall simultaneously.
"Aw, shame, dude. It's going to be a blast," one laments. Jess doesn't know one from the other; he always mixes their names up.
"Can I give you some brotherly advice?" the other says. Jess is sure if these two were somehow related to him in any way, he would physically hurt himself.
"Why not?" Jess replies sarcastically.
"Cigarettes aren't cool. You should stop smoking them."
"Gee, thanks! No one has ever told me that before."
"Not only that," the blonde continues, holding up a finger, completely missing the sarcasm. "They're expensive. If you're going to complete the cross-country excursion, you're going to need all the money you can get. You're going to have to cut down on your vices, man."
That's probably the most intelligent thing Jess heard come out of either of their mouths.
Luke would've shared the same dislike for these two people as Jess until this moment, and then he would probably like them for trying to get his nephew to stop smoking.
"So…yeah…good luck man! May you meet a Neal on your path!"
Jess doesn't want to copy Kerouac, so there will be no friends to travel with; he's a loner anyway. But he doesn't bother to correct them.
"Before we part ways…do you want to go to the drug store with us? We gotta get some supplies."
Jess nods. Sure, he'll go. He has to get a few things himself.
She has just gotten out of a literature class, and during the entire lesson, she wrote notes and comments that she would love to share with Jess. She wants to talk to him so badly about the books she's reading now.
But not only that, she wishes he was sitting across from her in class, just so she could see his facial expressions fully.
Half the comments made in the classroom were eye-roll inducing. Jess is smarter than a good number of these people. That thought makes her extremely sad; he's never going to college, she knows that, so these people will never, could never, be enlightened by his comments, his musings.
No one will.
Except her. She was let in over a year ago when he first handed her back her copy of Howl.
She enters her dorm with a sigh, finding Paris working at her arts and crafts station. Their other roommates seem to be elsewhere.
"Oh, Rory, good. Tell me what you think of this," Paris orders, holding out a decorated picture frame.
"It's nice. I like it a lot more than the last one," Rory answers. She found out long ago it's better to just go along with it.
"Yeah, I think I'm finally getting used to the consistency of hot glue. Seriously, who would ever use Elmer's glue again?"
"I got your mail for you – it's on your bed."
Rory pauses. "Wait…how…?" She then shakes her head. Some things were better off being left alone.
She goes to their shared room and picks up the small pile of mail, that familiar sense of excitement rising every time she got mail.
She squeals and she could hear Paris scoff on the other side of the door. But she ignores it, opening the letter quickly so she can drink in the photograph as quickly as possible.
He's at a bus stop with his green canvas bag on the bench behind him, so Rory can safely assume that he is now on the road. She wonders where he's going, if he has a plan, but she doubts that he does.
She flashes back to that car ride: I'll live where I live, I'll work when I need money…and see where I end up.
His mouth is open, as if he's screaming at a concert, and she finds something small and white in his mouth. It's gum. Her brow furrows in confusion. Hoping that his message on the back will answer her questions, she flips it over.
Gum! It isn't just gum, it's nicotine gum. He quit smoking!
"Mariano, you idiot! Of course you quit without me there," she whispers to herself.
She's really excited about this. Despite her secret love of the way the smell of tobacco faintly clings to his clothes, she's happy that he's kicking the habit. She has to tell someone, and she knows the one person who would appreciate it.
She finds her favorite study tree, and thanks whatever higher being exists that it's free. But she didn't come to the tree to study – she came to make a phone call that she isn't sure Jess wants her to make.
But how will he know? It's not like he's calling Luke, updating him on his life. Besides, if she knows Luke as well as she thinks she does, he must be worried about Jess, or at least in the back of his mind, always a buzz.
She opens her cell phone and calls the diner.
"Luke? It's Rory."
"Rory? Hi! How are you?"
She smiles. "Good, good. How are you?"
"I'm doing fine…the lunch crowd just died so there's a lull."
"Oh, that's good actually."
She realizes how bad that sounds and tries to correct herself. "Oh, no, I didn't mean like, good, 'Oh, I want your business to fail,' it's more like good, I actually want to tell you something and it's probably best that no one is there, especially my mom."
There's silence, and it's because Luke is trying to process what Rory just said. "Why don't you want your mom to know about…whatever you're going to tell me?"
She sighs, looks around at everyone studying, talking, and laughing. It all seems a little far away. None of them have a nephew or a friend that they're worried about, that's all the way across the country, fending for himself with nothing more than a few CDs, books, clothes, and pocket money. She tries not to picture it so she won't cry.
"It's about Jess."
Another silence, but this one is more piercing.
"What about Jess?" he asks cautiously. It's probably the safest question.
She takes a breath. "We've been…kind of writing to each other. And I just wanted to let you know that he's okay. He made it to his father, I guess. I mean…he was in California for a while and I'm assuming that's where he was staying. But now he's traveling. The last letter he sent me was from Nevada."
Now she's beginning to wonder if they lost connection, but then she hears him intake a shaky breath.
She wonders if he's hurt a little. "It's not like we're writing heart-to-heart letters that are pages long, Luke. We're sending pictures to each other with words on the back that you can count on only one hand."
"But he hates being photographed. Who started this?"
She smiles. "He did."
"Yeah, I was shocked too. Actually, I'm still kind of reeling from the situation."
"So…what has he said?"
"Well, the first one said that he was okay, the second one…" She grins; she knows Luke is going to be so happy. "He got his GED."
Silence again, but then she starts to hear him breathe shakily again and she thinks she heard him swallow. Is he…crying?
"Luke?" she inquires softly.
"Yeah, I'm here, it's just…I'm really happy. Proud, I guess."
"It doesn't end there – he also quit smoking."
"Of course he quits after he leaves Star's Hollow, the punk."
She laughs a little. "I know." She bites her bottom lip, thinking. "Hey, I was thinking about visiting Star's Hollow for the weekend. Do some laundry…maybe I'll stop by the diner and show you the pictures?"
"I'd like that a lot. Thanks, Rory. It's been…you know…I've…"
He did manage to get a ride from a truck driver from some dinky town in Nevada to Utah, but now he's stuck, trying to find a way to get to Denver. He doesn't have enough money to get a bus since he just spent a portion of his savings eating for the first time in two days.
It's also beginning to get a little cold. No wonder Sal leaves in the spring – there's only good weather ahead at that point in the year.
Sighing, his fingers itch for a cigarette. He does have the last pack he bought, but that's supposed to be for emergencies. Did this count? He should really just get rid of it; after all, he did tell Rory that he quit.
And she consequently told Luke.
Lowering his arm, taking a break from the hitchhiking, he pulls out the latest picture Rory sent him. She's back in the diner, but this time she's with Luke surprisingly. They're both waving. On the back it reads: Hi, we miss you.
He misses them too.
"Fuck! I can't believe this shit!"
"Watch your language! The kids."
"Well this is just perfect, what the hell are we supposed to do?"
Jess looks down the road and sees a couple arguing outside a car that's parked on the shoulder.
He thinks he's just found a way to maybe make a quick buck.
He picks up his belongings and makes his way over to the couple. At closer inspection, he sees two kids sitting in the backseat, clearly uncomfortable with their parents fighting. They don't know what bad is, Jess thinks darkly.
"Car trouble?" Jess inquires.
They stop arguing and glance at him with a mixture of apprehension and fear. He supposes it's the leather jacket. "Yeah…what's it to you?" the husband retorts, trying to be tough, which just amuses Jess; the husband lost his toughness the moment he bought that silver Volvo.
"Nothing…just…I can maybe fix it."
They stare at him, not believing a word that just came out of his mouth.
"I'm serious." Jess drops his stuff and goes to the front and opens the hood, looking into it.
He finds the problem, and thankfully he doesn't need any tools.
"Okay, I know how to fix it," Jess says, standing up fully to stare at the couple, and they look like he has just announced their impending doom.
"How much do you want?" the husband asks dejectedly, pulling out his wallet.
"Two things. First…where are you headed?"
"I don't have the entire U.S. map with all the cities memorized."
Jess pauses. "Is it near Denver?"
"Yeah, it's close."
"Huh." Jess crosses his arms over his chest. "Okay. As payment, let me hitch a ride with you there. "
They're flabbergasted. "Are you serious? Don't you just want the money?" the wife asks, speaking for the first time directly to Jess.
"On normal circumstances yes, but I do need to get to Denver this month."
They're hesitant, and he supposes that they have every right to be.
"Look…I just need a ride. I'm not a drug trafficker I'm not some Jason enthusiast…I'm just stuck. I don't have money; I've barely eaten for the past two weeks. I'm trying to save my last ten bucks. Please." He's had to be the tough New Yorker for the past month of traveling, so this is the most vulnerable he's been in a while.
The wife must see something in Jess, because her facial expression becomes much softer. "Okay, on one condition," she says.
"Janet, we're not giving this lazy son of a bitch a ride anywhere! You can't trust a word he says," the husband rounds on her.
"Yes, we can. He's telling the truth." She smiles at him and he gives her the smallest half smile that's full of relief.
"You've talked to this punk for five minutes!" This guy is really starting to remind Jess of Taylor.
"Maybe, but…he's just like Jonathan. I would've wanted someone to pick him up when he ran away, while he was in a bind," she answers softly.
The husband's face softened a little. "Honey…I've met Jonathan once…and this kid is not like him."
"You don't know a thing about Jon, okay? I do. This boy needs our help, and we're going to give it to him," she snaps.
"On the one condition," Jess adds. "Which is…?"
"You have to tell us how you got into this."
Oh God. He could change his mind and ask for a hundred bucks…but he's desperate. "Fine. And can you do something else for me?"
"What more do you want?"
Jess glares at the husband. "Mind taking a picture of me?" he asks the wife, giving her a charming grin.
It's nights like these that really have her worried.
It's really cold for October and her imagination is hyperactive, coming up with horrific scenarios that Jess can be in: freezing on a bench, freezing on the side of the road, freezing on a bus.
She wraps her blanket tighter around herself, as if by getting warmer, Jess will consequently be warm.
She's reading On The Road, hoping to extract some clues as to where he'll be going next. The last letter he sent was from somewhere in Denver, and the picture is of him standing on the side of the road, fruitlessly trying to hitchhike. On the back it reads: Kerouac had it easy.
She wonders who is taking these pictures for him.
And she wonders what she is going to send him next; her life is not that interesting. Maybe she'll have Paris take a picture of her sitting in the biggest library at Yale. Or maybe she'll get Paris to sneak into her literature class and take a picture of her bored expression, wishing he were here to spice things up.
She kind of wishes that she was doing something exciting like traveling across the country. By contrast, all she's doing is studying, writing, and reading.
She really wants to write a letter to him.
But this is on his terms. He started this, and she's just following his lead.
Or maybe he wants her to make the next step?
She can't read him. Despite being one of the very few on this planet that can…she really can't.
She misses her long hair, but she felt the need for a change. Everyone tells her it's great, that she looks so pretty, but she's not sure. She wants someone to give an honest response, so she grabs her Polaroid camera and takes a picture of herself.
When the picture completely develops, Rory stares at the insecurity on her face, and she's not sure whether or not she wants to send that to him. She doesn't want him to see her like that, like every other girl who gets a different haircut, looking for approval.
But maybe this can be a push for him to start opening the communication.
She wonders what to say. Do you like it? No, that sounds so…clingy and girlfriend-like. She's not his girlfriend, despite feeling like he has some sort of possession on her.
Looking for something different, she finds herself writing.
Jess always brought something different to her life. He's exciting, unpredictable, and that's why she was, and still is, drawn to him. She shouldn't have tried to fit him into Dean's place, and that was her mistake. She wants to apologize to him, but she can't because he can't really blame her for that, just like she can't blame him for leaving Star's Hollow without a word.
So…are they even? She hurt him, he hurt her. She doesn't want this cycle to continue. She wants to take that amazing feeling she had that night after her disastrous first visit to Yale when she kissed Jess for the first time since Sookie's wedding. He managed to take one of the worst days imaginable and make it the best. She wants to feel that every day.
Perhaps this is good for the both of them. During this time apart, they're learning things about themselves, so that the next time they see each other (she's sure that they will) they'll be…what? Ready?
She doesn't want to think about the future now. She can't, not when Jess is out there possibly freezing to death.
He has two jobs – he works as a basic car mechanic at a gas station during the day and at night he's a waiter at a diner that's run by an Italian family. He thinks he was hired because he has some Italian blood in him somewhere, given his last name.
He wants to tell Rory that he's finally learning a foreign language – he's picking up some Italian phrases by working at this diner.
But he wants to leave soon; he's stayed here longer than the other places. He's still waiting for her letter.
"Hey! Mariano! Hai una lettera," the oldest brother of the family, Rick, calls out.
Jess stops wiping down the counter and rushes over to him.
Rick grins. "Bene." He slaps Jess on the back and returns to the kitchen.
"I'm going on my break," Jess yells.
"Come back in dieci minuti!" someone yells back.
Jess exits the diner from the side and takes a deep breath. Denver isn't so terrible of a city.
He opens the letter and is surprised to see Rory with her hair short. At first, he's sort of sad – he always liked pushing her hair behind her ear. But she looks older, more mature. So after staring at it for a few minutes, he finds himself liking it, a new facet of the interesting Rory Gilmore.
She wants him to respond to the insecurity on her face, that's clear. The question is…should he?
If he ignores it, then they will just continue as they are, pretending that the photo in question was never really sent.
But if he does…
"Hey Mariano, you gotta get back to work," the middle child, Olivia, says by his ear, making him jump to his embarrassment.
He tries to stuff the photo in his back pocket without her seeing it, but it's too late.
"Who's the girl?" she asks, filled with curiosity.
"Just…someone from the east coast."
Jess starts to chuckle at the sudden mental image of him telling her that all these people who have seen her pictures throughout the country think she's pretty. She would blush like crazy.
"You love her, don't you?"
His face falls. And he's about to say something harsh to her when she says, "I know, I know. It's none of my business. Consider this dropped. But seriously, you have to get back to work – you have to earn what my father pays you."
He's grateful for her understanding. Even though she's about five years older than him, he hopes that some kid like who's like him out there will somehow cross paths with her, because she works wonderfully with lost souls.
"Hey, after my shift, can you do me a favor?"
She nearly dies when she opens the letter recently sent by Jess: there are two things inside – the expected photograph and the unexpected, but hoped for, piece of paper.
She looks at the photograph of Jess sitting at a diner, eating a slice of pie with a rueful expression on his face. The back reads: Living the dream.
Of course he has to eat a pie at a diner, that's a typical Sal Paradise move. How could he not mimic some of Kerouac? It's part of the dream.
She then turns her attention to the piece of paper. With shaky hands, she unfolds it, finding only a few lines:
You look good.
Tell Luke that I like working at his diner better than this one.
I'm finally learning a foreign language…sort of. But they're not as great of tutors as you.
She's so happy that she nearly skips to all her classes, earning strange looks from all her peers when they see the face-splitting grin on her face.
She curses her mother a thousand times for convincing her to go on this ridiculous date. While Trevor is a nice person, she's finding this night to be an awkward disaster.
Her literature class was discussing The Sun Also Rises, one of Jess's favorites, so she used some of his comments written in her copy of the novel to add to the discussion, and when someone challenged her, she was more than offended. So when Trevor came to her rescue, she was thankful for his protecting of Jess's thoughts.
Is that why she agreed to go on a date with him? It's kind of sad that she only dated him because he was protecting the honor of another guy.
She switches to the other side of the table, not wanting to sit next to him. Honestly, how is that okay? Even Dean didn't do that, and Jess certainly would never think of doing that, especially in public. While he was all for certain public displays of affection…sitting close, holding hands, anything intimate like that, and Jess was running in the other direction. That's meant for behind closed doors.
Trevor comes back and asks Rory, "What are you doing sitting over there?"
"Uh, there was a draft. I got cold."
"Oh." Trevor sits back in his seat, and she begins to feel comfortable for the first time the entire evening.
But after two minutes he switches sides. "Yeah! I feel that draft now! So weird."
Rory wants to take her knife and stab herself.
Chicago is freezing. He remembers reading The Jungle and the descriptions of the terrible conditions and his imagination couldn't have replicated it by a long shot.
He wishes he had better, not so worn clothes. It seems as if the wind is cutting through his coat to his bones, and it's not even the end of October. He can't imagine how it must be in the dead of winter.
He's working as a mechanic again, and he's beginning to hate it. In his free time besides reading, he's writing, cataloguing his adventures on the road. It started off as something for Rory, but it's to the point where he can't mail it to her in an envelope. Besides, he kind of wants to tell her everything in person.
He writes about the pies he has, the places he works, but the most interesting aspects of this trip are the people he runs into, which includes those two surfer kids, the truck driver that was on his fiftieth route that dropped him off in Utah, the family with the sympathetic wife whose brother was just like him, that drove out of their way to get him to Denver, the Italian family that owns a diner with the worst mashed potatoes on this side of the western hemisphere.
A gust of wind blows through him and he shivers. He puts his recently bought black beanie on quickly before stuffing his hands back in his pockets; he should buy a new pair of gloves. He's already starting to feel sick, and that's the last thing he can afford to be.
He finally makes it back to where he's sleeping for the time being – an apartment rented by a few college kids. They're all privileged, but they think housing a vagabond is so cool; Jess knows he's being used by all of them as a story to tell. "Oh yeah, we're housing a homeless person now, pretty crazy."
Only Sean is there, the other two guys probably still in class. Jess takes off his jacket and slings it over the couch.
"Hey," Sean says, not looking up from his textbook. He kind of reminds him of Rory, so he likes him the best out of the three.
Sean points to the coffee table with his pencil. "You got your letter from the mystery man."
"Girl, actually," Jess corrects him, striding over to the table. This means he'll have to start packing tonight.
Sean looks up finally. "Really?"
Jess opens the envelope. "Yep," he says, taking out the picture and handing it to Sean, who nods after a moment.
"She's pretty. Are you two together?"
"I'm not sure. We used to be. Now we're just…" he shrugs, taking the picture back to look at it himself.
Rory's dressed in a fancy outfit, which reminds him of the Friday night dinners that she probably still has to go to. And she has a distressed expression on her face, which only makes him laugh.
On the back she wrote: The lengths I go to defend your honor.
He furrows his brows. What?
He looks inside the envelope and sees a folded sheet of notebook paper. She probably wrote it in one of her subject notebooks for school.
In lit class, we talked about The Sun Also Rises and I used the copy you wrote comments in. Some kid didn't like what I (really you) said, and this boy defended it. I felt obligated to say yes when he asked me out.
He feels deep-rooted anger for the first time since living in Venice Beach. But he shouldn't be feeling this – she's not his anymore. She can go out with anyone she pleases. He forces himself to continue reading.
Biggest mistake I've made so far.
He starts laughing out loud, relief flooding through his system. From the corner of his eye, he can see Sean looking up from his work, shock plastered on his face. Jess isn't a happy person to say the least, and the thought of him smiling, let alone laughing, has been a crazy assumption to make.
I'm writing my paper on it based on what you think…so it's technically your paper. I want to see what you can get at an Ivy League school.
I really hope you're well.
His facial expression becomes a lot softer.
"Who is she?" Sean asks.
Jess looks up to see Sean has given him his full attention. He debates sharing Rory with him.
"She's a studious, intelligent, book-loving, nice person."
Sean face is thoughtful. "No one would peg you as the guy to go for that kind of girl."
Sean shrugs. "I don't know you that well…but I can see you two have things to talk about. You read all the time. I think you're smarter than my other two roommates. And you're probably smarter than me."
Jess shrugs. "If I was smarter than you, I would probably be going to some college right now. Or I would've finished high school," Jess admits.
Sean shrugs. "School isn't for everyone. Some of the smartest people didn't even finish school. I wouldn't beat yourself over it. As I said, you're a smart guy, you'll figure it out eventually."
Jess nods. He wants to end this conversation now because it's getting uncomfortable for him. It was one thing telling that Denver family about Rory, but it's another to tell someone who's around the same age as him. He's not used to the idea of sharing things with kids his age since he never really had friends until Rory, but even that didn't last as a friendship for long. Was it even a friendship at all?
"So what's with the picture? It's kind of a weird one to send," Sean inquires.
Jess considers telling Sean their arrangement, but he decides against it. "I don't know," he says in that way that's clearly obvious that he does know, but isn't going to admit it.
He's back to hitchhiking again, but he's holding a cup of coffee to keep him warm. The smell reminds him of Rory as well, so it's keeping his spirits up.
After finishing his coffee, he's beginning to feel miserable. But then a car pulls up in front of him. It reminds him of his stolen car.
"Hey, kid, where are you heading?" The driver is old, he looks about seventy or so with a long white beard, but he's very thin, wiry.
Jess thinks about going to Pittsburgh, but he remembers that he completely skipped Des Moines.
The man barks a laugh. "Hot damn! Are you pulling a Sal?"
Jess would normally snap at whoever asks that, but he needs to ride, so he bites back his initial reaction. "Sure."
"Well get in! Back in my day that's what I did! Pissed off my parents to no end!" the man continues, unlocking his doors for Jess.
"During the fifties?" Jess asks as he opens the back door to put his bags there.
"Yeah! I ran into Kerouac and his group once."
Jess takes a seat on the passenger side. "Really?" he asks, genuinely interested.
Even though he's taking a detour from his original plan, he's not regretting it. For the first time, he's not regretting this detour his life is taking.
A lot of things are changing in her life, and she's not quite sure how to deal with it all.
First, she actually had someone tell her to die (she has to make sure to tell Jess that in the next letter) for writing an article that consequently gets her on the paper. Second, she's been very suspicious of her mother's reactions to Nicole and whenever she's with Luke. She thinks Lorelai may actually start to be realizing her feelings for Luke go a lot deeper than friendship.
And let's not also forget the horrific fact that Paris is having an affair with a professor of over sixty years! She also can't wait to tell Jess that, though she doubts he'll be surprised.
And the new kid hired to help at the diner. She managed to take a picture of him playing an air guitar on top of the tables during a lull in the day.
Basically, she has loads to tell Jess, but he's a little late in sending his letter, which worries her a little.
She goes to get her mail, and finds a few fliers regarding club meetings and games, but she finally sees the envelope she's been waiting for. But when she sees the postmark, her face falls.
Des Moines. He went backwards. Why? And not only that, Des Moines is where Kerouac said the prettiest girls lived. Does that mean Jess traveled back in order to…?
But she shouldn't mind. He's not her boyfriend.
She opens the envelope on her way back to her dorm room and the picture is of Jess reading his copy of On The Road in front of a "Welcome to Des Moines!" sign. His face reflects disagreement.
On the back he wrote: Kerouac is wrong.
Does he mean…?
She pulls out his letter.
You know what I mean, Rory Gilmore.
I'm living with a guy who traveled with Kerouac for a few days during the '50's. I think he's the only person on this planet who's really proud of me right now, which is just weird.
I miss the east coast, Middle America kind of sucks.
She wonders if he secretly means that he misses her.
She already has two photographs to send to him, so all she has to do is write her short letter and send it off.
She reads the first line again, feeling relieved, but also flushed…does that mean he still considers himself hers? Because if she has to be completely honest with herself, she still considers herself his.
The old man that drives Jess to Des Moines is named Ed. He lives in there, finally settling down after years of bumming around the United States, finding that city to be his favorite.
He lives alone, his wife had died about four years ago, and so he was more than willing to take Jess in without charging him.
"When are you planning to leave for Pittsburgh?" Ed asks as Jess reads Dickens sprawled out on a couch that looks as old as Ed.
"When I get my letter."
"What are you? An assassin waiting for your next assignment?"
Jess smirks a little. "No. I have a pen pal." He winces a little as soon as the words leave his mouth. It sounds so kiddy.
"What's she like?"
Jess puts his book down on his chest and stares up at the cracked ceiling. "A lot of people keep asking me that."
"Do you lie every time?"
"No." Jess sighs. "I'm just tired of talking about her. I don't want to. It's bad enough –"
"That you don't see her?" Ed finishes in an uncharacteristically soft voice.
Jess grits his teeth and closes his eyes. He really misses her. She's the only one who treats him like a person and not a delinquent. He misses being treated like a human being, though he supposes that this feels pretty close.
"Well, your letter came in the mail today," Ed says after a minute of silence, tossing the letter onto Jess's stomach. It feels heavier than normal. He grabs it and opens it eagerly.
He's pleased to see two photos, a written letter, and a packet, oddly enough. The first photo looks like Rory just took a picture of a painting, but after further inspection, he realizes that it's actually Rory in the painting. On the back she wrote: Small town shenanigans.
He snorts. Figures.
The second photo is of a kid he's never seen before, and he's standing on the tables at Luke's, apparently playing the air guitar. On the back she wrote: Your replacement.
"You've got to be joking," Jess mutters out loud.
He puts the two photos back in the envelope and spreads out the letter.
"Portrait of a Young Girl Named Anthea." Star's Hollow is still as eccentric as ever.
That is Froggie – in middle school he dissected a frog and then forgot to wash his hands before lunch.
A look of horror and disgust passes over his face.
Don't worry, Luke fired him and now Lane has your job.
He sighs in relief.
You got an A+ on the paper – my teacher pulled me aside after class and told me that it was one of the most thought-provoking papers he's ever read.
She could very well be lying. He would never know otherwise. But the thought of a college professor liking his way of thinking is still kind of cool. Kind of.
Happy Thanksgiving – even though it's a little late. I should be saying Merry Christmas soon.
I'm going to leave with a bang: Kirk has a girlfriend.
"What?!" Jess yelps before realizing that he's not alone. He coughs, tries to pass it off as nothing, and picks up the packet.
It's the paper that Rory must have written. On the top she wrote: I knew you wouldn't really believe it unless you saw it for yourself.
She knows him too well, and it makes him feel so vulnerable. He hates it, but wants it at the same time. So much that he doesn't really want to go to Pittsburgh anymore.
Her hands are shaking when she finds out that the most recent letter he sent is from New York. He's so close. He's one bus ride away. And being so close in so long makes her quiver.
She's about to open it, but then Lorelai comes in through the front door, so Rory hides the letter in her textbook and pretends to study.
"Hi Rory. What a surprise," Lorelai says as she enters the TV room.
"Yeah. I thought I'd stop by and do some laundry and see you. My afternoon classes got cancelled," Rory explains, not turning around on the couch to look at her.
"You know what else is a surprise?" Lorelai continues as if Rory hadn't just spoken.
Rory looks up. "Brad Pitt turning forty?"
"Finding out from Luke that you're in contact with Jess."
Rory whirls around to stare at her mother with wide eyes. "What?"
"Oh yeah. He just assumed that I knew, which is an understandable assumption to make, given that I'm your mother and best friend, right?"
Rory bit her bottom lip, she hates whenever they get into fights. "You are," she whispers.
"Then why didn't you tell me? How long has this been going on?" Lorelai demands loudly.
Rory closes her eyes. "Since August."
"It's not what you think! I haven't really spoken to him! We send pictures to each other! Letters! It's nothing! We barely say anything!" Rory cries out desperately, trying to push back the tears.
Lorelai laughs mirthlessly. "That bastard. He can never stay away, can he?" She shakes her head, that humorless smile still on her face. "He's done enough damage."
"He needed to go, and he's sorry!" Rory says, defending him.
"Oh, really? Somehow I doubt he actually said that," Lorelai retorts, crossing her arms over her chest.
"I know he's sorry. He wouldn't have started this if he weren't! You don't know him at all, so stop being so damn patronizing!" Rory slams her textbook shut. "You know, this is exactly why I didn't want to tell you. I knew you wouldn't get it. You never did understand our relationship."
Lorelai closes her eyes. "Oh God…"
"What?" Rory snaps.
"You're still hung up on him. He's your Christopher." Lorelai turns to go up the stairs to her room with her head in her hand when Rory jumps off the couch.
"No! He's nothing like Dad. Jess is trying to get himself together now, not seventeen years after the fact."
"No, honey, that's not what I mean," Lorelai says in tired voice, turning to face her daughter. She reaches over to her daughter's cheek to stroke it a little. "I mean that you will never really get over him. He's always going to be that open book in your life."
"I know we don't see eye-to-eye on the whole Jess thing…but you can still talk to me about him, okay?"
Rory's throat is thick with emotion as she nods.
Lorelai smiles a little. "I need some time to process this…but tomorrow you have to show me everything. And something tells me he's not photogenic at all…so those pictures are going to be severely and maliciously mocked."
Rory sighs, but smiles all the same. "Good night, Mom."
Rory waits until she can hear her mother shut the door before she goes back to the couch where her textbook lays. She pulls out the letter and opens it.
There's Jess, standing inside the Empire State Building. She remembers a time before they started dating, when she asked him what it was like living in New York, and he mentioned that he never visited the Empire State Building, and she chastised him for it.
He wrote on the back: Just touring the Big Apple.
She laughs a little, remembering him mocking her when she used that phrase. She can't believe that he remembers that; she thought she was the only one that remembered entire conversations that they had.
The idea of Kirk having a girlfriend blows my mind. Give me a warning before you reveal something like that, would you?
The guy from Des Moines bought me a plane ticket to New York…apparently he stole his wife from another guy and he liked that I got you that way.
She smiles at all the memories of Jess trying to court her. He was so charming in an atypical way; that's why she's unable to forget about him. While Dean was an amazing first boyfriend and treated her well, he fit a role. Jess continued, and still continues, to surprise her. He keeps her on her toes. And she likes to think that she does the same for him.
He finds himself at a payphone, waiting for his mother of all people to answer her phone. Even though he's right in front of the apartment where he used to live, he can't bring himself to go inside, so he settles for calling.
"Hello?" He's surprised that she's awake at this hour, especially on a Sunday.
"Hi…Mom," he forces himself to say. He's more comfortable calling her Liz, sadly enough.
"Jess? Is that my boy?" Liz exclaims with her low, slightly raspy voice that came with too many late nights drinking and smoking into oblivion.
"Oh! I've missed you! I haven't seen you in so long! How are you, honey?"
"I'm okay. I've been traveling."
"Really? You got that from your damn father, good-for-nothing scoundrel. Well, you're better than him anyway. As long as you're safe."
He thinks he can see her through the window, but he's not sure.
"I actually saw him, Jimmy," Jess admits.
"He…came to Star's Hollow. He lives in California. I went to see him. I was there for the summer."
"Well fuck me!"
There's an awkward silence that makes Jess shift his weight from foot to foot.
"Why'd you call?" she asks.
He's shocked that she even asked. He thought he would've been able to get away without saying anything. Turns out those days are coming to an end.
"I don't know."
"Where are you?"
"I'm close," he answers, smirking a little.
"Well I was just about to leave for Star's Hollow. I'm going to visit Lukey."
"You are?" Jess asks, his eyes wide.
"Yeah, yeah. I have a cell phone too. You should get one, they're great. Do you want my number? I'll give you my number."
Jess scrambles for a scrap of paper, but ends up writing it on a page of American Psycho. He tells her that he'll call her in a few days maybe. He really wants to know how Luke is doing, but he doesn't mention him to Liz. When he hangs up the phone, he realizes that Liz sounds a lot better than normal. Is she getting herself together too?
This is his favorite picture to date, besides of course the one of her wearing his Clash shirt. She's standing in the snow with her arms spread apart, a large grin on her face as she tries to catch falling snowflakes with her tongue. He never really did understand why she loves the snow so much; all it does is make everything cold and icy, and eventually grey and slushy. It's a pain in the ass.
But if it makes her happy, then he has to like it a little bit.
On the back she wrote: FIRST SNOW!
He grins a little.
"Mariano! Let's get some alcohol in your blood!" the bartender yells, and he's met with a surge of agreements.
"Not of age, my man. I'm a little far from where I'm sleeping…I need to get home in one piece," Jess says. "But I'd like my burger now," he adds pointedly. He's never turned down alcohol when he's not being carded, but he supposes that this is part of the growing up process.
He found this Irish pub a good twenty blocks away from the apartment that he's sharing with four other guys, and he likes it. They also have good burgers and fries; they kind of remind him of Luke's food.
His ordered food is slid down the counter, and Jess stops it with mastered ease, taking a bite of the burger before pulling out Rory's letter.
Thank God for winter break – I've never felt so burnt out from school before.
Your mom is here. She seems nice, although a little loopy, I will admit.
She's being too nice, Jess thinks to himself as he pours salt and pepper onto his plate for his fries. But he has to remember to thank Liz later for telling him that Luke stole his car. The nerve of that guy – Jess paid for it with his own hard-earned cash!
We actually talked. A little. Nothing really important. She said that you called her. I'm glad that you did. Despite everything, I'm 100% positive that she loves you, and deep, deep down, you love her too.
Well of course he loves her, not that he would actually say that. But how can anyone not love his or her mother? It's not really a choice for him. As far as he's concerned, he doesn't love anyone, there was no debate about that. Or at least it wasn't debatable before he moved to Star's Hollow.
Stay warm, Merry Christmas, and I hope 2004 will bring nothing but blue skies above you and green lights ahead of you.
Love always, Rory
She never signed her letters before. He continues to stare at "Love always" and wonders how he could sign one of his letters to her. From? No, that's so cold, she deserves something better. Sincerely? He snorts. Hardly – that phrase is anything but.
He winces. Love. It's not Jess Mariano. Love. It's so…weak. Love. It's exposing, really. Love. It's…true?
He leaves a crisp twenty on the counter and rushes out of the pub and into the harsh cold of the New York City night.
It's one of those mornings when she wakes up extremely early without any sort of alarm. She tries to go back to sleep, but it's pretty much impossible. Her bedside clock reads six in the morning.
She throws her blankets off and gets out of bed as quietly as she can, going over to her bag of recently washed clothes. Pulling on a Yale sweatshirt, she thinks of staying inside, but changes her mind and puts on a pair of jeans and boots, deciding instead to maybe take a walk around town while it's still empty. She supposes that she'll have a half hour or so.
Wrapping a blue scarf around her neck, she soundlessly tiptoes to the front door.
She stops when she sees an envelope on the ground. Kneeling, she picks it up and brings it to her eye level.
She almost drops it when she sees just her name on it. In his handwriting.
Her hands are shaking like crazy as she tries to open the envelope and it takes her a good minute to do so. When she pulls out the photo (the only item in the envelope), she can't stop her sharp intake of breath.
It's Jess, sitting on his bed in Luke's apartment. His face holds an unreadable expression.
On the back it reads: I'm here.
She drops the photo and envelope and skids out of the house as fast as she can, completely forgetting to be silent as the door slams behind her.
She runs. And she hates running. The back of her throat tastes like metal and her legs are burning and she's having trouble breathing going against the wind. She didn't expect him to come back, not so soon! She's not prepared for this! She didn't think that deeply about him being in New York. She can just as easily see his next letter coming from Pennsylvania or something. She can see him going everywhere except here.
But he is here.
She reaches the diner and it's open. Luke's the only one inside, but she knows he's up there, so Luke doesn't say a word as she throws the door open, the bell above tingling. They share a look and he only gives a short nod, but she's already behind the curtain and going up the stairs two at a time.
Without knocking, she plows through the apartment, finding Jess already up, sitting on the bed, as if he hasn't moved the entire time.
He turns to look at her and her ragged breaths come to a halt. His eyes are as sad and beautiful and dark as she remembers them to be. It feels so strange to be so physically close to each other. She doesn't know what to say, and she thinks that he's at a loss for words as well.
He does stand up and walks around his bed so that there's nothing but open space between them. She thinks of teasing him about using the spare key to leave a letter, but decides against it. This moment can easily be turned into one of their usual banters, and she doesn't really want that.
She wants something a little different. And she knows he does too.
They're both different; there's more to them than meets the eye and they bring everything they have out of each other: good, bad, beautiful, ugly. They challenge each other. They agree with each other. They clash. They mesh. They're Jess and Rory. Rory and Jess. They're subject to whatever life brings them, and even when they think they've lost each other, that no conversations can be held…
They know they have one way of staying connected.
A/N: I'm sorry that this was ridiculously long...I just couldn't divide it. But thanks for reading until the very end :)