The jet bridge was filled with the sounds of people talking, laughing and the grating whiz of the wheels of the many carry-on cases being carted up to the terminal. Butterflies filled my stomach. I had to admit that when Ryan suggested I fly to Chicago for Christmas, I was thrilled and filled with excited anticipation. I’d never seen Chicago in winter, but it was the fact that Ryan insisted I come that was responsible for the nervous adrenaline pumping through my veins. This was Ryan, my best friend. My gorgeous best friend, true, but still, he was like my other half, the calm in my storm, the cream to my coffee. I told myself it was the prospect at meeting his parents that had my stomach all tied up in knots.
I’d shoved a few changes of clothes and the bare necessities into a carry-on and grabbed a cab for the airport. The fare was fifty dollars and I charged it on the credit card my dad had given me when I started college, for emergencies only. I inwardly shrugged. This was an emergency. I was dying of boredom in San Francisco and seriously missing the easy camaraderie that Ryan and I shared. It was really the first time we’d been separated since we’d met and I’d been seriously unprepared for how much I’d miss him. I looked down at my Nike clad feet and my stomach dropped. I didn’t have time to shower or change and still wore the tattered jeans and hoodie that I’d thrown on that morning. The purple coat that was shoved under my left arm was the first one I could grab as I’d rushed from my father’s house. The first impression with Ryan’s family certainly would not be what I wanted. The butterflies did somersaults in my stomach again and I swallowed hard, wishing I had a soda or bottle of water with me. There were plenty of places to stop and pick one up, but my anxiousness to get to Ryan overshadowed the need. My iPhone blipped in the front pocket of my sweatshirt and my hand plunged in to retrieve it, a smile already plastered on my face. Typical impatience from Ryan, only this time, I mirrored the feeling.
Jules? You here?
I furiously typed my answer one-handed as I pulled my luggage behind me and made my way past the security checkpoint. The lines were insane and I was thankful I didn’t have to fight that mess.
Yeah. Walking into main terminal.
When I saw the glass windows at the front of the terminal come into view, my eyes began the search for Ryan. He was leaning up against one of the large pillars, nonchalantly scanning the crowd, his hands shoved unceremoniously into the front pockets of his jeans. My heart did the little flip it always did when I saw him, and as usual, I pushed it away. He was so gorgeous and I did have breasts and a uterus, so I couldn’t expect to be immune to the incredible pull he held over women. Even Brian, an openly gay student who was a member of my philosophy discussion group, would gape and drool every time Ryan would come pick me up after one of our study sessions at the campus library. Ryan’s discomfort on such occasions was palpable and it made me laugh.
“Brian is no different than the gaggles of women fawning all over you constantly. That doesn’t seem to bother you, Matthews!” I’d mumbled under my breath. “And, he’s prettier than some of them.”
He’d had the grace to blush and shot me a look that could kill, his eyes warning me to stop my goading. “Shut up or I’ll punish you,” he warned with a quirk of his lips. Later, he’d held me down in my dorm room and tickled me furiously until I was screaming with laughter and begging him to stop the torture. He didn’t let me go until I promised I’d never tease him about Brian again.
Ryan’s face lit up with a brilliant smile when he saw me and he quickly came forward and wrapped me in a tight bear hug. The scent of his cologne engulfed me as his arms tightened around my shoulders. I inhaled deeply and closed my eyes as my cheek pressed into the soft material of his sweatshirt over the solid muscles of his chest and my arms wound around his waist. My coat dropped to the floor and the handle of my carry-on clanked against the tile as it dropped. Ryan had hugged me before. He’d given me numerous piggyback rides and slung his arm around my shoulders on countless occasions, but this hug had me plastered up against his male body, my softness smashed to the hard contours of his male form. I felt flustered and unsettled as I moved back and glanced into his face. His blue eyes sparkled with excitement.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. His voice oozed over me as his hands grabbed my shoulders. “My mom is circling the terminals and should be around to pick us up very soon.”
“I didn’t have time to get ready. I look a mess. Thanks for that.”
Ryan chuckled and bent to pick up the bag and the coat. He pushed the handle down and easily slung the bag over his shoulder before handing the coat back with a sardonic grimace. “You’ll look like a giant purple people eater,” he teased, “or, a bloated grape.”
“Thanks,” I retorted shortly. “Again, it’s your fault, dickhead. I didn’t even look at what I grabbed out of the closet!”
“Did you wear that when you were five?” His shoulder nudged into mine and I couldn’t help but smile. “I don’t think I can take you downtown in that. I may have to buy you a new one.”
“No, it’s not. It’s hideous!”
“Some of us aren’t as vain as others,” I shot back as we started to walk toward the large revolving doors that would take us out to the curb, silently dreading wearing the horrible thing. “You said it was going to be a blizzard here. I didn’t think we’d do much beyond making a snowman.”
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t lose you in that, even in a whiteout. Here comes my mom.”
A sleek silver Lexus stopped and Ryan went around the back to deposit my bag into the trunk as a slender woman in a long black cashmere coat and black leather gloves emerged from behind the wheel. I didn’t find similarities in their features, but her blue eyes and sandy hair were identical to her son’s. She was impeccably groomed which only made my unkempt appearance more annoying.
“Julia, it’s so nice to meet you! I’m Ryan’s mother, Elyse.” She embraced me warmly as the cold Chicago wind whipped around us and blew my long hair across my face. I began to shiver.
“Thank you, Mrs. Matthews. Sorry for the short notice.”
She whisked my objection away with a casual wave of her hand. “It’s no trouble at all, and you must call me Elyse. Ryan, you drive, darling. I want to get acquainted with your friend.” She tossed Ryan the keys before he handed me my coat and held open the back passenger side door and ushered me inside.
The drive and shopping trip proved to be a lot of fun and I found an easy camaraderie with Ryan’s mom. She was warm, easygoing and very welcoming. She chatted on about Ryan and Aaron, the tree-house they built in the backyard with their dad when they were ten and how Ryan broke his arm when he fell out of it the following spring. Overall, there weren’t many embarrassing things I’d be able to tease Ryan with when the need arose to blackmail him but things changed that night at dinner.
“Ryan, have you bought any whores yet?” his father asked with a laugh.
I gasped and some of the roast beef I’d been eating got sucked into my lungs. I began coughing uncontrollably, covering my mouth with the fine linen napkin that had been resting in my lap. My eyes began to tear as my chest convulsed painfully.
“Jesus, Dad!” Ryan admonished, pushing back his chair and pounding on my back. “Sorry, Jules, it’s a joke.”
Elyse rose from her chair and rounded the table toward the two of us, the tears in my eyes increasing as I struggled to regain my breath between coughing spurts. She handed me the glass of ice water next to my plate and offered it to me. I coughed again, wiped my tears and reached for it. I was acutely conscious of Ryan’s hand rubbing my back between my shoulder blades.
“I’m so sorry, Julia. I often tease Ryan about his whores.” The handsome face, so similar to his son’s, flashed a full grin as I finally took my seat again. I raised my eyebrow at Ryan who ran his hand through his hair. His agitation was clear.
“Gabe, explain to the poor girl.”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “Or not,” he insisted forcefully.
“No, I’d like to hear this,” I said with a laugh, then flushed when Ryan shot me a warning look. I guess he didn’t think that was funny, but I sure as hell did.
His father burst out laughing. “I like this girl, son. She’s smart.”
“Smart ass, you mean.”
“Ryan and Aaron went to summer camp for two weeks every summer from the age of seven. It had horseback riding, canoeing and a lot of other fun stuff. Ryan particularly like the horses and he’d write home telling us he’d like to buy a horse, only he spelled it H O R E S, so it’s been an ongoing joke. Ryan and his whores.”
“Oh, my God!” I laughed out loud. “Awww!” I reached out and pushed against his arm roughly. “I guess not much has changed, huh?” I asked my friend.
“Nice, Julia.” Ryan looked annoyed.
“Well?” I teased.
“In your dreams.”
Four eyes bore into me as they waited for an explanation. “Um, well, it’s just that Ryan dates a bunch, um… uh, a lot of girls like him.”
Elyse rescued me from further embarrassing myself. “He’s always had a bevy of girlfriends, but we’ve yet to meet anyone he’s serious about. Only one he dated more than a month. Ryan, do you still keep in touch with Jennifer?”
“What?” she asked, setting down her wineglass. “Surely it’s nothing your best friend wouldn’t already know.”
“Can we just not… talk about that stuff? Please?” Ryan begged. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
The truth was, I was feeling the pain as well. We never seemed to get around to talking about the past much, not when it came to relationships. We always seemed to be focused on the present, but the conversation put me in a weird place. Of course, my subconscious knew he’d had at least one major girlfriend in his past. He was funny, smart and gorgeous, and I wasn’t stupid, but somehow I’d managed to keep the thought buried in the back of my mind. I glanced in Ryan’s direction out of the corner of my eye. He was staring at his plate.
After dinner, Ryan and I helped with the dishes without a lot of conversation and I started to wonder if maybe this was a bad idea. As he stacked the last of the plates into the dishwasher after I’d rinsed them he nodded in the direction of the stairs and I followed him to his room.
“Don’t make fun of me,” he said with a slight smile and went into his room ahead of me. He turned on a bedside lamp and the television on the wall opposite the double bed.
“What are best friends for?” I asked. I always thought of Ryan as my best friend, but it’s never something we’d said to each other, nor had I ever heard him refer to me as such, but apparently he’d said it to his mother.
He flopped down on his bed as I glanced around his room. I could see his eyes follow me as I checked out the trophies and the photographs. I saw one of Ryan in a black tux with a blonde girl in a bright pink, sequined dress, and guessed that must be the infamous Jennifer. I sensed his hesitation and my face burned and my lungs felt on fire. I inhaled, trying to ease the heat and calm the weird emotions racing through me. He studied me intently.
“What?” I asked, the bed giving softly beneath my weight as I sat next to him.
“Is that okay?” His jaw stiffened slightly and my eyes skittered over the shadow of whiskers shading it. My heart thumped unexpectedly in my chest. I knew what he wanted to know.
“Yeah. You are my best friend. Duh.”
“I told your mom I’d help her cook Christmas dinner. Do you have any traditions?”
“Sure. We have to suffer my dad’s Aunt Mabel’s fruitcake. It’s so disgusting! Dad takes it and practically drowns it in rum to try to make it palatable and still it sucks ass. Don’t eat it, whatever you do.”
I laughed and grabbed the remote out of his hand. He let me take it without protest. “Doesn’t your mother make your favorite dessert?”
“No. She said it’s not holiday-ish.”
“Hmmm. I always make my dad Black Forest cake and Prime Rib for Christmas.”
He watched me with sparkling eyes. “I like strawberry cheesecake, but that sounds good, too. What is it?”
I flipped from channel to channel and shrugged.
“Chocolate cake soaked with Cherry Liqueur, filled with cherries, whipped cream and chocolate shavings. It’s a lot of work, but it’s delicious.”
“Yeah, I know. It is.” Tongue in cheek I waited for him to ask. He would ask. I would make him ask. The seconds ticked by, both of us starring at the T.V. without speaking. Finally, he caved.
“Will you make them and save me from the gross fruitcake?”
“I don’t know. Your mom’s right. Cheesecake isn’t Christmas-y. Strawberries are out of season.” I said, training my eyes on the T.V. and waiting, baiting Ryan more as I rattled off reasons not to make his beloved cheesecake.
Ryan huffed and lay down on his bed, finally leaning over and stealing the remote out of my hand. “Fine!”
“Moody much?” My lips crept up at the corners.
“You tease me with that shit and then renege. Just remember, payback is a bitch.”
I bit my lip to stop a laugh. “Fuck you. You called me a bloated grape! So what was it you were saying about payback?”
“Your ticket was $636 dollars and change. I take cash or check.” His elbow nudged my arm as he shifted again then leaned into me as the channel settled onto HBO. The Bill Murray version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ was just starting.
“Okay, I’ll make it, if you’ll stop pouting, already. But, you have to go to the store and buy the stuff.”
“What? The fucking thing already cost me $636!”
A laugh erupted from my chest and Ryan joined me as we settled in, both of us leaning on the pillows and each other to watch the movie. “It’ll be worth every cent.”
“It already is.”