Josie was the peacemaker in her family when she was a kid. It always seemed to her that every other person in the house was dead-set on bickering at any given opportunity – her mom, her stepdad, her sisters, her half-brother and half-sister. Like it was a sport and they all wanted to get picked for the Olympic team.
Josie liked quiet. She liked calm. She liked having a job in a different state, which gave her a good excuse for not spending more time with her quarrelsome family. Yeah, some sarcastic bantering could be fun, but not if it spiraled immediately into pettiness and actual anger. With her family, any sarcastic comment had that potential.
Kyle had always known how to deal in enjoyable sarcasm, which was one of the reasons she had been best friends with him since they were kids. Their best-friend-ness was the reason he was usually – okay, always – the one to pick her up at the airport whenever she came home for a visit. That and the fact that no one in her family ever seemed to be available to do so.
Oh, well. Her everlasting delight at Kyle’s presence was way more important than that little repeated stab of disappointment that happened whenever she had the thought that no one in her family was willing to make time for her. And at this point in her life, being in her thirties now, after years of Kyle being the one to pick her up, her family probably just expected him to do it. Like she did. And really, she wanted him to. She only asked her family out of a weird sense of politeness, that they might think she didn’t want to ask them, and oh, the passive-aggressiveness that would bring on.
Kyle was always trying to tell her how messed up it was for her to care about things like that, how bad it was for her peace of mind to continually offer herself up as their emotional punching bag. She would get a lecture about it from him soon. For the moment, though, as she walked into the baggage claim area, all she cared about was that he was standing there grinning at her.
Kyle had always given the very best bear hugs. Josie always ended up squeaking under the pressure of the squeeze, which would then make her laugh. It was one of the reasons he loved her. Not that he could ever tell her. They had been friends for too long. They had been comfortable for too long. They had been each other’s support system for too long. He had every intention of being that for her forever, which meant he couldn’t possibly ever say or do anything to change their dynamic. He couldn’t risk anything changing between them.
So it was bear hugs and picking her up from the airport and letting her vent when her family drove her crazy, and she was there to listen to him worry about his job – whichever one he had at the time – and his writing, which was never as good as he wanted it to be, and the fate of the world in general, which he definitely spent too much time thinking about. And then they would go eat at all of their favorite places and watch all of their favorite music videos and talk a mile a minute to make up for not having talked in person for the last several months, and then he would take her back to the airport, give her another huge hug, and look forward to talking to her online and in texts until the next time she guilted herself into seeing her family. He never told her to avoid the visits altogether, though, which he knew was a form of enabling, but he wanted to see her.
“Call me when you need the getaway car,” he told her as he parked his car in front of her family’s house, the tires crunching through the fallen autumn leaves that had collected along the curb. As he always told her when he dropped her off there.
She smiled at him with a sigh, knowing he understood that she was already psyching herself up to deflect the negative energy that she would be plunging into in the next few moments. She took off her seatbelt and leaned over to give him a hug before she got out of the car. As she did, jostling in the confines of the car’s front seat, her lips accidentally grazed his jaw. Her lips tingled from the contact and his arms tightened around her as his skin zinged, and they were both sort of frozen in place as they each found themselves quite breathless.
They let go their hug and sat back, each wondering if the other had noticed anything different from all their other countless hugs.
They smiled at each other, brushing off the peculiarity of the moment, and Josie opened the car door.
“Text me any time,” Kyle told her, and she nodded as she stepped out onto the sidewalk, the lapels of her jacket fluttering a little in the brisk October wind.
“You got this,” he told her as she grabbed her suitcase out of the back seat. She smiled at him again through the interior of the car, and nodded, and closed the door, and turned to stride up the front walk with much more confidence than she felt.
Kyle waited until she had opened the door to the house before he took a deep breath and put the car in gear and drove off, brushing his fingers over the spot on his jaw she had “kissed”. Josie looked over her shoulder before she stepped all the way into the house, watching him cruise away down the street. She rolled her lips in to press them together, still feeling a little tingly.
Kyle got the text the next afternoon. It just said “S.O.S.” He drove right over. He had barely put the car in park in front of the house when Josie was already stepping outside to meet him. His initial thought was that she usually lasted a little longer than this before needing a break from her family. That thought was interrupted by him noticing that she was carrying her suitcase. His eyebrows lifting a little, he watched her walk toward the car, put her suitcase in the back seat, get in the front seat, and put her seatbelt on, her movements all very purposeful and unrushed. Then she looked over at him and gave a lame little half-smile and said, “Can I stay at your place?”
He put the car in gear. “Let’s go.”
As they drove the fifteen minutes it took to get to his apartment complex she told him that she couldn’t handle the negativity anymore. That it was bad for her and she didn’t want to put herself through that anymore. She loved her family, but she didn’t owe them her sanity. She shook her head at herself and suggested that maybe it meant she was a real-live grown-up now, if she had finally figured all of that out.
“I know I’m in my thirties,” she said, as he parked the car by his apartment building, “but I’ve never really felt like an adult. Have you?”
He turned the car off and gave his head a shake. “No,” he said as they got out of the car, “but I refuse to let you move on without me, so I guess I have to be one now, too.” He slanted a half-smile at her as she took her bag from the back seat. “It may be too scary for me, though. You may have to hold my hand through it.”
She was silent for a moment as they each rounded the car, meeting on the sidewalk in front of it. Then she held out her hand to him, and gave a little smile. “I can do that.”
A little surprised that she was taking him literally, but genuinely pleased, he took her hand. The two of them just stood there for a long moment, looking at each other, each wondering if the other’s palm was tingling like their own was.
Finally, Josie broke the silence with, “Are you wearing work clothes?”
He was. Business casual, which was not what he normally wore when hanging out. He had always been a jeans-and-tees person, like her.
He gave a half-shrug and admitted to leaving work early to come get her. She gave him a look and asked if he wasn’t going to get in trouble for it. He gave another small shrug.
“I don’t think I’m going to be there much longer anyway.”
“What will you do instead?”
Another shrug. “I was thinking about moving.”
Another shrug and a lame smile, his eyes dropping from hers. “Somewhere else.”
She watched his face for a moment, watched the chilly breeze ruffle his hair. Their hands were still clasped. It was a very comfortable thing, holding his hand.
“I could use a roommate,” she said. He met her gaze again, looking genuinely surprised.
“If you want to.”
He really, really did. He couldn’t help smiling, and that made her smile.
They walked on into the building, kicking through fallen leaves of all colors, each thinking that they should have held hands sooner.