I Want It That Way
2B Trilogy - 1
For Leigh Bardugo,
who speaks of love as if it’s a question that must be answered.
And so I tried.
There’s always a meet-cute, right?
The girl trips and the boy catches her, they’re stuck together on an elevator, or she leaves her phone behind in a bar and he returns it to her. Later, when people ask the inevitable question, “How did you meet?” the story unspools with the woman telling part of it and the man finishing, or vice versa, while everyone admires them for staying together. I don’t have a story like that, or at least, I have a story, but it’s mine alone, and there’s nobody finishing my sentences.
I want it that way.
The first time I saw Ty, I fell down the stairs and tore my pants.
A superstitious person might call that an omen. He had nothing to do with it, of course; that was just a quirk of timing. While Lauren and I struggled with the sofa, a guy I presumed to be a new neighbor came into the building. He had auburn hair, brown eyes and a strong jaw dusted with gold scruff. I’d always had a soft spot for gingers, probably a result of growing up on Harry Potter movies. He was also tall and lean with a sculpted, ascetic face, like an austere warrior who would be at home on the prow of a ship. Okay, it was possible I’d watched too many episodes of Vikings this week.
When he saw us wrangling such a heavy piece of furniture, he only sighed, stepped around the boxes cluttering the foyer and checked his mailbox. No greeting, no “welcome to the complex.” I was halfway up the stairs to the landing, heaving my end of the sofa, when my hands slipped and the couch bounced away. I lunged for it, missed and came tumbling after. Lauren jumped aside like it was a sled on the slalom track, so the brown plaid monstrosity thumped ahead of me back down to the floor. The couch just missed slamming into the wall; I wasn’t so lucky. In honor of moving day, I had on old comfy pants, and they’d been washed one too many times, judging by the audible rip as I bounced off the wall and landed at Lauren’s feet.
She pulled me up, eyes wide. “You okay?”
“Just bruises to pride and pelvis,” I mumbled.
She tilted her head at the workload awaiting us. “Maybe we should wait for the guys to get back from their beer run?”
I surveyed the mess we’d created in front of the entrance and just outside, conscious that we were inconveniencing our neighbors. “We can’t really leave things like this.”
“I’ll help you with the couch.” As greetings went, it wasn’t the warmest. Grumpy Ginger strode toward us, rolling up the sleeves on his dress shirt to reveal very nice forearms: lightly tanned and dusted with auburn hair, lean but strong with prominent wrist bones. His hands appealed to me just as much, long-fingered and elegant, without being overly manicured. You know, if you liked that sort of thing. I was bad at estimating ages, but he was probably out of school, judging by the business casual he had on.
Belatedly, I realized I’d been studying him for thirty seconds too long. “If you’re sure.”
“It’s fine. I’ll walk backward and guide it up.”
“Thanks,” Lauren put in. “We’d prefer not to commit soficular homicide our first day in the building.”
Since my back was to the wall, I escaped the ignominy of the new neighbor seeing my panda underpants. He slid by and hefted the sofa up a few stairs on his own. Lauren and I worked together, and it was much easier with him doing the heavy lifting up top. With a minimum of fuss, we maneuvered the couch up to the second floor, where GG paused.
“A or B?” he asked.
“B.” I should win the prize for hilarious banter.
Nodding, he helped us carry it down the hall and into the apartment. We’d left the door open since we had so little in there. Most of it was still cluttering the lobby downstairs. Max and Angus had taken off as soon as we got everything unloaded: my car, Angus’s and the rental truck. After that, they were gone like the wind with the excuse that moving in would be more fun with pizza, cold beer and a buzz on.
“You’re right above me.” He didn’t look particularly happy about it, either.
I shot Lauren a what’s with this guy look, and she shrugged.
“I’m Nadia,” I said.
At first he didn’t say anything, so she tried, “That makes me Lauren.”
“Ty,” he said finally, like this basic introduction was akin to signing a long-term cell contract.
Lauren started, “The guys will be back with drinks in a bit, if you want—”
“No, it’s okay. I need to get home.” If curt was a hat, he would be wearing it with jaunty disregard for our feelings.
Awkward. And I still need to change my pants.
“Well, thanks for helping us out. We can handle the rest of the boxes.”
Ty took my comment as his cue to leave, so we followed him downstairs to work on the rest of our stuff. He looked tired as hell as he headed toward apartment 1B, the unit to the back of the building; it had a nice courtyard, unlike the front or upstairs. We had a balcony, but it wasn’t big enough for a barbecue, unless you bought the kind people used for tailgating.
Lauren and I were moving in with a couple of friends, and since we’d lost the coin toss, we were sharing the master bedroom, while Angus and Max got their own rooms. The biggest perk was that we didn’t have to use a grungy dude bathroom; we had an en-suite bath, along with a walk-in closet. Four people in a three-bedroom made the rent more manageable, and since I was often living on ramen by the end of the month, I couldn’t complain. I grabbed one of my boxes, marked CLOTHING, and ran upstairs with it, wincing at the sore spot where I’d collided with the wall.
“Nice panda,” Lauren said, deadpan.
I ducked into our bathroom to put on sweats and then went back down, passing Lauren on the stairs. As I hefted a box, a gray-haired woman stepped out of 1B. She was distinctly pear-shaped, moving like her feet hurt, but she smiled as she came through the foyer, giving me a friendly wave.
“Normally, I’d say ‘see you tomorrow’ but this is my last day.” With that cryptic remark, she left, and I hauled my carton upstairs.
As Lauren and I traipsed down to load up again, Max and Angus were just coming in. When I smelled the pizza, I decided they didn’t suck as much as previously estimated. They each grabbed two boxes and let Lauren and me carry up the pizza and beer. With four of us on the job, pretty soon we had all of our stuff in the apartment. The place was a jumble, but at least we could close the door.
“Sorry we were gone so long.” Angus was genuinely concerned. “Did the couch give you any trouble?”
I warned Lauren with a look not to mention my pratfall or wardrobe malfunction. “Somewhat, but I gave it a stern talking-to, and it settled down. Promised to be less of a malcontent in the future.”
Max dismissed the topic by frowning at the spot where we’d left the sofa. “It needs to face that way. That wall is better for movies and gaming.”
Typical. Not that Max was a bad guy, but...
Since freshman year, he’d slept his way through half the women at Mount Albion. Since this was a midsize liberal arts college, that was both impressive and alarming. Lauren and I knew Max too well to be seduced. Oh, he’d tried early on, but we both shot him down. I had zero interest in troubled bad boys from broken homes. Someone else could love Max and fix him; I was just crossing my fingers that he’d do the dishes on schedule. Max did contribute a steady paycheck, and that weighed heavily into the roommate decision—I trusted him to pay his share of the rent on time. As for Angus, he came from a “good family,” as my mother would say, so his dad had already prepaid his part of the rent with the leasing company. Lauren and I were on our own, but I had a part-time job, and so did she. It should be fine. I’d been telling myself that since I signed the lease last spring and put down the deposit, but this was a little scary, after living in the dorm as a freshman and sophomore.
“Fine,” Lauren said, since nobody else seemed to care about couch placement, and helped Max move it.
He immediately conscripted her to help him set up the entertainment center while Angus and I situated the retro dining set I’d found at a rummage sale, complete with yellow vinyl chairs and cracked-ice Formica top, edged in chrome. It had plenty of character, and probably dated from the actual ’50s, but I covered the scratches with place mats while Angus organized the kitchen. I’d never lived in a house with a dishwasher before, though I wasn’t about to admit that to the guys. Lauren knew, of course. My parents were covering my tuition with the help of an academic scholarship, but there had never been many luxuries. In fact, I was the first person in the family to go to college. Lauren and I had been friends since second grade. Her family used to have money, but her dad’s investments didn’t pan out, which left him bitter, and when she was eleven, he left the family entirely. Ten years later, we were in the same financial boat.
By the time Lauren and Max got the TV and peripherals set up, Angus had the kitchen done, and I’d set food and beer on the counter, along with plates I’d rinsed to get rid of packing dust and newspaper ink. I collapsed onto the sofa with a groan; more boxes could wait until later. Angus sat next to me, and Lauren settled on his other side, leaving Max the recliner. He promptly put on a noisy action movie from his collection, and I was too tired to argue.