I tasted blood in my mouth, and I took a minute to lick the wound and swallow the blood. "It’s already making money, and it has been since I bought it." Then, almost recklessly, I charged ahead. "I can’t imagine not receiving a passing grade for this project, and if I did, I’d have to consult with the dean about the fairness of my grade.”
Dr. Billings laughed at me, one part nervous, one part mocking. “I know you aren’t averse to getting your hands dirty…literally. All your previous fighting wasn’t on the up and up. Don’t think I don’t know how you funded the purchase of your little project.”
“I’m not interested,” I told him flatly, but in truth my heart was pounding hard.
I heard the scrape of a chair as Billings stood. I turned to face him. His face wasn’t just flushed now, it was red. "You are a goddamned redneck charity case. Your kind doesn’t belong here, and the dean would agree with me. We take on shit-ass war mongers like you to allow the administration to preen about its devotion to veterans, but the truth is that not one of us can stand you and your kind."
It was one thing to insult me and entirely another to insult the Corps and the men I served with, the men who died for this f**kstick. "You’re lucky that me and my kind are willing to die so that you can gamble away your cash and still have an opportunity to make money in a stock market that is supported by the sweat and blood of my brothers," I seethed.
Billings wisely stood behind his desk. The physical barrier wouldn’t be too difficult for me to cross, but it served as a reminder that I couldn’t strike this person, although every nerve in my body wanted to. I held my clenched fists against my side rigidly in hopes that my self-control would hold and I wouldn’t spring across the room and end him.
"You think about this, Noah Jackson," Billings spat at me. "I’m offering you an opportunity of a lifetime. Throw one little fight, and you’ll be a millionaire. It’ll be your only opportunity to sit with your little Central College friends and feel like you belong. Otherwise, you’ll always be the dirty kid from the wrong side of the tracks looking up at everyone else. It’s not like you haven’t been willing to do illegal things for money before.”
I didn’t give Billings the satisfaction of a response. Instead, I turned and left without another word. But his parting insults pounded in my head. I had fought illegally for money to buy the franchise. He was just verbalizing everything I had ever thought before. I wasn’t good enough for Grace, and I wouldn’t be good enough until my bank account stood up to her uncle’s.
"HOW ABOUT THIS JACKET?" LANA Sullivan, my cousin, held up a double-breasted, heavy wool coat with a designer label. We were shopping for Christmas presents, and I was looking for the perfect gift for Noah. His winter coat was the one he’d bought when he was in the Marines, and I wanted to give him a nice wool one that was better suited to his desire to be a mogul. But Noah was very sensitive about my relative wealth compared to his own, so I had to be careful to buy something that was of good quality but that wasn’t so expensive it would reinforce our economic differences. I wanted my first Christmas with Noah to be wonderful, not fraught with tension.
“Too expensive.” I turned back to the sale rack and rifled through the sparse offerings.
“Everything in this section is expensive.” Lana waved a hand around us.
I winced. “Well, I’m trying to find something on the sale rack.”
“How will Noah know whether you paid full price or got it on sale?”
Good point. “Because I’m a terrible liar?”
“To the rest of us, but Noah doesn’t always read you very well.” She shrugged lightly. “Besides, why do you have to tell him?”
“True.” I wandered back over to her. “The jacket is nice.”
“Cut the tags off,” Lana advised, pulling the jacket off the hanger and taking it to the sales counter. “He’ll never know. Besides, what is he going to do? Google the price?”
“I know you think this is silly, but Noah has some crazy idea about the lifestyle he thinks I want to live. I think he’s driving himself into an early grave trying to deliver it.” I paid for the jacket. The sales lady handed me a ticket so that I could pick up the gift from the gift wrap counter later.
“This is more of Noah’s problem than yours,” Lana countered.
“Possibly.” I shrugged. “But why exacerbate his already-vulnerable feelings on this? I wouldn’t like it if Noah kept poking at my wounds.”
“This is something Noah is going to have to get over, or you guys are going to have a rough time.”
“Is this your professional advice?” Lana was a psychology student and liked to dispense pop diagnoses and cures. A lot of the time, she was scarily on point. Other times, I found her advice irritating. Likely because she made too much sense. Sometimes I just wanted her to nod and offer soft sympathetic sounds rather than declaring that Noah and I were on the brink of another break up.
“Just an observation.” Lana stopped at a rack of ties. “Besides, I think that if you were more assertive then maybe Noah wouldn’t feel as uneasy.”
I bristled at Lana’s criticism. “How exactly am I supposed to be more assertive? Should I cram my trust down his throat, sell his business out from under him? Demand that he either drop one or all of his extracurricular activities in order to spend time with little old me?”
“No, I’m saying if he gets all worked up about the gift, just tell him straight out that he needs to accept you just like you accept him.” Having finished her lecture, Lana moved on. “What’s next on our list?”
“Your mom and mine. Then Josh.” Objectively, Lana was probably right, darn her, but I didn’t want to risk my relationship with Noah over something trivial as the cost of a coat.
“Dad said not to buy either of our moms a gift. He is sending them to Uzès for a month next spring.”
I made a face. “I hope he gives that gift to them before we get there. Nothing like making Noah feel bad by announcing that as a Christmas gift your dad is sending our moms to a month-long spa retreat in the south of France.”
“That gift doesn’t say that we are too good for Noah. It says that our family is so f**ked up he should run far away.”
We headed toward the sporting goods department. My brother Josh never shopped, relying on Lana and me to load him up at Christmas and his birthday. We’d buy him a new wardrobe by the time we were done here, which made my gifts to Noah seem paltry by comparison.
“Even if that is true,” I pointed out, “neither is a good portrayal. I want to keep him, not drive him away with ostentatious displays of wealth or craziness.”
“Too late. The Sullivans are full of both.”
AFTER WE’D HAULED EVERYTHING UP to our apartment, I took stock of my gifts for Noah. I’d wanted to buy him another watch, but since he had one that had so many dials and buttons, I was afraid that I would buy one that was missing some vital feature, like being able to declare one’s body mass from five feet away. Instead I’d bought him a leather-bound copy of the Odyssey by Homer to replace the paperback I’d sent him when he was deployed along with the winter coat, a scarf, and a pair of gloves. I hoped it wasn’t too much.
Lavishing gifts on Noah wasn’t my way of saying I had deeper pockets than him but rather that I loved him. Every time I was out, I kept finding things I thought he would enjoy. I loved seeing him wear a shirt I’d bought him, and it gave me a thrill to know that the pen that he loved was one that I’d discovered during a shopping jaunt with Lana a few weekends ago. But the cost of those things, if he knew, would probably drive him batty.
Noah had this driving ambition to be wealthy, probably because of how he grew up. Sometimes, after we’d made love, Noah would open up about his past and admit that there were times he didn’t always have enough to eat and that it was a good thing that they’d lived in Texas where they didn’t need heat in the winter most of the time.
He tried to pass these conditions off a joke, but silently I ached for him. I loved him so much, and I’d rather live in a small shanty in West Texas so long as every night I went to bed wrapped in his arms and woke up to his gorgeous face next mine. How much money we had was meaningless to me. I just didn’t know how to get Noah to believe this.
I hid all the presents in the closet and pulled out my comparative literature studies notes. My Comp Lit final was tomorrow, and after it was over, Noah, Lana, and I would undertake the seven-hour trip home for the holidays. Lana had finished her finals today, and Noah would be showing up here at the apartment I shared with Lana after handing in his independent study portfolio.
That project was a sure A. Noah had to conduct a feasibility study as to what franchise would have the best potential in the metro area. Given that Noah had bought a franchise and was making a profit, there was no way he wouldn’t keep his perfect GPA.
"Pork okay for dinner?" I asked Lana after I had stashed the gifts. "I’ve been reading up on what foods would provide Noah the best nutrition for his upcoming fight."
"And pork is it?"
"White meat, lean and full of protein, I explained. "Won’t affect him at weigh in."
Lana shrugged. "As long as I’m not cooking, I don’t care. You could be making alligator."
"Tastes like chicken." I grinned and set to work firing up the stove. I’d prepped some vegetables earlier for steaming. "Should we have a starch?" I asked Lana.
"Isn’t that fattening?"
"Good point. Maybe quinoa then."
Lana made a face but didn’t protest.
Forty-five minutes later, the food was done and ready for Noah, but he hadn’t appeared. I checked my phone, but there weren’t any texts from him. I debated calling his friend, Bo, but didn’t want to look like a Stage Five clinger who couldn’t be away from her boyfriend for more than a few hours without freaking out. Truth was, though, I liked to be with Noah all the time, so I guess that did make me a clingy girlfriend. I tried to suppress those feelings when Noah was around.
"I’m eating while food is still hot," Lana declared. I nodded nervously. It didn’t matter to me that Lana was eating. It mattered that Noah wasn’t here.
"Maybe he’s just shooting the shit with Professor Billings," I said, checking my phone again.
"If Noah was a girl, I’d say Professor Billings was trying his lame moves on him," Lana mocked.
Professor Billings had a bad reputation for offering grades for favors. I didn’t know why someone didn’t report him to the administration, but I’d personally avoided taking any courses in the finance school.
Really, for the last two years, I’d been just taking general humanities courses until I was accepted into the art program. The dean had assigned me a couple of reading assignments over the break because he thought my eye for art was well-developed. My favorite type of photography had been deemed too commercial for the dean of the art school, and he wanted me to see further into people and draw their secret feelings out to the surface through my photography. Given that I’m naturally a private and shy person, the idea of breaking through people’s barriers in order to exploit them for my art felt uncomfortable. I think I probably preferred the too-commercial types of photography, but there was a lot I could learn from the art program even if I didn’t want to take pictures of someone’s soul and then hang it in a gallery in New York.
Two hours after I’d finished dinner, Noah showed up with an apology and a bouquet of gas station flowers. I could tell from the orange price tag on the cellophane. Forcing a bright smile on my face, I took the flowers and held up my cheek for a kiss. Noah gathered me in his arms and held me for a long minute, burying his nose in my neck and lifting me slightly off my feet. The ferocity of his hug alarmed me, but I just hugged him back. Noah was stubborn, so I already knew that I wasn’t getting anything out of him until he was ready.
"There’s some pork and steamed vegetables in the oven warming."
"Awesome," Noah replied, letting me down to the floor. He went into the bedroom and dropped off his backpack. I noticed his hair was wet.
"Go for a run?" That would explain his absence. Kind of.
"Yeah, a long one. I’m sorry I didn’t text you. Just got caught up in the run. Zoned out."
As apologies went, it was kind of lame, but I held my tongue.
"How was your test this morning, Lana?" Noah asked, and it wasn’t just out of politeness. He genuinely liked Lana, which wasn’t easy because Lana had her own barriers that she kept up between herself and others. It was just instinctive, though, her need to hold people at a distance. Lana’s mom was pretty horrible to her, and the only way Lana had been able to survive was to encase herself in cold steel. My mom wasn’t horrible. She just wasn’t there. But I had my brother Josh, whereas Lana had been alone until Josh and I had come to live with her when Lana and I were twelve and Josh was fourteen.