Jock Romeo by Sara Ney

5

ROMAN

Lilly is sleeping on my bed.

It’s taken me a few minutes to find her; when I arrived home just a few moments ago and saw her car still parked outside, I assumed she’d be in the living room watching a movie or something.

No Lilly in the living room.

No Lilly in the kitchen.

My heart began to race as I climbed the stairs to the bedroom level, thundering in my chest with dread and anticipation, unsure of where I’d find her, knowing she had to be in the house.

It’s eerily quiet, but when I strain my ears, I hear the faint sound of a television and head toward mine.

Why would she be watching TV in my bedroom?

The pit of my stomach rolls.

Oh god.

What if…

No.

She’s just watching TV—relax. Nothing bad happened.

The light in the hall is on, but it’s not on inside my room, nothing but the changing screens from the television illuminating the space.

The door is open.

I see feet before I see the rest of her, long legs stretched across my bed.

Bare feet.

Bare legs up to the calf before her black leggings cover the rest of her.

A gentle snore accompanies the sounds from the movie on the screen, and when I step inside, I find a slumbering Lilly, rolled toward the opposite wall, hands tucked beneath her chin, sleeping soundly.

She lets out another soft snore.

What is she doing in my bed?

I cross to the other side of it, standing in front of her, looking down at her figure, unsure what action to take. I should wake her up, yeah? Definitely cannot let her sleep—it’s weird.

I don’t even know her.

I stare for a few seconds before shaking my head and glancing away.

You can’t stand here and watch her sleep, idiot. You’re being creepy.

She’s the one invading your space.

Right, but everyone knows watching someone sleep is bizarre.

Just wake her up. Reach over and give her shoulder a shake.

At least say her name, for Christ’s sake. Do something besides stand here.

Instead, I stare some more. Even after pep-talking myself out of it, I still don’t have a goddamn clue what to do in this situation. I’ve only been living on my own for a week—is this what it’s like? Strange girls crawling into your bed and passing out?

It’s Sunday—it’s not like she’s drunk.

She was waiting for you.

I hear the words as if there’s someone in the room with me speaking them out loud. Look down at her again, studying her face. Her closed eyes. The way her mouth is slightly open as she snores.

The hands under her chin.

Don’t stare at her, don’t stare at her.

God, why am I so awkward? Why can’t I just nudge her or say her name without feeling weird about it? What the heck do I think is going to happen if I wake her up right now? She’s going to hate my guts?

I don’t want to embarrass her and I know that’s what’s going to happen and I want to prevent her from feeling awkward. But I also can’t just let her sleep, can I? It’s not that late. I suppose I could sleep on the couch, but what if she wakes up in the middle of the night and forgets where she is and gets scared?

That happens, right?

It seems legit.

“Lilly.” I say her name tentatively, just above a whisper, internally cringing at my hesitation. “Hey, Lilly.”

Hey?

Ugh.

I try again, this time louder. “Lilly, I’m back.”

She stirs slightly, her legs shifting at the foot of the bed, her feet rubbing together but not much else.

“Lilly, wake up.”

“Mmm?” she mumbles, stirring.

Maybe I should turn on the light? That would help.

After I flip the switch, Lilly begins to roll to her back, arm covering her eyes to block out the light, her hand open like a shield against the blaring brightness.

“Why did you do that?” she asks with a tortured groan. “Go away.”

“Um.” I pause. “This is my room?”

She pauses, body going still, hand slowly lowering from her eyes so she can blink at me, the slow realization of it being, well—me—dawning on her.

“Oh my god, Roman.” Lilly tries to sit up. “I am so sorry. Oh my gosh, I…” She glances around. “Did I fall asleep? Was I sleeping?”

“Yeah, you were sleeping.” I stuff both hands in the pockets of my pants. “Don’t worry about it, it’s not a big deal. I just didn’t want to wake you up and scare you.”

“How long was I out?”

“No idea. I actually just got home.”

“Lord.” She groans again. “I’m sorry.”

“You must have needed the rest.”

“I guess.” Her hands are braced on her knees, and I notice something between her fingers but don’t comment on it. Something that looks familiar?

Something that looks like…

Mine?

The bracelet.

Fuck.

Don’t stare at it, don’t stare at it.

She sees me staring at it and slides it onto her middle three fingers, holding it up and studying it like she’s wearing a ring, turning it this way and that as if trying to catch the light in its facets.

Lilly wiggles her fingers.

Raises her brows when my eyes slide from her hand to her face.

I clear my throat, stepping back a foot so I don’t crowd her, and also I want to get the hell out of this room as fast as I can lest she wants to talk about—

“Why didn’t you tell me you knew me? I thought you looked familiar.”

Okay. She definitely wants to talk about it.

Shit.

What the hell do I say?

“I’m not trying to put you on the spot.” Her fingers—still holding the bracelet—smooth her hair down. The bedhead. Finger-combing it into some semblance of order; she must have tossed and turned a few times during her nap, and the strands stick up in several directions. “I just came up here because it was a bit lonely downstairs and…found it.”

That makes sense, I guess.

“I’m sorry if this is making you feel uncomfortable, but I just saw it—I wasn’t snooping or anything, I swear. I came up here and looked at a few things before settling myself on the bed and watching TV. Is that okay?”

“Yeah, of course it’s okay.” The hands I have stuffed inside my pockets come out so I can wipe them on my thighs, despite the fact that they aren’t sweaty. I feel like they should be, though. God this is painful.

“So…why didn’t you tell me we’d already met?”

“I…don’t know. Eliza and Jack were in the kitchen and I thought it might be weird? I don’t know, Lilly. Half the time I have no idea what I’m doing unless it’s related to school.”

I’m tempted to begin babbling to over-explain myself but stop before any more words come out of my mouth.

“Why did you keep this?”

“I don’t know.”

She twirls it round and around on her hand. “Most people would have thrown it away.”

Yes, they would have, but I’m not most people.

“It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just…” I clear my throat uncomfortably. “I was a nerdy little freshman and you were nice to me on a night where I felt incredibly awkward at a party I didn’t want to be at.” I shrug my now broad shoulders. “So I kept it.”

Lilly seems to preen at that as if I was giving her a compliment, telling her she’s beautiful or smart or witty. All I did was say she was nice to me once upon a time, and she’s watching me as if I were a saint.

I might live like a monk sometimes, but I am no saint.

“Most guys are assholes.” She plucks at one of the green strands. When she stands up and stretches, I back away, giving her a wide berth, watching when she puts the bracelet back on my dresser.

“You can have it back,” I say feebly for lack of anything else.

Lilly turns her head. “Don’t you want it?”

Yes. “Doesn’t matter. It’s yours.”

“I gave it to you.”

I cannot tell her I’m dying inside and that every single second we spend standing here is killing me slowly, mortification wanting to suck me into the carpet.

“Sorry.”

Lilly leaves the bracelet, ending the discussion, and snatches her shoes before walking to the door. “I should go. I can’t believe I fell asleep. My roommate was pissed when she thought I left without telling her where I was at.”

She bounds back down the stairs.

I trail along behind her.

In the kitchen, Lilly stops short at the sight of leftovers sitting in the center of the island. My mother sent me home with a container of pasta, a container of homemade spaghetti sauce, several small loaves of garlic bread wrapped in aluminum foil, and tiramisu for dessert.

Some of the food is still warm and has already begun smelling up the small kitchen with their aroma, namely garlic of course. Mom used fresh parmesan for the sauce and fresh basil and oregano from her garden out back—the smell is overwhelming and delicious. Lilly tilts her nose up in the air and takes a big whiff.

“What is that smell?” She sniffs again.

“That’s spaghetti. My mom makes it all from scratch, including the bread.”

“Are you serious?” She pauses, still staring down at the food, tongue practically hanging out of her mouth. “My mom hasn’t cooked in years. She usually has it delivered.”

“Well my mom cooks like there are 30 people coming to dinner when it’s just the five of us.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t your grandmother live with you?” Lilly taps her chin in recollection.

“You’re thinking of my great aunt, and yeah, she lives with us.”

Tonight Aunt Myrtle was alone and didn’t have a date with her, much to my mother’s relief. It was a really good time with my mother falling all over me and my brother objecting the entire time because he was being ignored. You would think I’d been gone for a decade the way she hovered around my chair, fetching me things, insisting that I not help with dishes or clean up as I normally have to do when I’m there. There were a few times she tried to convince me to move back home, attempting to bribe me when my father wasn’t within earshot.

“Did you eat dinner tonight?” I ask her as I begin stacking the containers neatly so they’ll fit in the fridge.

“Yes and no.”

I laugh. “What does that mean?”

“It means I had leftover pizza, which was total crap.” Her eyes haven’t left the containers.

I hold them forward as an offering. “Did you want some?”

“I couldn’t possibly.” Her hands go to her stomach, pressing against her belly like she’s feeling it for spare room. “I mean—I am still kind of hungry, but I never worked out today.”

Ah.

I get it now.

I’ve heard rumors about cheerleading and the rigorous restrictions they have, how some coaches and staff are complete dicks, body-shaming and measuring and weighing girls.

“If you’re still hungry, you should eat—it’s not that late, and you’ll probably go home and wind up eating junk food.”

“We don’t have junk food.”

Of course they don’t. “You know what I mean.” I set the containers back on the counter and wait patiently for her to decide whether she wants me to put them in the fridge or crack them open so she can eat. I nudge the sauce container forward. “It was good.”

“I love spaghetti.”

“Who doesn’t?”

“It was my favorite school lunch growing up.”

I laugh. “Mine was the square pieces of pizza. I would fold mine in half and dip it in ranch dressing.”

Lilly pulls a face. “Ranch dressing—blech.”

I go to the cabinet and grab a plate, begin to build her a meal, noodles first. Her eyes watch my every movement intently, tongue licking along her bottom lip.

“Don’t ever do that again,” I warn her. “That was so weird.”

Her elbows rest on the counter as she takes a seat in a chair, leaning forward with a grin. “You think everything is weird.”

She’s not wrong. “True. But licking your lips is super weird.”

“I’m hungry! I was showing my enthusiasm.”

“Yeah—maybe don’t do that.” I crack open the sauce after tracking down a ladle, spooning a heap onto the delicious pile of noodles. It’s a meat sauce with chopped up herbs and spices, chunks of tomato—and meatballs. They’re my favorite, so Mom loaded my container.

“Um, more sauce please?” Lilly blushes prettily when she asks, and I duck my head so she can’t see the blush on mine.

Gosh she’s cute.

So pretty.

Bet she could light up a room on a miserable, dreary day.

I put more sauce on her plate and set a piece of cheesy garlic bread on the side.

She eyeballs it. “I better not eat that.”

“Why? Because it’s carbs?”

“No, because when I eat garlic or onions, I stink.” Lilly slaps a hand over her mouth and giggles. “I can’t believe I just said that.”

“Come on—I don’t stink after I eat garlic.” I don’t think…?

“I do.” She claps her hands when I slide the plate toward her across the counter. “You know how some people eat asparagus and their pee smells, and some people eat it and their pee doesn’t? I think it must be the same with garlic and onion.” With that pronouncement, she lifts the bread and takes a healthy bite out of one end.

Moans.

A string of cheese hangs between her mouth and the loaf as she groans, “Oh my god, this is so good.”

I know it’s not polite to stare while someone is eating, but she’s doing it in a way I can’t help but observe. It’s completely impossible not to watch her inhale the pasta noodles and the meat sauce, cutting up the meatballs with her fork like she’s in a race against time and hasn’t eaten in days.

Or like she’s in a spaghetti-eating competition and must beat an opponent.

She has no shame.

Or, she just does not give a shit about my opinion or what I think of her—because I’m not someone she finds attractive? Not someone who is a potential boyfriend? Wouldn’t she be more conscious of her behavior if she thought I was cute? She probably remembers what a dork I was when I was a freshman and thinks I’m a dork today. Lilly was up in my bedroom; she saw all my nerdy awards, trophies, and ribbons.

Whatever, I’m never going to be her boyfriend, let alone date her, so what do I care what she thinks of me.

I’m cool being her friend.

Besides, she just broke up with some douchey football player; clearly that’s her type.

Plus, she’s sworn off men, and I fall into that category, don’t I?

I glance away to give her privacy.

“Oh my god.” She moans, sucking a long noodle back into her mouth. “This must have tasted so much better coming off the stove.”

“It was fantastic.”

“I should have gone with you tonight. What are you having next week?” She laughs, wiping the corner of her mouth on a napkin she’s plucked from the nearby napkin holder.

“Er, spaghetti usually, unless I ask for something different.”

She nods. “Heaven.”

As someone whose mother was home most days after school and cooked up a storm every weekend, I suppose I may take for granted the fact that my mom is such a good cook. I can’t remember the last time we didn’t have family night on Sunday or the last time she didn’t make something homemade; I don’t have to ask Lilly to know that certainly wasn’t the case in her house growing up.

Lilly continues to eat, eventually finishing the entire meal while I stand there awkwardly. She finally puts down the napkin, resting it on the countertop to signal that she’s done eating, and smiles at me.

“You’re going to have plenty for yourself, I hope.”

“Oh for sure, don’t you worry about me. Plus, there’s more where that came from.” I gesture around at the containers. “This is way more than I can eat myself, and I don’t exactly love the idea of having spaghetti from now until next weekend.”

“So you have the same thing every single weekend?”

I remove her plate while she sits there, rinse it in the sink, and put it neatly inside the dishwasher for the next load.

“Yeah, it’s kind of a thing. I should probably cut the umbilical cord, but it doesn’t suck having food prepared, does it?”

“What do you mean, cut the umbilical cord?” she asks as I wipe my hands off on a dishtowel then fold it over the edge of the sink.

“Just that…” Let’s see, how do I put this without making myself sound like a gigantic pussy? “Um. My mom is…”

“Controlling?”

“No. She just…” I wave my hand, in search of the right words. “I don’t know, she’s a stay-at-home mom, and I suppose she’s attached to my brother and me. Even though she has Aunt Myrtle there giving her grief and causing trouble, Mom acts like she’s lost a limb with me gone.” I shrug. “It won’t kill me to go home every now and again for dinner, you know?”

Lilly nods. “That sounds nice. I don’t know if you remember me describing what my mom is like, but it’s almost the exact opposite. If I went home, she’d feed me a carrot and make me practice backflips on the lawn for dessert.” She sighs loudly, tapping on the water glass with a fingernail. “Guess we can’t all win.”

I do remember her describing her mom even though it’s been a few years, basically a momager who tries to control every aspect of her daughter’s life. I also remember Lilly telling me she came to a school as far as she could possibly get to escape her mother’s constant meddling.

I have meddling family members too, but in an entirely different way.

She pushes her chair back from the counter and stands. “Do you need me to do anything? The dishes? I feel bad that you fed me after finding me asleep in your bed.”

That’s right; I’d almost forgotten about that. About her finding the bracelet and my embarrassment about it.

“No. Gosh, don’t worry about it. The dishes are already in the dishwasher and there’s nothing to clean up, so we’re good.” I glance out the side door through the glass at the dark night and check the time. “It’s well after nine…you should probably get going.”

“Are you trying to imply I need a good night’s rest?”

“Maybe. Sleeping is my favorite.”

“I thought math and science were your favorite.”

“Sleeping is my third favorite.”

We both laugh and I walk her to the front door, pulling it open and leaning on the frame.

“Thanks again.” She’s looking down at her feet, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say she’s feeling shy. Feeling as awkward in this moment as I feel because it’s almost like we were on a date and aren’t sure how to end it.

Which is ridiculous, obviously.

“No worries.” I remember myself and the reason she came by in the first place. “Thanks for putting Humpty Dumpty together again.”

“Huh?”

Has she forgotten her joke already? “Uh, the award?”

“Oh! Duh.” She puts a hand to her forehead and taps it.

After she’s gone, I still stand in the doorway watching until her red taillights disappear down the street, her blinker indicating a right-hand turn. Slowly close the door and lock it, returning to the kitchen to continue tidying up so that when my roommates return, my leftover containers aren’t still sitting out. I don’t doubt for a second that Jack would plow through the remaining spaghetti—and I wouldn’t blame him if he did. That shit is delicious.

* * *

LILLY

What a strange night.

I can’t say it was the most fun I’ve had since school began, but it came pretty darn close. We didn’t do anything—I spent most of the evening by myself, sleeping in Roman’s bed, of course. But the talking in the kitchen and eating while he stood by…

Was different.

Nice.

Dare I say…pleasant?

No pressure, no hassle, no expectations.

That doesn’t happen often when I’m with a guy; then again, I don’t often come in contact with young men who are like Roman.

Polite.

Respectful.

Sure, not all guys my age are idiots. Plenty of the athletes on the football team have their shit together—they have to. But there is an arrogance that comes along with being a football player on a team whose games are televised every week with millions of people watching from around the world.

It creates guys who sometimes expect to be the center of attention. Guys who assume the dominant role in the relationship. Guys who think they can do no wrong.

At least—that was Kyle.

It was all about him, all the time, and many of his teammates were the same way. The trouble is, I’m surrounded by them. The cheerleaders train in the same facility, go to the same physical trainers, see the same doctors, eat in the same cafeteria as all the other athletes.

It makes sense that I would date someone in that circle.

Well.

How is that working out for me?

It isn’t awfully late when I return home, but my roommate is not home—I don’t know where she could possibly be on a Sunday night given that we have an early morning, but I’m sure there is a guy involved. There is always a guy involved. If I thought I was bad when it comes to going from one relationship to the next, Kaylee is even worse.

I am wrapped in a bathrobe when I climb into bed, terry cloth turban coiled around my wet hair, having gotten out of the shower just a little bit ago. Freezing cold, I just want to snuggle for a little while before putting my pajamas on.

Yawning, I pull the fuzzy blanket up higher over my torso so it covers my chest, hunkering down.

Just a few minutes and I’ll get dressed.

I stare up at the ceiling, blinking.

Is it odd that I find Roman attractive? He’s not at all my type, but maybe he could be.

What are you talking about, Lilly? You’ve sworn off men. You’re on a cleanse. You’re on a journey to be alone.

I never said I was going to marry the guy, but I can wonder what it would be like to date him. Jeez, get off my back.

Great. Now you’re talking to yourself.

So? Who said talking to yourself isn’t healthy? It’s good to work through problems, no matter how you have to do it.

Journaling would be easier, moron.

Yes, true—but Kaylee can find a journal, and we don’t actually trust her, DO we?

Not even a little.

I slap a hand over my mouth.

I’ve never admitted that to anyone, never even admitted it to myself: I do not trust my roommate. Not after that stunt she pulled with Eliza, kicking her out without telling me then giving me half the blame.

Ruthless.

She would toss me over in a heartbeat.

Friends? Ha!

With friends like her, who needs enemies?

And so, dear mental diary, I keep things to myself and won’t share them with her or with anyone—except maybe Eliza. I can definitely trust her to keep my secrets.

If I had any.

Lies. I have one: I’m developing a crush on the nerdy guy.

I roll to the side and look at the wall where I have motivational quotes taped up where I can see them. I love being inspired as soon as I wake up in the morning and when I lay my head down for bed at night.

Be enough for yourself first. The rest of the world can wait.

It certainly can.

As I move to the side, my robe slides open, the belt loose at my waist. It’s a pink satin robe an aunt—my dad’s sister—gave me for my eighteenth birthday, and I never leave home without it. I feel sexy in it, mature.

Roman’s bedroom smelled like freshly washed sheets, so good I closed my eyes, imagining what kind of cologne he wears. I wasn’t brave enough to sniff him, though, to see if he was wearing it tonight, but I bet he was.

He wore a polo to dinner, for Pete’s sake.

On a Sunday.

How formal are his parents?

Mine aren’t formal, but they were strict, and I would guess—judging by the fastidious way Roman studies—his are strict, too. At least when it comes to school work.

My mother, on the other hand? She couldn’t have cared less what my grades were as long as they were good enough to:

  1. Keep me on the cheer team.
  2. Get me into a decent college where I could be on the cheer team.

Maybe in the spring, when I’m done competing, I should leverage the positions and try to get a job at a dance studio teaching little kids. That would be fun, wouldn’t it? Perhaps I’d learn to love it again seeing it through the eyes of younger children.

That thought warms me the way this silk robe doesn’t, and I pull the blankets tighter against me.

You don’t have a crush on Roman, you’re just lonely.

I am not lonely.

Yes you are—Kyle sucked balls, and you miss the potential he had to be a good boyfriend.

Too damn bad I can’t be in a relationship with potential. Ha!

Exactly.

Yanking the covers up over my head, I scowl, wishing I’d at least flipped the light off before climbing into bed. Also wish I didn’t have to climb out of bed to put my pajamas on, because if I sleep in this robe, I’ll freeze. And if I don’t take this turban off my head and blow-dry my hair, it’ll look so ridiculously shitty in the morning it will be impossible to do without wetting it again.

My bedhead game is strong, and no that is not me bragging.

I have to blow-dry my hair any time I take a shower or get it wet, because yikesss

Yawning, I feel my eyelids get heavy.

I really do need to climb out of bed…

Yawn again, mind drifting sleepily.

You don’t have a crush on Roman, you don’t.

He’s the last thing I think about as I fall asleep.