Casey placed a neatly folded stack of shirts in a cardboard box and secured it with a long strip of packing tape. She labeled the box “clothes” with a black Sharpie on the top and a side, and then grabbed the next empty box. Remembering something, she set down the box and went to her to-do list to add two more items. She had a week to get everything together, and her mind kept thinking of more things she needed to do, needed to pack, people she needed to touch base with.
It was almost winter break, and Casey wasn’t coming back to Berkeley next semester. She’d be back to graduate, of course, but this fall was her last semester on campus. The first day of the upcoming new year, Casey planned to jet off to Ireland to study abroad for the final term of her college career. Everything she needed to do, pack, and discuss with professors had to be done within the next forty-eight hours, because this was it.
Once she had the clothes in her dresser packed, she took another empty box and her list to the living room. She kneeled down next to the television, concentrating on the movies on the shelf. She pulled off her movies. Most of the movies on the shelf were hers. Her roommate, Sara, only owned three DVDs, and when Casey made the mistake of asking how that could be possible, she got an earful about how Sara had been serious about getting into college when she was younger and didn’t have time for frivolous things like movies. If it couldn’t be listed on a college application, Sara didn’t have time for it.
Casey was lucky Sara and her boyfriend, Brian, let her live with them when she came back to school a year ago. The two bedroom duplex just off campus was in a perfect location. When she got word Casey would be returning to school in the spring, she promptly kicked out their roommate, an oboe player who didn’t take advantage of Berkeley’s multimillion-dollar music facility for her early morning practice sessions.
Sara could not, however, help Casey at the student newspaper. She’d handed out all of the beats to the reporters who bothered to show up on the first day of the fall semester. She couldn’t make an exception for Casey just because they were friends. Casey said she understood and would go to one of the school’s many other newspapers. Not allowing that, Sara said she would find something. Casey ended up filling in wherever more reporting was needed. When there was a spike in crime, she tag teamed with Peter. When there was a heavy schedule at the performing arts center, she reviewed concerts and plays. Sara didn’t fully trust an underclassman to do her old beat justice, so Casey often wrote about local government. It kept her on her toes and out of her comfort zone.
Brian came out of their bedroom, followed by Sara. She eyed the list Casey had sitting on the small dining table. From the other side of the table, Casey’s laptop dinged. Sara glanced at the notification. “You’ve got mail. Jack.”
“Oh, okay,” Casey said. “I’ll look at it later.”
Sara watched Casey move around the apartment. It wasn’t until Casey had her box of movies full that she noticed she was being observed. “What?”
“You’re never going to have a successful relationship as long as you’re friends with him,” Sara stated matter-of-factly.
Casey frowned at this unexpected declaration. “What?”
Sara tilted her head toward the laptop. “As long as you and Jack are friends, you’ll never have a successful relationship. I don’t think he will either.”
“What are you talking about? Things with Paul are fine,” she said. Paul was a grad student. Casey met him at the library on campus. It seemed like a natural place to find someone perfect for her. He didn’t mind when Casey went on weekend mini excursions. She was writing freelance articles about West Coast destinations for a couple travel magazines. There was a lot in her own proverbial backyard that she hadn’t seen. Besides a handful of school field trips, most of her life had been confined to her hometown.
Paul usually had papers to grade and his thesis to work on during the weekend, so Casey’s road trips were solo. He was nice and perfectly lovely company. He was…fine. Paul was fine.
“And Jack has been dating someone—a girl named Danielle.” He never actually mentioned her, except in passing once. He and Casey didn’t talk about significant others anymore. It was an unspoken agreement after they got back into the routine of writing to each other. They were friends again, they talked about everything else, but there was no need to talk about their love lives. Instead, they talked around it.
And there were other ways of looking into these things, so Casey knew Danielle was a Phi Beta Kappa student and vice president of the senior class at UCLA. Casey also knew that Danielle was gorgeous and leggy and had the shiniest long black hair.
“I’m not in love with Jack,” Casey said.
“No one said you were,” Sara said. “But it’s telling that you put it out there. Jack broke up with that girl this week. You didn’t see?”
“I don’t stalk him on the internet,” Casey said, taking a break from her packing to look in the refrigerator for a snack. “And we don’t get into the sordid details of our relationships. So, no, I didn’t know.”
“I don’t know who dumped who, but they split,” Sara said.
“Well, that’s too bad.” Casey asked, “But what does that have to do with me?”
Sara rolled her eyes. “Are you honestly telling me Paul is fine with you being in constant contact with Jack, with the way he looks?”
“We aren’t in ‘constant contact,’ and Paul doesn’t know about Jack,” Casey said. When she did mention him, she only called him her “friend at UCLA.”
“What if Paul told you he was uncomfortable with your friendship with another guy and wanted you to stop being friends?”
Casey’s face screwed up at the absurdity of the hypothetical question. “I’ve been friends with Jack for years.” He was also easily one of her closest friends. “I’m not going to cut loose a longtime friend for a guy I haven’t known that long and won’t be with forever.”
“You’re already planning to dump Paul?”
“I’m leaving for Ireland soon. I’m not interested in a long-distance relationship.” They had always seemed temporary. She thought it would be good to try a different kind of guy. Someone safe and studious. And it was…fine. It was just fine.
Casey made a mental note to add “break up with Paul” to her to-do list. She’d add it later, when Sara wouldn’t be there to watch and scrutinize.
“So you admit Jack is more important to you than the guys you date?” Sara asked.
Casey let the thought roll over in her mind. “I’m not saying anything. You’re putting words in my mouth. Being friends hasn’t affected my relationships.” Except Colin, of course, but she kept that to herself. No one needed to know about that.
“Paul isn’t really your type,” Brian said, taking a seat on the couch and turning the television on quietly.
“What do you think my type is, exactly?” Casey asked. She quickly added, “And don’t say jerks.”
“Your type is more . . . edgy,” Sara said with a shrug.
“You don’t think Colin was a bit edgy?” Casey asked wryly. She met him at a friend of a friend’s party sophomore year. He had tracked her down and asked her out afterward. “He was always planning some stunt or prank.”
After taking a break, during which Colin slept with several girls, he decided he wanted Casey back. And he decided to proclaim this in the middle of one of her classes. He burst in—mid lecture—to declare he was in love with her and he could get over what happened with her and Jack. It was completely embarrassing. He made it sound like she slept with Jack. Which she did, but not while she was with Colin.
If only it had been a stupid prank.
After consideration, Brian said, “To be fair, Paul is better than the Australian media mogul. I couldn’t stand him.”
Ah yes, the media mogul. Casey dated him after returning to school in the spring. His father owned a cable news network. Unfortunately, they had heard how her internship went. “Dinner with his family was an unmitigated disaster.”
“That’s a little dramatic,” Brian said.
“They accused me of dating him just to get a job at their news station,” Casey said, verging on a rant.
“Weren’t you?” Sara asked.
“No!” As though she’d be interested in someone because his dad impressed her. But he sided with his family and broke it off. They just didn’t trust her.
“Why else would you date that idiot?” Sara shook her head. “That was the only way it made sense.”
“I decided against political reporting. I didn’t want to work for their news channel, anyway. I dated him in spite of it, not because of it. “Who takes a girl they just started dating to meet the family, anyway?” she asked. “And who breaks up with the girl because their parents don’t approve? If anything, I should have been more appealing.”
That left Graham. Casey dated him casually, and only for a summer. Perhaps she shouldn’t have agreed when Emily introduced them. If Casey was being honest, she’d dated Gregbecause she felt helpless after sleeping with Jack, knowing nothing was going to happen on that front. At the end of the summer, Gregwasn’t interested in pursuing the relationship any further, which he explained, rather insultingly. He said she was irritable and aloof all summer, like she wasn’t really present. He didn’t see how her mood would improve once school was in full swing.
They had very little in common anyway, besides going to Berkeley. He liked sports, for Pete’s sake.
Okay, so when she sat down and really thought about it, she was two for four on Jack affecting her relationships. “I guess I didn’t feel close enough to any of those guys to share everything.” She added, “I didn’t want them to ruin a good thing.”
Sara could have taken the opportunity to pounce, to point out that Casey did feel comfortable enough to share most of herself with Jack. She didn’t, though. She just said, “Maybe you’ll find someone you can open up with, about everything.”
“Okay, is there anything else you want me to change?” Jack asked, holding his phone in one hand and taking notes with his other. His laptop sat on the desk in front of him, open to the front end of a website.
“I think that’s it. I’ll let you know if I think of anything,” Jack’s friend, Sean, said. “It looks great though. You did a better job than I thought you would.”
“Uh, thank you?”
The line was quiet for a moment, then Sean said, “So, another one bites the dust, I see.”
Jack was already focusing on the lines of code on the screen. He looked away, narrowing his eyes in thought. “Another one what?”
“Girlfriend. You broke up with another one.”
“Oh. Yeah. We just weren’t right for each other. You know how it goes.”
“Sure,” Sean said. “Girls who seem perfect never quite are,” he added dryly.
“She wasn’t perfect.”
“Hey, did you ever date that one girl?”
“What girl?” Jack asked, choosing to play dumb. Sean sat next to him in the cafeteria at military school. He knew Jack only got letters from one person.
“You know the one. The girl that wrote to you in high school. What was her name?”
Jack put the cursor where he needed to rewrite the code before answering, “Casey.” He opened one of his notebooks to make sure he was changing the code correctly.
“That’s right. Did you ever date her?”
“Nope. We’re just friends.” Jack continued, “And she left for Europe two weeks ago to study abroad in Ireland next semester. I don’t think she’s going to be sticking around here after graduation. She will be globetrekking.” Casey had a new energy about her after taking a semester off last year. She had renewed motivation now that she had refocused.
“Hmm. Well, I always wondered why you didn’t date her.”
Because they weren’t in the same state. Because Jack didn’t trust the other guys at her school. Because they’d hardly get to see each other. Because they’d have to play phone tag. Because who knew what would happen after graduation? There were many good reasons. Jack had recited the list to himself for years. It kept him in the present moment. It kept him from fantasizing about things that would never happen.
“What are your plans after graduation?” Sean asked, bringing Jack back to the moment.
“Nothing solid yet,” Jack said. “I’m keeping my options open.”
“You’ll think of something,” Sean said. “How much do I owe you?”
“Owe me for what?” Jack asked, sitting back and looking away from his monitor.
“For all the work you did. You had to learn how to do that. I owe you for your time and expertise.”
“I’m not an expert. I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants,” he said. “I was just helping you out.”
“You perform a service, you get paid,” Sean pointed out. “Dude, I get to write this off as startup fees.”
“Oh, I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Well, think about it and send me an invoice.”
They ended the call and Jack went to work immediately making the changes Sean wanted to his website. He checked the front end again to make sure he didn’t forget anything—or break the whole site—and logged off. He closed his laptop and picked up a postcard. It was from Casey, from her first destination in Europe. It was just a quick couple of lines. He had a feeling it was more to brag about where she was. He tapped the card on his desk a few times before pinning it to the bulletin board in front of him. He looked at the card thoughtfully as he sat back in his swivel chair.
“What am I going to do about you?”
Casey stepped away from her family, finished posing for photos. She assured them she’d meet them for dinner in an hour before making her way over to the library, where Jack sat on the concrete steps, waiting for her. He looked handsome in gray slacks and a blue shirt that brought out his eyes. He already graduated yesterday, and came to Berkeley to lurk around campus until her ceremony finished. He didn’t get a seat since she’d only been allotted four tickets.
Casey smiled as she approached him and took a seat a step lower than him, arranging her black gown around her. She took off her flat hat, careful not to disturb her soft blonde curls.
Jack picked up a bottle of champagne he’d brought and uncorked it. He held it over for her.
Casey accepted it and took a big sip. “Well it was touch and go, but I made it.”
“Yup.” He smiled at her. “We’re done.”
She sighed. “No, just beginning.” She had a job lined up. A Condé Nast magazine hired her to write travel and culture. She’d leave in a week. She had a one-way ticket to Bali. She doubled the number of articles she sold when she went to Europe to study abroad. By the time a fourth magazine showed interested in her writing, she had the confidence she could be a travel writer. She started mailing out resumes as soon as the spring semester started. Studying abroad, without any ties holding her back, had been the best decision for her. Traveling solo, she had to figure everything out by herself. And she did it. Her mother and grandparents were unwaveringly proud.
Jack put his hand on the bottle to take it back, but Casey took another gulp before letting him have it. “Cheers.” He raised the bottle and took a drink.
“I don’t think I have a day to myself over the next week,” she said. “Mom has movie nights and shopping plans. Dad wants to hang out with me before I go. Grandma and Grandpa want me for lunch and dinner one more time. Laura and I are planning girls’ night.”
“Sounds like you’re booked out.”
She nodded as she put her lips around the bottle. She stopped the flow and almost choked. “Oh, I should check my schedule to see if I can squeeze you in. I’m sorry, I’m not used to being in the same state as you.”
He waved a hand and shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. Hang out with your family. I have things to take care of.”
Her shoulders fell. “Oh, okay. So, what are you going to do now? Rent a place on campus?” she teased.
Jack leaned back, resting his arms on the steps behind him. He shook his head. “No. But I don’t want to get a job either.”
“Well, what are you going to do?”
“Remember when my buddy was starting a business and needed a website?”
She shrugged. “Sure.”
He had told her about it. He took some classes at the nearby community college during junior year and learned to build a website. It looked really professional. She didn’t believe he was the one who built it.
“I went to some networking events and talked to some business owners who don’t have an online presence yet—it’s actually a lot—and told them why they should be online.”
“And you talked some into it?”
“Yeah, I have good soft skills. They know they need to be on the internet, they just don’t know how to do it,” he explained. “And they referred me to their business friends. I have paying clients coming in every week. I had so much work, I barely had time to study for my finals.” He gave her the champagne. “I don’t need to get a job.”
Casey didn’t lift it to her lips though, she let it rest in her lap. “But—that’s…You’re going into business for yourself?” she asked, incredulous. “You’re starting a business, just like that? Right out of college—without a business degree or doing some kind of internship first?”
“Mm-hmm.” He tilted his head toward her. “I did major in business for two semesters. I think I know what I’m doing.”
“But, hold on. You’ve had the intellectual powerhouse of UCLA at your fingertips, and you started a business with what you learned from a few classes at community college?”
He nodded. “Yeah. Don’t be such an elitist.”
“I’m not.” She paused. “I am. That’s crazy.”
“UCLA still looks good on my resume. If I had a resume.” He leaned in conspiratorially. “I don’t have a resume.”
Casey stared at him. She proofread and tweaked her resume every other day. She printed it so many times she knew how to change the paper and ink on the library copy machine. Some days her fingers were covered in bandages from all the paper cuts she got from stuffing envelopes.
“You can work from home in your underwear?”
He didn’t say anything for a moment. He took the bottle back to take a swig. “Mm-hmm. Just take a second to picture that. Or the beach.”
“Or a cafe in Paris.”
“Or Bali.” He handed the champagne to her. She took it limply.
She opened her mouth, but words failed her. He lifted the bottom of the bottle until it reached her lips. She took a sip. “You can’t go to Bali. It’s in Indonesia.”
“That’s why I couldn’t find it. I didn’t turn the globe far enough around.” He made a circling motion with his finger. He continued, “I have money coming in and can go wherever I want. I really want to date this girl, so I have to go to Bali.”
Casey took a shaky breath.
“My stuff is in boxes. It’s time to be rootless and go on a big adventure,” Jack said. “I promise I’ll still work in my underwear.” While she sat stunned, he said, “Do you want to go to dinner in a couple weeks?” He added, “On a date, to be clear. It would be a date.”
She found her voice to say, “But we’re such good friends. Dating could ruin that. I don’t want to lose one of my best friends.”
He shook his head. “The friend zone is the distance between Los Angelas and Berkeley. We have only been friends because of that zone, and the zone no longer exists,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m closing the zone.”
She frowned. “I was in the friend zone?”
“Girls can’t be in the friend zone.”
“You’re a girl, and you were in it,” he said simply.
She thought about it some more, her heart racing. “But moving to a different country is huge. And we’re terrible at relationships.”
“Are we?” he asked.
“I would say so. I’ve dated…” she trailed off as she counted her boyfriends. “Four guys in college.”
“Stop dating jerks.”
“They weren’t all jerks. Paul wasn’t a jerk.”
“Paul, you know, the guy I was dating before I went to Ireland.”
“No, I don’t know. You never mentioned him.”
She gave him a look. “You can find these things, if you look.”
He frowned. “Not if you don’t change your relationship status. Which, I’ve heard, means it isn’t even ‘official.’ ”
Her face mirrored his. “I didn’t?” She shrugged. “Eh, it doesn’t matter anymore.” She got back on topic, “What about you? You’ve had more girlfriends. What was it, five?”
His eyes looked up as he thought. “Five or six. That doesn’t mean I’m bad at relationships.”
“Well it can’t be the girls. They were all perfect, but you managed to find reasons to break up with them.”
“Some broke up with me,” he said. “And they weren’t perfect.”
She argued, “Yes they were. Every girl you dated in college was smart and beautiful, like they belonged on the runway or on the front of a magazine.” He started shaking his head, but she went on, “Caitlyn? Caitlyn is a Rhodes Scholar. And Heather? She fostered shelter dogs and built houses in the summer with Jimmy Carter.” She thought of his other girlfriends. “Oh, and Alissa. She was a National Merit Scholar. You could not have found anyone better,” she said. “No other girl could ever have a chance. They’re completely intimidating.”
There was a pregnant pause. “How did you know all that?” he asked.
She waved her hand dismissively. “It’s all out there.”
He turned in so he was facing her. He tilted his head and gave her a knowing look, the corner of his mouth started to curl up.
“And you are so picky that none of them were good enough.” Tears started to well up in her eyes. “It really makes a person wonder what those girls could possibly be missing.”
He cut her off before she could say anymore, lifting her chin to press his lips firmly to hers. Her hands cradled his face as she kissed him back, the champagne bottle forgotten.
She was breathless when he finally broke the kiss and gazed into her eyes. “If it doesn’t work out I’ll just move to a different country and we can go back to emailing.” He tilted his head and leaned back in, but paused, making Casey close the gap, which she did quite willingly. All thoughts evaporated, the only one remaining was that they would get to do this a lot more.
She reluctantly pulled away. “Okay, we can go to dinner. In Bali. We’ll just…see what happens.”