“This is bullshit,” I exclaimed, throwing my cards down and nearly knocking over my little board full of tiny wooden buildings and people.
Jenn snickered. “Maybe you should have been nicer to me? Then I wouldn’t have had to sabotage your production again.”
“Don’t even start. You were going after me from the very start of the game. And they—” I jabbed a finger at Bex in accusation “—have been aiding and abetting your crimes, even though you’re clearly getting the better end of the deal.”
“Is that so?” Jen said, shrugging. “Well, maybe they should be meaner.”
Bex was just watching the two of us, that same (weirdly cute?) bemused expression on their face.
I frowned, turning my attention to them. “If you let her push you around like that, there’s no way you’ll win. You have to be tougher. You’ll have to play an attack card on someone eventually.”
“Like this?” they said innocently, and set down a card that set my workshop on fire.
I let out an agonized groan, as the two of them dissolved into giggles.
Honestly, though? Despite the totally valid and reasonable complaints I was raising about the behavior of my adversaries, I was having a good time. Maybe there were good board games after all? Having an activity going on provided an unexpectedly smooth opportunity to get to spend time with a new person without as much danger of putting my foot in my mouth. Instead of having to constantly come up with things to talk about, you could just… play the game, and then let conversations happen when they did.
“On that particular note,” Jenn said, laying down her hand of cards. “I think that I just won.”
“Booooo!” I said. “Witch. Cheater.”
Jenn gave me an ostentatious bow, and I stuck my tongue out at her in response.
“You two are awfully good friends,” Bex said.
Practically in unison, Jenn and I turned to gasp at them in horror.
“Hardly,” I said.
“Huh.” Bex’s head tilted, and they gazed at us speculatively. “Then… you two… are...?”
Now Jenn was giving me some kind of weird side-eye. “Just roommates. Nothing else.”
Wait, what was that? Did Bex sound sort of relieved? Or disappointed? Or… what. What?
“Actually,” Jenn said, standing up abruptly, “I think it’s time for me to go get some more snacks.”
God. And what was her problem? I should have been the one offended there, if Bex was implying we were anything other than congenial adversaries.
I started to stand up myself, and before I knew it, she had a hand on my shoulder, pressing down hard to keep me in my seat.
“You should stay and talk some more,” she said. “I’ll bring you some back.”
She was being weird. She winked at me as she walked away. I didn’t know what her plot was here, but it had to be something. I narrowed my eyes, trying to figure out her angle.
And then she was gone, along with the safety blanket of a board game. And as Bex smiled at me, all my clever thoughts and comments vanished away. Head empty. Zero brain cells left.
Oh no. Jenn had left me in the midst of the perfect trap.
Bex seemed perfectly content to sit quietly. But I wasn’t going to let Jenn win that easily. We were going to talk, and it was going to be great.
“So,” I started. “Um…”
After the moment of silence stretched out, they nodded slightly, as if encouraging me to continue.
“Just to check, are you cool with me using ‘they’? I guess I just went with that and Jenn followed my lead, but if you preferred something else, I’d be glad to change.”
They looked pretty surprised. I guess this wasn’t the kind of conversation they expected. Shit.
“No, it’s all good,” they said. “I did say any pronouns, after all.”
“Right, I just wasn’t sure if you were okay with anything but had particular ones you preferred, or if you wanted to try out some different ones that I could help you with, or if you wanted people to more actively switch them around, or— Honestly, I have no idea. And now I’m rambling again.”
“Yup,” Bex said, laughing lightly. “It’s cute though.”
Aaaand now I was blushing. Great.
“I’ll tell you what,” Bex said. “I’ll answer your question if you answer one for me. Sound fair?”
I paused, cautiously considering that. For some reason, I felt slightly defensive. There was just something about Bex, something weird and compelling, and that... worried me. At least I thought that’s what that feeling was. But. What else was I going to do?
“Sure,” I finally said.
“Why do you paint your fingernails? I noticed that before and I was curious.”
“Oh. Easy,” I replied immediately. “Because it looks fucking amazing.” To emphasize I wiggled my fingers some more, further flashing the sparklies.
Bex grinned. “That’s certainly true.” But then they waited, still looking directly at me. Somehow they seemed to be able to see right through me. I squirmed a bit, not knowing quite what to do about that.
“Okay, I guess that’s not all of it,” I admitted. “I feel like… it just represents something important about myself that I want to share with other people. Like I’m not just this stupid boring guy that I look like on the outside, I’m more interesting than that. I thought I would be worried about people judging me, but the longer I’ve worn it, the more I’ve felt like… Well, I’m sure that some people look at me and think bad things, but seriously, fuck anyone who’d judge me based on that. I don’t care about their shitty opinions anyways. Instead, I’ve started to feel like there are people who I want to see me – to see my fingernails. They’re the kind of people I actually care about, because they know that there’s not anything wrong or bad about me, just different. A good kind of different. Maybe like them. Maybe they see and understand, and maybe we share something in common. Um. Maybe.” I paused. “Ugh. Rambling.”
“No,” Bex said, softly. “Not rambling at all. I think I get it. Thanks for sharing that with me.”
“Yeah. Sure.” I sighed. “Sorry. I feel like I’ve not quite figured it out yet, and the more I try to put it into words, the more confused I get.”
“That’s okay. I absolutely understand that too. And I think now I owe you an answer to your first question.”
I raised my hands in front of me. “No, I mean, you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“Shh.” Bex lightly bit their bottom lip for a moment as they gazed off to the side, deep in thought. I tried really really hard not to stare, and I mostly succeeded too.
Finally, Bex spoke again. “‘They’ is good, and I like it. I would also really like to use ‘she,’ but I hesitate to ask people for that specifically, because I know it doesn’t fit me very well.”
I blinked. Then I narrowed my eyes, looking at Bex intently. It was like something clicking into place. Or rather, me pushing it to click into place. I knew what she wanted, and I knew she deserved it, and I took a moment to turn it over in my head, accept it, and internalize it. It helped that it made perfect sense to me.
“What are you talking about?” I said. “I think it suits you perfectly well.”
Her eyes drifted off to the side. “That’s… kind of you to say.”
“No,” I said firmly. The next thing I knew, I had reached out to take hold of her hand, squeezing it to get her attention. “This isn’t pity or kindness or whatever. This is me saying that I… I could see you that way. If you wanted me to.”
She sat stiffly, spine completely straight. She wouldn’t meet my eyes. I suddenly realized what I was doing, what I was saying, and I abruptly dropped her hand again. I was being weird. I was freaking her out.
“Shit. Sorry. Um.”
“No, it’s okay. Really.”
“It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. I appreciate it.”
Bex finally looked up again, and my heart skipped a beat at the sight of her eyes. It really just wasn’t fair for someone to have eyes like that. And then she started smiling, in a way that was more beautiful than ever, but also... incredibly fragile.
I cleared my throat. “Right. Yeah. Cool." My eyes drifted down to the table in front of us. "So you, uh, like board games, then?”
“Sure do!” she said. “I can’t say I’m that good, as you can tell from tonight, but I like playing them.”
I smirked. “You just need to learn to be more ruthless. What’s the point if you’re not going to win?”
She giggled, and my heart did a little leap again.
“Though okay,” I said. “Maybe I’m too competitive. I don’t know.”
“No, no,” she said, “that’s good. It helps to have people playing to win or else nothing works right.”
She started cleaning up the game, neatly and efficiently organizing the mess we had left. I tried to help out, but I kept getting distracted, watching her slender fingers as she bagged up little wooden pieces and collected cards into decks.
I looked down at my own. The nail polish really helped, but I still felt clumsy and ugly in comparison. Bex just looked so… self-assured. So… pretty. That was really it too - she looked amazing to me, and would only look more amazing in the future, if that’s what she wanted. On some level, maybe I wanted to hate her for it, but she was just too nice, and instead whatever I was feeling was all tangled and swirled up and confusing.
“There we go,” Bex said, closing the lid on the box. “And I should probably get going. Thanks for playing with me!”
“What? Already?” I said, feeling a bit panicked. I thought we had more time than this. When I glanced up at the clock on the wall, way more time had passed than I thought, but… surely the night was still young?
She hesitated, regret clear on her face, but then nodded. “I’m supposed to be back before it’s too late.”
She stood, gathering her things. I stood up as well, but then didn’t know quite what to do, so I just jammed my hands into my pockets awkwardly.
And for some reason, this is when I decided that the next obvious step was to really comprehensively fuck everything up.
“Hey Bex. Do you want to get lunch sometime?” I said. “With me, I mean.”
What the fuck was I saying. Lunch? Who says that? What?
She set the boxes down again. “What?” she said, concurring with the panic swirling around in my head. “Like… on campus? At the cafeteria?”
“I mean, like, as a date.”
I did mean that. Why the fuck did I mean that. Why did I say that.
Bex’s mouth opened and closed, wordlessly. “Um,” she finally said.
“Sorry, I’m not trying to be weird. I just—” I forced myself to pause for a sec, frantically trying to reel it in and keep from saying anything truly terrible. At this point she clearly thought I was some kind of abject weirdo, and, like, fine, I wasn’t going to argue with her on that one. But I absolutely did not want anything that I said to make her feel like she was anything other than great.
I took a breath and then released it. “I know that we’ve not spent that much time together, but so far you are nothing if not thoughtful and kind. I think you’re a lovely person and I would really enjoy the opportunity to get to know you better.” I swallowed. “Also you are extremely cute.”
Bex was completely pale now. As she remained silent, my heart slowly slid from its position in my throat all the way down to the pit of my stomach.
“Grickett,” she said, hesitantly, “I’ve enjoyed hanging out with you, too. But…”
Yikes. At least she was kind enough to try and be nice about it. And of course, that only made me feel shittier.
“But also, there’s someone else who’s… Well, I don’t know. Things right now are… complicated.”
“Right,” I said. “Of course. I didn’t even ask if you were already dating someone. I’m so sorry.”
“No! Uh. I mean.” Bex mouth twisted. “It’s… it’s just complicated, okay? And I feel like I need to figure out myself for myself, before I can see what it looks like to be me with another person.”
“Of course,” I murmured, taking a step back. “I’m sorry. I’ll… I’ll just go.”
“No, wait.” She was the one to reach out this time, pulling me back gently by my hand. “I’m just saying… let’s do lunch. But… maybe just as friends?”
I took a deep breath. “Okay. That sounds great, Bex.”
And I believed it, too. It was great. I was happy to be her friend.
But as I waved and watched her leave, I couldn’t help but feel like I had really made a mistake.