“It’s work related!”
He tugs on my hands to make me stand up. A door opens near us, too close to other rooms to indulge in one of our signature yelling matches. We both purse our lips and march into our room. I try not to slam the door.
“Well?” Josh crosses his arms.
“It was work related.”
“Sure. A work-related call. Dinner? What are you wearing?” He skates narrowed eyes over me, like he’s contemplating ripping the skin right off me. I can relate. I want to punch him in the face. Energy and anger is making the air almost sulfuric. The thing about Joshua is, even when he’s furious, he’s still exquisite to look at. Maybe even more so than usual. He’s all glittery black eyes and an angry tensing jaw. Messed-up hair and a hand on his hip, pulling his blue shirt tight. It makes being angry back with him just that little bit harder, because I have to try to not notice. It’s an unachievable endeavor that I have always struggled with, as long as I’ve known him. But still, I persevere.
“You’ve got no right to lecture me. I knew this was a disaster the second I got into your car.” I kick off both my shoes across the room. “I’m leaving soon. There’s a bus.” I grab at my bag and he stops me with a raised hand.
“In between Danny and Mindy, we’ve kind of had our fair share of jealous revelations today, don’t you think? I’m going to crack if you don’t just listen to me for once.” He wrenches out his cuff links and tosses them on the dresser and shoves up his sleeves, muttering to himself. “Little fucking asshole. What is she wearing? That guy has a fucking death wish.”
The expression on his face makes me wonder if I’ve got a death wish too. I try to position myself behind the armchair, just to give myself the illusion of space, but he points between his leather shoes.
“Don’t hide. Get over here.”
“This better be good.” I cross the room to stand in front of him and put my hands on my hips, just to puff myself up. He takes a few long moments to decide how to proceed.
“Two simple issues first. Danny and Mindy.” He looks like he’s taking control of a board meeting. He practically has a presentation slide behind him.
“Do you care about Danny? Could you love him one day?” Those eyes belong to the king of the serial killers.
“I called Danny about something for work. Something to do with my interview. You already know this! Forgive me for not wanting to spill my secrets to the person I’m competing against.”
“Answer my question.”
“No, and no. He’s helping me with something I’m using in my presentation. It’s a design job, and he’s a freelancer now. He’s doing me a massive favor, working over the weekend. But I couldn’t care less if I never saw him again.”
His insane eyes dial down a few notches. “Well, I couldn’t care less about Mindy. It’s why she left me for my brother.”
“You could have told me. Back in your apartment, on your couch. I would have tried to understand. We were almost friends then.” I realize something else that’s bothering me. He didn’t trust me with this.
“I finally have you coming over to sit on my couch and you think I’m going to tell you about how I was such a terrible boyfriend she ended up with my brother? It’s not really a glowing endorsement of my character. Gee, wouldn’t you want to stick around after hearing that?” I can spot the faint wash of darker color on his cheekbones. He’s embarrassed as hell.
“Why am I even here? Moral support, remember?” I watch him try and fail several times to start.
“If anyone has broken my heart, it wasn’t Mindy. It was my dad.” He puts his hand over his face. “You were always right about why I needed moral support. No big conspiracy. It’s medicine. Me quitting, failing, disappointing. You’re here because I’m scared of my own fucking dad.”
“What did your dad do?” I can barely ask it. When I think of dads, I think of my own. A big, funny sonic boom since I was a kid, always surprising me with Smurfs and beard-burn cheek kisses. I know there are bad dads. When I see the look on Josh’s face, I wish to god he didn’t have one.
“He’s ignored me my entire life.”
It sounds like the first time he’s spoken those words. He looks at the ground, miserable. I creep closer to him. Another weird kaleidoscopic twist? His hurt makes my own heart hurt.
“Has he hit you? Has he forced you into medicine?”
Josh shrugs. “The British royal family have an expression. The heir and the spare. I’m the spare. Patrick was firstborn. Dad’s not one of those people who’s willing to dilute his efforts, if you know what I mean. They were only ever planning on having one kid too. I was a surprise.”
“You would have been wanted.” I have his crumpled cuff in my hand now, and I give him an awkward little shake. “Look at how much your mom loves you.”
“But to Dad, I was not in the plan. Patrick has always been his focus, and look where he is now. The best son, effectively the only son, making Dad proud on his wedding day.”
He won’t meet my eyes. We’re mining some old, deep, painful territory here.
“Nothing I did rated a mention. Dad wouldn’t pay a cent toward my tuition, but Mom did. I studied my ass off, like a complete sucker for punishment. Nothing pleased him.” The bitterness in his voice sounds like it is choking him.
My anger has steamed out of my pores now and I can’t do anything but put my arms around him and hug until my arms ache.
“I thought if I could become a doctor too, maybe . . .”
“He’d notice you.” Just like his mom said.
“And meanwhile perfect, golden child Patrick, who can do no wrong, was making it look easy. The thing about Patrick is, he’s so nice. He’s so goddamn nice. He’ll do anything for anyone. Even get up in the middle of the night and drive over to help me with you. Man, can he be any nicer? It makes it impossible for me to hate him. And I want to. So bad.”
“He’s your brother.” I link my arm into his. “It’s obvious he’d do anything for you.”
“There’s a perfect son, and then there’s me. I may as well be the best at something, even if it is being an asshole. I’ll never be nice. You need to imagine what it was like growing up with a parent like him. I’ve had to make myself this way.”
I think of him stomping around at B&G, trying to hide his shyness and insecurity behind that mask.
“I hate to break it to you Josh, but underneath it all, you’re nice too.”
“I’ve got no interest in being the second best at anything. I’m never being second again.”
His voice is iron-clad with determination. I think of the promotion, and some deep part of my brain sighs, Oh fuck it.
“Is this why you’ve always hated me? I’m so nice. I’m way too nice and you’ve always hated it.” I tug the sleeve of my dress a little straighter.
“It killed me to watch you try your heart out for people who were using your kindness. It made me want to stand up for you, and protect you from it. I couldn’t though, because you hated me, so I had to get you to stand up for yourself.”
“And my niceness made it impossible to hate me?” Hopefulness has rendered me pathetic.
He puts a thumb under my chin and tilts my face. “Yeah.”
“Well, this is a sad story.” When he kisses me on the cheek, I know it is an apology, and I suspect that I’ll probably accept it.
“Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t have some traumatic childhood or anything, I always had a roof over my head and so forth. And my mother is the best,” he says, affection in his tone now. “I can’t complain.”
“Yes you can.”
He looks at me, surprised.
“No one should ever be ignored, or made to feel unimportant. You’ve achieved a lot of things in your career, and you should be proud of yourself.” I emphasize the last word. “You can complain all you want. I’m Team Josh, remember?”
“Are you?” I hear some of the tension melt out of him a little. “I never thought I’d hear those words fall from your Flamethrower lips. Not after tonight.”
“You and me both. So what happened after you completed premed?”
“Surely your dad must have taken notice of you then.”
“Mom made the biggest fuss ever. She threw a party. It seemed like everyone who’d ever known me was invited. It was at our house here. It’s on the beach. I suppose it was a great party, in retrospect. But Dad wasn’t there.”
“He skipped it?” I hug him, resting my cheek on his chest. I feel his hands slide up my back, like he’s soothing me.
“Yeah, he didn’t bother to swap shifts at the hospital like Mom had asked him to. He skipped it entirely. When Patrick completed premed Dad gave him our grandfather’s Rolex. For me, he couldn’t even bother turning up. He’s always known I wasn’t cut out for it. Watching me try so hard made me pathetic.”
“So him not turning up to the party means you haven’t spoken to your father properly for five years? You’ve got to see it’s hurting your mom. She’s got permanently sparkly eyes from trying not to cry.”
“That night I got incredibly drunk. I was sitting down there by myself on the sand by the water, emptying this bottle of whiskey into my mouth. Alone. Melodramatic. Behind me is the house, filled with people, but no one had noticed the guest of honor was gone.”
He looks a little amused, but I know underneath it is a deep hurt. I remember looking at him once in the team meeting, a thousand years ago, and wondering if he ever felt isolated. I know the answer now.
“So you sat out there? Drunk? What did you do? Go in and make a scene?”
“No, but I realized something I’d worked so hard for—his approval—had resulted in absolutely no outcome. I’m like him, maybe. Why try? Why bother? I decided then and there to quit trying. I’d go and get the first job I could.”