...you guys, this is literally a beast. I don't know how this happened. (If the writers don't write him, obviously I need to?)
your dirty mouth full of honest lies. glee. r. jesse/rachel, jesse/vocal adrenaline, undertones of jesse/shelby. post- “bad reputation”, during “laryngitis”, through “funk”.
...in which Jesse St. James is in a FUNK. ahem. An emotional trajectory, rather.
edited to add: the character formerly known as Andrea is now Giselle—because I thought the one was correct in the first place, and when I learned her real name I couldn't help my obsessive-compulsive inclinations. I am nothing if not a detail whore.
“Run, Joey, Run”, thinks Jesse, wasn’t so bad when he and Rachel were singing it back and forth. Not even when creepy Mr. Ryerson kept waggling his gun toward Jesse’s ass and winking behind Rachel’s back—it kept being worth it; she’d been in his arms, writhing in that red dress, and into it in the way that she always gets when she’s singing, even singing shitty songs. Her hands were insistent against his back, his shoulders, her “Watch out!” wild and her eyes, when he turned around to look at them, wide as a soon-to-be-roadkill deer’s. In the car back, he’d even managed to persuade her that there was a certain hormonal poetry to making out in the back seat. (In his leather jacket, he’d felt like James Dean. One mention of Natalie Wood and she was already unbuckling her seatbelt, her fingers tangled in his—they barely made it to the end of the road.)
Now it’s in his head, a discordant mess of a story set to song that’s somehow worse for being sung in her voice. Every time he tries to practice, he keeps hearing Finn Hudson’s decidedly inferior voice in his head. He’s never sounded off-key to himself before. And he’s never much liked medical shows, but on the mental health day he takes the next day, he doesn’t change the channel from General Hospital and decides by the end of the episode that love and tumors are a lot alike—this being the malignant form. Anesthetize and remove or die painfully. He’s aware that he’s being very Blanche DuBois about this, but even Romeo got license to spout off his worst verses after his heart had been stomped on. It wasn’t even delicately done—and when he looks too hard, he’s finding the reasons why he hates her, should hate her, gets to hate her, are difficult to put into words. Like she made it complicated on purpose, better at sabotages than he ever was.
He’s practicing Fosse choreography to unsuitable music (he’s too depressed at the moment, to find a song that fits better; it’s on shuffle and it’s his challenge to fit the moves to the musical expression, he’s decided) when his phone buzzes.
How is she? Shelby asks with just the barest tremor, and he sighs and sits down in the chair he’d been using as a prop, because he cannot do this, he will not do this, he does not have the will to go on with this charade and
(he’s had to care about her so much more than she did about him—and that means losing face, even if the face isn’t his, as he tells himself every time; face is easier to quantify than heart and what has she done to him? he thinks)
I don’t want to have anything more to do with her.
He hangs up.
That night, he gets a call from Giselle, texts in succession from Jake, Sean, Liz, pretty much the entire soprano section, and then Giselle again. He picks up.
“Look, this is a bad time. I’m in mourning.” For my dignity, but they don’t need to know that. It’s as tangible as a real death, and he doesn’t know why they put pictures up at funerals: Rachel’s face has this unfortunate tendency to pop into his head whenever he blinks.
He doesn’t ask why the entirety of Vocal Adrenaline has decided to call him tonight. He can guess. Shelby’s smart about things like that.
“We’ve got a countdown started backstage,” Giselle tells him. “You know, until you come back. Even Miss Corcoran’s keeping track.”
I bet she is.
They miss him and they’ve been thinking about him and it’s a bitch trying to perform without a real male lead, she tells him; it throws off the hierarchy of the girls, too, and now Sean’s jockeying for your solos and, like, he can’t even hit that one note half the time and I’m sorry, but there is no way that that bitch Liz is getting my solo just because she’s his dance partner offstage too… He listens to the gossip with (it can’t be helped) a slight smirk. It’s always nice to know the way things fall apart when you’re gone.
He hasn’t been talking to them much—one part bad for the acting; it gets in the way of the role and one part forgetfulness, the way Rachel Berry slips into the cracks of his consciousness and sings loud enough to drown out the minutia of what came before her. That night, he plays catch-up with the emails he’s been letting slide, the little flirty comments he’s been ignoring and the boys’ posturing and unsubtly subtle attempts to claim his old solos and—
His friends. They’re fuckups, but he’s missed them. And they are very far removed from Rachel, from all that is Rachel Berry, from all that evokes Rachel Berry. They practically wear not Rachel Berry signs around their neck.
So the group is going up to Sean’s dad’s cabin in San Diego for the week. So they just happen to have an extra plane ticket—window seat. So “we miss you,” Giselle lilts at him, sliding up her range, “did I mention that? Because we do.”
He laughs, in the end. His shoulders relax. “All right,” he says, “you don’t have to try so hard.”
“You’re coming, though.”
She tells him to meet them in the Carmel parking lot, that the group will be driving to the airport from there. He flashes on the Carmel stage—alone, with Rachel, with Shelby watching as his fingers traced the bones of Rachel’s face (like mother like daughter), her mouth silent and thirsty against his. He shudders. No, it’s his. Carmel isn’t hers; Carmel is home, where the game started and where it will end.
Still, it’s strange to drive up and feel the slight distance of these few weeks stretching between him and the school. Distance that lasts until he opens the door and they mob him.
“Saint,” says Giselle low in his ear, who’s managed to get up to him first. She wraps her arms around him, kisses him on the cheek. “Good to see you.” She looks tired. He’ll ask her about it later, if it strikes him. Liz yanks him away by the hand, a whiplash of red hair.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“Reconnaissance,” he says. It comes out easily, a cover story established between him and Shelby back in the beginning. (Cheers, she said, and clinked wine glasses with him. If they ever make a James Bond musical—
Does that mean you’d be M?
She smiled appreciatively and drank, eyes back to the cool she’d let waver more and more the more she’d told him. In hindsight, this makes Rachel Berry the Bond girl. Damn it—it’s always the brunettes who pull out the gun.)
Everyone laughs. Everyone asks questions, mocking and curious: so how’s their dancing, have they learned how to do it yet or are they still just shuffling around the stage, and hey did they have any other guys who can sing or what? They’ve formed a semicircle around him. Somehow you always find show kids in circle shapes. And he’s in the center.
Ah, he thinks, right: this is how it’s supposed to go.
“So,” asks Carla, standing next to Marcie, right behind Liz—he recognizes the old patterns with the pleasure of the familiar: mezzos flanking their lead in a triangle of blonde-brunette-redhead, Shoshandra standing between Andrea and Giselle with her chin on Andrea's shoulder, Sean’s hand on Liz’s waist; he doesn’t have to catch up when it retains the same tidy symmetries around him—“have you slept with the enemy yet?”
Just for a second.
“Are we catching a plane or what?” Sean breaks into the silence, and then everyone’s talking again, the focus is off him, and he thinks, fuck.
They ride out in their Range Rovers with matching license plates, VA and numbers. He hasn’t changed his car in these weeks; New Directions didn't know the backstory. Even riding around the McKinley parking lot, he’s still been VA001.
“More like 007 now,” says Giselle, who has smugly claimed shotgun—the group poured into the backseat the minute they could reach a door, as many as could fit. This too is familiar, the knot of limbs and laughter in the backseat. More people in the car than legal limits allow, but that’s another law they’ve decided to be above. “You’ve got to tell me stories. Life amongst the commoners; what was that like?”
Giselle’s funny about McKinley—he suspects that fresh-faced people piss her off. If they ever really needed a go-up-in-flames mission—by itself so hard to imagine that it’s naturally cinematic; they’ve never needed sabotage, although they’ve occasionally done it for fun—it’s her who’d be 007.
“Later,” he says. “I’m so sick of New Directions right now. I don’t want to talk about it.”
It’s a truth. And he’s a showman: there’s truth in everything he says. He can always find it, hidden in the mess of real things that surround it.
On the plane, he gets the window seat he was promised. She sits next to him in a slightly less coveted seat, takes an iPod ear, snags his sleeve with her fingernail and talks over the songs, telling him every petty piece of everything he missed. Out the window, the world looks like a plastic playground, architectural and unreal. Nothing has changed.
It’s a relief when she gets up.
Sean stands in the door frame of the cabin (falsely named: each room could fit an army bunker whole, Lincoln Log exterior or no), smiles a vulpine smile. His hair’s been freshly bleached; Jesse remembers roots from last he saw. “Welcome, gentlemen,” he intones. “Gentlewomen.”
Sean’s dad has taken his mistress to Acapulco, so that leaves one cabin free for Sean’s taking, for the court of Vocal Adrenaline to fill. And fill it they do, with the promise of debauch and freedom. With the strict ground rules built in with years of planning, stakes high as hell even when they’re out of Ohio. (They still tell stories about Billy from last year who started smoking to try to make his voice lower. Shelby takes vengeance a lot further than just off the team: they don’t need cautionary tales, they make them. Billy smoking up in the closet, taking breaks between janitor-in-training shifts to make up lost credits during the summer: this is what you could be.) Lots of vodka, stupidly high-tech water purifiers in all of the bathrooms and a downstairs fridge stocked with nothing but Gatorades and Red Bulls. It’s gratifyingly hot, and it’s not long before they’re gratifyingly short on clothes, girls with sports bras and guys without. The air is clear and heavy, good for not thinking anything at all.
With Liz on his lap, Sean sits in the TV room’s central armchair and directs the action around him with lazy, elegant hands: “Oh, figure out your own sleeping arrangements.” There are beds and bags. Jesse languishes on the couch and watches the group ebb and flow around him.
Josh Roth, the freshman tenor whose voice has just cracked, sits on the floor by the head. “You met Rachel Berry, didn’t you?” Just the name is enough: the horribly Shakespearean feeling is back like that, so conducive to falling on swords. Or memories: her throat under his mouth, thrumming as she belted a high E. Josh looks up with innocent appropriately-awed freshman eyes; he knows exactly shit about shit. They go to the same synagogue, he and Rachel. Noah Puckerman once threw him in a trash can. Jesse doesn’t blame him. “I was right, wasn’t I? About the animal sweaters?”
“You didn’t tell me anything I couldn’t have seen for myself.” Sneaky hot included. He watches as Josh’s face falls. “Go help unpack the trunk.”
Liz laughs as he goes. “Good going. Put the kid in his place. Rachel Berry, though? That’s the pseudo-Barbra, right? She’s like the best thing in their arsenal.”
“I’m sick of fucking McKinley,” he practically growls. It’s that or bury his head in the pillow.
“Okay, fine.” Sean bites her neck and she squeals, makes some vampire joke, sufficiently distracted for the time being. Unspoken in the conversation left behind: he will have to tell stories at some point. This is the cost of we’ve missed you. Not what he’s missed in the meantime, but what he hasn’t.
There’s a lake nearby.
Under the stars, the group slips out of their clothes and dives in.
Girl feet graze Jesse’s calves under the water. He doesn’t try to quantify them. Calloused, ugly feet attached to cute girls, all of their reward for days on end of dancing. The water splashes around him and he is not thinking, he is not thinking anything at all. He doesn’t have to look around him to know what most of them look like naked.
The bounty of being talented. The want for relief at the end of long, arduous days, sweaty and triumphant beckoning to more sweat and more triumph, all part of the same addiction. Close enough onstage to taste each other’s sweat and sunscreen without trying, they end up trying offstage just for the hell of it. It’s a natural end. They’re an army, and everyone fucks in the army eventually. They’re a family, an empire, minus blood. They don’t share blood, they just shed it.
(New Directions choreography—or whatever their version of it was—kept them so much more separate. New Directions was a clusterfuck of spotlight moments and forced bonding, but never a unit. Dancing with Rachel always felt like an island in the middle of the floating confusion, easy graceful closeness. In hindsight, he was at Sectionals, he should have remembered her hand on Finn’s waist, her face tipped up and shining light. The benefit of being Rachel Berry’s dance partner is simply that, and that alone.
It wasn’t about me is the heaviest thought he can think of; not even the catalog of how much better at dancing than Finn he is can make it easy. Rachel Berry dances well every time.)
Marcie and Carla are playing chicken against Giselle and Shoshandra. Sean is standing in the deep end of the current, Liz’s legs wrapped around his waist, making out cinematically (or pornographically), emulated intermittently throughout the lake. The rest of the guys are building a bonfire on shore, Brendan, their tallest baritone, standing on a log and gesticulating grandly over the emerging flames.
Lee Revelle from the alto section taps him on the shoulder. “Race me?” she asks, tipping her head coyly toward the farthest shore. Her hair hangs in long lake-heavy bunches around her shoulders; her pale, pretty face looks feline and fragile and perfectly white in the starlight. Sophomore year’s crush, he remembers, nothing that ever amounted to more than a few duets and a few kisses at parties. Nothing for a long time. His friend since. And here now.
He dives in, water sluicing over his arms. Grabs her ankle when she’s inches from the shore and comes in ahead. “You win,” she laughs, sputtering water. Hands on bony hips, she leans in, air around her a fog of electricity and vodka tonic and murky water. “Make out with me?”
He shakes his head. “Find someone else.”
He remembers to smile for her. “Okay,” she says, and swims off.
It could be so easy. So much easier than he’s chosen.
The problem is this: in the off hours, no one sings.
In warm, barely-lit nights, they laugh, talk, whatever—it’s atonal.
It doesn’t have to be. But that’s a choice too.
The vodka bottle’s empty and Giselle calls out, okay, circle up and sets the bottle in the center.
“Spin the bottle.” The room breaks into laughter, raucous with it, like kids still secretly scared of kissing. Jesse smirks, applauds: a slow clap for nostalgia. She sees his look and raises him an eyebrow. “Me first.”
She points it at him. Doesn’t bother to spin at all, just twists her wrist and slams it down. Crooks a finger. “C’mere.”
He rolls his eyes. Subtle. “Why don’t we take this upstairs?” he asks, wrists gesturing with gentlemanly flourishes. And the group hoots because it’s expected and she follows him because it’s natural.
Her body tries to block his at the top of the stairs. (She’d come in boasting of chicken; she’s an undefeated grappler.) “What do you want?” he asks, letting himself slide into grumpiness because she’s too drunk for savviness. So she lets him pass, laughing, yeah, let’s think about that one, Saint, what are you, living up to your name?
She collapses on her bed. “Whatever, let’s just—” Her eyes cast around. “Watch TV. We’ll watch us some TV.”
He hands her the remote, sits down next to her. They’re halfway through an episode of Community when she hits pause and looks hard at him.
“So the point of this show is that guy. He used to be cool. And then he got there and stopped being cool. The place took his cool away.”
“I’ve seen the show.”
“No, no,” she says, “the point is—you’re him. In that place. That fucking. Place where it’s okay to suck.”
“I’m Joel McHale?”
“Because you”—her eyes accuse—“used to be fun.”
He laughs, the easy kind of laughter, lounging against the pillows. “I’m not?”
She slithers up his lap, leans in and bites his bottom lip. Whoa, he almost says, girlfriend. I’ve got a girlfriend. But he doesn’t, and that’s not what he says as he pushes her forehead away from his. She smiles, triumphant. “Nope. No fun.”
She started out as his uncomplicated friend (dance partner) before she became his complicated friend (dance partner). There’s stakes to fucking her (dance partner)—or there used to be, before they got used to it. Now there are expectations; there have been since junior year. (Dance partner. Sleep with anyone, but think before you sleep with your dance partner.) She leans into his palm, mouth grazing his neck when he lets his hand fall.
“You’re a pain in the ass,” he says.
“Shut up,” she says, and she’s already dipping her head, hand on his fly.
I don’t have a girlfriend.
I don’t even have a mission.
Things that do not belong in this room: everything that’s not in this room.
Her mouth slides down his cock and his eyes roll up to the pristine blankness of the ceiling, breath whiting out any words he might have left.
(Rachel Berry, he does not say, rachelberry, rachelberry.)
Sean and Brendan and the few other awake members of the baritone section toast him when he comes down the next day. He toasts them back, flippant, bolting fruit and bran: even on vacation, there are protein shakes, exercise routines. It’s 7 and they all feel like they’ve slept late. None of them know how to shake the thing that Vocal Adrenaline makes them.
“Duet with me,” he says to Giselle, later, and she looks at him like he’s crazy.
“Miss Corcoran puts us through the steps literally every minute of my life that I’m not asleep, and you want us to sing?” She laughs. “God, what’s wrong with you? It’s vacation.”
“I always keep myself warmed up,” he says coldly and doesn’t talk to her for the rest of the day.
But it’s not about that, either.
He’s thisclose to sleep, impeccably un-sober, when she comes in and kicks him lightly in the hip. “I’m bored. Fuck me.”
“You know”—he rolls over and looks up at her—“when they put you in a skirt, you essentially become Cha Cha DeGregorio in real life.”
“Yeah,” she snaps back, “but that makes you Danny Zuko, doesn’t it, which means you’re stuck with Sandy. And nobody wants that”
Lousy with virginity rings a little too true. This time he does bury his head in the pillow, and this time she’s not drunk, which means she’s smart. “Hey.”
The pillow’s off and her eyes are cool and canny.
“You did sleep with the enemy, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” He shakes his head. “No.”
“Time to kiss and tell, St. James.”
“I didn’t sleep with her.”
Her eyes widen. “Oh—shit.”
That’s much worse, and they both know it.
“Sandra Dee.” She smirks. “Not—not the one you serenaded? The Barbra? Rachel Berry?” That flinch, starting somewhere behind the safety of his ribcage, at the sound of her name. Every time, he thinks, furious with himself. “Really?”
She leans in, and her face is concerned. Tired, still, though less tired than it was at first. I’ve been working really hard without you, she’s said to him. Twice as much when you’re gone. Someone always has to lead. “What did she do to you?” she asks.
He tells her. Not about Rachel. He still can’t (won’t) put Rachel Berry into words. The story slips away from the specific, filling in the blanks he won’t (can’t) talk about with New Directions stories; they’re not like us, he says, they’re awful. They don’t know talent when it’s sitting in the front row and raising its hand to give perfectly pointed critiques.
“We’ll kick the shit out of them at Regionals,” Giselle says, chin in hand. “And before, let’s psych them out good.”
And that’s how that night, under the stars, he finds himself singing what he remembers of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”. The most furious song he knows, or the most furious song he knows how to sing. And behind him—half-sleepy, half-drunk, grumpy and laughing and bred to be impeccable even when they aren’t—the chorus harmonizes. They improvise the choreography the second, third time; follow us, Giselle tells the group, and grabs him at the waist as if she’s showing off for a thousand betraying girlfriends. She’s performing for an abstract; not for Rachel Berry.
Rachel, he knows, would love this.
It’s up to him, then, to love it more.
He leaps into the crowd with a Freddie Mercury wail, and everyone cheers. Sean, next to him, claps him on the back, you’re fucking impressive, bro, don’t ditch us again, St. James.
They cheer for him.
They perform until the sun comes up.
“Only for you, Jesse,” says Liz, blinking sleepily into the light.
Giselle shoots him a sideline smirk and points: you.
They fly back, drowsing on each other’s shoulders, pleased and familiar and half-coherent, one of the mezzos using Jesse’s shoulder as a pillow; she has soft hair and he never cracks his eyes open enough to see which one she is. When they land, it’s immediately a flurry of untouselling hair and spritzing water into dry tired faces. When they get off the plane, they are back to perfection, impenetrable even as they walk through the airport. In their Carmel High sweatshirts, they cut a navy swath through the crowd. He leads with the full knowledge of how good it feels to be at the head again, the body spreading out behind him, delineated by strong legs and sharp, graceful steps. Vocal Adrenaline, which is something like friendship and something like family and something, even, like home—it’s just that they don’t make Lifetime movies about them. Mafia movies, maybe. (If they ever make a Godfather musical, he fully expects to see Shelby Corcoran listed as creative director.)
He tosses his car keys to Lee, who drives like someone’s grandmother but will definitely leave the car unscathed, and claims the entire back seat for himself. Not even to sleep—just to lounge there, take up as much space as possible. On the ride back, everyone turns around to face him as they talk. When they laugh, their smiles show their teeth, fluorescent and biting.
He smiles with his mouth closed and drives himself home with an equanimity he hasn’t felt in weeks.
He left his phone at home, of course. Shelby’s called him almost daily since he left, peppering his voicemail with messages both concerned and irate. Much as he might want to evade her, he can’t do it right now.
She’s still in his speed dial. #3, now. (He’ll have to get around to changing #2. Soon.)
She picks up before the first ring is over. “Well, well, if it isn’t the elusive Mr. St. James.”
“You knew where I was.”
“You knew I’d call.”
“I didn’t bring my phone.” A small, scornful exhale on the other end. “Would you call that a lapse of judgment? I hope I haven’t let you down yet.”
“I would like to trust your judgment—but I don’t know how to read what you’re doing, Jesse.” Voice intense, like a pep talk for the gallows. Shelby gives pep talks, but pep isn’t involved. “Right now I’m reading fear. And that’s terribly out of character, or I don’t know my male lead.”
Two words—male lead—and he feels himself preening. It’s only a reflex because it’s true.
“Have dinner with me,” she says. “Tonight.”
Shelby’s in the habit of throwing congratulatory dinner parties (pre- and post-win); she’s invested in a long table just for the team, walls paved with headshots looking down at the chairs with glossy insincerity. And he’s been there for the pre-pre-parties, the post-post-parties, the not-parties-at-all, the intimate conferences, just her and the most trusted members of the team. (Member, singular.) He knows where her spare key is. He knows how to let himself in.
She’s got wine and Chinese takeout; she gestures to the table: “Let’s not pretend this is an event. We need to talk, don’t we?”
“It hurts,” he says, sullen even to his own ears—and he’s earned it, he knows he has, but somehow it’s not ringing true. “She might be your daughter, but she lied to me.”
She slides a wine glass over to him with unnecessary force. “This is bigger than your ego. Pour me a drink.”
“Listen. I told you to get in her good graces. You know how to do that, Jesse; I’ve seen you.”
Yeah, I know how, he thinks, his first glass going down easy, but not with virgins.
(Let it be known, he’d never intended to share every detail of his plan with Shelby. It would have been more magical for her if it had been vague, anyway. Nothing specific but the big finish.)
“If you’ve screwed that up,” she says, swallowing chardonnay, “it’s your fault—but you know how to undo it. Make that work.”
She points. In the center of the table, there’s a tape. Labeled Mother, post-it Jesse. He tears the post-it off quickly. “What’s this for?”
“This is for her. Next step. Get it to her.
“I’m tired of waiting,” she says, and her hand pinches the skin between her eyes, exhaustion glittering in them like a jewel. And something wetter, painfully intimate, that he doesn’t examine too hard: she’ll still need to be Shelby in the morning, whenever he comes back to the group.
He doesn’t know what the alternative to her trust mes and do its is. So: trust her, do it, suck it up, it’s glory in its own right just to be here. Chosen and specific. He eats the lo mein and garlic chicken sitting at her elbow; he sings her a piece of “Another One Bites the Dust” and she snaps her fingers: Freddie Mercury, the ultimate showstopper, made to kill at Regionals. And only you can sing it.
“The sooner you finish this up, the sooner you can come back,” she says. Her fingers brush his hand. Her eyes are warm: her daughter’s inheritance.
Before he leaves, she takes his chin in her hand, nails against his jaw. “Jesse St. James,” she murmurs. She’s drunk two glasses of wine for each one of his. “I would never have chosen anyone else. You’ll get her for me,” her eyes gleam, voice low in her throat, restrained to a purr, “won’t you?”
He nods. Her fingers stroke his cheek.
When the door shuts behind him, he looks down at his phone. Shelby’s aren’t the only messages he missed.
Jesse? I—it’s me. I’m so sorry. I wanted to catch you after dance, but you left so quickly that I couldn’t catch up to you. I could have run after you, maybe, I mean, I wanted to run after you, self-deprecating giggle, catch in her throat, but I didn’t think you’d want that. I—you meant something to me. Mean something to me. More than that stupid video. That didn’t mean anything. It was an artistic experiment, not a message, and I—I’m so sorry. Just come back so we can talk. I need you to talk to me.
Jesse? It’s me. I want to talk to you. Madame Louise said you wouldn’t be around this week. With gulp Vocal Adrenaline. I mean your friends. From Vocal Adrenaline. Your old friends at Carmel...trail off, sigh. I don’t want to be the thing that made you run away. I don’t want to be that girl. I want to be the girl you were nuts about. I still am that girl. Please believe me. I miss you. I wish you were here. I want you to talk to me.
Jesse. It’s Rachel. I don’t know what to do about this. About us. What we mean. I want us to mean—we could mean everything. We weren’t finished. Pause. Sigh. Please call me back.
Jesse? It’s Rachel Berry. I just—I shouldn’t have called. I’m sorry.
Heartache always sounds like a metaphor, some kind of built-in exaggeration: the worst, most human disease.
It’s not a metaphor when he hears her voice.
Word by word, it only gets worse.
The facts are these:
He needs to see her.
He wants to see her.
He wants to kiss her.
He intends to kiss her.
There, then. The chips fall into place, and something calms in the back of his throat.
He meets her at the studio the next day.
She flies into his arms. The curve of her spine relaxes into his hand, and for just the briefest of seconds, he can’t move. And then it’s back to making sense, his role of adoring boyfriend fitting him like a glove, making him easier in his skin when he’s touching her. And maybe this is why he’s a performer and not an actor first: the role is too much to leave behind. Comprised of too many pieces to shed easily: the faint curve of Rachel Berry’s lower lip, the subtleties between leotard and skin, the jubilant square of her mouth around the perfect pure notes of her solos. The way she sits up ever so slightly straighter next to him, tilts up her chin, the bones of her body embracing the talent royalty she was (let’s not forget) born to inhabit. He brings out her best. He’s tasted it.
But Schuester doesn’t ask her to sing this rehearsal, and in the parking lot, his phone buzzes in his pocket: aobtd reh. 2day? show dat bitch what u got :P
There’s the abstract waiting in the audience again: dat bitch, who bears no resemblance to the girl waiting in the passenger seat for him to drive her home, whose mind is buzzing with mothers and musical theater mavens and Peter-Pannish pieces of lost childhood.
cancel it, he texts back, no longer relevant.
Two seconds later, it's ringing.
Well—IGNORE fits under his thumb, if only for now.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Giselle asks him later, when he calls her (later than rational beings would allow, as late as dance partners come to expect).
“It was a misunderstanding.”
“When are you coming back here?”
“I don’t know yet. Why don’t you check the countdown?” he adds, spiteful. “I was under the impression that that was the point of it.”
“I’m not gonna bother with the countdown if you’re not gonna keep your word.” Something muttered under her breath: weak-ass.
“What did you just say?”
“I said,” she enunciates, “weak. Ass. The game you’re talking is weak as hell, unless you’ve got some better excuse you’re not telling me. How can you let them ride you like this? You’re just setting them up; why are you bothering?”
“You clearly don’t know anything about the craft of acting,” he snaps, and she laughs.
“You know, I don’t think you do either.” She blows a dismissive breath against the receiver, air crumpling into static against his ear. “Listen, I wasn’t calling you weak. But that school is making you act weak. You breathe in too much mediocrity, of course it’s gonna be bad for you. Come back here and you’ll be your old self in no time. We need Mercury. We need your star power. Isn’t that better than fucking around with some jailbait chick with presumptions? What a waste that is.”
“Don’t call me again,” he bites out to her. “You’re bad for my cover.”
He hangs up, and she doesn’t call back.
Sean does, though, half an hour later, and he’s laughing too, low and nasty: “Hey, St. James, heard you got burned by a sophomore over there.”
It wasn’t a burn, he thinks, and at the same time, but she’d do anything for me. Both true, neither relevant, all requiring an explanation of Rachel Berry that he’s not willing to give. Compromise the evidence, compromise the part. “It was for Shelby,” he says in the end. “You’d put up with any shit these guys would throw your way if she’d put you on assignment.”
“Yeah, sure,” Sean says, “but still. A sophomore.”
“Like I said, man. Ouch.”
Sean hangs up soon after, leaving Jesse to stare at his phone. In silence: somewhere his iTunes finished up its playlist, and he can’t even begin to compile another.
When he chooses catharsis, he chooses Queen.
Shelby calls him that week.
“She’s listened to the tape,” he tells her.
Schuester has put him as second tenor in one of those fucking duets he’s practically famous for by now: Finn Hudson as the male lead, and Rachel Berry singing radiantly to a guy who misses the first note every time.
“Thank God,” Shelby says, not even bothering to sound impenetrable. “Can you come back on Friday?”
The thing is, he can.
Rachel calls him that night.
He’s out—with Vocal Adrenaline. They’ve taken him out to a sticky table at Friendly’s, a postcelebratory table on those nights when Shelby hasn’t invited them to hers. They’ve bought him sodas and French fries and Marcie has her feet up on his lap with Carla braiding her blond hair into pigtails as an excuse to lean in against her head and make halfhearted threesome jokes at him—only halfhearted because the idea’s somehow less sexy than it should be, than it used to be. He smiles like it is, feels it stretch out like a sexual showface for their benefit. It’s always showface among them, even when they mean it. Next to him, Giselle, her hand perpetually on his shoulder, as if she expects to rudder him somehow. Sean across the table from him, amused and part-repentant, paying for drinks and spiking them from a flask in his pocket, and Liz flitting between him and the baritones at the table behind them, somehow always managing to catch Jesse’s eye with her pretty, pointed smile whenever he looks up. They didn’t invite Josh Roth. No underlings tonight: this is a table of equals.
He’s missed having enough equals to fill up a table. They were a rare breed at McKinley—it mattered so much more when there was just one. So easy, then, for her to become the center of the universe; performing with her was an infinite solace in enforced mediocrity. When they forced him into the chorus the first time, there she had been, stuck alongside him, perfect and pained behind practiced smiles that turned real when he bothered to voice criticisms. Which went unheard.
He tells them the stories he can afford to tell: “And I pointed out that he’d been turning the wrong way the whole time and Schuester, fucking Schuester, goes, ‘Leave the direction to me’.” He imitates Finn Hudson’s dancing in the aisles and they shriek with laughter. (The waiters, from every point in the restaurant, glare daggers at their table.)
When his phone buzzes, he can imagine Rachel’s unhappy face, the light diminishing in her dark eyes—and Giselle’s hand tightens. “Don’t you dare answer.”
“Are you trying to keep me in line?”
“Someone has to.”
“She’s my girlfriend,” he says, and the phone stops in his hand. Giselle looks at him long and hard. He feels the silence twist between them, even as the group around them continues to talk. Silence and self-knowledge, sharpening.
“Think like this,” she says, lowering her voice. “You can have the spotlight or you can go back there. It’s your choice—but newsflash, one of those options is pretty fucking pathetic. She doesn’t have anything to do with it.”
Something else unforgivable: Rachel Berry made him care. About New Directions, about her, about a role that (he reminds himself, he must keep reminding himself) was not his, was not him. She made it easy.
He needs to remember to never trust the easy way out. There’s a reason that Vocal Adrenaline never offers it.
He will never explain Rachel Berry to them. But they’ll keep him busy.
They practice “Another One Bites the Dust” in the parking lot. The cars stop for them. The headlights look like spotlights. They can perform without blinking; they’re used to it.
The McKinley auditorium. The faces barely visible in the front row. The whites of Rachel Berry’s dismayed eyes.
“Show her,” Giselle whispers.
He intends to.
(Show her what, he doesn’t specify.)
How do you think I’m gonna get along without you when you’re gone? tastes good, truthful. He wails and she understands: she must; this is the language they’ve always shared.
And triumph: she will understand that, too. What it means to win, and what it takes.
We can’t end like this, she pleads on his answering machine, you don’t want us to end like this. I know you don’t.
He doesn’t understand why not: what better way than song?
But (the easy way out is a lie) he does. Understand. And underneath it all there is still that line of demarcation between Jesse and Jesse St. James that he once made up for her that has somehow become both true and all about her. Demarcation between him and the rest of the group, even as they fall into place behind and around him, his mirrors and his strength.
“You sounded so good,” says Liz, who dances right behind him, who would know.
They have eggs in the backseat meant for Aural Intensity’s windows and he’s on the highway headed to the next school, the last check-mark among the competition, when he suddenly takes the next exit.
Giselle’s head whips around. “This isn’t—”
“I need to talk to her.” He clears his throat, spins a U-turn in a McDonalds parking lot with a perhaps unnecessary (yet still impeccable) flourish. “We both deserve closure.”
Giselle’s eyes slit, and she leans in next to him, growling dance-close in his ear. “I will fucking give you closure if you don’t shut up about this!”
“You don’t understand the nature of storytelling.” The mix of true and truer things sits easily on his shoulders, makes him sit that much taller in his seat: his is the right hand, and the upper. The smile. Showface for them, not broad but subtle, the way to frustrate Giselle into silence. Feels good every time. “What I created with her was epic. It was worth retelling, and it’s worth a real ending. There needs to be a farewell, or else the effect goes to waste.”
Or else—in the absence of clarity, the point becomes something else, something that shifts away from him and into the land of Rachel Berry, the girl he kissed and sang to and fit with so well that every moment became worth dancing through. The rule of the stage, the most enticing and the one that takes the most work: make your partner look good. The best scene partner he ever had; the best one he’d ever been.
So let the show end. The curtain call, hand in hand, the curtain falls, hands part, and there is Jesse St. James, no longer hers, once again his own. Spotlight unshared.
In the mean time: “You guys can wait in the car.”
“I don’t think so,” Giselle spits, then pauses. “Then again, you might have a point.”
In the rearview mirror, he watches her lean back into the backseat and—“No, that’s going too far. Listen, she’s a vegan, for fuck’s sake—”
“Perfect.” The eggs sit on Giselle’s lap, an unwelcome gift. “Like you said, closure. Talk about destroy the competition—”
“This is my breakup—”
“No. It’s ours. All of ours.”
“Preach!” Carla calls out. Silence surrounds her. “I’m sorry. What were we talking about?”
“We’re gonna egg Jesse’s fake ex,” Shoshandra says gleefully, and the car cheers.
“No,” he says, and he wants to yell at them, sit the fuck in the car, don’t move until I get back, but calm, calm, he has to be calm for them; if they’re following him, they’re following him totally. “You’re not. I’m just going to park for a second, and we’ll be back on the road once I’m done. After all, we can’t neglect Aural Intensity. That would be sloppy of us.” Team triggers set in place; they ought to know how to stay where they are like their lives depend on it. Sloppy is the ultimate death knell, neglect, impossible.
He calls her—still, after all this, speed dial #2, second only to himself—and waits.
Even now, he smiles when he sees her. Even now, she smiles back. She runs toward him as if they’re meeting in a field of flowers, not concrete—
now get her!
—and it’s out of his hands before he has time to know it, someone else’s story, and they’ve cast him in it, a role he should know, he does know, built into who he’s always been, but not one she’s seen.
Her face is frozen, shocked, and Giselle slips an egg into his hands, squeezing his fingers like so much emotional semaphore.
She looks up and sees the wrong Jesse St. James.
“Do it,” she says, with gorgeous wounded eyes that won’t let him pity her.
Let it go down in the record: he’s never touched her without permission.
“I loved you.”
I love you.
It’s all a matter of whose lines he’s speaking.
In the car, Giselle smiles at him, and not through the mirror. “Good job,” she says. “Doesn’t that feel right?”
The legacy of conflict: still.
He’s silent as he drives. They blockade Aural Intensity’s practice room instead of egging it, move all their chairs into the parking lot and sing on them as a second makeshift stage. He dances so hard it feels like he’s breaking and “Holy fuck,” Sean says in the car, “you’re on fire, man.”
The car leaves on a chant, harmonizing between jes-se! and st.-james! until it stops being his name and starts being a sound, a roar. It’s still enough to shake walls. It might, he believes, he has to believe, might be enough. The sound of voices making applause for him, his name bright in their mouths. A too-bright spotlight and the center of the stage, waiting for him.
The curtain does not fall.
It’s not the last time he will serenade Rachel Berry.