"What will you give Eli for his birthday?"
I catch my roommate's gaze in the mirror before looking away. I know what I want to give Eli for his birthday. But I cannot tell her.
"You haven't gotten anything for him," she notes. "You're not going empty-handed, are you?"
I don't miss the accusing tone in Tori's voice. She probably has more to say but is holding back.
She has already bought him a present. I have no idea what it is, though. When she came back to the dorm with it, it was wrapped in gift paper and she maintained it was a secret.
"He did say we don't have to get him anything." I grab a scrunchie and tie one half of my curly hair at the back of my head.
"You can't be serious. The guy got you a box set of your favourite book series for your birthday. He only said that because he's sickening nice to you."
Tori is fond of reminding me of how Eli treats me sweetly. She also likes pointing out how blind I am to the fact that he likes me.
Elias is one of the first friends I made in campus. We got to know each other because he was friends with Tori, who has been my roommate since freshman year. But what made us grow closer is the fact that he's on the school football team while I'm a kinesiology major.
The football head coach is our exercise science professor, and he likes inviting the class to the field for practicals. We also have his classes in the Sports Complex, where gym facilities used by the school teams are located. Eli and I ran into each other many times and ended up becoming friends outside Tori's influence.
Am I blind to the fact that Eli likes me? That's impossible when the entire sports department 'ships' us together. As one of the popular guys in school, everybody is curious about who he's seeing. But since he broke up with his girlfriend from high school in freshman year, he has been single. We hang out a lot and many think we should 'date already'.
Besides public opinion about our relationship, Eli confessed to me. But even before he did, I knew. I would be lying if I said I didn't like him too.
It took a while to accept that what I felt for him was beyond friendship. After spending the past three years shielding my heart against romantic attachments successfully, my feelings came as a surprise.
I had known all along that he was special to me, and that's why we became fast friends. But me actually liking him enough to consider giving love another chance? That's another kind of special.
I tie the other half of my hair at the back of my head. "I have something planned for him."
"It's a secret." I ordered him a pair of cleats he has been coveting, but delivery has been delayed. Maybe they'll get here tomorrow. But that's not the only thing I have planned.
Tori rises from her bed and grabs her jacket. "I hope you're not lying. Let's go or we'll be late."
Eli's dorm is in campus, while we live about five minutes' walk from the school. As we walk towards his dorm building, there's an ongoing mantra in my mind:
It's tonight or never. Tonight or never. Tonight.
Tonight, I'm going to let go of what's holding me back and give Eli a chance.
Tonight, I'll let him go.
I've waited long enough. I've hurt enough. I need to get out of my mind and live my life.
When we get to Eli's dorm building, we head to the common room. While his dorm room is much more spacious than that of other students—a perk all members of the school's sports teams get—it's not enough to accommodate the party. Eli is the starting forward of the school football team and undoubtedly the most popular player. Not only are his teammates going to be here, but crowds of admirers too.
We walk into an already busy room, with party music booming.
Tori squeals and bounces on her feet. "This is gonna be good!"
I look around, my eyes searching for a familiar face.
"Eli!" Tori yells and shoots forward.
I notice him then. A small smile covers my face as our eyes meet over Tori's head—she has rushed straight into his arms, hugging him.
I look away, suddenly shy. Out of the blue, my stomach is crawling with butterflies.
"Happy birthday!" Tori says excitedly as she lets him go. "Here!"
Eli accepts the wrapped gift with a raised brow. "What is this?"
"It's a surprise."
He chuckles. "Okay, I'll look at it later." His eyes rise to me. "Jo, are you going to just stand there?"
I approach, and he puts his arms out to pull me into a hug. I go willingly—excitedly—and press myself to him. He's tall and his chest is wide, and hugging him is one of my favourite things. He's so warm and cosy.
Someone comes calling his name and we pull apart.
"I've gotta go, but I'll find you later. Have fun."
I nod, and he walks away towards his friend.
"I'll get us drinks," Tori says and disappears.
I sigh and discreetly press an open palm to my chest. My heart is wilding out. Could he feel it?
"Fuck him already."
I startle and turn to the newcomer. It's Simon. I roll my eyes and elbow his side. "Shut up."
One of his arms rests on my shoulder. "No, but seriously. You've been ogling him since forever."
Tori reappears with two cans of beer in her hands. She hands one to me. "Hello, Simon."
He nods. "Tori."
She hooks her thumb over her shoulder. "I'll be with Kelly and the girls over there."
I snap the beer can open and take a gulp after she's gone. Only after I'm done do I notice the look Simon is giving me. "What?"
"Am I missing something?"
"Why are you drinking so easily? I usually have to wrestle you to get you to take a sip."
I shrug. "This one barely has alcohol in it."
"You still always chose Sprite over it."
I want him to let it go, but he doesn't look about to. Knowing him, he has probably picked up on something. Whenever I'm busy hiding things from others, he always figures me out. I guess that's what best friends are for.
He slips his hands into his jeans' pockets and rocks on his sneakers. "You'll need something stronger than that if you're looking for liquid courage."
I swallow and stare at the floor. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Let's not fool each other. Come."
He grabs my hand and brings me with him. He leads me through the living area to the kitchen. There are kids everywhere. We come to a stop in front of a large collection of alcohol on the kitchen island.
"Now, look. I don't advise being drunk your first time. Knowing him, he'll not touch you in that state."
My eyes grow into saucepans. "Simon!"
"I'm right, aren't I?"
I groan and stare at the ceiling. "Yeah."
I don't know why I thought for a second that I could hide it from Simon. I've joked numerous times that I would go to him for advice when I finally decided to have sex, but when the moment came, I became too embarrassed. I was only going to mention it after the deed.
Now that he knows, I guess I can take advantage of his extensive knowledge.
I'm suddenly engulfed in a hug. His cologne assaults my senses. "Finally! Do you know how long I've been waiting for this?"
"Me to have sex?"
"No... I mean yes." He laughs.
I push him away. "You're shameless."
He arches an eyebrow. "You getting to this point means you're finally ready to be happy again."
His words tug at a spot in my heart. "I'm happy."
He gives me a soft smile. "You know what I mean."
I nod. Yes, I do.
He rubs his palms together and turns to the collection of alcohol. "Okay. The secret is not having too much. You want to be excited but not drunk out of your mind."
I guess I'm really doing this.