Noah told me that he loved me on the way out the door, halfway down the hall before I’d processed a word. I shut the door and went inside. Called my dad, who said that I love you is less a feeling than a milestone, a way to show you’re serious about the relationship. The next day, I said it back.
He came over again and we sat on the stairs. We went back and forth in a haze of no, you say it first – the words dissolved into a moment I should remember better. When he was about to leave, I grabbed his hand. Said, “Fine, I love you.”
“I love you too.” Milestone complete.
These days he says it when I leave for class, and when he hangs up the phone. It’s in his vocabulary; I hear him repeating the same phrases to his mom when he calls her in the car. “Love you, bye.” I mumble it, trying to rid the words of their unfamiliar taste, like pills melting in my mouth to reveal their chemical composition.
I spent most of my first year at University of Virginia practicing my small talk skills and puzzling out the vocabulary of academic journal articles. Between all this, I neglected my summer plans as my classmates applied for jobs and internships. In mid-April—so last minute—I snagged a research assistant position that lasted into early August, in a professor’s lab. So I applied for summer housing and stayed on campus. When I wasn’t working, I bummed around Charlottesville with Noah. We ate cookie dough ice cream and got sunburned at public pools, and he drove me through town, always at the speed limit.
By now at the start of fall semester, I can recognize every T-shirt Noah owns, I know how often he cuts his nails, and I’ve watched him grow his beard out and shave it and grow it out again. I know how loud he snores and the phrases he mumbles in his sleep. I’ve never known anyone this way—my high school relationships were superficial at best—so I tangle my days with his.
My hallmates come into town in mid-August, bursting the bubble, and campus slowly wakes up. I’m no longer one of only three people at the library, and my closest friends are no longer the beetles in the lab. It’s sunny with a light breeze, a perfect late summer day. I text Noah that I feel like spontaneously driving to the ocean, or going dancing, something lighthearted and silly. He texts back, Maybe we can hang out after work? Might get off late.
On my way to my dorm, I take the scenic route, wandering through ancient trees and past lecture halls I’ve never stepped inside. I’ve been here a year, and there’s still so much of this school I know nothing about. Maybe I should mix things up—take a class on poetry or French or medieval history, just for fun.
On the side of a building, there’s a bulletin board with flyers advertising social events, volunteer opportunities, and clinical studies that need participants. Most of them are outdated or just strange (I have no desire to sell my eggs). The food pantry poster, though, is an inviting, unfaded light green with a QR code that takes me to their cleanly designed website. The “get involved” section promises a manageable commitment and a chill setting. It’s one to three hours a couple times a week, with one supervisor and one volunteer in there every shift. The supervisors are upperclassmen or grad students, not real adults. It would look good on a resume, too. I’m easily persuaded.
I fill out the form asking which days and times I’d like to volunteer. Tuesday/Thursday, whenever. I get an email in the morning, asking me to start next week. It gives me the address of the place again, and instructs me to come five minutes early and ask for Gabe, the supervisor. I hate the vagueness—ask Gabe for what?—but I assure myself that he’ll know the process.
Noah drops me off on Tuesday on his way to work. He’s a little groggy, so I thank him for supporting my efforts to be a more involved citizen. He smiles and pecks my lips. Love you, bye.
From the outside, the pantry appears smaller than I expected, just a makeshift kitchen on the bottom floor of a multipurpose building. I bypass a group of people lined up at the door to walk in, hoping they don’t think I’m cutting in front of them. The door opening catches the supervisor’s attention—he looks like a senior, too young for a PhD—and he intercepts me a few paces from the entrance.
“Hi. I’m Jennifer, the new volunteer?” My voice turns up like I’m asking a question, and I’m relieved at the recognition on his face.
“Gabe.” He shakes my hand with plastic gloves on. I focus on his chin (it’s not like I’m at his eye level, anyway), waiting for him to give me some sort of instruction.
“So first off,” he says, “I should probably give you my number, because I am late occasionally and I’m not allowed to give you a key.” I fumble with my passcode and open my contacts app. He types his number in. “Text me if you’re ever waiting outside for more than five minutes, and I’ll walk faster.”
“Okay.” I try to start another sentence, but I can’t think of anywhere to take it. I don’t detect even a hint of shame in his admission of irresponsibility. I wonder what it must be like to be him.
“So, here’s the stock room, shelves, fridge, sink, that’s really all you need to know.” He gestures quickly around the room. “Your job is basically to do what I tell you. Stock things, make sure we don’t give people moldy food. It’s not very hard. Just don’t steal anything.”
“… Wasn’t planning on it.” I search for a hint as to whether he’s joking.
He cocks his head and winks at me, half a smile tugging at his lips. “Jeez, underclassmen. I know this is a food pantry, but we’re not Gandhi. We can have some fun.”
“If you say so.” I stumble over my words. “I mean, about the fun part. I don’t think I’m Gandhi. I just wanted to, uh, do something, you know?”
“I know. Relax. I’m just messing with you a little. Keeps this place from getting too boring.” He smiles again, and it feels warmer this time, less laced with arrogance. Makes me notice things I was actively ignoring when I first walked in. The dimple in his cheek, his curly brown hair, the sharpness of his jawline. Tattoo on his forearm. I’m very aware of how close he is, the rolled up sleeve of his jacket inches from brushing against my wrist. Jesus Christ, get it together. You’re like a thirteen-year-old girl discovering One Direction.
My first shift is easy, as he promised; I follow his directions, familiarizing myself with the space, and barely have to speak to anyone but him. When the three hours are up, he finds me in the stockroom, where I’m attempting to lift a box of hot sauce bottles. “You’re free to go,” he says, taking the box out of my grasp. “Nice meeting you, Jen.”
“You too.” I sling my bag over my shoulder, give him half a wave, and leave.
I’m in line behind Noah, who’s ordering pizza slices. He can’t decide what he wants and keeps asking the cashier questions. What’s on the meat lovers slices? Is there any deal that includes fries? I stare at my phone, bored.
I step up, asking for the same thing as always: two slices of cheese and a fountain drink. Then pay and mumble thanks to the cashier. At any restaurant I frequent, I become an actress reciting the same lines each time.
Sitting at the table, Noah asks how my food is. I tell him it’s good. He asks how my first day at the pantry went.
“Fine. My supervisor seems kind of weird, though.”
“Weird, like bad weird?” He reaches for my free hand.
“Nah. It was nothing. I was probably just nervous and overthinking.” I shake his hand off for a second so I can grab a napkin from the center of the table.
“Makes sense. I would be, too.” He turns his attention to his drink, slurping down the last drops. “Wanna go back to your place and watch something?” I nod, and we throw our plates away and head for the car.
As I watch TV with Noah’s head in my lap, my mind drifts to the thought of returning to the pantry on Thursday. I try to decide how I feel about it all—lugging boxes from the stockroom and stacking cans on shelves, pouring spices into cylindrical containers, sanitizing shopping baskets for the visitors. Gabe had instructed me with the tone of an easygoing schoolteacher, and paused during the lulls to evaluate my work. My movements froze or became robotic under his eye, afraid of some deficiency I’m not experienced enough to detect. He just tossed me a “Good job” here and there and went back to his own tasks. It was only stressful, I conclude, because I made it so.
I scratch like a broken record over that moment of attraction, that smile of his. It’s normal to find other guys hot when you’re in a relationship. I’m too neurotic about this, as if it’s possible to commit thought crimes. I could fantasize about sleeping with Gabe right now and I wouldn’t be doing anything wrong.
I fall into a rhythm with my next couple shifts. Gabe doesn’t have to explicitly instruct my every move anymore; he hands me cans and I arrange them neatly. The mindlessness of the work soothes me, and I start taking pride in my efficiency, how quickly I can make a disorganized shelf perfectly symmetrical.
Gabe doesn’t say anything else about phone numbers or Gandhi. Instead, he asks how my day went and commiserates with me about how unnecessarily difficult UVA makes their chemistry classes. “I think I got, like, a 32 on my first chem midterm,” he says. “That was my first clue that I was never going to become a doctor.”
“What do you want to be, then?”
“I’ve got options.” He doesn’t elaborate. “You a med school hopeful?”
“Nah. Research. I’ve been doing the boring grunt work they give undergrads.”
“That’s cool.” There’s no one around; it’s been pretty quiet my whole shift, and the food is mostly untouched. Crouched in the stockroom, where we’ve been taking inventory, he reaches into a carton and hands me an apple. “You hungry?” he asks.
“This food isn’t for us,” I protest, balancing it on my palm gingerly. I wonder if this is some kind of test. Didn’t he tell me not to steal anything? “I had a big lunch, anyway.”
“Since when do you make the rules?” It’s not a test; he’s just teasing. I’m not sure which I’m more comfortable with. “If I tell you that you can do something,” he says, nudging my hand up toward my mouth, “then it’s allowed.”
“I mean, you’re not exactly at the top of the chain of command here.” I’m determined to do better than my first day, when he caught me off guard. “Unless you’re secretly, like, the pantry CEO, but I doubt it.” CEO? So much for keeping up with him. The corners of his mouth turn up; I can tell he’s trying not to laugh at me.
To save face, I sink my teeth into the apple, taking as large a bite as possible. “I better not get in trouble for this.”
“If someone notices a single apple missing, I promise I will take the fall for it.”
The apple’s a little overripe, and the flesh yields easily, but it hasn’t turned mushy yet. My hands are getting sticky from the juice, and he opens a cabinet drawer and hands me a napkin. Then he pulls a Kit Kat out of his jacket pocket, breaks it apart and gives me half. I feel like an animal that he’s conditioning to trust him by feeding it, but it’s working. We chew as we count tortilla packages. He tells me about a girl in his introductory chem class who got caught trying to cheat—“She broke into the professor’s office in a black hood, thinking she’d find the exam. Honestly, I respect the hustle”—and my replies start to flow more smoothly.
At Noah’s apartment, we agree to cook dinner—just pasta with a store-bought sauce. I’m not sure if you can really call that cooking.
When I’ve got the water boiling, he sits at the table and goes on his phone. I tap his shoulder, tug at his shirtsleeve, trying to seem playful. “Hey, aren’t you gonna help me?”
“Yeah. One sec.” He nudges my hand away. “Isn’t it basically done, anyway?”
“We still need to measure out the pasta and…” I trail off as he keeps scrolling. “Yeah, whatever, it’s hardly any work.”
If he can be distracted, so can I. I don’t bother double checking the temperature, and when I remember to stir, I glance down at the pot and twist the spoon aimlessly. After eight minutes, I dump the pasta into bowls without tasting it first.
The noodles are stiff in our mouths, and the sauce is cold, but there are no verbal complaints. I wash my bowl when we’re finished, and he sets his in the sink. He’s exhausted from a long shift, so we head to bed early.
Gabe has been showing up in my recommended accounts on Instagram ever since I saved his number; Apple’s spying on me as usual. Earlier, I got sick of overthinking it and requested to follow him. Social media is for your acquaintances, your coworkers, your supervisors who you think are kind of sexy but so does everyone else on the planet, so who cares? Mostly, I just want a clue about what’s up with him. What he’s doing at this job and not a frat house. Being hot doesn’t preclude someone from wanting to make a difference or help others, of course, but he doesn’t seem particularly motivated to do either of those things.
In bed, when Noah’s begun snoring, I check my notifications: gabe_t22 accepted your follow request, gabe_t22 has requested to follow you. I click on his profile and scroll through his old photos, careful not to hit the like button. High school graduation, parents on each side, holding out his diploma as if it’s a Nobel Peace Prize. Low resolution photos of a group of people in someone’s living room. Freshman dorm picture, twenty-first birthday. No girls except in the group photos; none are touching him.
There’s nothing that screams corny fuckboy—no videos of him blowing out clouds of smoke, no selfies where he winks at the camera. No Greek letters. Sure, he’s social, but that’s all I can glean. Maybe I judged him too harshly. Part of growing out of the high school mentality is not rigidly categorizing everyone the second I meet them, even if they make a couple of stupid jokes. Fit hot guys have problems too, or whatever they said on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
I linger on one of his photos from a couple years back. He’s posing on his front porch, arm around his younger brother’s shoulders. It’s captioned Happy birthday, Adam. Already a better man than me. Gabe’s white T-shirt sets off his dark features, hair nearly jet black in the shade of the roof. If I had to guess, I’d place Adam at sixteen. He’s a few inches shorter than Gabe, in mismatched high-school-boy athletic wear, with a bashful smile as if he’s enjoying the attention but a bit embarrassed by it.
Gabriel and Adam—such Biblical names. There’s a porch swing off to Gabe’s right, with cheery baby blue cushions and a fuzzy blanket. Welcome mat in front of the door. I didn’t picture Gabe in a wholesome brick house with a family that seems like the churchgoing type. I wonder if the brothers threw a football around with their dad in the backyard, if Gabe’s parents drove him to track meets on weekends.
Noah rolls over, and his elbow presses into my side. I gently adjust him and scoot over so he has more space. The sensations snap some self awareness into me. Here I am, in bed next to my boyfriend, thinking about another guy’s family. And his visible collarbone. I lock my phone screen and stare at the ceiling until my mind numbs and I fall asleep.
In the morning, I want to go out for pancakes, but Noah says he can’t keep spending so much money on eating out. Fair enough. We eat Cheerios as he watches YouTube videos about chord progressions and I feign interest.
“I can’t believe you haven’t been to the farmer’s market.”
I’m taking a five minute break, which is courtesy not of any rulebook or employment law but of Gabe, who thinks there’s no need to work nonstop when the place is slow. When I reminded him my shifts are only three hours, he said, “Have you forgotten you’re working for free? Chill out.” I backed down and sat on a plastic chair as he leaned against the counter. Now, he’s judging my grocery habits.
“Some of us have hobbies that don’t revolve around food,” I remind him, “especially those of us who aren’t here thirty hours a week.”
“First of all, you’re crazy if you think I’m working thirty hours.” He narrows his eyes and stares down at me, and I giggle nervously. “Did you see my Instagram story on Saturday? I can have a social life and still enjoy high quality produce.”
“Yeah, yeah, you were at some bar, you’re so cool.” Instant regret shoots through me. I should have said no. At least, I should’ve pretended not to remember what he was doing, I should’ve been vaguer. I should say nothing that could possibly give him the slightest hint that I checked his location tag and scrolled through the profiles of everyone he was with.
If he’s flattered by my memory, he doesn’t let on. “That’s it, I’m showing you what you’re missing.” He grabs his phone and tilts the screen at me. It’s on the farmer’s market site, displaying photos of the fresh fruit stands. I have to admit, I’d die for those strawberries. I tell him he’s right. I ignore him when he flashes me that self-satisfied smirk.
When he exits the browser, I see the Tinder app on his home screen. It’s off in a corner and I could’ve easily missed it; I try to pretend I didn’t notice, but he sees my eyebrow raise and glances down. He laughs. “Oh, that. I thought I deleted it ages ago. Shit app.”
“It really is.” I try to sound nonchalant. “I mean, I met my boyfriend on there, but I hated everything else about it.”
“Really?” His tone is incredulous, as if I just told him I’m a secret agent or a stripper.
“Nothing, just surprised that anyone can find a real relationship on Tinder.” His voice is back to normal, as if the air of detachment never left. “Good for you, though. Glad you got something from wading through all that garbage.”
I laugh. “Yeah, only took about twelve guys asking me for nudes.”
“Sounds about right. On our side, we get lots of girls advertising their OnlyFans, and the occasional dude pretending to be a girl. They’re so bad at it.” I shake my head in sympathy. He studies my face for a moment, then says, “You seem too nice for Tinder.”
“What does that mean?” I sound petulant, and I regret speaking again. For some reason, I feel like he’s denying me access to his world, and I resent it.
“Hey, that wasn’t an insult. It’s just so dog-eat-dog on there.”
“I know.” I stand up. “It’s been five minutes. What did you want me to do next?”
The rest of the shift is mercifully busy, with the lunch crowd flooding in. I focus on the visitors, remind them of how many items they’re allowed to take, and speak to Gabe only when I have a question. He occupies himself in the stockroom and doesn’t tease me when I drop an egg.
As I’m about to leave, he hands me my jacket and says, “Nice work today.” I thank him politely. The door dings behind me.