“Can we talk about how unfair it is to the entire female population that you two are gay?” I asked, shifting my gaze back and forth between my new roommates, Eli and Oliver. “Because seriously, you are both incredibly good-looking.”

Eli rested his hand on the top of the doorway and leaned to the side. A shy smile spread across his lips. His skin was a soft, medium beige, his hair a dark brown with a reddish tint that swept across his forehead. His dark eyes studied me as I studied him. Me in my jean shorts, white tee, and black slip-on sneakers. Eli in a pair of slim gray shorts topped with a white tee and a dark green crewneck sweater.

“So you guys aren’t together together?” I asked. “You guys never dated?”

They shook their heads no in unison.

“No.” Oliver shook his head, looking over at Eli like they got this all the time.

“Yeah, he wishes, though,” Eli beamed.

“In your wildest dreams, Leonardo.”

“That is not a valid comparison. Not even close.”

“Okay, Picasso,” Oliver tried again, rolling his blue eyes behind his black-framed glasses. His dirty blond hair was short and styled messily, the color matching the slight stubble along his jaw. Colorful tattoos covered his arms, a Sailor Jerry-style rose and dagger climbed up one side of his neck. Like Nate, he wore dime-sized black gauges in his ears.

There was something familiar about him—something nostalgic. Something that made me feel better just by being near him.

Eli pursed his lips, looking at the ceiling in thought. “Well, at least he’s in the vicinity of abstract.” He shrugged.

Okay, glad we cleared that up.

“Rent is $690 a month,” Oliver redirected, gesturing around the living room. A nonworking fireplace and glass-cased shelves lined one wall, a flat-screen sat opposite it with a futon, two chairs and a table in between.

“Includes everything but electricity and Internet. Laundry is in the basement. The building does have a garage out back, but there is a monthly parking fee.” A dining room table sat between the living area and the kitchen.

This was becoming more real by the second. And the more I thought about it, the more this arrangement made sense. If I’d gone through with my original plan, I’d have to furnish an entire one bedroom solo.

I’d also be all alone, I thought, surprised by how empty that sounded now.

“This is the workspace,” Oliver gestured to the nook at the front of the apartment where three walls of windows lined an office space. A large Mac desktop sat on one end of a large desk, surrounded by a journal, sketchpad, and colored pencils. Oliver was a freelance graphic designer and waited tables on the side.

“I tend to work weird hours. Early mornings, late nights. Usually when no one else is up and around.”

The other end of the desk was completely bare except for a printer. I looked over at Eli, “Don’t have much use for a home office?”

He laughed quietly, looking down at the carpet. “Not here, at any rate.” He was the art coordinator over at C4, one of Chicago’s mental health centers. “You’re welcome to use the space if you want it.”

I nodded, walking back into the living room, taking more notice of the artwork on the walls. “Those yours?” I asked him.

He nodded, hands in his pockets.

They were what I’d call abstract—all sweeping brushstrokes and swirls and vivid color. Several of them had the effect of paint splashing out of the canvas, splatters and curling waves and peaked tips.

“So then where do you paint?” I asked.

“My room, mostly. It can get a bit . . . involved.”

“He means messy and obsessive,” Oliver clarified as we followed him to the hallway. There were two bedrooms on one side, the other bedroom and a bathroom on the other.

He continued walking. “Bathroom,” he said, rapping his knuckle on the first door on the left. “My room,” he pointed to the door across the hall. “Eli’s,” he said, pointing to the door next to his, “and yours,” he opened up the door across the hall from Eli’s and stepped into a decent-sized empty gray room.

“Think this will work for you?” Oliver asked. It was then, as he turned back to look at me, that I realized why he felt so familiar. He possessed that same gentle sincerity that Collin did, mixed with Nate’s keen edginess.

“Yeah,” I said, barely taking in the room. “I think this will be a good fit.” I coughed, trying to clear my throat, suddenly tight with emotion, blinking back tears. I wasn’t sure if it was the relief of the apartment situation working out or just the sheer overwhelmingness of actually—finally—arriving here.

It’d been a long eight years of waiting to get here, the last six months not included. And now, here I was. Standing in my new apartment, with my new roommates, in my new city, about to start my career. My actual Big Girl career.

“When we talked last, you mentioned you weren’t bringing much?” Oliver asked.

I shook my head. “Just the few boxes and suitcases I could fit in my Jeep. I was planning on buying whatever else I needed once I got here.”

“So you’re gonna need to crash on the couch until you get some furniture?”

“Hopefully, it’s just for a night or two. If that’s all right with you?”

“It’s your place now too,” Oliver shrugged. “As long as you don’t bring home any serial killers, cigarettes, or bigots, we’re square.”

A laugh burst from my throat. “Yeah, no worries there, friend.” I didn’t plan on having a life outside of work and this apartment anyway.

“So, plans for the day? We both have the day open and free.”

I gripped the keys in my hand. Tears threatened to spill over again as another wave of emotion slammed into me. Why I was being so goddamned emotional and sensitive about how nice they were being was beyond me.

I guess I just wasn’t expecting them to be so thoughtful. Or to care at all, really. Not that they weren’t decent people, I just figured they’d be busy with their own things.

My mind instantly jumped to Collin—which, let’s face it, wasn’t much of a leap at all, since he occupied most of my thoughts.

“Look, Jamie, I just wanted to help, I swear. You don’t owe me anything. You just looked overwhelmed in the bar earlier, and I wanted to do something to help lighten your load . . .”

What would Collin think of this place? Would he like it here? What would he think of Eli and his art? Would he come over and play the Xbox with Oliver? Could he ever grow to like this city? This neighborhood with its pubs and restaurants in Roscoe Village? Could I see him walking down the streets lined with one frame two-flat house after the other? I wondered, glancing out the window.

Maybe. But then again, I remembered what Tara had said. And Collin’s obstinate refusal to look beyond where he was at.

I think it might have killed him—being so far away from his friends and family. So far away from all the things he really wanted.

“Hello? Earth to Jamie?” I snapped back to Eli waving his hand in front of my face. “Where’d you go?”

I shook my head. I couldn’t keep going down that road. “Somewhere I can’t be anymore.”

“All right, so furniture shopping, yeah? There’s an Art Van and Target in Bucktown we could hit up,” Eli suggested.

“Yeah,” I lit up. “Sounds great.”

***

I was sorting through my suitcase, trying to find something to change into—Chicago summers were even thicker and more humid than Detroit’s were, and I needed a shower to wash off the day of exploring and shopping before heading out to Orange Garden with the guys for dinner. Apparently, it was the place to go for Chinese in North Center—when my phone buzzed in my back pocket.

Collin? My heart stopped momentarily.

But no, it couldn’t be. Because I’d finally joined the twenty-first century and updated to an iPhone—on my own plan, with a new number. One Collin didn’t have.

Not that his number hadn’t been the first one I programmed in. It’d been a moment of weakness, I’ll admit. But there was something too severe, too final about leaving without having a direct line to him.

And as much as I wanted nothing more than to move forward with my life, I needed to know—in some way, some form—that he was still with me. Even if that made me a pathetic, hypocritical asshole.

“Hello?” I answered, sitting back on my heels.

“Jamie,” a gruff voice answered.

My heart twinged. “Hey, Dad.”

“Just checking to see you made it okay.”

I nodded. “Yup. Just doing some unpacking and settling in now.” I stood up, stretching.

“The apartment okay?”

“Yeah, it’s great, actually. The commute to work is going to be about forty minutes, but most of it is on the ‘L’.” The brown line—I reminded myself.

“And your roommates? They decent people?”

“Eli and Oliver? Yeah, they’re great.” I shook my head even though I knew he couldn’t see me.

“Don’t let them give you any shit, Jamie.” I imagined him sitting at his desk at the bar, elbows bent on his knees as he talked into the phone; running a hand over the coarse hair of his goatee.

A pain, so sudden and sharp, rocked through me—stabbing right into my heart.

“I know you can take care of yourself, but if they give you any trouble—a swift kick to the nuts will do the trick.”

“I don’t think that’ll be a problem. I’m not their, um, preferred gender.”

“Oh,” a pointed short laugh came from his end of the line. “Guess there’s no worries there, then.”

“Yeah, no, definitely not,” I swallowed down the ball of soreness lodged in the back of my throat. “I picked up some stuff from Target. And my furniture comes in tomorrow—Did you know they have an Art Van here? I thought it was just in Michigan.” I paused for a moment, even though I didn’t really expect him to respond. “How’s everything there?”

“The same. Just got off the phone with your brother—he had a lead on a place, but turns out, Mace isn’t ready to let him go yet. Guess he’ll be crashing there a bit longer than he’d planned.”

Standing in front of one of the windows in my bedroom, looking out as the evening sun fell on the city street, I waited for him to say something more, but an awkward silence had fallen between us.

“Well, er, I need to get back to it,” I finally said.

I heard something like a grunt come from his end of the line. “You’re gonna be all right, Jamie,” he said quietly before hanging up the phone.

Why did it feel like everyone kept telling me that?