The minute she’d met him, she knew she was in trouble. The way he laughed at her jokes in his interview, held her gaze for just a second too long, rolled his eyes at just the right time. He wasn’t the best-qualified candidate for the job but she didn’t care. He was a good fit for her, they’d make a good team. He had the right kind of fire in him – a desire to do well but the cynicism to call bullshit when necessary. She saw it right away.
She knew she wasn’t the only one at Peach who liked him. Loved him. There was that word again. She knew it in his flat and she knew it now. The word made her stomach flip over itself and her body turn inside out. She swam in it for a moment, weightless in the thought of the feeling, in the feeling itself.
She thought about how he walked through the office. There was something magnetic about him; the way his body moved made people’s heads turn, eyes glued to him as he walked back from the kitchen with two cups of tea.
The account teams stopped by the office more often after he started working there. They stayed longer. He’d muck around with them, promise them the world, and then grimace at Mina once they’d gone.
No one had what they had, and she knew the other girls in the office watched them as they headed out to lunch together, as they sat whispering and giggling on the long benches at the pub. It was just the two of them. It had been the whole time. She couldn’t remember the last person who had found her so funny, who had made her laugh like that. Not Ben, not really. Mina would sometimes look up from her huddle with Jack and catch the others looking at them. They were jealous. Mina didn’t think anyone had ever been jealous of her before. She liked it, wore it like a cape, like a new leathery skin.
The night before she left was different, though; from the start it felt different. She had stood on the footpath outside The Sun and 13 Cantons with Lizzie and Danny, celebrating their promotion from junior to midweight creatives – a promotion she’d fought hard to get them. She could see Jack through the pub’s wide windows: he had one empty glass next to him at the bar and the pint he held was not far behind. He looked up, saw her watching him and stared, turning away only to order from the spiky-haired bartender, necking the last of his second drink before the next one arrived.
‘Mina?’ Lizzie nudged her. ‘Pay attention to my funny story.’
‘Sorry,’ Mina said, ‘I’m listening,’ but she couldn’t look away from him. She watched him scull his third pint and weave his way out of the pub to where they stood on the footpath. He hailed a passing black cab and practically barrelled Mina into it, a half-full pint glass still in her hand. Before they drove away, Mina saw Danny raise an eyebrow, lean over and whisper something to Lizzie. She knew there were rumours, she liked them.
She turned her attention to Jack. ‘What’s up with you tonight?’ she asked.
‘Nothing,’ he said and took her pint glass from her, drank the last of the warm pale ale, then put it on the seat between them. They sat in silence as the cab stopped and started, caught behind two 38 buses plodding their way up Theobalds Road.
‘We’re making two stops,’ Mina said to the driver as they pulled up to Jack’s flat. His parents had bought it for him six months earlier, after he and Mina had traipsed around half of Hackney looking at flats for sale, Jack laughing it off every time an estate agent referred to them as a couple, Mina trying it on for size, liking how it felt. In every flat they looked at, she imagined her life there too.
He had eventually settled on half a terrace house just down the road from her, so they soon started sharing Ubers home to his place, where they’d stay up late and talk, not really watching whatever was on his huge TV. They’d sit close on the sofa. Once he fell asleep with his legs draped over her lap. This is it, Mina had thought, this is it. And she watched his chest rise and fall for an hour, wondering if his heart beat like hers. Wondering if his heart was hers.
‘No, just the one stop,’ Jack said to the cab driver, and he clambered out, paid through the window, held the door open for her.
She followed him silently through the gate to the front door, into the kitchen where dirty dishes filled the sink.
He sniffed a few times, scratched at his nose, his whole body seemed to twitch. He pulled two glasses from a cupboard and poured them both a drink.
‘Jack,’ she said as he passed her a glass.
‘Jasmina,’ he said and clinked the heavy base of his glass against hers before swallowing the contents in one gulp and pouring himself another.
She took a big mouthful of whisky and let it burn her tongue, felt it as it warmed her throat, travelled down through her chest. She took another big sip and held her glass out to him to refill.
She followed him upstairs and sat beside him on the L-shaped sofa. His drink was gone in another gulp and he put his glass on the coffee table without looking at her.
Mina folded her legs under her and sat facing him.
‘You’re being weird tonight,’ she said.
‘You’re always weird,’ he said, and he turned to look at her, to really look at her, as if he’d never properly seen her before. He breathed her in with four deep breaths. Mina felt the space between them fill with something, the air shift as it does before rain turns to sleet, turns to snow.
‘What if –’ he said and stopped himself.
‘What if what?’ Mina could feel every inch of her skin suddenly, as if an electric current was passing over her.
She saw his hand moving back and forth, up and down on his crotch, his fingers unfastening the top button of his jeans.
Kokomo is available now at your local independent bookseller.