Steve was still rattling off statistics about Yale and its merits as Zara’s world shifted on its axis. Jack? She was suddenly intensely aware: of his presence, of the subtly angry cast of his face as he gathered a bottle of wine from her tiny collection on the counter, of the faint smell of his cologne, the same cologne he had been wearing since he graduated from high school. It was a gift from her.
Oh dear, she thought to herself. Jack wasn’t attending this little meal as a casual friend, a pest intent on disrupting her evening for fun. He was jealous, and she was suddenly incensed.
For the first three years of their acquaintance, Jack had been a spectacularly platonic friend to Zara: they spent hours sitting on the concrete steps to her front door, perfecting the basketball spin between games of HORSE, they hiked through the woods behind their neighborhood, talking for hours and picking through muddy ditches. But Jack spent the summer before his senior year lifeguarding at the beach near his grandmother’s house, and Zara took a job at the local Twistee Treat. She was surrounded by gossiping girls, who quickly discovered that Zara’s best friend was the very tall, very handsome Jack Cooper, and Zara was suddenly forced to reckon with the fact that her best friend Jack was more than the goof ball who stole more than his share of popcorn at the movies or exploited his height advantage in basketball. It made her nervous, unnervingly so, to even speak to him on the phone. She steadily built a crush on Jack while he was 100 miles from home, convincing herself that he would come home in August and fall desperately in love with her. Unfortunately, the reality was less pleasant; in the small town where he spent the summer, Jack became a hot commodity, and he came home with a serious tan, muscles honed from the outdoor work, and a girlfriend named Amelia.
Their reunion was one of Zara’s most uncomfortable memories. He called to tell her he was back in town and asked if he could come by Twistee Treat that evening for an ice cream. Zara, who didn’t know anything of Amelia, complied instantly with his plan, and spent the two hours before her shift primping in front of the mirror, blowing her hair until it fell smooth into soft waves down her back, applying unfamiliar black eye liner and mascara, and obsessing about what to say to her best friend. She even rehearsed a few flirtatious lines she heard her coworkers use on the hopeless boys who made the shop their summer hangout. Zara even practiced laughing demurely at the mirror. The rest of this story is pretty obvious: Zara worked nervously until nine when she caught a glimpse of Jack through the tiny glass window, her smile huge until she followed his hand, which was pulling Amelia behind him. The only consolation to her heartbreak was that Zara never revealed her crush on Jack to any of the gossiping girls at the Twistee Treat.
“Hey Z,” he had said when he sidled up to the window, “Since when do you wear eye liner?”
And in that moment, Zara schooled her expression as he introduced Amelia, a tall, very buxom blonde with a beautiful tan. They had met lifeguarding.
From that summer night, Zara decided that it would be best for her if she protected her heart from Jack. So his sudden and inconvenient jealousy was wholly unfair to her and Steve and whatever they had started at the coffee shop three weeks before.
Zara stiffened and bristled as Jack moved away from her, snatching potholders carelessly to drain the pasta, and burning her finger in the process. When she snatched her hands away from the offending implement, Jack relieved her of her potholders and carefully took over the task.
“I’m sure Steve doesn’t want to waste this evening at the emergency room, Z. Be more careful,” Jack said, smiling at Steve where he still stood at the edge of the counter.
“Uh, yes. Zara, please be more careful. Kitchen incidents are responsible for a significant number of insurance claims, after all,” Steve said solemnly. Zara couldn’t help but roll her eyes.
Finally, dinner was ready. Zara poured the drained pasta into a massive serving bowl, and then poured her famous sauce over the whole, arranging meatballs artfully on top. Jack arranged Zara’s garlic bread into a basket. Steve, who finally seemed spurred to action by both Zara and Jack finding their way to Zara’s living room laden with some dinner necessity, found Zara’s impressive cheese grinder and followed. Zara placed the massive bowl of pasta into the center of her square coffee table with a flourish, sat cross-legged on the floor across from the couch, and made quick work of serving herself some spaghetti. Jack toed off his loafers and slid to the floor as well, loosening his tie before serving himself some salad. Neither paid Steve any attention as he seemed to battle internally with proper etiquette for the situation: both his host and her other guest had made themselves comfortable on the floor, but that was not where he would be most comfortable. Ultimately, he decided to follow Jack’s lead, and after removing his shoes, he sat on the floor beside Zara.
“Can I serve you some spaghetti, Steve?” Zara asked amiably, suddenly certain that the only course to take was to ignore Jack and his jealously as much as possible.
“Please,” answered Steve, who still seemed quite unsure of how to handle this strange meal.