You never know what could be on the other side of the door...
She'd been lost in a dreamless sleep when her phone shrilled to attention, and she'd shot up in bed thinking it was the - frankly rude - alarm clock telling her she was late for her Media Discourses lecture again. She threw a long, slender arm out and felt around her bedside table for her phone. Finding nothing, she reluctantly opened one bleary eye, and was inexplicably irked to realise that the phone had been inside the pillow case of all places. Supremely annoyed to see that the call she'd just missed had been from an unknown number, she lay down again, and attempted to coax sleep back.
Now she was having herself a lazy day; had spent the morning cleaning her little studio flat, and had only climbed out of her pajamas long enough to have a leisurely bath and slip into another pair, from whence she'd ensconced herself back in her bed and proceeded to dive into the world of the novel she'd been reading.
She thought it was Lina from first floor. Lately, the two had got into the habit of turning up uninvited at the other's in that way new friends navigating an easy camaderie do. Lina spoke halting English, Greek being her mother tongue, but somehow, she could paint vivid pictures with the stories she told of her day as she embraced her new student life in London, and Jessie enjoyed her company immensely. Just the other day, she had caused quite a stir when she'd turned up at Jessie's door late at night clad only in a big t-shirt that barely skimmed her upper thighs. A group of boys smoking down the corridor had seen her go into Jessie's room, and the next morning, there'd been knowing looks and hopeful suggestions that two had spent the night locked in a passionate clinch.
Jessie shook her head ruefully. The boys would have been disappointed to know all they'd done was gorge themselves on popcorn and reruns of Friends. But poor Lina was mortified by the variously lecherous looks they got whenever they went into the common room.
She already had a half smile playing on her lips, as she threw off the duvet cover and walked to the door. She was there in five steps. Sometimes she liked to joke that the studio was so small she could sit on the toilet and open her wardrobe with one hand whilst stirring a pot of soup in the kitchen with the other.
Her mother had nearly expired when she saw it the first time. A proud home-maker who had brought up her five children around the kitchen table, she'd turned paler and paler until Jessie thought she was going to pass out from that first visit.
'But..but..where is the kitchen?!' She'd sputtered, looking around incredulously, fearfully almost - as though she thought the wall behind the microwave would suddenly open up to reveal a stately dining room, and that what she was currently seeing was her daughter's bad attempt at pranking her.
'We're standing in it,' Jessie had said, proudly gesturing at the small sink and white counter with the table top cooker where a newly prepared chicken soup sat.
Just then her father and four brothers walked in, and suddenly there was no more room.
There was a deep, electric silence, and even though she didn't turn around to confirm it, Jessie just knew her brothers struggled to keep a straight face. She dared not sneak a peek at them, for fear of bursting into laughter herself at the horrified expression on their mother's face.
And then Nana Kwame, her eldest brother, said in his most solemn voice, 'Look at it this way, Ma. At least there will be no raucous house parties. I mean where would they even stand?'
He winked at Jessie over their mother's head, and she beamed back at her brothers. She saw similar affection in their eyes as they regarded the baby sister they adored. She shimmied through them and placed her arms around her mother who was valiantly trying not to cry. 'I'll be fine, Ma,' she said gently, but her mother wasn't listening.
'You don't even have a kitchen table...' she was muttering over and over again, barely listening.
Ah, the kitchen table...
When she was a child, Jessie liked to build things. It fascinated her that without realising, her whole existence centred round fragrant pieces that united to form a whole. In her grandmother's house, it was the large compound with the wide expanse of land where, as kids, they played pilolo and fought over who would ride the bike next; the same house that boasted exotic fruit and vegetable trees which she would fearlessly climb for the hell of it. She recalled the day her grandmother had yelled for Baffour to come down from the mango tree this instant, and the resulting shock when the gangly legs had slid further down to reveal their owner: Jessie. Her grandmother nearly had a cardiac arrest.
Over at their auntie's place, it was the small living room with the single three-seater couch which the five of them would all stubbornly pile on, each refusing to budge, or move on to the plastic chair their auntie would proffer. Each played dirty, pinching, squeezing and biting in an effort to get the other to move, until invariably, there were tears - usually Jessie's - calmed only by a placatory bottle of Malta Guiness from their auntie, who, by this time, had come to expect these scuffles, and in fact, kept several bottles chilled for this very purpose.
But in their house, it was the kitchen table. It was where they would find their mother when they returned from school in the afternoons. Looking stately in a colourful bubu, her fingers moved deftly as she put final, intricate touches to the dress she was making for her small, handpicked clientele. She would shoo them away as they made to grab something to eat from the counter, and insist they changed and washed their hands first. Family meetings were held there, meal times a noisy affair which went on for hours. Kofi liked to joke they could never leave the table because the food was always just two steps away on the stove! And when his girl friend had a pregnancy scare whilst they were in their final year of high school, it was where their parents sat Nana Kwame down to have 'a talk'.
Jessie shook her head wryly as she walked to the door presently. Glancing automatically through the peephole, she felt her heart skip three beats and do a somersault at the same time.
It wasn't Lina.
Calm down, Jessie, she told herself, struggling to stop her shaking hands. You could be out. You don't have to open the door.
'Holy shit, Jessie swears!' came his laugh, sounding amused.
Holy shit, she didn't know she'd said that aloud.
For a brief, crazy moment she wondered if she should change quickly. Then she straightened her back, and, putting on her most dignified look, opened the door.
'Marc, I wasn't expecting you!' she breathed in one whoosh, almost immediately hating how squeaky her voice had gone.
He stared at her a moment, and Jessie quailed a little inside. She knew exactly how she looked: the pajama top with the cute kitten asking suggestively, 'wanna cuddle with me?', the barely-there shorts, and her feet tucked snugly into a pair of red socks, her braided hair pulled messily into a pile atop her head, and the red-rimmed reading glasses she still had on.
'Have I caught you at a bad time?' He smirked, looking very satisfied.
'Nonsense,' she said breezily. 'I..er..was just stepping out, actually. But you may as well come in.' She thought she'd done a good job of sounding bored at the interruption. She flung the door open wider, and he brushed past, walking easily into her space without concern for the pounding heart that now threatened to burst out of her chest.
Holy shit, I've got a bra hanging over that chair!
He turned around. 'You're awfully sweary this morning. Tut tut.'
Had she said that out loud again?
She groped for something smart to retort. 'Um..er..'sweary' is not even a word!' Ooh, nice, Jessie. Very punchy.
She raced past him and flung the bra into the wardrobe. Somewhere in her head, she could almost feel another detached part stepping out of her flushed self watching the present Jessie frantically moving around.
He stopped in the middle of the room and moved his eyes slowly from her rumpled bed to the only chair in the room. 'I'll take the chair, shall I?' There was mischief in those coal eyes and as Jessie met and held his gaze, she felt warmth spread through her body.
Jessie had heard about ridiculous notions like 'love at first sight' and had often been scathing in her dismissal of the very idea. But she remembered the first time they met very well. It wasn't so much love as a seismic feeling of desire at first sight.
It was downstairs in the communal mail room, where, Marc, walking in to collect his post, had been confronted with a view of Jessie standing on her recently bought six-pack carton of water in an attempt to reach her mailbox. He'd stood there, quiet as a mouse, and watched as she lifted herself with a light and easy grace and inserted the key into the lock.
He hurried over just as she was about to open it, and said with exaggerated politeness. 'Let me help you with that. Don't want you straining your back, do we?'
She could hear the laughter in his voice even before she turned around, could feel his warm breath on her neck, and an unmistakeable feeling of disorientation settling over in a way that she didn't quite like. She felt herself bristling.
'I'm not that short, you know?' she snapped, uamused.
'Oh yes, I can see your Afro adds another two inches,' he teased, and Jessie's hand automatically went to the hair she kept natural, combed out that day to its fullest halo as she contemplated a trip to the salon to get it braided later that week.
She was still pinned between his arms, one placed casually on the mailbox next to hers, the other lightly fingering the key to her box which he still hadn't unlocked yet. She watched the dark fingers, mesmerised.
'You have an interesting accent,' she said at last, turning to him.
He made a sound. 'Caernarfon.'
'Bless you,' she said.
'No, no, that's where I'm from. It's in Wales.' He was laughing at her again.
'Wales?' she echoed, a bit startled.
He nodded. 'Via Dakar. I'm not sneezing again,' he said, his face straight.
Jessie glared at him. 'Oh, shut up,' she said hotly.
He never let her forget that acutely embarrassing afternoon. That had been three weeks ago.
Marc lived at the end of her corridor, on what was commonly referred to by the students as 'the other side'. The studios there, decidedly more luxurious, were normally reserved for postgraduate students.
'Are you hungry?' she asked presently, beating a hasty retreat from his distracting stare in two steps. 'I've got some spaghetti...and I made this meatball thing yesterday which is pretty good. It's divine, if I do say so myself -' she was rambling, she knew.
He was suddenly behind her. 'Jessie.'
Her breath caught in her throat, and she was reminded of how little she had on. She loved the way he said her name. He used it infrequently, so that when he did say it, it always gave her a small shock of pleasure. She turned, and smiled into eyes that were already crinkling at the corners in response.
'What?' she breathed.
He opened his mouth. 'I -'
He was interrupted by the sound of something bumping hard against her door. She made to move towards it, but he held her a bit tighter.
Puzzled, she looked up. What was going on?
'You'll never guess what...' his eyes were twinkling.
'What??' Jessie had never been known for her patience levels.
'Nothing. It's probably just workmen delivering something..'
'What is it? A bed? They darned near broke my door down!' Jessie retorted.
He was teasing her again. 'A bed? Don't be silly. It's only the best piece of furniture in any house...'
She went still. 'A kitchen table?' she hadn't meant to, but the words came out hushed.
This time, his smile was very soft. 'So I have been meaning to invite you round...'
She cocked a perfectly arched eyebrow. 'No kidding,'
'Don't go all defiant on me. You know you wouldn't have given me a second look if I didn't have a decent table!'
Jessie burst into laughter.
So he remembered. She recalled the afternoon in the mail room. Long after he'd taken her letters out, and helped her off her makeshift stepladder, they'd sunk onto the floor as she regalled him with some of her mother's dotty suggestions on how to make the studio 'homely'.
'You big silly! You got a kitchen table?!' Jessie was very amused.
He looked sheepish. 'It's an important thing! People really shouldn't underestimate its power. I mean where else would I eat? And anyway, the thing is, I..I -' he drew a shaky breath '- shit, Jessie. I'm trying to ask you out. Can you stop laughing?'
She was touched. 'How about you go see to the delivery guys?' she said softly.
He bent and gently kissed her cheek. 'See you later?'
She held on just a bit. 'Yes.'
Jessie had several thoughts as she raced about getting ready, but she was particularly warmed by one.
Mother is going to love him!
She hugged herself, happy.