Overheard at the Mixed Grill

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“Here at the Mixed Grill friends and family meet to eat, drink, and socialize, but mostly to discuss at great length the latest gossip happening in Henderson. (Stuff you can’t find in any book.) Sip on your drink from Harry, sit back, and let the latest scene unfold.”

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The Latest Gossip

“Golden Ticket”

Elise’s senior year flew by with college applications, plenty of senior-year-specific school activities, and plenty of steamy times with Jesse over the Christmas holiday when he stayed with his grandparents and they met up at all the Forest parties.

The ban on them dating seemed to have lifted without fanfare during the spring. She showed up at every one of his lacrosse games, home and away, where his parents would beckon her into their fold. When Jesse came off the field that first time, he kissed her before slinging a possessive arm around her shoulders, which elicited nothing but a smirk from his mother. Finally, all the scandal and secrecy they’d been forced to live under evaporated, and Elise felt increasingly included as a member of the James family.

Summer was exactly as she’d hoped. Jesse stayed with his grandparents in the Forest, worked at a job in Annapolis, and their relationship progressed into further depths of affection now that they could actually see each other every day.

It was heaven. She was very much in love with Jesse James.

And then she was unexpectedly offered admission off the waiting list to the University of Colorado in Boulder and immediately decided to take it. She could see Jesse struggle with his emotions as she told him her decision that evening while they watched the sunset down by the river.

“Why?” was the only word he allowed himself to get out.

“Because it’s my dream school.”

“A-huh.”

“You’re only going to be at Princeton for another year. Then I’d be stuck at Rutgers and you’ll be off working in New York or back in Richmond or somewhere where I’m not.”

“I’d be on the East Coast, Elise. Hopefully not all that far from you. Weekends together wouldn’t be a problem. Not like they will be if you’re in fucking Boulder. There’s no driving to Boulder and flights aren’t cheap.”

“I know. And I’m sorry about that. But just think of the fun we’ll have when you do manage to fly out. All those mountains? We can ski all winter and hike in the fall and spring. People love it in Boulder. I fell in love with it when I visited.”

He turned his face toward the sunset, she could see the internal struggle he was wrestling with by the tension tightening his jaw. He loved her, and this was not easy for him. Because as much as he wanted her to be happy, he also wanted them to be together. She wasn’t sure what she’d do if he demanded she stay and go to Rutgers as planned. She hadn’t really thought it would come to that. Like her parents, Jesse always encouraged her to do her own thing, find her own path. It wouldn’t be in keeping with his standard operating procedure for him to tell her no.

But in that moment—with him staring at the beautiful sunset he probably wasn’t appreciating, and her staring at his beautiful profile waiting for his response—she became nervous. Was going to her dream school a good enough reason to lose a man like Jesse James? Could she actually do it?

Fortunately she didn’t have to dwell on that long because when she reached for his hand, he might not have looked at her, but his thumb rubbed her palm as it always did. An affection she cherished. He was working things out in his head. He was going to make this okay for the both of them.

He always did.

***

Jesse had waited a long time for Elise to enter college. But now that she was attending the fucking University of Colorado life just got harder.

Their Monday FaceTime sessions were abandoned and pushed to whenever they could fit them in. Her mild dyslexia had her in the library more than she’d anticipated, struggling to keep up with the academics. He couldn’t fault her for that.

He would like to fault her for rushing a sorority immediately which took up some of that valuable study time and oh, yeah, his FaceTime, his phone call time, and apparently her texting time since those were becoming less and less. He tried to remind himself that Elise was immersed in an entirely new experience and she needed time to find her bearings.

Being a senior, nothing was new for him. Fall Ball was going well, his team was looking good for the upcoming spring season. His extracurricular sexuality course had expanded into areas he didn’t see coming when he’d started it. It was now a heavily attended dynamic course in human sexuality. Topics included everything from gay sex to gender identification. The university not only funding his efforts but sitting down with him soon after the class had outgrown its third auditorium.

“We’d like to offer you a position next year. We think the topics your seminars are addressing are current and important. Cutting edge,” the provost declared. “The consistently large attendance has proven there is not only interest in a wide range of subjects concerning human sexuality, but many of our faculty feel there is a need for such information. We’d like to continue to make it available to not only our students, but to the faculty and other campus personnel as well.”

He did not see that coming.

Him. Working at Princeton. Running the Current Insights into Human Sexuality symposiums. What would his mother say?

He considered it. For a minute. How could he not? It was quite satisfying to have started something on a lark that had turned into so much more. Perhaps he could be an assistant lacrosse coach, too? He loved his school, loved the campus, and the surrounding town.

But ultimately, he loved Elise Thompson more.

The thought of staying at Princeton while she was in Colorado didn’t bring him any joy. But five minutes later, he figured out what would.

Princeton had handed him a golden ticket. He just needed for them to put it in writing, so that when he was in Boulder visiting Elise, he could take it to CU Boulder’s administration and see if they’d be interested having him conduct the Princeton symposiums there.

Then he’d be right where he wanted to be for the next three years while Elise finished her degree.

Win-win.

Except for his mother.

And his father.

Yeah, they weren’t gonna love this idea—him putting off joining the workforce for another three years. It wasn’t like he was planning to be a sex therapist or anything. Although … if he told them he was considering doing just that, he might get away with it.

“Sex therapist?” his mother literally cackled over the phone. “You?”

“My eyes have been opened over the last couple years and what sex therapists deal with is new and important work.”

“But is this really what you want to do with your life?”

He couldn’t lie. In fact, he laughed. “Mom, you and I both know I’m no therapist. But I have to say that the subjects of sexual expression and gender identity are intriguing.” And then he opened up and told her mostly about how the group started and its history. “So after the group is up and running and attendance is through the roof, literally, I’m at school bouncing around campus, pretty much just being me, and get hit on by a guy.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah. And I mean, he was a nice enough dude and frankly I was sort of flattered. I mean, why not? I wasn’t an ass or anything, I just told him I had a girlfriend back home and that was that.” Same thing he did when a girl hit on him. “But then it happened again. Another dude. Hitting me up. And so I’m like, do I look gay? Am I acting gay? What’s happening here? That’s when I pulled in experts who could entertain those sorts of questions. Which opened the educational floodgates to all of us heterosexual guys who don’t know shit.” And probably helped a lot of questioning dudes in the process. “It was very interesting stuff. One lecture seemed to lead to five others, and so on and so forth, and now Princeton wants to keep me here and pay me to keep things moving forward.”

“Well, that’s quite the story.”

“Right?”

“It is,” his mother said on a laugh. “Who would have thought?”

“Not me. But the truth is, I don’t want to stay at Princeton, and I don’t want to lie and tell you I’m thinking about being a sex therapist. What I’m thinking of doing is offering up this same symposium to the University of Colorado at Boulder.”

Dead. Silence.

“Mom. I love her.”

Big. Sigh.

“Mom!”

“I know you’re an adult. Will you give me time to digest this with your father before we continue this conversation?”

“I am an adult, even if I’m still your child, so yes I will give you time to digest this with Dad, who I am calling immediately so you don’t get a chance to put your spin on things.”

“What kind of spin would I put on this?” She said it as if there was no way she could make the idea any worse than it already was.

“I just want him to hear it from me.”

“Fine.”

“I love you, Ma.”

“I know you do.”

Jesse guffawed into the phone. “Nice response, Judge James.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes, that you love me but are too irritated to say it.”

“Exactly. Now go call your father.”

So he did.

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