“C'mon, Oscar, you and I are going to have a long talk.”
Justine frowned at Shego, “Is that Oscar, as in Oscar the Grouch?”
“No, that's Oscar as in Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.”
“I don't think I want to talk with you.”
“Look, the feeling is mutual. But I promised Kim. She thinks you and Felix need a lecture.”
“And she talks with Felix? I really do not want to talk with you. I think I need to talk with Kim.”
“Sorry, not an option right this minute. She's says you wouldn't talk with her this morning. You can come peacefully or I can throw you over my shoulder and carry you out. But it's a lot more comfortable to talk with me over wine spritzers at Leo's than tied up in the back seat of the Volvo. Your choice.”
They walked the two blocks almost in silence.
“Why are we going to Leo's instead of C2K?” Justine demanded.
“Because everyone knows me at C2K and I'm hoping for a private conversation.”
Leonardo's was the best of the bars on their side of campus and the two women found a small booth in the back. Shego ordered a spritzer and an order of potato skins, Justine asked for a Riesling. As the student waitress left with their order Shego commented, “I'm surprised. I thought you had to go to the other side of the campus to find a place that knew the difference between a Riesling and a Chardonnay.”
“And I'm surprised you really ordered a spritzer.”
“I'm keeping my head clear for tonight. You just turned twenty-one last week. How did you know what you wanted?”
Justine shrugged, “When you're working on your doctorate they don't card you at department meetings. There was the beer bunch, the wine crowd, and the Mormons -- we called them that even though they drank sodas. I decided to go with the wine crowd.”
“Not at department meetings!”
“Sorry, wasn't thinking.”
Felix had only slept a few hours at home and was back in the mid-afternoon. Kim found him watching Ron, who might or might not have had any sleep.
“Shego wanted to talk with her. Felix, I'd like a little talk with you about Justine.”
“Oh, oh,” Ron interrupted, “you know that tone of voice translates into 'flee for your life' in guy-talk, don't you Felix?”
“I'm tough, I can take it. Will you stay here to give me moral support?”
“Sorry, buddy, but when a female starts the relationship talk I have the sense to run even if you don't. I hear the call of the most serious relationship in my life right this minute.”
Felix raised an eyebrow.
“My futon,” Ron explained as he quickly exited the room.
“So, I'm here so that Kim can spend time with Felix?”
“Kim said she tried to talk with you this morning. She said you seemed unhappy. But you aren't the,” Shego made air quotes, “'warm and fuzzy' kind to spill your guts over breakfast so she forced me to talk with you.”
“Threatened me, yes.”
“What did she threaten you with?”
“I wouldn't be getting any until after I talked with you.”
Justine almost asked, “Any what?” but caught herself in time and gave Shego a little smile. “She thinks you'll do a better job of getting me to spill my guts?”
“Look, I really don't care. I told her it was none of our damn business and we should just leave you alone. If you don't want to say a thing I've done what I promised, I tried.”
The potato skins arrived and the both sampled them. “Look, there is one thing I am curious about,” Shego asked, “how in the hell did you two ever hook up in the first place?”
“It was the first calculus class,” Felix told Kim, “and I realized that the Justine Flanner who was teaching my section was really her. I had honestly thought it was weird coincidence or something that the TA in charge had the same name as a girl who graduated with us. So after class I rolled up and said, 'Hey, Middleton, want a cup of coffee in the student union?”
“It's that invitation to coffee that always gets you in trouble,” Kim told him.
“Of course I said no,” Justine told Shego. “TAs are not supposed to fraternize with the students in their sections.”
“I'll remember that if I get the TA who was hitting on me last spring again.”
“But he said, 'Isn't it your job to help a student who comes to you with a problem?' So I went to the union with him. He just wanted someone to talk with. But it was the first time in my life anyone asked me to just go somewhere and talk. And, and you know he's kind of cute and funny don't you?”
“You were crushing on him from the first, weren't you? Did you see him again right away?”
“Just in class,” Justine said glumly, “and it seemed like he was just getting more and more friends as the semester went on. He'd always say 'Hey, Middleton, how's it going?' before or after class. But he hung around with a bunch of other students when he came in and when he left.”
“Then, maybe five weeks into the semester, I couldn't get one of the problems and it was really bothering me. Justine had her phone number in the contact information on the syllabus, so I gave her a call. And instead of just talking me through it over the phone she said we could go to the union and work on it. I really appreciated that she took the time to help a student in need. She is really wonderful, she started to ask me what I thought about the class, and did I think there was anything she could do to teach the course better.”
Justine continued, “It wasn't sure if he really called me for help or just wanted to talk. I hoped he just wanted to talk. Teaching is really different from knowing things. I was breezing in my doctoral program, but that doesn't mean I knew how to teach a room full of freshmen and sophomores. I needed to talk with him more than he needed to talk with me. I wanted feedback on how I was doing in class.
“So I asked if he'd do me a favor and let me run lesson plans by him. I'm not sure if he was the best guinea pig for the experiment -- he's so smart he knew the material already -- but he was cute and easy to talk with.”
“So you'd meet together once a week?” Shego asked.
“So, how long until the first kiss?”
“Not during that semester.”
“Ah, too bad.”
“They kick you out if they find you in a relationship with one of your students. But as soon as I turned in my grades I gave him a call and asked if I could take him out to say thanks for his help with my lesson plans.
“So, we're sitting side by side in this little booth--”
“Wait,” Kim demanded, “why were you sitting side by side?”
“It was really noisy. We couldn't have heard if we were sitting across from each other. Anyway, she'd have to lean over to say something in my ear, and then I'd lean over to say something in her ear. And I was thanking her for helping me, and she was thanking me for helping her. And we sort of both leaned over at the same time and all of a sudden we were kissing.
“Like, little friendship peck on the lips or --?”
“For an hour and a half it was like we were suddenly the only two people in the room.” Justine told Shego. “I didn't even know I could feel like that. But it turned awkward when we saw each other the next day. We'd arranged to come back to Middleton together for Christmas break weeks earlier. I didn't know what to think during the flight. The night before we were making out, and suddenly we were strangers again. I was too embarrassed to say anything.
“And that New Year's Eve party at your place was a complete mistake.” Felix told Kim. “As soon as we got in the door she headed for the scientists from the research center, just ignores me. So I found your party in the basement. I was really mad at her. I--”
“--felt like I was completely deserted at the party,” Justine said. “I said hello to a couple people I knew and when I turned around to talk with Felix he was gone. I found him down with Ron and Kim in the basement having fun. I was stuck with the older scientist crowd. I didn't want to 'intrude' on him and his friends. I was angry with Felix--”
“Angry with Felix or jealous of Ron and Kim?” Shego asked.
“Both, I guess. Felix wanted to see them more than he wanted to see me. Sometimes I really hate them because Felix wants to be with them.”
“So why did you ask to rent a room here until you got your own place?”
“Because I really want to see Felix,” Justine said softly. “And I know he'll be over to see Ron. Maybe it was a mistake to take the job. He doesn't want or need me when he has other friends around. I thought when we were talking about moving back to Middleton we might be moving in together.”
“It sounds like it took a turn for the serious that second semester or the second year.”
“Actually,” Felix told Kim. “We weren't even talking again for a month after we got back to California. She said she was upset with me for running off from her at the party! I mean, that's ridiculous! She's the one who ran off from me.”
“So what happened?”
“I sort of missed those lesson plan sessions in the union. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was because it was fun to see her vulnerable and asking for help. She could be scary in the classroom. But it had always been a kick to have the teacher asking me for help. And I guess I liked her. That kissing session had really been something. So I went up to the grad student office when her office hours were posted and asked if she wanted to run her lesson plans by me again that semester.”
“I said yes. And I started crying as soon as he left. It just felt so good. While we were talking at the union he said that he thought I was ignoring him at the party. I still don't believe it, but that's what he said--”
“Different people see things differently,” Shego reminded her.
“Yes, but he ran off to be with Ron and Kim! I met him at the union and we must have been there for six hours. It was dark when we left and he made sure I got back to my dorm okay. Before I went in I really screwed up my courage and leaned over and gave him a kiss, and said thanks.”
“It wasn't a thing like that makeout session at the end of the semester. But I took it for a 'I'd like to see you again.' Man, I was flying when I went back to my dorm.
“After that we were seeing each other pretty regularly. We pretended it was to look at lesson plans for a month or two. But we dropped that eventually. We'd go to campus activities, or do things off campus, and eventually we were sometimes staying the night in each other's dorm rooms.”
Kim looked like she wanted to ask a question, but felt too uncomfortable to say anything. Felix paused and waited for her to screw up her courage. “I, uh, know this is really none of my business, but if you were spending some night's together were you, ah, intimate?”
He grinned at her, wondering just how red she could blush, “Define intimate.”
“Were you having sex?”
“I could ask you to define sex. But you were right the first time. It is none of your business. Do you want me asking you about hot lesbian sex with Shego?”
Kim hesitated. “Well, sometimes we--”
“No,” Felix laughed. “I don't want to hear about HLS with Shego… At least not right now. I was saying it is none of your business. But I'll tell you anyway. A lot of men paraplegics can't get an erection. But remember, Kim, the most important sex organ is up here,” he said tapping his forehead with one finger. “I'm an L-1… I don't suppose you have any idea what that means.”
“To be honest, no.”
“There are a number of different classifications for where you were injured, and the type of injury -- I could tell you about anterior cord syndrome or Brown-Séquard syndrome. If you are a C-2 you are probably in bed for the rest of your life… Hey, I'm answering a 'none of your business question' for you. What is it about my disability that weirds you out so badly?”
“I'm not sure. Maybe it scares me because it could happen to anyone. You were doing fine until WHAM a car runs a stop sign and plows into the car your dad is driving. Your life was never the same. I'm doing things a lot more dangerous than driving on a city street. Maybe I look at you and worry about myself.”
“Bad news, Kim. The disabled are the only minority you can join involuntarily as an adult. In fact, if you live long enough you are almost guaranteed to become a member.”
“I hope you're not trying to make me feel better -- 'cause you're not.”
“No, just putting your fear into perspective. Anyway, I'm an L-1 and I can physically do a lot of things those with more serious injuries can't, and in my case that does include an erection. It takes me a little longer, but Justine is patient. I'm glad she is a scientist and willing to do some experimenting. I mean, we were just fooling around a little the first time.”
“The first several times, really. I'd even call some of those sessions sex even though there wasn't intercourse,” Justine told Shego. “But we were going further every time we were together. And, yes, we were eventually having intercourse.”
“I'm guessing you're always on top.”
“Well, usually. There are a lot of positions we can't try, but we try for some creativity. And from what I hear he lasts a long time.”
“How long?” Shego asked.
“Usually around an hour. It may be the only thing in the world where a little diminished nerve sensitivity is actually in my favor. I never really talked about me and Justine in the dorm; I didn't think it was right. But you'd hear guys bragging about half an hour or girls complaining about four minutes.”
“Well, the mother of two little girls wants to be assured that you and Justine are careful.”
“Oh, yes,” Felix assured her. “Justine has--”
“--been on the pill since about fourteen. I had really killer periods and it helps.” She looked across the table at Shego, “And you're wondering right now, 'could she possibly be any more bitchy?'.”
“Is that a joke?”
“Well, I was trying. I'm not very good at them.”
“I appreciate the fact you are trying.”
Justine chewed her lip nervously. “There is something I've never told anyone. I don't know if I should tell you…”
“Well, the fact you mentioned it suggests you want to tell someone. You got a buck?”
“Give it to me.”
Justine looked in her wallet. “Wait, my smallest is a five.”
“That'll do.” Justine handed Shego the bill. “Okay, this is a retainer. I just took you on as a client and any further conversation on the topic falls under the category of attorney-client privilege and I don't repeat it to anyone.”
“Look, you haven't even started law school -- you don't even know how your trial will go this fall.”
“And your point is?”
“Why am I giving you a retainer?”
“So I'll keep my mouth shut. Look, if you wait until I pass the bar it's going to cost you a hundred bucks an hour to talk with me. This is cheap. And if I say anything you can have me charged with practicing law without a license. Now, doesn't that guarantee I keep your secret?”
Justine laughed, a thin whinny of a laugh that reflected how little practice she had. Then she turned serious and began, “I think I'm a terrible person. There is a small chance he will be able to walk again… Maybe it's a middle-sized chance; there might be some medical break through. Some L-2s regain use of their legs, and every now and then an L-1… You don't know what I'm talking about, do you?”
“I've got a small clue, keep talking and I'll stop you if I really get lost.”
“I'm not a medical doctor, so I don't know if nerves reconnect or reroute, but sometimes people with minor injuries are able to walk again. If you're religious you call it a miracle. I'd like to see a study and see if there is any difference in the rates between religious and non-religious people. Anyway, if the president doesn't kill stem cell research they may figure out how to regenerate nerve cells. I think Felix would be a great candidate for the procedure if they get it to work. There is a very slight chance he could regain use of his legs anyway. And I'm afraid he'll drop me if he can walk again. I'm afraid he's dumping me anyway. He has so many friends. He was in a co-ed dorm and everyone knew Felix. Sometimes I want him to stay in the wheelchair because I think it's the only chance I have. Let's face it, I'm skinny and will never be called pretty.”
“Don't sell yourself short, Justine--”
“--is the most wonderful woman I've ever met. She's intelligent, kind, caring, loving--”
“I get the point, Felix. You love her madly. So what's the big problem? Why were spending last night in front of video game with Ron instead of out with Justine or up in her room?”
“I don't have anything to offer her. I think she was just lonely out in California. Now that she's got a real job and her career started she doesn't need me -- doesn't even want me any more.”
“What makes you so sure about that?”
“That's what she told me. We had even been talking about moving in with each other after she got a house. But as soon as she got here she told me I wasn't to tell anyone we were dating each other.”
“Are you sure that was what she meant?”
“It's like she's ashamed of me. Or she's hoping to meet someone better for her down at the labs and doesn't want anyone to know she was going out with sophomore in college.”
“Why in the bloody hell did you tell him that?” Shego demanded.
“Do you know how weird it is to be working for the mother of the guy you love? And I'm not sure about the ethics of it either. Am I allowed to date the son of my supervisor -- or will it get me fired? And I think some people resent me already because I'm so much younger than anyone else in the department. I don't have great people skills. I was talking to a woman, I think her name was Vivian Porter, in the cafeteria and she was talking about how she doesn't get taken seriously because she's good-looking. She was trying to encourage me, but dating Felix would just be something else people could point to. I don't want to get Mrs. Renton in trouble, having people accuse her of showing favoritism to me.”
“Do you really think she would show favoritism?”
“I doubt it.”
“So you were just planning to stay in the closet with Felix forever? Don't you think he'd like to tell his mom he's sleeping… Okay, maybe that is the sort of thing you don't want to tell your mom about.”
“I was thinking that maybe around Christmas time we could sort of ease into telling her.”
“Did you really talk this out with Felix?”
“Not really, but isn't it obvious? He's smart. Why else would you ask someone to keep something like that quiet?”
“I don't know, but the message you try to send is not always the message other people hear.”
“I don't think it really matters now. I thought he loved me. But as soon as we got back to Middleton he started ignoring me. I only see him when he's over with Ron or Kim. I'm really starting to dislike Ron. He has got to be the laziest slacker in the world.”
Shego shook her head, “Don't sell Ron short. He's a lot smarter and more competent than people give him credit for. Kim's enemies always took Ron for granted, and he was often the guy who saved the day. And, even if you can't always see it, I think he's amazing competent. Oh, he's a little lazy -- actually reminds me of me. I coasted for years; I was in a comfortable rut and didn't do anything with my life. I think Ron could do anything he set his mind to. The problem is that right now he doesn't know what he wants to do with his life, he's--”
“I hope he's not waiting for some sort of divine revelation. I don't believe in that. He needs to get off his rear end, finish his degree and get a job.”
“Cut him some slack, Justine. We're all different. He really can accomplish anything he wants with his life. Right this minute what he wants to do is have fun, even if you think that's weird.”
There was bitterness in Felix's voice Kim didn't recognize. “You know what's freakin' weird?” She shook her head no. “What is freakin' weird is sitting in a wheelchair waiting to see your physical therapist and having a T-7 and a T-10 telling you you're lucky--”
He raised his hand to silence her and finished. “No. What is freakin' weird is that some days you can almost believe it. You've got a wonderful woman you love and who loves you. You are talking about living together. Then you leave the college you're enrolled in to go back closer to family and friends and the second you change your life around her she dumps you.”
“I can't believe that. There must have been some other reason.”
“Seriously. Ever think that maybe it's a little weird for her to be working with your mother? Had you ever told your mom the two of you were dating?”
“Well, no. How much did you tell your mom about you and Shego? Justine asked if I had while we were in California and I said no. She said I shouldn't tell my mom before she applied for the job -- that it might mess up the hiring process. But this was after she was hired.”
“I still think it has something to do with having your mom as a supervisor. That has got to be awkward for her.”
“Then why didn't she tell me about it?”
“Okay, that doesn't make sense.” Kim tried to break up the mood by forcing some humor into the conversation. “Hey, wasn't it a little weird to be dating someone who works with your mother? You don't have any sort of Oedipal thing going on here do you?”
Felix accepted her effort and laughed at the lame joke, “Kim, say something like that again and I take you out to the court when everyone is here and publicly humiliate you.”
“Hey, Middleton, there's one thing I'm really curious about, and maybe you know the answer. I've seen Felix shooting hoops by the garage with Ron, How did he get so good at basketball?”
“He liked it even before the accident, used to play a lot with his dad. He was out of school for a year after the accident that killed his dad. For a long time he wouldn't do anything. Finally the physical therapist got him out on the court. He said he used to play horse with his dad--”
“I don't know either. But it's some sort of basketball thing. I don't know, maybe it helped him through his own injuries. Anyway, he said he was out shooting hoops sometimes ten hours a day that year. I used to go to the gym sometimes just to watch him. He can put it through the hoop from just about anywhere on the court.”
“Did you ever try to get out and play with him?”
“No, I wouldn't stand a chance.”
“Well, maybe he needs to win with you.”
“Look at it, Justine. You two are pretty much the same age. You have a Ph.D. and your dream job. Felix is a nice guy and smart -- but I'd guess a lot of people would feel like failures when they're by you. And Felix? Whether he will ever admit it or not you have to know the handicap bothers him, keeps him from doing all he wants. You might give him a chance to win at something. Do your damndest, but he's going to win and you laugh at yourself and compliment him.”
“That is so stereotypically fake.”
“Only if you let him win. Don't lie to him. But let him see success too. The male ego is extremely fragile for its size. It's like some giant soap bubble and you don't want to pop it.”
“Any other massive corrections I need in my life?”
“Seriously or are you angry?”
“I’m probably both. But I want Felix.
“Well, you're a fun black hole.”
“As in the gravitational field of the black hole is so strong it --”
“Yeah, it sucks up the light the way you can suck the fun out of a room. You're killing my metaphor here with over-analysis.”
“Is it a metaphor or a simile?”
“It's a metaphor, Justine. Trust me -- I'm a Lit major. Sounds you were each other's best friends in California. Now that you're back here Felix is being a jerk--”
“Don't call him a jerk!”
“Hey, it's always the guys who are jerks. He's paying more attention to old friends than he is to you. He's having fun with them. You need to have fun with him to. Try the stupid video games he plays. Do you ever go to movies together?”
“Well, we can never agree on a film.”
“Let him pick the first one. Make him promise to let you pick the next one. Sit where there is no one behind to complain if you start kissing.” Shego's voice started to fade out as she smiled at her own memories.
“Felix, what had your dream been when you moved back to Middleton?”
“You mean beyond moving in with Justine?”
“Well, finish my degree in computers. I want a job in IT. You don't need legs to get IT done. Justine and I would marry and have kids -- in that order. Not like some people I could name.”
“Hey, I don't know that Josh and Tara have any plans to get married.”
“You know who I'm talking about. Anyway, I wanted the house in the suburbs and everything disgustingly normal. Two point one kids, two-thirds of a dog, and three-quarters of a cat. Man, don't statistics sound gruesome?”
“Were you thinking you and Felix had a serious future, or did you see this as a college romance?”
“I guess I'm unusual. I grew up the most focused child in the world. I knew what I wanted to do when I was eight. I mean, really knew. Not like the third grade girls who want to be a ballerina, fashion designer, rock-star, horse veterinarian when they grow up. I told my teacher I was going to be a physicist. But while I knew the work I wanted to do, I don't believe I ever thought about my life and how I wanted to live. I've never felt like this before in my life. I don't know anything except I want to be with Felix.”
“I'm sorry, Middleton. You've really got it bad for the boy, don't you?”
“Yes, I do,” she said softly.
“Say, what did he get you for your birthday last week?
“He didn't get me anything.”
“The little creep--”
“No, he didn't know it was my birthday. Birthdays were never a thing in my house when I was growing up. They were ignored. That birthday card you saw me open was from my aunt. She's the only one who ever acknowledged the day at all. Would you have even known it was my birthday if we hadn't arrived home at the same time and you saw me read the mail?”
Shego patted the thin woman's hand. “I'm sorry, kid. They can be a lot of fun. And that was a big one. I wondered why Ron didn't bake a cake or something. It was our sacred duty to take you out and get you drunk or something.”
“Done that once, it was plenty.”
Shego asked her question by raising an eyebrow.
“Grad student party. I was thirsty and had no idea how it was going to affect me. The other students were jealous about how much younger I was and thought it was hilarious. I put up with a lot of hazing at both MIT and Berkeley.”
“Hence the doorknob?”
“Hence the doorknob.”
A minute later Shego held up her hand to interrupt Justine. “Hold on a sec, my cell phone is vibrating,” Shego lied. She stared at the nonexistent text message on a blank screen for about fifteen seconds. “I don't know why Kim thinks I care about diaper brands. Can I answer this real fast?”
“Thanks.” Shego quickly pecked out her text message.
“Are you just going to ignore your phone?”
“This talk is important.”
“Well, some of the calls to you are important also.”
Kim sighed and answered her cell. The text message read, “JUSTINE BDAY TWENTY ONE LAST TUES.” Kim's stomach sank. “Felix, did you know Justine's birthday was last Tuesday?”
“You know, I really don't know what to call you. Should I call you Shego?”
“That would be fine.”
“I just wanted to say thanks. I don't have anyone I can really talk with. I appreciated you listening.”
“It's my job, Oscar.”
“You have me on retainer, remember? I'm going to be your lawyer when I grow up.”
Justine whinnied. “God, Oscar, we've got to work on your laugh. More practice will help. C'mon, time to head home.”
Author's Note: If any reader doesn't know The Odd Couple, the two central characters are named Oscar and Felix.
The story with the doorknob incident has not been written yet. Working title: Ninjas in the House. Focus will be on Yori-Ron-Bonnie. Last chapter of Ninjas in the House may actually be set after this story.