It was stupid. She knew after all these years, it was stupid. Using her only free afternoon in town to sit on a park bench, eat a stupid hot dog, and hope.
She was pretty sure he was back in the city. She asked. Well, she'd mentioned to Luke that she had to be here for this thing, and casually inquired if he was still in the area. Luke only confirmed in that way that left the door open, but she chickened out and he didn't offer anything more.
At least it was a day worth being outside for. One of the first Spring days when the East Coasters exploded from their winter hiding. Shedding coats, though it was just barely 50 degrees. A game of frisbee was happening to her right, and a collection of toddlers were crowded around a bubble machine to her left. The nannies clucked around them, filling their Instagram accounts with images of their young charges.
Rory went back to her book. She'd spent a long time picking out her reading material for this moment. Probably more time than she spent out her outfit, though it might have been pretty comparable if she considered time spent time deciding whether to wear her hair up or down, or to go with the barely there makeup or something with more pop. After months of scholarly reading in preparation for this conference, her pleasure reading list had grown rather long. While packing for the trip she couldn't decide whether to go with a new bestseller or an old friend. In the end she packed a few of each but this morning, she reached for the tried and true friend. Her copy was worn with his notes scribbled around hers in the margins. Notes that have been there so long, she no longer needed to read them. His thoughts had become her own.
The sun felt good on her back as Rory hunched over her book. Despite being almost 30, she couldn't help but assume her most comfortable reading position: legs crisscrossed under her, neck forward and down as she delved back into the world of Elizabeth Bennet.
She was entwined with Elizabeth's curiosity of Mr. Darcy at the ball when she heard a quiet throat clear. "Hi," said a voice just in front of her. Rory's body tensed, her eyes scanned as far as she could manage without using her neck. Black shoes. Suit? The thought was enough to jerk her head up to the light brown eyes she expected.
"Uh, hi," she responded as a nervous chuckle escaped her mouth. She was pretty sure her mouth was still hanging open from the sudden relocation coupled with absolute stun she felt. She clamped it shut, her teeth clacking together. Rory internally rolled her eyes at herself. Then cursed herself for not thinking about what should happen next. She'd written off seeing him as such a slim chance that she told herself that planning beyond that moment was a waste of time.
The silence must have stretched on too long, but she couldn't tell because it felt like a marching band and a traveling circus had taken up residence in her brain the way her thoughts careened around. "How are you?" He asked, which forced her to look at him again. His hands were in his pockets. It was the only concrete fact she could seem to retain.
"Good. Yeah. I'm good." She paused while she watched him nod, then found her head imitating it as if she were a chimp at the zoo. "And you?" She finally asked, remembering something of how social language worked.
"Good." He repeated back. This time she nodded and he followed.
"Yeah, I'm just in town for this thing," she started.
"Conference?" He questioned as he pointed to the name tag around her neck. She felt her face redden as she yanked it over her head and stuffed it in her bag.
"Yeah," she mumbled. "Conference."
"Hey," he said. "You got some time? Wanna grab a coffee?" He paused. " I assume you still do coffee?"
"Coffee's good," she replied as she tucked her book into her purse. She uncoiled her legs and knew instantly there was a problem. Her synapses were clearly still muddled though, because despite the pins and needles warning her leg screamed out, she stood anyway. Unable to support her, the leg buckled. Jess' hands were out of his pockets and he'd somehow managed to close the distance between them before she could process. His arms around her stopped her collapse, but made her feel even weaker.
"Whoa, you OK? When was the last time you ate?" He asked.
"I'm fine," she answered, embarrassed. "Just too old to sit that way for so long, I guess." She got her legs under her and Jess released her.
"Okay?" He asked. When she nodded, he took a step back while his hands retreated to his pockets. After a moment, she picked up her purse and nodded again.
He turned up the path in the general direction from which she assumed he came. She let out a sharp breath with her first step but determinedly limped behind him. By the time he glanced back, her gait had almost returned to normal. He dropped back a little so they didn't quite look like a stunted row of ducks. In fact, strangers may have actually interpreted their proximity to suggest acquaintances. Though Rory didn't know they could even be considered that after all this time.
He led her two more blocks in silence. They passed at least three chain coffee shops, but finally he slowed at a door. Over the door hung a small mug-shaped sign, that little coffee joint, scripted across it. Jess looked back at Rory, and she nodded. It was only afterwards that she realized he was asking her approval, not her comprehension. She nodded again in thanks as she walked through the door he held for her.
The place was small, but smelled divine. Large overstuffed chairs were spread throughout, tables scattered among the cozy seating areas. The light was dim, and if she knew it wasn't illegal in this city, she would've sworn a cloud of smoke hung in the air. The music was audible, but not overpowering- tuned to what she assumed was a local college radio station. Rory loved the place.
"Sorry for the long haul, but this place is just better," he said, while he scanned the place, seeming to take it in through new eyes. "Still like it straight?" Rory smiled when she nodded this time, touched that he remembered her preference. She was sure words would become necessary at some point, but since she'd been rendered mute, this served her purpose for now. "Still easy, that's good," he replied as he turned to the counter, before he had a chance to think about his comment. From her spot slightly behind him, she could see him shake his head slightly in what she assumed was disbelief as his cheeks reddened. She smiled because he couldn't see her response. At least she wasn't the only one whose wit was a little dimmer today.
Jess ordered while she found them two chairs facing each other with a table between them. Rory thought the barrier prudent as she tucked her purse behind her and sank into the overstuffed chair. When he pulled out his wallet, she mentally cursed herself.
Jess walked over to her with two mugs of coffee. The mugs were like the ones they used to get at Luke's. Big, mismatched, and clearly well-used. "I'm sorry," she started as she took the warm mug from him. "The next round is on me."
Jess just shrugged as he placed his mug on the table between them, then walked back to the counter to retrieve a plate of scones and muffins. Back at the table, he took off his suit coat, draped it over the arm of the chair and sat in the chair so as not to disturb it. "Sorry," he apologized as he reached for the top button of his collar. The button popped open and he sighed in relief. She'd noticed his tie folded in the breast pocket of his coat. Somehow she remembered that now. Was it on the walk she noticed it? Maybe when he caught her? Processing time was clearly an issue.
"In full disclosure, this maybe not as random of a meeting as you think." Rory put down her mug and tilted her head. "A birdie told me you were going to be in New York this week."
"A birdie, huh?" she smiled. "Did this birdie tell you anything else?"
"No, just that you were at that conference at NYU this week. My publisher is in Greenwich, so since I had a meeting with the marketing department today," he indicated his suit, "I thought I'd swing through the park, just in case."
"Marketing department, huh?" she inquired. She picked apart a scone as she glanced in his direction. "Have something new coming out?"
"Yeah," he answered as he sipped his coffee. "Just a collection of shorts, but they want to send me out on a book tour to coincide with the Hollow Paths movie release."
"I heard about that, congratulations! Is it weird to think something you wrote is going to be a movie?"
"Really weird," Jess confirmed. "I mean, I consult on the script, but they've got someone else doing the actual writing. It's a pretty surreal experience."
"I can't imagine," Rory responded, her scone disassembled before her. She looked at him sheepishly, then used her fingers to smash some back together and brought the ball to her mouth.
"I heard you went back to school. Something about saving the world?"
Rory nodded again. Goodness, had she turned into a bobble-head? "Yeah," she said, "Advocacy in Social Justice."
"Which is…?" he led her to continue talking.
"Um, it's a lot of things. I'm focused on the socioeconomic aspects of our culture and what we can do to get people what they need. Some people are more focused on a specific subset of a population, like the unemployed or victims of domestic abuse. Either way, the program is a lot of learning about being an effective advocate, finding resources, and creating programs that have a lasting effect. Sort of a cross between social worker and city planner."
Jess nodded. "So still in the trenches, but with less time spent in hair & makeup?"
"Well, the pay's probably worse, too. But as much as I enjoyed reporting and telling people's stories, I felt like I wasn't doing enough to actually change things, you know? I mean, we met these people on the campaign trail that had these incredible stories, and we'd do a profile on them and about how their life could change, but did it really? No one went back to make sure Mr. Mayes really stopped paying a thousand bucks a month in healthcare. I mean, I assume he did, but my story with him stopped when the bus rolled out of town. I just wanted to be more involved with the actual change." After our days in a conference with some of the best minds in her field, Rory thought she could explain her career path a bit more, but it had been some time since she'd had contact with anyone that she had to explain it to. Most of her colleagues clearly didn't need an overview of her field, they wanted the specifics of her research. Her family and the rest of the folks in Stars Hollow heard her spiel when she started, and now only asked polite broad questions about school, which she quickly learned meant they wanted simple, broad answers about how much she enjoyed it.
"And you were in Chicago?" he asked after a pause. She looked at him, surprised. "Birdie," he said with a shrug.
She nodded again. "I started off there, because that's where my program is, so most of my coursework happened there. I spent a little time in Buffalo," she involuntarily shivered when she thought about the snow, "and I've spent the last year or so in New Orleans. There are parts of the city that had to be rebuilt from nothing. The work they did to involve the residents and the community in the planning effort was pretty amazing in terms of the potential for change and putting in some really revolutionary programs. And that was a city with limited resources and fractured neighborhoods before Katrina. I mean, the focus of a lot of the initial rebuilding was housing, which was needed, but without places for those people to work, there's no way to sustain or grow neighborhoods. In the last few years, there's been a real focus on building a strong community development system with civic and public institutions that support and finance neighborhood rebuilding by community-based organizations. " Rory stopped when she realized this was further than she'd gotten with most of her family and friends, and in fact, dangerously veered toward the conference notes she'd spent the last few months preparing.
Jess leaned forward on his knees. To her surprise, he didn't change the subject or offer her platitudes. "So where do you start?" he asked. "Because as I see it, you need houses for people to live in, and a job for them to work in. But if they don't have a place to live, they won't work there, and if you don't have a place for them to work, they can't afford to live there."
"Exactly!" Rory exclaimed. She realized too late that her excitement garnered the attention of the people around them. She lowered her voice. "One of the really unique things about rebuilding in New Orleans was the complete grassroots efforts. All these people came from across the country, and these organizations came, and some of them started right then and there. The energy and momentum they started were amazing. Now, the local government maybe could have done a better job in really organizing things and putting a plan in place for distributing the efforts more equally across various neighborhoods and determining a course of action. But that's some of the stuff that I'm really interested in. Working with those organizations who are already in the neighborhoods to find more funding, to give them direction, and to build neighborhoods that are sustainable and strong. We can literally build a better place and create communities." She knew she was beaming like a Chesire Cat, but she'd put so much into the last year that it was nice to explain it to someone using real terms, not citing the statistical difference between adjusted gross norms of neighborhoods over the past seven years.
Jess was quiet a moment, but she could tell he was thinking. "That's amazing, Rory," he said quietly. Her heart swelled. "They are lucky to have you." He paused. "But tell me, how long until I see a campaign poster with the Gilmore name on it?"
Rory blushed. She hadn't told anyone she flirted with the idea. When she finished her doctorate, it would give her some of the gravitas she needed, but she knew that was mostly in the world of academia. Since she didn't want to go into teaching right away, she'd thought about how exactly she could make an impact, especially in a place like New Orleans. She sidestepped his question. "Well, first, I'd have to maintain residency in a state long enough to actually be considered," she smiled.
She caught the twinkle in his eye that said he knew she avoided the question. "Well, I, for one, think your job sounds more like a superhero than social worker or city planner. But I think it's clearly the right job for you," he added. Rory felt her cheeks warm again. She took a sip from her mug and looked to Jess as she indicated hers was empty. He nodded and she quickly stood, grabbing both mugs.
"Now listen, Mister. I've just about talked your ear off. So when I get back, you are going to tell me about your fabulous life in the big city."
Rory turned and moved toward the counter. In line, she held both mugs and squared her back to him. She closed her eyes tightly. It was going better than she'd thought, given the rough start, but she was still surprised. Surprised he was here, surprised at the comfort she felt in talking to him, surprised at how amazing his arms felt in those few seconds he caught her, surprised at how much time had passed, but how minimal it felt, given the circumstances. When the person in front of her moved out of the way, she opened her eyes and held out the mugs.
"Two coffees, black," she requested. She placed the mugs on the counter and reached into her pocket for some cash.
"Black?" the woman behind the counter asked. Rory assumed she was the owner.
"Yep," said Rory. "I'm easy."
The lady smiled at her as she refilled the mugs. "Refills are on the house. Didn't he tell you that?" she asked as she nodded her head in Jess' direction. Rory looked over her shoulder to see Jess' shoulders shake in laughter. He shrugged and gave a 'who me?' gesture when she glared at thanked the woman and headed back to the chairs.
"Not funny, you," she said as she replaced the mugs on the table.
Jess chuckled. "Kind of funny," he quipped. She rolled her eyes.
"Well," she said, sitting back on her chair, "I'm apparently no good with birds, because my little birdie does not volunteer much information about you. So pony up, Mariano. What's been going on with you?"
Jess leaned back in his chair, mimicking her posture, though gingerly avoiding his coat. "Not a whole lot to tell. I live in Brooklyn, which was cool when I moved here, but I think they are getting ready to get rid of me on account of being too old, so I live in fear of an eviction notice the length of an entire Moleskin on how out of touch I am and why I should want to move somewhere more sensible, like Staten Island." Jess shuddered for effect. " I write when I can, I work temp jobs when I can't write, and I once tried to join an intramural softball team, but quit before the first practice, because who are we kidding?" Rory laughed along with him.
There was a pause as they both sipped their coffees. "Do you get back to Stars Hollow much?" Rory tried to hid the lilt in her voice. She knew he visited sometimes- her mom would mention it or she'd see Kirk's fanboy Facebook posts.
"Yeah," he replied with a nod. "Some. Doula is crazy busy, so I try to make it back for a few of her recitals or orchestra performances or whatever else Miss Patty ropes her into. I don't usually stay long. Kirk's gotten kind of weird and I don't love the attention."
Rory nodded with a smile. "I did hear that Luke about had a coronary when Kirk took to the sidewalk with the jackhammer so he could start a walk of fame with your handprints."
"The creepiest part of that was the fact that he stole my gloves at the Spring Pageant because he knew I'd never agree to it."
"Just be careful. Today, gloves, tomorrow your pants. I hear your wax figure needs a more authentic wardrobe." Another pause, more coffee.
"I was sorry to hear about your grandpa,"Jess started quietly. "I know you were close."
"Yeah," Rory responded. "It happened really fast. I was in Chicago, but even my mom didn't make it in time." Now her thoughts spun to those awful weeks. Her grandmother haunting the Hartford home, refusing to sleep or eat. Her insistence that his closet be emptied immediately. She shook her head to clear the memory.
"So how's your mom?" she asked. She hoped he didn't notice the crack in her voice.
His pause told her that he did, but chose to follow her lead. "She's OK. She can't believe she'll have another teenager in the house soon. TJ has no idea what to expect, but he's fully freaked about the 'becoming a woman' conversation." The idea of TJ handling that conversation was enough to make her chuckle.
"I can't believe Doulah is that old. She will forever be six months in my head. The last time I saw them was a few years ago. Even though she could have a conversation and was reading a pre-primer version of Emma, I still think of her as a babbling baby."
"The Emma thing was a great phase," Jess responded with a smile. "Unfortunately, I think the older she's getting, the more she regresses. I have no idea about anything she babbles about these days, but she's mad as hell that mom won't let her read Twilight." They shared an eye roll.
Jess killed his cup and looked at his watch. Rory suddenly felt a small rise of panic in her throat. How long had they been sitting there? Where did he have to go? Home, probably. Rory realized she'd sidestepped asking about anyone in his life. Then again, he didn't mention anyone. But why would he rub it in? Her thoughts were interrupted. "Are you staying nearby?" he asked.
Her throat was dry. "Yeah," she responded. "I'm at the Marlton one more night."
He nodded, his hands rubbed his thighs. Was he nervous?
"If you have to get going, I can find my way," she started. "I've probably kept you too long, anyway."
"Oh no," he jumped in, "you aren't keeping me from anything. Except," he pulled out his phone and typed something in. His phone vibrated almost immediately in response. He glanced at it and slipped it back in his pocket.
Rory pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth. Clearly he had someone to alert when his plans changed.
"My cat," he offered. "Atticus gets pissed if his food isn't served precisely on time."
"So you texted him to tell him to order takeout?"
Jess smiled. "He's been sulking since the Chinese place around the corner was replaced by a gastro pub. He now refuses to order in and insists on freshly opened cans. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, the lack of opposable thumbs makes opening them impossible, so I called in a neighbor." He glanced again at his watch. "Do you have anything going on tonight?"
She shook her head.
"What do you say we get out of here. There's a few good shops left around here, and the day's nice enough. We can wander around some, maybe find some dinner?"
She smiled. "I'd like that," she said.
He stood and reached out his hand. "Need a hand? Last time you were sitting this long you pulled a pretty convincing Scarlet O'Hara."
For a moment she didn't want to take his hand. She wanted to be the independent woman she knew she was. But she thought about the moment in the park and the butterflies fluttered. She took his hand. He pulled her up with ease and before she knew it, she was standing in his space.
"I, uh, I never thanked you," she said, taking a small step back. She cursed herself. Why this moment? He looked perplexed.
"For getting me to go back to Yale. I know I saw you at the wedding, but I never thanked you."
He stood silently. "Last I recalled, that was not one of my finer pep talks."
"Well, it worked. I enrolled within a week. And I definitely wouldn't have made it to where I am now if I'd stayed in my grandparents house. So, thanks," she finished brusquely, reaching her hand out in a handshake. Really, Gilmore? she silently muttered.
He cocked his head, took her hand, and shook it with a nod. They headed out the door.
"We both knew you'd do great things," he said as he held the door for her.
"And you," she said, pausing just beyond him.
They walked down the street together in silence. Rory felt his hand slip into hers. "Is this OK?" he asked. For a moment, he was sixteen year old Jess. Eyes big, cautious.
She smiled. "Yeah," she whispered as she squeezed his hand back.