The first time you notice, you are pressed against him on the couch. The two of you hold a single controller between you, him with the left half and you with the right. You’re playing Mario Kart with your friends, and neither of you expects to do well. He is steering, and all you have to do is hold down the “go” button, but you’re sure your bad luck will carry over regardless. Miraculously, you do well, managing even to beat some of your friends. He high-fives you, giddy with your success, and the two of you are grinning like idiots. You watch him light-heartedly taunt your friends, and something in your chest stirs.
Oh, you think. Oh no.
It’s nearly midnight by the time you pile into the rickety Honda. With all five of you in the car, the suspension swings dangerously to the right every time you go over a bump. The parking lot of the 24-hour McDonald’s is all but empty as you pull up to the drive-through menu. You order three 20-piece servings of chicken nuggets and two large fries.
As you drive to the pick-up window, he turns to you, eyes wide with fear and awe. “That’s so many nuggets.”
"Yeah,” you say. “60 nuggets.”
"60 nuggets. That’s like a whole chicken!” You smile at him and take the bag that the employee is holding out to you.
Back at the apartment, someone suggests watching The Room. It’s a terrible idea and you all know it, but you put it on anyways. You’re sitting closer to him than is strictly necessary, but no one seems to notice or care. You let yourself enjoy his warmth and the way his arm presses against yours. His scent is intoxicating, a mix of soap and something warm. Maybe you imagine it, but you think you feel him leaning into you, and it’s all you can focus on.
The movie is awful, with bad writing and worse acting, but you all enjoy laughing at the characters and plot holes and endlessly cyclical storyline. At some point, you end up leaning against him. You rest your head on his shoulder and he leans his head against yours. You stay there for the rest of the night and pray no one else can hear the way your heart is fluttering against your ribs.
You meet at a restaurant on a Wednesday, ostensibly to work on a project. He’s already at a table when you get there, so you join him. The restaurant is loud and crowded, but he’s found a little high-top near the back. As you sit down across from him, the ambient music and the voices of the other people seem to fade out, and all you can focus on is him. You had always thought people were exaggerating when they said something like that, but now you believe it. The two of you compare what you’ve got so far, and try to be productive, but a comment he makes reminds you of a story that you have to tell him. Suddenly an hour has passed and you’ve made no progress at all. Despite the impending deadline and your struggles with one-on-one conversations, there’s a lightness in your chest that wasn’t there when you left your room. He has a class and you have to study, so you agree to meet later. You can feel yourself smiling ridiculously your whole walk home, but you can’t bring yourself to care.
You tell your friend about him because you just can’t stand to keep it to yourself any longer. It still scares you to say it out loud, so you tell them over text instead of during your Skype call. You tell them about your text conversations with him, about how he stops what he’s doing to send you pictures of animals he sees, about how you’re still ridiculously awkward talking to him. Their smile comes through in the emojis and exclamation marks that litter their texts, and you realize how lucky you are to have a friend like them. You’re not sure if you wanted advice or just someone to listen to you talk about your crush, but the conversation reassures you nonetheless.
The four of you link hands, forming a chain so as not to lose each other on your way out of the concert. You’re at the end, clinging to his hand against the press of the crowd. Once you reach the parking lot, he holds on for an extra moment, so short you think you might have imagined it. You slide into the back seat of the car and he sits across from you. When you’re not looking, he takes your hand in his again and squeezes. You turn to look at him and he’s staring at you, a soft smile on his lips.
In the front seat, your friend puts on some music that you all know, and the four of you sing along even though your voices are nearly blown after three hours of screaming. He holds your hand through the whole ride, even raising it to his lips and kissing it once. You can’t believe your life is like this; you have amazing friends, you got to see one of your favorite artists live, and you’re holding hands with a boy who likes you back. You think this is the happiest you’ve been in a while.
He walks you home from your friend’s apartment after a long night of watching YouTube videos and playing board games. You spend much of the half hour walk in conversation, but sometimes you just let a comfortable silence rest between you. The city looks beautiful in the late-autumn night, so you take a moment at the top of the hill to pause and look out at the lights beneath you. You use the chill of the night as an excuse to step closer to him, and he doesn’t move away. You continue to walk, but it isn’t until you’re nearly home that you work up the courage to take his hand. He smiles and squeezes your hand, and it makes you want to see him smile like that again and again.
The two of you stop outside your building, not letting go even though it’s time to say goodnight. You look at him, and you know he feels the same hesitant expectation that’s sitting heavily on your chest.
"Can I kiss you?” he asks softly, and you’re sure it’s the most nervous you’ve ever heard him sound. You just nod, unable to speak, but he moves closer anyways. It’s awkward and tentative, but you can’t stop smiling as you watch him leave. Your hands shake as you unlock the door and collapse onto your bed, filled with an uncontrollable giddiness. You think about his lips against yours until you fall asleep.
Your parents ask how you’re doing. You tell them what they want to hear: I’m good, having a lot of fun, doing well in class. You don’t say: I think I’m falling in love.