- Pages: 384 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Viking Books for Young Readers
- ISBN: 9781984835840
An Excerpt From
Time of Our Lives
This is a terrible idea.
I watch New Hampshire go by in the bus window. The brittle limbs of the trees on every sidewalk blur together. The bus is close to full, a tall woman holding her service German shepherd’s harness in front of me. Despite the crowd and the lurching motion of the drive, the dog looks unperturbed. Lucky him.
I wonder what Lewis is doing right now. He’s probably drinking with his fraternity brothers. Typical Friday nightbehavior. Now that he and Prisha have broken up, he’s likely looking for his rebound. I’m guessing he won’t notice if I don’t get in to Boston on time.
The knitting needles of the woman in the back of the bus clack incessantly. I narrow my focus in on the pocket dictionary open on my knees, which brush the seat in front of me. I’ve had the book since I was a freshman. It’s a compendium of obscure, unusual words, and it’s become a bit of a pastime to flip through the pages. Words and their definitions are a hobby of mine. I like how they impose temporary control on the world, putting names to the intangible. Not to mention, having a sweet vocabulary makes me effortlessly cool and a hit with the ladies.
The dictionary is open to So-, where I find it. Solicitude. The state of protective concern or worry. I underline the word in a single pencil stroke.
I put the book in my bag and glance out the window again. If Lewis isn’t drinking with his friends, he’s probably working on job applications for next year. I know he has other things he could be doing this week. While I’m not in a frat or employable anywhere other than the Froyo place in the mall, I have things I could be doing too.
Going on a college tour down the East Coast wasn’t my idea. I’ve made my decision. My application to Southern New Hampshire University was out the door on December 1. And going with Lewisdefinitely wasn’t my idea. It was my mom’s. She insisted on Lewis and me having the opportunity for “brotherly bonding.” Besides, Lewis is the one with a credit card, which we’ll use for meals and hotels. Mom promised she’ll pay him back. Having him come with is annoyingly logical.
I don’t know what Lewis and I will talk about. The only things I know about him—he’s in a frat, and he recently broke up with his girlfriend, Prisha—come from overhearing his infrequent calls home on holidays and the occasional weeknight. The only other things I know about my brother could be summarized on his résumé. He’s in his final year at Boston University, he’s about to finish his degree in economics, and he’s searching for finance jobs in New York. Or Boston. Or Chicago.
Anywhere but home.
I drop my eyes to the folder on the seat next to me. I’ve only glanced through it once or twice, which makes me feel a little guilty. It contains weeks of my mom’s careful research on every school I’m meant to visit from Boston to Baltimore in the next ten days, every program she thinks I could theoretically find interesting, the email confirmations for each hotel she’s booked for Lewis and me, an envelope of spending money, even printouts of local restaurants and “places of interest.” It’s heartbreakingly detailed. Following the first day in Boston, I’m supposed to head to Rhode Island and Connecticut, then New York City and colleges in western Pennsylvania, finally ending in Baltimore and home in time for Christmas.
Tonight, the plan is for me to reach South Station in Boston, take the MBTA bus to BU, and meet Lewis in front of his dorm. I don’t know how Mom convinced Lewis to drive me down the coast, but I do know this entire trip was orchestrated to fithis schedule. He finished his in-class exams today, and Mom planned our visit to New York to coincide with one of his job interviews. Never mind the timing necessitated I miss a week of school—something my mom found negligible since I don’t have finals until after winter break.
I know plenty of my classmates would love the opportunity to ditch for a week. But I like school. I like AP English and debating film noir favorites with my friends. I especially like my perfect attendance record. What Idon’t like is pretending the question of college is worth the weight everyone places on it. It’s this blinding prize everyone’s rushing toward. Not me. College isn’t important enough to disrupt everything else in my life.
The bus rumbles to a halt in front of a post office. On the curb outside the window, a few people huddle in hats and heavy coats, the sunset lighting them in vermillion. It’s cold, not yet snowy. In a couple of weeks, plowed piles of dirty snow will line every curb.
The doors open with a hiss and a thud. The first passenger on is a girl who’s probably about my age. She’s cute, I can’t help noticing, with purple lipstick and an Elliott Smith shirt. When she tugs off her beanie, curly black hair spills onto her shoulders. She’s the kind of girl who makes me painfully conscious of what a pale redheaded nobody I am.
I could invite her to sit, but I probably won’t. I tend to keep to myself in cafeterias and classrooms, content with the close friends I’ve had for years. Going out of my way to chat with random girls on public transportation isn’t quite my style. Even if I occasionally think about doing exactly that.
She catches my eye, and a small smile springs to her aubergine lips. I hesitate.
Fuck me. A cute girl notices me and I hesitate. Lewis would say this is why I’ve never had a girlfriend. Part of me wants to move my folder and offer her the seat. It’s just, then she might notice the BU brochure poking out of the folder, and then she might want to talk about college. And then I’d have to explain why I’m not going to any of the colleges on this diligently prepared itinerary. Thispunctiliously prepared itinerary. Or she might want to tell me how great her boyfriend is, and how he plays lead guitar in a band, benches three hundred, and could have his pick of girls but chose her, and then we’d be inthat conversation.
Whatever. I reach for my folder nevertheless—but she’s already walking past my row. I place the folder back on the seat, and in that moment, it feels like I’m destined for a lifetime of putting folders back on empty seats next to mine. The bus doors close, and we veer away from the curb.
In the cool plexiglass of the window, I catch my reflection watching me despondently. I wonder if I’m the kind of guy Beanie Girl would go for. My red hair, pale freckled skin, blue eyes set in a narrow face—I don’t think I’m bad looking, but I’m not exactly magazine-cover material.
In my pocket, my phone vibrates. I reach for it with a quickness that’s become instinct, but it’s only Lewis.
Room 2303 when you get here. It’s open. Will meet you when I’m out of my exam.
Without replying, I shove my phone back into my jacket pocket. The bus pulls up to the next stop, the one I’ve been waiting for. I grab my things and get off.
The cold bites my nose the moment my feet hit the pavement, the familiarity of this specific street corner enveloping me reassuringly. Tugging my coat tighter, I swiftly walk a block down, then turn the corner. It’s a ten-minute trip through the neighborhood I’ve known my entire life, past the library and the elementary school. Finally, I walk up to my door, fumble for the keys in my pocket, and, with a deep breath, step inside.
I’d know the smell of home no matter what. It’s the rosy warmth of hardwood floorboards in the winter, combined with whatever Mom’s cooking. Right now, it’s eggplant Parmesan. I pause in the doorway.
Off to my right, Mom’s seated at the kitchen table, exactly where I left her two hours ago, reading her anthology of American literature. Her head springs up in surprise. Recognition settles on her features, until it’s replaced by a disappointment she attempts to smother, not quite succeeding. With gentle bemusement in her voice, she says, “You’re home.”
“I am,” I reply.
“You’re supposed to be in South Station,” she says.
I take a deep breath, as if extra oxygen is all I need to convince my mom against this plan. “I got off the bus an hour in, and then I . . . I bought a ticket back with my own money. I’ve thought about this—”
But she talks over me. “Fitzgerald Holton, you’re impossible. I’ve booked your hotels. Your brother is packed and waiting for you. You’re not bowing out of this trip. It’s happening.”
“But what if—”
“Everything is fine,” she says, placing undeniable emphasis on fine and closing the heavy cover on the anthology she was reading. She gets up from the table and pushes in the worn wooden chair. “Everything willbe fine. You have nothing to worry about.”
I have everything to worry about. “I have a French quiz on Tuesday,” I say instead. “And—I’m going to be really behind if I’m out the entire week.”
“You’ll make up the quiz,” she replies, “and we both know you’ll mostly be missing movies in class and free study time.”
I say nothing. She watches me for a moment.
“It’s ten days,” she continues, her voice softening. “I’ll be okay on my own for ten days.”
I want to point out it’s not only ten days. It’s four years. If Lewis’s experience is any indication, it’s four years, each increasingly disconnected from home. She might not need me now, but she will soon. I hold the comment in, though. I promised myself I’d never throw her situation in her face.
“I know change is hard,” she says, “but give this a chance. You can’t make me your excuse not to.”
She’s not an excuse. She’s a reason, a very good one. But pointing that out would only put us on the road to an argument we’ve had enough times to know neither of us will ever win.
She continues. “You’re really going to make your poor mother—who has three dissertation drafts to read—escortyou personally to your brother’s doorstep? Because I will, you know.” The corners of her mouth tug up. “Remember your eighth-grade field trip?”
I can’t hide a smile of my own. I’d tried to stay home instead of going on a history class trip to the Paul Revere House. It was my first overnight field trip, and I wasn’t interested in sharing a hotel room with three guys I barely knew. But when Mom came home and found me playing video games, she promptly drove me into Boston and deposited me with my teacher with strict orders not to permit me to leave under any circumstances. Even if it was horribly embarrassing, the effort she went to was kind of funny.
She catches my smile, and it’s clear she wins this one. I don’t enjoy arguing with her, and the tripwill only be a week and a half. For all her talk of dragging me onto buses, she can’t actually force me to choose a college I don’t want to. The least I can do is give her trip a chance. “No . . .” I huff. “I won’t make my poorand very obstinate mother take me into Boston. I’ll absquatulate to South Station on my own,” I say, hoping she’ll enjoy the word choice.
Sure enough, she raises an eyebrow. “Absquatulate?”
“To make off with, humorously.”
“I swear, Fitzgerald, I’m a professor of the English language, and I don’t know half the words rattling around in that head of yours.” She walks to the doorway and straightens my coat.
I can’t help it. The nerves set in. I know she notices the change in my expression, because she places her hands on my shoulders and looks into my eyes.
“Everything will be fine,” she repeats. From the sharpness in her gaze, I’m almost convinced. “You deserve a chance to know what’s out there. If you hate it, I promise, I won’t force you to go somewhere you don’t want to be. If after everything, you still feel SNHU is the best school for you, I’ll proudly send in your enrollment fee. I know it’s a great college—Ihave been teaching there for twenty years. I just want to know you’re choosing it too.”
I place my hand on the door handle behind me. “Rememberyou said that when I get back and I’m still set on SNHU. I know what I want.”
Mom folds her arms. “Just humor me,” she says, sounding a little amused.
Two hours later, I’m in South Station.
“This is a terrible idea.”
I hear Tía Sofi in the kitchen as I’m walking toward the stairs. Her voice is brassy, like a trumpet in a parade for which she’s the bandleader and every other member. I vent a breath out through my nose, knowing I’m not escaping this conversation. In fact, I might be having this conversation for the rest of my life.
I turn around, preparing to repeat myself for the thirty-fourth time (not exaggerating), and head for Tía.
The kitchen is like every room in the house, dense with inescapable reminders of every Ramírez who’s ever lived under its roof. There’s turquoise stenciling where the soft yellow walls touch the ceiling, hand-painted by my cousin Isabel, who teaches art at the community college in town. My brothers’ homework clutters the desk my abuelo built with wood from his grandparents’ home. The wide window over the counter lets sunlight leap in and land on the faded photograph of the first Ramírez who came here from the city of Guadalajara, four generations ago, hanging in its heavy frame beside the window.
Tía, wearing an expression of consternation, cups a ceramic blue mug in her hands at the kitchen table. The scene is unbearably familiar, right down to Tía’s posture and the tinny classical guitar coming from the radio I’ve given up begging my parents to replace.
I cross the room, shutting off the music and then turning to face Tía, who’s watching me expectantly. Even though I call her Tía, she’s really mygreat-aunt. She’s sixty-six and never married or had children of her own, so she’s been like a third grandmother to my brothers and sisters and me. Which means one more source of worry about whether I’m eating enough, where I’m going to college, and, of course, how sex is forbidden until I’m forty.
I walk up to her, waiting for the memories to come. Every time Tía’s wrung her wrinkled hands while watching me from this very table or compulsively checked whether her charcoal hair is contained in the tight bun on top of her head.
I know exactly what Tía’s going to say. Whenever we’ve had this conversation, she introduces the topic without changing a word. Only when we get into the thick of it and she starts anticipating what I’m going to say do the variations emerge. It’s like she’s writing a novel or a play, rewriting drafts of this scene until she gets it perfect.
Today, I’m not playing. I preempt her. “Did you take my college binder?” I ask brusquely. Tía blinks, thrown, while I search the counter and the table for signs of my heavy three-ring binder. I know exactly where I left it—next to my suitcase on my bed. When I got home after running the student government ice cream stand to celebrate the official start of winter break, the binder was gone.
“No, chiquita, I haven’t seen it.” She grimaces, worry lines creasing her forehead. “This trip, I don’t think you should go.”
I grit my teeth. That only took Tía two seconds. Now it’s just a matter of getting away quickly. “I have to visit the schools sometime.” I sigh, circling the table and quicklysearching the counters. Hoping for signs of my binder, I glance into the living room. “One of them will be my home for the next four years.”
I don’t need to look at Tía to know her expression has soured. “This is your home, Juniper.Those are schools.”
“What, then, you’d rather I just not go to college?” I challenge.
Tía’s face tightens. “Of course you’re going to college. We live close to some of the finest colleges in the country. Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, UMass Amherst, and—”
“—Mount Holyoke. I know.” The day Tía found my Fiske Guide to Colleges and discovered we lived thirty minutes from the Five College Consortium, my life got way harder. I wander to the couch in the living room and begin rummaging through piles of my siblings’ homework, everything from coloring to calculus. I hear Tía get up slowly from her chair, her slippered feet following me into the living room. Right then and there, I take a small, selective vow of silence. I’m done trying to convince her. She’ll never understand. All I need to do is find my binder and get out the door.
“Never mind that,” Tía says gently behind me. “A road trip like this? What will you even eat?” I blink and round on Tía, incredulous. This is an argumentative reach, even for her. My vow of silence flies out the window.
“There are a thousand restaurants between Boston and Virginia. We’re not going to starve, Tía.”
She shakes her head, her frown deepening like I’ve committed some grave sin. “Take some tamales.”
I laugh despite myself. Memories of tamale birthdays and Christmases waft from my subconscious to my nose, the smell of masa, chicken cooking, and steaming chili. “Tía, I can’t just bring tamales on a road trip.”
Before Tía has the chance to refute me with what will undoubtedly be a well-reasoned defense of bringing tamales on road trips, my mother walks in wearing the harried expression she’s never been without since my brothers were born. Coffee in one hand, she’s vainly trying to pull her straight blonde hair into a ponytail with the other. I seize my chance. “Mom, have you seen my college binder?”
“It’s entirely possible, but I can’t even remember if I changed my underwear this morning, so I’m not much help.” I watch her eyes run over the room, looking for stuff out of place or things she needs, and I can practically read the to-do lists forming behind her blue eyes.
I didn’t get those blue eyes from my mom, whose fair skin looks even paler behind the dusting of freckles I did inherit. I resemble my dad more, with my darker complexion and thick, wavy tresses. It’s my younger brothers who ended up with Mom’s delicate features and light hair.
Right on cue—like the mere thought of them summoned their presence—a double-voiced chorus of “Mom!” rings outfrom the back of the house. I wonder with a twinge of worry what Xan and Walker have gotten into now, remembering the time they had a water-balloon fight in my parents’ bedroom, or when they bathed our cat, Malfoy, in the toilet bowl, or both times they tried to cook macaroni in the toaster. With a seven- and ten-year-old brother who incite whatever mischief they can, nothing is out of the question. From the way my mother’s head whirls, I know she’s imagining similar possibilities.
“Did you talk to Rob about opening early on Monday?” Tía asks, bringing Mom’s attention back to the kitchen. I guess no one’s safe from her interrogations this morning.
Mom grimaces. “No, I forgot. I can’t imagine how,” she says, sharing a wry look with me. “I’ll do it tomorrow, first thing.”
Mom and Tía run a restaurant together. Dad cooks, while Mom does the books and Tía oversees the rest. Rosalita’s is the only place to get authentic Mexican food in the city. It’s sort ofa local sensation, whatever that means in midsized Springfield, Massachusetts. When it was featured on an Eater.com list, my parents were beside themselves. Tía, too, once we explained to her what blogs were. I used to do homework in the restaurant’s expansive sunken dining room when I was in elementary and middle school, before I had calc and chemistry and AP US History and real studying. There were days I could hardly concentrate with the clatter of the kitchen and the heavenly smells of homemade tortillas and machaca. Tía and her sister, Rosalita, my grandmother, opened the place nearly forty years ago. Mom and Dad filled in when—
I shut off my thoughts, not wanting to dwell on that.
“Why don’t you help your mother remember a couple things around the house?” Tía asks me. “It’d be a better use of that memory of yours.”
“Better than my perfect grades?” I snap back. While I do have an exceptional memory—good enough to ace every one of Mrs. Karis’s infamous AP European History exams and never forget friends’ birthdays—Tía only thinks it’s useful when it helps the family. But I catch Tía giving me a stern look and regret my sarcasm. “Of course, Tía,” I amend, looking imploringly at my mom, hoping she’ll jump in and save me.
She doesn’t, her expression distant and distracted. It’s a familiar response. I’m decently close with my mom, close enough to have semi-regular Disney movie nights just us two. But my mother divides her time and focus evenly among her six kids. My dad, on the other hand, plays favorites, to my obvious benefit.
“Now, your trip,” Tía prompts. She turns her skeptical eyes on Mom. “I don’t know why you’re letting her go alone with a boy.”
I roll my eyes, hoping neither of them notices.
“You know Matt’s responsible, Sofi. Gabriel and I trust him. And we trust Juniper,” Mom replies, giving me a small smile, but I hear thedon’t prove me wrong behind her confidence. I return the smile reassuringly. “Besides, we’ve worked it out with Matt’s parents to give them money forseparate hotel rooms.”
Even though she’s emphasized this every chance she gets, I hold my tongue and keep from rolling my eyes this time.
“It’s not about the hotel rooms,” Tía protests. “She’s too young to spend so much time with a boyfriend. You know what happened when Luisa took up with what’s-his-name.”
His name was Chris. And by “took up with,” Tía’s referring to how Luisa ditched her high school graduation so she could road trip to California with her boyfriend, which, for the record, I thought was badass. But of course, in my family, I’m bound and restricted by whatever has happened to everyone who shares my last name.
“This is our call, Sofi,” my mom replies firmly. “We’re her parents.”
Tía frowns. “Well, this trip could wait until you, her parents, could go with her. Instead of some boy—”
“Some boy?” I interrupt. “You know his name is Matt. Remember,Matt, who helped you rearrange the furniture in your bedroom and drove you to urgent care when you caught pinkeye from Anabel?”
“I did not,” Tía says, “catch pinkeye.”
Mom cuts me off before I can correct Tía in irrefutable detail. “We postponed this trip once,” she reminds Tía, which is true. Matt and I were going to go during Thanksgivingbreak until Tía convinced my parents not to let me skip school. “Juniper and Matt will be fine.”
Before Tía responds, there’s a heavy bang down the hall, followed by exuberant shouting. My mom briefly closes her eyes, and I wonder where she goes. Probably a tranquil valley between mountains, or a beautiful waterfall in the heart of a canyon. She opens her eyes again and gives me an apologetic look before darting from the room to stop Xan and Walker from causing any further damage.
Tía eyes me, no doubt eager to continue the argument. It’s not the first time she and my parents have clashed in a small-scale parenting power struggle. Tía’s opinions and preferences carry weight in this household because she helps my parents, who both work full-time, handle their six children. When conflicts sprout, watered by guilt trips and stubbornness, and branch into towering trees of resentment, my parents are often too busy to chop them down, and their shadows cast darkly over everything.
“I have to go,” I tell Tía. “I’m not missing school this time.” It’s only possible because my school purposefully gives three weeks of winter break to allow seniors time to finish college applications. “This is my only chance before college applications are due on New Year’s.”
“I don’t understand why applications require spending nights unsupervised with your boyfriend,” Tía replies with frustrating patience.
I should go scour every corner of the house and under the floorboards for my college binder. Yet there’s a part of me that wants to win Tía’s approval, even her support. She’s the grandmother I have, whether or not she’s my actual grandmother, and honestly, we don’t have much in common outside of family. Tía speaks Spanish with friends and relatives. I don’t. Tía goes to church every weekend. I only go for Christmas and Easter. Tía worries about every member of the family every minute of every day. I really, really don’t.
Despite our differences, I want her to understand me. To want what I want, to respect what I choose. It’s that part of me that pulls me to reply.
“When I’m in college next year, I could be spending all my time with boys and you wouldn’t even know,” I say.
She fixes me with a faraway look. When she speaks, her voice is hard and gentle, like sculpted stone. “Next year is next year,” she says.
I eye her uncertainly, my brows furrowing. Tía’s never been one for riddles. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask.
“Next year you’ll be eighteen.”
“I’m practically eighteen now.”
“Seventeen is not eighteen, Juniper,” she pronounces, like this mathematical declaration carries infinite weight. “When you’re eighteen, you get to make these choices for yourself.”
I feel the color rise in my cheeks. “I’m old enough to make choices now.” We watch each other confrontationally for a long moment.
Finally, she speaks, her voice settling decisively. “Separate hotel rooms . . . and you’ll take the tamales.”
I scoff, because that’s the best I’m ever going to get with Tía. “I won’t take the tamales!” I call over my shoulder as I leave the living room and head for the stairs.
“Juniper Ramírez,” I hear behind me, “you’re not getting out of this one.”
Upstairs, I escape into my bedroom, the only place where I have an ounce of privacy, despite sharing the room with my sixteen-year-old sister. Marisa is nowhere to be found, probably with her friends or the boyfriend she’s doing a terrible job hiding from the family.
I hunt for the binder in desk drawers of student government flyers and physics homework, though I know I won’t find it. I would have remembered leaving it in my desk. I don’t even venture over to Marisa’s half of the room, which is explosively untidy. She could be hiding the bodies of her enemies or a pet Komodo dragon under her laundry piles, and I would have no idea. I do know she didn’t take my college binder. She’s the only other person in this house eager for me to go to college. She showed me a Pinterest board of her plans for my half of the room. It was . . . overwhelmingly pink.
Right now my side is not pink. It’s cluttered but organized, with certificates and photos and watercolors tacked to the bulletin board next to my towering bookcases. I coulddraw every detail from memory. The collection of Nancy Drew books on my bookshelf, the photos of my friend Carolyn and me ice-skating in sixth grade, the Keira KnightleyPride & Prejudice poster over the bed—each a thread tying me to a time and place. The bedroom was my dad’s when he was my age, and he’s pointed out to me and Marisa the hole where he nailed his high school baseball medal to the wall.
I love home, I do. I love my bedroom and my family. It’s just, there’s a point where the changelessness of everything becomes enveloping instead of encouraging. There’s a claustrophobia in comfort. The threads become a web, confining the person I want to be to the person I was.
I check again around my suitcase for my binder, but it’s not there. In case it fell off the bed or something, I drop to my knees on the carpet and begin searching the floor.
Something’s out of place. On the floor is my box of old Halloween costume components—Disney tiaras and cat ears and a Ravenclaw robe. It should be sitting on the top shelf of my closet. I spring up from the floor and in two quick paces cross my half of the room to the closet, heart pounding. I check the shelf.
The space behind the costume box is empty.
Without hesitation, I’m bounding into the hall, little bombs of anger bursting behind my eyes. I throw open Callie and Anabel’s door and find my younger sisters on the floor next to their bunk beds. They’re giggling.
“You went through my things?” I demand from the doorway.
Anabel jumps up. Callie twists to face me, caught red-handed. On the floor in front of them is the shoebox I keep in my closet, behind the costumes, expressly hidden from my eight- and thirteen-year-old sisters.
“That stuff is private,” I continue. “You’re not even supposed to go in my room without me or Marisa there.”
The box holds the items most precious to me, and most private. Because with five younger siblings, my parents, and Tía in the house, I’ve come to expect prying eyes on everything. But there are things I don’t want examined and interrogated. And right now, they’re strewn across my sisters’ floor—a scarf Abuela never finished knitting, a dried flower from our apartment in Brooklyn, a letter from Carolyn after she moved to Ohio sophomore year.
In Callie’s hands is my yearbook from last year, open to Matt’s page-long signature. Anabel drops a red marker onto the floor. It’s painfully obvious what was happening here—Callie was reading my private messages while Anabel was coloring on the pages. Coloring.
Tears well in my eyes. The day Matt returned the signed yearbook to me, I was sitting in the wicker chair on the porch readingAnna Karenina. “If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content” is the exact line I’d just read when I glanced up to find Matt walking up the driveway, yearbook in hand and a grin forming that perfect dimple on the left side of his face.
He wore his light gray T-shirt and those scuffed Adidas he’d had since freshman year until I finally prevailed on him a few months ago to get a new pair. Even easygoing, confident Matt’s cheeks had reddened when he handed me the yearbook, which he’d worked on the whole weekend. I read it right then and there, feeling like I’d never be that happy ever again.
It was the first time he said he loved me.
I snatch the yearbook from Callie’s hands. “This isn’t okay, you guys. You can’t just take people’s things and wreck them,” I say, hearing the waver in my voice.
Callie crosses her arms, unperturbed. “Did you have sex with Matt?” she asks.
I’ve learned to recognize the attitude she’s putting on. This is her “teenager” demeanor. I first noticed it—without realizing how prevalent it would become in my life—just days after her thirteenth birthday, when Mom offered to have Callie’s friends over for board games and cupcakes. Callie only rolled her eyes like she was too old for such childish things.
“If you tell on us for going in your room,” Callie says, her voice sharp and bossy, “I’ll tell Mom about the ‘life-changing’ night you and Matt had after prom. He wroteall about it.”
I feel flowers of fury and embarrassment unfurl in my cheeks. Without a word for Callie, I collect the other items my sisters have littered on their floor. Anabel watches withconcern and curiosity. It’s just like Callie to drop the S-E-X word with her eight-year-old sister listening. “Touch my things again,” I warn once I’ve returned everything to the box, “and I won’t drive you to the winter carnival.” Callie’s face falls. “In fact, I won’t drive you anywhere. Ever again.”
It’s an empty threat, not that my little sisters know that. Tía and my parents are always forcing me to drive mysiblings places. I’m the only one with a license—Marisa’s failed hertest twice—and since I’m the oldest, the extra parenting inevitably falls to me. Even with Tía helping out, there’s plenty left over. Playdates of Anabel’s to supervise and pre-algebra problems to correct on Callie’s homework. I’m needed to catch whatever falls through the cracks.
After storming out of their room and into mine, I grab my suitcase from the bed and head for the stairs. I carry the box in my other hand. There’s no way I’m trusting my family with it while I’m gone. With incredible fortune, I dodge Tía as I book it to the front door and into the evening cold.
I don’t like the cold. I don’t like the memories that come with watching those little billows of breath in the air. Or the perpetual gray of the sky, or the way winter turns everyone’s yards brown. Fall is my favorite, not only because of school starting, but for the way the tree in front of our porch bursts into flame. The leaves have long fallen now, and only dried husks remain in the hedge from the door to the driveway.
Dad, in his Yankees sweatshirt, is standing next to the car, opening the passenger door. He’s holding—my college binder. I’m comforted by the very sight of the turquoise plastic and the perfectly hole-punched pages between the covers. Pages containing the details of the coming week, the seven days I’ll spend driving to the University of Virginia, with stops in Boston, Providence, New Haven, New York, and D.C. on the way. I could have easily spent two weeks on this trip if it weren’t for the cost of hotels and needing to be home in time for Matt’s mom Shanna’s birthday. I did my best to maximize schools and cities in the time we have.
Hearing me close the front door, Dad glances up, and his eyes find mine. He holds up the binder. “The girls were eyeing it. I figured it would be safer if I—” No doubt noticing my watering eyes, he places the binder in the back seat and closes the car door. “Go,” he says gently, knowing exactly what I need right now. “Before Tía comes out and finds you,” he adds with a wink.
I place the box on the roof of the car, then walk into his arms. The fabric of his sweatshirt is soft, and he smells like the mountain-scented deodorant Mom once said she liked and he’s worn ever since. I exhale into his chest. “Sometimes I feel like there isn’t enough room for me in that house, you know?”
He holds me closer. “For this mind”—he traces his thumb along my forehead—“there isn’t room enough in the whole world.”
I hug back, hard. I don’t know what I’d do if it weren’t for him.
Hearing footsteps, I pull away and find Matt coming up the driveway. His house is ten minutes from mine, and he walks over here often for movie nights and family dinners. I feel the familiar flutter in my heart I get whenever I’m with him. He’s tall, with broad shoulders from baseball, sandy hair, and a chin Michelangelo would’ve given his left hand to carve. His smile is wide enough to fit the universe.
He’s carrying a duffel bag, and he waves to me and my dad. “I was serious about you getting out of here,” Dad says. “Sofi’s on the warpath. Don’t worry, I’ll cover for you.” He winks again and walks forward to meet Matt. “Don’t do any stupid shit on this trip, got it?” he says, shaking my boyfriend’s hand.
Matt swallows. “Of course, sir.”
Dad claps him on the shoulder. My dad and Matt have a relationship of their own born of baseball andDie Hard movies, even if Dad likes to pull his “intimidating father” act every now and again. “Tell Mom bye for me,” I say, opening the rear door while the guys load the luggage into the trunk.
Instantly, I’m hit with an unmistakable smell, the smell of every Christmas since we moved to Springfield. Memories of Abuela blindside me until I push them away. I notice a foil-covered platter on the back seat.
“Tía,” I groan.
I stow the box on the floor behind the driver’s seat and close the door, waving to my dad as I get into the front. Matt gets in the passenger seat, and we pull out of the driveway.
“Whoa,” Matt says, eager curiosity crossing his perfect features. “What’s that smell?”
I nod to the back seat. “Tía’s stubbornness. Also known as tamales.”
Matt reaches between our seats and pulls out the platter. He opens the glove compartment where—of course—he finds a plastic fork. I roll my eyes. Tía’s thought of everything. Matt takes a bite of tamale and groans in ecstasy. “Oh my god,” he moans through a mouthful, “I love your family. When can I marry into them again?” he asks casually, giving me a sideways look.
I feel my eyes widen. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
Matt shrugs. “Seventy percent,” he says.
I shake my head, silently scolding. Yet I can’t help stealing a glance in his direction. He’s wearing his Springfield High baseball T-shirt. I remember how, when they went to the state playoffs, the whole team threw a huge house party. But even though he was co-captain, Matt told me he wanted to celebrate by going to get ice cream with me.
The best thing about Matt isn’t his smile or his shoulders (a close second). It’s the way our memories make me feel. They make me feel likeme.
I nod at the plate of tamales. “I’m relying on you to finish them before we get to Boston.”
Matt raises his fork like a conquering hero on a hilltop. “Challenge accepted.” I feel his eyes on me from the passenger seat. “Hey, it’s pretty cool, isn’t it?” he continues, his voice gentler. “This is really happening. We’re really going.”
I fix my eyes on the road, on the future, on places where I won’t be constrained by the expectations of my family. Where I’ll have the distance to discover whoI want to be.
On the MBTA bus to Boston University, I text Mom.
Tell me where you and Dad met?
I get the reply I was expecting.
Fitzgerald . . .
I wait. A couple of moments later, the typing bubble appears, and then her reply.
We were both doing our postdocs. He was studying French literature, and I was focusing on American. I was coming up the steps of the university’s administration building, carrying a cup of coffee, and he was coming down the steps. I ran right into him, dumping the entire contents of my coffee down the front of his shirt. He opened his mouth to yell and instead asked me to dinner.
It was an epic move on Dad’s part, honestly. He could give classes in Advanced Getting-Spilled-On. I’ve heard the story before, but that wasn’t the point. I send her a “thanks” and put my headphones in. With the Shins playing, I watch out the window. Boston’s a nice city, even though I have no intention of coming here for college. People bustle on every corner. In the gaps between streets of coffee shops and Chinese restaurants, I catch glimpses of the Charles River, a frozen sheet spanned by stone bridges. Every sidewalk is coated in exhaust, a newspaper bin on each corner.
I thought I understood why Lewis decided to go to Boston, even though he never talked about college with me. He’s interested in finance, and Boston is a hub for consulting and banking, and yada yada yada. Once Lewis had started at BU, I was convinced he chose Boston because he remembered the days Dad would bring us into the city for Italian food and cannoli in the North End.
Until Lewis’s calls home became less and less frequent. Until Dad asked one Christmas if Lewis ever went to Mike’s for cannoli, and Lewis didn’t remember the place, or pretended not to. Dad’s pretty hard to offend, but I caught the hurt in his eyes then. I decided I must have been wrong—it was dumb to guess Lewis chose a college for family.
I get out when I reach my stop, then walk the blocks between Boston University buildings toward the towers on the riverbank. Lewis lives in a building called StuVi2. While I walk, I watch people on the street, students spilling out of university dorms and lecture halls. I wonder what they’re doing, what they’re passionate about. What they worry about. I watch a group of guys in coats and ties come out of a brick building and cross the street toward an Indian restaurant. I wonder if one of them will collide with a fellow postdoc holding a cup of coffee.
When I reach the curb in front of what my phone tells me is StuVi2, I double-check the directions. This couldn’tpossibly be right. The building on the riverbank would fit right into downtown Boston or New York or Chicago. It’s a modern high-rise, twenty floors or more—a conservative estimate. Walls of brick and window soar into the night sky. It’s nothing like the college dorms I’ve found while halfheartedly paging through pamphlets Mom leaves on my desk. It’s definitely a far cry from my two-story home in New Hampshire.
I walk in with a group of students. In the lobby I pause, watching kids in BU sweatshirts studying in the chairs and couches in the common area. For a moment, I imagine myself in one of those chairs, or in one of the groups laughing by the elevators, before the thought is gone.
I ride the elevator to the twenty-third floor, confirming I wasn’t far off in my estimate. The doors ping open onto a carpeted and well-lit hallway. I’ve known that Dad pays for Lewis’s dorm and a good portion of his tuition—I didn’t know he’d sprung for this. I’ve hardly ever stayed in hotels this nice, not that I’m some experienced traveler. With mom’s single-parent salary from the university, we’ve only gone out of town once or twice in the past few years. In Maine, I liked the scenery but discovered I couldn’t keep lobster down. In New York, Lewis was busted for trying to push a penny over the edge of the Empire State Building. I don’t love family trips.
I step into the hall, my fingers reflexively finding my phone in my pocket. It’s instinct to worry how Mom’s doing, even though I only texted her twenty minutes ago. It’d be different if she weren’t on her own in the house, if she and my dad hadn’t divorced. But he decided to pack up for Canada when Lewis was in high school, before Mom took the test. The test that changed our lives forever.
Forcing my nerves to calm, I knock on the door of room 2303. I’m guessing Lewis is back now. It ended up taking three hours to get from Tilton to Boston and onto the MBTA bus, not counting the delay of returning home after my original departure. I don’t think college exams extend this late into the evening, though I guess I’d have no idea if they did.
The door opens. Instead of Lewis or one of his roommates, it’s a girl.
Wearing nothing but an oversized T-shirt.
I blink. I know I’m blushing, and for a moment I wonder if I went to the wrong room. Or if I dozed off before my bus careened into the river, and heaven is a Boston University dorm populated with hot girls.
“You’re not Becky,” she says, betraying no consciousness of the series of complex emotions sending my blood roaring in my ears. “You didn’t happen to see a short blonde girl with a physics book, did you? I am seriously screwed for the exam if—” She stops, something like recognition entering her eyes. “Fitz?”
None of the unique words in my vocabulary is helping me form a coherent sentence. Now I feel like the girl definitely notices, because her lips begin to curve upward. Her criminally pouty lips. I might be socially inept, but I’m not blind. And I am a teenage boy. I force my eyes not to glance down to her smooth brown thighs peeking out from under the shirt’s hem.
Instead, I focus on her face and realize she looks familiar. I know her from Lewis’s Instagram. It’s the purple-stone nose piercing that helps me make the connection. Hers is the face in the selfie from Lewis’s summer trip to Miami and in the photo from a couple months ago Lewis captioned, “Regatta.”
“Wait,” I hear myself say before I’ve thought it through, “you’re Lewis’s ex.” For a horrible moment, I wonder if she’s gotten with one of his roommates in the weeks since Lewis called home and mentioned the breakup.
The girl only laughs, throwing her long black hair behind her back. It’s as stupidly perfect a laugh as everything about her. She’s objectively gorgeous, with her black nail polish, her wrist tattoo, the stone in her piercing glittering in the light.
“Did Lewis tell you we broke up?” she asks. She speaks with the hint of an Indian accent, unlike Lewis, who was adopted from Bengaluru before he could talk. When he got to college, he got involved in Indian and South Asian clubs and organizations, or so I gathered from his Facebook. I think he mentioned Prisha running one of them.
I open my mouth, unsure what to say.
“To be fair, we did break up,” I hear my brother’s voice from inside. The girl opens the door wider, revealing Lewis walking into the room. He’s wearing only jeans and pulling a T-shirt over his head. I flush when I realize what I obviously just interrupted, feeling very much like the younger brother.
The girl walks into the room Lewis just came out of and returns with a pair of leggings. I try not to watch her pull them up. “Then weun-broke up,” she says. “I know it’s only for a couple more months, but you could have told your brother we’re still together,Lewis.” She playfully swats him.
“Fine.” Lewis sighs. “Fitz, this is Prisha, my girlfriend until spring break. Prisha, this is my brother, Fitzgerald. Happy now?”
Prisha gives Lewis a quick kiss on the cheek on her way to the door. “Very. Have a good trip, you two. Fitz, college is great. What I learned when I visited BU was to hang out with the students. Stay away from anywhere you find guys like Lewis.” She winks at him, steps into a pair of boots, and walks—sashays, really—out the door.
Lewis nods in my direction. “Come on in. I have to send a couple of emails before dinner.” He waves me in. I’m shocked he waited this late to eat with me. I wonder if he got pressured by Mom, or maybe nine p.m. is a perfectly normal time to have dinner in college. Realistically, he was probably too distracted by Prisha to notice the hour.
I follow and can’t help pausing to admire the room. It’s like an apartment—a nice, well-furnished apartment, with colorful chairs and a wooden coffee table overlooking the nearly floor-to-ceiling window opposite the door. There’s even a kitchen table, and on the TV stand sits the widescreen Dad bought Lewis when he began his freshman year. Lewis and his three roommates, of course, have done their best to worsen their living conditions. Beer bottles line the windowsills. Open on the coffee table is a jar of peanut butter with a knife stuck inside. The room smells like socks and sweat.
But nothing can detract from the view. Right out the window, the frozen river winds through the city, with trees on both banks and a small bridge reaching between them. In the distance, the Boston skyline glitters brightly. The glow reflects dimly on the ice of the Charles.
It takes my breath away.
Lewis sits down at the kitchen table and opens his laptop. I notice stickers for Khatarnak and India Club on the case. Since going to college, he’s been learning about and embracinghis cultural heritage. It’s a reminder of how, while we’re both adopted, I can never completely understand his experience of being adopted from Indian biological parents into a white American family.
“Good trip down?” he asks after a beat. We both know what happened on my way down—I’m certain Mom texted him the reason for the delay. He doesn’t glance up from his computer,and I don’t know if he’s consciously avoiding my eyes.
I know Lewis considers me not just a younger brother, but a baby brother. When he was going to parties in high school, I was reading and playing computer games. When hewas bringing girls home, I was reading and playing computer games. It’s not that I don’t have a life. I just don’t think Lewis thinks I have a life. Admittedly, I’m no future prom king, and I volunteer at the library every Friday and have B horror movie marathons with my friends. But while Lewis is planning spring break with his frat brothers,