Chapter 1: Willow – 1 – Willow
I don’t mean to be dramatic, but me floating facedown on a half-deflated pool float shaped like a piece of pizza feels like an apt representation of my current mental state.
Dramatic? Unmoored? A tiny bit ridiculous?
Yes, yes, and definitely yes.
I roll over onto my back—an act that takes considerable effort due to the deflated-pizza situation—and stare up into the sunshine. LA is not cooperating with this moment of angst. If anything, it’s more beautiful than normal. The sky is almost hyperpigmented blue, and my mom’s new fountain bubbles cheerfully from the lawn. I can hear her speaking to her team through the open window, and her voice is its usual calm timbre, which is one of her superpowers. Mary Haverford never breaks under pressure.
Except for last night? Our conversation had definitely cracked her otherwise impenetrable surface, and I’m still trying to figure out why.
It had all been going so well. I had my entire speech prepared. Even Bea said it was flawless. All I had to do was explain to my mom the many reasons why it would be a great idea to move in with Bea to complete my senior year at the international school where her dad teaches film part-time. The reasons were as follows: cultural experience, relatively affordable (because I have a built-in host family plus a tuition discount from Bea’s dad, it would actually cost less than my LA prep school), time with family, and an interesting experience to write about in college essays.
I thought I was batting a thousand.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it went completely off the rails. Was it when I uttered the words “senior year abroad”? Or was it “leaving home early”? Because she’d looked stunned. Stricken, almost. And then hurt. That was the part that surprised me the most, because I honestly thought she’d be relieved. With me in Paris, she could focus 100 percent of her time on her work as opposed to her regular 99 percent.
My mom and her business partner, Drew, have their entire staff assembled in our dining room for a meeting, and her voice floats from the open window. “A strong contingency plan is crucial for this event. There are a lot of moving parts, and I can’t risk damaging this relationship.”
She clearly isn’t worried about damaging our relationship. Why had my mom looked so petrified when I told her my idea? Is it because me going to Paris wasn’t her idea, and therefore she can’t micromanage it?
I look longingly toward the pool chair where my phone is perched. I want to talk all this through with Bea, but she is in an intensive ballet program this summer, practicing her arabesques and fouetté turns while being yelled at by a variety of terrifying ballet headmistresses. That means it will probably be another hour before I can expect to hear from her, and I am literally counting down the seconds.
Bea will know what to do. She always does. My pizza float bumps up against the wall and I push off with my feet, launching myself into the deep end. If I’m going to feel this adrift, I may as well be this adrift.
Mom’s voice again. “… we have to leave absolutely nothing to chance….”
I sigh and flop forward onto the pizza slice so my arms and legs can drag in the water. This is the problem. My mom has no tolerance for leaving things to chance, whereas I am in a constant state of wanting to take chances.
Last night had only highlighted the realization that had been creeping up on me for the past year or so. My mom and I are so different, we may as well be existing on separate continents, and no matter how much I want to pretend that isn’t painful, it is. A part of me had thought that once we arrived in LA, we’d build a mother-daughter relationship like the one Bea has with her mom, but two years in I only feel farther from her.
Maybe that’s part of my wanderlust. Once I’m out in the world, there will be a physical reason for the distance between my mom and me. Maybe then it won’t hurt so much?
I hear them before I see them. The back door of the house flies open and Drew’s son, Noah, and an unidentified number of Noah’s preteen friends all sprint out onto the pool deck. Ever since Mom installed the pool, Noah and his friends have been a permanent fixture in my life. They are obnoxious, loud, and wherever they go, the heady scent of Axe body spray follows.
I don’t even have time to take cover.
The boys catapult into the pool, and I immediately lose custody of the pizza float, which—okay. Fine. But before I can fully recover, one of them starts shooting me with a Super Soaker, and another does a backflip off the diving board, somehow managing to land directly on top of my head while another attempts to swipe my sunglasses.
“Argggh—Noah, call off your goons!” I yell, then I swim for my life, making my way to the side where my phone rests, and send a text to Bea as I pull myself out of the water. SOS.
Noah swims up next to me, churning his legs to keep his head above water. “Willow, did you get my text about going out with me on Friday?” He grins, showing off a glistening mouth of braces, and the hooligans closest to him break out into a series of hoots. I have to give him props for his bravery. And persistence. This is the third time he’s asked me out this month.
I sigh and set down my phone. “Noah, I’d be happy to go to the movie with you but not on a date. You’re twelve.”
Two soggy eyebrows go up, and he does his best to give me a suave look. “Thirteen next summer. You’re only three years older than me.”
You have to admire that kind of misplaced confidence. He goes to the same prep school as me, which means Drew is paying an astonishing amount of money for these lackluster math skills.
“You’re twelve and I’ll be seventeen in three weeks. We’re five years apart.” I try to keep my voice gentle—because rejection sucks no matter how old you are—but I’m beginning to lose patience.
“So I’ll take that as a maybe,” Noah says, flashing me a shiny braces-laden smile.
“You’ll take that as a no,” I say sternly. “You’re too young. Besides, I don’t even date people my age.”
He tilts his head to the side, smacking his left ear. “Why not?”
Because high school relationships are stupid, limiting, and distracting. Because I don’t believe in the whole Cinderella thing. Because why would I spend my time falling for someone when I plan to take off the moment I can?
I point to the deep end of the pool. “Could you look for my earring at the bottom? I think it fell off earlier.”
He takes the bait, splashing me in his rush. I throw a towel around myself and sink back into the lawn chair, settling my sunglasses over my eyes. The sun beats down on me as Mom’s words from last night pound my brain. Willow, now is not the time for travel. It’s time to get ready for college. Have you read through the college prep books I left on your dresser?
I did read the books. The problem is that none of them have any tips for what to do if the mere thought of one more year of awkward silences between you and your mother makes you feel like you’re sitting in the center of a hornet’s nest.
The situation got so critical that I made the desperate move of texting my dad for backup. But all he responded with was a heart emoji and a quick Talk soon.
Not holding my breath on that one. Although my dad is the one much more likely to be up for me taking the unconventional route, at the moment he is also up to his literal eyeballs in toddlers. Any offspring that is not attempting to swallow small objects at all hours of the day naturally gets pushed to the bottom of the list, and even when he does remember to call me, he’s so exhausted, he can barely form full sentences. Which I get. People obviously have lives.
My phone begins to ring, snapping me back to the pool, where the boys now appear to be engaging in ritualistic hazing. When I see the name on the screen, I sigh in relief. Finally. I hit answer on the video call. “Night, Bea.”
“Morning, Willow,” she says. As transcontinental best friends, it’s our customary greeting. She’s sitting on the balcony of her family’s apartment. Behind her is the city spread out so dark and glittery, it makes the edges of my heart ache.
For a moment I consider not telling her, but of course Bea, being Bea, immediately homes in on my actual mood. “What’s wrong with your face?” she demands.
“Nothing is wrong with my face,” I say, doing my best to not be offended. Bea can be very blunt. “This is the way it looks. How was ballet?”
“Willow, something’s wrong,” she insists. “Your eyes are squinty and you’re fake smiling. What is it? Is your dad not answering your calls again?”
This is literally the only thing I can’t stand about Bea. Anytime I try to hide The Feelings, she insists on dragging The Feelings out. My dad and his family are spending a month in Australia visiting Chloe’s grandmother, who is not doing very well. No, I was not invited. Yes, that’s completely fine. I mean, yes, I was supposed to spend most of my summer with them, and Melbourne is high on my list, but those tickets were expensive.
I shrug, trying my best to look nonchalant. “I haven’t been able to talk to him in like a week, but that’s because the time change threw them off. The real problem is that I’m being hit on by prepubescent boys.” Noah has given up on my nonexistent earring and is now attempting a backflip off the diving board.
Her right eyebrow manages to climb a fraction or two higher. “Willow?”
I exhale. “Fine. Mom and I talked last night. About our idea.”
“Ahh!” She lets out a little scream, then gets closer to the screen, her face a bright, beaming circle as she bounces excitedly. “La vache! Last night was the night, wasn’t it? No wonder you’re acting so coy with me, I forgot to ask how it went. What did she think? Did she think our idea was brilliant?”
I grip the phone a little tighter. “Well… that’s one way to put it.”
Bea completely misses my tone, taking off at a full gallop. “Mom and I have it all worked out. We’ll share a room, and you can drive to school with us. I leave school early every day for ballet, but you can take the bus home. You can spend Christmas with us, or maybe we’ll all go to spend time with your dad—”
“Bea,” I say, but she doesn’t notice. Once Bea gets going, momentum seems to take over.
“Applications are due in only a week, but if you need more time, my mom can get the principal to make an exception. You’ll need an essay and to send your transcript. Do you think you should come a week or two before? And are you okay with sharing a bedroom with me?”
My stomach is cannonballing like the preteens in the pool because Bea sounds as excited as I was and now I have to tell her the terrible news. “Bea!” My tone finally catches her attention. I take a deep breath. “Bea, she won’t let me go.”
Her mouth opens slightly. “What?”
“My mom said no.” My words hang heavy in the humid air.
“But why would she say no? It’s all planned. We’ve arranged everything.” When she’s impatient, her French accent gets a bit stronger.
My stomach is churning. I pull my knees into my chest, try to breathe. “She said I need to be focusing on college.”
“But… what does that have to do with anything? You can focus on college here.”
I hug my knees in tighter. “That’s what I told her.”
“And?” Bea says.
My miserable face must say it all.
“Merde,” she whispers. Her brows furrow, and we’re silent for a moment. “Do you want my mom to call yours? She might be able to give her another perspective. She loves it when her students have experience in other countries.”
Bea’s mom is a writing teacher at a small university in Paris, so in theory she might be of help, but after the force—nay, intensity—of my mom’s reaction last night, I know for a fact it will do nothing. My best option is to appeal to my dad, but how am I going to do that when I can’t even get him to call me back?
Before I can stop it, my eyes prickle with tears, which Bea of course notices. “Willow, it will be okay. Really. Maybe…”
Her expression falls and I’m instantly flooded with guilt. I hate the idea of my bad mood transferring to her, so I quickly shift gears. “Enough about me. How’s Julia?”
Julia is Bea’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, and I can typically count on bringing her up to wipe out whatever other topic I’m attempting to avoid. But not today.
“Willow, you can talk to me about tough things too, you know,” she says, her eyes big and insistent. “You don’t always have to pretend that everything is fine. I’m here for you.”
A puddle has formed around me, a slight breeze cooling my skin. Part of me wants to tell Bea the real reason I want to leave home early is the woman currently discussing the likelihood of rain at the charity event she’s hosting: “We’ll need all tents on hand. Plan B has to be flawless.”
Bea is watching me carefully now. “Willow… is there something else? Are you okay?”
As usual, she’s seen right to my center, and my throat goes tight. But explaining the giant mess that is my head to anyone, even Bea, feels impossible. I shut my eyes behind my sunglasses again and an image emerges of our old Brooklyn apartment, my mom, my dad, and me squished in the tiny breakfast nook arguing over Scrabble. The truth is, I haven’t felt grounded or settled or at home since the day my mom and I moved out. Which is ridiculous. I have a perfectly lovely home. Two of them. But I miss feeling at home.
I’ve tried to explain my need to travel to Bea, but every time I do, my words fall flat. I’ve read so many articles and blog posts by other people who experience intense wanderlust, the constant feeling of the world tugging them by the arm. But sometimes I wonder if what I’m feeling is in a different category entirely. It feels less like a desire than a need. Like if I don’t get out there and find my place, I’m going to drift out into nothingness, attached to no one and nothing. My breathing starts to quicken and I feel the rush of anxiety pressing down on me. I have to redirect myself. And Bea.
“I’m just really eager to get started traveling,” I mumble. It’s true, even if it isn’t the full truth. “Let’s talk later. I’m going to go run on my mom’s treadmill.” I’m already on my feet, itching to get my body moving. If I sit here with my thoughts for one more minute, I’m going to explode, and I definitely don’t want to take out my anxiety on Bea.
“Willow…,” Bea says, disapproval etched on her forehead.
“Excuse me, Willow?” The voice comes from directly above me, and I startle, blinking into the sun. It’s my mom’s assistant, Phoebe, a relatively new recruit handled to hire the burgeoning social media side of Mary Haverford Events. Like most of my mom’s employees, she’s adopted my mother’s daily uniform of crisp white blouse, tailored pants, and minimal jewelry. My mother doesn’t just hire employees, she hires devotees. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” Her voice has an air of urgency that makes my heart sink.
This is another part of my LA life I’d love to leave behind. I am regularly summoned.
“Got to run, Bea. Talk to you soon?”
“Very soon.” Bea gives me one last concerned look before blowing a kiss and hanging up.
I make my way to my feet. I’m still dripping, my arms and legs lined with goose bumps. “Hi, Phoebe. What’s up?” I ask, doing my best to hide the fact that I’m speaking around a lump in my throat.
“So sorry to interrupt you, Willow, but we just finished our staff meeting, and your mom would like a word. Inside.” She hesitates. “And, ah, it needs to happen right away.”
The last two words are heavy with meaning. Of course. My mom probably wants to follow up on last night’s conversation. A stupidly optimistic part of me had hoped that she’d let things go, let the issue marinate a bit before we dished it up again. But my mom is not one to let things go. She is ferocious and relentless and very, very in charge. In the words of her favorite poem, my mother never goes gentle into that good night.
She probably wants to make sure I’m not getting any more wild ideas.
Phoebe is blinking more than her usual amount. “Are you okay, Willow?”
My vision is tunneling again, anxiety filtering through my body at full speed. I’m a balloon. I’m a tumbleweed, uprooted and ready to go flying into the unknown. Luckily, I have a trick for this.
I don’t even have to look through my travel magazines anymore. All I have to do is focus, and there they are: postcards from my future. I see bright city streets and tiny fishing villages, cloud-shrouded mountains and peaceful beaches, all places my feet have never touched but that I know anyway. Those images feel engraved on my soul, my heart a blank passport book anxious to be filled. The desire to get out there and see it all is so visceral, I can practically hear it rushing in my ears.
Go go go.
Soon. All I have to do is survive one more year as an island, and then no one can stop me.
“Willow?” Phoebe prompts again. Her smile is brittle. She’s worried about disappointing my mom. “You okay?”
I take a deep breath and attempt a smile. “Completely okay. Thanks for asking.”