“A charming, tender, and hilarious debut you will want to get lost in.” —Gayle Forman, bestselling author of If I Stay and I Was Here
In this ode to all the things we gain and lose and gain again, seventeen-year-old Penelope Marx curates her own mini-museum to deal with all the heartbreaks of love, friendship, and growing up.
Welcome to the Museum of Heartbreak.
Well, actually, to Penelope Marx’s personal museum. The one she creates after coming face to face with the devastating, lonely-making butt-kicking phenomenon known as heartbreak.
Heartbreak comes in all forms: There’s Keats, the charmingly handsome new guy who couldn’t be more perfect for her. There’s possibly the worst person in the world, Cherisse, whose mission in life is to make Penelope miserable. There’s Penelope’s increasingly distant best friend Audrey. And then there’s Penelope’s other best friend, the equal-parts-infuriating-and-yet-somehow-amazing Eph, who has been all kinds of confusing lately.
But sometimes the biggest heartbreak of all is learning to let go of that wondrous time before you ever knew things could be broken…
ON THE FIRST DAY OF my junior year, in the first two minutes of open assembly, the most handsome boy I had ever seen in all my sixteen never-been-kissed years sat down and raised an eyebrow right at me.
He had gray-green eyes, cool like a round stone in your hand.
He was wearing a Catcher in the Rye T-shirt and a navy corduroy blazer with elbow patches.
He smelled like cinnamon.
If I could have conjured the perfect boy, I couldn’t have done better than this.
“Hey,” he said, tipping his head my way. “How are you liking it?”
Without thinking, I checked the seat next to me, but no, Eph was sprawled out, doodling intricately on the back cover of a notebook. I checked in front of me, but Audrey was talking to Cherisse, her back to us.
The boy was talking to me.
The boy with the thick eyebrows and the beautiful head of curly brown hair was talking to me.
“Ohhhh?” I said, and the sound came out like someone had stepped on a mouse, and I couldn’t help it, I was so flustered: I poked my finger at my chest. Me?
He nodded, a wry smile. “Yeah, you, Scout.”
My heart shot up and through my ribs to the tip of my tongue, paused for one breath, then plummeted back down even faster.
Like I’d stuck my finger in a socket.
Like I’d been hit by lightning.
Something inside me started, something with fierce, gnashing teeth and adrenaline and bone.
“How am I liking what?” I wiped my palms on my lap, willing myself to be cool, to calm down.
“Your comic book,” he said, pointing to the copy of Watchmen poking out of my bag. “Do you like it?”
The cute boy across the aisle was, for no apparent reason, striking up a conversation with me, and I had this giddy, fleeting thought: Wow, maybe it is finally happening. Also: Thank you, Baby Jesus, for making Eph lend me his copy of Watchmen.
And then I opened my mouth.
“Oh, the graphic novel? It’s not mine; my friend is loaning it to me. . . .” I nodded in Eph’s general direction, afraid to take my eyes off the boy. “Which is cool, because it’s a first edition and he’s a megafan, probably because he’s going to be a graphic artist someday. . . .” The beautiful boy gave an amused nod, so I pushed forward. “Have you read it? I haven’t finished it yet, but I saw the movie and it was all right, though Eph said the movie messed a lot of stuff up. . . .”
The boy started to say something, but words were haphazardly tumbling out of my mouth on top of his. “Though I have a hard time following the graphic novel stuff, like do I read the dialogue up to down or left to right . . .” I zoomed my hands in crazy directions like the comic was in front of me. “Or maybe it doesn’t matter—I don’t know? But I like reading so much.”
I stuttered to a stop because I had lost my breath, but also because the boy had this inscrutable look on his face that I could only imagine meant he was trying to figure out the nearest escape route without having to interact with me again.
I winced. “Oh God, I’m sorry.”
He shrugged. “I was only making conversation. . . .”
He was only making conversation. He was only trying to be polite.
My neck flushed hot, and a large part of me wanted to get up and scream, I am terrible at talking to boys! I am terrible at life! and then run away as far as I could, to some solitary research station at the North or South Pole (whichever one has penguins), where I would never have to interact with another human being for the rest of my life.
(Another part of me—one so very small—wanted desperately to rewind to a minute ago, before I opened my mouth, before I knew he was only being polite, when my heart was all hopeful and electric.)
“Sometimes I talk too much . . . ,” I started to explain right as Cherisse—one of my top ten least favorite people in the world (and that list included dictators and people who ran dog fights)—gasped: “Oh my God, Keats!”
The beautiful boy—Keats, evidently—flushed and raised his eyebrows. “Hey, Cherisse. I was wondering when I’d see you.”
He pushed his jacket sleeves up and leaned over to give Cherisse a cheek kiss, and I saw one red-and-white-striped sock peeking out from under his cords. The other was a navy blue one with giraffes on it.
Cherisse blushed and flicked her hair over her shoulder, playfully toying with the charm on her gold necklace, leaning close to Audrey, effectively using her back to block me from the conversation.
“Aud, this is the guy I was telling you about! His dad and my dad have known each other for forever.”
“Wow, that’s forever,” Audrey murmured politely, meeting my eyes and smiling apologetically.
I shrugged, looking back down at my notebook.
“I’ve known Keats since before we could even talk,” Cherisse continued, smiling coyly at him, and I felt disappointment settle over me like a weary sigh. Even if I hadn’t blown it with my epic monologue on Watchmen, if Cherisse and her shiny hair and smooth conversational skills were in the picture, I didn’t stand a chance.
Cherisse pointed at Audrey. “Keats, this is my bestie, Audrey. You will love her.”
I wanted to say, Audrey’s my best friend, but I wasn’t seven years old, so I bit down on my lip instead, watching the introductions.
“Nice to meet you,” Keats said, reaching across the aisle to shake Audrey’s hand, which seemed really gentleman-like and polite, and she shook his hand back and said, “Charmed,” and not for the first time I wished I had half the conversational grace Audrey did.
Cherisse pointed at Eph. “And the tall, handsome hottie over there is our friend Eph.”
Tall, handsome hottie? Who talks like that?
Eph glanced up from his drawing. “Hey, man,” he said, jerking his chin up at Keats, then leaned back over his picture.
Cherisse smiled, evidently done with introductions, and I felt that familiar mix of embarrassment and general badness I got every time it was clear she was merely putting up with me because my presence was a side effect of being friends with Audrey. Why did I care what Cherisse thought? I didn’t, right?
I was turning red on the outside and cringing on the inside, because it is terrible to be purposefully overlooked when there is a cute boy in the vicinity, and that, coupled with the previous epic flirt fail—scratch that, epic life fail—was making fleeing to the solitary research station at the penguin-friendly pole seem better and better.
But then Audrey placed her hand on his arm and gestured toward me. “Keats, you have to meet my friend Penelope.”
If I could have nominated Audrey for high school sainthood right that second, I would have.
Cherisse batted a dismissive glance over her shoulder, so quick I was sure I was the only one who saw it.
I smiled weakly at Keats. “Yeah, we met already,” I said.
Audrey raised her eyebrow appraisingly at me, like, Well, what’s this? and Keats’s eyes rested on mine, and my heart fluttered, like it was waking up from an enchanted sleep.
He started to say something to me—so maybe all wasn’t lost after all?—but Cherisse interrupted him. “What classes do you have? You’re in AP, right?”
His eyes lingered on mine a second longer as he gave a rueful shrug and turned to Cherisse. “Carroll for chemistry.”
I started to say, “I have her too,” but Cherisse squealed dramatically. “She is cray! Audrey, didn’t she freak out on your biology class last year?”
I shifted back as Audrey started to relay Mrs. Carroll’s historic meltdown, one complete with tears and abandoning her classroom after someone sang out the lyrics to “Tiny Bubbles” during an experiment.
There was a nudge on my shoulder.
“You like?” Eph asked, sliding his notebook onto my lap and pushing his hair behind his ear.
He had sketched himself, gangly and knobby, bangs in his eyes, chin-length hair, with a name tag saying HI, MY NAME IS TALL HANDSOME HOTTIE, wearing a clearly bored expression while picking his nose.
At the bottom he’d written, in all capital letters and minus any proper punctuation or actual hashtag symbol, HASHTAG TALL HANDSOME HOTTIE ALERT.
Sometimes the sheer fact of simply knowing Ephraim O’Connor makes me feel like the luckiest girl in the whole Milky Way.
“Fuckin’ rad, yeah?” He stretched back in his chair, folding his arms behind his head.
“Language, Ephraim.” I took the drawing in, admiring how in such a quick sketch he’d managed to capture the rattiness of his Superman T-shirt and the inked-in bubble tags on the rubber rims of his checkered Vans. “It’s pretty frakking rad.”
Eph ignored my f-bomb substitution. “Pretty rad? Come on, Pen. It’s completely fucking rad.” He leaned closer, grinning. “You know I’m a tall, handsome hottie. Say it.”
I stifled a laugh, which turned into a snort, which tragically morphed into the sound I imagined a seriously constipated (and angry about it) wild boar would make.
My face went cherry red. I couldn’t bear to turn around to see if the new boy had heard it.
Eph stared at me, mouth twisting. “What was that?”
I decided to pretend that that sound had not come from me. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t confirm your tall, handsome hottie status. That’s Summer’s job.”
“Her name is Autumn.”
“I get all your girls mixed up,” I said, trying to remember if Autumn was the one with the dreadlocks or the one with the nose ring.
Something neon pink shifted in the corner of my vision, and I saw Cherisse taking off her sweater and stretching like a cat in the tiny white T-shirt underneath. She giggled, then leaned over to squeeze Keats’s knee and whisper in his ear.
I could never flirt like that. Keats was smiling at whatever Cherisse was saying—and his grin was sly and handsome, like a fox, or a character from a Wes Anderson movie, or that fox character from that Wes Anderson movie, and at that moment, I would have given all my future birthday and four-leaf-clover and stray-eyelash and falling-star wishes to get someone like him to smile like that at me.
I would have given anything to finally be the one someone liked back.
I chewed on my lip—my worst, grossest habit—and glanced at Eph.
He was studying me, his eyes darting between Keats and me, like he knew something I didn’t. He raised an eyebrow.
“Nothing,” I said, digging in my bag for lip balm, trying to sound all casual and easy-breezy. “It’s nothing at all.”
A former bookseller and teacher, Meg Leder currently works as a book editor in New York City. Her role models are Harriet the Spy and Anne Shirley. She is the author of Letting Go of Gravity, The Museum of Heartbreak, the coauthor of The Happy Book, and spends her free time reading, looking for street art, and people watching. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. You can visit her website at MegLeder.com or find her on Twitter @MegLeder.