Scene One Scene One
“This is so not how it was supposed to go.”
I crack one eye open and sneak the covers down over my head. Charlie is standing above my bed, arms crossed, a bag of Swedish Fish in one hand and a Starbucks cup in the other.
I blink and glance at the clock on my nightstand: 6:35.
“Jesus. It’s the middle of the night.”
Charlie lets out a dramatic sigh. “Please. I’m ten minutes early.”
I rub my eyes and sit up. It’s already light out, but that’s not too surprising, given that it’s August in Southern California. It’s also hot, and the tank top I slept in is drenched. I don’t understand why, after all these years, my parents still have not sprung for air conditioning.
Charlie hands me the Starbucks cup, folding herself down next to me on the bed and stuffing another piece of candy into her mouth as she continues to lecture me. Charlie never drinks coffee—she thinks it stunts your growth—but she still picks me one up every morning. Grande vanilla latte. One sugar.
“Are you even listening?” she asks, irritated.
“Are you kidding me, Charlotte? I’m sleeping.”
“Not anymore,” Charlie says, pulling the covers off. “It’s the first day of school, and I’m not letting you drag me down with you. Time to rise and shine, Ms. Caplet.”
I scowl at her, and she smiles. Charlie’s beautiful. Actually spectacular-looking. She’s got strawberry-red, curly hair and bright green eyes. Sometimes she’s so stunning, it’s shocking even to me. And I’m her best friend.
We met on the playground in the first grade. John Sussmann had taken my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and tossed it into the sandbox. Charlie knocked him over, fished it out, and even ate half just to prove he hadn’t won. That’s real friendship, right there.
“So anyway, listen,” she says as I swing my legs over the side of the bed and head into the bathroom. “Ben and Olivia totally just got together. Ben told me.”
“About time.” I stick a toothbrush into my mouth and root around in the medicine cabinet for my deodorant. I can tell from Charlie’s impatient prattle that there’s no time to shower.
“This is, like, a big deal. He’s my brother.” Ben is Charlie’s twin, actually, but they’re nothing alike. He’s tall and blond and lanky and he likes English, a subject Charlie thinks is frivolous. She’s a history buff: “Why read about stuff that didn’t happen, when you can read about stuff that did? Real life is way more interesting, anyway.”
Olivia is our other best friend. She’s been with us since the eighth grade, when she transferred to San Bellaro.
“Look,” I say, spitting, “they’ve been flirting for decades. It was bound to happen.”
“But now she’s going to, like, what? Come over after school?”
“She already comes over after school.”
“I know why you’re so calm about this,” Charlie says.
“Because I am still unconscious?”
“No, because Rob got back last night and you’re going to see him today.” She pops another fish into her mouth, triumphant.
My stomach clenches and releases. It’s been doing that all week. The thought of seeing Rob is, well, making me ill.
It’s been eight weeks, which I guess is a long time, although I refuse to see it that way. In the general scheme of things, what’s two months? Like, a millisecond. Okay, so it’s the longest we’ve ever been apart and, yeah, I’ve missed him, but I’ve known Rob my whole life. It’s really not a big deal seeing him again. It’s been a busy summer, and it’s not like Robert Monteg is my boyfriend or anything. God, even his name flashing through my mind like that makes me nauseous. I don’t get it. It shouldn’t. We’re friends. He’s just the next-door neighbor.
“You guys are totally going to be the new senior couple,” Charlie says. “I decided.”
“Well, as long as you decided.” I tug on a blue skirt and slip a white tank top over my head. Charlie looks like she just came from the salon, and I permit myself one glance in the mirror. Just as I suspected, total bed-head.
Charlie tosses me a bra, and it hits me in the face. “Thanks.”
“Oh, come on,” she says. “It’s Rob. You guys finally kissed last year, and then he goes away to be a camp counselor the entire torturous summer and writes you all of these love letters saying how much he cares about you, and you think now that he’s back, you guys aren’t going to get together? Please.”
Of course this is how Charlie sees it. The problem is, that isn’t exactly what happened. It’s not even close. Let me explain.
The “kiss” she’s talking about wasn’t really a kiss at all. And the fact that Rob and I went to junior prom together has absolutely no significance. We’re best friends, and neither of us had a date. Rob is handsome and smart, and I could easily list ten girls in our soon-to-be senior class who would have traded in their Gucci book bags to go to prom with Rob, but I think he’s scared of the female species. Well, actually, Charlie thinks that. It’s the only explanation, she says, for why he still doesn’t have a girlfriend. The only explanation besides the fact that he’s waiting for me (her words, not mine).
Anyway, we were on the dance floor and my hair got in my eyes, and Rob brushed it away and kissed my cheek. My hair is always getting in my eyes, and my father kisses my cheek, so I hardly think that counts as a make-out session. It just happened to be in public, to a slow song.
And those emails? Definitely not love notes. Example:
Thanks for your letter. I’m glad to know Charlie is as crazy as ever, and thanks for the gum. I’m chewing it now.
Camp is good but I miss home. Sometimes I think it was a stupid idea coming back here this summer, especially after the end of school and everything. It’s good, I guess. I’m back with Bunk 13. Remember when we were here together? It seems like so long ago. I guess it was. Anyway, I really miss you. I guess that’s what I meant when I said I missed home. It’s not the same without you here. Last night I went out to the docks, and I thought about that time we swam there after lights-out. Do you remember that? The water was freezing. It was that summer our parents had to send us more sweatshirts. Anyway, I’m thinking about you and hope you’re doing well.
Charlie combed through that email and constructed a new one, which basically read: I love you and I’m so sorry I went to camp and my heart is breaking being away from you and let’s spend eternity together when I get back. Heart, Rob.
It makes sense that she likes history, since she’s constantly rewriting it.
Her fantasy is nice and all—it’s just not accurate. It’s the kind of thinking that gets girls into trouble all the time. And it’s not just Charlie. For instance, last year when Olivia was dating Taylor Simsburg (and by “dating,” I mean they made out twice and once was sort of in public at winter formal), he told her she looked nice in yellow, and she made him a playlist called “Here Comes the Sun.” She also started carrying around sunflowers for no good reason.
It’s not that most girls are delusional, per se. It’s just that they have this subtle ability to warp actual circumstances into something different. This, by the way, is because guys can barely be bothered to say what they actually want, let alone what they are feeling. But that doesn’t change anything. If there’s one thing I’m really against, it is turning a blind eye to reality. What’s the point? Things are the way they are, and the best thing for us to do is to just acknowledge that. No one ever died from having too much information. It’s the misunderstandings that are the problem. And until Rob says or tells me otherwise, I have no reason to think he wants anything more than my friendship.
Except for this one thing that happened the night before he left. I haven’t told Charlie or Olivia, because I’m not sure how I feel about it myself. But I keep going over it in my mind. I’ve been going over it for two months.
We were sitting on the floor in my bedroom streaming an old episode of Friends. This part isn’t particularly unusual. We do that all the time. Rob likes to escape the chaos of his house, where he has three little brothers. But there was something different about him that night. When Ross made a joke, Rob didn’t laugh, which was crazy, because Ross is his favorite character and Rob always laughs. He has this deep baritone laugh. It reminds me of Santa Claus.
We were watching the episode where Rachel moves out of the apartment she shares with Monica, and there’s this scene where Rachel tries to steal Monica’s candlesticks. Anyway, Rachel is grabbing them out of the box, and all of a sudden the television is on pause and Rob is staring at me in this really intense way he sometimes looks before a big basketball game.
“What’s up?” I asked. He didn’t answer. He just kept looking at me. He has these gigantic brown eyes that look like little teacups of hot chocolate. Not that that’s what I think about when I look at him. I don’t even like hot chocolate. I’m just trying to describe him accurately, here.
He didn’t say anything, he just sat there looking at me, and then he reached over and cupped my chin in his hand. He’d never done that to me before. No boy had ever done that to me before. And then, with my chin still in his hand, he said, “God, you’re beautiful.” Just like that. “God, you’re beautiful.” Which is crazy because (a) it’s just that I don’t look particularly different than anybody else. I mean, I have brown eyes and brown hair and what Charlie calls a button nose, so if someone were describing me, you’d probably think you knew me and at the same time never be able to pick me out of a crowd. Except for the fact that I blush like crazy when I’m embarrassed—but that doesn’t exactly make me more desirable. So, (a), and (b) it’s just so cheesy. So I laughed, because it was the only conceivable thing I could think to do, and then he dropped his hand and unpaused Friends, and when we said good night, he hugged me but not any differently than he usually does, and then the next morning he was gone. I’ve been turning that moment over in my mind ever since. For two months now.
“What time did he get in, anyway?” Charlie asks as we plod our way downstairs.
I want to say “Too late for me to see his light go on,” but I don’t. Charlie doesn’t know that sometimes I angle myself out my bedroom window just to see if Rob’s bedroom light is on. Our houses are separated by a barrier of trees, so you can’t see much, but his bedroom is directly diagonal to mine, and I can tell if he’s home because of the light. Most nights I wait for it to go on, to know he’s next door, right here. I think that’s one of the things I’ve missed most while he’s been gone. Seeing that light go on.
“I’m surprised he didn’t come over last night.” She wiggles her hips and laughs.
I shrug. “He just texted me.”
She spins on the stairs and grabs both my shoulders. “What exactly did he say?”
“I’m back,” Charlie repeats, looking thoughtful. Then she gets this snarky grin on her face. “I’m back, and ready for action.”
“Honestly,” I say, “it’s Rob. You’re making something out of nothing.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” She links her arm through mine as we step into the kitchen. “But you know I always like to err on the side of caution.”
“Drama,” I correct her. “You like to err on the side of drama.”
My mom and dad are in the kitchen dancing around with the orange juice, still in their bathrobes. She has it over her head, and he’s tickling her.
“Sorry, girls,” she says, her face flushed. “Didn’t see you there.” My dad just winks. Gross. Also, neither one of them is sorry. They do this sort of thing all the time. They are constantly making out in our living room and leaving each other love notes on the fridge—“Peas for my squeeze,” that kind of thing. I guess it should make me happy, the fact that my parents are in love and still into each other after twenty years, but it sort of creeps me out.
“They definitely still have sex,” Charlie says under her breath, like she’s settling a debate. Trust me, it’s not up for argument. Factual truth: They do.
I guess maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal if I had, you know, done it myself. It’s not that I’m opposed to sex or anything. I mean, morally speaking. You want to know my problem, actually? It’s that I don’t feel particularly moral about the whole thing. It’s like this girl I used to know, Sarah, who never ate meat. Literally, in her entire life, she never had a hamburger. Her parents didn’t eat meat, and she was just raised that way. Anyway, one day her dad started eating it again, and all of a sudden it was in their house and on the table, and I remember her telling me how weird that seemed, how unnatural. Like all of a sudden she was supposed to just start eating meat and it was supposed to seem normal. She was a vegetarian, for crying out loud. It seems weird to just start. Like changing something fundamental about who you are.
It also might have something to do with the fact that I’ve never really gotten close. There was Jason Grove, who I dated last year. We made out a few times, mostly in the back of his dad’s Audi and in his basement. It was okay, I guess, but he couldn’t figure out how to unhook my bra, and after a few tries we sorta gave up.
Charlie thinks this is tragic. Olivia’s and my virginity are like an affront to her values, or something. Mind you, she’s done it with two people already. The first was Matt Lester, her boyfriend sophomore year. They did it after homecoming, and she said it was awful and they never did it again. Now there’s Jake, her on-again, off-again boyfriend—and, as Charlie says, “I’ve lost count.” Which I guess is what’s supposed to happen. It’s not like you keep counting the number of times you have sex. At a certain point it just becomes sex, I think.
“This year is definitely your year,” Charlie told me last week. “You are not losing your virginity in a dorm room. Not an option.”
“What are my prospects?”
“Just one,” Charlie said. “Rob. You two are totally meant to be.”
Meant to be. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never thought about that phrase in relation to Rob and me. It has occurred to me that something might happen between us. I haven’t admitted too much of this to Charlie, though, mostly because I recognize the real possibility that these thoughts about Rob could have more to do with all those television shows she makes me watch than my actual feelings. I mean, yeah, I care about him. He’s my best friend. Of course I love him. But do I want to kiss him? Do I want him to kiss me? And am I willing to risk our friendship on the off chance that a romance might really work out? Not to mention the fact that I don’t even know what he’s thinking. He probably regrets ever saying I was beautiful. He has probably already moved on. I mean, he’s been halfway across the country for the entire summer, and just because I haven’t managed to fall on anyone else’s lips in two months doesn’t mean he’s hauling around the same track record.
My mom pries my father off of her and sets the juice down. “You girls ready for your first day?”
“Definitely,” Charlie says, winking at me.
“Well, that’s good,” she says. She scoops some eggs onto a plate and hands it to my dad. “Rob back today?”
My mom would ask this. On top of everything else, my parents and his parents are also best friends. They’ve been neighbors for fifteen years. My parents moved to San Bellaro a few months before I was born. Rob’s family moved here two years later. My mom actually used to be a movie star in LA. Not huge or anything, but I think she might have been headed that way before she met my dad. He was a community organizer with big plans for becoming a senator and got invited to one of her movie premieres. It was a screening of The Last Stranger, probably the biggest part my mom ever had, and my dad always says that he fell in love with her instantly, just by seeing her on-screen. That she was his last stranger. Six months later they were married, and a year after that they had me. My father never became a senator (he teaches history at our local college), but his brother did. I think it’s still hard for my dad, the fact that his brother got to realize his dream when he didn’t. They haven’t spoken in years, and every time his name is in the paper, my dad takes the pages out to the recycling bin himself.
My mom is still looking at me, waiting for an answer about Rob, but I just shrug and stick a piece of toast into my mouth. Charlie immediately snatches it away.
“Bagel Wednesday,” she says, dropping it down on the counter like it’s radioactive. “Hello?”
My father smacks the back of his hand against his forehead dramatically, and my mother sighs.
“Well,” she says, “have a great day.”
“Oh, we will,” Charlie says, slinging my book bag over her shoulder. “Don’t wait up.” She blows my mom a kiss and marches me outside.
Charlie has an old Jeep Cherokee we call Big Red. It’s not as fancy as Olivia’s car, but it doesn’t matter. Charlie would look good on a tricycle. We climb inside, and the familiar smell of Charlie’s perfume hits me. A combination of lilacs and plumeria she mixed for herself at the Body Shop last year. Her car is always stuffed to the brim, like she could take off at any minute and move somewhere else. There is a gigantic canvas tote in the back seat monogrammed with her initials, CAK, that contains absolutely anything you would possibly ever need. We were once at Olivia’s beach house in Malibu, and I got a piece of corn stuck in between my teeth so hard that my gums started to bleed. Charlie marched me out to Big Red and performed minor dental surgery.
She starts the car and backs out of my driveway, applying lip gloss in the rearview at the same time. I risk a glance over to Rob’s house, but it’s hard to make out anything between the trees. Or see if there are any cars still parked in his driveway.
I pick up her iPod and put on Radiohead.
“Ew.” She gives me a disgruntled look and yanks the iPod out of my hand. She puts on Beyoncé and turns to me. “What is wrong with you this morning? It’s the first day of school. We need to be psyched up. Starting things on the right note is the only way to succeed.”
This is one of her theories. Charlie is full of theories. She has a theory about everything. For instance, she believes firmly that you can only change your hair once over the course of high school. Olivia chopped all hers off when she broke up with Taylor, and Charlie told her she had used up her reinvention. “I hope he was worth it,” I remember her saying.
“I’m psyched.” I force my face into a smile and slip the lip gloss out from under her fingers.
Charlie sighs and turns onto the highway. “Come on. I’m serious. You should be psyched. Me and Jake, you and Rob, Olivia and Ben.” She swallows after she says “Ben,” like she has a bad taste in her mouth. “We’re so ruling school this year.”
Another one of Charlie’s theories is that we live in a high school movie. Olivia seems to think this is true too. What I mean is that they can say things like “We’re so ruling school” and not feel the need to add sarcasm. I guess we are popular. Charlie is formidable, engaging in a way that makes her feared and loved. Olivia, on the other hand, is basically the high school dream girl. Big boobs, cute nose, and good-natured. There is literally no guy in school who isn’t in love with her. Plus, her parents have more money than God. Her dad does something in the music industry. He’s a producer or a record label owner. I think maybe both. To be honest, sometimes I’m not sure how I ended up in this mix.
Which is why being friends with Rob has always felt so good. He’s popular, sure—he’s probably the most popular guy in our class—but he’s also just Rob. I don’t have to pretend around him or think about what I’m going to say next. Not that I do with Charlie or Olivia, but sometimes it feels like we’re all—all three of us—in some kind of play. Like we need to get our lines right. Like the whole performance is depending on it. It is really absolute garbage sometimes being a girl.
“Want to hear about Len Stephens?” Charlie asks. “He’s already being kicked out of school.”
Len Stephens is this guy in our class we don’t hang out with. Charlie calls him “toxic,” but most people just call him an ass. He’s sarcastic, and his hair is too long and messy, like he cuts it himself or something.
“School hasn’t even started.”
“Apparently he pulled senior prank early.”
“What did he do?”
“Reorganized the online system so that it deleted every student transcript.”
“Swear.” Charlie puts her hand over her heart like she’s pledging allegiance.
“How is that even possible?”
Charlie shrugs. “He hacked into the school’s computer system.”
The only thing I really know about Len is that he used to take piano lessons before me from this German woman named Famke. I think I stopped in the sixth grade or something, and I guess he probably did too. That was around the time most people got serious with sports or dance and dropped other hobbies. I thought he was pretty good, but then again I used to think tube tops were cute, so what did I know?
“Whatever,” Charlie says, moving on. “Let’s talk about Jake.”
“So you guys are back together?” I look out the window at the passing trees. It’s not that I don’t care about Charlie’s love life. I do, of course. It’s just that no one moment in time is very indicative of their overall relationship. If she’s with Jake today, it doesn’t mean she will be tomorrow. Or even by the time we get to school, for that matter. They have this very strange relationship. Charlie likes to act like it’s all heartbreaking and disturbed. Like they can’t be together even though they really want to. Honestly, I don’t see the obstacles. Unless the fact that he wears baseball caps a lot and calls everyone “dude” is an obstacle. Which maybe, it is. They broke up because he called her “bro” at prom last year, and then they didn’t speak for a week. They’ve been casual all summer, but an official reunion doesn’t surprise me. Mostly I think they hit so many speed bumps because Charlie likes injecting drama so her boyfriend doesn’t seem so basic. And what is more dramatic, really, than heartbreak?
“Totally,” she says. “He came over last night and said he wanted this year to be different.” Jake has said he wants things to be different about forty-two times in the last year and a half, so I take this with a grain of salt.
“I’m serious, Rose. I think it’s going to work out this time.” I glance over at her, and her face looks set, determined. Celebratory, even. Which, if you know Charlie, makes a lot of sense. Deciding to do something and doing it are basically the same thing in her world.
“That’s great,” I chirp. “Super.” I try to sound excited, but Charlie sees right through it.
“How am I supposed to work with you this year if you’re going to be all mopey and dreary-eyed?” She passes me her makeup bag and flips down my visor mirror. “Apply, please. Let’s try to channel some of that ‘fake it till you make it’ energy when we step into that auditorium.”