When you’re stuck in the backseat of your parents’ car—on hour twenty-five of the drive from Los Angeles to Bluepointe, Michigan—the last thing you’re thinking about is love.
But somehow that’s what my two sisters were discussing. They chatted over my head as if I was no more than an armrest between them.
Actually, it’s a stretch to say they were talking about love. They were really talking about boys. The boys of Bluepointe. Two of them in particular.
“Liam,” Hannah breathed. She propped her feet on the hump in the middle of the backseat, even though that was clearly my personal space. “That was my guy’s name, remember? We saw him at the beach at least four times, and the last two, he definitely noticed me. Now, which one was yours?”
“You know,” Abbie said impatiently. She did most things impatiently. “The guy who worked at the market. That boy could shelve.”
I snorted while Hannah said, “Well, did you ever talk to him? Was he interested? What was his name?”
Hannah always liked to have all her facts straight.
“John,” Abbie answered, nodding firmly as she stared out the car window. Then she frowned and clicked one of her short, unpainted fingernails against her front teeth. “Or . . . James? It was definitely John or James or . . . Jason? Ugh, I can’t remember.”
“If you were a boy,” my dad chimed from the front seat, where he had the car on cruise control at exactly sixty-five miles per hour, “we were going to name you Horatio. No one ever forgets the name Horatio.”
My dad thinks he’s hilarious. And because he works from home, doing other people’s taxes, he’s around a lot to subject us to all his one-liners. My mom is the only one who doesn’t roll her eyes at every joke. She even laughs at some of them. Dad always says that’s why they’re still married. That and the fact that my mom is super-practical with money, which is very romantic to an accountant. All it meant to me was that I had to babysit to earn every paltry dollar of my spending money.
I sighed and glanced at the novel in my lap. That book—the latest dystopian bestseller—was torturing me. I was dying to read it, but every time I did, I got carsick. I was still feeling a little green after reading two irresistible pages (two words: “prison break”) twenty minutes earlier.
Texting with my best friend, Emma, made me feel slightly less queasy.
Ugh. Today is the shortest drive of our trip but it’s the most soul-killing. I feel like it will NEVER. END. And why do I always get the middle seat?
BECAUSE YOU’RE THE YOUNGEST. BE GLAD THEY DIDN’T PUT YOU IN THE TRUNK.
Don’t gloat cuz you’re an only child.
. . .
Are you texting with Ethan right now?!?
HOW’D YOU KNOW?
I can tell your palms are sweaty. Plus there are the long delays.
HAR-HAR. YOU KNOW BALLERINAS DON’T SWEAT.
Uh-huh. Even when they’re sending mash notes to their boyfriends?
. . .
GOT TO GO TO CLASS. LUV U! AND ETHAN SAYS HI. ;-)
Ethan was Emma’s boyfriend of two weeks. And class was at “the Intensive,” which is this hard-core, fast-track-to-prima-ballerina summer program at the LA Ballet. All spring Emma had talked about nothing else. She’d angsted about her floppy fouettés and worried that she’d be too tall for the boys to partner. She’d wondered if the mesdames would be harsh and beautiful, like the ballet teachers on Fame, and she’d considered cutting off all her hair to make herself stand out.
But then Ethan Mack asked Emma to fast dance at our spring semiformal, and everything changed.
When it happened, I was already out on the dance floor (which was just our school gym floor covered with a puckery layer of black vinyl) with Dave Sugarman.
Dave was nice enough. He had a round, smooth face and one of those nondescript bodies that always seemed to be hidden inside clothes a size or two too big. He was in a couple of honors classes with me, so he was smart. I guessed. He never really spoke much in class.
He was, I thought, a tennis player. Either that or he did track and field.
Dave was perfectly nice.
But here’s what Dave wasn’t. He wasn’t Mr. Darcy. Or Peeta Mellark. He wasn’t even Michael Moscovitz.
And they were the boys I was searching for.
I don’t mean I wanted an actual revolutionary hero or a guy with an English accent and ascot. (Okay, I wouldn’t turn down the English accent.)
I didn’t want the perfect boy either. We all know Mr. Darcy could be a total grump.
What I wanted was to feel like Lizzy and Katniss and Mia felt. And not because my boy was tall and broad-shouldered and blue-eyed. That wasn’t how I pictured him. He wouldn’t be everybody else’s version of gorgeous. He would have a funny extra bounce in his walk or a cowlick in his hair. He would be super-shy. Or he’d have a too-loud laugh.
He would make me swoon for reasons that were mine alone. I just didn’t know what those reasons were yet.
There was no swoon there. The most I could manage for him was an uncomfortable smile while we raised our arms over our heads and swished our hips around, throwing in the occasional clap or semi-grindy deep knee bend. When I glanced at the other couples nearby, I took comfort in the fact that they almost all looked as awkward and goofy as I felt.
There was one exception, though. Emma and Ethan. They seemed to fit together as neatly as their names.
Ethan was definitely tall enough to partner Emma. He put his hands on her waist and swung her around in graceful circles. He held her hand over her head, and she improvised a triple pirouette before landing lightly on his chest. She turned and leaned back against him, and they shimmied from side to side as if they’d rehearsed it.
Do you even have to ask if their dance ended in a dip?
After the song ended, Dave gave me a little pat on the arm, then hustled back to his friends, who were pelting each other with M&M’s.
But Ethan left the dance floor with Emma.
They headed directly outside, where, according to Emma, they leaned against the school and kissed for a full twenty minutes without coming up for air. That twenty minutes was all she needed to fall deeply, deeply in love.
Dancers are like that. One good dip, and they are yours.
After that, Emma stopped obsessing about the Intensive and started obsessing about her new boyfriend.
“Kissing Ethan,” she told me one night after a long make-out session on Ethan’s patio, “it’s like ballet. My head disappears and I’m just a body.”
“Wow,” I said. I couldn’t relate at all. Most of the time I felt like I was just the opposite—no body, all head.
“I mean, he kisses me and I just melt,” Emma went on. “It’s like our bodies fuse.”
“Whoa,” I said this time.
“Oh my God, not like that,” Emma said, reading my mind. “I’m just saying there’s something about being mouth to mouth with someone for forty minutes . . .”
“You beat your record,” I muttered.
“Yeah,” Emma giggled. She hadn’t caught the tiny touch of weariness in my voice. “Anyway, it’s almost like you’re touching each other’s souls.”
“Really?” I said. “Your souls? Really?”
“Really,” she said with the utmost confidence.
I knew nothing of this soul-touching kind of kiss. The few kisses I’d had had been brief. And awkward. And, to tell the truth, kind of gross. I’d clearly been doing it wrong.
I was happy for Emma. But it felt weird to watch her join this club that I was so not a member of.
Before you became a member of this been-in-love club, life was murky, mysterious, and, most of all, small.
Post-love, I imagined, your world expanded with all the things you suddenly knew. You knew what it felt like to see a boy’s name on your caller ID and suddenly feel like you were floating. You knew a boy’s dreams and fears and memories. You knew what it was like to open the front door and feel a burst of elation because your boy was standing there.
You’d kissed that boy and felt like you were touching his soul.
I didn’t know if Abbie had ever felt that way. She had a string of two-month relationships behind her. Almost every time, she’d been the one to break things off when the boy had gotten too attached.
But Hannah had definitely been there. She’d dated an older boy, Elias, for a year. Then he’d enrolled at UC Berkeley and had broken up with her to “focus on studying.” Which Hannah had sort of understood, being a studious type herself. It was when Elias immediately hooked up with a girl from his dorm that he’d broken her heart.
She seemed to be completely recovered now, though.
“When’s that sailboat race they have every year?” she was asking Abbie. She grabbed her sleek, white smart phone out of her bag. She’d gotten it for her eighteenth birthday in March. Abbie and I were bitterly jealous of it.
“It’s probably sometime next week, right?” Hannah muttered, tapping away at the phone screen. “I’m sure we’ll see them there . . . .”
“Hannah, honey,” my mom said a little too brightly, “don’t completely fill up your schedule. You know we want to spend some quality time with you this summer. I know you. Once you start classes in the fall, you’ll work so hard, we’ll never hear from you!”
“I know, Mom,” Hannah said with the tiniest of sighs.
“I think my guy is a runner,” Abbie said. “I could tell by his legs. So maybe he’ll just happen to go running on the beach while I just happen to do my two miles in the lake, and one thing’ll lead to another—”
“Abbie,” I broke in, “do you really think hauling yourself out of Lake Michigan after swimming two miles is the best way to meet a boy? Who knows what you’ll look like. You could have dune grass or seagull feathers in your hair. Yuck.”
“Plus, there’s the issue of your Speedo,” Hannah pointed out. Like all competitive swimmers, Abbie snapped herself into a high-necked, long-legged black bodysuit for her distance swims. It made her look like a slick-skinned seal. A cute little bikini it was not.
Abbie put on her cocky Supergirl face.
“You know I look hot in my Speedo,” she said.
Hannah and I glanced at each other, silently agreeing. Abbie’s arms and legs were long and lean. She had a perma-tan that made her limbs almost glow. Her waist had been whittled down by eight million strokes of the Australian crawl. And while pool chlorine turned some swimmers’ hair into yellow straw, Abbie’s long, straight hair was dark brown and silky.
Clearly just the thought of swimming made Abbie antsy. She flung her perfect legs over mine and planted her feet in Hannah’s lap.
“Hey!” Hannah and I protested together.
“I can’t help it. I’ve gotta stretch. I’m dying in here!” Abbie groaned. She flopped her arm into the front seat and tapped my dad on the shoulder. “You guys, remind me why we got rid of the minivan again?”
“Other than the fact that it was a giant, ugly egg, you mean?” I asked. I had a dream of someday having a vintage car with giant tail fins, a pastel paint job, and wide, white leather seats.
Mom twisted in her seat to look at us with wistful eyes that she quickly whitewashed with one of her forcefully perky smiles.
“Abbie and Hannah, you’re both driving now, and Chelsea will be next year too,” she said, her voice sounding tinny and cheerful. “You girls don’t need us to carpool you anymore. It was time for a grown-up car.”
“Plus, this little guy gets fifty-one miles to the gallon,” Dad said, giving the putty-colored dashboard a pat.
“ ‘Little’ is the operative word,” I grumbled. “There’s barely room for us, not to mention certain essential items.”
“Are you still pouting that you couldn’t bring that ridiculous box of books?” Abbie sighed.
“No,” I said defensively.
By which, of course, I meant yes. Ever since my e-reader had been tragically destroyed, I’d had to revert to paper books. I’d spent weeks collecting enough of them to last me through the long Bluepointe summer, but at the last minute my mom had nixed my entire stash.
“We just don’t have room in the car,” she’d said as we were packing up. “Pick a few to throw into your backpack.”
“A few? A few won’t get me through Colorado,” I’d complained.
“Well, maybe next time you try to prop your e-reader on the soap dish while you’re showering,” Mom had responded, “you’ll think twice about it.”
Which had caused Abbie to laugh so hard, she’d dropped a suitcase on her foot.
Hannah had been slightly more sympathetic. Probably because she got to bring all her books with her. She was starting her freshman year at the University of Chicago in September and had given herself a huge stack of summer reading to prepare.
Even now, as she gazed out the car window, Hannah was being scholarly.
“Dad, don’t forget,” she warned, “we’ve got to get off at exit forty-eight if we’re going to the Ojibwa history museum.”
“Ooh, arrowheads and pottery bowls,” Abbie said. “Thrilling.”
“Well, if you know how to look at them,” Hannah said haughtily, “they are.”
Now it was Abbie and I who sent each other a silent message in a glance: Our sister is a super-nerd. She’d already mapped out her future of a BA in biology and anthropology, followed by an MD-PhD. Then she was going to get the CDC to send her to some third world country where she’d cure malaria. Simple, right?
It didn’t seem fair that, in addition to being ridiculously smart, Hannah was just as pretty as Abbie. She had the same coloring and same long willowy limbs, though her skin was less tan, her figure softer, and her shiny hair chopped into a chin-length bob.
Whenever anybody saw the three of us together, they assumed I was some distant cousin, because my skin was freckled and anything but golden, and my hair was red. Bright red. It was also very thick and very curly, just like my grandmother’s. Until I was born, she was the only member of the family who had this crazy hair . . . .
As I thought about this now, with endless, flat Iowa skimming by outside the car window, I inhaled sharply. Something had just occurred to me for the first time.
Now I was the only one in the family with this crazy red hair.