Read Again, but Better Online

Authors: Christine Riccio

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BOOK: Again, but Better
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When I was thirteen, I worked up the courage to instant message Louis Watson. We ended up IMing on a Sunday during one of the weekly Primaveri family BBQs. I was inside on Uncle Dan’s PC while everyone else was outside in the pool. Twelve-year-old Leo wandered inside, saw me, and told the entire family I was in love with Louis Watson. I was
roasted for the rest of the afternoon. It started with Leo, then the rest of the boys, then my uncles, and finally my dad. By the end of the night, I was nothing but a hot, sweaty puddle of embarrassment. That was the last time I spoke to Louis Watson. Today there are no family members here to judge me.
I will talk to the cute boy.

Babe joins me on my kitchen quest. Together, we backtrack down
the hall and take a left when we reach the staircase.
Be outgoing, be outgoing, whatever you do, be outgoing.

We come to a stop outside the kitchen door. There’s a keypad. Apparently, we need a code to get in.

“Did they tell us about a code?” I ask Babe.

“Maybe it’s on the information in those blue folders they left on our beds?” she speculates.

Luckily, there are thin vertical windows on
both sides of the kitchen door, so the boys inside can see us. A tall Asian boy with close-cropped hair and warm brown eyes pulls the door open. He’s the guy I noticed on the couch.

“Hi!” he exclaims with a big dorky smile. He’s lanky and sporting an oversize, black long-sleeve shirt with loose-fitting jeans. “Welcome to the kitchen! I’m Atticus.”

“Hi,” Babe and I chorus.

“I’m Babe,” she continues.

“I’m Shane,” I add.

The boy who smiled at me through the window is facing us, still by the sink. He meets my gaze and smiles again. Not a giant toothy smile, but a cool, chill half smile. He’s holding a dish towel and leaning against the counter, wearing a long-sleeved plaid shirt and jeans. His light brown hair
is haphazardly ruffled. He’s fair (but nowhere near the ghost level I’m at); his
skin is rosy with what looks like a fresh sunburn. He’s all cool and leaning … and looking cool. What am I doing? Awkwardly standing in the middle of the room next to Babe. I reflexively put my hand on my hip. And drop it because it feels forced. And then I put it back up. And drop it. Oh god.

“Hey, I’m Pilot,” he says.

Be outgoing
. “Pilot, like a pilot?” The words escape my mouth before I can
think them through.


“Yes?” he answers, looking mildly confused.

“Like the first episode of a show!” I continue.
Stop talking.

“Yes, exactly like that!” Atticus chuckles as he flops onto the black leather couch against the wall.

I almost say: Lost
has an amazing pilot!
But before I can spit it out, Pilot speaks again, “Yeah, my parents are really, really into TV,” he adds.

“What?” Babe
exclaims in disbelief, at the same time I blurt, “Oh my gosh, I’m really, really into TV!”

Atticus and Pilot laugh.

Oh no, that was a joke
. My cheeks burn, and I bow my head. Whilst interacting with attractive boys, I have a tendency to experience incoherent babbling and sluggish brain activity.

I chuckle, keeping my eyes trained on the tiles under Pilot’s feet as the embarrassment wave ebbs.
A moment later, the kitchen door opens behind us and Agatha sticks her head into the room.

“Hey, Flat Three, I’m making my rounds. Orientation is about to start. If you could make your way upstairs, that would be great.”

3. Breathe, Just Breathe

It’s now been thirty hours since I last slept. Orientation ended twenty-three minutes ago. We were shuffled outside onto the sidewalk and divided up into groups by four different twenty-something resident advisors. I ended up being separated from everyone. I watched, crestfallen, as Pilot, Atticus, Babe, and Sahra walked off in the opposite direction with a different
tour guide. I know it was just a stupid orientation tour, but it felt important in the moment.

The RA took us around the general area, pointed out the laundromat (I’ve already forgotten where this is), the movie theater (it’s called the ODEON), and brought us to Orange UK (a cell phone place).

My new phone is a little gray plastic box straight out of 2003. It has real buttons and no flip-top
to protect them. When I powered it up, the background was set to a stock photo of a rock garden. There weren’t many options, but I’ve changed it to a close-up of a tiger’s face. Tiger’s face has more of a brave vibe than rock garden. On the way back to the Karlston, we stopped at a cafe where I ravenously ordered quesadillas. Note to self: Don’t order any more Mexican food in England. It’s not their
thing. I’m already getting hungry again. The RA mentioned something about a grocery store somewhere close, but the details have already fallen out of my brain. I can’t be expected to remember complicated things like which way the grocery store is while running on zero sleep.

I’ve now gleaned the code to the kitchen (which was, in fact, buried in the blue folder paperwork), grabbed Sawyer, and
settled in at the table to write. I want to write about my experiences in England, so I’ve started working on a blog post about my first few hours here. I have my Horcruxes to house my personal musings, but I have a blog to post more polished writing pieces, like short stories that I’ve finished. While I’m here in the UK, I want to turn it into a study abroad blog of sorts and post short story versions
of my adventures.

I let words drain out of me and into the digital space, until my doc is brimming with all the travel-related thoughts I’ve been wrestling with throughout the day. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is playing softly, and my fingers are still dancing across the keyboard when I hear the door open behind me. I straighten, anticipating the need to make conversation.
You got this.

I turn in my seat. The
I’ve loaded up dies on my tongue when I see Pilot. I glance around nervously as the door clicks shut behind him.
Do not be silent.

“Hey,” I force out.

“Hey. Shane, right?” He meets my eyes.

I nod as he walks around the table and sits across from me. “Pilot?”

“Like the first episode of a TV show,” he drops casually.

I bring my hand up to cover my face.

He chuckles.
“What are you working on?”

I look at my laptop and back up to his eyes. They’re green. Like olives.

“Oh, um, nothing really, just writing. I like to write short stories and stuff.”

He grins. “Looked like some super-intense typing was going down when I walked in.”

I grunt-laugh. “I mean, just a rambling account of my first fourteen hours out of the country.”

“Is writing, like, what you want
to do? Be an author or something?” He eyes me curiously.

I falter a bit, fidgeting with my hair. “Um, yeah, I love reading and writing and stuff, so, that’d be amazing.”

“That’s awesome. Can I read something you’ve written sometime?”

I blink in surprise. What’s going on? We’ve exchanged two words, and he wants to read something I’ve written? I look at my computer screen for a second because
I can’t handle the prolonged eye contact that’s happening. Is this flirting? He looks and sounds so genuinely interested. This internal struggle needs to end, because of course he can read something I’ve written.

I look back at him, a smile crawling onto my face. “Um, yeah, sure. I have a blog where I post stuff sometimes.” I pause, trying to maintain eye contact. “Do you write?”

He smiles.
“Yeah, I do.”

My lips drop into a surprised
. “Really?”

“I mean, I write music.”

He. Writes. Music. “Oh my gosh, that’s so cool! Do you play an instrument, then?”

“Yep, good ole guitar. I’m working on an album; gonna try to finish it while I’m here.” He drums a quick little beat on the table with his hands.

I push Sawyer over to the side a little. “Whoa, what kind of music do you write?”

“You know … like, acoustic jazzy stuff.”

I smile again, trying to imagine what acoustic jazzy stuff sounds like. “That’s great! Is that what
want to do?”

He looks at the table. “Eh, I mean, I’d love to be able to do something music-related, but it’s more of a hobby. I’m a finance major—I’m doing the business track here.”

“Oh, well … I’d … I’d love to hear some of your stuff sometime,” I
squeak out. He shoots me a modest grin.

We’re having a conversation!

“We should all do something in here tonight,” he suggests, clapping a hand down on the table. One side of his mouth kicks up. “A flat bonding activity or something. Maybe get some beers and hang out.”

My eyebrows shoot up. “Oh, yeah, we’re legal here! I really want to go to a grocery store and get some food, too. I know we
ate on our orientation tour thing, but I’m already starving again.”

“You want to go now?” he asks.

Butterflies hustle through my veins. “I, um, I don’t know where the grocery store is or anything,” I stutter.

“The guy who did my tour talked about it, so I know roughly where it is. I think I’ll be able to find it. I’m good with directions.”

“I, um, okay?”

“I’ll go grab my jacket. Meet by the
stairs in a minute or so?”

I stare at him for a second in disbelief. What the heck. I’ve only been here for like four hours. This seems conveniently wonderful.


I manage. I follow him out of the kitchen and … toward my room. At the last minute, he veers left to the door across from mine.

“Hey,” I blurt loudly. “We’re neighbors!”

He looks over his shoulder and laughs before heading into
his room.

“Well, I’ll be,” he says in a fake Southern accent as I dive into my room for a coat.

4. I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here

We’re walking down the sidewalk in London together. Pilot and me. Me and Pilot. A cute boy who’s being nice to me. Who I held a conversation with. My heart is having a dance party. It’s also wondering, is this, like, a date?

No, it’s not a date, but it’s like … a something.

The sun sits low in the sky and the streets are full of people hustling about. Big
red double-decker buses swish by every few minutes. I can’t help the stupid smile that plasters itself to my face as I gaze around in wonder like someone who’s never been outside before. When I try to rearrange it into a more relaxed expression, the smile pops back up of its own volition.

“There are red double-decker buses like you see in the movies!” My voice is thick with delight. “It’s so
surreal. I’ve never been out of the country before, and now I’m just here.”

I look over at Pilot quickly, and then back in front of me, and then back at him, and then back in front of me. How often should I look over? Is it weird to keep looking over or is it weirder not to look over? I look over at him again. He’s smiling in a more subtle sort of way. His eyes shine like he’s excited about London
too, but he’s got it smothered under a nice layer of chill.

We trot quietly down Kings Gate in the general direction of where the grocery store is supposed to be. Pilot has his hands jammed in his jacket pockets. We pass pretty white house with pillars after pretty white house
with pillars, all the way down the road until we come to a stop at a busy intersection.

“Is this where we turn, you
think?” I ask.

I gaze around for the tall metal posts with green signs labeled with the names of the streets that we all know and love in the United States—and come up empty. I already miss my phone GPS.

“I think…” He squints across the way. “It’s another block down.”

I turn away from the street to gaze at him warily. “You only sound, like, sixty-two percent sure about that.”

He raises a hand
to stroke his chin and glances dramatically from right to left. “I’d say I’m more like thirty-seven percent sure.”

“Where are the street signs?” My head swishes from one corner to the next. There are no poles. This is so disorienting.

So You’re Going to Study Abroad
pamphlet did extensively delve into a phenomenon called culture shock. At the time I scoffed, because come on, it sounds dumb.
But dang, I guess it’s starting.

“Okay, I’m, like, forty-three percent sure now that we go straight for another block,” Pilot decides.

I smile and shrug. “Okay.”

I look to my left and take a few steps forward into the street.

“Shane!” Pilot grabs my arm and heaves me back as a car races by a foot from my face.

My lungs suck up all the air in a ten-foot radius as adrenaline spikes through
me. Pilot drops his hand from my arm as I spin to face him, mortified.

“Holy shit, I forgot about the cars coming from the other way. Oh my god!” I bury my face in my hands for a second.

Four hours in, and I’ve almost gotten myself hit by a car and killed via a flight of steps.

“Don’t worry. I almost died a few times after I got here yesterday.” Pilot starts crossing the street. I silently
scurry after him.

“But I mean, I didn’t, because I remembered and looked both ways before actually stepping out into oncoming traffic.” He turns around as we reach the curb to smirk at me.

I shoot him a surprised grin. “Shut up!” I burst, reflexively whacking him in the arm. A half a second later, I stare at my own arm aghast. “Oh my god, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you. I have this habit
of smacking people sometimes—”

He laughs, interrupting me. “You have a habit of smacking people?”

“No.” My voice rises a few pitches. “I mean, not smacking people. Jeez.”


“I mean, hitting people, lightly, sometimes.”

His eyes narrow. “Is this a serious problem? Do you go to meetings for this?”

I bite back a laugh. “No!”

“Uh-huh.” He’s still smirking at me.

“Why are you smirking?”
I protest.

He continues to smirk.

“Stop,” I squeal. Before I realize it, I’ve whacked him in the arm again. Oh god. I stutter to apologize.

His smile widens as he jumps away in mock horror. “There she goes again with the violence. I just saved your life, and this is how I’m treated.”

I bury my face in my hands, laughing.

We come to the end of another block and turn right down whatever nameless
road we’ve reached. I’m having trouble focusing on anything other than Pilot. How close we’re walking. How he’s looking at me with his lips pursed like he’s suppressing a grin.

I blow out a breath. “Maybe I do have a problem,” I concede as somberly as I can. “I’ll try and keep it under control.”

“First step is acceptance,” he says, putting on a haughty voice and bumping me lightly in the shoulder.
Another laugh huffs out of me. Up ahead I can make out a sign with red glowing letters that reads
. The name rings a bell.

“That’s the grocery store, right? Tes-co,” I test the word on my tongue. “Interesting name for a grocery store.”

“Shane. Interesting name for a girl,” he teases.

I narrow my eyes. “Pilot. Interesting name for a human.” He snorts.

When Tesco’s doors slide open, we’re
greeted with an onslaught of fa
miliar sounds: carts squealing, elevator-esque music playing overhead, and the repetitive beeps as people check out.

“So, Shane, what kind of music do you listen to?” Pilot asks, as I scoop up a basket.

“Music? Who brought up music? We’re getting food.” I snicker shamelessly at my bluntness. I don’t usually say stuff like that to people I’ve just met. I look at
Pilot again. “I don’t want to answer that; it feels like a trick question.”

“I’m just curious!” he says innocently.

“You write music, so I think there’s a ninety percent chance you’re a music snob.”

“I am not a music snob.” He pauses and his lip quirks up. “I’m only a little bit of a music snob.”

My smile is big and stupid again. “Do you want to go through all the aisles? Is that okay? Because
I really, really want to go through all the aisles.” I power walk into the first one, and Pilot trails behind.

“Pilot, look at these soda bottles. Are you seeing this? They’re slightly skinnier than our soda bottles!” I gesture wildly to the soda lining the shelves.

He grins. “So you were about to tell me about the music you listen to,” he prompts again. We turn into the next aisle.

“I listen
to all types of music,” I answer diplomatically, as I reach down and pick up a tub of Nutella to drop into my basket. “I have a general appreciation for music.” We stroll past the peanut butters and the jellies. “I like the Beatles…”

“Wait.” Pilot comes to an abrupt stop mid-aisle.

“What?” I say hesitantly.

“The Beatles?” he breathes. “No way. You like them? No. Way. No. Way—”

I roll my eyes.
“Stop—” I interject.

“No. Way!”

“Stop!” My voice hits squeak levels yet unknown to mankind.

“I love them! I thought I was the only one who knew about them.” He beams.

I run away into the next aisle. I hear him laughing behind me as I enter
the bread section. I definitely like this boy. I skid to a stop in front of the UK pasta spread. All the pasta is bagged. What even! In America we box pasta!

“The pasta is all in bags!” I turn to Pilot, expecting him to share my sentiment.

He looks like he’s about to make fun of me again.

I try not to smile. “No, ’cause in the United States, most of the pasta is in boxes!” He shakes his head, grinning. “This is an interesting tidbit, Pilot. You’ll be happy I pointed this out in the future when you need to know it … for a game show trivia question
about how England packages their pasta.”

I drop a bag into my basket and skip—oh dear lord, did I really just skip?—down the aisle to find the tomato sauce and skid to another abrupt stop. I shuffle back a bit to make sure I haven’t missed anything before emitting an involuntary gasp.

Pilot appears at my side. “You okay?”

“It’s just this sauce section,” I explain.

His mouth twitches. “Did
the sauce offend you?”

“No, but look. There’s only two types of tomato sauce here. What kind of world does England live in where there’s only two types of sauce!” I gesture around wildly for emphasis.

He takes a step back, smiling broadly now, and points casually toward the sauce and then back to me. “Did you … did you gasp because of the sauce?”

Blood seeps into my cheeks. “Sauce is a big

I flounder to grab a jar so we can move on and out of this aisle. As I snatch it off the shelf, a second jar slides to the edge along with it. My breath catches, and I lunge to snatch it out of the air, but I’m not fast enough. I leap backward as the second jar crashes to the ground. The glass shatters, and a mild splattering of sauce lands across my feet.

I freeze, staring at the floor.
I can’t believe I dropped a jar of sauce in front of Pilot. Shit. Shit, shit.

After a second, someone takes my arm and pulls me out of the aisle, away from the destruction zone. It’s Pilot … He’s touching my arm again. He’s laughing. We turn a corner into an aisle full of alcohol.

He lets go and looks at me pointedly. “You murdered the sauce, Shane.”

I shake my head. “Accident,” I squeak.

Pilot scans the shelves before reaching down to scoop up a case of English cider called Strongbow. He clucks his tongue, shakes his head, and suppresses a smile as we head toward the checkout counter. “And the violence continues.”

We make our way back to the Karlston at a slower pace. I’ve suddenly decided that I want to call Pilot
and I don’t know if that’s okay. Pies is fun to say, and
then we’re friends, right? Or, we’re something? Where there’s a nickname, there’s a bond. That’s what I … always say.

“Can I call you Pies?” I blurt into the night. “Sorry. I wouldn’t ask, but I really want to call you Pies,” I finish hesitantly.

When I look over, he’s smiling. My shoulders relax a smidge.

“Sure, you can, Sauce Killer.”

I beam. “Oh, but I’d prefer if you didn’t call me Sauce
Killer,” I respond politely.

He snorts.

“Do a lot of people already call you Pies?”

“Nope, that’s a new one.”

My heart sings a tiny bit at the idea of having created a new nickname that no one else uses for him.

“What do people call you?” I ask, curious now.

“Pilot … or Pi.”

“Pi? Like in math? You’re not Pi like in math, though. That feels kind of cold. You’re more of a pie-pie. Pies are
warm and wonderful and delicious—” I cut myself off. Okay, there’s outgoing and then there’s

He looks at me funny. My eyes fall to the ground as a new wave of embarrassment courses through my system. We walk in silence for a few moments.

“So, are you going to write about this grocery store adventure in your blog?” Pilot asks.

“Oh, yeah,” I answer, grasping at the subject change. “I’m
planning a whole expos
about this pasta in bags versus boxes phenomenon.”

“I can’t miss that,” he says seriously. I laugh. “What’s your blog called?” he continues.

My eyelids snap up. I didn’t think about the part where I’d actually have to tell him what my blog is called. He’s smiling at me again. My heart hops around idiotically. I can’t handle all this.

I focus on the ground again. “Um
 … you know what? It’s nothing. You don’t really want to know.” I pick up the pace a little. I think we’re only a block away from the Karlston now. Maybe I can deflect this question.

“Hey, you said I could read your stuff,” he protests quietly.

“It’s a weird name,” I confess.

“What is it?” he asks again.

I stay quiet, power walking.

“Shane!” He speeds up to match my pace, laughing as he catches
my eyes. “You have to tell me.”

He’s full-on beaming now, and it makes me feel all floaty. Fluttery and floaty. He stops walking and I stop walking, and we smile at each other.

“It’s FrenchWatermelonNineteen,” I mumble, the words running together.

Pilot laughs. “I’m sorry, what was that? French. Watermelon. Nineteen?” he clarifies slowly.

“FrenchWatermelonNineteen.” I smoosh my lips together
so my smile isn’t as toothy. His smile is toothy.

He shrugs, nonchalant. “Okay. French Watermelon Nineteen. What’s so weird about that? It’s so normal. Practically boring. I know, like, five other people who go by French Watermelon Nineteen on the internet. Are you French?”

“Nope.” I feel sheepish. I try to make my face look sheepish.

He raises his eyebrows.

I drop my gaze to his shoes. “I’m
 … a big fan of French toast.”

He answers immediately. “Oh, me too. Who isn’t?”

I look up again, and he’s closer. How did he get closer? I think I’m
shaking. Anxiety springs up through my legs. I’m all unsteady, like I could be blown over by the next gust of wind. I’m not sure what happens now. Eye contact game is strong. My words come out quiet. “Also I love watermelons and the number nineteen,
and so, I did what any rational human would have done—smashed them together into a weird blob of a word that would follow me around for the rest of my life.”

He nods. “So, French Watermelon.”

Is he closer?

“Nineteen,” I finish.

What’s happening? Is the sidewalk moving?

“I think it’s a fantastic name.”

We’re standing so close. His eyes are inches away. I’m holding on to the grocery bag for
dear life. Freight train has replaced heart.

And then my eyes swing down to look at a crack in the super-clean London sidewalk. When I raise them a moment later, Pilot’s three feet away again. He’s turned towards the Karlston.

“Look at that. We made it back.” He looks back at me. “Ready to round up the flatmates and get the bonding rolling?”

I stare at him. “Um, yeah, of course. I’ve been awake
for thirty-four hours now, what’s a few more … I have some icebreaker games loaded on my iPod that’ll be perfect.”

BOOK: Again, but Better
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