Authors: Corey Ann Haydu
To my cherished friend Honora,
who is brave enough to share her secrets
and kind enough to listen to mine
I haven't eaten anything but celery and hard-boiled eggs in three days. I want to be as skinny as my little sister, and I'm pretty sure I can do it.
I have gone to the doctor seven times this year without telling my parents. Just in case I have cancer.
I brought my mother's $100,000 ring to college, and I wear it as a necklace when I am going to parties. Clearly, she has not given me permission. Nor would she.
Hey, Tabitha? I have a secret
, Joe types.
What is it?
I type back. We've been chatting for three hours. My fingers hurt, my eyes are watery and strained, I have the light buzz of a headache, and it's well past midnight. Joe and I have been chatting almost every night like this, hours on end, for almost a month. In school we smile closed-mouth smiles at each other, and sometimes he finds an excuse to cup his hand over my shoulder for a moment. But at night I sit wrapped in an old quilt and braid my hair, unbraid it, and braid it again. We tell each other everything we're thinking, and everything we were thinking during the day. Sometimes the pauses in between our words are so long, I have to get out of the computer chair and pace the room, brimming with the restless energy of falling in love.
Tonight I'm so focused on the screen, it seems the whole world has turned bluish and backlit, and I don't
think I've even taken a moment to blink. He just finished telling me about the money he's been saving up to take a trip to New York City on his own. I didn't know jocks wanted to leave Vermont. I didn't know they went places by themselves. What's even better is I told him all that and he just said
and told me that the things I say surprise him.
What I really want, though, is to hear his secret.
You can tell me what you're thinking,
I don't want to say,
Joe responds at last. I exhale sharply.
I type. My hands grip the sides of my laptop. I know he's going to say it tonight. I know we are about to cross from something fun and bad and flirtatious to that other thing. The real thing.
When I say it, we can't go back,
I don't trust myself
It is delicious, pulling this out of him. I'm glad it's so late and quiet, and that the world keeps going but Joe and I are both glued to our computers, waiting for something terrifying and real and secret on the screen.
I can't figure out what in the world to say to make him spill his feelings, what possible combination of sentences will make this moment last. So I sort of tap out words and delete them. I settle on: .Â .Â . ?
Another long pause. That wasn't right. I need
something else. Like, a poem. Or something quick and heart-stopping that will arrest him, trap him right in this moment and make him love me.
We're in it together,
I write. Press send. Wait.
I am falling for you,
I want you. I'm questioning everything
I can't sleep. My mind is buzzing from the conversation with Joe, and by three I've made the executive decision to stop pretending to sleep and grab my newest copy of my favorite book,
A Little Princess
. I head to Cate's office, where I love to curl up with a book, and start doing my active reading.
Active reading is this thing they started making us do at my crunchy private school as soon as we transitioned from picture books to chapter books at the beginning of second grade. Back then, active reading meant starring words we didn't know or drawing smiley faces next to parts of a story that we liked or laughed at. Now we're expected to write notes in the margins, ask questions on the dedication page, and underline, asterisk, and highlight anything that “hits us emotionally or intellectually,”
according to Headmaster Brownser.
Headmaster Brownser cares about our feelings. He wants us to share them. He tells us so all the time. It doesn't make people at school any nicer, not really, but it means we do a lot of lame trust activities and keep journals and had an entire unit on Feeling Identification in seventh grade. As if by seventh grade a person doesn't know the difference between anger and sadness.
I'm not into trust falls or school-wide bonding picnics or most other things Headmaster Brownser likes, but I am really into active reading. I totally active read for fun. Like a hobby. And I love it when other people active read. So I do what I do best: break the binding on
A Little Princess
and start marking it up. It is the most beautiful book in the world, and as soon as Sara's handsome captain father starts buying her furs and dolls and gifts of every kind, to keep with her when he leaves, I tear up.
I make a note:
This is where I start to cry. It's so damn beautiful I can't stop myself
A few pages later, when he tells Sara, “âI know you by heart. You are inside my heart,'” I am wiping my eyes with the sleeves of my snowflake-themed flannel pajamas, and bits of the ridiculous glitter get stuck to my teary face. I make another note:
This is what love should be
I don't hold back. It's like having a conversation with
the book. It tells me things and I respond with semi-illegible scrawlings, and exclamation points, and wild circles around phrases that hit me really hard. We talk like that all night,
A Little Princess
and I. With only one lamp on and my red-framed glasses in the next room, I have to hold the book so close to my face that I can smell the pages, and it makes it even easier to get lost in this other world. Which is a relief and honestly a testament to how great that book is, because for me to think of anything but Joe is a miracle.
At seven Cate walks in and serves me oatmeal with brown sugar and what she calls a home-latte, which is just French-press coffee and microwaved milk with a heaping tablespoon of sugar. It's been weeks since she's been this motherly, so the morning really feels exceptionally
: Joe likes me, I'm in the final chapter of the best book of all time, and I'm eating oatmeal on the superthick carpet of Cate's office. In a few hours I'll be kicking myself for not having slept, but right now things are pretty effing great for a Monday morning.
“Drop this off at Recycled Books?” I say, when I finally leave the office and start packing my backpack in the kitchen. Paul and Cate are putting away their meditation mats, and postmeditation is usually the best time to ask Paul for favors.
“I can do even better. I'm heading down to New York
for a meeting right now. Quick in and outâI'll be back this afternoonâbut I'll drop it off with one of those street sellers. What is it this time?” he asks. Paul reads exactly like I do: with a flurry of excitement and messiness.
I hold up the book and he grins.
“Want me to pick something up, too?” he says.
“Wanna see if they have another marked-up copy of
A Little Princess
“I like the way you think, buttercup. I'll see what I can do.” Paul winks.
This is the greatest thing my father ever taught me: Taking notes in your own book is fun. Reading someone else's notes in the same book is even funner.
Paul starts flipping through
A Little Princess
and raises his eyebrows.
“You sure you want to donate this one?” he asks. I shrug. It's something I started doing this summer. Not just reading other people's notes, but letting them read mine. I guess that's what happens when you're really, really lonely. You start looking for connections
. Back when I had friends, I could tell them what I was thinking and feeling. Now I tell hypothetical strangers who don't know I exist. Paul doesn't judge, but he gives me one of his patented frown-smiles and half a hug. “I got a great copy of the first Harry Potter the other
day,” he says. “Weird, I know, but whoever marked that thing up is deep. You want it?” He's already heading for his bookcase and running his thumb along the spines of the books to find it for me.
“Yeah, I want it,” I say, and throw it in my backpack, as if it weren't already heavy enough.
“Weirdos,” Cate says. “Aren't you worried some sociopath is going to pick up that book and learn everything about you and then, you know, use it against you?” she says, which is what she always says when I do this. It's also more or less what she says when Paul and I get really intent on someone else's notes, too:
What if those are the notes of a serial killer that you are fawning over?
“What kind of sociopath buys a used copy of
A Little Princess
?” I say.
“I think you just answered your own question,” Cate says, and then she and Paul are giggling like little kids and I'm rolling my eyes, and even if Joe hadn't told me last night he was falling for me, this would be a great day.
“Our Tabitha's a romantic,” Paul says. “Just like her old man.” I can't hide the blush and the smile, and I'm sure they both know me well enough to see I'm thinking even more than usual about love. If my outsides match my insides, I must be glowing. I'm not great at hiding actual feelings.
“Pleeeeease tell us who it is,” Cate says, while I try to will the flush off my cheeks. Pregnancy may be making her read less, but it makes her no less nosy. I shake my head like she's crazy and bite the insides of my cheeks to at least temper the big-ass smile threatening to spread all over my face.
“I gotta get to school,” I say, matching her singsong voice. And I really, really do. Because I'm afraid if I don't see Joe immediately, last night's conversation will somehow disappear, the way things sometimes do.
Life totally sucks, so I do not see Joe all day.
Or rather: I do see Joe, but only with his girlfriend, Sasha Cotton, wrapped around him. She sits on his lap in the cafeteria, eating cheese-and-lettuce sandwiches,
taking bites so small, I wonder if she is even human. During assembly she crosses her legs over his and puts one arm around his neck and another around his stomach. Sasha Cotton grabs him from behind in between classes and kisses the place where his hair meets his neck while he smiles and rubs his thumbs against her wrists. When we play cards during free periods, Sasha Cotton doesn't actually play, but she rests her head in Joe's lap and reaches up to touch his chest from time to time.
It is torture.
He walks her to math class, which she and I are in together, and he squeezes her ass before leaving her at the door. If it were me, I'd giggle and push him away. I think that's how most girls flirt. But Sasha leans into his touch. She doesn't smile. Locks her green eyes on his. Puffs out her lips, a slight opening in between the top and bottom lip. That small space is the difference between Sasha Cotton and every other girl in the world.