Authors: Claire Lazebnik
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Girls & Women, #Social Themes, #Dating & Relationships, #Adolescence, #Social Issues, #Dating & Sex
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UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE
UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE
UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE
n nights when I’m honest with myself, I can admit that Finn Westbrook was the best thing about my ninth-grade year.
But it hurts to think about him, so I try not to be honest with myself too often.
That was my first year at Sterling Woods High, but I had a group of friends who were all moving on from the same middle school together, so it wasn’t a crazy-scary move. Just the normal amount of scary.
I came in feeling pretty confident: by the time I had finished up middle school, I
the place. I spent eighth grade strutting around elbow-in-elbow with my best friend, Lucy; greeting everyone I knew—and I knew everyone; raising my hand a lot in class; and hanging out with friends after school. I worked on both the yearbook and the school newspaper and started an art-and-literary magazine that made my English teacher cry tears of joy when she held the first issue in her hands.
My home life wasn’t so great, though. My parents had divorced back when I was in fifth grade, which didn’t exactly make me special—a lot of my friends had parents who’d been divorced once or twice. I was, however, the only girl I knew whose mother had given full-time custody to her ex-husband. And not because he had fought her for it. Because she wanted it even less than he did.
“I’m just not good at being a mother” was how she explained the decision to her three daughters. “You can’t really disagree with that.”
She was right: we really couldn’t.
Anyway, so long as Marta was our nanny, we basically had a mom: she was the one who had doled out the hugs and cupcakes over the years, not my parents, who both went off to work until it was way past dinner every weekday and then argued for the right to isolate themselves from the kids on the weekends. (Marta’s sister Rosa solved that problem by becoming our weekend nanny.)
About three years after my mother moved out, my dad celebrated my thirteenth birthday by taking me and my sisters to Benihana, where, over fried rice and sautéed shrimp, he informed us that he had fired both Marta and Rosa. “You’re too old for nannies now,” he said. “Molly has her license already, and Lizzie will get hers soon, and”—a nod toward me—“Anna’s old enough to be home alone. See how much faith I have in my responsible girls?” He smiled and ran his fingers through his thick brown hair that was still free of any trace of gray. (Later I learned to be suspicious of that, but back then I was proud that my father wasn’t gray and balding like a lot of the other dads.) “Now who wants green-tea ice cream?”
I shook my head, my appetite gone. Molly did the same. Lizzie said she’d have some, then shifted closer to Dad on her stool and said, “You’re all we need, Daddy.” He smiled back down at her.
“What about Marta and Rosa?” Molly said in a dull voice. “Do they have other jobs?”
“I’ve been asking around,” Dad said. “I’ll help them find something—don’t worry. I gave them both good references and very generous severance checks, so they’re going to be fine.”
I think that was when Molly got quiet.
She’d never been a big talker, but she used to like to sit with me and Marta and share stories about her day. After Dad fired Marta, though, she barely said a word around him. He called her a “typical sullen teenager” and laughed it off.
When Marta and Rosa still worked for us, we three girls usually ate meals with them, but that pretty much fell apart after they left. When we got hungry, we made ourselves meals from whatever food Dad picked up on his way home from work or we ordered in pizzas and ate slices over our computers. I spent most of my time when I was home connected to my laptop by earbuds, watching movies or video-chatting with friends. My sisters did the same thing, but sometimes Molly would bring her homework into my room at night, and we’d sit side by side, not really talking, just sharing the space companionably.
We always got along well, but the age gap between us was big—four years—and we were pretty different: I liked to see friends and draw pictures of horses, and she was pretty much a loner who ran track and listened to music. But we clung together. Lizzie sometimes hung out with us, but we bored her. She was my father’s daughter in every way: they both loved gourmet food and exercising and dishing about other people—and not much else. Molly and I disappointed them by having other interests. So the family usually split in half. When Dad wasn’t home, Lizzie visited with friends or stayed in her room.
About once a month until she left for college (and during vacations after that), Molly would drive us out to see Marta in her small apartment in Glendale. Lizzie went the first couple of times and then stopped. I didn’t blame her: we didn’t have much to say to Marta, now that she wasn’t part of our daily lives and was working for another family. We loved her because she had taken care of us, and that was enough to make us want to keep seeing her, but it wasn’t enough to make those visits not feel awkward.
By the time I was fourteen, my interest in drawing had become more of an obsession. I took classes at the local art school, experimented with different media, and moved beyond just drawing horses. I discovered I could get lost in making art: it gave me something to do when I was feeling bored and lonely—which I was most of the time at home after Molly went off to college.
Molly left the fall I entered high school, which meant Lizzie was in charge of driving us both to school. That first morning she told me I had to sit in the back because she was picking up her friend Cameron and they wanted to be able to talk together. She was also going to be driving another kid, whose name and address she had found in the school directory and whose body in the car meant she had a carpool of four and could therefore get a space in the best student parking lot at school, right near the entrance.
After Cameron had gotten in and the two of them had gossiped and ignored me for several blocks, Lizzie pulled over in front of a small house with an unkempt front yard and honked the horn. A boy emerged from the front door and flew down the walkway, a backpack slung over one shoulder.
I figured it was the freshman’s little brother on his way to the bus stop or something, but then he came up to the car and opened the door, and I realized he was older than he looked from a distance and might actually be my age. He had brown eyes behind bulky tortoiseshell glasses, a narrow face, curly brown hair that needed a trim, and stooped shoulders. He couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds.
He slid onto the seat next to me, closed his car door, introduced himself as Finn Westbrook, and pulled out a phone from his pocket. “Here,” he said. “Look at this. How cool is that?”
The photo was of the aurora borealis over an icy landscape in Norway. It was startling and beautiful, with green water flowing under spiky ice floes. He hadn’t taken the photo, he quickly explained—he just liked it. I liked it too and told him so. He beamed, his smile broad in his thin face, and flicked through the photos on his phone to find some more treasures to show me.
Many more photos followed, not just that day but every morning from then on. Finn loved the natural world, loved the way cameras and telescopes and microscopes and rovers and submarines could show us things we’d otherwise never even know existed. Sometimes he’d make me try to guess what I was looking at. I almost always guessed wrong, assuming a photo was of a planet’s surface when it was really just some parched area of Asia or something, and every time he’d say something like “That’s what I thought at first too,” which couldn’t possibly have been true but was nice.
The other thing he said a lot those first few days was: “I know—I’m a total nerd.” He always said it with a shrug and a smile. He wasn’t apologizing for it, just acknowledging it.
“Me too,” I told him a few days into the carpool.
He shook his head. “No, you’re not. You may be smart and like science, but you’re not a nerd.” Then he ducked his head and mumbled something I couldn’t entirely hear.
“What?” I said.
He flushed. “Just . . . you don’t look like a nerd. Too cute.”
“That’s not fair,” I said with mock outrage. I liked the compliment—a lot—but didn’t know how to respond to it. It seemed easier to ignore it. “I can be a nerd if I want to be.”
“Okay,” he said. “You’re right.”
Finn and I turned out to have one class together—Spanish—but we didn’t sit together there, because I had a couple of friends in that class and they always saved me a seat. I wished I had science with him. Science with Finn Westbrook seemed like it would be a fun thing. He knew the coolest facts about the natural world.
There was no overlap between his friends and mine. He hung out with two boys—Josh Starr and Otis Chan—who were both undeniably brilliant, undeniably focused, and undeniably nerdy. Not unlike Finn. The three of them were lucky to be at a prep school like ours, where most of us were focused on getting into a top college, so good grades and intelligence were admired.
Although . . . no one really wants to make out with good grades and intelligence, so these kids were more popular in the classroom than they were after school let out.
I never saw them at the parties I went to that year, parties that were pale imitations of the ones the upperclassmen threw, because none of us could drive yet, and our dependence on our parents for lifts back and forth meant we couldn’t get away with drinking alcohol or dressing as skimpily as we’d have liked to. We
, however, make out with the guys we thought were hot—as far as we knew, parents couldn’t detect recent tongue kissing.
Being free to make out and
to make out were two different things, though. The sad truth was that the list of hot guys in our class was extremely short. My friends and I were discriminating. Sam Richards was broad-shouldered but had acne. Eric Manolo was cheerful and likable but too chubby. Jackson Levy was a good athlete but had body odor. Oscar Green was perfect and almost definitely gay.
Tiny, nerdy Finn Westbrook never even made the discussion, let alone the actual list.
When I waved to him one day in the hallway, Lucy said, “Who’s that guy again?” and I said I knew him from carpool.
“Well, he can’t take up too much space in the car” was her shrugged response. And that was as much interest as Finn inspired in any of my friends.
We all wanted to fit in so badly. That was the thing. We’d left middle school filled with confidence, but this new school, with its hulking athletes and seniors who looked more like adults than like
, was intimidating. There were a few kids in our grade who had the guts to dress weirdly or go off and read by themselves during lunchtime, but for most of us, the survival strategy was to cling together. We dressed alike (in skinny jeans that year, with short leather boots and wide-necked, silky tops that floated over tighter tanks) and grew our hair as long as it would go and coveted or bought the same iPhones, the same messenger bags, the same necklaces. It made us a tribe. It made us safe. It made us bonded. Alone we were vulnerable. As a group we were strong and safe. I needed my friends and knew how lucky I was to have them. The last thing I wanted to do was risk alienating or losing them.