THE END OF SCHOOL ALWAYS
has a particular feeling to it. It’s the same every year, but this year the feeling is amplified, because there won’t be a next year. There’s an air of things closing down. Teachers wear shorts and T-shirts to class. They show movies while they clean out their desks. Nobody has the energy to care anymore. We’re all just counting down, passing time. Everyone knows where they’re going, and the right now already feels like it’s in the rearview. Suddenly life feels fast and slow at the same time. It’s like being in two places at once.
Finals go well; even calculus isn’t as bad as I thought. And just like that, my high school career is coming to an end. Peter’s gone away on his training weekend. It’s only been one day and I’m already longing for him the way I long for Christmas in July. Peter is my cocoa in a cup, my red mittens, my Christmas morning feeling.
He said he’d call as soon as he gets back from the gym, so I keep my phone by my side, with the volume up. Earlier this morning he called when I was in the shower, and by the time I saw it, he was gone again. Is this what the future looks like? It’ll be different when I have classes and a schedule of my own, but for now it feels like I am standing on top of a lighthouse, waiting for my love’s ship to come in. For a romantic kind
of person, it’s not an altogether unpleasant feeling, not for now, anyway. It’ll be different when it’s not so novel anymore, when not seeing him every day is the new normal, but for now, just for now, longing is its own kind of perverse delight.
Late afternoon, I go downstairs in my long white nightgown that Margot says makes me look like
Little House on the Prairie
and Kitty says makes me look like a ghost. I sit at the counter with one leg up and open a can of cling peaches and eat them with a fork, right out of the can. There’s something so satisfying about biting into the skin of a syrupy cling peach.
I let out a sigh, and Kitty looks up from her computer and says, “What are you sighing about so loudly?”
“I miss . . . Christmas.” I bite into another slice of peach.
She brightens. “So do I! I think we should get a few deer to go in our front yard this year. Not the cheap kind, the classy wire kind that come covered in lights.”
I sigh again and set down the can. “Sure.” The syrup is starting to feel heavy in my stomach.
“Why does sighing feel so good?” I muse.
Kitty heaves a big sigh. “Well, it’s basically the same thing as breathing. And it feels good to breathe. Air is delicious.”
“It is, isn’t it?” I spear another slice of peach. “I wonder where you buy those kinds of deer. Target will probably sell them.”
“We should go to that store the Christmas Mouse. We can stock up on a bunch of stuff. Don’t they have one in Williamsburg?”
“Yeah, on the way to the outlet malls. You know, we could
use a new wreath, too. And if they have lavender lights, that could be cool. It would give it a winter-fairyland kind of feeling. Maybe the whole tree could be in pastels.”
Dryly she says, “Let’s not get carried away.”
I ignore her. “Don’t forget that Trina has a lot of her own holiday stuff. She has a whole Christmas village, remember? It’s all packed away in those boxes in the garage.” Trina’s village isn’t just a little nativity scene. It has a barber shop and a bakery and a toy store; it’s intense. “I don’t even know where we’ll put it.”
She shrugs. “We’ll probably have to throw away some of our old stuff.” God, Kitty doesn’t have an ounce of sentimentality in her! In that same practical tone she adds, “Not everything we have is so great anyway. Our tree skirt is scraggly and chewed-up-looking. Why keep something just because it’s old? New is almost always better than old, you know.”
I look away. Our mom bought that tree skirt at a Christmas fair the elementary school had. One of the
moms was a knitter. Margot and I fought over which to pick; she liked the red with tartan trim, and I liked the white because I thought it would look like our tree was standing in snow. Mommy went with the red, because she said the white would get dirty fast. The red has held up well, but Kitty’s right; it’s probably time to retire it. I’ll never let her throw it away though, and neither will Margot. At the very least, I’ll cut off a square and put it in my hat box for safekeeping.
“Trina has a nice tree skirt,” I say. “It’s white fur. Jamie Fox-Pickle will love to snuggle with it.”
My phone buzzes, and I jump to see if it’s Peter, but it’s only Daddy saying he’s picking up Thai food for dinner, and do we want pad thai or pad see yew? I sigh again.
“I swear, Lara Jean, if you sigh one more time!” Kitty threatens. Eyeing me, she says, “I know it’s not really Christmas you’re missing. Peter’s been gone for like one day and you’re acting like he went off to war or something.”
I ignore her and type back
pad see yew
out of pure spite, because I know Kitty prefers pad thai.
That’s when I get the e-mail notification. It’s from
admissions. My application has been updated. I click on the link.
Congratulations . . .
I’m off the wait list.
What in the
I sit there, stunned, reading it over and over. I, Lara Jean Song Covey, was accepted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I can’t believe it. I never thought I’d get in. But I’m in.
“Lara Jean? Hello?”
Startled, I look up.
“I just asked you a question three times. What’s up with you?”
“Um . . . I think I just got in to
Kitty’s jaw drops. “Whoa!”
“Weird, right?” I shake my head in wonder. Who’d have ever thought it? Not me. I’d all but forgotten about
after I got wait-listed.
is a really hard school to get into, Lara Jean!”
“I know.” I’m still in a daze. After I didn’t get into
, I felt so low, like I wasn’t good enough to be there. But
! It’s even harder to get into
out of state than it is
Kitty’s smile fades a little. “But aren’t you going to William and Mary? Didn’t you already send in your deposit? And aren’t you transferring to
next year anyway?”
. For those few seconds, I forgot about transferring to
and I was just happy about
. “That’s the plan,” I say. My phone buzzes, and my heart jumps, thinking it’s Peter, but’s it’s not. It’s a text from Chris.
Wanna go to Starb
I write back,
GUESS WHAT. I got into UNC!
I’m calling you
A second later my phone rings and Chris screams, “Holy shit!”
“Thank you! I mean, wow. I just . . . it’s such a great school. I figured—”
“So what are you going to do?” she demands.
“Oh.” I glance over at Kitty, who is watching with eagle eyes. “Nothing. I’m still going to William and Mary.”
a better school?”
“It’s higher ranked. I don’t know. I’ve never been there.”
“Let’s go,” she says.
“To visit? When?”
“Right now! Spontaneous road trip!”
“Are you crazy? It’s four hours away!”
“No it’s not. It’s only three hours and twenty-five minutes. I just looked it up.”
“By the time we get there, it’ll be—”
“Six o’clock. Big deal. We’ll walk around, get dinner, and then drive back. Why not! We’re young. And you need to know what you’re saying no to.” Before I can protest again, she says, “I’m picking you up in ten minutes. Pack some snacks for the road.” Then she hangs up.
Kitty is eyeing me. “You’re going to North Carolina? Right now?”
I’m feeling pretty euphoric at the moment. I laugh and say, “I guess!”
“Does that mean you’re going there instead of William and Mary?”
“No, it’s just—I’m just going to visit. Nothing’s changed. Don’t tell Daddy, though.”
“Just—because. You can tell him I’m with Chris, and that I won’t be at dinner, but don’t mention anything about
And then I’m getting dressed and flying around the house like a banshee, throwing things into a tote. Dried wasabi peas, Pocky sticks, bottled water. Chris and I have never gone on a road trip together before; I’ve always wanted to do that with her. And what would it hurt to just look at Chapel Hill, just to see? I won’t
be going there, but it’s still fun to think about.
Chris and I are halfway to Chapel Hill before I realize my phone is dying and I forgot to pack my charger. “Do you have a car charger?” I ask her.
She’s singing along to the radio. “Nope.”
“Shoot!” We’ve eaten up most of her phone battery using the
, too. I feel a little uneasy about traveling out of state without a full charge on my phone. Plus, I told Kitty not to tell Daddy where I was going. What if something were to happen? “What time are we getting back, do you think?”
“Quit worrying, Granny Lara Jean. We’ll be fine.” She rolls down her window and mine and starts fumbling around for her purse. I get her purse from the floor of the backseat and pull out her cigarettes before she wrecks the car. When we’re at a red light, she lights her cigarette and inhales deeply. “We’ll be like pioneers. It just adds to the adventure. Our forefathers didn’t have cell phones either, you know.”
“Just remember, we’re only going to look. I’m still going to William and Mary.”
“You just remember—options are everything,” Chris says.
That’s what Margot’s always telling me. Those two have more in common than they think.
We spend the rest of the trip surfing radio stations and singing along and talking about whether or not Chris should dye her hair pink in the front. I’m surprised by how fast the time goes. We get to Chapel Hill in just under three hours and thirty minutes, like Chris said we would. We find a parking spot right on Franklin Street, which I guess is their main
street. The first thing that strikes me is how similar
’s campus is to
’s. Lots of maple trees, lots of green, lots of brick buildings.
“It’s so pretty, isn’t it?” I stop to admire a pink flowering dogwood tree. “I’m surprised they have so many dogwood trees, since it’s Virginia’s state flower. What do you suppose is North Carolina’s state flower?”
“No idea. Can we please eat? I’m starving.” Chris has the attention span of a fly, and when she is hungry, everybody better watch out.
I put my arm around her waist. I’m suddenly feeling very tender toward her for taking me on this trip to see what might have been. “Let’s fill that belly up, then. What do you want? Pizza? A hoagie? Chinese food?”
She puts her arm around my shoulder. Her mood is already picking up at the mention of different cuisines. “You pick. Anything but Chinese food. Or pizza. You know what, let’s get sushi.”
A couple of guys pass on the street, and Chris calls out, “Hey!”
They turn around. “What’s up?” one says. He’s black, handsome, tall, with muscular arms in a
“Where’s the best sushi around here?” Chris asks.
“I don’t eat sushi, so I can’t really say.” He looks at his red-haired friend, who is less cute but still cute. “Where do you go?”
“Spicy Nine,” he says, eyeing Chris. “Just go down Franklin that way and you’ll run right into it.” He winks at her,
and they go back to walking in the other direction.
“Should we go after them?” she says, her eyes following them as they walk away. “Find out what they’re up to tonight?”
I steer her in the direction they pointed us to. “I thought you were hungry,” I remind her.
“Oh yeah,” she says. “So that’s one point in the
column, am I right? Hotter guys?”
“I’m sure William and Mary has good-looking guys too.” Quickly I add, “Not that it matters to me, because I obviously have a boyfriend.” Who still hasn’t called, mind you. My phone is down to 5 percent, so by the time he does, it’ll be too late.
* * *
After we eat sushi, we wander around on Franklin Street, stopping in stores. I consider buying a
Tar Heels basketball hat for Peter, but he probably wouldn’t wear it, since he’ll be a Wahoo.
We pass a pole with signs on it, and Chris stops short. She points to a sign for a music hall called Cat’s Cradle. A band called Meow Mixx is playing tonight. “Let’s go!” Chris says.
“Have you ever heard of Meow Mixx before?” I ask. “What kind of music do they play?”
“Who cares. Let’s just go!” She grabs my hand. Laughing, we run down the street together.
There’s a line to get inside, and the band has already started to play; snatches of dancey music float through the
open door. A couple of girls are waiting in line in front of us, and Chris throws her arms around me and tells them, “My best friend just got into
I feel warm inside hearing Chris call me her best friend—to know that we still matter to each other, even though she has her work friends and I have Peter. It makes me feel sure that when she’s in Costa Rica, or Spain, or wherever she ends up, we’ll still be close.
One of the girls hugs me and says, “Congratulations! You’re going to love it here.” Her hair is in milkmaid braids, and she’s wearing a T-shirt that says
HILLARY IS MY PRESIDENT.
Adjusting the lollipop enamel pin in her hair, her friend says, “Put down Ehaus or Craige for your dorm. They’re the most fun.”
I feel sheepish as I say, “Actually, I’m not coming here; we just came to visit. For fun.”
“Oh, where are you going?” she asks me, a slight frown on her freckled face.
“William and Mary,” I tell her.
“It’s not definite though,” Chris butts in.
“It’s pretty definite,” I say.
“I came here over Princeton,” the braided girl tells me. “That’s how much I loved it when I visited. You’ll see. I’m Hollis, by the way.”
We all introduce ourselves and the girls tell me about the English department, and going to basketball games at the Dean Dome, and the places on Franklin Street that don’t
card. Chris, who zoned out during the English department part of the conversation, is suddenly all ears. Before we go inside, Hollis gives me her number. “Just in case you come here,” she says.
When we get inside, the venue is pretty full, lots of people standing near the stage, drinking beers and dancing to the music. The band is actually just two guys with guitars and a laptop, and their sound is sort of electronica pop. It fills the whole room. It’s a mixed crowd in the audience: some older guys in rock band T-shirts and beards, closer to my dad’s age, but also a lot of students. Chris tries to wipe off the stamp on her hand to get us beers, but is unsuccessful. I don’t mind, because I don’t really like beer, and also, she still has to drive us back tonight. I start asking around to see if anyone has a phone charger, which Chris slaps my arm for. “We’re on an adventure!” she yells. “We don’t need cell phones for an adventure!”
Then she grabs my hand and pulls me along with her to the edge of the stage. We dance our way to the middle, and we jump along to the music, even though we don’t know any of the songs. One of the guys went to
, and midway through the show, he leads the crowd in the Tar Heels fight song. “I’m a Tar Heel born, I’m a Tar Heel bred, and when I die I’m a Tar Heel dead!” The crowd goes nuts, the whole room is shaking. Chris and I don’t know the words, but we shout, “Go to hell, Duke!” along with everyone else. Our hair swings wildly in our faces; I’m sweaty, and suddenly I’m having the best time. “This is so much fun,” I scream in Chris’s face.
“Same!” she screams back.
After the second set Chris declares that she is hungry, so we are off into the night.
We walk up the street for what feels like ages when we find a place called Cosmic Cantina. It’s a tiny Mexican place with a long line, which Chris says must mean they either have good food or really cheap food. Chris and I inhale our burritos; they are stuffed full with rice and beans and melting cheese and homemade pico de gallo. It tastes pretty plain, except for the hot sauce. So hot my lips burn. If my phone weren’t dead and Chris’s phone weren’t nearly dead, I’d have searched online for the best burrito in Chapel Hill. But then we might not have found this place. For some reason it’s the best burrito of my life.
After we eat our burritos, I say, “What time is it? We should head back soon if we want to get back before one.”
“But you’ve barely seen any of campus,” Chris says. “Isn’t there anything you want to see in particular? Like, I don’t know, a boring library or something?”
“Nobody knows me like you do, Chris,” I say, and she bats her eyelashes. “There is one place I want to see . . . it’s in all the brochures. The Old Well.”
“Then let’s go,” she says.
As we walk, I ask her, “Does Chapel Hill seem like Charlottesville to you?”
“No, it seems better.”
“You’re just like Kitty. You think everything new is better,” I say.
“And you think everything old is better,” she counters.
She has a point there. We walk the rest of the way in companionable silence. I’m thinking about the ways
does and doesn’t remind me of
. The campus is quiet, I guess because most kids have gone home for summer break. There are still people walking around, though: girls in sundresses and sandals and boys in khaki shorts and
We cross the green lawn, and there it is: the Old Well. It sits between two brick residence halls. It’s a small rotunda, like a mini version of the one at
, and there is a drinking fountain in the center. There’s a big white oak tree right behind it, and there are azalea bushes all around, hot pink like a lipstick color Stormy used to wear. It’s enchanting.
“Are you supposed to make a wish or something?” Chris asks, stepping up to the fountain.
“I think I heard that on the first day of classes, students take a sip of water from the fountain for good luck,” I say. “Either good luck or straight As.”
“I won’t need straight As where I’m going, but I’ll take the luck.”
Chris bends down to take a sip, and a couple of girls walking by caution, “Frat guys pee in that fountain all the time—don’t do it.”
Her head snaps back up and she jumps away from the fountain. “Ew!” Hopping down, she says, “Let’s take a selfie.”
“We can’t; our phones are dead, remember? We’ll just have to have the memory in our hearts like the old days.”
“Good point,” Chris says. “Should we hit the road?”
I hesitate. I don’t know why, but I’m not ready to leave just yet. What if I never get to come back? I spot a bench facing one of the brick buildings and go over and sit down, “Let’s stay a little bit longer.”
I hug my knees to my chest and Chris sits down next to me. Fiddling with the stack of bracelets on her arm, she says, “I wish I could come here with you.”
“To college or to
?” I’m so caught off guard by the pensive note in her voice that I don’t stop to correct her, to remind her that I won’t be coming here either.
“Either. Both. Don’t get me wrong. I’m psyched about Costa Rica. It’s just . . . I don’t know. Like, what if I’m missing out by not going to college at the same time as everybody else.” She looks at me then, a question in her eyes.
I say, “College will be here waiting for you, Chris. Next year, the year after. Whenever you want it.”
Chris twists around and looks out at the lawn. “Maybe. We’ll see. I can picture you here, Lara Jean. Can’t you?”
I swallow. “I have a plan. William and Mary for a year, then
“You mean you and Peter have a plan. That’s why you’re holding back.”
“Okay, Peter and I have a plan. But it’s not the only reason.”
“But it’s the main one.”
I can’t deny it. The thing that’s missing no matter where I go, if it’s William and Mary or if it’s here, is Peter.
“So why not go here for a year, then?” Chris asks me.
“What’s the difference if you’re here or William and Mary? An hour? Either way, you’re not at
. Why not be here?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer her; she hops up and runs out onto the lawn, and she kicks off her shoes and does a series of cartwheels.
What if I came here and I ended up loving it? What if, after a year, I didn’t want to leave? What then? But wouldn’t it be great if I loved it? Isn’t that the whole point? Why bet on not loving a place? Why not take a chance and bet on happiness?
I lie down and stretch my legs out on the bench and look up at the sky. There is a canopy of tree branches high above my head—one tree sits by the building; the other is planted in the lawn. Their branches reach across the walkway and meet in the middle. What if Peter and I could be like these two trees, far apart but still touching? Because I think maybe I could be happy here. I think maybe I could picture myself here too.
What was it Stormy said? The last day I saw her, the day she gave me her ring?
Never say no when you really want to say yes.
* * *
When Chris pulls up to my house, it’s just after three a.m. and every single light is on. Gulp. I turn to Chris. “Come in with me?” I plead.
“No way. You’re on your own. I’ve gotta go home and deal with my own mom.”
I hug Chris good-bye, get out of the car, and trudge up to the front steps. The door flies open as soon as I’m fumbling
around in my bag for my keys. It’s Kitty, in her big sleep T-shirt. “You’re in trouble,” she whispers.
I step inside, and Daddy’s right behind her, still dressed in his work clothes. Trina’s on the couch, giving me a look like,
You’re in for it, and I feel sympathy for you, but also, you could’ve at least called.
“Where have you been all night!” he shouts. “And why weren’t you answering your phone!”
I shrink backward. “I ran out of battery. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it had gotten so late.” I briefly consider making a joke about how this is why millenials should wear watches, to lighten the mood, but I don’t think a joke will do the trick this time.
Daddy starts pacing around the living room. “So why didn’t you use Chris’s phone!”
“Chris’s phone died too. . . .”
“We’ve been worried half to death! Kitty says you left with Chris without saying where you were going. . . .” At this, Kitty gives me a look. “I was five seconds from calling the police, Lara Jean! If you hadn’t walked in the door when you did—”
“I’m sorry,” I begin. “I’m really sorry.”
“This is just so irresponsible.” Daddy’s muttering to himself, not even listening. “Lara Jean, you might be eighteen, but—”
From the couch, Trina says, “Dan, please don’t say, ‘but you’re still living under my roof.’ It’s such a cliché.”
Daddy spins around and says to her, “It’s a cliché for a reason! It’s a good line! It’s a very good line.”
“Lara Jean, just tell them where you were,” Kitty says, impatient.
Daddy shoots an accusing look her way. “Kitty, did you know where she went?”
“She made me swear not to tell!”
Before he can reply, I say, “I was in North Carolina with Chris.”
He throws his hands up in the air. “In North Carolina! What in the—what in the world? You crossed state lines without even telling me? With a dead phone battery, to boot!”
I feel sick to my stomach for worrying him. I don’t know why I didn’t call. I could’ve borrowed somebody’s phone. I guess I just got carried away with the night, with being there. I didn’t want to think about home or real life. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I’m really, really sorry. I should’ve called.”
He shakes his head. “Why were you in North Carolina?”
“I was in North Carolina because . . .” I pause. If I say it now, that’s it. “Because I got into
Daddy’s eyes widen. “You did? That’s—that’s wonderful. But what about William and Mary?”
Smiling, I lift my shoulders into a shrug.
Trina lets out a scream and jumps up from the couch, dropping the flannel blanket she had wrapped around her and nearly tripping herself in the process. Daddy grabs me into his arms and sweeps me into a hug, and Trina joins in. “Oh my God, Lara Jean!” she says, slapping me on the back. “You’re gonna be a Tar Heel!”
“I’m happy you’re happy,” Daddy says. He wipes a tear from his eyes. “I’m still furious with you for not calling. But I’m also happy.”
“So you’re really going, then?” Kitty asks from her perch on the stairs.
I look over at her. I smile shakily and say, “Yeah, I’m going.” Peter and I will find a way. We’ll make it work.
I tell them every little detail of the night: going to a show at Cat’s Cradle, eating burritos at Cosmic Cantina, the Old Well. Trina makes popcorn, and it’s nearly dawn before any of us goes to sleep. As Daddy shuffles off to bed, Trina whispers to me, “Your daddy just aged ten years in one night. Look at him walking like he needs a cane. Thanks to you, I’m marrying an old man.” We both start laughing, and neither of us can stop. I think we’re delirious from lack of sleep. Trina rolls onto her back and kicks her legs in the air, she is laughing so hard. Kitty, who has fallen asleep on the couch, wakes up and says, “What’s so funny?” which only makes us laugh harder. On his way up the stairs, Daddy stops and turns around and shakes his head at the two of us.
“You guys are already ganging up on me,” he says.
“Face it, Daddy. You’ve always lived in a matriarchy.” I blow him a kiss.
He frowns. “Hey, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you staying out all night without even a phone call home.”
Whoops. Maybe too soon for such gaiety. As he trudges up the stairs, I call out, “I truly am sorry!”
Sorry for not calling, but not sorry for going.