A cobweb dress, check. Black tights, check. Plus the boots. Was me.
Mom couldn’t stop all the black, but then again I couldn’t have stopped Mom from hitting Floral Heights and returning triumphantly with two giant tiger orchids, which she told me I needed to present as a “hostess gift” for Holden’s mother and for Drew’s fiancée, Raina.
“This is too awkward,” I’d protested. “I swear to you, Mrs. Wilde doesn’t even want these. She’s super picky about flowers.” Privately, it also seemed as if showing up with big expensive orchids was kind of like an apology—and for what? For breaking up with her son last year?
Luckily, Rachel swung by to pick me up so that we could walk over together. And she wasn’t into presenting an orchid any more than I was.
“Really, Nat?” she asked, deliberately using the nickname my mom disliked.
“And just so you know, I’m telling Mrs. Wilde you bought them,” I called to Mom as we walked out the door. “So you’ll have to take full blame for currying favor.”
“Don’t be so dramatic. This is just good manners,” Mom insisted.
“Okay, executive decision: your orchid is for Drew, and mine is for Aunt Eleanor,” said Rachel. “I’d rather puke on my shoes than give Drew anything. I mean, I had to grow up with that kid; he’s also my cousin, unfortunately. He was such a bully to me and Holden back in the day.”
“When I was going out with Holden, I lived in fear that Drew would be at the house,” I remembered aloud. “All he did was tease us about hooking up. He’d shout from wherever he was, ‘Hey, are you kids making out up there? Smoochy-smooch! Kissy-kissy!’ And it was like he knew how much I hated that term, making out.” I grimaced.
“Yeah, it’s hard to believe he’s any better. I say we stay for an hour. Jake wants to meet up at Floyd after. He’s playing bocce there with some friends.”
“And God forbid you and Jake go three hours without seeing each other.”
“He makes me laugh.”
“He makes you more than laugh.”
“I know.… ” Smarty smiled to herself. She’d been in a permanent Hollywood-musical mood since Halloween—nothing but smiles and a spring in her step, and it had everything to do with Jake Weinstock. In the halls, they were inseparable. If she wasn’t texting him, she was waiting for his text to come in. All conversations seemed to lead down the path to Jake’s name, and most after-school or weekend plans included him.
Which was fine by me.
She was intolerable, before. Calling me, texting me every hour to talk about Holden and insisting he and I give it another chance. I was just about ready to kill her.
The thoughts came unbidden and surprised me.
“Sometimes I wish I’d met Jake last year; then maybe I wouldn’t have been so, I don’t know, invested—while you and Hold went through your breakup.” Rachel spoke as if she’d been reading my mind. “When I think about it, I wonder if I just ended up making all your crap worse.”
“No way. You can’t take responsibility for that.”
“I know. But anyway, I think it’s cool that you’re giving it another try.”
Another try? Is that what Holden had told her? This seemed like the perfect time for me to tell Smarty about Kai. To confess everything—our meetings, our connection, El Cielo, the fact that he whipped around in my head on a permanent spin cycle. I wanted to blurt out that I was walking on air today because I had a message from Kai on my phone, a message to pick him up this Saturday outside his dorm, the St. George, which was a few blocks from the Manhattan Bridge—and about a twenty-minute walk from my house.
Since yesterday, I’d walked there twice in the hope I’d accidentally-on-purpose bump into him. So far, no luck. Of course, he was self-admittedly never there, since he was usually in class or working at El Cielo—which was one place where I didn’t want to drop by uninvited, no matter how much I wanted to connect with him. Not with his tía Isabella’s unflinching eyes on me. I’d be pushing my luck.
But the moment of confession looped into another, less intimate one as Rachel and I walked on, our orchids occasionally tangling up with each other. Maybe Kai was still just a me thing. Maybe I just wasn’t ready to share.
“This reminds me of that other time, do you remember?” asked Rachel. “Back when Holden hosted his junior class party, and we walked over to the Wildes’ together carrying that double-fudge cake your mom had picked up at Betty Bakery, and all the fondant roses on the sides got smushed? Remember?”
“And I was in my rebel smoking phase, and I had to hide my Parliaments in somebody’s flower box when Aunt Eleanor saw me puffing away from down the road. And oh my God, the actual party, how hilarious it was? All the guys just sweaty and miserable in their outgrown blazers, and Holden kept making fun of Aunt Eleanor because she was obsessed that the mini-burger buns might not be gluten-free since someone—I forget who it was in the class—couldn’t eat them, and she was scared of a lawsuit?” Rachel’s face was lit up into the past as she called it all back.
“Emily Vaughn,” I said. “It was Emily because she’s got celiac disease, and Holden’s mom kept announcing it to everyone, and Emily kept saying, ‘No, it’s cool; I’m not even hungry,’ just to shut her up.”
“Ha-ha, that’s right. And then we went into the city to bowl at Chelsea Piers after, remember? Which was awesome.”
“Yeah.” I could see it vaguely. It had been such a nothing night, even the bowling. But Rachel loved Chelsea Piers and double-fudge cake from Betty. Funny how the exact same event could get folded up and put away in some people’s memories, while it got shaken out in others’, to be worn again and again.
“Hey, listen,” said Rachel as we stood side by side at the Wildes’ front door. “If the family isn’t feeling too warm and fuzzy around you, I’m right here, okay? Don’t let ’em get you down.” Rachel knocked her hip against mine in solidarity, the orchids tangling a last time just as one of the uniformed caterers opened the door.
Lilies, peonies, hyacinths—the front hall was banked in them. Immediately my eyes and nose started to itch. My pollen allergies were not going to be friends with this party. As Rachel and I set down our orchids, I sneezed discreetly into my sleeve. I looked around at the crowd, the open view of an equally formal dining room and what Holden’s mother always insisted on calling the “parlor.”