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The end of our final winter break seems almost like the beginning of a victory lap. We’re seven semesters into our high school career, with one last—token, honestly—semester to go. I want to celebrate like your average guy: with some private time and a few mindless hours down the YouTube rabbit hole. Unfortunately, neither of those things is going to happen.
Because, from across her bed, Autumn is glaring at me, waiting for me to explain myself.
My schedule isn’t complete and classes start up in two days and the good ones fill up fast and This is just so like you, Tanner.
It’s not that she’s wrong. It is just like me. But I can’t help it if she’s the ant and I’m the grasshopper in this relationship. That’s the way it’s always been.
“Everything’s fine,” she repeats, tossing her pencil down. “You should have that printed on a T-shirt.”
Autumn is my rock, my safe place, the best of my best—but when it comes to school, she is unbelievably anal-retentive. I roll onto my back, staring up at her ceiling from her bed. For her birthday sophomore year—right after I moved here and she took me under her wing—I gave her a poster of a kitten diving into a tub of fuzzy balls. To this day, the poster remains sturdily taped there. It’s a super-cute cat, but by junior year I think the innocent sweetness of it had been slowly sullied by its inherent weirdness. So, over the motivational phrase DIVE RIGHT IN, KITTY! I taped four Post-it notes with what I think the creator of the poster might have intended it to say: DON’T BE A PUSSY!
She must agree with the edit because she’s left it up there.
I turn my head to gaze over at her. “Why are you worried? It’s my schedule.”
“I’m not worried,” she says, crunching down on a stack of crackers. “But you know how fast things fill up. I don’t want you to end up with Hoye for O Chem because he gives twice as much homework and that will cut into my social life.”
This is a half-truth. Getting Hoye for chem would cut into her social life—I’m the one with the car; I chauffer her around most of the time—but what Autumn really hates is that I leave things to the last minute and then manage to get what I want anyway. We’re both good students in our own way. We’re both high honor roll, and we both killed our ACTs. But where Autumn with homework is a dog with a bone, I’m more like a cat lying in a sunny window; if the homework is within reach and doing something interesting, I’ll happily charm it.
“Well, your social life is our priority.” I shift my weight, brushing away a trail of cracker crumbs stuck to my forearm. They’ve left a mark there, tiny red indentations in the skin, the same way gravel might. She could stand to spread some of her obsessiveness to room cleaning. “Autumn, my God. You’re a pig. Look at this bed.”
She responds to this by shoving another stack of Ritz in her mouth, crumbling another trail onto her Wonder Woman sheets. Her reddish hair is in a messy pile on her head, and she’s wearing the same Scooby-Doo pajamas she’s had since she was fourteen. They still fit . . . mostly.
“If you ever get Eric in here,” I say, “he’ll be horrified.”
Eric is another one of our friends and one of only a handful of non-Mormon kids in our grade. I guess technically Eric is Mormon, or at least his parents are. They’re what most people would call “Jack Mormon.” They drink (both alcohol and caffeine) but are still reasonably involved in the church. Best of both worlds, he says—although it’s easy to see that the other Latter-day Saints students at Provo High don’t agree. When it comes to social circles, Jack Mormon is the same as not Mormon at all. Like me.
A few dry flecks of cracker fly out when Autumn coughs at this, feigning repulsion. “I don’t want Eric anywhere near my bed.”
And yet here I am, lying on her bed. It’s a testament to how much her mother trusts me that I’m allowed in her room at all. But maybe Mrs. Green senses already that nothing will happen in here between me and Auddy.
We did that once, over winter break our sophomore year. I’d lived in Provo for only five months by that point, but there was an immediate chemistry between us—driven by a lot of classes in common and a comfort from our shared defector status with the Mormon kids at school. Unfortunately, the chemistry dissolved for me when things got physical, and by some miracle we dodged the post-make-out awkward bullet. I am not willing to risk it again.
She seems to grow hyperaware of our proximity at the same moment I do, straightening and pulling her pajamas down her torso. I push up so I’m sitting, leaning against the headboard: a safer position. “Who do you have for first?”
Autumn looks down at her schedule. “Polo. Modern Lit.”
“Same.” I steal a cracker, and—like a civilized human—manage to eat it without dropping a crumb. Scanning down my paper with an index finger, I feel pretty good about this last term. “Honestly, my schedule isn’t too bad. I only need to add something for fourth.”
“Maybe you can add the Seminar.” Autumn claps joyfully.
Her eyes are flashlights, beaming their thrill into the dusky room: She has wanted to take this course since she was a freshman.
The Seminar—I’m serious; when the school references it in newsletters or announcements, they even capitalize it like that—is so pretentious it’s unreal. WRITE A BOOK IN A SEMESTER, the catalog cheerfully dares, as if that could happen only in this class. As if the average person couldn’t throw together enough words in four months. Four months is a lifetime.
Students who apply need to have completed at least one advanced placement English course and have a minimum of a 3.75 GPA for the previous term. Even if that includes seventy kids in our grade alone, the teacher only enrolls fourteen.
Two years ago, the New York Times wrote an article and called it “a brilliantly ambitious course, earnestly and diligently directed by the NYT-bestselling faculty member Tim Fujita.” (I know that direct quote because the piece was printed out, enlarged to about five thousand times the original size, and framed in the front office. My frequent gripe is the criminal overuse of adverbs, which Autumn thinks makes me petty.) Last year, a senior named Sebastian Brother took the Seminar, and some big publisher bought his manuscript. I don’t even know who he is and I’ve heard his story a hundred times: He’s a bishop’s son! He wrote a high fantasy novel! Apparently, it was amazing. Mr. Fujita sent it to an agent, who sent it to people in New York, and there was some sort of civilized warfare for it, and boom, now he’s across the street at BYU and apparently delaying his mission so that he can do a book tour and become the next Tolkien.
Or L. Ron Hubbard. Though I guess some Mormons might take issue with that comparison. They don’t like to be lumped in with cults like Scientology. Then again, neither do Scientologists.
Anyway, now—other than BYU football and the sea of Mormons—the Seminar is the only thing anyone ever talks about anymore when they mention Provo.
“You got in?” I confirm, not that I’m surprised. This class means everything to Autumn, and apart from already meeting the actual requirements, she’s been devouring novels nonstop in the hope that she’ll get a chance to write her own.
She nods. Her smile stretches from sea to shining sea.
“You could, too, if you talked to Mr. Fujita,” she says. “You have the grades. You’re a good writer. Plus, he loves your parents.”
“Nah.” I’m expecting acceptance letters to colleges anywhere but here—Mom begged me to only apply out of state—and a yes from any one of those schools will be conditional on my grades this last semester. Regardless of how easy I think this might be, this is not the time to be taking chances.
Autumn picks at a beleaguered fingernail. “Because then you’d have to, you know, finish something?”
“I finished your mom earlier. I think you know what I mean.”
She pulls my leg hair, and I screech out a surprisingly feminine sound.
“Tanner,” she says, sitting up, “I’m serious. It would be good for you. You should take this class with me.”
“You say that like I would want to.”
Glaring at me, she growls, “It’s the Seminar, asshole. Everyone wants to.”
See what I mean? She’s got this course on a pedestal, and it’s so nerdy it makes me a little protective of Future Autumn, when she’s out in the world, battling her Hermione Nerd Girl battles. I give her my best smile. “Okay.”
“Are you worried about coming up with something original?” she asks. “I could help you.”
“Come on. I moved here when I was fifteen—which I think we can agree is the worst time to move from Palo Alto, California, to Provo, Utah—with a mouth full of metal and no friends. I have stories.”
Not to mention I’m a half-Jewish queer kid in a straight and Mormon town.
I don’t say that last part, not even to Autumn. It wasn’t that big a deal in Palo Alto when, at thirteen, I realized I liked the idea of kissing guys as much as kissing girls. Here, it would be a huge deal. She’s the best of my best, yeah, but I don’t want to risk telling her and finding out she’s only progressive in theory and not when a queer kid is hanging out in her bedroom.
“We all had braces, and you had me.” She flops back on her bed. “Besides, everyone hates being fifteen, Tanner. It’s period emergencies and boners at the pool, zits and angst and unclear social protocol. I guarantee ten out of fifteen students in this class will write about the perils of high school for lack of deeper sources of fiction.”
A quick scan through the Rolodex of my past gives me a lurching, defensive feeling in my gut, like maybe she’s right. Maybe I couldn’t come up with something interesting and deep, and fiction must come from depth. I’ve got two supportive—maybe overly supportive—parents, a crazy but wonderful extended family, a not-too-terrible-although-dramatically-emo sister, my own car. I haven’t known a lot of turmoil.
So I balk, pinching the back of her thigh. “What makes you so deep?”
It’s a joke, of course. Autumn has plenty to write about. Her dad died in Afghanistan when she was nine. Afterward, her mom—angry and heartbroken—cut ties with the Mormon Church, which, in this town, is a huge defection. More than 90 percent of the people who live here are LDS. Being anything else automatically leaves you on the outskirts of the social world. Add into the mix that on Mrs. Green’s salary alone, she and Autumn barely scrape by.
Autumn looks up at me flatly. “I can see why you wouldn’t want to do it, Tann. It’s a lot of work. And you’re lazy.”
• • •
She baited me into adding the stupid class, and now, as we drive to school together the Monday after winter break, she’s being brittle and clipped because I told her I got in.
I can feel her heated glare on the side of my face as I turn onto Bulldog Boulevard. “Fujita just signed your add card?” she says. “That’s it?”
“Auddy, you’re insane if you’re pissed about this. You get that, right?”
“And . . . what?” she says, ignoring my rhetorical and turning to face forward. “You’re going to do it?”
“Yeah, why not?” I pull into the student lot, scanning for a spot close to the door, but of course we’re running late and there’s nothing convenient here. I slip into a spot along the back side of the building.
“Tanner, do you realize what it is?”
“How could I attend this school and not know what the Seminar is?”
She gives me an aggressively patient look because I’ve just used my mocking voice and she hates it. “You’re going to have to write a book. An entire book.”
When the end of my fuse appears, it is predictably mild: a rougher than normal shove of my door open into the frigid air. “Auddy, what the hell? I thought you told me to add it.”
“Yeah, but you shouldn’t do it if you don’t want it.”
I pull out my best smile again, the one I know she likes. I know I shouldn’t, but hey, you use the tools you have. “Then you shouldn’t call me lazy.”
She lets out this savage growl I think I like. “You’re so lucky and you don’t even know it.”
I ignore her, grabbing my backpack from the trunk. She is confusing as hell.
“Do you see what I mean, though, that it was so easy for you?” She jogs after me. “I had to apply, and interview with him, and, like, grovel. You walked into his office and he signed your add slip.”
“It wasn’t exactly like that. I went to his office, chatted him up for a bit, updated him on my folks, and then he signed my add slip.”
I’m met with silence, and when I turn, I realize she’s walked in the other direction, toward a side entrance. “I’ll see you at lunch, best friend!” I call out. She raises her middle finger.
The warmth inside the hall is heaven, but it’s loud in here and the floors are soggy with dirty, melting snow knocked off boots. I squeak down the hall to my locker, sandwiched between Sasha Sanderson and Jack Thorne, two of the best-looking—and nicest—people at Provo High.
Socially, things here are mixed. Even two and a half years later, I still feel like the new kid, and it’s probably because most of the students here have gone to school together since kindergarten and live within a handful of wards—meaning, they’re in the same congregation and see each other for about a million church activities outside of school. I essentially have Auddy, Eric, and a few other friends who happen to be LDS, but cool, so they don’t drive us too crazy and their parents don’t worry we’re corrupting them. Back in Palo Alto, my freshman year, I was sort of dating another guy for a few months and had a whole group of friends I’d known since kindergarten who didn’t blink when they saw me holding Gabe’s hand. I wish I’d appreciated that freedom more at the time.
Here, girls flirt with me, sure, but most of them are Mormon and would never, not in a million years, be allowed to date me. Most LDS parents hope their children will marry in their Temple, and that just can’t happen with someone like me, a nonmember. Unless I converted, which . . . is never going to happen. Take Sasha for example. I feel something brewing between us; she’s super flirty and touchy, but Autumn insists it could never go anywhere. To an even greater extent, the same is true of my chances here with guys, LDS or otherwise; I don’t get to test those waters in Provo. I’ve had a crush on Jack Thorne since tenth grade, but he’s off-limits for three important reasons: (1) male, (2) Mormon, (3) Provo.
Before she got pissed at me this morning, Auddy handed me, without comment, a sheet of sparkly dinosaur stickers. So, without question, I pocketed them; Autumn is known to hand me things that will be of use at some unknown point in time, and I roll with it. As I open my locker, I realize her motive: I am notoriously bad about remembering my A and B day schedule—we practice an alternating-day class schedule here, with periods one through four on some days and periods five through eight on others. Each term I need to tape my schedule to my locker, and each term I find myself without any tape.
“You’re brilliant,” Sasha says, coming up behind me to better see what I’m doing. “And ohmygod, you’re so cute. Dinosaurs! Tanner, are you eight?”
“I got them from Autumn.”
I hear Sasha’s reaction to this in her silence, the unspoken, Are they, or aren’t they? Everyone wonders whether Autumn and I are casually banging.
As ever, I leave it unanswered. Her suspicion is a good thing. Unwittingly, Autumn has been my shield.
“Nice boots,” I tell her. They reach a suggestive height: just past her knees. I wonder whose attention she’s aiming for the most here: the guys at school, or her parents at home. I give her a dinosaur sticker and a kiss on the cheek as I slip past her down the hall with my books.
Provo High is not by any means a religious school, but sometimes it feels that way. And if there’s one thing you learn quickly about Mormons, it’s that they focus on the positive: positive feelings, positive actions, happy, happy, joy, joy. So Modern Lit with Mrs. Polo starts out with an unexpected and decidedly unhappy bang: The first book we’re reading is The Bell Jar.
I feel a faint murmur around the room as students shift in their seats to make surreptitious eye contact in such dramatic unison that their covert efforts are wasted. Mrs. Polo—wild hair, flowy skirts, rings on thumbs, you know the deal—ignores the commotion. In fact, I think she’s sort of enjoying it. She rocks back on her heels, waiting for us to return to the syllabus and see what else she has in store for us.
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, and on and on into Toni Morrison’s Sula, and even James Goddamn Frey’s fake memoir. Perhaps most shocking is Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, a novel dealing with fanatical religion and a tent-revival-style creepy preacher. It’s pretty on the nose. Mrs. Polo is ballsy, and I for one like seeing their cages rattled.
At my side, and still giving me the silent treatment, Autumn is sitting up, eyes wide. She’s read almost every book on this list, and if I know her, I know what she’s thinking: Is there time to transfer to Shakespeare with Mr. Geiser?
She turns and looks at me, her eyes narrowing as she reads my mind right back. She growls again, and I can’t help the laugh it pulls from me.
I’ve read almost all these books too. Autumn insisted.
I lean back, lacing my fingers behind my head and giving her another good smile.
Piece of cake. I have an easy semester ahead.