* "Fans of Sarah Dessen and Jenny Han won’t want to miss this sensitive exploration of romantic and platonic relationships in flux."
Lima and Hailey have always been best friends: Lima shy and sensitive, Hailey funny and free-spirited. But Hailey abandons Lima to party with the popular kids and pursue Nate, her disinterested crush. As their friendship falters, Lima and Nate begin spending more time together. And before Lima knows what she’s feeling, she and Nate do something irreversible. Something that would hurt Hailey....if she knew it happened.
Lima thinks she’s saving her friendship by lying, but she’s only buying time. As the secrets stack up, Lima is forced to make a choice: between her best friend forever, and the boy who wasn’t meant to be hers.
*Publishers Weekly, starred review
|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.50(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Juliana Romano grew up in Santa Monica, California. She is a working artist and writer. First There Was Forever is her debut book.
Visit her online at www.julianaromano.com and follow her on Twitter @julianafromano
Read an Excerpt
Hailey and I were sitting on the beach behind my house in Malibu, on the smooth, damp sand by the edge of the water. The Pacific Ocean stretched out before us. Tiny, razor-sharp shards of light sparkled across its surface like glitter. A wave nipped at our bare feet and Hailey squealed.
“Tell me everything,” I said.
“I told you already,” she replied, squinting out toward the horizon. A gauzy sheet of clouds hung across the sky, diffusing the late summer sun. “He was really cute and it was fine. It was whatever. I’m just glad it’s over with.”
Hailey, my best friend in the world, had lost her virginity the day before to a guy she met at a barbecue while she was visiting her dad in San Diego. She called from the bathroom immediately after it happened to tell me. But now her story was strangely empty, colorless. Usually, Hailey was an amazing storyteller.
“So, you’re not going to see him again, like, ever?” I pressed. “San Diego isn’t that far from LA. You guys could meet up.”
“It wasn’t like that,” she said. “And besides, I only want Nate. I don’t care about anyone else.”
Hailey had been in love with Nate Reed since the fifth grade. She wasn’t discouraged by the fact that he had never liked her back.
“Don’t look so serious.” Hailey laughed and flicked a loose chunk of sand in my direction. “Anyway, do you think I look different? Will Nate be able to tell?”
“Yes?” I said it like a question, just in case it wasn’t the right answer. I was accustomed to knowing exactly what Hailey was thinking, but there was something slippery and hard to read about her right then.
“Skyler says guys like it when you’ve had sex,” she said, digging her toes into the sand. “So maybe it’ll help.”
“You told Skyler already? When?” I asked.
“I saw her this morning,” Hailey said. “We got manicures.” Then, she lay back in the sand and closed her eyes.
I stared out at the ocean and tried to imagine that I could actually see the curve of the earth a thousand miles away. In a few days, tenth grade would start and summer would be officially over. It had been perfect. Peaceful, long, and lazy. All I did was hang out with Hailey, work on my garden, listen to music, and cook elaborate meals for me and Mom and Dad. The three of us ate on the back deck with the waxy beach air wrapping itself around us like blankets almost every single night. Once school started, everything would change. I wouldn’t have time to go to the farmers’ market and pick out strange fruits to turn into pie fillings or jams. I wouldn’t be able to lie in bed with Hailey all day, having old movie marathons and eating candy.
I turned to Hailey. In the sunless, natural light, I could see every detail of her skin—even the grayish layer of concealer she had smeared under her hazel eyes and the goose bumps that rose up on her thighs like Braille. I couldn’t believe she wasn’t a virgin anymore. Even if she didn’t think it was a big deal, I did.
Hailey’s eyes snapped open as if she could sense me staring at her.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“I just . . .” I began. “I just still can’t believe you had sex.”
Hailey looked away before she spoke. “I’m telling you. It’s not what you think.”
I waited for her to continue, but instead she sat up and brushed the sand off her forearms.
A slightly denser cloud moved in front of the sun, and the world seemed to grow a shade darker. The tail end of another icy wave sliced at our feet and we both flinched.
“It’s freezing out here,” Hailey said. “I’m so over the beach. Can we go inside and pick at your mom’s weird health food?”
• • •
Inside, Mom made us almond milk smoothies, and we curled up on the big white couch to drink them. The first floor of our house was one open sprawling space with the kitchen, the living area, and the dining area all flowing together. The back wall was made entirely of sliding glass doors that opened onto the beach, so salty air was always blowing in. Even our closets smelled like the ocean. Our furniture was mostly white and minimal, but Mom scattered Mexican blankets and painted pots from Africa around the room for color. Mom and Dad used to travel a lot and collect things before I was born. That’s actually how I got my name: Lima. Lima is the city in Peru where my dad proposed.
“‘Trust your instincts this week, Cancer,’” Hailey read aloud from the LA Times horoscope section. “‘When it comes to a big decision, your intuition will guide you. Be willing to take a financial risk, but discuss your options first with a trusted few.’” Hailey rolled her eyes. “This is so not helpful.”
Mom perched on the arm of the couch. With her long blond hair swept into a ponytail, and wearing jeans and a T-shirt, she almost looked like a high school student.
“How’s your mom, Hail?” she asked.
“Crazy,” Hailey deadpanned. “Her new thing is she smokes in the bathroom and then lights all this incense to cover it up. I’m, like, ‘Mom, all the Nag Champa in the world isn’t going to disguise the smell of cigarettes in a room with no windows.’”
Mom frowned. She was always protective of Hailey. When we were in fourth grade and Hailey’s parents were getting divorced, she actually lived with us for three weeks. One night, she and Mom slept together in the guest room because Hailey’s nightmares had gotten so bad. I confessed to Mom later that I had been jealous, but she explained to me that sometimes when you have a lot of something, like love, you have to share.
“Anyway, these horoscopes are bullshit,” Hailey continued. “Sorry for cursing, Laura. I’ll put a penny in the swear-word jar.”
Mom laughed. We didn’t actually have a swear-word jar but somehow Hailey always knew what to say to lighten the mood.
Hailey sunk deeper into the couch and flipped to a new page of the newspaper.
It bothered me that she was acting like having sex was no big deal. I had barely ever made out with someone, so it’s not like I could relate to her experience, but I still wanted to know what it had been like. I wanted her to share more, to include me in everything she was feeling. Instead, it was the opposite. All afternoon, she had seemed like she was only half there.
I gazed outside at the flat white sky. The afternoon tide was coming in. A big wave crashed on the beach, and the foam gnashed at the sand like teeth.
On the first day of school, I went straight to the vending machine after second period to meet Hailey at our spot. She wasn’t there, so I leaned against the cool plastic shell of the machine and waited.
“Excuse us,” a ninth-grade girl said. She and her friend both had crisp back-to-school haircuts and fresh tans. They talked quickly while they shoved quarters down the throat of the machine. After they got their Diet Cokes, they left behind the smell of sunscreen and flowery shampoo.
Emily Friedlander spotted me from across the patio and waved. I waved back. Emily lived down the beach from me in Malibu, and we’d known each other forever without ever really being friends. All Emily cared about was surfing.
“What do you have next?” Emily asked after we’d exchanged an awkward hug. Her blond hair glowed like a fluorescent light. It looked almost white next to her ruddy, sun-stained skin.
“Honors Chemistry,” I said. “With Patty.”
“Really? Me too!” Emily said. “I’m freaking out. It’s going to be so hard. I’m so glad I know someone in the class. Maybe we can even study together.”
“Yeah,” I agreed absently.
The crowded patio had begun to thin out as people made their way to class.
“Should we go?” Emily asked. “I’m not even sure where the classroom is.”
I checked my phone to see if Hailey had texted, but my screen was blank.
“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s go.”
• • •
Honors Chemistry was in a big, bright room on the top floor of the science building. It must have been the highest point on campus because the view out the enormous glass windows was amazing. Sitting at a desk in the front row, I could see all the way past the ramshackle industrial buildings outside to the San Fernando Mountain range that divided the city from the valley. The ridge of the mountains cut a jagged line along the horizon, and the sky above them was a vivid, glossy blue.
“What is the second kind of scientific experiment?” Patty asked.
A senior in the front row raised his hand.
“Yuri?” Patty said.
Patty had memorized all of our names during roll. She was one of those teachers who you could tell was a good teacher right away because she had an even, patient way of talking.
“Exploratory,” Yuri said.
“Right. So, the candle wax lab tomorrow, will that be testing a specific hypothesis, or an exploratory investigation?”
I knew the answer but I didn’t raise my hand.
“Lima?” Patty asked, as if she had heard my thoughts.
“Testing a hypothesis,” I said.
“Which will be?” she continued.
“That the wick, not the wax, is the primary fuel for a burning candle,” I answered. Even though I knew the answer was right, I felt my face get hot.
Science had always been my favorite subject. I liked how everything promised to make sense. There were rules. In labs, I marveled at the way a written formula could match the reality of an experiment so neatly. Not very different from baking something from a recipe.
Patty turned her back to us and started writing on the board. She had white hair, cut within an inch of her skull. It wasn’t styled like a pixie cut, or some fashion statement. It was just plain, short hair, like a little boy would have. Everything about Patty was practical and comfortable. She wore a fleece jacket, khaki shorts, and hiking sneakers.
Most of the teachers at our school, Rustic Canyon Day, dressed like Patty: outdoorsy and casual. Rustic was founded in the seventies by a bunch of hippies in the Santa Monica Canyon. The elementary and middle schools were still run out of the original location, but the high school moved to a set of converted factories in West LA when I was a kid.
Patty ran over by ten minutes, cutting into lunch. When we got out, I texted Hailey and she wrote back that she’d left campus. She said she’d be at the smoking tree after school.
• • •
By the time I arrived at the tree, Hailey and Skyler were already sharing a giant drink from the gas station across the street. They had been becoming friends ever since they had easy-math together the year before, but Skyler and I had zero in common. Now they were wearing identical heart-shaped sunglasses. Their faces were pointed in my direction and, because I couldn’t see their eyes behind their lenses, they possessed a blind, animal-like quality, like deer.
“Hey, Li,” Hailey said.
“Cute shoes,” said Skyler. I looked down at my dirty red Converse and wondered if she was being serious or not. She and Hailey were both wearing wedge sandals and short, colorful dresses, while I was in beat-up jeans and a gray T-shirt. I nervously touched my hair, checking to see if the knot-bun I’d tied it in that morning was still in place.
“I haven’t seen you all day,” I said. “How were your classes?”
Skyler yanked the drink out of Hailey’s hand.
“Classes were whatever,” Hailey said. “But guess what? We went out to lunch with Ryan and Nate today. It was awesome. I think Nate got literally hotter over the summer.”
Skyler wrinkled her nose and inspected the waxy straw of their drink. “Hailey, you’re so nasty, you chewed up the tip. That’s so gross. I don’t want to put this in my mouth.”
“You’ve put plenty of dirtier shit in your mouth, Sky,” Hailey replied.
“Anyway,” I said awkwardly. “My classes were whatever, too. Chemistry is gonna be so hard.”
“Do you want to come over later?” I continued. “My mom and I got these zucchini flowers at the farmers’ market yesterday. We’re gonna stuff them with cheese and fry them for dinner. They’re gonna be amazing.”
“I don’t know,” she said vaguely. “Maybe.”
She glanced at Skyler, who had taken the lid off of the soda and was drinking straight from the cup.
“I’ll call you, okay?” Hailey said to me.
• • •
Mom, Dad, and I ate on the back porch that night and afterward I went up to my room to do homework. It was seven o’clock and Hailey still hadn’t called. I stared out my bedroom window. The setting sun hovered over the ocean, a melting crimson bulb.
My computer beeped. It was a chat request from Emily, seeing if I had done the chemistry reading yet. I wrote back and told her I was about to start. I checked my phone one last time to make sure I hadn’t missed any texts from Hailey, and then I plopped on my bed and opened the textbook to page 35. I ran my hands firmly down the center to flatten the pages, pressing hard until I heard the soft crack of its cardboard spine.
“Lima, oh my God, I miss you,” Hailey said, throwing her arms around me. We were halfway through the second week of school and this was the first day Hailey had showed up at our meeting spot.
“I’ve been here at break every day,” I said. “Where have you been?”
The year was off to a bad start. Hailey was impossible to pin down at school, and my time at home was being devoured by hours of nightly homework. I’d been so busy I had neglected to take care of my garden, and last night I discovered that my strawberry plants had wilted and died. I’d tended to those plants all summer, watering them and pruning them and watching them transform from a packet of seeds to perfect living organisms. There is an indescribable joy that comes from seeing a plant you have grown yourself produce actual edible fruit. Each strawberry, even if it was small and lopsided and soft, had felt like a miracle.
“I know it’s totally my fault that we haven’t seen each other lately,” Hailey confessed. “It’s just that now that we have off-campus privileges, I leave at, like, every single break.”
“Just ’cause we’re allowed to go off campus doesn’t mean you have to go,” I said softly. As the words came out, I could hear how lame I sounded.
“You’re right. I’ll probably get sick of it soon. But it just feels exciting. And Nate is usually there. And you know me: when it comes to Nate, I have no self-control. Actually, when it comes to anything, I have no self-control.”
We both laughed, and I felt comforted by Hailey’s honesty. She wasn’t avoiding me. She was just chasing something else.
“Come out to lunch with me and Skyler today,” she said. “You might like her more than you think.”
• • •
It turned out “going out to lunch” with Skyler and Hailey meant getting iced coffees and driving in circles around the neighborhood. I was starving. I couldn’t believe we weren’t actually going to get food.
“Slow down,” Hailey yelled as Skyler swung a sharp turn and the car fishtailed. “I’m gonna mess up my makeup!”
Hailey was sitting shotgun and using the flip-down mirror to smudge cover-up onto the circles under her eyes.
“Don’t put so much on. It looks fake,” Skyler ordered.
“Yeah, but I look worse without it,” Hailey replied. “And Nate is in my fifth period.”
“Nate’s not that cool,” Skyler said. “Don’t be so into him. He thinks he’s the shit.”
“There’s more to him than you think.”
Skyler moaned. “There is so not more to him than I think.”
“Whatever, I’m sure if you actually hooked up with him, you’d stop liking him,” Skyler continued. “That’s how I am. I just like guys until I get them. What do you think about Hailey and Nate, Lima?”
“I don’t know,” I said lamely. “I don’t really know Nate. But she likes him.” I wished I hadn’t agreed to come. I was so hungry I could hardly think.
Skyler laughed. Her nails were painted a midnight blue. “So,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at me, “who do you like?”
“I don’t like anyone,” I said.
“You must like someone,” she tried. I couldn’t read her expression behind the hard black shells of her sunglasses. “Not even Ryan? He’s so cute. I mean, I could never be attracted to him because we’re basically like brother and sister. But he’s definitely, like, boy-band cute.”
Ryan Masterson had always been the best-looking guy in our grade, with movie-star dimples and silvery eyes that reflected light like mirrors. I’d gone to school with him since pre-K and he’d always been nice, but I’d never had anything even close to a crush on him. I tried to imagine being alone with Ryan, maybe even kissing him, but those thoughts didn’t make me feel anything. It was like pinching myself somewhere that had been numbed.
When I realized Skyler was waiting for me to respond, I said, “Oh, no, I seriously don’t like anyone.”
“Really?” Skyler asked, glancing at Hailey for confirmation.
“No, she genuinely doesn’t,” Hailey said, patting lip gloss onto her lower lip. “Lima never likes anyone.”
“Lemme use that when you’re done,” Skyler commanded Hailey. “Want some, Lima?”
I shook my head no.
“Lima doesn’t need to wear any makeup,” Hailey said. “It’s insane. She just looks like that all the time. It’s weird. If we were living in medieval times, like pre-makeup and blow-dryers, Lima would be, like, the only person who would still be pretty. She’s the only person who would look the same!”
“Thanks a lot, biatch!” Skyler snapped. “Are you calling me ugly?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know how hot you are,” Hailey retorted drily.
Hailey always had a way of giving me compliments that made me feel small and almost ashamed. I had looked exactly the same since I was five years old. My hair had turned gradually from platinum to a darker blond, the color of sand or dust. I had blue eyes and skin that freckled or burned but never tanned. For the last few years, I had been waiting for my soft features to give way to harder, more grown-up ones, but they never had. Even my smile hadn’t changed because Mom didn’t let the orthodontist give me braces. She said my slightly crooked teeth gave me character.
“Well, whatever,” Skyler said. “I don’t wear makeup ’cause I have to. It’s just fun.” She twisted the volume knob on her stereo so the music thumped violently through the car.
When we were in elementary school, Hailey invented the every-other rule. Every other day is good. Every other birthday is perfect. Every other test is easy. Even though we stopped talking about it in middle school, and even though I knew it was just a silly superstition, part of me still believed in it. Eighth grade had been miserable, but ninth grade had been okay, which meant that, according to the every-other rule, tenth was destined to be terrible.
Going to Hailey’s apartment on Fridays was one of our rituals. But this week Skyler, Ryan, and Nate came, too. Skyler had made the arrangements a few days earlier, and since then Hailey had been talking about it nonstop. She went on and on about what she would wear, what kind of drinks she should have, and whether or not Nate would think her room was cool.
Yellow afternoon light cut sideways across us where we stood on her balcony. “Dare me to walk on the railing,” Hailey said, taking a big gulp of her vodka and soda.
“I dare you, Hailey,” Skyler said, sounding bored. She was leaning her whole body into Ryan’s side, his tan, smooth arm slung around her shoulders. My mind flashed on my conversation with Skyler earlier in the week. She was right: Ryan was good-looking.
“Nate, do you dare me?” Hailey asked.
Nate was standing a little separate from the rest of us, leaning against the wall with a beer in his hand.
“Hailey, please don’t,” I said. I was the only one not drinking, so maybe I was the only one who realized what a stupid idea walking on the railing was. “You’re being insane.”
Hailey lived on the sixth floor of an apartment building a few blocks east of the 405 freeway. The sprawl of West LA stretched out beneath us: rooftops, backyards, artificially blue pools, the intricate crisscross of sagging telephone wires, and somewhere, lurking behind the city, the blurry smudge of the ocean.
“Don’t worry, Li. I got this,” Hailey said, hoisting herself onto the railing. It was no wider than a gymnast’s balance beam, and she crouched on it for a second before unfurling into a standing position. She stood toe-to-heel, her arms extended like a tightrope walker’s.
I squeezed my eyes shut, afraid to watch, and when I opened them, Nate was looking at me. He wasn’t smiling, but his expression wasn’t unfriendly. It was like he was just contemplating me or something. I glanced quickly at my shoes, and then looked up at him again. I expected him to turn away, but instead he held my gaze steadily, the way you might hold a glass brimming with water that you didn’t want to spill.
Maybe it was because of the color of his T-shirt, or maybe it was the way the afternoon light was hitting him, but I had never realized until then that Nate’s eyes were so blue. Our gazes hooked together and everything around me seemed to grow quiet.
“Oh my God, Hailey, I can see everything from where I am.” Skyler laughed, shielding her eyes with her hand. “Get down.”
Everyone’s attention snapped up to Hailey. A gust of wind had made Hailey’s skirt float up above her waist, suspended in midair like a hot-air balloon.
When the sun slid down behind the wall of the ocean, we went inside. Hailey turned on her stereo and blasted a synthetic pop song. The apartment was dark and Hailey was too drunk to switch on the overhead lights.
“Come here, Li. Dance with us!” Hailey called out to me. She and Skyler danced with their arms wrapped around each other’s necks.
“In a minute,” I said. I slipped into the kitchen. Doing dishes was the perfect excuse to be alone.
I was washing out a glass when Nate came in.
He passed behind me, where I stood at the sink. He didn’t say anything or offer to help. I didn’t turn around, but I felt his eyes on my back, felt him moving across the room to the trash can and crossing back to the door. Right before he left, I turned and looked at him and our eyes met. For the second time that day, something passed between us.
And then he sort of winced, and said, “What?”
“Nothing,” I stammered, suddenly embarrassed.
He stared at me for another second like I was crazy, rolled his eyes, and left the kitchen.
Hailey and Skyler passed out in a sticky drunken sleep as soon as the boys left, but I wasn’t tired. The alcohol emanating from their bodies gave the room an antiseptic scent, like hand sanitizer, or the way it smelled right after the janitor had passed through the hallways of school with his industrial cleaning supplies.
I had only been drunk once. Last fall, Hailey and I broke into Dad’s fancy liquor one morning when he and Mom were out at brunch. Before then, I had taken sips of alcohol at parties, and sometimes Mom shared her glass of Chardonnay with me at dinner, but I never drank enough to feel anything. So when Hailey and I started swigging from Dad’s whiskey, we got drunk fast.
Dad kept his whiskey in the room he called his office, which was really just his private hangout room. He had a record player, a vintage typewriter, and a framed Bob Dylan poster on the wall. There was also this really pretty black-and-white picture of Mom on his desk. In the picture, the wind was whipping her blond hair across her face, but you could still see her freckles and her strong eyebrows and the shape of her straight nose. She’s smiling in it, but there’s sadness to her expression, too. Something about that photo always looked like love to me. Like that’s what being in love would look like, if it could look like something.
Being drunk made Dad’s office look different. The walls warped. The room swarmed around me, and everything grew rubbery and funny. We played Dad’s records and danced sloppily, falling onto the floor and knocking into the bookshelves.
I remember Hailey was laughing so hard at my drunken rendition of “Livin’ on a Prayer” that she actually peed in her pants. She stood there with her legs crossed, her face beet red, as she laughed and cried at the same time, and the dark liquid spread across her pajamas. I convinced her she needed a bath; she convinced me I needed one too, and the next thing I knew we were taking off our clothes and stepping into a bubble bath in our bras and undies.
By the time Mom and Dad came home at two p.m., we were already napping on my bed.
When I woke up, my bedroom was full of this dusty end-of-the-day light. My mouth was dry and I felt stiff and unsettled. We all ate dinner on the back porch that night, which was usually my favorite thing, but that night, I couldn’t shake my irritability. Nothing that had seemed funny that morning seemed funny anymore. Even the memory of Hailey peeing in her pants, which had made me laugh so much, just seemed depressing.
That same year, Hailey had smoked pot a bunch of times, and I finally decided to do it with her.
“Listen,” she told me as she pulled a pair of black jeans off her floor and inspected them for stains, “we’ll smoke this joint and then we’ll call a taxi and go to Skyler’s party. You’ll love being high, it’s amazing.”
“What’s it like?” I rolled the joint around in my palm. I knew a lot of people who smoked pot. Even grown-ups. My aunt Caroline had a medical marijuana prescription because she had breast cancer when we were in elementary school. Her cancer was in remission now, but she still kept her prescription, and I suspected that even Dad got stoned with her occasionally.
“Ugh, my favorite jeans are dirty,” Hailey said, tossing the jeans back onto the floor. Then she looked at me. “I can’t explain it. It makes stuff funny. Just try it. It’s even less of a big deal than getting drunk.”
We smoked the joint on the balcony, and Hailey made me hold my breath for three full seconds to be sure I inhaled.
“Are you high?” Hailey asked me after a few minutes. Behind her, the red polka dots of brake lights on the 405 freeway flickered on and off.
“I don’t think so,” I said. But my voice sounded far away, and I had a sudden craving for something sweet.
“Are you ready to go?” Hailey asked. Her eyes looked like they were dipped in honey.
“I can’t go to a party,” I giggled. “I think I might be stoned. Let’s just go to the kitchen and make root beer floats.”
And then I started laughing uncontrollably, because it dawned on me that even the kitchen seemed far away at that instant. “The kitchen is literally—and I mean literally—as far as I can go.”
Hailey laughed a little. Sweets must have sounded good to her, too.
We didn’t have the right stuff for root beer floats, but we made all kinds of other creations. We put chocolate ice cream in the microwave and drank it out of straws. I made a cookie sandwich out of graham crackers, peanut butter, and Froot Loops. Then we watched an old Saturday Night Live on Hailey’s laptop and passed out on her bed.
The next morning, Hailey’s mom knocked on her door.
“Can I talk to you out here, Hailey?” she asked.
Brenda’s dyed blond hair was pulled into a ponytail, and I could see a full inch of her dark roots. She was wrapped in a fluffy pink terrycloth robe. Every time I saw Brenda she looked a little older.
Hailey stepped into the hallway with her mom, and I could hear them arguing, but I couldn’t make out the words.
“We have to clean the kitchen,” Hailey said when she came back in, and her eyes slid all over the room without meeting mine.
The kitchen looked terrible, but I was a good cleaner, so it went fast. Hailey was super quiet while we did dishes.
“Look at this fork!” I said, laughing. “There’s a Froot Loop stuck in it!”
Hailey didn’t crack a smile. “I feel so fat,” was all she said.
I sucked my lips between my teeth. I hated when Hailey was in a bad mood, and I felt guilty that it was partly my fault.
“Your mom won’t stay mad, Hailey,” I offered quietly.
“I don’t care about that,” she said. “I got, like, a million texts from Skyler asking me where I was. She’s pissed at me for not going to her party.”
“She’ll get over it,” I said.
“Maybe,” said Hailey.
• • •
I hadn’t smoked pot or been drunk since then. It wasn’t that I didn’t like how it had felt, but both times it left me feeling emptier than before. Like it dug something out of my insides and left a hollow, quarter-sized vortex behind.
The following Friday, Mom and I spent the afternoon making peach cobbler from scratch. Mom showed me how if you drop peaches in boiling water for thirty seconds and then take them out, their skin comes right off in your hands. Easy as taking off a piece of clothing.
After we cleaned the kitchen, I went upstairs to pack. We were leaving the next day to go to Santa Barbara for my grandmother’s birthday. We’d pick Hailey up early on Saturday morning and head out before traffic. That’s how we always did it when we went to Nana’s.
Outside my window the sky was a pale blue, but the moon had already appeared. It looked yellow and disproportionately big, like it had been painted onto the artificial backdrop of the sky.
My phone lit up with a text message from Hailey.
Can’t go to Santa Barbara. Sad face.
I perched on the edge of my bed and called her.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I’m so sorry, Li. I just really can’t go away this weekend,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “Okay. Why?”
Hailey sighed. “I have so much homework. I have three quizzes on Monday, and I’m already behind in everything. It’s just, like, I have to stay.”
“You can do homework at Nana’s,” I said. “I’m gonna bring mine.”
Hailey paused. “Well, there’s also, like, this party at Skyler’s friend’s house from outside of school on Saturday.”
My heart sank. That’s what this was about?
After we got off the phone, the silence in my room felt loud. I gazed out the window at the fake-looking sky, trying to ignore the disappointment that spread through my chest like sand.
Nana lived with Dad’s sister, Caroline, in a huge, mustard-colored Spanish-style house overlooking the ocean in the prettiest part of Santa Barbara.
“Come in, ladies,” Caroline greeted us. “And gentleman.”
Caroline’s shoulder-length hair was white as powdered sugar. Light seemed to shoot through it, giving the impression that she was always standing in front of a lamp. My cousins were away at college, so I was the only kid around. I actually didn’t mind being alone with grown-ups. Sometimes I even preferred it to being with people my own age.
Nana was sitting under an umbrella on a white canvas recliner by the pool when we came in. Every time we visited, Nana looked smaller. I must have been growing up at exactly the same rate that she was growing old, like we were sitting on opposite sides of a seesaw.
“How are you, Nana?” I asked.
Nana wrapped her fingers around mine and they clung tight, like claws.
“I can’t complain,” she said. Even though Nana was old, she still always wore red lipstick and blue eye shadow. “How are you? Tell me about school.”
Everyone always said I looked like Nana when she was young, but that was hard for me to imagine. The only thing that I could tell for sure was that Nana, Dad, and I all had the exact same eyes. They were clear, even pools of blue.
“School’s hard,” I said. “Harder than last year.”
“You’re a smart girl,” she said. “You’ll do fine.”
Mom and Dad made lunch while I swam in the pool. The water was warm and velvety. I did flips, handstands, and somersaults until my fingertips turned into raisins. And then I climbed out of the water and ate under the sun. The taste of chlorine mingled with the salty food. The sun grew lazy and tired and sunk lower in the sky. The light changed to that mild orangey afternoon color and soon we all went inside.
During the car ride home on Sunday, Mom, Dad, and I listened to the Rolling Stones. My favorite Rolling Stones song had always been “Wild Horses,” and it was easy to sing along to. We took the Pacific Coast Highway all the way back to LA.
When we were about twenty minutes from home, I got a text message from Hailey: Nate and I kissed last night. My life has finally begun.
Hailey texted me during lunch on Monday to come find her in the bathroom in the science building. She was sitting on the floor of the handicap stall, her face in her hands. She looked up at me, revealing puffy red eyes. The way she had tucked her knees up to her chest, I could see her underwear. Even though Skyler was acting like Hailey’s new best friend, I was clearly still the one Hailey wanted to cry to.
“I thought I looked so pretty today,” she stammered between sobs.
“You do!” I said, crouching down and putting my hands on her knees.
Her bottom lip quivered as more tears came. She flicked them away with the tips of her fingers. She always cried like that—wiping away tears before they could run down her face and ruin her makeup. I leaned in and gave her a hug. My cheek touched her forehead, and her skin felt oily and hot.
“He doesn’t like me, Lima,” Hailey said, her voice cracking. “He told Ryan, who told Sara, who told Skyler that he only kissed me ’cause he was really drunk. He said it was a mistake.”
“Nate? What a moron,” I said, rolling my eyes. “You can do better.”
She looked at me with empty eyes. “I can’t,” she said softly. “I can’t do better than him.”
“He’s a spoiled, rude, too skinny, cocky, stupid sixteen-year-old,” I said, trying to come up with accurate insults. “He thinks he’s so cool and edgy, but he’s just the same as everyone else.”
She half smiled, and then her eyes went blank with pain again. “Lima, he was such a good kisser.”
I hated that detail, but I tried to keep my tone light.
“Just forget about it. Think about that hot guy you hooked up with in San Diego.”
“Everyone hooks up with random guys from out of town. Out-of-town guys don’t count.”
I laughed; I couldn’t help it. And then Hailey started laughing. After a few minutes I think she actually seemed a little less sad.
Saturday morning I woke up early enough to watch Dad surf behind our house. He usually went in around six or seven, not like the hard-core surfers who went in at five, or even four in the morning. Sometimes I’d see those surfers piling into their cars on the Pacific Coast Highway, sunburned and raw, already having been in the ocean for several hours by the time I was leaving for school.
Now I sat beneath a damp gray sky, watching Dad ride the choppy waves. I wore a fleece jacket over my sweatshirt but I was still cold. I wondered how Dad could stand to be in the icy water.
I know it’s weird, because I grew up practically on the beach, but for the longest time, I was afraid to go in the ocean. I liked swimming in pools, where the water was predictable and calm. But the ocean was ragged and wild, always threatening to pull you in and never let you go.
I finally went in when I was twelve. It was perfect beach weather that day, hot and sunny, with only a few dense clouds in the sky, like scoops of vanilla ice cream. Hailey and Dad were wave-diving, and I was lying on the sand reading and eating chips. Every now and then I’d look up and see their heads, bobbing just beyond where the waves were breaking.
“There’s no time like the present, Lima,” Dad announced when they came out to shore. They were both all wet, an even layer of sand stuck to their calves and feet, like a rough second skin.
“C’mon, Li,” Hailey said. “The ocean isn’t scary. You’re being totally psycho.”
I looked from Hailey to Dad and back to Hailey, and I knew I wasn’t getting out of it.
We walked toward the ocean. The sand felt slimy under my feet, and the water felt sharp and cold, like a million needles on my thighs. I froze. I looked at Hailey, but she didn’t look scared or cold at all. She looked back at me, rolled her eyes, and grabbed my hand, pulling me in farther. Just when my feet started to lose contact with the floor, Dad yelled: “Dive!”
I held my nose with my right hand and lurched forward through the tense surface of the water. I felt the wave crash overhead, but it didn’t hurt. Being under the wave felt like being inside of a pulse, or a big heartbeat.
I popped up out of the water and Hailey was screaming and cheering. I was treading water and gasping for breath, but I was laughing, too.
“You did it, Li.” Dad beamed.
The water felt thick and muscular, not like the limp water of a swimming pool. It was actually easy to swim out here. I remember thinking, This is it? This is what I’ve been so afraid of? I’m just here now. Only a hundred feet away from where I’ve always been. I’m still me. I’m just in the ocean.
“It’s back on with Nate,” Hailey announced. It was a cool fall day, and we were walking toward the car-pool line where Mom would pick us up.
“Really?” I asked. This was the first time she had mentioned Nate in the two weeks since her meltdown in the bathroom.
“Yeah. We hung out at Max’s house last night, and he seemed really into me.”
“You went to Max’s house? On a school night?” I asked, feeling vaguely left out.
“Yeah, I’ve had, like, zero homework all week,” she said. “It’s been amazing. Anyway, Nate sat next to me on the couch while we watched a movie, and I could just, like, tell he wanted to be near me. Our shoulders were touching, like, the whole time. I can’t wait to see him tomorrow night, now that we have some momentum.”
“What’s tomorrow night?” I asked. “The dance?” Hailey and I hadn’t gone to a school dance since sixth grade, and I was shocked she wanted to start going again now.
“Are you joking? The dance?” She laughed. “I feel awkward just thinking about all those streamers hanging from the ceiling in the gym.”
I laughed, too. “It’s not that bad.”
“Well, you should go,” Hailey said. “Say hi to the fruit punch for me if you do.”
“So if you’re not going, where are you planning on seeing Nate?” I asked.
“Max’s. He’s having people over. His house is so fun when his parents are out of town.”
“Have you gone there a lot?” I asked.
“Not like, a-lot a-lot, but a few times,” she said. She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and started typing.
“Why don’t you ever bring me, too?”
“I just didn’t think it was your kind of thing,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I was starting to feel unsteady.
“You know,” she sighed. “It’s just, like, smoking cigarettes and weed and watching dumb TV.”
“I like that sometimes,” I said shakily.
Hailey rolled her eyes. “Don’t get all bent out of shape, Li. Just come tomorrow night if you’re curious.”
“Do you want me to come?” I asked.
“Yeah. Totally,” she said, but her tone was opaque. And then, after a pause, she added, in a softer voice, “Of course I want you come.”
She pulled me into a tight hug. She smelled like cigarettes and a perfume I didn’t recognize.
Hailey got a ride to Max’s with some of Skyler’s friends, so Mom drove me. We listened to Simon and Garfunkel in the car and sang along to “April Come She Will.” Mom and I both preferred Simon and Garfunkel to The Beatles, a fact that drove Dad crazy.
Max lived in a mansion on a broad street in Beverly Hills. The house looked like a dollhouse. It was light blue with white-shuttered windows and a neat, triangular roof.
The front door was open, and I followed the sound of music up a set of stairs to Max’s room. There were maybe ten or fifteen people from school in there, a few sitting on his massive bed and a few on the floor.
“Lima!” Hailey said happily when she saw me. “You made it! Come here, baby!”
Hailey handed me a pipe and, without thinking about what I was doing, I took a long inhale. It burned. I started to cough. And cough. And cough. I felt like my body was splitting down the middle.
What People are Saying About This
"An emotionally rich coming-of-age love story." - Kirkus Reviews
"Hand this one to fans of Jenny Han and Morgan Matson." - Booklist
"A narrative that addresses “the first time” with such sensitivity and grace." - School Library Journal