Read an Excerpt
Our Year of Maybe
SOME DANCERS ARE GAZELLES. THEIR legs slash the air like scissors through silk, and their arms beckon the audience closer. They are works of art, pretty things to stare at.
I am no gazelle. On dance team, none of us are.
We are lions.
Montana Huang, fresh off a unanimous vote for captain last week, leads us in rehearsal in the gym—five, six, seven, eight—and then we roar to life. We toss our hair, swivel our hips, bare our teeth.
“Sophie!” Montana growls, her brows leaping to her hairline. “The second eight count starts with punch-punch-hip-circle-hair-flip, not hip-circle-punch-punch-hair-flip.” She demonstrates.
Admittedly, I’m a little distracted today, but not the kind of school’s-almost-out distracted some of the other dancers seem to be. “Sorry,” I mumble before Montana restarts the remixed nineties hip-hop song.
Sophomore year, I quit the studio I’d been dancing at since I was a kid. I needed freedom from my teachers squawking, “Back straight!” and “Chin up!” and “Don’t forget to smile.” I didn’t want to smile all the time—sometimes I wanted to look angry, because the steps were raw and ferocious, because I felt angry. I wasn’t delicate, and I didn’t want to be.
And I saw the way guys watched the girls on dance team during assemblies and football games.
I wanted Peter to watch me that way.
Once a week I take a jazz class at my old studio to stay on top of my technique for the team. But back when I took competition classes, I was at the studio four days a week, sometimes until ten p.m. It was too much.
Punch-punch-hip-circle-hair-flip. Run, run, run, and grand jeté. Heads down, new formation. Again and again—“Sophie, are you with us?”—and again.
“Great last practice,” Montana says when we’re all sweat-slick and out of breath. “Check your e-mail for our summer schedule, okay?” A chorus of yeses. A grin from Montana. “We’re going to be rock stars next year.”
I chew the cap off my water bottle and pin loose strands of red hair back into my ponytail. Junior year is officially over. In the locker room, my teammates trade summer plans. They hope we’ll have a real summer this year, the possibility of a tan. They talk about parties I won’t be attending despite the “maybe” I marked on all social media invites. “No” has always felt too brash to me, too final. I guess I like having options. Sophie Orenstein: perennial maybe.
“Anyone want to carpool to Grant Gleason’s party this weekend?”
“Did you see the finale of Dance Island?”
“I need a better smudge-proof eyeliner. Was it dripping down my face all practice and no one told me?”
My summer will be spent first in a hospital room and then recovering from a voluntary surgery my parents are still convinced I shouldn’t have volunteered for.
For me, it was never a question of should or shouldn’t.
Only a matter of when.
The curtains of his first-floor bedroom window are open when I race across the street to his house. In my life, I have never simply walked to Peter’s house. I am always on fast-forward, eager to get to him. A lion, though Peter is not exactly my prey.
His legs are stretched out on the red plaid comforter, one arm triangled behind his head, the other balancing a book on his lap. When Peter’s nervous or concentrating hard, he draws his bottom lip into his mouth and keeps it there, like he’s doing now.
In Peter’s room, each of his hobbies gets its own space. In one corner: his vintage record player and stacks of LPs. Along the wall opposite his bed: an alphabetized bookshelf. In another corner: his pet chinchilla, Mark, the most adorable creature on this earth, and his maze of a cage. Next to his bed: his Yamaha keyboard and pages of sheet music, though we don’t play as the Terrible Twosome as much as we used to. School and other commitments got in the way. I’m hoping that will change this fall. And half hidden by his closet: a storage bin for his medical supplies.
I drum my fingers on his window, and Peter glances up from his book and beckons me inside. I shake my head and beckon him over to me instead.
“You look like shit,” I say when he opens the window, instead of hello.
He bows, dark hair slipping past his eyebrows. “Thank you. I try.”
A long time ago he made me swear to always tell him the truth. Everyone lies when you’re sick. They say you look great when you do not, that things are going to get better soon; they just know it. Peter hates those platitudes.
Even when he isn’t feeling great, though, he is still beautiful. Full, dark eyebrows, strong jaw, hazel eyes that focus so intently on mine, that make it hard to look away.
And things are going to get better soon. That one is true.
“What are you reading?”
He flashes the cover at me: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. “I’ve got a paper due for my gender studies class.” Because he’s homeschooled, Peter often opts for advanced classes. They almost always sound more interesting than what I’m taking at North Seattle High.
“Learn anything interesting about me?”
“Oh yeah. I’ve got your mysteries allllll figured out.” He feathers his fingers as he says this. “You could always read it and learn for yourself.”
It’s probably Peter’s deepest desire for me to love reading like he does. Though I’m not as terrified of it as I was when a diagnosis of dyslexia illuminated why I struggled so much in elementary school, I don’t read much for fun.
“Maybe I will.” Glancing down, I say, “I see you’re wearing my favorite pants.”
It’s this ancient pair of navy sweatpants he basically lived in a few years ago. They’re threadbare at the knees, the seams on the sides nearly splitting apart. I don’t even think the elastic waistband is still, well, elasticky. But I only tease because I love him.
“Don’t pretend you don’t want to burn them.”
“Oh, I’m burning them. After the surgery. Don’t worry.” I clear my throat. No more joking around. “Are you okay to go for a walk, or do you have to do an exchange? I wanted to talk.”
As I say this, the half-moons under Peter’s eyes become more apparent, the sag in his posture a bit deeper. “I’m fine for another couple hours. I could do a short walk.”
He tosses some alfalfa into Mark’s cage and zips a North Face fleece over his plaid button-down. This boy is so Seattle it hurts. Then he climbs out the window and into the evening with me. I’m practically chasséing into his backyard, tugging on the silver chain of the tiny Star of David necklace I wear every day, my heart a wild thing inside my chest.
“Everything okay?” he asks.
It’s Wednesday, and we may not have a chance to talk like this until after the transplant Friday morning.
“Extra energy from practice. You’ll come see us perform in the fall, right?”
“Definitely. Hopefully I can go to every game.” The uncertainty hangs in the air. Hopefully the transplant will go smoothly. Hopefully no complications. Hopefully it will work. We are optimism soup. “Where are we going?” he asks as I lead him through the greenbelt behind his house and into the woods. We wind around trees that have been here longer than either of our families.
“Patience, ratty-sweatpanted one.”
He makes a tsking sound and pats the thighs of his pants. “I like these pants. I’m gonna be sad when you burn them.”
If Peter and I were together, we’d hold hands on this walk. I’d trace the knobs of his knuckles, lean in close, bury my face where his neck meets his shoulder. He’d press me up against a tree, kiss me until we both were dizzy with desire.
Sometimes being around him is agony, the gap between what we have and what I want too wide to ever cross.
After about ten minutes, we reach a clearing with a pond. We played here all the time as kids. In his portal fantasy phase, Peter was convinced that if we found the right rotting tree trunk or patch of grass, we’d tumble into another world. But we haven’t been here in years. The pond is an unhealthy gray-green, and the ground is decorated with crushed beer cans. It used to be the place we’d go to hide from our families, back when our parents said more to each other than “good evening” when they happened to take the trash out at the same time.
I hug my sweatshirt tighter around me, wishing I’d changed into something warmer than gym shorts after practice.
“Are you having second thoughts?” Peter asks suddenly, his voice threaded with panic.
“No!” I say quickly. It’s true—I’m not. It’s just that I’ve been anticipating our surgery for so long that it’s become impossible to imagine our lives on the other side of it.
His shoulders soften, and he lets out a long sigh. “Okay. Because. You know you don’t have to do this, right? I mean, of course I’m thrilled you’re doing it, and my parents are thrilled you’re doing it. But you don’t have to. You know that.”
I do. But I love Peter more than the world. More than my parents, more than dance, more than my sister, Tabitha, and my niece, Luna. It’s easy to fall in love with someone who’s a master of their craft. Peter at the piano has an intensity I’ve always admired. An electricity, like if I touched him in the middle of a Rufus Wainwright song, he’d burn my hand. Lower lip between his teeth, dark hair in his face, shoulder blades rolling beneath his T-shirt as he moves up and down the keys. I can never help imagining if he’ll ever touch me with the same kind of gentle desperation.
Performance art has always connected us. Our music tastes overlap but aren’t identical, and when we play together, we feed off each other’s energy. My heart never feels closer to his than at the end of a song, when we’re both out of breath, grinning at each other like we’ve created something only the two of us will ever understand.
Aside from that, Peter is a certified Good Person. A good friend, even before my feelings for him turned romantic. When I had to repeat fourth grade because my reading comprehension was below grade level and my report cards were abysmal, Peter read aloud with me at home. I was still a grade ahead of him, but he was patient while I made my mouth form unfamiliar words like “chronological” and “tangible” and “eclipse.” I remember whispering a word to myself first, worried I’d mispronounce it if I said it out loud. The letters were always jumping around. “It’s just me,” Peter would say. “Try it.” It was only after I’d been held back and continued to struggle that my parents brought me to a specialist. Girls are often diagnosed with dyslexia later than boys. It explained so much, though it didn’t excuse the teasing I’d endured, the kids who’d called me stupid. I wasn’t, my specialist said. I just learned differently.
“You have a bigger brain than they do,” Peter said. “They’re jealous.” I snorted, but then he told me he’d been reading up on it—a very Peter thing to do—and there was scientific evidence: usually the left hemisphere of a dyslexic person’s brain is larger than the brain of someone who doesn’t have dyslexia. Plus, he said, John Lennon was dyslexic.
When he started homeschooling, a mix of online courses and a couple at a local homeschool center, I spent my afternoons and weekends with him, ignored other kids’ invitations to parties and sleepovers until they eventually stopped coming.
He is solid and constant. The moon and the stars.
I would do anything for this boy, and I’d have done it sooner if I could, but I had to wait until I turned eighteen a couple months ago to see if I was a match. Sometimes I wonder if the reverse is true—if Peter would do anything for me. Deep in my bones I know that if Peter were healthy, if my kidneys had failed instead of his, he would. He’s just never had a chance to prove it like I have.
I unzip my backpack and spread a blanket over the ground. “I wanted to give you something,” I say as we sit down. “Before the surgery.”
“You’re already giving me something kind of huge.”
“Fine, something you can actually hold.” Making my face super serious, I pull Operation out of my backpack.
He bursts out laughing. I adore Peter’s laugh. It’s like your favorite song played on repeat. “Stop. You’re the best. You’re already the best, and then you do this? There isn’t even a word for what you are.”
His words swim through my veins and try to convince my heart he feels what I feel.
“Fantastic, brilliant, wonderful, perfect.”
“All of those. You are all the adjectives. You and your big brain.” Every so often, that joke pops back up.
Beautiful, intriguing, irresistible—those, too? I don’t say.
We scoot closer to each other on the blanket, Peter’s thigh against my thigh, Peter’s hip against my hip. My entire left side hums with electricity, but I’m careful not to press myself into him the way I want to. I am constantly pretending that Peter touching me is not the most incredible feeling in the world. I’ve trained my breath not to catch in my throat, willed my heart to slow down. I am more aware of my body when I’m with him than when I’m onstage.
“Why are you doing this, Soph?” he asks, idly brushing a thumb across my knee, a gesture that nearly splits me open on the forest floor.
He’s asked this question so many times. A voluntary surgery like this is no small thing. The only thing in my life that comes close, four stubborn baby teeth when I was eleven, can’t exactly compare.
I’ve gotten so used to sick Peter that I wonder what a healthier Peter will be like. He won’t be on dialysis anymore. He won’t sleep so much, eat so little, throw up the small amount of food he’s able to get down. He won’t hurt.
“You are my best friend and favorite person,” I say. “And you really, really need to start wearing jeans again.”
He doesn’t laugh. “Are you scared?” He whispers it, though we are the only people around. Like he wants to keep our conversation a secret from the trees and sky. He reaches over and squeezes my hand.
“Yes,” I say simply, squeezing back. I can’t be dishonest with him, not about this. Even though there is no way I’m changing my mind, I’m terrified of what will happen when I am unconscious. When they cut me open and put part of me into Peter.
On the blanket, my phone lights up with a message from my dad.
Where are you? Luna’s party starts at 6.
It’s five till. “I completely spaced,” I say with a groan, smacking my forehead. “It’s Luna’s birthday.”
“Wait. Before you go.” He reaches over and pulls up the hem of my sweatshirt. His hand fumbles between the sweatshirt and my tank top for a second, like he’s searching for where, exactly, the kidney I’m giving him is located, and then he strokes my back. Slowly I exhale. Through the thin cotton fabric, his fingers are warm.
There are a thousand other reasons I’m doing this, but still, this gesture makes me think what I have only allowed myself to think about on the rarest occasions: that maybe, after the transplant, Peter will want me, too.
“Don’t worry, Soph,” he says, replacing my nerves with something even scarier. “I’ll take good care of it.”