THE END OF SCHOOL ALWAYS
has a particular feeling to it. Itâs the same every year, but this year the feeling is amplified, because there wonât be a next year. Thereâs 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. Weâre all just counting down, passing time. Everyone knows where theyâre going, and the right now already feels like itâs in the rearview. Suddenly life feels fast and slow at the same time. Itâs like being in two places at once.
Finals go well; even calculus isnât as bad as I thought. And just like that, my high school career is coming to an end. Peterâs gone away on his training weekend. Itâs only been one day and Iâm 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 heâd 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? Itâll 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 loveâs ship to come in. For a romantic kind
of person, itâs not an altogether unpleasant feeling, not for now, anyway. Itâll be different when itâs 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. Thereâs 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, âWhat are you sighing about so loudly?â
âI miss . . . Christmas.â I bite into another slice of peach.
She brightens. âSo 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.â
I sigh again and set down the can. âSure.â The syrup is starting to feel heavy in my stomach.
âWhy does sighing feel so good?â I muse.
Kitty heaves a big sigh. âWell, itâs basically the same thing as breathing. And it feels good to breathe. Air is delicious.â
âIt is, isnât it?â I spear another slice of peach. âI wonder where you buy those kinds of deer. Target will probably sell them.â
âWe should go to that store the Christmas Mouse. We can stock up on a bunch of stuff. Donât they have one in Williamsburg?â
âYeah, 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.â
Dryly she says, âLetâs not get carried away.â
I ignore her. âDonât forget that Trina has a lot of her own holiday stuff. She has a whole Christmas village, remember? Itâs all packed away in those boxes in the garage.â Trinaâs village isnât just a little nativity scene. It has a barber shop and a bakery and a toy store; itâs intense. âI donât even know where weâll put it.â
She shrugs. âWeâll probably have to throw away some of our old stuff.â God, Kitty doesnât have an ounce of sentimentality in her! In that same practical tone she adds, âNot everything we have is so great anyway. Our tree skirt is scraggly and chewed-up-looking. Why keep something just because itâs old? New is almost always better than old, you know.â
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 Kittyâs right; itâs probably time to retire it. Iâll never let her throw it away though, and neither will Margot. At the very least, Iâll cut off a square and put it in my hat box for safekeeping.
âTrina has a nice tree skirt,â I say. âItâs white fur. Jamie Fox-Pickle will love to snuggle with it.â
My phone buzzes, and I jump to see if itâs Peter, but itâs only Daddy saying heâs picking up Thai food for dinner, and do we want pad thai or pad see yew? I sigh again.
âI swear, Lara Jean, if you sigh one more time!â Kitty threatens. Eyeing me, she says, âI know itâs not really Christmas youâre missing. Peterâs been gone for like one day and youâre acting like he went off to war or something.â
I ignore her and type back
pad see yew
out of pure spite, because I know Kitty prefers pad thai.
Thatâs when I get the e-mail notification. Itâs from
admissions. My application has been updated. I click on the link.
Congratulations . . .
Iâm 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 canât believe it. I never thought Iâd get in. But Iâm in.
âLara Jean? Hello?â
Startled, I look up.
âI just asked you a question three times. Whatâs up with you?â
âUm . . . I think I just got in to
Kittyâs jaw drops. âWhoa!â
âWeird, right?â I shake my head in wonder. Whoâd have ever thought it? Not me. Iâd all but forgotten about
after I got wait-listed.
is a really hard school to get into, Lara Jean!â
âI know.â Iâm still in a daze. After I didnât get into
, I felt so low, like I wasnât good enough to be there. But
! Itâs even harder to get into
out of state than it is
Kittyâs smile fades a little. âBut arenât you going to William and Mary? Didnât you already send in your deposit? And arenât you transferring to
next year anyway?â
. For those few seconds, I forgot about transferring to
and I was just happy about
. âThatâs the plan,â I say. My phone buzzes, and my heart jumps, thinking itâs Peter, butâs itâs not. Itâs a text from Chris.
Wanna go to Starb
I write back,
GUESS WHAT. I got into UNC!
Iâm calling you
A second later my phone rings and Chris screams, âHoly shit!â
âThank you! I mean, wow. I just . . . itâs such a great school. I figuredââ
âSo what are you going to do?â she demands.
âOh.â I glance over at Kitty, who is watching with eagle eyes. âNothing. Iâm still going to William and Mary.â
a better school?â
âItâs higher ranked. I donât know. Iâve never been there.â
âLetâs go,â she says.
âTo visit? When?â
âRight now! Spontaneous road trip!â
âAre you crazy? Itâs four hours away!â
âNo itâs not. Itâs only three hours and twenty-five minutes. I just looked it up.â
âBy the time we get there, itâll beââ
âSix oâclock. Big deal. Weâll walk around, get dinner, and then drive back. Why not! Weâre young. And you need to know what youâre saying no to.â Before I can protest again, she says, âIâm picking you up in ten minutes. Pack some snacks for the road.â Then she hangs up.
Kitty is eyeing me. âYouâre going to North Carolina? Right now?â
Iâm feeling pretty euphoric at the moment. I laugh and say, âI guess!â
âDoes that mean youâre going there instead of William and Mary?â
âNo, itâs justâIâm just going to visit. Nothingâs changed. Donât tell Daddy, though.â
âJustâbecause. You can tell him Iâm with Chris, and that I wonât be at dinner, but donât mention anything about
And then Iâm 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; Iâve always wanted to do that with her. And what would it hurt to just look at Chapel Hill, just to see? I wonât
be going there, but itâs 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. âDo you have a car charger?â I ask her.
Sheâs singing along to the radio. âNope.â
âShoot!â Weâve 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? âWhat time are we getting back, do you think?â
âQuit worrying, Granny Lara Jean. Weâll be fine.â 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 weâre at a red light, she lights her cigarette and inhales deeply. âWeâll be like pioneers. It just adds to the adventure. Our forefathers didnât have cell phones either, you know.â
âJust remember, weâre only going to look. Iâm still going to William and Mary.â
âYou just rememberâoptions are everything,â Chris says.
Thatâs what Margotâs 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. Iâm 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
âs campus is to
âs. Lots of maple trees, lots of green, lots of brick buildings.
âItâs so pretty, isnât it?â I stop to admire a pink flowering dogwood tree. âIâm surprised they have so many dogwood trees, since itâs Virginiaâs state flower. What do you suppose is North Carolinaâs state flower?â
âNo idea. Can we please eat? Iâm starving.â Chris has the attention span of a fly, and when she is hungry, everybody better watch out.
I put my arm around her waist. Iâm suddenly feeling very tender toward her for taking me on this trip to see what might have been. âLetâs fill that belly up, then. What do you want? Pizza? A hoagie? Chinese food?â
She puts her arm around my shoulder. Her mood is already picking up at the mention of different cuisines. âYou pick. Anything but Chinese food. Or pizza. You know what, letâs get sushi.â
A couple of guys pass on the street, and Chris calls out, âHey!â
They turn around. âWhatâs up?â one says. Heâs black, handsome, tall, with muscular arms in a
âWhereâs the best sushi around here?â Chris asks.
âI donât eat sushi, so I canât really say.â He looks at his red-haired friend, who is less cute but still cute. âWhere do you go?â
âSpicy Nine,â he says, eyeing Chris. âJust go down Franklin that way and youâll run right into it.â He winks at her,
and they go back to walking in the other direction.
âShould we go after them?â she says, her eyes following them as they walk away. âFind out what theyâre up to tonight?â
I steer her in the direction they pointed us to. âI thought you were hungry,â I remind her.
âOh yeah,â she says. âSo thatâs one point in the
column, am I right? Hotter guys?â
âIâm sure William and Mary has good-looking guys too.â Quickly I add, âNot that it matters to me, because I obviously have a boyfriend.â Who still hasnât called, mind you. My phone is down to 5 percent, so by the time he does, itâll 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 wouldnât wear it, since heâll 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 Catâs Cradle. A band called Meow Mixx is playing tonight. âLetâs go!â Chris says.
âHave you ever heard of Meow Mixx before?â I ask. âWhat kind of music do they play?â
âWho cares. Letâs just go!â She grabs my hand. Laughing, we run down the street together.
Thereâs 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, âMy best friend just got into
I feel warm inside hearing Chris call me her best friendâto 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 sheâs in Costa Rica, or Spain, or wherever she ends up, weâll still be close.
One of the girls hugs me and says, âCongratulations! Youâre going to love it here.â Her hair is in milkmaid braids, and sheâs wearing a T-shirt that says
HILLARY IS MY PRESIDENT.
Adjusting the lollipop enamel pin in her hair, her friend says, âPut down Ehaus or Craige for your dorm. Theyâre the most fun.â
I feel sheepish as I say, âActually, Iâm not coming here; we just came to visit. For fun.â
âOh, where are you going?â she asks me, a slight frown on her freckled face.
âWilliam and Mary,â I tell her.
âItâs not definite though,â Chris butts in.
âItâs pretty definite,â I say.
âI came here over Princeton,â the braided girl tells me. âThatâs how much I loved it when I visited. Youâll see. Iâm Hollis, by the way.â
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 donât
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. âJust in case you come here,â 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. Itâs a mixed crowd in the audience: some older guys in rock band T-shirts and beards, closer to my dadâs 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 donât mind, because I donât 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. âWeâre on an adventure!â she yells. âWe donât need cell phones for an adventure!â
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 donât 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. âIâm a Tar Heel born, Iâm a Tar Heel bred, and when I die Iâm a Tar Heel dead!â The crowd goes nuts, the whole room is shaking. Chris and I donât know the words, but we shout, âGo to hell, Duke!â along with everyone else. Our hair swings wildly in our faces; Iâm sweaty, and suddenly Iâm having the best time. âThis is so much fun,â I scream in Chrisâs face.
âSame!â 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. Itâs 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 werenât dead and Chrisâs phone werenât nearly dead, Iâd have searched online for the best burrito in Chapel Hill. But then we might not have found this place. For some reason itâs the best burrito of my life.
After we eat our burritos, I say, âWhat time is it? We should head back soon if we want to get back before one.â
âBut youâve barely seen any of campus,â Chris says. âIsnât there anything you want to see in particular? Like, I donât know, a boring library or something?â
âNobody knows me like you do, Chris,â I say, and she bats her eyelashes. âThere is one place I want to see . . . itâs in all the brochures. The Old Well.â
âThen letâs go,â she says.
As we walk, I ask her, âDoes Chapel Hill seem like Charlottesville to you?â
âNo, it seems better.â
âYouâre just like Kitty. You think everything new is better,â I say.
âAnd you think everything old is better,â she counters.
She has a point there. We walk the rest of the way in companionable silence. Iâm thinking about the ways
does and doesnât 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. Itâs a small rotunda, like a mini version of the one at
, and there is a drinking fountain in the center. Thereâs 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. Itâs enchanting.
âAre you supposed to make a wish or something?â Chris asks, stepping up to the fountain.
âI think I heard that on the first day of classes, students take a sip of water from the fountain for good luck,â I say. âEither good luck or straight As.â
âI wonât need straight As where Iâm going, but Iâll take the luck.â
Chris bends down to take a sip, and a couple of girls walking by caution, âFrat guys pee in that fountain all the timeâdonât do it.â
Her head snaps back up and she jumps away from the fountain. âEw!â Hopping down, she says, âLetâs take a selfie.â
âWe canât; our phones are dead, remember? Weâll just have to have the memory in our hearts like the old days.â
âGood point,â Chris says. âShould we hit the road?â
I hesitate. I donât know why, but Iâm 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, âLetâs stay a little bit longer.â
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, âI wish I could come here with you.â
âTo college or to
?â Iâm so caught off guard by the pensive note in her voice that I donât stop to correct her, to remind her that I wonât be coming here either.
âEither. Both. Donât get me wrong. Iâm psyched about Costa Rica. Itâs just . . . I donât know. Like, what if Iâm missing out by not going to college at the same time as everybody else.â She looks at me then, a question in her eyes.
I say, âCollege will be here waiting for you, Chris. Next year, the year after. Whenever you want it.â
Chris twists around and looks out at the lawn. âMaybe. Weâll see. I can picture you here, Lara Jean. Canât you?â
I swallow. âI have a plan. William and Mary for a year, then
âYou mean you and Peter have a plan. Thatâs why youâre holding back.â
âOkay, Peter and I have a plan. But itâs not the only reason.â
âBut itâs the main one.â
I canât deny it. The thing thatâs missing no matter where I go, if itâs William and Mary or if itâs here, is Peter.
âSo why not go here for a year, then?â Chris asks me.
âWhatâs the difference if youâre here or William and Mary? An hour? Either way, youâre not at
. Why not be here?â She doesnât 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 didnât want to leave? What then? But wouldnât it be great if I loved it? Isnât 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 headâone 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, itâs just after three a.m. and every single light is on. Gulp. I turn to Chris. âCome in with me?â I plead.
âNo way. Youâre on your own. Iâve gotta go home and deal with my own mom.â
I hug Chris good-bye, get out of the car, and trudge up to the front steps. The door flies open as soon as Iâm fumbling
around in my bag for my keys. Itâs Kitty, in her big sleep T-shirt. âYouâre in trouble,â she whispers.
I step inside, and Daddyâs right behind her, still dressed in his work clothes. Trinaâs on the couch, giving me a look like,
Youâre in for it, and I feel sympathy for you, but also, you couldâve at least called.
âWhere have you been all night!â he shouts. âAnd why werenât you answering your phone!â
I shrink backward. âI ran out of battery. Iâm sorry. I didnât realize it had gotten so late.â I briefly consider making a joke about how this is why millenials should wear watches, to lighten the mood, but I donât think a joke will do the trick this time.
Daddy starts pacing around the living room. âSo why didnât you use Chrisâs phone!â
âChrisâs phone died too. . . .â
âWeâve been worried half to death! Kitty says you left with Chris without saying where you were going. . . .â At this, Kitty gives me a look. âI was five seconds from calling the police, Lara Jean! If you hadnât walked in the door when you didââ
âIâm sorry,â I begin. âIâm really sorry.â
âThis is just so irresponsible.â Daddyâs muttering to himself, not even listening. âLara Jean, you might be eighteen, butââ
From the couch, Trina says, âDan, please donât say, âbut youâre still living under my roof.â Itâs such a clichÃ©.â
Daddy spins around and says to her, âItâs a clichÃ© for a reason! Itâs a good line! Itâs a very good line.â
âLara Jean, just tell them where you were,â Kitty says, impatient.
Daddy shoots an accusing look her way. âKitty, did you know where she went?â
âShe made me swear not to tell!â
Before he can reply, I say, âI was in North Carolina with Chris.â
He throws his hands up in the air. âIn North Carolina! What in theâwhat in the world? You crossed state lines without even telling me? With a dead phone battery, to boot!â
I feel sick to my stomach for worrying him. I donât know why I didnât call. I couldâve borrowed somebodyâs phone. I guess I just got carried away with the night, with being there. I didnât want to think about home or real life. âIâm sorry,â I whisper. âIâm really, really sorry. I shouldâve called.â
He shakes his head. âWhy were you in North Carolina?â
âI was in North Carolina because . . .â I pause. If I say it now, thatâs it. âBecause I got into
Daddyâs eyes widen. âYou did? Thatâsâthatâs wonderful. But what about William and Mary?â
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. âOh my God, Lara Jean!â she says, slapping me on the back. âYouâre gonna be a Tar Heel!â
âIâm happy youâre happy,â Daddy says. He wipes a tear from his eyes. âIâm still furious with you for not calling. But Iâm also happy.â
âSo youâre really going, then?â Kitty asks from her perch on the stairs.
I look over at her. I smile shakily and say, âYeah, Iâm going.â Peter and I will find a way. Weâll make it work.
I tell them every little detail of the night: going to a show at Catâs Cradle, eating burritos at Cosmic Cantina, the Old Well. Trina makes popcorn, and itâs nearly dawn before any of us goes to sleep. As Daddy shuffles off to bed, Trina whispers to me, âYour daddy just aged ten years in one night. Look at him walking like he needs a cane. Thanks to you, Iâm marrying an old man.â We both start laughing, and neither of us can stop. I think weâre 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, âWhatâs so funny?â 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.
âYou guys are already ganging up on me,â he says.
âFace it, Daddy. Youâve always lived in a matriarchy.â I blow him a kiss.
He frowns. âHey, donât think Iâve forgotten about you staying out all night without even a phone call home.â
Whoops. Maybe too soon for such gaiety. As he trudges up the stairs, I call out, âI truly am sorry!â
Sorry for not calling, but not sorry for going.