PETER’S AT MY HOUSE BRIGHT
and early to pick me up. Everyone else is caravanning down together, but Peter wanted it to be just him and me in his two-seater. He’s in a good mood; he’s brought donuts for us like old times. He says they’re all for me, though. Ever since he came back from that training weekend with his lacrosse team, he’s been in fitness mode.
We’re moving stuff around in his car to make room for my suitcase when Kitty comes running out to say hi. She spots the bag of donuts resting on top of my bag and she snags one. Her mouth full, she says, “Peter, did Lara Jean tell you the news about Korea?”
“What news?” he says.
My head snaps up and I throw Kitty a look. “I was just about to. Peter, I didn’t get a chance to tell you yesterday. . . . My dad’s sending us to Korea for my graduation present.”
“Wow, that’s cool,” Peter says.
“Yeah, we’re going to see our relatives and do a tour around the country, too.”
I glance over at him. “Next month.”
“For how long?” he asks.
He looks at me in dismay. “A
? That long?”
“I know.” We’re already in mid-June. Only two months of summer left from here and then he’ll still be here and I’ll be in Chapel Hill.
“A month,” he repeats. Before Peter, I wouldn’t have thought twice about going to Korea for a month. I would have rejoiced. And now . . . I’d never say so to Daddy or Margot or Kitty, but I don’t want to go. I just don’t. I do. But I don’t.
When we’re in the car, on our way, I say, “We’ll FaceTime every day. It’s a thirteen-hour time difference, so if I call you at night, it’ll be your morning.”
Peter looks gloomy. “We were gonna go to Bledell’s for his Fourth of July weekend, remember? His dad got a new boat. I was going to teach you how to wakeboard.”
“What am I going to do when you’re all the way over there? The summer’s going to suck. I wanted to take you to Pony Pasture.” Pony Pasture is a little park on the James River in Richmond; there are big stones you can lie out on, and you can float down the river on inner tubes. Peter’s gone before, with friends from school, but I never have.
“We can go when I come back,” I say, and he nods halfheartedly. “And I’ll bring back lots of presents. Face masks. Korean candy. A present a day!”
“Bring me back some tiger socks.”
“If they make them big enough,” I say, just to make a joke, just to make him smile. This week will have to be the
most perfect, the best ever, to make up for the fact that I’ll be gone all summer.
Peter’s phone buzzes, and he ignores the call without looking to see who it is. A minute later it buzzes again, and Peter’s face goes tight.
“Who is it?” I ask.
“My dad,” he says shortly.
“I hope he’s calling to apologize and explain how he could miss his own son’s graduation.”
“I already know why. He told my mom Everett had an allergic reaction so they took him to urgent care.”
“Oh,” I say. “I guess that’s a pretty good excuse. Is Everett okay?”
“He’s fine. I don’t think he’s really even that allergic. When I eat strawberries, my tongue itches. Big deal.” With that, Peter turns on the music, and we don’t talk for a while.
* * *
The girls’ house is second row, with a view of the beach. It’s on stilts, like all the other houses in the second row. There are three levels, with the kitchen and living room on the bottom level, and the bedrooms on the top levels. Chris and I share a room with two beds on the top level. It’s like we are at the top of a lighthouse. The bedspreads are turquoise with seashells on them. Everything smells a little mildewy, but it’s not a bad house.
All of the girls in the house have taken up different roles, except for Chris, whose main role has been to sleep on the beach all day with a water bottle of beer. The first day she
came back with her chest and face lobster red; the only unburned part of her was where her sunglasses were. She was embarrassed but she played it off, saying it’s her base tan for Costa Rica. Pammy is the den mom. She promised her parents she wouldn’t drink, so she’s taken it upon herself to check on the other girls and bring water and Advil to their beds in the morning. Kaila’s really good with a flatiron. She can even curl with it, something I’ve never managed to quite get the hang of. Harley’s good at coordinating and making plans with the other houses.
I’m the cook. When we first got to the house, we went out and did a big shopping trip and bought cold cuts, granola, dried pasta and jars of sauce, salsa, cereal. The one thing we didn’t buy was toilet paper, which we ran out of on the second day. Every time we leave the house to eat lunch or dinner out, one of us steals a wad of toilet paper from the restaurant bathroom. Why we don’t just go buy more, I don’t know, but it’s turned into kind of a game. Chris is the clear winner, because she managed to get an economy-size roll out of the dispenser, and she smuggled it out under her shirt.
The boys come over every day to freeload and also because their house is already filled with sand. We’ve nicknamed it the Sandcastle. Just sitting on their couch, it’s like getting a body scrub, and you stand up feeling exfoliated and not in a good way.
I wonder if this is what it would feel like to live in a sorority house. At first it’s kind of charming, like those boarding
houses in the 1940s, borrowing nail polish and playing music while we get ready, eating ice cream in bed. But then on Wednesday, Kaila and Harley get into a screaming fight at one in the morning over who left the flatiron on and our neighbors call the police. That same night Pammy gets drunk, and I sit next to her on the beach for hours while she cries, because she feels guilty about breaking her word to her parents. The next night, some of the girls go out to a club and bring back three guys from Montana. One has shifty eyes and I make sure to lock my bedroom door that night. In my and Chris’s room, I text Peter, who’s already gone back to his house. He comes right back and camps out downstairs “to keep my eye on them.”
Peter and I spend our days at the beach, where I sit and read and he goes for long runs. Since we’ve been here, he goes running all the time, because he can’t work out like he does at home, in the gym. He goes for a long run in the morning before it gets hot, a short one midday, and another long one at dusk. Except for the day I make him go with me to the Wright Brothers museum in Kill Devil Hills. I went there as a kid with my family, before Kitty was born, but I was too little to climb up to the monument. We go all the way to the top and take in the view.
All week, Peter has been as winsome and winning as ever, especially in front of other people—always with an easygoing smile on his face, always the first to suggest an activity, a game. But with me he’s been distant. Like even though he’s right here next to me, he feels far away.
Unreachable. I’ve tried to broach the topic of his dad again, but he just laughs it off. He hasn’t brought up my trip to Korea again either.
Every night there’s a party at one of the houses—except ours. We never host, because Pammy is worried about losing our security deposit. The nice thing about it is, all the different groups are hanging out in a way that people didn’t in high school. There is something freeing about knowing it’s all over. We won’t all be together like this again, so why not? In that spirit, Chris hooks up with Patrick Shaw, a guy from Josh’s anime club.
Tonight the party is at Peter’s house. I have no idea how they’re getting their security deposit back, because the place is in sandy shambles: One of the wicker chairs on the deck is broken, there are beer cans everywhere, and someone sat down on the beige living room couch in a wet orange towel and now there’s a big orange spot in the middle. I’m making my way through the kitchen when I see John Ambrose McClaren, going through the refrigerator.
I freeze. Peter’s been in such an unpredictable mood; I don’t know what he’ll do when he sees John at his house.
I’m trying to decide if I should go find Peter and tell him John’s here, when John’s head pops up behind the refrigerator door. He’s holding a carrot and munching on it. “Hey! I thought I might see you here.”
“Hi!” I say, cheerfully, as if I weren’t just contemplating backing away before he saw me. I come over and he gives
me a one-armed hug, because he’s still holding the carrot. “Have you seen Peter?” I ask him. “This is the house he’s staying in.”
“Nah, we just got here.” John looks tan, his hair is bleached from the sun, and he’s wearing a worn blue-and-white-checked shirt and khaki shorts. “Where are you staying?”
“Really close to here. What about you?”
“We got a house in Duck.” He smiles and then offers me his carrot. “Want a bite?”
I laugh. “No thanks. So where did you decide on for school?”
“William and Mary.” John holds his hand up for a high five. “So I’ll see you there, right?”
“Actually . . . I’m going to Chapel Hill. I got in off the wait list.”
John’s jaw drops. “Are you serious? That’s awesome!” He pulls me in for a hug. “That’s amazing. It’s actually the perfect place for you. You’re going to love it there.”
I’m looking toward the kitchen door, thinking of how I can gracefully exit this conversation, when Peter strolls into the kitchen with a beer in his hand. He stops short when he sees us. I’m cringing inside, but he just grins and shouts, “McClaren! What up!” They do a guy hug, where they pull each other in and then just kind of bump into each other. When they back away, Peter’s eyes linger on the carrot in John’s hand. Every day, Peter’s made himself a carrot-and-berry protein shake, and I just know he’s
smarting over John taking one. He’s counted out exactly how many carrots he needs for the rest of the week.
“Lara Jean was just telling me she got into Carolina,” John says, resting his back against the countertop. “I’m so jealous.”
“Yeah, you always wanted to go there, right?” Peter’s eyes are still on the carrot.
“Ever since I was a kid. It was my top choice.” John gives me a playful nudge. “This girl snuck in there like a thief in the night. Took my spot right out from under me.”
Smiling, I say, “Sorry about that.”
“Nah, I’m just kidding with you.” John takes a bite of his carrot. “I really might transfer, though. We’ll see.”
Peter puts his arm around my waist and takes a swig of beer. “You should. We could all go to a Tar Heels game together.” He says it genially enough, but I can hear the tension underneath.
John doesn’t miss it either. “For sure,” he says. Then he polishes off the rest of his carrot and tosses the stem into the sink. “I want you guys to meet my girlfriend, Dipti. She’s around here somewhere.” He pulls his phone out of his pocket and sends her a text.
We’re still standing around when she finds us. She is taller than me, sporty-looking, shoulder-length black hair, dark skin, maybe Indian. She has a nice white smile and one dimple. She’s wearing a silky white romper and sandals. I’m regretting my decision to wear a
T-shirt of Peter’s and cutoffs. We introduce ourselves, and then she
hops up on the countertop and asks, “So how do you guys know each other?”
“McClaren was my
back in middle school,” Peter says. “They used to call us Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Who do you think was Butch and who do you think was the Sundance Kid, Dipti?”
She laughs. “I don’t know. I never saw that movie.”
“Butch was the main guy.” Peter points to himself. “And the Sundance Kid over there”—he points to John—“he was the sidekick.” Peter cracks up, and I’m cringing inside, but John just shakes his head in his good-natured way. Peter grabs John’s bicep. “Yo, have you been working out?” To Dipti he says, “This kid used to have spaghetti arms and read all day, but now look at him. He’s a stud.”
“Hey, I still read,” John says.
“When Peter and I first got together, I thought maybe he didn’t know how to read,” I say, and John doubles over laughing.
Peter laughs too, but not as heartily as he was a second ago.
* * *
When it gets late, Peter says I should just stay over instead of going back to my house. I say no, because I don’t have my toothbrush or any of my things, but really, I’m just annoyed with him for the way he acted in front of John.
On the walk back to my house, Peter says, “Dipti seems cool. Good for McClaren. Doubt they’ll stay together, though. They’ll probably visit each other once and be broken up by Christmas, if that.”
I stop walking. “That’s a lousy thing to say.”
“What? I’m just being honest.”
I face him, and salty beach wind whips my hair around my face. “Okay, if you’re ‘just being honest,’ then maybe I will be too.” Peter raises an eyebrow and waits for me to continue. “You acted like a jerk tonight. Insecurity is not a good look on you, Peter.”
“Me?” Peter makes a derisive sound. “Insecure? About what? McClaren? Please. Did you see how he just went into my fridge and ate my carrots?”
I start walking again, faster. “Who cares about your carrots!”
He jogs to catch up with me. “You know I’m trying to get in shape for lacrosse!”
“You’re ridiculous, do you know that?” We are now standing in front of my house. Angry walking sure gets you places in a hurry. “Good night, Peter.” I turn on my heel and start walking up the steps, and Peter doesn’t try to stop me.