Always and Forever, Lara Jean (4 page)

When we’re in line for food, Peter reaches for a brownie and I say, “Don’t—I brought cookies,” and he gets excited.

“Can I have one now?” he asks. I pull my Tupperware out of my bag and Peter grabs one. “Let’s not share with anybody else,” he says.

“Too late,” I say, because our friends have spotted us.

Darrell is singing, “Her cookies bring all the boys to the yard,” as we walk up to the table. I set the Tupperware down on the table and the boys wrestle for it, snatching cookies and gobbling them up like trolls.

Pammy manages to snag one and says, “Y’all are beasts.”

Darrell throws his head back and makes a beastlike sound, and she giggles.

“These are amazing,” Gabe groans, licking chocolate off his fingers.

Modestly I say, “They’re all right. Good, but not amazing. Not perfect.” I break a piece off of Peter’s cookie. “They taste better fresh out of the oven.”

“Will you please come over to my house and bake me cookies so I know what they taste like fresh out of the oven?” Gabe bites into another one and closes his eyes in ecstasy.

Peter snags one. “Stop eating all my girlfriend’s cookies!” Even a year later, it still gives me a little thrill to hear him say “my girlfriend” and know that I’m her.

“You’re gonna get a gut if you don’t quit with that shit,” Darrell says.

Peter takes a bite of cookie and lifts up his shirt and pats his stomach. “Six-pack, baby.”

“You’re a lucky girl, Large,” Gabe says.

Darrell shakes his head. “Nah, Kavinsky’s the lucky one.”

Peter catches my eye and winks, and my heart beats quicker.

I have a feeling that when I’m Stormy’s age, these everyday moments will be what I remember: Peter’s head bent, biting into a chocolate chip cookie; the sun coming through the cafeteria window, bouncing off his brown hair; him looking at me.

After school, Peter has lacrosse practice, and I sit in the stands and do my homework. Of all the guys on the team, Peter is the only one going to a division one school, and Coach White is already crying about what the team will
look like when Peter’s gone. I don’t understand all the ins and outs of the game, but I know when to cheer and when to boo. I just like to watch him play. He thinks every shot he takes will go in, and they usually do.

*  *  *

Daddy and Ms. Rothschild are, officially, a couple, and they have been since last September. Kitty’s over the moon; she takes credit for it at every opportunity. “It was all a part of my master plan,” she brags. I’ll give it to her. The girl does have vision. After all, she got Peter and me back together against all the odds, and now we’re in love.

For not having a lot in common, Ms. Rothschild and Daddy are a surprisingly good couple. (Again, not unlike Peter and me.) Proximity really does make all the difference. Two lonely neighbors, Netflix, a couple of dogs, a bottle of white wine. If you ask me, it’s lovely. Daddy has way more of a life now that Ms. Rothschild’s in it. They’re always going places together, doing actual activities. Like on a Saturday morning, before any of us are awake, they’ll go hiking and watch the sun rise. I’ve never known Daddy to hike, but he’s taken to it like a fish to water. They go out to dinner; they go to wineries; they meet up with Ms. Rothschild’s friends. Sure, he still likes to stay in and watch a documentary, but his world is so much more with her in it—and so much less lonely, which I never knew he was, these eight long years since Mommy died. But he must have been, now that I see him so energized and so out and about. Ms. Rothschild eats with us at least a few times a week, and it’s gotten to where it
feels strange to not see her sitting there at the kitchen table, with her rich, throaty laugh and her glass of white wine next to Daddy’s glass of beer.

After dinner that night, when I bring out cookies and ice cream for dessert, Daddy says, “More cookies?” and he and Ms. Rothschild exchange a meaningful look. Spreading vanilla ice cream on a cookie with a spoon, Daddy says, “You’ve been doing a lot of baking lately. You must be pretty stressed waiting on those college acceptance letters.”

“It has nothing to do with that,” I tell them. “I’m only trying to perfect my chocolate chip cookie recipe. Just be grateful, you guys.”

Daddy begins, “You know, I read a study that found that baking is actually therapeutic. It’s something to do with the repetition of measuring ingredients, and creativity. Psychologists call it behavioral activation.”

“Hey, whatever works,” Ms. Rothschild says, breaking a piece of cookie off and popping it into her mouth. “I go to SoulCycle; that’s where I find my center.” If Margot were here, she’d roll her eyes at that. Ms. Rothschild made me go with her once—I kept losing the beat and trying to find it again but to no avail. “Lara Jean, you’ve got to come with me again. There’s a great new instructor who plays all Motown music. You’ll love it.”

“When can I go with you, Tree?” Kitty asks. That’s what Kitty’s taken to calling Ms. Rothschild. I still think of her as Ms. Rothschild, and I slip up from time to time, but I try to call her Trina to her face when I remember.

“You can come with me when you’re twelve,” she says. “Those are the rules of SoulCycle.”

It’s hard to believe that Kitty is eleven already. Kitty is eleven and I’ll be eighteen in May. Time goes by so quickly. I look across the table at Daddy, who is looking at Kitty with a sad kind of smile, and then at me. I know he must be thinking the same thing.

He catches my eye and sings, “Lara Jean, don’t you worry ’bout a thing,” in his best Stevie Wonder voice, and we all groan. Biting into his makeshift ice cream sandwich, Daddy says, “You’ve worked hard; everything will turn out the way it’s supposed to.”

“There’s no way in the world that
UVA
would ever say no to you,” Ms. Rothschild says.

“Knock on wood,” Kitty says, rapping the kitchen table with her knuckle. To me she says, “You knock too.”

Dutifully I knock on the table. “What does knock on wood even mean?”

Daddy perks up. “Actually, it’s thought to come from Greek mythology. According to Greek myths, dryads lived in trees, and people would invoke them for protection. Hence knocking on wood: just that added bit of protection so as not to tempt fate.”

Now it’s Ms. Rothschild, Kitty, and me exchanging a look. Daddy’s so square, and Ms. Rothschild seems so young compared to him, even though he’s not that much older than her. And yet it works.

*  *  *

That night I can’t fall asleep, so I lie in bed going over my extracurriculars again. The highlights are Belleview and my internship at the library last summer. My
SAT
score is higher than the
UVA
average. Margot got in with just forty more than me. I got a five on the
AP
US
history exam. I’ve known people to get into
UVA
with less than that.

Hopefully my essay gave me a bit of shine. I wrote about my mom and my sisters, and all the ways she’s shaped us—when she was alive and after she wasn’t. Mrs. Duvall said it was the best she’d read in years, but Mrs. Duvall has always had a soft spot for the Song girls, so who knows.

I toss and turn for another few minutes, and finally I just throw off my covers and get out of bed. Then I go downstairs and start measuring out ingredients for chocolate chip cookies.

5

IT’S THURSDAY, CHARACTERS DAY, THE
day I’ve been looking forward to all week. Peter and I spent hours going back and forth over this. I made a strong case for Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler, but had to back down when I realized how expensive it would be to rent Colonial costumes on such short notice. I think couples costumes might be my favorite part of being in a couple. Besides the kissing, and the free rides, and Peter himself.

He wanted to go as Spider-Man and have me wear a red wig and be Mary Jane Watson, mostly because he already had the costume—and because he’s really fit from lacrosse, and why not give the people what they want? His words, not mine.

In the end we decided to go as Tyler Durden and Marla Singer from
Fight Club
. It was actually my best friend Chris’s idea. She and Kitty and I were watching it at my house, and Chris said, you and Kavinsky should go as those psychos. She said it would be good for the shock value—for me, anyway. At first I balked because Marla isn’t Asian and I have my only-Asian-people-costumes policy, but then Peter’s mom found him a red leather jacket at an estate sale, and it just came together. As for my costume, Ms. Rothschild is loaning me clothes from her own wardrobe, because she was young in the nineties.

This morning, Ms. Rothschild comes over before work to help me get ready. I’m sitting at the kitchen table in her black slip dress and a fake mohair jacket and a wig, which Kitty delights in messing up to get that crazy bedhead look. I keep swatting her moussed-up hands away, and she keeps saying, “But this is the look.”

“You’re lucky I’m a pack rat,” Ms. Rothschild says, sipping coffee from her thermos. She reaches into her bag and tosses me a pair of high, high black platform heels. “When I was in my twenties, Halloween was my thing. I was the queen of dressing up. It’s your turn to take the crown now, Lara Jean.”

“You can still be the queen,” I tell her.

“No, dressing up in costumes is a young person’s game. If I wore a sexy Sherlock Holmes costume now, I’d just look desperate.” She fluffs up my wig. “It’s all right. My time has passed.” To Kitty she says, “What do you think? A little more gunmetal eye shadow, right?”

“Let’s not take it too far,” I say. “This is still school.”

“The whole point of wearing a costume is taking it too far,” Ms. Rothschild says airily. “Take lots of pictures when you get to school. Text them to me so I can show my work friends. They’ll get a kick out of it. . . . God, speaking of work, what time is it?”

Ms. Rothschild is always running late, something that drives Daddy crazy because he’s always ten minutes early. And yet!

When Peter comes to pick me up, I run outside and open the passenger-side door and scream when I see him. His hair is blond!

“Oh my God!”
I shriek, touching his hair. “Did you bleach it?”

He grins a self-satisfied kind of grin. “It’s spray. My mom found it for me. I can use it again when we do Romeo and Juliet for Halloween.” He’s eyeing me in my getup. “I like those shoes. You look sexy.”

I can feel my cheeks warm up. “Be quiet.”

As he backs out of my driveway, he glances at me again and says, “It’s the truth, though.”

I give him a shove. “All I’m saying is, people better know who I am.”

“I’ve got you covered,” he assures me.

And he does. When we walk down the senior hallway, Peter cues up the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” on his phone, loud, and people actually clap for us. Not one person asks if I’m a manga character.

*  *  *

After school, Peter and I are lying on the couch; his feet are hanging off the end. He’s still in his costume, but I’ve changed into my regular clothes. “You always have the cutest socks,” he says, lifting up my right foot. These ones are gray with white polka dots and yellow bear faces.

Proudly I say, “My great-aunt sends them from Korea. Korea has the cutest stuff, you know.”

“Can you ask her to send me some too? Not bears, but maybe, like, tigers. Tigers are cool.”

“Your feet are too big for socks as cute as these. Your toes would pop right out. You know what, I bet I could find you
some socks that fit at . . . um, the zoo.” Peter sits up and starts tickling me. I gasp out, “I bet the—pandas or gorillas have to—keep their feet warm somehow . . . in the winter. Maybe they have some kind of deodorized sock technology as well.” I burst into giggles. “Stop . . . stop tickling me!”

“Then stop being mean about my feet!” I’ve got my hand burrowed under his arm, and I am tickling him ferociously. But by doing so, I have opened myself up to more attacks.

I yell, “Okay, okay, truce!” He stops, and I pretend to stop, but sneak a tickle under his arm, and he lets out a high-pitched un-Peter-like shriek.

“You said truce!” he accuses. We both nod and lie back down, out of breath. “Do you really think my feet smell?”

I don’t. I love the way he smells after a lacrosse game—like sweat and grass and him. But I love to tease, to see that unsure look cross his face for just half a beat. “Well, I mean, on game days . . . ,” I say. Then Peter attacks me again, and we’re wrestling around, laughing, when Kitty walks in, balancing a tray with a cheese sandwich and a glass of orange juice.

“Take it upstairs,” she says, sitting down on the floor. “This is a public area.”

Disentangling myself, I give her a glare. “We aren’t doing anything private,
Katherine
.”

“Your sister says my feet stink,” Peter says, pointing his foot in her direction. “She’s lying, isn’t she?”

She deflects it with a pop of her elbow. “I’m not smelling your foot.” She shudders. “You guys are kinky.”

I yelp and throw a pillow at her.

She gasps. “You’re lucky you didn’t knock over my juice! Daddy will kill you if you mess up the rug again.” Pointedly she says, “Remember the nail-polish-remover incident?”

Peter ruffles my hair. “Clumsy Lara Jean.”

I shove him away from me. “I’m not clumsy. You’re the one who tripped over his own feet trying to get to the pizza the other night at Gabe’s.”

Kitty bursts into giggles and Peter throws a pillow at her. “You guys need to stop ganging up on me!” he yells.

“Are you staying for dinner?” she asks when her giggles subside.

“I can’t. My mom’s making chicken fried steak.”

Kitty’s eyes bulge. “Lucky. Lara Jean, what are we having?”

“I’m defrosting some chicken breasts as we speak,” I say. She makes a face, and I say, “If you don’t like it, maybe you could learn to cook. I won’t be around to cook your dinners anymore when I’m at college, you know.”

“Yeah, right. You’ll probably be here every night.” She turns to Peter. “Can I come to your house for dinner?”

“Sure,” he says. “You can both come.”

Kitty starts to cheer, and I shush her. “We can’t, because then Daddy will have to eat alone. Ms. Rothschild has SoulCycle tonight.”

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