SECOND CHANCES

Kent’s Valogram was only the first of several adjustments I made in the Rose Room this morning, and as soon as I enter the cafeteria I can tell that Rob got his. He breaks away from his friends and lopes up to me before I can even make it over to the lunch line (where I’m planning on ordering a double roast beef sandwich). As always, his stupid Yankees hat is barely balanced on his head, twisted around to the side like he’s in some rap video from 1992.

“Hey, babe.” He goes to put his arm around me, and I step away casually. “Got your rose.”

“Thanks. I got yours too.”

He looks around, sees a single rose looped through the handle of my messenger bag, and frowns. “Is that mine?”

I shake my head, smiling sweetly.

He rubs his forehead. He always does this when he’s thinking, like the act of actually using his mind gives him a headache. “What happened to all your roses?”

“They’re in storage,” I say, which is kind of true.

He shakes his head, letting it go. “So there’s a party tonight….” He trails off, then tips his head and smirks at me. “I thought it would be fun to go for a bit.” He reaches out and clomps a hand on my shoulder, massaging me hard. “Like, you know, foreplay.”

Only Rob would think that pounding foamy beer from a keg and screaming at each other counts as foreplay, but I decide to let it go and play along. “Foreplay?” I say, as innocently as I can.

He obviously thinks I’m being flirtatious. He smiles and tilts his head backward, looking at me through half narrowed eyes. I used to think it was the cutest thing when he did this; now it’s a bit like watching a linebacker try to samba. He might have all the moves down, but it just doesn’t look right.

“You know,” he says quietly, “I really liked what you wrote in your note.”

“Did you?” I make my voice a purr, thinking about what I scrawled out this morning. You don’t have to wait for me anymore.

“So I was thinking I’d get to the party at ten, stay for an hour or two.” He shrugs and adjusts his hat, back to business now that he got the flirting out of the way.

I feel suddenly tired. I’d been planning to mess with Rob a little—to get back at him for not paying attention, for not being there, for not caring about anything except partying and lacrosse and how he looks in his stupid Yankees hat—but I can’t keep up the game anymore. “I don’t really care what you do, Rob.”

He hesitates. This was not the answer he was expecting. “You’re sleeping over tonight, though, right?”

“I don’t think so.”

His hand flies up to his forehead again: more rubbing. “But you said…”

“I said you didn’t have to wait for me anymore. And you don’t.” I suck in a deep breath. One, two, three, jump. “This isn’t working out, Rob. I want to break up.”

He takes a step backward. His face goes completely white, and then he turns bright red from the forehead down, like someone’s filling him with Kool-Aid. “What did you say?”

“I said I’m breaking up with you.” I’ve never done anything like this before, and I’m surprised by how easy I’m finding it. Letting go is easy: it’s all downhill. “I just don’t think it’s working out.”

“But—but—” he sputters at me. The confusion on his face is replaced by rage. “You can’t break up with me.”

I unconsciously shuffle backward, crossing my arms. “Why’s that?”

He looks at me like I’m the dumbest person alive. “You,” he says, almost spitting the word, “cannot break up with me .”

Then I get it. Rob does remember. He remembers that in sixth grade he said I wasn’t cool enough for him—remembers it, and still believes it. Any sympathy I still feel for him vanishes in that moment, and as he’s standing there, bright red with his fists clenched, it amazes me how ugly I find him.

“I can do it,” I say calmly. “I just did.”

“And I waited for you. I waited for you for months. ” He turns away and mutters something I don’t hear.

“What?”

He looks back at me, his face twisted with disgust and anger. This cannot be the same person who a week ago nestled against my shoulder and told me I was his personal blanket. It’s like his face has dropped away and there’s a totally different face underneath.

“I said I should have screwed Gabby Haynes when she asked me to over break,” he says coldly.

Something flares in my stomach, leftover pain or pride, but it passes quickly enough and is replaced again by a feeling of calm. I’m already gone from here, already flying over this, and I can suddenly understand exactly what Juliet feels, must have felt for some time. Thinking about her brings my strength back, and I even manage to smile.

“It’s never too late for second chances,” I say sweetly, and then I walk away to have my last lunch with my best friends.

Ten minutes later, when I’m finally sitting down at our usual table—scarfing an enormous roast beef sandwich with mayonnaise and a plate full of fries, hungrier than I’ve been in a long time—and Juliet comes through the cafeteria, I see she has placed a single rose in the empty water bottle that is strapped to the side of her backpack. She’s looking around, too, her face cutting the curtain of her hair in two, checking each and every table she passes, searching, looking for clues. Her eyes are bright and alert. She’s chewing her lip, but she doesn’t look unhappy. She looks alive . My heart skips a beat: this is the important thing.

As she weaves past our table, I see a folded note fluttering just under the petals of her rose, and even though I’m too far away to read it, I can see what’s written there clearly, even when I close my eyes. A single phrase.

It’s never too late.

“So what’s up with you today?” Lindsay asks on the way to The Country’s Best Yogurt. We’ve almost reached the Row, the line of small shops clustered at the crest of the hill like mushrooms. The blanket of dark clouds is being drawn over the horizon inch by inch, bringing the promise of snow.

“What do you mean?” We’re walking arm-in-arm, trying to stay warm. I wanted Ally and Elody to come along, but Elody had a Spanish test, and Ally insisted that if she missed another English class she’d probably get suspended. I didn’t make a big deal out of it.

A day like any other.

“I mean, why are you acting so weird?”

I’m trying to formulate an answer and Lindsay goes on, “Like, zoning out at lunch and stuff.” She bites her lip. “I got this text from Amy Weiss….”

“Yeah?”

“Amy Weiss is obviously crazy, and I would never believe anything she says, especially about you,” Lindsay qualifies quickly.

“Obviously,” I say, amused, pretty sure I know where this is headed.

“But…” Lindsay sucks in a deep breath and says in a rush, “She says she was talking to Steve Waitman, who was talking to Rob, who said that you broke up?” Lindsay shoots a glance at me and forces a laugh. “I told her it was bullshit, obviously.”

I pause, choosing my words carefully. “It’s not bullshit. It’s true.”

Lindsay stops walking and stares. “What?”

“I broke up with him at lunch.”

She shakes her head like she’s trying to dislodge the words from her brain. “And, um, were you planning on sharing this little piece of news at some point? With your best friends ? Or were you just counting on it to make the rounds eventually?”

I can tell she’s really hurt. “Listen, Lindsay, I was going to tell you—” She presses her hands to both ears, still shaking her head. “I don’t understand. What happened? You guys were supposed to—I mean, you told me you wanted to—tonight .”

I sigh. “This is why I didn’t want to tell you, Lindz. I knew you’d make a big deal out of it.”

“That’s because it is a big deal.”

Lindsay’s so outraged she’s not even paying attention as we pass Hunan Kitchen: she’s too busy glaring at me like she expects me to suddenly turn blue or combust, like I can never be trusted again.

It occurs to me she’s really going to feel that way after I do what I’m about to do, but it can’t be helped. I turn to her, putting my arms on her shoulders. “Wait here for a second, okay?”

She blinks at me. “Where are you going?”

“I have to stop in Hunan Kitchen for a second.” I brace myself, waiting for her to freak out. “I kind of have something for Anna Cartullo.”

I’m prepared for her to scream or stalk off or throw gummy bears at me or something , but instead her face goes totally blank like the power switch has been flipped off. I’m kind of worried she may be going into shock, but the opportunity is too good to pass up.

“Two minutes,” I say. “I promise.”

I duck into Hunan Kitchen before Lindsay—and her attitude—can come back online. A bell jingles on the door as I walk in. Alex looks up, worried for a second, and then plasters a smile on his face.

“What’s up, Sam?” he drawls. Idiot.

I ignore him and go straight to Anna. She has her head bent, pushing the food around her plate. It’s a lot safer than eating it, that’s for sure.

“Hey.” I’m nervous for some reason. There’s something unsettling about her quietness, the way she lifts her eyes and stares at me with no expression. It reminds me of Juliet. “I just came by to give you something.”

“Give me something?” She curls her lip back, skeptical, and the resemblance to Juliet is no longer so strong. She must think I’m crazy. As far as she knows we’ve never exchanged a word in our lives, and I can only imagine what she thinks I want to give her.

Alex is looking back and forth from Anna to me, as confused as she is. I’m aware of Lindsay watching me through the grimy window, and the fact that three people are staring at me like I’ve lost it is a little overwhelming. I reach into my bag, hands trembling a little bit.

“Yeah, listen, I know it’s weird. I can’t really explain it, but…” I pull out a big book of M. C. Escher sketches and put it on the table next to the bowl of sesame chicken. Or orange beef. Or cooked cat. Or whatever.

Anna freezes, staring at the book like it’s going to bite her.

“It just seemed like the kind of thing you’d like,” I say quickly, already backing away from the table. Now that the hard part is over I feel a thousand times better. “There’s over two hundred drawings. You could even hang some of them up, if you had a place to put them.”

Something tenses in Anna’s face. She’s still staring at the book on the table, her hands resting on her thighs. I can see how tightly she’s curling her fists.

I’m just about to turn and jet out the door when she glances up. Our eyes meet. She doesn’t say anything, but her mouth relaxes. It’s not quite a smile, but it’s close, and I take it as a thank-you.

I hear Alex say, “What was that about?” and then I’m out the door, the bell sounding a shrill note behind me.

Lindsay’s still standing there exactly as I left her, eyes dull. I know she’s been watching through the window.

“Now I know you’ve gone crazy,” she says.

“I’m telling you, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I feel exhilarated now that it’s over with. “Come on. I’m fiending me some yogurt.”

Lindsay doesn’t budge. “Lost it. Flipped your lid. Gone bat shit. Since when do you bring Anna Cartullo presents?”

“Listen, it’s not like I got her a friendship bracelet or something.”

“Since when do you even talk to Anna Cartullo?”

I sigh. I can tell she’s not going to give up on this. “I talked to her for the first time a couple days ago, all right?” Lindsay’s still staring like the world is melting away before her eyes. I know the feeling. “She’s actually pretty nice. I mean, I think you might like her if—” Lindsay makes a high-pitched squealing noise and claps her hands over her ears again like the very words are torture. She keeps on shrieking like this while I sigh and check my watch, waiting for her to finish her performance.

Eventually she calms down, her squealing dying away to a gurgling noise in the back of her throat. She squints at me. I can’t help but giggle. She looks like a total freak.

“Are you done?” I ask.

“Are you back?” She peels one hand off her ear tentatively, experimenting.

“Is who back?”

“Samantha Emily Kingston. My best friend. My heterosexual life partner.” She leans forward and raps once on my forehead with her knuckles. “Instead of this weird lobotomized boyfriend-dumping Anna Cartullo–liking pod who’s impersonating her.”

I roll my eyes. “You don’t know everything about me, you know.”

“I apparently don’t know anything about you.” Lindsay crosses her arms. I tug on the sleeve of her jacket, and she trudges forward reluctantly. I can tell she’s actually upset. I put my arms around her and squeeze. She’s so much shorter than I am that I have to take mini-shuffling steps so our paces are matched up, but I let her set the rhythm.

“You know what my favorite flavor of yogurt is,” I say, hoping to appease her.

Lindsay heaves a sigh. “Double chocolate,” she grumbles, but she’s not pushing me off of her, which is a good sign. “With crushed peanut butter cups and Cap’n Crunch cereal.”

“And I know you know what size I’m going to get.”

We’re at the door to The Country’s Best Yogurt now, and I can already smell the deliciously sweet chemical-y aroma wafting out to us. It’s like the smell of the bread baking at Subway. You know it’s not the way nature or God intended it to smell, but something about it is addictive.

Lindsay looks at me from the corner of her eye as I pull my arms off her. Her expression is so mournful it’s funny, and I choke down another laugh.

“Better be careful, Miss Jumbo Queen,” she says, tossing her hair. “All that artificial yumminess is going straight to your hips.”

But her mouth is crooked up into a smile, and I know she’s forgiven me.

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