20 LIFE IMITATES ART

Thursday afternoon at lunch, Aria turned the corner to Rosewood Day’s administrative wing. All the teachers had offices here and often tutored or advised students during their lunch periods.

Aria stopped at Ezra’s closed office door. It had changed a lot since the beginning of the year. He’d installed a white board, and it was chock-full of blue-inked notes from students. Mr. Fitz—Want to talk about my Fitzgerald report. I’ll stop by after school.—Kelly. There was a Hamlet quote at the bottom: O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! Below the marker board was a cutout of a New Yorker cartoon of a dog on a therapist’s couch. And on the doorknob was a DO NOT DISTURB sign from a Day’s Inn; Ezra had turned it to the DISTURB side: MAID,

PLEASE CLEAN UP THIS ROOM.

Aria tentatively knocked. “Come in,” she heard him say from the other side. She’d expected Ezra to be with another student—from snippets she heard in class, she’d thought his lunchtime office hours were always busy—but here he was alone, with a Happy Meal box on his desk. The room smelled like McNuggets.

“Aria!” Ezra exclaimed, raising an eyebrow. “This is a surprise. Sit down.”

She plopped down on Ezra’s scratchy tweed couch—the same kind that was in the Rosewood Day headmaster’s office. She pointed at his desk. “Happy Meal?”

He smiled sheepishly. “I like the toys.” He held up a car from some kids’ movie. “McNugget?” He proffered the box. “I got barbecue.”

She waved him away. “I don’t eat meat.”

“That’s right.” He ate a fry, his eyes locked with hers. “I forgot.”

Aria felt a swoosh of something—a mix of intimacy and discomfort. Ezra looked away, probably feeling it too. She looked around on his desk. It was littered with stacks of paper, a mini zen rock garden, and about a thousand books.

“So…” Ezra wiped his mouth with a napkin, not noticing Aria’s expression. “What can I do for you?”

Aria leaned her elbow on the couch’s arm. “Well, I’m wondering if I can have an extension on the Scarlet Letter essay that’s due tomorrow.”

He set down his soda. “Really? I’m surprised. You’re never late with anything.”

“I know,” she mumbled sheepishly. But the Ackards’ house was not conducive to studying. One, it was too quiet—Aria was used to studying while simultaneously listening to music, the TV, and Mike yammering on the phone in the next room. Two, it was hard to concentrate when she felt like someone was…watching her. “But it’s not a big deal,” she went on. “All I need is this weekend.”

Ezra scratched his head. “Well…I haven’t set a policy on extensions yet. But all right. Just this once. Next time, I’m going to have to mark you down a grade.”

She pushed her hair behind her ears. “I’m not going to make a habit of it.”

“Good. So, what, are you not liking the book? Or haven’t you started it?”

“I finished it today. But I hated it. I hated Hester Prynne.”

“Why?”

Aria fiddled with the buckle on her Urban Outfitters ivory suede flats. “She assumes her husband’s lost at sea, and so she goes and has an affair,” she muttered.

Ezra leaned forward on his elbow, looking amused. “But her husband isn’t a very good man, either. That’s what makes it complicated.”

Aria stared at the books that were crammed into Ezra’s cramped, wooden bookshelves. War and Peace. Gravity’s Rainbow. An extensive collection of e. e. cummings and Rilke poetry, and not one but two copies of No Exit. There was the Edgar Allan Poe collection Sean hadn’t read. All of the books looked creased and worn from reading and rereading. “But I couldn’t see past what Hester did,” Aria said quietly. “She cheated.”

“But we’re supposed to feel for her struggle, and how society has branded her, and how she strives to forge her own identity and not allow anyone to create one for her.”

“I hated her, okay?” Aria exploded. “And I’ll never forgive her!”

She covered her face with her hands. Tears spilled down her cheeks. When she shut her eyes, she pictured Byron and Meredith as the book’s illicit lovers, Ella as Hester’s vengeful, wronged husband. But if life really imitated art, Byron and Meredith should be suffering…not Aria. She’d tried to call her house last night, but as soon as Ella picked up and heard Aria’s voice on the other end, she hung up. When Aria waved at Mike across the gym, Mike had quickly spun on his heel and marched back into the locker room. No one was on her side.

“Whoa,” Ezra said quietly, after Aria let out a stifled sob. “It’s okay. So you didn’t like the book. It’s fine.”

“I’m sorry. I’m just…” She felt hot tears on her palms. Ezra’s room had grown so quiet. There was only the whirring of the computer’s hard drive. The buzz of the fluorescent lamp. The happy cries from the lower school playground—all the little kids were out for recess.

“Is there something you want to talk about?” Ezra asked.

Aria wiped her eyes with the back of her blazer sleeve. She picked at a loose button on one of the couch’s seat cushions. “My father had an affair with his student three years ago,” she blurted out. “He’s a professor at Hollis. I knew about it the whole time, but he asked me not to tell my mom. Well, now he’s back with the student…and my mom found out. She’s furious I knew for so long…and now my dad’s gone.”

“Jesus,” Ezra whispered. “This just happened?”

“A few weeks ago, yeah.”

“God.” Ezra stared up at the beamed ceiling for a while. “That doesn’t sound very fair of your dad. Or your mom.”

Aria shrugged. Her chin started to tremble again. “I shouldn’t have kept it a secret from my mom. But what was I supposed to do?”

“It’s not your fault,” Ezra told her.

He got out of his chair, walked around to the front of the desk, pushed a few papers aside, and sat on the edge.

“Okay. So, I’ve never told anyone this, but when I was in high school, I saw my mom kissing her doctor. She had cancer at the time, and since my dad was traveling, she asked me to take her to her chemotherapy treatments. Once, while I was waiting, I had to use the bathroom, and as I was walking back through the hall, I saw this exam room door open. I don’t know why I looked in, but when I did…there they were. Kissing.”

Aria gasped. “What did you do?”

“I pretended like I didn’t see it. My mom had no idea that I had. She came out twenty minutes later, all straightened up and proper and in a hurry. I really wanted to bring it up, but at the same time, I couldn’t.” He shook his head. “Dr. Poole. I never looked at him in the same way again.”

“Didn’t you say your parents got divorced?” Aria asked, remembering a conversation they’d had at Ezra’s house. “Did your mom go off with Dr. Poole?”

“Nah.” Ezra reached over and grabbed a McNugget out of the box. “They got divorced a couple years later. Dr. Poole and the cancer were long gone.”

“God,” was all Aria could think to say.

“It sucks.” Ezra fiddled with one of the rocks in the mini zen rock garden that sat at the edge of his desk. “I idolized my parents’ marriage. It didn’t seem to me like they were having problems. My whole relationship ideal was shattered.”

“Mine too,” Aria said glumly, running her foot against a stack of paperbacks on the floor. “My parents seemed really happy together.”

“It has nothing to do with you,” Ezra told her. “That’s a big thing I learned. It’s their thing. Unfortunately, you have to deal with it, and I think it makes you stronger.”

Aria groaned and clunked her head against the couch’s stiff back. “I hate when people say things like that to me. That things will make me a better person, even if the things themselves suck.”

Ezra chuckled. “Actually, I do too.”

Aria shut her eyes, finding this moment bittersweet. She had been waiting for someone to talk to about all this—someone who really, truly understood. She wanted to kiss Ezra for having as messed-up a family as she did.

Or maybe, she wanted to kiss Ezra…because he was Ezra.

Ezra’s eyes met hers. Aria could see her reflection in his inky pupils. With his hand, Ezra pushed the little Happy Meal car so that it rolled across his desk, over the edge, and onto her lap. A smile whispered across his face.

“Do you have a girlfriend in New York?” Aria blurted out.

Ezra’s forehead furrowed. “A girlfriend…” He blinked a few times. “I did. But we broke up this summer.”

“Oh.”

“Where did that come from?” Ezra asked.

“Some kids were talking about it, I guess. And I…I wondered what she was like.”

A devilish look danced in Ezra’s eyes, then escaped. He opened his mouth to say something but changed his mind. “What?” Aria asked him.

“I shouldn’t.”

“What?”

“It’s just…” He glanced at her askance. “She was nothing compared to you.”

A hot feeling swished through Aria. Slowly, without taking his eyes off her, Ezra slid off the desk to stand. Aria inched toward the edge of the couch. The moment stretched on forever. And then, Ezra lunged forward, grabbed Aria at her shoulders, and pressed her to him. Her lips crashed onto his. She held the sides of his face, and he ran his hands up the length of her back. They broke away and stared at each other, then dove back in again. Ezra smelled delicious, like a mix of Pantene and mint and chai tea and something that was just…Ezra. Aria had never felt this way from kissing. Not with Sean, not with anyone.

Sean. His image swam into her head. Sean letting Aria lean into him while they watched the BBC version of The Office last night. Sean kissing her before bio class, comforting her because they were starting dissections today. Sean holding her hand at dinner with his family. Sean was her boyfriend.

Aria pushed Ezra away and jumped up. “I have to go.” She felt sweaty, as if someone had jacked up the thermostat about fifty degrees. She quickly gathered up her things, heart thumping and cheeks blazing.

“Thanks for the extension,” she blurted out, pushing clumsily through the door.

Out in the hall, she drew in a few deep breaths. Down the corridor, a figure slipped around the corner. Aria tensed. Someone had seen.

She noticed something on Ezra’s door and widened her eyes. Someone had erased all the old white-board messages, replacing them with a new one in an unfamiliar hot pink marker.

Careful, careful! I’m always watching!

—A

And then, in smaller letters, down at the bottom:

Here’s a second hint: You all knew every inch of her backyard. But for one of you, it was so, so easy.

Aria pulled her blazer sleeve down and quickly wiped the letters away. When she got to the signature, she wiped extra hard, scrubbing and scrubbing until there was no trace of A left.

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