The summer i turned pret.., p.4
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       The Summer I Turned Pretty, p.4

           Jenny Han
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  Guiltily, my father admitted that yes, he had lit some; incense, but he wouldn't do it anymore. He still did, though. He did it when I wasn't there, out the window, but I could still smell the stuff.

  It was a two-bedroom apartment; he slept in the master bedroom, and I slept in the other one in a little twin bed with pink sheets. My brother slept on the pullout couch. Which, I was actually jealous of, because he got to stay up watching TV. All my room had was a bed and a white dresser set that I barely even used. Only one drawer had clothes in it. The rest were empty. There was a bookshelf too, with books my father had bought for me. My father was always buying me books. He kept hoping I'd turn out smart like him, someone who loved words, loved to read. I did like to read, but not the way he wanted me to. Not in the way of being, like, a scholar. I liked novels, not nonfiction. And I hated those scratchy pink sheets. If he

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  had asked me, I would have told him yellow, not pink.

  He did try, though. In his own way, he tried. He bought a secondhand piano and crammed it into the dining room, just for me. So I could still practice even when I stayed over there, he said. I hardly did, though-- the piano was out of tune, and I never had the heart to tell him.

  It's part of why I longed for summer. It meant I didn't have to stay at my father's sad little apartment. It wasn't that I didn't like seeing him: I did. I missed him so much. But that apartment, it was depressing. I wished I could see him at our house. Our real house. I wished it could be like it used to be. And since my mother had us most of the summer, he took Steven and me on a trip when we got back. Usually it was to Florida to see our grandmother. We called her Granna. It was a depressing trip too--Granna spent the whole time trying to convince him to get back together with my mother, whom she adored. "Have you talked with Laurel lately?" she'd ask, even way long after the divorce.

  I hated hearing her nag him about it; it wasn't like it was in his control anyway. It was humiliating, because it was my mother who had split up with him. It was she who had precipitated the divorce, had pushed the whole thing, I knew that much for sure. My father would have been perfectly content carrying on, living in our blue two-story with Claude and all his books.

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  My dad once told me that Winston Churchill said that Russia was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. According to my dad, Churchill had been talking about my mother. This was before the divorce, and he said it half-bitterly, half-respectfully. Because even when he hated her, he admired her.

  I think he would have stayed with her forever, trying to figure out the mystery. He was a puzzle solver, the kind of person who likes theorems, theories. X always had to equal something. It couldn't just be X.

  To me, my mother wasn't that mysterious. She was my mother. Always reasonable, always sure of herself. To me, she was about as mysterious as a glass of water. She knew what she wanted; she knew what she didn't want. And that was to be married to my father. I wasn't sure if it was that she fell out of love or if it was that she just never was. In love, I mean.

  When we were at Granna's, my mother took off on one of her trips. She'd go to far-off places like Hungary or Alaska. She always went alone. She took pictures, but I never asked to look at them, and she never asked if I wanted to.

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  chapter thirteen

  I was sitting in an Adirondack chair eating toast and reading a magazine when my mother came out and joined me. She had that serious look on her face, her look of purpose, the one she got when she wanted to have one of her mother-daughter talks. I dreaded those talks the same way I dreaded my period.

  "What are you doing today?" she asked me casually.

  I stuffed the rest of my toast into my mouth. "This?"

  "Maybe you could get started on your summer reading for AP English," she said, reaching over and brushing some crumbs off my chin.

  "Yeah, I was planning on it," I said, even though I hadn't been.

  My mother cleared her throat. "Is Conrad doing drugs?" she asked me.

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  "What?"

  "Is Conrad doing drugs?"

  I almost choked. "No! Why are you asking me anyway? Conrad doesn't talk to me. Ask Steven."

  "I already did. He doesn't know. He wouldn't lie," she said, peering at me.

  "Well, I wouldn't either!"

  My mother sighed. "I know. Beck's worried. He's been acting differently.

  He quit football ..."

  "I quit dance," I said, rolling my eyes. "And you don't see me running around with a crack pipe."

  She pursed her lips. "Will you promise to tell me if you hear something?"

  "I don't know . . . ," I said teasingly. I didn't need to promise her. I knew Conrad wasn't doing drugs. A beer was one thing, but he would never do drugs. I would bet my life on it.

  "Belly, this is serious."

  "Mom, chill. He's not doing drugs. When'd you turn into such a narc, anyway? You're one to talk." I elbowed her playfully.

  She bit back a smile and shook her head. "Don't start."

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  chapter fourteen

  AGE 13

  The first time they did it, they thought we didn't know. It was actually pretty stupid of them, because it was one of those rare nights when we were all at home. We were in the living room. Conrad was listening to music with his headphones on, and Jeremiah and Steven were playing a video game. I was sitting on the La-Z-Boy reading Emma --mostly because I thought it made me look smart, not really because I enjoyed it. If I was reading for real, I would be locked in my room with Flowers in the Attic or something and not Jane Austen.

  I think Steven smelled it first. He looked around, sniffed like a dog, and then said, "Do you guys smell that?"

  "I told you not to eat all those baked beans, Steven," Jeremiah said, his eyes focused on the TV screen.

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  I snickered. But it wasn't gas; I smelled it too. It was pot. "It's pot," I said, loudly. I wanted to be the one who said it first, to prove how sophisticated and knowledgeable I was.

  "No way," said Jeremiah.

  Conrad took off his headphones and said, "Belly's right. It's pot."

  Steven paused the game and turned to look at me. "How do you know what pot smells like, Belly?" he asked me suspiciously.

  "Because, Steven, I get high all the time. I'm a burn-out. You didn't know?" I hated it when Steven pulled the big brother routine, especially in front of Conrad and Jeremiah. It was like he was trying to make me feel small on purpose.

  He ignored me. "Is that coming from upstairs?"

  "It's my mom's," Conrad said, putting his headphones back on again. "For her chemo."

  Jeremiah didn't know, I could tell. He didn't say anything, but he looked confused and even hurt, the way he scratched the back of his neck and looked off into space for a minute. Steven and I exchanged a look. It was awkward, whenever Susannah's cancer came up, the two of us being outsiders and all. We never knew what to say, so we didn't say anything. We mostly pretended it wasn't happening, the way Jeremiah did.

  My mother didn't, though. She was matter-of-fact,

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  calm, the way she is about everything. Susannah said my mother made her feel normal. My mother was good at that, making people feel normal. Safe. Like as long as she was there, nothing truly bad could happen.

  When they came downstairs a little while later, they were giggling like two teenagers who had snuck into their parents' liquor cabinet. Clearly my mother had partaken in Susannah's stash as well.

  Steven and I exchanged another look, this time a horrified one. My mother was probably the last person on earth who would smoke pot, with the exception of our grandmother Gran, her mother.

  "Did you kids eat all the Cheetos?" my mother asked, rummaging through a cabinet. "I'm starving."

  "Yes," Steven said. He couldn't even look at her.

  "What about that bag of Fritos? Get those," Susannah ordered, coming up behind my La-Z-Boy. She touched my hair lightly,
which I loved. Susannah was much more affectionate than my mother in those kinds of ways, and she was always calling me the daughter she never had. She loved sharing me with my mother, and my mother didn't mind. Neither did I.

  "How are you liking Emma so far?" she asked me. Susannah had a way of focusing on you that made you feel like the most interesting person in the room.

  I opened my mouth to lie and tell her how great

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  I thought it was, but before I could, Conrad said very loudly, "She hasn't turned a page in over an hour." He was still wearing his headphones.

  I glared at him, but inside I was thrilled that he had noticed. For once, he had been watching me. But of course he'd noticed--Conrad noticed everything. Conrad would notice if the neighbor's dog had more crust in its right eye than its left, or if the pizza delivery guy was driving a different car. It wasn't really a compliment to be noticed by Conrad. It was a matter of fact.

  "You'll love it once it gets going," Susannah assured me, sweeping my bangs across my forehead.

  "It always takes me a while to get into a book," I said, in a way that sounded like I was saying sorry. I didn't want her to feel bad, seeing as how she was the one who'd recommended it to me.

  Then my mother came into the room with a bag of Twizzlers and the half-eaten bag of Fritos. She tossed a Twizzler at Susannah and said, belatedly, "Catch!"

  Susannah reached for it, but it fell on the floor, and she giggled as she picked it up. "Clumsy me," she said, chewing on one end like it was straw and she was a hick. "Whatever has gotten into me?"

  "Mom, everyone knows you guys were smoking pot upstairs," Conrad said, just barely bobbing his head to the music that only he could hear.

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  Susannah covered her mouth with her hand. She didn't say anything, but she looked genuinely upset.

  "Whoops," my mother said. "I guess the cat's out of the bag, Beck. Boys, your mother's been taking medicinal marijuana to help with the nausea from her chemo."

  Steven didn't look away from the TV when he said, "What about you, Mom? Are you toking up because of your chemo too?"

  I knew he was trying to lighten the mood, and it worked. Steven was good at that.

  Susannah choked out a laugh, and my mother threw a Twizzler at the back of Steven's head. "Smart-ass. I'm offering up moral support to my best friend in the world. There are worse things."

  Steven picked the Twizzler up and dusted it off before popping it into his mouth. "So I guess it's okay with you if I smoke up too?"

  "When you get breast cancer," my mother told him, exchanging a smile with Susannah, her best friend in the world.

  "Or when your best friend does," Susannah said.

  Throughout all of this, Jeremiah wasn't saying anything. He just kept looking at Susannah and then back at the TV, like he was worried she would vanish into thin air while his back was turned.

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  Our mothers thought we were all at the beach that afternoon. They didn't know that Jeremiah and I had gotten bored and decided to come back to the house for a snack. As we walked up the porch steps, we heard them talking through the window screen.

  Jeremiah stopped when he heard Susannah say, "Laur, I hate myself for even thinking this, but I almost think I'd rather die than lose my breast." Jeremiah stopped breathing as he stood there, listening. Then he sat down, and I did too.

  My mother said, "I know you don't mean that."

  I hated it when my mother said that, and I guessed Susannah did too because she said, "Don't tell me what I mean," and I'd never heard her voice like that before-- harsh, angry.

  "Okay. Okay. I won't."

  Susannah started to cry then. And even though we couldn't see them, I knew that my mother was rubbing Susannah's back in wide circles, the same way she did mine when I was upset.

  I wished I could do that for Jeremiah. I knew it would make him feel better, but I couldn't. Instead, I reached over and grabbed his hand and squeezed it tight. He didn't look at me, but he didn't let go either. This was the moment when we became true, real friends.

  Then my mother said in her most serious, most deadpan voice, "Your boobs really are pretty goddamn amazing."

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  Susannah burst out into laughter that sounded like a seal barking, and then she was laughing and crying at the same time. Everything was going to be okay. If my mother was cussing, if Susannah was laughing, it would all be fine.

  I let go of Jeremiah's hand and stood up. He did too. We walked back to the beach, neither of us saying anything. What was there to say? "Sorry your mom has cancer"? "I hope she doesn't lose a boob"?

  When we got back to our stretch of beach, Conrad and Steven had just come out of the water with their boogie boards. We still weren't saying anything, and Steven noticed. I guessed Conrad did too, but he didn't say anything. It was Steven who said, "What's with you guys?"

  "Nothing," I said, pulling my knees to my chest.

  "Did you guys just have your first kiss or something?" he said, shaking water off his trunks and onto my knees.

  "Shut up," I told him. I was tempted to pants him just to change the subject. The summer before, the boys had gone through an obsession with pantsing one another in public. I had never participated, but at that moment I really wanted to.

  "Aww, I knew it!" he said, jabbing me in the shoulder. I shrugged him off and told him to shut up again. He started to sing, "Summer lovin', had me a blast, summer lovin', happened so fast . . ."

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  "Steven, quit being dumb," I said, turning to shake my head and roll my eyes with Jeremiah.

  But then Jeremiah stood up, brushed sand off his shorts, and started walking toward the water and away from us, away from the house.

  "Jeremiah, are you on your period or something? I was just kidding, man!" Steven called to him. Jeremiah didn't turn around; he just kept walking down the shore. "Come on!"

  "Just leave him alone," Conrad said. The two of them never seemed particularly close, but there were times when I saw how well they understood each other, and this was one of them. Seeing Conrad protective of Jeremiah made me feel this huge surge of love for him--it felt like a wave in my chest washing over me. Which then made me feel guilty, because why should I be feeding into a crush when Susannah had cancer?

  I could tell Steven felt bad, and also confused. It was unlike Jeremiah to walk away. He was always the first to laugh, to joke right back.

  And because I felt like rubbing salt in the wound, I said, "You're such an asshole, Steven."

  Steven gaped at me. "Geez, what did I do?"

  I ignored him and fell back onto the towel and closed my eyes. I wished I had Conrad's earphones. I kind of wanted to forget this day ever happened.

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  Later, when Conrad and Steven decided to go night fishing, Jeremiah declined, even though night fishing was his favorite. He was always trying to get people to go night fishing with him. That night he said he wasn't in the mood. So they left, and Jeremiah stayed behind, with me. We watched TV and played cards. We spent most of the summer doing that, just us. We cemented things between us that summer. He'd wake me up early some mornings, and we would go collect shells or sand crabs, or ride our bikes to the ice cream place three miles away. When it was just us two, he didn't joke around as much, but he was still Jeremiah.

  From that summer on I felt closer to Jeremiah than I did to my own brother. Jeremiah was nicer. Maybe because he was somebody's little sibling too, or maybe just because he was that kind of person. He was nice to everybody. He had a talent for making people feel comfortable.

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  chapter fifteen

  It had been raining for three days. By four o'clock the third day, Jeremiah was stir-crazy. He wasn't the kind of person to stay inside; he was always moving. Always on his way somewhere new. He said he couldn't take it anymore and asked who wanted to go to the movies. There was only one movie theater in Cousins besides the drive-in, and it was in a mall.

  C
onrad was in his room, and when Jeremiah went up and asked him to come, he said no. He'd been spending an awful lot of time alone, in his room, and I could tell it hurt Steven's feelings. He'd be leaving soon for a college road trip with our dad, and Conrad didn't seem to care. When Conrad wasn't at work, he was too busy strumming his guitar and listening to music.

  So it was just Jeremiah, Steven, and me. I convinced

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  them to watch a romantic comedy about two dog walkers who walk the same route and fall in love. It was the only thing playing. The next movie wouldn't start for another hour. About five minutes in, Steven stood up, disgusted. "I can't watch this," he said. "You coming, Jere?"

  Jeremiah said, "Nah, I'll stay with Belly."

  Steven looked surprised. He shrugged and said, "I'll meet you guys when it's over."

  I was surprised too. It was pretty awful.

  Not long after Steven left, a big burly guy sat in the seat right in front of me. "I'll trade you," Jeremiah whispered.

  I thought about doing the fake "That's okay" thing but decided against it. This was Jeremiah, after all. I didn't have to be polite. So instead I said thanks and we traded. To see the screen Jeremiah had to keep craning his neck to the right and lean toward me. His hair smelled like Asian pears, this expensive shampoo Susannah used. It was funny. He was this big tall football guy now, and he smelled so sweet. Every time he leaned in, I breathed in the sweet smell of his hair. I wished my hair smelled like that.

  Halfway through the movie, Jeremiah got up suddenly. He was gone a few minutes. When he came back, he had a large soda and a pack of Twizzlers. I reached for the soda to take a sip, but there were no straws. "You forgot the straws," I told him.

 
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