The summer i turned pret.., p.7
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       The Summer I Turned Pretty, p.7

           Jenny Han
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  I went to his room to watch him pack up. He hadn't brought much, just a duffel bag. I was suddenly sad to see him leave. Without Steven everything would be off balance--he was the buffer, the real life reminder that nothing really changes, that everything can stay the same. Because, Steven never changed. He was just obnoxious, insufferable Steven, my big brother, the bane of my existence. He was like our old flannel blanket that smelled like wet dog--smelly, comforting, a part of the infrastructure

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  that made up my world. And with him there, everything would still be the same, three against one, boys against girls.

  "I wish you weren't leaving," I said, tucking my knees into my chest.

  "I'll see you in a month," he reminded me.

  "A month and a half," I corrected him sullenly. "You're missing my birthday, you know."

  "I'll give you your present when I see you at home."

  "Not the same." I knew I was being a baby, but I couldn't help it. "Will you at least send me a postcard?"

  Steven zipped up his duffel bag. "I doubt I'll have time. I'll send you a text, though."

  "Will you bring me back a Princeton sweatshirt?" I couldn't wait to wear a college sweatshirt. They were like a badge that said you were mature, practically college age if not already. I wished I had a whole drawer full of them.

  "If I remember," he said.

  "I'll remind you," I said. "I'll text you."

  "Okay. It'll be your birthday present."

  "Deal." I fell back onto his bed and pushed my feet up against his wall. He hated it when I did that. "I'll probably miss you, a little bit."

  "You'll be too busy drooling over Conrad to notice I'm gone," Steven said.

  I stuck my tongue out at him.

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  Steven left really early the next morning. Conrad and Jeremiah were going to drive him to the airport. I went down to say good-bye, but I didn't try to go along because I knew he wouldn't want me to. He wanted some time, just them, and for once I was going to let him have it without a fight.

  When he hugged me good-bye, he gave me his trademark condescending look--sad eyes and a half grimace-- and said, "Don't do anything stupid, all right?" He said it in this really meaningful way, like he was trying to tell me something important, like I was supposed to understand.

  But I didn't. I said, "Don't you do anything stupid either, butthead."

  He sighed and shook his head at me like I was a child.

  I tried not to let it bother me. After all, he was leaving, and things wouldn't be the same without him. At the very least I could send him off without getting into a petty argument. "Tell Dad I said hi," I said.

  I didn't go back to bed right away. I stayed on the front porch awhile, feeling blue and a little teary--not that I would ever admit it to Steven.

  In a lot of ways it was like the last summer. That fall, Conrad would start college. He was going to Brown. He might not come back next summer. He might have an internship, or summer school, or he might backpack

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  across Europe with all his new dorm buddies. And Jeremiah, he might go to the football camp he was always talking about. There were a lot of things that could happen between now and then. It occurred to me that I was going to have to make the most of this summer, really make it count, in case there wasn't another one quite like it. After all, I would be sixteen soon. I was getting older too. Things couldn't stay the same forever.

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  chapter twenty

  AGE II

  The four of us were lying on a big blanket in the sand. Conrad, Steven, Jeremiah, and then me on the edge. That was my spot. When they let me come along .This was one of those rare days.

  It was already midafternoon, so hot my hair felt like it was on fire, and they were playing cards while I listened in.

  Jeremiah said, "Would you rather be boiled in olive oil or skinned alive with a burning hot butter knife?"

  "Olive oil," said Conrad confidently. "It's over quicker."

  "Olive oil," I echoed.

  "Butter knife," said Steven. "There's more of a chance I can turn the tables on the guy and skin him."

  "That wasn't an option," Conrad told him. "It's a question about death, not turning the tables on somebody."

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  "Fine. Olive oil," Steven said grumpily. "What about you, Jeremiah?"

  "Olive oil," Jeremiah said. "Now you go, Con."

  Conrad squinted his eyes up at the sun and said, "Would you rather live one perfect day over and over or live your life with no perfect days but just decent ones?"

  Jeremiah didn't say anything for a minute. He loved this game. He loved to mull over the different possibilities. "With that one perfect day, would I know I was reliving it, like Groundhog Day?"

  "No."

  "Then I'll take the perfect day," he decided.

  "Well, if the perfect day involves--," Steven began, but then he looked over at me and stopped speaking, which I hated. "I'll take the perfect day too."

  "Belly?" Conrad looked at me. "What would you pick?"

  My mind raced around in circles as I tried to find the right answer. "Urn. I'd take living my life with decent days. That way I could still hope for that one perfect day," I said. "I wouldn't want to have a life that's just one day over and over."

  "Yeah, but you wouldn't know it," Jeremiah argued.

  I shrugged. "But you might, deep down."

  "That's stupid," Steven said.

  "I don't think it's stupid. I think I agree with her." Conrad gave me this look, the kind of look I bet soldiers

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  give each other when they're teaming up against somebody else. It was like we were in it together.

  I gave Steven a little shimmy. I couldn't help myself. "See?" I said. "Conrad agrees with me."

  Steven mimicked, "Conrad agrees with me. Conrad loves me. Conrad's awesome--"

  "Shut up, Steven!" I yelled.

  He grinned and said, "My turn to ask a question. Belly, would you rather eat mayonnaise every day, or be flat-chested for the rest of your life?"

  I turned on my side, grabbed a handful of sand, and threw it at Steven. He was in the middle of laughing, and a bunch got in his mouth and stuck to his wet cheeks. He screamed, "You're dead, Belly!"

  Then he lunged at me, and I rolled away from him. "Leave me alone," I said defiantly. "You can't hurt me or I'll tell Mom."

  "You're such a pain in the ass," he spat out, grabbing my leg roughly. "I'm throwing you in the water."

  I tried to shake him off, but I only succeeded in kicking more sand into his face. Which of course only made him madder.

  Conrad said, "Leave her alone, Steven. Let's go swim."

  "Yeah, come on," said Jeremiah.

  Steven hesitated. "Fine," he said, spitting out sand. "But you're still dead, Belly." He pointed at me, and then made a cutting motion with his finger.

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  I gave him the finger and flipped over, but inside I was shaking. Conrad had defended me. Conrad cared whether or not I was dead.

  Steven was mad at me the whole rest of the day, but it was worth it. It was also ironic, Steven teasing me about being flat-chested, because two summers later I had to wear a bra, but, like, for real.

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  Chapter twenty-one

  The night Steven left, I headed down to the pool for one of my midnight swims, and Conrad and Jeremiah and this neighbor guy Clay Bertolet were sitting on the lounge chairs drinking beer. Clay lived way down the street, and he'd been coming to Cousins Beach for almost as long as we had. He was a year older than Conrad. No one had even liked him much. He was just a person to hang out with, I guess.

  Right away I stiffened and held my beach towel closer to my chest. I wondered if I should turn back. Clay had always made me nervous. I didn't have to swim that night. I could do it the next night. But no, I had as much right to be out there as they did. More, even.

  I walked over to them, pretend-confident. "Hey, guys," I said.
I didn't let go of my towel. It felt funny to be

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  standing there in a towel and a bikini when they were all wearing clothes.

  Clay looked up at me, his eyes narrow. "Hey, Belly. Long time no see." He patted the lounge chair. "Sit down."

  I hated when people said "long time no see." It was such a dumb way to say hello. But I sat down anyway.

  He leaned in and gave me a hug. He smelled like beer and Polo Sport. "So how've you been?" he asked.

  Before I could answer, Conrad said, "She's fine, and now it's time for bed. Good night, Belly."

  I tried not to sound like a five-year-old when I said, "I'm not going to sleep yet, I'm swimming."

  "You should head back up," Jeremiah said, putting his beer down. "Your mom will kill you for drinking."

  "Hello. I'm not drinking," I reminded him.

  Clay offered me his Corona. "Here," he said, winking. He seemed drunk.

  I hesitated, and Conrad snapped irritably, "Don't give her that. She's a kid, for God's sake."

  I glared at him. "Quit acting like Steven." For a second or two I considered taking Clay's beer. It would be my first. But then I'd only be doing it to spite Conrad, and I wasn't going to let him control what I did.

  "No, thanks," I told him.

  Conrad nodded imperceptibly. "Now go back to bed like a good girl."

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  It felt just like when he and Steven and Jeremiah used to leave me out of things on purpose. I could feel my cheeks burning as I said, "I'm only two years younger than you."

  "Two and a quarter," he corrected automatically.

  Clay laughed, and I could smell his yeasty breath. "Shit, my girlfriend was fifteen." Then he looked at me. "Ex-girlfriend."

  I smiled weakly. Inside, I was shrinking away from him and his breath. But the way Conrad was watching us, well, I liked it. I liked taking his friend away from him, even if it was just for five minutes. "Isn't that, like, illegal?" I asked Clay.

  He laughed again. "You're cute, Belly."

  I could feel myself blush. "So, um, why did you break up?" I asked, like I didn't already know. They broke up because Clay's a jerk, that was why. Clay had always been a jerk. He used to try to feed the seagulls Alka-Seltzer because he heard it made their stomachs blow up.

  Clay scratched the back of his neck. "I don't know. She had to go to horse camp or something. Long distance relationships are BS."

  "But it would just be for the summer," I protested. "It's dumb to break up over a summer." I'd nursed a crush on Conrad for whole school years. I could survive for months, years, on a crush. It was like food. It could sustain me. If Conrad was mine, there was no way I'd

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  break up with him over a summer--or a school year, for that matter.

  Clay looked at me with his heavy-lidded, sleepy eyes and said, "Do you have a boyfriend?"

  "Yes," I said, and I couldn't help myself---I looked at Conrad when I said it. See, I was saying, I'm not a stupid twelve-year-old girl with a crush anymore. I'm a real person. With an actual boyfriend. Who cared if it wasn't true? Conrad's eyes flickered, but his face was the same, expressionless. Jeremiah, though, he looked surprised.

  "Belly, you have a boyfriend?" He frowned. "You never mentioned him."

  "It's not that serious." I picked at an unraveling thread on the seat cushion. I was already regretting making it up. "In fact, we're really, really casual."

  "See? Then what's the point of a relationship during summer? What if you meet people?" Clay winked at me in a jokey way. "Like right now?"

  "We've already met, Clay. Like, ten years ago." Not that he'd ever actually paid me any attention.

  He nudged me with his knee. "Nice to meet you. I'm Clay."

  I laughed, even though it wasn't funny. It just felt like the right thing to do. "Hi, I'm Belly."

  "So, Belly, are you gonna come to my bonfire tomorrow night?" he asked me.

  "Um, sure," I said, trying not to sound too excited.

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  Conrad and Steven and Jeremiah went to the big Fourth of July bonfire every year. Clay had it at his house because there were a ton of fireworks on that end of the beach. His mom always put out stuff for s'mores. I once made Jeremiah bring one back for me, and he did. It was rubbery and burnt, but I still ate it, and I was still grateful to Jeremiah for it. It was like a little piece of the party. They never let me go with them, and I never tried to make them. I watched the show from our back porch, in my pajamas, with Susannah and my mother. They drank champagne and I drank Martinelli's Sparkling Cider.

  "I thought you came down here to swim," Conrad said abruptly.

  "Geez, give her a break, Con," Jeremiah said. "If she wants to swim, she'll swim."

  We exchanged a look, our look that meant, Why is Conrad such a freaking dad? Conrad flicked his cigarette into his half-empty can. "Do what you want," he said.

  "I will," I said, sticking my tongue out at Conrad and standing up. I threw off my towel and dove into the water, a perfect swan dive. I stayed underwater for a minute. Then I started doing the backstroke so I could eavesdrop on their conversation.

  In a low voice I heard Clay say, "Man, Cousins is starting to get old. I want to hurry up and get back."

  "Yeah, me too," Conrad said.

  So Conrad was ready to leave. Even though a little

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  part of me knew that already, it still hurt. I wanted to say, Then leave already. If you don't want to be here, don't be here. Just leave. But I wasn't going to let Conrad bother me, not when things were finally looking up.

  At last I was invited to Clay Bertolet's Fourth of July bonfire. I was one of the big kids now. Life was good. Or it was getting there, anyway.

  I thought about what I was going to wear all day. Since I'd never been, I had no idea what to wear. Probably it would get cold, but who wanted to bundle up at a bonfire? Not for my first one. I also didn't want Conrad and Jeremiah to give me a hard time if I was too dressed up. I figured shorts, a tank top, and no shoes were the safe way to go.

  When we got there, I saw that I had chosen wrong. The other girls were wearing sundresses and little skirts and Uggs. If I'd had girl friends at Cousins, I might have known that. "You didn't tell me that girls got dressed up," I hissed at Jeremiah.

  "You look fine. Don't be dumb," he said, walking straight over to the keg. There was a keg. There were no graham crackers or marshmallows anywhere I could see.

  I'd actually never seen a keg before in real life. Just in movies. I started to follow him, but Conrad grabbed my arm. "Don't drink tonight," he warned. "My mom will kill me if I let you drink."

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  I shook him off. "You're not 'letting' me do anything."

  "Come on. Please?"

  "We'll see," I said, walking away from him and toward the fire. I wasn't sure if I even wanted to drink. Even though I'd seen Clay drinking the night before, I'd still been expecting s'mores.

  Going to the bonfire was nice in theory, but actually being there was something else. Jeremiah was chatting up some girl in a red, white, and blue bikini top and a jean skirt, and Conrad was talking to Clay and some other guys I didn't recognize. I thought after the way Clay had been flirty last night, he might at least come over to say hi. But he didn't. He had his hand on some girl's back.

  I stood by the fire alone and pretended to warm my hands even though they weren't cold. That's when I saw him. He was standing alone too, drinking a bottle of water. It didn't seem like he knew anybody either, since he was standing all by himself. He looked like he was my age. But there was something about him that seemed safe and comfortable, like he was younger than me even though he wasn't. It took me a few glances to figure out what it was. When I finally figured it out, it was like, Aha!

  It was his eyelashes. They were so long they practically hit his cheekbones. Granted, his cheekbones were high, but still. Also, he had a slight underbite, and his skin was clear and smooth, the color of toasted coconut flakes,
the

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  kind you put on ice cream. I touched my cheek and Felt relieved that the sun had dried out the pimple from two days before. His skin was perfect. To my eyes, everything about him was pretty perfect.

  He was tall, taller than Steven or Jeremiah, maybe even Conrad. He looked like he was maybe half-white, half-Japanese, or Korean maybe. He was so pretty I felt like I could draw his face, and I didn't even know how to draw.

  He caught me looking at him, and I looked away. Then I looked back over and he caught me again. He raised his hand and waved it, just slightly.

  I could feel my cheeks flaming. There was nothing for me to say but, "Hi." I walked over, stuck out my hand, and immediately regretted it. Who shook hands anymore?

  He took my hand and shook it. He didn't say anything at first. He just stared at me, like he was trying to figure something out. "You look familiar," he said at last.

  I tried not to smile. Wasn't that what boys said to girls when they came on to them at bars? I wondered if he'd seen me on the beach in my new polka-dot bikini. I'd only had the nerve to wear it the one time, but maybe that was what had gotten me noticed by this guy. "Maybe you've seen me on the beach?"

  He shook his head. "No....That's not it."

  So it hadn't been the bikini, then. I tried again. "Maybe over at Scoops, the ice cream place?"

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  "No, that's not it either," he said. Then it was like the little light went on in his head, because he grinned suddenly. "Did you take Latin?"

  What in the world? "Urn .. . yes."

 
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