I cry all the way home. Kitty tells me I’m a bigger baby than she is, but then from the backseat she grabs my hand and squeezes it, and I know she’s sad too.
Even though Margot isn’t a loud person, it feels quiet at home. Empty, somehow. What will it be like when I’m gone in two years? What will Daddy and Kitty do then? I hate the thought of the two of them coming home to an empty, dark house with no me and no Margot. Maybe I won’t go away far; maybe I’ll even live at home, at least for the first semester. I think that would be the right thing to do.
LATER THAT AFTERNOON CHRIS CALLS and tells me to meet her at the mall; she wants my opinion on a leather jacket, and to get the full effect I have to see it in person. I’m proud she’s asking for my sartorial advice, and it would be good to get out of the house and not be sad anymore, but I’m nervous about driving to the mall alone. I (or anyone, really) would consider myself a skittish driver.
I ask her if she’ll just send me a picture instead, but Chris knows me too well. She says, “Nuh-uh. You get your ass down here, Lara Jean. You’ll never get better at driving if you don’t just suck it up and do it.”
So that’s what I’m doing: I’m driving Margot’s car to the mall. I mean, I have my license and everything; I’m just not very confident. My dad has taken me for lessons numerous times, Margot too, and I’m basically fine with them in the car, but I get nervous when I drive alone. It’s the changing-lanes part that scares me. I don’t like taking my eyes away from what’s happening right in front of me, not for a second. Also I don’t like going too fast.
But the worst thing is I have a tendency of getting lost. The only places I can get to with absolute certainty are school and the grocery store. I’ve never had to know how to get to the mall, because Margot always drove us there. But now I have to do better, because I’m responsible for driving Kitty around. Though truthfully, Kitty is better with directions than I am; she knows how to get to loads of places. But I don’t want to have to hear her tell me how to get somewhere. I want to feel like the big sister; I want her to relax in the passenger seat, safe in the knowledge that Lara Jean will get her where she needs to go, just like I did with Margot.
Sure, I could just use a GPS, but I would feel silly putting in directions to go to the mall when I’ve been there a million times. It should come to me intuitively, easy, where I don’t even have to think about it. Instead I worry over every turn, second-guess every highway sign—is it north or is it south, do I turn right here or is it the next one? I’ve never had to pay attention.
But today, so far so good. I’m listening to the radio, bopping along, even driving with just one hand on the wheel. I do this to feign confidence, because the more I fake it, the more it’s supposed to feel true.
Everything is going so well that I take the shortcut way instead of the highway way. I cut through the side neighborhood, and even as I’m doing it, I’m wondering if this was such a great idea. After a couple of minutes things aren’t looking so familiar, and I realize I should have taken a left instead of a right. I push down the panic that’s rising in my chest and I try to backtrack.
You can do it, you can do it.
There’s a four-way stop sign. I don’t see anyone, so I zip ahead. I don’t even see the car on my right; I feel it before I see it.
I scream my head off. I taste copper in my mouth. Am I bleeding? Did I bite my tongue off? I touch it and it’s still there. My heart is racing; my whole body feels wet and clammy. I try to take deep breaths, but I can’t seem to get air.
My legs shake as I get out of the car. The other guy is already out, inspecting his car with his arms crossed. He’s old, older than my dad, and he has gray hair, and he’s wearing shorts with red lobsters on them. His car is fine; mine has a huge dent in the side. “Didn’t you see the stop sign?” he demands. “Were you texting on your phone?”
I shake my head; my throat is closing up. I just don’t want to cry. As long as I don’t cry . . .
He seems to sense this. The irritated furrow of his brow is loosening. “Well, my car looks fine,” he says reluctantly. “Are you all right?”
I nod again. “I’m so sorry,” I say.
“Kids need to be more careful,” the man says, as if I haven’t spoken.
The lump in my throat is getting bigger. “I’m very, very sorry, sir.”
He makes a grunty sound. “You should call someone to come get you,” the man says. “Do you want me to wait?”
“No, thank you.” What if he’s a serial killer or a child molester? I don’t want to be alone with a strange man.
The man drives off.
As soon as he’s gone, it occurs to me that maybe I should have called the police while he was still here. Aren’t you always supposed to call the police when you’re in a car accident, no matter what? I’m pretty sure they told us that in driver’s ed. So that’s another mistake I made.
I sit down on the curb and stare at Margot’s car. I’ve only had it for two hours and I’ve already wrecked it. I rest my head in my lap and sit in a tight bundle. My neck is starting to ache. This is when the tears start. My dad is not going to be happy. Margot is not going to be happy. They’ll both probably agree that I have no business driving around town unsupervised, and maybe they’re right. Driving a car is a lot of responsibility. Maybe I’m not ready for it yet. Maybe I’ll never be ready. Maybe even when I’m old, my sisters or my dad will have to drive me around, because that’s how useless I am.
I pull out my phone and call Josh. When he answers, I say, “Josh, can you do me a f-f-favor?” and my voice comes out so wobbly I’m embarrassed.
Which of course he hears, because he’s Josh. He comes to attention immediately and says, “What’s wrong?”
“I just got into a car accident. I don’t even know where I am. Can you come get me?” Wobble wobble.
“Are you hurt?” he demands.
“No, I’m fine. I’m just—” If I say another word, I will cry.
“What street signs do you see? What stores?”
I crane my neck to look. “Falstone,” I say. I look for the closet mailbox. “I’m at 8109 Falstone Road.”
“I’m on my way. Do you want me to stay on the phone with you?”
“No, that’s okay.” I hang up and start to cry.
I don’t know how long I’ve been sitting there crying when another car rolls up in front of me. I look up, and it’s Peter Kavinsky’s black Audi with the tinted windows. One of them rolls down. “Lara Jean? Are you okay?”
I nod my head yes and make a motion like he should just go. He rolls the window back up, and I think he’s really going to drive off, but then he pulls over to the side and parks. He climbs out and starts inspecting my car. “You really messed it up,” he says. “Did you get the other guy’s insurance info?”
“No, his car was fine.” Furtively, I wipe my cheeks with my arm. “It was my fault.”
“Do you have Triple A?”
“So you called them already?”
“No. But someone’s coming.”
Peter sits down next to me. “How long have you been sitting here crying by yourself?”
I turn my head and wipe my face again. “I’m not crying.”
Peter Kavinsky and I used to be friends, back before he was Kavinsky, when he was Peter K. There was a whole gang of us in middle school. The boys were Peter Kavinsky and John Ambrose McClaren and Trevor Pike. The girls were Genevieve and me and Allie Feldman who lived down the block and sometimes Chris. Growing up, Genevieve lived two streets away from me. It’s funny how much of childhood is about proximity. Like who your best friend is is directly correlated to how close your houses are; who you sit next to in music is all about how close your names are in the alphabet. Such a game of chance. In eighth grade Genevieve moved to a different neighborhood, and we stayed friends a little while longer. She’d come back to the neighborhood to hang out, but something was different. By high school Genevieve had eclipsed us. She was still friends with the boys, but the girls’ crew was over. Allie and I stayed friends until she moved last year, but there was always something just a little bit humiliating about it, like we were two leftover heels of bread and together we made a dry sandwich.
We’re not friends anymore. Me and Genevieve or me and Peter. Which is why it’s so weird to be sitting next to him on somebody’s curb like no time has passed.
His phone buzzes and he takes it out of his pocket. “I’ve gotta go.”
I sniffle. “Where are you headed?”
“You’d better get going then,” I say. “Genevieve will be mad if you’re late.”
Peter makes a pfft sound, but he sure does get up fast. I wonder what it’s like to have that much power over a boy. I don’t think I’d want it; it’s a lot of responsibility to hold a person’s heart in your hands. He’s getting into his car when, as an afterthought, he turns around and asks, “Want me to call Triple A for you?”
“No, that’s okay,” I say. “Thanks for stopping, though. That was really nice of you.”
Peter grins. I remember that about Peter—how much he likes positive reinforcement. “Do you feel better now?”
I nod. I do, actually.
“Good,” he says.
He has the look of a Handsome Boy from a different time. He could be a dashing World War I soldier, handsome enough for a girl to wait years for him to come back from war, so handsome she could wait forever. He could be wearing a red letterman’s jacket, driving around in a Corvette with the top down, one arm on the steering wheel, on his way to pick up his girl for the sock hop. Peter’s kind of wholesome good looks feel more like yesterday than today. There’s just something about him girls like.
He was my first kiss. It’s so strange to think of it now. It feels like forever ago, but really it was just four years.
Josh shows up about a minute later, as I’m texting Chris that I’m not going to make it to the mall after all. I stand up. “It took you long enough!”
“You told me 8109. This is 8901!”
Confidently I say, “No, I definitely said 8901.”
“No, you definitely said 8109. And why weren’t you answering your phone?” Josh gets out of his car, and when he sees the side of my car, his jaw drops. “Holy crap. Did you call Triple A yet?”
“No. Can you?”
Josh does, and then we sit in his car in the air-conditioning while we wait. I almost get into the backseat, when I remember. Margot isn’t here anymore. I’ve ridden in his car so many times, and I don’t think I’ve ever once sat up front in the passenger seat.
“Um . . . you know Margot’s going to kill you, right?”
I whip my head around so fast my hair slaps me in the face. “Margot’s not going to find out, so don’t you say a word!”
“When would I even talk to her? We’re broken up, remember?”
I frown at him. “I hate when people do that—when you ask them to keep something a secret and instead of saying yes or no, they say, ‘Who would I tell?’?”
“I didn’t say, ‘Who would I tell?’!”
“Just say yes or no and mean it. Don’t make it conditional.”
“I won’t tell Margot anything,” he says. “It’ll just be between you and me. I promise. All right?”
“All right,” I say. And then it gets quiet with neither of us saying anything; there’s just the sound of cool air coming out of the A/C vents.
My stomach feels queasy thinking about how I’m going to tell my dad. Maybe I should break the news to him with tears in my eyes so he feels sorry for me. Or I could say something like, I have good news and bad news. The good news is, I’m fine, not a scratch on me. The bad news is, the car is wrecked. Maybe “wrecked” isn’t the right word.
I’m mulling over the right word choice in my head when Josh says, “So just because Margot and I broke up, you’re not going to talk to me anymore either?” Josh sounds jokingly bitter or bitterly joking, if there is such a combination.
I look over at him in surprise. “Don’t be dumb. Of course I’m still going to talk to you. Just not in public.” This is the role I play with him. The part of the pesky little sister. As if I am the same as Kitty. As if we aren’t only a year apart. Josh doesn’t crack a smile, he just looks glum, so I bump my forehead against his. “That was a joke, dummy!”
“Did she tell you she was going to do it? I mean, was it always her plan?” When I hesitate, he says, “Come on. I know she tells you everything.”
“Not really. Not this time anyway. Honestly, Josh. I didn’t know a thing about it. Promise.” I cross my heart.