“I hope you know what you’re doing, sweetie.”
“Don’t worry, Mom,” I say. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”
Mom doesn’t believe me. And the fact that I can’t stop nervously tugging on the ends of my wig doesn’t help my case.
Mom and I are wandering through the luggage section at JCPenney because I have broken her best suitcase. Turns out you can’t fit the entire contents of a bedroom into it. Live and learn, right?
“And when do you plan on telling us where you’re going?” she asks. “Or are you going to leave us in the dark for good?”
“I’ll tell you, Mom, just as soon as I figure it out.” At the end of the aisle is a huge red Samsonite. I finger the lock on it. “I have two good options.”
Mom snorts. She hates both of my options and never tires of reminding me how “unworkable” they both are. She thinks I should stay in Winterhead forever. Trust me when I tell you, that is not an option.
I point to an even bigger blue Samsonite. “How about this one?” I say. “I think you could fit a body in there.”
Mom looks at the price tag, then keeps walking.
“Mom,” I say. “Suitcase or no suitcase, I’m still leaving. You realize that, right?”
When Mom stops walking, I prepare for another lecture about how deeply unready I am to exist without her constant supervision. But instead, she waves over a salesperson.
“We’ll take this one,” she says. She gestures toward the blue suitcase.
Later, while we’re dragging the suitcase through the parking lot, I notice a car driving behind us very slowly. Inside are two sophomore boys from Winterhead High. I think one of them worked at the school snack shop and used to blush when I’d buy granola bars. Now they’re both staring at me. I’m not an upperclassman to them anymore. I’m the girl who had that weird thing at the prom. You know, that thing
I always want to confront people who look at me like that. I want to ask how they’d feel if they were in my shoes. But I never do. Instead, I hide behind my mother.
When she notices the car, she stops and bends over to get a good look at the boys with what
imagine is a lethal glare. The car speeds away.
“So, Mom?” I say. “In case you were wondering, that’s
why I have to leave.”
Mom watches the car turn the corner at the Jiffy Lube. Then she pulls me close and kisses me on the head. “You know that I would do anything to protect you,” she says. “Anything at all.”
Of course I know that. If there’s one thing that can be said of my mother, it’s that in her mind there is no law superseding a mother’s right to protect her daughter. She will take you down if you try to hurt me. I’ve come to respect that about her. Unfortunately, she can’t take down the whole town of Winterhead, Massachusetts.
Okay, so here are my two options for escape. While I’m trying to squeeze my “essential” belongings into this new suitcase, you
try to figure out which one is best.
The Ramie Option is to go with my best friend to New York City, where she is about to begin classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
The Tommy Option is to drive across the country with my boyfriend for a journey of self discovery and much-delayed virginity termination.
Now, before you rush in with your verdict, keep in mind the following complicating factors:
1) Approximately four days every month, I turn into a boy named Jack.
2) Jack is dating Ramie. And by dating, I mean screwing on a regular, even daily, basis.
3) Jack is terrified of my boyfriend, Tommy, who is bisexual.
Go ahead, take your time. Create a spreadsheet, make some charts if it helps.
Not so easy, is it? Basically, I have to decide which one of us gets a sex life. You have to admit, it’s a bit more challenging than the decisions most eighteen-year-olds have to make. Most of the eighteen-year-olds I know are busy trying to decide which posters to put up in their dorm rooms.
But I’m trying not to be a complainer. Complaining solves nothing. Plus it creates scowl lines between your eyebrows, which I am against.
It’s D-day. Tommy will be here any minute. Mom’s been pacing outside my door all morning. And I still haven’t decided where or who I’m escaping to.
“Jill?” Mom says. She comes to my doorway with her hands on her hips. “You need to tell us. Now.
Your father’s going crazy.”
I hear a car horn outside. Rushing to the window, I spot Tommy’s silver Prius pulling into the driveway.
Mom dries the corners of her eyes with a tissue. “I don’t know if you’re doing this for dramatic effect, Jill, but–”
I want to tell her that everything will be okay, but the truth is, I am as lost in this sea of fear and doubt as she is. The only thing I know for sure is that I have to leave. When I open my mouth to say something reassuring, though, the only thing that comes out is a big sob.
“Come here,” Mom says, her voice ragged with pain. I rush into her arms and let her hug me in a way she hasn’t since I was a little girl.
“I hate this,” she says.
I can hear Dad downstairs, asking Tommy to wait in the living room; then his footsteps rise up the stairs. Mom clings to me for as long as she can, then lets Dad have one final hug. Dad’s as nutty-looking as ever, with his long hair and guru beard. But I think he must have showered for the occasion, because he doesn’t smell nearly as bad as he usually does.
“Bye, Dad,” I say.
“No, sweetheart.” He kisses the top of my head. “It’s not goodbye, it’s see you later.”
Tommy’s silver Prius is spotless and freshly carvac’ed. Plus it smells like a new car because of the new-car air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror.
I point to it. “That’s symbolic.”
“Mmmm-hmmm,” he says.
“You know, like new beginnings?” I say.
He nods as he drives us to the end of Trask Road. Tommy is his same beautiful self, his longish brown hair just skirting his broad, bony shoulders. How I love those shoulders. How I’ll miss
those shoulders if I don’t take the Tommy Option.
I haven’t decided yet.
As we leave Trask Road and my old life behind, Tommy taps the steering wheel nervously. I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking, Enough is enough, Jill. Am I dropping you off in New York or taking you west with me? Make up your mind, for crying out loud.
But he’s too decent to push. He knows how hard this is for me.
We drive in silence for a while, Main Street already showing the early signs of autumn in the colorful decay of leaves. I crack the window and let the crisp air slice into the car.
mom take it?” I ask.
“All right,” he says. “She was an army brat, remember? She’s never lived in the same place for more than a few years. She thinks wanderlust runs in the family.”
“Right,” I say. “Hey, Tommy?”
“Thanks,” I say.
“For what?” he says. “My car is your car.”
“Not for that,” I say.
As we near Cherry Street, he slows down, then stops to wait for the oncoming traffic to clear.
“For being, you know, so cool about everything. After the prom.”
“The prom,” he says. “Did something happen at the prom?” I laugh, and he takes my hand.
“You’re taking the Ramie Option,” he says. “Aren’t you?”
It’s only when he says it that I realize I’ve made up my mind.
“I think I have to,” I say. “It’s just . . .”
“It’s Jack,” he says. “Right?”
I nod. “Tommy, if Jack ever woke up in a Motel 6 next to you, I don’t know what he’d do.”
Tommy laughs darkly. “I can guess.”
“I’m really sorry,” I say.
“It’s okay,” Tommy says. “I had a feeling that’s what you’d decide.” When the traffic clears, he turns left down Cherry Street.
“Thanks for driving us,” I say.
“New York’s on the way,” he says. “Besides, I want to get as much of you as I can.”
When he steals a look at me with those penetrating brown eyes, it feels like the first time I saw him in calculus class, and all I want to do is stay in that car with him forever. When we pull into Ramie’s driveway, she’s sitting on the front porch twisting her wild black bramble hair into a knot. She’s wearing overalls and a big white ruffled shirt, neither of which can mask her absurdly bombshell-ish bod. As soon as she spots us, she jumps up, squeals in delight, then runs inside to get her stuff.
I turn to Tommy. “You know, you could always stay with us in Brooklyn if you want. I’m sure Ramie won’t mind.”
Tommy shuts off the car. “Jill,” he says. “I’ve been saving up for this road trip since middle school.”
“I know,” I say.
He interlaces his fingers with mine. “It’s only one year.”
“You’re sure you don’t want to come?” he says. “Are you positively and deeply
I want to scream. The only thing I am
sure of is that I want to drive westward with Tommy Knutson forever. I want to tell him I love him, then lose my virginity in the Arizona desert. On an Aztec blanket at sunset, with a coyote howling in the distance. All summer long I’ve been fantasizing that scene. That exact
But then Jack went and wrote me that letter.
“It’s not too late to change your mind,” Tommy says. “You haven’t told Ramie yet, have you?”
“No,” I say. “But listen to this.” I dig Jack’s letter out of my backpack. The handwriting is neater than usual. Plus I found six different drafts of it in the wastebasket when I woke up. He put a lot of thought into it.
“Are you ready?” I ask.
“ ‘Dear Jill,’ ” I read. “ ‘I know you have a hard decision to make and I really appreciate how seriously you’re considering my interests. We’ve had our differences in the past, and I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused you. Despite everything that’s happened, I have faith in your inherent decency. That’s why I know you’ll do the right thing. Love, Jack.’ ”
I fold the letter neatly and return it to my backpack.
“Wow,” Tommy says. “That’s either incredibly beautiful or really manipulative.”
“I know,” I say.
I don’t tell Tommy about the earlier drafts of this letter, which articulated in not-so-beautiful language just how much Jack despises Tommy (variously referred to as Knutcase, Knutjob, and Knutsack). Jack has near-perfect recall of my life, including my everything-but-actual sex life with Tommy, to which he objects vehemently. In contrast, my memory of Jack’s life is spotty at best. Ramie fills me in, though, and one thing is crystal clear: Jack and Tommy will never be friends.
“What could I do?” I tell Tommy. “Jack has lived his whole life trapped in a bedroom.”
“He kind of deserves a break, don’t you think?”
“I guess,” he says. Then he lays those penetrating eyes on me. “So, what about us?”
Us is a subject we’ve both been avoiding, though it’s hung like a cloud over us all summer long.
“Do you want to . . . ,” he says. “I mean, should we . . .”
“We can still talk,” I say. “It’s not like you’re driving to the moon.”
“Yeah,” he says. “But should we, like, you know . . .”
“Break up?” I say.
“Do you want to?”
“No!” I say. “I mean, do you?”
He shrugs. “Not really,” he says. “But what should we . . .”
“Um,” I say. “I don’t know. Do you want to maybe . . .”
“Should we just play it by ear?” he says. Play it by ear?
“What do you think?” he says.
What I think is, What the hell does play it by ear mean?
He squeezes my hand.
“Yes,” I hear myself say. “Play it by ear. Sure. Yeah. That sounds good, I guess.”
He looks down. “Okay.”
Just then Ramie crashes through her screen door with a giant suitcase on wheels.
Tommy leans over and kisses me on the forehead. “We’ll play it by ear, then.” He presses his lips together in a business - like smile.
“Sure,” I say.
He pops the trunk, then gets out of the car to help Ramie. I get out too and call my mom to tell her I’ve chosen the Ramie Option. She’s not happy about it. She and Ramie have, at best, a nonaggression pact. But she does admit that it’s the “lesser evil,” since, at the very least, it means I’ll be sleeping in an apartment and not with a bisexual boy.
For a second I’m tempted to ask her if she knows what Play It by Ear means, but I doubt they had Play It by Ear in the Dark Ages when she was dating, and anyway, I am not in the habit of asking my mother for relationship advice. For one thing, she and my dad don’t even sleep on the same story in my house. For another, the last time I took Mom’s advice, I wound up dangling by a pair of skis from a sadistic J-bar. Don’t ask. It was ugly.
When I close my cell phone, I look at Ramie and Tommy struggling to make everything fit into the trunk. Then I look over both of their heads at the giant maple tree in Ramie’s front yard. That tree has played a surprisingly large role in my life.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Recycler by Lauren McLaughlin. Copyright © 2009 by Lauren McLaughlin. Excerpted by permission of Random House Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.