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“What’s going on with me? What’s going on with you?” Pen drops the eraser and turns to face Kat, planting her hands on her hips. “You haven’t had any time to hang out with me for weeks. Ever since you started dating Mase. Since when is a guy more important than our friendship? And since when do you even like Mase? Three weeks ago, you were still chasing after Adam!”
Kat glances over her shoulder, but the door to the hallway is closed. “First of all, I was not and never have been ‘chasing after’ anyone. That is beneath us. And no guy, Adam or Mase or anybody, is more important than our friendship! Sorry if I thought it was strong enough that the minute you got mad at me, you wouldn’t decide to be BFFs with Jillian.”
Pen rolls her brown eyes. “I’m not BFFs with Jillian. I had her and Hannah over once.” She pauses. “And we all got ice cream Tuesday after rehearsal.”
Kat’s stomach twists. Or maybe it’s her back. From the knife Pen just stabbed her with. “Why didn’t you invite me?”
“I did invite you!” Pen protests. “You said you were tired, and you left with Mase. What am I supposed to do, wait around till you find time in your busy schedule to hang out with me?”
“No! But you’re not supposed to hang out with Jillian! You said she was a basic Abercrombie bitch,” Kat reminds her. “You said Adam would cheat on her too, and that she’d deserve it.”
“Well, that was before I knew her,” Pen mutters. “She’s nice.”
Kat stares at her. “I can’t believe this! You’re supposed to be my best friend.”
“It goes both ways. I know there’s something you’re not telling me,” Pen says.
Kat covers her face with her hands. Why does everything feel like it’s spinning out of control? Why can’t anyone follow the script in her head and do what they’re supposed to do?
She has to give Pen a piece of the truth. She owes her that. “You’re right.”
“I am?” Pen worries her lower lip between her teeth. “I knew it. Are you okay? Are you relapsing?”
“What? No!” Kat says. “It’s Mase. Brandon texted him last week. He’s coming home for Tea Party, and he wants to talk, and I don’t know what that means. For Mase and me.” She takes a deep breath. “I…I really like him, Pen.”
Pen searches her face and then, apparently satisfied that Kat is telling the truth—or at least a truth—rolls her eyes. “Obviously. Since you’ve been so busy that you—”
“Pen. Come on.” Kat bends one long leg against the wall. She gets that she hasn’t had much time for Pen this summer. She gets that maybe Pen is scared she’s dropping their friendship for a boy. But that would never happen. “This job is really important to me, okay? Miss Lydia’s wanted to redecorate for a while because their sales and adoptions were down, but when I told her my ideas, she totally ran with them. This has been her business for twenty-five years, and she trusted me to redo it. She says I have a great sense of style. And she trusted me to get everything done on time for the grand reopening and to use her business credit card and…I didn’t want to screw that up. No one has ever had that much faith in me. I’m the dramatic one, you know? The diva. And maybe I play into that sometimes, but—it means a lot to me that Miss Lydia took me seriously. Nobody ever takes me seriously.”
“I do,” Pen says quietly.
“And that’s why you’re my best friend.” Kat smiles at her. “I’m sorry if I’ve been taking you for granted. Do you have plans on Saturday?”
Pen runs a hand over the long side of her blond hair. “Besides watching reenactors dump tea in the river? No.”
“Will you come and take pictures during the grand reopening? You’re the best photographer I know,” Kat says. “And it would mean a lot to me if you were there. But Monday’s my day off, and I was thinking—if you’re free—we could go swimming and read some romance novels and eat Popsicles? Please? Pretty please?”
Pen gives her a slow smile. “All right.”
Kat sinks back down in the armchair. “Excellent. You’re the best.”
Pen perches on the arm of the chair. “I’m not finished. I’ll take pictures on Saturday if you promise to be nice to Jillian from now on.”
Kat scowls. “Do I have to?”
“Yes. It’s not her fault Adam is an asshole. Better women have fallen for those eyes, you know?” She pokes Kat in the shoulder.
“Truth.” Kat smirks. “Fine. I’ll try. No promises.”
The door to the hallway inches open, and Mase’s pomaded hair peeks in, followed by his forehead and his dark eyes. “Hey, can the rest of us come in? Are you two done fighting?”
“We’re not fighting,” Kat says, wrapping an arm around Pen’s waist.
Pen pokes Kat in the shoulder again as Mase gives the all-clear. “You should talk to him,” she hisses.
Kat shakes her head. “They were together for two years. I can’t compete with that.”
“Yes, you can. You’re here, and Brandon’s not. And you’re amazing. Mase is lucky to have you as his girlfriend.”
“I guess,” Kat says. Is that what she wants? To be Mase’s girlfriend for real?
She watches him come in and settle his stuff on the beat-up sofa nearby. She misses him. They’ve seen each other every day between work and rehearsal, but it’s not the same. They were inseparable for two weeks, and she didn’t get bored or annoyed with him at all. They had so much fun together—not just kissing, but joking around, singing show tunes, painting, playing with the cats, having picnics in the empty café. They were supposed to be pretending, but somehow she was more real with him than she’s ever been with anyone except Pen and her family. She didn’t worry about being too dramatic or too loud or too much. She was herself. And Mase liked that.
Or she thought he did, anyway.
She looks at Adam, whose popped-collar dude-bro attitude doesn’t seem appealing at all anymore. She knows that the dimples and stormy gray eyes and warm brown skin create an attractive package, aesthetically speaking, but somehow, sometime in the past two weeks, she’s stopped being hyperconscious of where he is in the room, so aware of his voice that she could follow the thread of it even when the whole cast is chattering on break. She doesn’t watch Adam to see whether he’s watching her or whether he’s holding Jillian’s hand.
She watches Mase instead.
Mase, with his mustard-yellow hipster-grandpa cardigan and skinny jeans and wingtip shoes. Mase, with his perfect black eyeliner and obscenely long lashes and dark-chocolate eyes. Mase, who makes her laugh and sings Hamilton to the cats and gives shoulder massages that rock her world.
She’s actually falling for him.
This definitely wasn’t part of the plan.
Vi skips family dinner for the first time ever on Friday night.
Cece and her abuela have plans to make Julia’s famous chicken and tomatillo tamales, which, Cece explained, is a time-consuming, whole-afternoon process and one of her very favorite things. She was appalled that Vi has never had tamales. That had to be rectified immediately, she insisted, and she gave Vi her most winsome, dimpled smile as she invited her over for dinner. Vi would have agreed to almost anything for that smile. Fortunately, Gram took one look at Vi’s pleading, puppy-dog eyes and conceded.
Now, as she stands on the Pérezes’ front porch, Vi wishes Gram had said no. At home, she would be wearing shorts and her Girls Just Want to Have Fun(damental Rights) T-shirt instead of a knee-length black dress with a bumblebee print and a Peter Pan collar plus a pair of pinching black flats, both borrowed from Kat. At home, she wouldn’t worry about whether she was talking too much or not enough. She wouldn’t worry whether she likes tamales. She definitely wouldn’t wonder if anyone in the room thought she was going to hell.
Vi takes a deep breath, then reaches out and rings the doorbell.
The door flies open almost instantly. “You’re here! Hi!” Cece is wearing shorts and a black tank top, and she’s barefoot, with her hair pulled into a ponytail. Vi immediately worries that she’s too dressed up.
“Hi,” she says.
They’ve seen each other almost every day since Cece announced she was bi. On Saturday, Cece asked if Vi wanted to go to the movies; the Remington Theater was showing an Anne Hathaway double feature of The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted. Vi said yes, of course. The theater was crowded with tons of tween girls, but they sat in the back and shared a bucket of popcorn, and every time their hands touched, Vi felt like she’d been electrified. They started off sitting rigidly in their own seats with their hands in their laps. But by the end of the first movie, Cece’s leg was pressed against Vi’s, and her hand rested on her knee, only inches away. Vi had wanted to reach over and take it. Did Cece want her to? Had Cece moved closer on purpose? What if she was misreading the situation, and that wasn’t what Cece wanted at all? In the end, Vi just sat there, yearning and confused.
This week, they had walked Juno and Athena in the park on Monday and Wednesday. Cece worked the lunch shift on Tuesday, but afterward, they grabbed fraps at the Daily Grind, where Cece convinced Vi to share one of her Beronica fics. Blushing furiously, covering her eyes with both hands, and squirming in her seat, she had handed Cece her phone and practically held her breath while Cece read. Cece had said she loved it. And then yesterday, she had swung by Arden and invited Vi to dinner.
They texted all the time now. About everything. Cece had started watching Riverdale and texted Vi her reactions. She sent her selfies with funny filters. She complained about her brothers and fangirled about the books Vi lent her. It was amazing, a total dream come true, and Vi was so grateful—but she was also confused. Was this what having a best friend was like? It felt like more than that, intense and intoxicating. But maybe it only felt like that to her?
In the Pérezes’ front hall, there’s a crucifix and half a dozen framed photos of Cece and her brothers. Vi pauses in front of a picture of Cece in her middle-school soccer uniform, posed with a soccer ball on the athletic field, her dark hair a riot of curls, her smile full of braces.
Cece cringes and pulls her away. “No, don’t look. Those are so embarrassing!”
“Please.” Vi rolls her eyes. “Like you ever take a bad picture.”
Cece laughs her fizzy laugh. “I do too. I just use filters.”
Cece always looks adorable, even if she’s vomiting a rainbow or sporting red-laser robot eyes or koala ears. Vi doesn’t understand how she does it. It takes Vi ten minutes to get a flattering selfie. She always has an initial moment of disorientation, as though the girl staring back into the camera isn’t really her. There’s something off about her eyes or her smile or the way she carries her shoulders. Is that how I really look? she thinks, and she feels disappointed.
“Filters don’t help with my innate awkward,” Vi says.
“You’re not awkward! Well, you are sometimes, but…” Cece touches the shoulder of Vi’s dress, her fingertips brushing Vi’s neck. It’s the latest in a series of increasingly familiar gestures, like tucking her shirt tag in yesterday or touching her hand to get her attention. “Don’t you know how pretty you are?”
Vi feels helpless, caught in an invisible current between them. How can she be the only one who feels it? They stand there, Cece’s hand lingering on her shoulder, her brown eyes staring into Vi’s blue. Vi takes Cece’s other hand, twining their fingers together.
It feels like the most natural thing in the world.
It feels like the most awkward thing in the world.
Cece squeezes her hand. Then she drops it and hurries down the hall.
Vi bites her lip. What is happening between them? What does it all mean?
She straightens her collar and follows Cece, nervous about meeting her abuela in this context, even though she has already met her dozens of times. She’s grateful that Cece’s parents are working at the restaurant tonight and won’t be joining them.
“Miguel! Danny! Vi’s here, and dinner’s almost ready,” Cece says. Two of her brothers are sprawled on the carpeted living room floor, playing some football video game. They grunt in acknowledgment and continue wrestling with their controllers.
Cece leads the way into the kitchen, which seems bigger and newer than the last time Vi was here. “Abuela and Luis and I made tamales! Some of them are chicken in tomatillo sauce and some are poblano and cheese. You’re not vegetarian, right? I should have checked.”
“I’m not. It smells amazing,” Vi says. Like chicken and onions and garlic and tomatoes and spices. Cece’s littlest brother, Luis, is stirring a big skillet of refried beans while his abuela supervises. Julia Pérez is a short woman with a wrinkled brown face and iron-gray hair pulled into a bun. She likes Agatha Christie, and sometimes she attends Des’s mystery book club. Also, she is apparently homophobic.
Vi isn’t sure how to cope with that.
“It’s nice to see you, Viola,” Mrs. Pérez says.
“Vi,” Cece corrects. “Nobody calls her Viola!”
“Thank you so much for having me, Mrs. Pérez,” Vi says.
“You’re welcome any time.” A timer beeps, and Mrs. Pérez switches off the stove and reaches for the big steamer pot. It looks like the one Gram uses to steam crabs. “Everything is nearly ready. Cece, will you call your brothers?”
“Danny! Miguel!” Cece shouts.
“I could have done that,” Mrs. Pérez scolds. “Go and tell them. You wash up, Luis.”
Cece gives Vi an impish grin and darts off to call her brothers. Vi stares down at the red-tiled floor. She’s run into Mrs. Pérez on the sidewalk outside Arden, at middle school graduation, at the farmer’s market and bluegrass concerts in Bishop Park. But it feels different now. There is so much Vi wants to say and can’t. She wants to tell Mrs. Pérez how much Cece loves her. How much Cece is afraid of disappointing her. She wants to ask whether Mrs. Pérez ever misses her estranged brother. Whether she would do it differently if she could do it all over again. Whether she believes Vi is going to hell. Whether she would condemn her granddaughter for being bi.
The silence grows and stretches between them, sticky as pulled taffy.
Vi looks around at the granite countertops and the shining wooden cabinets. There’s a double oven and a farmhouse sink and a subway tile backsplash—terms Vi only knows because Gram has been watching a lot of HGTV since her knee replacement—and a big wooden table already set for six. “This is a beautiful kitchen.”
“Thank you. My son had it renovated last year,” Mrs. Pérez says.
“Papi had an extension put on the back so Abuela could have a bigger kitchen and Miguel could have his own room,” Cece says, reappearing with her brothers in tow. “The construction was such a pain. We had to either eat down at the restaurant or microwave everything and eat on TV trays in the living room.”
“But now I have the kitchen I’ve always wanted,” Mrs. Pérez says.
“Before, she had to use the kitchen at the restaurant when all our aunts and uncles and primos came.” Cece helps her abuela transfer the tamales from the steamer into two different wide pans, then carries the pans and a dish of refried beans to the table. Mrs. Pérez sits at the head of the table, while the boys sit on one side and Vi sits next to Cece on the other.
Danny starts ladling refried beans onto his plate, but Miguel smacks him in the back of the head. Cece grabs Vi’s hand beneath the table, and for a moment, Vi is confused…until she realizes that everyone is joining hands and bowing their heads. Mrs. Pérez begins to pray over their meal. Vi hopes that her downcast face hides her blush as Cece’s fingers twine through hers. When everyone echoes the “amen,” she drops Cece’s hand and picks up her water glass so fast, she almost spills it.
“Do you have to say grace at you
r house?” Luis asks Vi.
“No.” They don’t even go to church. “But it’s a very nice tradition.”
“I wasn’t sure if you like spicy food,” Cece explains. “So we made these with serranos and these with jalapenos. And these are refried beans, obviously, and—”
“It all looks delicious,” Vi assures her. She watches Cece’s brothers unwrap the corn husks surrounding the tamales, and then she does the same.
Little Luis eats a big piece of jalapeno and then starts coughing and guzzling water. His brothers tease him and suggest maybe he was adopted. Luis punches Danny in the shoulder, near tears. Mrs. Pérez reminds them that they have company and if they want brownies for dessert, they ought to behave. Then she asks about everyone’s day. Miguel tells them stories from soccer camp, Danny boasts about how he beat Miguel in Madden football, and Luis says he can swim the whole length of the pool now.
“You’re awfully quiet, Vi,” Mrs. Pérez notices after a while. “What are you doing this summer, besides helping Helen at Arden? Any summer camps for you?”
Vi panics. What does she do besides working at the bookstore? She daydreams about Cece, and she writes Beronica fics and… Oh my God, what do I do that isn’t gay?
“I walk dogs,” she blurts, and then she feels absurd.
“She walks Athena and Juno. And she’s a writer,” Cece brags.
Vi’s eyes widen. She thought Cece understood that was a secret!
“Really? Helen’s never mentioned that,” Mrs. Pérez says. “What do you write? Are you a journalist, like Bea?”
“No, it’s…it’s just short fiction,” Vi says. Which is true.
“It’s not ‘just’ anything. It’s so good,” Cece says, and Vi’s face flames. She adores Cece, but she wishes she would shut up before Mrs. Pérez starts asking more questions. What if this gets back to Gram? “She let me read one of her stories, and I was super impressed.”
“Cece,” Vi says warningly, shifting in her wooden chair.
“What? It is good! You should be proud. You’re talented,” Cece says, touching her forearm. “Vi’s always on the honor roll too.”
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