Chapter One: Fall of Sophomore Year

I hate movie trailers—especially ones for those obtuse rated-R comedies—because they always reveal the funniest jokes, the most intense cuts of action scenes, or the most anticipated on-screen kiss. The funniest joke part bothers me the most, because while actions scenes and kisses can be re-watched and enjoyed more than once, a clever punchline wrings out a chuckle on its first try, but becomes stale and annoying the next go around.

    ​        ​"Well, I disagree," says Felix. He's sprawled across my baby blue bed, his calculus homework a wrinkled mess beside him. He thoughtfully nibbles on the eraser of his mechanical pencil. "Some jokes never get old."

    ​        ​With my arms crossed and eyebrows raised, I lean back against the glossy Fitz and The Tantrums poster on my bedroom door. "Oh, really? Name one."

            "Remember when you got mad that Lori didn't hire you to mow her lawn for twenty bucks per mow? And she hired scrawny little Max instead?"

            "Oh, jeez." I bite back a smile. "And he said that it was because he was Lori's 'manly macho friend' and he flexed his non-existent muscles and-"

            "-He got a charley horse in his arm." Felix interrupts. I can't suppress the smile that breaks across my face. "See? It's funny."

            "Fine. That one doesn't get old. But, you must admit, movie trailers still spoil all of the best parts of a movie. Like-"

            I'm abruptly cut off by ominous owl hoots. Felix commences an unhurried search through the pockets of his purple skinny jeans for his cell phone. He rolls over, plowing across several sheets of calculus homework, crinkling the notebook paper even further.

            "Fe, you are in dire need of a new ringtone," I say. "That owl thing is so creepy."

            Felix rolls his eyes. He's now fumbling across my bed, throwing aside papers and pencils and pillows. "If my ringtone were catchy, I'd be so absorbed in listening to it that I'd forget to even pick up the call." He discovers the source of the owl hoots under one of his miscellaneous homework folders, and he doesn't even glance at the caller ID before bringing his phone up to his ear and saying, almost indignantly, "what's up, El?"

            After a long pause, Felix's eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. He rakes his free hand through his mountain of coffee brown curls. "I'm so sorry, babe." But his apology doesn't sound sincere; it sounds agitated. His eyes stare down the vintage forty-watt Coca-Cola lamp that sits on my bedside table as Ellen babbles on the other end of the line. Ellen and Felix have dated for about a year now, but now that Ellen is a senior, she's under so much stress applying for colleges and maintaining her three part-time jobs that she's created a chasm in their relationship. My brows knit together in concern as I watch Felix carry a tension-strung conversation with Ellen. He refuses to meet my gaze, which is burning holes into the side of his head.

            Felix's nose suddenly crinkles in frustration. "Look, I'm sorry that happened. Parents suck. But I'm studying with Bianca right now, and we have a big calc test tomorrow, and I really don't have time to crash with you tonight. I'm sorry."

            I hear Ellen's voice rise on the other end of the line. Felix clutches his cell phone so tightly that his fingertips are fluorescent white, and his lower lip trembles as though he's about to cry. But he does the complete opposite of cry when he opens his mouth.

            He explodes.

    ​    ​    ​"I never have time for you anymore? I never have time for you anymore? As if you ever have any time for me these days! Ellen, I'm your boyfriend-not your pet or your slave or whatever. You can't just ignore me when you don't need me and then demand me to do this and that when you do. All you do now is complain about how much your life sucks, and I try to be there for you, but you won't let me! And, excuse me, Miss Hypocritical, but you're never there for me anymore, either.

            "Oh, and for the last fucking time, I'm not cheating on you with Bianca, because I'm trying to be a good boyfriend. But, clearly, you're not good enough of a girlfriend to trust anything that I say to you anymore, because you think that everyone in your life right now is just trying to make it worse. Am I right? Do you have any more complaints that you're just dying to tell me? Well, guess what? I don't want to hear any of them!"

            Panting, flushed, and shaking with rage, Felix hangs up and throws his phone onto my bed.

        ​    ​What a harshly sassy monologue, I think. I've never, in the two years that we've been friends, seen Felix so rampantly furious. His face is as red as hot lava, and his breathing is ragged.

            I suddenly feel guilty about not realizing how much Felix and Ellen's relationship had crumbled. For all of this time, Felix had kept secret that Ellen thought he's cheating on her with me. I taste bile in the back of my throat at the absurd thought.

            "What happened?" I ask.

            Felix drops his head into his hands and sinks down to his knees. "She's pissed because her parents got into a fight again. And she's 'scared' that this fight will be 'the one' and now she wants me to haul my ass over to her house to have sex with her and make her feel better and what not." He shakes his head. "I mean, my parents got divorced and I'll admit that it sucked, but I hate how everything nowadays is all about her problems. I hate how she's moody all of the time, and how she won't tell me anything because she loves pitying herself, and I hate how she only ever talks to me anymore because she needs some cheer-up sex."

            My eyes widen in horror.

            "Then she blames me for not being there for her, which is so unfair, since she doesn't let me be there for her because she never talks to me anymore! Well, except asking me to have sex with her. Like just now."

            It takes a minute for me to absorb his words, which tumble out of his mouth more quickly than my brain can string them into coherent sentences. I'm utterly incredulous when I finally realize what Felix is telling me. "Ellen is using you?"

            "I feel like she is."

            "Oh, Fe, that's just awful."

            Felix takes a deep breath. Then he collapses face-first onto my bed. "And to make things worse," he says into my pillow, "she thinks I'm cheating on her with you, because once again she wants to blame me for never being there for her, so she's just making up excuses to make it seem like it's my fault that our relationship is falling apart."

            "Oh, Fe, I'm so sor-"

            "God, I hate her so much."

            "I know, and-"

            "God, I can't believe her. What a bitch."

            "Fe-"

            "FUCK ELLEN! FUCK HER TO THE MOON!"

            His words slice the air, so fiercely that the silence that follows feels scorching. I'm shocked. I'm so shocked, in fact, that I'm paralyzed, incapable of peeling myself away from my Fitz and The Tantrums poster. I frantically scramble through my mind to conjure up something—anything—to say to my tormented friend.

            "Fe?" My voice is barely audible. I clear my throat. "I'm so sorry."

            He groans into my pillow. "Fucking Ellen," he mumbles.

            I tentatively crawl over to my bed and haul myself up onto the memory foam mattress. Felix's face is buried in a pillow, and his entire frame is trembling.

            "Are you crying?"

            Felix wails, "Well, of course I'm crying. I basically just broke up with my girlfriend. How could I not be crying?" He clutches the pillow more tightly and releases a horrendously heartbreaking sob. Once again, I'm paralyzed, terrified that I'll say or do something that will only make Felix more upset. He looks so vulnerable, curled in a fetal position and crying a river. I feel bizarrely intrusive, like I shouldn't be seeing what I'm seeing, like this is a viewer-discretion-is-advised scene and I belong in the inappropriate audience.

            But I'm his friend, and good friends comfort friends who feel as though their lives have become so askew that their world is about to crash down.

            "Fe," I whisper, hesitantly reaching out to give him a pat on the shoulder. He flinches away from my touch, and my heart sinks. "Um, I'm so sorry that this is going on right now. You don't deserve this, and Ellen is a bitch and you're so much better than her, and...I seriously think you need some ice cream."

            ​Ice cream? I internally chastise myself. How much more cliché can I get?

            But, to my relief, Felix unravels himself and gently lifts his head up from my pillow. His face is pink and splotchy and he looks awful, but his puffy eyes suddenly light up. "You're damn right, Bianca," Felix declares, his voice raw. "Ellen is a bitch. I am so much better than her." He tosses my now tear-stained pillow aside and leaps off of the bed. "I am so." He ceremoniously wipes his nose. "Much." He straightens his black-blue plaid shirt. "Better." He drives his fingers through his disheveled hair. "Than that bitch." He grabs me by my forearms and yanks me up from my bed. I'm taken aback when Felix grins. His smile contradicts this tear-streaked face.

            "Ice cream?" I ask.

            "Hell yes."

 

    ​        ​A perk that comes with being friends with Felix, who's a junior, is that he can drive.

            We pile ourselves into his cluttered chartreuse Chevy Sonic, throwing crushed water bottles, crinkled sheets of pizza coupons, and empty Kroger plastic bags into the back seat. Felix drives as aggressively as boils the rage bottled up inside his chest. We shamelessly tear through my suburban white-picket-fence neighborhood, nearly running over a couple of daring squirrels as they cross the road.

            Felix drives through the typical cloudy Michigan evening in silence. Halfway down the main road, I turn on the stereo and blast his favorite song by Lorde.

            "I'm kinda over getting told to throw my hands up in the air," Felix sings along, an octave lower than Lorde and slightly off-tune. I see a small grin break across his face, and my heart instantly warms.

            We pull into the Tasty Twist parking lot blaring Lorde through our open windows. A couple sitting on the bench along the side of the ice cream shop turns to give us annoyed glances. Felix abruptly returns to looking tormented when he yanks the keys out of the ignition, brusquely silencing the stereo. He collapses onto the steering wheel and burrows his face into the crook of his elbow.

            "I'm so sorry." I reach over and rub his shoulder.

            "I miss the old Ellen," whines Felix.

            I swallow. Seeing Felix like this breaks my heart. Every last drop of his usual exuberance has been extinguished and replaced with pure, cold anguish. "Come on, Fe." I gently coax him up into a sitting position. "I think you need a turtle sundae."

            As we walk up to the fluorescent-lit blue and white ice cream shop, Felix drags his orange converse across the asphalt as though there are weights bound to his ankles. His head hangs, his shoulders sag, and his hands are clenched into fists in his jean pockets. It's weird seeing flamboyant Felix so deflated. To my disappointment, he doesn't brighten even the slightest when we settle down in red plastic chairs to eat his favorite ice cream sundae.

            We hear the clink of a bell as the door opens and another customer steps in. I would have disregarded it if Felix's head hadn't suddenly snapped up and his eyes hadn't widened to the size of saucers. His plastic spoon slips from his fingers and clatters onto the table.

            "What?"

            "Don't turn around," Felix hisses.

            Too late.

            I twist around in my chair and my eyes land on Ellen Palvalona.

2: Chapter Two: Fall of Sophomore Year
Chapter Two: Fall of Sophomore Year

Ellen is a short girl. Felix towers over, but she holds her head high. Her fingers are nervously entwined in her shoulder-length ash blonde hair as she valiantly meets Felix's gaze.

            I watch them argue beside Ellen's rusting blue-gray Oldsmobile in the Tasty Twist parking lot. I'm sitting quite a distance away, on the bench that formerly hosted the couple that had given Felix and me evil looks for our loud music, yet I can still hear them over the evening wind flurries.

    ​        ​"You followed me here?" Felix roars.

            "Well, your lime-green car with a license plate that says 'Felix' sure stands out."

            "So, you saw my car on the road and you thought that it would be a good idea to just chase me down?"

            ​"Well, I figured that we'd have to talk sooner or later."

            ​"Talk?"

    ​        ​"Yes, Felix. Talk. Please, just give me a chance."

            "A chance? You mean, another chance?"

            "Felix-"

            "I've given you enough chances."

            Ellen finally allows her gaze to dip down to her feet. She drops her hands from her hair so that they hang limply at her sides. She sighs-I don't hear it, but I see her shoulders rise and fall. It's a surrender.

            "I owe you an apology." Her voice cracks.

            Felix guffaws, and throws his hands up into the air in exasperation. "Actually, you owe me a million apologies."

            "Yes, I do, and you will get to hear my million apologies if you come to my house. Now. Please. We need to talk."

            And just like that, Felix whisks me into his car and drives me back home, with Ellen following close behind. I glance uneasily at the rearview mirror to see that her stare is shooting daggers at the back of my headrest.

            "Felix?"

            "Yes?"

            "Do you still love Ellen?"

            Felix stares straight ahead, his brown eyes glassy. He looks exhausted. "I don't know," he whispers.

            "Do you think Ellen still loves you?" I blurt.

            Felix scrunches his face, and he suddenly looks even more distressed than before.

            "I don't know." He sounds utterly broken, and my heart shatters.

            The rest of the car ride is wrapped in stifling silence. I desperately want to help Felix, but all I can do is sit helplessly in his passenger seat and toggle with the stereo for a good radio station—all to no avail. When he drops me off in my driveway, he briefly thanks me for "the ice cream and, well, everything" and promises to text me later.

              "What about all of your calc stuff?" I ask, suddenly remembering his massive pile of homework and study guides, which is currently littering my bedroom floor. He'd need them to study for the test tomorrow. That is, if he even gets the chance to study at all tonight. I cast him a wary look.

            Felix sighs. "I'll just have to pick it up tomorrow. Sorry for making your room a total mess."

            "It's okay, it was messy to begin with, but what about the test tomorrow?"

            He shrugs. "I can get a C on this test on still have an A in the class."

            We both jump out of our skins when Ellen impatiently honks her horn. Even though I can't see her clearly through her tinted windshield, I glare at her.

            "I guess that's my cue to leave. Good luck with Ellen tonight."

            "Thanks." I'm taken aback when a corner of his mouth quirks up into a small but sincere smile. Relief washes over me to finally get a glimpse of normal Felix again. I can't help but smile too.

           "My pleasure. Text me if you need anything."

            "Okay. 'Night, Bianca."

            "Goodnight." I shut the passenger door just as Ellen honks once more. I walk up my driveway without looking back, and I hear tires viciously grate over asphalt as Felix and Ellen speed away.

 

            ​As soon as I shut the front door, Mom hollers in rapid-fire Chinese, "WHERE WERE YOU?"

            "With Felix," I shout. I swiftly slip out of my Converse and follow the scent of ginger and rice vinegar into our stainless steel kitchen. Mom is poised over the stove, her hair pulled back in a long ponytail and her eyes fixated on a pan of sizzling vegetables.

            "Don't you have a calculus test tomorrow? You should study! Not go out with Felix."

            I struggle to suppress an exasperated eye roll as I settle myself against the granite countertop next to the sink. Mom has always, and will always, fulfill the Chinese-tiger-parent stereotype. "We did study. We studied a lot, actually. Then we got ice cream because we wanted a break." This was only partially a lie. We did study a lot, albeit what Mom thinks constitutes "a lot" does not completely agree with my definition. I also doubt that Mom would agree that "grieving over a shattering relationship" is the same thing as "wanting a break."

            She makes a disapproving clucking noise with her tongue as she rolls up the sleeves of her royal purple cardigan. "Are you still going to get an A tomorrow on your test?"

            "Of course. I rock at calc."

            Mom fastidiously adds salt to her vegetable stir-fry while a pot of water boils on the adjacent stove. She has always been the cook of the family. As a university professor, her work hours are very flexible, so she can get off work early enough to whip up twenty restaurant-quality dishes before Dad even pulls up into the driveway. Even though she always bombards me with questions and incessantly nags about studying as she stirs and fries, I still love to stand beside her and watch her work her magic.

            "I don't like Felix," Mom suddenly says in Chinese.

            I'm taken aback. "What?"

            "He's not a good influence."

            I hate it when she unjustly accuses my friends of being 'bad' people without enough contexts. She firmly believes that anybody who is either not on the Quiz Bowl team or without a four-point GPA should automatically be classified as a "bad influence." Annoyance seeps into my voice as I fiercely defend Felix. "How is he not a good influence? He's smart, he's nice, he's funny, and he's responsible."

            Mom scoffs. "Smart?" Under a layer of Chinese accent, it sounds like 'smaht.' "You say that boy is smart, but I can tell he doesn't know how to make good decisions."

            This time, I don't restrain my eye roll. "Mom, you're being ridiculous."

            "I'm not." She picks up the pan of vegetables and sets it on a coaster next to our microwave. "That boy looks like someone who has sex and smokes and does illegal drugs. He doesn't look responsible."

            My jaw drops open and my eyes bulge out incredulously. I'm a little insulted that she would think that I would be friends with those kinds of people. "Mom, Felix is not that kind of person!"

            "Look at how he dresses," she says, as though Felix's fashion sense alone suffices to prove his inability to "make good decisions." I think about his plaid shirts, his colored skinny jeans, his pastel button-ups, his corduroy jackets, and his converse in all sorts of bright colors. His selection of clothing isn't like the typical tasteless assortment of sweatshirts and old jeans that most boys sport at school, but I think his clothes are intriguing and bordering on sophisticated. They help him radiate confidence, not an aura of bad-boy.

            "What's wrong with how he dresses? He doesn't wear leather jackets or metal bracelets like the people at school who actually do drugs."

            Mom shakes her head and says dismissively, in Chinese, "I can't explain it to you."

            "You don't need to. Felix is not a bad person. He's a good friend."

            There are gentle kur-plunks as Mom shakes a bag of frozen homemade dumplings into the pot of boiling water. She tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear and sighs. "Just don't do stupid things with that boy.

            I'm about to retaliate that Felix doesn't do "stupid things" when my phone vibrates in the pocket of my sweatshirt. My heart leaps.

            Shit. Felix.

            But, when my iPhone screen lights up, Felix's name doesn't appear under the date and time. Instead, I see a name that makes my heart stop.

            Allie Tarkowski.

3: Chapter Three: Summer Before Freshman Year
Chapter Three: Summer Before Freshman Year

My first long-distance friendship began the summer between middle and high school.

            I went to a summer classical music camp—because I proudly represent the underground cult of the Almighty-High-School-Music-Nerd—during the most beautiful week of July in a secluded forest, a mile off of the shore of Lake Michigan. The camp focused on repertoire to which I'd never been exposed, such as contemporary jigs and romantic ballads by composers from all around the world. During my short seven private lessons from a state-renown violin teacher from the University of Michigan, I received some of the most constructive feedback on everything from technique to musicality. I learned to keep my hand less tense as I held my bow, to keep my vibrato constant, and to allow the music to direct my hands rather than my hands to dictate the "music's natural flow."

            But most importantly, I learned what it felt like to have a best friend.

            Actually, even more importantly than most importantly, I learned that, when it comes to this best-friend business, I'm an idiot.

            For my whole life, up until that music camp, even though I've always fallen on the more introverted side, I had a scattering of friends, with whom I felt comfortable but not deeply tight-knit. I never had a person to whom I could reveal all of my inner thoughts, questions, worries, memories, and fears. From childhood through middle school, I couldn't find somebody who could trust me to keep their secrets, as well as assure that they would do the same for me. Thus, the notion of having a "best friend" was foreign, if not unattainable, to my insecure rising-freshman self.

            Then I became abruptly but happily acquainted with the notion during this music camp.

            One week was all that it took. Seven days flew by and poof! I had a best friend. Her name was Allie. Allie Tarkowski. She was the first person named Allie I'd ever come across whose name didn't serve as an abbreviation for "Allison." I remember asking her why that was the case.

            "Well, my parents liked the name Allie, and they hated the name Allison, so I guess they thought, why should we name our kid 'Allison' when we hate that name, but love 'Allie' so much more? And I guess that makes sense—I mean, it's America, land of the free, so if they want to name me Allie without the side-order of Allison, then they should be able to do that, right?"

            "Of course."

            It didn't take me long to discover that Allie was a talker, and I was a listener. Her prompts and responses were always longer than two sentences, and my counterparts were roughly an eighth of that length. I didn't mind, though. Our friendship worked because we perfectly balanced each other out.

            "Well, since I've basically just told you the entire shazam behind my name, why don't you tell me yours?"

            We had this conversation while eating lunch in the fish-scented, greasy, windowless mess hall, our trays overflowing with bland potato salad and dry sandwiches. We had gone to lunch early due to early dismissal from our group lesson, so most of the tables were unoccupied, and the mess hall was relatively quiet compared to its typical cacophony of chatter. I found it nice to be able to eat and converse without the white noise of a thousand other yapping students.

            As I took a long sip of apple juice, I shuffled through my brain to remember why my parents named me Bianca.

            "Well, I'm pretty sure that my parents wrote in my baby book that I'm named after an angel from this 80's TV show," I finally said.

            "An angel?" She leaned a little closer so that our forearms nearly touched. "That's so cool. What TV show was it?"

            I bit my lip. "I can't remember."

            "Well, that's a bummer." She abruptly shifted her attention from my face to the white, clumpy mess on her lunch tray. Twirling a lock of pin-straight chestnut hair around her fork, she grumbled, "You want my potato shit?"

            I laughed and vigorously shook my head. The potato salad was, undeniably, shitty. Then again, anything mass-produced and churned out in a mess hall could hardly be considered gourmet cuisine. I pushed around the thick chunks of potato with my fork.

            Allie suddenly nudged my arm with her elbow. "Do you want to get some ice cream with me at the snack bar before we go to technique class? The only good food at this camp is their chocolate soft-serve."

            I sigh, remembering that I left my wallet in my luggage, which sat under my bed on the opposite side of campus. "I wish I could, but I left my money in my cabin."

            "Oh, please, that's no excuse. I got you covered. I've saved up a good four-hundred dollars from dogsitting this year. And I put away one-hundred of that just for ice cream." She smiled so brightly that it was infectious. I instinctively smiled back.

            And just like that, we wound up sitting in the shade of the tallest tree on campus Main Square, devouring ice cream while having the most enjoyable and comfortable small talk of my life. I learned an abundance about Allie: she was the youngest of the family, with a brother and sister named Todd and Erika who were both cellists; her family was Catholic while she herself was atheist; she was a competitive swimmer; she was the same age as me, though slightly older by two months and 17 days; she took violin and guitar lessons from a family friend; she never had a boyfriend, but she had her first kiss in seventh grade with a boy whom she'd thought was gay; she loved to sing, yet hated being in her school choir, because everybody sang as though they had the best vocal chords in "the history of history"; and she desperately wanted a Pillow Pet.

            She told me all of this so easily. Eloquent conversations in general flowed so naturally out of her. Even though I responded much more laconically than she did, Allie impressively managed to coax words out of me that I'd never uttered to my friends back home. I had only known Allie for two and a half days. Despite this, I told her everything from little quirks, such as hating cats, to deeper personal matters, such as how I'd never had my first kiss or a boyfriend.

            During our thirty minutes under the tree, Allie learned that I never had an expansive smattering of friends like she did. I had a small circle that I sat with during lunch in school, and occasionally I got together with one of them to ride bikes or window-shop at the mall. Most of my time, however, was spent reading YA fantasy or drawing fanart or playing music—alone. I told her that I considered myself a nerd and an introvert. Perhaps not an introvert to the greatest degree of social ineptitude, but I didn't have hour-long text conversations with friends about frivolous, trivial "girl stuff" like typical teenage girls.

            Yet, I felt like a typical teenage girl around Allie. I couldn't understand why I felt so comfortable around her. My comfort level reached the point that I revealed my bizarre, embarrassing secret that I was afraid to use tampons, and had thus never used one. However, upon hearing this absurdity, Allie didn't make me feel embarrassed or awkward. She didn't laugh. She didn't cringe. She simply shrugged and said light-heartedly, "well, everyone's afraid of something or another. I'm scared of seals"

            "Seals?"

            "Yup. Everyone thinks they're cute, but I think that they're too cute. You know what I mean?"

            I shook my head.

            "Like, I bet their overwhelming amount of cuteness is just a mask for something super dangerous on the inside."

            "And what's this super dangerous thing on the inside?"

            "I don't know. Maybe they're trying to take over the world."

            "Like, build a seal empire?"

            Allie's face broke into a wide smile, revealing her upper-cheek dimple. "Yeah!" She chuckled. "A seal empire. I can see it already."

            I couldn't help but laugh with her.

 

            My remaining five days at camp proceeded with much more laughter shared with Allie. She bought me ice cream every day, because she insisted that I shouldn't carry around my wallet, since I "could drop it somewhere in the middle of the forest, or it could get pick-pocketed by one of those suspicious teenage-delinquent-looking percussionists." I pointed out her hypocrisy for carrying around her own wallet while restricting mine to a suitcase under my bed. Allie immediately came up with a refutation that could only sound logical to a teenage girl: her chest was big enough to hide a wallet in her bra, and my unlucky postponement in development could not aid me in avoiding robberies.

            Halfway through camp, we exchanged phone numbers, so that we could text each other the second we returned to our cabins—the only place on campus where cell phones were allowed for students to use.

            "Who are you texting all the time?" Eliana, a cabin mate who was a clarinetist, once asked me.

            "A friend from my group class."

            "Not your boyfriend?"

            I shook my head. "No. I don't have a boyfriend."

            "Do you want a boyfriend?"

            "No."

            "Why not?"

            "Because I don't like boys."

            "You don't like boys? So, you like girls?"

            ​I didn't mean it like that, I thought. I like boys. With my eyebrows raised, I glanced up at Eliana.  Her expression contained no hint of sarcasm.

            "Of course I'm straight," I finally said.

            "Oh, I see."

            That was the first and last conversation that I ever exchanged with Eliana the clarinetist.