It's Not Summer Without You
Page 13

 Jenny Han

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As soon as she said the words, “she doesn’t look good,” I closed my eyes. I hated myself for being afraid to see her, for not visiting more often. But I wasn’t like my mother, as strong and durable as steel. Seeing Susannah like that, it was too hard. It felt like pieces of her, of who she used to be, crumpled away every time. Seeing her like that made it real.
When we pulled into the driveway, Nona was outside smoking a cigarette. I’d met Nona a couple of weeks before, when Susannah first moved back home. Nona had a very intimidating handshake. When we stepped out of the car, she was Purelling her hands and spraying Febreze on her uniform like she was a teenager smoking in secret, even though Susannah didn’t mind it; she loved cigarettes once in a while but couldn’t smoke them anymore. Just pot, just once in a while.
“Morning,” Nona called out, waving to us.
“Morning,” we called back.
She was sitting on the front porch. “Nice to see you,” she said to me. To my mother, she said, “Susannah’s all dressed and waiting for you two downstairs.”
My mother sat down next to Nona. “Belly, you go on in first. I’m going to chat with Nona.” And by “chat,” I knew she meant she too was going to have a cigarette. She and Nona had gotten to be pretty friendly.
Nona was pragmatic and also intensely spiritual. She invited my mother to go to church with her once, and even though my mother was not religious in the least, she went. At first I thought it was just to humor Nona, but then when she started going to church alone back home, I realized it was more than that. She was looking for some kind of peace.
I said, “By myself?” and I regretted it right away. I didn’t want either of them to judge me for being afraid. I was already judging myself.
“She’s waiting for you,” my mother said.
Which she was. She was sitting in the living room, and she was wearing actual clothes and not her pajamas. She had on makeup. Her peachy blush was bright and garish against her chalky skin. She’d made an effort, for me. So as not to scare me. So I pretended not to be scared.
“My favorite girl,” she said, opening her arms for me.
I hugged her, carefully as I could, I told her she looked so much better. I lied.
She said Jeremiah wouldn’t be home until later that night, that us girls had the house all to ourselves for the afternoon.
My mother came inside then, but left the two of us alone. She came into the living room to say a quick hello and then she fixed lunch while we caught up.
As soon as my mother left the room, Susannah said, “If you’re worried about running into Conrad, don’t be, sweetie. He won’t be here this weekend.”
I swallowed. “Did he tell you?”
She half laughed. “That boy doesn’t tell me anything. Your mother mentioned that prom didn’t go . . . as well as we’d hoped. I’m sorry, honey.”
“He broke up with me,” I told her. It was more complicated than that, but when you boiled it all down, that was what had happened. It had happened because he’d wanted it to. It had always been his call—his decision whether or not we were together.
Susannah took my hand and held it. “Don’t hate Conrad,” she said.
“I don’t,” I lied. I hated him more than anything. I loved him more than anything. Because, he was everything. And I hated that, too.
“Connie’s having a hard time with all of this. It’s a lot.” She paused and pushed my hair out of my face, her hand lingering on my forehead as if I had a fever. As if I was the one who was sick, in need of comfort. “Don’t let him push you away. He needs you. He loves you, you know.”
I shook my head. “No, he doesn’t.” In my head, I added, The only person he loves is himself. And you.
She acted like she hadn’t heard me. “Do you love him?”
When I didn’t answer, she nodded as if I had. “Will you do something for me?”
Slowly, I nodded.
“Look after him for me. Will you do that?”
“You won’t need me to look after him, Susannah, you’ll be here to do it,” I said, and I tried not to sound desperate, but it didn’t matter.
Susannah smiled and said, “You’re my girl, Belly.”
After lunch, Susannah took a nap. She didn’t wake up until late afternoon, and when she did, she was irritable and disoriented. She snapped at my mother once, which terrified me. Susannah never snapped at anybody. Nona tried to put her to bed, and at first Susannah refused, but then she gave in. On the way to her bedroom, she gave me a little halfhearted wink.
Jeremiah came home around dinnertime. I was relieved to see him. He made everything lighter, easier. Just seeing his face took away some of the strain of being there.
He walked into the kitchen and said, “What’s that burning smell? Oh, Laurel’s cooking. Hey, Laure!”
My mother swatted at him with a kitchen towel. He dodged her and started looking under pan covers playfully.
“Hey, Jere,” I said to him. I was sitting on a stool, shelling beans.
He looked over at me and said, “Oh, hey. How are you?” Then he walked over to me and gave me a quick half hug. I tried to search his eyes for some clue as to how he was doing, but he didn’t let me. He kept moving around, joking with Nona and my mother.
In some ways, he was the same Jeremiah, but in other ways, I could see how this had changed him. Had aged him. Everything took more effort, his jokes, his smiles. Nothing was easy anymore.
Chapter eleven
It felt like forever before Jeremiah spoke again. I was pretending to be asleep, and he was drumming his fingers along the steering wheel. Suddenly he said, “This was my prom’s theme song.”
Right away I opened my eyes and asked, “How many proms have you been to?”
“Total? Five.”
“What? Yeah, right. I don’t believe you,” I said, even though I did. Of course Jeremiah had been to five proms. He was exactly that guy, the one everyone wanted to go with. He would know how to make a girl feel like the prom queen even if she was nobody.
Jeremiah starting ticking off with his fingers. “Junior year, I went to two, mine and Flora Martinez’s at Sacred Heart. This year, I went to my prom and two others. Sophia Franklin at—”
“Okay, okay. I get it. You’re in demand.” I leaned forward and fiddled with the air conditioner control.
“I had to buy a tux because it was cheaper than renting over and over again,” he said. Jeremiah looked straight ahead, and then he said the last thing I was expecting him to say. “You looked good at yours. I liked your dress.”