It's Not Summer Without You
Page 8

 Jenny Han

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Downstairs the adults were milling around, drinking coffee and talking in hushed voices. My mother stood at the buffet table, cutting cake for strangers. They were strangers to me, anyway. I wondered if she knew them, if they knew who she was to Susannah, how she was her best friend, how they’d spent every summer together for almost their whole lives.
I grabbed two plates and my mother helped me load them up. “Are you guys all right upstairs?” she asked me, putting a wedge of blue cheese on the plate.
I nodded and slid it right back off. “Jeremiah doesn’t like blue cheese,” I told her. Then I took a handful of water crackers and a cluster of green grapes. “Have you seen Conrad?”
“I think he’s in the basement,” she said. Rearranging the cheese plate, she added, “Why don’t you go check on him and bring him a plate? I’ll take this one up to the boys.”
“Okay.” I picked up the plate and crossed the dining room just as Jeremiah and Steven came downstairs. I stood there and watched Jeremiah stop and talk to people, letting them hug him and grasp his hand. Our eyes met, and I lifted my hand and waved it just barely. He lifted his and did the same, rolling his eyes a little at the woman clutching his arm. Susannah would have been proud.
Then I headed downstairs, to the basement. The basement was carpeted and soundproofed. Susannah had it set up when Conrad took up the electric guitar.
It was dark; Conrad hadn’t turned the lights on. I waited for my eyes to adjust, and then I crept down the stairs, feeling my way.
I found him soon enough. He was lying down on the couch with his head in a girl’s lap. She was running her hands along the top of his head, like they belonged there. Even though summer had just barely started, she was tan. Her shoes were off, her bare legs were stretched out on top of the coffee table. And Conrad, he was stroking her leg.
Everything in me seized up, pulled in tight.
I had seen her at the funeral. I’d thought she was really pretty, and I’d wondered who she was. She looked East Asian, like she might be Indian. She had dark hair and dark eyes and she was wearing a black miniskirt and a white and black polka-dot blouse. And a headband, she was wearing a black headband.
She saw me first. “Hey,” she said.
That’s when Conrad looked over and saw me standing in the doorway with a plate of cheese and crackers. He sat up. “Is that food for us?” he asked, not quite looking at me.
“My mother sent it,” I said, and my voice came out mumbly and quiet. I walked over and put the plate on the coffee table. I stood there for a second, unsure of what to do next.
“Thanks,” the girl said, in a way that sounded more like, You can go now. Not in a mean way, but in a way that made it clear I was interrupting.
I backed out of the room slowly but when I got to the stairs, I started to run. I ran by all the people in the living room and I could hear Conrad coming after me.
“Wait a minute,” he called out.
I’d almost made it through the foyer when he caught up to me and grabbed my arm.
“What do you want?” I said, shaking him off. “Let go of me.”
“That was Aubrey,” he said, letting go.
Aubrey, the girl who broke Conrad’s heart. I’d pictured her differently. I’d pictured her blond. This girl was prettier than what I had pictured. I could never compete with a girl like that.
I said, “Sorry I interrupted your little moment.”
“Oh, grow up,” he said.
There are moments in life that you wish with all your heart you could take back. Like, just erase from existence. Like, if you could, you’d erase yourself right out of existence too, just to make that moment not exist.
What I said next was one of those moments for me.
On the day of his mother’s funeral, to the boy I loved more than I had ever loved anything or anyone, I said, “Go to hell.”
It was the worst thing I’ve ever said to anyone, ever. It wasn’t that I’d never said the words before. But the look on his face. I’ll never forget it. The look on his face made me want to die. It confirmed every mean and low thing I’d ever thought about myself, the stuff you hope and pray no one will ever know about you. Because if they knew, they would see the real you, and they would despise you.
Conrad said, “I should have known you’d be like this.”
Miserably, I asked him, “What do you mean?”
He shrugged, his jaw tight. “Forget it.”
“No, say it.”
He started to turn around, to leave, but I stopped him. I stood in his way. “Tell me,” I said, my voice rising.
He looked at me and said, “I knew it was a bad idea, starting something with you. You’re just a kid. It was a huge mistake.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said.
People were starting to look. My mother was standing in the living room, talking to people I didn’t recognize. She’d glanced up when I’d started speaking. I couldn’t even look at her; I could feel my face burning.
I knew the right thing to do was to walk away. I knew that was what I was supposed to do. In that moment, it was like I was floating above myself and I could see me and how everybody in that room was looking at me. But when Conrad just shrugged and started to leave again, I felt so mad, and so—small. I wanted to stop myself, but I couldn’t quit.
“I hate you,” I said.
Conrad turned around and nodded, like he’d expected me to say exactly that. “Good,” he said. The way he looked at me then, pitying and fed up and just over it. It made me feel sick.
“I never want to see you again,” I said, and then I pushed past him, and I ran up the staircase so fast I tripped on the top step. I fell right onto my knees, hard. I think I heard someone gasp. I could barely see through my tears. Blindly, I got back up and ran to the guest room.
I took off my glasses and lay down on the bed and cried.
It wasn’t Conrad I hated. It was myself.
My father came up after a while. He knocked a few times, and when I didn’t answer, he came in and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Are you all right?” he asked me. His voice was so gentle, I could feel tears leaking out of the corners of my eyes again. No one should be nice to me. I didn’t deserve it.
I rolled away so my back was to him. “Is Mom mad at me?”
“No, of course not,” he said. “Come back downstairs and say good-bye to everyone.”
“I can’t.” How could I go back downstairs and face everyone after I’d made that scene? It was impossible. I was humiliated, and I had done it to myself.