Lola and the Boy Next Door
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I’m not in love with him anymore.
Instead, looking at him makes me feel . . . hollow.
“How’ve you been?” I give him a smile that’s both warm and cool. One that I hope says, I’m not that person anymore.You didn’t hurt me, and I never think about you.
“Good. Really, really good. I just started at Berkeley, so that’s where my things are.You know. In Berkeley. I stopped by to help my parents unpack.” Cricket points behind him as if the boxes are right there. He was always a hand-talker.
“Berkeley?” I’m thrown. “As in . . . ?”
He looks down into the alley between our houses. “I, uh, graduated early. Homeschooling? Calliope did, too, but she’s skipping the college thing for a few years to concentrate on her career.”
“So you’re staying there?” I ask, hardly daring to believe it. “In a dorm?”
YES. OH MY GOD,YES!
“I mean, I’ll bring a few things over,” he says. “For weekends and school breaks. Or whatever.”
My chest constricts. “Weekends?”
“Probably. I guess.” He sounds apologetic. “This is all new to me. It’s always been the Calliope Parade, you know?”
I do know. The Bell family has always revolved around Calliope’s career. This must be the first time in Cricket’s life that his schedule doesn’t revolve around hers. “I saw her on TV last year,” I say, trying not to sound distressed by the idea of seeing him regularly. “World Championships. Second place, that’s impressive.”
“Ah.” Cricket sags against his window frame. He scratches the side of his nose, revealing a message written on the back of his left hand: REVERSE CIRCUIT. “But don’t let her hear you say that.”
“Why not?” I stare at his hand. It’s surreal. He always wrote cryptic reminders there and always in that same black marker. I used to write on mine sometimes just to be like him. My stomach clenches at the memory. Did he notice? Did Calliope tease him about it when I wasn’t around?
“You know Cal. It doesn’t count if it’s not first.” He straightens up, on the move again, and holds out both hands in my direction. “But how are you? I’m sorry, I’ve completely taken over this conversation.”
“Great. I’m great!”
I’m great? Two years of revenge fantasies, and that’s what I come up with? Of course, in my daydreams, I’m never wearing matching pajamas either.
Oh, no. I’m wearing matching pajamas.
And my hair! I have wig hair! It’s totally flat and sweaty!
Everything about this moment is wrong. I’m supposed to be dressed in something glamorous and unique. We’re supposed to be in a crowded room, and his breath is supposed to catch when he sees me. I’ll be laughing, and he’ll be drawn toward me as if by magnetic force. And I’ll be surprised but uninterested to see him. And then Max will show up. Put his arm around me. And I’ll leave with my dignity restored, and Cricket will leave agonizing that he didn’t go for me when he had the chance.
Instead, he’s staring at me with the strangest expression. His brow has creased and his mouth has parted, but the smile has disappeared. It’s his solving-a-difficult-equation face. Why is he giving me his difficult equation face?
“And your family?” he asks. “How are they?”
It’s unnerving. That face.
“Um, they’re good.” I am confident and happy. And over you. Don’t forget, I’m over you. “Andy started his own business. He bakes and delivers these incredible pies, every flavor. It’s doing well. And Nathan is the same. You know. Good.” I glance away, toward the dark street. I wish he’d stop looking at me.
“And Norah?” His question is careful. Delicate.
There’s another awkward silence. Not many people know about Norah, but there are certain things that can’t be hidden from neighbors. Things like my birth mother.
“She’s . . . Norah. She’s in the fortune-telling business now, reading tea leaves.” My face grows warm. How long will we stand here being polite? “She has an apartment.”
“That’s great, Lola. I’m glad to hear it.” And because he’s Cricket, he does sound glad. This is all too weird. “Do you see her often?”
“Not really. I haven’t seen Snoopy at all this year.” I’m not sure why I add that.
“Is he still . . . ?”
I nod. His real name is Jonathan Head, but I’ve never heard anyone call him that. Snoopy met Norah when they were both teenagers. They were also alcoholics, drug addicts, and homeless gutter punks. When he got Norah pregnant, she came to her older brother for help. Nathan. She didn’t want me, but she didn’t want to get an abortion either. And Nathan and Andy, who’d been together for seven years, wanted a child. They adopted me, and Andy changed his last name to Nathan’s so that we’d all have the same one.
But yes. My father Nathan is biologically my uncle.
My parents have tried to help Norah. She’s hasn’t lived on the streets in years—before her apartment, she was in a series of group homes—but she still isn’t exactly the most reliable person I know. The best I can say is that at least she’s sober. And I only see Snoopy every now and then, whenever he rolls into town. He’ll call my parents, we’ll take him out for a burger, and then we won’t hear from him again for months. The homeless move around more than most people realize.
I don’t like to talk about my birth parents.
“I like what you’ve done with your room,” Cricket says suddenly. “The lights are pretty.” He gestures toward the strands of pink and white twinkle lights strung across my ceiling. “And the mannequin heads.”
I have shelves running across the top of my bedroom walls, lined with turquoise mannequin heads. They model my wigs and sunglasses. The walls themselves are plastered with posters of movie costume dramas and glossy black-and-whites of classic actresses. My desk is hot pink with gold glitter, which I threw in while the paint was drying, and the surface is buried underneath open jars of sparkly makeup, bottles of half-dried nail polish, plastic kiddie barrettes, and false eyelashes.