College is a time for new beginnings, for reinventing yourself and being the person you couldn’t be in Middle School or High School. Even if you change your image when you hit 15 or 16, in everyone else’s eyes, you’re still the shy girl with glasses and skinny legs or the fat kid who sits by himself in the lunch hall every day because he has no friends. But no one else at college knows who you used to be and that’s what I was looking forward to – until a long-forgotten book made me change my mind.
“Jen! Can you clean your room out for me?”
My mom’s planning on decorating my room while I’m away at college for my first semester. She’s been talking about doing it for ages, but somehow, neither of us have got round to doing anything about it – probably because I’m a hoarder and I have so much junk in there that the idea of trying to box it all up to make space for all the paint pots and other paraphernalia was just too soul destroying.
It’s different now, though. College is a fresh start and so I’ve decided to be ruthless: picking through my closet for all the things I can give to Good Will; sorting through books and videos (I never got the hang of downloading stuff to watch) to see what I can reasonably part with.
My hand closes over a book I’ve read and reread so many times that I know I can’t bear to part with it. A boy in my class gave me ‘The Princess Bride’ when we were thirteen, just before we left Middle School and went our separate ways – me going to the local High School and him to some fancy Academy that his parents decided he needed if he was going to get the grades for an Ivy League university. I’ve often wondered how he got on. He teased me unmercifully in our last year of Middle School, despite being so unpopular himself, and gave me the book by way of apology.
I pick it up now and flick through the pages, my love of the story entirely unconnected with the person who gave it to me. Turning to the flyleaf, I trace the inscription: “Jennifer, I’m sorry I was so mean to you. Let me know how you get on at High School. Alex.”
There’s a phone number underneath the message, but I’ve never called him. What would be the point? Now, though, I think it might be worth it – just for old times’ sake. After all, there might be a certain amount of satisfaction in showing him how well I’ve done for myself with a pretty impressive Grade Point Average and a place at the sort of school he was aiming for himself. And, dare I say it, I look pretty good these days: the skinny girl’s filled out and I even had a date for Prom.
My hand hovers over my phone, wondering if I should call – even if it’s only so I can have someone to hang out with for the last couple of days before I leave. Kelli’s in the mountains with her parents and Darcy’s been loved up with her boyfriend for the past eighteen months to the exclusion of all her other friends, so it looks like Alex is my last port of call – presuming he doesn’t mind me ringing him up out of the blue and suggesting a get-together.
The call is excruciating – at least to begin with. I ask for Alex and the female who answers – his mom? his sister? – claims I have the wrong number. I call again with the same result, and then just as I am about to hang up, the voice says, “Oh, you mean Xander!” Since when did Alex start calling himself that? I wonder, a part of me thinking that ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ might be to blame.
Even when I get Alex on the phone, the conversation’s not much better. “Jen?” he says, and I hear the frown in his voice. “I don’t know a Jen.”
“Jennifer Morris,” I say. “We went to Middle School together and you gave me a copy of ‘The Princess Bride’.”
“Ah,” he says, understanding dawning, “so that’s where it got to. I forgot I’d lent it to you and I thought I’d lost it.”
What? I wanted to say. You made my life a misery for a whole year, but you gave me a book you wanted back? Had he really thought I’d want to talk to him again after all that torment?
“Is that why you’re calling?” he continued. “Because you’re finally going to return my book?”
“Actually,” I say, trying to make my voice as dignified as possible, “I was going to ask you if you wanted to meet up. College starts in a few days and I’m trying to tie up loose ends before I leave – say goodbye to people and all that sort of thing.” Then, as my anger gets the better of me, I burst out, “You could have bought another copy of ‘The Princess Bride’. It’s not like it’s out of print or anything.”
“It’s the sentimental value of that particular copy,” he says, his explanation making me feel instantly guilty. “It was a gift from my grandpa and I’d sort of like it to remember him by.”
We agree to meet up in a neutral spot so I can hand over the book. A part of me is curious to see what Alex looks like all grown up, but it’s not like this is a date or anything. In fact, this is more like revenge: I want him to see me looking good and to regret the fact that I’m now out of his league.
I need to go to the mall anyway to stock up on essentials for going away. Buying my own toothpaste and shampoo feels like another rung on the ladder to adulthood – somewhere between choosing my own pizza toppings and paying taxes. I grab everything I think necessary then head for the Starbucks to wait for Alex.
I’ve only been there a few minutes when a slight cough makes me look up. A gorgeous guy is standing by the empty seat at my table, obviously waiting for me to move my bags so he can sit down.
“Sorry,” I say apologetically, “this seat’s saved.”
“I know,” he says, carefully placing my things on the floor. “You’re waiting for me.”
So much for me getting my revenge by knocking Alex out with my drop-dead gorgeous looks. He’s grown a good seven or eight inches since Middle School and his fat’s turned to solid muscle. He still wears glasses, but in a sexy, Clark Kent kind of way; and when he takes them off momentarily, his eyes are a mesmerizing shade of green.
“You got hot!” I say without thinking.
He grins at me. “So did you!”
And I somehow think that we’ll have more to talk about than his copy of ‘The Princess Bride’.
“You know I’m not going to call you Xander,” I say firmly as he adds sugar to his coffee and picks up a stirrer. “You’ve always been Alex in my mind and that’s how you’ll stay.”
“I’ve been on your mind, then? You never called.”
I break a piece off my blueberry muffin to give my fingers something to do and stare at the plate.
“Four years is a long time, Jennifer.”
“It’s Jen now,” I say automatically. Snappy. Business-like. No nonsense.
“So, is there a reason you didn’t call. I wrote my number in that book especially.”
“Why do that with a book you wanted back?” I ask curiously.
Alex blushes. “Okay, I lied. I didn’t really want the book back: I just wanted to see you again.” He takes a deep breath. “You must have realised why I teased you so much in Middle School – it’s what boys do when they like someone.”
“You were mean to me because you liked me?” It doesn’t make sense.
He nods. “You were like me – you read books and you liked obscure TV shows. I really wanted to be friends with you – well, more than friends – but I just didn’t know how to tell you. Besides,” he looks embarrassed now, “I didn’t want anyone teasing me for liking you. If the other boys had known how I felt, they would have made life miserable for both of us.”
He falls silent and I know he’s remembering the jeers and catcalls as he wobbled round the track on Sports Day, or the fun people made of his thick glasses and his retainer.
Speaking of teeth... I take a quick peep and am reassured to see that he no longer wears braces. I know I must sound incredibly shallow, but I can’t help wishing I’d known earlier that Alex looked like this. We could have spent a whole summer together, for goodness’ sake!
“So,” he says as I slurp the last drop of my Frappuccino and tidy up any uneaten muffin crumbs, “what next?”
I stare at him in surprise, wondering if this is turning into a date. “We could go and see a movie,” I offer.
Alex sitting next to me in a darkened room. The possibilities look promising.
“As you wish,” he says, and we both break into a grin.
The film’s not one I’ve heard of before, but I don’t particularly care. The way Alex’s pupils flare when he looks at me tell me he’s thinking what I’m thinking. Why on earth have we wasted the past four years?
About ten minutes into the movie, a scary scene makes me bury my head in his chest. He puts an arm around me to reassure me and it kind of stays there for the rest of the ninety minutes. From time to time, he glances at me as if to check this is okay and I grin back in what I hope is a suitably seductive manner.
We leave the movie theater hand in hand; it feels natural somehow.
“Burgers?” Alex suggests and I nod happily.
“As you wish.”
I have a feeling that’s going to be our catchphrase from now on.
We get our burgers to go, and wander down the street eating them. This must be the craziest day of my life, but I don’t care. We reach the municipal park – the playground is almost empty, despite it being summer – and find a deserted bench to sit and finish our food; and then, like a couple of kids, we test out the swings, laughing as we compete with each other to see who can fly the highest. After I’ve won, we tumble off, giddy and breathless, and make our way to the fountain, once more holding hands.
At one point, Alex tilts his head towards me and I think he’s going to kiss me, but instead, he just says, “Where’s all this going, Jen?” and then waits for a reply – as if I have an answer.
I ponder the question, studying him at the same time. He’s not the same boy I knew in Middle School – but I’m not the same girl either. In the four years we haven’t seen each other, we’ve both grown up and learned that we fit together surprisingly well.
“I don’t know,” I say honestly. “We’re both off to college in a few days’ time...”
“You are,” he interrupts. “I’m having a gap year. I’m going to work for my uncle for six months and then go travelling.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Any possibility of the two of us getting together now and having a long-distance relationship seems to disappear into the horizon on a gap year of its own.
“You didn’t ask,” he says mildly. “Besides, I didn’t know we’d get on so well today.”
I bite my lip, wishing we hadn’t got on so well. I’ve managed to get through High School without having or needing a boyfriend; and then in one day, Alex has made me long for something I hadn’t realised I wanted so much.
“I’m sorry,” he says, sounding apologetic now. I wonder if this is something he’s said to a lot of girls: how many hearts has he broken since we were in Middle School together?
Turning away from him, I stare at the fountain, watching the water droplets cascade into the air. I move closer, wanting to feel the water on my face, hoping it will camouflage the tears that are ready to fall.
Alex’s hand touches my shoulder. “Jen...”
And this time, he does kiss me, his lips warm and soft against mine. We stand there for ages, oblivious to whoever might be passing by – two Middle School misfits who’ve finally found each other. We’ve got years of missed opportunities to squeeze into the next few days before I leave, but I know now that this isn’t the end but only the beginning.
“That was pretty good,” I say as we finally come up for air. “You must have had lots of practice.”
“Not really.” He grins at me. “I’ve spent four years in an all-boys’ academy, so kissing wasn’t high on my list of priorities.”
“In that case,” I move closer, “we’d better practice some more.”
“As you wish,” he murmurs – and then I remember the story he lent me and what those three words really mean.