College is not in the cards for Seth. He spends his minimum wage on groceries and fakes happiness to distract his mom from the MS they both know will kill her. It’s agony to carry around a frayed love note for a girl who’s both out of his league and beneath his dignity.
Quinn’s finishing high school on top. But that cynical, liberal guy in her social studies class makes her doubt her old assumptions. Challenging the rules now, though, would a) squander her last summer at home, b) antagonize her conservative dad, and c) make her a hypocrite.
Seth and Quinn’s passionate new romance takes them both by surprise. They keep it a secret: it’s too early to make plans and too late not to care. But it’s 1989. As politics suddenly get personal, they find themselves fighting bare-fisted for their beliefs—and each other—in the clear light of day.
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Quinn stood in the tiled foyer of her silent house, breathing in the soothing smell of Pledge dusting spray that the cleaning lady left behind. She tossed her backpack and jean jacket onto a dining room chair, and headed for the sunlit kitchen. Bypassing the colander of green grapes by the sink, she picked through the snack bowl and settled on a half sleeve of Ritz crackers. She found a block of cheddar in the fridge. She stood at the butcher block, slicing the cheese and making tiny sandwiches.
After her snack, she gripped the oiled banister and took the stairs two at a time. At the top, she could practically taste the smell of clean laundry. She went to claim her stack. Her mom did the folding while returning phone calls but drew the line at putting the clothes back in their drawers.
“I’m not your maid,” Quinn had heard her say, ad nauseam.
Quinn pushed herself up onto the washing machine’s smooth surface and dialed the number for her sister, Sarah. As the phone rang, she wrapped the phone’s coiled cord around her forearm, poking white dots onto her skin between the black rings of stretchy plastic. She’d learned to avoid getting banished to the living room phone by unwrapping the cord slowly: if she unwrapped it too fast, she’d leave an ugly kink in the spiral. Her mom hated it when she did that.
“Hello?” Sarah said.
“It’s me,” said Quinn. “I was wondering if you could come over for a food fight.”
“How about a midnight run to the U-Stop? I could go for a blue raspberry ICEE.”
“I’d kill right now for some sour cream and cheddar potato chips. Mom’s starving us out with grainy wholesome goodness.”
Sarah had moved to New York two years ago. The bathroom the two of them once shared seemed stark without Sarah’s sweaty leotards wadded in the corners. She had attended a local community college for four months before dropping out to start a dance career. She probably still got an allowance. Quinn missed her, but in a twisty, relieved sort of way. The guilty weight of being the successful daughter, the one without dyslexia (and possibly even her dad’s favorite) hadn’t lifted until Sarah had sailed out the door.
“Jason and I started having sex,” Quinn said.
“I don’t know. Why does anyone have sex? I couldn’t come up with a good reason to keep saying no. We’ve been together since November.”
“Hitting the five-month mark doesn’t sound like a good reason to say yes.”
Quinn could hear Sarah frowning. “I’m not saying we’re not in love or anything. We’re in lust.”
“So the sex is good then?”
“God, Quinn, can you hear yourself? Don’t do it. You’re not ready.”
Usually, Sarah could boost Quinn’s confidence with her signature blasts of praise and loyalty. When Quinn had fretted about getting into colleges, Sarah had shaken her head at her like Quinn was smoking crack. “Of course you’ll get in,” she’d said. End of discussion. Sarah also knew things about guys. She split them into two essential groups—princes and toads—usually within thirty seconds of meeting them.
“I already did it,” Quinn said. “That horse is out of the gate, so to speak. Besides, what do you mean good?”
“Fun. Hot. Cuddly. Thrilling. Is that what it’s like?”
They’d only done it a few times. But no, it wasn’t. Jason was a great kisser, or used to be back when they did a lot of kissing. But kissing had dropped down on the priority list. And the actual sex part—once the novelty factor wore off—seemed like more trouble and mess than it was worth.
“I guess Jason thinks it is.”
“He’s still hot, huh?”
The first time Quinn met Jason, she and her friend Ilene had competed against him and another guy in a tournament. Quinn and Ilene could tell that they’d lost that round before the judge even posted her results.
“That was a fucking train wreck,” Ilene said, shaking her head.
Quinn smiled. She used to be intimidated by her new debate partner’s self-contained, perfectionist brilliance. Now, when Ilene let fly with one of her sarcastic profanity bombs, it felt like insider intel on their real friendship.
Jason and his partner, apparently, also knew already that they’d won the round. They did a quiet high five.
Quinn shoved her files into her briefcase, then sat back in her chair, trying not to pout on the outside.
Jason crossed the room. He held out his palms out in silent repentance. His wry smile tried to apologize for his disarming, Indian gorgeousness, but Quinn ignored him. Having been dumped publicly a few weeks earlier by Chris, a fast-talking brainiac from Omaha, Quinn was done with debate guys. They were fun to sneak a cigarette with between rounds, but deep down, they were socially retarded and had hearts of stone.
But Jason sat right on her desk. This made him harder to ignore. Then he took the fountain pen she was twirling between her fingers and tossed it in the air. As Quinn stood and caught it, she accidentally-on-purpose shoved him off the desk. He just barely managed to keep his footing. Widening his eyes but not taking them off hers, he laughed. Then he held out his hand.
“I’m Jason Singh.”
She raised an eyebrow and suppressed her smile as long as she could, like she hadn’t already made up her mind.
She’d expected her parents to mention the race thing, but her dad only mused that some of the best scientists in the world were Asians. (Quinn learned later that Mrs. Singh was a hematologist.) Her father had offered a similar, admiring non sequitur when Quinn broke up with Evan Schwartz in ninth grade, something about the Jews one day taking over the world.
“Still, I don’t care how beautiful he is,” Sarah said now. “You should hold out for good sex.”
“I can’t suddenly change my mind.”
“Why not? Is there an official sex rulebook? Go back to oral.”
“He doesn’t like it.” Quinn heard silence on the other end of the line.
“I don’t understand.”
“I mean he only likes it when I do it. Not the other way around.”
Sarah snorted. “That’s pathetic, Quinn. What are you, a battered wife or something? I say that, of course, in the nicest, most loving possible way.”
“And yet I take that as a messed-up, mixed message, Sarah. And I mean that in the most mind-your-own-business possible way.”
“Hey, you’re the one who called me.” Sarah had a point there. “Just wait. For now, you should stick to having sex with yourself.”
“Ew,” Quinn whined.
“Oh, please. Everyone does it, including you. ” That was another fair point.
After hanging up with Sarah, Quinn took her stack of clean clothes to her room. She heaped it on her desk chair and closed the heavy door. Her bedroom was a time capsule from her misguided ninth-grade mauve phase. Only her new Macintosh II and printer, with its trail of continuous-feed paper, offered a clue that a near adult lived here. Flopping on her bed, Quinn kicked off her pointy flats. She rubbed the beginnings of another itchy blister. Wearing socks with flats only made sense if you didn’t have a problem with social death.
Her room overlooked the front yard. Or it would until the Japanese maple leafed out and blocked her view. In the summer, she didn’t even pull her curtains. Last night, the moon had hovered full and low between the budding branches. She’d heaved open the window next to her bed. She could smell that her dad had been raking. Eyes closed, she’d breathed in the perfume of damp dirt shedding its winter layers of leaf mulch. It made her want to do some shedding of her own, to rip off a Band-Aid or cut her hair or do something shocking to her sweet, precious wallpaper.
Prince, Madonna, and Duran Duran glowered out at her from their posters on the wall as if they, too, chafed under their oppressively ninth-grade surroundings. Quinn pressed on one of the puffy square baffles on her mauve bedspread. When she slid her fingers over to the next one, she snagged a fresh hangnail on a loop of clear thread.
She sighed. Last night, Jason had asked her to his prom. He wanted to go with his squirrely pot-smoking friends and their dates—then rent a hotel room. Quinn thought about her conversation with Sarah just now. If she and Jason rented a hotel room, would they have good sex or just sex? And how the hell would she know the difference? She sighed again and started her homework.
The next afternoon, Quinn stood at her locker and tucked in the white cotton strap of her bra. It had sneaked beyond the boundaries of her sleeveless sundress and bugged her all day. She liked how the dial on her locker’s padlock kind of twirled itself, how the lock released with a pleasing thunk. She smoothed her hair behind her ears.
Terrence—whom she’d known since kindergarten—half strutted, half bounced to his locker on Quinn’s right. He nodded a greeting down to her but directed his opening volley over her head to the guy opening the locker on her left.
“Yo, man, this girl was all over me,” he said. “I’m telling her, ‘This is my little brother’s recital, a’right?’” He primped his oiled curls with one hand and spun his lock with the other.
The dim fluorescent lighting in the second-floor hallway made the other guy’s red hair look even redder. He rolled his eyes at Terrence but said nothing. His asymmetrical flop hairdo screamed 1986. This was 1989.
Quinn returned Terrence’s smile, yawning as she opened her locker. It was April of her senior year; at this point, she was a tolerant but bored bystander in this mildly amusing testosterone war. Terrence caught his cardboard breakdancing mat as it sprung out of his locker. Quinn knelt on the marble floor and pried a notebook from the bottom shelf of hers. The lock caught with a bump of her hip as she stood up. She dodged her way through the hallway traffic.
The stalls, floor tiles, and walls of the girls’ room rocked the same relentless hue of hospital green, inflicting a universally unflattering glare on all who entered. Quinn headed for a toilet. She’d drank a huge Diet Coke with lunch.
From her stall, Quinn heard her best friend, Trish, demand of her from the sinks, “Do I look like someone who does crepe paper?”
They met here every day at the same time. Quinn could picture Trish standing with one hand on her narrow hip. The other would be raised as if to say, “What?” She was bitching about her latest run-in with the office secretary/prom-committee advisor. The secretary was outflanked; she just didn’t know it yet.
Trish and Quinn’s mutual, total failure to do a flexed-arm hang for the Presidential Physical Fitness Test had sealed their friendship in seventh grade. Trish had observed out loud that only stupid people hung from a metal bar on purpose. This was a revelation to Quinn. And unlike Quinn, Trish had been tested for real. Trish’s dad had just moved out. Her family-minus-one was renting what would become a series of apartments in a sun-baked complex near Highway 2. Sooner or later the neighbors always complained about the kid noise. Then Trish and her mom would carry their stuff down two floors or over one building. Quinn had spent her junior high years eating M&M’s at track meets with her older sister and parents and taking private piano lessons. Trish, meanwhile, had been supervising her little brothers’ homework and making scrambled eggs for dinner. Quinn remembered Trish’s mom creeping around the apartment in her sweatpants after work, looking like a weepy volunteer for an experiment in sleep deprivation.
In ninth grade, though, Trish’s mom married a real estate developer. He moved the family into a big new house with pillars. Now that Trish had landed the part she’d always meant to play, she acted it out daily in full costume. Once, Quinn teased her about her conversion to the church of Ralph Lauren. Trish had put her fingers in her ears like the manic television icon, Pee-wee Herman: “La, la, la! I can’t hear you!” The real Trish was still there, though. She was still flip, still funny, still the unflappable arbiter of cool. Sometimes Trish’s enveloping audacity was the only thing that kept Quinn from evaporating into thin air.
As Trish addressed the perma-wedgie situation caused by her new Guess jeans, Quinn washed her hands with the dispenser’s last few grains of powdered soap. She frowned. How could Trish look self-possessed even with her forearms down the back of her pants? The problem with being friends with audacious people was that it made you see your own fraudulence more clearly.
She faced her reflection as she rinsed off the non-suds left by the industrial soap. “A quiet beauty,” her dad called her. She’d rather be a loud one. Her breasts were okay, but who would know besides Jason? Her parents, especially her dad, didn’t let her wear anything tight or revealing. Quinn’s fine brown hair refused to be styled, so she wore it parted on the side. It bored her to even think about it. Trish caught her eye and, as usual, read her mind.
“If you spent some of your humongous allowance on funner clothes, you wouldn’t mind having boring hair.”
Quinn made a face at her. Trish knew why Quinn saved her spending money: her parents expected her to pay for a full semester plus books at George Washington University next year.
“Funner’s not a word,” Quinn said, probing a subterranean zit. The light-blue eyes that looked back from the mirror were her father’s and a million other Irish family members’. They smiled even when her mouth didn’t. They also kept a polite distance; even with nice breasts, no one would ever mistake her for a cheerleader.