Maneuvering my way through a crowd of hundreds of people heading in the opposite direction was as hard as the four miles I just swam.
The football game just ended, and as everyone celebrated another win on their walk to the parking lot, I ran against the current of spectators to where my twin brother said he would meet me after the game. Liam and I were forced to share the Camry, and my parents gave me the rights during the week because of my strict swimming schedule for the world championships in ten months. This was more of an inconvenience for Liam than it was impressive because that meant he couldn’t get the car until the weekend, and if anything infringed on his Camry time, he turned into a petulant child.
And my being late meant that he would turn into a bratty seven-year-old whose toy was taken away from him.
So I sprinted faster to avoid his wrath.
When I finally emerged from the crowd, I spotted Liam with two of his friends, Gabriel Báez and Tom Felix. All three of them tall, built, and wearing their emerald green letterman jackets: a symbol of their popularity and top spot on the high school totem pole. Liam and Tom stood with tight crossed arms, and I knew then that it didn’t matter how fast I ran through a crowd moving at a sloth’s pace, it still wasn’t fast enough for Liam. His pissed-off scowl was detailed on his face.
“There’s my favorite mermaid,” Gabriel said and flashed me the warm smile he always gave me.
“Gabriel, I just swam a bajillion miles,” I said. “Carry me to the Camry, my prince.”
“Yes, my queen.”
His six-two self squatted down to my five-nine height. Taking a deep breath of the wonderful smell of his freshly used body wash, I jumped on his back, and he caught me by the hamstrings.
“Onward!” I said with a direct point to the parking lot.
Liam and Gabriel had been best friends since kindergarten. He lived a few blocks down the street from us. Even though Liam and Gabriel were way more popular than I was, he remained the levelheaded jock who was always loyal to his longtime friends, no matter how late I was at meeting them at the stadium gates. He was my platonic boyfriend, we’d both declared sophomore year. He was the only boy I knew I would ever love.
Platonically, that is. Let’s not get too carried away now.
“Really, Quinn? Fifteen minutes late?” Liam said, breaking the moment I had with my pseudo-boyfriend. His voice was sharp and pissy.
“I’m sorry! Practice ran a little over—”
“Let me guess: Hot Lifeguard was working again?”
I hesitated. “No…”
“Okay, so we’re all late to our party because you had to talk to Hot Lifeguard?”
“Hey, I was on my way out, and she came up to me, twirling her hair and everything. I was just an innocent bystander—”
“Nice,” Gabriel said and put a fist up in the air for me to bump it. Of course, I accepted. I was proud of the progress I just made with Hot Lifeguard. She’d been working at the pool since the summer, and now it was the second week in October, and she finally had a conversation with me. While twirling her hair. A college girl was twirling her hair over me. That was an important detail. With this monumental step, I could probably find out her name by next week.
“I told Cassandra we were gonna be there with the booze at nine sharp.” Liam continued his conniption. “Now we don’t have time to drive you home.”
“I’m not going to that party if that’s what you’re trying to imply.”
No part of me wanted to go to Cassandra Jones’s house. She was the meanest girl in our class, which apparently was the only qualification you needed to become captain of the soccer team. She was especially mean to me for reasons I couldn’t even tell you, and for whatever reason, she was Liam’s upcoming homecoming date. Men and their thing for snarky girls.
“Should have sprinted faster then, Miss Olympics,” Tom said in his douchey tone.
“You should too, then; maybe you’d actually start for once,” I said.
Gabriel let out his contagious cackle that made me smile, and Tom flipped me off. Tom was Liam’s worst friend. He loved rubbing in the fact that I missed qualifying for the Olympics by three seconds any time the opportunity presented itself. Popular people loved making others feel less than they really were. That was why I couldn’t go to that party. Tom wasn’t even the worst person in Liam’s friend group. The girls’ soccer team was a whole team of Toms.
“Liam, I’m sorry,” I continued. “But I can’t go to her party. That’s basically asking to be picked on the whole night. Can you drive me home, please, and I’ll pay for gas next time? I promise.”
I hopped off Gabriel’s back and threw my swimming bag in the trunk when we reached the Camry.
“You get the car four days out of the week,” he said. “I only get the weekend, so no, I’m not gonna cater to you and ruin my time with the car. If you don’t wanna come, then go get Hot Lifeguard to drive you home. The world doesn’t revolve around you just because you’re training.”
“It will literally take you ten minutes to drop me off.”
“Nope. It’s out of the way. Not driving you home.”
“I’m not even dressed for a party. My hair is wet, and I smell like pool.”
I was also in my swimming nationals T-shirt I got from the year before, black Nike track shorts, and flip-flops. My hair was in a damp messy bun, and my skin reeked of fresh chlorine. The kids Liam associated with were all deeply rooted in Aspen Grove’s affluent suburban lifestyle of designer clothes, luxury cars, and snooty attitudes. The party would be comprised of the girls’ soccer team plus the football guys.
Like hell I was going to that party.
“I’ve been up since four thirty. I’m so tired and—”
“Sounds like a personal problem to me.”
He got in the car without giving me a chance to argue back.
Liam was either a really cool twin brother or a major douche. He was hanging out with the soccer team and his football friends way too much. It didn’t help that he was super popular, and I was that freak at school with chlorine-dried hair and skin and who dedicated all my free time to training rather than socializing with my friends like a normal high school kid. I really hated seeing my brother turn into a prick just so he could impress his friends and girls. I was always the one who got the brunt of it.
“I’ll punch anyone who gives you a hard time,” Gabriel whispered to me. “And even smelling like pool, you’ll still be the prettiest girl at the ball.”
Gabriel gave me a wink, and we both slipped into the back of the car.
It was the first time I’d ever been to Cassandra Jones’s house; I could have gone my whole life never stepping foot inside it and died a completely happy woman. But at least I finally understood why Liam and his friends were always over there. Cassandra’s parents were both doctors who worked at the hospital. Oftentimes they worked nights, and as a result, their daughter threw house parties. Poor Mr. and Mrs. Jones. As they were saving lives, their house turned into a haven for the high schoolers.
The house was gorgeous. Big. Beautiful. Open floor plan. All hardwood floors. Decorated with furniture Mrs. Jones collected from all over the world. Their precious daughter converted the mahogany dining room table into a beer pong table because “it’s the perfect length,” Gabriel said. Liam told me that the couch in the family room was made of Spanish leather. As we walked through the living room, I found the whole soccer team on that couch, decked out in their green Aspen Grove varsity soccer T-shirts with green and yellow Mardi Gras beads around their necks and school colors in different designs on their faces. Their hair and makeup were decked out even more than the school day because a weekend outing was practically like going to a gala. Each girl had a drink in her hand, and every one of them eyed me carefully as I trailed a few paces behind my brother.
They knew I didn’t belong in this house. And I agreed with them.
“What the hell is she wearing?” I’m almost positive I heard one girl whisper.
“Gabriel and Liam probably dragged her,” a second voice said.
“Right out of the pool?”
“Talk about a fish out of water,” Cassandra’s very distinct voice said.
I wanted Gabriel to hurry up with his beer so I could cling to him and hope all the banter about me would end. No one would make any comments with him right next to me because all those girls had crushes on him and would swallow their opinions about me rather than lose a chance at dating him.
But I currently had to wait for my bodyguard to finish shot-gunning his beer with seven other senior guys in the kitchen. The beer dripped down their faces and onto their shirts as the three of them chugged whole cans. A group of guys chanted like frat brothers for the three to drink faster. Gabriel was the first to finish, and a few soccer girls cheered for him from the fancy leather couch. Complete suck-ups.
Watching all those guys attempt to be masculine by chugging crappy Bud Light was the most unappealing thing my eyes had seen in a while. And then Tom let out a loud belch, and that was a done deal. Sold to Aspen Grove High’s tight end who didn’t know the difference between there,their, and they’re. Tom’s whole being won the award for the most unappealing thing my eyes had ever seen. The amount of disgust I felt was strong enough to probably clear my skin for the rest of senior year.
I never felt gayer until that exact moment.
“Quinn, let’s play beer pong,” Gabriel said, attempting to give me his heartwarming, dark brown puppy eyes for extra convincing. “You and Liam versus me and Tom. Show this loser how athletic you are and pulverize him to a pulp.”
“I don’t think the athletic skills I have contribute that much to beer pong.”
“Yeah, Quinn!” Liam said. “One game. I always wanted to dominate beer pong with my twin.”
“Why should I be your partner when you threw a hissy fit a half hour ago? You don’t even care that your homecoming date is out to get me.”
He waved her off as if her bark was worse than her bite, but he didn’t even hear the comments she’d already made. “She won’t bother you.”
“If I play, then we leave in an hour. Sharp. All debts paid.”
He groaned. “Fine! If it gets you to shut up about it.”
“Wow, you’re seriously going to have a beer?” Gabriel said, suddenly even more excited. “Damn! This is, like, the first time I’ve ever seen you drink.”
“Two summers ago, she puked in Lana Banner’s pool,” Liam said.
I slapped him hard on the arm, and he let out a yelp. “I didn’t puke in her pool. I puked in her bushes, and that was the first and only time I’ve been drunk, and it was because I was mourning the fact that I missed the Olympics.”
“I’m still excited for this,” Gabriel said, “and honored I get to be a part of it.”
As Liam and Tom set up the red Solo cups on the table, I already regretted the alcohol I had yet to consume. Two years ago, as a fifteen-year-old, I made it to the finals of the Olympic trials in the 200-meter and the 400-meter freestyle. I took sixth place and eighth place, respectively. Only the top two advanced to the Olympics. I was absolutely heartbroken I’d come so close and then missed the games by three seconds. It felt like a breakup. I sulked for two weeks in my room, refused to watch any of the London Olympics, and cried, bitched, then cried some more.
Then it hit me, I wasn’t accomplishing anything during those two weeks I pitied myself. If anything, the more I stayed in bed, the more out of shape I became. So, by the end of the London Olympics, I came up with a plan. I had to go all in and exert all the time, energy, and dedication in order to accomplish my dream. That meant sacrificing parts of my social life: being the one friend in the group who missed a lot of the weekend hangouts, especially in the summer. I needed to really give it my all and let nothing get in the way because in order for me to make it to the Olympics, I’m pretty sure there was a quota for blood, sweat, and tears. It seemed to work because the following summer—right after sophomore year—I went to my first ever world championships in Barcelona, placing seventh overall in my 400-free. Just a month and a half ago, I was in Australia, finishing fourth in my 200-free at the Pan Pacific Games, and now, I was all in for winning my first medal at the world champs in Russia in ten months.
So, that meant anything that would get me arrested or mess me up physically, emotionally, or mentally was absolutely forbidden. No high impact activities. No getting into any serious relationships with a girl (but a fling or a quick hookup with Hot Lifeguard was completely okay). And that meant no drinking.
But I was stuck in the house of a girl who hated my guts, I got weird stares and whispers from the whole soccer team, and I was going to humiliate myself by playing beer pong for the first time ever with all the popular kids who could make it to the Beer Pong Olympics.
Yup. I needed a beer. Just one beer.
I quickly learned that if you sucked at beer pong, you didn’t just have one beer, and you didn’t just casually sip on it. Liam and I lost the game in ten minutes because we sucked that badly. Tom and Gabriel made at least one cup each round. Liam had about a 30 percent conversion rate, and I hit the rim every time and didn’t make a single cup. Insert many failed Olympic jokes and many butt sex jokes by Tom and a few spectators. I was supposed to drink three of those cups, per the rules of beer pong, but I only drank one and gave Liam the other two. Someone had to drive, right? Maybe I can use this moment of irresponsibility as a reason to get the car next week for homecoming. Liam didn’t seem to mind at all about drinking my beers, but Tom sure did. He called me vanilla, which garnered a few laughs from the people watching us, specifically Cassandra.
“If you’re not even gonna drink, then go away so others can play,” she said to me but directed it at her friends.
She was lucky I never aimed the ping-pong ball at her face.
After the game and all the mocking, I took that as my cue to just leave the scene altogether and find the bathroom and hide there until midnight. The first-floor bathroom door was closed, but light seeped through the crack into the long, quiet hallway. I expected someone to say they were in there when I knocked on the door. But just like I hoped for, I heard nothing but silence. So, I opened the door, eager just to sit, pee out all the beer, and play on my phone to pass some time alone. But when I flung the door open, I discovered Kennedy Reed resting her back against the wall, sitting with her knees tucked into her chest next to the toilet. Her dark green soccer shirt enhanced her bright green eyes, and green and yellow paint faintly colored her pale face and triangle-shaped jaw. Through her glazed eyes, she looked right at me, giving me a look as if I was the monster who’d haunted her nightmares.
And maybe I was because Kennedy Reed used to haunt mine.
I slammed the door shut.
She was a stranger who knew everything about me. Yet we hadn’t looked each other in the eye in four years. Until that moment in Cassandra Jones’s bathroom.
Once my heart went back to normal beating speed, I slowly opened the door. A burning pain in my stomach intensified when I noticed her giving me the same shocked look back. I couldn’t tell you why I was so surprised to see her. In the back of my mind, I knew she would be at the party since she was the goalie for the soccer team. Maybe I was more shocked because she actually looked me straight in the eyes.
“Are, uh, are you all right?” I said while trying to swallow the lump that rapidly grew in my throat.
All the memories we shared—some we wished we’d forgotten—sucked up all the moisture in my mouth. But I really had to pee, and she was the only thing preventing me from doing that, so I had to fight through the lump to get her out of there.
Her eyes drifted off me to the tops of her knees. “Yeah, um, I’m fine. I think,” Kennedy said softly.
“Okay, because I need to pee really badly.”
The second she got out of the bathroom, I ran in, locked the door, and peed out the whole beer pong game. Right as I pulled out my phone to distract myself from the party, there was a knock on the door.
“I think I need to go back in there,” Kennedy said on the other side.
I could hear another round of vomit brewing inside her.
An annoyed sigh seeped out of me as I pulled up my pants to acquiesce to her urgent needs. Right as I stepped out of the bathroom, she swept by me so quickly, I couldn’t even catch sight of her face before the door shut.
Just go back to the party, I thought, my heart still rapidly pounding. You don’t owe her anything.
Except I did the exact opposite of what my brain told me to do. I fetched her some cold water instead. She kind of needed the help. Any kind of help, really. Her friends didn’t seem to notice she’d been missing for quite some time, ever since I got to the party at least. Which wasn’t a surprise because most of her friends were assholes.
So, I got her that cup of water.
I knocked on the door, and seconds later, Kennedy opened it. She flinched at the sight of me again. I guess I was still the same monster she saw minutes before.
“Water?” I said, flaunting the red Solo cup in my hand.
I couldn’t be a monster if I had cold water for a drunk girl, right?
Still without meeting my eyes, she snatched the cup and chugged it as if she hadn’t had water in three days.
“You sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said sharply.
Disengage. She’s grown an attitude.
And on that note, I left.
“Quinn! Quinn, take this beer. We’re playing Never Have I Ever,” Liam said in his excited drunk voice when I pushed myself into the circle. He handed me a red cup filled with Bud Light.
The party now took the shape of a circle. Everyone had both hands raised. Some had more fingers up than the others. Liam only had six, Tom had four, and Gabriel had five. I was so curious to find out what they’d done to knock down those fingers. I knew Liam would tell me when he decided to be cool again.
“No, Liam, I wanna go—”
“Kennedy! There you are,” Cassandra said when her best friend squeezed into the circle. Although Kennedy’s face was still pale with very little remaining of the face paint, her face radiated beauty. Her defined jawline and her beautiful ash-brown hair. Even after throwing up, she was the most beautiful girl at the party—hell, she was the most beautiful girl at Aspen Grove High School.
You can’t think she’s pretty. She doesn’t even like you enough to acknowledge you.
I could only dream of looking that beautiful after puking up alcohol. Could that be a new life goal?
She sipped on the water I gave her and avoided eye contact with me. Even though I could tell by the way she tried too hard to pretend as if I wasn’t directly across the circle from her, I knew that her peripherals focused all on me. Because I did the same thing, and I could feel our awkwardness toward each other dancing around in the empty space between us.
“Ten fingers up,” Cassandra demanded. “Now, say something you’ve never done. I wanna prove to Tom and Gabriel that I canwin a game.”
Cassandra only had three fingers left. Kennedy let out a sigh and put ten fingers up. Her friends cheered as if the game was about to get a million times more interesting, as if they already knew all the apparently crazy things Kennedy Reed was ready to reveal.
“Never have I ever cheated on a test,” she said.
Yeah, so worth the dramatic buildup, I thought with an eye roll.
Cassandra slapped her best friend on the arm and put down a finger like every single person in the circle. She was now down to two fingers.
“That was a waste of a turn,” Cassandra said. “You were supposed to help me out.”
“Well, maybe you should stop cheating,” Kennedy said.
“Quinn, your turn,” Liam said with a nudge to the arm. “Noobs gotta catch up.”
The whole party stared at me as if I had a third eye in the middle of my forehead. Everyone except for Kennedy, who looked down at her cup as if a bug had fallen into it, and she was watching it swim.
“Never have I ever,” I said and studied the faces in the circle. I knew plenty of things to knock out almost half the party. Liam: never have I ever wet the bed after I was eight. Gabriel: never have I ever gotten a boner in gym class. Cassandra Jones: never have I ever hooked up in the school elevator. Melanie Krugel: never have I ever puked in a pool…during a raging pool party. Jennifer Stewart: never have I ever had a crush on a teacher who was over forty. Tom: never have I ever lied about having sex when I really was a virgin.
And then there was Kennedy Reed. But her secret was one I’d done. It’s just that nobody at the party knew about it. If she could barely look me in the eye, then I knew for a fact her new friends didn’t know about this secret at all.
Since she had just puked up her small intestine, I decided not to target her, and there was no way I would target Liam or Gabriel so that meant…
“Oh my God, just say something,” Cassandra whined. “It’s really not that hard.”
Okay, well, that solves my problem.
“Never have I ever hooked up in the school elevator,” I said.
The majority of the party laughed in shock. I hated admitting it, but having those people smirking because of my calling out a not-so-friendly girl did make me feel good. Mean girls deserved karma.
Then, just as quickly as I became popular for four seconds, I went back down on the totem pole of high school popularity.
“Never have I ever kissed anyone of the same sex!”
Just as a few people dropped their mouths in excitement of possible drama, I rolled my eyes because of course someone like Cassandra Jones said this.
Being straight didn’t define straight people. Why did being gay define me? Some people clung so tightly to the fact that I was gay more than the fact I was going to the world championships. And why did people have to describe me as their “gay friend” instead of just “friend”? No, cousin Sabrina, my being gay has nothing to do with the story you’re telling your friends about the time we flushed Aunt Karen’s cigarettes down the toilet when we were fourteen. So, stop starting the story with, “So, my gay cousin and I…”
And now, Cassandra Jones tried using that gay label as the jab to end all jabs because apparently, if you couldn’t find a clever insult, just use the trump card of someone’s non-heterosexuality.
Well, too bad it didn’t work for her…because it was 20Gayteen, and she was a moron.
“Yeah, okay, nice one,” I said. “And the sky is blue, and the grass is green. Glad we’re going around naming the obvious. Nice try, though.”
Liam and Gabriel cackled beside me, their glances and laughs directed at Cassandra. And just like that, her proud smirk washed away. I came out the year before. I had a girlfriend since then that I took to my junior year homecoming. Literally everyone at school knew I was a lesbian, so it was like shouting to the world that Gabriel was Puerto Rican and Liam had a twin sister, expecting a huge reaction as if those two truths uncovered the most dramatic plot twist.
Nice try, Cassandra. You even failed at what you do best: being Regina George.
But what pissed me off a lot more than Cassandra’s failed attempt at an insult was when I found that Kennedy’s eyes lost interest in the invisible bug in her cup and found their way to me, finally willing to acknowledge my presence in her circle of fellow, top tier, Aspen Grove totem pole people. All ten of her fingers were up with no plans on moving.
Now I was pissed.
And then the blood began to boil inside me.
“Oh, okay, fine then,” Cassandra said to me, this time with a more threatening scowl on her face. “Never have I ever dreamed of going to the Olympics and then failed at it.”
And there you have it. Cassandra Jones won. Even if Tom was the only one who was gutsy enough to laugh, she still managed to find a way to break me down into nothing.
Everyone else either pretended as if she didn’t say that by looking away (like Kennedy) or stared at me, eager to hear my second comeback. I really hoped my brother was going to be my savior in this conversation, knowing how much getting so close to the Olympic team devastated me. Knowing how much I worked to get to the Olympic trials only to miss it by three seconds. But he didn’t say anything. He just took a sip of his beer to fill the silence. I wondered if it was because he was going to homecoming with her next weekend and didn’t want to ruin his chances of getting laid. I really didn’t know.
I could have started crying at that point, but I wasn’t going to let Cassandra get that satisfaction.
“She made it to the finals of the Olympic trials,” Gabriel said with a sharp crease in his dark eyebrows. God, I loved that guy so much. “She’s been to the world championships. All over the sports section of the newspapers, traveled the world to swim. Where has soccer gotten you? To Buffalo for a state semifinal? Congratulations.”
Every girl that comprised the Aspen Grove High School girls’ soccer team directed their snooty glares at Gabriel. For the first time in that house, my back straightened, and I felt the most confident I’d probably ever feel around that group.
“Well, thanks for insulting all of us, Gabe,” Melanie Krugel said, still in peak glare.
I had a million other things I could have said to Cassandra to knock down her last finger, but it didn’t really matter at that point. I was already berated in front of all the popular kids. Some laughed at me, others—like my twin brother—just stood there silently. But even given my humiliation and Cassandra’s ever growing sneer, I refused to let myself get all the way down to her pathetic level.
“I’m leaving,” I told Liam and Gabriel and then snatched the Camry keys out of Liam’s back pocket. “I think you lost these rights for a while.”
“Yeah, please do,” Cassandra said. “Go back in the pool and train for something you’ll never achieve.”
“Okay, Cassie, we get it. Lay off,” Liam said harshly. “I’ll come with you, Quinn.”
“Me too,” Gabriel said, wrapping his arm around me as he guided me to the front door. He was always protecting me.
I got a glimpse into the world of the popular kids. Nothing about that party made me want to stay. It was a galaxy I hoped I never had to visit again.
I used to dread school dances. For starters, it just gave Liam and me another reason to break into a fight about who was worthy enough to have the Camry. Liam usually won because he always found a date. But since Liam was taking Cassandra to the dance, and the Wicked Witch of Aspen Grove got a BMW for her eighteenth birthday, I won the Camry by default. Because obviously, a brand-spanking-new silver BMW coupe was way better than a 2008 navy blue Toyota Camry. So, at least I got the car one out of the four homecomings.
Another reason why I used to dread school dances was because I felt pressured to go with a boy when all I wanted was to go with a girl. For three homecomings, I got anxiety about asking the girl who I really wanted to go with. It really wasn’t until my senior year, this very homecoming, where I felt 100 percent confident with having a girl as my date.
Freshman year was the first year I actually had an interest in a school dance. Partially because all my friends found dates and seemed enthusiastic about going. Partially because I knew that was what I needed to do to enhance my high school experience. And partially because I liked Lana Banner. She was my first actual girl crush—the kind of crush that made you excited to learn about amoebas and mitosis in biology because she was your lab partner. I passed her plenty of notes in class containing flirty sentences, hearts, and winky faces, and she passed them back to me. During labs, she would get really close to me, and every time she did, the hairs rose on the back of my neck. When we dissected our first animal, I was so grossed out and traumatized because I was forced to slice open a dead baby pig because the Department of Education said it would be instrumental to my education. But since her parents were surgeons, Lana was used to blood, knives, and carving out organs at an early age; her soft, gentle hands assisted mine. She made me want to dissect dead baby pigs every day just so I could touch her.
Our fingers laced over the scalpel was the farthest we ever got. Why? Because we weren’t out. The gay gods paired two closeted lesbians together, and I ended up going to the dance with Gabriel. My mom was so excited because she thought that I found my first boyfriend. She really wanted us to date, so clearly, I didn’t think it through enough because it just convinced my mom that I was into Gabriel. Sure, he was the most attractive boy I’d ever seen, but he really wasn’t my type.
Sophomore year, my heart was over Lana and all about Meghan Merritt, a freshman in my gym class. She was out, and I was still about five months from telling Liam. Meghan was this edgy freshman filled with confidence; she wore awesome neon blue Converse and had funky, layered brown hair. She had amazing gaydar because she noticed me a few days into gym class when everyone swarmed around me to find out what the Olympic trials were really like (even our gym teacher). Meghan came up and asked me—very matter-of-fact—why everyone kept talking about me.
“Oh, the Olympics were this year?” she said, completely serious, then proceeded to offer me the second cup of water in her hand. “Sorry, I don’t really do the sports.”
She went out of her way to hand me unsolicited cups of water with a wink every day. One out girl meant that yes, things could possibly happen. And they did a few weeks into school; after numerous water cup exchanges, we found each other going to the bathroom at the same time during gym class. She proposed that we make out in the shower with the curtain shut. The showers hadn’t been used since, like, the 1970s, so we thought we would give them purpose again. She was my first real kiss—with tongue, passion, fingers underneath shirts, and pure teenage lust. She made first-period gym class thrilling the same way Lana Banner made freshman-year biology exciting.
Meghan wanted to go to homecoming with me, but I was still too afraid and deep in my anxiety about my sexuality sophomore year. Meghan was a year younger than me and already had so much more confidence in herself and her sexuality. I mean, the next year, she fully embraced her gender fluidity by chopping off her shoulder-length brown hair for a bleached blond pixie cut, and she was a million times happier when she shed the femininity that she didn’t want. She was that confident in letting the world know she was gay and gender fluid, and I envied that part of her so much. I felt so bad I couldn’t match her standards.
So, no homecoming dates for both of us that year. Just a large friend group.
Junior year homecoming was the first dance where I was out to my parents and friends, and I asked a girl on my swim team, Riley Scott, to be my date. I got a handful of our swim team friends to wear colored latex caps with a different letter from “Homecoming?” written in permanent marker on each cap. Instant yes and success. A few months after homecoming, I asked her to be my girlfriend. We dated for five months, then I broke up with her that May. She was so loving, affectionate, and nice. Maybe too much for me. I knew it wasn’t a really good reason to end things with her, but sometimes, I felt as if she smothered me when I needed space. Lots of space. But we remained friends. At the beginning of our senior year, we made a pact that if we didn’t like anyone at the time of homecoming, we would just go together.
So, there we were: homecoming dates for the second year in a row. It was the first time I didn’t walk into the dance wearing a huge boulder of anxiety on me like a freakin’ corsage. I’d been out for a full year, never happier with myself, and I was actually excited about going to the dance. It also helped that I was going with Riley and our awesome queer friend group, the only ones out at Aspen Grove High School. Lana Banner and Meghan Merritt had been going strong for seven months, and they were adorable together. And then there were Tanner Hayes and Erick Iglesias. All the girls thought Tanner was cute, and all the football players thought Tanner was this laid-back, amazing quarterback, then all those swooning girls became disappointed girls when they learned Tanner was 100 percent gay and dating Erick Iglesias, one of the most talented musicians at school. Erick was the best show choir singer, he played five different instruments, and I could always rely on him to update me on the current rage on Broadway. The two were total opposites but had been dating for a year.
The best thing about my friend group was that we were drama free, with the exception of complaining about the lack of Britney Spears songs at dances. Like, what was that even about? Even when Riley and I broke up at the end of junior year and had a few awkward weeks of dealing with it during the summer, there was hardly any drama at all. Unlike other groups, like Liam’s. He made it sound as if they all starred in a daytime soap.
“Just one Britney song,” Erick said. “That’s all I’m asking.”
“Patience, love,” Tanner said.
“Screw it. Who wants to go bug the DJ to play her Circussongs?”
“I’ll come with you!” Lana said.
“Babe, request ‘Womanizer’ for me, please!” Meghan begged.
Lana gave her girlfriend an air-kiss, and she and Erick skipped along, holding hands through the crowd.
I would have gone with them, but there was just something about the night that made me want to be with Riley. I guess school dances sparked magic in the air. And that magic meant Riley. I’d been waiting for the right time to tell her how pretty she looked. She always looked good in emerald green. Riley could have worn whatever she wanted, and she still would have looked good. She had a great smile, straight white teeth, and she would always brag how she never had braces, so her teeth were just naturally perfect. Big, chestnut eyes; straight, dirty blond hair a few shades lighter than mine that fell to the top of her breasts, and she knew how to wear a snapback and ripped-knee jeans that just screamed “cool, hot, gay chick.” It was also a major plus that she was the only one in school who seemed to pick up longboarding in the summers rather than obsessing over skiing or snowboarding in the winters. The whole package was a done deal for me.
We danced closely. Her hands wrapped around my waist and shoulders multiple times that night, and I did the same. The more we danced, the more I wanted her. The more I thought about kissing her. The more I needed to kiss her.
My thighs were starting to hurt from all the swimming I’d done at practice the night before and from all the dancing I’d just done on the dance floor. So, I suggested we take a breather and get fresh air, hoping no Britney song played while we were gone.
We ran up the stairs to the parking lot, holding hands and pulling each other along. We burst through the doors, and the fall air immediately stuck to our clammy skin. I pulled Riley into me and finally kissed her like I had been wanting to ever since she stepped through my front door in that emerald green dress. My lips were filled with lust, nothing more. It was homecoming. The magic tricked me into thinking I wanted Riley back—but just for the night. Or maybe more. Maybe I did want her back. I didn’t really know. I also didn’t really care at that moment when our lips were locked because our lips were locked, and that was all that really mattered to me.
She pushed me into the brick wall of the building and continued to kiss me as the cool air dried our sweaty skin. Kissing her brought those five months we dated back. My hands grabbed hold of her clammy face as her body pinned me to the brick building. Her tongue slipped into my mouth, and she made me squeak out the softest moan, and when I grabbed more of her iron-curled hair in my fist, she did the same.
But after a few moments, I sensed that we weren’t alone, not the only ones who needed fresh air. I pulled away and turned in the direction I felt the presence.
And there she was.
Hiding in the shadows.
From the annoyed look she gave us, I had a feeling she’d watched our whole kissing progression from start to finish. But once we both directed our attention to her, she turned back to the phone that lit up her face. She was in a black and gold-laced knee-length dress, her hair pinned into a low updo bun, and I could tell by how her shoulders curled forward that she had been outside long enough for the air to sprout goose bumps on her skin.
If she looked beautiful five minutes after she threw up, I’m not sure what words I could have used other than “wow” followed by a few moments of speechlessness. I always thought she was really pretty. But now? It was the kind of beauty that caught in your stomach. Seeing her in that dress and how gorgeous she looked really overshadowed the memories I had of her missing her two front teeth, her hair in pigtails, and oversized overalls. Kennedy Reed really grew up. She was so freaking beautiful.
“Quinn?” Riley said, snapping me right out of Kennedy’s spell.
“Wanna go back in? Or maybe drive somewhere?”
“Let’s drive somewhere,” I said. I couldn’t have Kennedy distracting me. Nope, wasn’t in the mood to go there tonight. “The music sucks. They haven’t even played any Circussongs. Where are the throwbacks?”
She raised her hand, biting her lip. God, I needed to go somewhere so I could make up for the five months it had been since I kissed her.
“We could play some nineties slow jams while we, uh, well, you know…” she suggested.
“Yes, please! But my parents are home.”
“Yeah, well, my parents don’t know we dated, so we can claim my room as ours.”
Riley was really smart. She only told her dad that she was gay and not her mom. She was an only child, and since her parents struggled to get pregnant with her, her mom’s next goal in life was to have lots of grandchildren. She would have been heartbroken to find out Riley wasn’t going to find herself a lawyer, doctor, or CEO husband who would give her all the grandkids who would share the same genes as her. Even though Mr. Scott knew his daughter liked girls, Riley was also smart enough to know if she told her dad (and especially her mom) that she dated me, we would never be able to be alone together. With the door closed.
We were just the most perfect gal pals, they thought. And that was the only time we wanted people to believe we were “just friends and nothing more.”
“I still can’t believe they have no idea,” I said.
“I’m going to enjoy it as long as I can. Gotta take advantage of my parents not knowing about us, right? So, to my room?”
“Should we just leave?”
Riley looked up at the sky for an answer. “Yes. This can’t wait. I’ll text the group. I’m sure they’ll understand.”
This was true. They all had been pushing for us to get back together ever since we broke up. They would be celebrating if they knew we were bailing on them to hook up.
Right as I fished for my keys in her clutch purse, I turned back to check Kennedy. That was when I saw her looking straight at me. My stomach flipped. And her eyes quickly flicked back to her phone.
“Come on,” I said, grabbing Riley’s hand. No part of me wanted to be in Kennedy’s presence. “Let’s get out of here.”
When we walked into the Scott house, the smell of freshly popped popcorn overwhelmed our noses. In the family room, Mr. and Mrs. Scott bundled underneath a blanket with a large bowl of popcorn, watching Game of Thrones. The Scotts were huge Game of Thronesfans for various reasons. Mr. Scott liked all the war and gore. Mrs. Scott liked watching for all the family dynamics. And Riley liked watching it because she was in love with Daenerys and spent way too much free time reading Daenerys lesbian fan fiction online.
Riley quickly let go of my hand that she’d held all the way from my car to halfway inside her kitchen. Her parents turned with intrigued smiles. Her mom paused the TV.
“Oh, you two are home early,” she said. “We weren’t expecting you for another two hours or so.”
“Oh, yeah, Quinn’s really sore from all that swimming,” Riley said and gave me a sly nudge on the arm to play the part.
I relaxed my right leg. “Oh yeah, Leanne had me doing almost eight thousand yards yesterday. My hamstrings are killing me.”
“So, we were just going to rest up and watch Buffy.”
“Oh, okay then. Quinn, you need some ibuprofen or something?”
“No, I’m okay. Thank you, though.”
“Would you girls like some popcorn for your show?” Mr. Scott asked.
“Nah. We’re still full from dinner. Maybe later.”
She continued through the kitchen to the stairs. When we were out of her parents’ sight, she grabbed my hand, and we bolted up the steps. Once she locked the door, I pushed her onto her bed, crawled on top of her, and kissed her exactly the way I thought about for the whole night. I hadn’t kissed anyone since her, so my lips were ravenous, to say the least.
We made out for what seemed to be forever, then decided why the hell not have sex. Afterward, we dove into our normal routine of late-night, deep conversations, and I vented about how much I couldn’t wait to go to Berkeley, to ditch the East Coast and relax on the West Coast, hoping to get a full ride scholarship and maybe be fast enough to medal in Russia at the world championships. But then I began to doubt myself because the Olympic trials still haunted me on my vulnerable nights.
The worst part about swimming was that you could work so hard that you had no effort left, and you could still lose by something as small as one hundredth of a second.
“Oh my God, Quinn,” Riley said with a slight laugh; her arms wrapped around my naked body pulled me closer to hers. “You’re only seventeen, and you’ve already done so much.”
“Yeah, like failed to medal in anything.”
“Oh my gosh, your life is so hard. Woe is you.”
I playfully slapped her in the stomach. She grunted. “Shut up,” I said.
“You were so close to medaling this summer. Your time will come. I mean, you gave up Swensons fried chicken sandwiches, for crying out loud. You better medal next summer.”
“And what if I don’t?”
“Well, if you keep playing this ‘oh my God, I’m never gonna do anything and boo-hoo the Olympic trials,’ you’re not gonna do anything. How about saying ‘hey, fuckers like Cassandra Jones, I made it to the finals of the Olympic trials when I was fifteen, and then went to the world championships when I was sixteen while you tried passing your driver’s ed classes, and then I was on the cover of Swimming Worldmagazine when I was seventeen, and now I’m the number one recruit for Division One swimming. Take that.’” She raised both middle fingers.
I laughed and shoved her middle fingers back down. “Okay, I sounded like an asshole.”
“But I get why you’re scared.”
“I know, but I just don’t wanna waste all this time training for something I’ll never experience. What if I fail? What if I always get so close to qualifying or medaling, and I just become a flop? God, what if I have to stay in New York for the rest of my life?”
“Well, one, you’re not gonna be a flop. You gave up fried chicken sandwiches and swim every hour you’re awake for a reason. Two, despite just insulting me because I like New York, I’ll still allow you to sleep in my bed when I live in the city.”
“Can you give me free Broadway tickets as a party favor?”
“Just as long as you admit you think it’s hot that I’m going to turn into a weird art student.”
I rolled my eyes and let out a long, overly dramatic sigh. “Fine! I’ll admit it’s going to be really sexy when you turn into a weird NYU art student. You’ll have paint all over you, and your hair is always going to be messy.”
If her longboarding hobby intrigued me, the fact that she wanted to be a stage designer intrigued me even more. Who wanted to major in design for stage and film at NYU? Riley. Because she was Riley. She was so unusual in the best possible ways.
Just as I slowly leaned in to kiss her again, I heard my phone ringing faintly, buried underneath our dresses scattered on the floor of Riley’s bedroom. I wanted to ignore it. It was two o’clock in the morning, and Riley and I were having one of our good, deep conversations again. We could have talked about grass blades and would somehow end up discussing it for four hours. I really missed our six-hour conversations about everything and anything and nothing.
But something told me to answer my phone. I thought, what if there was an emergency, and I didn’t pick it up just so I could make out with my ex-girlfriend; I would live my life forever in extreme guilt.
“One second,” I told her and searched for my phone on the floor. Once I found it underneath my dress, I saw it was Liam. Then I had this awful feeling something was wrong. I couldn’t tell if it was our twin instinct or just my two-in-the-morning paranoia.
Either way, I picked up. I wasn’t going to risk it.
“Hey, are you all right?” I said.
“Quinn? Hi, I’m fine. Are you busy?”
The tone of his voice didn’t sound at all urgent. If anything, the words stuck together like glue. My heart slowed down when I realized it was just a drunk call.
“Um, a little.”
“Could you pick me up, pretty pretty please?”
Clearly, I must have misheard him. The one weekend night I won the car, he wanted me to stop what I was doing to pick him up when he didn’t have the time or energy to drop me off a week before so I could avoid Cassandra’s party?
“Because I’m drunk and wanna go home.”
“Can’t you just crash at whatever house you’re at?”
“I’m at Cassie’s, and no, I don’t wanna stay at her house. She’s drunk and crying.”
“Why is she crying?”
“Because Tom and Gabriel broke her mom’s vase she got from Madrid, and she’s freaking out about it.”
“Well, stay and help her clean up. You’d be such a gentleman.”
“Quinn, it will only take, like, twenty minutes, and then you can go back to Riley.”
“Remember that time it would have only taken you ten minutes to drop me off after the football game, but you dragged me to Cassandra’s only for her to call me out on missing the Olympics to everyone, and then you literally stood there and did nothing to stop it?”
“I’m busy. I’m enjoying my night out. Have someone else take you home or call an Uber.”
“Or you pick me up now, and I promise you can have the car every weekend until the New Year.”
Okay, that was a game changer and quite the offer. He must have really wanted to leave if he just offered me the car every weekend for the next two and a half months.
“God, how miserable are you right now?” I said.
“Miserable. I’m tired and wanna go home.”
“I’ll be there in ten.” I hung up the phone and glanced at Riley, who looked equally annoyed. “I need to borrow some of your clothes.”
“Seriously? You’re picking him up?”
“He offered me the car for the rest of the year. I’m taking it. Clothes?” She pointed to her dresser. “I’m so sorry. Maybe we can do something next weekend to make up for it?”
She rolled her eyes. “Sure. Fine.”
After I stole a clean T-shirt, sweatpants, and flip-flops from her, I gave her a kiss on the lips and quickly ran out of her house.
When I pulled into Cassandra’s neighborhood of McMansions, I spotted the cars of all the partygoers parked strategically and sporadically throughout the neighborhood, trying to be discreet from nosey neighbors. Pulling up into her driveway, I couldn’t even tell there was underage drinking, sex, and drugs going on inside her ritzy house. Just a few lights were on but no blaring music, no red Solo cups in the front yard, and no stumbling high schoolers. Nothing like how they portrayed high school parties in movies and TV shows. Cassandra was a pro at the high-school-party-when-the-parents-were-out-of-town-slash-working thing. I expected nothing less.
When Liam stumbled out of Cassandra’s house, he wasn’t alone. Kennedy walked behind him, a little less wobbly than he was. His black tie was in his hand, and his dress shirt was unbuttoned at the top button and slightly wrinkled. Kennedy was out of her black and gold dress and wore jeans and her green soccer hoodie, her updo unraveled down to her chest in messy, loose curls. Both of them definitely looked like people usually did at two thirty in the morning. Drunk, forced to sober up, and up to no good.
Don’t ask me to drive Kennedy home. Don’t ask me to drive her home.
“Could we drive Kennedy home too?” he said as he opened the passenger door. “She’s on the way.”
He really didn’t give me an option to say no.
“Sure.” Crap. “Gabe doesn’t need a ride home?”
“Nah, he’s too wrapped up with Melanie.”
Gabriel and Melanie went together. As much as I thought Gabriel could find himself a better girl, at least he was finding success with his crush. It just sucked he couldn’t save me from the awkwardness shoved into the Camry.
Liam motioned Kennedy into the back seat and even opened the door for her. When both of them hopped in, they brought the stench of all the alcohol they’d devoured. With them combined, it smelled like Bud Light, coconut rum, Jäger, and Smirnoff. The air thickened in the car as Kennedy settled into her seat right behind the passenger’s side. I partially hated myself for watching her get in the back through the rearview mirror, but I couldn’t control my curiosity. Even in a hoodie, she looked so beautiful. I was also a sucker for the femme tomboy look, so her hair, makeup, and hoodie grabbed my attention when I didn’t think it ever would, and I hated the feeling that erupted in my stomach any time I saw a pretty girl. And apparently, Kennedy was no different. My stomach was traitorous. And then her eyes found mine in the mirror. When we made eye contact, the feelings in my stomach rushed full speed to my chest. My eyes darted back to Cassandra’s house in front of me, and I started the car.
Enough of that.
“Ah, look at you,” Liam said with a teasing smirk on his face. “An NYU T-shirt? Are you wearing Riley’s clothes?”
As I backed out of the driveway, Kennedy and I made quick eye contact yet again before I immediately faced the front and put the car in drive.
“You owe me so much right now,” I said to Liam.
“Oh, you’re in your ex-girlfriend’s clothes on homecoming night. Something happened! Did you hook up? Did you? Did you?”
“I don’t sleep and tell.”
He let out a laugh and smacked me playfully on the arm. “How did I know that was gonna happen? So, does that mean you two are getting back together?”
“I can’t have fun for one night just for the sake of having fun?”
“Of course you can. Just remember why you broke up with her. Don’t want her to latch on to you again.”
“I know. I think we’re good, though. Hopefully.”
“You should probably talk to her.”
I grunted. How about we didn’t acknowledge it just in case the thought hadn’t run through her mind?
“So, did you hook up with Cassandra?” I asked.
He scoffed. “Hell no. She was drunk the whole time. I didn’t even know she was hiding a flask in her boobs until halfway through the dance. Does she always do that, Ken?”
Ken. Her family called her that all the time when she was younger. Ken or Kenny. I used to call her Kenny way back when. She called me Quincy, an ode to my first name and middle initial C. Now, I don’t even remember the last time I said her name out loud, and I didn’t even know Liam was close enough with her to get away with calling her Ken.
His head turned around the passenger seat to check on her. I glimpsed back too. She was curled up on the door, huddled into herself. I figured she was cold, and as much resentment I held towards her, I still cranked up the heat just a little to make sure it got back there if that was the case. Her face was long, and her gaze watched the passing tree line outside the window. Clearly, both of us were uncomfortable by how close we were to each other. If I wasn’t driving, I’d probably look the same as her.
“Hey, you all right?” Liam said. “You got really quiet all of a sudden.”
Kennedy’s eyes fell on mine first, and then immediately darted to Liam’s. Mine snapped back to the dark road ahead, and I turned on my brights to make sure I didn’t hit any animals. I should have been paying better attention to the road than a pretty girl in a hoodie in my back seat—I mean, I should have been paying better attention to the road than Kennedy Reed.
“Yeah, uh, I’m fine. Just, uh, just tired,” she answered.
I recognized that voice, and if Liam knew her as well as I used to, he would have known something was eating away at her mind. She only tripped over her words when she was worried about something or feeling guilty. Guess that part of her still lived inside her seventeen-year-old body.
“It’s a left up here,” Liam said. “This one. The one with the red door.”
She can’t even direct me to her house. That’s so pathetic.
Her house sat modestly in the darkness with one giant oak tree in the front. No lights were on except for the garage lights to help guide her home.
“Good night. Sleep tight,” Liam said as I parked the car. Kennedy wasted no time opening the door to escape, as if that was all she could think about doing the whole ride. I wondered if it was because the thick air between us weighed down on her lungs like it did for me. Or maybe she needed to throw up again. Who knew?
“Good night,” she said to Liam, grabbing hold of his shoulder, then releasing it. He smiled. I rolled my eyes. “And thanks for driving me home, Quinn.”
Something about how she said my name in a reticent voice did something to my stomach. Again. Because my stomach didn’t get the memo that we didn’t do backflips for Kennedy Reed. No sir. Kennedy Reed was not in the same category as Hot Lifeguard, Lana Banner, Meghan Merritt, Riley Scott, Kristen Stewart, Demi Lovato, Lexa fromThe 100, and Alex Vause from Orange Is the New Black.
Even though I secretly knew she was.
But when she said my name, my stomach sank—or maybe it burned a little. I wasn’t sure if the feeling was from the guilt of whatever I did to her that made her hate me or if it was a sign that I loved hearing her say my name.
Life was freakin’ confusing.
“Not a problem. Bye,” I said, quicker than I intended.
I needed her to leave so the butterflies on steroids in my stomach went back into hibernation. You come out for Hot Lifeguard, not for Kennedy Reed, you morons.
She closed the door and headed into her dark house. I wasted no time backing out of her driveway.
“Wow, that was cold,” Liam said.
“The way you answered her. She thanked you, and you were all, ‘bitch, bye!’”
“I’ll hug her next time. Say everything between us is squashed now.”
“You’re still not over that?”
“Really, Liam? It’s not something you just get over.”
“I think it is.”
“You don’t even know half of it.”
“Then tell me so I can understand.”
I couldn’t tell him the other half. It was too…complicated. I didn’t even know what it meant. Apparently something, though, if she felt the need to ignore me all this time.
“Look,” I continued, “just know that she hurt me. Pretty badly. It’s not something I can just forget about. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“And she did?”
“It’s not my story to tell.”
“And it’s hers?”
Yes, it was.
Meghan Merritt was my first actual kiss. One that lasted more than just a three-second peck. But technically, she wasn’t my first kiss. That title belonged to someone else.
That someone else went by the name of Kennedy Reed: one of the most popular girls in school, co-captain of the soccer team, and the girl who all the guys wanted to date and all the girls wanted to look like. She was the one who initiated that three-second peck on her porch when we were thirteen. It was her story to tell.
As much as we both wanted to just forget about it.