I know Carla getting up to dance with Bea Nabarro has nothing to do with us.
There they are. Carla Kaminski. Beatriz Nabarro. A flailing approximation of some dance everybody’s been copying off social. Which, by the way, is all prom is. Approximations. Flailing. My dress tighter and pinker, the back dizzyingly lower, than anything I’ve ever worn. And the DJ’s pumping his fist and the music hurts my teeth and carrying these cups across the gym without getting splattered has sweat pooling under my pits, but somehow every song that’s played since we arrived has been okay--verging on tolerable. And I actually kind of love sweating. I love this dress.
Funny how high triumph can fling you.
Back at our table, I flop sideways into Henry’s lap, sloshing punch all over us.
“Jillian!” Henry squawks. Light strobing off the dance floor catches the edge of his enormous tortoiseshell glasses. His dad’s. That’s why they don’t fit. “I’m on the hook for excessive damage.” He smooths his vest, one of several components that apparently make up a tux, our decision to attend prom so last-minute that we got stuck with whatever the mildewy shop on Booker had left over. Ergo, his bow tie isn’t quite the same pink as my dress. More bronchial. And off by just the teeniest bit of a centimeter? I plunk our cups down to adjust it for him, and he smiles. The first Henry smile I’ve seen all night. “Thanks. How red does this stuff taste?”
“Hmm . . .” I tip a drop over the soggy paper rim and smack my lips. “Gory.” Henry laughs.
Scooting lower, I rest my head on his and survey the prom committee’s efforts. Unlike the seniors, who get everything--prom at a fancy hotel in Albany with glittery fish tanks, a lobby practically shrink-wrapped in gold leaf--juniors have festivities confined to the gym. Our school’s cathedral to forced teamwork has been transformed with sloughs of blue streamers and lights so billowy that you almost can’t see the hairs shellacked into the floor. Could be worse. This is Elmerville, after all. Upstate New York. If not for prom, we’d be celebrating at Applebee’s.
I nudge him. He’s blinking into his punch.
“To our emergence from the flames of essay hell,” I say. Henry toasts like he kisses. Fly-by gentleness that makes every part of me blush.
No need for Carla whatsoever.
Henry sets his cup on the table, which isn’t ours, just abandoned enough to feel like it, strewn with plasticky aquamarine plates and anonymous tux jackets, the tablecloth splotched with grease from the buffet we missed because Henry wasn’t ready when he said he’d be. Nested on a nearby chair are a minimum of five pastel purses, each large enough to conceal a single tampon or vape pen. Henry sinks against me. I rest my chin in his dark hair.
“You like this song, don’t you?” I bellow over the relentlessly pulsing dubstep. He grunts. My eyes skip over the dance floor behind him.
Carla is tall. Not extremely so, but storky enough that I could pick her out if I had to. Then there’s her hair. When she and Bea reeled past me at the punch bowl, I noticed she’d changed it again. Buzzed part of one side so her curls zigged spectacularly, her own personal fireworks show as she danced.
Henry would deem it all pretty ridiculous.
He’d say, And you care about them because . . . ?
But I don’t care.
Not about Carla’s new hair or Bea’s hand enfolding hers. The way Carla’s dress has wrinkled in the back, like lines on a pillowcase.
“What time is it?” Henry shouts.
“Um”--I check my phone--“just after nine.” Prom ends at eleven. My dad said to call if we wanted out earlier, but . . . “Why? Do you want to go already?”
He shakes his head, like I don’t know what he’s thinking. Of course we don’t need prom.
It doesn’t need us.
But our junior year also wasn’t like everybody else’s. A barrage of mentor check-ins and short essays and deadlines so torturous they surpassed even our academic pain thresholds. That’s what it takes, Henry kept saying. Every time I sobbed over my laptop, ground my nails into my sides, and howled, his reminder echoed through me. What it takes, what it takes . . . Because, let’s be real, the Lucille M. Purdy Memorial Scholarship isn’t just the most prestigious and coveted scholarship in New York State. This scholarship awards ten students of exceptional merit up to $85,000 for tuition and school-related expenses. More money than my parents make in one year, combined. So much money that when I think about it, light pulses behind my eyes.
Because $85,000 means more than tuition. For Henry and me, $85,000 buys our only opportunity to attend the same school: Oneida Polytechnic Institute, the top in-state university for video game design. We’ve been gnawing our way toward this moment, haunting the Purdy Scholar subreddit for application strategies, since we were thirteen. Practically infants. Since submitting our applications last night, I haven’t stopped grinning. So, contrary to every other social instinct in our possession, prom isn’t pointless. Just this once. It’s not pointless, after the year we’ve had, to want to dance with my boyfriend, my face in his neck for the slow songs. They’ve played two already.
My chin’s planted in Henry’s hair. It takes a second to realize he’s on his phone.
“Hey.” I grind my butt bones into him. “You okay?” South Korea is a million hours ahead of New York. Texts from his dad come at inconvenient times.
“It’s not . . . shit.” The tux jacket Henry slung across the back of his chair starts to slide, and as he lunges after it, I decide the pink on his bow tie is so jarringly not like mine that we maybe should’ve gone with the second option the shop owner showed us. “Not my dad,” Henry goes on. He glances toward the DJ booth, likely calculating whether the number of writhing bodies violates the gym’s 310-person occupancy limit. “It’s Yuna.”
“Yuna?” Henry’s achingly cool older half sister, who lives with their dad in Daegu. Or, as Henry refers to her, Preferred Spawn. “You never talk to-- Wait. Is that why you’re in such a shitty mood?” His eyes widen, like the perfectly obvious also pains him. I slap his phone onto the tablecloth. “Okay, no, not tonight. We agreed. No bullshit, no drama. We’re celebrating. And”--I dip my head toward the dance floor--“if talking about Purdy’s too risky, can you at least rejoice in the fact that we’re not Carla and Bea right now?”
Henry’s brow scrunches, his dress shirt damp where I’m gripping his shoulder. “What do you mean?”
I’m dripping with sweat myself, thanks to my punch bowl expedition. Shrugging, I splay my fingers through the sopping ends of my curls.
So much for not mentioning her.
“Just that they’re back together.” I try to swallow. It never helps. “Or seem like they are. I give them, mmm . . . forty-eight hours before they’re fighting publicly.” I expect a smirk, one of Henry’s seismic eye rolls, but the crease in his forehead only deepens. “Henry.” I sandwich his face between my hands. A must for imparting emphasis. I trash-compact those glorious cheeks together until his lips bunch, and then I boom, “APPLICATIONS ARE DONE. WE CAN ENJOY OUR LIVES AGAIN!” As he twists away, angling for a glimpse of Elmerville High’s most reliably combustible couple, I drop my chin back to his hair.
The dance floor glows like a wish, and Bea has Carla backed into a subwoofer, their mouths zippered together. Carla’s hair hangs lank over both their faces. A color you can’t quite call blond. She breaks the kiss, laughing, and I see her pink tongue.
“Oh,” Henry says. “Oh, yup, I see. I’m going to go ahead and give this”--he consults the watch he doesn’t wear--“twenty-four hours. Based on current conditions, forty-eight is looking generous.”
“Twelve,” I whisper.
He gasps. “Brutal.”
A fist pushes up into my throat.
It’s cooler outside, the sidewalk littered with tree sperm and kids pretending to smoke. Mr. Nett, who was undoubtedly born to teach freshmen racket sports, threatens detention even though the sidewalk isn’t school property, as Annabel Western promptly reminds him. Then Preston Kline shouts, “This is a high school, Nett-o, not a fascist state!” which gets a big OOOOOOHHHHH. Henry steers me through the melee, toward a set of concrete steps where, incredibly, nobody’s barfed yet.
“Thanks,” I get out.
We sit, and his lips brush my ear.
“I suck,” he says.
“Don’t apologize. I’m the one who needed air--”
“No, you were right. We deserve to actually have fun for once, and I’m ruining our good time, but it’s . . . it’s just that . . .” He looks at me, his Adam’s apple jerking. “Aren’t you even a little scared?”
“Scared?” I laugh. “Of what?”
He tugs his bottom lip for, like, a minute.
Theoretically I could tell him, I’ve been so stressed for so long that not having pressure feels like pressure. I could confess to accidentally microwaving my Golden Grahams again this morning, obsessing over a thousand fatal misinterpretations of an application tip we’d picked off Reddit.
“I’m not scared,” I say.
He leans his head on my shoulder, and I wrap my arms around him, inhale his sweaty hair. “Summer,” he murmurs.
“Soon.” That’s why the air smells like tulips.
“Yeah.” His fingers sneak back to his lip. “But . . .”
I get it. If high school were a video game, this would be the part where we eject the disc and never touch it again, standard protocol when we’re one level away from beating the whole thing. Henry struggles with endings. I squeeze his arm, and we watch the gym doors across the street. Music thumps gently.
He hasn’t asked why I suddenly had to get out of the gym so badly. I don’t know what I’ll say if he does.
“Next time,” he says, turning toward me so I can make out the murk of his glasses lenses, smudged by what I’m certain is my nose grease, “when you start hauling ass for the exit, a warning might be nice? Otherwise, I endorse this change in scenery. You’re not the only one who wanted a break.”
He says that last part under his breath, the way he apologized when we picked him up, his hair wet and bow tie flapping, so hopelessly jumbled my dad had to stop taking pictures to help him fix it. Now I almost don’t notice when the music pulsing from the gym thins out, gets soft and drippy. Slow dance number three. Before I can suggest going back inside, the doors thwack open and Carla slips out, towing Bea behind her. They hop onto the brick wall ringing the entrance no more than one hundred fifty feet away from us. Carla giggles, her dress hiked up to reveal disco ball Converse. Bea pinches Carla’s thigh.
“The Call,” I say.
Henry snaps upright.
“Is that what you’re worried--”
He clamps a hand over my mouth. “Don’t!”
“I was only--”
“Shhh!” His eyes bulge.
Every applicant knows The Call is merely a formality. An invitation by the Purdy people to some final-round “interview” to prove you’re as impressive in their crosshairs as you are on paper. According to the subreddit, every student who receives The Call ultimately gets selected. Every. Single. One. I didn’t bring it up to jinx us. Just the opposite.
The surest thing I could pull into the light.
Now Bea’s whispering in Carla’s ear. Her contact with Carla’s body has transitioned from a pinch to stroking a spot on her thigh best described as inner, and the moment I see that, my body--from forehead to kneecaps, my cheeks squeezed against Henry’s palm--goes molten. I pull back. But Henry noticed.
“Um,” he says, “you’re staring at Kaminski and Beatriz . . . ?”
Henry squints at me through his plastic lenses, convincing nobody that he can actually see out of them. I fight the urge to look away. “Oh-kay, then.” His fingers tiptoe over my kneecap. It’s stubbly. But there’s this thing Henry does when he touches me. The parts I miss shaving don’t feel like misses at all.
At least, they didn’t used to.
The breeze picks up, crueler and colder than it has any right to be, given that it’s practically June. Neither of us makes any move to go back inside. I stare at the concrete steps, forcing my head as vacant and cool as the moonlight spilling over them.
He exhales. “Anyway, we can’t talk about The Call.”
“Right,” I say. “Totally. That’s fine.” Superstition is Henry’s most infuriating stress reflex. Some are Korean--like eating sticky foods before tests--but just this week he lost it over a cracked mirror. On his mom’s car. That he didn’t even break. I sat on him in the ShopRite parking lot until he stopped hyperventilating. “I mean, maybe that’s not the kind of energy we want to be beaming into the universe yet. On a scale of one to ten, ten being the most certain we’ve ever been about anything, we’re what now, do you think? A solid nine? So once we do get the—” He bites my collarbone. “Ow! Jesus! I wasn’t going to say it!”
And I’m not jealous of Bea Nabarro. Bea--pronounced bee for no reason other than to make you mess it up. A girl who live-streamed herself piercing her own tongue with a sewing needle and has worn the same tattered jacket with DYKE patched onto the back since ninth grade. Coincidentally, as long as she and Carla have dated. Or their tortured equivalent of dating: breaking up and screaming while obstructing, like, an entire row of lockers every other week. Besides mumbling, Excuse me, sorry, I just need to . . . , I only know Carla from occasionally smiling at her at the rock-climbing gym Henry and I go to.
Now she’s pressed so close to Bea they could kiss again if they wanted. My throat narrows.
I need to think of something else.
But that’s exactly my problem.
There’s no thought that won’t end with Carla’s hands in my hair, her breath on my cheek.
I pluck Henry’s hand from my knee and spread it over my face, reveling in his smothery boy warmth that smells like a basketball, even though he hasn’t touched one in ages. This is the only way to clear my mind. The only way to-- “Wait.” His phone is in his lap. The case, textured to resemble redwood, only makes it look more fake. I hover the screen at him so his face will unlock it. “You’re sure there wasn’t--”
“Jillian!” He snatches his phone back. “I literally just looked, and besides, it’s ten p.m. on a random Friday in May. Why would Purdy contact us now?”
Copyright © 2023 by Jennifer Nissley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.