I can’t read Taylor’s expression as I tell her all of this. And I’m still unable to bring myself to admit the worst of it, because I’m ashamed, embarrassed of what I was. Knowing it’s all still in me, under the surface. The stain that’s soaked through the carpet.
“Then my mom married Max and we moved out of the neighborhood. They sent me to a private school.” I shrug. “That got me away from Kai, for the most part. If it weren’t for that, I probably would’ve been locked up by now. Gotten into the same shit Kai started in on.”
Taylor stares at me for a long time. Silent, pensive. I don’t know I’m holding my breath until she releases hers.
“Yes,” I say out loud. “I mean, yeah, basically.”
Christ, I’m an asshole. A coward.
“Everyone comes from somewhere, Conor. We’ve all screwed up, made mistakes.” Her tone is soft, but ringing with conviction. “I don’t care who you were before. Only who you choose to be now.”
I chuckle darkly. “That’s easy for you to say, though. You’re from Cambridge.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“You can’t understand what it’s like to be dirt poor one day and dropped off at a private school in loafers and a tie the next. I hated all those pretentious fucks driving goddamn Beamers and carrying Louis Vuitton backpacks. Every day I’d get dirty looks, hassled in the halls, and I’d be thinking to myself, man, it’d be so easy to jack their car and go joyriding, or loot all their rich kid toys they just left sitting in their gym lockers. It’s why I went to a state college in California, because I was tired of not belonging.” I shake my head wryly. “Then I end up here with all these East Coast old money types, and it’s the same shit. They smell poverty every time I walk into a room.”
“That’s not true,” she insists with a bit more bite in her voice. “No one who cares about you gives a damn if you grew up rich or not. Anyone who does isn’t your friend anyway, so fuck ’em. You belong here just as much as anybody.”
I wish I could believe that. Maybe for a little while I did believe it. But Kai creeping back into my life has reminded me, whether I like it or not, who I really am.
Although it’s mid-April already, the weather hasn’t decided which season it wants to be. Leaving class for the day, it still feels like winter; everyone wrapped up in wool coats and gloves, clutching coffee cups and breathing out big plumes of white. But thanks to the clear blue sky and golden sunlight cutting through the bare branches of oak trees to warm the brown patches of grass across the Briar lawns, it’s also starting to feel a bit like spring. Which means there’s only about a month left in the semester.
Until now, that day has felt so far off. But with the Spring Gala coming up, evaluation for my co-op due, and finals to prepare for, the end of the school year is charging at me like a stampede. I suppose it all feels like a lot because the better part of my attention lately has been focused elsewhere. Namely, Conor Edwards.
We still haven’t labeled our relationship in explicit terms. I’m fine with that, though. Great, even. There’s far less pressure to meet expectations, or have them crushed, when things are kept loosely defined.
That said, I am starting to wonder where Conor sees this going. He invited me to California over the summer, but was he serious about that? And did he mean as friends, friends with benefits, or something else? Not that I’d hold it against him if he saw the end of the semester as the conclusion of our exclusive entanglement. I just wish there were a painless, non-awkward way of asking if he expects us to ride out the summer on the status quo.
Then again, I might not want to hear the answer.
On my way to the library, I get a call from my mother. It’s been a while since we spoke, so I’m happy to hear from her. “Hey there,” I answer.
“Hi, honey. Do you have a minute?”
“Yep, just got out of class. What’s up?” I take a seat on one of the wrought-iron benches lining the cobblestone path.
“I’m going to be in town Friday evening. Are you free?”
“For you, of course I am. The Thai place just reopened if—”
“Actually,” she says, and I don’t miss the note of wariness in her voice, “I already have dinner plans. I was hoping you’d join us.”
“Oh?” Mom is being unusually coy about something as benign as dinner, which gets my mind racing. “Define us.”
“I have a date, to be specific.”
“A date. With someone in Hastings?” What happened to being too busy to date?
“I’d like you to meet him.”
Is she serious? Is this serious? My mother’s always been more driven by her career and scientific pursuits than romantic relationships. Men rarely hold her interest long enough to develop an important role in her life.
“How did you meet him?” I demand.
A pause. “You sound upset.”
“I’m confused,” I tell her. “When did you have time to meet someone in Hastings? And why is this the first time I’m hearing of him?” It’s been years since Mom brought anyone around and introduced them to me; she doesn’t bother until she feels the relationship is serious. The last time she visited, she wasn’t seeing anyone—which means this is a very new, very fast development.
“After we met for lunch last month, I stopped in to visit a colleague at Briar and he introduced us.”
“So this guy’s, what, like your boyfriend now?”
She gives an awkward laugh. “Feels like such a juvenile term for someone my age, but yes, I suppose he is.”
Jesus, woman. I take my eyes off her for five minutes and she’s gone and shacked up with some townie. Or worse, a professor. What if he’s one of my professors? Eww. That feels weirdly incestuous.
“What’s his name?”
I suppose it was ridiculous to expect her to call him Professor Somethingorother. Doctor Whoeverthefuck. But Christ in a basket I never, ever envisioned Iris Marsh knocking boots with a Chad of all people. Somehow, I doubt he stacks up against a woman of my mother’s singular intellect.
“I’m still sensing some hostility,” she says, her tone cautious.
Yeah, I guess I am a little hostile to the idea that my mother’s been making clandestine trips to Hastings and hasn’t once asked to see me or even called to let me know.
A clench of hurt tightens my chest. When did I become second place? For my entire life it’s just been the two of us against the world. Now there’s a Chad.
“Just surprised,” I lie.
“I want you two to get along.” There’s a long pause, in which I hear her disappointment that this conversation isn’t going better.
She wants me to be happy for her, excited about this. She probably thought about this conversation all day, all week, worrying whether this was the right time to bring these two parts of her life together.
Her next words confirm my suspicions. “This means a lot to me, Taylor.”