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Authors: Melissa Kantor

Better Than Perfect

BOOK: Better Than Perfect
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Dedication

For Jennifer Klonsky

Epigraph

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

Contents
1

“I'm going to miss you.”

Jason's arms were around me so tightly I could barely breathe, but lack of oxygen wasn't the reason I didn't say anything. If I tried to talk I was definitely going to embarrass myself by bawling, so I just nodded.

He kissed the top of my head. “Don't think of it as being stuck at home. Think of it as a chance to study so you can kick my ass on the SATs.”

“Sure, but will my perfect score come between us?” I asked, my cheek still pressed against his chest. Jason had scored a 2380 on his SATs, just shy of a perfect 2400. Those twenty points were a sore spot with him, and if I ever wanted to get him riled up, all I had to do was get a sad look on my face, sigh, and ask what it was like to have gotten
so close
to perfection.

“I'm man enough to handle it,” he assured me.

Neither of us said anything about why I'd gotten a crap score on my June SATs, which I'd taken a week after my father broke the news to my mother that he was leaving her, just like neither of us said anything about the reason I wasn't going on a family vacation this year.

Neither of us said anything about how it's hard to go on a family vacation when you don't have a family anymore.

Since there was nothing to say, I stood on tiptoe and kissed him lightly on the lips.

“I'm going to need way more than that to get me through the next two weeks,” he said. His hands on my hips were warmer than the August afternoon, and we kissed again, harder. Jason and I had been kissing since eighth grade, when he came up to me at Max Pinto's spin-the-bottle party and asked me if I'd done the English homework.

Which is how nerds fall in love.

I heard the click of the front door, and then Jason's mom called, “Okay, you two. Jason, it's time.”

Given how often it happened, I probably shouldn't have gotten embarrassed whenever Jason's parents caught us kissing, but I did. In some ways I was more daring than Jason—I was the one who'd tried to get him to sneak a bottle of wine from his parents' wine fridge yesterday so we could drink it on our last night together—but when it came to PDA in front of his parents, he was the one who didn't care. I slipped out of
Jason's arms and turned to face his mom, my cheeks flushed.

“Sorry, Grace,” I said as Jason wrapped his arm around me and pulled me close. We fit together perfectly. There had been about six months freshman year when I was a little taller than he was, but now he was exactly the right height for me to slide under his shoulder.

“Hey, Mom. I was just telling Juliet that you changed your mind about the international phone plan and she can text me as much as she wants.”

Grace laughed and ran her fingers through her hair, which was dyed the same dirty blond that Jason's hair was naturally. “Try it and spend the rest of the year paying me back,” she said. Apparently it cost a ton to do international texting, and even though the Robinsons had plenty of money, they weren't the type of parents to give Jason and his sister whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it. While he was in France, Jason and I were going to have to email, which his mom insisted was very romantic and old-fashioned.

“Remember,” Grace added, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” She glanced at the thin gold watch on her wrist. “And . . . we've gotta go. We'll miss you, Juliet.” After my dad moved out, Grace had asked me if I wanted her to ask my parents if I could join the Robinsons on their vacation, but I'd told her I couldn't miss the end of my internship at Children United. I'd competed against kids from all over the world to get accepted, and my English teacher who'd written my
recommendation for the summer was also writing my recommendation for college. I told Grace that if he found out I'd ditched the program, he might not write my rec in the fall. My reason was a lie, but it was plausible enough that she just smiled and told me how impressed she was by my living up to my responsibilities.

Living up to your responsibilities was a big deal to Jason's mom.

I was embarrassed by how my throat got tight when she said she'd miss me, and I forced myself to give her a cheerful wave and a jaunty “bon voyage.”

She waved back. Jason's mother was always beautifully dressed, and today she wore a simple but flattering red linen dress and a pair of red-and-white strappy sandals. The whole ensemble was
très Français
. “Let's go, Jason,” she said again.

As soon as she shut the door, Jason put his arms around me. I leaned against him, trying not to see the next two weeks as a black hole I was getting sucked down into.

“You're gonna be okay,” he said quietly.

Lost in my own thoughts, I wasn't quite listening to him, which seemed to happen to me a lot lately. “It's all so weird. Like, who am I now?”

Jason stepped away from me and took my shoulders in his hands. “J, that's crazy. You're still you.”

“I don't know, J,” I said. My eyes hit Jason right at his collarbone, and I didn't lift them to his face. I tried to find the
words to explain what I was feeling. “You know that thing where you look at your hand and suddenly you're like, ‘It's so weird that that's my hand.'”

“Stop.” Jason's voice was commanding. Confident. It was his debating voice, the one that had won our team the regional championship last spring. He let go of my shoulders and lifted my chin. His dark gray eyes stared into mine as he enumerated points on his fingers. “One: you're a third-generation legacy. Two: you've got a 4.0 average. Three: you're one of ten Children United interns
in the whole world
. Four: you're going to spend every second while I'm away studying for your SATs, on which you will get a
near
-perfect score.” I hip-checked him on that. “Next year, when we're at Harvard, this will all seem like a bad dream.” When he said
Harvard
, he tapped me lightly on the nose. That was our plan: to get into Harvard early action.

Jason was our lead debater, but I was no slouch. I thought of countering his points one by one.
First: half the kids applying to Harvard are legacies. Second: there are thousands of applicants with 4.0 averages. Third: my internship has consisted of reading useless reports, summarizing them for no one, and sitting in on endless lectures delivered to nearly empty rooms. Fourth: every time I try to sit down and study for the SATs, the words just swim around on the page.

But I didn't want our last few seconds together to consist of my whining. Instead, all I said was, “Hey! Don't jinx Harvard.” I was superstitious about our acceptance, which was why, while he was wearing a white T-shirt that spelled out
HARVARD
in red letters, I'd made him remove the Harvard bumper sticker that he'd put on my Amazon wish list.

The front door opened again, and Grace stuck her head out. “Jason! In the car! Now!”

You didn't mess with Grace when she said
Now!
like that. Jason opened his arms, and I slipped into them, hugging him back as tightly as he was hugging me, hoping some of his optimism about senior year—which was only two and a half weeks away—would enter my body by osmosis.

The jerk of the garage door rising was followed by the car honking as Mark backed the Lexus into the driveway. Isabella, Jason's little sister, rolled down her window and shouted, “Bye, Juliet! Bye! We'll miss you.”

“Bye, Bella,” I called back. I'd always wished I had a little sister; Jason and I had been together since Bella was six, so sometimes it felt almost like I had one.

His dad gave me a little salute. “Take care of yourself, Juliet,” he said. Mark Robinson was always saying dad things.
Take care of yourself. Drive carefully. Do you kids need any money
? His saying that made me think of my own dad and how my mother said he was having a midlife crisis. My dad, on the other hand, said it was more complicated than that, that they'd both been unhappy for a long time. My older brother said I shouldn't even bother trying to figure out what was going on with them, that I had to focus on school because if my grades dropped first semester of senior year, I was screwed with colleges.

Apparently everybody understood and accepted what was going on with my family except me.

Jason gave me one last squeeze, and then he linked his pinky with mine. “J power,” he said, gently squeezing.

I smiled and squeezed his pinky back. “J power,” I echoed. Then he let go and headed toward the car. I stood on Jason's perfect lawn in front of Jason's perfect house and watched the car carrying his perfect family back down the driveway, and then—with Mark honking the horn good-bye—I watched it drive down the block, turn the corner, and disappear.

Pulling up into my own driveway ten minutes later, I had to admit that my house looked just as perfect as Jason's. The gardeners and the pool guy still showed up right on schedule, so it wasn't like in the movies where you know the family inside is falling apart because the grass is waist high and weeds are growing everywhere.

But as soon as I got out of the car, I could tell my mother was having a Bad Day. Exhibit A: it was a beautiful August afternoon, yet all the shades in the house were drawn. Ever since my dad had moved out, my mother had Good Days and Bad Days. On Good Days, she met friends for tennis, went for lunch, shopped. Maybe had a committee meeting.

On Bad Days, the shades stayed down. And so did she.

Bad Days were the real reason I hadn't gone to France with Jason's family.

“Mom?” I pushed open the front door. My whole life, my house had had the same smell—I'd always assumed it was some combination of my mom's perfume and this lavender-scented powder she had the housekeeper sprinkle on the rugs before she vacuumed. But now the house smelled ever so slightly different, and I'd started to wonder if what it had smelled like before hadn't been plain old happiness.

“Mom?” I called again.

I heard a faint response from the direction of my parents' bedroom. Or I guess I should say my mother's bedroom, since my dad had a new bedroom in his new apartment in Manhattan.

I walked up the stairs, passing the pale squares that lined the walls in place of the family photos that used to hang there. My mother had always been astonishingly organized. The minute there was the hint of a chill in the air, I came home to find my T-shirts replaced with sweaters, my shorts replaced with jeans, my sundresses in plastic bags at the back of my closet. So it wasn't exactly shocking that she spent the weekend after my father left removing evidence of our happy family from the walls. The surprising thing was that she hadn't already had the walls repainted and hung with replacement art.

I walked down the hallway to my mom's bedroom, my eyes on her door, forcing myself not to look at the gallery of blank squares that lined the hall. My mom's room smelled even worse than the rest of the house, as if the air in there were
thicker somehow, or maybe just unhappier. The shades were pulled so low there was barely enough light to make out her shape on the bed.

“Mom?” I asked into the darkness. And then I said it again, more sharply this time. “Mom?”

There was a rustling of sheets, and one of my mother's arms stretched up over her head. “Hi, honey,” she yawned.

“Mom, I thought you were getting up when I left.” I tried to make my voice light, as if I were joking, not mad. Then I crossed the room, snapped up the shade, and opened the window.

“What time is it?” she asked.

I looked at her bedside clock. “Almost four.”

“Sorry.” She covered her mouth and yawned again. “My back was killing me, so I took a muscle relaxant. It must have really knocked me out. Have you been home long?”

Since June, I'd watched my mom—who used to know my schedule better than I did—try to fudge her way through conversations about my life. I'd first realized what she was doing when I came home after taking my SATs and she asked me how my morning had gone, clearly having no idea where I'd been. Over the summer she'd gotten cagier. She asked open-ended questions or offered up general statements that made it seem as if she was respecting my privacy when really she had no idea how I was spending my time.

“I was at Sofia's. We spent the day shooting smack and
hacking into people's bank accounts for cash.”

“Ha-ha,” said my mom, and then she added, “How could you be a hacker? You can't even remember the alarm code.” At least she was trying to be funny. I gave her a smile. A for effort.

She shook her head and sat up against her pillows, reaching for a small bottle of pills on her bedside table. My mom had always taken medication—she had insomnia, so she sometimes took something to help her sleep. And whenever she had to do a presentation for this charity she was on the board of, she took something called a beta blocker so she wouldn't (as she put it) “sweat through my dress and then pass out.” And her back bothered her sometimes, so she had a prescription for the muscle relaxant she'd apparently taken earlier.

There had been bottles of pills in her bathroom for as long as I could remember. But now her nightstand sported a veritable pharmacy: She had drugs that were supposed to help her sleep and drugs that were supposed to help her wake up. There were drugs she was supposed to take to not feel anxious and drugs she was supposed to take to not feel sad. But no matter how many pills she took, there were still days like this one, where no matter what time I came home, she was in bed.

“So where were you really?” she asked after swallowing a small blue pill.

“Mom, you know where I was. I was saying good-bye to Jason. They're leaving for France.” I glanced at the clock again. They weren't even at the airport yet. I could throw some
clothes in a bag, hop in my car, buy a plane ticket, and be holding Jason's hand on the runway before the sun set.

My mom rubbed her forehead. “I'm sorry, honey. I'm just so . . . fuzzy.” And then she squeezed her eyes tightly as her voice broke. “I'm sorry we're not going on vacation this year.” A tear slid out from between her lids, and she bit her lip. “I'm so sorry about everything.”

BOOK: Better Than Perfect
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