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Authors: David Yoon

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chapter 4
just bad enough

I don’t really like calculus.

But Calculus class? That’s a different story.

Calculus class takes place at the ungodly hour of seven o’clock, before the rest of humanity is even conscious. It’s unreasonable. Mr. Soft knows this. That’s why he has a box of coffee ready, and a dozen donuts, two for each of us.

Mr. Soft has the lights dimmed. He has quiet jazz playing on a sweet vintage boombox. Mr. Soft is one of the gentlest human beings I know.

Mr. Soft’s full name is Berry Soft.

“You want a little something special this morning, Frank?” says Mr. Berry Soft, very softly. “I brought my espresso machine today. More than happy to make you a cappuccino.”

Our desks are arranged in a rough circle, with Mr. Soft tailor-sitting atop a stool, his glowing face underlit by an antique overhead projector literally from the year 1969 that he
likes to draw on with wet-erase pens. No laptops, no phones. Just concepts and principles and longhand problem solving.

“Just look for the stuff in common between the nominators and denominators,” says Mr. Soft, drawing by hand. “See what cancels out. Chop chop, flip these guys here, chop, and we’re left with the answer.”

“What is the answer?” says Brit Means, who sits next to me.

“I mean, it’s thirteen over five,” says Mr. Soft. “But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is the process.”

Brit Means glows in the light of his wisdom. “The process,” she says. Then I realize she is nodding at me through narrowed eyes. I nod back without quite knowing what we’re nodding about.

Like most of the other Apey boys, I find Brit Means a little weird and a little intense, and can’t help but be fascinated by her. She walks the halls like a time traveler noticing small differences created by minute shifts in quantum chaos. She can sometimes seem like a beautiful foreign exchange student from a country no one’s ever seen.

Once, I found myself sharing the shade of a tree with her on a hot day just after school. I was waiting for Q; she was waiting for her ride home.

“Most human structures are made out of wood,” she said to the tree. “Wood is trees is plants. Human clothes are cotton: plants again. We live in nature every day without realizing it. We live
inside
plants.”

“Huh,” I said, secretly marveling at a sudden acute impulse to kiss her.

Back in Calculus, Q passes the box of donuts around. Brit leans over to choose one, drawing close enough for me to smell the shampoo in her wet hair.

Next to her sit Amelie Shim, Naima Gupta, and Paul Olmo, always in that order.

“So I’m supposed to give you turkeys a test for the suits,” says Mr. Soft. “What questions do you want on it?”

We all think. It’s so early.

“Just email me, okay?” says Mr. Soft. He’s so soothing. “You’re all getting As anyway. I hate this grading bullshit.” Even his swears are soothing.

“Thanks, Mr. Soft,” says Q.

“We all know we’re doing the work here, right?”

We have an assignment to calculate the volume of solids formed by rotating area formulas around axes. Nothing too crazy. But Mr. Soft wants to make things interesting by having us sketch the resulting volumes on paper, in charcoal, by hand.

“To really get a sense of how the volumes feel,” he says.

It’s a pair assignment. Paul Olmo leans over to Q and whispers something. Q nods.

“Me and Paul are gonna do our volumes in clay,” Q announces.

“Nerds,” I say.

Q just looks at me like
So?

It’s Paul’s turn with Q, since I got to partner with him for the last assignment. We rotate among us three to ensure equal friend time. Before I can wonder who I should pair up with, Brit Means speaks.

“Frank, will you be my partner?”

“Thanks you,” I find myself saying.

Thanks you?

The bell rings. I see Q looking perhaps as astonished as me—Brit always partners with Amelie—and he offers me a covert fist bump. I naturally mistake the fist bump for a high five, and the whole thing becomes this strange gearshift pantomime: the awkward greeting ritual of male nerds everywhere.

•   •   •

Playa Mesa is a giant pyramid-shaped peninsula set at the edge of the Pacific; Brit Means’s house is on the side opposite from mine on that pyramid.

We sit at her hulking dining table and start our assignment. Brit’s mom designed the table; Brit’s dad built it. Atop the table sit garlic pita chips in a wooden bowl, which Brit’s dad carved himself. The table sits in the bulb of a large, curvaceous kitchen, which Brit’s mom designed and Brit’s dad built. Brit’s parents are architects. They habitually design and build stuff—big, ornate, well-constructed stuff—like no big deal.

In walk her mom-n-dad, in matching hoodie sweats, matching lambskin slippers, holding matching mugs of tea. They are of identical small stature and seem to have come from the same lat and long within Europe many stout generations ago, and remind me of kindly druids from a video game I used to play.

“We’ll be upstairs,” says Brit’s mom, and then she smiles
this tilted corny smile. It’s the same tilted corny smile my mom gave to me and Joy at the last Gathering.

What is happening?

“Nice to meet you, Frank,” says Brit’s dad.

They vanish upstairs in unison.

Brit and I sit alone.

Brit regards me for a moment, like you would a favorite painting in a museum, and speaks suddenly: “You take the odd ones, I’ll take the evens.”

She means the assignment. She tucks her hair behind her ear and flicks her Zeichner Profi 5.0 mm mechanical pencil, effortlessly performing Around-the-Worlds, Weaves, See-Saws, regular Sassys, and Ultra Sassys.

More like Ultra Sexys.

I try to eat my lower lip. Then I remember the first Rule of Being a Person: no auto-cannibalism. I eat a garlic pita chip instead. So does Brit. We compulsively reach for more, munching and munching, and of course our hands touch in the bowl. We both draw back as if the chips are electrified.

“Sorry,” she says.

“Me too,” I say.

“Huh?” says Brit.

“I don’t know,” I say.

For some reason, this makes Brit smile this smile that says:
But I do.

“Wanna get through this stuff?” she says.

“Right,” I say.

Solving the problems is the easy part. It’s the sketching
that takes time. Brit plays some music on her phone, but then switches to a proper wireless speaker.

“I hate listening on tiny speakers,” she says, seconds before I can, and my heart does a triple jump.

Once I recover, I get started on the work. I sketch small—less surface area to cover—and finish fast. Brit picks up on my tactic and sketches small, too. Our pencil leads scritch and scratch. She elbows me.

“You’re such a cheater.”

“I’m still doing the assignment,” I say. “I’m just being efficient about it.”

“Done,” she says.

We retract our leads and set our pencils down.

“Yours look good,” I say.

“Yours look good too,” she says, gazing at me.

Dear lord Flying Spaghetti Monster in Pastafarian heaven. I think Brit Means is flirting with me.

“What do you wanna do now?” I say.

“I don’t know, what do you want to do?”

She sits closer. Now is the moment in the teen movie where I sweep the homework to the floor and kiss her. But like I said, my kissing track record is exactly one item long, and was an accident.

I’m pretty sure Brit’s kissing track record is as short as mine. But she must be ready. Right? Why else would she be sitting so close? Is that how this works?

I have no idea how anything works. I have no idea what is happening. I stare back into her eternal ancient gray eyes
looking all ancient and gray and eternal into mine and find that they are also inscrutable. I could be totally wrong. It could be that Brit’s just the strange type of girl who likes to sit close and stare and say nothing.

“Forgot my glasses,” says a voice, and we look up just in time to see Brit’s dad’s hoodie vanishing around a corner.

“Let’s go outside,” says Brit, suddenly standing. “There’s something I want to show you.”

•   •   •

We step out into a night full of crickets on loop. Like most of Playa Vista, there is only one streetlamp for miles. Outside that single icy cone of light is the pure impenetrable darkness of the new moon sky, with only the stars and the glint of many parked cars visible.

“What’s with all the cars?” I say.

“Someone’s having a big house party. I’m pretty sure it’s Armenian independence day.” Brit hops and crouches, inspecting the cars. She moves like a long-haired imp.

“Look,” she says, and cracks open one of the cars.

“Brit,” I say, laughing.

“They’re never locked,” she says, opening it farther. “I find it so revealing about people’s biases. People just assume certain things about certain neighborhoods. They wouldn’t leave their doors unlocked like this over in Delgado Beach.”

“Well, Playa Mesa is freakishly safe, after all.”

“If we did a study, we would find a correlation between unlocked cars and neighborhood income levels, I bet you a million bucks.”

“Ha ha,” I say, but stop short. Because to my horror, Brit has ducked her head inside the car and is now emerging with a tin of mints. She pops one in her mouth. She tosses me a mint, too.

“Have one,” she says.

“You’re insane,” I say, and laugh, and look around.

But I eat the mint.

Brit carefully closes the door, then latches it shut with a bump of her hip. “People keep the artifacts of their lives in their cars. Makes me feel like an archaeologist. A carchaeologist.”

“We’re gonna get busted.”

“Frankly, Frank Li, you’re being paranoid,” says Brit, with mock sass. “Anyway, even if we do get busted all I have to do is be all,
Oh-em-gee, I’m so drunk, anyway you should really lock your car, bye!

Brit has switched to California Valley Girl Patois with no effort, and it makes me twitch a little.

In Language class Ms. Chit would called this
code switching
. It’s like switching accents, but at a more micro level.

The idea is that you don’t speak the same way with your friends (California English Casual) that you do with a teacher (California English Formal), or a girl (California English Singsong), or your immigrant parents (California English Exasperated). You change how you talk to best adapt to whoever you’re talking to. But it’s not just about adaptation, as Ms. Chit explained. People can code switch to confuse others, express dominance or submission, or disguise themselves.

I’ve always thought I’m pretty good at code switching. But
the way Brit does it is true mastery. It’s like watching her become a different person entirely. It makes me wonder what other codes she can speak.

“This one . . . No, there’s a blinking light on the dash,” she says. “This one, maybe.”

She pops the door open: “Aha.”

“I am jacking cars with Brit Means,” I say.

“Tell me, though: is it jacking if they’re unlocked?” she says.

“How long has this been a hobby of yours?”

“Only a couple months. I’ve found alcohol, cash, just cash lying out in the open. An old instant camera. It’s crazy.”

“Wait, are you keeping this stuff?”

Brit unearths something. “Look. High-fidelity compact discs. Who listens to CDs?”

She flings one at me and I fumble to catch it like a Frisbee. It’s all in Armenian.

“Dude, put this back,” I say. I wipe the disc clean of my fingerprints, just in case the FBI gets called to investigate, and start to fling it back to her when she quickly hits the car’s lock button and slams the door shut.

“Too late,” she says, giggling. “You’re stuck with that.”

“I already said you’re insane, right?” I say, and slip the disc into my back pocket.

“And to answer your question, no, I don’t take the stuff. I just redistribute it to other cars.”

“That’s hilarious. It’s like a metaphor for something.”

“For what?”

I think for a moment. Metaphor not incoming.

Is this bad? Sure. It’s just a little bad. To be sure, it’s nothing compared with what other kids are doing, like failing out or getting pregnant or arrested or, in the case of Deckland Ayers, drunk-racing his brand-new Q2S sport coupe into a pole and failing out in the most permanent and tragic way.

But for Apeys, it’s just bad enough.

And I love it.

“Hey, a minivan,” I say. “A trove of treasures.”

The minivan is the same as Q’s mom’s, so I know it has sliding doors on both sides. I guide Brit to the minivan’s shadow, quell her sputtering giggles by squashing her cheeks with both hands, and then try the handle with practiced familiarity.

Click, whoosh.

Inside the van are toddler seats and stuffed animals and spilled puffed crackers and so on. I guide her in and can feel every sinew of the small of her back with my open hand. And together, we slowly slide the door shut behind us. The silence is absolute and ringing. I can hear her every breath. I can hear the brush of her fingertips on my shorts.

“It smells kinda good in here,” she says.

And it does, because here we are, crushing toasted Os beneath our knees. Releasing their stale aroma. The space we are in is small and new and secret, and no one else in the world knows about it because no one else in the world is here but us two.

Brit is waiting. Brit is
nervous
. As nervous as me.

I find our mutual nervousness strangely comforting. It makes something in my heart loosen its grip and let go.

I pull her in and our mouths fit perfectly.

This is really happening to me. I am kissing Brit Means.

And, I realize, this is really happening to Brit Means, too.

Has she been planning this? How long has she liked me? To think, we’ve been friends all through high school, and this—this kiss—has been waiting in plain sight the whole time.

“Hi,” I say, breathing.

“Hi,” she says.

Her gray eyes are dilated wide to see in the night. We kiss deeper this time, and I don’t care that she can now taste the garlic pita in my mouth because I can now taste it in hers, too. The silence focuses in. Every shift in our bodies crushing another piece of toasted cereal. The fierce breathing through nostrils flared wide. It takes me forever to realize the dome light has come on.

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