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Authors: Kate le Vann

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BOOK: Things I Know About Love
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“Right then, what’s the harm? Just give him a go,” Saira said.

I didn’t want to give him
anything
. I was quite happy without boyfriend trouble. Saira promised not to talk to Scott about me and, although I couldn’t meet Darren’s eye again for weeks, it all went quiet.

Then we went to Amy Thurgood’s Valentine’s party. All my friends were dancing, but I was feeling quite tired, so I went to the “chill-out room,” which was basically a little dining room separated from the kitchen by hinged frosted-glass doors. With a shock I realized Darren was sitting in there on his own, reading a Terry Pratchett novel. I couldn’t just turn around and walk out again, even though I was embarrassed. So I sat down and went through my bag for a bit of lipstick and powder, and said the first thing that came into my head, which was, “That music’s loud, isn’t it?” Great. Really cool, Grandma.

“Yeah,” Darren said. “Not so loud in here, though.”

“Right,” I said. “It’s a bit quieter in here.” I asked him about his book. We talked a bit about what had gone on in school that week, and I remember I just got this feeling, all of a sudden, like a crazy feeling, sort of,
This is the moment where your life changes. You’re going to have your first kiss now
, and then I realized that for something to happen, I had to get from my side of the room to Darren’s side without making a fool of myself. By then, the crazy
This is the moment
feeling was making my heart start pumping like mad.

“You wanna go back in and dance?” Darren asked.

“No, I’m all right here,” I said. “What about you?”

“I’m all right here,” he said, and for a second it flashed through my head that Saira had got it wrong and he was hoping I’d leave him alone. He sort of slid off his chair and sat on the floor, and I did the same, and we were both sitting on the carpet, with our backs against opposite walls, looking at each other through dining table legs. Sometimes one of us leaned to one side so we could see each other better, and sometimes we leaned at the same time, so the table legs were still in the way, which was quite funny. My heart still wouldn’t give it a rest; it kept pumping too much blood into my cheeks. Whenever I put my hand on them, my hand was cold and clammy and my face was hot, which meant
red
. You’ll know this if you’re ginger—when your face is red, red isn’t the word. Your skin is nuclear powered.

I had to get over to Darren’s side of the table, but I couldn’t think of how to do it. I started threading my fingers through the deep carpet pile. It was the same sort of pattern as our tabby cat.

It was Saira who made the move for both of us. She came in and checked us out and gave me a little knowing look.

“Er, you’ve got to see this, Liv,” she said, waving a padded photograph album. “It’s Amy in a ballet outfit. It’s classic.”

The picture was funny and quite mean, and Darren and I moved close to Saira to look at it and we all laughed. Then Saira said she had to show it to Pritti, too, and off she went. Darren and I were now on the same side of the table. He just leaned in for the kiss; he didn’t try to talk his way into it.

I’ve heard you never forget your first kiss. This is how mine went: Darren moved his tongue in a circle around the inside of my mouth, a move I would later hear friends describe as a “washing machine” but at the time I thought it was how everyone kissed and I didn’t know whether I was supposed to do the same to him. A weird thing happened: my heart went from very fast to slow, and it was like all my thoughts were a bag of marbles that had dropped on a wooden floor, shooting out in all directions then slowing down and coming to nothing—a mix of embarrassment and politeness and
boredom.
Suddenly all I could do was think, not feel.
Do I not like kissing?
I remember thinking.
Or do I not like kissing
Darren
?

At that moment, Amy’s mum came downstairs and we could hear her in the living room telling everyone that the party was ending
now
and we could all call our parents if they weren’t already on their way. It turned out someone had brought some beer and Amy’s mum, who’d been sitting upstairs watching telly with Amy’s dad, had come down for a quick check and found one of the cans. Darren and I had to walk back in to join the rest of the party. I remember we were holding hands, because there didn’t really seem to be a choice. Saira was grinning at me and at that precise moment I felt good. Better than good. I was one of the girls who kissed boys now. I was on the team. He asked me for my e-mail address, and I wrote it on the inside of a cupcake wrapper and stuffed it into his hand as we went out to Saira’s dad’s car. By the time I got home, Darren had already sent me an e-mail asking if we could go out, and I e-mailed back to say I would really like that.

For our first date we went to see a film on Saturday afternoon. When the lights went out totally and the film started, he took hold of my hand, and we held hands with our fingers locked, and I realized my hand was getting really sweaty. I unlocked my fingers, just
slid
the hand out, and pretended I was doing my hair but really I was trying to wipe the hand-sweat off. Then he wanted to hold my hand
again,
and I was thinking,
For God’s sake,
why?
Can you not feel the hand-sweat? Do you think it’s normal that
you and I
are making this much hand-sweat together?
We didn’t go any further in the cinema. Afterwards, he took me to a café that only served potatoes. So we ate potatoes—you know, with fillings—and talked about the film, and I realized that I’d made a terrible mistake. I didn’t fancy Darren and I knew I didn’t want to snog him again. But I didn’t know how the date was going to end and how I’d get away. While we were walking back towards the town center, I saw my bus was coming up to a nearby stop, and I said, “Listen the film went on longer than I thought I’ve
really
got to get home oh there’s my bus bye!” and just legged it. Later, I e-mailed him this:

Hi Darren. Thanks for the film. And the spud! Listen, I’m not really that into going out with people at the moment. I’ve got loads of work to do for my flute exam and I just don’t think I’m going to have the time to go out that much. I had a really nice time today, but I think we probably shouldn’t go out with each other.

Thanks a lot. L x

“And the spud!” Yeah, that’s cool, Livia. He e-mailed me back:
Have I done something wrong?

Me:
No, of course not! Am just really busy.

Him:
Can we just meet up tomorrow? I’d really like another chance to talk to you.

Me:
Well, I just don’t think there’s any point, you know? It’s really stupid, but I really am swamped with work and have to practice my flute and stuff.

I still have the e-mails: I’m cutting and pasting from my old Hotmail account. And even though I’ve promised to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I think the e-mail reporting can stop there, because it didn’t get any better. Basically, I didn’t realize how angry Darren was going to be and was too stupid to predict what would happen. The next week at school, by the time I got in, everyone was laughing at me and calling me frigid—Jeez, I was still
thirteen
!—because I’d only kissed Darren once, “on the cheek.” He said it was on the cheek, but when he’d kissed me it was definitely
not
on the cheek. There was tongue, there was washing-machine action, and there was the unmistakable taste of smoky bacon crisps. But I’d been knocked flat by this, well, teasing
is
the word, but it feels more like assassination. Boys I hated were quoting bits of my e-mail at me, and pretending to ask me out and then saying, “I know your flute is very important to you, but you can practice on
my
flute anytime,” and then laughing, doing like, you know, dirty jokes. I just wanted to leave school and never come back.

Later, you wonder how it is that he’s the one being rejected and you’re the one being laughed at. It’s a clever trick—I wish I could do it. Anyway, let’s see what we’ve learned.

Things I know about love.

1. Nothing that happens between two people is guaranteed to be private.

july 21

It’s about
—gah, the math is difficult because my laptop is still on British time—five a.m., and, naturally, I can’t sleep. It’s 10:13 a.m. at home. I’m starving. But I can hardly bounce into my brother’s room, wake him up, and ask him to point me towards the Frosties.

Who cares? I’m here! In the United States of America! Jeff was at the airport waiting for me, holding up a jokey little sign that said
STOWE
on it, like one of the airport chauffeurs. Then we had about an hour’s drive from the airport—he’d borrowed a car from a friend; loads of American students have cars—and everything just looked so
American.
We went past shops with neon signs saying
DRUGSTORE
and
LIQUOR STORE
, and the traffic lights dangled from cables, and, of course, we were driving on the wrong side of the road. We turned off the main motorway and started to head towards Jeff’s flat, when a giant sandy-colored dog ran across the road, right in front of us. I screamed and Jeff banged on the brakes. He said it was actually a small deer, that they sometimes did that, but they hardly ever got hit.

When you leave the big roads, which are lined with scary giant warehouse-type shops, it’s like a little old-fashioned village: the houses are made of wood and painted pastel colors, with porches. There are quite a few fairy lights on the outside of people’s houses, even though it’s nowhere near Christmas. Loads of the gardens have
really
big American flags on poles, or flags hanging from the roof. That’s pretty weird. Imagine going through normal residential streets in Liverpool and seeing great big Union Jacks waving in the gardens. Jeff’s professor’s flat doesn’t have a flag. Jeff is housesitting for the summer—his professor is doing research in Mexico and didn’t want to leave the flat empty. And this means I get to stay here with him—there’d have been no chance of me squeezing into Jeff’s old dorm room; I’d have had to stay in a hotel, which would have been too expensive…and lonely. The house is small. I would have thought a Princeton professor would have a bigger place. Other people’s homes always make me uncomfortable at first, as if someone else can hear everything you’re saying but you can’t see them—as if they’ve left part of themselves there to spy on you. That is, now that I write it down, nuts. There are two bedrooms, but mine looks more like a study—there are so many history books. There are even history books in the bathroom.

The hunger is now
painful.
Last night, when I got in, Jeff tried to make me eat dinner, but not only had I eaten a heavy, greasy plane meal with all the extras and most of the giant chocolate bar I’d taken on board, but it was also about two a.m. British time. I was
sooo
tired and, no matter how much I love and missed Jeff, I just wanted to sleep. But he was all bouncy and enthusiastic and took me out to a little Chinese restaurant, where I drank a whole pot of tea and stared at the food as if it were made of plastic. Now, I want to eat everything I didn’t eat last night.

Just sneaked out to the kitchen and there were some doughnuts from yesterday. Sorry,
donuts
. So I’m eating one of those, and it tastes absolutely delicious. Full-fat, full-sugar American delicious. Wow, I’m really here.

july 22

Back in
England, I had a little going-away party before I set off. It was just a few girls—Hannah, Steph, Boo, and Saira—and we ordered in pizza and stayed up talking well into the night. Boo, Hannah, and Steph are going to university at the end of September. Saira’s taking a year off in Australia. Her cousin lives there, but she’s going to go all over it and maybe “hop across” to Japan. Nearer the end of summer, the uni-bound girls are going on a little holiday together somewhere closer, like Spain. I didn’t talk too much about my plans—and the thing is, everyone was so excited about this, America, the adventure I’m on now, so that’s what we talked about. I just can’t think further ahead until I know what my final exam results are. I missed so much of the last year that I’m the only one of us who didn’t apply to university, the only one without a plan—but the same fear of the future was everyone’s unspoken thought all evening: what happens to us now, and will we stay in touch? Everyone moves around so much these days, and it’s supposed to have made the world smaller—even so, one of our closest and sweetest friends, Chloe, left school at sixteen and went to work in Leeds. We see her at Christmas, but I’ve been finding it harder to know what to write in e-mails to her. So much happens to her between the e-mails that you have to go back and read the previous ones to remember who’s who.

And here’s my brother, miles and miles farther from home than I ever knew he could be, and before I came out here to see him, I spent so much time worrying that becoming grown-ups meant growing apart. This summer, it’s like this is the closest to real, proper friends we’ve ever been, but I’m afraid of it being the closest we’ll ever be…and of there being less in the future.

Then there’s my dad. At the time of the divorce, he promised nothing would change and we’d always be his kids and he’d always love us and come and see us all the time. But his work took him to the other side of the country, and his weekends started getting busier. I know Mum sometimes used his credit card to punish him for letting us down…or maybe it really was to cheer us up. Either way, I didn’t want to punish him and I didn’t want to be compensated. I just wanted a little more time with him. When we talk now, we both know we’ve lost something, and I can feel us trying to fake it and make up what’s missing. The faking makes me sad, and the sadness makes the faking harder to do.

This is making me feel quite weepy about Mum. I’m missing her. Since Jeff left, she and I have developed little routines—just, you know, the way we eat breakfast together, the way we watch
Coronation Street
, the pizzas we make from scratch on Saturdays. This morning, when I had breakfast with Jeff, I thought about Mum on her own, putting toast in only one side of the toaster because we always have one slice each, reading the paper but having no one to read out stories to.

Okay, had a little cry. Back now.

Part of me is
so desperate
for new things to happen, new experiences, and to grow as a person now. And part of me knows that there’s
nothing
to stop me from doing any of that but that I stand to lose so much when I do. This is the first time I’ve been away from home, and Jeff is here! So
home
is here! But I’m scared and sad because my mum is not.

And it’s
so
insane because I had a fab day today. Jeff and I walked around Princeton and ate ice cream from a little shop in a pretty, old-fashioned square. He told me about this girl he’s completely obsessed with, Krystina. Her family lives in the town and she’s a student here.

“The thing is,” Jeff said, “I have no way of working out whether she fancies me.”

“Does
she
get in touch with you or is it the other way around?”

“She always calls me and asks me to parties. But when I go, nothing happens between us. She doesn’t want to hang out at the end of the night with me, she never gets any closer, and I seem to have been stuck in the same place with her forever. So I think that means we’re just friends.”

“Have you…made a move?” I said. I couldn’t believe I was talking to Jeff like this. Jeff never talked about his personal life before. I felt so close to him, and on his level in a different way.

“Well…how do you mean?” Jeff said. “I haven’t, you know,
made
a
move
made a move, but she must know how I feel.”

“Like you know how she feels?”

“Yeah, I see what you’re saying,” Jeff said. “But girls know, don’t they? Girls always know what everyone’s thinking—that’s what makes them so cool.”

I wonder if that’s really what all boys think about all girls, or if Jeff and I are just equally useless at love. I never know what anyone’s thinking.

After our ice cream, we ducked out of the sunshine so Jeff could show me where he did his work. Well, that’s what he said, but I think he was hoping to spot this Krystina, although he didn’t find her. Most of the students had left for summer vacation, and those still scattered around tended to be the older graduate students, but the ones I saw were just the most amazing physical specimens of male studenthood. Tanned skin, broad shoulders, lush hair. You just think:
Well, they all drank up their milk when they were kids, didn’t they?
The girls all wear denim minis and have long brown legs stretching for miles down into little flat sneakers, and I did feel small and sickly and weedy around them. On the other hand, they actually didn’t look as sexy as the girls at my school do. They were quite
safe
. Too many pastel shades. Where I’m from, you get packs of girls who are really wild looking, and properly drop-dead sexy, too. I’ve always been too scared to make eye contact in case they beat me up, but I can’t help peeking because I want to learn how they manage to look pretty and edgy like that. Here in Princeton, the girls don’t look like they could terrify the boys. So maybe these perfect students still have a thing or two to learn.

Ha, like I can talk! Look at me: black T-shirt and cut-off jeans. Oh, yeah, really fierce, Livia.

When we were having lunch in the student cafeteria, an English boy called Adam, who’s a friend of Jeff’s, came up and said hi. He said he’d met
me
before, when I came to see Jeff at Manchester—he’s at university there, too. I did meet a lot of Jeff’s friends when I went to visit, but there were so many, and I was really shy and kept my head down,
plus,
I was very depressed at the time, for reasons that I have to cover in a Case Study. I didn’t remember Adam today, anyway, but I panicked and pretended I did.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “You were at that…forgotten the name of the
place
now. But of course I remember you.”

Adam’s eyes narrowed just a tiny amount, and his mouth curved into a one-sided smile.

“Fibber,” he said.

I was so embarrassed that I laughed out loud, a kind of gasping, single-“ha” laugh.

“Yes,” I said, trying to make my mind up about whether to lie again. “Yes, I do remember.”

He smirked a little bit more, but this time his mouth relaxed into a wide, lovely grin.

“You so do not,” he said. “Fine, I’m going to give you a multiple choice. Did we talk about nanobots, Johnny Depp, or makeup?”

“Nanobots. Of course,” I said, thinking that if I was going to bluff, I might as well sound confident, and there was no way I’d have talked about Johnny Depp, and obviously makeup was out of the ques—Ohh! And
now
I remembered him. We’d talked about make up.
“No!”
I shouted, interrupting what he was about to say. “You gave me a tissue,” I added softly. I’d been visiting my brother in his first year, when I was fifteen and had felt a bit overwhelmed seeing him in the student surroundings. It all seemed very far away from his life with me back home, quite dangerous and unprotected. I’d popped out to get chewing gum—that was my excuse—and believed I’d got away with a secret little blub in the street because the situation felt too big for me. But I didn’t realize that I was heading back in with two thick black lines of cried-through mascara down my cheeks. Adam had been heading out the door I was heading through, and asked if I was okay. I had said, “Of course, why wouldn’t I be?” and he pointed at his cheeks briefly, then held up a shiny metal key ring that acted like a mirror, so I could see my black-streaked face. He gave me a tissue and assured me it was clean, and I gabbled on for a minute about the problems with wearing mascara, then we both went on in our different directions.

Adam studies computing and has been in Manchester all year, but is spending the summer in Princeton with his older brother, Dougie, who studies here full-time and is apparently some kind of computer genius. They’ve been working on a programming project together, although when he started to explain it my mind went all spacey, and I had to stop myself from saying, “How can someone be as into computers as you are and be so cute?” He has longish, dark brown hair that goes just a bit flicky over his ears, and brown eyes, with black eyelashes that make them seem darker, and he is the perfect shape, like a lean, upside-down triangle. He was wearing good clothes too, just a gray T-shirt with some darker gray squiggles on it and faded gray jeans, but, you know, the perfect shape for both T-shirts and jeans. I don’t know why I’m talking about shapes so much. Anyway, shape-wise, Adam is doing all right. In my experience, a lot of the boys who are real computer-heads tend to be pale-skinned sci-fi fans. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—I happen to be a pale-skinned sci-fi fan myself—but that doesn’t mean I have to
fancy
other see-through geeks. So let’s hope Adam isn’t as picky as me.

I told him about the blog I’d started, but I stopped short of telling him its higher purpose—the “working out love” part—because I knew it would sound mad.

“So where can I read it?” he said.

“It’s locked. I mean, it’s private,” I said. “I don’t want to… it’s really more like a diary.”

“But I thought the point of blogs was that they were public?”

“Well, using a blog site means that I can add to it from anywhere, and I don’t always have my own computer with me. It’s safer, too—it means no backing up. I do like reading other people’s blogs, but I’m not ready to have them read mine—that’s not why I’m writing it.”

“Why
are
you writing it?”

“Have you never kept a diary?” I asked him.

“No.”

I shrugged. “Maybe you should try it.”

“Why, though?” Adam asked. “I always hated writing the “How I Spent My Summer Holidays” essay at school, and now you’re telling me I should do that for fun?”

“Well, you get to know yourself better. You write about events when they happen to you, but then later you can read what you said about them, and enough time has passed for you to not remember
exactly
how you were feeling at the time, and you can see where you’ve gone wrong, or right. It’s always surprising—your attitude always changes. Maybe it was a huge deal at the time and now you have no idea why it upset you. Sometimes you forget little details, really lovely things, and when you’re reminded, it’s…” I was somewhere between feeling tingly-happy and being embarrassed about my enthusiasm, because the fact is I
love diaries
— I reread and treasure all of mine, even though they make me cringe sometimes. “Sorry, I feel a bit silly now. I suppose I just like the fact that there are books where I’m the main character,” I finally said, with a smile, worried about coming across as a weirdo. “I’m obviously really conceited.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Adam said. He was smiling, too, but not at my “joke”—the smile was softer, and his gaze held mine until I could feel myself starting to blush. Stupid ginger-hair skin. You only have to slightly have an emotion, like barely more than being conscious, and your cheeks tell the room what it is. “And what are you going to write about today?”

“Well, I’m not sure. Nothing really happened today. I’m still a bit jet —”

“‘Talked to an incredibly boring English bloke. Cannot believe I’ve come halfway round the world and I’m stuck with one of my brother’s mates from Manchester….’ That sort of thing?”

“No!” I giggled.

“You know what I’d like you to put?”

“What?” I asked, and I actually
shivered.

“Ran into a boy called Adam again….” He stopped, and enough silence passed that I worried about filling it. When he started again, his tone had changed; it was lighter but more distant. “Yeah, it’s harder than it looks, isn’t it? I should really leave it to you, I think.”

So:
I ran into a boy called Adam again. And…

He’s right, this is harder than it looks.

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