Chapter 1. January
What do they call that moment before the shoe drops? The moment before Murphy's Law takes effect and everything goes wrong? Someone, somewhere must have named that brief period of time when we think everything is okay…that life is good.
Ignorance is bliss. I'm referring to the moment before 8:58am when I got this text. "Sorry, Piper. This just isn't working. Hope you have a good life and that we can still be friends."
The First Stage of Grief
I stared at my phone's screen as if the words would re-scramble themselves into something that I could understand.
I re-read the text. "Sorry, Piper. This just isn't working. Hope you have a good life and that we can still be friends."
My heart started pounding a million miles a minute. My stomach felt like it had come up into my throat, blocking my airway. My face turned hot, my hands clammy and cold. This could not be real. This could not be real.
My mind conjured an image of Blake, his dark hair dramatically swooped over one eyebrow. His dark eyes that smoldered when they gazed into mine, giving me the shivers. I could see in my mind's eye Blake's strong shoulders that had grown bulkier since his freshman year of high school, and his ego that had grown with every muscular inch and every season on the football team.
I loved his intensity. Whatever Blake wanted, he got. Blake came, Blake saw, Blake conquered. And a year ago, he decided he wanted to conquer me. I never had a chance.
Even after a year of dating, I would still find myself shaking my head, surprised that Blake Ferguson wanted to go out with me: Piper Lee. Blake Ferguson thought I was exotically beautiful. Blake Ferguson called or texted every night before bed. He made me gooey as a roasted marshmallow middle. I would do anything for him. Well, almost anything. We were saving that for Prom Night.
A break-up made no sense to me; the text was a puzzle I needed to solve. Was I in denial? Maybe. But I couldn't put the pieces of our relationship together and form it into a picture of a break-up. We had all these plans for the future. We had all this history.
This was the story I told myself: one of Blake's friends stole his phone and was playing a prank on us. The whole thing was a joke. I would walk into Yearbook class and Blake would smile with his smoldering smile and explain everything. His friend was a jerk. He punched the lights out of his friend just for putting me through a single moment of heartbreak.
"Piper Lee, is that a phone I see in your hand?" Mrs. Jones interrupted my racing thoughts as she walked toward my desk with her palm out. "You know the rules. Hand it over until the end of class." I put my phone into her hand and slumped back in my seat until the bell rang. Grabbing it off Mrs. Jones desk, I frantically checked my phone one more time. The text hadn't changed.
I made it through the next few classes, hands shaking and mouth dry, waiting for the period when I would see Blake in Yearbook class. But as I arrived to Yearbook, I saw the back of Blake turning the corner down the hall, his dark head and shoulders hunched in concentration. I started to call out to him but the teacher overseeing Yearbook class interrupted me. "Piper, did Blake talk to you already?"
I just stared at her. There was no way Blake had talked to a teacher when he hadn't even talked to me about this, right?
"I guess Blake feels Yearbook is putting too much of a strain on his senior year. He has resigned as Yearbook photographer. You can partner with Liz or James to get the rest of the photos you need."
There was no mistaking it now. This was real. The break-up was not a joke. Blake had left Yearbook so he didn't have to be with me every day. I couldn't understand. Had I done something wrong? Had I said something? How could his feelings for me have just changed? Weren't we meant to be together? Weren't we in love?
I loved being in love. I loved having Blake sit next to me at the pep rallies, my small hand wrapped around his bicep possessively. I loved having someone give me a Valentine's Day card or a birthday present. I loved having his strong shoulder bump mine when we were working on yearbook together. Blake was popular, or at least more popular than I was, and dating him had made me rise in the school pecking order. But even if that had not been the case, I was in love with him. I wrote Blake Ferguson all over my notebooks, and sometimes found myself dreamily writing Mrs. Blake Ferguson before I caught myself and scribbled it out so no one could read it. He was in my thoughts every day and I dreamed about his face every night.
I tried to tell myself the truth. Girl, life as you know it is over.
The Universe Hates Me
I will be honest. I went a little nuts at that point. My mind was racing, my thoughts swirling like food bits at the bottom of the blender. I think I mumbled something to the Yearbook teacher about starting my period and ran out of the room. I didn't know where to go. Obviously, Blake didn't want to talk to me. He could have waited to approach the Yearbook teacher and talked to me first. Not like he didn't know what time I'd arrive at class. But he didn't try to find me. He'd purposefully gotten there early to avoid me.
I just couldn't believe it. My brain could not take it in. There had to be some mistake. Didn't he love me? Didn't he tell me I was his exotic beauty? Wasn't I good enough for him? I walked through the halls unaware of where I was going. At some point, I realized that I had walked to the lobby area of the school cafeteria where the vending machines were.
Sugar. I need sugar. I need something to make me feel better.
I selected the gooiest, richest, most fat and sugar-laden choice as possible: a frosting covered honeybun. 500 calories. My mouth salivated with the thought of putting that pastry in my mouth. I put money in the machine and carefully pressed all the required buttons. But instead of dropping this delicious distraction into the slot, the vending machine dropped sugar-free breath mints. Luckily, I had more money in my black jeans pocket. I tried again. And again.
Are you kidding me?!
It felt like the universe was taunting me. The universe wanted me to have sugar-free breath mints. I got so mad I started bumping the machine with my shoulder. When that didn't work, I tilted the machine and tried again with the last dollar in my pocket. When that fourth roll of breath mints came out, I went ballistic. I started hitting the machine, yelling at it, and then kicked at the glass on the front of that stupid, stupid machine.
The glass shattered with my final kick and I triumphantly reached into the rows of packaged food to pull out my well-deserved honeybun. Which is when Mrs. Smith walked in.
The universe definitely hates me.
Try Behind the Couch
Mrs. Smith was like a bull with steam coming out of her ears and I had her full attention. For the next hour. Fabulous. She grabbed my ear and took me straight to the principal's office where I got suspended for three days for "Vandalism and Disorderly Conduct". Not only was I suspended from high school, but my Yearbook teacher, who worked double duty at my high school and at Riverglen University, stopped by the office while I was waiting for my dad's arrival to warn me that I may have lost any possibility of a journalism scholarship for my freshman year of college. Riverglen University wanted quality students. I didn't have anything else negative on my record, but vandalism was a very poor reflection on my character. She wasn't sure yet whether the vandalism was enough to drop me from the list of names of incoming freshman requesting scholarships, but it certainly would put me at the bottom of the pile.
Riverglen University was the one thing that saved our small town from being boring. Riverglen itself was a small college town with two lights, five restaurants, one grocery store, a bar on both sides of town and a river running through the state park a few miles north. Three highways intersected on the outskirts of town, making a strangely angled triangle with Riverglen University smack in the middle. The professors lived in walking distance of campus. Oh wait...so did everybody else. Almost. My high school served teenagers from Riverglen the town and the surrounding rural area, so we had loads of farmer boys who made great football players.
Despite being a small college in a small town, Riverglen University attracted its share of international students, so my Asian features wouldn't stand out as much when I started college there next year. Lots of locals went to Riverglen University, at least for the first two years to get their prerequisites out of the way and save on room and board by living at home with their parents. My older brother, though, had been ready to get out of this small town as soon as that high school diploma was in his hand. He had the grades and ambition to get into MIT's engineering program. Unlike my brother, I was not quite as ambitious. Yes, I had a loose plan for my future. Get a scholarship for Journalism at Riverglen University. Work for The Riverglen News and get some of my storytelling into black and white. Keep dating Blake forever and ever. Sigh. I was going to have to rethink my life plan.
Now, with that little stunt I'd pulled, the scholarship was up in the air. With one act of rebellion, I might have extinguished any chance of the future I'd imagined for myself. What if I lost my scholarship and couldn't afford to go to Riverglen University next year? Or what if they refused to let me in the journalism program altogether? Then what would I do?
I prepared myself for parental disappointment. I prepared myself for getting grounded, no allowance, and no screen time until I was forty. Here's what I did not foresee: my father making an announcement on the drive home. "Sweetheart, I lost my job today."
As if a job was something you could find by looking behind the couch and under the cushions.
"Piper, you need to prepare yourself. I need to find a job and jobs are hard to come by in this small town. We might have to move and start over. I hate to transfer you to another high school in the middle of the year, but that might be what we have to do."
No. No. Going to a new school my senior year? I might miss my Senior Prom-a yearbook writer's dream, not to mention my big opportunity to get a dress that made me feel like a million bucks and a guy on my arm who made me look good. Oh, wait. I guess I didn't have the guy on my arm anymore.
"The chances are that I might find a job far away from Riverglen. I can't promise you anything anymore. I know we had this debt-free plan of you living at home for a few years while going to Riverglen University on a scholarship, but we're going to need to re-think a new plan."
Riverglen was all I'd ever known. I didn't want to start over. I felt so helpless. This place, this town, my friends, my school gave me security. I didn't want to have a new adventure. I didn't want everything that felt stable to be ripped away from me. It felt like my entire life was being destroyed in one day.
Maybe I'm superstitious, or overly romantic, or whatever, but I'm always looking for a sign. I hope the universe will tell me what to do next, the right path to take. And please, dear universe, put it in neon lights so I don't miss it!
I've had this unshakeable belief that there must be a right path. I think that's part of what was so appealing about Journalism: everything was in black and white. I've always been looking for the truth. Give it to me straight; I don't want complications. The problem? I'm not sure the universe and I are on the same page with this topic.
Solace in a Half-caff-two-pump-vanilla-latte
"What did you think was going to happen?" asked Sunny as she sipped her green tea latte. We were sitting in Java JoJo's later that day. I know you might be surprised that my parents let me go to the coffee shop while I was suspended. I was too, but I think they were still so shocked about my dad losing his job that Mom and Dad wanted time to talk without me in the house. Works for me. I had left them bent over a pile of bills, Dad pushing his jet black hair out of his eyes, and Mom wearily rubbing her forehead, brown hair frizzy around her faded bathrobe.
Sunny's question rolled around in my brain like marbles. I looked at her long, black hair flowing past her shoulder blades, her brown Asian-tilted eyes examining me, her willowy frame draped in a flowing sheer blouse that moved as her arm gestured to me. Well? Answer the question.
Sunny had been asking me hard questions since elementary school. We were both eighteen now but separated by one grade since she was six months older. It didn't matter much when we were younger; this was the first year that grade separation made a difference. Sunny had done her time in the local school system and had started her freshman year at Riverglen University. I, however, was left behind to finish my senior year without her. True, we still met for coffee at Java JoJo's on a frequent basis and texted every day, but it wasn't the same. And I don't like change.
My life was full of routines that compensated for the things I couldn't change. Being an Asian-American girl stuck in the middle of a small town with a bunch of farmer boys. Standing barely five foot tall. Having a white mother who thinks giving me ramen keeps me in touch with my roots. Sigh.
Honestly, my Asian ancestors got off the boat so long ago, I don't know what's left in my gene pool. Our last name, Lee, sounded very Chinese. But my dad had this smorgasbord of Asian cultures in his heritage. A little side of Filipino. A dash of Vietnamese and a pinch of Thai too.
There weren't too many Asian-Americans in the Riverglen school system. I mean, we were a small college town surrounded by cornfields. In fact, when I was growing up, there was only one Asian in my school. Her name? Sunny Yellow Woo. Yes, I know, Sunny Yellow was a ridiculous name. Try telling that to her Korean mother, who was a force to be reckoned with.
You might be confused about our friendship if you met us. While it may be true that Sunny and I were the only Asian girls in the Riverglen school system for most of our school years, we looked totally different. I've had this black-and-white-simple-outfits-with-teal-stripe-in-hair thing going on. But Sunny didn't just wear clothes: she draped herself in a persona.
Sunny loved fashion design and she described us in fabrics. Sunny: chiffon. Piper: a well-worn jean jacket. Sunny had this softness to her that was appealing to everyone who met her. Her hands fluttered as she talked. She had this distinctive way of enunciating each word with her low, gentle voice. She was way more feminine than your average Riverglen young adult. Some of the mean girls at school called her "Drama Queen". But I liked Sunny's overly dramatic presentation and personality. I felt like Sunny rounded out some of my edges.
Even though I'd describe her as ultra-feminine, I don't want you to misunderstand me and think Sunny was also a pushover. No. This girl was made with a core of steel covered in chiffon. It took real guts to wear some of her outfits, but she totally pulled it off, in my opinion.
Sunny was dating another Riverglen University student she'd met on a group project the first month of school. She did the creative part of the presentation and Akio did the research for it. They clicked and decided to keep their collaboration going. I mean, how could they not? Akio meant "glorious hero" in Japanese and her name was Sunny Yellow. Sounded like a match made in paradise. I wouldn't be surprised if they headed off to New York together and became a world-famous fashion design team.
Just Answer the Question
"Earth to Piper. Hello, space cadet. What did you think was going to happen?" Sunny repeated.
"Do you mean what did I think I would do if Blake ever broke up with me? Or what would happen when I kicked the vending machine? Or what did I think would start the demise of my relationship with Blake after a long and wonderful and passionate high school romance?" I responded sarcastically.
I should mention that Sunny was not Blake's biggest fan in the first place. She had a habit of rolling her eyes when I would describe something he did or said. Sunny was a good friend, my best friend, and so she supported me in my first boyfriend experience. But I could tell that she thought Blake was immature by her standards and a bit vain. The truth was… Blake knew he was handsome. Those dark brooding eyes and dark hair that curled with a flip in the front. He knew the cheerleaders would titter when he walked by. And I could see a strut come into his walk the bigger his biceps got. Maybe he was vain, but I couldn't help myself. He was like a drug to me. I was addicted to him, his love, and his attention. And I didn't know how else to be.
"Take your pick of question and start from there. They say that breaking up is hard to do," Sunny quoted an old song. "Just tell me everything and get it out of your system."
Sunny and I spent an hour going over every little horrible detail of that day and I began to feel a little better. She pointed out some incredibly good-looking guy with piercing blue eyes getting his coffee at the counter and fanned herself saying he was "steamy", making me laugh. I was still confused and hurt by Blake's text, but I'd promised Sunny I wouldn't stew on it every minute of the day.
After Sunny went back to class, I turned my attention to JoJo, the owner of the coffee shop. "JoJo, please, I am begging you. Can you give me a few shifts? I know you've had a few baristas quit over Winter Break. Please? With cream and sugar on top?" I asked in a super saccharine voice, trying to be ridiculous enough that she'd give into my request with a laugh.
JoJo's face, brown as the coffee she served, lit up and her verbal response was a perky remark, "Glad to have you on the team, Piper." JoJo might be a working middle-aged mom, but she was always smiling, always in a good mood. Must be all the coffee.
This new plan of mine made me feel warm and fuzzy for about eighteen minutes. Until Dad walked into Java JoJo's and asked for an application. No, no, no, no, no! Is he trying to ruin my life even more before he ruins my life? Java JoJo's is mine. Mine! I had my favorite writing corner spot with a view of campus. I had the college professors I chatted with. I had my news sources. I had the good looking college students to glance over. I had the baristas who started pulling my half-caff-two-pump-vanilla-latte before I'd gotten both feet in the door. This was my world and I was not willing to share it. I was so embarrassed, mortified, and humiliated to think about my dad working here. Who does he think he is? A hipster?
There were some things that were supposed to stay in black and white, immutable and fixed. Young people went to school. Young people had fun before they grew up. Their parents had jobs. Dad had broken the rule and I didn't know what to do about it.
The Beauty of Black and White
That night I lay on my bed, unsettled in my thoughts. Sunny had made me promise not to dwell on the break-up text, but it was impossible not to think of it. And Blake.
I sprawled across my white comforter and stared at my phone. Should I text Blake? I didn't want to seem desperate, but I was so confused. My eyes landed on the Ansel Adams nature photographs on the wall; I found myself wishing I could crawl into those black and white pictures where everything was simple.
I liked simple things. My T-shaped house with slate-blue siding, black roofs, and tiny yard. I liked walking the same journey I made to school each morning: four blocks south to Java JoJo's to pick up a half-caff-two-pump-vanilla-latte and then two blocks east to Riverglen High School. My favorite down-time activity was to hike alone to this deserted spot at the river and then watch the water surround me. I enjoyed routine and habit. That meant eating with the same people at lunch every day since the fifth grade. Going to the local drive-in for Bacon Burgers on the weekends with my family. Sitting at the breakfast table working on The Riverglen News crossword puzzles with my dad. Chatting with my mom as she washed the dishes and I dried them.
My wardrobe was predictable: the same black leather jacket and black jeans with white t-shirt in the winter and the same white tank top and black jean cut-offs every summer. When I felt a little wild, I wore green. It brought out the teal stripe in my jet black hair. Wearing black, white, gray, or some shade of green made it easy to get dressed in the morning because every single piece of clothing matched with each other. My self-imposed dress code might sound boring to you, but these routines and simplicity normally gave me peace.
But that night, there was no peace. My black and white decorated bedroom did not calm me down. The disorder was on the inside of my mind. I finally broke down and texted Blake a short, "Talk?"
This was the story I told myself to fall asleep: when I woke up, there would be a text from Blake and it would explain everything and everything would be okay and everything would go back to normal.
I know how to lie to myself.
The Lunch Crew Defends Its Own
"What. Exactly. Did. The. Text. Say?" Izzy was so mad she practically had black fumes rolling off her across the high school cafeteria table. And when Izzy was mad, she let everyone around her know about it. Izabell's father was a communications professor specializing in debates. He was mildly well-known in debate circles or something. I think he'd been featured in some magazine and some students came to Riverglen University just to have him as their teacher. While Izabell didn't have her father's academic verbal prowess, she'd grown up with debating as normal interaction, and it formed in her an assertiveness that came out in her body language and her volume. That's a nice way of me saying Izzy was L-O-U-D.
On the other hand, my other lunch buddy, Clay, patted my arm with a quiet sympathy. The yin yang relationship between Izzy's loudness and Clay's reserved nature was comforting and familiar to me. Clay was somewhat shy, and quiet, and some people might call him a nerd. Or a hick, since he wore a flannel plaid shirt practically every day of his life. Not an Abercrombie and Fitch kind of plaid. A farmer's kind of plaid. Clay was so nice that many of our male classmates made fun of him. Perhaps that's why he still sat with a lunch crew of girls.
I'd been eating lunch with Izzy and Clay - and Sunny, before she graduated - since fifth grade. Like I said: I don't like change.
"You know I always thought he was a bit of a jerk."
"Uh huh. I knew there was something wrong with him from the first moment he asked you out. This boy is trouble with a capital T."
"He does not even deserve you."
"You are too good for him."
"Anyone that good-looking has got to have something seriously wrong with him."
"Football players cannot be trusted."
I admit, I just tuned them out after a while. Clay and Izzy had been a bit suspicious of Blake when he first asked me out, but they'd warmed up to him over the year we'd been dating. Now that he'd broken up with me in such a cowardly way, they felt free to say all things they hadn't liked about him in the first place. I loved Blake...I think. I just wanted him back. I didn't want to get out there and find a new guy. I didn't want to talk trash about Blake. I didn't want to get mad or defensive. I just wanted him back and I guess I was in a bit of denial. I kept expecting him to call me or find me at school and explain his actions.
It was all a mistake. It had to be.
Izzy abruptly shoved her chair away from the lunch table and stalked over to Blake on the other side of the cafeteria with the football team. No! What was she doing?
What she was doing was raising a ruckus. What she was doing was pointing and gesticulating wildly with her hands and throwing her voice all over the place in my defense. I think Blake told her to stay out of it, but I couldn't quite tell from where I had slid down in my chair, face level with the cafeteria table, wishing that I could disappear.
It was hard to fall asleep. I was used to getting a text or a phone call from Blake as I was getting ready for bed. One hour. Two hours. Around midnight, I finally threw back the covers. Without conscious thought, I pulled on sweats in the darkness. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
I found myself walking down the streets of Riverglen to Blake's house, which was about five blocks southwest of mine. The town was mostly quiet. I saw a few college students meandering home, perhaps from a late night at the library or a midweek party. There was snow piled on the edges of the street and the air was cold, waking me up to the fact that I was walking at a time when I should have been in bed. Most high school students would have been in bed.
But Blake was not. His car was not in the driveway. He didn't have brothers or sisters old enough to drive: no chance of a sibling borrowing his car. So strange. I couldn't figure it out. Where could he be?
The only thing left to do was trudge back home and try to fall asleep.
I took a different path home, my mind still mulling it over. And suddenly, as if my wish had made it appear, I saw Blake's car parked on Seventh Avenue at an unfamiliar house. There was no name on the mailbox, so I couldn't figure out who lived there. But I could see lights on and a shadow pass by a downstairs window, the right height of Blake. Then a moment later, I saw another shorter shadow with what looked like long hair. Was Blake with a girl?!
My stomach clenched and bile rose in my throat. In an instant, my heart started beating so loud and fast I thought it would crash through my chest. All the blood left my extremities, leaving them cold, so cold. I stumbled away, shaking all over, and then started running for home, slipping on a patch of ice. Who was he with? Why was he out late? Was this why he broke up with me? Has he been cheating on me? Surely there must be some explanation.
Wide awake and heartsick by the time I reached home, I was still shaking violently. I wished I could pull up to a warm fire with a cozy blanket wrapped around me and have the warmth soak into my bones. Finally, I decided to take a shower to try to relax.
With my dark hair, the only way that I could maintain the teal stripe was to re-apply the color every other shampoo. I kept some of the color mixed into my conditioner bottle. As I let the hot water beat on my back, I waited for the color to soak into my hair and tried not to think. But I couldn't control my thoughts, and they swirled around my head just as the teal color swirled around the drain on its way down, down to the deep places.
The Best Feeling is Not Feeling At All
"Come with me tonight," Izzy texted me the next weekend.
"I really don't feel like it," I admitted as I lay back on my bed looking at the swirls of paint in the ceiling and one spot where the white was flaking away.
"Do it! You need to get out and have some fun." Izzy is not known for subtlety. She's more of a shove-you-into-the-pool-to-teach-you-to-swim type of person.
A second later, she texted me again. "Do it. For reals."
I finally gave into her badgering. At least I wouldn't be sitting in my room on a Friday night wondering what Blake was doing. Or who he was doing it with. Maybe I could just turn off my brain for a little while. Yeah. That sounds good. Don't think.
I'm not really the party-animal-be-around-lots-of-people type. I figured I'd stick around long enough to see Izzy have fun and then head home. Izzy tended to go out with a guy a few times and then get bored and move on to the next one. Honestly, I didn't even try to remember their names because the very next week, she'd be with a new one. And she had a thing for college guys. Or they had a thing for her, because she wasn't alone for long. Izzy was the only one in my lunch crew that liked to "party". She liked to go to college parties every weekend, hooking up with a new guy and drinking copious amounts of alcohol.
We arrived at some frat party near campus. "Beer?" someone mumbled as they shoved it into my hand.
"Wanna dance?" some guy asked as he grabbed my hand and pulled me to the middle of the crowded room, where dance music throbbed and strobe lights made the room seem unreal. I soon found my slightly-intoxicated-self jumping up and down with the crowd, because there was no space to even sit down. And no space for my wretched thoughts. Perfect.