“Emma,” Jesse says. “It’s me. I’m alive. Can you hear me? I’m coming home.”
I think that perhaps everyone has a moment that splits their life in two. When you look back on your own timeline, there’s a sharp spike somewhere along the way, some event that changed you, changed your life, more than the others.
A moment that creates a “before” and an “after.”
Maybe it’s when you meet your love or you figure out your life’s passion or you have your first child. Maybe it’s something wonderful. Maybe it’s something tragic.
But when it happens, it tints your memories, shifts your perspective on your own life, and it suddenly seems as if everything you’ve been through falls under the label of “pre” or “post.”
I used to think that my moment was when Jesse died.
Everything about our love story seemed to have been leading up to that. And everything since has been in response.
But now I know that Jesse never died.
And I’m certain that this is my moment.
Everything that happened before today feels different now, and I have no idea what happens after this.
Emma and Jesse
Or, how to fall in love and fall to pieces
I have never been an early riser. But my hatred for the bright light of morning was most acute on Saturdays during high school at ten after eight a.m.
Like clockwork, my father would knock on my door and tell me, “The bus is leaving in thirty minutes,” even though the “bus” was his Volvo and it wasn’t headed to school. It was headed to our family store.
Blair Books was started by my father’s uncle in the sixties, right in the very same location where it still stood—on the north side of Great Road in Acton, Massachusetts.
And somehow that meant that the minute I was old enough to legally hold a job, I had to ring up people’s purchases some weekdays after school and every Saturday.
I was assigned Saturdays because Marie wanted Sundays. She had saved up her paychecks and gotten a beat-up navy blue Jeep Cherokee last summer.
The only time I’d been inside Marie’s Jeep was the night she got it, when, high on life, she invited me to Kimball’s Farm to get ice cream. We picked up a pint of chocolate for Mom and Dad and we let it melt as we sat on the hood of her car and ate our own sundaes, comfortable in the warm summer air.
We complained about the bookstore and the fact that Mom always put Parmesan cheese on potatoes. Marie confessed that she had smoked pot. I promised not to tell Mom and Dad. Then she asked me if I’d ever been kissed and I turned and looked away from her, afraid the answer would show on my face.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Lots of people don’t have their first kiss until high school.” She was wearing army green shorts and a navy blue button-down, her two thin gold necklaces cascading down her collarbone, down into the crevice of her bra. She never buttoned her shirts up all the way. They were always a button lower than you’d expect.
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.” But I noticed that she didn’t say, “I didn’t have my first kiss until high school.” Which, of course, was all I was really looking for. I wasn’t worried that I wasn’t like anyone else. I was worried that I wasn’t like her.
“Things will get better now that you’re going to be a freshman,” Marie said as she threw away the rest of her mint chocolate chip. “Trust me.”
In that moment, that night, I would have trusted anything she told me.
But that evening was the exception in my relationship with my sister, a rare moment of kinship between two people who merely coexisted.
By the time my freshman year started and I was in the same building as her every day, we had developed a pattern where we passed each other in the hallways of home at night and school during the day like enemies during a cease-fire.
So imagine my surprise when I woke up at eight ten one Saturday morning, in the spring of ninth grade, to find out that I did not have to go to my shift at Blair Books.
“Marie is taking you to get new jeans,” my mom said.
“Today?” I asked her, sitting up, rubbing my eyes, wondering if this meant I could sleep a little more.
“Yeah, at the mall,” my mom added. “Whatever pair you want, my treat. I put fifty bucks on the counter. But if you spend more than that, you’re on your own.”
I needed new jeans because I’d worn holes into all of my old ones. I was supposed to get a new pair every Christmas but I was so particular about what I wanted, so neurotic about what I thought they should look like, that my mother had given up. Twice now we had gone to the mall and left after an hour, my mother trying her best to hide her irritation.
It was a new experience for me. My mother always wanted to be around me, craving my company my entire childhood. But I had finally become so annoying about something that she was willing to pass me off to someone else. And on a Saturday, no less.
“Who’s going to work the register?” I said. The minute it came out of my mouth, I regretted it. I was suddenly nervous that I’d poked a hole in a good thing. I should have simply said, “Okay,” and backed away slowly, so as to not startle her.
“The new boy we hired, Sam,” my mom said. “It’s fine. He needs the hours.”
Sam was a sophomore at school who walked into the store one day and said, “Can I fill out an application?” even though we weren’t technically hiring and most teenagers wanted to work at the CD store down the street. My parents hired him on the spot.
He was pretty cute—tall and lanky with olive skin and dark brown eyes—and was always in a good mood, but I found myself incapable of liking him once Marie deemed him “adorable.” I couldn’t bring myself to like anything she liked.
Admittedly, this type of thinking was starting to limit my friend pool considerably and becoming unsustainable.
Marie liked everyone and everyone liked Marie.
She was the Golden Child, the one destined to be our parents’ favorite. My friend Olive used to call her “the Booksellers’ Daughter” behind her back because she even seemed like the sort of girl whose parents would own a bookstore, as if there was a very specific stereotype and Marie was tagging off each attribute like a badge of honor.
She read adult books and wrote poetry and had crushes on fictional characters instead of movie stars and she made Olive and I want to barf.
When Marie was my age, she took a creative writing elective and decided that she wanted to “become a writer.” The quotation marks are necessary because the only thing she ever wrote was a nine-page murder mystery where the killer turned out to be the protagonist’s little sister, Emily. I read it and even I could tell it was complete garbage, but she submitted it to the school paper and they loved it so much they ran it in installments over the course of nine weeks in the spring semester.
The fact that she managed to do all of that while still being one of the most popular girls in school made it that much worse. It just goes to show that if you’re pretty enough, cool comes to you.
I, meanwhile, had covertly read the CliffsNotes in the library for almost every book assigned to us in English 1. I had a pile of novels in my room that my parents had given me as gifts and I had refused to even crack the spines.
I liked music videos, NBC’s Thursday Must-See TV lineup, and every single woman who performed at Lilith Fair. When I was bored, I would go through my mom’s old issues of Travel + Leisure, tearing out pictures and taping them to my wall. The space above my bed became a kaleidoscope of magazine covers of Keanu Reeves, liner notes from Tori Amos albums, and centerfolds of the Italian Riviera and the French countryside.
And no one, I repeat no one, would have confused me for a popular kid.
My parents joked that the nurse must have given them the wrong child at the hospital and I always laughed it off, but I had, more than once, looked at pictures of my parents as children and then stared at myself in the mirror, counting the similarities, reminding myself I belonged to them.
“Okay, great,” I told my mom, more excited about not having to go to work than spending time with my sister. “When are we leaving?”