Authors: Jennifer E. Smith
by Jennifer E. Smith
Little, Brown and Company
New York Boston
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Even before she saw the explosion of flashes at the far end of the block, Ellie knew somehow that he was there.
It had been exactly one year, two months, and twenty-one days since she’d last seen him, but he’d always been like a radio signal, scrambling her thoughts. Just being near him was enough to fill her head with static.
It was her first time in New York City—a weekend trip with her new roommate and a couple of other girls from their dorm—and standing beneath the towering buildings, the sky fading above them, she couldn’t help being shocked by the smallness of the place.
For more than a year, the world had felt too big.
And now here she was in the middle of Manhattan, one of the largest cities on the planet, surrounded by thick crowds of people hurrying home from work and out to dinner, carrying umbrellas and suitcases and shopping bags, wearing hats and sunglasses, staring at guidebooks and phones, many of them drifting in much the same direction, drawn like moths toward the huge, sweeping spotlights set up in front of the Ziegfeld Theater, where they stood on tiptoe and craned their necks and whispered to those who were next to them, trying to figure out what all the fuss was about.
And somehow, in the midst of all this, he was here too.
Ellie had known it even before she saw the police barricades, before she noticed the red carpet and the lights and the security guards, before she saw the glowing marquee.
There were a thousand reasons to dismiss that prickle up her spine. The odds of this happening were insane. To stumble across him here, of all places, after all this time—it was too improbable, too coincidental, too unbelievable.
But still, a part of her knew.
That radio static, that tingling, fizzy lightness that was clouding her head: It was the world shrinking again. It was the awful, lurching nearness of him.
It was the unexpected jolt of joy at the thought.
And that’s when she saw it: the name at the top of the marquee, laid out in black print across the white background so that, from a distance, it almost looked like a chain of letters typed across a too-bright computer screen, like an e-mail, like a message, like a memory:
As it turned out, she’d been nervous about this weekend for all the wrong reasons.
When Lauren, her new roommate, had asked if she wanted to drive down to New York for the long weekend with her and some friends, Ellie’s first reaction had been panic. Her first response to most invitations was panic, but she’d been at Harvard for three weeks now, and she’d vowed to get better about this.
After all, college was her chance to leave the old Ellie behind. The one who preferred books to people and who had only ever really had one friend; who enjoyed hanging out with her mom more than with kids her own age and who scribbled poetry on napkins; who missed even the most obvious pop-culture references and worked three jobs.
The old Ellie was shy and quiet and a little bit awkward. She tried her best not to stand out, wore flats so she didn’t look too tall, tied her red hair back into a ponytail, and made an effort to go unnoticed whenever possible.
But she wanted college to be different.
She wanted to learn how to ignore her instincts.
She wanted to fit in.
So far, Harvard had already taught her a lot: that she should never be late to her Shakespeare section, or leave her toothpaste in the communal bathroom, or eat the tacos in the dining hall.
But she’d also learned this: that making new friends was not something that came easily to her.
Pretty much every night so far had been a struggle between the awareness that she should be going out and meeting people and having fun and the much more powerful temptation to put on her pajamas and burrow under the covers with a book.
“You’re welcome to come along,” Lauren always said as she finished getting ready, pinning her short, dark hair up on one side and putting on her bright red lipstick. Ellie could never tell if her roommate really meant it or if she was just being polite, and a part of her was curious what would happen if she actually said yes. But in the end, it didn’t really matter, because she never did.
“Maybe tomorrow,” she said again and again.
Sometimes she sat with them in the dining hall—Lauren and her two friends from the floor above, Kara and Sprague—and they were all perfectly nice to her, even though Ellie mostly just ended up smiling and nodding like some kind of good-natured idiot when she was around them.
But it was pretty obvious she didn’t fit in. If this had been a game of One of These Things Is Not Like the Others, even a three-year-old could have picked her out. It was partly that they wore expensive clothes and talked about vacations to places like Bali and Rio as if they were nothing. And they all used similar phrases, a shorthand that was like a whole new language to Ellie. Even their names—a surprising number of which sounded like last names but were actually not—suggested a certain kind of background: Collis and Smith and Conway and Sprague.
But it wasn’t just that. It was that they were all so effortlessly cool. And they all seemed to know almost instinctively how to navigate something as big and unknowable as college: how to find parties, how to schedule their classes just right, how to look like they belonged.
belong. In fact, they all seemed to know one another already: from boarding school at Andover or Exeter, from lacrosse camp in New Hampshire or their country clubs in Connecticut, from summers in the Hamptons and ski vacations in Aspen and carpooling up from “the city” (which Ellie had wrongly assumed meant Boston but had turned out to mean New York).
Nobody, of course, knew the financial-aid kid from a small town in Maine.
Watching them, Ellie often felt like a scientist observing some strange new species of bird, these girls who were so impossibly confident. She couldn’t believe that they had bags as expensive as her entire wardrobe, and that none of them had ever had a paying job, and that they never thought twice about throwing down a credit card. In turn, they seemed to be just as mystified by her, endlessly amused when she pronounced
or said things like
or declined an invitation to a party because she wanted to finish writing a poem that wasn’t an assignment for any sort of class.
Ellie didn’t mind. They weren’t friends in the way that Quinn—whom she’d known since she was little—was a friend, and they probably never would be. But whatever this was seemed like a first step on the path to belonging, and that was enough for now.
So yesterday, when Lauren mentioned they were going away this weekend and asked if Ellie might want to come along, she paused before saying no.
“Really?” she asked, looking up from her psychology book.
Lauren had shrugged. “Well, my parents are out of town, so we have the apartment to ourselves. And we were thinking it’d be nice to do some shopping, get manicures, that sort of thing. I just really need a New York fix, you know?”
“Totally,” Ellie said, afraid to admit that she’d never been to New York. She glanced down at her pajama pants, which had little ducks on them and which she hadn’t taken off all day, and surprised herself by saying, “I’d love to come.”
Lauren had been making her bed, and she paused with a blanket in her hands, the corners lined up, mid-fold. “Well, great,” she said, clearly taken aback. But Ellie was relieved to see that she looked pleased too. “We’ll leave right after my econ seminar.”
And so this morning, Ellie had sat in the backseat of the car as it flew down the expressway, singing quietly under her breath as the other three girls shouted the words to song after song, the music so loud it made the doors vibrate. When they reached the city—a jagged landscape of buildings so striking that Ellie forgot to be self-conscious for a moment, pressing her forehead against the window with wide eyes—they dropped their bags at Lauren’s apartment, in a building that looked like a museum. The living room alone was bigger than an entire floor of Ellie’s house.
Afterward, they spent a few hours shopping on Fifth Avenue—which for Ellie turned out to be an exhausting exercise in trying not to look too shocked by the prices—and then went to the Museum of Modern Art, where she pretended to appreciate a series of paintings that looked as if they’d been done by a four-year-old.
By the time they started walking back across town, on their way to dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant that Lauren and Kara and Sprague were apparently desperate to try, the sky was dusky and pale, the light of the buildings already starting to glow. Ellie could no longer hide the fact that she was lagging behind the others. Being with them felt a little like being on camera for an extended period of time, and trying to maintain a brighter, cheerier, cooler version of herself for so long was completely draining. All she wanted to do was sit down in a dark restaurant and eat her noodles while the others talked.
But as they neared the corner of Fifty-Fourth and Sixth, they saw a series of blue police barricades cordoning off the street, and beyond that an enormous crowd gathered beneath an old-fashioned marquee that read
in sweeping letters.
“Must be a premiere,” Lauren said before they’d even crossed the street, and Kara’s face lit up as she stepped off the curb, already moving in that direction.
“I wonder what movie it is,” she said, but somehow Ellie already knew.