“The future depends on what you do today.”
The note said:
I wish I’d met you when we were younger, before marriage, before children, before Facebook and cell phones and Tinder and all the rest.
It also said:
Will you give me a chance to get to know you better? I’ve wanted to write this letter to you for so long, and finally, finally I am. My heart is beating so hard. If you were here sitting beside me as I write this, I’m almost certain you’d be able to hear it too.
The note was addressed to my mother, and there was probably about a .01% chance my father had written it. P. had, whoever that was.
I’d opened it without thinking. I probably thought it was a note from Bernadette, the retired schoolteacher who worked for us part-time, with a customer’s request for a special order, some random book Mom would never have thought to keep in stock—a German-Swahili dictionary or a large-print edition of The Stranger in French. Or maybe I was thinking Jill, our other part-timer, had written it. She taught yoga at the Y and she’d told me a few days earlier that she’d leave a free pass for Mom and me—she’d been trying for a while to get us to go to one of her classes, but we still hadn’t done it. I’d been dragging my feet because if I was going to spend an hour at the gym, I wanted to put in my earbuds and listen to my own music, not chanting or bells, and definitely not some old guy two mats over snoring while we were lying in corpse pose.
Whatever I might have been thinking at the time, I really didn’t expect the note to be what it was when I found it under a stack of new hardcovers someone had left next to the cash register. Even if my favorite book was Jane Eyre, and Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were tied for second, I wasn’t looking for drama right then, and definitely not the kind that involved my mother and a secret admirer.
Later I would wonder why the letter, which was addressed to “Lauralee S,” hadn’t come in an envelope. Had Mom even seen it yet? If she had, was she the person who’d stashed it under the new Stephen Kings and Margaret Atwoods? Maybe she’d left it there on purpose, wanting me or someone else to find it.
But that didn’t make sense, and she wasn’t a careless person. She had an eagle eye for detail, as my father was known to say, sometimes with admiration, sometimes the opposite.
That night when I called my brother Jeff who was in college two and a half hours away to tell him about P’s mash note, the first thing he said was, “Why were you snooping around on Mom?”
“I wasn’t snooping,” I said. “The note was just there and I opened it. You would have done the same thing.”
“Maybe it was for another Lauralee,” he said. “You can’t be sure it was for Mom.”
“How many Lauralees do you know?”
He ignored this. “Read it to me.”
“My dearest Lauralee, You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life! Run away with me and let’s make babies together. If we have a girl, we’ll name her after you.”
I wasn’t sure why I was making this up but a sneaky part of me was enjoying it immensely. It was much better than dwelling on the fact some creepy guy was making a play for Mom and that she might actually be thinking about leaving Dad for him.
Jeff was silent for a second while I struggled to hold in my laughter. “Is that really what it says?” he finally asked.
“No,” I said, bursting out in strangled, high-pitched laughter. “Thank God!”
“You’re insane, Lucy,” he said, sounding mad before he started laughing too. “Now tell me what it really says.”
“Okay, this time for real,” I said, keeping my voice low, even though I was the only one at home—Mom was having dinner with her friend Lynette—this was what she’d told me earlier, anyway, and Dad was playing basketball at the gym with other middle-aged guys with bad knees and something to prove. I was up in my room with the door locked and the shades drawn. Mr. Livingston, the stuffed fox I’d had since I was five, was staring at me from the bed, his expression guarded.
“Well,” said Jeff after I’d read him P’s letter.
I waited, but he didn’t say anything else. “Well, what?” I asked.
“It sounds like someone has a crush on Mom.”
“Someone who isn’t Dad.”
“No, probably not.”
“Probably not? Is there even a question it isn’t someone else?”
He exhaled in a long, slow gust. In the background I could hear a girl’s muffled voice. His latest girlfriend, most likely, but I didn’t ask. Mom called him Hugh Hefner and the girls he dated his playmates of the month, especially when she was mad at him for breaking up with one she’d liked. “She and Dad could be doing some kind of role-playing thing,” he said.
“Yeah, right,” I said. “Why would they do that?”
“Because they’re trying to keep their marriage from going stale.”
“It’s not stale.”
He didn’t say anything.
“It’s not,” I insisted.
“How would you know?”
“I just do.” But we both knew I didn’t. Even so, up until I’d found the letter, I’d had no reason to believe they were tired of each other. If I’d thought about it at all, I would have assumed if they were bored, they were fine with it. I knew people got divorced all the time—I wasn’t an idiot, but our parents had always seemed happy enough. I didn’t even hear them fighting much, nor had Jeff, as far as I knew.
“Just let it go,” he advised. “It’s none of your business, Luce. The letter’s probably harmless.”
“Famous last words,” I said.
“Has Mom been acting weird lately?”
“No, no more than usual.”
“What about Dad?”
“He’s the same amount of weird as usual too,” I said. “Do you think I should just ask her who P is? Tell her I found the letter?”
He hesitated. “I don’t know.” I heard the girl’s voice again in the background. I imagined her as a skinny, shiny-haired sorority girl. Jeff was predictable.
“All right,” he said. “Maybe that would be a good idea.”
“I suppose it would,” I said, but I doubted I had the guts to ask her.
“Do you miss me?” I asked a second later.
“Do you miss me?” he said in a low, theatrical voice.
“Does a zebra have spots?”
“Good one,” he said. “Score one for the underdog.”
“Who you calling underwear?”
“Dog,” he said. “Hot dog.”
“Hold the relish, please.”
“But keep your grasp of reality,” he said.
We could have gone on like this for another 10 minutes, but I had homework to do and he had a new sorority girl to entertain. “I better go,” I said.
“Keep me posted, Twinkie,” he said.
“I will, Ding Dong.”
Aside from P’s letter, it had been a better than average day. I’d talked to Mark Kelly in the hall after our AP Lit class and he’d sent me a text while I was at the bookstore, asking if I was coming to the soccer game on Saturday. Along with being a merit scholar and a first-string midfielder on the varsity team, he was so cute I could hardly look at him sometimes without turning red. I was sure half the girls in our school had a crush on him too. He and I had been in many of the same classes since eighth grade, when his middle school on the other side of town merged with my bigger middle school.
Now we were seniors, applying to colleges, pretending we had all the answers and nothing made us sweat, that we were on our way to big lives and big bank accounts, in whatever way we could find these things. He wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be a travel writer, a diplomat, a screenwriter—I didn’t really know. I was in the midst of applying to seven colleges and on six of the applications I hadn’t declared a major. For the one school where I did declare a major, I’d chosen French. Who knew what job I could realistically expect to find with it, but a French major seemed like a semi-good idea. I was an A student, except for a B in gym one quarter when I cut a week of classes because I hated flag football, and a B- in shop class because I was crap at woodworking. Mark probably got As in everything, but he didn’t brag about it—at least I’d never heard him doing it.
Nothing had ever happened between us, but I was pretty sure I’d been in love with him since he’d appeared at Carl Sandburg Middle School for the first day of eighth grade with the other kids from Rigby K-8, which had turned into Rigby K-6 over the summer. What he thought about me was anyone’s guess. Based on the evidence so far, his feelings for me seemed to reside firmly in the friend category.
Along with AP Lit, we had European history together. He was in AP Spanish; I was in AP French. Our gym classes met at the same time too, but I’d only ever caught glimpses of him when my class was outside running its 1.5 mile circuit through the surrounding neighborhoods, and his was on the new track made from recycled tires that circled the football field, a noisy gang of show-off guys running sprints and relays, their teacher, Mr. Sugarman, yelling at them to knock it off, to make a freakin’ effort!
All of us, both girls and guys, were dressed in red and black shorts and T-shirts, our school’s semi-obnoxious colors. The field where Mark and his teammates usually practiced for two hours after school was on the far west side of the main building. Unless I made a shameless point of it, I never got to see him running drills with the wind making his light brown hair fly, his expression so serious and focused—as if everything else, everything but the earth beneath his feet, had fallen away. He wanted to win, and so often in the last few years the team did: they’d played in the state tournament last fall but lost in the semi-finals.
There were parties all that next weekend though, celebrating our school’s near advance to the state championship. I went to a couple of the parties with my best friends Maddy and Kara, and Mark and I would wave hello to each other from across whatever crowded room we were in, and he’d make a goofy face, his dark green eyes pinning me down (at least it felt like that to me), and I’d laugh and we’d stare at each other for a second or two, and maybe a little bit later we’d have a chance to talk for a minute before someone came over and interrupted us. It was both awful and wonderful.
At one of these parties, he’d grabbed me and hugged me for what seemed like a long time and I’d felt his hot, beery breath against my neck, his lips grazing my ear as he said, “Hey, Lucy. Having fun yet?” And I wanted so badly for him to say something more, to tell me he wanted to go out sometime, just us and no one else, but he didn’t. He didn’t say another word. He just stood there with his face close to mine and I didn’t say anything either, my heart beating so hard I thought for a second I might pass out. I could smell the tang of his lime deodorant and feel the warm, sweaty length of him against me while all around us other kids were laughing and getting wasted and an old Justin Timberlake song blared from the stereo in the next room. I hoped Mark would never pull away but of course he did—one of his teammates, Bryan Foley, called his name in a loud, annoying falsetto from the other side of the room and broke the spell.
Replaying that hug in my mind for so many days afterward as I tried to fall asleep or moved from one class to the next or stared unseeingly at the notes I’d taken in chemistry, I could never decide if he’d only grabbed me because he was drunk and everyone was grabbing each other—like a lot of guys at these parties, was he just horny and acting out because of the beer or whatever heinous cheap liquor they were all drinking? I wondered if in spite of this free-for-all, he’d remember hugging me in particular, but he never said a word about it at school. He didn’t text or email me or post on my wall, either. Sometimes I almost wished it had never happened.
He had to have some idea how I felt about him. Like I said, half the girls in our school wanted to be with him.
So the day of P’s letter had been good, Mark and I talking and him texting me, which he hardly ever did. I wondered if any college team scouts would be at the game—he was applying early action to the University of Chicago and Stanford, but he’d told me he wasn’t trying to win a soccer scholarship. I had a feeling a few schools would offer him something though. He really did want to be a doctor and had told me he didn’t think he could earn the grades he needed to get into a good medical school if he was a student-athlete, which, in his opinion, meant glorified slavery. Being on a college soccer team would be a full-time job, he was sure, and obviously you weren’t getting paid. You might be getting tuition and some room and board, but no one was paying you a penny and your body would break down by the time you were 25 and then where would you be?
I was kind of astonished when he said all this to me one day at lunch not long after senior year started. I was sitting with him at a table of six, Mark, Kara, Maddy, two of Mark’s guy friends, and me. A lot of times I went with Kara and Maddy to Subway or Starbucks for lunch—like all seniors who kept a B average or better, we had lunch release—but today we stayed at school because Kara was trying to lose weight and I didn’t have an opinion about where we ate that day. And then Mark and his best friends Greg Lipinski and Curt Halloran, who were on the soccer team too, motioned for us to come sit with them when we walked into the cafeteria, and it felt like a party. Maddy and Curt had been hanging out together for a couple of months now, but they weren’t making a big public statement about it.
It seemed stupid to me that they were trying to be secretive about being a couple, but this was what Curt wanted, Maddy had told Kara and me. I thought it was really lame of him to act like that, but Maddy wasn’t challenging it. “He’d dump me,” she said.
I had an opinion about this too—if he didn’t want other people to know about him and Maddy, he didn’t deserve her. But she didn’t want to hear it
“Aren’t you and your parents hoping you’ll get a soccer scholarship?” I asked Mark after he told me he wanted to be a full-time student, not an unpaid employee of whatever college he went to. I was eating a turkey sandwich and trying to chew it with my mouth closed (Ever tried it? It’s hard to pull off.) I would have died if I’d smiled at Mark and later discovered I had lettuce in my teeth or mayo dotting the corner of my mouth.
Kara was giving me funny looks across the table and I was studiously ignoring her. She knew how much I liked him, even though I’d gone out with two other guys in the last year and a half—Ty Leppendorf and Josh Silverberg. Ty turned out to be an idiot (which my brother ungraciously pointed out not long after I started seeing him, after Ty pretended to know where Zanzibar was but refused to point it out on the globe on Dad’s desk when Jeff challenged him to do it. Not too long after this, I spotted him in the parking lot chatting up Ashley Snow, who he’d previously claimed he didn’t think was cute but I knew he was lying about that too), and Josh, as it turned out, preferred guys, which I’d suspected, but he was so adorable and funny and smart that I was pretty nuts about him for a while, enough so that for the four months we were watching movies together and sort of making out in my living room or in his after our parents went to bed, I wasn’t thinking about that much Mark at all.
“I suppose they do want me to get a scholarship, and maybe I will get one, but I really don’t think I’d take it,” said Mark.
My sandwich was halfway to my mouth but I couldn’t bring it in for the next bite with him looking right at me. I set it back on my napkin and reached for my chips instead. “But they’ll let you go to the U of C or Stanford without one?” After I blurted this out, I realized it was like I was saying I didn’t see how his parents could afford to send him to either of these schools.
But he only shrugged. “My mom said if I get into either of them, I should go, scholarship or not.”
“Your dad too?”
“No, he says, ‘Over my dead body.’” Mark laughed. “But my mom told me she’d help me convince him.”
Maddy and Curt were wrestling over an oatmeal cookie Curt had stolen off her tray and was now holding high over his head, she trying to snatch it back, both of them giggling.
“Look at the two lovebirds,” said Greg mockingly. He glanced at Kara, but she was looking down at her phone, her red hair hanging like a silky curtain in front of her face.
Mark turned his eyes back to me and said, “Where are you applying? Have you thought about trying Stanford and U of C too?”
“I’m thinking about it,” I said. I was applying to them but didn’t want to tell him. I wasn’t applying early action, though. If he got into one or both of them early, I’d know where he was going and maybe we’d end up at the same school.
Pathetic! Kara and Maddy would have said, but it was my secret, one I intended to keep for a while longer. If my brother had known, he wouldn’t have let me hear the end of it. How our parents would pay for the tuition for one of these fancy private universities was anyone’s guess. My grandmother had said she’d help out, which she was doing for Jeff, but he’d stayed in state instead of going to George Washington University, where he’d also gotten in, but they hadn’t given him any scholarship money. He was a sophomore down in Urbana at the University of Illinois, where Dad had gone too, and I knew the tuition there wasn’t nearly as expensive as GW’s, let alone Stanford’s or the University of Chicago’s.
Here I was, borrowing trouble from the future, something I was very good at. I had to get in somewhere first, and so did Mark. And it wasn’t like the admissions committees were just standing around, waiting for us with open arms.
Still, I could dream. I was good at that.