Stuck at home for the summer? Not to worry bookworms! Get ready to vacation vicariously through the hilarious European adventure I SEE LONDON, I SEE FRANCE by Sarah Mlynowski. It’s got everything a good summer vacation needs – two besties setting out to see the world, spectacular sights, memorable moments, ridiculous mishaps, and more than a few très hot fellow travelers.
So don’t worry about finding your passport or packing your suitcase. You can start reading I See London, I See France right now! We’ve got a sneak peek of the first 3 chapters for you below.
The Basics: London, the capital of England, is the perfect gateway city for your European adventure. You can fly there directly from pretty much anywhere in America, it’s a five-hour time difference from the East Coast, plus the Brits speak English.
Um, most of the time. They snog instead of kiss, wear knickers instead of underwear, and spend pounds instead of dollars, so you might not always understand what they’re bloody (bloody = curse word!) talking about.
I am going to Europe. EUROPE. I am leaving the country. I have never left the country, and now I’m going to at least five countries.
If we make it to the gate.
“Run, Leela, run! Come on! Hurry!” I yell as the two of us charge through the airport. “They just called final boarding!”
“Wait!” she calls back. “I lost a sandal!”
I turn to see her hopping on one foot. Her bright blue purse is overflowing with a black leather wallet, Vogue, People, EW, Newsweek, hand sanitizer, a small sketch pad, pencils, her iPhone, and an open metallic makeup bag the size of a microwave. She’s also holding a white plastic bag stuffed with chips, a vitaminwater, and a sandwich.
“I dropped the napkins!” she says. “I have to go back for the napkins!”
“Forget the napkins,” I order. “We don’t have time for napkins. Put your foot back in your shoe and keep moving! I’ll take your food, let’s go!”
I grab her bag along with mine and keep running. Instead of a purse, I’m wearing a small black backpack that’s keeping everything in place. My passport. My wallet. My guidebook. Four paperbacks—One Day, The Paris Wife, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and My Brilliant Friend—that all take place in cities I’m planning to visit. Now that it’s summer vacation, I can finally read whatever I want.
When we get to the gate there is only one person in front of us.
The board says:
Departs: 5:00 p.m.
“We made it!” I say, panting. “I can’t believe it.”
Our first almost-delay was when my mother nearly had a panic attack when Leela’s parents picked me up to take us to the airport. She’d come to the driveway to say good-bye, but as I was getting into the car, I saw her eyes glaze over and she seemed very far away. “Mom?” I said, freezing in my spot. “Are you okay?”
“Just a bit light-headed,” she answered, retreating toward the house. “Don’t worry about me. Go. Have a safe flight.”
I felt slightly sick as I watched her close the front door behind her. I wondered: Can I really do this? Can I really leave?
“Everything okay?” Leela’s dad asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Let’s go.”
So we went.
Traffic was miserable, costing us an extra ten minutes. Then security pulled Leela over to examine her massive makeup bag to make sure she wasn’t breaking any kind of liquids rule.
“Why do you need so many lipsticks?” I asked her.
“That’s a ridiculous question.”
“Then why didn’t you pack them in your suitcase?”
“Most of them are in my suitcase. But I couldn’t pack all of them in there. I was worried they would melt.”
The final straw was my fault. I insisted on stopping at our terminal’s Fresh Market to get sandwiches. That way we’d be able to eat as soon as we got on the plane, be done before takeoff, and could go straight to sleep. But the line inched forward and we almost missed boarding.
Yet we made it. We lost the napkins, kept the lipsticks, and we made it. Now, we’re here at the gate. Electricity and excitement rush up my spine—I’m seriously, no joke, actually doing this. I am traveling around Europe with my best friend for four and a half weeks. Holy crap.
“Boarding pass and passport, please,” the flight attendant says when it’s our turn.
“Here you go,” I say, and hand over my paperwork.
“Have a good flight, Sydney,” the flight attendant tells me, and hands back my stuff. She turns to Leela.
“Damn,” Leela says. “My boarding pass was with the napkins.”
Tip: Are you taking a late-night flight? Sleep on the plane! That way you’ll be well rested when you land and ready to hit the ground running.
Otherwise you’re totally going to be a hot mess by noon.
Somehow we make it. We spot the pile of napkins and the boarding pass and thirty minutes later, we’re in the air. I take a final bite of my Fresh Market sandwich. “Bathroom, then sleep,” I say.
“Perfect,” Leela says, still chewing. “I’ll watch our stuff.”
Her stuff is already overflowing from her seatback pocket, and covering both her floor area and mine.
As I make my way toward the back, I can’t believe I actually left. I haven’t been on a plane since I was ten, over nine years ago. I feel free, like a balloon floating through the sky.
The plane rocks to the left.
Free. And slightly untethered.
I push away any feelings of uneasiness. The next four and a half weeks are going to be amazing. Incredible. Amazingly incredible.
I smile at the passengers as I pass them. Hello, little boy! Hello, little girl. Hello, too-skinny mom. Hello, extremely sweaty dad. Hello, cute guy.
At first, I don’t recognize him.
Then I think: His shaggy brown hair, pink cheeks, and lazy smile look familiar.
Then I realize. MATT. IT’S MATT. Leela’s ex-boyfriend MATT.
I have never met Matt in person, since Leela met him in Montreal at McGill University, but I recognize him from her Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. Selfies of the two of them on the top of a mountain (#climbedit #MontRoyal), pulling all-nighters at the library (#needcoffee), and sharing a plate of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds (#myfirstpoutine).
Leela introduced us via FaceTime, too.
He’s definitely as cute in real life as he was on the phone.
He’s watching something on his iPad. I make a U-turn, go back to our row, and sink into my aisle seat.
“I forgot my parents’ converter,” Leela says. “To plug stuff in.”
“Don’t worry about that. I bought one and definitely packed it. We can share.” I place my hand on her arm. “But brace yourself, my friend. Matt’s on the plane.”
Leela gasps. “My Matt?”
“No,” she finally says when she catches her breath. She drops the rest of her sandwich in her lap. Cheddar. Everywhere.
“Yes,” I repeat.
“Are you sure it’s him?”
“Ninety-nine percent sure.”
“Thirtyish. He’s wearing a McGill sweatshirt.”
She buries her face in her hands. “The jackass is on my airplane. What the hell is he doing on my airplane?”
“Technically the airplane is owned by Delta. Yet operated by Virgin Atlantic.”
She doesn’t laugh, even though it was super funny. Okay, maybe not super funny, but definitely a little funny. I would have laughed if she’d said it.
“He must be in our original seats,” she says. “Thank God I switched mine to be next to you. Thank God. Could you imagine if I had to sit next to him for the entire plane ride? I would die. DIE.”
“Can we not talk about dying when we’re on a plane over the ocean? Thank you.”
“He was supposed to cancel his ticket,” she continues. “I told him you were coming with me, and he said he’d go home and get a job in Toronto instead. So why is he here? On my plane? Why would he fly out of Baltimore? He doesn’t even live in Baltimore! I do!”
“Didn’t you buy the tickets to London together? He probably just kept his. Or maybe he likes the Orioles? I don’t know,” I say. I look out the small window by her head. All I see is blue. “Are you going to go back and yell at him?”
“Yes! No. I don’t want to see him. I don’t want to talk to him. He knows I’m on the plane. If he wants to see me, he can look for me. He’s an ass.” She jerks up. “Crap. Was he sitting with someone?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I was so surprised to see him I ran right back here. I never made it to the bathroom.”
“Did he notice you?” she asks, worried. “I’m sure he’d recognize you too.”
“No, no. He was watching something. I don’t think he saw me.”
“Please, please, please go back and see if he’s sitting with anyone.”
“Yes. Please. I need to know.” She shakes her head. “No way he’s going to Europe by himself.”
“He might be,” I say. “Lots of people do.”
“No,” she says. “He’s not the solo traveler type. Oh God, I bet he’s with that chick Ava. She’s probably sitting right next to him. They’re probably feeding each other peanuts. Peanuts! I hate peanuts! Who actually eats the peanuts they give you on airplanes?”
“They don’t pass out peanuts anymore. Too many allergies. It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
“Can you just pretend you’re going to the bathroom and check?”
“I actually do have to go to the bathroom. Still.”
“Perfect. Problem solved.” Leela’s face is desperate, pleading. Her brown eyes look crazed. Even her usual sleek brown hair is mussed, adding to an overall manic look.
I unbuckle my seat belt and stand up. We’re in row fourteen. The plane rumbles beneath my feet as I carefully maneuver my way to the back. Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine. Thirty.
I look up. And there he is. Still in the aisle seat. Still watching a movie. There’s an older man reading a James Patterson novel to the left of him.
Not Ava. Small miracle.
Matt looks up. Notices me staring. We lock eyes. I look away but it’s too late. Oops.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hello, Matthew,” I say. Crap. If he didn’t know who I was at first, I blew it as soon as I said his name. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do, so I keep moving, using the backs of people’s chairs to wipe off my now-sweaty palms. Luckily there’s no one in the bathroom, so I quickly step in and lock the door behind me.
On my way back, I pretend he doesn’t exist.
Leela is gripping her armrests like the plane is going down.
“He’s alone. And he saw me,” I say.
“What do I do?”
“I don’t know. Go talk to him?”
“He should come talk to me! He should apologize again! He cheated on me! He’s on my plane!” Her voice is a hysterical whisper.
“You’re right,” I say. “He should come talk to you.”
“He’d better,” she says.
I take a deep breath of stale airplane air and wiggle around, trying to get comfortable. It’s tough, since the seat seems to be designed for a preschooler.
Leela combs her fingers through her long dark hair. “Do I look okay? In case he comes back?”
“You look great,” I tell her.
“How’s my lipstick?”
“Still good,” I say.
“Thank you, Bite.”
I slip off my shoes and try to stretch out my socked toes. “What’s Bite?”
“This Canadian brand of lipstick I’m obsessed with. I’m applying for an internship there next summer. I love their branding.” Leela is studying marketing at McGill.
I’m studying English lit at the University of Maryland.
I turn to her, realizing the implication of what she just said. “You might stay in Canada next summer?”
“Maybe,” she says. “If I get the internship.”
I sink back into my seat, feeling something close to relief that I came on this trip. Leela and I need this month together. A friendship can’t survive on childhood memories alone. We have to create new experiences, or the friendship will shrivel up. Like the orchids my dad sent me for my birthday that I completely forgot to water.
She points to the screen above us. “Want to watch the movie?”
“I thought we were going to sleep?”
“I can’t sleep at a time like this! Also I have to pee. And there’s no way in hell I’m going to the bathroom.”
Tip: You might want to get CFAR (Cancel for Any Reason) insurance to prepare for the unexpected.
If you don’t, you’re SOL if your boyfriend hooks up with some random girl and you want a refund on your ticket. Sorry.
Leela and I had always planned on traveling together.
We’d been best friends since the third grade. We picked matching outfits in advance and told people we were twins. Although we were both around the same middle-row-on-picture-day height, I doubt anyone was fooled; she’s Indian and has dark skin and wavy long dark brown hair, and I’m pale with curly medium-brown Jewish-girl hair.
While other kids played soccer and went to ballet, Leela and I read books. The Princess Diaries. Anne of Green Gables. But our favorite books took place in England. Mary Poppins. Matilda. Harry Potter. Peter Pan. Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging. Thongs! Snogging! Ha!
We vowed that one day, when we were older, we would go to England and have our own adventures. London would be so much more fun than Maryland. We would have tea with our pinkies up. We’d go to Buckingham Palace. We’d fly across the city with umbrellas and broomsticks. We’d get engaged in London. Okay, not really, but Leela’s parents had gotten engaged in London and wasn’t that the most romantic thing you’d ever heard?
In middle school, we became obsessed with the Eiffel Tower. We decided we’d go to Paris and London. In high school, Leela studied French and discovered stinky cheese. I read Anna and the French Kiss, Just One Day, and a whole lot about Marie Antoinette.
My cousin Melanie actually backpacked through Europe when she was nineteen. She went for six months. She explained that backpacking through Europe didn’t mean hiking from city to city over mountains like I kind of thought it did. She took trains, and she just carried all her things in a backpack instead of a suitcase. We couldn’t imagine. How would everything fit? I wanted to travel with all my stuff in a backpack! We wanted to backpack through Europe!
Even after Leela got into McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and I got a scholarship to go to University of Maryland—which was great because I could live at home, and I felt like I needed to live at home—our plans didn’t change.
“We’re still going to Europe next summer,” she said.
“Of course,” I told her, although unlike Leela, I didn’t have a passport.
The night before she left for Canada she said, “We’re still going to Europe this summer,” as she hugged me good-bye.
I promised we would.
Leela met Matt on the first day of Frosh. That’s the week of drunken debauchery at McGill, the week before school starts. Like in Europe, the drinking age in Montreal is eighteen.
At the start of the year, Leela and I spoke or texted every day. But as the months went by and I got caught up in classes and studying and parties and driving to and from campus in addition to running around for my mother and my sister, Addison, my response time got slower and slower.
Leela: Call me when you can. I miss you!
Leela: Remember me?
Leela: Cough, cough, this is still your number, right?
Me: I’m sorry! I suck! I’m so busy! I love you!
I missed the days when our daily lives were intertwined with school and gossip and hanging out and reading and just watching TV together.
My phone buzzed in late February.
Leela: We’re still going to Europe together, right?
I didn’t answer right away. I wanted to go to Europe. Badly.
A week later she wrote again.
Leela: Hello, stranger. What’s the story for this summer? ARE we going to Europe or not? If yes, we have to get plane tickets.
I hesitated, my hands on my phone. Our friendship needed this trip. But I couldn’t say yes. I wrote back:
I don’t know.
Leela: Your mom will be fine.
Me: I’m not sure that’s true.
I waited for Leela to respond. She finally texted:
Leela: But we’ve been planning this trip FOREVER!!
Me: I know.
I thought about it. I missed Leela like crazy, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave my mother for the summer. She wouldn’t be fine.
My mother has a severe anxiety disorder called agoraphobia. People think agoraphobia is a fear of going to public places, but that’s not totally it. Agoraphobics are afraid of being out in public and losing control, so they prefer to stay in places they think of as safe.
That’s how my father explained it anyway.
When my little sister and I were still in elementary school, my mom always asked my dad to drive, and we were always the first to leave events, but she still came to our school plays and book fairs and teacher conferences. She worked from home since she’s a children’s book illustrator, but she still left the house. She didn’t love it, but she did it. She and my dad argued all the time. He wanted to go for more dinners, more parties, to meet more people, see more things. She wanted him to slow down and pay attention to his family. He liked to be out. She liked to play Monopoly and watch TV. He wanted to see a marriage counselor. She refused. Her aunt was a therapist, and she thought her aunt was a total kook.
So he went without her. And then when I was in seventh grade, he moved out without her. Without us.
After she and my father got divorced, everything went downhill. She was driving us to my middle school’s winter carnival when she had a panic attack. I was in the front, and my sister was in the back seat. We were at a red light when the light turned green and my mom didn’t move.
“Mom?” I said, and then noticed that her face was white and her hands were shaking. “Mom, are you okay?” She didn’t look okay. She looked like she was about to pass out.
The navy Taurus behind us started to honk. Once. Twice. Again. HONNNNNK.
What was happening?
“You have to drive, Mom,” Addison piped up from the back seat. “You can’t b-b-block the road!” Addison had developed a bit of a stammer. Stress, her teacher said. She was only in the fourth grade.
“I . . .” My mom’s voice cracked. “I don’t feel well. I think I’m . . . my chest hurts.”
Was she having a heart attack? My own heart started to race.
“Mom? Mom?” Addison cried out.
“Pull into the Dunkin’ Donuts over there,” I said suddenly. I put my hand on top of her arm. It was cold and clammy.
She pressed her foot lightly on the gas, crossed the lane, and drove into the parking lot, her hands still gripping the wheel. She put the car into park.
“What are you doing?” Addison asked, her voice rising. “You guys are freaking me out!”
“Does your chest still hurt?” I asked.
My mother nodded. She continued to shake. An Adele song played on the radio.
It was a heart attack. My mother was having a heart attack. I had to do something. What could I do? I needed help. We had to go to the hospital. “Should I . . . should I call an ambulance?” I looked for her purse. Where was her purse? I needed her phone!
She shook her head no, but didn’t speak.
“Mom? Where’s your purse?” I asked. “I need to call an ambulance.”
“No,” she said finally. “Don’t. I’m just . . . nervous.”
What did that mean?
“Nervous?” Addison asked, and then squeaked out a laugh. “About the winter carnival?”
My mom closed her eyes. “Syd. Run inside and get me water?”
“Okay.” I jumped out of the car and into the cold, relieved to have something constructive to do. I watched them through the store window as I waited in line. My mother’s hands were no longer gripping the steering wheel, and her door was open slightly. She seemed to be taking deep breaths.
A minute later I got back in the car, opened the bottle of water, and handed it to her. “Do you feel better?”
She took a long sip. “A little.”
“It’s for sure not a heart attack?” I asked.
“A heart attack?” Addison screeched. “You think Mom is having a heart attack?”
“I’m not having a heart attack,” my mother said quickly. “I’m fine. It’s just a panic attack. I had them when I was younger. Just give me a minute.”
We sat still, the radio continuing to play.
“Okay,” my mom said after a few songs.
“We don’t need to go to the festival,” I said. “Do you want to go home?”
“No!” Addison squawked. “The carnival has c-c-otton candy.”
I wanted to yell at my sister but didn’t want to stress her out even more.
My mom’s lower lip trembled. “I wouldn’t mind lying down.”
I put my hand back on her arm. “It’s okay. It’s not that important.”
For the next few years, my mom wouldn’t drive anywhere unless I was in the passenger seat. She said she liked having me beside her. I calmed her down. Addison and I started taking the school bus to and from school, and I went along with my mom to her appointments, to the mall, to the grocery store, to the pharmacy, to wherever she or my sister needed to go. She was worried that without me there she would have another panic attack, and somehow lose control of the car. I liked knowing that I could help. That I could make my mother feel better.
When I was sixteen-and-a-half and I got my license, I started doing most of the driving. That way my mom could relax in the passenger seat and not have to worry about having a panic attack at all. I didn’t mind: I felt needed. I hated that she worried so much, and that her world was getting smaller and smaller, but I was glad I could help and I liked driving and that I basically had my own car. I got to take it to school and wherever I wanted. I also had to pick up Addison after swimming and take my mom to the grocery store.
Until we stopped going to the grocery store. One minute my mom was studying a frozen lasagna in the freezer section of Safeway and the next minute her hands were shaking and the lasagna was on the floor. She was sweating and hyperventilating, and she needed me to take her out of there, take her outside right away before she fainted. I grabbed her hands, we left the groceries in the cart and the frozen lasagna on the floor, and I found a bench outside. I told her to take big breaths, that she was going to be okay, that I loved her, and she was going to be fine.
She hasn’t been back to the Safeway since. You can order online from Safeway, and they deliver in an hour.
My mom was pretty sure she’d have a panic attack at our high school parent-teacher nights, so couldn’t my father go to those, he didn’t live that far away, and then he could tell her what they said? He liked doing stuff like that. Surely he could do at least that after moving out on all of us. He could. And he did.
He also asked her to see a therapist.
She said she’d be fine. She’d had a few panic attacks as a teenager, but they had gone away. She ordered some books with relaxation techniques.
When they still didn’t go away, I begged her to at least ask her regular doctor for help. She finally agreed.
I drove her to the appointment and read Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story in the waiting room. Her doctor told her that she had to learn to relax, and prescribed an antidepressant. My mom took it every day for a month but said it made her brain cloudy, and then she still had a panic attack when she tried to take us to see a movie. So she stopped taking the pills.
That was two years ago.
These days she doesn’t drive. Or go to the grocery store. Or to the movies. Or to shopping malls, or go on trains, or planes, or take cabs. She won’t see another doctor, or try another medication. She doesn’t want to feel drugged out. I’m not sure what else I can do to help her, but it’s hard to watch her in pain. So I do what I can to keep the panic away.
My mom will sit in the backyard, and even go for walks, but she needs me to be with her when she leaves the house to keep her calm. She doesn’t want to risk panicking and fainting and god forbid hitting her head on the concrete and bleeding all over the sidewalk without anyone to help her.
It took me a week to answer Leela’s text about whether or not we were still on. I finally wrote back:
I’m sorry. I can’t.
She wrote back immediately:
BOOOOOO. Are you sure? I really want to go with you.
Me: I want to go with you too. I’M SORRY.
Two weeks later she wrote:
How would you feel about me going to Europe with Matt? I would OF COURSE rather go with you. Would you be upset? Be HONEST.
I felt terrible about it, but I couldn’t say that since I wasn’t a selfish asshole. I wrote back:
Go for it. You have my blessing.
Leela: Love you. Thanks. Now I just have to convince my parents. . . They like Matt but I’m not sure how they’re going to feel about me traveling with my boyfriend.
Leela’s parents had always been in favor of our plan to go to Europe since they thought a month of traveling would be good for her. They thought it would teach her to be more independent. Even though she went to school in another country, she still never had to act like a grown-up. She lived in a dorm and had a meal plan. She went to class and came back. Plus, her older sister, Vanya, was a senior at McGill, checking up on her and paving the way. Leela was lucky.
I wasn’t sure if I was rooting for her parents to say yes or no.
Three days later Leela wrote:
They said yes! My mom says she likes the idea! She says she feels even safer knowing he’s with me. So sexist but at least they said yes.
I didn’t respond right away. She was going to Europe without me. She was going to Europe with Matt.
Leela finished her freshman year at McGill in the middle of May and came home.
At the beginning of June, she stormed into Books in Wonderland, where I work every summer, tears streaking her cheeks. “Matt kissed some girl named Ava at a bar,” she said.
I took a break and led her outside. We sat on the edge of the sidewalk, our knees hiked up into our chests. “How do you know?” I asked.
“He admitted it. I asked if something was going on, and he said yes. Claimed it was a mistake. He didn’t mean for it to happen. He was at a party, and it was an accident. He was freaked out about how serious we were getting. He said he’s still freaked about how serious we’re getting. But come on, how do you accidentally kiss someone?”
I considered. “I’m not sure. I think it’s physically impossible. You’d both have to have your mouths open, and you’d have to bump into each other at a very bizarre angle.”
She hiccup-laughed. “Exactly. So what am I supposed to do about Europe?”
Matt and Leela had decided to travel through Europe together for a month. Four and a half weeks, to be exact. They were flying to London on July first and flying out of Rome on August second. They were leaving in three weeks.
“Do you still want to go?” I asked.
“No. Not with him. You can’t go to Europe with a guy who just cheated on you. Do you want to go to Europe by yourself?”
“No, I don’t want to go by myself! I can’t go by myself!”
“Of course you can. People travel by themselves all the time. You can go wherever you want. A bookstore in London. A beach in Italy. The Louvre! You’ll eat gelato! Macarons! Stinky cheese!”
“He doesn’t even like stinky cheese,” she said, sniffing.
“Then he has no taste.”
She turned to me. Her expression was hopeful. “Come with me.”
I laughed. “I can’t.”
“You can, Sydney. Please come.” She brightened. “Isn’t Addison working at Sunny’s this summer?”
“Yeah.” She’d gotten a job at the grill by the local pool.
“So she’s here. And she has her license now, right? She can help your mom.”
“She just got it last month. I’m not sure she feels comfortable driving yet. I think she’d be really mad.”
I’ve always tried to shield my sister from the stress of taking care of our mom. I was the one who made sure my mother left the house every day. I was the one who drove her around. In the years right after the divorce, my sister had been too young to help, and I didn’t want to worry her. Besides her stammer, she also started to fall behind in math. Luckily we found tutors and speech specialists who could come to the house.
“Your mom would be mad?”
“No, Addison would be mad. And my mom. They both would. I can’t go. I’m sorry. I wish I could but I can’t.”
“Can’t? Or won’t?” Leela asked. “Think about it. It’s the trip of a lifetime. And you deserve it, Syd, you really do. You do so much for your family. You need time off. And we never get to see each other anymore. I miss you.”
“I miss you too,” I said. And I hadn’t exactly been the world’s greatest friend this year. And Leela needed me. She really did. And she’d always, always been there for me.
Maybe my mom would be okay if my sister helped her? It was only four and a half weeks. I looked back at the bookstore. Eleanor, the owner of Books in Wonderland, wouldn’t mind. She had enough extra staff.
I blew out a breath. “How much would the trip cost exactly?”
Leela squeezed my arm. “Not THAT much. We can do it on sixty dollars a day. That’s like two thousand for the whole thing.”
“Plus the flight. How much was yours?”
“Eight hundred. Flying into London and flying out of Rome. Are you going to come? Please say you’re going to come!”
“And how do we get around?”
“Eurail. Seven hundred.”
“So three thousand five hundred. That’s a lot. But I have some Bat Mitzvah money left. And I’ve been working here for the last month . . . I think I have about three thousand dollars I could scrape together.”
“Maybe your dad has airline points?”
My dad did have airline points. He had a shitload of airline points. He never invited us to stay at his one-bedroom apartment, but he always offered us airline points.
“Take a vacation,” he’d say. “Have some fun.”
“I don’t even have a passport,” I said.
“You can get one fast. I swear. We’ll expedite it.”
Could I do this? Could I go? The possibility felt like a window being cracked open. I could practically taste the fresh air. The fresh air, gelato, macarons, and stinky cheese.
“I bet we could stay with Kat for part of the time,” I said. I’d met Kat at college. She was working at a gallery in Paris for the summer, and her parents had rented her an apartment. “That would save us a few euros.”
“Yes!” she said. “We can do this! You’re coming to Europe! Woot!”
My cheeks flushed. “Don’t get too excited. I have to talk to my family.”
That night I waited for Addison to get dropped off at home. When she walked into the foyer, her hair was wet and piled on top of her head. We both have our mother’s curly brown hair and round face and our dad’s light brown eyes. Addison’s shorter than I am and more muscular since she swims almost every day and plays third base for the JV girls’ softball team.
She wasn’t the same helpless kid she used to be. She could drive. She had a job. She had even lost her stammer.
“Hey,” I said, lowering my voice since our mom was in the kitchen. “I have a crazy question.”
She dropped her knapsack on the floor. “What?”
“Matt cheated on Leela—”
She made a sour face. “Jerk!”
“I know. But the thing is, now she wants me to go to Europe with her.”
She blinked. Fast. “Oh. Okay. You always wanted to go, right?”
“Do you have the cash?”
“Maybe. But I would only do it if you think you can handle Mom. Could you? You can drive so I wouldn’t be leaving you stranded. All you have to do is make sure she walks around the block once a day to get some exercise and drive her around if she has to go somewhere. It’s only a month. Four and a half weeks. Would you be okay with that? In theory?”
She shrugged. “I guess.”
“Yeah? Think about it. I don’t have to go.”
“No, you should go. Sounds fun.”
“Yeah? And you’d get the car to yourself all summer. . . .”
She smiled. “I definitely like the sound of that.”
“If something horrible happens I’ll come back early. I’ll get on the next plane. Swear.”
She rolled her eyes. “What do you think is going to happen exactly?”
“Who knows with Mom? She could refuse to leave her bedroom entirely. Or stop showering. I don’t know. Something. If there’s an emergency I’ll come back. Deal?”
“Deal,” she said. She unzipped her knapsack, took out her wet bathing suit, and uncrumpled it. She didn’t seem worried at all.
Hope swelled inside of me.
“What’s Mom making for dinner?” she asked.
“Chicken stir fry.”
“Do you think it’s ready? I’m starving.” She headed into the kitchen, wet bathing suit in hand, not a care in the world.
My heart hammered over dinner. Could I really do this? No. Yes. Should I bring it up? No. Yes. What would my mom say?
My sister helped herself to more chicken and broccoli. “So I hear it’s just us this summer, huh, Mom?”
“What do you mean?” my mother asked, eyebrows scrunching together.
Addison made an oops face at me. She clearly hadn’t realized I had not discussed this with Mom yet.
Now or never.
I stared at my plate and the words tumbled out of my mouth like vomit. “Matt cheated on Leela, she’s miserable and needs someone to travel with, I want to go, Dad has airline points, it won’t cost you anything, Addison will help you, is that okay?”
My mom put her fork down. “Can you repeat that? Slowly?”
I repeated it. Slowly. Her face got paler and paler with each sentence. Oh, no. Was she going to have a panic attack right at the table?
Instead of speaking, her shaking hands reached for her glass of water.
“Do you hate the idea?” I asked, my shoulders falling. “I don’t have to go. Forget it.”
She cleared her throat. “No,” she said. “You should go.” She took another sip of water. She seemed to notice her hands were shaking and hid them under the table.
“We’ll be fine,” my sister said, rolling her eyes. “It’s not that big of a deal.”
It was a big deal. But I wanted to go. And Leela needed me.
That night, I lay in my twin bed, the same bed I’d slept in my entire life, staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars I’d stuck to the ceiling when I was eight. Could I really do this? My mom said she’d be fine. My sister said she could handle it. I wanted—desperately—to see Europe.
I took out my phone.
Me: OK. I’m in.
It’s nine p.m. East Coast time and two a.m. London time when Matt finally comes over to talk to Leela. We’re very busy picking at our terrible airplane food, aka our second meal of the night. It’s also the meal we’re supposed to be sleeping through.
“Hi, Leela,” he says. “Can we talk?”
I focus intently on the cold pasta and mushy tomatoes. Mmm. Stale bread.
Leela glares at him. “You should have talked to me before getting on this plane.”
“I tried to find you at the airport. I didn’t see you.”
“Before the airport. You should have called.”
His cheeks turn red. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have surprised you.”
“What are you doing here, anyway?” she barks. “I thought you weren’t coming.”
“I know. But I didn’t really have anything else to do this summer, and I already had the ticket, and . . .” His voice trails off.
The plane starts to shake. The seat belt sign comes on.
“. . . and I wanted to see you, I guess.”
Leela stares at her hands and doesn’t respond.
“Enjoy the cookies,” he says, and walks back to his seat.
I am planning on enjoying my cookie. It’s wrapped in plastic and looks delicious.
We wait until we’re sure he’s gone.
“He wanted to see me?” she squeals. “What does that mean? He wants to get back together?”
“Do you want to get back together?” I ask. The possibility of them getting back together hadn’t really occurred to me. If they get back together, what happens to me exactly? Will I have to travel Europe with both of them? I do not want to be a third wheel on my own travel adventure.
“No!” she says. “Of course not. He cheated on me! He’s a jerk!” She wraps a lock of dark hair tightly around her finger. “But do you think he came to Europe to get back together?”
I imagine being on a top bunk while the two of them have muffled make-up sex in the bunk bed below me.
Did I remember to pack earplugs?
“Please put your tray tables away and your seats into the upright position,” the flight attendant announces on the loudspeaker, startling me awake. “It’s now six a.m. and we will be landing shortly. The temperature in London is twenty-one degrees Celsius.”
I yawn. I got about an hour of sleep, tops. But I did finish One Day and half of The Paris Wife. I’ll probably be an exhausted mess, but it’s okay because I have four and a half weeks—four and a half weeks!—to rest. I have no essays, no midterms, no group projects, no mother and sister to take care of. I am officially on vacation. I haven’t taken an actual vacation since before my parents got divorced. And I’ve never, ever gone away with Leela. Her family invites me to join them in Naples, Florida, every winter break, but I never wanted to leave my mother. This year Leela brought Matt.
I look over to see that Leela is already awake and trying to repack everything that spilled out of her purse.
“Morning,” I say. “Twenty-one degrees? We’re going to freeze! Just kidding. It’s Celsius! How cute is that?”
“Very charming,” Leela says. “That’s about seventy degrees. They use Celsius in Canada too, you know.”
I open my window cover as the plane descends, not really seeing much. Just clouds. But I know the Thames River and the London Eye and everything else are right below.
When the plane touches ground, half the people clap and I join in because, well, why not? We made it, didn’t we? I gather my books, and make sure my passport didn’t somehow slip out and end up under someone else’s seat, and then rummage through Leela’s discarded pillow and blanket in case she forgot anything.
“Are we walking slowly or quickly?” I ask, filing into line.
“Do we want him to catch up to us or not?”
“Oh. Not. If he really came to Europe to find me, he can run after me.”
When we step off the plane, there are hundreds of travelers of all ages walking in different directions, with carry-ons, wheelies, and backpacks. And there are a whole lot of stores I don’t recognize. Boots, which seems like a pharmacy. And WHSmith, which has displays of bestselling books. There is even a cute dark-haired boy studying a paperback. “Leela! They have pharmaceuticals, books, and cute boys here! We’re going to love it.”
“Let’s find a bathroom,” she instructs, not looking around. “Fast.” She didn’t go once the whole plane ride.
“To the loo!” I say.
“Don’t make me laugh, I’ll pee in my pants.” We spot a sign that says “Female Toilet,” and make a run for it.
Even the bathrooms are different. The toilets are squareish, and there aren’t any visible tanks.
“How do you flush?” she asks. “There’s no flusher!”
“It’s on the wall!” I call out.
When I get out, she’s brushing her teeth in the sink. Her hair looks combed.
“Do I have to do that too?” I ask.
She spits. “No, you’re not about to face an ex-boyfriend.”
I wouldn’t care if I were. My last relationship was in January and only lasted two months. Theo was an economics major and a friend of Kat’s. I slept with him six times and I thought he was sweet until he started speaking in an Elmo voice and saying things like, “Theo is so sad when Sydney doesn’t sleep over!” and “Theo wants to see Sydney’s house!” Also, while he was a good kisser, he wasn’t great at the sex part. It lasted about fifteen seconds and he hummed the whole time.
Anyway. Matt was Leela’s first boyfriend. First everything.
While she applies one of her seven lipsticks, I take my phone out of my backpack and debate turning it on. I guess I should. To make sure everything is okay at home.
A text message pops onto my screen. FREE MSG: Your phone number has exceeded $15 in global data charges. Data is $2.05/1MB.
WTF? Fifteen dollars in global charges? In four seconds? Oops. I forgot to turn on an international plan, and I’m roaming.
Three texts pop onto my screen, too. All from my sister, Addison.
Are you there yet? I can’t find the car keys.
Crap. I turn my phone off in case my bill doubles in the next four seconds. I’ll deal with the car keys and charges later.
“Syd . . . ” Leela says.
“Yeah?” I return my phone to my bag.
“Did you know about this?” she asks.
She turns to me, brown eyes wide. “Is this a surprise?”
I have no idea what she’s talking about. “Is what a surprise?”
“Did he tell you he was coming? Is this whole thing a big surprise for me? Like my dad surprised my mom?”
I suddenly remember that her father surprised her mother at a tea place in London. And then he proposed. Does she think Matt hooking up with Ava was a hoax? That the whole last month was a trick to surprise her in London and propose?
“Oh, sweetie,” I say. “No. I’ve never spoken to Matt before today, except with you on Facetime. I don’t think he’s showing up at the tea place with an engagement ring.”
She looks down. “I didn’t think he was going to propose. I just thought maybe he was planning on winning me back and showing up with flowers and telling me he loves me. Do you know he’s never said I love you? Not once.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “But I haven’t talked to him. I swear.”
She sighs. “Okay. Just checking.” She repacks her bag and heads out the bathroom door. “Onward.”
“We’re in the Queen’s Terminal. The queen’s!” I exclaim, trying to cheer her up. “I love the queen. I want to meet the queen.”
“We probably won’t, though.”
As we make our way to Passport Control, I catch Leela scanning the line for Matt.
I give her arm a squeeze.
Finally, it’s our turn to step up to a booth. “Where do you reside?” the man asks. He has a British accent, and I love him immediately. I resist the urge to ask him if he knows Mary Poppins.
“Maryland,” I say.
“How long are you here for?”
“We’re traveling for a month,” I say. “Four and a half weeks. Do you need to know all the countries we’ll be visiting?”
“No,” he says, and stamps our passports.
My first stamp. I know I have a dumb smile on my face, but I can’t help it. It’s just a little black box that says “Immigration Officer,” the date, and “Heathrow,” but it’s my first international stamp and it’s awesome.
We follow the signs to baggage reclaim. Not claim. Reclaim. Adorable!
“Do you see him?” she asks, clearly trying very hard to not look around.
“Not yet. But he was at the back of the plane.”
A few minutes later I spot him by the door. “He’s here,” I say. “He sees us.”
She freezes but doesn’t give herself away. “What’s he doing?”
“Walking toward us. Should I laugh or something? Pretend we’re having a great time? Pretend you’ve just said something incredibly witty?”
“Ha, ha, ha!” I force a massive smile. “We’re having such a great time! You’ve just said something so incredibly witty! Now do you want me to casually leave?”
Matt says something to the guy beside him, and I realize that it’s the cute guy I saw looking at the books, and that he must be the person traveling with Matt. They probably met up in the terminal. The guy’s hair is straight and dark brown, almost black, and he’s tall. Taller than Matt, anyway. Square jaw. Dark eyebrows. Perfectly smooth olive skin.
He’s kind of hot. Actually, he’s really hot. Why have I never seen him in any of Leela’s photos? I’d rather look at him than a plate of poutine.
“He’s with a really hot guy,” I say.
“Huh?” she asks. “Is it Jackson?”
“I don’t know who Jackson is,” I say. “But maybe?”
The guy-who-is-possibly-Jackson spots his backpack—it’s a deep red—at another conveyor belt and hoists it over his shoulder in one swoop.
Leela closes her eyes. “I can’t believe he’s traveling with Jackson.”
I know there’s a story here, and I am looking forward to hearing it.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spot my spankin’ new backpack and leap over to pick it up. It’s pale blue with black stitching and lots of zippers, and it has adjustable arm straps and a band that I can snap around my waist, which will supposedly help distribute the bag’s weight. Am I really going to wear this on my back for over four weeks? Or is that more of a figure of speech?
Also, now I have two backpacks: the small one I’m already wearing on my back and a huge one. My plan was to roll the small one up and pack it when it wasn’t in use, but I can’t exactly do that here. I’m going to have to wear one on my back and one on my front. That’ll be super attractive. Maybe I’ll wait until Hot Jackson is no longer in the vicinity.
“Hello again,” Matt says as the two of them approach us.
“Fancy seeing you here,” Leela replies drily. Her arms are crossed in front of her chest. “Sydney, this is Jackson. Jackson, Sydney. Syd, I believe you already met Matt.”
“We go way back,” I say. “All the way to row thirty. Hi there, Jackson. We missed you on our flight.”
“I flew from Vancouver,” he says, turning toward me. “But I hear yours was a party.”
“It was definitely wild and crazy,” I say, smiling.
He smiles back, and I realize I am no longer the third wheel. Jackson and I are in this drama together.
Leela shakes her head and glares at Matt. “I can’t believe you’re crashing my trip.”
I’m not sure how I feel about Matt, but I may not mind Jackson crashing my trip.
“I’m not crashing,” Matt says. “I’m going to Europe. With Jackson. I already had the ticket. Trust me, I tried really hard to switch the ticket to leave from Toronto, but I couldn’t make it happen. I’m sure our plans will be completely different, so don’t worry.”
“They better be. How long are you staying in London?” Leela asks, eyes narrowed.
Her jaw clenches.
I spot Leela’s suitcase coming our way. She’s using one of those duffel bags on wheels, instead of a backpack. She had decided backpacks were dorky. I completely disagree. Backpacks are awesome.
“Leela, your bag,” I say, deciding that their conversation could use an interruption.
She twists her head toward the belt and tries to drag it off the conveyor.
“Let me help you,” Matt says, and reaches toward it.
“I don’t need your help,” she snaps, grabbing it. “I can get along fine without you.”
“Okay, then.” He reaches over to the conveyor and picks up and puts on his own black backpack. Then he walks backward and away from us. “You’re on your own. Have a great trip.”
“Nice meeting you,” Jackson says to me with a half smile.
“You too,” I say, adding a little wave. Good-bye, Hot Jackson, good-bye.
“I’m going to kill him,” Leela mutters, turning around. She studies the black bag. “Damn. This isn’t even mine. I got a Canadian bag tag. Help me put it back?”
“You’re not actually Canadian,” I say, hoisting it back onto the conveyor belt. “You know that, right?”
“Europeans like Canadians better than Americans,” she says. “We have to be careful here, you know. I brought one for you, too. It’s in my bag.”
We stand side by side watching for her suitcase.
It doesn’t come.
I see Matt and Jackson disappear through customs.
“Seriously, I am going to kill him,” Leela says. “Maybe the murder laws are different here. Perhaps you’re allowed to kill your ex?”
“Probably not in the UK. The Brits are supposed to be uptight.” I smile. “But maybe in France.”
We wait for Leela’s bag. And wait some more.
All the other bags come through and get picked up.
Leela’s breathing fast and her jaw is clenched again and I can tell she is about to start crying. “Omigod. I can’t deal. I can’t take it. I can’t handle him being here and losing my luggage. I just can’t. I need my eye makeup remover and my gold sandals and my eyelash curler and my hair dryer! Right now!”
“It’s going to be fine,” I say. “Let’s go talk to someone.”
“To them!” I say, pointing to the counter in the corner that says Customer Service. “They will help us! They will find your bag. If not this very moment, then soon, and then they will send it to us. You have a lot of stuff in your carry-on, right? Is it enough to keep you going for a day or so? I saw you brush your hair and teeth so I know you have those. Plus magazines. And makeup.”
“Yes,” she says. “I have those. And an extra pair of undies. And my pills.”
“What pills? Anything fun?”
“Birth control pills. You are welcome to party with them all night long.”
“You’re still on birth control?”
“Of course. I’m not getting off just like that. They make my boobs ginormous.”
“Do you think they would make my right boob as big as my left?” I ask.
“I can’t guarantee that,” she says. “But I appreciate your attempt to make me laugh and forget that I might have to walk around London in my undies.”
“Knickers,” I say. “They’re called knickers here.” I hoist the big bag on my back, and the small one on my front. “Now let’s go get some customer service.”
Tip: The Tube is the cheapest way to get from Heathrow into London.
We are sorry to inform you that the Tube is the London subway and not, as we had hoped, a cross-city waterslide.
Forty-five minutes later, on the other side of customs, Leela is still duffel-bag-less. Customer Service has promised that when they locate it they will have it sent to our hostel. I can only hope we are still in London by then.
I feel slightly brain-dead, so I lead us toward an Italian coffee place called Caffè Nero. We use the pounds we exchanged at home to get us started to buy two cups of Americano and take big, long sips.
“Ahhhh,” I say.
“Should we just take a cab?” Leela asks.
“No, we shouldn’t,” I say. “A cab will be a fortune. This coffee just cost like four American dollars each and we’re supposed to be budgeting. We said we would take the subway. It’s called the Underground here. The Tube! Doesn’t it sound like a waterslide?”
“How awesome would that be?”
We follow the signs to the Underground. There’s an elevator—a lift—that takes us to floor “-1.” Ha! Minus one! You’re so cute, London.
When we get to the ticket machines, I feel a wave of uneasiness. I have no idea what to do.
“What station are you going to?” a man in uniform asks me.
Thank goodness. Help.
“Covent Garden,” I say. “But I think we’re supposed to get an Oyster card.” I read that in my Travel Europe book.
We each put twenty pounds on our cards, which, at the exchange rate of 1.5, cost us like thirty dollars each. I hope that will last the whole time, otherwise we’re never going to be able to do this on sixty dollars a day.
My mom ordered Travel Europe from Amazon for me, which was pretty sweet of her. Obviously she should have bought it from Books in Wonderland, especially since I get an employee discount, but it wasn’t like she was going to leave the house to visit the store on her own.
“It’s a trip of a lifetime,” my mom said. “I wish I had done it.”
She never would have. She hated traveling even when she was my age.
I had done as much planning as I could in the three weeks I’d had. Leela had been kind of a mess after the breakup, so she’d lie on my bed while I looked things up and made reservations. I’d booked the first hostel, plus loosely planned our days, and reserved our train to Paris. There, we’d stay with my friend Kat for five nights. After that, we’d save more money by taking an overnight train to Berlin instead of a day train. After Berlin, we could see what we felt like doing. Maybe Prague, which wasn’t too far from Berlin, and Vienna, and then maybe another overnight to Italy? But we would play it by ear. As I’d told Leela, nothing was set in stone.
“You’re the best,” she’d said, tracing circles into my pillow. “Matt had wanted to just go and figure things out as we went along, but having a plan is so much smarter.”
“I don’t mind,” I said. “I like planning.”
And anyway, in a way it felt like I was paying Leela back for years of looking out for me.
After my parents’ divorce, she’d cheered me up with funny pictures she’d drawn, and sleepovers and daily calls just to say hi.
On my fourteenth birthday, I insisted my mom take me and Leela and Addison out for Japanese. We never went to restaurants, but it was my birthday. My birthday! I didn’t want to eat dinner at home. I wanted to do something special. After dinner, Leela would stay the night.
My mom drove. I sat in the passenger seat. Everything was fine.
She had a panic attack while we were eating our sushi.
Her hand started shaking while she held the chopsticks. Her face flushed and she was breathing hard and fast like she was running up stairs.
Every emotion hit me at once. Worry for my mom. Guilt for forcing her to go out even when I knew she didn’t like to. Embarrassment that this was happening in front of Leela. But I jumped up and waved down the waiter to get water and I rubbed my mom’s back. I was too ashamed to look at Leela. But when Addison started to cry, Leela put her arm around my sister and whispered to her that everything was going to be okay.
Later that night, when I turned off the lights, I told Leela the truth. I stared at the glowing stars on my ceiling and let my words just be words floating in the dark.
When I was finished, she sat up in bed and I could feel her looking at me. “You were so awesome tonight. You took care of everything.”
I shrugged but felt pleased. And, relieved.
“I won’t tell anyone,” Leela said. “Not even my mother if you don’t want me to.”
“You can tell your mom,” I said. “But, please, no one else.”
Afterward, Leela started coming to my house more often.
She made sure I always had a way to and from every school play, every school dance, and every birthday party. Leela always, always made sure I was okay.
Now I would do the same for her.
There’s already a train waiting for us since this is the first stop on the Piccadilly Line. I sit. The seats are plush and fuzzy, which seems like the wrong choice. What happens if someone spills something on them? Like an Americano, perhaps? I hold my coffee tightly.
I can’t believe I’m here. On a train in London. Holding a coffee. This is crazy. This is amazing. This is scary. What if I get us lost? I look down at the map in my Travel Europe.
“First stop, London, here we come!” I say, trying to sound brave.
“How many days are we staying here again?”
“Five nights,” I say. “Then Paris.”
“Is that enough time?”
“Travel Europe says so.”
She laughs. “Well, if the guide says it, it must be true.”
“Did I tell you there’s a Travel Europe app too?”
“Did you download it yet? It’s only $2.99.”
I know I’m doing most of the planning on this trip. But that doesn’t mean I want to deal with everything.
“Haven’t had a chance,” she says. “An app makes more sense, though. That book looks heavy.”
“I’m going to rip out the pages when we leave a place,” I say. “To lighten it up.”
“Smart,” she says. “Speaking of leaving places, I’m glad you’re not making me go to Amsterdam.” She makes a face. Amsterdam had been the only must-see for Matt. Since Travel Europe spent a lot of pages describing how the city was famous for sex tourism and drugs, I could see why Leela had been concerned that he’d been a little too excited about the place.
“We have a packed schedule without Amsterdam,” I say. I flip through all the countries. “There’s so much to see and do.”
“Maybe we should make up our own guide,” Leela says. “The American Girls’ Guide to Traveling Around Europe While Avoiding Your Ex.”
“Maybe just the Girls’ Guide to Europe. Snappier.”
“Definitely,” Leela says. “Where are we getting off again?”
“Covent Garden,” I say.
She looks out the train window. “And you know where we’re going?” Leela asks.
“Yes,” I say, but my voice shakes. I look down at the map in my book. “Maybe. I guess we’ll find out.”
When we get out of the train, the line for the lift is really long—and there are no escalators.
“Let’s just take the stairs,” I say. “We’ve been sitting forever.”
“But you’re wearing a backpack.”
“It’s not that heavy,” I say. The band around the waist really works. It’s pretty smart engineering. “And the line is insane. Is one of the elevators broken? By the time it’s our turn, our four and a half weeks will be up. How many flights of stairs can there be, anyway? How deep underground are we?”
It turns out we are very deep underground. After four flights, my heart is pounding. “I bet you’re not so sad about your missing luggage now,” I pant.
“You’d bet right,” she says cheerfully.
“You’re so not borrowing my underwear.”
“If we ever get out of here alive, I will buy my own underwear. But can I use your deodorant?”
“No. That’s disgusting. Also there might not be any left by the time we see sunlight. I think I’m going to have to reapply any second.”
“Let me help you with your bag,” she says.
My heart is racing, and I think I might throw up. “Okay,” I say.
She takes the back and I take the front. Up. Up. Up. A kid around thirteen passes us and gives me a dirty look.
“I bet Matt took a cab. You have no idea. His parents pay for everything. Bullshit he couldn’t get a new flight. He better not be at our hostel. He probably won’t be. I’m sure he got something fancy and not a room without its own bathroom. What do you want to do first?”
“Can’t talk,” I huff. “Climbing.” Am I going to pass out? I’m beginning to see spots. I’m not going to faint, am I? “How much farther do you think it is?” I ask Leela.
“No idea,” she says.
Another person pushes past us. “Excuse me?” I ask. “Do you know how many flights are left?”
“You’re almost halfway,” he says.
My chest hurts. Suddenly the staircase starts to feel even smaller. What is wrong with me?
Is this a panic attack?
No, no, no.
I am not having a panic attack. I am not. This is not a panic attack. This is just what it feels like to be out of shape and climbing a million stairs while wearing a massive backpack.
Spots crawl across my vision. “I don’t think I can do this,” I admit.
“Do you want to go back down?” she asks.
“Maybe,” I say. “Will you hate me?”
“I could never hate you,” she says. “And this weighs a ton.”
We return down the stairs and join the now even longer line for the lift.
“Sorry about that,” I huff. My breaths are still coming fast. But that was not a panic attack. I’ve seen panic attacks and that was not one. That was just an insane amount of stairs.
“No worries, I was getting tired, too.” She shakes her head. “I can’t believe he came with Jackson.”
“So what’s the deal with Jackson?” I ask, picturing him in my mind and enjoying the image.
“He’s not my favorite of Matt’s friends.”
Oh. Boo. “He was very hot, though.”
“Yes. He’s also a bad influence.”
“What do you mean?”
She rolls her eyes. “He’s kind of a man whore. We were all in the same residence, right? During Frosh I counted the number of girls that came out of his room. Are you ready? Nine. Nine! Frosh was less than a week! And they came out with their shirts on inside out or their hair all messed up, with dopey smiles on their faces. And he just got worse over the year. But he was with Matt when he kissed Ava. I bet he was pushing Matt toward her, telling him that she was flirting with him, that he couldn’t spend the whole month depressed about me. Jackson is not a big believer in relationships. I’m sure he’ll try to get Matt to sleep with every girl he meets across the continent.”
“He sounds charming,” I say, pushing the image of Mr. Hotness out of my mind. I do not lust after man whores, no matter how good-looking they are.
Another lift fills and closes, and we move up. Still not our turn, though. It’s so dark in here. What happens in a power failure?
“Oh! One night he hooked up with two roommates!”
“Gross. Did they know?”
“Yes! Sorry, was that not clear? He hooked up with them together. They didn’t even like each other. But they both liked him and . . .” Her voice trails off and she shakes her head. “I can’t believe that’s who Matt’s traveling with.”
Finally, the elevator doors open, and it’s our turn. We step in with about ten other people, and I end up all the way in the back.
It’s feeling a little crowded in here. I still haven’t gotten my breath fully back from the stairs. How long is this going to take?
“They’re not even that good friends,” Leela continues. “And Matt’s always trying to impress him. He drinks more when Jackson’s around, smokes more. And then he’s a mess. It’s horrible. And embarrassing.”
The doors open, and I can see light. Hurrah! I readjust the backpack and step outside.
“Oh no,” Leela says. “It’s pouring!”
At this point, I don’t care if there’s a blizzard. I push my way outside and take a huge, glorious breath of wet London air.
“’Allo, London!” I cry. “It’s more of a mist.”
I try to take it all in at once. There are tourists looking around and businessmen and women in suits and younger men in tight jeans and women in ballet flats.
It smells like exhaust fumes and rain.
The cars are like regular cars, but fatter and shorter. Smushed. And the cabs are all black.
“Look! It’s a double-decker bus!” I say, pointing ahead.
It really is a double-decker bus. Just like in the movies.
“And there’s a red phone booth!” Leela says. “I guess they still use phone booths here?”
“Maybe they just keep them because they’re so cute.”
“Take a picture of me in it!” Leela cries, tossing me her phone. She squeezes inside, and picks up the pay phone. “Omigod, it stinks in here.”
“I’m captioning it ‘London’s Calling,’” she says. “Clever, huh? Huh?”
“Very clever,” I say.
“Do you know which way our hostel is?” Leela asks.
“Um, no,” I say. “I put my book in my backpack. Can you check your phone? You have 3G over here, right? Or whatever they call it in London?”
“Oh, right! Let me use Google Maps. Thank God I didn’t pack my phone in my luggage.”
“Why would anyone pack their phone in their luggage?”
“I’m sure some people do. Okay, here we go. What’s the name of the hostel again?”
“It’s called Zuhause.” It’s five minutes from Covent Garden, which I read was a great location. And we have our own room. Not our own bathroom, but our own room. And they had a web special so I got it for only thirty pounds a night, which is fifteen pounds each, which is like twenty-five dollars.
“Oh. Right. Z-o-o house? Like it’s a zoo?”
“No. It’s German for . . . I don’t remember.”
“So how do you spell it?”
“I don’t know. You have the phone.” I try not to sound irritated.
“Don’t get cranky. I’ll find out.” She spends a few more seconds typing on her iPhone. “It’s this way,” she says, pointing across the street.
“Okay, let’s go,” I say.
“Should we stop so I can get some stuff?”
“Can we just check in first? My back is feeling numb.”
“Let’s cross,” Leela says. She looks left and takes a step into the street.
A black cab goes zooming by her from the other side.
“Look right!” I yell as she jumps back. “You have to look right! They drive on the other side of the street here!”
“That was crazy,” she says. She points down. “Hey! It says it right there!”
Indeed, painted on the paved road it says “Look Right” in white.
“Look right,” she repeats, and we do.
We walk into a bar.
“Are you sure this is it?” she asks, scanning the room. There are a few groups of travelers eating runny eggs. Flags from different countries line the wall.
I drop my backpack on the ground with an “AHHH” and march up to the desk. “Hi,” I say with extra cheer. “We’re checking in.”
“Check-in is at foh,” the not-so-helpful, pink-haired twentysomething at the registration desk tells us.
“But it’s only ten,” I say.
She nods again. “Right.”
“What are we supposed to do for six hours?” I ask. My cheer has disappeared. I’m tired. And wet. I need a shower.
“Will you text us if our room becomes available early?”
“Sure,” she says.
“Give her your cell,” I instruct Leela.
The woman pretends to write it down. I don’t think we’re going to be hearing from her.
“I’m too tired to walk around,” I say. My eyes are heavy. I’m starting to get dizzy. I need sleep. My body is confused.
“I have to get stuff anyway,” Leela says. “Who knows when my bag is coming.”
“All right,” I say. I turn back to the woman at the desk. “Can I leave my bag here?”
“You could, but it might be safest in your room.”
“But I don’t have a room yet.”
She nods. “Right. Should be fine. Might be fine. I don’t know.”
“Just leave it,” Leela says. “It’s locked, right?”
“Yeah.” But I don’t want to lose mine, too. “I guess I can take it with me. We won’t go too far.”
“Can we eat?” Leela asks. She turns back to the woman at the desk. “Can you recommend a place for brunch?”
She looks at us blankly. “Brunch? No. But you can eat here.”
“I don’t think I want to eat here,” Leela says under her breath. “Any place else? What’s really good?”
“Freya’s is all right, and it’s just down the road,” she says.
“And what about shopping? I need shampoo and stuff. My luggage got left in America.”
“There’s a Boots on King’s Road,” she says. “And an Haiche-an-em.”
“What?” I ask.
“Haiche-an-em,” she repeats.
“H&M?” Leela asks.
She looks at us like we’re morons. “Yeah. Off you go.”
Okay. I think we were dismissed. “We need to find an ATM too,” I tell Leela. “I only have twenty pounds.”
“Let’s just eat and then figure it out. I’m starving.”
At the restaurant, we both order porridge because we think it sounds British, and coffees, which arrive in super tiny cups and are so not going to do the trick.
“Can I have another one of these, please?” I ask our waiter. “Thanks.”
“Should we call our parents?” Leela asks.
“It’s like five in the morning at home,” I say.
“My dad told me to call as soon as I could,” she says. “I don’t want him to wake up and get nervous that my plane crashed.”
“Go ahead,” I say. “I’m afraid to look at my phone.” I’m going to have to figure out what to do about my data plan, but I’m too tired to deal with it right now. I am worried about my family, but they’re asleep now anyway.
I relax into the chair as she dials.
“Dad! It’s me. I’m here. No, I’m fine. But they lost my luggage. They’re not sure. Really? Are you sure? How much? Yes, I have it. I’ll let you know. Love you.”
She hangs up the phone. She’s smiling.
“What?” I ask.
“The credit card we got the ticket on has baggage insurance. I can spend five hundred bucks on new things.”
“Then let’s go spend some pounds.”
“Look at these!” she cries in Boots. She waves a lipstick at me. “British makeup!”
“It looks a lot like American makeup,” I say.
“Omigod, they have Nails inc. And the nail polish is only seven pounds. Do you know how much it costs at Sephora? UK makeup shopping spree!” she cheers, admiring a bright red lipstick. “This is like the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
“Shouldn’t you buy some clothes too?” I ask. “In case you don’t actually get your luggage?”
“I guess,” she says. “But look at this NYX Soft Matte lipstick. I can’t resist it. My lips are going to look so soft! So matte!”
“Maybe you should also buy some pajamas. And a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. And a bathing suit? Maybe some flip-flops? Or a sweatshirt? It’s chilly.”
“Okay, fine,” she says. “But let me treat you to a lipstick. Or a nail polish? Something?”
“How about an umbrella?”
“Done,” she says. “Let’s go get cute matching ones.”
I let her buy me a yellow umbrella since the mist outside has turned into a downpour. What if it rains the whole time? What if I’ve spent all my money and deserted my family and I’m miserable the entire four and a half weeks?
No. That’s not going to happen. And my family is fine. Hopefully. I should check on them. No, I can’t. It’s five hours earlier at home so they’re probably still sleeping.
“Let’s take a selfie with our umbrellas,” she says on the street corner.
I stand beside her, and she lifts up her phone. “Smile,” she says.
She studies the pic. “You’re smiling with your lips, but not with your eyes.”
“My eyes are tired,” I whine. “So very tired.”
“One more,” she says, and puts us back in position. “I have to look good.” Snap. Snap. Snap, snap, snap. “Oh! Look! So cute! So London! I got the umbrellas and the rain and everything. I’m adding the London geofilter.”
“Yay,” I say, although I suspect my voice lacks conviction. “Any texts from the hostel?”
“Nope,” she says. She doesn’t seem so bothered. The shopping spree has reenergized her.
At three that afternoon, still roomless, I decide I can finally call home. “Can I borrow your phone?”
“Sure,” she says, and hands it to me. “Just dial regularly.”
I type 1 and then my home phone number.
It rings. Once.
“Hello?” my sister barks.
“Hi! It’s me.”
“Thanks for answering all my texts,” my sister says.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t. I’m roaming. I’m using Leela’s phone. How’s Mom?”
“But is she . . . okay?”
I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. “Good. Is it your day off?”
“Great. Did you find the car keys?”
“Did you check the right drawer in the kitchen?”
Pause. “Oh. Yeah. Here they are.”
“Good. Did you take Mom out yesterday?”
“Yes, I took her out.”
“Great,” I say. “Can I talk to her?”
“I don’t want to go upstairs,” she says. “Can you call later?”
“Okay,” I say.
“Are you having fun?”
“Yeah! Well, I just got here, right?”
“Where are you?”
“In London. Our room isn’t ready yet,” I say. “But Leela lost her luggage and got a credit from AmEx so she gets to spend five hundred bucks.”
“Ask her if she wants anything,” Leela says.
“Do you want anything?” I ask, my voice suddenly hoarse.
“A snow globe?” Addison asks.
I laugh. She used to be obsessed with snow globes. Our dad brought them home for us when he traveled around the country for business. “I’ll get you a London snow globe,” I say. “No, I will get you a snow globe from every city we visit.”
“That’s a lot of snow globes,” she says.
“I love you that much,” I say. “And I feel incredibly guilty for leaving you with Mom.”
“It’s fine! We’ll be fine!”
I bite my lip. “Okay. Good. Love you.”
She ends the call.
I stare at the phone before giving it back, feeling lost. I can’t believe I really left them. My sister is only sixteen! What happens if there’s an emergency? And instead of being there, I’m cold and wet and on the other side of the ocean? What am I doing here?
I need to lie down. “Let’s go check in,” I say.
“You think our room is ready?”
“It better be.”
By the time we get back to the hostel, I am wiped. Wiped and wet. My bag is wet too. Which means all my clothes are wet.
Also our room is on the third floor. I no longer have feeling in my shoulders or back.
The clerk types our key code—649—into the lock and motions us in.
The room is tiny. There is a single bed against each yellow wall, and a green dresser, a wooden chair, and a tall white fan under a window. At least the white sheets and pillowcases look clean and bleached. A white towel is folded neatly on the bed. I brought two of my own, one shower and one beach, but I guess it makes sense to use the ones they provide when they provide them. Less laundry. Where are we doing our laundry anyway? I don’t know how to do my own laundry. One advantage to having a mother who doesn’t like to go out is that she spends a lot of time doing laundry.
The wooden window frame has blue curtains and overlooks an alleyway.
“Enjoy,” the woman says, and closes the door behind her.
“I need to nap,” I say.
“Aren’t we supposed to stay up as late as possible tonight? To get adjusted?”
“I don’t think I’ll make it,” I say. “Quick nap. Set your phone alarm for five p.m. London time.”
Leela lets out a big yawn. “’Kay.”
I pull the curtains closed and plop down on the bed and everything goes dark.
“Syd, wake up!” Leela says. “It’s eight-fifteen. We have to eat dinner.”
“Mmmmmn,” I murmur, my head stuffed with cotton. I sit up, my head pounding. Where am I? Who am I? What day is it?
She opens the curtains to darkness. I hear laughter from the room next to us. A group of girls, I think. I try to make out some words. “Ristorante . . . birra . . . sesso . . .” Italian, maybe?
“I’m going to shower,” Leela says. “Then you’re getting up for reals.”
I pull the sheet over my head and fall back asleep.
“Your turn,” she says twenty-five minutes later.
“Mmm,” I say.
“Come on, come on,” she says. “I’m starving. Let’s go get some fish and chips.”
“How’s the shower?” I ask.
“Not my best shower. Also, I may have used all the hot water. Sorry.”
“I’m kidding. There wasn’t any hot water to begin with. Come on. Wear your flip-flops. It’s slimy in there.”
“Going, going,” I say. I get out of bed, even though my limbs feel numb.
I unzip my bag and find my toiletries, and my flip-flops, and wrap my towel around my body.
The shower is three doors down and small. It takes me a few seconds to figure out how to get the water to work, but then it does and it’s effing freezing.
Tip: When in London you must have the fish and chips.
Chips are french fries, by the way. And please, for the love of Prince Harry, don’t be a tourist and ask for ketchup.
“To us,” Leela says, lifting a glass of chardonnay. She only drinks white wine. Red wine stains her teeth, beer burns her mouth, and other drinks, she claims, are gross.
“To the drinking age being eighteen!” I say back. I’m drinking a cocktail called a Pimm’s. It’s orangey-brown and tastes fruity and sweet. Travel Europe recommended it.
Travel Europe also recommended this pub, The Royal Swan, for fish and chips, so here we are. We’re sitting at one of the outside tables. The one-page menu is sticky and covered in plastic, but the food is supposed to be good. We order a plate of fish and chips to share. The fries are pretty amazing. The fish . . . well, they are not frozen fish sticks. More like huge slabs of whitefish fried and then fried some more, and then even more, and one more time for good luck.
“So what are we doing tomorrow?” Leela asks.
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
“Everything,” she says.
“Let’s see. We definitely want to go to Buckingham Palace.”
“And we have to go for tea,” Leela says. “At the place my parents got engaged.”
I hesitate. “Are you sure?”
“But . . . well, you’re not expecting Matt to show up, right?”
“I’m not. Well, a teeny little part of me is, but the rational part of me isn’t. I swear.”
“Maybe we should skip tea?”
“No. I want to go. It’s part of my story. Screw Matt.”
“Okay, then. We’re going to Selfridges,” I say.
“Isn’t that the tea place where your parents got engaged?” I take another bite of the over-fried fish.
“No. I think that’s a department store. They got engaged at Claridge’s.”
“Oh. Sorry. Never mind. Got them confused. To Claridge’s! And maybe tomorrow we should start with the Red Bus tour, so we’ll get the lay of the land.”
“Sounds good. We’ll wake up early and hit the road,” she says. She picks up a chip, aka a french fry. “I really need ketchup.”
“Don’t be a tourist,” I say. “You’re supposed to eat them with salt and vinegar.”
She waves around her. “We’re surrounded by tourists. This restaurant is for tourists. This whole area is for tourists.”
“Fair point,” I say.
She waves the waitress over. “Can I have some ketchup, please?”
I sprinkle the vinegar over the fries and take another bite. “It’s really not bad. Not good. But not terrible.”
Back at the hostel, I spend an hour on hold trying to get through to my phone company. Eventually, I discover that my options are ten bucks per day for unlimited everything or forty bucks per month for a hundred texts and hardly any data. Ten bucks per day is over three hundred dollars. And I’m guessing I would blow through the one hundred texts in about five minutes. They suggest I put it in airplane mode and rely on finding free Wi-Fi, so I can still FaceTime, send iMessages and emails, and use my apps. Luckily the hostel has Wi-Fi. Unluckily, I am once again flooded with messages from Addison:
Are you really gone for five weeks?
Where’s the AAA card?
Never mind I found it.
Mom said she’s not feeling well and doesn’t want to go out.
I write back:
Four and a half weeks!
Fine today but insist tomorrow, k?
I log in to Gmail.
Nothing from my mom, but a short email from my dad.
All OK? How was your flight? I’m so proud of you. Have a great trip. Love, Dad.
I write him back, telling him I’m fine and thanking him again for the points. Then I type a quick note to my mom telling her I love her and that I hope she feels better tomorrow.
I hope I feel better tomorrow, too. Right now my body feels like I’ve gotten off a seven-hour ride on a Tilt-A-Whirl.
“Come with me to get ready for bed?” Leela asks.
I turn off my phone and follow her to the bathroom.
“Oops,” I say when I finally open my eyes. It’s two p.m.
It took us forever to fall asleep. Partly because of our massive nap, partly because I was worrying about my mom and sister, partly because of the time difference, and partly because the people in the next room were up all night partying. Part of me wanted to knock on their door and tell them to be quiet; part of me wanted to knock on their door and ask if we could join. They were clearly having a much better time than we were.
“We have to get up,” I say, stepping onto the cold, hard floor. “Red Bus tour, here we come.”
“I think we’re too late,” she says. “We need a full day on it, no?”
“So what should we do?” I ask.
I smile. “Fish and chips?”
She groans. “Please no.”
We take turns showering and head downstairs.
I see a group of girls sitting in the corner, and hear some Italian.
“That’s them,” I say. “The girls from 3B.”
“I hate them,” Leela says. “They kept me up all night.”
“Do we hate them?” I ask. “Or do we want to be friends with them? I can’t decide.”
“It’s a tough call,” Leela agrees.
“I’m going to say hello,” I say.
“You are?” she says, shocked.
“That’s so unlike you,” she says.
“It’s the new me,” I say. Leela and I stayed pretty much to ourselves growing up. We had other friends, but were never exactly outgoing. “I had to talk to strangers when you left for school, you know.”
I stand up and walk over to their table. “Hi there,” I say. “Where are you guys from?”
They look up and stare.
“Roma,” one of them says.
“Oh, cool,” I say. “We’re going to Rome. We can’t wait. How long are you in London for?”
“A week,” one says. Then she turns back to her friend and starts speaking in Italian again.
I stand there for a few minutes waiting to be included or spoken to. But it doesn’t happen. My face burns. All right. At least I tried.
I turn around and head back to Leela.
Leela pats my shoulder. “Bitches,” she mutters. “Who needs them? Let’s get out of here and get some goddamn tea.”
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