What do you get when two bestselling authors team up to set fire to the rules? The absolute powerhouse novel Rules for Being a Girl.
Candace Bushnell, (the force behind Sex and the City), and Katie Cotugno, (of 99 Days fame), have written a smart, feminist novel about Marin, a girl who fights to expose sexism at her school after a run-in with a predatory teacher.
Marin has always stuck by the unwritten rules of being a girl: “Speak up, but don’t be too loud.” “Be assertive, but not bossy.” “Be friendly, but don’t lead him on.” But when Mr. Beckett, or “Bex,” takes things too far and comes onto her, she’s had enough. Even when Bex denies it, and even when her best friend doesn’t believe her, Marin refuses to back down.
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“And that,” Mr. Beckett says, leaning against the edge of his desk in third-period AP English, ankles crossed and dark eyes shining, “is the story of how Hemingway and Fitzgerald became the most famous literary frenemies of the twentieth century. Full disclosure, it probably won’t be that useful to you on the AP exam, since for some reason they don’t test your knowledge of hundred-year-old publishing gossip. But you can keep it in your back pocket and use it to impress your friends at parties.” He grins, standing up and tugging a whiteboard marker out of the back pocket of his dark blue khakis.
“Okay,” he says, “let’s talk homework.”
We let out a collective groan, and Bex—which is what we all call him—waves us off as a bunch of bellyachers, then assigns the first forty pages of A Farewell to Arms for us to read that night.
“It’ll go fast,” he promises, twirling the marker between his fingers like a magician with a deck of cards. “One of the great things about Hemingway—and there are a lot of great things about Hemingway, and we’ll talk about them tomorrow—is that he’s not much for big words.”
“Well, that’s good,” cracks Gray Kendall, a long-legged lacrosse player who just started here back in September. He’s sprawled in his chair a couple of rows behind me, a dimple appearing briefly in the apple of his cheek. “Neither am I.”
Eventually the bell rings for the end of the period and we all shuffle toward the door, the scrape of chair legs on linoleum and the smell of chicken sandwich day in the cafeteria wafting down the hallway.
“You ready?” I ask Chloe, stopping by her desk at the front of the room. She’s wearing her signature red lipstick and huge hipster glasses, her yellow-blond hair falling in soft waves to her shoulders. A tiny lapel pin in the shape of a pink flamingo is affixed to the collar of her uniform blouse.
“Um,” she says, glancing over my shoulder at where Bex is erasing the whiteboard, elegant shoulders moving inside his gray cashmere sweater.
I raise my eyebrows at her blatant gawking, and she makes a face at me in return.
“Uh-huh. Right.” I offer her an exaggerated nod and sling my backpack over one shoulder; we’re just about to go when Bex looks up.
“Oh, Marin, hey,” he says with a guilty shake of his head. “I managed to space on your book again today, if you can believe it. But I’ll bring it in tomorrow for sure.”
“Oh! No worries.” I smile.
Bex has been telling me for the better part of two weeks that he’s going to lend me his copy of The Corrections, which he says I’ll love, but he keeps forgetting to bring it in.
“Whenever is good. Honestly, it’s not like I have a ton of time to read for pleasure anyway.”
“I know, I know.” Bex makes a mischievous face. “You’re all too busy posting unboxing videos to your YouTube channels, or whatever it is you people do for fun.”
My mouth drops open. “Not true!” I say, though my whole body is flushing pleasantly. “Getting buried in AP English homework is more like it.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Bex says, but he’s smiling. “Get out of my classroom. I’ve got lunch duty; I’ll see you down there.”
“Lucky you,” Chloe teases.
“Uh-huh.” Bex grins, setting the eraser on the ledge and wiping his hands on the seat of his pants. “You’re making fun of me, but joke’s on you because you’re underestimating how excited I get about chicken sandwich day. Now go.”
The cafeteria at Bridgewater Prep is actually a combination auditorium/gym, with a stage at one end and tables that fold down and slide into a storage room during phys ed periods. Ours is already crowded by the time Chloe and I show up, with the same slightly incongruous mix of honors kids from Bex’s class and lacrosse bros we’ve been sitting with since I started dating Jacob.
“Hey, babe,” he says now, tweaking me in the side by way of hello. “How’s your day?”
“You checking to make sure she’s not getting fat?” his buddy Joey cracks, reaching over like he’s going to give me a pinch of his own.
I duck out of the way and flip him the finger, rolling my eyes. “Shove it, Joey.” Then, nudging Jacob in the shoulder: “Defend my honor, will you?”
“You heard the lady,” Jacob says, which is admittedly a little bit weak as far as honor defending goes, but he’s pulling me into his lap and pressing a kiss against my cheek, and for a second I forget to be annoyed. Jacob and I have been dating since last spring in AP US History, when we happened to be sitting side by side as Ms. Shah assigned partners for our final research project. I was hoping for somebody who’d let me boss him around and get us both As, which has been my strategy for group projects for basically as long as I’ve been doing them, but to my surprise Jacob had actual opinions about which primary sources would be most useful to build a document-based question on the social reforms that led up to the Civil War. We argued for two full weeks before we figured out how to work together. When we got our A he lifted me up and twirled me around right there in the middle of class.
Now I sit down in my own chair and pull a turkey sandwich out of my bag, nodding at Dean Shepherd as he sets his tray down beside Chloe. The two of them went to homecoming together earlier this year and since then he’s been not at all subtle about trying to date her.
“You going to this thing at Emily Cerato’s on Friday?” he asks, cracking the cap on his bottle of Dr Pepper and offering her the first sip.
Chloe shrugs, peeling her clementine industriously. “I was thinking about it,” she allows. “You?”
I miss Dean’s answer—and, thankfully, most of Joey’s ensuing monologue about how hot Emily and her dance team friends all are—catching sight of Bex perched on the stage at the far end of the room, next to Ms. Klein, a bio teacher who was new back in September. She’s youngish, in her late twenties maybe, with curly dark hair and glasses and a wardrobe that seems to consist almost entirely of belted shirtdresses from Banana Republic. She’s sitting with her ankles crossed inside a pair of boots with blocky wooden heels, eating a cup of fancy yogurt while Bex laughs at something she said.
Chloe flicks a clementine peel at me. “Now look who’s gawking,” she says, lifting her chin in Bex’s direction.
“I am not!” I whisper-yell so Jacob can’t hear me.
“Uh-huh. Wipe the drool, why don’t you,” Chloe says with a laugh.
I sigh dramatically. “I can’t help it. You know I’m a sucker for a man in khakis.” I glance back at Bex and Ms. Klein. “Do you think there’s something going on there?” I’d be lying if I said Chloe and I aren’t the tiniest bit obsessed with Bex’s romantic life.
“What?” Right away, Chloe shakes her head. “No.”
“Why not?” I ask. “Ms. Klein is cute.”
“I mean, I guess.” Chloe looks unconvinced. “In like, a local newscaster kind of way.”
“I’d nail her,” Joey puts in helpfully.
“Nobody asked you, Joe.” I turn back to Chloe. “I’m just saying: long nights grading papers, romantic looks across the teachers’ lounge—”
“Oh my god.” Chloe pops a wedge of clementine into her mouth. “Are you sure that isn’t your fantasy?” she asks. “Maybe you should reconsider becoming a journalist. I feel like romance novels are your true calling.”
“This is journalism!” I protest, laughing. “Serious, investigative journalism into the never-before-seen love lives of America’s most important national treasure—our teachers.”
Chloe snorts. “You do that,” she says, tucking her clementine peel back into her brown paper lunch bag. “I gotta go though, I’ve got a dentist appointment this afternoon, so I’m leaving early. Are you good to run the meeting without me?”
Chloe and I are coeditors of the Beacon this year and spend basically every available moment in the office with Bex and the rest of the staff, hunched over the sluggish computers and sprawled out on the ragged, sagging couch.
“Yep, totally. I’ll text you tonight.” I wave goodbye and turn back to Jacob, who’s already finishing his second chicken sandwich. “Do you want to go to Emily Cerato’s party?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says with a shrug, opening a cellophane pack of Oreos. “Why not, right?”
“I don’t know.” I nibble at a piece of kettle corn. “I was also thinking maybe we could do that movie I was talking about the other day, the one about the sisters who inherit the house?”
“The historical thing?” he asks with a frown. “Wouldn’t you rather see that with Chloe or your mom?”
I raise my eyebrows pointedly. “By which you mean you’d rather poke out your own eyeballs than sit through it?”
“I didn’t say that,” Jacob protests, handing me a cookie in an attempt at a peace offering. “If you want to go we totally can.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I know he means it too—Jacob’s a good sport like that—but there’s no point in dragging him to something I know he’s going to think is totally girly and boring. “You’re off the hook, dude. A party sounds fun.”
Jacob nods, then gestures over my shoulder at Bex, who’s making the rounds through the cafeteria like a groom at a wedding, coaxing easy smiles out of everybody, from debate nerds to the toughest bruisers on the football team. “Your boy’s coming over here,” he tells me. “Should I ask him if he’s giving Ms. Klein the D?”
“Oh my god,” I say, tossing a piece of kettle corn in his direction, “that’s disgusting. And also emphatically not what I said he was doing.” Still, it occurs to me that if Jacob flat out asked Bex if he and Ms. Klein were dating, there’s a good chance Bex would tell us the truth. That’s one of the nice things about him—he’s not obsessed with maintaining some dumb veil of secrecy about his life outside of school, like some of the other teachers. He’s an actual human being. Like, the other day in class he told us a story about getting a speeding ticket on the way to school after oversleeping because he was out late at a party in Boston for a friend of his who was publishing a collection of short stories. And on picture day he brought in his own senior yearbook so we could all have a laugh at his mid-aughts puka shells and spiky haircut.
Now he stops at our table for a minute, joking around with Dean and asking Jacob about a play from yesterday’s lacrosse game. It’s not even lacrosse season, technically, but the Bridgewater team is really good, so they have special permission to play in some indoor intramural league and still use the school buses for games. Everyone thinks the lacrosse guys are something special. Maybe I do too, though frankly it always annoys me that they seem to know it.
“You get your chicken sandwich?” I ask Bex.
Bex nods seriously. “Sure did,” he says, then reaches over my shoulder and picks up my bag of kettle corn, helping himself to a handful.
“Excuse you!” I protest, though it’s not like I actually mind.
Bex just shrugs. “School tax,” he says with a grin. “Take it up with your congressman.”
I reach for the bag, but he holds it above my head playfully, laughing at my pathetic attempts to grab it, when we hear Principal DioGuardi clear his throat up on the stage at the far end of the cafeteria.
“Attention, ladies and gentlemen,” he says, hands fisted on his hips like a cartoon bodybuilder. Mr. DioGuardi was a PE teacher before he got into administration, and he still kind of looks it, with beefy forearms and a torso shaped like an upside-down triangle inside his maroon button-down. He wears a whistle around his neck, which he uses to keep us from getting too rowdy at assemblies and pep rallies and also sometimes randomly pops into his mouth when he’s thinking, like a baby with a pacifier. Last year every single member of the lacrosse team went as him for Halloween.
“If I can have a minute of your time, I wanted to talk to you about your favorite topic and mine—the uniform code!”
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Bex murmurs, quiet enough that only I can hear him, then gives my shoulder a quick squeeze through my uniform sweater before straightening up and heading back toward the front of the cafeteria. “Here we go.”
I look after him in surprise—it’s rare to get that kind of unfiltered reaction from a teacher, even one as chill as Bex. Then again, DioGuardi is notoriously ridiculous about the dress code. I’ve actually never hated wearing a uniform—there’s something to be said for not having to worry about picking a cute outfit every day—but lately DioGuardi has been on the warpath, with new rules what feels like every week about everything from skirt length to makeup to how big our earrings can be. Not to mention the fact that the guidelines never seem to apply to the guys.
I glance over at Jacob, but he’s scrolling Instagram on his phone under the table, totally unbothered.
“Here we go,” I echo, and settle in for the long haul.
That afternoon I’m sitting on the ancient couch in the newspaper room working through a problem set in my calc book when Bex pauses at the open door. It’s after five, and our meeting ended a couple hours ago, but I’m stuck waiting for my mom to pick me up. “Hey,” he says, glancing at the clock above the whiteboard. “You got a ride?”
“Oh, yeah,” I tell him. He’s wearing a buttery-looking leather jacket, his dark hair curling over his collar. There’s a rumor that Bex paid his way through grad school by modeling—supposedly some senior dug up the pictures online last year, though Chloe and I haven’t ever been able to find them ourselves—and right now I can believe it. “My mom’ll be here in a while. I mean, I have my license, obviously, but—one car. And my sister has a chess thing.” I shrug.
Bex raises his eyebrows. “A chess thing?”
“My little sister is a Massachusetts chess champion,” I explain, a little embarrassed. “She gets lessons from this crotchety old guy out in Brookline. Normally my dad would just come get me, but he had a meeting, and Chloe had a dentist appointment, so—” I snap my jaws shut, not sure why I feel compelled to bore him with the mundane logistical details of my life. “Anyway. I’m good.”
Bex just smiles. “Come on,” he says, nodding in the general direction of the parking lot. “I can drive you.”
“Oh.” I shake my head like an instinct, pulling the scratchy blue sleeves of my uniform sweater down over my hands. “No, that’s okay, you don’t have to do that.”
Bex shrugs. “I wouldn’t offer if I didn’t mean it,” he says easily. “Pretty soon it’s going to be just you and Mr. Lyle rattling around this place.”
Mr. Lyle is the janitor, who’s seven feet tall and almost as wide in the shoulders. Everybody calls him Hodor behind his back.
“Grab your stuff.”
I glance out the window, at the dusk falling purple-blue behind the pine trees. Back at Bex. “Okay,” I say finally, swallowing down a thrill and reaching for my backpack. “Sure. Thanks.”
I text my mom to let her know I’ve got a ride and follow Bex down the empty hallway and out into the teachers’ lot, explaining where I live as we walk. He drives a beat-up Jeep with a peeling Bernie Sanders sticker on the bumper. Inside it smells like coffee; there’s a gym bag slouched on the back seat. As he starts the engine the car fills with sad, guitar-heavy indie folk—Bon Iver, I think, although possibly that’s just the only artist like that I could name.
“I’m a caricature of myself, I know,” Bex says, nodding at the stereo as we pull out of the parking lot. “All I’m missing is the mountain-man beard.”
“No, it’s fine,” I say with a smile. “I mean, I like to stand outside and weep in the pouring rain as much as the next girl.”
Bex lets out a loud laugh. “That’s what my ex-girlfriend always used to say,” he admits. “She used to call it sad-man dead-dog music.”
I laugh too, even as the word ex-girlfriend sends a tiny electric shock through me. I wonder what she was like, if she was pretty. Most of all I wonder why they broke up.
Bex has always been strangely easy to talk to for a teacher, and he keeps up a pretty steady conversation as we head for my neighborhood—about DioGuardi and the dress code, yeah, but also about a concert he just went to in Boston and a series of author readings at Harvard Book Store that he thinks I should check out.
“So you and Jacob Reimer, huh?” he asks, turning the music down as we cruise along VFW Parkway, passing the Stop & Shop and the PetSmart. “He seems like a good dude.”
“Oh!” I don’t know who told him that, and it must show on my face, because Bex mirrors an exaggerated, shocked expression back at me, wide eyes and his mouth a perfect O.
“I know stuff,” he says, breaking into a grin. “You guys think teachers are, like, deaf, blind dinosaurs, like we shuffle around with no idea what’s going on.”
“No, that’s not what I think!” I protest.
Bex’s lips twist. “Yeah, yeah.”
“It’s not,” I insist, giggling a little. “But yeah. Jacob is awesome.”
“Good,” Bex says, glancing over his shoulder before switching into the turn lane, long fingers hooked casually at the bottom of the wheel. “Most high school guys are basically walking mailboxes. You’re right to hold out for someone great.”
A pleased, unfamiliar blush creeps up my chest, hot and prickly. I’m glad I’m wearing a scarf. “Thanks,” I say, fussing with the sticky zipper on the outside pocket of my backpack, yanking ineffectually at the pull.
Bex shrugs. “It’s true.”
I nod. “Um, this is me up here,” I tell him, nodding at my parents’ tiny colonial. “Thanks again for the ride.”
“Yeah, no problem.”
“See you tomorrow,” I say, unlatching the door handle.
“Hey, Marin,” he says, laying a hand on my arm as I’m getting out of the car; I feel the zing of it clear down my spine, my whole skeleton jangling pleasantly. “Just to be safe, uh. You probably shouldn’t mention to anybody at school that I drove you.”
“Oh,” I say, surprised. “Okay.”
“At the last place I worked it was different—it was a boarding school, so I drove students around all the time, you know? I had students over to my apartment for dinner like once a week. But here . . .” He trails off. “DioGuardi runs a different kind of ship.”
“No, no, I totally get it.” I didn’t know he worked at a boarding school before he came to Bridgewater. I’m instantly, weirdly jealous of all the students he ever cooked dinner for. “I won’t say anything.”
“Thanks, pal,” Bex says, grinning a little bashfully. “Have a good night.”
“You too,” I say, shutting the passenger door gently and lifting my hand in a dopey wave. I stand on the darkened October lawn until the Jeep disappears out of sight.
Emily’s party is two nights later, so Jacob picks me up in the Subaru his parents got him for his seventeenth birthday and we swing by Chloe’s house on the way.
“Hey,” I say, turning around in my seat as she settles herself in the back, unwinding her fuzzy scarf from around her neck.
Ancient Whitney Houston croons on the stereo, the air in the car heavy with the scent of the cologne Jacob swears he doesn’t spray on the heating vents.
“Where were you this afternoon? I thought we were going to do layout stuff.”
Chloe shakes her head. “Covered a shift at work,” she explains. “Rosie had a doctor’s appointment. Sorry, I meant to text you. It was super last-minute.”
Chloe’s parents own a Greek restaurant called Niko’s; we both started working there in eighth grade, first busing tables and now waiting them.
“Bex wasn’t there either,” I complain, pulling one leg up underneath me and reaching out to turn the heat down. “It was just me and Michael Cyr in there, which meant I had to listen to him talk for like a full hour about how he just discovered Breaking Bad and Walter White is his new hero.”
“Just you and Michael Cyr, huh?” Jacob asks, glancing over at me from the driver’s seat. “Should I be jealous?”
“Only if you feel threatened by a guy who met all his best friends on Reddit,” I say, reaching out to poke him in the rib cage.
Jacob grabs my finger and squeezes. Chloe rolls her eyes.
Emily’s house is a sprawling ranch in a midcentury development full of identical sprawling ranches, all of them painted in different pastel colors.
“Once, when I was in second grade, I got off the bus and walked right into the wrong one,” Emily says, leading us down the hallway and pulling a couple of beers out of an iceless cooler near the back door. “This old lady Gloria sat me down at her kitchen table and made me soda bread, and then she was my best friend for like three years until she died.”
Right away Jacob gets absorbed into a crowd of his lacrosse buddies—Joey and Ahmed, plus Gray Kendall and a few other dudes. The rumor is Gray got kicked out of his fancy prep school last year for throwing the kind of wild parties where people wind up in the hospital for eating Tide Pods. In barely two months at Bridgewater he’s fooled around with what seems like basically every girl at school, an unending parade of hopeful-looking underclassmen hanging around outside the locker room on game days. It’s deeply embarrassing for everyone, although I can admit he’s ridiculously cute.
Chloe and I make ourselves comfortable on the staircase that leads to the second floor, listening to Cardi B rapping tinnily from the Bluetooth speaker on the coffee table. A couple of awkward-looking freshman guys cluster around a video on somebody’s cell phone. Slutty Deanna Montalto lounges on the sofa next to Trina Meng.
“Did you hear the thing about Deanna and Tyler Ramos in the auditorium?” Chloe asks quietly, running her thumb around the mouth of her beer bottle. “I feel like she’s basically the whole reason behind the new dress-code memo.”
“Oh my god, the no-more-knee-socks thing?” Emily asks, plunking down on the stair below us with a can of spiked seltzer in one hand. “So dumb.”
“So dumb,” I agree. “Like, explain to me how these delicate, precious boys are supposedly going to be too distracted by our knees of all things to get any work done.” I stand up and grab Jacob’s arm over the banister, pulling him partway out of the scrum of lacrosse bros. “Can I ask you a question?” I say, lacing our fingers together. “How exactly is us wearing tights instead of knee socks going to help you idiots learn better?”
“It’s not,” Jacob says immediately, his grin wide and wicked. “What it is going to interfere with is Charlie Rinaldi’s robust side hustle of taking pictures up your skirts in the cafeteria and selling them online.”
Joey and Ahmed bust up laughing. Even Chloe cracks a grin.
“You’re disgusting,” I inform Jacob, smacking him gently on the elbow, but I can’t help but let out a laugh of my own.
The only one who isn’t laughing is Gray, who’s leaning his lanky body against the post at the bottom of the staircase. “Anybody need a beer?” he asks, holding up his empty bottle. He tips it at us in a salute before he turns and walks away.
“That dude is the fucking weirdest,” Jacob says once he’s gone, slinging a heavy arm around my shoulders. I watch Gray’s broad back disappear into the crowd.
The party breaks up early—turns out Emily Cerato’s parents didn’t know she was having one to begin with and weren’t super thrilled when they came home from dinner and a show down in the Theater District and found two dozen teenagers sprawled all over their furniture.
“How the hell did Emily not realize they were seeing a one-act play?” Chloe asks as we dash across the lawn to Jacob’s car, her scarf flapping behind her in the sharp autumn wind.
“Maybe we should have tried to convince them they were at the wrong house,” I shoot back. That cracks her up, which cracks me up; by the time we manage to get our seat belts buckled Jacob looks about ready to leave us both on the side of the road altogether. “Take a little pity on your sober driver, here.”
“Sorry, sorry,” I assure him, still giggling; I’m pretty sure he finds Chloe and me kind of annoying together, though he’s too nice to say so. “Let’s go.”
Turns out all three of us are starving, so we swing through the twenty-four-hour McDonald’s for fries and milk shakes before heading over to Chloe’s to drop her off.
“See you at work tomorrow?” I ask, turning around in the passenger seat to look at her. Usually the two of us are on the same Saturday schedule, but tonight she shakes her head.
“I’m off tomorrow,” she explains, prying her milk shake out of the cupholder and slinging her bag over one narrow shoulder. “I’m spending the weekend at Kyra’s.”
I frown. “Really?”
Kyra is her slightly younger cousin, who lives in Watertown and is super into her Greek Orthodox youth group. I know her from years of going to Chloe’s birthday parties, and she’s cool in a straightedge kind of way, but I definitely wouldn’t call them super close.
She shrugs. “My parents want us to be friends, I don’t know. They’re probably hoping she’ll teach me to pray in Greek.”
“Oh man,” I tease. “Good luck, Kyra.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Chloe rolls her eyes. “Thanks for the ride, Jacob. I’ll see you guys Monday.”
Once she’s inside, Jacob turns to me, his sharp face familiar in the light from the dashboard. “You need to get home right away?” he asks.
I glance at the clock, hesitating. I’ve got a little over an hour before my curfew, truthfully, but I also know what he’s actually asking, which is whether I want to go park under the copse of trees at the far end of the Bridgewater parking lot and mess around for a while. “Um.”
“We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, obviously,” Jacob says quickly.
“Gee, thanks.” I make a face.
“Oh, come on.” Jacob frowns, wounded. “You know what I mean. I’m not trying to be some, like, pressuring douchebag. I just meant—”
“No, I know.” I wave a hand to stop him, a little embarrassed. He’s right, actually—Jacob’s never given me a hard time about the fact that we haven’t had sex yet, even though I can tell he’s a tiny bit disappointed every time we’re getting up to something and I finally stop him. And it’s not even that I don’t want to, necessarily. I meant what I said to Bex the other day—Jacob is great. He’s smart. Everybody is always saying how funny he is. He’s the assistant coach of his little brother’s peewee basketball team, for God’s sake. And if sometimes I feel like I’m still kind of waiting for some crazy zing of recognition, some feeling of Oh, it’s you— Well, this is high school, not a Netflix original rom-com. There’s no reason to be such a girl about the whole thing.
Finally I sigh, reaching out with one finger and snapping Jacob’s seat belt lightly across his chest. “Let’s go,” I tell him.
Gracie has a chess tournament in Harvard Square the following weekend, so I tag along with my parents to go see her play. The thing about competitive chess is that even at the middle school level—especially at the middle school level—the various matchups are basically more complicated than March Madness seeding, which means that over the years I’ve spent an awful lot of time sitting around in random auditoriums waiting for it to be my sister’s turn to wipe the floor with supposed prodigies from Newton and Andover.
Today the proceedings are even slower than usual; somebody’s little brother is kicking the back of my chair periodically, and the dry, forced heat is making me yawn. Gracie sits to my side with her eyes closed and her head tilted back against the red velvet auditorium seat, listening to Christmas music. My phone buzzes with a text from Jacob—a Bitmoji of himself snowboarding, his tongue hanging out like a dog’s. I stopped him—again—before things went too far the night of Emily’s party, though he didn’t actually seem put out about it. He’s spending this weekend at his cousin’s house in Vermont, so possibly he’s too excited about “shredding the mountain”—his words, not mine—to be annoyed about not getting into my pants.
“I’m going to find a coffee shop and do some homework,” I finally whisper.
My mom nods. “Don’t go too far,” she instructs, fishing a ten-dollar bill out of her purse and handing it over. “I’ll text you before her match.”
In the end I post up at the big Starbucks near the T stop, the windows fogged with the damp chill outside. I pull my laptop out of my backpack and watch the tourists and college kids waiting in line for their coffees, the hipsters with their tattoos and undercuts. Sometimes I think it would be cool to look a little more like them, to try bright pink hair or an eyebrow ring or whatever. Then I imagine the curious looks and snarky comments I know I’d get if I ever did anything like that at Bridgewater, and it seems safer to just blend in.
I look up and gasp, almost knocking over my cup at the sight of Bex standing next to my table in jeans and a worn-in hoodie. With his glasses and his coffee cup he looks like a college kid home for the holiday weekend, messenger bag slung over his shoulder and laptop tucked under one arm.
“I thought that was you,” he says.
“Oh!” I steady my cup on the table, offering him a smile. “Hi.”
“Sorry,” he says, “am I traumatizing you right now?” He grins. “I saw my first-grade principal at the pool once, and I don’t think I ever really recovered. A nun in a bathing suit, just to burn that image into your mind like it’s burned into mine.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Nuns are allowed to wear bathing suits?”
“Apparently.” Bex shudders, then nods his chin at my computer. “What are you working on?”
I glance down at the screen with gritty eyes, then back at him. “My admission essay for Brown,” I admit.
“Really?” He frowns. “Deadline is coming up, right? It’s not like you to have put it off this long.”
“It’s done, honestly,” I confess, dumbly pleased that he’s been paying close enough attention lately to know what is and isn’t like me. “Or, I mean, it’s done in that it’s a five-paragraph essay with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I just keep noodling on it though. I want it to be absolutely 100 percent.”
“Curse of the perfectionist,” Bex says with a knowing smile. “Want me to take a look?”
I shake my head. “You don’t have to do that.”
“No, seriously,” he says. “I want to.” He sets his own battered MacBook down on the table. “Come on, hand it over.”
“What, right now?”
He shrugs. “Do you have a better time?” He sits down in the empty chair across from me, holding his arms out for my laptop. I click my browser shut—probably there’s no reason for him to know that I’ve been procrastinating by trawling Riverdale fan fiction—before passing it across the table, wrapping my hands awkwardly around my empty cup.
“Well, I definitely can’t sit here while you’re reading it,” I announce barely five seconds later. I get up and stand in line for another latte—unable to help glancing over my shoulder, searching Bex’s face while he reads. His eyes are serious behind his tortoiseshell glasses. The weak afternoon sunlight catches the gold in his hair.
A few minutes later, I walk back to the table, chewing my lip.
“This is fantastic,” he says before I even sit down.
I manage to stop my hands before they fly to my mouth, but barely. “Really?”
Bex nods. “Honestly, Marin, I’ve read a lot of admission essays, and I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true. Your writing is, like, super mature.”
“Well, thanks.” I glance down at my cup, trying not to smile too widely. He’s not the first teacher to tell me that; still, coming from Bex it’s like it somehow means more. “I mean, realistically I’m still going to be messing with it until the deadline, but I really appreciate it.”
Bex laughs. “I’m the same way. Like I said: curse of the perfectionist,” he says, tilting his chair back onto its hind legs as if he’s sitting in a classroom himself. “Listen, I don’t know if you know this, but I went to Brown. And so did my dad . . . and so did his dad, actually.” He smiles a little sheepishly. “When you go for your interview, look out for Beckett Auditorium.”
“Oh, wow,” I say, eyes widening as I cop on. I had heard his family had money, but I never realized there was that much of it. “Yeah, I will.”
“Anyway, I just wanted to say that if you ever wanted me to put a call in, try and throw my weight around a little bit, I’d be happy to do it. I don’t know if anyone there will give a shit, but it couldn’t hurt, right?”
“Thank you,” I say, nodding my head and mustering a smile. “That would be amazing.”
Bex nods, satisfied. “Honestly, my pleasure. You earned it.”
“So, um, what about you?” I ask, motioning with my cup at his laptop. “What are you working on?”
“Oh, Jesus,” he says with a rueful shake of his head. “You don’t want to know.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Well, now you have to tell me.”
“My novel.” Bex visibly cringes, dropping his face into his hands. “I can’t believe I’m even saying that out loud to you right now. Go ahead, have a laugh.”
My eyes widen. “You’re writing a novel? Seriously? What’s it about?”
Bex sighs theatrically, lifting his head to look at me again. “I’m trusting you with this, you realize. You could ruin me.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“No, I know you wouldn’t.” He shifts his weight again, the front legs of the chair hitting the tile floor with a clatter. “It’s about a guy who wants to be a theater actor, but he’s not a very good theater actor, so he’s working for a children’s theater doing puppet shows about the Revolutionary War and stuff. And then his dad dies.” He makes a face. “See, it sounds stupid when I say it out loud.”
“It doesn’t sound stupid,” I promise immediately. “Honestly, it sounds good. Is it, like, autobiographical, or . . .”
Bex makes a face, enigmatic. “My dad is alive,” is all he says. “Anyway, I’ve been writing it since undergrad, and I’ve got a mostly done draft. But I just keep on . . .”
“Noodling?” I supply with a laugh. “Curse of the perfectionist, right?”
“Exactly,” he says, tapping his paper cup against mine.
I’m expecting him to move to one of the other empty tables, but instead he stays where he is while I drink my second latte, caffeine buzzing wildly through my veins. We chat about all kinds of things: our Starbucks orders—Americanos, he tells me—and his parents’ aging collie, an exhibit on protest art he saw at the contemporary art museum. I’m struck again by that same feeling I had the day he drove me home after school a couple of weeks ago, that he’s weirdly easy to talk to for a teacher.
Not just for a teacher. For a guy.
I feel a blush creeping up my chest underneath my sweater, glancing over at the baristas behind the counter and wondering idly if they think Bex and I are on a date. And like, obviously I don’t think we’re on a date—he’s my teacher, and he’s like thirty years old—but as we sit here I can imagine dating someone like him. Someone who cares about what new plays are workshopping in Boston. Someone who knows the name of the Speaker of the House.
I drink my coffee slowly on purpose, both in an attempt to keep Bex talking and because my hands are starting to shake from all the caffeine. Out the window it’s beginning to get dark. I know I should probably get back to the tournament, but part of me feels like I could hang out in this Starbucks all night. That’s when Bex’s phone dings in his pocket.
“Holy sh . . . ,” he says when he looks at it, glancing at me and trailing off before completing the swear. “Is it really after four o’clock? How did that happen?”
I shake my head. “I’m sorry,” I say, though I’m not really. “I distracted you. You didn’t get any writing done.”
Bex shrugs. “Let’s be real,” he admits, “I probably wasn’t going to get any writing done anyway.” Then he grins. “Besides, the conversation was worth it.”
He stands up and slings his messenger bag over his shoulder, lifts his empty cup in a salute. “Enjoy the rest of the weekend,” he says with an easy smile. “And send that admission essay off before you come into my class on Monday. Noodling time is officially over.”
“I will,” I promise. I watch his back until Bex disappears into the crowd outside.