Grace burst into my bedroom with such force that she nearly fell over.
“Freddie isn’t in France!” she announced triumphantly as Tilly came crashing in behind her.
I sat up in bed, where all morning I had been watching videos of baby sloths and tutorials on how to do cat-eye eyeliner flicks.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes!” Tilly yelled, and started doing a little victory dance on the spot.
“But I stalked him this morning,” I said, “and there’s a picture of him actually standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, holding up a baguette and pretending it’s a mustache. He literally couldn’t be more in France if he tried.”
“Yeah, he was there,” Tilly squealed, “but then the most amazing thing happened: his house got robbed and they had to come home early!”
“Obviously, it’s really bad about his house and everything,” Grace cut in dutifully.
“Yeah, yeah.” Tilly nodded. “Obviously . . . but the point is . . . he’s coming to Stella’s tonight. Fact.”
“Fact,” Grace repeated. “And you are totally going to get with him. Tonight is the night. . . .” She crinkled her nose and smiled.
I kicked off the comforter and swung my legs out of bed. “What? No . . . I’m not ready.”
“You are ready,” Grace soothed. “You are totally in the right place. He’s so the right person.”
“No, I don’t mean emotionally ready. Obviously, I’m emotionally ready. I mean I’m literally not ready. I haven’t gotten out of bed for three days. I look like an absolute mess.”
“You look like you always do,” Tilly said.
“Seriously, Hannah,” said Grace. “You’ve always said Freddie was the one you’d lose it to. The only reason it hasn’t happened yet is because you’ve been on exams lockdown for, like, the last four months.”
“Fate was keeping you apart,” said Tilly grandly.
“And now fate’s brought you back together,” said Grace. “Have you got any food?”
“Excuse me, I thought we were talking about the role of fate in my life?”
“Yeah, but I’m hungry--I can’t contemplate fate on an empty stomach.”
I slumped back into bed. “Go downstairs and have a look, then. My mum hides the snacks above the microwave.”
They clomped down to the kitchen. Grace was right. I’d put losing my virginity on the back burner until after my College Board exams. Although “losing” is such a random word for it. It’s not like you’re gonna find it under your study guide, is it?
I used to dream about losing it to someone fragile and kind. Someone who understood me and was really cool but didn’t care what other people thought of him. Someone with dark, curly hair who tanned really well and spoke Italian. Or maybe was Italian.
Freddie Clemence is not fragile, kind or Italian. He’s not the love of my life. At least, I hope he’s not, or I won’t have much of a life to look forward to. But surely, if everybody held on to their virginity until they found the love of their life, there’d be a lot more virgins roaming around.
Half the problem is that I do the same thing with boys that I do with clothes: I imagine an outfit before I go shopping rather than just waiting to see what’s in the stores when I get there. I daydream scenarios that will never happen. I think about boys falling in love with me who in real life wouldn’t look at me. And it’s not even me in the daydream; it’s this sort of celebrity version of me, all glossy and poised and sexy. I imagine being invited to parties where events play out perfectly. How I’ll meet the love of my life and he’ll be inexplicably drawn to me and say things like, “I would die for you, Hannah.” And then we’ll have sex in a car like in Titanic.
In reality I’m either making out with Freddie in a corner or cleaning up someone else’s puke because I feel bad for the person whose party it is.
But maybe Stella’s party will be different. Everyone’s finished their exams now, so it’s going to be massive. Ninety people have accepted the invite on Facebook. And now that Freddie is back early from France, maybe it is a sign. Maybe now is the right time. It’s not love, but I just need to get sex over with so I can get on with living my life.
Tilly and Grace stomped back up the stairs and flopped onto my bed, clutching two packets of Ritz crackers and a jar of peanut butter.
“I hope you never take Zac down,” Tilly said, staring up at my ceiling. “He’s been there as long as I’ve known you.”
She was looking at the sticker of Zac Efron I’d put there when I was twelve so he would be the first thing I saw every morning.
“It’s never coming down,” I said. “Zac is my first love. I may have moved on--”
“To Freddie,” Grace interrupted.
“--but he will always have a place in my heart.”
“And your wardrobe,” Tilly said. “Do you still have that T-shirt with his face on? That was crazy.”
“Says you in the Aztec-print harem pants.”
Tilly swung her legs in the air to show them off. “I have nothing else to wear. My mum isn’t doing any laundry because she’s on strike. She wants me to learn how to do stuff before college.”
“Well, you’d better learn quickly,” I said. “You’re never going to meet a boy and get out of no-man’s-land dressed like Aladdin.”
Tilly is in hymen limbo. She’s the walking undead. A sex zombie. Max Lawrence did go inside her, but not all the way and only for a few seconds. She said it hurt too much, so he stopped. And then he got off with Amber Mason at a party, so Tilly dumped him. She couldn’t have known at the time that it was her last-chance saloon. She might have given it a better go if she had known. But Tilly’s a wimp when it comes to that kind of thing--she almost fainted when she got her HPV shot.
How can we live in a world where they can identify serial killers from their DNA but we can’t figure out if Tilly’s a virgin or not? We’ve Googled it a hundred times, but the more you try to research it, the more philosophical the whole thing gets.
Like, what is losing your virginity, anyway? When your hymen breaks? But that can happen horseback riding or doing gymnastics, or even swimming, apparently. I could have lost my virginity to Acton Municipal Pool, for all I know. If it’s just the hymen thing, then what about gay people? It must be the act of someone else being inside you; after all, boys lose their virginity even though nothing breaks. So maybe it’s a mystical, intangible thing? Like the Holy Spirit.
Out of all of us, Grace is the only one who has lost her virginity. She fell in love with Ollie last year and they’ve been inseparable ever since. I don’t know how they’re going to cope when they go to college. Grace hasn’t told us what having sex actually feels like, though. It’s like once you’ve done it you become unable to speak about it. Can anything be that amazing? Maybe nothing feels epic when you’re actually living it.
We sprawled out across the bed and started rambling on about other things: what we’d wear to the party and what color we would dye our hair if we had to pick one color for the rest of our lives (me: chestnut; Tilly: platinum; Grace: stay the same). And then conversation inevitably turned to the missing member of the group.
“Do you really think she’s at his house?”
Tilly was sitting on my bed with her legs crossed, eating the peanut butter straight out of the jar with a spoon. She had added my Duke of Edinburgh hoodie to her Aztec look, and her long red hair was wound into a topknot.
“Well, she’s not here, so . . .” Grace shrugged, as if Stella could only be with us or with Charlie. Maybe that was actually true. It did feel weird that Tilly and Grace were here and she wasn’t.
“Of course she’s with him,” I said. “He got back from college last night. I’ve been with her every day since exams, but I haven’t heard from her today.”
“Well, I think it’s a toxic relationship,” Grace said.
I laughed. “A ‘toxic relationship’? What do you think this is, Dr. Phil?”
“You know what I mean,” Grace tsked. “He’s really bad for her. Stella, of all people, could do way better.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Shit, I’d better tell her about Freddie.” I wrote Stella a text:
Where are you? Freddie is back from France and I think tonight is the night!
It all felt wrong. Totally, utterly, terribly wrong. What the hell were we doing? I decided to ask Robin.
“This feels wrong, man,” I said. “What are we doing?”
He was kneeling on the wet grass beside the big steel bucket, pressing one final textbook into the mangled mass of textbooks already squashed inside.
“What are you on about?” he muttered, holding the books in place with one hand while he used the other to retrieve a cigarette lighter from his pocket. “I think it’s pretty obvious what we’re doing.”
He sparked the lighter twice to check if it was working. It was.
“Yeah, what I mean is, it feels wrong to be doing this after what happened this morning,” I said.
“We’re celebrating, you idiot.”
“That’s my point!” I yelled as Robin stood up, swatting bits of damp soil off the front of his trousers. “There’s nothing to celebrate. I already told you how badly I fucked up French. So if we’re celebrating, then we’re celebrating defeat. Who celebrates defeat? It’s illogical.”
Robin snorted. “We’re not celebrating defeat or victory. We’re celebrating the fact that it’s all over. It doesn’t matter how we did--it’s the fact that we never have to think about those exams ever again.”
He was way off, there. I’d thought more about that French exam since finishing it that morning than I had in the last six months. Which, to be fair, was probably why I screwed it up so badly. Fucking pluperfect tense. Who needs to go that far back into the past anyway?
Robin clicked the lighter again. “Right. Let’s do this then, shall we?”
This had always been the plan. We’d agreed that the day we finished our College Board exams we’d celebrate by incinerating all our textbooks. It was supposed to be a cleansing thing; a glorious cathartic bonfire that marked the end of childhood and the start of . . . well, not adulthood, exactly, but definitely a step in its general direction.
But, in reality, it was just the two of us standing over a mop bucket in Robin’s backyard. If this was the road to adulthood, I was considering turning back.
Robin knelt back down and plunged his hand deep into the bucket to pull out my French textbook. He placed it carefully on top of the pile and held the lighter up to me.
“Here, come on, man. Show those French pricks what you’re really made of.”
I shook my head. “No. I don’t feel like it.”
He shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
He sparked the lighter and held the flame against the corner of the book’s cover.
“Why isn’t it burning?” he demanded. “Nothing’s happening.”
“It’s laminated, you dick.”
The flame was just about managing to turn the plastic-coated corner a faint browny-black color. If we were going to use this method on every book, we’d be here all day.
“Why the fuck do they laminate them?” snapped Robin, letting go of the lighter.
“Probably to stop people like us burning them in buckets.”
“Those bastards,” he murmured. “They’re always one step ahead. Maybe we could just burn the inside pages. They’re not laminated.”
“Then we’ll be left with a bucket full of empty book covers. What are we going to do with all those?”
Robin chewed his bottom lip as he considered this. “We could cut them up into little pieces and bury them? Or put them in a box and throw them in the sea?”
“The sea? We live in London. The sea is at least an hour away.”
“So? I could get my mum to drive us to Brighton when she gets back from work.”
“This is beginning to sound like more hassle than it’s worth, to be honest.”
Robin groaned and stood up. “You need to perk the fuck up, Sam. If you’re still like this tonight, then I’m ditching you as soon as we get through the door. End-of-exams parties are the best parties ever; that’s common knowledge. I’m not having you ruining this one for me by whining all night. This might come as a surprise to you, given your lack of experience in the area, but girls don’t exactly get turned on by constantly complaining about French exams, you know.”
Maybe he was right. Maybe I could look at the French Fuck-up as a positive thing. The beginning of an entirely new and unplanned chapter in my life. No university, no job, no real conventional future: I could totally reinvent myself, starting this evening.
Robin only heard about the party tonight through his friend Ben, who knew about it via a friend of a friend. So there was a good chance we wouldn’t know anyone there. I could become someone else. I could start introducing myself as “Samuel.” That might make me sound deeper and more intelligent. I could be Samuel the mysterious drifter; Samuel, who wears long coats and hand-rolls his own cigarettes and gazes off into the middle distance enigmatically during conversations. Rather than plain old Sam, who fails French exams and tries to burn plastic books.
The problem is, you have to have done something with your life before you can start going around calling yourself Samuel. You have to have achieved something. Samuel Beckett; Samuel L. Jackson; Dad’s friend Samuel, who drives a Porsche and used to go out with Nigella Lawson: they’ve all earned the right to those extra letters. What have I ever done? Won an essay contest when I was fourteen and fingered Gemma Bailey in a gazebo. I’m hardly in line for a knighthood.
I’d always thought that getting into Cambridge would be my big achievement. But now that I’d screwed up French--and I definitely had--I was going to have to find something else instead. I just had no idea what.
You won’t find many virgins called Samuel, that’s for sure. You remain a Sam until you get past fingering, I reckon. Or at least past gazebos.
Robin picked up the bucket and stomped off toward the house.
“Right, let’s just give the fuckers to Goodwill and be done with it,” he muttered.