The middle of delivering your valedictorian speech is a terrible time to have an existential crisis.
“I, uh . . .” I glance down at the damp, wrinkly index card clenched in my hand, my meticulously typed notes blurring together until they look more like alphabet soup than the speech I’ve spent every available moment of the last month perfecting--skipping my lunch period to work on my draft in the library, revising in my head in the shower at night, chanting the words over and over as I sprinkled shredded mozzarella on pizzas in the steamy kitchen at my parents’ restaurant. I can feel my cheeks heating now as sure as if I’m standing directly in front of the five-hundred-degree oven, a salty band of sweat beading on my upper lip.
I force my eyes up at the crowd in the auditorium, my classmates gazing back at me with a mixture of boredom and what I’m pretty sure is grim anticipation, all of them wondering if I might be about to choke and go rushing off the stage: Tricia Whitman, whom I know from her many #cruiseclothes Instagram posts, is spending the next two weeks on a luxury ocean liner somewhere in the Caribbean. Henry Singh, who had a huge fight with his boyfriend in the middle of the diner a couple weeks ago and dumped an entire Caesar salad onto the guy’s lap before storming out into the parking lot. Cecily Johnston, the only person at our whole school who scored higher than me on the SAT.
I’m not friends with any of these people, to be absolutely clear. The truth is I’ve never even talked to most of them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know what they’re like, even if the vast majority of them probably saw my name in the program this morning, turned to their neighbor, and said something along the lines of Who the hell is Rachel Walls?
I wince at the thought of it, imagining their furrowed brows as they tried unsuccessfully to place me: Was I that foreign exchange student who was only here for one semester, maybe? The weird theater girl who always wore shapeless black dresses and a netted veil? An unexpectedly brilliant janitor who snuck into Ms. Ali’s math room late at night to do complicated calc proofs on the whiteboard?
Then, vague recognition slowly dawning as I stepped up to the podium: Oh . . . her.
The gunner. The wet blanket. The prude.
Get a grip, Patatina. I hear Nonna’s voice inside my head in the instant before I finally spot her with my mom and stepdad near the back of the auditorium, her neat gray bob cocked slightly to the side as she waits for me to continue. I take a deep breath, getting a lungful of forced air and perfume and polyester-graduation-robe BO for my trouble, then clear my throat one more time. After all, just because I’m not exactly about to be voted most popular in the yearbook--that would be Clayton Carville, he of Westfield soccer stardom and a criminally beautiful jawline--doesn’t mean I haven’t earned this. The opposite, actually. In fact, the choices that have rendered me utterly invisible to these people are the very same ones that have led me here, to this moment and what comes next.
That is, delivering this damn speech and then getting the hell out of town so that my real life can finally start.
Pressing my hands against the lectern, I continue. “If you go out to Oval Beach today and build a sand castle, then go back tomorrow, you’ll find it washed away. That movement toward chaos--in science it’s known as entropy--is inevitable. Nothing escapes its relentlessness. In a closed system, left to its own devices, disorder or chaos always increases. Always.
“Order, then, requires effort. Energy. Boatloads of it. And our successes here at Westfield have been no exception. Debate clubs like ours don’t make it to the National Tournament without practice. Soccer teams like ours don’t win the State Championships without collaboration and teamwork.” I glance at Clayton here--and okay, it’s possible I added the soccer line specifically so I would have an excuse to look at him, sprawled in the second row with his long legs slightly spread--before continuing.
“Fellow graduates, we didn’t get here because of randomness. We’re here today because of hard work. Because of diligence. Because we expended energy and made sacrifices. And while the accomplishments of the last few years should be celebrated, this is called a commencement ceremony. Commence, as in ‘to begin.’ Today we mark the ending of high school and the beginning of something new.”
I glance up at Clayton again, my gaze drawn to his lithe, lanky figure even without the benefit of a handy contextual excuse, and almost drop my notecards altogether when I realize he’s looking back at me. Which, fine, yes, intellectually I know that makes sense--after all, I’m actively delivering his high school graduation speech--but then he grins, all dimples and mischievous expression, the split-second catch of his tongue between his straight white teeth.
Can you get pregnant from a smile? Asking for myself.
It’s not until Principal Howard steps forward, says something into the mic, and the entire auditorium erupts in cheers that I figure out I must somehow have finished talking. Out in the audience everyone stands, takes off their caps, and throws them into the air. Not me, though. Frankly, my hand-eye coordination is nothing to brag about even when I haven’t just immaculately conceived Clayton Carville’s smile-baby. There’s no way I’m about to risk it now. Watch it land six rows away, leaving me stuck with somebody else’s cap--and sweat, and hair product, and dandruff.
Instead I tuck the thing beneath my arm and clap politely, returning a few random high fives before I start to make my way through the thick, noisy crowd. I’ve just spotted the back of my stepdad’s head--he’s got a bald spot there he keeps trying to cover up by combing his hair all different ways, but the truth is he isn’t fooling anybody--when Ruoxi grabs my arm.
“Rachel!” She’s holding her cap, too, which probably explains a lot about why exactly she’s my best friend. She’s also technically my only friend--unless you count Miles, which I emphatically do not. This doesn’t change the fact that other than Nonna, she’s basically my favorite person on the face of the planet. I have no idea what I’m going to do without her this summer--or, for that matter, at Northwestern in the fall. “Good job, lady.”
“Thaaaank you.” I bend down to wrap my arms around her short, slight frame. “And thank you for not passing out from boredom even though you’d already heard the whole thing ten thousand times.”
“It got better with repetition,” she says, scooping her thick, wavy hair off the back of her neck and fanning herself a little. Even in her cork-heeled sandals, she’s a full head shorter than me, her hot-pink toenails bright against her dark skin. “Like a Justin Bieber song.”
“That’s me and the Biebs,” I tell her. “Shaping young minds. Inspiring the youths.”
“Exactly.” Ruoxi takes a step closer, casting a dirty look over her shoulder as some lax bro jostles her from behind. “So, here’s a thing that happened,” she says, lowering her voice. “I was sitting next to Paul Haberman during the ceremony, right?”
“Can I ask you a question?” I blurt out, thinking back on my midspeech meltdown. Paul Haberman writes for the Westfield Courier and got a ton of followers on Snapchat by posting these weirdly artful photos of his cafeteria lunch every single day for a year; as far as the socioeconomic ladder of popularity goes, I’d call him solidly middle class. “Did he have any idea who I was? Like, when I got up there, I mean?”
“What?” Ruoxi looks at me oddly. “I don’t know. I didn’t ask him. Why wouldn’t he?”
“Forget it.” I shake my head. Best friends or not, I spent the last four years purposely cultivating total anonymity and this morning I started worrying that might have been a strategic misstep is not a conversation for this particular moment. “Sorry. Continue.”
“Okaaaay?” Ruoxi isn’t convinced, but she doesn’t push it. “Anyway, Paul asked what I was doing tonight and when I said probably hanging out with you, he said Bethany’s doing a thing at her house and we should come.”
I bark a laugh in the moment before I realize she isn’t kidding. “Wait,” I protest, “really?” Bethany has been dating Clayton on and off since sophomore year; the back of her house is directly across a narrow creek from the back of mine, which means I’ve had a front-row view of their various breakups and makeups--and, okay, makeouts--for just about that long. Not that I make a habit of spying on them or anything, but I have eyeballs, and a conveniently located bedroom window, and honestly I am in my pajamas by eleven p.m. most Saturday nights. Things happen. “You want to go?”
“Not with that tone in your voice I don’t,” Ruoxi says pointedly. Then she shrugs. “But yeah, kind of. I don’t know. It could be fun, right?”
“I mean, if you want to get your stomach pumped and catch HPV, yeah, it sounds like a blast.”
“Oh, come on, Rach.” Ruoxi frowns. “Do you honestly think it’s like that?”
“Yes,” I say flatly. I may not be a connoisseur of high school parties, but I’ve crept on enough people’s social media--and seen enough Friday Night Lights--to know exactly what we’d be getting into if we went over to Bethany’s tonight. I can stand awkwardly alone in a corner in the comfort of my own home, thank you. I don’t need to put on eyeliner and go do it in public. “I think it is exactly like that.”
“Well, fine,” Ruoxi says, apparently unbothered. “Maybe it really is like that. But I leave for Interlochen tomorrow, you know? And it’s going to be so intense and high pressure and . . . I don’t know. Don’t you ever get curious? About, like . . .” She trails off.
“Being a normal person?” I supply.
“Kind of!” Ruoxi laughs a little, though I don’t think either one of us actually finds it particularly funny. “School’s over, you know? We did it. And it’s only one night.”
She’s serious, I realize, feeling a tiny pang of guilt for how bitchily I dismissed the idea. After all, it’s not like I don’t understand her impulse. Wasn’t I literally just having a fairly major freak-out about this exact thing? “You’re right,” I tell her, mustering a smile. “You should totally go.”
“And you should come with me,” she says immediately. “You know who will be there, right?” She smirks. “That was a very slick and organic soccer team shout-out in your speech today, PS.”
“Thank you.” For one truly bonkers moment, I actually consider it: obsessing over my outfit and wasting an hour in front of a YouTube tutorial trying unsuccessfully to figure out how to make my hair look like Bethany’s, drinking enough beer to forget myself for a little while. But in the end, just like always, I shake my head. “I actually really can’t,” I lie. “I’m on the schedule at the restaurant tonight.”
“Oh, nice try.” Ruoxi purses her bright red lips. “You’re telling me your parents are honestly going to make you spend graduation night slinging pizzas?”
Of course they’re not. In fact, they’d probably fall over dead of happiness if I said I wanted to go to an actual party, to socialize with my actual peers. Hell, they’d probably offer to pay for a keg. “Yeeees?” I try.
Ruoxi rolls her eyes. “You have your entire life to work,” she reminds me, swatting me gently on the arm with her graduation cap. “This summer you should try to play. Just a little.”
I make a face. “Oh, okay, Ms. I’m-going-to-fancy-pants-camp-where-I’ll-be-practicing-piano-twenty-four-hours-a-day.”
“And wearing knee socks with shorts.” Ruoxi groans. “Don’t forget about the knee socks with shorts.” She’s smiling, though. I know she’s actually thrilled about her summer prospects, ugly uniform and all. “To be fair, I think it’s only like twenty-three hours and fifteen minutes of the day. There are breaks to eat wholesome food and use the bathroom.”
“Assuming you go quickly and don’t talk to anyone while you’re in there.”
“Exactly.” Ruoxi smiles. “Text me if you change your mind about tonight, okay?”
That . . . is definitely not going to happen, but it doesn’t feel like it’s worth it to say so. Over Ruoxi’s shoulder, I can see my family waiting by the auditorium doors, my parents with identical goofy smiles and my little brother Jackson playing a game on his phone. Nonna waves both arms, bracelets jangling like she’s trying to land a 747.
“I will,” I promise, and hug Ruoxi one more time. I edge through a row of red velvet seats toward the exit, swearing under my breath as my plasticky robe snags on a scarred wooden armrest. I’ve just pulled myself free when someone says my name.
“Hmm?” I look up and freeze where I am, like I’ve stepped in a giant wad of gum: Standing in the row of seats directly behind me is Clayton Carville himself, his robe unzipped to reveal navy blue khakis and a starchy white dress shirt. He’s undone the top button and loosened his tie so I can see the hollow of his throat beneath his Adam’s apple, where the skin is thin and vulnerable-looking. “Nice speech today,” he says.
Holy crap. “You too!” I say automatically, then wince. “I mean. . . . um . . . Congratulations. On . . . graduating.” Real smooth, Rachel. Truly, brilliant work.
“Thanks,” Clayton says, ducking his head almost shyly, scrubbing a hand through his close-cropped hair. “Anyway. I’ll see you around, I guess?”
“Sure!” I chirp, though truthfully I have no idea where or when around might be. He’s headed to Marquette in the fall, I’ve deduced from the hoodie he started wearing to school after spring break, but other than that I don’t know anything about his future except for the fact that this is the point where it diverges from mine, two-roads-in-a-yellow-wood style. I was never brave enough to tell Clayton how I feel about him. I was never brave enough to talk to Clayton, period, and now it’s too late. “Um. Take care of yourself.”
“I will,” Clayton says, and there’s that smile again, quick and generous. It’s the smile of a person who has never obsessed over whether or not to go to a party. It’s the smile of a person who has never worried that possibly he did the first seventeen years of his life completely wrong. “Bye, Rach.”