Today we're excited to chat with Jessica Park, author of 180 Seconds!
Read on for more about Jessica and her novel, plus an excerpt, and giveaway!
YABC: What gave you the inspiration to write 180 Seconds?
Given that I’m on Facebook so much, I can’t help but see many viral videos fly through my newsfeed. I used to ignore these, but then... While many of them are super bait-clicky, even eye-rolling, I got curious—and perhaps desperately hopeful—that I’d see something worthwhile. To my amazement, many videos had me in tears within seconds. Not because they were sad or traumatizing, but because they were so joyful. Sweet. Inspiring. Over the course of a few months, I watched plenty of short pieces that reminded me that no matter what else is going on in the world, there are always genuine and generous people out there. There is beautiful and often surprising human interaction and connection to be found, sometimes in the most surprising of places. The videos that moved me the most were the ones showcasing people thrust into social experiments. Pose with this stranger for a photograph. Listen while I tell you—a stranger—something I find beautiful about you. I became utterly transfixed by the idea of putting someone in an unsolicited, unexpected, and strange situation and then seeing the beauty that can emerge after being uncomfortable, how people easily break down walls within themselves and between themselves and others.
YABC: Who is your favorite character in 180 Seconds?
Oh gosh, don’t make me answer this, ha ha! But I will go with my lead, Allison. I love a character who is raw and fragile, but also one who has strength to tap into. When we meet Allison, she is struggling with so much pain, but it’s very clear early on in the story that this is a girl with a desire to shed her past and find a future. Joining someone on a journey during a time of pivotal change is always fun for me.
YABC: Which came first, the title or the novel?
The novel! I often have a working title, which is usually something enticing, like, DAMN BOOK. It’s easier to really nail down a title after the full story is complete, and I have a sense of what title captures the heart of my book.
YABC: What scene in the book are you most proud of and why?
Well, I can’t tell you exactly which scene without giving anything away (!), but I had a section of the book that called for many logistical and fast-paced transitions coupled with intense emotion. It was a bit tricky to navigate back and forth between those, so I found myself doing a lot of scrolling through those chapters and trying to balance fact-checking with emotional-checking.
YABC: Thinking way back to the beginning, what’s the most important thing you've learned as a writer from then to now?
I’ve learned when to listen to myself and when to listen to others. There have been times that I’ve been told, “No, don’t do this./This won’t sell./This character is such and such.” I think my gut instincts have been good. While it’s very, very important to take smart and constructive criticism, I’ve found a good balance between listening to and analyzing critique and figuring out what to do to with that feedback. If I can defend what I’ve written and if I believe in it, then it stays. If I can’t, then it needs to be super-tweaked, or it has to go. I want to be able to look back on what I’ve published and feel good about it.
My readers have also taught me one of the most valuable lessons: when I pour my heart into a scene or storyline, when I make myself vulnerable with my emotions and with my writing, there’s a glorious payoff, because they will respond most strongly to those scenes. The scarier something is to write and the more personal it feels, the more a reader will connect.
YABC: What was your favorite book in 2016?
I absolutely adored (like, totally adored!) The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland by Rebekah Crane. Rebekah has a style that routinely grabs me from the first page, and she mixes rich, loveable characters with super-smart humor and prose that grabs my heart. The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland is Rebekah at her best, and it’s such a strong all-ages book.
YABC: Which was the most difficult or emotional scene to narrate?
Again, I can’t tell you the exact scene, but it’s one that I knew would send me into an emotional tailspin. I took a few days off before I tackled it, and one night my husband came home to find me sobbing (I mean, sobbing hardcore!) with my laptop and a bunch of disgusting tissues in front of me. “Ah,” he said backing away. “I see that you’re writing THE chapter now... Just keep going.” I’ve written some scenes that have make me seriously cry, but writing this one left me unable to see the screen.
YABC: Which part of the writing process do you enjoy more, drafting or revising?
Oh, revising, for sure. That’s a really fun stage for me, because the hard work is done, the story arc is complete, and it’s time to polish and bring out the best and discard the worst. Churning out chapters can be stressful with all the worrying about getting everything I want down on paper, but when editing--and I’m free to chop and delete and focus on specific lines and scenes--it’s playtime!
Meet Jessica Park!
Jessica Park is the bestselling author of more than fifteen novels, including Flat-Out Love and Left Drowning. She grew up in the Boston area and attended Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. After spending four years in the frigid north, including suffering through one memorable Halloween blizzard, she decided to set out for warmer climes. She now lives in the relatively balmy state of New Hampshire with her husband, son, two dogs, and a cat. She admits to spending an obscene amount time thinking about rocker boys and their guitars, complex caffeinated beverages, and tropical vacations.
Meet 180 Seconds!
Some people live their entire lives without changing their perspective. For Allison Dennis, all it takes is 180 seconds…
After a life spent bouncing from one foster home to the next, Allison is determined to keep others at arm’s length. Adopted at sixteen, she knows better than to believe in the permanence of anything. But as she begins her third year in college, she finds it increasingly difficult to disappear into the white noise pouring from her earbuds.
One unsuspecting afternoon, Allison is roped into a social experiment just off campus. Suddenly, she finds herself in front of a crowd, forced to interact with a complete stranger for 180 seconds. Neither she, nor Esben Baylor, the dreamy social media star seated opposite her, is prepared for the outcome.
When time is called, the intensity of the experience overwhelms Allison and Esben in a way that unnerves and electrifies them both. With a push from her oldest friend, Allison embarks on a journey to find out if what she and Esben shared is the real thing—and if she can finally trust in herself, in others, and in love.
Junior year of college starts now, which means I have two years left until I am free. Every day is a reminder of how completely different I am from my peers, a constant sense of my inability to be social and happy and emotionally unchained. It can be a challenge to isolate myself here, but I do what I can.
It takes Simon twenty minutes of circling Andrews College’s cam- pus to find a place to park. Arrival day is always utter chaos, with students spilling from cars, arms laden with boxes and bags; cars dou- ble-parked up and down the street; and tearful parents milling around and clogging the sidewalks. The drive from Boston to northern Maine has taken almost five hours, and this early September day feels more like August than it does the start of fall. Welcome to New England. I am sweaty from the lack of good air-conditioning, but I try to subtly fan my shirt when I step out of the car, relishing the faint breeze.
“Sorry about the AC,” Simon says apologetically. “This car’s an oldie but a goody.” From his spot outside the driver’s side, he looks over the car at me and half smiles as he taps the hood and looks unreasonably fresh, given the heat. “Bad timing for it to go out, I know. We could consider it some kind of fashionable spa detox. I’m sure Volvo would approve.”
I smile and nod. “Sure. Junior year should start with a cleanse of some sort.”
“Right? Before you do all sorts of college things to pollute your system. Parties, cafeteria food . . .” He waves a hand around, and I know he’s hoping I will continue with the joke.
Simon tries very hard, and I routinely fail him. I know this, but it’s all I can manage. It’s not his fault; it’s mine. He’s a very nice man. Too nice, probably. Too giving and too understanding.
Simon, I silently remind myself, is also my father. It’s embarrassing how often I have to remind myself of this, because I’ve seen the adop- tion papers. I was there, for God’s sake, when they were signed and when I officially—and finally—left the foster care system at the ripe old age of sixteen and a half.
I catch my reflection in the window of the car. My long dark hair is pulled into a ponytail, the weight leaden on my back, my thick bangs stuck to my forehead with sweat, my cheeks flushed.
My reaction is not from the heat, though. This is anxiety building. I need water.
Not only do I have to meet a new roommate, but I’ll have to part ways with Simon. I’ll hate putting him through an awkward good-bye, so I resolve to perk up and do a better job. I’m just not very good at being a daughter, but I want to try. I care about him so much, but I still struggle with how to show him that.
I plaster on a smile and round the car to the trunk. “Think we can make it one trip?” I ask. “If we do, I’ll buy you lunch.”
“At your nasty student union? That’s no incentive.” Simon retrieves a box from the trunk. He’s trying to hide it, but I can see him grin. “I’ll carry one shoe in at a time if that’ll save me.”
“Actually, I was thinking about the Greek place down the street.” The suitcase I pull out doesn’t weigh much. I’m a minimalist, and so I travel light.
Simon stands up and tips his head to the side, raising an eyebrow, no longer concealing his happiness. “Greek place? With gyros? And hummus?”
I nod. “And baba ghanoush.”
He shifts the box to rest on his hip, freeing up a hand. His voice elevates. “Grab everything you can and run! Only take what you need! Run like the wind!” He yanks a small duffel from the car and dashes to the sidewalk, calling out over his shoulder, “Come on, Allison! There’s no time to waste!”
I laugh and take the only other bag I have from the back of the car and then slam the trunk. Simon is teasing me, because the truth is that his car is now empty of what I’ve brought to school. My adoptive father is trying to make light of my inability to plant real roots anywhere, how I allow myself a fraction of the things other students stuff in their small dorm rooms, and I’m reminded of how sweet and understanding he is when it comes to my personality flaws. While most students take hours to unload cars and retrieve boxes from campus storage, we’ve unloaded the car in five seconds.
It takes scrambling to catch up with Simon—who has raced so far ahead that I’m chagrined by my inability to keep up with him—and my suitcase bumps up steps and over a good deal of grassy lawn as I shortcut between dorm buildings to reach mine. I’m breathless when I reach Kirk Hall, where he is sitting on the box, looking all sorts of casual and relaxed.
“Really, Simon?” I gasp. “How . . . how did you even know where you were going?” I pant.
“I studied the campus map last week. And perhaps yesterday. And again this morning before we left.” Simon manages to look as cool and handsome as ever, with no hint of a sweat stain on his button-down red linen shirt. The hair that is always stylishly whooshed back from his forehead is still in place. His effortless ability to always look so poised even when not warranted, is admirable. Aviator sunglasses turn toward me. “I’ve only been up here a few times before, and I can’t look like the average bumbling family member, following blindly while their child leads the way. I want to look like I know what I’m doing.”
I feel bad for not inviting him up to visit more often over the past two years. Maybe this year will be different. Maybe this year I will be able to let him in. I’d like that.
My heart rate is returning to normal, but I’m sweating again. “So, you thought you’d scamper wildly across campus like a lunatic?”
He grins. “Yes. Now, let’s go see your room.”
It was my hope that I’d land a good room-lottery number last spring and snatch up a coveted single room, but, unsurprisingly, I’d been at the bottom of the barrel. I’d waited hours in line to choose my room from a poorly drawn map, only to find that all the singles were gone. The fact the dorm-room selection couldn’t be done online was beyond belief, and I cursed the archaic system as I ran through the remaining room choices. The student in charge asked repeatedly if I had a friend I could room with, and I tried brushing him off five times before I practically had to holler, “No, okay? No, I don’t have anyone to room with! That’s why I want a single room!”
Some might say I created a bit of a scene, but I was too busy pan- icking to care. I finally chose half of a two-person suite that at least afforded me a private bedroom, along with a common room. I’d have to come in and out through that small shared common area, but I could probably keep to myself easily enough. In more positive moments, part of me dared to hope that this mystery roommate and I might hit it off. Wonders could happen. Still, today I am anxious about meeting her.
It only takes a few minutes to sign in at the dorm and get my key.
Then, with significant trepidation, I enter my basement suite.
Simon laughs when I audibly exhale. “Relieved she’s not here yet?” I roll my suitcase into one of the barren bedrooms and then plunk down on the rock-hard, hideous orange sofa in the lounge. Simon takes a swivel chair from my room and slides it in front of me, where he then plants himself. “Why are you so worried?”
I cross my arms and look around the concrete room. “I’m not wor- ried at all. She’s probably very nice. I’m sure we’ll become soul mates, and she’ll braid my hair, and we’ll have scantily clad pillow fights and fall into a deep lesbian love affair.” I squint my eyes at a cobweb and assume there are spider eggs preparing to hatch and invade the room.
“Allison?” Simon waits until I look at him. “You can’t do that. You can’t become a lesbian.”
“Because then everyone will say that your adoptive gay father magi- cally made you gay, and it’ll be a big thing, and we’ll have to hear about nature versus nurture, and it’ll be soooooo boring.”
“You have a point.” I wait for spider eggs to fall from the sky. “Then I’ll go with assuming she’s just a really sweet, normal person with whom I do not want to engage in sexual relations.”
“Better,” he concedes. “I’m sure she’ll be nice. This kind of strong liberal arts college attracts quality students. There’re good people here.” He’s trying to reassure me, but it’s not working.
“Totally,” I say. My fingers run across the nubby burned-orange fabric covering the couch, which is clearly composed of rock slabs. “Simon?”
I sigh and take a few breaths while I play with the hideous couch threads. “She probably has horns.”
He shrugged. “I think that’s unlikely.” Simon pauses. “Although . . .”
“Although what?” I ask with horror.
There’s a long silence that makes me nervous. Finally, he says very slowly, “She might have one horn.”
I jerk my head and stare at him.
Simon claps his hands together and tries to coax a smile out of me. “Like a unicorn! Ohmigod! Your roommate might be a unicorn!”
“Or a rhinoceros,” I point out. “A beastly, murderous rhino.” “There is that,” he concedes.
I sigh. “In good news, if I ever need a back scratcher, I have this entire couch.” I slump back against the rough fabric and hold out my hands before he can protest. “I know. I’m a beacon of positivity.”
“That’s not news to me.” Simon’s blue eyes meet mine. His skin is tan and weathered from a summer spent sailing off the coast of Massachusetts, his brown hair lightened in places where the gray has not taken over. I should have joined him on these excursions more than the few times I did. Next summer, maybe next summer . . .
“I think a back scratcher is a great luxury provided to you by Andrews College,” he says. “Enjoy.”
As I look around the concrete room, I make a resolution: I am going to give this unknown roommate a chance. I will push myself to be open and friendly. We might be very compatible. There’s no need for this collegiate relationship to become a be-all, end-all friendship, because I already have that with my one true friend, Steffi, and my heart has no room for more than one. But a good, working relationship with a roommate? That could actually be enjoyable.
Well, enjoyable might be pushing it. I’d shoot for tolerable.
There is a loud knock on the door, and it swings open as a tall boy with a scraggly beard and rows of beads dangling around his neck pokes his head into the room. “Yo, are you Allison?”
He beams. “Hey! Great to meet you! I’m Brian, your RA. Listen, my friend, welcome. We’re so happy you’re in Kirk Hall. Gonna be a rockin’ year.” He makes a little fist pump in the air, and I try not to recoil. “So, dude, one thing? Your roommate? Small hitch with her.”
“What do you mean by hitch?” I ask.
“Yeesh, she sorta isn’t going to be coming to school this year. Something about an Antarctic trip and a sea leopard.” His face con- torts. “Sounds unappealing to me, but she’s gonna be holed up in a lab studying this creature for a few months before she takes off to see ’em in person.”
Simon wrinkles his face. “Sea leopards?”
“Dude, yeah.” The boy with the necklaces pinches the bridge of his nose. “I bet they smell. Guess you’ll be flying solo this year, little bird.” Suddenly he brightens. “But hey! We’ve got a killer welcome-back party here in this very dorm tonight! Third-floor lounge! See you there!” He points a finger at me and then vanishes, letting the door slam behind him.
While Simon looks stricken that I will not have a roommate, my spirits are undeniably lifted. I’m a little bird who is going to be flying solo this year! “Let’s go get some baklava,” I say with too much enthusiasm.
“Allison . . .”
“What? Oh.” I force myself to look forlorn and try to hide that I actually find a degree of comfort in this turn of events. “I mean, it would have been nice to live with someone, I guess, but it’s all right. I’m sure this girl will have a unique year. So, good for her, right? Did you know that sea leopards are also called leopard seals? I like that name better.”
Simon tosses his hands in the air. “I didn’t.” He searches for some- thing appropriate to say. “Look, I know you don’t like people, but that doesn’t mean you should be happy if—”
“If someone chose a year of living in a lab and then in the frozen tundra, studying a vicious and creepy animal, over living with me?”
He looks sad. “Yes. But it’s not as though she knew you and . . . rejected you. She’s just following some dream of hers or whatnot.”
We sit without speaking, and eventually my butt hurts enough from the scratchy couch that I stand and walk the few steps to what would have been my roommate’s bedroom. I lean my head against the doorjamb and look at the floor. “I’m sorry that I don’t like people. I’m sorry that I look clearly relieved that I’ll be living alone.”
“It’s okay,” he replies gently. “I get it.” “And I’m sorry I’m pessimistic.”
“I get that, too.”
“And I’m sorry . . .” I can’t find the words. “I’m just sorry. I think you made a mistake. A mistake with me.” This is the first time I say what I have been thinking for years. I’m not sure why it comes out now, but, generally speaking, I’m not sure of much.
From the corner of my eye, I see Simon rise from the chair and turn my way. Softly, but very assuredly, he says, “No. I definitely did not make a mistake with you.”
Because he knows me well enough, he doesn’t step toward me expecting an embrace or some other emotional or physical display. Simon gets a lot of credit for respecting my boundaries. He knows that connection is not my thing.
People are not my thing. Trust is not my thing.
“What I also know for sure,” he continues, “is that you owe me lunch.”
So, we walk to the little Greek place a block from campus, and we order a crazy amount of food. I spend a lot of time stuffing my face and little time talking, but Simon manages to make our silence feel less uncomfortable than it should.
“I wonder what she’s like,” I murmur between bites. For a few seconds, I imagine having a typical college experience, complete with a bang-up, awesome roommate, with me actually welcoming that experi- ence. My past two roommates and I made zero connection, unsurpris- ingly. I know that was my fault. “Maybe she was really cool. Maybe we would have been friends.”
Simon clears his throat. He knows I’m full of shit.
“But,” I continue factually, “leopard seals are obviously the love of her life, and since I find them terrifying, I suspect a friendship wouldn’t have worked out anyway. This is for the best.”
My head starts to hurt. I down my drink and then focus on filling and refilling my glass with the bottle of sparkling water.
“How much do you actually know about these animals?” Simon interrupts my obsessive water consumption. “I’ve barely heard of them.” It takes only a minute for me to pull up a picture on my phone, and I stick the screen out in front of me. “Teeth. That animal has mini spears for teeth.”
Simon casts a look of defeat. “Okay. You’re right. That’s an unpleas- ant animal. She might not have made the best roommate.”
I sit back with immense satisfaction, my headache now subsiding.
WE GET ONE
At nine o’clock at night, I’m in bed, smoothing down the crisp sheets, ensuring that the perfect fold resting on my chest holds its form. A small desk fan circulates enough air to keep me from suffocating on this hot night. Something about the sounds of students whooping it up and celebrating their return to campus makes my stomach knot up, so I don’t open the small window. The whir from the fan doesn’t quash the revelers’ drunken partying much, but it at least helps.
A sudden pounding on my door startles me, and it takes me a sec- ond to squelch my panic before I tentatively open the door.
“Allison! How was your summer? You coming to the dorm party upstairs?” A petite girl with a plastic cup stands before me. Her bleached hair spikes in dramatic chunks from her head and then lands just on her shoulders. I recognize her from a few of my classes last year. Becky? Bella? Brooke? Some kind of B name. She catches herself when she notices my tank top and pajama bottoms. “Oh. I guess not,” she says. I form a big smile. “Hey! It’s so good to see you. Oh my God! You look gorgeous! Check out that tan!” I manage to sound so overzealous that even I’m surprised at the squeal in my voice. “I’m seriously beat from all the end-of-summer parties.” I give a knowing look, trying to convey the idea that I’ve been engaged in such wild and scandalous activities over the past few weeks that I cannot possibly haul myself to one more social event. I pretend to yawn.
B-name girl raises her cup in understanding and nods her head so vigorously that a strand of her hair bounces into the liquid. “I hear you. Well, rest up. Next time, ’kay?”
The idea that I am going to have to spend another two years here, deflecting social interaction, is daunting. If I could throw an invisibility cloak over myself and attend college that way, I would.
“For sure . . .” I make the horrible mistake of pausing, letting her know that I cannot for the life of me remember her name.
“Carmen,” she says with a splash of annoyance. “Carmen. I lived next to you last year, and we had lit and British history together.”
“I know your name, silly!” I scramble to think of something else to say. While I don’t want to go to any parties, I also really don’t want to hurt her feelings. It’s moments like this that I so wish I could be less awkward and weird. In a scramble to be friendly, I blurt out, “I just . . . I was just noticing your cool earrings. They’re so unique.”
She touches a hand to her ear. “They’re plain silver hoops.”
“Er, I didn’t mean unique, really. I meant . . . that . . . they’re the perfect size. Not too big, not too small, you know?”
Carmen looks at me skeptically. “I guess so.”
“They’re really nice. I’ve been wanting a pair like that.”
“My mom got them for me. I can ask her where she bought them if you want.”
I smile. “That’s so cool of you. Thanks!” I’m too chipper, I realize, so I bring it down a notch and fake another yawn. “Anyway, I’m sorry I’m so lame tonight. But drink a beer for me, will you?”
“You got it! I’ll start now!” She takes a big drink from her cup and goes down the hall, turning back after a few paces. “Nice to see you, Allison.”
“You too, Carmen!”
I lock the door and turn off the light. The door to the empty second bedroom is open, and I stare at it. Leave it open, or shut the door? I can’t decide what to do. Closed will make it seem as though someone is in there. sleeping, studying, hooking up, wanting privacy . . . As though maybe I have a friend in there with whom I have an actual connection. Something. Open will remind me that there is no one in there.
Truly, I have no idea what to do. Minutes tick by.
Suddenly, I lurch forward, grab the handle, and slam it shut. That room does not exist.
I rush away and quickly close my own door. I cannot get back into bed fast enough.
I scramble to pull the bedding up to my chin in some kind of crazy fit. Why would Carmen come by my room? It’s inexplicable. My toes are wiggling wildly, and I clap my feet together to calm them down.
I fan my body with the sheets before again smoothing the fabric, making sure the top fold is exact. Simon insisted on getting me new sheets, even though I already had one set, and he washed and even ironed these for me before we left home. He looked terribly disap- pointed when I tried to turn down these new sheets. “You can’t have just one set of sheets! Please? For me? Just this one year, have a second set,” he’d pleaded. “The thread count is off the charts.” So, I’d thanked him and accepted the gift of high thread count.
The feel of the heavyweight cotton is less familiar than the inexpen- sive, scratchy sheets that I’d often slept on when growing up, and so I am moderately uncomfortable and tempted to pull the old ones from my closet and remake the bed, but in an effort to make Simon happy, I stick with these. He’s been trying for years to give me a new normal. I wish I could let him, but my history is too tainted for him to fix.
I stopped hoping for stability when I was ten. It was a good, long run of optimism, if you ask me, but when I turned ten, it became obvi- ous that I was unadoptable. No one would want a shy, uninteresting, skittish child who was well past the cute baby stage.
I close my eyes and stroke the sheets over and over, trying to man- age the anxiety that always comes with revisiting the past.
I remember a very kind social worker who picked me up from a home placement when I was around eight. It was New Year’s Day, with sleeting rain stabbing at the mounds of snow, and she must have adjusted her pink wool scarf a dozen times a minute in her nervous- ness. What a depressing job she had. I can still see the smiling faces of the parents and their two biological children as they all hugged me good-bye and waved, wishing me well and thanking me for staying with them. Thanking me, as though I’d been an exchange student who’d just stopped in temporarily to experience the culture of an upper-class Massachusetts family. As though they’d been hosting me for fun. But at least I ate well, went to a good school, and got to take ballet for those six months. Ballet classes, however, were not worth the heartbreak that came with being told it was time to go.
My childhood was a constant exchange of new schools, new rooms, new houses, new neighborhoods, new families. I think about how many teachers and classmates I had to meet, how many times I had to start over.
Then there were birthdays. Either overly celebrated or entirely forgotten.
My breathing picks up, and I squeeze my fingers over the fabric, trying to remind myself that I have more now than I ever expected. I should be reassured. There is Simon. He promised he wasn’t going anywhere. He adopted me. He signed papers, for God’s sake. Legally, he can’t go anywhere.
So, he is stuck with me.
My phone jars me from my impending escalation. Steffi. She’s the only person in the world I’d talk to now.
I wipe my face and cough to clear my throat. “Hey, you!”
“Hey, back!” Steffi shouts happily. Immediately, I am comforted.
Steffi has been the one exception to the endless proof that the world is unstable and unreliable. From the moment we met when we were fourteen, we have been partners in survival. For only three months, we lived in the same foster family with four other kids, but three months was all we needed to cement our friendship.
“How is California?” I ask.
“Stupidly sunny and gorgeous. Just like me.” Steffi lets out her gravelly laugh, and I can practically see her flip her long blond hair. “I was made for Los Angeles, you know that. And you are, too. You’ll see that once you graduate and get your ass out here.”
I smile. “That’s the plan.” I hear music fade in and out and the sound of hangers being pushed along a closet rod. “You going out?”
“You betcha. I’m putting you on speaker while I get dressed, ’kay?
So, what’s going on with you? How’d drop-off with Daddy go?” “Fine. You know . . . We had lunch.”
“Simon still as hot as ever?”
“Oh my God, Steffi! Don’t be gross!” But I can’t help laughing. “He’s not my daddy,” she says, making her voice all sexy and bor-
derline creepy. “If I had my way, I could be Mrs. Simon Dennis. And be your mommy!”
“Shut up! That’s weird. And he’s gay,” I remind her. “You’re not exactly his type. Thank God.”
“There is that,” she says, sighing dramatically. “Dammit! Is he still wearing those adorable aviator glasses? Don’t answer that. Why is romance so unfair?”
I roll my eyes. “I think you’ll survive not capturing Simon’s heart.” “It’s fine. I plan to drown my sorrows in a slew of vodka sodas and pick up the hottest piece of ass I can find. And you? Will you be getting some college-boy action yourself this fine evening?”
I refrain from snorting. “Classes start tomorrow. Just taking . . . it . . . easy tonight.” For some reason, I stumble over my words, and it’s the only thing Steffi needs to know something is off.
“What’s going on, Allison?” She’s gentle now. “I’m okay.”
“You having a hard night?”
It’s useless to lie to her. “Yes. A little. I don’t know why.”
The music in the background stops. Like it or not, I have her full attention. “You want to run through it again?” she asks.
I can’t speak, but she knows me well enough to know that I’m nodding.
She begins to tell me what I already know—or what I should know, but what she must remind me of all too often. “We are not statistics. We beat the system. Nobody wanted us for all those years? Fine. So, we blew apart the system. We grew up alone, rejected, unwanted. But screw everybody. We graduated high school, and we’re both in college. We haven’t gone to jail. We don’t use drugs. We’ve never run away or been on the streets doing Lord knows what. We are not statistics,” she emphasizes again. “We lived with some rotten families. We lived with some cool ones. The details do not matter. Do you hear me? The details do not matter. I don’t want to live in the past. Neither do you. We’re not going back there. It’s over. We are not goddamn statistics. We will never be. We are the exception, and we are exceptional. Got it?”
I nod to myself again. “Right.” I had become a shell of a kid until Steffi showed up and rocked me into life. At least to a degree.
“So, what else?” she prompts. “What do we do? Each and every day?”
I roll onto my side and reach to turn off the small desk light that shines over me. “We focus on the future, and we don’t look back.”
“Big futures,” she corrects. “And why do we have big futures wait- ing for us?” she asks me.
“Because you made us study. Because you knew that our education was the most important thing. That it would save us.”
She’s not bragging when she makes me say this; she’s only pushing me to validate what we both did. She should take more credit, though, because Steffi threatened, cajoled, and bribed to get my contact infor- mation with each move. She was relentless in keeping us together even after we were apart. And Steffi is the only reason that I threw myself into school because she instilled in me how crucial this was to survival.
“And you got into college. A damn good one.”
“And you got a full scholarship to UCLA. Nobody does that. Nobody,” I stress, almost as if to remind myself of what she’s accom- plished. Steffi’s hard work and ferocious determination have indeed paid off well. She, much more than me, is the exception to the foster-kid rule.
“We got where we are,” she continues, “because we stayed focused.” I stare at the ceiling above me. “And because you took care of me.” “We took care of each other.” Steffi pauses. “Do you remember what you did for me?”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
She’s silent for a bit. “Okay. But you took care of me, too.” “Why don’t you let me take care of you more now?” “Because I’m a tough shit.”
I can’t help laughing. “You are. I just want you to know that I’m here for you. That I’d do anything for you.”
“Of course you would! I know that. Allison?” “Yeah?”
“You got a good ending, okay? You got Simon. Don’t forget that. Even when we thought it was too late, even when it felt like it didn’t matter anymore, you got a father. You have somewhere to call home, somewhere to go during breaks and summers. Just because he showed up late doesn’t mean that he doesn’t matter. You defied some crazy odds by getting adopted in high school.”
“It’s not fair.” I cannot stand when Steffi says this, because my guilt is uncontrollable. I cup a hand over my mouth to stifle the sobs that threaten to come through, and it takes me a moment until I can speak without emotion. I wait until my voice is flat. Factual. “But you didn’t get adopted.”
“I didn’t need to. I was a sick little kid, Allison. Nobody wanted a kid who’d had cancer. And then, years later, even when I was better, I didn’t need them.” The them she refers to are Joan and Cal Kantor. Steffi moved into their house around the same time I moved in with Simon. Simon adopted me, but Joan and Cal did not adopt Steffi, instead let- ting her turn eighteen and go off on her own. No support, no family, no sense of safe haven.
As hardened and independent as Steffi was, even she was shaken when they politely let her know that their time as foster parents was done. It was not a happy graduation from high school.
I will never forgive them.
I’ll never know what to say about Joan and Cal. What to say about how they discarded the most tremendous girl. A could-be daughter.
As always, Steffi steps in to fill the void I create. “Look, Allison, I was a dud, okay? A risk. And why would I want to settle down with a nice family and their three dogs when I have you, right?”
“Right.” But I’m not sure.
“Hey! Snap out of it!” she says sharply. “I got you! What do I always say?”
My head is spinning. “I don’t know . . .”
“Hold on to your one. Remember? I have you, and you have me. And when you’re lucky enough to find one—just one—person in this unforgiving life who makes everything worth it, who you love and trust and would kill for, then you hold on damn tight, because that’s prob- ably all you get. We got this,” Steffi says with conviction.
“It’s going to hurt until it doesn’t anymore.” “Okay.”
“It’s going to hurt until it doesn’t anymore.” I repeat her words, but I’m not sure I believe them. I’m not as strong as Steffi, and my past does
still hurt. Even though the worst should be over, it all still hurts with a relentless, enduring power that I cannot match.
It’s possible that I’m too broken.
“Steffi? You’re not a dud. You never were. You are more perfect than any parents could handle. That’s all.”
By: Jessica Park
Published Date: April 25th, 2017
Publisher: Skyscape Publishing
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