The Basics: London, the capital of England, is the perfect gateway city for your European adventure. You can fly there directly from pretty much anywhere in America, it’s a five-hour time difference from the East Coast, plus the Brits speak English.
Um, most of the time. They snog instead of kiss, wear knickers instead of underwear, and spend pounds instead of dollars, so you might not always understand what they’re bloody (bloody=curse word!) talking about.
I am going to Europe. EUROPE. I am leaving the country.
I have never left the country, and now I’m going to at least five countries.
If we make it to the gate.
“Run, Leela, run! Come on! Hurry!” I yell as the two of us charge through the airport. “They just called final boarding!”
“Wait!” she calls back. “I lost a sandal!”
I turn to see her hopping on one foot. Her bright blue purse is overflowing with a black leather wallet, Vogue, People, EW, Newsweek, hand sanitizer, a small notepad, pencils, her iPhone, and an open metallic makeup bag the size of a microwave. She’s also holding a white plastic bag stuffed with chips, a vitaminwater, and a sandwich.
“I dropped the napkins!” she says. “I have to go back for the napkins!”
“Forget the napkins,” I order. “We don’t have time for napkins. Put your foot back in your shoe and keep moving! I’ll take your food, let’s go!”
I grab her bag along with mine and keep running. Instead of a purse, I’m wearing a small black backpack that’s keeping everything in place. My passport. My wallet. My guidebook. Four paperbacks—One Day, The Paris Wife, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and My Brilliant Friend—that all take place in cities I’m planning to visit. Now that it’s summer vacation, I can finally read whatever I want.
When we get to the gate there is only one person in front of us.
The board says:
London Flight: 401
Departs: 5:00 p.m.
“We made it!” I say, panting. “I can’t believe it.”
Our first almost-delay was when my mother nearly had a panic attack when Leela’s parents picked me up to take us to the airport. She’d come to the driveway to say good-bye, but as I was getting into the car, I saw her eyes glaze over and she seemed very far away. “Mom?” I said, freezing in my spot. “Are you okay?”
“Just a bit light-headed,” she answered, retreating toward the house. “Don’t worry about me. Go. Have a safe flight.”
I felt slightly sick as I watched her close the front door behind her. I wondered: Can I really do this? Can I really leave?
“Everything okay?” Leela’s dad asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Let’s go.”
So we went.
Traffic was miserable, costing us an extra ten minutes. Then security pulled Leela over to examine her massive makeup bag to make sure she wasn’t breaking any kind of liquids rule.
“Why do you need so many lipsticks?” I asked her.
“That’s a ridiculous question.”
“Then why didn’t you pack them in your suitcase?”
“Most of them are in my suitcase. But I couldn’t pack all of them in there. I was worried they would melt.”
The final straw was my fault. I insisted on stopping at our terminal’s Fresh Market to get sandwiches. That way we’d be able to eat as soon as we got on the plane, be done before takeoff, and could go straight to sleep. But the line inched forward and we almost missed boarding.
Yet we made it. We lost the napkins, kept the lipsticks, and we made it. Now, we’re here at the gate. Electricity and excitement rush up my spine—I’m seriously, no joke, actually doing this. I am traveling around Europe with my best friend for four and a half weeks. Holy crap.
“Boarding pass and passport, please,” the flight attendant says when it’s our turn.
“Here you go,” I say, and hand over my paperwork.
“Have a good flight, Sydney,” the flight attendant tells me, and hands back my stuff. She turns to Leela.
“Damn,” Leela says. “My boarding pass was with the napkins.”
Tip: Are you taking a late-night flight? Sleep on the plane! That way you’ll be well rested when you land and ready to hit the ground running.
Otherwise you’re totally going to be a hot mess by noon.
Somehow we make it. We spot the pile of napkins and the boarding pass and thirty minutes later, we’re in the air. I take a final bite of my Fresh Market sandwich. “Bathroom, then sleep,” I say.
“Perfect,” Leela says, still chewing. “I’ll watch our stuff.”
Her stuff is already overflowing from her seatback pocket, and covering both her floor area and mine.
As I make my way toward the back, I can’t believe I actually left. I haven’t been on a plane since I was ten, over nine years ago. I feel free, like a balloon floating through the sky.
The plane rocks to the left.
Free. And slightly untethered.
I push away any feelings of uneasiness. The next four and a half weeks are going to be amazing. Incredible. Amazingly incredible.
I smile at the passengers as I pass them. Hello, little boy. Hello, little girl. Hello, too-skinny mom. Hello, extremely sweaty dad. Hello, cute guy.
At first, I don’t recognize him.
Then I think: His shaggy brown hair, pink cheeks, and lazy smile look familiar.
Then I realize. MATT. IT’S MATT. Leela’s ex-boyfriend MATT.
I have never met Matt in person, since Leela met him in Montreal at McGill University, but I recognize him from her Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. Selfies of the two of them on the top of a mountain (#climbedit #MontRoyal), pulling all-nighters at the library (#needcoffee), and sharing a plate of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds (#myfirstpoutine).
Leela introduced us via FaceTime, too.
He’s definitely as cute in real life as he was on the phone.
He’s watching something on his iPad. I make a U-turn, go back to our row, and sink into my aisle seat.
“I forgot my parents’ converter,” Leela says. “To plug stuff in.”
“Don’t worry about that. I bought one and definitely packed it. We can share.” I place my hand on her arm. “But brace yourself, my friend. Matt’s on the plane.”
Leela gasps. “My Matt?”
“No,” she finally says when she catches her breath. She drops the rest of her sandwich in her lap. Cheddar. Everywhere.
“Yes,” I repeat.
“Are you sure it’s him?”
“Ninety-nine percent sure.”
“Thirtyish. He’s wearing a McGill sweatshirt.”
She buries her face in her hands. “The jackass is on my airplane. What the hell is he doing on my airplane?”
“Technically the airplane is owned by Delta. Yet operated by Virgin Atlantic.”
She doesn’t laugh, even though it was super funny. Okay, maybe not super funny, but definitely a little funny. I would have laughed if she’d said it.
“He must be in our original seats,” she says. “Thank God I switched mine to be next to you. Thank God. Could you imagine if I had to sit next to him for the entire plane ride? I would die. DIE.”
“Can we not talk about dying when we’re on a plane over the ocean? Thank you.”
“He was supposed to cancel his ticket,” she continues. “I told him you were coming with me, and he said he’d go home and get a job in Toronto instead. So why is he here? On my plane? Why would he fly out of Baltimore? He doesn’t even live in Baltimore! I do!”
“Didn’t you buy the tickets to London together? He probably just kept his. Or maybe he likes the Orioles? I don’t know,” I say. I look out the small window by her head. All I see is blue. “Are you going to go back and yell at him?”
“Yes! No. I don’t want to see him. I don’t want to talk to him. He knows I’m on the plane. If he wants to see me, he can look for me. He’s an ass.” She jerks up. “Crap. Was he sitting with someone?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I was so surprised to see him I ran right back here. I never made it to the bathroom.”
“Did he notice you?” she asks, worried. “I’m sure he’d recognize you too.”
“No, no. He was watching something. I don’t think he saw me.”
“Please, please, please go back and see if he’s sitting with anyone.”
“Yes. Please. I need to know.” She shakes her head. “No way he’s going to Europe by himself.”
“He might be,” I say. “Lots of people do.”
“No,” she says. “He’s not the solo traveler type. Oh God, I bet he’s with that chick Ava. She’s probably sitting right next to him. They’re probably feeding each other peanuts. Peanuts! I hate peanuts! Who actually eats the peanuts they give you on airplanes?”
“They don’t pass out peanuts anymore. Too many allergies. It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
“Can you just pretend you’re going to the bathroom and check?”
“I actually do have to go to the bathroom. Still.”
“Perfect. Problem solved.” Leela’s face is desperate, pleading. Her brown eyes look crazed. Even her usual sleek brown hair is mussed, adding to an overall manic look.
I unbuckle my seat belt and stand up. We’re in row fourteen. The plane rumbles beneath my feet as I carefully maneuver my way to the back. Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine. Thirty.
I look up. And there he is. Still in the aisle seat. Still watching a movie. There’s an older man reading a James Patterson novel to the left of him.
Not Ava. Small miracle.
Matt looks up. Notices me staring. We lock eyes. I look away but it’s too late. Oops.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hello, Matthew,” I say. Crap. If he didn’t know who I was at first, I blew it as soon as I said his name. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do, so I keep moving, using the backs of people’s chairs to wipe off my now-sweaty palms. Luckily there’s no one in the bathroom, so I quickly step in and lock the door behind me.
On my way back, I pretend he doesn’t exist.
Leela is gripping her armrests like the plane is going down.
“He’s alone. And he saw me,” I say.
“What do I do?”
“I don’t know. Go talk to him?”
“He should come talk to me! He should apologize again! He cheated on me! He’s on my plane!” Her voice is a hysterical whisper.
“You’re right,” I say. “He should come talk to you.”
“He’d better,” she says.
I take a deep breath of stale airplane air and wiggle around, trying to get comfortable. It’s tough, since the seat seems to be designed for a preschooler.
Leela combs her fingers through her long dark hair. “Do I look okay? In case he comes back?”
“You look great,” I tell her.
“How’s my lipstick?”
“Still good,” I say.
“Thank you, Bite.”
I slip off my shoes and try to stretch out my socked toes. “What’s Bite?”
“This Canadian brand of lipstick I’m obsessed with. I’m applying for an internship there next summer. I love their branding.” Leela is studying marketing at McGill.
I’m studying English lit at the University of Maryland.
I turn to her, realizing the implication of what she just said. “You might stay in Canada next summer?”
“Maybe,” she says. “If I get the internship.”
I sink back into my seat, feeling something close to relief that I came on this trip. Leela and I need this month together. A friendship can’t survive on childhood memories alone. We have to create new experiences, or the friendship will shrivel up. Like the orchids my dad sent me for my birthday that I completely forgot to water.
She points to the screen above us. “Want to watch the movie?”
“I thought we were going to sleep?”
“I can’t sleep at a time like this! Also I have to pee. And there’s no way in hell I’m going to the bathroom.”
Tip: You might want to get CFAR (Cancel for Any Reason) insurance to prepare for the unexpected.
If you don’t, you’re SOL if your boyfriend hooks up with some random girl and you want a refund on your ticket. Sorry.
Leela and I had always planned on traveling together.
We’d been best friends since the third grade. We picked matching outfits in advance and told people we were twins. Although we were both around the same middle-row-on-picture-day height, I doubt anyone was fooled; she’s Indian and has dark skin and wavy long dark brown hair, and I’m pale with curly medium-brown Jewish-girl hair.
While other kids played soccer and went to ballet, Leela and I read books. The Princess Diaries. Anne of Green Gables. But our favorite books took place in England. Mary Poppins. Matilda. Harry Potter. Peter Pan. Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging. Thongs! Snogging! Ha!
We vowed that one day, when we were older, we would go to England and have our own adventures. London would be so much more fun than Maryland. We would have tea with our pinkies up. We’d go to Buckingham Palace. We’d fly across the city with umbrellas and broomsticks. We’d get engaged in London. Okay, not really, but Leela’s parents had gotten engaged in London and wasn’t that the most romantic thing you’d ever heard?
In middle school, we became obsessed with the Eiffel Tower. We decided we’d go to Paris and London. In high school, Leela studied French and discovered stinky cheese. I read Anna and the French Kiss, Just One Day, and a whole lot about Marie Antoinette.
My cousin Melanie actually backpacked through Europe when she was nineteen. She went for six months. She explained that backpacking through Europe didn’t mean hiking from city to city over mountains like I kind of thought it did. She took trains, and she just carried all her things in a backpack instead of a suitcase. We couldn’t imagine. How would everything fit? I wanted to travel with all my stuff in a backpack! We wanted to backpack through Europe!
Even after Leela got into McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and I got a scholarship to go to University of Maryland—which was great because I could live at home, and I felt like I needed to live at home—our plans didn’t change.
“We’re still going to Europe next summer,” she said.
“Of course,” I told her, although unlike Leela, I didn’t have a passport.
The night before she left for Canada she said, “We’re still going to Europe this summer,” as she hugged me good-bye.
I promised we would.
Leela met Matt on the first day of Frosh. That’s the week of drunken debauchery at McGill, the week before school starts. Like in Europe, the drinking age in Montreal is eighteen.
At the start of the year, Leela and I spoke or texted every day. But as the months went by and I got caught up in classes and studying and parties and driving to and from campus in addition to running around for my mother and my sister, Addison, my response time got slower and slower.
Leela: Call me when you can. I miss you!
Leela: Remember me?
Leela: Cough, cough, this is still your number, right?
Me: I’m sorry! I suck! I’m so busy! I love you!
I missed the days when our daily lives were intertwined with school and gossip and hanging out and reading and just watching TV together.
My phone buzzed in late February.
Leela: We’re still going to Europe together, right?
I didn’t answer right away. I wanted to go to Europe. Badly.
A week later she wrote again.
Leela: Hello, stranger. What’s the story for this summer? ARE we going to Europe or not? If yes, we have to get plane tickets.
I hesitated, my hands on my phone. Our friendship needed this trip. But I couldn’t say yes. I wrote back:
I don’t know.
Leela: Your mom will be fine.
Me: I’m not sure that’s true.
I waited for Leela to respond. She finally texted:
Leela: But we’ve been planning this trip FOREVER!!
Me: I know.
I thought about it. I missed Leela like crazy, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave my mother for the summer. She wouldn’t be fine.
My mother has a severe anxiety disorder called agoraphobia. People think agoraphobia is a fear of going to public places, but that’s not totally it. Agoraphobics are afraid of being out in public and losing control, so they prefer to stay in places they think of as safe.
That’s how my father explained it anyway.
When my little sister and I were still in elementary school, my mom always asked my dad to drive, and we were always the first to leave events, but she still came to our school plays and book fairs and teacher conferences. She worked from home since she’s a children’s book illustrator, but she still left the house. She didn’t love it, but she did it. She and my dad argued all the time. He wanted to go for more dinners, more parties, to meet more people, see more things. She wanted him to slow down and pay attention to his family. He liked to be out. She liked to play Monopoly and watch TV. He wanted to see a marriage counselor. She refused. Her aunt was a therapist, and she thought her aunt was a total kook.
So he went without her. And then when I was in seventh grade, he moved out without her. Without us.
After she and my father got divorced, everything went downhill. She was driving us to my middle school’s winter carnival when she had a panic attack. I was in the front, and my sister was in the back seat. We were at a red light when the light turned green and my mom didn’t move.
“Mom?” I said, and then noticed that her face was white and her hands were shaking. “Mom, are you okay?” She didn’t look okay. She looked like she was about to pass out.
The navy Taurus behind us started to honk. Once. Twice. Again. HONNNNNK.
What was happening?
“You have to drive, Mom,” Addison piped up from the back seat. “You can’t b-b-block the road!” Addison had developed a bit of a stammer. Stress, her teacher said. She was only in the fourth grade.
“I . . .” My mom’s voice cracked. “I don’t feel well. I think I’m . . . my chest hurts.”
Was she having a heart attack? My own heart started to race.
“Mom? Mom?” Addison cried out.
“Pull into the Dunkin’ Donuts over there,” I said suddenly. I put my hand on top of her arm. It was cold and clammy.
She pressed her foot lightly on the gas, crossed the lane, and drove into the parking lot, her hands still gripping the wheel. She put the car into park.
“What are you doing?” Addison asked, her voice rising. “You guys are freaking me out!”
“Does your chest still hurt?” I asked.
My mother nodded. She continued to shake. An Adele song played on the radio.
It was a heart attack. My mother was having a heart attack. I had to do something. What could I do? I needed help. We had to go to the hospital. “Should I . . . should I call an ambulance?” I looked for her purse. Where was her purse? I needed her phone!
She shook her head no, but didn’t speak.
“Mom? Where’s your purse?” I asked. “I need to call an ambulance.”
“No,” she said finally. “Don’t. I’m just . . . nervous.”
What did that mean?
“Nervous?” Addison asked, and then squeaked out a laugh. “About the winter carnival?”
My mom closed her eyes. “Syd. Run inside and get me water?”
“Okay.” I jumped out of the car and into the cold, relieved to have something constructive to do. I watched them through the store window as I waited in line. My mother’s hands were no longer gripping the steering wheel, and her door was open slightly. She seemed to be taking deep breaths.
A minute later I got back in the car, opened the bottle of water, and handed it to her. “Do you feel better?”
She took a long sip. “A little.”
“It’s for sure not a heart attack?” I asked.
“A heart attack?” Addison screeched. “You think Mom is having a heart attack?”
“I’m not having a heart attack,” my mother said quickly. “I’m fine. It’s just a panic attack. I had them when I was younger. Just give me a minute.”
We sat still, the radio continuing to play.
“Okay,” my mom said after a few songs.
“We don’t need to go to the carnival,” I said. “Do you want to go home?”
“No!” Addison squawked. “The carnival has c-c-otton candy.”
I wanted to yell at my sister but didn’t want to stress my mom out even more.
My mom’s lower lip trembled. “I wouldn’t mind lying down.”
I put my hand back on her arm. “It’s okay. It’s not that important.”
For the next few years, my mom wouldn’t drive anywhere unless I was in the passenger seat. She said she liked having me beside her. I calmed her down. Addison and I started taking the school bus to and from school, and I went along with my mom to her appointments, to the mall, to the grocery store, to the pharmacy, to wherever she or my sister needed to go. She was worried that without me there she would have another panic attack, and somehow lose control of the car. I liked knowing that I could help. That I could make my mother feel better.
When I was sixteen-and-a-half and I got my license, I started doing most of the driving. That way my mom could relax in the passenger seat and not have to worry about having a panic attack at all. I didn’t mind: I felt needed. I hated that she worried so much, and that her world was getting smaller and smaller, but I was glad I could help and I liked driving and that I basically had my own car. I got to take it to school and wherever I wanted. I also had to pick up Addison after swimming and take my mom to the grocery store.
Until we stopped going to the grocery store. One minute my mom was studying a frozen lasagna in the freezer section of Safeway and the next minute her hands were shaking and the lasagna was on the floor. She was sweating and hyperventilating, and she needed me to take her out of there, take her outside right away before she fainted. I grabbed her hands, we left the groceries in the cart and the frozen lasagna on the floor, and I found a bench outside. I told her to take big breaths, that she was going to be okay, that I loved her, and she was going to be fine.
She hasn’t been back to the Safeway since. You can order online from Safeway, and they deliver in an hour.
My mom was pretty sure she’d have a panic attack at our high school parent-teacher nights, so couldn’t my father go to those, he didn’t live that far away, and then he could tell her what they said? He liked doing stuff like that. Surely he could do at least that after moving out on all of us. He could. And he did.
He also asked her to see a therapist.
She said she’d be fine. She’d had a few panic attacks as a teenager, but they had gone away. She ordered some books with relaxation techniques.
When they still didn’t go away, I begged her to at least ask her regular doctor for help. She finally agreed.
I drove her to the appointment and read Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story in the waiting room. Her doctor told her that she had to learn to relax, and prescribed an antidepressant. My mom took it every day for a month but said it made her brain cloudy, and then she still had a panic attack when she tried to take us to see a movie. So she stopped taking the pills.
That was two years ago.
These days she doesn’t drive. Or go to the grocery store. Or to the movies. Or to shopping malls, or go on trains, or planes, or take cabs. She won’t see another doctor, or try another medication. She doesn’t want to feel drugged out. I’m not sure what else I can do to help her, but it’s hard to watch her in pain. So I do what I can to keep the panic away.
My mom will sit in the backyard, and even go for walks, but she needs me to be with her when she leaves the house to keep her calm. She doesn’t want to risk panicking and fainting and god forbid hitting her head on the concrete and bleeding all over the sidewalk without anyone to help her.
It took me a week to answer Leela’s text about whether or not we were still on. I finally wrote back:
I’m sorry. I can’t.
She wrote back immediately:
BOOOOOO. Are you sure? I really want to go with you.
Me: I want to go with you too. I’M SORRY.
Two weeks later she wrote:
How would you feel about me going to Europe with Matt? I would OF COURSE rather go with you. Would you be upset? Be HONEST.
I felt terrible about it, but I couldn’t say that since I wasn’t a selfish asshole. I wrote back:
Go for it. You have my blessing.
Leela: Love you. Thanks. Now I just have to convince my parents. . . They like Matt but I’m not sure how they’re going to feel about me traveling with my boyfriend.
Leela’s parents had always been in favor of our plan to go to Europe since they thought a month of traveling would be good for her. They thought it would teach her to be more independent. Even though she went to school in another country, she still never had to act like a grown-up. She lived in a dorm and had a meal plan. She went to class and came back. Plus, her older sister, Vanya, was a senior at McGill, checking up on her and paving the way. Leela was lucky.
I wasn’t sure if I was rooting for her parents to say yes or no.
Three days later Leela wrote:
They said yes! My mom says she likes the idea! She says she feels even safer knowing he’s with me. Sexist but at least they said yes.
I didn’t respond right away. She was going to Europe without me. She was going to Europe with Matt.
Leela finished her freshman year at McGill in the middle of May and came home.
At the beginning of June, she stormed into Books in Wonderland, where I work every summer, tears streaking her cheeks. “Matt kissed some girl named Ava at a bar,” she said.
I took a break and led her outside. We sat on the edge of the sidewalk, our knees hiked up into our chests. “How do you know?” I asked.
“He admitted it. I asked if something was going on, and he said yes. Claimed it was a mistake. He didn’t mean for it to happen. He was at a party, and it was an accident. He was freaked out about how serious we were getting. He said he’s still freaked about how serious we’re getting. But come on, how do you accidentally kiss someone?”
I considered. “I’m not sure. I think it’s physically impossible. You’d both have to have your mouths open, and you’d have to bump into each other at a very bizarre angle.”
She hiccup-laughed. “Exactly. So what am I supposed to do about Europe?”
Matt and Leela had decided to travel through Europe together for a month. Four and a half weeks, to be exact. They were flying to London on July first and flying out of Rome on August second. They were leaving in three weeks.
“Do you still want to go?” I asked.
“No. Not with him. You can’t go to Europe with a guy who just cheated on you. Do you want to go to Europe by yourself?”
“No, I don’t want to go by myself! I can’t go by myself!”
“Of course you can. People travel by themselves all the time. You can go wherever you want. A bookstore in London. A beach in Italy. The Louvre! You’ll eat gelato! Macarons! Stinky cheese!”
“He doesn’t even like stinky cheese,” she said, sniffing.
“Then he has no taste.”
She turned to me. Her expression was hopeful. “Come with me.”
I laughed. “I can’t.”
“You can, Sydney. Please come.” She brightened. “Isn’t Addison working at Sunny’s this summer?”
“Yeah.” She’d gotten a job at the grill by the local pool.
“So she’s here. And she has her license now, right? She can help your mom.”
“She just got it last month. I’m not sure she feels comfortable driving yet. I think she’d be really mad.”
I’ve always tried to shield my sister from the stress of taking care of our mom. I was the one who made sure my mother left the house every day. I was the one who drove her around. In the years right after the divorce, my sister had been too young to help, and I didn’t want to worry her. Besides her stammer, she also started to fall behind in math. Luckily we found tutors and speech specialists who could come to the house.
“Your mom would be mad?”
“No, Addison would be mad. And my mom. They both would. I can’t go. I’m sorry. I wish I could but I can’t.”
“Can’t? Or won’t?” Leela asked. “Think about it. It’s the trip of a lifetime. And you deserve it, Syd, you really do. You do so much for your family. You need time off. And we never get to see each other anymore. I miss you.”
“I miss you too,” I said. And I hadn’t exactly been the world’s greatest friend this year. And Leela needed me. She really did. And she’d always, always been there for me.
Maybe my mom would be okay if my sister helped her? It was only four and a half weeks. I looked back at the bookstore. Eleanor, the owner of Books in Wonderland, wouldn’t mind. She had enough extra staff.
I blew out a breath. “How much would the trip cost exactly?”
Leela squeezed my arm. “Not THAT much. We can do it on sixty dollars a day. That’s like two thousand for the whole thing.”
“Plus the flight. How much was yours?”
“Eight hundred. Flying into London and flying out of Rome. Are you going to come? Please say you’re going to come!”
“And how do we get around?”
“Eurail. Seven hundred.”
“So three thousand five hundred. That’s a lot. But I have some Bat Mitzvah money left. And I’ve been working here for the last month . . . I think I have about three thousand dollars I could scrape together.”
“Maybe your dad has airline points?”
My dad did have airline points. He had a shitload of airline points. He never invited us to stay at his one-bedroom apartment, but he always offered us airline points.
“Take a vacation,” he’d say. “Have some fun.”
“I don’t even have a passport,” I said.
“You can get one fast. I swear. We’ll expedite it.”
Could I do this? Could I go? The possibility felt like a window being cracked open. I could practically taste the fresh air. The fresh air, gelato, macarons, and stinky cheese.
“I bet we could stay with Kat for part of the time,” I said. I’d met Kat at college. She was working at a gallery in Paris for the summer, and her parents had rented her an apartment. “That would save us a few euros.”
“Yes!” she said. “We can do this! You’re coming to Europe! Woot!”
My cheeks flushed. “Don’t get too excited. I have to talk to my family.”
That night I waited for Addison to get dropped off at home. When she walked into the foyer, her hair was wet and piled on top of her head. We both have our mother’s curly brown hair and round face and our dad’s light brown eyes. Addison’s shorter than I am and more muscular since she swims almost every day and plays third base for the JV girls’ softball team.
She wasn’t the same helpless kid she used to be. She could drive. She had a job. She had even lost her stammer.
“Hey,” I said, lowering my voice since our mom was in the kitchen. “I have a crazy question.”
She dropped her knapsack on the floor. “What?”
“Matt cheated on Leela—”
She made a sour face. “Jerk!”
“I know. But the thing is, now she wants me to go to Europe with her.”
She blinked. Fast. “Oh. Okay. You always wanted to go, right?”
“Do you have the cash?”
“Maybe. But I would only do it if you think you can handle Mom. Could you? You can drive so I wouldn’t be leaving you stranded. All you have to do is make sure she walks around the block once a day to get some exercise and drive her around if she has to go somewhere. It’s only a month. Four and a half weeks. Would you be okay with that? In theory?”
She shrugged. “I guess.”
“Yeah? Think about it. I don’t have to go.”
“No, you should go. Sounds fun.”
“Yeah? And you’d get the car to yourself all summer. . . .”
She smiled. “I definitely like the sound of that.”
“If something horrible happens I’ll come back early. I’ll get on the next plane. Swear.”
She rolled her eyes. “What do you think is going to happen exactly?”
“Who knows with Mom? She could refuse to leave her bedroom entirely. Or stop showering. I don’t know. Something. If there’s an emergency I’ll come back. Deal?”
“Deal,” she said. She unzipped her knapsack, took out her wet bathing suit, and uncrumpled it. She didn’t seem worried at all.
Hope swelled inside of me.
“What’s Mom making for dinner?” she asked.
“Chicken stir fry.”
“Do you think it’s ready? I’m starving.” She headed into the kitchen, wet bathing suit in hand, not a care in the world.
My heart hammered over dinner. Could I really do this? No. Yes. Should I bring it up? No. Yes. What would my mom say?
My sister helped herself to more chicken and broccoli. “So I hear it’s just us this summer, huh, Mom?”
“What do you mean?” my mother asked, eyebrows scrunching together.
Addison made an oops face at me. She clearly hadn’t realized I had not discussed this with Mom yet.
Now or never.
I stared at my plate and the words tumbled out of my mouth like vomit. “Matt cheated on Leela, she’s miserable and needs someone to travel with, I want to go, Dad has airline points, it won’t cost you anything, Addison will help you, is that okay?”
My mom put her fork down. “Can you repeat that? Slowly?”
I repeated it. Slowly. Her face got paler and paler with each sentence. Oh, no. Was she going to have a panic attack right at the table?
Instead of speaking, her shaking hands reached for her glass of water.
“Do you hate the idea?” I asked, my shoulders falling. “I don’t have to go. Forget it.”
She cleared her throat. “No,” she said. “You should go.” She took another sip of water. She seemed to notice her hands were shaking and hid them under the table.
“We’ll be fine,” my sister said, rolling her eyes. “It’s not that big of a deal.”
It was a big deal. But I wanted to go. And Leela needed me.
That night, I lay in my twin bed, the same bed I’d slept in my entire life, staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars I’d stuck to the ceiling when I was eight. Could I really do this? My mom said she’d be fine. My sister said she could handle it. I wanted—desperately—to see Europe.
I took out my phone.
Me: OK. I’m in.