Always and Forever, Lara Jean (6 page)

“Don’t I know it,” I whisper back, and Peter chuckles. He can chuckle all he wants, but I’m sure he’s a little relieved too. Not that he’s ever said so, but it’s not like he’d want the whole senior class to know that he and his girlfriend of a year—longer, if you count our fake relationship—have never had sex before.

*  *  *

Hardly anybody in our class has been to New York City, so we’re all just a little wide-eyed about it. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place so alive. It’s a city that has its own heartbeat. I just can’t believe how many people there are, how crowded it is, how sophisticated everyone looks. They all look like—like city people. Except for the tourists like us, of course. Chris tries to act bored and unfazed by it all, but when we get on
the subway to go to the Empire State Building, she doesn’t hold on to the pole and nearly falls over when we come to a sudden stop. “It’s different than in
,” she mutters. That’s for sure.
is the closest big city to Charlottesville, but it’s still a sleepy little town compared to New York. There’s so much to see, so many stores I wish we could stop in. Everyone is in a hurry; they all have plans and places to be. Peter gets screamed at by an old lady for walking and looking at his cell phone, which makes everyone laugh, and for once, Peter is embarrassed. It’s all so overwhelming.

When we get to the Empire State Building, I make Peter take a selfie with me at the elevators. At the top, I feel light-headed, we’re so high up. Ms. Davenport tells me to sit with my head between my knees for a minute, which helps. When the nausea passes, I get up and go looking for Peter, who has disappeared during my time of need.

As I turn the corner, I hear Peter calling out, “Wait! Wait! Sir!” He’s following a security guard who is approaching a red backpack on the floor.

The security guard bends down and picks it up. “Is this yours?” he demands.

“Uh, yeah—”

“Why did you leave it on the ground?” He unzips the backpack and pulls out a teddy bear.

Peter’s eyes dart around. “Can you put that back inside? It’s for a promposal for my girlfriend. It’s supposed to be a surprise.”

The security guard is shaking his head. He mutters to
himself and starts looking in the backpack again.

“Sir, please just squeeze the bear.”

“I’m not squeezing the bear,” the security guard tells him.

Peter reaches out and squeezes the teddy bear and the bear squeaks out, “Will you go to prom with me, Lara Jean?”

I clap my hands to my mouth in delight.

Sternly the security guard says, “You’re in New York City, kid. You can’t just leave a backpack on the ground for your proposal.”

“It’s actually called a
,” Peter corrects, and the security guard gives him a look. “Sorry. Can I just have the bear back?” He spots me then. “Tell him
Sleepless in Seattle
is your favorite movie, Lara Jean!”

I rush over. “Sir, it’s my favorite movie. Please don’t kick him out.”

The security guard is trying not to smile. “I wasn’t going to kick him out,” he says to me. To Peter he says, “Just be more aware next time. In New York, we’re vigilant. If we see something, we say something, do you feel me? This is not whatever little country town you guys are from. This is
New York City
. We do not play around here.”

Both Peter and I nod, and the security guard walks away. As soon as he’s gone, Peter and I look at each other and break out into giddy laughter. “Somebody reported my book bag!” he says. “My promposal got fucked.”

I take the teddy bear out of his bag and hug it to my chest. I’m so happy I don’t even tell him not to cuss. “I love it.”

“You were going to turn the corner, and see the book bag
right here by the telescopes. Then you were going to pick up the bear, and squeeze it, and—”

“How was I going to know to squeeze it?” I ask.

Peter pulls a crumpled piece of paper out of the bag. It says,
Squeeze Me
. “It fell off when the security guard was manhandling it. See? I thought of everything.”

Everything except the ramifications of leaving an unattended bag in a public place in New York City, but still! It’s the thought that counts, and the thought is the sweetest. I squeeze the bear, and again he says, “Will you go to prom with me, Lara Jean?” “Yes, I will, Howard.” Howard is, of course, the name of the bear from
Sleepless in Seattle

“Why are you saying yes to him and not to me?” Peter demands.

“Because he asked.” I raise my eyebrows at him and wait.

Rolling his eyes, Peter mumbles, “Lara Jean, will you go to prom with me? God, you really do ask for a lot.”

I hold the bear out to him. “I will, but first kiss Howard.”

“Covey. No. Hell, no.”

“Please!” I give him a pleading look. “It’s in the movie, Peter.”

And grumbling, he does it, in front of everybody, which is how I know he is utterly and completely mine.

*  *  *

On the bus to our hotel in New Jersey, Peter whispers to me, “What do you think—should we sneak out after bed checks and come back to the city?” He’s mostly joking. He knows I’m not the type to sneak out on a school trip.

His eyes go wide when I say, “How would we even get to the city? Do taxis go from New Jersey to New York?” I can’t even believe I am considering it. It’s so unlike me. Hastily I say, “No, no, never mind. We can’t. We’d get lost, or mugged, and then we’d get sent home, and then I’d be so mad we missed out on Central Park and everything.”

Peter gives me a skeptical look. “Do you really think Jain and Davenport would send us home?”

“Maybe not, but they might make us stay at the hotel all day long as punishment, which is even worse. Let’s not risk it.” Then: “What would we do?” I’m playing pretend now, not really planning, but Peter plays along.

“We could go hear some live music, or go to a comedy show. Sometimes famous comedians do surprise sets.”

“I wish we could see
.” When we drove through Times Square, Lucas and I craned our heads to see if we could get a glimpse of the
marquee, but no such luck.

“Tomorrow I want to get a New York bagel and see how it stacks up against Bodo’s.” Bodo’s Bagels are legendary in Charlottesville; we’re very proud of those bagels.

Putting my head on his shoulder, I yawn and say, “I wish we could go to Levain Bakery so I could try their cookie. It’s supposed to be like no chocolate chip cookie you’ve had before. I want to go to Jacques Torres’s chocolate shop too. His chocolate chip cookie is the definitive chocolate chip cookie, you know. It’s truly legendary. . . .” My eyes drift closed, and Peter pats my hair. I’m starting to fall asleep when I realize he’s unraveling the milkmaid braids Kitty pinned on
the crown of my head. My eyes fly back open. “Peter!”

“Shh, go back to sleep. I want to practice something.”

“You’ll never get it back to how she had it.”

“Just let me try,” he says, collecting bobby pins in the palm of his hand.

When we get to the hotel in New Jersey, despite his best efforts, my braids are lumpy and loose and won’t stay pinned. “I’m sending a picture of this to Kitty so she’ll see what a bad student you are,” I say as I gather up my things.

“No, don’t,” Peter quickly says, which makes me smile.

*  *  *

The next day is surprisingly springlike for March. The sun is shining and flowers are just beginning to bud. It feels like I’m in
You’ve Got Mail
, when Kathleen Kelly goes to meet Joe Fox in Riverside Park. I would love to see the exact garden where they kiss at the end of the movie, but our tour guide brings us to Central Park instead. Chris and I are taking pictures of the
mosaic in Strawberry Fields when I realize Peter is nowhere in sight. I ask Gabe and Darrell, but no one’s seen him. I text him, but he doesn’t reply. We’re about to move on to Sheep Meadow for a picnic, and I’m starting to panic, because what if Mr. Jain or Ms. Davenport notices he’s not here? He comes jogging up just as we’re about to go. He’s not even out of breath or the least bit concerned he almost got left behind.

“Where were you?” I demand. “We almost left!”

Triumphantly he holds up a brown paper bag. “Open it and see.”

I grab the bag from him and look inside. It’s a Levain chocolate chip cookie, still warm. “Oh my God, Peter! You’re so thoughtful.” I get on my tiptoes and hug him, and then turn to Chris. “Isn’t he so thoughtful, Chris?” Peter’s sweet, but he’s never this sweet. This is two romantic things in a row, so I figure I should praise him accordingly, because the boy responds well to positive reinforcement.

She’s already got her hand inside the bag, and she stuffs a piece of cookie in her mouth. “Very thoughtful.” She reaches for another piece, but Peter snatches the bag away from her.

“Damn, Chris! Let Covey have a bite before you eat the whole thing.”

“Well, why’d you only get one?”

“Because it’s huge! And it cost, like, five bucks for one.”

“I can’t believe you ran and got this for me,” I say. “You weren’t nervous you’d get lost?”

“Nah,” he says, all proud. “I just looked at Google Maps and ran for it. I got a little turned around when I got back in the park, but somebody gave me directions. New Yorkers are really friendly. All that stuff about them being rude must be bullshit.”

“That’s true. Everyone we’ve met has been really nice. Except for that old lady who screamed at you for walking and looking at your phone,” Chris says, snickering at Peter, who scowls at her. I take a big bite of the cookie. The Levain cookie is more like a scone, really dense and doughy. Heavy, too. It really is like no chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever tasted.

“So?” Peter asks me. “What’s the verdict?”

“It’s unique. It’s in a class of its own.” I’m taking another bite when Ms. Davenport comes up and hustles us along, eyeing the cookie in my hand.

Our tour guide has a pointer that looks like the Statue of Liberty’s torch, and he holds it up in the air to shepherd us through the park. It’s actually pretty embarrassing, and I wish we could just go off by ourselves and explore the city, but no. He has a ponytail and he wears a khaki vest, and I think he’s kind of corny, but Ms. Davenport seems to be into him. After Central Park we take the subway downtown and get off to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. While everyone else is in line for ice cream at Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, Peter and I run over to Jacques Torres’s chocolate shop. It’s Peter’s idea. Of course I ask Ms. Davenport for permission first. She’s busy talking to the tour guide, so she waves us off. I feel so grown up, walking through the streets of New York without any adults.

When we get to the store, I’m so excited, I’m shaking. Finally I get to try Jacques’s famous chocolate chip cookie. I bite into it. This cookie is flat, chewy, dense. Chocolate has pooled on top and hardened! The butter and sugar taste almost caramelized. It’s heaven.

“Yours are better,” Peter says, his mouth rudely full, and I shush him, looking around to make sure the girl at the register didn’t hear.

“Stop lying,” I say.

“I’m not!”

He is. “I just don’t know why mine aren’t like his,” I say.
“It must be the industrial ovens.” It seems I’ll just have to accept my not-quite-perfect chocolate chip cookie and be content with good enough.

As we step out the door, I notice a bakery across the street called Almondine and another one on the opposite corner called One Girl Cookies. New York is truly a city of baked goods.

Peter and I walk back to the ice cream shop holding hands. Everyone is out on the pier, sitting on benches, eating their ice cream, and taking selfies with the Manhattan skyline behind them. New York keeps surprising me with how pretty it is.

Peter must be thinking the same thing, because he squeezes my hand and says, “This city is awesome.”

“It really is.”

*  *  *

I’m sound asleep when there is a knock at the door. I wake up with a start. It’s still dark outside. In the bed across the room, Chris doesn’t stir.

Then I hear Peter’s voice on the other side of the door. “Covey, it’s me. Want to go watch the sunrise on the roof?”

I get out of bed and open the door, and there is Peter, in a
hoodie, holding a Styrofoam cup of coffee and a cup with a tea bag hanging out the side. “What time is it?”

“Five thirty. Hurry, go get your coat.”

“Okay, give me two minutes,” I whisper. I run to our bathroom and brush my teeth and then I fumble around in the darkness for my jacket. “I can’t find my jacket!”

“You can wear my hoodie,” Peter offers from the doorway.

From under her blanket Chris growls, “If you guys don’t shut up, I swear to God.”

“Sorry,” I whisper. “Do you want to watch the sunrise with us?”

Peter shoots me a pouty look, but Chris’s head is still under her blanket, so she doesn’t see. “No. Just leave!”

“Sorry, sorry,” I say, and I scurry out the door.

We take the elevator to the top, and it’s still dark outside, but it’s beginning to get light. The city is just waking up. Right away Peter shrugs out of his hoodie, and I put my arms up and he slips it over my head. It’s warm and smells like the detergent his mother uses.

Peter leans over the edge, looking across the water to the city. “Can’t you picture us living here after college? We could live in a skyscraper. With a doorman. And a gym.”

“I don’t want to live in a skyscraper. I want to live in a brownstone in the West Village. Near a bookstore.”

“We’ll figure it out,” he says.

I lean over the edge too. I never would have pictured myself living in New York City. Before I came here, it seemed like such an intimidating place, for tough people who aren’t afraid to get into a fight with someone on the subway, or men in suits who work on Wall Street, or artists who live in SoHo lofts. But now that I’m here, it’s not so scary, not with Peter by my side. I steal a look at him. Is this how it goes? You fall in love, and nothing seems truly scary anymore, and life is one big possibility?

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