THE LETTER COMES ON A Tuesday, but I don’t see it until Wednesday morning before school. I’m at the kitchen window seat, eating an apple, going through the stack of mail while I wait for Peter to pick me up. Electric bill, cable bill, a Victoria’s Secret catalog, Kitty’s issue of this month’s Dog Fancy (For Kids!). And then a letter, in a white envelope, addressed to me. A boy’s handwriting. A return address I don’t recognize.
Dear Lara Jean,
A tree fell in our driveway last week and Mr. Barber of Barber Landscaping came by to haul it away. The Barbers are the family who moved into our old house in Meadowridge, and not to overstate, but they own a landscaping company. Mr. Barber brought your letter. I saw on the postmark you sent it way back in September, but I only just got it this week, because it was sent to my old house. That’s why it took me so long to write back.
Your letter made me remember all kinds of stuff I thought I’d forgotten. Like that time your older sister made peanut brittle in the microwave and you guys decided we should have a break-dancing contest for who got the biggest piece. Or the time I got locked out of my house one afternoon and I went to the tree house and you and I just read until it got really dark and we had to use a flashlight. I remember your neighbor was grilling hamburgers and you dared me to go ask for one for us to share, but I was too chicken. When I went home I was in so much trouble because no one knew where I was, but it was worth it.
I stop reading. I remember that day we both got locked out! It was Chris and John and me, and then Chris had to leave and it was just John and me. My dad had been at a seminar; I don’t remember where Margot and Kitty were. We got so hungry, we tore into the bag of Skittles that Trevor had stashed under a loose floorboard. I suppose I could have gone to Josh’s for food and shelter, but there was something fun in being vagabonds with John Ambrose McClaren. It was like we were runaways.
I have to tell you, your letter blew me away, because when I was thirteen, I was still such a little kid, and here you were this actual person with complex thoughts and emotions. My mom still cut my apple up for me for afternoon snack. If I had written a letter to you in eighth grade it would have said, your hair is pretty. That’s it. Just, your hair is pretty. I was so clueless. I had no idea you liked me back then.
A few months ago I saw you at a Model UN scrimmage at Thomas Jefferson. I doubt you recognized me, but I was there representing the Republic of China. You dropped off a note for me and I called your name but you kept walking. I tried to find you later, but you were gone. Did you see me?
I guess what I’m most curious about is why you decided to send me the letter after all this time. So if you want to call me, or email me, or write me, please do.
Yours truly, John
PS. Since you asked—the only people that call me Johnny are my mom and my grandma, but feel free.
I let out a long sigh.
In middle school John Ambrose McClaren and I had all of two “romantic” encounters—the spin-the-bottle kiss, which honestly wasn’t the least bit romantic, and that day in the rain during gym, which up until this year was the most romantic moment of my life. I’m sure John doesn’t remember it that way. I doubt he remembers it at all. To get this letter from him, after all this time, it’s like he’s come back from the dead. It feels different from seeing him for those few seconds at Model UN in December. That was like seeing a ghost. This is a real, living person I used to know, who used to know me.
John was smart; he made the best grades of the boys, and I made the best grades of the girls. We were in honors classes together. He liked history best—he always did his readings—but he was good at math and science, too. I’m sure that hasn’t changed.
If Peter was the last boy in our grade to get tall, John was the first. I liked his yellow hair, sunny and fair like white summer corn. He was innocent and sweet-cheeked, he had the face of a boy who’d never been in trouble, and the neighborhood mothers loved him best. He just had this look about him. That’s what made him such a good partner in crime. He and Peter used to get into all kinds of mischief together. John was the clever one, he had the great ideas, but he was a little bit shy to talk because he used to have a stutter.
He liked to play a supporting role, whereas Peter loved to be the star. So everyone always gave the credit, and the blame, to Peter, because he was the scamp and how could an angel like John Ambrose McClaren really be to blame for anything? Not that there was even much blame. People are so charmed by beautiful boys. Beautiful boys get an indulgent shake of the head and an “Oh, Peter,” not even a slap on the wrist. Our English teacher Ms. Holt used to call them Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which none of us had ever heard of. Peter convinced her to show the movie to us in class one day, and then they argued all year over who got to be Butch and who had to be the Sundance Kid, even though it was very clear to everyone who was who.
I bet all the girls at his school like him. When I saw him at the Model UN scrimmage, he looked so assured, the way he sat tall in his seat, shoulders squared, utterly focused. If I went to John’s school, I bet I would be right there at the front of the pack, with binoculars and a granola bar, camping out at his locker. I’d have his schedule memorized; I’d know his lunch by heart. Does he still eat double-decker peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole wheat bread? I wonder. There are so many things I don’t know.
Peter’s car honking out front is what shakes me out of my reverie. I jump guiltily at the sound. I have this crazy impulse to hide the letter, to tuck it away in my hatbox for safekeeping and never think about it again. But then I think, no, that would be crazy. Of course I’ll write John Ambrose McClaren back. It would be rude not to.
So I tuck the letter in my bag, throw on my white puffer coat, and run outside to Peter’s car. There’s still a bit of snow on the ground from the last storm, but it looks shabby, like a threadbare rug. I’m an all-or-nothing kind of girl when it comes to weather, I’d much rather it all melt away or have feet and feet of snow, so deep your knees sink in.
When I get in Peter’s car, he’s texting on his phone. “What’s up?” I ask him.
“Nothing,” he says. “It’s just Gen. She wanted me to give her a ride, but I told her we can’t.”
My skin prickles. It rankles that they still text so much, that they’re in such easy contact, enough to ask for rides. But they’re friends, just friends. That’s what I keep telling myself. And he’s telling me the truth, just like we promised we would. “Guess who I got a letter from.”