Hi! The fabulous gals at The Sub Club ran the first chapter of CAUGHT UP IN US yesterday, so now I’m posting it here as well! Enjoy! The book releases later this month!
He was my first favorite mistake.
I hadn’t seen him in five years, and now as he walked to the front of the small classroom, every muscle in my body tensed, and my brain went into hyperdrive as I told myself not to think of lights going down in movie theaters or of hot summer nights miles away from here tangled up in him.
Be strong. Be cool. Be badass.
I ran my index finger across the silver charm I made when I left for college, as if the miniature movie camera could channel steely resolve into me, as it had these last few years. Even though I’d absolutely moved on. That’s why it hadn’t even occurred to me that he might be here today, even though, technically, I suppose I should have known it was a possibility since he graduated from this same business school. We even walked around this campus together the last time I saw him, as we made plans with each other, as we made promises to each other.
Until he broke my heart and became a charm on my necklace instead — the very first one, and the inspiration for my jewelry — a cold, metal reminder that mistakes can make us better.
But I was safely on the other side now. I was over Bryan, over the anger, over the whole thing. I was totally fine, thank you very much. Except, as he neared the whiteboard with the name of the class, Experiential Learning, scrawled in blue marker on it, I was being educated on a new definition of the word unfair. Because I so wanted to be the girl who didn’t even notice he was here, but instead I catalogued every detail, from the slightest trace of stubble on his jawline, to the way his brown hair still invited fingers to be run through it, to how the checked navy blue shirt he wore had probably never looked quite so good as when it hugged his arms and stretched across his chest.
Bryan froze when he saw me. His green eyes hooked into mine for the briefest of moments, and maybe for real, or maybe just in my imagination, I saw a tinge of regret in them. But then he recovered a second later, and flashed a quick, closed-mouth smile to the class. Of course it wouldn’t bother him to see me here. He didn’t care about me then. He wouldn’t care about me now.
But I could pull off indifference too, so I looked away first. There. Two could play at this game.
Bryan stood next to the professor at the head of the classroom, along with the other business school alum who would be matched with my fellow graduate students for this mentorship program. In his trademark three-piece suit, spectacles and a silk handkerchief, Professor Oliver was his usual peppy self as he introduced the mentors. One of the gals ran a venture fund she’d started herself, another had been a superstar skateboarder then launched a line of skatewear that was now hugely popular with teens, one of the guys oversaw a firm that had designed some of the most successful iPhone apps, and another founded a health video service.
Then there was Bryan Leighton, five years older than me, and I already knew what he did for a living. I knew other things about him too. I knew what his lips tasted like. How his arms felt under my hands. How his kisses went on and on and I’d never wanted them to end. And like a snap of the fingers, I was back in time, no longer a graduate student, no longer in the first row of the classroom. I was just a girl fresh off high school graduation, wrapped around her brother’s best friend. Bryan was running his hands through my hair, and kissing my neck, and I shuddered. Everyone else, everything else faded away. He was the only one there.
I could have stayed trapped like that, beholden to the memory of the way he felt, the things we said. The words only I said.
I gripped the charm to break away from the past. I let a tiny kernel of latent anger in me start to come out of hiding. I needed that anger, because I needed to focus on the present, and there was no room for him, or those kind of memories, in it. I was a different person now. I was a savvy twenty-three. I’d already earned my bachelor’s degree from NYU, and now I was finishing my master’s degree from the same school and growing a business, all while paying the rent in a Chelsea apartment. I wasn’t that lovestruck teenager anymore. Besides, there was just a one-in-five chance I’d be paired with him. Wouldn’t it make the most sense for my professor to match me with the skatewear gal since we were both in the fashion business? I was a jewelry designer after all, with a line of necklaces already selling well online and in several boutiques around the city.
Professor Oliver rocked back and forth on his wingtips, full of energy, while he rattled off names of my classmates, then the mentor they’d work with. The first student was paired with iPhone guy. Okay, there was a one-out-of-four chance now. I crossed my fingers. Venture Girl was partnered off next with a different student. One in three. I made a quick wish on an unseen star. Professor Oliver read off the names of another student and the health video service guy. I took a deep calming breath. Clearly, the professor was saving me for the skateboard gal. She looked so cool too, so hip with pink streaks in her black hair and cat’s eye glasses. Yes, she’d be a perfect mentor and I’d learn so much about a business that wasn’t that different from mine.
I held my breath and hoped. But Professor Oliver called out someone else’s name for skateboard gal. My heart dropped, and I felt my insides tighten.
“And that means, Ms. Harper, that your business mentor for this semester will be Bryan Leighton. Allow me to officially introduce you two.”
Bryan held out his hand, as if it were the first time he was touching me.
“It’s a pleasure.”
“All mine,” I said, wishing there weren’t some truth to my word