Today Tonight Tomorrow(6)

I force myself to smile at Ms. Grable. “Thanks.”

“You’re going to Emerson, right?” she asks, and I nod. “Your essays were always so insightful. Planning to follow in your parents’ footsteps?”

How difficult would it be to say yes?

While of course I’m worried about how people respond to romance novels, there’s another fear that pulls my shoulders into a shrug when people ask what I want to be when I grow up. As long as being a writer is a dream that stays in my head, I don’t have to face the reality of potentially not being good enough. In my head, I’m my only critic. Out there, everyone is.

As soon as I declare myself a writer, there will be expectations that come with being Ilana and Jared’s daughter. And if I somehow fail to meet them, if I’m messy and imperfect and still learning, the judgment would be harsher than if my parents were podiatrists or chefs or statisticians. Telling people means I think I might be okay at this—be good at this—and while I desperately want that to be true, I’m terrified of the possibility that I’m not.

At least no one expects me to know my major yet, so while I picked Emerson largely because of its great creative writing program, I’ve been telling people “I’m not sure yet” when they ask what I’m going to study. I never expected to want to follow in my parents’ footsteps, but here I am, dreaming of running a finger along my name on a cover. Ideally in a glossy raised font.

“Maybe,” I concede at last, which feels like a half-confession, but I justify it with the fact that I won’t see Ms. Grable again after graduation. For someone who loves words, I’m occasionally not great at speaking them.

“If anyone could publish a book, it would be you! Unless Neil manages to beat you to it.”

“I should get to class,” I say as gently as I can.

“Of course, of course,” she says, and wraps me in a hug before heading down the hall.

Today is full of so many lasts, and maybe most important is that it’s the last day I can one-up McNair once and for all. As valedictorian, I’ll end our academic tug-of-war. I will be Rowan Luisa Roth, valedictorian of Westview High School, with a period at the end. No comma, no “and.” Just me.

My inner rule-follower guides me to the main office instead of homeroom. I’ll feel worse walking into class without a late pass, even on the last day. When I reach the office, I push open the door, square my shoulders—and come face-to-face with Neil McNair.

Rowan Roth versus Neil McNair: A Brief History SEPTEMBER, FRESHMAN YEAR

The essay contest that started it all. It’s announced the first week of school to welcome us back from summer break. I am used to being the best writer in class. It’s who I’ve been all through middle school, the same way, I imagine, this skinny redhead with too many freckles has been at his school. First place, McNair and his beloved Fitzgerald, second place, Roth. I vow to beat him at whatever comes next.


The student council president visits homerooms to ask for volunteers for freshman-class rep. Leadership will look good on my future college apps, and I need scholarships, so I volunteer. So does McNair. I’m not sure if he actually wants it or if he just wants to further ruffle me. Nevertheless, I win by three votes.


We are both forced to take gym for a physical education requirement, despite the hour we spend trying to convince the counselor we need the space in our schedules for our advanced classes instead. Neither of us can touch our toes, but McNair can do three pull-ups, while I can only do one and a half. His arms have no definition whatsoever, so I don’t understand how this is possible.


McNair scores a perfect 1600 on the SAT, and I score a 1560. I retake it the next month and score 1520. I do not tell a soul.


Our AP Chemistry teacher makes us lab partners. After a handful of arguments, chemical spills, and a (small) fire, which was maybe mostly my fault but I’ll carry that with me to the grave, he separates us.


In the election for student council president, the vote is sliced perfectly down the middle. Neither of us concedes. Reluctantly, we become copresidents.


Before college acceptances start rolling in, I challenge him to see who can rack up the most yeses. McNair suggests we compare percentages instead. Assuming we’re both casting wide nets, I agree. I get into 7 of 10 schools I apply to. It’s only after all the deadlines have passed that I learn McNair, crafty and overconfident as he is, applied to just one school.

He gets in.

7:21 a.m.

“ROWAN ROTH,” MY worst nightmare says from behind the front desk. “I got you something.”

My heart rate spikes, the way it always does before a sparring match with McNair. I’d forgotten he’s an office assistant (aka Suck-Up 101—please, even I’m better than that) during homeroom. I’d been hoping to keep him confined to my phone until the assembly.

With his hands clasped in front of him, he looks like an evil king sitting on a throne made from the bones of his enemies. His auburn hair is damp from a morning shower, or maybe from the rain, and as predicted, he’s in one of his assembly-day suits: black jacket, white shirt, blue patterned tie with the crispest, tightest knot I’ve ever seen. Still, I manage to spot his flaws right away: his pants a half-inch too short, his sleeves a half-inch too long. A fingerprint smudge on the left lens of his glasses, one stubborn piece of hair behind his ear that won’t lie flat.

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