STATUS: It’s late. Chutney is curled up on the couch cushion behind my back. She has her nose resting on my shoulder. Unasked is the question of when I plan to stop working tonight.
What’s playing on the iPod right now? Nothing at the moment.
Back in 2007, I went out on submission with a YA novel from an established author. In fact, it was her fourth novel (but her first with me as her agent). It was an option book that her then publisher had declined to take on.
It’s a tough space for an author to be in.
But I loved the novel. It has two protagonists with the story told in revolving first person POVs. One character white; the other not.
A fact Walker Books did not shy away from on the cover.
A lot of publishers said PERFECT CHEMISTRY didn’t feel “big” enough. In retrospect, I could see where they were coming from because the novel is basically a romance—a retelling of West Side Story set in a contemporary Chicago High School.
But I think what those publishers forgot was how a great romance (well told) could really hook readers and sell like crazy.
And the opening pages are what sold me initially. For this blog entry, I’m giving you the opening pages of the novel itself as well as the opening pages for the first shift in POV to the other main narrator on page 6.
Everyone knows I’m perfect. My life is perfect. My clothes are perfect. Even my family is perfect. And although it’s a complete lie, I’ve worked my butt off to keep up the appearance that I have it all. The truth, if it were to come out, would destroy my entire picture-perfect image.
Standing in front of my bathroom mirror while the new Linkin Park CD blares from my stereo, I wipe away the third crooked line I’ve drawn beneath my eye. My hands are shaking, damn it. Starting senior year of high school and seeing my boyfriend after a summer apart shouldn’t be so nerve wracking, but I’ve gotten off to a disastrous start.
First, my curling iron sent up smoke signals and died. Then the button on my fave shirt popped off. Now, my liquid eyeliner decides it has a mind of its own. If I had any choice in the matter, I’d stay in my comfy bed and eat warm chocolate chip cookies all day.
“Brit, come down,” I faintly hear my mom yelling from the foyer.
My first instinct is to ignore her, but that never gets me anything but arguments, headaches and more yelling.
“I’ll be there in a sec,” I call down, hoping I can get this liquid eyeliner to go on straight and be done with it.
Finally getting it right, I toss the eyeliner tube on the counter, double and triple check myself in the mirror, turn off my stereo and hurry down the hallway.
My mom is standing at the bottom of our grand staircase, scanning my attire. I straighten. I know, I know. I’m eighteen and shouldn’t care what my mom thinks. But you haven’t lived in the Ellis house. My mom has anxiety. Not the kind easily controlled with little white pills. And when my mom is stressed, everyone living with her suffers. I think that’s why my dad goes to work before she gets up in the morning, so he doesn’t have to deal with, well, her.
“Hate the pants, love the belt,” Mom says, pointing her index finger at each item. “And that noise you call music was giving me a headache. Thank goodness it’s off.”
“Good morning to you, too, Mother,” I say before walking down the stairs and giving her a peck on the cheek. The smell of my mom’s strong perfume stings my nostrils the closer I get. She already looks like a million bucks in her Ralph Lauren Blue Label tennis dress. No one can point a finger and criticize her attire, that’s for sure.
“I bought your favorite muffin for the first day of school,” Mom says, pulling a bag out from behind her back.
“No, thanks,” I say, looking around for my sister. “Where’s Shelley?”
“In the kitchen.”
“Is her new caretaker here yet?”
“Her name is Baghda, and no. She’s coming in an hour.”
“Did you tell her wool irritates her skin? And that she pulls hair?” It’s better to avoid disasters than letting them happen on their own. Disasters in my house are about as pretty as a car wreck.
“Yes. And yes. I gave your sister an earful this morning, Brittany. If she keeps acting up, we’ll find ourselves out of another caretaker.”
I walk into the kitchen, not wanting to hear my mother go on and on about her theories of why Shelley lashes out. Shelley is sitting at the table in her wheelchair, busily eating her specially blended food because, even at the age of twenty, my sister doesn’t have the ability to chew and swallow like people without her physical limitations. As usual, the food has found its way onto her chin, lips and cheeks.
“Hey, Shell-bell,” I say, leaning over her and wiping her face with a napkin. “It’s the first day of school. Wish me luck.”
Shelley holds jerky arms out and gives me a lopsided smile. I love that smile.
“You want to give me a hug?” I ask her, knowing she does. The doctors always tell us the more interaction Shelley gets the better off she’ll be.
Shelley looks up, signaling the word for yes. I fold myself in her arms, careful to keep her hands away from my hair. I have no clue why, lately, she’s fixated on pulling hair. Is it the texture she craves?
When I straighten, my mom gasps. It sounds to me like a referee’s whistle, halting my life. “Brit, you can’t go to school like that.”
She shakes her head and sighs in frustration. “Look at your shirt.”
Glancing down, I see a large wet spot on the front of my white Calvin Klein shirt. Oops. Shelley’s drool. One look at my sister’s drawn face tells me what she can’t easily put into words. Shelley is sorry. Shelley didn’t mean to mess up my outfit.
“It’s no biggie,” I tell her, although in the back on my mind I know it screws up my ‘perfect’ look.
Frowning, my mom wets a paper towel at the sink and dabs at the spot. It makes me feel like a two-year-old.
“Go upstairs and change.”
“Mom, it was just peaches,” I say, treading carefully so this doesn’t turn into a full blown yelling match. The last thing I want to do is make my sister feel bad.
And skipping several pages now and going to the next chapter….
“Get up, Alex.”
I scowl at my little brother and bury my head under my pillow. Since I share a room with my eleven and fifteen-year-old brothers, there’s no escape except the little privacy a lone pillow can give.
“Leave me alone, Luis,” I say roughly through the pillow. “No estés chingando.”
“I’m not fuckin’ with you. Mamá told me to wake you so you won’t be late for school.”
Senior year. I should be proud I’ll be the first family member in the Fuentes household to graduate high school. But after graduation, real life will start. College is just a dream. Senior year for me is like a retirement party for a sixty-five-year-old. You know you can do more, but everyone expects you to quit.
“I’m all dressed in my new clothes,” Luis’ proud but muffled voice comes through the pillow. “The nenas won’t be able to resist this Latino stud.”
“Good for you,” I mumble.
“Mamá said I should pour this pitcher of water on you if you don’t get up.”
Was privacy too much to ask for? I take my pillow and chuck it across the room. It’s a direct hit. The water splashes all over him.
“Culero!” he screams at me. “These are the only new clothes I got.”
A fit of laughter is coming from the bedroom door. Carlos, my other brother, is laughing like a frickin’ hyena. That is, until Luis jumps him. I watch the fight spiral out of control as my younger brothers punch and kick each other.
They’re good fighters I think proudly as I watch them duke it out. But as the oldest male in the house, it’s my duty to break it up. I grab the collar of Carlos’ shirt, but trip on Luis’ leg and land on the floor with them.
Before I can regain my balance, icy cold water is poured on my back. Turning quickly, I catch mi′amá dousing us all, a bucket poised in her fist above us.
“Get up,” she orders, her fiery attitude out in full force.
“Shit, Ma,” Carlos says, standing.
Our ma takes what’s left in her bucket, sticks her fingers in the icy water, and flicks the liquid in Carlos’ face.
Luis laughs and before he knows it, he gets flicked with water as well. Will they ever learn?
“Any more attitude, Luis?” she asks.
“No, ma’am,” Luis says, standing as straight as a soldier.
“You have any more filthy words to come out of that boca of yours, Carlos?” She dips her hand in the water as a warning.
“No, ma’am,” echoes soldier number two.
“And what about you, Alejandro?” Her eyes narrow into slits as she focuses on me.
“What? I was tryin’ to break it up,” I say innocently, giving her the you-can’t-resist-me smile.
She flicks water in my face. “That’s for not breaking it up sooner. Now get dressed, all of you, and come eat breakfast before school.”
So much for the you-can’t-resist-me smile. “You know you love us,” I call after her as she leaves our room.