If you keep up with my newsletter, you’ll know that I’m working on a co-writing project with my girlfriend, a young adult coming of age / coming out story which for now we’ve decided to title Moon & Cord.
Here’s the blurb:
Moon is a first-generation Vietnamese-American growing up in a privileged household with parents who fully expect her to become a doctor — or at least marry one. Cord lives”on the wrong side of the tracks” in a volatile household consisting of her aunt, mentally unstable mother, and baby sister. When the two are randomly assigned to be partners in chemistry, they discover that they aren’t nearly as different as they had assumed. If anything, they understand one another better than anyone else does…
Today I’m posting an incomplete prologue, told in Moon’s voice, along with a draft of the first chapter of the book, told in Cord’s voice.
Note: This book is set in the late 1990s, but the prologue and epilogue are both set in the present day at a 20 year high school class reunion.
Without further ado…
The Grand Floridian hadn’t changed much in the twenty-two years since I had my sixteenth birthday “ball” there. It was still as ornate and sparkling as ever, with the same enormous crystal chandelier hanging from the center of the ceiling, hundreds upon hundreds of iridescent candles sending light and shadow dancing in every direction. Its beauty seared memory after memory into my mind until my skin tingled and my heart raced, and I clutched the plain brown paper bag more tightly to my side.
I looked around me. I was early to the reunion; no one else had arrived yet, and except for a few waiters moving around the room to touch up floral arrangements and fill glasses of water, I was the only person there. I inhaled deeply, then walked quickly to use the ladies’ room, the brown paper bag in my hands.
Looking at my reflection in the mirror, I nodded with satisfaction that I had aged very well. Twenty years had gone by, but if anything, years of training as a marathon runner and Muay Thai kickboxing instructor at the all-women gym I owned in San Diego had left me in better shape than the seventeen-year-old version of me. As I touched up my lipstick, visions of Cord and our first kiss started the familiar fluttering of butterflies in my stomach, no less intense after two decades of being without her. Grimly, I snorted at a conversation I had had with my mother right after my sixteenth birthday ball, when she had tried to convince me that butterflies were fragile and fleeting, and I wouldn’t be feeling this way in ten or twenty years.
“Believe me, honey. I want what’s best for you. I want your happiness. She cannot make you happy in the long run. Hieu can. You’ll thank me when you’re older.”
You were wrong, Mom, I thought. I love you, but you were wrong.
I smoothed my yellow silk Prada dress over my thighs. My former classmates would be impressed. I had married well. I owned several properties on the west coast and east coast, including a ten-thousand square foot home nestled among the Del Mar cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. My children learned Spanish, piano, violin, art, martial arts, and soccer outside of school. I filled my home with lace and silk and heavy velvet, moving in and out of the hallways, rearranging candles and crystals so that the objects in my home might keep me busy, and the loneliness wouldn’t find me until I fell asleep at night.
Night. I could never escape her at night.
The bathroom door opened, and a familiar face stopped in her tracks to stare at me.
“Moon! Jesus, is that you?”
“Oh my God, Nicole!” I exclaimed. We rushed to embrace one another, then took a step back to look.
“Oh wow, you haven’t aged a day—”
“Look at you, even more stunning than you were twenty years ago—”
“That yellow dress is positively radiant on you! Is that Prada? Good gracious—”
“I just love your hair, and oh my GOD, your shoes! I just want to devour them—”
The bathroom door opened again, and another shriek was followed by a rush of exchanged hugs and compliments. Eventually, I left the bathroom with them, meeting Ali by the door who caught me up in the warmest hug I had had all morning.
“Hey, Beautiful,” she said with genuine affection. She kissed me on the cheek, without all the energized praise of women I had not seen in many years. Ali and I had just seen each other last month, when she came to visit me for my birthday. I squeezed her hands, some of my nervousness over seeing Cord again melting away in the safety of my best friend’s presence.
But finally, I had to ask.
“Have you seen Cord?” I tried to sound casual.
Ali tsk-tsk-ed and shook her head at me. “After all these years, and you still can’t let it go?”
“I’m just curious. We haven’t been in touch and…”
“’Just curious.’ Right. You can’t lie to me, Moon. I can read you like a book.”
I sighed as Ali pulled me in for another deep and comforting hug.
“No, I haven’t seen her yet, but I know she’s supposed to be here. What do you think you will say to her after all this time?”
“I—” My stomach dropped as I realized my paper bag was gone. “Oh shoot, where is it?” I looked around me, lifting the folds of my dress.
“Where’s what, Moon?”
“My bag, my brown paper bag. I had it in the bathroom! Did you see me carrying it when I stepped out?” Panic mounted in my voice as it rose, and Ali continued to look confused.
“Paper bag? What are you talking about? I didn’t see you carrying anything except your purse!”
“I’ll explain later,” I squeaked, hating how my voice still sounded so mouse-like when I was scared or agitated, even at thirty seven years old. “I’ll be back. I’m going to check the bathroom.”
I turned away from Ali to dash back into the bathroom, slamming into someone hard. I lost my balance, but someone grabbed my arms to steady me.
“Moon? Are you alright?”
I looked up, and everything inside me froze, right down to the very molecules of air entering and leaving my lungs.
There was Cord, looking as gorgeous and dashing as any human being had a right to, slight crinkles at the corners of her eyes only enhancing her beauty after all this time. My skin felt electric with the feel of her hands still on my arms, and the heat stabbed me to my very core. I opened my mouth to speak, but no sound came out.
Some sisters hate each other when they’re little, but start to like each other once they’re both adults. Other sisters like each other when they’re little, hate each other when they’re adults.
Some sisters just always hate each other.
“…my home, eating my food, sleeping under my roof — ”
“Go to hell, Lynn!”
I gave my baby sister a weak smile as I poured milk over her cereal. “Let’s never yell at each other like that,” I said to her in a soft voice.
She was all big-brown eyes when she looked up at me and whispered, “I’d never say things like that to you, Cord.”
We both turned at the same time when we heard my mother’s heavy, frustrated stomps making their way into the kitchen.
“Get your things,” she said curtly. “We’re leaving.”
She wasn’t looking at us, of course — she didn’t look at us much before Dad left, but ever since he disappeared, it’s like Amelia and I are ghosts. Dead to her — or at least invisible. Two things she senses the presence of but never really sees. So my mom stared at the counter instead of us; she leaned against it with both palms, like she was bracing herself, like the counter was the only thing that held her up. Her round, downturned face was blotchy and red, definitely from anger and maybe from crying, too.
I exchanged a glance with Amelia before turning back to my mother. “Now?” I asked. “But… We can’t leave right now. Today’s the first day of school.”
My mom’s head snapped up, stormy anger replaced with surprise. “Today?” she repeated, suddenly uncertain.
Before I had a chance to answer, my aunt Lynn marched into the room. She threw an empty soda can at my mother’s back, then another, then an empty bag of potato chips, which only fluttered a foot in front of her before spiraling to the ground like a dead leaf.
The second can of soda, though, that reached its target. It sloshed a little with whatever was left inside it as it bounced soundlessly off my mom’s back and then clonked onto the linoleum floor below.
“I’m sick of cleaning up after you, Kitty, absolutely sick of it!” Aunt Lynn screamed.
Amelia slapped her hands over her ears and shrank into herself. It was a thing she did sometimes. If she could, she’d shrink and shrink and shrink and climb into that cereal bowl and paddle away on a life raft made of Wheaties, just like those kids in that old Rick Moranis movie.
Except the problem with paddling away in cereal bowl would be that she’d still be stuck in the kitchen.
I addressed my aunt. “I’m sorry. I guess I forgot to clean up my soda cans last night.”
“They aren’t yours, Cordelia,” she snapped. She glared at my mother, whose back was still pointed towards her. “They’re your lazy, good-for-nothing mother’s — and you know it.”
Which was the truth, of course, but I’d hoped that if I took the blame myself, maybe Aunt Lynn would stop yelling at my mom long enough for Amelia and I to finish breakfast and make it to the bus stop on time.
Mom’s eyes were still wide with shock — though at this point, whether it was the shock of realizing that she’d completely forgotten the fact that today was the first day of school, or the shock of her sister throwing soda cans at her, I didn’t know.
I sighed. I didn’t want Amelia and I to be late on the very first day of school, in a new school district, in a new state, in a whole new part of the country. We had enough other crap to worry about; we didn’t need to add a day-one tardy to the list.
In one quick motion, I grabbed the uneaten bowl of cereal from in front of Amelia, poured the milk down the sink, dumped the soggy, barely touched Wheaties into the garbage can, and stuck the empty bowl and wet spoon into the dishwasher. There. Aunt Lynn wouldn’t have any reason to complain about us not cleaning up after ourselves.
I put my hand on Amelia’s shoulder. She flinched.
“C’mon, Mealy,” I said gently. “Let’s get to the bus stop. We don’t want to be late for our first day. Right?”
She nodded once and pulled the battered metal lunchbox from the kitchen counter, carefully keeping her eyes away from Mom and Aunt Lynn. Like maybe they’d stop her if she looked at them. Or maybe it’d be like Medusa, and one glance would turn her to stone right there in the kitchen.
Amelia had complained about the lunchbox every day for the past week — it was one of my old lunch boxes, complete with Voltron’s black lion on the front, and she’d griped both that the lunchbox was old and it was for boys — but now she took it without a word and carried it to the front door, waiting for me to catch up with her.
I lingered a moment longer, standing behind the kitchen counter that served as a buffer zone between me on one side and my mom and aunt on the other. They both watched me wordlessly while I tried to find words to fix the situation. But I was just as wordless as they were.
Sometimes there wasn’t anything to say. Some sisters just always hated each other.
I followed Amelia to the door.
The old yellow school bus pulled up as we rounded the corner out of the apartment complex; Amelia and I both sprinted the last ten yards, with me waving my arms at the bus driver like a maniac.
The accordion doors opened, and an old-ish, plump-ish bus driver glared down at us. The faint smell of cigarette smoke wafted down towards us.
I kissed my sister on the cheek. “I love you. Good luck today.”
She fiddled nervously with her lunchbox. “I love you, too, Cord.”
“Mom should be here to pick you up this afternoon, so — ” I stopped, wondering if what I’d just said was actually true. “If she doesn’t, you know where Aunt Lynn keeps her spare key, right?”
“Let’s go, kid,” the bus driver said from above. “You’re gonna make me late.”
Amelia nodded obediently and trotted up the stairs. I watched her silhouette through the bus windows as she walked towards a seat, and waved one last time as it pulled away. A knot formed in my stomach as I thought about my baby sister facing a new school, new teachers, and new kids all by herself.
“She’ll be okay,” I said out-loud.
“Who’s gonna be okay?” said a voice behind me.
I spun around, heart leaping into my throat. A girl my own age stood a couple feet behind me, both thumbs casually hooked beneath a backpack strap that hung from one shoulder. Her dark brown hair was pulled back into a short, messy ponytail, loose strands falling around her face unevenly. She was an inch or two taller than me — but at five feet and two inches, almost everyone had a couple inches on me — and lifted a quizzical eyebrow from behind horn-rimmed glasses.
“My, uh, my little sister,” I said, embarrassed to have been caught talking to myself. “She just got on the elementary bus.”
The girl nodded. “You here to catch the high school bus?”
The girl sighed and shrugged the backpack off her shoulder, then sat cross-legged right in the middle of the concrete sidewalk. Scruffy Converse shoes poked out beneath an even scruffier pair of jeans. Someone had drawn a heart with an arrow through it in blue ink on the toe of one of the Converses.
“I’m riding the bus, too. Unfortunately,” she said, picking absentmindedly at a frayed bit of denim on her knee as she studied me. She pushed some of the flyaway hairs behind her ears. “You new in this neighborhood? Or are you a freshman? I don’t remember seeing you here last year.”
“Junior,” I said. “And, yeah. I’m new to the neighborhood. To the whole state of Florida, actually. Is it always this hot in September?”
The girl chuckled and leaned back on her palms. “Hotter, usually. Where are you from?”
She whistled lightly between pursed lips. “That’s way the hell up north, isn’t it? Is it cold there this time of year? Snowing?”
“Not snowing. But it can get cold in September. Some days are still warm in the fall. But nothing like this.” I looked over my shoulder at the sun, which was already high and blazing in a hazy, partly cloudy sky. I’d been outside less than ten minutes and could already feel the sweat beading on the back of my neck.
“Uh-huh,” she said, already sounding like she’d already lost interest in the topic of the weather. “So where do you live? And what’s your name?”
“Cordelia. And I live in Gull Gardens,” I said. I thought a second, and added: “Most people call me Cord.”
That last part was a lie, of course. I’d always hated the name Cordelia, which my mother got from one of her ridiculous historical romance novels. If she hadn’t told me that was where she’d gotten it from, I might’ve liked it a little more, but as it was, every time I heard her say my name, it made me think of some busty blonde woman with a ripped bodice and Fabio leaning over her. So a couple of years ago, I gave made up the nickname “Cord.” My mother complained about it — “A ‘cord’ is something you pull, not a person’s name” — and refused to call me by it, and since the kids at school had known me all my life, it hadn’t exactly caught on there, either. The only person who actually called me “Cord” consistently was my baby sister, Amelia, who hated her name almost as much as I hated mine, as “Amelia” had been picked mainly because it rhymed with “Cordelia.”
Florida, I hoped, would give me a fresh start. On my name… and on a lot of other things, too.
The girl on the sidewalk squinted up at me, then raised one hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “Cordelia? I get why you’d shorten it to Cord. ‘Cordelia’ sounds like an old lady’s name. Is it a family name or something?”
“Yeah. Something like that.”
She took the hand that was shielding her eyes and pointed at herself. “I’m Jace. Because speaking of old lady names, for some God-awful reason, my parents named me ‘Jacinda,’ but everyone’s called me Jace since I was a little kid.”
“Nice to meet you, Jace.” I glanced around. “So, are we the only ones who catch the bus from this stop?”
She turned her head, gazing down the sidewalk as if she expected to see someone coming from that direction. “Maybe,” she said without turning back around. “Not a lot of high school kids in this part of town. Mostly really little kids and people who don’t have kids yet. There was this older guy, Hanson, who caught the bus here last year, but I heard he dropped out of school. And I know of a couple seniors who would catch the bus here, but they both have cars.” She looked up at me. “Gull Gardens? That place is a craphole if I ever saw one. I mean, no offense or anything.”
I laughed and sat down next to Jace, wrapping my arms loosely around my knees. “No offense taken. My mom and sister and I are living there with my aunt right now. Temporarily. My aunt takes care of her place, but you can tell the apartment complex is falling apart. I swear the swimming pool looks green. So… what year are you?”
“I’m a junior. Like you. Thought I was going to have to repeat tenth grade, but I sweet-talked my Spanish teacher into passing me.” Jace gave me a lopsided grin. “She bumped my grade up three points after I promised I would take French this year.” Her eyes brightened. “Hey,” she said, pulling a crumpled, folded piece of paper from her back pocket. “We should see if we have any classes together.”
I looked away. “I’ve, uh, I’m supposed to report to the office this morning to find out my schedule,” I lied. My own schedule was tucked inside my backpack, but if Jace was someone who’d barely passed Spanish and almost had to repeat a grade, I didn’t want her to know I’d gotten into all honors and Advanced Placement classes. It seemed like it would be inconsiderate.
“Really?” Jace said, cocking her head to the side. “I thought they mailed everybody’s schedule to them the week before school started.”
“Yeah, well… new kid,” I said with a shrug.
“But you at least know what classes you signed up for,” Jace pressed. “Right?”
Advanced Placement chemistry, first period, I thought to myself, reciting the schedule I’d memorized days ago in my head. Advanced Placement U.S. History. Honors U.S. Literature. Lunch and study hall. Weightlifting. Honors Trigonometry. Spanish III.
“Sure I do,” I said, “but I don’t…”
Jace’s gaze moved from me to the road. She stood quickly. “Bus,” she said. “And it’s running earlier this year. Thank God.”
I let out a silent sigh of relief, and followed the only other junior at H. P. Munroe High School I knew into the yellow school bus.