Falling into Us Read online

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“And now?” I sipped my Coke and waited for his answer. If I didn’t like it, I was ready to bolt and walk home. This whole situation was skirting the edges of my ability to handle it.

  It almost seemed like he was actually seeing me for me, and that was dangerous for my sanity. I almost didn’t want him to want me, because that would mean doing something about it.

  “And now?” Jason swirled the ice in his glass with his straw. “Now I’m seeing things a bit differently. I thought about you, and I guess I realized I didn’t really know you. We’ve moved in the same circles our whole lives, you know? And I mean, you’re one of Nell’s best friends, but with Nell, pretty much anyone is going to come second after Kyle. Anyway, I realized I don’t know you, and I’d kind of like to. I mean, I know you’re really smart, like, smarter than pretty much everyone I know. And I know you’re really beautiful. But I don’t know much else. I think your parents are immigrants, but I’m not sure. I know you stutter sometimes. But really, that’s it. ”

  He thought I was beautiful? I had to focus on breathing to keep calm.

  I laughed. “I’m not sure the term ‘immigrant’ is politically correct, Jason. ” I was proud of myself for getting that out sounding casual, and without stuttering. I was still reeling from his throwaway comment about me being beautiful.

  He shrugged. “You know what I mean. They moved here from another country. ” He waved with a piece of bread. “Immigrants. Not a bad or good thing, just a thing. ”

  “My father is from Italy. He’s from a port city called Brindisi, which is in the region of Puglia—”

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  “Is that by Rome?” Jason asked.

  I laughed. “No, it isn’t. It’s on the opposite side of the country, and farther south. He moved here when he was thirty, and he met my mother as he was leaving LaGuardia Airport. ”

  “Where’s your mom from? Italy?”

  Our server dropped off our plates at that moment, and I dug in with pleasure before answering. “No, my mother is from Beirut, Lebanon. She moved here at the same time as my father, but she was much younger, only twenty-three. They fell in love, and got married within a year. They ended up moving here just after I was born. My older brother Benjamin was born in New York and lived there for three years. ”

  Jason had stopped eating to stare at me. “You’re Arabic?”

  “Half. ” I set my fork down. “Why do you seem so surprised?”

  He shrugged. “I dunno. I guess I just didn’t realize it. Do you speak your parents’ languages?”

  It was my turn to shrug, turning my face away. “Yeah. It’s complicated, but we all speak all three languages. My mom speaks Italian as well as Arabic and English, and my dad speaks Italian plus the others. Ben and I both speak all three. My parents insist we know their languages, plus we take vacations every year to Lebanon and Italy to see family. ”

  He gaped at me. “Wait. You speak three f**king languages?” He said it so loud the people around us looked at us.

  “Do you have to shout?” I demanded, my voice quiet but intense.

  “Sorry,” Jason mumbled.

  “And yes, for the record, I do speak three f**king languages. ” Jason’s eyes bugged out at my curse word, which apparently surprised him. “And yes, I can drop the F-bomb in all three. Can, and do. Just because I’m quiet and have a stutter doesn’t mean I don’t like to swear. ”

  Jason frowned at me. “That’s not why I’m surprised. You just seem…good. Like, not the kind of person to drop F-bombs at all. Not that you couldn’t, but that you wouldn’t. I’m actually kind of insulted that you’d think I’d think that about you. ”

  I felt myself blush with embarrassment. “I’m sorry. That was a rude assumption. It’s just how most people think. They never hear me talk, or when they do, it’s when I’m upset and stuttering. So then they assume I’m stupid or something, despite the fact that I’ve got a 4. 0 GPA, speak three languages, and have college credit already. ”

  Jason stared at me again. “College credit? How?”

  I waved my hand. “AP courses. Instead of skipping grades, my parents have me staying with my peers in the same grade, but they’ve worked out a plan with the school board. I’m in all kinds of advanced classes. I’m in a senior-level lit class right now, and that also counts as college credit. I’m also doing a co-op at the local community college. I go there every Tuesday morning instead of the high school and attend a class there. It’s complicated and boring to talk about. It just means a shit-ton of homework. ”

  “That’s impressive, Becca. ” He sounded genuinely impressed.

  I tried to wave it off, uncomfortable with his attention. “It’s not. My parents believe in using what you’re given. I’m apparently very smart, so I have to push myself as hard as possible. The best isn’t good enough. If I succeed at being the best, I have to go up to the next level. ”

  Jason’s face darkened. “I know how that is, believe me. ”

  “Your parents push you in school, too?” I asked. He never really seemed like the studious type. Not that he was stupid, just not an academic type of guy.

  He laughed. “Well, don’t sound so surprised. But no, not like yours do you. My dad expects perfection from me in everything. I mean, everything. I have a 4. 0, too, but I’m in normal classes, so it’s not as impressive as you. It’s just part of the deal. What I meant was, it’s like that with me and football. It’s not good enough that I make the varsity team my freshman year, which is really unusual, by the way. I have to break school records for most receptions and most touchdowns. And that’s not good enough, either. No, I have to break district records. So I do all that, and I’m only a sophomore. Now he’s after the state record. ‘Go bigger, Jason. ’” His voice went deep and his eyes glazed over as he seemed to channel his father. “‘Stop settling for second best, you piece of shit. Play harder. Break the state record, Jason. ’”

  I felt something clench inside me at the obvious torment on his face. “He says that to you? Your own father?”

  “My father. ” He seemed to find the term “father” funny somehow, but it didn’t lessen the darkness in his eyes. “Yeah. He says that shit all the time. Whatever. He’s a dick, but he’s the reason I’m gonna set the national high school record for most career receptions. ”

  “You are?”

  He laughed outright. “Yeah. The record was set by Davis Howell between 2009 and 2012, with 358. That’s according to the National Federation of State High School Association Sports Record Book, which my dad checks nearly every day. I’m not even halfway through my second season, and I’ve already made over 150 receptions. I need to average at least six receptions per game to break the record, and I do that easily. I’m only a sophomore, so I’ve still got the rest of this year and all of junior and senior years. But that’s just that particular stat record. Dad has his sights set on receiving yards, too. Which, by the way, is set by Dorial Green-Beckham from Springfield Missouri, at 6,356. To break that, I have to average at least 115 receiving yards per game. Which is absurd. Those are pro stats, Becca. These kids setting these records, they go on to be first-round NFL draft picks. They’re future Heisman winners. I’m…well, I’m good. I can do it. I have to. ” I could hear him actually psyching himself up as he said it, convincing himself.

  I didn’t know the difference between receptions and receiving yards or what a draft pick was, but I could see the panic in his eyes, and I could recognize the hardened determination of someone who’s been given a goal and no option but to achieve it; I saw it in him because I saw it in myself every day. “What happens if you don’t?” I asked.

  His face shut down, went hard and cold. “That’s…not an option. ”

  “I don’t like how that sounds, Jason. What do you mean, it’s not an option? You have to break the national record, or what?” He didn’t answer, just picked at his chicken parmesan. “Jason? Or what?” I leaned forward, tri