Discover more from STOP. KISSING. FINN.
STOP. KISSING. FINN. - Chapter 23 (The Penultimate!)
Chapter 22 recap: In what feels like an out-of-body experience, Charlie presents her independent study project at the final assembly. It’s a success, at least according to Andy. And Jackie, with whom she shares what feels like a goodbye.
Seniors' last day of school was two weeks earlier than everyone else's, and most people only came for the first hour if they bothered to show up at all.
That’s why we’d made sure to plan the senior prank for the second to last day.
“Should we synchronize our watches?” Jess whispered as she leaned her back against the locker next to mine. She’d worn black skinny jeans and a matching black tank top with flip flops. Her look was half “cat burglar,” half “summer vacation.”
“We already told everyone to go by the school’s clocks,” Andy said as I pitched a stack of rumpled folders into one of the large trash bins the custodial staff had dragged out into the middle of the hallway. “Plus, I don’t own a watch.”
We were surrounded by the rest of the senior class excitedly disposing of stubby pencils and bent notebooks like it was incriminating evidence of the last four years.
“Let’s just stick to the plan,” Andy said. “Everybody’s getting to their station by no later than 1:55. We all activate at exactly 2:07 and then book it to the parking lot.” Jessica and I nodded our heads even though we’d been over the timing at least 20 times, not counting the three group planning sessions with the student council.
Two months ago Andy had turned his barn into a covert operations headquarters, complete with charts, maps of the school, and whiteboards. I had stood at the front of the group with Andy while the student council had listened intently, seated on bales of hay.
“I do need to check in one last time about independent study to make sure everything's squared away.”
“Seriously?” Andy demanded. “Charlie, we are DONE with this place. It doesn't matter anymore. You could have handed in a receipt from Scones and a picture of your armpit and they would have passed you.”
“Ew,” I said. “And you know that's not true. I almost had to take an incomplete, remember?”
“Right, right, your near incomplete experience,” he mumbled and rolled his eyes.
“So, pancakes after?” Jessica asked.
“Is that really the best we can do? Are we really celebrating our freedom and the best senior prank ever with pancakes at Dino’s?” Andy asked.
“Actually, that’s sort of how I always envisioned it,” she said and shrugged.
“Why is this taking everyone so long?” Andy asked and scanned the hallway. “It took me like five minutes.”
“Not everyone's locker looked like a Container Store catalog,” I said.
“Well, I’m going to head to study and review the timeline one more time.” He took a deep breath and grinned widely. “This is going to be historic, Charlie Wolfe. You ready to go down in history as a class prank mastermind?”
“Yeah, right after I scrape the gum off my locker,” I said drily. But, I was honestly excited. And nervous.
The week before I’d started to panic. “It won’t be hard at all to trace this back to you, Andy. Mrs. Bally put you in charge of the letters herself,” I’d said.
“I’ll blame finals. Or senioritis or college applications. I’ll say it was a mistake that I didn’t notice,” Andy had reasoned. “Plus, Bally freaking loves me. She’s not going to turn me in.”
I’d decided to just trust him. The letters had gone out to all of the schools’ donors. And they had actually worked. And, before we knew it, it was senior prank day.
“2:07,” Andy said one last time before he and Jess turned down the hallway.
I glanced at the “keep” pile I'd started and was proud of how ruthless I'd been in my cleaning. So far it consisted only of a t-shirt I needed to return to Liz and the small magnetic mirror I'd stuck in every locker I’d had since 8th grade. I wasn't sure if I wanted to hang it anywhere ever again, but I felt weird about getting rid of something I'd seen myself in every day for the last six years.
I used a torn-off notebook cover to sweep out all the flecks of paper and gum wrappers and dusty old hair elastics. I shut the door, feeling strange about not slipping on my combination lock and giving it an extra tug to make sure it was secure. I tried throwing my backpack over one shoulder, but it was too light and just slipped off my arm. I headed towards the stairwell. I only had one more stop before I had to man my station.
I hadn't been in the art room in months. Once I switched my project there hadn't been much reason to go there. Or, at least any reason I could justify to anyone.
I had a card for Riley that I was planning to slip into the narrow supply closet that she’d always kept locked. I could have left it in the front office, but there was a tiny part of me that wanted to run into Finn one last time.
The room was empty. It had the same wet paper smell remembered. It was probably the third most common scent I associated with Finn, after the sweat/laundry/paint smell of his bedroom and then his car, which was cigarettes and cherry air freshener.
It smelled the same, but other things were different. A collection of tissue paper collages were taped to the row of windows, blocking some of the natural sunlight and creating an almost stained glass window effect. I took the card from my back pocket and slid it under the closet door.
Finn’s canvas and stool were gone. The absence of his things made the whole room seem bigger.
For a moment I thought I was hallucinating. Like hearing Finn say my name was all part of this moment of closure I was attempting to manufacture in the art room.
But, no. He was standing with me in the art room like he had so many times before.
“Hey,” I said.
“What are you doing in here? I haven’t seen you in forever.” He was wearing the black hoodie. The one he’d lent me the day we went to Dino’s. His hair looked like it has just been trimmed and the bridge of his nose was lightly sunburned. He looked fresh and healthy, like he hadn’t missed a step.
I hated him for that.
“I was looking for Riley. Just for independent study stuff.”
“I heard you did a poetry thing instead.”
He’d never responded to my email or commented on the poem I’d asked him to read. Liz and Andy made me promise that I wouldn’t call or text him first. They watched me, too, and made sure I didn’t look for him during school. He certainly didn’t look for me. Somehow over four months passed without us talking.
“Yeah,” I said and fidgeted with the zipper of my backpack.
“So what are you doing this summer?” he asked easily.
Are we really having this conversation?
“Um, just, you know, working and stuff. Andy’s cousin lives in the city, so we might go visit a couple weekends… We…uh, I got into NYU.”
“Oh, that’s awesome. Congrats,” he said, flashing me the half-grin.
“Thanks,” I managed to say. Maybe he’d never even received the email I sent on New Year’s Day. It would be one hell of an exception to the rule and, basically, a giant middle finger from the universe, but I supposed it was possible.
“Yeah, I’m going to Savannah. SCAD.”
“That’s great. You really wanted to get in there.”
“Yeah, I think it’s the best program for me,” he said quietly. He threw his bag down on the floor and sat on top of a desk that had been dragged to the side of the room. His eyes softened a little as he focused them on me. I’d seen that look before.
“Well, it will be a relief to get away from this place,” I said, filling the quiet.
“Yeah,” he said. “But, we still have the summer.”
“I mean that in a good way,” he added. “I think this summer is going to be the best one we’ve ever had.”
“You might feel different if you sold shoes instead of flowers. It’s open-toe season ‘til September.”
He laughed, his gaze still focused on me. “Yeah, well, work is work. But you can’t work the whole summer, right?”
“Right,” I said and wondered what exactly it was I was agreeing to.
“You going to Jackson’s party? Last one at the lake house until Thanksgiving.”
“I wasn’t invited.”
“I’m inviting you.”
“Oh,” I said, my heart rate quickening. “It’s tonight?”
“Yeah, it’s sort of our launch party… for the magazine.”
“Oh, wow. You guys got the first issue together.”
“Yeah, fucking finally. It only took a year and a half,” he said and laughed. “It’s up now, just search “Blank Mag” and our names …we ended up just doing it online. We were trying to figure it out for print but ended up just going digital. It’s so much cheaper and it gives us the flexibility we need. But, yeah, it took forever. Honestly, I think we really needed that time to figure out who we are and what type of content we wanted to put out there.” Finn’s answer almost sounded rehearsed.
“That’s awesome, congrats.”
“Thanks…yeah, we’re all pretty stoked.”
“Nice.” For a second, I wondered if I’d ever be able to convince Andy or Liz that it was a good idea to stop by this launch party. It was just a party. It wouldn’t mean anything.
Besides, I could handle this. We could be friends. I knew what I was getting into with Finn. Not that I would get into anything…
“Oh, and, just so you know.” Finn paused and closed his eyes for a minute like he was searching for the right words. “The decision not to include your work wasn’t because of, like, anything personal. And, not like it was bad, or anything. It was just a matter of tone, really. It just wasn’t in line with what we were trying to do…with the first issue, at least.”
“Huh?” I said. All thoughts of the party and lake house came to a halt.
For a second I had no clue what he was talking about. But then I remembered that line in the email I’d sent. The email I’d pulled from my “Sent” folder and read about 900 times. I’d technically submitted the poem I’d written about Finn – about us – to Blank.
“Just so you know,” he said again, shrugging his shoulders. “Your poetry. The stuff you submitted to Blank. It didn’t work out this time, but I totally think you should submit again in the future.”
“That…” I froze, paralyzed by a sudden flash of rage. Was a gesture, I almost said.
“Thanks. Thank you,” I stammered.
“Yeah, of course,” he said. He was nodding and smiling.
Smug. That’s what Finn was. It was a Gram word. Her polite way of saying “what an asshole.” I took a long inhale through my nose, trying to slow my speeding heart rate.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said again. “You know, for taking the time to consider my work. It’s too bad my tone wasn’t quite right, but I definitely appreciate the encouragement to try again.”
Finn leaned back slightly. “Okay…”
“And, um, since we’re giving advice, I have some for you.”
“You’re not that fucking special.”
The smile drained from his face and his eyebrows narrowed.
“I guess that’s not really advice. But, just so you know...” I fought the urge to use air quotes.
“You think I’m going to try anything again with you?” I said, interrupting him. “You think I’m going to waste my summer following you around stupid keg parties and then wondering if you’re going to text me back?”
Finned rolled his eyes and turned his back to me. “I was talking about Blank and our submissions process.”
“No, you’re talking about some stupid vanity project run by a bunch of Hunter S. Thompson wannabes that’s going to completely fall apart after one semester of college,” I said to the back of his head. He walked to the other side of the room and unzipped his book bag, apparently searching for something.
“Also, they have a name for ‘online magazines’ now,” I yelled across the room. “They’re called blogs. Like, 150 million people have one. My mother has one about fertilizer. Maybe you should check out that one for new content.”
Finn dropped his bag on a table and walked back to my end of the room. He was doing a good job of remaining expressionless, but his ears had taken on a pinkish hue. I swallowed hard.
He got close enough for me to smell him. More cigarettes than paint or laundry detergent.
“Let me just ask you. Are you upset because I didn’t like your writing, or are you just pissed that I didn’t want to be your boyfriend?”
I flinched as if he’d hit me.
“I told you. I’ve never been into labels,” he said.
“After we slept together, conveniently enough,” I said, my voice shaking a little.
“I didn’t want anything serious. I thought you understood that.”
“I never said I wanted anything serious, either,” I said. “But ghosting someone like that is so…” I searched for the word. “Immature,” I said after a few seconds.
Finn sniffed in an exasperated half-laugh. “Listen, I know you haven’t been with a lot of people, but, based on my experience, if you start hooking up and spending every day together, it’s going to get serious,” he said. “And once you’re past that point, there’s really no good way to back out.”
Finn had thought that we had gone past the point of no return. But, in reality, only he had reached his limits. If we had kept sneaking around together, running through hallways, kissing for hours on his couch, I would have been happy. But, if he told me it had to end, I also would have been fine. Hurt, but fine. By now, I’d learned that I could get hurt and still be okay.
“I think you need to stop acting like you’re the only one who’s ever gotten dumped,” I said. My voice was calm. “Honestly, I think it’s holding you back artistically.”
“That little girl in the pink snowsuit. Whoever she is, she broke your heart—”
“You don’t even know what you’re fucking talking about,” he snapped.
“Yeah, I do. I get it,” I said, forcing a smile. “You never gave me the privilege of knowing the details but, again, you’re not that special. Being dumped or left behind or forgotten hurts. And it happens to everyone.”
“This is fucking ridiculous,” he muttered, shaking his head. He turned his back to me and retreated to his side of the room. I followed him.
“You’re the one who said you were ‘stuck painting her face.’ I mean, that’s all you. That’s your decision to work from that perspective,” I said.
He reached for a box of art supplies and began tossing tubes of paint into his backpack. “You’re a fucking art critic now?” he said over his shoulder.
“No. But I’ve also had my heart broken by people. And, don’t get too excited,” I said. “You’re at the bottom of the list.”
“Whatever,” he said, throwing the bag over his shoulder. He headed toward the door.
“Wait,” I said, grabbing his forearm. Touching his skin, I still felt something. That familiar radiation was still there. I think he felt it too. I thought I saw him catch his breath. I let go.
“You stay,” I said, taking a step back. “I have no reason to be here anymore.”