Home > The Upside of Unrequited

The Upside of Unrequited
Author: Becky Albertalli

I’M ON THE TOILET AT the 9:30 Club, and I’m wondering how mermaids pee.

This isn’t random. There’s a mermaid Barbie attached to the door of the bathroom here. Which is a pretty odd choice for a bathroom mascot. If that’s even a thing. Bathroom mascots.

But the door opens, letting in a burst of music from the club. This is not a bathroom you can enter discreetly. A stall door clicks shut just as I’m opening mine. I step out.

There are mirrors above all the sinks. I suck in my cheeks so it looks like I have cheekbones. And it’s quite a transformation. Sometimes I have the idea that I could maintain this. I could spend the rest of my life gently biting the insides of my cheeks. Except for the fact that it makes my lips look weird. Also, biting your cheeks definitely gets in the way of talking, and that’s a little hardcore, even for me. Even for cheekbones.

“Shit.” There’s a voice from the stall, low and sort of husky. “Hey, can you hand me some toilet paper?”

She’s talking to me. It takes me a moment to realize that. “Oh! Sure.”

I grab a wad of it to pass under the girl’s door, and her hand brushes mine as she takes it. “Okay, you just saved my life.”

I saved a life. Right here in the bathroom of the 9:30 Club.

She flushes, and steps out of the stall, and the first thing I notice is her shirt: red cotton, with an awesomely artistic rendering of the letters G and J. I actually don’t think most people would recognize them as letters.

But I do. “That’s a Georgie James shirt.”

The girl raises her eyebrows, smiling. “You know Georgie James?”

“Yeah.” I smile back.

Georgie James. They were a local DC band, but they broke up years ago. You never really expect to meet anyone our age who’s heard of them, but my sister used to be obsessed.

The girl shakes her head. “That is awesome.”

“It is the awesomest,” I say, and the girl laughs—one of those quiet laughs that bubbles up from your throat. Then I really look at her. And oh.

She’s beautiful.

This girl.

She’s short and slender and East Asian, and her hair is such a dark shade of purple, it’s almost not purple. Thick-framed glasses. And there’s something about the shape of her lips. She has very well-defined lips.

Cassie would definitely be into her. The glasses, especially. And the Georgie James shirt.

“Anyway, thanks for saving my butt. Literally.” She shakes her head. “Okay, not my butt.”

I giggle. “It’s okay.”

“Thanks for saving my labia.”

I shrug and smile back at her. There’s just something about this kind of moment—this tiny thread connecting me to a total stranger. It’s the kind of thing that makes the universe feel smaller. I really love that.

I drift back into the club, letting the music settle around me. It’s a local band I’ve never heard of, but the floor is packed. People seem to like how loud the drums are. I’m surrounded by dancing, moving bodies and dimly lit faces, heads tilted up at the stage. Suddenly, everything starts to feel huge and impossible again. I think it’s because there are so many couples, laughing and leaning and earnestly making out.

There’s this feeling I get when I watch people kiss. I become a different form of matter. Like they’re water, and I’m an ice cube. Like I’m the most alone person in the entire world.

“Molly!” shouts Cassie, waving her hands. She and Olivia are near the speakers, and Olivia is actually wincing. She’s not exactly a 9:30 Club kind of girl. I’m not sure I am, either, but Cassie can be pretty persuasive.

I should put this out there: my twin sister and I are nothing alike.

We don’t even look alike. We’re both white, and we’re both sort of medium height. But in every other way, we’re opposites. Cassie’s blond, green-eyed, and willowy. I’m not any of those things. I’m brown-haired and brown-eyed and nowhere close to willowy.

“I met your dream girl,” I tell Cassie immediately.

“What?”

“I made a friend in the bathroom, and she’s really cute, and I think you guys should fall in love and get married and have babies.”

Cassie does her raise and wrinkle eyebrow thing. She’s one of those blond girls with brown eyebrows, and it’s hard to explain how perfectly it works on her. “How does that happen?”

“How does love happen?”

“No, how do you make friends in a bathroom?”

“Cass. You’re missing the point. This is the dream girl.”

“Wait a minute.” Cassie flicks my arm. “Is this a Molly crush? Is this crush number twenty-seven?”

“What? No.” I blush.

“Oh my God. Your first girl crush. I’m so proud.”

“We’re at twenty-seven already?” Olivia asks. Which I’m choosing to interpret as her being impressed with me. So, I’m a prolific crusher. That’s not a bad thing. Not that this is a Molly crush.

I shake my head and cover my eyes. I feel a little helium-brained. Maybe this is what it’s like to be drunk. My cousin Abby told me being drunk feels like you’re floating. I wonder if it’s possible to get drunk without drinking.

“Hey.” Cassie peels my hands away from my face. “You know it’s my job to mess with you.”

But before I can reply, Olivia holds up her phone. “Hey, it’s eleven forty-five,” she says. “Should we be heading to the Metro?”

“Oh!” I say.

The Metro closes at midnight. Also, I’m starting work tomorrow. I have an actual summer job. Which means I should probably get at least a little bit of sleep, so I don’t pass out at the register. I hear that’s not professional.

We weave toward the exit, and it’s honestly a relief to step outside. It’s cool for June, and the air feels nice against my legs. I’m wearing this cotton dress that was plain black when I got it, but I sewed on a doily lace Peter Pan collar and some lace around the bottom. It’s completely improved.

Cassie and Olivia both text as they walk, and they don’t even trip over the curb. I admire that. I hang back a little, just watching them. They fit here, on U Street. Cassie’s got this perfect messy ponytail, and she’s dressed like she threw on the first thing to fall out of her closet. Which is probably accurate, but it works on her. More than works. She has this way of making everyone else look overdressed. And Olivia is tall, with this fresh-scrubbed kind of prettiness—except she has a nose stud and blue-streaked hair that make you look at her twice. And I guess she’s considered chubby, but not as much as I am.

I do wonder, sometimes, what people think when they see me.

It’s strange how you can sometimes still feel self-conscious around people you’ve known your whole life. Literally. We’ve known Olivia since our moms were in La Leche League together. And for seventeen years, it’s been the four of us: Cassie, Olivia, me, and my cousin Abby. Except Abby moved to Georgia last summer. And ever since, Cassie’s been dragging Olivia and me to the stuff she used to do with Abby—open mic nights and concerts and wandering down H Street.

A year ago, Olivia and I would have been tucked up on her living room couch, watching Steven Universe with Titania, her schnauzer-beagle mix. Instead, I’m surrounded by people who are infinitely cooler than me. Everyone on U Street is doing one of three things right now: laughing, smoking, or making out.

I turn toward the Metro pole, and right away, I see the dream girl.

“Cass, it’s her!” I pull on Cassie’s tank top. “In the red. Look.”

The girl leans forward, digging through her purse. There are these two hipster white guys hovering near her, both absorbed in their phones: a redhead wearing skinny jeans, and a dark-haired one with dramatic bangs.

“But you never explained why she’s Cassie’s dream girl,” Olivia says. The girl looks up from her purse, and Olivia turns away quickly.

But she sees me. The dream girl waves, and I wave back.

“Oh. She’s cute,” Cassie whispers.

“I told you.” I grin.

“She’s walking over here.”

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