A wildly witty and deeply profound chronicle of teenage anxiety and yearning, perfect for fans of Jesse Andrews and Robyn Schneider. It's senior year, and Chamomile Myles has whiplash from traveling between her two universes: school (the relentless countdown to prom, torturous college applications, and the mindless march toward an uncertain future) and home, where she wrestles a slow, bitter battle with her father's terminal illness.
Enter Brendan, a man-bun-and tutu-wearing hospital volunteer with a penchant for absurdity, who strides boldly between her worlds--and helps her open up a new road between them. Dear Universe is the dazzling follow-up to Florence Gonsalves's debut, Love and Other Carnivorous Plants, hailed by School Library Journal as "a must-have sharp, powerful, and witty immersion into the complexities of . . . mental health."
Release date: May 12, 2020
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Print pages: 352
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YOU KNOW THAT MOMENT WHEN IT HAPPENS? AND YOUR LIFE goes from one long snore-fart to hell-freaking-yeah? That moment happens for me in, of all places, gym class.
It’s the second month of school and I’m running like a goddamn hero, flag in hand when, “GOTCHA!” someone shouts, ramming into me and tackling me to the ground. They follow up with “Oops, sorry.” It’s a two-hand touch.
“It’s okay,” I say, with a mouthful of grass and the weight of another person compressing my lungs. I roll over as the sun is rising over the portable classrooms that are so run-down a raccoon fell through the ceiling our freshman year. I’d just transferred to Gill School then, and all I knew about the place was it had uniforms. Plaid skirts and small mammals with hand-paws? No, thanks. But when you get kicked out of public school, you can’t really be choosy.
“I didn’t hurt you, did I?” the boy asks, and that’s when I get a look at him. He’s wiry, with dark hair and a few pimples and these great bluish-gray eyes that I picture swimming across.
“No, I’m fine,” I say, and I am. I’m still clutching that triangle of highlighter-orange fabric, hardly able to breathe, but I’m better than fine because a boy is finally on top of me.
“Okay, good,” he says, jumping off quickly.
“Come on,” someone from my team calls as they run by. Everyone’s returning to their sides, which means the gym teacher must have blown the whistle, but I didn’t hear it.
“You’re a fast runner,” he says.
“Thanks.” I wipe my brow. “There’s a lot of stuff I can’t let catch up with me.”
He laughs and then we look at each other. You know. Look at each other. Our eyes are like BAM! You’re a body with sex-parts. Let’s get to know each other.
Abigail says she watched the whole thing from jail (she always makes a point to be captured first) and it was a meet-cute like no other.
“I’m Gene-short-for-Eugene Wolf,” he says. “You’re Chamomile, right?”
I nod. “Yep, like the tea, only not as hot.”
He laughs and we walk back to the center of the field, where the team with pinnies (his) is facing the team with stale, wrinkled gym shirts (mine).
“You’re funny,” he says, and I smile. Funny is a new thing for me. Until everything started happening with my dad a few years ago, I didn’t really have to be.
As we walk across the patchy field I try to envision what he sees when he looks at me: long hair that always borders on frizzy, two individually nice but asymmetrical eyebrows, a nose that’s never been pierced. “I was thinking you should come running with me sometime.” He looks over at me and I look back at him, our eyes pleasantly locked.
“I don’t really run,” I say, like the dolt that I am.
“Oh, you should try it.” Then he lists all the reasons: college scholarships, teammates, heart health (which may or may not be true, given that people croak during marathons all the time). “Plus, then we could see more of each other.”
Boom, bang, pop. Heart fireworks. I smile and he grins and Gene-short-for-Eugene Wolf has one of those melting grins that makes you heat up, then drip.
“Okay,” I say as the whistle blows and he puts his hands on his knees, facing me with faux competitiveness across the imaginary line we’re about to cross. “I guess I’ll come running with you.”
So we run. He picks me up outside my house before school, while it’s still dark and the birds are black shapes against a sky that’s very slowly starting to lighten. We run all over the place—through the woods, around the ice-cream place in town and the drive-in movie theater, and we stop at the playground for a drink of water, and then one time he kisses me there. Our mouths are still wet with water that tastes like a penny died in it.
“Race me?” I say after. I’m breathless because the closest thing I’ve had to being kissed before this was a gross encounter with a really friendly dog at Petco, but from then on we’re a threesome. Not me, Gene, and the dog, but me, Gene, and running. Running before the world even wakes up. Seeing the sun rise over the roofs, like someone making breakfast in the sky, the egg cracking and then light. Over the next few months he shows me something to love, and that’s why it’s so hard later to let him go.
But why do I have let him go, you ask? Because I’m about to be bitch-slapped by the universe.
I’VE GOT MY NOSE LODGED IN A RACK OF OTHER PEOPLE’S clothes when my best friend taps me on the shoulder frantically.
“How about this one?” Abigail asks, shoving a dead cat into my arms.
“Ew.” I jump back and nearly knock over a row of vintage dresses with yellowing sleeves and a certain old-lady smell to their armpits.
“Relax, Cham, it’s rabbit.” Abigail sniffs the collar and wrinkles her nose. “Or was rabbit.”
“You can’t wear a fur shawl to prom,” I say, throwing it back to her with a quick Hail Mary because I have a moral compass, thanks for asking.
“Why not? It’s basically a winter prom, given that the end of April is as cold as a dead guy’s ball sack.”
I cringe and Abigail laughs. She loves disgusting me with her taste in just about everything.
“Besides.” She pokes me in the ribs. “It’s our debut into society. The end of high school! The precipice of Real Personhood! I can wear whatever I damn well please.”
“Yeah, which is exactly why you don’t want to wear a dead animal as a shawl.” I continue browsing the racks of orphaned clothes just waiting to find the right home. “It could be the best night of our lives. You don’t want pictures of you with a carcass around your neck.”
She checks herself out in the mirror. “Fine, you’re right.”
“Does this make my neck look ostrich-y?” Hilary calls from a dressing room at the far end of the store. Sometimes I pretend Hilary isn’t there, and then I actually forget she’s there. There’s nothing wrong with Hilary, but it comes down to numbers. Two is perfect. Three is one-of-these-isn’t-like-the-others.
“Hilary, you have a slender neck that necklaces throw themselves at,” I call to the row of dressing rooms, each with a different mirror and feather boa decorating its door. “Please don’t make me strangle it.”
Behind Abigail, I spot a white lacy dress on one of the mannequins in the window. Because it’s on display, it’s probably a million dollars. Or a size impossible.
“All the pressure is going to be off once prom rolls around.” Abigail sighs as I slide past the woman who just walked in to check out the dead-grandma dresses. “Just about everyone who didn’t do early decision will know where they got into college, so we can finally all relax—”
My hand stiffens on the neck of the white lace (I swear I’m not trying to strangle a mannequin). Abigail looks at me skeptically. “You did start your applications, didn’t you?”
“Of course I started,” I say. “I’m almost done, but can’t we enjoy this glorious last leg of high school without obsessing about college?”
“You don’t have a future unless you plan one in advance,” Abigail says.
“Well, there’s still a whole two weeks before regular applications close. And after that there’s rolling admission, so basically the amount of time I have is forever. I’ve been waiting for this moment since I was a freshman. I’m gonna savor it.”
“Okay, I think I found the one,” Hilary says, sashaying over to us in an emerald-green ball gown. She recently dyed her hair a cool blue that makes her dark eyes look even darker.
“I love it, Hil,” I say, patting one of the ruffles awkwardly. Love is maybe an exaggeration.
“Right?” She checks herself out in the mirror next to the door, and the woman behind the counter nods in approval.
“Very eighteen-hundreds chic,” the woman says with absolutely no intonation in her voice.
Hilary reaches around to check the tag. “And I can even afford it! The world isn’t always on board with your girl’s financial-aid budget, but Willa’s Closet knows how to deliver.”
“Amen to that,” I say.
“I’m just worried that we’re shopping too early,” Hilary says, moving from her reflection in the mirror to her reflection in the window because sometimes mirrors don’t tell the truth. “What if my style changes in three months?”
My eyes linger on the white dress for another second before I tear myself away. “Nothing’s gonna change in three months except we’re finally gonna be free of high school and parents and Mr. Garcia quacking at us to stop making out in the hallways.”
Abigail looks forlornly out the window of the shop. “Can you believe three months are all that’s left in senior year? Are we ever going to meet your parents before we graduate, Cham?”
“I’ve told you eight million times: They don’t really live in this universe.”
“Yeah, yeah, they’re aliens, or they work for the CIA, yadda, yadda yadda,” Abigail says. “I’m just realizing all the things we still haven’t done.”
“Don’t get too sentimental too soon,” Hilary says. “You have to save some of that for your valedictorian speech, which you will beat Josie for.” I nod distractedly, the white dress catching my eye again.
“Did you want to try it on?” the woman behind the counter asks me. She has her laptop open, and it has all sorts of stickers on it. When she gets up, I realize she’s not really a woman, she’s more of a girl, but that always confuses me. I thought I’d be a woman when I started buying tampons and face cream, but now that I’ve passed those milestones, I’m starting to think I’ll never be a woman. Or worst of all, I’ve actually been one all along.
“Here,” the woman/girl says. She jumps up into the window display and takes the dress off the mannequin. When she holds it out to me, its shoulders slump.
“That’s okay,” I say, averting my eyes from the naked mannequin totally exposing herself to the center of town. “I don’t think it’ll fit. Besides, I’m gonna pass until my boyfriend secures the deal and shows me the tickets.”
“You could ask him,” she says, with just enough judgment in her voice to piss me off. You’re a shit feminist, the line of her mouth adds.
“Nah,” I say coolly. “I asked him to officially be my boyfriend. Now it’s his turn to make a move.”
“Well, are you sure about the dress?” She holds it out to me and I notice the cup size. Grapefruits, at least. I look closer. Scratch that. Watermelons.
“It’ll never work.” I point to my chest. “Tiny-tits committee.”
Abigail comes over and hits me in the arm. “We’re being body positive, remember? It was our New Year’s resolution.”
“It’s never the new year,” I say, drifting toward the rack of shoes. There’s a pair of lace-up combat boots almost identical to the ones I’m wearing. “By the time it’s the ‘new year,’ it’s just the year.”
“Oh, shut up, Cham. I put up with so much shit from people about how fat girls can’t dance, and I just keep shaking my ass anyway.” She starts party-girling around Hilary, who laughs.
“I know, I know, I’m sorry.” I put the boots back and look down at my boobs. “I’m sorry for underappreciating you, my itty-bitty titties that last grew in seventh grade.” I pat the top of my bra, which always drifts away from my chest like a sailor going out on a whim.
“Good girl,” Abigail says, now shimmying in front of the mirror, and Hilary shimmies against her back too. Neither of them has any qualms about dancing in public. I stand beside them and run a hand through my dark, frizzy hair until a knot stops my fingers.
“Shouldn’t you be at dance practice anyway?” Hilary asks, turning to a rack of “special-made” denim items. How do we live in a world where recycled jeans cost more than nonrecycled jeans? “Or do you get to skip because you’re a captain?”
“It got canceled,” Abigail says, frowning at the jeans on jeans on jeans.
While she tells some story about how practice got canceled because her coach’s pug had a panic attack at doggy day care, my phone dings. I look down at it, stepping out of the way of the only shopper in the store besides us, who seems completely unfazed by the recycled-jeans scam as she piles a pair over her arm.
“It’s Gene,” I say a little too loudly. The woman looks over at me judgmentally, but it’s not my fault that seeing his name on my screen creates a little lightning storm in my belly.
“And how is Eugene Wolf?” Hilary asks in the British accent she frequently catches from a mysterious airborne virus. She tries to get her chin over my shoulder to read my text, but I clear my throat and turn from her because I try not to encourage other people’s character flaws. “He says, I have a surprise for you!” I feel a huge grin take over my face.
“There she goes,” Hilary says, crossing her eyes at me, and Abigail laughs. They call it the Cham-in-love grin, but it’s actually the Cham-in-like grin, because until Gene says it, I’m not admitting anything. There’s nothing worse than being in love with someone who’s only in like with you. Not that I know that for sure, but I’d rather not find out.
“Maybe the surprise is a prom ask?” Abigail says. She selects a few dresses from the nearby rack while I pretty much entirely lose interest in shopping.
“I hope it’s a prom ask,” I say, looking down at my phone and wondering which cute-but-chill thing to respond with. “I mean, I definitely want it to be a massive romantic gesture, but I also don’t know if I’m properly prepared for that. I need to wax my mustache before I get a surprise like that.”
“That’s so cheesy,” the woman/girl says. She’s appeared out of nowhere with a box full of hangers. She slaps her hand over her mouth. “Oops, I didn’t mean to say that out loud.”
I laugh and pocket my phone. “What’s wrong with cheese? I love a good stinky blue.”
She collects more hangers from the rack and adds them to the box. Her ponytail is high on top of her head, and her big hoop earrings look like they weigh a whole personhood. She shrugs. “I’ve just never been that impressed by anything a guy has surprised me with.”
“It’s probably sex,” Abigail hisses, then heads for the dressing room that has a hexagonal mirror and a bright pink feather boa on the door.
“Nah, I think I’m gonna save that for prom.”
“Prom sex! Prom sex!” Abigail chants.
“Shh, Abigail! We’re in public,” Hilary says. When she tugs at a knot in her hair, a few blue strands come out.
“Guys, help me respond,” I say, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror: asymmetrical eyebrows, the skeletons of two pimples, and teeth just straight enough to justify the orthodontic hell of my middle school years. Yup, I’m on my game today. My phone dings again. “He says, Come over,” I report.
“Do it,” Abigail calls. That’s all the permission I need.
“But we just got here,” Hilary pouts.
“Sorry, gotta go,” I say, heading for the door. “But don’t buy your dresses without me! If we don’t buy them at the same time, it’ll be bad luck, and that is not the sort of luck I’m aiming for on prom night.”
“What if we find the perfect ones?” Hilary asks.
“Yeah, sorry, Cham, we’re not making any promises,” Abigail says. She comes out of the dressing room in a short, sleeveless dress, her fantastic boobs doing fantastic things below her gold necklace. I feel a jab of third-wheely-ness, but I’m trying to be less paranoid lately. Just because they both applied to state college (along with 75 percent of our class) doesn’t mean they’re going to get in.
“Good luck with your surprise,” the woman/girl behind the cash register says as I pass her. “And finding a prom dress.”
I smile, pushing the door open into the cold January sunshine. “I’m kinda hoping it’s gonna find me.”
These are the possible theories for Gene’s surprise:
• Cotton candy. A room full of sweet perfection, and we spend the whole night licking the walls and the furniture and each other. Blue tongues. Pink tongues. Sugar kisses.
• A quick trip around the world on a very fast plane positioned such that we’re always one step ahead of the sun, where it’s never tomorrow, living in the perpetual limbo of the last minute of every day.
• Doing it? Doing the dirty? Making love? Sexing on each other together? (If I can’t even pick a term for it, I probably shouldn’t be doing it.)
• Watching a movie and falling asleep on Gene’s shoulder while drooling on his track zip-up…
• Yeah. The last one.
Going to see Gene involves a thorough washing of all the parts of my body that touch him. I, for one, like my smells, but I can understand why others might prefer Fresh Ocean Breeze to Cham-Hasn’t-Washed-Her-Armpits-Since-Her-Eight-Mile-Run Breeze. When the cleaning ritual is complete, I go to my room/mini-universe, where the walls are painted black and a projector casts stars all over the ceiling, my bed, and the floor. With my best outfit on (leggings), I add a little mousse to my hair. It takes the frizzies from brainwashed misfits to rebellious corkscrews with excellent personalities. Even though I spend a fair amount of time in the mirror, I think what I really want is the sort of beauty that has nothing to do with what I look like: beauty that’s always there, even if no one’s around to see it.
Downstairs, all the lights are on in the kitchen. I hurriedly take a mint from the drawer full of things that aren’t mine and keep an eye out for my parents. The counters suggest that Mom was in the middle of making dinner—a box of rice, a pan half filled with water in the sink. Cooking was my dad’s domain before Mom took it over. At first I tried to get her to play Elvis in the morning and whip up pancakes for dinner, but it didn’t feel like home when it was forced.
“Hey,” I call, pulling open the sliding door that separates my parents’ part of the house from all the other parts. “I’m going to Gene’s!”
I used to ask them before I went places, but they kept saying no, so now I just offer my plans up as facts. Or prophecies.
“Wait,” my mom yells. Her voice is muffled by a closed door and whatever else separates us that we can’t see. “Come here, Cham.”
I drag myself down the hall, which is lined with proof of all my awkward stages: fifth grade with the four-braid situation; seventh grade with the braces so big you could pretty much straighten a leg; and freshman year of high school, where I basically look like I do now except I hadn’t mastered my Gill School uniform yet, so I had it buttoned up to my lower lip. Suddenly it smells so strongly of pee I have to breathe through my mouth.
“I was just saying that I’m going to Gene’s,” I say again, my voice sounding nasally as I pause outside the bathroom, where my mom’s bright yellow bucket of cleaning supplies waits. I think she and the bucket are in a codependent relationship, but I guess the lavender-tinged-bleach smell isn’t the worst thing to have seeped into our lives over the past few years. My mom opens the bathroom door, fully exposing my dad on the toilet: pants down, toilet paper in hand, everything private decidedly un-private.
“Judy!” my dad cries.
I slam my eyes shut as he pulls a hand towel over his lap. “Can you guys keep the door closed when you’re coordinating bathroom stuff?”
“Sorry, Cham!” my dad hollers from somewhere in the great abyss of relieving oneself. More quietly to my mom, he hisses, “You always forget about my privacy.”
“It’s okay,” I say with all the okay-ness I can muster.
“I’m sorry, Scott, but I wish you had waited,” she says to him in a voice I don’t think she means for me to hear. There’s a prickly feeling in my throat and my stomach. I think I swallowed a young porcupine. “You have to stay in your chair and wait until—”
“So can I go to Gene’s?” I ask, vision still a little scarred.
“Just a second, Cham,” my mom says impatiently.
I turn my back to her and the bathroom and the entire situation. On the wall behind me, there are younger versions of ourselves. In one picture, the three of us are outside when my dad was still landscaping. I’m naked as a duck playing in the hose while my mom cuts the heads off petunias in her garden. My dad is pretending to mow her flowers down and she’s laughing; they’re in their own world together, while me and the hose are getting along just fine in ours. I don’t know who took the picture. . .
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