Saturday, January 7, 2012

Truth or Dare Excerpt

copyright, Melissa Jensen

Truth (according to Edward Willing): People who rely on first sight are either lazy or deluded.

Truth (according to Ella Marino): I fell in love with Edward Willing the first time I saw him.

It was Day Three, Freshman Year, and I was a little bit lost in the school library, looking for a bathroom that wasn’t full of blindingly shiny sophomores checking their lip gloss.

Day Three. Already pretty clear on the fact that I would be using secondary bathrooms for at least the next three years, until being a senior could pass for confidence. For the moment, I knew no one, and was too shy to talk to anyone. So that first sight of Edward: pale hair that looked like he’d just run his hands through it, paint-smeared white shirt, a half smile that was half wicked, and I was hooked.

Since, “Hi, I’m Ella. You look like someone I’d like to spend the rest of my life with,” would have been totally insane, I opted for sitting quietly and staring. Until the bell rang and I had to rush to French class, completely forgetting to pee.

Edward Willing. Once I knew his name, the rest was easy. After all, we’re living in the age of information. Wikipedia, iPhones, 4G networks, social networking that you can do from a thousand miles away. The upshot being that at any given time over the next two years, I could sit twenty feet from him in the library, not saying a word, and learn a lot about him. Enough, anyway, for me to become completely convinced that the Love at First Sight hadn’t been a fluke.

It’s pretty simple. Edward matched four and a half of my If My Prince Does, In Fact, Come Someday, It Would Be Great If He Could Meet These Five Criteria.

1. Interested in art. For me, it’s charcoal. For Edward, oil paint and bronze. That’s almost enough right there. Nice lips + artist = Ella’s prince.

2. Not afraid of love. He wrote, “Love is one of two things worth dying for. I have yet to decide on the second.”

3. Or of telling the truth. “How can I believe what other people say if I lie to them?”

4. Hot. Why not? I can dream.

5. Daring. Mountain climbing, cliff diving, defying the parents. Him, not me. I’m terrified of an embarrassing number of things, including heights, convertibles, moths, and those comedians everyone loves who stand onstage and yell insults at the audience.

5, subsection a. Daring enough to take a chance on me.

Of course, in the end, that No. 5a is the biggie. And the problem. No matter how much I worshipped him, no matter how good a pair we might have been, it was never, ever going to happen. To be fair to Edward, it’s not like he was given an opportunity to get to know me. I’m not stupid. I know there are a few basic truths when it comes to boys and me.

Truth: You have to talk to a boy—really talk, if you want him to see past the fact that you’re not beautiful.
Truth: I’m not beautiful. Or much of a conversationalist.
Truth: I’m not entirely sure that the stuff behind the not-beautiful is going to be all that alluring, either.
And one written-in-stone, heartbreaking truth about this guy.
Truth: Edward Willing died in 1916.


You might think lunchtime at Willing would be different from other high schools. That everyone would be welcome at any table, united by the knowledge that we, at Willing, are the Elite, the Chosen, stellar across the board.

Um. No. Of course not. High school is high school, regardless of how much it costs or how many kids springboard into the Ivies. And nowhere is social status more evident than in the dining room (freshmen and sophomores at noon; upperclassmen at one). Because, of course, Willing doesn’t have a cafeteria, or even a lunch hall. It has a dining room, complete with oak tables and paneled walls that are covered with plaques going all the way back to 1869, the year Edith Willing Castor (Edward’s aunt) founded the school to “prepare Philadelphia’s finest young ladies for Marriage, for Leadership, and for Service to the World.” Really. Until the sixties, the school’s boastful slogan was “She’s a Willing Girl.”

Almost 150 years, three first ladies, and one attorney general—not to mention the arrival of boys—later, female members of the student body are still called Willing Girls. You’d think someone in the Seventies would have objected to that and changed it. But Willing has survived the Seventies of two different centuries. They’ll probably still be calling us Willing Girls in 2075. It’s a school that believes in Tradition, sometime regardless of how stupid that Tradition is.

I eat lunch under the plaque that tells me for three years running, 1948–1950, Gertrude Wharton was Willing Oral Girl of the Year. And the one memorializing 1919, when eight girls were given the award for Willing Service to Soldiers of the Great War. Really. Apparently, there is a plaque on the window wall for Willing Contribution to Nature. Honestly, I don’t know if that’s organic contribution or monetary, all those rich Philadelphia families spreading their money like fertilizer over verdant fields. Frankie says the first name on the plaque is Edna Moore Willing. I’m not sure if I believe him. There is one not too far away for Willing Contribution to the Arts. The entire plaque is definitely Willing-, Moore-, and Biddle- heavy; Frankie says it could use a good Marino to shake things up.

For the most part, I don’t know what’s on the plaques between the windows. I’ve never wandered between those tables, let alone had a meal there. This is how it works.

Tables 1 through 4, near the big windows that overlook the lawn:
The Phillites. The term was coined by a local journalist and Willing alum a few years ago in a magazine article titled “Supreme Court: Philadelphia’s Young Royalty.” Really. Phillites (Phil-Elites) are expensive, smooth, and shiny, and they stick together. Like caviar. They’re the product of impeccable genes, cutting-edge orthodontia, and weekly sushi. Most of the Phillites are sporty; some are brainy. Two or three are on scholarship. They are all a little blinding.

Tables 5 through 8, one row from the windows, middle of the room: 
The Bees. Less wealthy and less beautiful than the Phillites, still cherished by the school for their sheer usefulness. The yearbook and school paper editors, the leads in the spring Shakespeare play, the student tour guides and class fund-raising chairs. Once a Bee Boy, always a Bee Boy, but the girls occasionally move up by dating well. Miss Edith would probably approve.

Tables 9 through 11, west corner: 
The Stars. Extra smart, extra talented, completely unconcerned with fashion, popular culture, or social mobility. Mathletes, chamber music society, debate team. Will absorb people from the bottom tier, providing the commitment to the activity is sincere and complete. Love mathletics or leave. There is no halfway.

Tables 12 and 13, flanking the kitchen doors:
The Invisibles. Willing can’t have outcasts. That would look really bad in a school that prides itself on social and academic excellence. Anyone who needs to be alone—or has a visible drug problem or pierce-toos— quietly disappears between semesters. The ones who go to rehab sometimes come back. The others don’t. Leaving the bottom tier to the kids who write obsessive Lord of the Rings fan fiction, who don’t have enough money to make up for chronically bad skin, who just don’t shine or fit in anywhere else.

So, as usual, Sadie, Frankie, and I were at Table 12, under Gertrude. Having arrived last, I was in the death seat, the one that gets pounded every time a member of the kitchen staff comes through the swinging doors. I scooted my chair forward for the third time since sitting down, ending up with the table edge wedged firmly under my ribs. It’s hard enough to breathe in that seat, let alone eat.

“So what are you going to do with it?” Sadie whispered.

The European history book lay on the table in front of me, Winston Churchill scowling up at the ceiling. He was not pretty. Alex Bainbridge is. It was his book, with his name written in sharp, bold script inside the front cover. Unlike at Sacred Heart, where every year you hoped to be handed books without desiccated pizza cheese between the pages, Willing students always buy their own books. Then they write in them.

I can’t do that. The Sacred Heart nuns still scare me, two miles and two years away. The name inscribed in gold ink inside my history book is Erin Costantini. I’ve never met Erin Costantini. She graduated from Willing before I arrived, charitably leaving her used books, some of which I got as part of my scholarship, and a plaque near Table 5. She won the Willing Sportsmanship Award two years in a row.

Alex’s book was new, of course, and filled with markings that have nothing to do with European history. “D’oh!” occupied a speech bubble next to Napoleon. Stalin wondered if we Got Ex-Lax? There was a phone number scrawled across Marie Antoinette’s chest. No name with it.

I wondered if Amanda Alstead knew about that phone number. Amanda, queen of the Phillites to Alex’s king. I wondered if it was Amanda Alstead’s number.

“Ella?” Sadie nudged me. There was a huge button on the elbow of her gray sweater. It didn’t fasten anything. Her mom is into deconstructed Japanese couture. On her, it says Vogue. On Sadie, raw seams and upside-down pockets say ‘Schizophrenia.’ “The book?”

“She’ll give it to him.” Frankie poked at his burger and winced. It was the same color as Sadie’s sweater. “Simple.”

Only it wasn’t, and Sadie knew that.

“Maybe you should just leave it in front of his locker. Or drop it off in the office,” she suggested. “They’ll get it to him.”

She’d finished her bagged lunch (celery and an off-season plum from Australia) ten minutes ago and was now chewing on the ends of her hair, making one thick strand sleek and dark. When she let go, it bounced back into her mass of slightly fuzzy brown curls. Her mother takes her to Alphonse (his extreme talent with hair- care products renders a second name unnecessary) for thermal conditioning treatments once every four weeks. Sadie comes out looking like she’s been greased. Frankie and I say nothing, and a few days later, she’s back to normal.

Sadie’s one of the rich kids. Which means she should be able to walk up to Alex Bainbridge, hand him his book, and make a quip about being an American in Paris. She’s been, multiple times. She has also known Alex pretty much all her life.

She thinks she might have hit him with a pretzel wand once when they were in the Society Hill Tiny Tots program. She’s not sure; they both left SHTT to start kindergarten at Madison, so the pretzel incident would have been at least twelve years ago. She doesn’t think they’ve spoken to each other since.

It works that way sometimes.

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Frankie rolled his eyes under his green porkpie hat. The color perfectly matched the ‘Vince’ stitched onto the pocket of his brown bowling shirt. Frankie is all about vintage chic. “Give me the book. I’ll throw it at him.”

Frankie’s daring. He’s also conversant in postmodern art and tells me he loves me on a regular basis. He does lie like a rug, but only to people he doesn’t care about, like the gym teacher. “Badminton?” he gasped once, early in our friendship, when I assumed I’d found a gym partner (him) who would actually talk to me. “And risk this nose?”

It’s a good nose. In a really, really good face. Frankie’s mom is Korean; his dad is a former model from Bryn Mawr. Frankie’s theory is that his dad is gay, too. “Four years with an ordinary Asian girl who, no offense to her, looks like a pretty Asian boy? Then, poof (pardon the pun), off to raise goats in California? Please.”

He reached for the book. I held on. I might even have hugged it a little.

Frankie groaned. “No. No no no no no. Not you, too! Is there one girl in this school who doesn’t have a thing for Alex Bainbridge?”

He looked to Sadie, who shrugged and offered, “He is gorgeous.”

“He’s a Neanderthal.”

Frankie was a slightly earlier entrant into the Phillite solar system than I was. He did seventh and eighth grades at Madison, entering just at the point when boys started flexing their muscles and noticing whose shoes came from Kmart.

He’d explained it to me freshman year when the miraculous score of a pair of clearance D&G chinos (it helps to have a twenty-nine-inch waist) loosened his tongue about his pre-Fab days. “Gaysian? Poor? Five foot nothing? I might as well have had ‘dunk me’ tattooed on my forehead.”

They dunked him.

“Now be fair.” Sadie is all about being fair and open-minded. She insists it’s because she’s a Libra. I credit ten years of being the bat her parents use to whack at each other. “Alex never actually put you into a toilet. It was his friends.”

“Oh, excellent defense, counselor. Case dismissed.”

“Pissy does not become you,” she informed him.

“Neither does piss,” he shot back.

I completely understand how that sort of thing would be hard to get past, even after a couple of years. You don’t forget the mean stuff, even when the mean stuff ends. Or at least gets less obvious. It might have been Frankie’s growing seven inches in two years that ended the dunkings. Or the Phillite boys growing up a few years. More likely it was the whispers that Frankie’s twin brother, Daniel, had joined an Asian gang. Whatever—he hasn’t forgotten.

“Ah, the Bainbridge Fan Brigade. I thought better of you, Fiorella.” Frankie doesn’t keep his opinions about anything to himself. I usually admire that a little desperately. This time it stung. “I really did.”

Why? I’m only human. And invisible. In part (not that I kid myself that it’s the major part) because I am still not much over five foot nothing. Alex Bainbridge is a foot taller than I am, with bronze hair that turns up at the front and a mouth that turns up at the corners, even when he’s not smiling.

“It’s better than her obsession with a dead man,” Sadie said gently.

“Not much,” was Frankie’s grumbled reply.

He’s probably right. I can sit blissfully under Edward’s portrait in the library, scouring the Web for auctions containing his paintings, reading and rereading his letters and the handful of biographies about his life, and no one notices. This year, it’s even legit: research for my honors art history project. Besides, Edward was real. Everything he wrote and said was real, true. Unlike Fitzwilliam Darcy who, drool-worthy as he might be, was really just Jane Austen in breeches. And look how many women dream about marrying him. I know for a fact that two of the girls at Table 13 are regular contributors to an online Darcy fanzine. They read aloud from it during lunch. It’s not bad.

As for the possibility of Alex . . . well, he’s alive. I could reach out and touch him almost any day September through May. I could actually invite him to a movie or pizza, or Marino’s, where my nonna would make the calamari and my brother would have to serve it to us at a table in front. But I wouldn’t. More the point, I couldn’t. Because of his seat near the windows. Because of Amanda Alstead and lacrosse and the fact that he probably doesn’t eat squid. I know the closest I’ll get to Edward Willing is his portrait and an honors thesis. Of course I know that. As for playing footsie under a red-checked tablecloth with Alex . . .

Truth: For me, it’s easier to accept the impossible than the pitifully improbable.

I should probably have left the book where I found it, half hidden under the statue of Samuel Windsor Willing, Edith’s grandfather (the Revolutionary War uniform is misleading; a little math tells us that he was only nine in 1776, but the Willings were never short on ego). I was coming out of the east corridor girls’ room, which makes me wonder if school bathrooms are going to have ongoing significance in my life. I wish it didn’t seem so likely. I certainly don’t spend much time in them. Even at Willing, they smell like dirty water and that industrial pink soap that doesn’t come out of the dispensers, no matter how many times you pump. Besides, I’m not a mirror girl. I have Frankie and Sadie to tell me if I have lettuce in my teeth. I don’t have shiny lip gloss to check. I don’t do anything that necessitates Visine. Still, sometimes I’ll come out of a stall or look up from washing my hands and catch sight of myself: a small, startled person behind a curtain of dark hair who looks away quickly, as if embarrassed by being caught staring.

This time, I could have used the bathroom closer to math class. I mean, I didn’t have to pee all that badly. But Amanda and her cadre can usually be found in the bathroom closer to math class before math class. Since the only word she has spoken to me since freshman year was “Ewwwww!,” it makes sense to avoid her.

Beyond that, it’s a Girls’ Declamation (formerly known as “Oral”) Week at Willing, which means we have to memorize scarily long poems and recite them in front of our class. Declamation has this bizarre and overblown importance at Willing. Like all our future success depends on being able to remember that love is like a red, red rose. The week’s subject was Robert Frost. Meaning the school has been overrun for the last few days with nervous girls reciting “The Road Not Taken.” It’s the poem of choice for the Phillites and Bee Girls. They’ve been coaching each other all week, filling the halls and bathrooms with bouncy rhythms and rhymes that I don’t think Frost intended, even though he wrote them.

During Dec Weeks, we at Willing live a life that’s something like a cross between a Broadway musical and Christian hip-hop. Everyone walks around mouthing unfamiliar, old-fashioned words. The halls become littered with increasingly dog-eared printouts of poems. We skip a little as we walk, like ponies in iambic quadrameter: bah-dum, bah-dum, bah-dum, bah-dum. Endless blonde ponytails swishing down the halls.

Two roads diverged in a wood and I—
I took the one less traveled by . . .”
Bah-dum, bah-dum, bah-dum, bah-dum . . .

So I used a quiet bathroom. Coming out, eyes on the scuffed toes of my Chucks, I saw the book. It was tented near Cornelius’s feet, a few papers loose under the bent pages. I leaned over and picked it up. And that, as Robert Frost would say, made all the difference.

From Table 12, I had a fairly good view of Table 2. Alex always sits there (Table 1 is for Phillite seniors only) usually in the same seat, back to the room, facing the window. It’s a cool guy’s seat. It says,
• I know you won’t throw things at the back of my head because you wouldn’t dare.
• Ditto making faces or rude hand gestures.
• I’m not worried about missing anything that might go on in the rest of the room.
• I don’t care if you notice what I’m wearing, or that my hair is perfect today.
• Nothing inside is more interesting that what’s outside, away from school.

Except, of course, Amanda Alstead, but she always sits half next to Alex and half on him, so he could see her just fine. Today, she was sitting sideways in her chair, as usual. She could see part of the room (the Table 1 part, actually); most of the room could see her outfit (all shades of white, very cute, I wouldn’t dare), her cameo profile, and the fact that she had her legs slung over Alex’s lap. What I could see of him was the perfect triangle of his back in a green Lacoste and the pale edge at his hairline, the divider between the last of his summer tan and his October haircut.

Hey, Alex.” I composed the words in my head. “I have your book . . .”

D’oh. I would be standing there, holding his book.

Alex. Thought you might want to have this back.”

Nope. Sounded like I’d taken it, which would be bizarre, or that he’d given it to me, which would be ludicrous.

Hey. This was on the floor in the upstairs hall, and I figured you probably didn’t know where it was.”

Truth is always good.

He would look blank for a sec (he probably had no idea he’d dropped it; European history was first period), then smile gratefully, hazel eyes crinkling at the corners, that mouth turning up in that unbelievably cute way.

Wow. Thanks, Ella! I didn’t even know I’d dropped it.”


And I would hand it over—if our fingers brushed, no complaints—and say, “I saw the stuff inside. It’s really . . .”

“El. Ella.” Sadie bumped me with her button again. “Coming?

“Where were you? Oh, yeah . . .” She followed my slightly unfocused gaze and nodded. On her other side, Frankie snorted. She elbowed him. No button on the other sleeve. “Wanna practice before class? I mean, I know you don’t have to; it’s imprinted on your brain. But there’s that line at the end I just can’t get right. El?”

As I watched, Amanda swung her legs off of Alex and stood up. My legs felt a little rubbery as I did the same. “See you in class,” I said quickly, leaving Sadie to remember that, in “Mending Wall,” the line is: “We keep the wall between us as we go.” It’s my favorite Frost poem. No pony rhythm, no rhyme. About walls.

I wove my way between the tables, pulling my hair forward over my shoulders as I went. Alex was still sitting when I reached him.

Hey. This was on the floor in the upstairs hall . . .”

I stood behind his chair. Completely frozen.

I might have stood there for a very long time if he hadn’t pushed himself away from the table to get up. The chair thumped me in the stomach first, then in the knees. I think I made a noise. I dropped his book.

“Oh. Oh, crap. I’m really sorry!” Alex jerked the chair out of the way and bent down a little. He had to, to see my face. “You okay?”

I did manage to nod.

“Seriously. I must have really pounded you there. You sure you’re all right?”

“Yes, fine,” I whispered.

Across the table, Chase Vere laughed. “Dude, she was, like, standing right behind you.”

Alex ignored him. He stared at me for a long second, then bent down to pick up my book. Only, of course . . .

“This is my book.”

I nodded again. “Um, yeah. I found it. Upstairs—”

“Oh, right. I was running to trig. It must’ve fallen out of my bag. Thanks.” He was already turning away, already forgetting the moment. “It’s Freddie, right?”

It kinda felt like the chair, again, in my stomach. Usually the name doesn’t bother me. When I’m prepared for it, anyway. But this time, I wasn’t. I let more of my hair fall forward. “Um, no,” I said softly. “Ella. It’s Ella.”

He faced me again, looked confused for a second. Then he shrugged. “Huh. Okay. Ella. Well, thanks.”

I heard the muffled giggle. Or maybe it wasn’t muffled, just quick and quiet. I didn’t want to turn around. I would much rather have crawled under the table, only I’m not quite that pitiful.

I turned.

Amanda hadn’t really left. She’d gone to get a bottle of water. Another Willing perk: all the Poland Spring we can drink, and handy recycling bins to keep it Green. She was standing three feet away, flanked by her inner posse, Hannah and Anna. The Hannandas, we call them. Not that they look alike. Amanda is what guys picture when they hear the words Swedish Massage. Anna is dark, like me. Hannah has the gold-brown hair and aw- shucks look of a Kansas farm girl. But they are alike. Perfect features, the right shoes, luminescent lip gloss, and the instincts of barracudas.

Amanda bared her teeth. It wasn’t really a smile. “Let’s go,” she said to Alex.

He went.

I could have counted. On three. One . . . two . . . The whisper came, followed by the whinny. I’m not noble enough to call it a laugh. Not from the Hannandas. Skirts and ponytails twitching behind them as they went. Bah-dum, bah-dum, bah-dum, bah-dum.

“. . . Freddie . . . Don’t you remember . . . tries to hide it . . .”

I followed, at a distance, as we all left the room. We keep the walls between us as we go.


Melissa Jensen sure has a refreshing style of writing! It's been a long time since I've last been so strongly anticipating a contemporary novel. Hope it lives up to all the expectation!

I can't wait, can you?


School started, and I am buried by all the stuff on my schedule. Hoping to get into a few writing & literature programmes. Lots of love goes to all of you! Because of you guys, I am sustaining this blog and my writing skills are honed!

Wish you a great weekend, reviews coming soon!

Sel :)


  1. Hi :D what am I doing here during class

  2. Somehow just randomly found this post in your blog! ^^ the story actually sounds quite cool! (; have you got the book already?

    1. Nah... Going to Kino to buy this book in lsc week! Come with me, kay? :)

  3. I do have this book on my to-read list and am hoping to pick it up this summer as I love to read cute funny well-written contempt during the summer.
    Alaska Fishing Website


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