My phone lit up with a message from Yael.
We're bailing early. Whiff walk, it said, a group text to Kyle and me.
I checked the time. It wasn't even five o'clock.
I work until six today, I wrote back, then put the phone face-down on silent, so she wouldn't be able to fun-bully me into dodging my one responsibility.
I was only a part-time intern in one of the biology labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—?hired by my mom's longtime research partner, Dr. Araghi, to transcribe his notes—?but I wanted to behave like a professional. I'd be starting at MIT as a freshman in the fall and wanted to prove that I wasn't just my mother's kid, and that I was serious about being there.
Sometimes, though, it was difficult to keep my focus.
Mainly because of Kyle and Yael.
"Maya!" Yael snapped. I whipped around to find her standing behind my workbench with Kyle at her side. Her spiral curls were pulled straight into a tight bun. A few ringlets had escaped and bounced against her freckled-covered forehead as she spoke.
"Don't ignore me, girl. Get your stuff."
"I said I work until six," I said.
"No one cares what you do," Yael said. "You're just an intern."
"You'll make up the time," Kyle said. "Besides, Dr. Araghi left early to give some lecture. It's, like, eighty degrees outside. Everyone is packing up early."
I walked to the window near our benches, which were clustered in the back corner of the Araghi lab, on the third floor of MIT's Building 68b, a tall, gray structure mostly populated by bio researchers in and out of lab coats.
It had been rainy and overcast for days around Boston, but it finally looked like summer. I spotted two blond girls walking across the quad in shorts and flip-flops, their ponytails moving like synchronized swimmers.
"Okay, just give me ten minutes to pack up my stuff," I said, surrendering.
"Three minutes," Yael said. "I'll give you three."
I placed Dr. Araghi's tiny antiquated tape recorder in my drawer, grabbed my backpack, and followed Kyle and Yael through the maze of workbenches and out into the busy hallway. Once we were down the stairs and on the quad, and Kyle pulled off his hoodie in the heat, I noticed his new T-shirt, which said I LOVE MIT, but instead of the word LOVE—?or a heart—?there was a picture of a beaver. Kyle couldn't get over the fact that MIT's mascot was a beaver. Much of his wardrobe paid homage to the animal, and it had little to do with school spirit.
"You 'beaver' MIT?" I asked Kyle as he led us off campus.
"I do beaver MIT," Kyle responded. "I also beaver chicken skewers. Let's eat after this. I'm starving."
We passed the massive Koch Center for research, slowing down to see the latest fluorescent, bio-themed artwork in the building's lobby, then sped up to get to our real destination, farther down Main Street.
"Come with me, and you'll be, in a world of pure imagination," Kyle crooned off-key as we walked down the road.
"It's from the original Willy Wonka movie," I explained to Yael, who eyed Kyle with confusion as he walked backwards with his long arms stretched out, beckoning. Sometimes American cultural references went over Yael's head. I'd learned that not every famous movie was big where she was from in Israel.
"I know the song," she said, grinning. "I just can't believe he's so bad at singing."
At that, Kyle raised the volume of his voice and lifted his middle finger in our direction. Yael was quick to lift hers right back.
I've lived in Cambridge since I was born, so I know every small square and street corner in the city, but I give Kyle and Yael credit for discovering the magic cloud of chocolate on Main Street. On the second day of my internship in the lab, Kyle approached my workspace—?which was right behind his—?dropped his head to his shoulder as if he were sizing me up, and then asked whether I wanted to join him and Yael on their "whiff walk."
"Really?" Yael said from across the room, before I could answer. "We don't even know her."
"Yes, really," Kyle said. "She's whiff-worthy; I know it. Let's initiate her."
"Initiate me with what?" I asked. "What's a whiff walk?"
Yael released a loud exhale but seemed to be giving in.
They let me follow them out of the lab that day, down to an industrial section of Main Street in Cambridge where, out of nowhere, an entire block of the street smelled like chocolate gas.
"It's a mystery," Kyle had said, his nose twitching. "It always smells like chocolate on this one block. We're obsessed with it."
"I think it's just Cambridge Foods," I explained after an inhale, pointing to the unmarked white brick building in front of us. "It's a candy factory. I went to middle school with someone whose dad worked here."
Kyle and Yael stood silent and stunned, like I'd just solved a great scientific riddle.
"They make the insides of candy bars here," I continued. "Like the nougat you'd get in, like, a Three Musketeers. This part of Cambridge used to be a candy district. You've seen the old Necco building, right? I think they made the wafers there."
Kyle grabbed my shoulders, startling me with the physical contact.
"Why is this not a big deal to you?" he barked, his voice dropping half an octave. His dark brown eyes, which matched his thick short hair, got wide as he raised his brows. "You say, 'They make the insides of candy bars here,' like that's not the best thing ever. Yael and I had joked that Willy Wonka must live here, but now it's, like, true."
He paused and looked up, his eyes glazing over like he was dreaming.
"I mean, they make nougat. Right up there." Kyle pointed at one of the building's only windows. He said the word nougat like it meant solid gold.
"I guess I've just taken it for granted, you know?" I said. "I'm from Cambridge, so I've passed this building for years. You stop noticing things when you've lived somewhere forever. It is pretty cool, I guess."
"I think I've never had Three Musketeers," Yael said before taking a deep inhale and nodding with approval. "It's not popular in Israel. Also, American chocolate is terrible."
"You've never had a Three Musketeers?" Kyle asked, horrified. "We must remedy this situation. To the 7-Eleven!"
From that day on, I was a regular on their whiff walks, and happily stood outside the building with them, inhaling as Kyle made up stories about what went on inside. Kyle's fantasy was that Willy Wonka outgrew his main production facility and opened a satellite office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, naming it the generic Cambridge Foods to make it less conspicuous to the locals. His theory was supported by the fact that we never saw humans enter or exit the building.
"They live inside, so there's never reason to leave," Kyle told us. "Willy Wonka, who must be very old now, with the Oompas and Charlie. Charlie's basically just a businessman now, and he never married. It's quite sad, actually. He sits up there alone, pondering the metaphor that is the Everlasting Gobstopper . . ."
Sometimes during our trips, Yael allowed Kyle to lift her onto his shoulders so she could attempt to see into one of the few windows on the top of the factory building, to confirm his tale. At five foot one, she was too short to see inside, even with Kyle as a six-foot booster, but they continued to try, hoping for a glimpse of anything magical. I wouldn't let him try to boost me because I didn't want to fall and break my legs.
"Here," Kyle said, now standing in front of a section of white brick at the Cambridge Foods facility. "Stand right here. This is the smell pocket tonight. Right here. It'll hit you in the face."
I stood directly in front of Kyle, close enough that the heels of my sneakers touched the front of his. Yael backed up to me and stepped on my toes, a few of her curls hitting my chin as she tilted her head toward the vents that pushed the scent out of the factory building.
"Now," Kyle said. "Breathe in. We're right in the middle of it."
I heard their chests expand in front and in back of me.
"It's perfect," I whispered as the scent of nougat consumed us.
We ate dinner after that, stopping for skewers at the restaurant near campus with the periodic table menu (Hb for hamburger, Qs for quesadilla). Then I texted my boyfriend, Whit, to see if he wanted to stop by my place. It was only eight.
Already here. Waiting on you, he texted back within seconds. I responded with the emoji of the applauding hands. He sent back a thumbs-up.
After almost sprinting the walk home, which took me past the noisy restaurants and graffitied rock clubs of Central Square, and into the crowded residential neighborhoods between MIT and Harvard, I was back at my house on Gardenwood Lane, a short street lined with busy triple-deckers, small houses occupied by university professors, and some concrete apartment buildings designed for transient grad students who never seemed to take the trash out on the right night.
My house was the small yellow one with the red door. In front of it was Whit, who sat on my front steps twirling his phone between his hands, his elbows resting on his knees.
"Heeey!" I shouted when he came into view. My voice was too loud, my tone too eager.
Ever since we decided we'd have sex in four weeks—?once Whit moved into off-campus housing, where he'd have his own room—?it was all that was on my mind. It was like I was fighting a biological imperative if I wasn't touching him.
"Hey," Whit responded, looking up.
"I didn't know that we were hanging out tonight," I said.
"I needed to see you," he said, his voice soft. My stomach flipped.
I closed the gap between us and placed my hands on his shoulders as I leaned in for a kiss, but before I could attach my face to his, he pulled me down so I was sitting next to him. The ivy that blanketed the front steps of my house tickled my calves.
Whit shifted so that we faced each other and then did the thing where he bumped the tip of my nose with his.
"How was lab?" he asked.
"Great," I answered, hoping that my breath didn't smell too much like chicken skewers. "I'm getting faster at transcribing notes, and this morning, Dr. Araghi introduced me to a woman who studies tumorigenicity in zebrafish. She's doing a fellowship at MIT this year. She said she'll let me sit in on some lectures this fall, even though I'll only be a freshman."
"Hmm. Zebrafish," Whit said as he brushed a chunk of my frizzy brown waves out of my face. "You look pretty."
"So do you," I said, placing a hand on his chest, unable to stop myself from imagining what was going to happen in less than a month. I'd already picked out what I'd wear—?a purple silk nightgown I'd bought at the Galleria. Bryan, my best friend and adviser on all important matters, said it looked like the pajamas that Rizzo wears in Grease. I assumed that was a good thing.
"Do you want to watch a movie?" I asked Whit, our noses connecting again. "It's early. We could probably fit in two movies tonight if we start now."
I was speaking in code. Watching movies meant privacy in the dark.
Whit took a deep breath and tilted his head forward so that our foreheads touched. I took in his blue eyes and thick red hair, the genetic combination that made him such an unusual Punnett square.
"I will always love you, Maya," he said in a whisper. "Always."
"So dramatic," I teased, closing my eyes, preparing for the night's first kiss.
He pulled his head back and grabbed my hands, squeezing them. "You need to listen," he said, his tone dark, the way it gets when he reads lines. "I need to talk to you."
His eyes were glassy, and I noticed then that his hair was a mess, much of it pushed to one side on the top, like he'd been stepped on.
"Whit, what's wrong?" I asked.
"I've met someone else," he said, his eyes on my neck.
"Someone else for what?" I asked, lowering my head to try to find him.
It probably took me three full seconds to register what he had said.
I had experienced this delayed reaction before, when my mom died. I now believe that this is just how humans accept unexpected traumatic news—?one word at a time, in slow motion. It's this never-ending moment—?the exact millisecond a person registers the meaning of those basic words strung together, like when my dad said, "Maya, Mom isn't going to make it."
"Make what?" I had asked just as stupidly back then, my knees locking as I realized that what my mom wasn't going to make was the rest of her life.
Now with Whit, whose gaze had dropped so low he was looking at my sneakers, I whispered the words out loud for my own benefit. "I. Have. Met. Someone. Else."
As a sentence it sounded silly, like trite soap opera dialogue that Whit would ridicule if he heard it on TV. "Lazy lines," he'd say. "No one actually says, 'I've met someone else.'?"
I tried to come up with an alternative meaning to the sentence. Maybe he'd met someone else to write with. Like a writing partner. Most people in Hollywood had writing partners, he'd told me. That was what he wanted to do after college—?move to the West Coast and write independent films.
"You don't mean another girl to date," I said, grabbing some ivy at my feet and pulling it from its root. My dad had tried to tame the plant, but it had taken over the front of our house, growing at twice its usual speed, like it knew my mother was no longer watching.
Whit glanced up, his expression flat, and ran his hands through his hair. "Yes, another girl to date."
He looked up at the house then and flinched as he noticed my dad walking by the living room window.
"We need to break up," Whit said, now looking at everything but me. "I mean, it's not what I want to do, but there's someone else, and I think I owe it to myself—?and to you—?to figure out what it all means. You know I love you. But part of loving you is being honest with you."
The last line sounded practiced, each word too rehearsed.
"You're kidding, right?" I asked. My words echoed in my ears. My chest was tight. "We made it through your first year of college. That was supposed to be the hardest part—?you in college and me still in high school. But we did it. And I'm going to lose my virginity to you in less than four weeks."
Whit looked around, upset by my volume, probably worried that my dad would hear us through the open window.
"No," I said, anger taking over. "Don't you worry about who's listening. We've been waiting for this. You said we should hold off until you were out of the dorm and in your apartment. That's so soon. You said you were counting down the days."
He hesitated for what felt like an hour and then opened his mouth to speak.
"Wait," I interrupted, before he could respond. "How long?"
"How long what?" Whit asked, having the nerve to look irritated.
"You said you met someone else, so when? How long has this someone else been around? We've been planning for July tenth in your apartment for two months now. When you have your own room. When your roommates are away for the weekend. At what point did you meet someone else?"
Whit rubbed the back of his neck the way my dad does when he pays bills.
"Technically, I've known her all year, in my program, just as a friend. Nothing's happened; she knows I've had a girlfriend who's still in high school. But over the year, we grew closer, and I tried to set boundaries, but . . . you can't force them. We're both in these summer classes now, and we'll be together all the time. It's just harder to ignore."
I shivered, not knowing whether it was because the temperature was dropping with the sun or because I was so upset that I was experiencing some sort of arrhythmia.
Two girls who looked a few years younger than us walked past the house, singing a song I recognized from the radio. Something about the heart wanting what it wants.
"Have you had sex with her?" I asked loud enough for the girls to hear. I needed some witnesses to prove this was happening. The girls stopped walking and singing and turned to stare at Whit, waiting for an answer, pleased to be part of the drama.
"Jeez, Maya. No," he said. "I just told you—nothing's happened."
"Nothing's happened!" Whit shouted again in the direction of the girls, one of whom yelled back, "Whatever, man," before they continued on their path.
I thought of the past few weeks with Whit and whether I had missed any signs. It seemed impossible that I wouldn't see this coming.
"We love each other," I whispered, more to myself. "There's been no evidence to suggest that anything has changed."
"Evidence," Whit repeated, shaking his head. "That's part of the issue, Maya. I think on some level I'm finally admitting to myself that you and I are just too different. You breezed through calculus, even though you were the youngest person in the class. You know the exact percent chance I'll have kids with red hair. You care about metastatic tumors and . . . zebrafish, or whatever. And I love that about you. You're brilliant, Maya. But I have to admit that being with Andrea—?this other person—?it's just . . . easy. It's been kind of nice to hang out with someone who gets what I do. She and I can talk about screenplays for hours. I mean, don't you want to be with someone who gets what you do? Someone more like you?"
"No," I said, my voice strong again. "I just want you."
"You haven't even started college, Maya. You don't know what you want."
My head snapped back. He'd never been so dismissive.
I sat still and silent then and focused on the pace of my breathing while Whit explained that he had fallen for a film student named Andrea Berger. Like him, she was going to be a sophomore at Boston University. They had signed up for the same summer-session writing classes, and he was helping her make a short film. He was excited about it.
"You should go," I told him once he stopped talking, my voice flat, my legs too gelatinous to stand.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "We can talk some more if you want. I know there's a lot to say."
"No, there's not."
He nodded and rose, towering above me as I wrapped my fingers around the rusty metal railing of the stairs for support.
He didn't try to help me up.