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Along for the Ride

Sarah Dessen

  Right after I had my daughter, I often found myself up at all hours as I fed and soothed her, seeing parts of the day that I’d only ever slept through before. Sometimes, at three or four a.m., I’d look out the window and see a porch light, or a car going by, and wonder who else was up, and what their reasons were. I hadn’t planned to write a book anytime soon. But before I even knew what was happening, a story began to come together, so when I could carve out a moment here or there, I’d sit down to tell it.

  To me, Along for the Ride is a book about second chances, and how with family, friends, and even in love, it can take more than one try to get it right. It’s also about summer, and coffee, and bicycles, and babies – and that’s only part of it. Suffice to say that the title fits: it’s not only a story, but an experience as well. I hope you enjoy the ride.

  Happy reading!

  Read her once and fall in love

  Books by Sarah Dessen






  Sarah Dessen



  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3

  (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

  Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)

  Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia

  (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)

  Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi – 110 017, India

  Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand

  (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)

  Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank,

  Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published in the USA by Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2009

  This edition published in Great Britain by Penguin Books 2010

  Text copyright © Sarah Dessen, 2009

  All rights reserved

  The moral right of the author has been asserted

  Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

  ISBN: 978-0-14-195740-1


  Chapter ONE

  Chapter TWO

  Chapter THREE

  Chapter FOUR

  Chapter FIVE

  Chapter SIX

  Chapter SEVEN

  Chapter EIGHT

  Chapter NINE

  Chapter TEN

  Chapter ELEVEN

  Chapter TWELVE

  Chapter THIRTEEN

  Chapter FOURTEEN

  Chapter FIFTEEN

  Chapter SIXTEEN


  Chapter EIGHTEEN

  Chapter NINETEEN

  For my mother, Cynthia Dessen, for helping me to learn

  almost everything I know about being a girl

  and my daughter, Sasha Clementine,

  who is teaching me the rest



  The e-mails always began the same way.

  Hi Auden!!

  It was the extra exclamation point that got me. My mother would call it extraneous, overblown, exuberant. To me, it was simply annoying, just like everything else about my stepmother, Heidi.

  I hope you’re having a great last few weeks of classes. We are all good here! Just finishing things up before your sister-to-be arrives. She’s been kicking like crazy lately. It’s like she’s doing the karate moves in there! I’ve been busy minding the store (so to speak) and putting the final touches on the nursery. I’ve done it all in pink and brown; it’s gorgeous. I’ll attach a picture so you can see it.

  Your dad is busy as always, working on his book. I figure I’ll see more of him burning the midnight oil when I’m up with the baby!

  I really hope you’ll consider coming to visit us once you’re done with school. It would be so much fun, and make this summer that much more special for all of us. Just come anytime. We’d love to see you!


  Heidi (and your dad, and the baby-to-be!)

  Just reading these missives exhausted me. Partially it was the excited grammar – which was like someone yelling in your ear – but also just Heidi herself. She was just so… extraneous, overblown, exuberant. And annoying. All the things she’d been to me, and more, since she and my dad got involved, pregnant, and married in the last year.

  My mother claimed not to be surprised. Ever since the divorce, she’d been predicting it would not be long before my dad, as she put it, ‘shacked up with some coed’. At twenty-six, Heidi was the same age my mother had been when she had my brother, Hollis, followed by me two years later, although they could not be more different. Where my mother was an academic scholar with a smart, sharp wit and a nationwide reputation as an expert on women’s roles in Renaissance literature, Heidi was… well, Heidi. The kind of woman whose strengths were her constant self-maintenance (pedicures, manicures, hair highlights), knowing everything you never wanted to about hemlines and shoes, and sending entirely too chatty e-mails to people who couldn’t care less.

  Their courtship was quick, the implantation (as my mother christened it) happening within a couple of months. Just like that, my father went from what he’d been for years – husband of Dr. Victoria West and author of one well-received novel, now more known for his interdepartmental feuds than his long-in-progress follow-up – to a new husband and father-to-be. Add all this to his also-new position as head of the creative writing department at Weymar College, a small school in a beachfront town, and it was like my dad had a whole new life. And even though they were always inviting me to come, I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out if there was still a place for me in it.

  Now, from the other room, I heard a sudden burst of laughter, followed by some clinking of glasses. My mother was hosting another of her graduate student get-togethers, which always began as formal dinners (‘Culture is so lacking in this culture!’ she said) before inevitably deteriorating into loud, drunken debates about literature and theory. I glanced at the clock – ten thirty – then eased my bedroom door open with my toe, glancing down the long hallway to the kitchen. Sure enough, I could see my mom sitting at the head of our big butcher-block kitchen table, a glass of red wine in one hand. Gathered around her, as usual, were a bunch of male graduate students, looking on adoringly as she went on about, from the little bit I could gather, Marlowe and the culture of women.

  This was yet another of the many fascinating contradictions about my mom. She was an expert on women in literature but didn’t much like them in practice. Partly, it was because so many of them were jealous: of her intelligence (practically Mensa level), her scholarship (four books, countless articles, one endowed chair), or her looks (tall and curvy with very long jet-black hair she usually wore loose and wild, the only out-of-control thing about her). For these reasons, and others, female students seldom came to
these gatherings, and if they did, they rarely returned.

  ‘Dr. West,’ one of the students – typically scruffy, in a cheap-looking blazer, shaggy hair, and hip-nerdy black eyeglasses – said now, ‘you should really consider developing that idea into an article. It’s fascinating.’

  I watched my mother take a sip of her wine, pushing her hair back smoothly with one hand. ‘Oh, God no,’ she said, in her deep, raspy voice (she sounded like a smoker, although she’d never taken a drag in her life). ‘I barely even have time to write my book right now, and that, at least, I’m getting paid for. If you can call it payment.’

  More complimentary laughter. My mother loved to complain about how little she got paid for her books – all academic, published by university presses – while what she termed ‘inane housewife stories’ pulled in big bucks. In my mother’s world, everyone would tote the collected works of Shakespeare to the beach, with maybe a couple of epic poems thrown in on the side.

  ‘Still,’ Nerdy Eyeglasses said, pushing on, ‘it’s a brilliant idea. I could, um, coauthor it with you, if you like.’

  My mother lifted her head and her glass, narrowing her eyes at him as a silence fell. ‘Oh, my,’ she said, ‘how very sweet of you. But I don’t do coauthorship, for the same reason I don’t do office mates or relationships. I’m just too selfish.’

  I could see Nerdy Eyeglasses gulp, even from my long vantage point, his face flushing as he reached for the wine bottle, trying to cover. Idiot, I thought, nudging the door back shut. As if it was that easy to align yourself with my mom, form some quick and tight bond that would last. I would know.

  Ten minutes later, I was slipping out the side door, my shoes tucked under my arm, and getting into my car. I drove down the mostly empty streets, past quiet neighborhoods and dark storefronts, until the lights of Ray’s Diner appeared in the distance. Small, with entirely too much neon, and tables that were always a bit sticky, Ray’s was the only place in town open twenty-four hours, 365 days a year. Since I hadn’t been sleeping, I’d spent more nights than not in a booth there, reading or studying, tipping a buck every hour on whatever I ordered until the sun came up.

  The insomnia started when my parents’ marriage began to fall apart three years earlier. I shouldn’t have been surprised: their union had been tumultuous for as long as I could remember, although they were usually arguing more about work than about each other.

  They’d originally come to the U straight out of grad school, when my dad was offered an assistant professorship there. At the time, he’d just found a publisher for his first novel, The Narwhal Horn, while my mom was pregnant with my brother and trying to finish her dissertation. Fast-forward four years, to my birth, and my dad, riding a wave of critical and commercial success – NYT best-seller list, National Book Award nominee – was heading up the creative writing program, while my mom was, as she liked to put it, ‘lost in a sea of diapers and self-doubt’. When I entered kindergarten, though, my mom came back to academia with a vengeance, scoring a visiting lectureship and a publisher for her dissertation. Over time, she became one of the most popular professors in the department, was hired on for a full-time position, and banged out a second, then a third book, all while my father looked on. He claimed to be proud, always making jokes about her being his meal ticket, the breadwinner of the family. But then my mother got her endowed chair, which was very prestigious, and he got dropped from his publisher, which wasn’t, and things started to get ugly.

  The fights always seemed to begin over dinner, with one of them making some small remark and the other taking offense. There would be a small dustup – sharp words, a banged pot lid – but then it would seem resolved… at least until about ten or eleven, when suddenly I’d hear them start in again about the same issue. After a while I figured out that this time lag occurred because they were waiting for me to fall asleep before really going at it. So I decided, one night, not to. I left my door open, my light on, took pointed, obvious trips to the bathroom, washing my hands as loudly as possible. And for a while, it worked. Until it didn’t, and the fights started up again. But by then my body was used to staying up way late, which meant I was now awake for every single word.

  I knew a lot of people whose parents had split up, and everyone seemed to handle it differently: complete surprise, crushing disappointment, total relief. The common denominator, though, was always that there was a lot of discussion about these feelings, either with both parents, or one on one separately, or with a shrink in group or individual therapy. My family, of course, had to be the exception. I did get the sit-down-we-have-to-tell-you-something moment. The news was delivered by my mother, across the kitchen table as my dad leaned against a nearby counter, fiddling with his hands and looking tired. ‘Your father and I are separating,’ she informed me, with the same flat, businesslike tone I’d so often heard her use with students as she critiqued their work. ‘I’m sure you’ll agree this is the best thing for all of us.’

  Hearing this, I wasn’t sure what I felt. Not relief, not crushing disappointment, and again, it wasn’t a surprise. What struck me, as we sat there, the three of us, in that room, was how little I felt. Small, like a child. Which was the weirdest thing. Like it took this huge moment for a sudden wave of childhood to wash over me, long overdue.

  I’d been a child, of course. But by the time I came along, my brother – the most colicky of babies, a hyperactive toddler, a ‘spirited’ (read ‘impossible’) kid – had worn my parents out. He was still exhausting them, albeit from another continent, wandering around Europe and sending only the occasional e-mail detailing yet another epiphany concerning what he should do with his life, followed by a request for more money to put it into action. At least his being abroad made all this seem more nomadic and artistic: now my parents could tell their friends Hollis was hanging out at the Eiffel Tower smoking cigarettes, instead of at the Quik Zip. It just sounded better.

  If Hollis was a big kid, I was the little adult, the child who, at three, would sit at the table during grown-up discussions about literature and color my coloring books, not making a peep. Who learned to entertain myself at a very early age, who was obsessive about school and grades from kindergarten, because academia was the one thing that always got my parents’ attention. ‘Oh, don’t worry,’ my mother would say, when one of their guests would slip with the F-word or something equally grown-up in front of me. ‘Auden’s very mature for her age.’ And I was, whether that age was two or four or seventeen. While Hollis required constant supervision, I was the one who got carted everywhere, constantly flowing in my mom’s or dad’s wake. They took me to the symphony, art shows, academic conferences, committee meetings, where I was expected to be seen and not heard. There was not a lot of time for playing or toys, although I never wanted for books, which were always in ample supply.

  Because of this upbringing, I had kind of a hard time relating to other kids my age. I didn’t understand their craziness, their energy, the rambunctious way they tossed around couch cushions, say, or rode their bikes wildly around culs-de-sac. It did look sort of fun, but at the same time, it was so different from what I was used to that I couldn’t imagine how I would ever partake if given the chance. Which I wasn’t, as the cushion-tossers and wild bike riders didn’t usually attend the highly academic, grade-accelerated private schools my parents favored.

  In the past four years, in fact, I’d switched schools three times. I’d lasted at Jackson High for only a couple of weeks before my mom, having spotted a misspelling and a grammatical error on my English syllabus, moved me to Perkins Day, a local private school. It was smaller and more academically rigorous, although not nearly as much as Kiffney-Brown, the charter school to which I transferred in junior year. Founded by several former local professors, it was elite – a hundred students, max – and emphasized very small classes and a strong connection to the local university, where you could take college-level courses for early credit. While I had a few friends at Kiffney-Brown, the ultracom
petitive atmosphere, paired with so much of the curriculum being self-guided, made getting close to them somewhat difficult.

  Not that I really cared. School was my solace, and studying let me escape, allowing me to live a thousand vicarious lives. The more my parents bemoaned Hollis’s lack of initiative and terrible grades, the harder I worked. And while they were proud of me, my accomplishments never seemed to get me what I really wanted. I was such a smart kid, I should have figured out that the only way to really get my parents’ attention was to disappoint them or fail. But by the time I finally realized that, succeeding was already a habit too ingrained to break.

  My dad moved out at the beginning of my sophomore year, renting a furnished apartment right near campus in a complex mostly populated by students. I was supposed to spend every weekend there, but he was in such a funk – still struggling with his second book, his publication (or lack of it) called into question just as my mom’s was getting so much attention – that it wasn’t exactly enjoyable. Then again, my mom’s house wasn’t much better, as she was so busy celebrating her newfound single life and academic success that she had people over all the time, students coming and going, dinner parties every weekend. It seemed like there was no middle ground anywhere, except at Ray’s Diner.

  I’d driven past it a million times but had never thought of stopping until one night when I was heading back to my mom’s around two A.M. My dad, like my mom, didn’t really keep close tabs on me. Because of my school schedule – one night class, flexible daytime seminar hours, and several independent studies – I came and went as I pleased, with little or no questioning, so neither of them really noticed that I wasn’t sleeping. That night, I glanced in at Ray’s, and something about it just struck me. It looked warm, safe almost, populated by people who at least I had one thing in common with. So I pulled in, went inside, and ordered a cup of coffee and some apple pie. I stayed until sunrise.