Saturday Excerpt: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley
In her first YA novel Lies We Tell Ourselves, acclaimed author Robin Talley tackled harsh truths about race, power and love in the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights in 1959 Virginia. Robin’s new book from Harlequin TEEN, What We Left Behind, is an emotional, empowering story of what happens when love isn’t enough to conquer all. Read on to learn more about the book and an excerpt.
About What We Left Behind:
Toni and Gretchen are the couple everyone envied in high school. They’ve been together forever. They never fight. They’re deeply, hopelessly in love. When they separate for their first year at college—Toni to Harvard and Gretchen to NYU—they’re sure they’ll be fine. Where other long-distance relationships have fallen apart, their relationship will surely thrive.
The reality of being apart, however, is a lot different than they expected. As Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, falls in with a group of transgender upperclassmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship.
While Toni worries that Gretchen, who is not trans, just won’t understand what is going on, Gretchen begins to wonder where she fits in Toni’s life. As distance and Toni’s shifting gender identity begins to wear on their relationship, the couple must decide—have they grown apart for good, or is love enough to keep them together?
SUMMER BEFORE FRESHMAN YEAR OF COLLEGE 1 YEAR, 10 MONTHS TOGETHER
I still melt every time I kiss Gretchen, but it’s different now.
That first night, back at a high school dance, we barely even knew each other’s name. Now we’re about to leave for college, and we know each other inside and out.
Before I met Gretchen, I wondered if I’d ever even have a real girlfriend. It seemed impossible, once. I’d gone out with other girls, sure, but nothing had ever lasted. I didn’t think I’d actually find anyone willing to put up with me for more than a month or two.
But I still daydreamed. I’d sit there in health class, my eyes soft-focused on the whiteboard while I pictured some pretty girl and me skipping hand in hand through daisy-strewn meadows, gazing into each other’s eyes, laughing at our little inside jokes and never, ever getting tired of each other. I used to think no real relationship could be as exciting as my health-class fantasy.
What blew me away was that the reality turned out to be so much more. I never imagined that being one half of a whole could make you feel more whole all by yourself. I never dreamed I’d want to tell someone all my secrets and know their secrets, too.
But now everything’s changing. I don’t know what our lives are going to be like after tomorrow, but at least I know that no matter what happens next, we’ll always have each other.
Knowing I can count on that is the only thing holding me in one piece while I count down our last few hours together. I’m trying to act like it’s not a big deal, but as the minutes tick by it’s getting harder and harder to pretend.
“Pass me the shampoo?” Gretchen asks. I find the Target bag with four bottles of Sun-Kissed Shiny Grapefruit and hand it over.
“You know, they do have stores in Boston,” I say as Gretchen loads the bag into a suitcase. I’m sitting in Gretchen’s desk chair, one of the only surfaces in the room that’s not covered in open boxes, suitcases and laundry baskets. “You don’t have to turn your dorm room into your own personal CVS.”
“You are so funny, T.” Gretchen kisses me on the cheek and grabs a stack of socks from the dresser. “You must teach me your ways. How much shampoo are you going to pack?”
“I already packed, but I’m not bringing any shampoo. I’ll get some when I’m up there. How are you going to take all these suitcases on the plane anyway? Are your parents going to pretend your bags are theirs or something?”
Gretchen laughs. “Do you think I should bring all my shoes or just some of them? I can probably leave my cowboy boots here, right? They’ll take up so much space.”
I eye Gretchen’s closet door, still covered in photos from two years’ worth of debate tournaments. “You only own, like, two pairs of shoes. I think you should bring them all unless you want to go around barefoot.”
Gretchen sighs fake-dramatically. “I own more than two pairs of shoes.”
“Well, yeah, I guess there’s three if you count your sneakers and your Birkenstocks.”
Gretchen laughs again, even though it’s the oldest joke there is. For the last two years of high school Gretchen wore Birks every day unless it was raining or snowing. On those days, the sneakers came out. Gretchen always looked totally out of place in hallways filled with girls in designer ballet flats or chic dress code-friendly one-inch heels.
Not that any of it ever stopped Gretchen from becoming absurdly popular. That part was pretty much guaranteed from the first fateful Homecoming dance on. When you make that much of a stir before it’s even your first day of school, you’re going to amass a sizeable crew of devotees.
Which I guess meant I wound up being kind of popular, too. Walking down the hall holding hands with Gretchen every day was enough to make anyone feel like a celebrity. Winning that fight with the school administration junior year didn’t hurt, either. The blue plaid pants I finally got to wear looked ridiculous, like old-man golf pants, but it was such a relief to be out of those stupid skirts I’d been wearing since kindergarten.
Every time I walked down the hall wearing my old-man golf pants with my gorgeous girlfriend by my side—every single day felt like that night at the dance. Ever since Gretchen came here, it felt like I could finally be—well—me.
Now it’s all over. High school. Everything about the life I’ve had here. The bad parts and the good.
I watch Gretchen pack, dressed in an old pair of cutoff shorts and a tank top, blond hair hanging loose and messy, perpetual smile firmly in place.
Gretchen is definitely one of the good parts. Gretchen’s the good part.
I can’t keep pretending.
“I’m going to miss you.” I don’t mean to say it. The truth just sort of spills out of me. “So much.”
Gretchen turns around, face falling. Right away I feel bad. I hate making Gretchen look like that.
It’s been happening more and more lately. All summer we’ve been making plans, looking up our roommates online and studying the Boston T map and talking about what it’s going to be like to be on our own, but over the past week or so, Gretchen’s gotten a lot quieter. I think it’s only just started hitting home for both of us how big a change this is going to be.
“I mean,” I go on, trying to act nonchalant, “I know we aren’t going to be that far apart in the geographical sense, but it just feels like I need to see you every day, you know? This is going to be so hard. I actually kind of can’t deal when I think about how hard it’s going to be.”
“I know.” Gretchen puts down the socks and draws me into a hug. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry.” I squeeze tighter. I love the way Gretchen feels in my arms.
I can’t wait any longer.
“Hey,” I say, still trying to make my voice sound breezy. “You know how I snuck off at Target while you were in the toothpaste aisle?”
“Yeah.” Gretchen pulls back. “I figured you were buying something embarrassing. I saw you checking out that box set of Pretty Little Liars.”
“Well, yeah. You know I always had that thing for Emily. That wasn’t why I snuck off, though.”
“So why did you?”
Gretchen’s leaning against the hand-me-down dresser, the sad expression from before replaced by the smile we both get whenever we play this game. The I-have-a-secret-and-I-can’t-wait-to-tell-you game.
“Close your eyes,” I order.
“Now promise not to laugh,” I say.
“T! You know I can’t promise that. I always laugh, even when it’s not funny. I’m already laughing now just standing here!”
“Okay, but you have to promise not to laugh with malicious intent.”
“I swear I won’t laugh with malicious intent! Can I please open my eyes?”
I stand up and pull the tiny bag out of my pocket. “Okay.”
Eyes open, Gretchen looks inside the bag, then claps and laughs. “This is perfect! You really got this while I was picking out my Aquafresh?”
“Yep.” I grin and pull out another bag. When Gretchen gets happy like this, especially when it’s because of something I did, I always turn into a giant, embarrassing, grinning goof. “I got one for me, too.”
“Aww. You are such a sap! I love it!” Gretchen hugs me again. “That was such a fantastic night, remember?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
The Target has a kiosk where you can get jewelry engraved. I got us each a silver disk on a leather cord. Gretchen’s disk has a top hat in the center. Mine has a bare footprint.
When we leave tomorrow, Gretchen and I will be apart for the first time. We’ll be in the same city, but at different schools—Gretchen at Boston University, me at Harvard. We’ll only be able to see each other on weekends. Maybe the occasional weekday if we’re up for trekking across the city.
I wanted us to have something solid we could look at. Something to hold in our hands when we couldn’t hold each other. Something to remind us both of where we started out. Not that there’s any way we could forget.
“This is so insanely sweet,” Gretchen says. “I should’ve gotten you a present, too.”
“No, you shouldn’t. Don’t be crazy. It only occurred to me when I saw the kiosk.”
“Toni. Tell the truth.”
“Okay, I’ve been thinking about it for months.” We both laugh. “If you want, you can always pay my mom back for the twelve ninety-five I put on the credit card.”
“Your mom can afford it.” We laugh again, and Gretchen’s arms link behind my neck. I’m still freaked about tomorrow, but touching Gretchen helps. Touching Gretchen always helps.
“Thank you,” Gretchen says. “Really.”
“You’re welcome, really.”
Have you ever wanted to breathe someone in until they become part of you and never let them go? That’s what kissing Gretchen is like.
Maybe that’s how it is for everyone when they kiss someone they really love. I don’t know.
We break away and Gretchen goes over to the closet, where most of the clothes are still hanging.
“Hey, so, there was something I wanted to talk to you about,” Gretchen says, grabbing a bunch of pants still on their hangers and tossing them into an open suitcase. I wince at the thought of the wrinkles. “It’s kind of, um, a thing.”
“What’s up?” I sit on the edge of the bed to watch Gretchen pack.
“Well, it’s just that—”
Gretchen’s phone buzzes. That’s the third time in the past five minutes.
“Who keeps texting you?” I ask.
“Uh.” Gretchen glances down at the screen. “Well. If I tell you something, will you promise not to get mad?” I laugh. “You know that’s never a good way to start, babe.”
Gretchen puts on a mock-innocent expression I’ve seen many times before. There’s no way not to smile at it.
“It’s possible” Gretchen says, “that I told Chris and Audrey they could come over and help us pack tonight.”
“Why?” I can hear the whine in my voice. It’s our last night together.
“They were asking when they could say goodbye,” Gretchen tells me. “This was the last chance. I said they can’t stay long. Chris tried to make a stink about it, but I told him he’d just have to deal.”
I roll my eyes, but I can’t really complain. Chris is my best friend, and Audrey is my little sister. I’ll see Gretchen every week once we leave for school, but I’m not going to see Chris or Audrey until Thanksgiving. If I come home for Thanksgiving.
“It’ll be fun,” Gretchen says. “We can hang out on our own after. Don’t worry.”
I cross the room, loop my arms around Gretchen’s waist and kiss the back of Gretchen’s neck, provoking a round of giggles.
“I never worry about anything when you’re around,” I say. “How long until they get here?”
“Half an hour, maybe?”
We both smile. Then we start making out.
It’ll be a while before we get another chance, after all. At least a week. The last time I went a week without seeing Gretchen was when my family went to a resort in the Dominican Republic. I was so lonely. Plus I kept feeling guilty about the exploited workers who handed me fresh towels every morning. For the first two days I texted Gretchen every other minute. Then my sister told me to put the phone down already because I was embarrassingly whipped.
I guess we lose track of time, because we’re still kissing when the front door slams.
“Crap.” Gretchen scampers off the bed. I go over to the mirror to check my hair. It’s all mussed. I try to smooth it back, but it’s a lost cause.
Gretchen’s mom opens the bedroom door without knocking, coming in with a bright smile and a long glance around the room. The rule in Gretchen’s house, which we tend to break a lot, is that we can hang out as much as we want but we’re supposed to leave the door open. Gretchen’s parents are keeping up the pretense that all we do is hold hands. It’s kind of cute, actually. My parents prefer to believe Gretchen and I don’t even do that much.
“How’s the packing going, girls?” Gretchen’s mom asks. I bristle at the “girls” thing, but I try not to let them see.
“It’s going great!” Gretchen smiles.
My annoyance slides away. Gretchen’s smile beams out so much happiness, so much warmth, that sometimes I can barely stand it. I gaze at Gretchen’s bright, open face and wonder for the trillionth time how I ever got this lucky.
Gretchen’s mom steps aside, and Audrey and Chris poke their heads into the room. Chris is grinning big, but my sister looks pouty. Audrey just turned sixteen and doesn’t have a driver’s license yet, so Chris must’ve stopped by our house to play chauffeur.
“Him!” Gretchen sweeps forward and grabs them both into a three-way hug. I’m not a hugger, so I stay where I am.
I’m going to miss them, though. My friends. My sister.
Even Gretchen’s parents, who have always been really nice to me.
It’s not that I won’t ever see any of them again. They’ll be around when I come back for breaks. Except that coming home for breaks also means seeing my mother again.
My mother, who still calls me Antonia, no matter how many times I say I hate that stupid girlie name.
My mother, who hasn’t allowed me to get a yearbook photo taken since I turned twelve and finally cut my hair supershort, the way I’d always wanted to.
My mother, who’d pretended the whole threatening-to-sue-the-school thing wasn’t happening junior year, except to walk around the house muttering about how no daughter of hers should want to go to school looking like a freak show.
Maybe I should find some excuse to stay on campus for every break over the next four years. After all, it’s not like I need to come back to Maryland to see Gretchen.
Audrey, though… I’d hate to leave my sister in that house alone for good.
* * *
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