You Asked for Perfect(2)

“This is true.” She grins at me.

My best friend is beautiful, warm eyes and smooth skin. She’s chubby, her soft white shirt hugging her stomach, and her nails are coated in pink polish. She flips her hair over her shoulder and puts the car into drive.

I groan in comfort as I sink down into her leather bucket seats. Sook’s car costs more than the ones my parents drive combined, and I’m not complaining. She drives me to school every morning since there aren’t enough parking spots for all the students. I open CalcU, an app with practice problems and tutorials. My eyes run over the formulas.

“Test today?” Sook asks.

“Nah, calc quiz,” I say. “What about you?”

“I don’t think so?” She shrugs. “I left my planner at school, so I might be forgetting something.”

Sook and I have been best friends since sixth grade, when we were placed on the same advanced math track. Back then, she went by her full Korean name, Eun-Sook.

We were “precocious little kids” according to my dad (“bratty little shits” if you ask Sook). We bonded over our mutual drive to be the smartest kids in the class, but these days Sook cares more about her band, Dizzy Daisies, than her grades.

“Oh my god,” Sook says, turning up the volume. “You’ve got to listen to this song.”

A gentle acoustic intro builds up to a harder, defiant sound as the drums enter. I nod along. “Pretty good.”

“Pretty good? Try incredible. The band is called Carousels, and their lead singer Clarissa is a genius. And also basically the hottest person. Like, absurdly hot. I want to be her, and I want to be with her.”

I laugh. “Good luck with that. Where does she live? How old is she?”

“She’s a freshman at the University of Georgia, so only a couple of hours away. Hey, you never know.” She turns up the volume more. “God, her voice is everything.”

“It is,” I agree. Clarissa’s voice is grit and fluidity all at once. I glance back at the CalcU app and pick a walk-through problem.

“Maybe we could road-trip to Athens, go see one of her shows,” Sook says.

I narrow my eyes. But wait, why would the equation…

“What do you think?” Sook asks.

“Yeah,” I say, eyes on my phone. “Maybe.”


Ten minutes later, I’m walking into class.

“Morning, Ariel,” Pari says, as I slide into my seat in the back row. She spins in her desk to talk to me, eyes bright. Her dark hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and she’s wearing leggings and an orchestra T-shirt.

Pari Shah is my sworn enemy. Okay, not really. We’re actually friends. But for years we’ve been competing for both first chair violin and the valedictorian spot. I won the chair, and it looks like I’ll also be valedictorian.

At Etta Fields High School, becoming valedictorian is more complicated than perfect grades. We have weighted GPAs, so we earn extra points for AP courses, a 5.0 instead of a 4.0 for an A. The path to the top depends not only on the grades but also on signing up for the right classes.

I edged out ahead of Pari last year when I discovered I could sign up for online AP computer science. It was a monster of a class, but because my high school counts online course grades into our GPAs, it gave me the extra weight to outstrip Pari. I didn’t tell her about the class until the registration deadline passed. Vicious. But I’m sure she would’ve done the same. We both knew one of us would have to win eventually. I’m not going to apologize for being the one to come out on top.

“How’s it going?” she asks.

I nod. “Pretty good. You?”

“Good! Well, mostly. I forgot about the quiz until this morning.” She laughs. “I guess I have senioritis after all.”

“Hah, yeah,” I say. “It gets to all of us.”

But I eye her with skepticism. There’s this thing some AP kids do. We act like we don’t care, like those perfect grades appear without effort. We pretend to study only in the five minutes before class, and we shrug our shoulders when teachers hand back tests with As scrawled across the top.

But we also make sure to keep those tests flipped up on our desks, so everyone can see how smart we are and just how naturally it comes.

In a way, it started in truth. I used to get good grades with minimal effort. And I bought into the hype, thought I was awesome. But then the AP classes stacked up. And as the work pressed down on me, I saw through my own bullshit. No one just gets As in all their classes. It’s a lie we were telling each other and ourselves.

Pari sneezes, a tiny sneeze. It’s kind of cute. I’ve always thought she was attractive: petite with warm brown skin and quick with a sly comment. But even though I’m attracted to guys and girls, I could never date Pari. She’s too similar to me. Too competitive. Too calculating. And I have zero interest in dating myself.

“Gesundheit,” I say.

She smiles. “Thanks.”

The bell rings. Our teacher Mr. Eller enters the room. Amir Naeem walks in right behind him. Our eyes connect for a second as he heads to the back row and slides into the desk next to mine. I was surprised he picked this spot on the first day of class, but it is the closest to the window.

I’ve known Amir forever. Our little sisters are best friends, so I’ve spent countless family dinners and holidays with him, but we’ve never clicked. When our families are together, he sits in silence, scrolling on his phone. And he carries his camera everywhere, like the world will end if he doesn’t capture a shot of a scavenging bird in the courtyard. Also he only dates older guys. He probably thinks the ones in our grade aren’t cool enough for him.

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