Last year, Julie Buxbaum made a splash in the kid lit scene with her young adult debut, Tell Me Three Things, a poignant ode to high school friendship and first love told through the lens of a heartbroken girl grieving the death of her mother. Buxbaum understands that books have the power to help readers heal from loss, and she tackles the subject once again in her newest novel, What To Say Next, out in July 2017. This time, the story is told through the perspective of a girl who no longer feels at peace in the world she's built for herself.
Kit Lowell and David Drucker couldn't be more different. Kit is smart and relatively popular; David is also smart but definitely not popular. In fact, he could be best described as a "social outcast." But despite their different personalities and high school standings, the two strike up an unusual friendship after the death of Kit's father. David's blunt honesty is exactly what Kit needs to properly grieve the loss of her father, and slowly, a relationship starts to blossom from their candid exchanges. But Kit is determined to discover the truth of the car accident that killed her father, and she asks David to help her. What Kit doesn't expect is that the truth could destroy their friendship forever.
What To Say Next is available for pre-order now, and will be available wherever books are sold on July 11, 2017. Bustle is proud to present a sneak-peek of the new novel — see the brand new cover and read the first two chapters below. Be sure to tell Julie Buxbaum what you think on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Chapter One: David
An unprecedented event: Kit Lowell just sat down next to me in the cafeteria. I always sit alone, and when I say always, I don’t mean that in the exaggerated vernacular favored by my classmates. In the 622 days I’ve attended this high school, not a single person has ever sat beside me at lunch, which is what justifies my calling her sitting there—so close that her elbow almost grazes mine—an “event.” My first instinct is to reach for my notebook and look up her entry. Under K for Kit, not under L for Lowell, because though I’m good with facts and scholarly pursuits, I’m terrible with names. Partly this is because names are random words completely devoid of con- text, and partly this is because I believe names rarely fit the people they belong to, which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense. Parents name their child at a time when they have the absolute least amount of information they will ever have about the person they are naming. The whole practice is illogical.
In the 622 days I’ve attended this high school, not a single person has ever sat beside me at lunch, which is what justifies my calling her sitting there—so close that her elbow almost grazes mine—an “event.”
Take Kit, for example, which is not actually her name, her name is Katherine, but I have never heard anyone call her Katherine, even in elementary school. Kit doesn’t in any way look like a Kit, which is a name for someone who is boxy and stiff and easily understandable with step-by-step instructions. Instead the name of the girl sitting next to me should have a Z in it, because she’s confusing and zigzagged and pops up in surprising places — like at my lunch table — and maybe the number eight, because she’s hourglass-shaped, and the letter S too, because it’s my favorite. I like Kit because she’s never been mean to me, which is not something I can say about the vast majority of my classmates. It’s a shame her parents got her name all wrong.
I’m a David, which also doesn’t work, because there are lots of Davids in the world — at last check 3,786,417 of them in the United States alone — and so by virtue of my first name, one would assume I’d be like lots of other people. Or, at the very least, relatively neurotypical, which is a scientific, less offensive way of saying normal. That hasn’t been the case. At school, no one calls me anything, except the occasional homo or moron, neither of which is in any way accurate — my IQ is 168 and I’m attracted to girls, not boys. Also, homo is a pejorative term for a gay person, and even if my classmates are mistaken about my sexual orientation, they should know better than to use that word. At home my mom calls me son — which I have no problem with because it’s true — my dad calls me David, which feels like an itchy sweater with a too-tight neck, and my sister calls me Little D, which for some inexplicable reason fits just right, even though I’m not even a little bit little. I’m six foot two and 165 pounds. My sister is five foot three and 105 pounds. I should call her Little L, for Little Lauren, but I don’t. I call her Miney, which is what I’ve been calling her since I was a baby, because she’s always felt like the only thing in a confusing world that belongs to me.
Miney is away at college, and I miss her. She’s my best friend — technically speaking, my only friend — but I feel like even if I had friends, she’d still be my best one. So far she’s the only person I’ve ever known who has helped make being me a little less hard.
She’s my best friend — technically speaking, my only friend — but I feel like even if I had friends, she’d still be my best one.
By now you’ve probably realized I’m different. It usually doesn’t take people very long to figure that out. One doctor thought I might have a “borderline case of Asperger’s,” which is stupid, because you can’t have a borderline case of Asperger’s. Actually, you can’t really have Asperger’s at all anymore, because it was written out of the DSM-5 (the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in 2013, and instead people with that group of characteristics are considered to have high-functioning autism (or HFA), which is also misleading. The autism spectrum is multidimensional, not linear. The doctor was obviously an idiot.
Out of curiosity, I’ve done my own reading in this area (I bought a used DSM-4 on eBay; the 5 was too pricey), and though I lack the necessary medical training required to make a full diagnostic assessment, I don’t believe the label applies to me.
Yes, I can get myself into trouble in social situations; I like order and routine; when I’m interested in something, I can be hyperfocused to the exclusion of other activities; and, fine, I am clumsy. But when I have to, I can make eye contact. I don’t flinch if you touch me. I tend to recognize most idioms, though I keep a running list in my notebook just in case. I like to think I’m empathetic, but I don’t know if that’s true.
I’m not sure it really matters if I have Asperger’s, anyway, especially because it no longer exists. It’s just another label. Take the word jock. If enough psychiatrists wanted to, they could add that to the DSM and diagnose all the guys on the Mapleview football team. Characteristics would include at least two of the following: (1) athleticism, especially while wearing spandex, (2) unnatural ease with the concept of strapping a hard cup around your penis, (3) being an asshole. It doesn’t matter whether you call me an Aspie or a weirdo or even a moron. The fact remains that I very much wish I were more like everyone else. Not the jocks, necessarily. I don’t want to be the kind of guy who gives kids like me a hard time. But if I got the chance to make some sort of cosmic upgrade—switch David 1.0 to a 2.0 version who understood what to say in day-to-day conversation—I’d do it in an instant.
Maybe when parents name their children they do it from the perspective of wishful thinking. Like when you go to a restaurant and ask for a rare steak, and even though there is no universally agreed definition of the word rare, you hope you get exactly what you want.
My mom and dad ordered a David. They got me instead. In my notebook:
KIT LOWELL: Height: 5 ' 4". Weight: Approximately 125 lbs. Wavy brown hair, pulled into a ponytail on test days, rainy days, and most Mondays. Skin is brownish, because her dad—a dentist—is white and her mom is Indian (Southeast Asian, not Native American). Class ranking: 14. Activities: school newspaper, Spanish Club, Pep Club.
1. Third grade: Stopped Justin Cho from giving me a wedgie.
2. Sixth grade: Made me a valentine. (Note: KL made all the boys valentines, not just me. But still. It was nice. Except for the glitter. Because glitter is uncontainable and has sticky properties, and I generally don’t like uncontainable and sticky things.)
3. Eighth grade: After math class, she asked what I got on my math test. I said: 100. She said: Wow, you must have studied hard. I said: No, quadratic equations are easy. She said: Um, okay. (Later, when I reenacted the conversation for Miney, she told me that I should have said that I had studied, even if that meant lying. I’m not a very good liar.)
4. Tenth grade: Kit smiled at me when only our two names were announced as National Merit semifinalists on the loudspeaker. I was going to say “Congratulations,” but Justin Cho said “Damn, girl!” first and gave Kit a hug. And then she wasn’t looking at me anymore.
1. On cold days, she stretches her sleeves to cover her whole hands instead of wearing gloves.
2. Her hair isn’t curly, but it isn’t straight either. It hangs in repetitive, alternating commas.
3. She’s the prettiest girl in school.
4. She sits crisscross-applesauce on almost all chairs, even narrow ones.
5. She has a faint scar next to her left eyebrow that looks almost like a Z. I once asked Miney if she thought I’d ever be able to touch that scar, because I’m curious what it feels like, and Miney said, “Sorry, Little D. But as the Magic 8 Ball says: My Sources Say No.”
6. She drives a red Toyota Corolla, license plate XHD893.
Almost everyone, but mostly hangs out with Annie, Violet, and sometimes Dylan (the Girl Dylan, not the Boy Dylan). Common characteristics of friend group, with the exception of Kit, include flat-ironed hair, minor acne, and larger than average breasts. For five school days last year, Kit walked the halls holding hands with Gabriel, only occasionally stopping to make out, but now they don’t do that anymore. I don’t like Gabriel.
Additional Notes: Nice. Miney puts her on the Trust List. I second.
Of course I don’t open the notebook in front of her. Even I know better than that. But I do touch its spine, because having it nearby makes me feel less anxious. The notebook was Miney’s idea. Back in middle school, after the Locker Room Incident, which is irrelevant to this discussion, Miney decided I was too trusting. Apparently, unlike me, when most people talk they aren’t necessarily telling the truth. See for example the Test Lie suggested above. Why lie about whether I studied for a test? Ridiculous. Quadratic equations are easy. That’s just a fact.
“So your dad is dead,” I say, because it’s the first thing that pops into my head when she sits down. This is new information that I have not yet added to her notebook entry, only because I just found out. I’m usually the last to know things about my classmates, if I ever learn about them at all. But Annie and Violet were talking about Kit at Violet’s locker this morning, which happens to be above mine. According to Annie, “Kit’s been, like, a total mess since the whole thing with her dad, and I know it’s been hard and whatever, but she’s kind of being, I don’t know, mean.” I don’t usually listen to the other kids at school — most of what they have to say is boring and feels like bad background music, something clanky and harsh, heavy metal, maybe — but for some reason this seeped through. Then they started talking about the funeral, how it was weird that they cried more than Kit, that it’s not healthy for her to keep things bottled up inside, which is a ridiculous thing to say because feelings don’t have mass, and also they are not doctors.
I would have liked to go to Kit’s dad’s funeral, if only because he was also on my Nice List, and I assume when some- one on your Nice List dies, you should go to their funeral. Kit’s dad, Dr. Lowell is — was — my dentist, and he never complained about my noise-canceling headphones getting in the way of his drill. He always gave me a red lollipop after a cleaning, which seems counterintuitive and yet was always appreciated.
I look at Kit. She doesn’t look messy — in fact, she seems better groomed than usual and is wearing a man’s white button-down shirt that looks recently ironed. Her cheeks are pink, and her eyes are a little wet, and I turn away because she is breathtakingly beautiful and therefore very hard to look at.
“I wish someone had told me, because I would have gone to his funeral. He used to give me lollipops,” I say. Kit stares straight ahead, doesn’t respond. I take this to mean I should keep talking. “I don’t believe in heaven. I’m with Richard Dawkins on that one. I think it’s something people tell themselves to make the finality of death less scary. At the very least, it seems highly unlikely to me in the angels-and-white-cloud iteration you hear about. Do you believe in heaven?” I ask. Kit takes a bite of her sandwich, still doesn’t turn her head. “I doubt it, because you are a highly intelligent person.”
“No offense or anything, but would you mind if we didn’t talk?” she asks. I’m pretty sure this is not a question she wants me to answer, but I do anyway. Miney has put the expression no offense on the Be Wary List. Apparently bad things usually follow.
“I’d prefer it, actually. But I’d like to say just one last thing: Your dad shouldn’t have died. That’s really unfair.”
Kit nods, and the commas of her hair shake.
“I’d prefer it, actually. But I’d like to say just one last thing: Your dad shouldn’t have died. That’s really unfair.”
“Yup,” she says. And then we eat the rest of our sandwiches — mine peanut butter and jelly since it’s Monday — in silence.
But good silence. I think.
Chapter Two: Kit
I don’t really know why I decide not to sit with Annie and Violet at lunch. I can feel their eyes on me when I pass right by our usual table, which is at the front of the caf, the perfect table because you can see everyone from there. I always sit with them. Always. We are best friends — a three-person squad since middle school — and so I realize I’m making some sort of grand statement by not even waving hello. I just knew as soon as I came in and saw them huddled together talking and laughing and just being so normal, like nothing had changed at all — and yes, I realize that nothing has changed for them, that their families are no more or less screwed up than they were before my life imploded — that I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t sit down, take out my turkey sandwich, and act like I was the same old reliable Kit. The one who would make a self-deprecating joke about my shirt, which I’m wearing in some weird tribute to my dad, a silly attempt to feel closer to him even though it makes me feel like even more of an outcast and more confused about the whole thing than I was before I put it on. Just the kind of reminder I don’t need. Like I could actually forget, for even a single minute.
I feel stupid. Could that be what grief does to you? It’s like I’m walking around school with an astronaut’s helmet on my head. A dome of dullness as impenetrable as glass. No one here understands what I’m going through. How could they? I don’t even understand it.
I feel stupid. Could that be what grief does to you?
It seemed safer somehow to sit over here, in the back, away from my friends, who have clearly already moved on to other important things, like whether Violet’s thighs look fat in her new high-waisted jeans, and away from all the other people who have stopped me in the hall over the past couple of weeks with that faux-concerned look on their faces and said: “Kit, I’m like so, so, so sorry about your daaaad.” Everyone seems to draw out the word dad like they are scared to get beyond that one sentence, to experience the conversational free fall of what to say next that inevitably follows. My mom claims that it’s not our job to make other people feel comfortable — this is about us, not them, she told me just before the funeral — but her way, which is to weep and to throw her arms around sympathetic strangers, is not mine. I have not yet figured out my way.
Actually I’m starting to realize there is no way.
Certainly I’m not going to cry, which seems too easy, too dismissive. I’ve cried over bad grades and being grounded and once, embarrassingly, over a bad haircut. (In my defense, those bangs ended up taking three very long awkward years to grow out.) This? This is too big for woe-is-me silly girl tears. This is too big for everything.
Tears would be a privilege.
I figure sitting next to David Drucker is my best bet, since he’s so quiet you forget he’s even there. He’s weird — he sits with his sketchbook and draws elaborate pictures of fish – and when he does talk, he stares at your mouth, like you might have something in your teeth. Don’t get me wrong: I feel awkward and uncomfortable most of the time, but I’ve learned how to fake it. David, on the other hand, seems to have completely opted out of even trying to act like everyone else.
I’ve never seen him at a party or at a football game or even at one of the nerdy after-school activities he might enjoy, like Math Club or coding. For the record, I’m a huge fan of nerdy after-school activities since they’ll be good for my college applications, though I tend toward the more literary and therefore ever-so-slightly cooler variety. The truth is I’m kind of a big nerd myself.
Who knows? Maybe he’s on to something by tuning the rest of us out. Not a bad high school survival strategy. Showing up every day and doing his homework and rocking those giant noise-canceling headphones—and basically just waiting for high school to be over with.
Maybe he’s on to something by tuning the rest of us out. Not a bad high school survival strategy.
I may be a little awkward, sometimes a bit too desperate to be liked — but until everything with my dad, I’ve never been quiet. It feels strange to sit at a table with just one other person, for the noise of the caf to be something that I want to block out. This is the opposite of my own previous survival strategy, which was to jump headfirst into the fray.
Oddly enough, David has an older sister, Lauren, who, until she graduated last year, was the most popular girl in school. His opposite in every way. President of her class and homecoming queen. (Somehow she managed to make something that clichéd seem cool again in her hipster ironic way.) Dated Peter Malvern, who every girl, including me, used to worship from afar because he played bass guitar and had the kind of facial hair that most guys our age are incapable of growing. Lauren Drucker is a living legend — smart and cool and beautiful — and if I could reincarnate as anyone else, just start this whole show over again and get to be someone different, I would choose to be her even though we’ve never actually met. No doubt she’d look awesome with bangs.
I’m pretty sure that if it hadn’t been for Lauren, and the implicit threat that she would personally destroy anyone who made fun of her younger brother, David would have been eaten alive at Mapleview. Instead he’s been left alone. And I mean that literally. He is always alone.
I hope I’m not rude when I tell him I don’t feel like talking; fortunately he doesn’t seem offended. He might be strange, but the world is shitty enough without people being shitty to each other, and he has a point about the whole heaven thing. Not that I have any desire to talk to David Drucker about what happened to my father — I can think of nothing I’d rather discuss less, except for maybe the size of Violet’s thighs, because who cares about her freaking jeans — but I happen to agree. Heaven is like Santa Claus, a story to trick naive little kids. At the funeral, four different people had the nerve to tell me my father was in a better place, as if being buried six feet under is like taking a Caribbean vacation. Even worse were my dad’s colleagues, who dared to say that he was too good for this world. Which, if you take even a second to think about it, doesn’t even make sense. Are only bad people allowed to live, then? Is that why I’m still here?
At the funeral, four different people had the nerve to tell me my father was in a better place, as if being buried six feet under is like taking a Caribbean vacation.
My dad was the best person I knew, but no, he wasn’t too good for this world. He isn’t in a better place. And I sure as hell don’t believe everything happens for a reason, that this is God’s plan, that it was just his time to go, like he had an appointment that couldn’t be missed.
Nope. I’m not buying any of it. We all know the truth. My dad got screwed.
Eventually David slips his headphones on and takes out a large hardcover book that has the words Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV on the spine. We have almost all our classes together — we’re both doing the junior-year AP overload thing — so I know this isn’t school reading. If he wants to spend his free time studying “mental disorders,” good for him, but I consider suggesting he get an iPad or something so no one else can see. Clearly his survival strategy should include Mapleview’s number-one rule: Don’t fly your freak flag too high here. Better to keep the freak buried, inconspicuous, maybe under a metaphorical astronaut’s helmet if necessary. That may be the only way to get out alive.
I spend the rest of lunch mindlessly chewing my sad sandwich. My phone beeps every once in a while with text messages from my friends, but I try not to look over to their table.
Violet: Did we do something to hurt your feelings? Why are you sitting over there?
Violet: At least write back. Tell us what’s going on.
Annie: K! Earth to K!
Violet: Just tell me the truth: yay or nay on these jeans?
When you have two best friends, someone is always mad at someone else. Today, by not texting back, I’m basically volunteering to be the one on the outs. I just don’t know how to explain that I can’t sit with them today. That sitting at their table, right there in the front of the caf, and chatting about nonsense feels like a betrayal. I consider giving my verdict on Violet’s pants, but my dad’s dying has had the unfortunate side effect of taking away my filter. No need to tell her that though her thighs look fine, the high waist makes her look a little constipated.
My mom said no when I begged her to let me stay home from school today. I didn’t want to have to walk back into this cafeteria, didn’t want to go from class to class steeling myself for yet another succession of uncomfortable conversations. The truth is, people have been genuinely nice. Even borderline sincere, which almost never happens in this place. It’s not their fault that everything — high school — suddenly feels incredibly stupid and pointless.
When I woke up this morning, I didn’t have the blissful thirty-second amnesia that has carried me through lately, that beautiful half minute when my mind is blank, empty, and untortured. Instead I awoke feeling pure, full-throttled rage. It’s been one whole month since the accident. Thirty impossible days. To be fair, I’m aware my friends can’t win: If they had mentioned this to me, if they had said something sympathetic like “Kit, I know it’s been a month since your dad died, and so today must be especially hard for you,” I still would have been annoyed, because I probably would have fallen apart, and school is not where I want to be when that inevitably happens. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure Annie and Violet didn’t mention it because they forgot altogether. They were all chatty, sipping their matching Starbucks lattes, talking about what guy they were hoping was going to ask them to junior prom, assuming I just had a bad case of the Mondays. I was expected to chime in.
When I woke up this morning, I didn’t have the blissful thirty-second amnesia that has carried me through lately, that beautiful half minute when my mind is blank, empty, and untortured. Instead I awoke feeling pure, full-throttled rage.
I am somehow supposed to have bounced back.
I am not supposed to be moping around in my dad’s old shirt.
One month ago today.
So strange that David Drucker of all people was the only one who said the exact right thing: Your dad shouldn’t have died. That’s really unfair.
“You’ve been back two weeks already,” my mom said over breakfast, after I made one last plea to ditch. “The Band-Aid has already been ripped off.” But I don’t have a single Band-Aid. I’d rather have two black eyes, broken bones, internal bleeding, visible scarring. Maybe to not be here at all. Instead: Not a scratch on me. The worst kind of miracle.
I’d rather have two black eyes, broken bones, internal bleeding, visible scarring. Maybe to not be here at all. Instead: Not a scratch on me. The worst kind of miracle.
“You’re going to work?” I asked, because it seemed that if I was having trouble facing school, it should be hard for her to put back on her work clothes and heels and drive to the train. Of course my mom was aware of the significance of the date. In the beginning, once we got home from the hospital, she was in constant tears, while I was the one who was dry-eyed and numb. For the first few days, while she wept, I sat quietly with my knees drawn to my chest, my body racked with chills despite being bundled up in about a million layers. Still, a month later, I haven’t managed to quite get warm.
My mom, however, seems to be pulling herself back together into someone I recognize. You wouldn’t know it from looking at her on the weekends, when she wears yoga pants and sneakers and a ponytail, or from the way she looked right after the accident, shattered and gray and folded up, but in her working life my mom is a hardcore boss lady. She’s CEO of an online-advertising agency called Disruptive Communications.
Sometimes I overhear her yelling at her employees and using the kinds of words that would get me grounded. Occasionally her picture is on the cover of trade magazines with headlines like “The Diverse Future of Viral Media.” She’s the one who orchestrated that video with the singing dogs and cats that at last count had sixteen million hits, and that great breakfast cereal pop-up ad with the biracial gay dads. Before entering the throes of widowhood, she was pretty badass.
“Of course I’m going to work. Why wouldn’t I?” my mom asked. And with that she picked up my cereal bowl, even though I wasn’t yet finished, and dropped it into the sink so hard that it shattered.
She left, wearing her “work uniform” — a black cashmere sweater, a pencil skirt, and stilettos. I considered cleaning up the shards of glass in the sink. Maybe even accidentally-on-purpose letting one cut me. Just a little. I was curious whether I’d even feel it. But then I realized that despite my new post-Dad-dying-imbuing-every-single-tiny-thing-with-bigger-meaning stage, like wearing this men’s work shirt to school, that was just way too metaphorical. Even for me. So I left the mess for my mom to clean up later.
Excerpt copyright © 2017 by Julie R. Buxbaum, Inc. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.