It doesn’t take Lara Jean much time to figure out she needs to make compromises for college. For one, she can’t bring both baking supplies and scrapbooking supplies. Her dad and Margot tell her as much when they enforce a strict suitcase and cardboard box limit at the beginning of her packing struggles. Either goodbye rolling pin or adios hot glue gun.
Kitty sits on Lara Jean’s bed as a tornado rips through Lara Jean’s room and Lara Jean scrambles around the perimeter deciding what pieces of herself she wants to leave at home and what pieces she wants to bring with her to UNC. Occasionally, Kitty will look up from playing with her phone and chime in: “Lara Jean, are you sure you want to bring that sweater to college?”
Lara Jean looks up and stops folding. “What? I think it has charm.” She holds up the sweater again to inspect it, then balls it up and throws it in the Goodwill box. Margot would be proud the Goodwill box is filling up.
Margot left for Scotland a week ago, though not before giving Lara Jean a pre-college checklist and last-minute directives like “Bring shower shoes and a shower caddy” and “Label everything you put in the communal fridge twice because hungry college students are savages.” Lara Jean sometimes skypes Margot at night when she is in desperate need of life and packing wisdom from her older sister who has already done the pre-college, freshman year thing.
She pauses when she comes across her teal hatbox, her most precious and prized possession. The original notes from Peter are still in there along with other trinkets and momentos from the years. Lara Jean plucks out one of his notes and sets it aside with the printed photo Peter chose in a box of dorm wall decorations. For so long, the contents of the hatbox were hers and hers alone, but she has since opened her heart up to so much more.
It doesn’t feel right to pack up her entire hatbox and bring it with her, so she slides it back on the shelf of her closet. The funny thing about memories is that they stay with a person wherever they go, and those physical pieces of memory in her hatbox will always be there to anchor her. The memories will remain when she leaves and be waiting for her when she comes back.
In the end, she decides to bring a rolling pin, multiple packs of stationary, and her favorite cookie cutters, but leaves her big box of sequins and stickers at home; she figures she can order everything else on Amazon once she’s settled in on campus. Lara Jean is a girl—teenager turned college student—who can have her cake and eat it too.
The three-and-a-half-hour drive from her driveway to the freshman dorms at UNC is shorter than expected. Her dad is driving in the front seat, making comments about how quickly the summer has passed by and how his second girl is leaving the nest and how Kitty will be gone before he knows it.
“Dad, I’m still here,” Kitty says exasperatedly from the backseat. “I haven’t even taken my SATs yet.”
Her dad laughs in response, but there’s a twinge of sadness behind it.
Kitty peers over Lara Jean’s phone. “Are you texting Peter?”
Lara Jean makes a noise of mock confusion. “What did you say?” She texted Peter when she left their town, and when she saw a funny billboard on the side of the highway, and twenty seconds ago when she said she missed him and he sent back a heart emoji.
“You saw him less than an hour and fifteen minutes ago. You made Daddy stop the car after we pulled out of the driveway to kiss him one last time.”
Lara Jean sighs and holds her phone to her heart. “That was really romantic, wasn’t it?” Kitty rolls her eyes, but Lara Jean can tell she agrees. She thinks of the last visual snapshot she has of Peter Kavinsky: the back dashboard window framing him perfectly in the August sunlight as she moved further and further away and his figure melted into a small dot in the horizon.
Lara Jean sticks her arm out the window and lets the wind and oncoming rush of cars blow over her hand. She closes her eyes and frames this moment in her memory, the feeling of in-betweenness of high school Lara Jean and summer after high school Lara Jean and the college Lara Jean she is about to become.
She wants to remember as much of it as she can because once her dad parks the car in front of her new home for the next nine months, she knows it will never be the same again.
The week of freshman orientation passes by in a blur of mandatory meetings, name ice-breakers, and awkward small talk with other new and confused freshmen. Lara Jean doesn’t quite feel settled in yet, though she’s getting there day by day. Peter’s school year started soon after hers, but he has been on campus longer for lacrosse; he knows the UVA campus like the back of his hand while she got lost on her floor the other day on the way to the hallway bathroom.
At the activities fair, Lara Jean puts her name and email down on sign-up sheets left and right. She can hardly remember what she signed up for, but the emails pile up in her new school email and she gets a little thrill each time she opens an invitation for a club intro meeting.
She spends thirty minutes standing in front of the bulletin board on the first floor of her dorm and jots down different meetings and events. In high school, she volunteered at the library and Belleview, but the world of college feels so much bigger than overdue library books and scrapbooking for seniors. Margot was right. There is so much she wants to do, all at once.
She makes sure to put herself on the mailing list for the Korean-American Student Association just as Margot suggested. After she leaves the KASA Welcome Event, Lara Jean is sure she had never seen so many Koreans her age in one room together since she was in Korea with her sisters this summer. One of the board members tells her they make frequent grocery trips as a group to the H Mart nearby.
The snack table at the event overflows with milk candies and seaweed snacks and even Yakult, and Lara Jean is positive she has found heaven on campus.
Lara Jean’s favorite part of the night is when she changes into her nightgown and crawls into her bed to FaceTime Peter.
Peter comes into view, shirtless and also sitting in his dorm room two hundred miles away. A sharp pang hits her heart. She really, really misses him.
“How was your day?” she asks. She leans over to refill her diffuser with lavender oil which has become part of her nightly ritual to improve sleep.
“I ran into Sanderson today,” he says casually.
Lara Jean tries to not look as surprised as she is. “Oh,” she squeaks out.
Even though Josh is a college sophomore, she knows there was some non-negligible probability her boyfriend and her long-time unrequited forbidden high school crush slash sister’s ex-boyfriend would cross paths on campus at some point. UVA is a big school, but the universe occasionally likes to be funny when it comes to things like this.
“It was brief. He said ‘Hi,’ and I said ‘Hey’ back and then we went in separate directions.” He shrugs nonchalantly. “I forgot he also went to UVA.”
In that moment, high school began to feel like a distant memory. Lara Jean always thought she would remember every second of high school, treasure the parts that mattered the most and keep everything else tucked away for safe-keeping. They are past all of that now. They are Lara Jean and Peter K., two college freshmen in a long-distance relationship tethered by daily texts and nightly phone calls.
They are years beyond the five mistakenly mailed out letters and the fake dating and the pseudo love triangles. She is in a relationship with a boy who loves her, and it feels like the kind of love that is young and pure and full of miracles. She can’t imagine herself wanting to ever be in any other kind of love.
“Anyway, did you know Kitty texted me earlier and asked if I have ever spent the night in your room?”
“What?” Lara Jean sputters and nearly drops her phone. “Why?”
“Obviously, I told her no,” replies Peter.
There are three people in the world who know Peter spent the night before she left for her trip to Korea this summer: her, Peter, and Josh who spotted Peter climbing out of her bedroom window the next morning. According to Peter, Josh gave him the “Sanderson look of disapproval” before learning to mind his own business again.
“I need to talk to Kitty about this,” Lara Jean shakes her head. Peter laughs.
“If you came up to visit, you could stay the night,” Peter says breezily. “I think I still have a bruise from where I landed on your front yard.”
Lara Jean smiles back at him and replies, “Hmm, I’ll think about it.”
Peter pretends to look wounded. “Covey, you’re a heartbreaker.”
Lara Jean’s reputation precedes her. The legend of her perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe has circulated the halls of her dorm and she gathers a group of floormates together every so often to bake and test new recipes. It turns out the communal dorm kitchen had enough supplies to satisfy most of her baking needs, so the rolling pin she brought to school is collecting dust in a drawer somewhere. It turns out Margot was right about that, like most other things. Except, Lara Jean can’t help but think, the part where Margot said she shouldn’t bring a boyfriend to college. Lara Jean figured her way around that one on her own.
Baking at school is not the same as baking in her own kitchen at home with Kitty and Peter as her dedicated taste testers, but her friends on her floor know when to emerge from their rooms when the scent of dark chocolate wafts into the hallway. She even bakes with an organization on campus that organizes and holds bake sales for different initiatives every semester and donates all the proceeds to local affiliate and community groups.
Tonight, she is working on a batch of lemon square bars for an event on Friday, the perfect marriage of citrus and sugar. There is something oddly relaxing about coming back from a long day of classes and strapping on an apron to bake the night away.
A girl Lara Jean recognizes from her European History class stops by the kitchen and asks if she can try a lemon square.
Lara Jean nods and waves toward the first batch. “These should have cooled off by now. Let me know if know if you think it might be a little too acidic.”
The girl takes a bite and mumbles, “Wow, this is delicious.” She takes another big bite and Lara Jean beams at her.
“I almost forgot what a good lemon square tasted like. My older brother and I used to make them for our neighbors every summer,” she says. Lara Jean gestures at her to take another. “My brother plays on the lacrosse team at UVA and spends most of the year in Virginia, so it’s been a while since I’ve last had one.” She bites into her second one. “This tastes like home.”
Lara Jean makes a noise of excitement and puts down her measuring cup mid-pour. “My boyfriend plays lacrosse at UVA, too. He got recruited by the coach there.”
“They probably know each other,” the girl replies eagerly and pulls out her phone. “Sometimes my family and I go up to UVA if there’s a big game and watch my brother play. You should come with us.”
“I would love to. I’ll bring lemon squares for the trip.”
Lara Jean studies with a small group of friends on campus. They meet for meals and book study rooms together and occasionally drag Lara Jean out to a party on Friday nights. She was the only person from her high school to go to UNC, and even then, she got off the waitlist. Yet the truth about making friends freshman year is that no one really cares who someone is or where they came from or who they want to be. Freshmen are eager to click and connect wherever they can but finding the right people can take time.
Lara Jean has known Chris for most of her life, and she knows it will be hard from someone to take the place of her best friend who is off having wild adventures in Costa Rica, yet she can’t help but wonder who her Chris in college will be. This person won’t be someone she grew up next to or ran around in playgrounds with or even someone who was there for all her ups and downs in high school. This person will start as a stranger and college will be the place where they grow to become friends for life.
People walk in and out all the time. They stroll briskly from class to class, to and from the dorm lobby, and from one room to another on the weekends. College is about the people who come into your life at a party or in a class, and people who can walk out just as quickly as they came in. Lara Jean has learned to leave that revolving door open. If the people in her life come and go, at least she will have known them for the time they were here.
College parties are a little too much for Lara Jean’s taste. She much prefers staying in her room on a Friday night and watching an old Golden Girls episode or catching up with Kitty and her dad. The parties she has been to have been nothing like the get-togethers at Steve Bledell’s house or celebrations after lacrosse games in high school. There are more people at various stages of intoxication, more bodies pressed together and loud dance music blaring through the speakers. She always makes sure to keep vigil over her own cup and to leave with at least one person she came with. Otherwise, she would rather be eating cookies and ensconced in the vanilla-scented comfort of her own room.
She knows Peter goes to crazy parties. The lacrosse team often has mixers with other teams and groups, and he recaps wild stories about him and his friends for Lara Jean the day after. “Don’t worry, they all know I’m taken,” he will say to her cheekily. She hasn’t met many of Peter’s UVA friends and she’s not part of their group in the same way Peter’s high school lacrosse friends adopted her soon after they started dating, or fake-dating if they’re going off the right timeline.
That is one of the great pitfalls of long-distance: his friends aren’t her friends and her friends aren’t his friends, and sometimes it is almost like they are living on two separate planets before they collide again on a phone call. Not that she wasn’t worried about Peter attracting female attention at college parties, but at this point she feels secure enough in her relationship to laugh along with the joke. “I expect to see an embarrassing photo on Instagram as proof. Pics or it didn’t happen.”
He picks up after two seconds.
“Hi Peter!” she says loudly into the phone receiver. Her voice is high and shriller than usual, but it’s hard to hear herself over the loud background music.
“I’m glad you called, I wanted to—” he stops mid-sentence. “Wait, are you drunk right now?” he asks with concern in his voice.
“No,” she answers quickly. Yes. “No, but maybe yes? I’m okay, don’t worry.”
He laughs on the other end. “Lara Jean, drink some water and I’ll call you in the morning.”
Peter does in fact call her the next morning, just like he said he would. Except his definition of the next morning is 8:20 a.m. which is far, far too early for the pulsating headache in her head.
He turns the phone call into a FaceTime call and Lara Jean ducks behind her comforter when she notices her reflection in the upper-right corner of her phone screen. Part of her is glad he is in his room almost 200 miles away so he can’t see her messy hair and smell her bad breath in the morning, but most of her wishes she could wake up next to him in bed and have him be physically present instead of a pixelated version of his face on her phone.
“Come on, you look great,” Peter insists. His face fills her phone screen and his hair still looks wet as if he just stepped out of the shower.
Lara Jean pokes her head out from her comforter and sees herself again. Her eyes widen as she takes in the Medusa-like sprawl of her normally stick-straight hair and the messy black smudge of mascara along the edges of her eyes.
She can tell Peter is trying to keep himself from laughing. “Not helping,” she whines.
“Not all of us can wake up perfect,” Peter says. “But you get close.”
Lara Jean rolls her eyes and shakes her head, but she doesn’t make another attempt to hide beneath her comforter. She sits up straighter and props herself up against her pillow. “Good morning, Peter Kavinsky,” she says with a growing smile.
“Good morning, Covey.”
Peter stays true to his word and writes a letter to Lara Jean every week.
Lara Jean never knows when his letters are coming; she prefers to keep it a surprise. Sometimes she will answer his letters with one of her own or bring up something he had written in a text or phone call. Thankfully, she packed enough stationary to indulge in all her letter-writing and care package assembly whims. She loves knowing she has this part of him that is irrevocably hers.
She imagines Peter hunched over at his desk and looking for the right words to write in his letter. She pictures the way he folds up his finished letter in an envelope and writes her dorm mailbox address on the front, an address he has already memorized by heart, then placing a stamp on the corner and licking the envelope shut.
He once told her on a late-night phone call that he and the mailman at UVA’s campus postal service are now good friends. The mailman asked about the ‘special someone’ Peter was sending letters to every week and Peter shared some of the cookies she had mailed up to him in a care package. The thought of Peter striking up a friendship with a nice old mailman and talking about his girlfriend over sugar cookies warms her inside.
Some weeks, his letters don’t make any sense. They are full of half-formed sentences, words he wishes he could express to her right then and there but had to settle for pen and paper instead. These are pieces in his daily life he wrote down for her and for her eyes only. His thoughts begin in fits of starts and stops, and she can tell he spent a week reaching for the letter as if that was the closest he could get to her.
She saves each and every letter from Peter in a little letter chest from the antique store his mom owns. It was his parting gift to her—for my heart and love letters, he had said.
Peter Kavinsky is no poet, but he is as earnest and endearing as a boy who loves her with all his heart can be.
Her favorite part about Chapel Hill is a coffee shop called Joe Van Gogh that is far enough from campus to feel like a getaway spot and close enough for her to walk there on weekends. Joe Van Gogh has an old-timey feel that reminds her of the diner at home. This is her special place. The wooden features and chalkboards and wall art create a cozy atmosphere that warms her up. She loves the bright lights and floor-to-ceiling windows that illuminate the interior. She loves settling into her favorite two-seater in the corner and people-watching in the afternoons.
The Danish pastries are incredible. She wishes Peter were here to split a cherry cheese Danish with her. Puff pastry may be the next realm of baked goods for her to conquer. There is a world of new opportunities for her to bake, sweet and savory.
On late afternoons, Lara Jean brings reading for her literature class and listens to the coffeeshop buzz surround her. These are the moments where she feels completely transformed as a college student, on her own and independent. It plays out like a scene in a movie, girl in a coffee shop who becomes best friends with the artsy barista and has a regular latte order with a special foam heart swirl.
She makes a mental note to buy some of their specialty house beans as a present for her dad. When she goes home and her family and neighbors ask her about her favorite part of college, she will have a place to point to and claim as hers. She wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Peter surprises her by picking her up for Thanksgiving break.
He drives three and a half hours from his campus to hers, and another three and a half hours from her campus to home. They get stuck in traffic on the way back, although neither of them mind. They would take the extra half an hour alone together in his car any day. The conversation in the car is easy and they don’t miss a beat.
They talk as if she doesn’t call him almost every night and he doesn’t write her a letter every week, as if they hadn’t spoken for the past three months and need to catch up on every detail of their lives in a single four-hour car ride.
She misses being in the same space as him. Distance wears away at the physical connection, all the kissing and hand-holding and hands in back pockets. Peter takes up so much room in her heart that she wonders how she could love someone up close and so far away at the same time.
Peter tells her funny stories from the semester including the time he put all his shirts in the wash and didn’t have anything to wear to class and another time his RA came to his room for an inspection and saw Lara Jean’s scrapbook on his desk and then let him off the hook. Lara Jean leans her head against the window and soaks up the image of the late November sun streaming in through the car dashboard as he drives them home.
College has changed Peter in a way she can’t exactly place. Physically, he is built more to the demands of a collegiate lacrosse team, no longer as lean as the high school version of him. The responsibility of folding his own laundry and planning his own meals brings out a layer of maturity that has always been simmering beneath his boyish charm. Her mind wanders off to what Peter will look like at the end of year, at the end of next summer, and then at the end of college. She can easily picture parts of him at twenty-two and struggles with the rest; she supposes only time will tell.
Lara Jean feels that she has changed too. She wouldn’t know how to describe it, although Lara Jean can point to all the things that have been with her the entire time: her family, her sisters, her love of baking and reading, her teal hatbox, and Peter.
They make good on the promise to take Kitty for a midnight movie. The drive-in has a special two-night weekend showing: one night for a non-stop John Hughes marathon and another night for contemporary films inspired by John Hughes. It is a little too cold in November for watching movies outdoors, but Peter turns up the heat in his car and Lara Jean makes sure to pack extra blankets. Kitty is swaddled up in her favorite pajamas and a fluffy blue blanket, happily munching on caramel-drizzled popcorn. It wouldn’t be a proper movie-watching experience without gourmet popcorn and some Lara Jean-approved snacks.
Two movies in, Clueless flickers on the large movie screen in front of them. Lara Jean keeps her hands intertwined with Peter’s and rests her head against his shoulder. They miss the physicality of simply sitting next to each other, the quieter moments of his hands brushing her hair back and the way their fingers lock together like puzzle pieces that finally found each other after months apart.
Whenever they watch a movie together at school, they usually Skype with headphones in and stream at the same time. It takes several tries until they both simultaneously hit play, but they watch until one of them falls asleep late into the night (usually Peter, but he’ll never admit it). When he laughs at a funny scene, she’ll hear it through her earbuds, but she won’t feel the way his chest rises and falls the way she can now. When she tenses at a dramatic or scary moment in the film, she will snuggle her blankets closer to her chest, but she won’t be able to burrow her head into the warm cavern of his UVA sweatshirt in the same way.
“Do you think it’s weird how Josh is in college and he’s basically in love with a sixteen-year old high school student?” Peter leans over to whisper in her ear.
Lara Jean looks up at him. “They are ex-stepsiblings. It’s kind of weird.”
“I couldn’t imagine dating a sixteen-year old right now.” He squeezes her closer.
“I can’t imagine myself dating a college guy at sixteen either,” she admits.
“Yeah, but you’ve always had a thing for older guys,” Peter says, half-jokingly.
She hits his arm.
“Ow, Lara Jean, I am older than you.”
Lara Jean turns slightly to look at Kitty. She is fast asleep and has balled up one of Peter’s sweatshirts as a makeshift pillow. “Kitty’s asleep,” she whispers up at Peter.
He kisses her cheek and turns back to the screen. Lara Jean suddenly thinks about every teen movie she has ever seen, the picture of two teenagers making out in a public space to the annoyance of everyone else. Sixteen doesn’t feel that different from eighteen, yet they also feel worlds away. The realization hits her: soon, she’ll be too old to star in her own 1980’s teen classic, too old for high school and candles and boomboxes under a windowsill.
She leans up to kiss him and he kisses her back. Her chest is beating hard and his hands are running through her hair and her hands are curled around him, pulling him closer and closer. His lips find her neck next and she wonders how she could ever go more than twenty-four hours without being kissed by Peter Kavinsky when he is this good at it. They don’t know how long it’s been, but every second feels timeless and breathless and they can’t let go.
They are now fifteen minutes into a different movie, though neither of them has paid any attention to the screen in a while; they have been otherwise preoccupied. Their intensity begins to slow down and Peter hugs her close to his chest. A sense of giddiness rises in her as she brushes her cheek against his. She has never been so sure her heart belongs to someone else.
Lara Jean quickly learns nothing feels like hell the way final exam season does. She camps out in the school library, not quite like Hogwarts but close enough, with a thermos of hot tea and a semester’s worth of notes by her side. The pastel highlighters and sticky notes she bought in Korea are being put to good use as she jumps from one century of history to another.
She turns off her ringer and buries her phone deep into her backpack so she won’t be distracted if Peter texts or snapchats her. She needs to maintain her resolve. Yesterday’s study session resulted in a three-hour phone call with her sisters as she did a hydrating rosewater facemask and updated Kitty on all the gossip on her floor. Kitty is very invested in the will-they-or-won’t-they love story between two of her floormates who hooked up the second week of school and have been incredibly awkward around each other ever since.
She can’t even turn to baking for stress relief anymore because baking takes up time she could otherwise use for studying. She supposes she could rewatch lecture videos while pouring out ingredients and waiting for cupcakes to rise in the oven, although the chances of her getting anything done in that time are minimal.
Instead, she is sequestering herself among the stacks with her headphones to block off any distractions. One thing Margot never told her about college was how much harder it would be than high school. In high school, she got good grades because she paid attention in class and studied for tests; in college, studying was like walking up an impossible mountain where the slope only gets steeper as the term goes by. If she studies hard enough over the next few days and goes through some more revisions of her final papers, she could maybe end her first semester of college on an above-average high note.
College has not been what Lara Jean expected: fewer cupcakes and mean girls, more classes and spontaneous friendships. A year ago, she couldn’t imagine what she would be like in college, whether she would be a completely different person or whether she and Peter would still be together or whether she would fall out of touch with her sisters. She doesn’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t this happy. She is the same Lara Jean, yet somehow freer now.
Arriving home after a semester of college feels different than coming home at any other point of Lara Jean’s life. She feels the change in the air, subtle shifts she can’t help but notice, although reasonably everything in the Covey household is still the same.
The house is sparkling in full winter wonderland glory. Kitty and her dad put up the Christmas tree at the start of December and Margot arrived home early soon after to finish the rest of the decorations. She has only been home for two days, yet she already feels like she has so much to catch up on. Sleeping in her own bed has never felt so good after many sleepless nights during finals and Lara Jean sleeps in until noon on both days.
She checks her phone to see if Peter has texted. His finals end later than hers, but he promised he would text and come by to visit as soon as his last exam was over. Lara Jean knows for a fact that Peter came by the house two weeks ago at Kitty’s bequest to help with a special Christmas surprise and they both refuse to tell her more about it.
She makes her way down to the kitchen in search of breakfast, or lunch if she’s truly being honest about how late she has slept in.
She finds Margot and Kitty huddled over a piece of paper on the kitchen counter. “Sugar cookies for everyone, coconut pecan for the neighbors, snickerdoodles for you, molasses for me,” she hears Margot say. “Anything else?”
“Peter wanted us to try maple-bacon chocolate chip cookies. Also, don’t forget Lara Jean’s cowgirl cookies,” Kitty insists.
Margot points further down the list. “Cowgirl cookies are already on here and I’d like a second opinion on maple-bacon.”
Lara Jean emerges from the kitchen doorway and walks over to the counter to review the list. “Keep the maple-bacon and add peppermint and white chocolate.” Her heart surges at the thought of baking cookies with her sisters again, the infinite possibilities contained in the combination of all-purpose flour, granulated sugar, and eggs. This is the magic she had been missing all along.
“Christmas Cookie Bonanza?” Lara Jean looks up eagerly at her sisters and starts rolling up the sleeves of her red sweater.
“Christmas Cookie Bonanza.” Margot confirms and reaches for the flour bin.
Kitty nods in approval and launches herself out of her chair. “Welcome home, Lara Jean.”