I have this theory about love.
It involves layers—so that a relationship might have its gooey childhood phase, and then its teenage years, and if you're lucky you eventually get to the sweet, solid outer coating of an adult kind of love.
"Like an onion," Peter says, the first time I bring this up.
I frown. "I was thinking more like… candy. Like a tootsie pop. Or…" I look out the window, to where the dense green forest blurs by, a solid backdrop behind the other cars whizzing down the highway. "Or tree rings. So if you sliced a relationship, you'd be able to see its stages of growth. And the deeper the feelings, the wider the ring. Or maybe width should be determined by the length of time…" I'm puzzling through the specifics of my metaphor now, wondering what my relationship with Peter would look like, if it were documented in tree rings.
"Like that lab we did in environmental science," Peter says, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.
I feel a bit bad that he's driving, especially since he already drove four hours to pick me up from school. "Y'all are gross," my friend Marcie said when we found him waiting at the Old Well. Marcie's like that. I introduced her to Peter the first time he came to visit, back in early October; she gave him a hard time then, but I could tell it was because she was testing him. By the end of the day, he'd definitely passed.
Today, we spent some time walking around so Peter could stretch his legs and eat a late lunch, and then it was back in the car. There's supposed to be a big meteor shower tonight—the Geminids—and Peter and I thought it'd be fun to actually camp out to see them, in the woods with a tent and everything. We made reservations at Jones Lake State Park, which is about two hours away. I couldn't have planned it more perfectly; our schedules are both wide open because of Reading Day, though I still have two finals coming up later this week, and Peter has one.
I offered to drive, but Peter had to take the van in order to fit our camping gear, and I'm not as good at handling bigger cars. I make up for it by feeding Peter bites of the special sandwiches I prepared: muffaleta with an olive-oregano-onion mix, pepperoni, prosciutto, and provolone. As Peter pulls away, chewing, several crumbs stick to the corner of his mouth.
"So where are we in all of this?" he asks.
"You said there was teenage love and then there was 'adult love.' Which one are we?"
I consider. We're both technically adults, in the barest sense of the word, and I can see how a semester at college has already changed us. College Peter has gotten more muscular from all his lacrosse practice. He moves with less swagger—not in a bad way, but as if he doesn't have as much to compensate for. It's a quieter kind of confidence, which I like.
But then, of course, there are all the ways that College Peter is exactly the same. He still calls me at night, right before either of us falls asleep. He still smells like Dove soap, the soft, clean boy-scent I've come to associate with comfort, and he still makes my heart beat fast when he looks over with that crooked smile of his, the light from the dying sun catching in his eyes.
I tap a finger against my lips and smile back, considering.
"I'm still figuring out," I say.
We get to the park an hour before closing.
Loose sticks and gravel crunch under our tires as we pull into our campsite. I'm out of the car as soon as Peter parks, marveling at our view.
"Peter, look, isn't it gorgeous?" We're right by the shore of the lake; in front of me stretch the placid waters, like a mirror of the sky. The surface is so still it looks like glass—I feel like if I throw a pebble at it, I'll shatter something.
Peter grunts as he starts to unload our equipment. I hurry to help him. The food takes some time to get organized. Even though it's just the two of us, I wanted the full experience, so I bought all the ingredients for s'mores. Then there are the sandwiches I made for us to eat for dinner, with plenty of extras because I know Peter will get hungry. Finally, the burritos I prepared for breakfast tomorrow, wrapped neatly in foil so that we can just heat them over the fire.
The tent takes a little more work, but we get it finished in time to watch the sunset. The meteors aren't expected to become visible until 7:30 PM, and they probably won't be at their peak until well past that, so Peter and I entertain ourselves with a puzzle and a deck of cards. I've recently started watching magic tricks on YouTube and figure that Peter's a good a person to try them out on, mostly because I know how to distract him.
All in all, things are going well, up until I need to use the restroom and remember that we're in the middle of nowhere.
When I bring this up, Peter looks unconcerned. "Just go in the woods, Lara Jean, haven't you ever been camping before?"
"Of course I have!" Twice. "But it's all dark and cold outside, and the trees are too far apart. I'll feel exposed."
"There's nobody around. And you'll be out in the open for five minutes, tops."
"Easy for you to say, you're a boy. You can just—" I pantomime the motion with my hands, which makes Peter redden slightly. His eyes dart around the tent, looking anywhere but at my face. After a beat, he heaves a sigh and gets to his feet, grabbing his fleecy orange and blue Cavaliers blanket.
"What are you doing?" I stare at him blankly.
Peter stares right back. "Coming with you. I'll hold up the blanket as a screen so you can do your…" he gestures aimlessly, "…business."
"Oh." My voice goes small. "Well, that's okay—"
Too late. Peter has a hand on the small of my back now and uses it to usher me out of the tent. I barely manage to grab the bag of wet wipes before we're both out in the cold, tucking our chins against our necks and hunching over to keep warm. Peter sets the pace; meanwhile, I stumble after him with the flashlight, casting a wobbly yellow beam on the ground in front of us.
Camping out in a cozy tent under the stars in order to catch a meteor shower? Romantic. Having your boyfriend accompany you into the woods so that you don't have to pee alone in the dark? Admittedly less so.
"Is this good?" Peter stops and looks back at me, gesturing toward a copse of trees. If I squint, I can make out the light of our campfire in the distance, but we're far enough away that if I shut off the flashlight we'll be plunged into relative darkness. I do that now, handing over the flashlight to Peter and fumbling blindly with all my layers. Margot taught me that it helps to find a thin tree trunk to hold onto for balance—then you can sit back just like you'd do at home.
Behind me, there's a rustle: Peter holding up his makeshift blanket-screen.
"Don't look!" I hiss.
"I can't see anything to begin with," Peter argues, but I know he probably has his eyes squeezed shut anyways. The air is biting cold against my skin, the woods eerily quiet, and I'm suddenly self-conscious. It's a weird feeling, to be made vulnerable by something so—mundane, as Margot would call it.
"Can you also, like—cover your ears?"
"Lara Jean," Peter says, and it's in his I'm trying very hard to be patient voice. "Look, you're a person before anything else. I stopped having a perfect image of you in my head a long time ago. Just pee."
I pause. "That's… actually really sweet, Peter."
"Always the tone of surprise," Peter grumbles, but I can tell he's pleased.
We know each other well, that way.
"Remember the poem you gave me junior year, for Valentine's Day?"
I say this with my ear pressed against Peter's chest, trying to hear his heartbeat through the puffy jacket he's wearing. From this angle, it's easy to pretend we're in a snowglobe—the sky seems to curve over us like a dome, the stars suspended like tiny flakes of glitter. Peter shifts to put his hand behind his head.
"The moon never beams without bringing me dreams / Of beautiful Lara Jean. / And stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes / of beautiful Lara Jean," he recites. "I'm still flattered that you thought I could come up with that, even for a second."
"It's not too late to start trying now," I say, batting my eyelashes at him.
Peter laughs. I like that I can feel the rumble of it right against my cheek, all warm and chocolatey. He's been fiddling with my hair—one of his fingers gets caught in a snag and he untangles it gently, the way Kitty taught him how. I file that gesture away. When I have a daughter, I'll tell her: it's important to be with someone who has careful hands.
"Maybe I'll take a creative writing class next semester," muses Peter. "And then I really will write you an actual poem."
"I'll keep it framed in my room if you do," I tell him seriously.
"Speaking of rooms, you never ended up helping me decorate mine, by the way. It needs some of your…" His hand flails. "Pizzazz."
I giggle. "Say that again."
"Cute." I pinch his cheek, which makes Peter roll his eyes. "What kind of vibe were you thinking?"
"I don't know." Peter's brow furrows. "Some string lights might be cool, for starters. I like the ones you have. Maybe not in pink, though."
"We can look through Pinterest together," I promise. "And then we'll go—oh, Peter, did you see that?"
"Yeah," Peter says, and then we're both pushing ourselves up on our elbows, craning our necks. More silver flashes streak across the sky, like the briefest glimpse of fish scales. A parade of meteors, of falling stars.
On the blanket, Peter's hand covers mine. He squeezes.
"Make a wish."
We go back inside the tent at around 2 AM. Cheeks numb from the cold, I immediately kick off my shoes and pull on an extra pair of socks before wriggling into my sleeping bag. Peter is close behind, already yawning, and as I turn to watch him, I realize that this is the first full night we're spending together, all by ourselves. No curfews, no one waiting for us to come home. I don't even know if Peter snores, which is a strange thing to think about, a piece of information you wouldn't expect to be missing after dating someone for almost three years—after knowing them for even longer.
And what if he does snore? What if it's so loud it keeps me awake all night so that I'm cranky and can't stand to look at his pretty-boy face in the morning? And what might he learn about me, up close?
"Go to sleep, Lara Jean." Peter grumbles, his eyes shut. "I can feel you looking at me."
Scoffing, I retort, "You like being looked at." And then I roll closer, so that we're almost nose to nose, our knees bumping gently against each other, swaddled in our sleeping bags.
Maybe this is the difference between teenage love and adult love. Shedding the mystery and the allure of nighttime for the promise of morning, when we'll be at our barest. The bad breath and the messy hair and the little annoyances; the wanting to be close in spite of it all. Or maybe it's all the same in the end, night bleeding into day, and I don't need any more theories when I have the real deal right here, sleeping soft and slow. Waiting for me when I wake up.
I close my eyes.