When we get inside, the venue is pretty full, lots of people standing near the stage, drinking beers and dancing to the music. The band is actually just two guys with guitars and a laptop, and their sound is sort of electronica pop. It fills the whole room. It’s a mixed crowd in the audience: some older guys in rock band T-shirts and beards, closer to my dad’s age, but also a lot of students. Chris tries to wipe off the stamp on her hand to get us beers, but is unsuccessful. I don’t mind, because I don’t really like beer, and also, she still has to drive us back tonight. I start asking around to see if anyone has a phone charger, which Chris slaps my arm for. “We’re on an adventure!” she yells. “We don’t need cell phones for an adventure!”
Then she grabs my hand and pulls me along with her to the edge of the stage. We dance our way to the middle, and we jump along to the music, even though we don’t know any of the songs. One of the guys went to UNC, and midway through the show, he leads the crowd in the Tar Heels fight song. “I’m a Tar Heel born, I’m a Tar Heel bred, and when I die I’m a Tar Heel dead!” The crowd goes nuts, the whole room is shaking. Chris and I don’t know the words, but we shout, “Go to hell, Duke!” along with everyone else. Our hair swings wildly in our faces; I’m sweaty, and suddenly I’m having the best time. “This is so much fun,” I scream in Chris’s face.
“Same!” she screams back.
After the second set Chris declares that she is hungry, so we are off into the night.
We walk up the street for what feels like ages when we find a place called Cosmic Cantina. It’s a tiny Mexican place with a long line, which Chris says must mean they either have good food or really cheap food. Chris and I inhale our burritos; they are stuffed full with rice and beans and melting cheese and homemade pico de gallo. It tastes pretty plain, except for the hot sauce. So hot my lips burn. If my phone weren’t dead and Chris’s phone weren’t nearly dead, I’d have searched online for the best burrito in Chapel Hill. But then we might not have found this place. For some reason it’s the best burrito of my life.
After we eat our burritos, I say, “What time is it? We should head back soon if we want to get back before one.”
“But you’ve barely seen any of campus,” Chris says. “Isn’t there anything you want to see in particular? Like, I don’t know, a boring library or something?”
“Nobody knows me like you do, Chris,” I say, and she bats her eyelashes. “There is one place I want to see . . . it’s in all the brochures. The Old Well.”
“Then let’s go,” she says.
As we walk, I ask her, “Does Chapel Hill seem like Charlottesville to you?”
“No, it seems better.”
“You’re just like Kitty. You think everything new is better,” I say.
“And you think everything old is better,” she counters.
She has a point there. We walk the rest of the way in companionable silence. I’m thinking about the ways UNC does and doesn’t remind me of UVA. The campus is quiet, I guess because most kids have gone home for summer break. There are still people walking around, though: girls in sundresses and sandals and boys in khaki shorts and UNC baseball caps.
We cross the green lawn, and there it is: the Old Well. It sits between two brick residence halls. It’s a small rotunda, like a mini version of the one at UVA, and there is a drinking fountain in the center. There’s a big white oak tree right behind it, and there are azalea bushes all around, hot pink like a lipstick color Stormy used to wear. It’s enchanting.
“Are you supposed to make a wish or something?” Chris asks, stepping up to the fountain.
“I think I heard that on the first day of classes, students take a sip of water from the fountain for good luck,” I say. “Either good luck or straight As.”
“I won’t need straight As where I’m going, but I’ll take the luck.”
Chris bends down to take a sip, and a couple of girls walking by caution, “Frat guys pee in that fountain all the time—don’t do it.”
Her head snaps back up and she jumps away from the fountain. “Ew!” Hopping down, she says, “Let’s take a selfie.”
“We can’t; our phones are dead, remember? We’ll just have to have the memory in our hearts like the old days.”
“Good point,” Chris says. “Should we hit the road?”
I hesitate. I don’t know why, but I’m not ready to leave just yet. What if I never get to come back? I spot a bench facing one of the brick buildings and go over and sit down, “Let’s stay a little bit longer.”
I hug my knees to my chest and Chris sits down next to me. Fiddling with the stack of bracelets on her arm, she says, “I wish I could come here with you.”
“To college or to UNC?” I’m so caught off guard by the pensive note in her voice that I don’t stop to correct her, to remind her that I won’t be coming here either.
“Either. Both. Don’t get me wrong. I’m psyched about Costa Rica. It’s just . . . I don’t know. Like, what if I’m missing out by not going to college at the same time as everybody else.” She looks at me then, a question in her eyes.
I say, “College will be here waiting for you, Chris. Next year, the year after. Whenever you want it.”
Chris twists around and looks out at the lawn. “Maybe. We’ll see. I can picture you here, Lara Jean. Can’t you?”
I swallow. “I have a plan. William and Mary for a year, then UVA.”
“You mean you and Peter have a plan. That’s why you’re holding back.”
“Okay, Peter and I have a plan. But it’s not the only reason.”
“But it’s the main one.”
I can’t deny it. The thing that’s missing no matter where I go, if it’s William and Mary or if it’s here, is Peter.
“So why not go here for a year, then?” Chris asks me. “What’s the difference if you’re here or William and Mary? An hour? Either way, you’re not at UVA. Why not be here?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer her; she hops up and runs out onto the lawn, and she kicks off her shoes and does a series of cartwheels.
What if I came here and I ended up loving it? What if, after a year, I didn’t want to leave? What then? But wouldn’t it be great if I loved it? Isn’t that the whole point? Why bet on not loving a place? Why not take a chance and bet on happiness?