Schooled

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Chapter 22

We saw each other nearly every day for almost two weeks, and texted on the days we didn’t. We avoided spending time together at my house at my insistence. Sometimes Dylan met me at my study room in the library—to study, or to do other things. We’d spend time at his place, keeping it casual around his roommates. Though I’m sure they suspected something, they didn’t let on, and I never stayed over. On the days he drove me and Ava to school our eyes would meet in the rearview mirror. I’d look away before Ava could get suspicious.

Now that I’d given up the internal war I’d been waging over my emerging feelings for Dylan, it freed up lots of new energy. I made great progress in my classes and on the business plan. I was on fire and it suddenly felt like everything was going my way. The business plan suggested we might be in a position to launch a first collection before the end of next year. My focus had turned to scoping out potential contacts and competitors.

The worry I had initially felt about being distracted subsided as I realized I could handle school, Travesty, and Dylan. Unlike Jake, who’d been supportive but hands-off, Dylan actually wanted to know what I was working on. He’d ask questions and offer ideas. I’d sometimes catch him flipping through my finance text. We could have actual conversations about anything from foreign policy—a favorite of his that was admittedly new to me—to pop culture.

He found it perennially fascinating, and frustrating, that I needed to have every second of the day planned out. I told him he could get over it if I could live with the fact that he was a Green Day fan.

Wednesday was usually a day our paths didn’t cross. After school I arrived home and turned on the Fashion TV we’d pre-recorded. It was half indulgence and half imperative. It helped to be informed about the goings on, and I loved to hear updates from the industry as well as see new lines and designers I knew.

I’d clicked on the screen a few minutes late and an interview was already in progress. The byline read “Jaime White designs out of business?” A stunning young woman with a punky pixie cut was getting ready to respond to the host’s question. “It’s been a tough few seasons in ready-to-wear,” she was saying. “More competition from Europe is on the U.S. market than ever before. Lots of the mainstream retailers are bringing in new voices in fashion, and they can draw on low-cost suppliers we can’t—or won’t—go to.”

Ava and I had worshipped Jaime White since we were in high school. Jaime was the youngest of five children and grew up in a blue collar Wisconsin family. It was about as far from fashion pedigree as you could get. Still, she’d followed her passion and made smart decisions along the way. Jaime was a huge inspiration and one of the people who first affirmed I might actually make something of this dream.

At twenty-nine, she had a line of boutiques across the U.S. and A-listers everywhere wore her designs.

I’d had the chance to meet Jaime in New York this summer at one of our magazine parties at the Met. I had approached her thanks to some liquid courage, and we’d exchanged a few emails when I had questions about the business side of things.

“What does this mean for your stores?” the host was asking.

“Ava,” I called. “Come watch.”

“Unfortunately,” Jaime was responding, “we are going to be closing a number of locations in the south and mid-west. We’ll still be coming out with new lines for next season, but it’s a tough environment.”

“What advice would you give to new designers?”

“Honestly? I worry about trying to enter the market right now. It’s more competitive than ever. Margins in ready-to-wear are tighter and it’s truly a global market.”

They wrapped up the interview by thanking Jaime and citing some statistics on failure rates of new business ventures, but I’d already tuned out. A hint of panic was crawling up my throat. What were we getting ourselves into?

Ava knew it and tried to brush it off. “Forget the market, Lex. Our clothes will practically sell themselves.” Her cavalier attitude normally glanced off me, but today it was irritating rather than endearing.

While Ava and Jaime shared a fierce ability to design street-savvy clothes, the similarities ended there. Jaime was a shrewd business woman, while Ava always figured she’d land on her feet.

“It doesn’t work like that, A. We need the clothes, but we have to hit the market with the right connections, the right promoters, and the right price point at the right time.” If Jaime couldn’t get it right … I didn’t want to think about the repercussions for us. Two college students with zero experience? We needed all the help we could possibly get.

“We’ll get the money to start, don’t worry so much. Once people see the line the rest will be easy!” She narrowed her eyes at me. “Why are you so down on this all of a sudden? You sound like my parents lately.”

“I’m not, it’s just—” Something went off in the back of my head. “What do you mean like your parents?”

“Well, they haven’t come right out and said it, but Mom asked me if I wouldn’t want to also get a diploma in something more ‘mainstream.’ That it would give me more ‘options.’ You know I don’t do subtle, but if that’s not a hint, I don’t know what is.”

This was news to me. The Camerons had always seemed completely supportive of Ava’s ambitions, and her siblings before that. I hoped this was just Ava blowing things out of proportion—otherwise I wasn’t sure what to do with that piece of information.

* * *

Dylan and I walked across campus between classes the next day. It was getting more awkward to hide our relationship—or whatever this was. When he’d drive me and Ava to school, we’d part ways on arrival only to meet up later. I hated feeling so sneaky.

Fall was starting to get colder—definitely sweater weather. I shoved my hands in the pockets of my jeans as we walked, since I’d been pretty clear about the “no PDA” rule.

“Of course they support Ava,” he was saying. I tried not to be distracted by his dark-green pullover that set off his hair and eyes. It looked soft and I wanted to curl up on it. On him. And then maybe …

“You’re talented, and so is she,” he went on. “But even you have to admit this fashion thing is a long shot, right? I mean, how many businesses actually make it?”

Because I had been busy checking him out, it took me a minute to catch up. “Ours will. It has to.” I said it with more confidence than I felt, thinking I sounded like Ava. But, we would succeed. This was my life. My shot. I had a lot of stake in this and had done my homework. We would make it work.

“OK, but what if it doesn’t? You’ll have your business degree, can do anything else you want to. Ava doesn’t have a fallback.”

Part of my mind said he was being practical, but his words stopped me in my tracks. Because it was the middle of the day and we were in the heart of campus, other students had to change tracks so as not to run me over.

It took him a minute to realize I wasn’t with him and he stopped and turned, a perplexed expression on his handsome face.

“What did I say?”

“You think I’m doing a business degree because I want to be in business? That fashion is just … what … a whim?” I didn’t try to keep the hurt out of my voice.

He opened his mouth but I cut him off. “You think we won’t actually succeed with this thing? That in a year we’ll be a statistic? Another failed small business venture?” I probably sounded more like Ava than me, but this was the one thing that mattered to me more than anything in the world.

“Lex, come on. It’s not that I don’t believe in you. You’re brilliant and amazing. But you have to admit the idea’s a bit crazy—a pair of twenty-two-year-olds starting a profitable business right out of school? In an unpredictable and hyper-competitive industry like fashion? Without connections, or money?” Every word felt like a stake in my heart. How could he say these things? Worse, how long had he been thinking this?

“Wow, Dylan.” I didn’t bother to hide the sarcasm. “Just because I’m not building schools for underprivileged children, what I want to do isn’t good enough?” I was twisting his words but didn’t care.

“No,” he said, his voice tinged with frustration. “What I’m saying is that it’s good to have a backup plan. That’s all.” He spread his hands wide like he was being totally reasonable and didn’t know why I was being so unreasonable.

“Don’t you get it, Dylan? I don’t have a backup plan. This is it for me. I need to make this work. I will make this work.” This was how I’d show my mom I could do something on my own terms.

“Well, maybe you should. Have a backup plan.”

My heart twisted. “Un-fucking-believable.” I turned and walked away.

“Lex, wait!” I heard him call from behind me. I didn’t listen.

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