Sam’s best friend Lindsay calls to her from the driveway—it is six fifty-five in the morning, and Lindsay is at Sam’s to pick her up for school. Sam struggles to put her coat on, pack her backpack, and get out the door, but Izzy, her eight-year-old sister, stops her as she is almost out of the house. Sam, frustrated that Izzy always manages to interrupt when she is busy or late, snaps at Izzy to ask her what she wants. Izzy tells Sam that she forgot her gloves (which Izzy pronounces gloveths due to the lisp which has made her the butt of many of her classmates’ jokes) and then hands Sam her favorite cashmere pair—Sam yells at Izzy not to touch her stuff and shuts the door on her.
As Sam starts her day, she is obsessed only with getting to her friends. She ignores her family completely, and sees her sweet younger sister’s helpfulness as a nuisance. Sam’s priorities are very clearly out of whack, and Sam’s every thought—even those about her little sister—relate to how she or others might be judged.
Outside, Lindsay is leaning out the window of her “tank” of a car—a silver Range Rover. Lindsay is the only one of Sam’s friends other than Ally whose car actually belongs to her. Sam sometimes borrows her mother’s reasonable, mid-size sedan, and poor Elody is stuck driving her father’s ancient jalopy. Sam hops into the passenger seat—Lindsay is smoking a cigarette, and gestures with it to the coffee and bagels she got for Sam. The two girls are wearing the same outfit—the two of them, plus Ally and Elody, are deliberately dressing the same today, in black skirts and red fur-trimmed tank tops, for their school’s Cupid Day celebration.
This passage establishes the routines and rules by which the girls’ lives are calibrated. Cars are a major status symbol, and hegemony and sameness are highly valued. Sam’s community seems to be an affluent one, and appearances in this world are everything to Sam and her group of fashionable, popular friends.
Although today Sam and her friends are deliberately dressed the same, everyone in her high school pretty much looks the same. Students dress themselves in brand-name clothing and an unofficial uniform of jeans, sneakers, t-shirts, and fleece jackets is almost required. In her small Connecticut town, “being like the people around you is the whole point,” Sam says. She doesn’t mind the hegemony of her hometown, and though she and Lindsay occasionally dream aloud together of running away to New York City, Sam finds Ridgeview reassuring.
Sam continues underscoring the complicated mechanisms behind popularity and status within her hegemonic community. Being the same as everyone else is not just a way to thrive socially—it’s the way to survive in such a judgmental place. Despite this fact, Sam finds this sameness, and the compulsory desire for it among all her classmates, oddly reassuring—she has a place in the social framework, and a good one at that, and wants to keep it.
Lindsay is an erratic driver, and as she goes straight through stop sign after stop sign, she muses aloud about how her on-again off-again boyfriend Patrick (with whom she’s broken up and gotten back together thirteen times since the start of the school year) had better send her some Cupid Day roses. Sam commiserates, telling Lindsay that she herself had to sit next to her boyfriend Rob while he filled out the form for her own rose. Sam explains that she and Rob have been dating since October, but she has been in love with him since the sixth grade—back when he was “too cool” to even talk to Sam. Rob was Sam’s first-ever crush, and though she’d kissed a boy named Kent McFuller on the playground in third grade, she’d never had feelings for anyone until she noticed Rob.
Sam and Lindsay’s relationships are a major focal point of both their lives. They commiserate together about the ways in which their relationships are lacking or imperfect, and want for their boyfriends to send them roses as symbols of their care for and loyalty towards them. Roses, a recurrent symbol of status and popularity throughout the novel, are things by which Lindsay and Sam have begun to judge not just others, but themselves as well.
Lindsay tells Sam that she is shooting for twenty-five roses this year—last year, she got twenty-two. Sam tells Lindsay that she’d be satisfied with receiving fifteen roses. Sam explains that the roses delivered on Cupid Day, or Valograms, cost two dollars each, and often come with a little note attached to them. The Valograms are delivered by Cupids—freshman and sophomore girls trying to “get in good” with upperclassmen and make themselves noticed. The roses are a big deal, and serve as markers of popularity. If a student gets less than five roses it’s “humiliating,” meaning they are “either ugly or unknown.” Sam has, in years past, seen her classmates scavenging on the ground and in the trash for dropped roses, hoping to add them to their bouquets and create the illusion of popularity.
As Sam goes deeper into detail as to the significance of Valograms, it becomes clear that the intricate and complex social mechanisms within Thomas Jefferson High calibrate every aspect of life there. On Cupid Day, there is a chance for students to externalize their popularity and give form to their desire to be wanted, loved, and well-known. Social capital is so valuable within the school that students often end up humiliating themselves in search of amassing more of it, while those who are popular look down on their desperate peers.
Lindsay switches the subject, asking Sam if she’s ready for “opening night.” Sam shrugs, deflecting, but privately notes that tonight is the night she is planning on losing her virginity, at long last, to Rob Cokran. Though the two of them have gotten close to doing the deed a few times, the moment has never felt right—this weekend, though, Rob’s parents are out of town, and the two of them will have total privacy at his house. As Lindsay teases Sam about finally “growing up,” Sam begins to blush—she remembers how, when she was younger, kids used to sing a song that went “What’s red and white and weird all over? Sam Kingston!” due to her serious and uncontrollable blushing.
In this passage, the juxtaposition between Sam’s insecurity about still being a virgin and her lingering humiliation about having been teased as a younger child are shown to be deeply intertwined. The full extent of Sam’s social history hasn’t been revealed yet, but it’s clear from this passage that she still feels uncertain and insecure about the social capital she has gained, afraid that any vulnerability, slip-up, or uncool move will cause her to slide back down the social ladder.
Lindsay condescendingly assures Sam that everything will go fine between her and Rob, and Sam privately thinks about how a major reason behind her desire to lose her virginity is so that Lindsay and Elody will stop teasing her. Sam is grateful that their friend Ally is still a virgin, so Sam will escape being the last virgin in their friend group. As the two girls drive through the streets on their way to pick up Elody, Sam wonders if having sex will change her—if things will look different to her tomorrow, or if she will look different to those around her.
Sam takes comfort in the fact that she is not the last of her friends who is still a virgin—virginity is a burden in Sam’s world, and she longs to shake herself free from the ways it holds her back from being more like Lindsay and Elody. In this passage, Sam also displays her longing for a kind of rebirth and renewal—she hopes that losing her virginity will bring about this change.
Lindsay and Sam arrive at Elody’s house to pick her up. Despite the cold, Elody is wearing three-inch heels and a thin jacket, and she shimmies her breasts at her friends as she hops into the car. As soon as Elody is inside, Sam feels herself start to relax—it is impossible, she says, to stay stressed whenever the fun, flirty, and carefree Elody is around. Lindsay razzes Elody about her latest “victim,” a boy she’s been hooking up with whom she has nicknamed Muffin. Sam states that Elody is the most “experienced” of any of their friend group—Elody lost her virginity first, and so the other girls regard her as an expert about sex, turning to her for advice and tips. As the girls approach school, Sam closes her eyes and thinks back to her first kiss with Rob, that past fall at homecoming—she grows dizzy and delighted with the memory.
This passage demonstrates how sex, too, is a measure of social status in this world—clearly, Elody is admired and respected for her experience, which presumably makes her seem mature, wise, and daring. It’s notable, though, that Elody probably doesn’t know that much more about sex than any of the other high school girls, so their status differences are based on small variations that they read big significance into. Nevertheless, Sam is obsessed with how sex relates to social status, and what increased social status having sex with someone as dreamy as Rob could bring her.
Sam muses on the “weird” nature of popularity, and attempts to analyze it. Popularity can’t be defined, Sam says, and it’s “not cool” to talk about it, but one knows it when one sees it. Popularity isn’t necessarily about looks, Sam says: Lindsay is gorgeous, but the rest of their friend group isn’t all that much better-looking than their less popular peers, and the girls are by no means “shiny perfect.” They actually embarrass themselves often at school, but Sam notes that popularity is circular: they can get away with “everything” because they’re popular, and it’s because they’re popular that they get away with everything.
This passage is central to Oliver’s establishment of the world of the novel. She has created who a protagonist who is baffled by the mechanisms which dictate who’s popular and who’s not; but because she benefits from them, she is loath to question the obscure rules and restraints which have placed her, unexpectedly, at the top of the social food chain. Sam is notably self-aware here—she understands that she doesn’t exactly deserve her popularity—but she’s not self-aware enough to break free of social norms that don’t fulfill her.
Sam wonders if there’s even a point in trying to analyze popularity before stating that, regardless of the answer, she is grateful that everything is easy for her—she can do “basically” whatever she wants. If high school were a game of poker, she says, she and her friends “would be holding 80 percent of the cards.” Sam knows, though, what it is like to be on the other side—for the first half of her life, she was “the bottom of the bottom” when it came to social status. Now, though, she has first pick of everything. “Nobody ever said life was fair,” Sam ultimately concludes.
Sam doesn’t want to think too deeply about the reasons why she is able to get away with the things she gets away with and enjoy the security she does—all she knows is that if high school were a game, she’d be winning. That’s good enough for Sam, who knows what it’s like to have to grovel before the popular kids and constantly worry about being bullied and humiliated. It doesn’t matter what twist of fate has brought her to where she is now; all that matters is that she manages to stay there.
Lindsay pulls into the school parking lot ten minutes before first bell, hoping that she will still be able to secure a choice parking spot. There are only twenty “choice” spots in the lower lot, and the only other option is parking in the upper lot, which is a far walk—nearly a quarter of a mile—from the school’s main entrance. Lindsay sees a spot and erratically steers her car in, cutting off another girl in a brown Chevrolet.
This passage demonstrates Lindsay’s egregious sense of entitlement. Because she is popular, Lindsay believes she deserves the best of everything, and she is willing to throw her other classmates under the bus to get it. It’s also clear foreshadowing of the accident that Lindsay is such an abysmal driver.
As the girls gather their things and prepare to head into school, Elody passes Sam a condom, and wishes her luck on her “big night.” As Sam accepts the condom, she starts feeling nervous all over again. Elody kisses Sam’s cheek and warns her: “No glove, no love.” Sam starts to blush and quickly gets out of the car. Mr. Shaw, the athletic director, is standing outside the gym when the girls hop out, and he urges them to hurry to class. The girls all giggle—they think Mr. Shaw is a perv and possibly a pedophile. As Sam and her friends glumly head into school, dreading the long Friday which stands between them and the weekend, Sam says: “Kill me now.” Lindsay replies that she’d never let her best friend die a virgin.
Elody is passing the torch, so to speak, to Sam, encouraging her to have sex with Rob and thus cement their relationship, ensuring that Sam’s social status will endure and perhaps even grow. As the girls walk into school and Sam darkly and facetiously wishes for death, Lindsay seems to agree with Sam’s greatest fear—there’s nothing more embarrassing than failing to lose one’s virginity.
During her first two class periods, Sam only gets five roses, but she tries not to stress about it—despite the fact that she sees one of her classmates receive four roses from her boyfriend. It hadn’t even occurred to Sam, she says, to ask Rob to send her more than one. In third period chemistry, Sam and her classmates are greeted by a pop quiz from their stern teacher who is always threatening to phone in his senior students’ poor grades to college admission committees. Sam is disappointed to find that she must sit next to Lauren Lornet—“the only person in the class more clueless” than Sam herself is when it comes to chemistry. Sam arrived late and missed her chance to sit near the class brain, so now she won’t be able to cheat off of him.
As Sam goes through her morning, she worries that, on this important day, she won’t be able to prove her popularity through the roses she receives. Sam doesn’t really care about any of her classmates who aren’t her core group of friends—they only represent a means through which she can take advantage of them in order to continue advancing her own social standing and academic career. It’s funny that, for someone so obsessed with popularity, it doesn’t occur to Sam to have Rob send her more than one rose.
Sam does not know the answer to a single question on the quiz, so she tries to peek over Lauren’s shoulder to copy her answers (despite her fear that Lauren doesn’t know much more than she does). When she can’t quite see, she taps Lauren on the shoulder and asks her to borrow a pen. When Lauren leans over to grab a pen out of her bag, Sam copies down her answers. Lauren gives Sam a pen and whispers to her, insisting she keep it. Sam attempts to give it back to her after the quiz, but Lauren seems to really want Sam to have the pen. Sam accepts it, and sees this as an act of charity toward Lauren—Sam’s mom always tells her that she should do one nice thing a day, and Sam decides that this is it.
Sam’s bar for what constitutes doing a “nice thing” for someone else is lamentably misguided. Sam thinks that accepting an act of kindness from someone else is a kind thing in and of itself—because she is popular, she feels that she can’t help that the world (or at least the world of her high school) revolves around her. She takes advantage of her classmates and calls it charity—Sam is popular, but not because of her good nature.
After fourth period life skills, Sam heads to fifth period calculus. Cupids—underclassman girls dressed in playful costumes—come to class to pass out roses. Sam receives three—one from Elody, one from a girl named Tara Flute who is on the fringes of Sam’s friend group, and one from Rob. “Happy cupid day. Luv ya. Happy now?” says Rob’s note. Sam worries that “luv ya” doesn’t mean “I love you”—she and Rob have never said the words out loud, but she is “pretty sure” that he will say it to her tonight. Sam thinks that she’s done receiving Valograms, but a Cupid comes over and gives Sam one more rose—the Cupid who delivers her final rose has pale blond hair and near-translucent skin, and Sam thinks she looks familiar, but cannot remember her name. The girl introduces herself as Marian, and she tells Sam that her roses are beautiful before leaving.
As Sam’s roses start coming in, they still don’t fulfill her—she knew that her friends would send her some, and knows that she has had to essentially beg Rob for one of them. The roses (which are supposed to represent people’s love of and care for their classmates) thus represent, for Sam, blind loyalty, obligation, and rote duty. The final rose is a surprise, though, and seems to indicate that someone—a surprise someone—actually does want to show Sam they care, and the thought excites her.
Sam checks the note attached to the rose—there is a cartoon of Cupid shooting a bald eagle out of a tree, where it is poised to fall directly on top of a couple sitting on a bench. Underneath the cartoon the card says “Don’t drink and love.” Sam knows immediately that the rose is from Kent McFuller—a classmate who writes for the school humor paper. Sam looks over at Kent’s desk—Kent smiles and waves at Sam, but she only folds his note and shoves it into the bottom of her backpack.
The rose from Kent is not a welcome surprise—he is lower than Sam on the social ladder, and for Sam to interact with anyone below her represents a kind of threat to her own status. That is something she feels she simply cannot afford to do, as insecure as she is in her own popularity. Kent’s note, though, is one of the first genuine gestures in the book (much like Izzy’s concern about Sam’s gloves), and it foreshadows the accident to come.
As Mr. Daimler, the calculus teacher, collects homework, Sam checks him out shamelessly. He is only twenty-five, and Sam thinks he is “gorgeous.” He was once a student at Thomas Jefferson himself—he was prom king. Mr. Daimler comments on Sam’s many roses, and she somewhat flirtatiously retorts that she still hasn’t gotten a rose from him. Her classmates giggle, and Sam watches Mr. Daimler’s ears grow red. She believes that he secretly likes her.
Sam sees her teacher Mr. Daimler as a peer, almost—she is attracted to him, and the fact that he comes from the same complicated (not to mention vetted) social environment that she does creates the illusion of a kind of kinship between them. Her comment is a way to assert power over him publicly, without regard to whether this will embarrass him or undermine his ability to do his job.
After class, Kent approaches Sam to tell her that his parents are going away for the weekend, and he’s having a party tonight. Sam considers the invitation and reflects on her friendship with Kent—they were best friends when they were children, and were also each other’s first kiss—but since freshman year, Sam thinks Kent has gotten weirder and weirder, and the two are no longer friends. Sam knows that Kent has nursed a crush on her for years, but even so, she dismissively tells him that she doesn’t yet know if she’ll make it to his party—it’ll depend on what everyone else is doing. As Kent walks away, however, Sam receives a text from Lindsay, asking if Sam is “in” for Kent’s party that evening. Sam writes back, “Obv.”
Despite their shared history and innocent childhood love for one another, Sam now sees Kent not just as different from her but almost untouchable. She is embarrassed to have been friends with Kent and afraid that even a hint of friendship with someone less cool than herself has the potential to drag her back down. Sam is a hypocrite, though—as soon as Lindsay implies that it’s okay to associate with Kent and even attend his party, Sam is “obv” down for whatever her best friend has in store.
As Sam arrives at the cafeteria for lunch, she sees Rob standing by the register with a plate of fries. She reflects on how, before they started going out, she liked him so much that she sometimes got lightheaded when he simply looked in her direction. Now that they’re together, though, Sam often finds herself thinking that Rob is gross or annoying—these thoughts make her worry that something is wrong with her, because every girl in school would love to go out with Rob. Sam has to remind herself frequently of the reasons she started liking Rob in the first place, but after running through them, she always concludes that she is definitely in love with him.
Sam’s ambivalent feelings about Rob demonstrate just how far she is willing to go to cement and advance her social status. She was drawn to Rob in the beginning because he represented a life and a social standing she wanted—now that they are on the same plane, however, Sam finds her feelings for Rob are diminished, and she must again and again remind herself of all the reasons she fell in love with him in order to keep her feelings, distant as they are, alive. Sam is more loyal to the idea of Rob than to Rob himself. Even though she believes that she is in love with him, she clearly is not.
Sam joins Ally at their favorite table, and they compare rose bouquets—each of them has received nine so far, but both of them admit that one rose each doesn’t count, since they came from nerdy guys. Sam asks Ally if their group is really going to go to Kent McFuller’s party, but Ally insists it’ll be okay, since she’s heard that there will be a keg there.
Sam’s musings on the complicated nature of popularity come back into play in this passage, as the nerdy Kent McFuller is suddenly seen in a new light as someone throwing a desirable party.
Throughout her conversation with Ally, Sam has been watching Rob come closer and closer out of the corner of her eye. Now, he kisses her on the side of the head and greets her, asking if she got his rose. Rob pulls his backpack off and unzips it, revealing half a dozen crumpled roses at the bottom of his backpack. Sam remembers one time when she and Rob were kissing and she opened her eyes only to find that Rob’s eyes were open, too, and he was staring out into space.
Sam’s ambivalence about Rob is palpable as she sees him for the first time all day. Her thoughts are not of how excited she is to celebrate Cupid Day with him and consummate their relationship, but instead of how fearful she is that he’s not into her—and how fearful she is that she’s not that into him, either.
Lindsay clears her throat—she is standing by Rob, and she tells him that he is in her seat. Rob gets up and makes a big show of ceding his chair to Lindsay. Rob kisses Sam goodbye and tells her he’ll see her later—he whispers in her ear that she should remember that tonight is all about the two of them. Sam tells Rob that she hasn’t forgotten, hoping that her voice sounds sexy rather than scared—which she is. Rob kisses Sam deeply and then walks away, and Sam thinks to herself how much she hates the way Rob kisses. Elody has assured her, though, that all her reservations about Rob stem from the fact that they haven’t “sealed the deal yet,” and that as soon as they do, Sam will feel better. Sam believes Elody is right—Elody, after all, is the expert.
Sam can feel her misgivings about Rob mounting, but she tries to push them away, afraid to face what her life looks like without the increased social status and sense of security Rob has given her. Sam chooses to believe Elody’s questionable advice about how, as soon as Sam and Rob have sex, things will instantly improve between them, because it is easier to believe than the idea that things might actually improve faster without Rob.
Elody arrives at the table and sets her bouquet down—she has twelve roses. As the girls tease her about having slept with people to get the roses, Ally sees something over Sam’s shoulder and starts singing a Talking Heads song: “Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est.” The girls turn around and see Juliet Sykes—a classmate whom they have all nicknamed Psycho—walking through the cafeteria. Juliet is pale and ethereal, with a long curtain of pale blond hair. The girls all start making screeching and stabbing noises, imitating the movie Psycho, not even caring if Juliet overhears them.
Sam and her friends are the big fish in the sea—the most popular girls in school. Their polar opposite—and, seemingly, their mortal enemy—is the strange and disconnected Juliet Sykes, whom the girls have made into the object of their ire, developing a careful routine which they use to demoralize the poor girl and keep her away from them. It’s sad that Sam would do this, since she so acutely remembers being tormented by popular people herself.
As Juliet exits the cafeteria, Lindsay wonders aloud if Juliet received her Valogram rose from the four of them. Ally says that she did—she herself was sitting right behind Juliet in biology when she got it. Ally was amazed by the fact that Juliet threw the rose in the trash right in front of her at the end of class. Sam reveals that every year, she and her friends have sent Juliet a single rose with the same note attached: “Maybe next year, but probably not.” Sam doesn’t feel bad, though—she insists that Juliet deserves her nickname, because she is a “freak” who never speaks and seems to live in her own world.
The girls’ repetitious name-calling, which it seems they do each and every day if not several times a week, is buffeted today by their annual tradition of sending Juliet the exact same message every single year, knowing that nothing will change and she will not retaliate, just as she never takes the opportunity to retaliate in daily life.
Lindsay hates Juliet—the two of them were in elementary school together and have been enemies ever since. It was Lindsay who first started making fun of Juliet in fifth grade by calling her Mellow Yellow after Juliet peed in her sleeping bag on a Girl Scout trip. It occurs to Sam as she watches Juliet walk away from the cafeteria that she doesn’t know why Lindsay hates Juliet so much, and she prepares to ask her, but then realizes that the group has moved on to a new topic.
In this passage Sam considers how the lore surrounding Lindsay’s vendetta against Juliet does not match up with what she knows about Lindsay—this strikes Sam seemingly for the first time, but before she can investigate, she is shamed out of doing so, afraid to rock the boat of her social circle.
The girls are now talking about how the girl Lindsay cut off in the parking lot this morning, Sarah, is being barred from swimming in an upcoming meet because she was late to homeroom after Lindsay took her spot and she received a detention. The girls make fun of Sarah for being so obsessed with a sport, and then begin teasing Sam for having been into horseback riding as a little girl.
The girls see the practical effects of how their actions affect those around them, but they do not have any empathy for those they hurt—they only seek more and more opportunities to be cruel, derisive, and condescending.
Ally starts talking about how Lindsay’s taking the parking space has now affected Sarah’s life, and about chaos theory, and how everything in the whole world is connected. The other girls make fun of Ally and ask her if she’s been smoking pot. Soon Ally herself is laughing and joking with them, and all four girls are hysterical.
Even an attempt to seriously think about how their actions affect others is shot down and immediately discredited and lampooned.
After lunch, Lindsay and Sam decide to cut class and go to TCBY for frozen yogurt. The two of them do this often—as second-semester seniors, they are, Sam says, hardly even expected to go to class. Though technically a special pass is needed to leave campus during the school day, Lindsay and Sam sneak out through a hole in the fence behind the gym near the tennis courts, near a spot where all the smokers hang out.
Sam and Lindsay make their own rules—as the veritable queens of their high school, they turn their noses up at restrictions and regulations and instead feel free to move through the school on their own terms, believing that their popularity allows them to get away with “anything.”
The girls walk the half mile to a little strip mall where there’s a gas station, a TCBY, and a questionable Chinese restaurant which once gave Elody food poisoning. As Sam and Lindsay pass the restaurant they spot two of their classmates inside—Alex Liment and Anna Cartullo. Both girls know (as does the whole school) that Alex has been cheating on his ultra-religious girlfriend Bridget McGuire with Anna for months. Anna Cartullo, though only a junior, is rumored to be highly promiscuous, and is one of the few kids in town who doesn’t come from money—the other students make fun of her for being poor and sleeping around.
Sam and Lindsay encounter a pair of students who are below them on the social food chain, and take the opportunity to judge them. The girls are so wrapped up in gossiping about and destroying the reputations of others that they pay no mind to what they may be doing to their own.
Lindsay drags Sam inside the restaurant and goes up to Anna and Alex’s table. She is sort of friends with Alex, though Sam hardly ever talks to him. Lindsay asks Alex if he is going to the party tonight—Alex’s face goes red, and Sam knows that he is embarrassed to be caught “blatantly” hanging out with Anna. Lindsay snidely asks Alex if he is going to bring Bridget with him. To change the subject, Sam warns Anna not to eat the food at this restaurant—in response, Anna makes a big show of taking a huge bite of her orange beef. Lindsay drags Sam back out of the restaurant, giggling at the mischief she’s caused.
Anna, unlike so many of her classmates, is contemptuous of Sam and Lindsay, and wants to take the opportunity to show them that she doesn’t give a whit about their influence or their status—she is living her life on her terms, and she will not be shamed by them.
The girls go to TCBY and order ice cream and, despite the fact that they’re both freezing, eat their treats on the way back to school. Once they get back to campus, they see Anna and Alex arguing near the smokers’ area while Alex smokes a cigarette—Lindsay smokes a quick cigarette, too, but puts it out when she sees Ms. Winters, the vice principal who has a “crazy vendetta” against people who smoke. Sam wonders if the two of them should go back and warn Alex and Anna that Ms. Winters is coming, but Lindsay drags Sam back to class, telling her that Alex and Anna can take care of themselves. Sam agrees, and notes that it’s not like the two of them have ever done anything for her.
Sam sees her high school through a convoluted lens of prostration and retribution. She can’t recall a time when Alex or Anna directly helped or served her, and so she refuses on principle to do the same for them—ignoring the fact that it would simply be the decent thing to do, and that a little bit of kindness could go a long way, especially coming from someone as “influential” as Sam herself.
Sam recounts the history of her friendship with Lindsay. In seventh grade, “after years of trying,” Sam had clawed her way up to the middle of the social ladder—it was then that Lindsay “picked” her to be her friend. Lindsay had always been popular—she has a magnetism and a magic to her, and Sam notes that Lindsay is “the kind of person who makes you feel drunk just by being around her.”
Sam feels special to have been singled out by Lindsay, a “magic” person whom others just have an ineffable but strong desire to be around. Lindsay makes Sam feel special.
In seventh grade, at a pool party at Tara Flute’s house, Lindsay pulled Sam upstairs into Tara’s room to show her two tampons she had found in another girls’ bag. Lindsay and Sam concocted a plan, and ran through the house checking all the bathroom cabinets for pads and tampons. Sam knew what they were planning was cruel, but she was so excited that Lindsay wanted to talk to her that she pushed her feelings aside. The two girls collected all they could and then ran out onto the deck and threw feminine products down onto the pool party below, making fun of Beth, the girl who’d originally brought the tampons with her. After that day, Lindsay and Sam were best friends—Ally and Elody joined their group over the next couple years, and soon the four were inseparable.
It is significant that Sam bonded with Lindsay through an act of petty and needless cruelty. Sam idolized Lindsay from afar, but her first introduction to the real Lindsay was aiding her in another girl’s humiliation. This should have tipped Sam off as to what she was getting into, but Sam was just so excited for the attention that she of course went along with Lindsay’s plan—and she has continued to do so as the years have gone by.
After school, the four girls all go to Ally’s house. When they were younger, the girls used to stay in, order Chinese, and watch movies all night, but now there is hardly ever a Friday night where the girls aren’t out at a party. The girls primp and prep themselves for the party in Ally’s room, doing each other’s makeup and taking shots of vodka. Once Sam is ready, she locks herself in the bathroom and looks at herself in the mirror. She is nervous about tonight, but calms herself by thinking that this time tomorrow, she will “finally be different.”
The girls’ pre-party routine has become second-nature to them; their whole lives consist, it seems, of repeating actions, behaviors, rituals, and conversations which have become familiar. Sam, as a result, looks forward to an opportunity for change—a chance to see things with fresh eyes and even become a different person.
As the girls load themselves into Lindsay’s car and drive to Kent’s house, Sam has a strange feeling—as if she is “floating above everything.” Elody howls along to the radio, already wasted, while Lindsay, who Sam claims is hardly ever affected by alcohol, drives down the twisting roads of their town.
Sam, perhaps out of nervousness, feels disconnected from everything around her, imbued with a lack of agency. She is only able to focus on what lies ahead of her.
Kent’s house is far back in the woods, and as the girls drive down the long twisting driveway, Ally says aloud that “This is how horror movies start.” The drive, however, is familiar to Sam, who used to come over to Kent’s house all the time when she was little. When the girls finally arrive at the main house, they are all stunned by its opulence and beauty. The girls all take one more shot from a bottle of vodka and then head into the party.
Despite Kent’s nerdy demeanor and low social status, as the girls approach his house, it stands out as a symbol of his wealth and value, intriguing the girls and validating their decision to come to the party in the first place.
Sam loves walking into parties: she always gets the feeling that anything could happen. Inside the house, the party is in full swing—Sam and her friends say hi to a few people but ignore most of the guests, their popularity affording them the chance to pick and choose whom they’ll pay attention to. Sam quickly gets separated from her friends in the throng of people, and she gets nervous, but soon she feels Rob’s arms around her. She turns around to face him and sees that he is very drunk, though it’s only ten o’clock.
The night begins on a note of chance, excitement, and possibility. Sam relishes this feeling—little does she know that that feeling of endless possibility will come back to haunt her in ways she can’t yet possibly imagine.
Rob leans into kiss Sam, but she turns away and looks for her friends. Instead she spots Kent McFuller talking to a girl—Sam feels annoyed that he hasn’t noticed her yet. Rob whispers to Sam that the two of them will leave for his house after half an hour, and then kisses her. As he does, he paws at her breasts and snakes his hands up her shirt, while Sam tries to force herself to enjoy the sloppy kiss. She ruminates on the fact that she has decided to have sex with Rob tonight only because she wants to get it over with—she is uncertain about the act itself and she is worried that things will be awkward afterward, but she wants to put the loss of her virginity behind her.
Rob is all over Sam, but Sam’s attention is pulled just slightly in Kent’s direction—more out of a desire to have her own desirability and social status validated. Nonetheless, it’s clear that she wants to get away from Rob in this passage—all she can think about is getting sex over and done with, making evident the fact that she is not actually attracted to or interested in, let alone in love with, Rob Cokran.
Ally approaches Sam and Rob, telling them to “get a room.” Rob goes off to refill his beer. Ally tells Sam that Elody is hooking up with her newest fling, Muffin, while Lindsay and Patrick are fighting. Sam laughs, noting that Ally always makes her feel better. The two of them head off to “save” Lindsay from Patrick, taking in the party on the way. As they walk through the crowds, Sam reflects on the deep divisions within her high school, and the popularity contest which has created two different worlds: “the haves and the have-nots.”
Even at a communal social gathering where everyone seems to be on the same plane, Sam can’t help but obsess over the deep chasms which have stratified her high school and created two distinct groups which are inherently distrustful of and derisive towards one another.
By the time Ally and Sam get to Lindsay and Patrick, the two of them have made up. Elody is hanging on “Muffin,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is hardly even paying attention to her and is talking intensely to another girl. Lindsay jumps up and throws her arms around Elody and Ally, and the girls laugh together and rib one another. Sam closes her eyes and promises herself she will never forget this moment: the wild party, the embrace of her friends, and a fine mist of rain coming through a nearby open window.
The raucous party is Sam’s true element—she feels alive, invincible, and grateful for her popular friends, her elevated social status, and the knowledge that she is living her best life and making incredible memories with her high school friends.
When Sam opens her eyes, she is greeted with a massive shock: Juliet Sykes is standing in the doorway, staring at Sam and her friends. Sam is shocked more by the fact of how beautiful Juliet looks than the fact that she has shown up, at last, to a high-school party. As Ally, Elody, and Lindsay notice that Juliet is there, Sam observes that Lindsay “goes pale” and actually looks frightened for a moment before her expression grows angry.
Sam is disoriented by Juliet’s presence, but is more in awe of her than anything else. Lindsay, on the other hand, is seemingly visibly frightened of Juliet—there is something Juliet represents to her which is threatening, and though Sam can’t discern what it is, Lindsay can’t manage to hide the fear behind her eyes.
Soon, everyone in the room is aware of Juliet’s presence, and they stare at her as she walks “slowly and confidently” toward Sam and her friends. Juliet stops just in front of Lindsay, looks her in the eye, and calls her a bitch. Juliet then turns on Ally, Elody, and even Sam, calling them all bitches. Lindsay leans in toward Juliet and tells her that she’d rather be a bitch than a psycho before shoving Juliet backward. Lindsay starts screaming “psycho” over and over again, and as the crowd joins in, Ally dumps a beer on Juliet’s head. Soon everyone is throwing drinks at her, and as she stumbles toward the door, Sam notices that Juliet is looking at her almost pityingly. Sam, caught off-guard, lunges at Juliet and shoves her hard, pushing her back toward the door.
The crowd at the party’s cruel taunts and even physical violence toward Juliet are jarring, unsettling, and dehumanizing. Juliet has been tortured by her classmates for years, and her desire to finally rise up against that cruel treatment is only met with deeper and increasingly wide-scale cruelty. Even Sam, who has up to this point considered herself a passive participant in Juliet’s suffering, physically lashes out, punishing Juliet for daring to overstep the invisible bounds of the divide between popular and unpopular.
At that moment, Kent enters the room. He locks eyes with Sam, who immediately feels hot and uncomfortable. Sam feels like she is about to be sick, and tries to push her way out of the room to get some air. Kent confronts her, asking her what she did to Juliet, and though Sam tries to push past him, he blocks her. Sam screams at Kent and tells him to stop “obsessing over [her],” stating that he is such a loser that she shouldn’t even know his name. Kent barely reacts—he just leans in close to Sam and tells her that he sees right through her. Sam tells Kent that he doesn’t know her at all; he replies, “Thank God,” before telling Sam that her boyfriend is downstairs puking in the kitchen sink.
Sam knows that Kent sees her for who she truly is, and that his calling her out is serious business. She doesn’t want to admit this to herself, though, and instead chooses to cruelly leverage her newfound popularity against him. Kent, though, is having none of it—he knows that Sam’s status is all a sham, and that she has become just as cruel as the people she’s chosen to surround herself with.
As Sam heads downstairs to find Rob, she has a sinking realization that tonight is not “the night” after all. She feels both disappointed and relived, but as she considers waking up tomorrow morning and feeling exactly the same, she begins to cry. She thinks that the whole night is Kent’s fault, and Juliet Sykes’s.
Sam is eager to place the blame on anyone other than herself and to wallow in self-pity rather than reflect on her own actions.
The party begins to wind down after about half an hour. Sam leaves with Elody, Ally, and Lindsay; on the way out, they see couples drunkenly making out in corners and pass by an open bathroom door in which Bridget McGuire is crying at the edge of the tub—Lindsay tells Sam that Bridget dumped Alex Liment after Ms. Winters caught him and Anna Cartullo together, smoking near the tennis courts.
The events of the night continue to spiral into strangeness and sadness as Sam watches her classmates fight and break up. The small, seemingly inconsequential choices they’ve made throughout their days at last catching up with them as their choice not to warn Anna and Alex of Ms. Winters’ approach has led to the end of Alex and Bridget’s relationship.
As the girls leave the party, Rob stops them, and asks Sam where she’s going. Sam tells Rob to let her go and pushes him away from her. Rob, drunk and confused, asks Sam if she’s cheating on him. Though Sam tells Rob not to act “stupid,” he becomes enraged, and seemingly at random picks the nearest guy to him and asks if he is sleeping with Sam. As Rob and the random guy get into a fight, Lindsay pulls Sam out the door and towards the car, reassuring her that everything will be better tomorrow.
Rob is a drunken mess, and Sam is distraught by the fact that he would rather party than share a night of intimacy with her. Still, it seems as if this is, to some extent, what she expected all along—she removes herself from the fight almost immediately, unable to even bother herself with setting the record straight or attending to her mess of a boyfriend.
Outside, it is raining, and the girls run toward the car, trying not to get wet. They are all soaked by the time they reach the Range Rover, laughing hysterically, and Sam has practically forgotten about how bad the night was. As Lindsay begins driving, Sam notices that she is going faster than usual, but doesn’t think anything of it. Sam drunkenly begins sharing her theory about the slideshow of “greatest hits” she believes ones sees before they die, though her friends mostly ignore her and turn on some music. Lindsay lights a cigarette but drops it onto her seat, and takes her eyes off the road for a second as she tries to put it out. Sam notices out of the corner of her eye that it is 12:39 a.m.
The evening has been tumultuous and at times frightening, but as Sam and her friends head for home, they experience relief and joy at being together. Sam has been picking up on strange, small details all night, and now her thoughts take a turn toward the macabre as she considers Lindsay’s recklessness, Juliet’s pain, and her own cruelty.
Suddenly, there is a flash of white in front of the car, and Lindsay shouts something Sam can’t make out—something like “sit” or “shit” or “sight.” Suddenly, their car is flipping off the road into the woods, and Sam hears a horrible screeching noise and smells fire. The moment of death, she says, “is full of heat and sound and pain bigger than anything,” but after a second or two she feels nothing.
It is ironic—cruel, even—that just moments after broaching the topic of death, Sam and her friends are flung off the road and, for at least one of them, plunged straight into the moment of death itself.
She realizes that some people might think she deserved to die—that after she sent the mean Valogram to Juliet, dumped her drink on her at the party, cheated off Lauren Lornet, and said awful things to Kent, many people will think she got exactly what she deserved. But, Sam begs her readers, before pointing fingers, they should ask themselves if what she did is “really so bad,” and if it’s actually any worse than “what anybody else does.” She urges her readers to “think about it.”
Sam is indignant about her death, and believes that despite her cruelty and badness, she didn’t really deserve it. Nothing she did was all that bad, she believes, and she attempts to throw into relief the banal but cruel mistakes people make each and every day as justification for her own actions. Sam is still naïve, defensive, and self-centered at this point, but, as she is thrown into something bigger than herself and beyond her comprehension, all of that will soon change.