After summer break, Julia starts the fall semester of her senior year off by meeting with Mr. Ingman every Thursday after school so that he can help her to prepare for standardized tests and college applications. Julia is grateful for the help of Mr. Ingman—“one of the smartest people [she’s] ever known.” Julia is determined to pull her grades up enough to get in her dream colleges in New York, Boston, and Chicago. Julia has been saving money all summer, cleaning houses with Amá in hopes of earning enough to cover a one-way flight to wherever she gets into school.
Julia has been sidelined by grief and distraction, but as the school year begins, she’s more determined than ever to get herself out of her working-class neighborhood for good, and in into the college of her dreams. Julia is focused on escape.
As Julia writes her admissions essays, Mr. Ingman encourages her to play up the fact that her parents are undocumented immigrants. Julia is afraid to do so, fearing that someone will report her parents and have them deported—Mr. Ingman assures Julia this won’t happen, and promises her that he would never lead her astray. He tells her that she’s one of the best students he’s ever had, and he’s determined to help her secure a bright future for herself.
Mr. Ingman knows that Julia should use the limitations she’s faced and the structural poverty she and her family have endured as a part of her story—but Julia is protective of her parents, even in the face of all the strife that’s been between them lately. This is an interesting moment in the book, as it acknowledges the way that certain disadvantaged minorities can, in some ways, use that disadvantage to their own advantage, while at the same time making clear that those disadvantages (such as potential deportation) are nonetheless extremely real, profound, and destructive.
After school gets out early for a half-day one day, Julia takes the train to Wicker Park, where she visits a used bookstore. She has seventeen dollars saved from her lunch money, and is hoping to treat herself to a couple books. While browsing the poetry section, she picks up a book by Walt Whitman. She smells the pages and reads some of it, getting lost in the world of the book. She hardly notices when a cute white boy approaches her and begins making conversation about how much he loves Whitman. Julia is grateful to have someone who wants to discuss literature with her, and she begins gushing about all her favorite novels.
Things are stressful both at home and at school—Julia has a lot of exciting things going on, but is also facing a lot of pressure. She has scrimped and saved lunch money so that she can go buy some books as a way of escaping into a fictional world for a time—this shows that books are more important to Julia than even food.
After flirting back and forth about their favorite—and least-favorite—books for a few minutes, Julia and the boy, whose name is Connor, introduce themselves to one another. Julia feels an intense attraction to Connor, and isn’t sure what to say to him. Julia buys her books, but when she’s finished checking out, Connor follows her out of the store and invites her for a coffee so they can continue talking. At a hipster coffee shop nearby, they make fun of the other patrons, and Julia wonders if she’s on her first real date or not.
Julia’s blind “date” with Ramiro was more about peer pressure than it was about attraction—with Connor, though, Julia finds herself genuinely connecting with someone she both thinks is cute and who shares her interests. In fact, it is notable that Connor is the first other teenager portrayed in the book who does share Julia’s interests.
Connor asks Julia where she’s from, and she tells him she’s from Chicago. When he asks where she’s “from from,” she jokingly accuses him of being racist before telling him that she’s Mexican—and that if he wanted to know her ethnicity, he could have just asked. As Julia and Connor continue talking he reveals he lives in Evanston—a wealthy suburb of Chicago. They continue flirting and discussing literature, and Julia feels so happy she wonders if she’s dreaming.
Julia and Connor are from very different words—Connor is white and affluent, and rarely meets people who aren’t like him. This makes him slightly insensitive to Julia’s cultural and socioeconomic background, but Julia is willing to overlook this fact because they seem to have a deeper connection of shared interests. This tension, between the way that their backgrounds make them unable to connect, even as their shared interests offer a connection, will continue throughout their relationship.
Eventually, Julia blurts out that her sister died last year—she tells Connor that though she feels she never knew Olga, she finds herself wishing lately that there was still a way to get to know her. She tells Connor about the strange things she’s heard about Olga, and expresses frustration that she can’t get onto her sister’s laptop to hunt for more clues. Connor expresses sympathy for Julia’s situation—and tells her that he’s a whiz with computers, and might be able to help her hack into Olga’s laptop if she can bring it to him. Connor and Julia leave the coffee shop and wander the city for hours, talking and flirting. When it’s time for Julia to go home, Connor walks her to the train station and kisses her goodbye before telling her he wants to see her again soon.
Connor truly likes Julia—and she likes him back. In spite of the differences between them and the small hiccups in their conversation that result from this fact, Connor feels empathy for Julia and wants to help her on her quest—something no one else in her orbit is doing for her at this point.
A few days later, Julia meets up with Connor in the city again after lying to Amá about a field trip to the Cultural Center downtown. As Julia approaches the restaurant where she’s meeting Connor and sees him standing outside, her legs turn to rubber—she wonders if she’s in love. The two go inside and eat—Julia experiences Indian food for the first time, and gorges herself on the delicious spicy food. Afterwards, they return to the used bookstore and then walk to the park, where they sit on a bench and make out. Julia is happy and grateful for how kind and tender Connor is.
Julia’s relationship with Connor is flourishing at the expense of her relationship with Amá. As Julia lies more and more often to get away from home and indulge in the luxury of food and the escape of books, she’s trying to abandon—at least temporarily—who she is and where she comes from. Julia has escaped from her community and family through books; now she is doing it through a relationship.