If You Have to Ask

If You Have to Ask by Lauren Kells

Learning how to love is hard.

Can you teach someone how to love?

Jill is in love with her new career as an English teacher in San Francisco. She’s also still in love with her ex-boyfriend from college, Jacob, who is happy to be her friend with benefits, an arrangement Jill thinks is just temporary until he realizes she’s the one.

Jill is patient with Jacob because he’s suffered so much loss in his past, but when he’s unexpectedly hired as the new teacher down the hall, Jill has to figure out how to take control of her personal life before it starts interfering with her professional one.

Taking control won’t be easy though, when her best girlfriend starts a new relationship, her best student considers dropping out of school and her best bet at love still hasn’t forgiven her.

Available now! You can read it on your device or as a book in hand. There are discussion questions for book club, too.

What readers say

Kells creates interesting characters, human, full of flaws and fun, and reveals their full history in fascinating ways. This story about a young teacher explores the liminal space we often are in: between things, between people, floating in uncertainty. The author takes us into that space, explores it, and moves both us and characters to someplace new. – Mark, on Goodreads

Read an excerpt

I let my students believe I was married for good reasons. It kept their teenaged dating propositions and distracting theories to a minimum, as did wearing the ring Jacob bought me during our first year at Berkeley. I needed ways to show students that I was older than they were, especially since I wasn’t that much older. It may sound crazy, but it was a practical choice. Of course, sometimes I almost believed the lie, too, envisioning Jacob’s curly hair and small straight teeth when students asked about my husband.

As I stood there, waiting for the final bell, I watched the students move through the halls like cars trying to move through a busy intersection in the developing world, without any stoplights or sense of order. They tried desperately not to touch each other, not to crash, to look like they knew exactly where they were going. Their faces were pulled into soft frozen half smiles, trying to look completely relaxed about their first week, but their eyes betrayed their fear. So much was at stake; their whole lives, it seemed, could be determined by this one year of school, maybe even these first few days, which teachers they were assigned, and who they had to sit next to in class.

“Are we going to meet him this year?” Marcus asked. I hadn’t seen him coming, but there he was, by my side, leaning against my open classroom door, just as he’d done the year before. His thick upper arm looked like a thigh next to my shoulder.

“No way are you ever going to meet my man,” I said.

Ever since I had turned down Marcus for a date when he was 16 and bold and I was 21 and green, we’d been friends of a sort. Mainly, he appreciated that I politely declined his invitation rather than making a big deal out of it. As for his question about meeting my husband, the answer was absolutely not for so many reasons, the main one being that he didn’t exist. Nothing seemed more disastrous than the idea of Jacob walking through my classroom door and into the one world where I knew what I was doing. I mean, after two tough years I was finally starting to feel like a good teacher, at least some of the time. Love? Well, that was another thing, entirely.

As for being “married,” I was careful not to lie outright. I was, however, comfortable with a misleading omission or loose suggestion. So, I never told my students I was married; they just assumed it to be so because I wore that thin silver band on my left hand.

“Tell me what you thought of the homework,” I asked Marcus. I had already assigned “Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known,” a poem I loved for its simplicity and heartache. It felt fitting for the first week of their last year. We’d been together since they were 10th graders, my first year of teaching. Now we were all older and wiser.

“That ending wasn’t right, Ms. Hagen,” Marcus said, looking at me as though I had written it. “He travels all that way to see her and then she’s dead.”

“True,” I said. “But do you always want a happy ending?” I said it with a tone that suggested his answer should be of course not. Then again, I could understand why his answer would be, yes, please. Isn’t a happy ending what we all want? But life doesn’t care what you want. It will give you what you demand, mixed with the unexpected.

“You’ve got to marry your man,” Marcus said, talking about the poem. His black hair was in tight braids close to his scalp, his white patent leather lace-ups shiny clean. His smile was wide and knowing and there was a gold cross on a chain under his chin.

I spotted Elena walking towards us from the other end of the hall and was hit with a sudden pang. I was actually jealous of her, knowing she was about to be adored by her boyfriend, who was standing right next to me. I quickly shoved my envy aside. Inappropriate, I thought. I looked away as Marcus gave Elena a chaste kiss on the cheek and took her hand. “You’re with the one you love, which is just how it’s going to be with me and Elena,” he said, as he took her hand in his.

Page turner

One reader, a teacher, finished the story in a night. I swear I don’t even know this reader! It is a quick read. You may particularly enjoy it if you’re a teacher or a new adult, trying to figure out how to do the love thing in a way that feels good.

You can buy it now as an ebook or book-book.