Authors: Teresa Toten
I’d been watching her for days.
The first few days were all about the hunt, about not walking into walls. There was that familiar head-spinning hell of where to go, who was who, don’t make an ass of yourself at the new school, etc., etc. But I can focus like nobody else. A handful of girls were examined and dismissed. Too regular, too normal, too together or (the true kiss of death) not genuinely loaded, even though they seemed to have all the trappings. I know the difference. Before coming here, I spent most of high school out west in the very best private girls’ schools. I was the scholarship kid, the boarder. The girl you convinced your parents to bring home for weekends, for holidays. I’ve had plenty of practice.
See, I know how whack these girls are behind their armor of Range Rovers and Louboutins. There had to be
My meal ticket was in this senior class somewhere.
And then, at the beginning of week two, there she was—all born blonde and rich and just messed up enough. Beautiful, no cliques and reeking of Lexapro or Paxil or something. Mind you, that could apply to half the school. But this girl was like an extra. There was definitely something. Olivia Michelle Sumner: if that doesn’t spell money, I don’t know what does. She was head-to-toe Barneys and Bloomies, preppy with a price. The rest of the girls gave her a wide berth even as they squealed, “Welcome back, Olivia!” “You’re back!” “Great to see you! Hey, wow!” But they weren’t her people. That was clear. Olivia kind of glided around on remote control. There was a story there. Excellent. Olivia Sumner and I shared only one class, AP English, but that’s all it takes.
Watch me now.
Pay close attention.
Survival of the fittest, baby.
Olivia cradled the phone, shaking her head. “No, Dad, it was fine. More than fine,
Just like you said.” She paced the length of the sunken living room. When that was no longer calming, she stepped up into the dining room, circling the stainless steel table, then veered through the library and eventually invaded all four bedrooms one by one. Olivia stayed out of the kitchen. Anka was throwing pots around and cursing the Cuisinart. “The whole week was a nonevent, just like we thought. It was the right decision not to transfer out.”
She found herself back in the living room. “No, the teachers didn’t make an obvious fuss, but they let me know they were there for me in the very best Waverly fashion.” Olivia hovered over more than sat on the mohair chaise before getting up and pacing again.
“Well, as I suspected, AP English is going to be intense because I got Ms. Hornbeck again. Thank God I’ve already read the Albee play and the Cormac McCarthy. But I may need a tutor to keep me in solid merit-scholar range, okay?” Where was that Cormac McCarthy book? She drifted to her room, forgot why she went there and drifted out again.
“No, I can sleepwalk through math and physics, you know that.” Now she was in her father’s bedroom. Sleek burled oaks and flannels in varying hues of gray and taupe embraced her. She let them. Olivia loved his room. The soft buttery gold of the LED art lights glowed against the Modigliani and Caravaggio sketches. The art rested quietly against walls covered with charcoal fabric that warmed the room, making it feel safe, making it feel like her father. “No, nowhere. I’m buried in work already. It’ll take me all weekend to dig myself out. Yeah.” She nodded. “Just a little rusty.”
The rest of the penthouse featured impenetrable modern Brazilian art juxtaposed with ancient Chinese sculptures. It looked as if it was curated, which of course it was. Wife number two. But here, in his haven, was the closest her father came to the traditional, and to himself.
“No, just every other Wednesday now. I told you that yesterday.” She stifled a groan. “Yeah, still five fifteen. Look, it was Dr. Tamblyn’s suggestion. He’s super positive.” Olivia glimpsed herself in his mirror and turned away. “Of course I am. Check with Dr. Tamblyn whenever you want. I won’t ever go off the meds again. Lesson learned, big-time.” She gripped the phone so tightly that it dug a groove in the palm of her hand. “I promise,
Can we stop? I’m good, we’re good. Besides, Anka is here and she’s a hawk. Hey, you just tie up all those big international deals so that we can keep the lights on in this place.” She was smiling, but Olivia could feel the weight of his worry pressing against her.
“Well, you know”—she sat on and then got up off the manicured bed—“they were fine.” What time was it? Her stomach began to foam. No longer soothed by the Modigliani and all that gray flannel, Olivia was on the move again. Back to the living room, back to the floor-to-ceiling windows stretching the length of the penthouse. She became mesmerized by the art outside the windows, the whole expanse of Central Park and the beckoning lights from the Dakota. Having New York at her feet cushioned her soul.
“I don’t really know the girls, Dad. Remember, they were juniors last year, a full year younger, and last year, well, was last year. But they’ve been fine.” Have they? There must be gossip. Did it matter? “Come on, it’s Waverly, Dad. Anyone who’s anyone has their shrink on speed dial.” The sky had slipped out of its silky purple dress into a basic black. “I’m sure I’ll find a friend. And if not, it’s only a year, right?”
She liked the inky-black sky best, always had. It was soothing. “No, I didn’t mean that. Of course I’ll find friends. Hey, do you have to stay in Chicago before you head out to Singapore?” She had to stay focused. “On Sunday? That’s great, Dad! Does Anka know? Okay, I’ll tell her. No, I’d rather just go to our bistro. I’ll call.”
Olivia walked back to the chaise. “Is seven thirty okay?” The foam in her stomach bubbled. She had once described the foam as a pink thing, a mixture of warm blood and spit. “Yes. No, that’ll be great, Dad. Can’t wait.” Dr. Tamblyn had said the medication would eventually take care of that too. He’d also said that she had to be religious about taking it exactly on time.
“Sure. Stop—you know I’ll be fine. I love you too.” Olivia put the phone down. She sat on the chaise with her full weight this time.
“Olivia? You off za phone wit Mr. Sumner?” Anka strode in, wiping her hands on her apron. The housekeeper had a formidable collection of aprons. “Is not your time for za medications tablet? Is six thirty o’clock. Should be at six o’clock, no? You want me to get your waters? Olivia?”
She was going to have to talk to Anka about backing off. Olivia knew the schedule.
Instead, she nodded, sighed and then waited to
I pretty much live in a sewer.
Making the leap from sewer to the prize of Yale is starting to shake my focus, and believe me, that’s saying something.
I deserve better. Way better.
I’m this year’s Waverly Scholar, and that baby comes with a decent stipend. I also put in mornings at the school admin office
I’m working my ass off at the market with two ten-hour shifts every weekend—
still this rathole is the best I can do. My home for the past few months has been a converted storage room in the basement of Chen’s Chinese Market and Apothecary. I’m broke. Grooming costs are a killer, even in Chinatown; hair, makeup, nails—it adds up. Don’t get me started on accessories. Thank God for uniforms.
Waverly, of course, doesn’t know about Chen’s. They think I’m living with my nonexistent aunt. I was a boarder at all the other private schools, but Waverly doesn’t have boarders. What it does have is the best record in the country of getting its students into their first-choice college picks. Thing is, they had to be assured that my accommodation was locked down before I got the package. I needed an address. Hence the sewer. Like I said, I only lie when I have to, and I have to a lot.
I haven’t unpacked. I won’t. This is
Besides, I’m freaked that the slime that’s weeping down the walls will marry up with the stink of the decaying cabbage and infect my brand-new secondhand uniforms. I’ve got an iron bed topped with shredded Spider-Man bedding, a small round table, one aluminum chair, a decent mirror, a TV tray that I use as a night table, a sink scarred by rust and a floor cabinet with a Coleman-like stove propped on it. I’ve lived in worse, like those times in between foster nightmares and boarding, but it’s harder now. I know what’s out there and I want some.
Alarmingly, Mrs. Chen does not appear to like me. I don’t like not being liked. It makes me nervous. Being liked is the biggest arrow in my quiver. Exhibit A in the “not liked” column is that despite the fact I am strictly “front of the house” material, Mrs. Chen usually has me in the alley unloading the bok choy and mango shipments. My charm offensive landed with a thud on Mrs. Chen’s tiny slippered feet, and Mr. Chen seems to live in fear of her. So I take my cues from him and stick to hauling boxes, prepping and pricing the veg, and staying invisible. I know I’m not the first student to partake of the Chens’ indentured-dungeon opportunity, but it’s a sure bet that I’m their first Waverly student
their first white chick—or
as I’ve heard them call me. I think it means “ghost girl” or “foreigner” or something. Either is perfect. On the bright side, I eat really well, although it’s mainly vegetables and fruit. I’ve become pretty handy with a wok, and my skin has never looked better.
I’d kill for a steak.
In comparison, the Waverly office gig is like a day at Canyon Ranch. Waverly’s classrooms and lecture theaters are wireless and outfitted with the latest Smart Boards and apps, but their filing system is right out of Hogwarts. They brought in a consultant last year, and I’m helping with the grunt work of transitioning all their paper archives onto servers braced by clouds. They need me.
And I need access to that system.
I’m always the first one in, at 6:55 a.m. Mr. Jefferson, Waverly’s building services manager—or head janitor, in other words—opens up for me. Even Ms. Draper, the registrar and Olympic-caliber workaholic, doesn’t get in until 7:05. My likeability quotient is through the roof with her and pretty well everyone else in Admin, including the head, Ms. Goodlace; Mr. Rolph, head of the Upper School; Ms. Kelly, head of the Lower School; Dr. Kruger, the guidance teacher/school shrink; and most important, the administrative assistants, Miss Shwepper and Mrs. Colson. Every school has a Miss Shwepper or a Mrs. Colson. Both ladies are older than God, and they hold the real keys to power because they know where all the bodies are buried. Student crap and staff crap, it’s all color-coded and kept safe under their over-processed hair.
Waverly’s staff and directors are still awaiting the much-anticipated arrival of some hotshot cyber-savvy fund-raiser to be the head of advancement. But Mr. Rolph will have to swim alone in Waverly’s estrogen pool a while longer, because Mr. Mark Redkin was immediately swept into a northeast conference on the future of independent school endowments.
When Draper charged in today, she doubled back toward me. “You’re showing admirable initiative, Kate. You’ve beat me in every day so far.” She perched on the edge of Shwepper’s desk, which I used as a staging area for my files. Draper had a whippet-lean body that hardened her looks some. She’d missed the memo on picking “face or figure after forty.” I dissected her scent. The top note was Jo Malone’s Orange Blossom. The whole school was into Jo Malone. They might as well have issued it along with the eggplant jackets and gray pleated skirts. Under the Orange Blossom was a hint of expensive shampoo, the kind you buy at the Vidal Sassoon salon. Sharp architectural haircuts to match her sharp architectural suits. You could cut yourself on the woman. Struggling under those scents was a hint of black coffee, a breath mint and the unmistakable stink of Camels. My old man smoked Camels.
Our registrar was a secret smoker.
Draper seemed to be waiting for me to speak. I hadn’t acknowledged the compliment. That was sloppy.
“Just trying to make myself indispensable here, ma’am.”
“And you’ve accomplished that in record time, my dear. This office is going kicking and screaming into the modern world with your help. And when Mr. Redkin gets here…” She paused, lost herself for a second. “Well, I just want you to know that we’re pleased.”