Authors: Teresa Toten
I liked her immediately.
Olivia appeared out of nowhere and Anka disappeared into nowhere. I remained pinned to the marble vestibule. “Come in, come in!” She tucked my arm into hers. “Have you eaten?”
I hadn’t. There was no time between my shift ending and getting ready. “Yeah.”
“Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to indulge Anka nonetheless. She’s prepared enough snacks for the Polish army.” She leaned in closer. “It’s like a litmus test. Anka’s pretty well had it with my vegan/bulimic/disordered-eating/gluten-free/lactose-intolerant friends.”
“Can’t say I blame her.”
“Oh, me too! What a bore, don’t you think?” Olivia squeezed my arm and pulled me through the hallway into a space that seemed to hover above Central Park.
My eyes slid across plump built-in sofas in a sunken living room framed by discreet stone and primitive woods. And the art! It was like walking around MoMA. The marble flooring in the vestibule gave way to slate and to soft grays and caramels on all the seating. Sparkling glass and warm yellow halogens mirrored the silent lights across the park.
“It’s like a poem.”
Olivia looked at the room as if she’d never seen it before. “My dad is just going to love you!”
“How big is this place?”
“I don’t know.” Olivia shrugged. “There’s four bedrooms, Dad’s library, the kitchen and pantry, three…no, three and a half bathrooms.” She seemed to be sorting out the floor plan in her head. “And Anka’s suite, of course. That’s it.”
God, I could move in and no one would even notice. “And here I thought the elevator couldn’t be topped.”
“You’re too funny.”
“Defense mechanism. It’s what I do,” I said. “Disarm with charm. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Duly warned. Speaking of charm, have you caught sight of the new megawatt moneyman? You work in the office, right?”
“The director of advancement? No. So far, I’m in and out before he gets in. But I can tell you it’s like a sexual tsunami hit the place. Draper’s changed her cologne, and both Colson and Shwepper have sprung for new shades of lipstick that they are very diligent about reapplying.”
“Ha! That’s rich.” Did she smile? Olivia Sumner wasn’t a big smiler. “Come on, we’re going to command and control, aka Anka’s kitchen.”
The kitchen, in contrast to the living room, was a gleaming white-on-white-on-white. It was wrapped in the same Carrara marble that was in the vestibule. Marble on the walls, counters and floor. Even the kitchen table had a marble top. It should have felt antiseptic, but instead it was inviting. Olivia’s laptop, books and notepad were at the far end of the table, but set in the middle was a platter piled with cut salami, pâté, cheeses and baguettes. My stomach growled. I’d so had it with stir-fried bok choy and rapini.
“How was your weekend?” I asked. “Nonstop parties?”
Olivia paused in front of a coffee-making contraption. “Not my scene,” she said, shrugging. “At least not anymore. You?”
“Not on my priority list, to tell you the truth.”
I watched her take that in.
“Coffee? Espresso? Cappuccino? Name your poison,” she said.
“I’d sell my soul for a double espresso.” I walked over to her laptop. “Is Plath open on this?” She nodded while reaching for the tiny cups and saucers. “Okay.” I flipped it open. “I’ll talk while you play barista.”
“That’s why I’m wining and dining you. Hey, I’m a double espresso girl myself.”
“Wow.” Of course she was. I could spot the type at fifty paces. “Okay, so ‘Lady Lazarus’: brutal, autobiographical, very theatrical. Listen…”
Is an art….
“Oh,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting you to start there.” Olivia piled meat, cheeses and dips onto a plate and placed it in front of me. “Like everybody knows she was all suicide obsessed and everything but I thought where she talks about the lamp shade was cool. You know, that weird line about her skin being as ‘bright as a Nazi lamp shade’?” She scrolled through the poem.
“So, I dug into that one.” Olivia leaned toward me on the counter. “My big find there was that we know Plath had made at least one suicide attempt, maybe two, by the time she wrote ‘Lady Lazarus,’ but did you know that there were rumors the Nazis made lamp shades out of human skin? She was going from her horror to theirs. I know I nailed that part.”
“Yeah, sure,” I agreed. “That’s correct and analytical, but it won’t hit the personal response that Hornbeck’s looking for. She wants your blood.”
Olivia groaned as she handed me the espresso. Her sweater sleeve rode up her arm just enough to reveal a very faint scar. There was a lot I had to learn about this girl. She saw me catch it and pulled down her sleeve.
“Relax, I didn’t try to off myself, and more to the point,
wouldn’t be my style.”
I nodded. “Cutter?”
“Not with any enthusiasm,” she sighed. “I quickly discovered that I have a rabid and fairly hysterical fear of scars. It was a sleepover. You know, grade ten? It’s the same everywhere. Everybody was doing it.”
God, rich chicks were nuts. “What would be
style? If you…”
“I’d jump.” She said it without a second’s hesitation. I thought about the floor-to-ceiling windows framing the city at her feet. One of them was a door leading to the balcony, leading to…
“There. That’s your response to Hornbeck. Go from there.” I took a sip of my espresso and watched everything come together on her face.
“Right, I get it, I get it. That’s the entry. Me into Plath. You
a genius!” Olivia sat down beside me and began piling up cheese and bread for herself. “How about you? How would you, you know…”
“I wouldn’t. Besides, it wouldn’t matter.” I looked her square in her lovely rich face. “I can’t be killed.”
Dr. Kruger riffled through a few papers and checked her screen. “Well, Kate, not surprisingly, your academic work has been stellar. Nothing less than a 3.9 in any assignment across the board.” She turned to me. “We were concerned that the office work might prove to be too taxing. It has, you know, for other Waverly Scholars.”
“No, not at all,” I assured her.
The office work was the least of my problems. Mrs. Chen had extended my weekends to eleven-hour shifts, plus two hours every Thursday. But then, out of nowhere, she’d started shoving aluminum containers of food at me every Sunday night. “Extra,” she barked each time. The containers were enough for four dinners. I was both grateful and confused. I was pretty sure she still didn’t like me, but hey, I needed the protein and the “extra” always contained chicken, pork or fish. My lunch at school consisted of a piece of fruit, which of course went entirely without comment from Olivia and the diet-obsessed world of the Waverly dining hall.
“Be that as it may, our Achilles’ heel is after-school activities. You know that all the universities—and especially Yale—eyeball extracurriculars hard. Even with stratospheric marks, we don’t want to drop the ball here.” She frowned at the screen. “You captained your basketball and lacrosse teams at St. Mary’s,
you were on the debating team.”
“With respect, ma’am, I was a boarder at all my other schools. The situation with my aunt, well, it’s a long commute by public transit.”
“Of course, of course.” Dr. Kruger frowned. “It would be a considerable burden, especially on top of the work hours here.” She turned back to the computer and scrolled. “There has to be something we can offer that would sound impressive but would take minimal involvement and minimal time.”
“You find it, ma’am, and I’ll do it.”
“I’ll keep looking. Leave it with me.”
Kruger wanted me to succeed—needed me to—not just because it would look good on the school but because she had invested herself deeply in me, in my story. I’d made sure of that.
My eyes traveled to the bookshelf. I always checked it out, and she always noticed. She was fairly sharp, as far as shrinks go.
“Ah, yes, I finally got the new
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
“The DSM-5?” Over the years, I’d come to rely on the old DSM-IV, looking up things, symptoms, wanting to get a handle on shrink-speak. This one might come in handy too. I could figure out what was up with Olivia, because there was something. “Maybe. I was kind of thinking about doing something psychological for my exit thesis.”
“Hmm.” She liked that idea. “Well, if you decide to, you can borrow it whenever you need it.” She turned off her screen. “I think we’re good for this month.”
“Thanks. Thanks a lot, Dr. Kruger.”
“It’s my job, Kate. One of the nicer bits.” She waved me off, and then said, “Before you go, it looks as if you’re doing well with the other girls, but looks can be deceiving and entering a new school in senior year is—”
I was already standing. “You can chill on that front. It’s good, and I think I’ve maybe even found a real friend. Olivia Sumner.”
“Olivia.” Dr. Kruger nodded to herself. “Olivia’s a wonderful girl. Good for the both of you!” She got up to walk me to the door just as someone knocked.
A man—and I mean a truly
representation of his species—strode in. It had to be him, the brand-new director of advancement. I don’t know how to describe it, but the guy was
a guy. That must be it. He wasn’t like a movie star or anything, not really, but God, he exuded raw masculinity. And then he smiled. And then I really got what the fuss was about.
“Oh. Forgive me, Ginny, I…”
“No, Mark, we were just finishing.” Her hand fluttered to her chest. Dr. Kruger
“Kate O’Brien, I don’t think you’ve met our new director, Mark Redkin. Kate is our Waverly Scholar this year.” Kruger was fairly beaming at this point.
I held out my hand. “Pleasure, sir.”
“Well, I am honored.” He shook my hand. “You’re the one stuck inputting the archive files, so you’ve probably heard that I’m here to shake up fund-raising in the same way. Bring it up to speed with the times and the technology. At least that’s what the board of directors is praying for.” Big, blinding smile. Okay, really good smile.
“I came in to run something by you, Ginny. I was toying with the idea of starting up a student advancement arm to keep us current and to keep the parents more involved and dialed in.”
“That’s a splendid idea, Mark!”
“And now that I’ve met her”—he turned to me—“I’d like to have our Waverly Scholar front and center, not just for the committee but for foundation dinners, board meetings. They’ll take one look at you and wallets will fall open!”
“Sorry, I get carried away. But let’s say we strike a small student advancement committee. You could head it, Miss O’Brien. Not onerous—a few ideas, a couple of meetings, and you’d have ‘Chair of Student Advancement’ on your resume. What do you think?”
Wow. Like, was he listening at the door?
“Kate?” Kruger was still beaming. “It would fit the bill perfectly.”
“I…I’d be honored.”
“Great. I’ll be in touch with the details.”
And that’s how it is sometimes. Things just start.
The girls moved as if they were choreographed, each with a phone in her hand but on a separate stage. Olivia was bathed in light, Kate in dark. One stage was spacious and elegant, the other cramped and damp. But this dance, like all their other conversations, drew them closer. Becoming friends was a kind of courtship. A ritual of presenting your best self to the other. Each knew not to push too much, too fast. In their conversations, the girls reached for all their similarities willfully ignoring the differences. They’d got into the habit of having long phone conversations.
“I love that you hate texting!” said Olivia. “It’s such a bore. You’re held captive to multiple idiots 24/7. I refuse to play.”
“Totally with you,” echoed Kate. “Not only that, but those words stay on your phone forever, you know. Digital stuff comes back and bites you in the butt.”
“Yeah,” said Olivia. “My dad drills that into me nonstop.” It was true. It was also true that all devices were removed from patients in Houston and discouraged in therapy afterward.
“Hey, look, you’ve been real cool about not pressing on why I’m redoing senior year.”