Authors: Teresa Toten
“No sweat. I figure you’ll tell me when you’re ready.” Fully alert now, Kate focused hard on Olivia’s tone, the pitch of her voice.
“Thanks, that means a lot. I don’t really want to wade into it, but you should know that I got sick and ended up in the hospital for a few months. Can we maybe leave it at that for now?”
“Absolutely. ’Nuff said. So how did you do on the last Plath poem?”
Olivia exhaled. “Thanks to you, I aced it—3.8! How about the physics lab?”
“A 4.0! Look out, Yale, here I come!”
“Yale?” Olivia plopped on her bed. “Really? Yale, is it?”
“Yale is everything, Olivia. It’s the prize, the only thing that matters. I promised my mom as she was…before she…uh, passed…Can we table that for later too?”
“Sure! But, Kate, this is perfect!
going to Yale. I mean, if I don’t flame out. All our people—well, my mother’s people—are Elis. My parents met there.”
Kate stopped breathing. Was there a God mucking around somewhere after all? “I don’t even care about safeties, Olivia. It’s Yale or nothing.”
“You’ll get there. We’re a force!” This was good. Olivia rearranged all her pillows, destroying Anka’s perfect tableau. Talking to Kate was better than taking an Ativan.
“That we are.” Kate eased herself onto the bed. She had to do it just so or the springs would scream in protest, a sound that scraped her bone marrow. “I’m handing in the next lab tomorrow.”
“Great. Want to meet for breakfast and I’ll run through it with you?”
“I wish, but I work, remember?”
“Right, sorry. I forgot. But hey, my dad is going to be in town this weekend. How about you come over? I’d love for you to meet him.”
The clammy damp of the basement invaded all the soft surfaces. The sheets and pillows felt perpetually wet. “Can’t do that either.”
“Oh.” Olivia’s stomach bubbled up. What? It was going so well. She popped off the bed and reached for her best breezy tone. “Anything up?”
“No. Yes. Look.” Kate had prepared for this. She had a plan. Kate
had a plan. It’s just that now, steeped in this sewer, she had trouble focusing. Still, she decided to go for it. She had primed Olivia, but it had to be played just so. “Look,” she repeated. “You have to keep this to yourself. It would get me tossed. It’s a secret. I have secrets, Olivia.”
“You can trust me, Kate. God knows I’ve got a couple myself.” Her breathing slowed, but the bubbling hung on for the ride.
“I work all weekend too.”
“Yeah, and it’s strictly verboten with the scholarship. It’s supposed to be, like, seven hours max per week at the office, but I also work at this Chinese market. Two eleven-hour shifts on the weekend, and Thursday nights now that the fall veg are in.”
“That’s ridiculous, it’s awful.” Yet Olivia’s body unclenched. “But your aunt…sorry, it’s kind of an open secret that you live with your aunt.”
Kate smiled. She was the one who had unpacked that particular secret. “My aunt is a greedy bitch who hates my guts.” Well, it was true as far as it went and wherever she was. “She makes me pay rent, and if the school finds out, I’m done.”
“Craziness! How can you possibly work so many hours there, then at the school, then study? How can you have a life? How can you possibly prep for Yale?”
Kate sighed into the receiver. “It is what it is, you know? I can’t…I don’t want to talk about it. Cool?”
“Sure, yeah.” How could Kate get the marks she was getting? How could she even get through the day? It dawned on Olivia in that moment that she knew less than nothing about her new friend. They seemed to talk about everything except anything personal. “Fine, then. Dinner with my dad on Saturday night. I’ll make it as late as you need. I’ll make reservations at Le Cirque. You’ll love it.” Then she caught herself. “If you’re maybe…like, if you need a dress I have a million.”
“Thanks, but I’m good. Well, if you promise to pretend you’ve never seen it before, that is, every time you see it again. It’s a sweet little Kate Spade. I got it in Chinatown. My hair person has this, uh, connection.”
“I promise to drool every time I see it. Will eight be late enough for you?”
“Eight is perfect.” Kate would be ready to chew off her right arm by eight. “Just perfect.”
“Good, so I’ll see you in English, then. Langston Hughes.” She groaned.
“Piece of cake, I promise.”
“If you say so. Later.” Still riding on relief, Olivia smoothed out the duvet and plumped up her pillows. Everything felt right.
Kate got up, letting the bed scream at will. It was ten feet from one end of the basement room to the other. The table got in the way as she paced, so she shoved it against the wall, causing layers of cement skin to crumble off. She resumed pacing, hugging herself against the chill and the dust.
“Well done, Katie. Well done.”
The restaurant devoured reality and replaced it with its own version. The moment you set foot in Le Cirque, life became sculpted and spun. Le Cirque was a perfect rearrangement of what
It’s why Olivia loved it. Her father preferred the minuscule bistro with its ancient waiters around the corner on Madison, but she knew he loved to indulge her.
Of course, there was a fuss. There usually was whenever she went out with her dad. Managers and chefs appeared out of thin air to greet them and ask about their health, his travels. Olivia was relieved that they had arrived before Kate. This kind of thing could be intimidating. They were swept to their favorite table by the window. Benjamin poured ice water and proffered menus. He knew not to ask about bottled water. Mr. Geoffrey Sumner was an energetic proponent of tap water.
“Can a proud old man comment on how gorgeous his daughter is?”
“Yes, of course, Dad, but you’ve already said it three times.” Olivia opened the menu. “Methinks it might be time to consider starting up a new wife search.”
Mr. Sumner groaned. “Three is more than enough, baby. I’ve sworn off marriage. I just miss you. All this crazy nonstop travel and I feel—”
Olivia found herself chafing under the weight of her father’s concern. She reached across the table to touch his arm.
“I’m fine. I mean it. I should be at college this year, and you couldn’t hover around me on campus. You practically blew off a whole year when…Look, I officially absolve you of all travel guilt.” Did he wince? “Besides, Anka is on me like a Navy SEAL on steroids. Dad, no one could have done more for me than you. It’s all fine. It would have been okay even when I thought I was going to be a bit lonely. But now that I’ve found—” She glanced up. “There she is!” She waved to her friend as the maître d’ escorted Kate from his station to their table. Kate was glowing.
Mr. Sumner rose, buttoned his suit jacket and extended his hand in a movement so fluid that the component parts were invisible. “Welcome, Kate, I’ve heard so much about you. Thank you for coming.”
“Thank you for inviting me, Mr. Sumner.” Kate reached for his hand. Was she blushing?
“Please call me Geoff.”
“I’ll try, sir, but I can’t promise. All my other schools were very strict Catholic institutions.” She blushed again. “ ‘One does not refer to one’s betters by their Christian names, young lady!’ ”
Mr. Sumner smiled as he pulled out Kate’s chair. “Well, do your best. I couldn’t possibly think of myself as anyone’s better.”
“Oh, Dad,” Olivia groaned. “That is
“Harrumph.” But he was still smiling. “Kids today.”
Olivia turned to her friend. “I’m crazy about that dress! Kate Spade?” She winked.
“Why, thank you. It’s yours whenever you want to borrow it.”
Benjamin was back in a flash for drink orders. Mr. Sumner fortified himself with a single malt neat as the girls fussed with the menu. Olivia ran through her favorites, discreetly guiding Kate, who didn’t actually appear to need much guiding.
Mr. Sumner had the saddle of lamb. Both girls ordered the organic dry-aged rib eye, which proudly proclaimed the name of the farm it hailed from. Olivia’s father ordered a glass of Amarone from his reserved stock.
“And even though the ladies are going for steak, a half bottle of white, a nicer Chablis. Will that do, ladies?”
“That’s perfect, Dad. Thanks.” Olivia turned to Kate, who seemed caught off guard. “It’s okay. Dad knows we all drink. He’s been pretty European in his approach to the reality. And except for a couple of blips, I’ve tried to be pretty responsible in return.”
Mr. Sumner nodded in acknowledgment. Benjamin poured a splash of white wine into Olivia’s glass, then the red into Mr. Sumner’s. This was followed by a pantomime of glass swishing, aroma sniffing and taste testing.
“So, Kate”—he raised his newly filled glass—“my daughter swears that you’re a genius, and that you’re single-handedly getting her through AP English and probably AP History, if I know my Olivia.”
“And SAT prep too!” said Olivia between sips.
“No, sir, it’s not like that at all. Olivia can handle anything thrown at her, and she got me clear on physics. It’s just that English and standardized tests come easy to me, and I did AP History while I was a junior.”
“See? I rest my case!” Olivia clinked her glass to Kate’s.
“Well, that is formidable,” Mr. Sumner agreed and then directed his attention back to his guest. “So, Miss O’Brien, tell me, where are you from? Who are your people?”
“Dad!” Olivia turned to Kate. “Forgive him—he’s a lawyer. He can’t help himself.”
Kate picked up her napkin, folded it in half and placed it on her lap. “Well, sir, Olivia probably told you that I’m living with my aunt.”
Her father didn’t respond, waiting for the rest.
“And, well, I’ve lived a lot of places, I guess.” She took a sip of her wine, as did Olivia. Olivia let the crispness of the wine settle her. It let her
what her friend was saying. “I grew up here—well, Staten Island and Brooklyn until the end of grade five—then we moved out west, lived in a few places, even Canada. One move for every school year. I was the ‘scholarship kid’ in all of them.”
Olivia was rapt, imagining her friend, packing up and starting all over again, year in and year out. All those schools, always the new kid. How grueling, and yet she felt a granular envy. What would it be like to—
“And your parents?”
“Both deceased, sir.”
Olivia gasped. “Sorry, I…sorry.” She quickly took another sip of wine. She knew about the mother because Kate had mentioned it, and there were rumors about her being orphaned. But Olivia knew that there were crazy rumors swirling about her too, so she hadn’t pried. Besides, they had so much else to talk about: life, judgment calls, the ideal man, the pathetic nature of the other seniors, even poetry.
She should have asked.
“It’s okay, really. It was…an accident. When I was thirteen.” Now Kate took a sip of wine and exhaled. “All the schools since, since that time, have been boarding schools.”
Olivia’s father put down his glass. “Oh, my dear girl. How insensitive of me.”
“No, no, please. It was more than four years ago. A lifetime.” She took another sip. “I suppose it’s not common knowledge exactly, but it’s not a secret either.”
Not a secret?
“I have secrets, Olivia,” Kate had said. There were more?
“You probably know that we lost Olivia’s mother quite some time ago.”
“Yes, sir.” Kate blushed. “Well, one of the girls mentioned it early on. Maybe it was one of the reasons we were drawn to each other.”
Olivia reached over and squeezed her hand.
Their appetizers arrived. Benjamin busied himself with a monster pepper mill. Olivia’s next sip was the one that was just enough to make the lights bedazzle the room. Her father was handsomer and her friend tragically lovelier. She stopped drinking then.
When Benjamin disappeared, Mr. Sumner smiled at Kate. “You’re clearly a remarkable young woman to get here with all that you’ve gone through.”
“No, not so much.” Kate shrugged. “Tragedies happen. There’s no going back. And I had a ton of people in my corner. You have no idea how many committed teachers, guidance counselors and social workers lifted me up and got me to all those schools—and to here, I guess.”
Olivia turned to the window, to the shadows of the pedestrians outside. It sounded, what, practiced? But then again, she couldn’t begin to imagine how many times Kate had been called upon to recite that story. Her admiration for her friend grew.
“You see, sir, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
Olivia’s father lifted his glass. “Tennessee Williams.”
A Streetcar Named Desire.
” Kate smiled.
Olivia settled into her chair. They liked each other. Thank God.
Leaving all things tragic by the main course, the threesome concentrated on Mr. Sumner’s stories about his work in Rio de Janeiro and Singapore over the past few weeks. Olivia’s father was a senior partner at Brookefield, Holden and Sumner, a law firm with a substantial international arm. But there had been precious little “international” last year for him. After he had entertained them with his best Brazil stories, the girls launched into a giggling précis of the senior class.