Authors: Teresa Toten
“Even lamer than last year?” ventured her father.
“Children!” They both said at once, clinking their glasses.
Kate excused herself to the ladies’ room when the dessert menus arrived. Olivia watched her wind gracefully through the tables, chairs and expansive diners who had indulged in a glass or two too many.
Mr. Sumner opened the menu and sighed. “I suppose I order the dessert and you two eat it?”
Olivia put her hand over his. “I told you, didn’t I? Isn’t she great?”
He placed his hand over hers. “Yes, you did, baby. You were right—she’s charming.” He glanced back at the menu. “I’ll have some port, but I’m guessing that I have to order the rhubarb–sour cream thing, right?”
“That’s exactly right,” Olivia agreed. “Kate and I both love rhubarb best, and double espressos too.”
“Hmm, yes.” He smiled at his daughter. “Two unlikely peas in a pod. What are the odds? But I’m glad you’ve found each other.”
“Oh, me too, Dad. You have no idea.”
I had to walk back to Chinatown. I’d just blown $4.35 on a double espresso at Starbucks with the girls and I didn’t have enough money for the subway. For days, I’d hinted to Olivia that we had to look like we were connecting with our cohort. When that didn’t work, I mentioned that Admin was watching me re: “healthy social interaction.” This interested Olivia but didn’t spring her into action. Finally, I had to explain just how much I needed the Student Advancement Committee on my application for Yale. That got her. But it was way more work than I was used to.
At least the Starbucks meeting went okay. Olivia had summoned Serena Shaw, Morgan Singer and Claire Wu. According to her, they were the least offensive and infantile of our crop.
We spent the whole time talking about how smokin’ hot Mark Redkin was. Okay, a couple of minutes were devoted to the Student Advancement Committee, but the rest was on who spotted him when and where, and what he was wearing at the time. The whole school was on Redkin alert.
“Hey, this is like a movie I caught on TCM last summer,” said Claire. “
“Yeah, I saw part of that once,” Morgan said, nodding. Morgan and Claire were besties. Serena generally rolled on her own, but since her dad owned half of London, she had serious cred. That and a wicked accent.
“It’s about this injured Civil War soldier who holes up in an all-girls boarding school in Louisiana and everyone goes batshit with desire. Clint Eastwood.”
“Ew!” Olivia made a face.
“No, no, no!” The girls protested as one. “This was Clint Eastwood from, like, fifty years ago. Ladies, he was smoking!”
We were a little tentative around one another, still wary, but we were moving in the right direction. It was good, all good. But I got lost in thought as I ambled down Park Ave to Chinatown. This was never good. I was spinning around the fact that I still lived in the sewer, that I still broke my nails hauling veg and that Mrs. Chen was still impervious to my charm. The Mrs. Chen thing pissed me off way more than it should have. It didn’t matter that she didn’t like me, except that it did. I tried telling myself that it was a culture thing, but man, she lit right up whenever she saw the bakery boy. The guy always wore dark jeans and a black T-shirt, like he’d just stepped out of the nineties. That really bugged me. He saluted whenever he swaggered by the market, and she pretty much beamed at him as she waved back. When I made the mistake of asking her who he was, she just grunted “Bakery” at me.
So bakery boy was annoying. Hell, my whole situation was annoying.
Thinking is good when it’s in service of the plan, but thinking for thinking’s sake is a mistake. Hot tar seeps in. By the time I got to Union Square, I had to sit. I was ruminating. I get stupid when I ruminate and start gulping memories. Like the day I buried my father’s card in the park.
Mom and I lived on top of the ALWAYS OPEN hardware, electronics and variety store that was closed on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays. It was my favorite place of all our places. You’d never know it from the sidewalk, but a lot of those apartments over stores are really nice. Ours sure was. We were happy. We each had our own bedroom. There was a kitchen in the back, a dinette and a massive living room that looked right onto the street. Our apartment was loaded with charm and personality. Mr. Sutherland said so.
Mom was in the hallway before I even got my key out of the door. Why was she home so early?
I couldn’t really see her in the soupy darkness of the hallway, but I could tell she was still in her white dental assistant uniform.
“Hi, Mom. How come you’re…?”
“I have great news, honey.”
She was using her chipped china voice, all high and cracked.
There was a crash, then rattling in the kitchen. I stepped toward her. My heart hurt.
“Yes, that’s right, honey.” Her eyes widened, but her tone didn’t change. “Your father’s home. Let’s go into the living room.”
Daddy? He found us?
Mom grabbed me by the arm and mouthed, “He’s a little drunk.”
The whole left side of her face was pink and mottled.
A little drunk was bad. Very drunk was better, because he’d miss you two out of three times. Passed out was best.
My father lumbered in.
Mom whispered, “I’m sorry, honey. I told him too much.” She said it so fast and low, I wasn’t sure what I’d heard.
“Katie! Hey, look at you, huh?” He wasn’t weaving, hardly.
Just a little drunk.
“How’s my baby, huh? Give your old man a hug.”
He yanked me to him. I could take the reek of cigarettes and even his sweat. It was the dark, syrupy smell of rye and Coke that made me gag.
My father started to chuckle. “I’m here for the big Father’s Day picnic at St. Raymond’s on Sunday. Whaddya say to that, huh?”
My stomach filled up with ice cubes.
“Your daddy can’t wait to meet all your new friends and your new teacher,” he slurred. “So you landed a real live nun this time?”
“Sister Rosie or something, right?”
He grabbed me tighter.
I decided not to breathe. That’s how you die. From not breathing. I wondered how long it was going to take.
He chuckled again, except it sounded more like gurgling. “S’okay, sweet cheeks. Your mom told me about your whole scam.” He let go of me, then thought better of it and grabbed me by the back of my hair.
“So I’m dead, huh?”
She told? No, Mom, not again.
“Stephen!” Her face was already starting to swell.
He reached over to the side table and picked up his glass with his left hand, still hanging on to my hair with his right.
“You little con.” He pulled my head from side to side. “You got the best of both worlds. You get a load of sympathy from your Holy Roller nun, and the rest of the class doesn’t know. So if I’m ever spotted with you, no one thinks anything of it.”
He took a swig of his drink.
“Bloody brilliant.” Rye and Coke oozed out of every pore.
“You’re a chip off the old block.” He yanked my head back. My father was eleven feet tall.
“Ow, Daddy. Ow!”
He looked down at me. “I’m proud of you, sweetie. Ten years old and lying to a nun. What balls!”
“No, it wasn’t…” My eyes welled up. “It was like this special secret or…”
“You mean a lie, Katie. You’re mine. Don’t tell me you didn’t feel a thrill when she bought it.”
“Fruit don’t fall far from the tree. You’re just like me, through and through.”
Like him? No! It wasn’t like that. He made it dirty. I just didn’t want Sister Rose to know about him, about this. It’s bad when they know. And maybe it was kind of smart to convince her to keep “our secret” from the rest of the class, just in case. But that wasn’t all of it. I was hazy about how my secret lies got started. The details somersaulted over each other just like the classroom chalk dust. Maybe I thought…maybe I believed that if I told the holy sister Daddy was dead…that somehow God would make it true.
I wanted him dead.
I was worse than him.
I sat on the bench for hours staring at the truth. Then I stood up and walked to Chinatown.
The afternoon sky looked bruised and tender, the aftermath of the day’s violent storms. Her father’s twice-delayed flight was now scheduled to depart at 7:15 p.m. Olivia tore away from the windows and turned to her father’s well-worn Dunhill briefcase and overnight bag, standing like sentinels in the vestibule. She could hear the ebb and flow of last-minute instructions between her father and Anka, but their voices were too far away for her to make out the words. Olivia was calm. She had doubled up on the Ativan.
The intercom lit up twice and Olivia walked over to press it. Message received.
“Dad, the car’s here!”
Her father strode into the foyer and folded Olivia into his arms. She inhaled the soothing flannel and his spicy scent.
“It may be a long stretch this time, baby girl.”
“It’s okay, Dad. I’ll be fine, I promise. We’ll Skype.”
“It’s São Paulo for five days, then to Singapore for the Braxom deposition, and then back to São Paolo and Rio. Remember, Tilde can track me down at any given moment.”
Olivia nodded. Tilde was her father’s “office Anka.”
“Dad, I’ve got all the times zones memorized, and I’ll hardly be lonely if—”
“Promise me you’ll think long and hard about that. Consider every eventuality. I agree it
ideal, and it would certainly make me worry a little less, but—”
“Hey, it was you who said it would be the perfect arrangement for all concerned.” Olivia inhaled and counted to three. “Kate’s a good influence on me. She’s already got me involved in this Student Advancement Committee thing. We’ve picked the other girls and everything.” She parroted Kate’s pitch. “It’s a visible and healthy social interaction with my peers in a common cause. What more could you want?”
“Yes, yes.” He smiled. “And it would make me feel better to have her here, but”—he held her arms—“it’s just that Kate doesn’t know about any of—”
“But she does! I told her I was hospitalized last year. Look, Kate’s razor-sharp, Dad. I’m sure she’s figured out that it wasn’t for tonsillitis. Half the school has figured that out, and they’re all just pretending to ignore it. It’s what we do. We’ve already lost one of the seniors to an extended stay, and it’s only October. It’s a private girls’ school. It happens.”
“Feeling great. I haven’t had a single issue, not a whisper. No altered realities, not for a nanosecond. The meds work. They always did. I just won’t go off them this time.”
He raised an eyebrow.
God, she was tired of constantly reassuring him. “Or ever. Not until I get the all clear,
I get the all clear.”
“Well, Dr. Tamblyn does seem very impressed.”
She looked squarely at her father. “Is it Anka? Is Anka…?”
“Delighted. She likes Kate.” As if to underscore that point, banging pots sounded in the kitchen. Among her many attributes, the housekeeper possessed a sonar-like hearing that would be the envy of any North American bat.
“Think on it long and hard, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Of course, Dad. I won’t be impulsive.”
The intercom flashed twice again. They both sighed.
Her father embraced her once more. They told each other to be careful and safe, and said that they loved each other. Olivia walked him to the elevator bank carrying his briefcase. They embraced again, awkwardly, quickly, because the elevator doors started to close.