Authors: Teresa Toten
“Love you, Dad!”
“Just give it more thought.”
Olivia watched the console as the elevator descended from PH 1 to 50, 41, 33, 26, 25, 24…she reached for her phone…4, 3, 2…and when it hit the ground floor, she hit the speed dial.
“Hey! What’s up?”
“Hey yourself. Look, Kate, don’t say anything for a minute, just listen. I have a massive idea. It’s
! It is
perfect.” Olivia could not stop smiling. “How about you move in with me?”
I’m OUTTA HERE! See ya! Am I good or what? So long, weeping bat cave—hello, good life. Next year this time, I’ll be at Yale. Mission complete. And in the meantime, I get the life I deserve.
Small thing, but still a thing. When I gave Mrs. Chen a week’s notice, I felt…I don’t know, dead sad for a second. The damp was making my brain spongy. I mean, that grizzled old chicken hated my guts.
But she took me in, no questions asked, and she was honest in her own way. Straight up.
Not too many people are.
The week whizzed by on fast-forward. I handed in three essays and a physics lab. I also charted out how I’d reorganized the Apothecary section for Mrs. Chen so she wouldn’t screw it all up the moment I left. Then I tried to convey how she should lead with her most colorful and exotic fruits. Not sure how that went down.
We had two meetings of the Student Advancement Committee. The girls were growing on me despite myself. The first meeting was with Mr. Redkin, and he “suggested” position titles. Even though I had the least cred, I was formally named chair. More shocking still, the girls seemed happy for me. Redkin had somehow made each of them feel like they’d just been crowned prom queen as he doled out the rest of the titles. He was good. I can always recognize a fellow traveler.
Olivia was going to be the secretary, Serena the alumni liaison, Morgan the communications liaison and Claire the PTA liaison. One of our “jobs” was to keep in touch with our counterparts on the board of directors. We were going to be trotted out at the next board meeting. The rest of our duties sounded vaguely glamorous and a bit fuzzy, which in no way gave us pause.
The second meeting was held in our “office” at Starbucks, where we christened ourselves the Waverly Wonders. It had a perfect ring to it. That accomplished, we circled back to our main agenda item: Mark Redkin.
“Like, I didn’t know men like that existed in the real world,” said Claire, shaking her head. “How old do you think he is?”
“Old,” offered Olivia. “He’s the director of advancement, guys. He’s got to be at least thirty.”
“Thirty-four,” I said. “Which is still young for a director’s position.”
They all turned to me.
“What? I work in the office, remember?”
“Thirty-four! That would be like making out with your dad! But…” Morgan paused. “I’d make an exception for the exceptional Mr. Redkin.”
“Morgan!” Claire tossed a coffee stirrer at her.
“You and every hormone-high girl at school.” Olivia was laughing. She didn’t laugh much.
It was good to see.
“Have you caught how Jody and her crew of tools hyperventilate when they even walk by the office?” Somehow this, like everything Serena said, sounded elegant rather than disparaging. “Did you hear about yesterday? He took off his jacket and climbed a ladder to help Mr. Jefferson remove the ceiling fan in the second-floor hallway. I swear girls fainted. Ladies, the school is throbbing.”
“Yup.” I nodded. “It’s that seriously male thing he puts out—that and, I’ll grant you, a high-voltage smile. Let’s face it, the man is in a candy store at Waverly.”
“And you, Madam Chair, are his favorite lollipop.” Serena patted my thigh. “But fair warning—I’m going for him.”
Did the others tense just a little?
“Hey, he’s all yours.” I drained my coffee. “Remember, I’ve moved around a lot. Guys like that…they’ll use anything they’ve got, and at the moment it’s us. Redkin has got to prove himself fast. He has to raise big money. You’d all know better than me, but apparently Waverly goes through advancement directors like tissues.”
Serena rolled her eyes.
“I don’t blame him,” I said quickly. “Look at us! We’re a publicist’s dream. Me, the Waverly Scholar, and the much-vaunted Olivia Sumner, who can trace her old-girl lineage to her great-grandmother. And we’re two burning blondes, if I do say so myself.”
Olivia crossed her legs. “Crudely put, but impeccably argued.”
“Then we have the gorgeous South Asian from London. Hell, Serena, whenever you open your mouth,
want to sleep with you.”
Serena winked at me.
“Claire looks like she just stepped off a Hong Kong movie set to get her makeup retouched,” I continued. “And Morgan Singer, despite her name, has this too-hot-for-words Latina vibe going.”
“Yeah, that’s my mom’s side,” Morgan agreed.
“We look like
’s ‘Beauty Around the World’ edition, and we handed ourselves to him on a platter to loosen purse strings. That’s what this is, ladies, and don’t you forget it. We are
“You mean his Waverly Wonders. All right, all right, Madam Killjoy.” Olivia raised her hands in mock surrender. “We have been duly warned.”
They all nodded. All except Serena, who’d leapt up to get another cappuccino.
The bat cave was steaming by the time I got back, even though it had been unseasonably dry for days. I was packing up my two little suitcases and backpack when Mrs. Chen appeared in the doorway. The woman never knocked. I always thought she was trying to catch me at something. She was holding an aluminum container that was bigger than she was.
“Pork,” she said.
“Oh, wow, Mrs. Chen. Thank you so much.” It was enough for a week. “And thanks, you know, for everything.” Rather than disappearing with a grunt as was her usual habit, she stood rooted in the doorway.
I took the container from her and placed it on my little table. How was I going to get all this over to Olivia’s in a cab? And what was Anka going to do with it?
“Mrs. Chen?” She didn’t look happy, but then she never did.
“You good worker. Good girl. You trouble?”
It took me a moment to realize she was asking, not accusing.
And then it dawned on me. Mrs. Chen had probably housed a billion students of questionable status in this very basement. Who else would live here? And even if the student was a
in a fancy uniform, that student had to be in trouble—and had to be leaving because she was in even more trouble. I honestly don’t know what came over me. I was at her in three steps, hugging that fierce little coat-hanger body. Much to my shock, she hugged back.
“No, no, Mrs. Chen!” I finally let go. “It’s good. This is a good thing. No trouble.” I shook my head and smiled at the same time, probably confusing the hell out of her. “Remember I told you, I’m moving in with my best friend. Very rich, very good for me.” And yet…“It’s all very, very good for Kate.”
“Ha.” She looked doubtful.
“I’ll bring her here. We’ll shop in your market. But, Mrs. Chen, please never, never say that I lived here, okay? I’m crazy happy, really.”
“Ha.” I could tell she wasn’t buying it. Mrs. Chen rifled through a pocket in her apron. That apron was a thing of wonder. It was threadbare but immaculate, despite the fact that the woman hauled around massive boxes of seeping veg that would make a stevedore weep. She retrieved a small card. It had a name that was printed in Mandarin and then crossed out, with “Kevin Chang 212-555-6310” written above the crossed-out part.
“Uh…” I could hear a commotion above the stairs. Mr. Chen calling down. The taxi must be here.
“For trouble, you call.” Mrs. Chen tapped the card vigorously. “Big trouble only.” She seemed to be straining for a concept, for words. “Bad emergency trouble. He fix. Ha.”
“Yes, yes, I understand.” But of course I didn’t. I had a sense from the beginning that the Chens were connected to some powerful stuff that tunneled deep into the bowels of Chinatown. Enough late-night visits from gentlemen who did not appear to be interested in purchasing after-hours mangoes gave me that clue. But this guy? What was he going to do for me? Besides, what kind of deep, dark
is named Kevin, for God’s sake?
“I tell taxi, ha.”
And with that, Mrs. Chen disappeared up the stairs, her slippered feet slapping against the damp cement steps. No good-bye, and certainly no more hugs. Her quota had clearly been breached with the one. I was disappointed. The stupid card was still in my hand. Ridiculous. I was going to the very top of the world, the lap of luxury, safe at last. I crumpled up the card, ready to toss it. I slid it into my backpack and then picked up the larger suitcase and my purse, but before I reached for my small suitcase and the pork, I uncrumpled the card and stuffed it into my bra.
What could it hurt? I knew how quickly the world could fall apart. Survival at any cost. Always.
Olivia tried to see the room through Kate’s eyes and failed. Her friend was uncharacteristically silent and still clutching a rather bizarre aluminum container.
“Is it okay?” asked Olivia. “We can change anything you like. They’re Pratesi sheets, but if you prefer Frette, I understand. I have Frette in my room and would totally get it if you…” She should have taken an Ativan before Kate arrived.
“Olivia, I was sleeping on polyester Spider-Man sheets that Walmart would be embarrassed to stock.” She walked around the room slowly. “
paying rent for the privilege. By the way, this is for…uh, Anka. I’ll just put it on the floor until I collect my wits, okay?”
“That’s your bathroom behind that far door.”
bathroom?” Kate opened the door and fell against it.
“It’s only ever been used as a guest suite and, well, we haven’t had a guest in years.” Olivia took in anew the cream-on-cream of it all—the bed linens, the wall color, the furniture itself. It was boring. She’d hate it. “We can get some posters or artwork to kick it up.”
“Jesus, Olivia! That I get to call something like this home…”
The relief was immediate. “You like it?” All of Olivia’s unmedicated anxiety spiders were swept away, or at the very least, they scurried deeper into the crooks of her mind.
?” Kate plopped onto the bed and popped right back up again, smoothing out the duvet.
“Sit down—or better yet, lie down, goof. Mess it up. It’s
bed, your room.”
Kate lay down obediently while Olivia went to some double doors, opening them wide.
“This is your closet. There’s all kinds of storage in here for shoes, drawers for your folded items and jewelry, and so on. There’s a full-length mirror behind this door, and don’t worry about the mirrored bureau. My dad had it antiqued because the guests used to freak out about leaving fingerprints all over it.” Olivia plopped onto the bed beside Kate. “You sure you like it?”
“Shut up or I’m going to cry.”
“I’m so glad.”
The two girls stared at the ceiling for a time.
“And your dad’s okay with all this?”
“He’s major relieved, and I mean it. The poor guy is bent out of shape with guilt about being away for weeks at a time when…well, he’s thrilled.”
Kate sat up and rearranged the wall of pillows. “You know, for two newly minted best friends…” She turned to Olivia and seemed to wait for confirmation.
Something flickered within Olivia. “Besties? Yeah, absolutely.”
“Okay, so as two best friends who are now roommates, we kind of know squat about each other.”
“I know.” Olivia rolled onto her side. “I feel awful for not asking about, well, the whole…I’m gutted about your parents, about what you must have gone through. I honestly don’t know how you can be you. I mean it.”
Kate turned back to the ceiling. “It was a long time ago. The past is the past. You’ve got to keep it there or else it’ll flail you alive.” She hugged herself. “Only look forward, Olivia. Right now and tomorrow. The rest is horseshit.”
Olivia burst out laughing.