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Fourth comings, p.14
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       Fourth Comings, p.14

           Megan Mccafferty
 
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  “Can I hear about your epiphany after I get dressed?”

  “Prude,” she muttered as she walked out without bothering to shut the door behind her.

  I slowly dried off and then wrapped the towel turban-style around my wet hair. I got dressed in a pair of weeks-unwashed cutoffs that could walk on their own and one of Hope’s white Hanes T-shirts, straight from the package, still stiff. I really need to do my laundry. I emerged from the steamy bathroom to see Manda waiting for me on the Olga couch, a plastic cup in her hand and a box of white zin on the floor. She had tapped a second cup for me, so I felt obliged to sit down next to her.

  “Your epiphany?”

  “I broke up with Shea!” She gripped my shoulders with her hands, as if I might reel from the shock. “Are you shocked?”

  Manda wanted me to be shocked.

  “I’m not shocked,” I said, and Manda limply removed her hands.

  “Go on, then,” she said.

  “Go on how?” I asked.

  “Go on with how I’m a bad lesbian….”

  “I don’t think you’re a bad lesbian….”

  “How my open omnisexuality makes me a traitor to the cause…”

  “What? Breaking up with Shea makes you a traitor?”

  She nodded somberly.

  “Well, I think you’ll be doing the lesbian community a favor by not settling for a relationship with Shea. I mean, I was kind of surprised that you two were together at all.”

  Her eyes narrowed. “The girl-girl thing freaked you out? Oh, puh-leeze. And I thought you were open-minded….”

  “I am open-minded,” I said. “I was fine with ‘the girl-girl thing.’ But I didn’t understand why you were with Shea, of all girls. A girl who acted like an idiot teenage boy.”

  “My aunt would say it’s treason,” Manda said, dramatically covering her eyes in mock shame. “Not just against lesbians, but my whole gender.”

  “How so?”

  “Because I’m admitting that her idiot teenage boyness is what I found so attractive. That when I’m reincarnated, I want to come back as a teenage boy. I mean, what creature on this planet is freer, and more liberated, more about id and impulses than a teenage boy?”

  I still didn’t get it.

  “But you would have never dated a guy who acted like Shea,” I said. “You only dated Shea because she was a girl who acted like a guy. That’s the only reason you put up with her obnoxious behavior. It made no sense.”

  “I know it didn’t make any sense,” she said. “If we only fell in love when it made sense, the human race would have died out long ago. Because who makes sense? Do Scotty and Sara make sense? Do Percy and Bridget make sense? Do you and Marcus?” She thrust an accusing finger right at my heart.

  (We already know we don’t make sense. And never have.)

  “Anyway,” she said, dropping her hand to examine a hangnail, “it was an easy break. Shea didn’t even care. She just said, ‘I’ll move out my shit, yo,’ and that was it. She was out in under two hours.”

  “So she’s gone? For good?”

  “I hope so,” she said. “I hate clingers. Clingers are the worst.”

  “So that was your epiphany, to break up with Shea.”

  “Oh, no,” she said. “That was just one small part of my greater epiphany. My epiphany was much bigger than Shea.”

  Manda has a tendency to take frequent breaks in the middle of her stories, so the listener is forced to goad her on. It gives the illusion that the listener is more interested than she really is. I hate giving in to this gambit, but it’s the only way to speed things along.

  “And?”

  “Well, after I talked to Sara and Scotty, I realized that for all my redefining sex on my own terms, I’m not having all that much fun. I’m not all that happy. I need to be in a relationship that makes me happy.”

  “Have any of your relationships made you happy?’

  And she sighed into the couch cushions. “Only one.”

  And I braced myself for what I knew she would say next.

  “Len,” she said. “Oh, yes. I’m going to win back Len.” She gleefully rubbed her hands together, like a scheming cartoon villain. I was stunned by how quickly Manda could shift allegiances from straight to gay to straight again. That must be some sort of Ann Heche-ian hetero-lesbo-hetero record.

  “I’m not sure if that’s a good idea, Manda. I mean, he’s got a girlfriend now.”

  “The time-traveler bitch? Puh-leeze. I saw her picture on Len’s blog. No competition.”

  I’d also seen it on “Mouth of the Wormhole.” Len met Camilla at a Time Traveler party, an MIT nerdfest in which an open invitation is extended to any future-dweller who might be interested in using his or her time machine to go back in history just so he or she could attend their shindig. Yes, the general idea is that the guest of honor would have to manipulate the whole space-time continuum for the pleasure of tapping (a) the keg and (b) some ass. (Which is pretty hardcore, when you think about it. We have problems persuading people to come out to party in Brooklyn.) The only person less likely to show up at a Time Traveler party than a dimension-bending honoree is a brainy female hottie like Camilla. I mean, the odds of that happening are infinitesimal, which is why I’m so happy for both of them, and Len in particular. I do not want Manda to wreck this for him.

  “Len seems really happy now and…”

  “And what?”

  “He was devastated when you left him for Shea,” I said. “It took him a long time to get over you….”

  Manda slurped the rest of the pink wine from her cup before calmly asking, “Was he over me when he fucked you?”

  I winced. She smiled wickedly. “So it is true,” Manda said. “You fucked Len.”

  (I did. But you know this already.)

  It doesn’t matter how Manda found out, though the smart money would be on Sara.

  “It was a mistake,” I said.

  “Oh, puh-leeze,” she said dismissively. “His virginity pledge was such a pain in the ass when we were together. I’m relieved you got to him first. Now he’ll appreciate my many gifts when we get back together.”

  I ignored the insult. She waited until I took a sip of zin before proceeding.

  “I called him.”

  “What?!” Pink spit shot out all over the hardwood floor. “You spoke to him?”

  “Left a message.” She grinned triumphantly, and her wide mouth took up too much of her face. She was well aware of the dramatic implications of such a bold gesture. No one reconnects with an ex by phone. It’s just not done. You’re supposed to work your way though safer, more impersonal channels of communication first. There are countless combinations, of course, but one such sequence would be: witty blog comment, IM, e-mail, voice mail, face-to-face meeting over coffee, face-to-face meeting over alcohol, reunion fuck. But bypassing the first three and going straight to voice mail? That’s kamikaze communication.

  “What did you say?” I asked.

  “Oh, not much…”

  Manda then made a big deal out of yawning, casually stretching her arms above her head, and arching her back until her watermelon tits almost exploded out of her bra. My guess is that this gesture was supposed to be sexy. But it reminded me of that has-been comedian (Gallagher?) who has made an entire career out of smashing fruit with sledgehammers.

  “The usual—you know,” she finally continued. “Hey, I was just thinking about you, we haven’t talked in a while, I broke up with Shea, and oh yeah, I’m still in love with you….”

  “Manda!”

  “What?” she asked, coyly fluttering her eyelashes.

  “You are not still in love with him!”

  “How do you know? Who are you to tell me who I’m in love with? I could easily be in love with Len.”

  “But you’re not!”

  She pouted. “I could be.” Then her petulant pucker spread into a knowing smile. “And more to the point, he could still be in love with me.”


  He could. And if he wasn’t, he would be. It was his fate. Consider this Manda’s version of the Pussy Legacy. With a legendary combination of headstrong self-determination and mythic cleavage, Manda has never failed to snare anyone, of any gender, she has ever wanted. It was impossible for me not to feel sorry for Len’s future ex-girlfriend. I wanted to light a candle. Say a novena. Write a condolence note. Send a foilwrapped pan of ziti that she could eat now or freeze for later. I wanted to do something to help Camilla through the mourning period for what would be the certain death of her relationship with Len.

  As I got up and headed to the Cupcake, Manda waved her cup in the air.

  “Shea’s out,” she said through a yawn. “You owe another hundred sixty-six thirty-three in rent.”

  As if I needed another reason to nail this interview tomorrow.

  tuesday: the fifth

  thirty-seven

  Lately I can’t shake the feeling that I’m supposed to be doing…something. Preparing for…something. Getting ready for, and maybe even a little excited about…something. I’ll be microwaving half a burrito, reading The Journal of Abnormal Psychology, or writing in this very notebook, when I’ll violently jerk with a jolt of anxiety over tasks undone and unknown.

  Can you blame me? For the past eighteen years, early September has meant one thing: back to school. This year it means something else entirely: back to school for everyone but me.

  I was reminded of this via today’s six A.M. wake-up call from Marin. I only answered because her name came up on my caller ID. She has her own cell phone for emergencies, and I’m number two on the auto dial. (After Bethany but before G-Money.)

  “Auntie J! It’s me! Marin! Why can’t I see you today?”

  Yesterday Marin wanted nothing to do with me, but today I’m worthy of a before-dawn phone call.

  “I’ve got a job interview,” I croaked.

  “Does that mean you won’t come over to play with me anymore?”

  A certain lower lip–jutting peevishness crept into her voice, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the truth. “Don’t worry. I’ll still see you all the time….”

  Fortunately, Marin has the zigzagging, ping-ponging attention span that is a defining characteristic of being four years old. She had already moved on to the next subject.

  “Auntie J!” she squeaked. “You know? I start school today!”

  “You excited?”

  “Duuuuuh,” Marin said. “Of course I’m excited! St. Ann’s is the awesomest school in the whole wide world.”

  “Most awesome,” I corrected.

  “That’s what I said! The most awesomest! And I’m going there! Today!”

  Marin is only slightly exaggerating. According to the Wall Street Journal, St. Ann’s is the most awesomest private pre-K-to-12 school in the whole country.

  “School, school, school,” Marin sang.

  I’d sing, too, if I had gotten into St. Ann’s pre-K program. It is not hyperbolic to say that with her acceptance to the “fours,” our little Marin is set for life. I’m proud that my bright, expressive niece charmed her way into the hearts of the St. Ann’s office of admissions. And I’m even prouder of my sister, who stayed remarkably levelheaded throughout the admissions process and didn’t pay a pre-K application packager to mold Marin into “the model four-year-old, an asset to the most selective classroom.” Marin got in on merit, however the hell the “merits” of a four-year-old can be quantified.

  “You know? I’m wearing my shiny tap-dance shoes!” she said. “Just listen!” And then I heard the muffled fumbling of the phone, followed by some indistinct shuffling and scraping sounds. “Did you hear that, Auntie J? Did you?”

  “I heard.”

  “You know what else? I’m wearing my spotty leopard shirt. And you know? My mom says I can’t wear the sweater with the fur because it’s too hot, but I told her that summer is over and it’s back to school and that means sweaters.”

  I used to think the same thing. I still sort of do.

  “And I’ve got my new backpack, and you know? St. Ann’s is the most awesomest school in the whole wide world for art, and that’s awesome because I’m so good at painting, right? And…”

  Lapses in judgment like The Fun Chart™ aside, Bethany has done an amazing job at making sure Marin acts her age, and not like one of those prematurely jaded sophistikids. But I can’t help but worry what will happen now that she’s in the most awesomest school in the whole wide world.

  “But I’m also really good at counting. You know? I can count all the way to one hundred! I can do it by ones, fives, and tens. What one do you want to hear today? By ones, by fives, or by tens?”

  For as excited as she sounds now, I’m afraid that this early success, when coupled with a desperate and scary need for achievement among her peers—the most privileged kids in this world—will only set her up for future unhappiness. I’m worried that no matter how brilliant and accomplished Marin proves herself to be over the next fourteen years of school, she will feel like a worthless loser if she’s not in the .5 percent of applicants who get accepted for the Harvard Class of 2024.

  “Okay! I’ll pick! I’ll do it by fives because I’m going to be five on my next birthday. Five, ten, fifteen…”

  The OTB nursery school is the portal to all things OTB. Actually, it starts even earlier with the OTB Mommy & Me. Then moves on to the OTB Pre-K. OTB K. OTB Primary School. OTB Secondary School. OTB High School. All this OTBing is just to get into the OTB University, a distinction that is forever bestowed onto Harvard. Seriously. There was a recent study conducted by a consortium of educational institutions that asked five thousand college applicants to name the one college that was perceived as the best in the country, and the Crimson Tide tsunami-slammed the competition. I can’t remember the numbers exactly, but it wasn’t even close. So all the rest who are less than Only the Best can just look on, and up, with envy. And how do we know this? From the romans à clef written by former nannies, private-school packagers, and college coaches. From celebratory essays in the New York Times Styles section, or critical exposés in Time magazine. From status car commercials, talk-show segments, and subplots on family dramas.

  “Thirty-five, forty…”

  Surely the woes of the super-rich have been manipulated into a “phenomenon” by relentless media coverage. I honestly didn’t think that these people really existed in the real world. The real world is filled with families who have two mortgages, never consider private school, and can’t afford to pay a pimply thirteen-year-old babysitter five dollars an hour, let alone hire a live-in nanny. (The real world is where Bethany and I grew up, even after my mom returned to work when I was about twelve, and my dad made his way up the pay ladder by putting in about twenty-five years as a teacher, then as an administrator, with the Eastland School System.) At best, these hyperpriveliged families represented just a teeny, tiny fraction, and those top one-percenters surely didn’t come in contact with the lower ninety-nine….

  Until I met them at Columbia. Marcus, you’ll meet them at Princeton, too, the ones who are merely putting on a brave face for the next four years and beyond. They’ll trash-talk at the annual Harvard-Princeton grudge match. They’ll attend the Princeton reunions, don the orange-and-black beer jacket worn by the rest of the members of your graduating class, and strut down Nassau Street in the obnoxious celebration of Tiger pride known as the P-rade. But deep down, they know that there is something missing, the certainty of being OTB.

  It would be funny if it weren’t so sad and totally true.

  And it doesn’t even matter that Princeton technically ranked ahead of Harvard this year. Education experts have to mix up their annual “Best College” rankings because hysterical parents wouldn’t bother buying their guides if they knew Harvard was going to be number one again. This is why these “Best College” publications are divided into so many inane categories: Best Colleges Named After Important Historical Figures. Best Colleges Seen on TV. Best Col
leges That Accept Anyone—and We Mean Anyone. Duh. Even the poorest, podunkiest school gets to be the best in its own unique way. Everyone is a winner! Hooray! It’s not all that different from those end-of-the-year ceremonies in nursery school, when even the dumbest, sloppiest, meanest, clumsiest, ugliest kid in the class walks away with a certificate celebrating his Satisfactory Effort.

  Of course, Marin is attending a nursery school where none of the children are dumb, sloppy, mean, clumsy, or ugly. The hyperambitious and affluent have never bought into the bargain-bin theory of education, because they could afford not to. For those born into families bred to believe in OTB, nothing else will do. Especially when it comes to privately educating the flesh of their dewy, aerobicized flesh. Again, this is not the reality for most families. Most families cannot afford to pay thirty thousand dollars for preschool, or any of the other stages of OTB. Just look at what happened to my former employer—the Pineville branch of the Accelerated College Coaching and Educational Preparedness Tutorial. ACCEPT! closed within a year of its opening because our hometown population still sports way more blue collars than white.

  But OTB is the reality for Marin. Privilege, you see, has its membership.

  “Auntie J? Are you even listening? You’re so quiet!”

  “I’m quiet because I’m listening.”

  “Oh! Sixty-five, seventy…”

  I don’t begrudge my niece for being born into money, if not class. (Class is far less important than money these days, anyway.) Bethany is naturally inclined to be ambivalent about academics, so perhaps Marin has a fighting chance to actually have genuine fun and not the trademarked variety. I would hate it if she turned into one of those automatons whose achievements are taken for granted as givens, and never fully appreciated or enjoyed. I don’t want everything for her to be the means to an end, only without end, because there will always be another OTB to put on her curriculum vitae.

  As the babysitting aunt, I’m allowed to slack off, to skip The Fun Chart™ and cue Grease 3. It’s okay to occasionally show her an alternative to OTB. But as a parent, the number one influence in her life, leading by my example would be considered a road to ruin. After all, who am I but a marginally employed idiot who could only get into one of the lesser Ivies?

 
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