Featured in Colorado Review
Published Spring 2017
The parents always love me. I walk backward and wind clumps of parents and their sixteen- and seventeen-year-old offspring through our tree-lined campus and explain why they should spend sixty thousand dollars a year sending their precious progeny to Willton College. I know what they want to hear—our rising ranking in U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review declaring that our dorms look like palaces, the job and graduate school placement rate, the scholarly successes of our esteemed faculty. Inevitably, some dad, some wannabe comedian in pleated khakis and a tucked-in polo says, “So, what are you going to do with that philosophy degree, Jessica? Will you sit around all day and think?” They chuckle, and their children are mortified. I tell them Willton has provided me with a solid liberal arts education and I have learned to think critically, articulate myself clearly, and write well, and what business or graduate program wouldn’t want someone with these skills?
Today as I lead a dozen parents and children toward the Palmer Observatory, gift of Horace Palmer, class of 1947, and his daughter, Imogen Palmer, class of 1975, I see a pack of boys rolling down the tall, green hill, hooting and hollering the entire way down. Their flip-flops fly off their feet as they roll, their backpacks are scattered on the grass (some halfway open, vomiting out sheets of loose leaf), and their hair is wild, dotted with leaves and twigs. I am, of course, furious; this sort of disruption isn’t supposed to transpire on my tours. We are no longer children, and we should comport ourselves as if we are civilized human beings, not baboons that have escaped from the zoo.
Because the lawn is vast and centrally located, and because we are required to bring all tours to the Palmer Observatory, I cannot steer the families away from the imbecilic boys, so all I can do is walk briskly and apologize for their behavior.
“Why are you sorry?” says a puffy-faced father, who is wearing aviator Ray-Bans and a leather jacket, even though it’s a warm September day, nearly eighty degrees. He steps forward from the tour group and tilts his head as he surveys the scene before him. “They look like they’re having fun.”
“Dad,” says his daughter.
Although this father is quite homely, reminiscent of a bloated toad, the daughter is beautiful, with shiny sand-colored hair, huge amber eyes, long, thin legs in tiny denim shorts (shorts so tiny, in fact, that the white fabric of the pockets hangs below the hem of the shorts). I am quite sure she’s a model; very rarely do you see people who look like this walking around outside the pages of a magazine or off a movie screen. I wonder what it might be like to be that beautiful, to move through the world with this girl’s physical gifts. I have a theory that very rich and smart and ugly men marry beautiful, money-grubbing women, and then their offspring, if they are lucky, are intelligent and beautiful, inheriting the best traits of both their mothers and their fathers. I don’t think this is exactly fair: one should be either beautiful or intelligent.
“It’s usually much quieter out here,” I say. “More bucolic.” A pimply boy in the back of the group snorts when I say “bucolic,” and I assume it’s because he has no idea what the word means. “Please follow me, everyone,” I say, and I wave my arms, trying to usher the group rapidly away from the grassy hill.
“I like seeing this,” says the puffy father, pointing to the rowdy boys on the hill. “It’s good for young people to have fun, don’t you think?”
I am unsure if he’s speaking to me or to the group in general, so I ignore him. He power walks until he is next to me and keeps pace with my steps. We speed past the Lillenheim Science Library, which, although it has one of the largest collections for a college of our size on the East Coast, is not beautiful the way the Art and Architecture Library is, with the marble bust of Athena and polished wooden bookshelves and paintings by Winslow Homer and Frederic Church in the entranceway. Always, after the observatory, we bring the tour groups to the Art and Architecture Library. “What do you do for fun here?” asks the homely father.
“I enjoy my classes,” I say, and although I cannot see his eyes, I sense that he is either squinting in disbelief or rolling his eyes behind the mirrored lenses. He is struggling to keep up with my pace and breathing through his mouth, and I can smell alcohol on his breath. I am uncertain whether this is a sign of deep and ingrained alcoholism or whether this is just a remnant of lunch at the Willton Inn, which is famous for their martinis, along with their crab cakes with remoulade sauce. “And giving tours,” I say. “I enjoy giving tours and meeting new people, especially prospective students.”
I open the door to the observatory with a key that has been given to me by the Director of Admissions. The key hangs around my neck during the tours, attached to a green-and-yellow Willton College lanyard. I must return this key at the end of every tour, and this fact galls me. Perhaps it would be problematic for the other tour guides to have the key in their possession, but I am likely the most trustworthy student on campus. I would never consider sneaking into the observatory to throw a party or partake in drugs or sexual activity or whatever other temptations to which my less moral peers might succumb. Because the observatory contains a telescope that is worth three million dollars, the door must be locked at all times, except when a class or a tour is inside. I gather the members of my group and lead them up the stairs to the telescope. “You can see Pluto with this telescope,” I say.
“You can see Pluto without a telescope,” says the pretty daughter of the ugly father.
“Pluto is one thousand times too faint to be seen by the naked eye,” I say. I feel better now about her. She is beautiful and dumb, which is how things should be.
The same boy who’d laughed at “bucolic” laughs at “naked eye.” I glare at him, and he puts his fist against his chest and raises his middle finger. I will make sure to get his name later and report back to the Director of Admissions that this boy is most certainly not Willton material.
I lead the group around the observatory and tell them very few small liberal arts colleges offer astronomy classes and have observatories on their campuses. I tell them this is just one of the many ways that Willton is special, how it stands above other colleges.
The puffy father takes off his sunglasses, leaves them on a table, and puts his eye up to the telescope. There’s a lens cap that needs to be removed before he can observe anything. He steps back from the telescope and says, “I think it’s broken. I can’t see anything,” and I say, “I’ll let the astronomy professor know,” although I have no intention of doing so. Without the glasses, the puffy dad’s face looks familiar, but all these dads blend together. Mostly, they are slightly overweight, have gray hair at their temples (that is, if they still possess hair), wear oversized eyeglasses, and sport either white athletic socks with boat shoes or black dress socks with sneakers. This father looks like all the rest, except for his leather jacket and sunglasses.
I usher the group out of the observatory and we head toward the Art and Architecture Library, and the puffy father says, “How’s the music program here?”
“Like all our programs, it’s excellent,” I say. “The benefit of choosing Willton over a conservatory is that along with a fine musical education, our students also receive a broad liberal arts education. My freshman-year roommate was a music composition major, and she had only the highest praise for all her classes and professors.”
This isn’t exactly true. Hillary and I hated each other and never spoke of our coursework. I was appalled when she moved into our freshman double toting an electronic keyboard, but that was only the beginning of the trouble between us. The next load she brought in from her mother’s car involved a rodent in a cage, which she explained was a chinchilla. The chinchilla wore a miniature pink vest with “Emotional Support Animal” stitched on it, and Hillary was allowed to put the creature on a leash and take it to all her classes, and even into the dining hall, because she’d managed to get the chinchilla certified as a service animal. The creature was small enough to hide in a purse or backpack, and thus the leash and the vest were simply ways for Hillary to draw attention to herself. Hillary and the chinchilla, which was named Duke, became celebrities on campus, and there was even a profile about them in the campus newspaper. All night, every night, Duke chewed up old newspapers, scratched at the sides of his cage, and produced his damp, swampy chinchilla stink, but Hillary insisted she needed Duke because her anxiety got the best of her without his nurturing and calming presence. Without Duke, she said, the pressures of college life were insurmountable. I applied for a room change in October, but the Director of Residential Life told me part of growing up was learning to live with others who were different from you, and unless I had a documented allergy to chinchilla fur, I could not change rooms. So I suffered silently, like a martyr, in that room with Hillary and Duke. In November, we got our first major snowstorm and my old snow boots were worn out, the tread completely gone, and the slick soles made walking unsafe. That year I was working in the dining hall, so I took all my dining hall earnings I was saving to buy books for spring semester, and I went to the thrift store to look for a pair of used boots in my size. Instead, I found a chinchilla wrap, which was draped on a dress form behind the register, and even though I would have to part with all the money I’d earned from September through November to purchase it, I bought the wrap and then I wore it all over campus. Hillary was aghast. She told me I was causing emotional setbacks for her; she claimed I was traumatizing her and triggering panic attacks. I told her perhaps she should apply for a room change, and I spent that whole winter with a very warm neck and shoulders from the chinchilla wrap, and very cold and wet feet from not owning a pair of snow boots and having to tromp across a snowy, muddy campus in damp canvas sneakers. Hillary was able to convince the Director of Residential Life that a room change was in order, due to my chinchilla wrap and its triggering capabilities, so second semester I moved into my own miniscule room, and Hillary and Duke were left to inhabit our spacious double.
“And music performance? That’s good too?” the dad asks.
“Dad,” his daughter says, “are you planning on going to school here?”
“Maybe I will,” he says, and his daughter shakes her head. The father turns to me and says, “I never went to college,” and I say, “It’s never too late,” although I don’t really believe that. There’s the proper time to do everything, and I’m not convinced a fifty-year-old needs to be thinking about calculus and organic chemistry and British literature if these are not subjects he’s been moved to study before.
“Just think about it, Elise,” he says. Of course his daughter is named Elise. That name sounds light and cool, like a spring breeze. It sounds slightly French without being difficult to pronounce. “We could go to classes together, eat our meals in the dining hall at the same table, go to parties and boogie.”
“God, Dad,” Elise says. “Just shoot me now. Boogie?” She moves so she’s as far from her father as possible while still being part of the tour. She ends up near the pimply boy who gave me the finger, and he smiles at her, says hi flirtatiously, and I want to tell him that it won’t happen, not in a million years, so it’s not even worth trying.
After we finish at the Art and Architecture Library, we make our way back to Admissions, and now the boys who were rolling down the hill are playing ultimate Frisbee, shoeless, running across the lawn. I would prefer to see them reading books on the lawn, but Frisbee at least falls into the category of acceptable collegiate activity. I’ve seen college catalogs featuring Frisbee players on their covers, so I suppose this game does less to besmirch the reputation of Willton than the hill rolling.
Back in Admissions, I point the families to our brochures, and I tell them that those who have interviews this afternoon should wait in the front library area. And I lie and tell them that everyone who took the tour needs to sign in, and I pass around a yellow legal pad I pilfered from the desk of Nora, our administrative coordinator, who is currently out at lunch. My goal, of course, is to get the name of Mr. Pimply-Middle-Finger-Out-of-His-League, which I will pass along to Madeline Lindstrom, the Director of Admissions.
After the notepad is returned to me, I look down and see the boy’s name is Earl Gorton, and now I am even more certain that with that face, attitude, and name, he has no chance with Elise. The families dissipate, and then Madeline comes around the corner with her three-p.m. cup of jasmine tea that I know she drinks to stave off post-lunch hunger because she’s trying to lose fifteen pounds before her wedding in February. She tells me, “Mr. Dupree believes he left his sunglasses in the observatory. Would you mind walking him back?” I make a show of checking my watch, but Madeline says, “You don’t have any classes on Tuesday afternoons, do you?” and I have to admit that indeed I do not. And so I smile and say of course, absolutely, I would be delighted to walk Mr. Dupree back to the observatory.
“Can I leave my jacket here?” asks Mr. Dupree, and he takes off his leather jacket and drapes it over the back of a chair in the waiting area. He is wearing an olive-green T-shirt that is a size too small, and the armpits are stained with sweat. Printed on the back of the T-shirt is a pair of silver wings.
And so we go, jacketless Mr. Dupree, Elise, and I, out the door of Admissions, and I wonder if I can ask Madeline to compensate me for the time I spend walking back and forth from the observatory.
Mr. Dupree takes a pack of cigarettes out of the back pocket of his jeans, and I tell him we are on a smoke-free campus.
“Rules are made to be broken,” he says, and I take a few steps away from him, both so I won’t inhale his secondhand smoke and so I will not be found guilty by association if anyone with any sort of clout at Willton walks by.
“Dad, please,” says Elise. He sighs, shakes his head, and says, “You sound just like your mother,” but he takes the cigarette out of his mouth, drops it to the ground, and stomps on it.
“We have an anti-littering policy as well,” I say, and Mr. Dupree sighs loudly, bends down, picks up the cigarette, and deposits it in one of the cast iron garbage cans on the edge of the lawn.
“Okay?” he says. “Everyone happy now? This is the problem with women. They never let you enjoy yourself.”
I bite my tongue so that I will not call him a misogynist. All we need to do is retrieve his sunglasses and then I will never have to see him and his toad face again. He is dripping with sweat, his hair a mess, and with his sweat stains and winged T-shirt, Mr. Dupree looks like some aging rock star. I stop in my tracks—literally—and say, “You’re Austin Dupree.”
“Oh, God,” Elise says. “Here we go.”
Austin Dupree’s face is familiar to me because many years ago he was a rock star, a member of the ’90s boy band Daylight Savings. Apparently, my mother had been a fan of his work. Right before I started at Willton, my father moved out of the home I grew up in and into a small apartment, and he told me it was time to go through my mother’s possessions. She’d died when I was nine; it had been almost a decade, but my father and I had not had the heart to sort through any of her belongings in all those years. It was as if we believed that if we left her possessions untouched, the fact that she was gone would not settle in, would not become real.
In the closet of my father’s bedroom, I’d found a box that had once belonged to my mother, sealed and taped over. It was filled with posters, magazines, and CDs. Everything featured Daylight Savings, but it appeared, based on the amount of memorabilia devoted to him, that my mother’s favorite member had been their lead singer, Austin Dupree. I’d stared for a long time at a poster of him wearing overalls with a flannel shirt tied around his waist. He was holding a trumpet, even though, as I discovered after I listened to the CDs, no one in the group played trumpet. Austin Dupree was probably sixty pounds lighter in that poster and had wavy, shoulder-length hair and a cheerful smile and a moustache-less beard, which made him look somewhat Amish. Despite the clothing and the styling, he was handsome. I’d never heard of Daylight Savings before I found the box, but a quick Internet search informed me that although they were once enormously popular, they were now the butt of jokes about their overly sculpted facial hair and melodramatic lyrics. Their biggest hit was a song called “Your Eyes R Puddles of Love,” and music critics used words like “tripe” and “saccharine” to describe their work.
“My mom used to like Daylight Savings,” I say.
“Used to?” Austin Dupree says, and because he seems deflated by the past tense, I pretend my mother is still alive and say, “Of course, she’s still a fan.” It isn’t the first time I’ve lied about my mother. I have not told anyone at Willton about her death. I suppose this is a benefit of not having close friends: there is no one checking in on you during parents’ weekend, asking why it’s only your father who has shown up year after year. When Hillary asked about my mother during our freshman year, I told her she was a cultural anthropologist who was conducting long-term research on the Himba tribe in Namibia, and Hillary seemed satisfied with that explanation.
“You want me to sign something for your mom? What do you have on you?” He pulls a Sharpie from the pocket of his jeans, and I simultaneously admire that he’s well prepared and feel pity for him, toting around a Sharpie in the hope that he’ll be recognized and asked for an autograph. He stands poised with the uncapped Sharpie in his hand, its noxious fumes wafting in my direction.
“I don’t have anything on me. Maybe we can find something you can sign when we return to Admissions?” I say, and Austin Dupree caps the Sharpie and slips it back into his pocket. We continue to walk toward the observatory, and he admires the trees and the flowers along the way. He pauses to read the brass plaques beneath the trees, which are inscribed with their Latin names.
“This place is beautiful,” he says. He stops next to a sycamore, whose plaque says Platanus Occidentalis.
“It’s been designated as an arboretum in addition to being a college campus,” I tell him.
“Can you do me a favor? Can you convince my daughter that she should go to Willton instead of going to model in Paris?” Austin Dupree says.
“Milan,” says Elise. “Or maybe London.”
“Well,” I say, “college is an individual and personal decision.” Of course Elise is a model. I wonder if I’ve seen her face in any ads in the magazines I sometimes read furtively at the drugstore and then slip carefully back on the racks so no one will know I have interest in the lives, loves, and travails of celebrities.
“Can you give us the inside scoop?” he asks. “Move away from the script they give you in the Admissions Office. What’s good? What’s bad? Are you happy here?”
“I’m extremely happy here,” I immediately spew out. “It’s the perfect fit for me.” I never veer far from the script I was told to memorize when I was hired as a tour guide. I like the security of knowing precisely what to say; I like that the tours are more performances than true interactions with people.
And what more can I say about Willton that will be helpful for the Duprees to know? Although I am acquiring a top-notch education that will surely propel me successfully into the world after graduation, my time here has not been particularly happy. After I moved out of the dorm room I shared with Hillary, I found myself almost always alone, lonely in a way I hadn’t been when I was sharing a room—even with someone as objectionable as Hillary. Some nights after the room change I sat in my single reading Kant and Nietzsche and stroking the chinchilla wrap as if it were a pet. The last time I wore the wrap was on a particularly cold February afternoon, and when I was walking to my chemistry class, four girls, all of whom I recognized as friends of Hillary’s, assaulted me, screaming about fur equaling murder. Each girl was armed with a can of red spray-paint, and they shrieked about my being a killer. They were unwilling to listen to my protests about the wrap having been purchased used, and how I was actually following a model of sustainability. At the end of the altercation, my wrap and the rest of my clothes and my hair and skin were all covered in red spray-paint. I was on the ground with my ankle twisted, my knee scraped and bloodied, and I knew I could never wear the wrap again. I limped to the dumpster behind the dining hall and threw the wrap into it, and I felt a heavy sadness, as if I were burying a beloved pet. Then I spent an hour in the dorm shower trying to scrub off the paint, the water burning the scraped flesh on my knee, my ankle throbbing. Usually I tried to push thoughts about my mother from my mind, since it was useless and impractical to hope for her to miraculously return, but in the shower, I wished my mother were still alive, that I could call her and tell her what had happened and that she would say the right things that would soothe me. But, instead, I told no one about what had happened, went to my classes and meals, and pretended that everything was fine.
For the rest of the semester, I was lonely and bootless and bookless, since I’d spent all my money on that wrap, and I had to do all my reading for my courses in the library, checking the books out of reserve for three hours at a time. Day after day, I watched girls come in with friends or boyfriends, and I was jealous, wished my life could be different, but I didn’t know how to make it different. I never fit in with the other girls at Willton. They knew how to make friends and I did not. I wanted a best friend, a boyfriend; I wanted people to confide in, to tell my problems to, to laugh at my jokes.
I often wonder if my college experience would have been different had I attended another school. I could have had my tuition fully covered at Easton College, which is three hours away from Willton in the small upstate New York town where I grew up. I could have gone for free because my father is a janitor there, and a few years before I was to begin college, the president of Easton decided that free tuition for family members applied not only to faculty but to staff as well. “This is perfect,” my father said after the president made his egalitarian proclamation, and I said, “Why?” even though I knew the answer. “You can still live at home. We could carpool, even. We’ll be able to afford college.”
“No,” I told him, “I’ll never go to Easton. Not in a million years.” My issue with Easton was not its academic reputation. It is a good, small liberal arts school, on par with Willton. Actually, in the past three years, it has ranked four spots higher than Willton in U.S. News. I could not go to Easton because I was embarrassed that my father was a janitor there, and although I never told him this outright, I’m sure he knows I was too proud to go to a school where he worked vacuuming the dorm carpeting, cleaning up vomit after parties, scrubbing toilets. And now, even though I’ve received some scholarship money from Willton, I am deeply in debt for my education. Since I’ve been in college I have never, not once, asked my father for money for anything, not even for a pair of winter boots, because I know I broke his heart by choosing not to go to Easton. Things have not been the same between my father and me since I made my decision, but at least here at Willton I can pretend my father isn’t a janitor, that my family has enough money to pay for school.
“Maybe you should let your daughter go model,” I say.
“See!” says Elise. “Everyone thinks it’s the right thing to do. I can always go to college. Who knows how long I can model. By the time I graduate college, I’ll be considered old in the modeling world. Crusty. A prune.”
I want to tell Elise not to mix her metaphors. A loaf of bread might turn crusty, but a prune will not, but I know not to antagonize prospective students, especially those with former boy-band parents who can likely afford to pay full tuition.
“You don’t think you’d regret not going to college?” Austin Dupree asks. “You don’t think you’ll be sad when you go on Facebook and see all your friends from high school having a great time away at school?”
“You always say your life was so amazing, that you loved touring,” Elise says. “I thought you said that your college was ‘the school of life.’ Why can’t I go to the school of life, too?”
“Just because not going to college was right for me back then doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Times are different now.”
“Do you still play music?” I ask in an effort to defuse the tension that’s growing between them. We are at the observatory, and we all climb up the stairs. I use the key on the lanyard around my neck to let us in.
“I’ve got a standing gig at a local place. Plus, the band has been talking about getting back together, maybe with a few other bands. An early ’90s tour. A throwback thing for all those women who were teenagers in the ’90s and loved our music.”
“He has a day job, too, though,” Elise says. Austin Dupree shoots her an irritated look.
“Doing what?” I ask.
“I work for a liquor distributor. Sales. I’ve got to fill my time in the day-to-day, you know?”
I consider making a joke about how either of those professions—rock star or liquor distributor—would make him extremely popular on a college campus, but I manage to hold my tongue.
Austin Dupree’s phone rings as he’s about to step into the observatory. He holds up a finger in a “wait one moment” gesture, says, “I have to take this. It’s my manager,” and he walks down the stairs and away from us, talking too low into his phone for us to hear. Elise and I step into the observatory, and I let the heavy door shut.
“Do you think the ’90s tour is going to happen?” I say.
Elise snorts, an undignified sound coming out of her perfectly proportioned model nose. “That’s not his manager,” she says.
“Why would he lie?”
“He lies about everything. That’s my mother. They’re going through a divorce. She wants the house in Laguna Beach. And his BMW.”
“Why are you so sure it’s not his manager?”
“He wants you to believe it’s his manager. But that’s my mom’s ringtone. ‘Uptown Girl,’ by Billy Joel. You know that song?”
“It’s so stupid, because it’s about the singer dating this girl who’s too fancy for him, and when my mom and dad met, neither one of them was fancy. They kind of became fancy together when my dad got rich and famous.”
“And you’ve been fancy your whole life?” I can’t help but ask.
She shrugs and says, “I’m not spoiled. I was born after Daylight Savings broke up. Most of my life my dad has been kind of a big loser. He just pretends he’s not. The only thing keeping him from complete loserdom is the fact that he still has money from when the band was popular. But my mom is currently trying to take it all away from him.”
“Maybe he can get popular again.”
“That standing gig he was talking about? It’s at Harvey’s House of Ribs on Wednesday nights. Their ribs aren’t even good. Or at least they weren’t when I still ate meat. I’m a vegetarian now.”
Of course she is. I look out a window of the observatory and over at Austin Dupree, who is pacing up and down the small hill below the observatory, waving his arm angrily. “Why would your dad lie to me?”
Elise shrugs, walks around the circumference of the room, and I swear she’s doing a swishy-hipped model walk, as if the inside of the observatory is a catwalk. “He wants to impress you. It makes him happy when he still has fans. And he’s hoping you’ll go and call your mom and tell her all about how he’s still cool and successful and she’ll, like, post on some message board about him or something.”
When I moved into my dorm freshman year, I brought my mother’s box of Daylight Savings memorabilia with me and hid it under my bed. I loaded those CDs onto iTunes on my computer and listened to them over and over with my headphones plugged in, trying to figure out some clue to who my mother had been. The music revealed nothing; it was empty, meaningless pop, and I could not understand why she had been such a fan. I desperately wanted to know her in the way a daughter should grow to know her mother, but I’d only known her as a little girl who looked admiringly at the person who fed and burped me, who sang me to sleep. I’d loved her in a simple, uncomplicated way for the first five years of my life, and then I’d spent the next four years watching her slow decline after she got sick, and my energy was devoted not to getting to know her, but to hoping she’d recover, beat the odds, that a miracle would happen. So those CDs seemed a sort of clue to me about the person my mother had been, which was why I listened to them over and over again. One day Hillary leaned over my desk, looked at iTunes, and saw I’d listened to Daylight Savings’ debut album, Fall Back, 123 times, and said, “That might be the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” and I hated her more then than I’d ever hated anyone.
Elise’s cell phone dings and she pulls it out of her pocket and stops sashaying, punches something into it. “Sorry,” she says. “Facebook e-mail notification. I had to wish my friend Dylan a happy birthday.”
“Is Dylan a girl or a boy?” I ask. I don’t like names that don’t reveal what sex the person is, names like Brooklyn or River or Scout. Or Dylan, which is mostly a boy’s name, but on rare occasions is also a girl’s name.
“A girl. She was named after Bob Dylan. He’s a musician,” Elise says.
“I know who Bob Dylan is,” I say. “Everybody knows Bob Dylan. He’s an artist with longevity.”
Elise glares at me, and I see she understands the comment as the barb I intended it to be. “I stopped with the happy birthday stuff on Facebook,” I say, turning and looking out the window again at Austin Dupree. Now he appears to be shouting into the phone, his mouth in the shape of an O, his face red. “No one puts a comma between ‘Happy birthday’ and the birthday person’s name, and you need a comma in direct address. Also, I can’t stand when people write ‘Happy B-day.’ In my mind I always think it should be pronounced ‘Happy bidet,’ and a bidet is—”
“I know what a bidet is. I’ve been to Europe,” Elise says. She starts up her horsey, clomping walk again, around and around the observatory. She holds up her wrist in my direction. “Fitbit,” she says. “I have a goal of twelve thousand steps a day.”
“And then what? What’s the point?”
“And then I’ve met my goal,” she says. She stops and stares at me. “No offense, but you’re kind of rude. I can’t believe they let you be a tour guide. All the other schools where we’ve been, the tour guides have been, like, incredibly friendly.”
“I was friendly during the tour,” I say. “This—this is extra unpaid babysitting time. So forgive me if I’m exhibiting some sullenness while your parents work out their marital issues.”
“Nice,” Elise says. “Very compassionate. It’s an inconvenience for you, but it’s my life.”
“It doesn’t have to be your life for much longer. Next year you’ll be out of your house. You’ll be at college or off modeling in Europe.”
Elise stops and stares down at my shoes for longer than I’m comfortable with. “I know you think I’m stupid, but I’m not,” she says. “Do you watch Sherlock? With Benedict Cumberbatch? He looks like an otter, but he’s cute anyway. I’m training myself to be perceptive and observant like Sherlock.”
“Sherlock is based on books by—”
“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” Elise says. “I told you, I’m not stupid. I like to read.”
“Fine, Sherlock, tell me what you’ve observed,” I say. Austin Dupree doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to finishing his phone call, and at least I can be entertained by whatever Elise erroneously believes she knows about me. After all, this is the girl who thought she could see Pluto without a telescope.
“You don’t have a lot of money,” she says, while continuing to pace the circumference of the observatory. Now she’s walking more slowly, her hands clasped behind her back in obvious imitation of Sherlock. “Your sneakers are knock-off Vans, and your big toes are wearing through the tops. They might be the only pair of shoes you own. Your shirt is poor quality, with no darts or pattern matching, and the stitching is inconsistent. You probably buy your clothing at a place like Walmart.”
She is correct. The shoes and shirt are both from the sale racks at Kmart, but I didn’t think there was anything noticeably bad about them. I am clean and my clothes match, and that should be enough. Suddenly, I wonder if other people at Willton have noticed my clothes, have thought they look like they’re from Walmart. I wonder how ridiculous I looked with cheap clothes paired with the chinchilla wrap. How many jokes about my attire have been made on this campus?
“I’m not saying that stuff to be mean. I’m saying it might make you not really fit in at Willton. This is a rich kid’s school. Everyone knows that. Everyone’s the same here, and if you’re not, it’s got to be hard. And this is why I’d rather model than come here. You never know where you’re going to go or who you’re going to meet in the modeling world. Here, you’ll meet girls with flat-ironed hair and Tory Burch purses and diamond earrings, and boys in Sperrys and Vineyard Vines. If you’re not a rich kid, if you didn’t grow up with maids and with a summer home in the Hamptons, you won’t fit in. This is the kind of place that makes the world seem very small.”
I am dizzy when she’s finished with her little speech delivered while walking in circles, but I don’t want to admit she is right, so I say, “A college is a small world filled with ideas. There’s the comfort of books, which is a comfort that is always available to me.”
“So you admit I’m right about you?” Elise says. She has sped up and is pumping her arms now as she moves around the room.
“I admit nothing.” The observatory feels miniscule and oppressive now, even though it’s just the two of us here and there’s space inside for an entire class of twenty. I smell Elise’s perfume each time she passes me, and although I don’t know its name, I know plenty of girls at Willton wear it and it is overbearingly sweet. I want to sit down and put my head between my knees the way my lab partner, Ellie Peterson, did in biology in tenth grade when she had a panic attack while we were dissecting frogs.
“I’m sorry,” Elise says. She stops walking. “That wasn’t nice of me. That Sherlock shit is stupid. It hurts people’s feelings, even when Sherlock does it. I was just showing off because I could tell you think I’m dumb.”
“You’re not dumb,” I say. “You’d probably fit in pretty well if you wanted to come here. I mean, in terms of the academics.”
Elise nods. “And my hair,” she says and gives her hair a flip and I detect the faintest smile.
“And your hair,” I say.
“The thing is, I really do want to go model. I want to go see the world and do exciting things and meet exciting people. But then I look at my dad and I think, I don’t want to be like him. To have the best part of my life happen early on and then have the rest of my life feel like a letdown. I don’t want to be sad because once I was something and then for the rest of my life I’m nothing.”
“He’s not nothing. He’s your dad.”
“The best thing he ever was was a member of Daylight Savings,” Elise says. “Or at least that’s what he believes.” She looks away from me, pushes a button on her Fitbit, and sighs. “Only 7,413 steps.” She picks up her father’s sunglasses, which are still on the table where he placed them earlier. She slides them onto her face, and they are comically large. “Let’s go get him.”
I look out the window and he’s still on the phone. “Shouldn’t we wait until he’s done?”
“My parents will argue all day. We just need to interrupt them.”
She leads the way out of the observatory, and I stop to lock the door and watch as she charges toward her father, then stands in front of him and waits for his conversation to be over. I’m unsure whether I should join them, so I stand on the top step and wait. This seems like something private, family only, but then Austin Dupree looks up at the observatory and waves me over. So I head down toward the Duprees and when I get close, I see Austin Dupree shift his face into a smile, wide and disingenuous, and he says, “Sorry about that. That was my manager, Larry.”
Elise shakes her head and says, “I’m going to run back to the Admissions Office. Can you walk my dad back and meet me there? I’m going to circle around outside Admissions and pick up some more steps.”
I nod, and she takes off running, her sandals thwacking the soles of her feet, and soon she is completely gone from view and it’s just me and Austin Dupree making our way down the hill.
“You tell your mom it looks like the ’90s reunion tour has a good chance of happening,” Austin Dupree says. “We were just ironing out some details on the phone.”
I realize Elise didn’t want to be around while he continued to lie to me. “Really?” I say. I hope I don’t sound too incredulous, but I have not yet calibrated my tone to sound as if I believe his lies.
“It’s going to be huge. We’re going to play the Staples Center, the Barclays Center, Madison Square Garden.”
“Wow,” I say, and this time I think I manage to sound impressed.
“You and your mom, you two come and see us. And I’ll make sure I get you a backstage pass.”
“That would be wonderful,” I say.
He reaches into his pocket, takes out his wallet, and pulls out a business card. It says, “A. W. Dupree. Regional Sales Manager, Southern California. Infinity Liquors,” and has his work e-mail address and phone number. “So you can get in touch with me once the tickets go on sale for the tour.”
“Thank you,” I say, although I know there will never be a tour, that I’ll never get in touch. I look up at Austin Dupree’s sweaty face, and I see something hopeful in his eyes, the desire for me to believe that what he has just told me is true.
We walk back toward Admissions, and I stop in front of the lawn where the boys are still playing Frisbee. “Mr. Dupree,” I say, “could I take a selfie with you? I would love to send it to my mom.”
“I’d be delighted,” he says, and I hold my phone at arm’s length, flip the camera so I can see our faces on the screen, the vast, green lawn spotted with students in the background.
“Smile!” Austin Dupree shouts, and I take our picture, the two of us grinning widely, as if neither of us has a worry in the world.
Karin Lin-Greenberg's stories have recently appeared in Bellingham Review, Crazyhorse, and Hayden's Ferry Review. Her story collection, Faulty Predictions, won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. She teaches creative writing at Siena College in upstate New York.