A Rare Opportunity
Up until that point, English class had been unremarkable. We were halfway through The Picture of Dorian Gray. Mrs. Harris, with her voluminous behind precariously perched on the front of her strained wooden desk, scanned the room searching for flickers of comprehension—or, at the very least, consciousness—in a sea of clueless faces. I slid ever so slightly down in my seat, letting my long wispy hair, still damp from my morning encounter with winter’s sloppy-wet sleet, fall around the sides of my face: trying to hide. I’ve never much been one for participation. I generally know the answers—I just don’t appreciate the attention that comes from knowing them. Answer correctly and you have further cemented your reputation as a brainy, hopeless outcast. Answer incorrectly, and not only are you considered a bookish nerd, but now you’re even bad at that. It was a lose/lose situation. So I read ahead in the book, tuning her out, glancing up every now and then to the clock above the chalkboard or to the windows where blustery, chalk-white skies hung over another frigid January day. Evanston, Illinois, and the tundra that was the greater Chicago area would likely look this way until April, but it never bothered me so much. I liked the way that braving its wind-whipping wrath could make a person, even someone as easily tossed around as me, feel stronger.
"So let’s talk about the nature of good, evil, and hedonism," the teacher droned on.
At the mention of hedonism, on reflex, my eyes darted two rows in front of me. Buzz-cropped Jason Abington, wearing his basketball jersey, number 9, to advertise the big game this weekend, nibbled on the cap of his blue ballpoint pen—my blue ballpoint pen. Somewhere inside my stomach, swarms of butterflies fluttered from their cocoons. It was for this very reason that the front outside pocket of my backpack bulged at all times with scores of these pens, which I had, optimistically, bought in bulk. Jason never seemed to have his own and somehow, by an odd stroke of luck, he had asked to borrow one from me weeks ago and then again and again and now this is what I had become to him: a purveyor of pens. At the desk beside him, a blonde creature—his blonde creature—named Courtney twirled her artfully hot-rollered, bodacious curls. This is what boys like him were conditioned to expect. This wasn’t me, and I couldn’t imagine it ever would be, regardless of what magical metamorphosis one was expected to undergo during high school. I was a work in progress, but I had no reason to believe the finished product would ever be quite like that.
I had stopped paying the least bit of attention to Harris’s lecture when she called, "Ms. Terra? Haven. Did you hear me?"
To be honest, no. Scrambling, I shuffled through the shards I had caught of her lecture, searching for the most likely line of questioning and then shooting out an answer that ought to fit. "Um, Dorian and Lord Henry believe in following the senses, pursuing whatever pleases them, uh, no matter the consequences, and, um, not worrying about right and wrong?" I proposed, sweat dampening my temples. Jason angled his head back just a touch in my direction. I felt other eyes on me too.
"Thank you, that’s lovely." She was holding a slip of paper she had just taken from a senior girl, bored, chewing gum, who now left the room. "But your presence is requested in the principal’s office."
A weak chorus of "Oooooh" broke out as I gathered my books and boulder of a backpack heavy enough it carved divots into my narrow shoulders. As I squeezed through the aisle, passing Jason’s desk, he looked up for only a moment, expressionless and still chewing on my pen.
In my two and a half years of high school, I had yet to set foot inside Principal Tollman’s office—I’m just not that kind of girl. So I couldn’t imagine what this could be about. On the walk there, footsteps echoing on the linoleum, faded voices muffling out from passing classrooms, I tried to think what it could be: Was it Joan? Was something wrong with her? This is how it is with me, always expecting the worst.
But in our case, this sort of overreaction was justified.
This is just what happens when you are discovered, as I was, at roughly age five, in a muddy ditch somewhere off Lake Shore Drive in the dead of winter.
A little Jane Doe, barely breathing, no memories of anything that came before that night, no one to ever come looking for you. And you get raised by the kind nurse who eventually takes you in, names you, feeds you, clothes you. After a thing like that, worry becomes more than a reflex; it becomes an umbrella shading daily life, hovering closer every time someone gets home late or doesn’t call when they say they will.
"Ms. Terra, have a seat," Ms. Tollman said over the top of the rimless reading glasses perched on her nose when she saw me standing in the doorway of her office. She squared up in her chair, watching me, until she finally spoke. "So it looks like congratulations are in order." I felt my eyes involuntarily bulge. "We’ve just been notified that you and two of your fellow eleventh-graders have been accepted into the Department of Education’s Vocational Illinois Leaders internship program."
It took me half a second too long to process.
"Oh, wow. That’s great, thanks," I said, more reserved than she probably expected, but I was preoccupied. My mind sorted and sifted through everything I’d applied for in the past year. There was just so much. Anything that could earn me extra cash for college or would sound good enough to help me clinch a scholarship to one of my dream schools. Internships, fellowships, essay contests—my mailbox and my mind flooded with the constant stream of applications and deadlines and hopes. And yet, somehow, this didn’t even ring a bell. The principal took off her glasses and stared at me with a faint smile, a director waiting for the reaction shot she wanted. "This sounds fantastic," I started. "I really am honored. But forgive me, I can’t seem to recall actually applying for this." A nervous grin propped up the corners of my mouth.
She laughed, a small, charmed chuckle.
"Yes, well, that’s because you didn’t. That’s the beauty of this particular internship. They just pluck the best and the brightest and place those students with a thriving Illinois enterprise for the semester. It’s a new pilot program the state seems to be trying out. You will each be paired up with someone at this business who will act as a sort of advanced independent-study tutor and a mentor. And—"Glasses back on, she read from a paper. "Let’s see, ooooh, yes, it appears you’re going to be placed at the Lexington Hotel in Chicago. Why, that’s really remarkable, you know. They’re about to reopen, and the woman who owns it has become the toast of Chicago’s business world practically overnight. You may have seen her in the Tribune and on the news. This is a tremendous privilege. It says here that room and board are provided, and there’s a considerable stipend in exchange for good old-fashioned hard work."
Her words rushed at me too fast to make sense of. So I would be living at this place? Living at a hotel? Working full-time? No actual classes? "Considerable stipend"? It was a lot to wrap my head around. Do things like this just fall from the sky? Perhaps the near-perfect grades I worked so hard for, the afterschool job I had had for pretty much a decade, the Saturday nights spent at home studying, were finally paying off in something that could give me a shot at the pricey and prestigious schools on my college wish list.
"I know we’ve started our semester—the timing is a bit odd; I suppose the state board is still ironing out the kinks—however, we’ll make it work for the three of you students since this is a rare opportunity." She said this with a hands-clasped, tilted-head gravity that suggested she would like some gratitude and gushing in return.
"Thank you, Ms. Tollman. I appreciate it. This is really great." My mind was already five steps ahead, sorting through what Joan would say. Would she even let me go? What would I bring? How would I tell them at the hospital?
"You start next week. Everything you need to know should be in here." She stood from behind her desk, thrust a slim manila envelope at me, then surprised me by grabbing my limp, unsuspecting hand for a firm shake. "Do us proud, Haven. We’ll see you back here in September."
I had never seen so many people crowd the half-moon of the pediatric nurses’ station when there wasn’t an emergency. There must’ve been at least three dozen of them pulled from even the farthest corners of Evanston General Hospital’s compound and representing the full color spectrum of scrubs—pinks, blues, greens, Disney characters—all buzzing around me, nibbling on heaping slices of red velvet cake (my favorite).
Joan had, of course, orchestrated the whole thing. Now she bent over the sheet cake bearing the message "Happy Birthday and Congratulations, Haven! We’ll miss you!," dishing out precisely sliced pieces as fast as she could and, naturally, with a smile. She had just turned fifty a few months earlier, but besides her gray hair, which she hadn’t bothered to dye, you would never have guessed her age: her social calendar, from her book clubs to her bridge nights, put mine to shame. I wished that she tried to date more—of the two of us, she seemed to have a better shot at it—but she could be stubborn about that. It was the only thing she got touchy about. She had divorced a year or so before she found me, after discovering she couldn’t have kids of her own. Joan didn’t talk about it much, but the other nurses had over the years, so I’d gotten the whole story in bits and pieces. They thought she was too scared now, and they tried to push her into dating and set her up to little avail. But at least she had plenty of friends. She was always either going to a party or throwing one. I wished to one day be such a good hostess. At the moment, though, I was doing my best as the center of attention, another tricky role for me. As problems went, this was a fine one: surrounded by so many well-wishers I had managed only one bite of my celebratory confection before being pleasantly besieged by a tug at the arm of my salmon-hued scrubs here, an ambush hug or a jolly pat on the back there.
"Y’know, I just don’t know how I’m going to tell some of my patients about this. They’ll be devastated!" said blonde-beehived Nurse Calloway from cardiac. She stabbed at her cake as Dr. Michelle from pediatrics—the youngest resident in the entire hospital, and my idol—and white-haired Nurse Sanders, with glistening eyes behind her thick glasses, nodded in agreement. This was my little sorority. "You’ll break all their hearts," Calloway went on.
"And those are hearts that are already in pretty bad shape to begin with!" Dr. Michelle chimed in with the punch line, pointing at Nurse Sanders. We all laughed. This is what passed for humor in these parts. Indeed, a few of Sanders’s patients liked to call me a "heartbreaker," which was embarrassing and just not true, and certainly something I never heard from anyone who wasn’t an octogenarian with failing vision. Dr. Michelle smiled. "We’ll miss you, Haven." She could almost pass as a patient in her department, being so energetic, young, and, like me, only a couple inches over five feet.
Sanders sniffled. "Could you still come on weekends? Or evenings?"
"Now I’m starting to feel bad," I said. "Maybe I should stay."
At the other end of the nurses’ station a good fifteen feet away, Joan perked her head up, waving her cake knife in the air.
"I know you’re not guilt-tripping my girl, are you, ladies?" she called over to us, cutting a piece of cake for herself at last. Propped up on the table behind her was a framed photo of me, about ten years old wearing a mini–candy striper’s uniform. Images of me were all over this place: I was everyone’s surrogate child smiling from their desktops and cabinets and computer wallpaper. This had pretty much been my daycare center for as long as I could remember, coming to work with Joan and being babysat by anyone and everyone until I was old enough that they could start giving me something useful to do. Joan wandered over, plate in hand, mouth full of cake, and put her arm around me. "We have to let this one spread her wings. She’ll fly back." She winked.
"I’ll be back at the end of June. You’ll barely have time to miss me," I said, a crater deepening in my heart. "I’ll do a goodbye tour before I go today."
And tour I did, making the rounds to see all my favorites and ending the day with the toughest stop of all, pediatrics. I cut a pied piper’s path through the ward, collecting pajama-clad followers as I went room to room dispensing hugs and kisses and promising to be back soon. We landed back at the playroom and gathered at the bulletin board we had assembled together: a collage of photos of each child in the ward, running the length of the wall, with a border in a riot of colors. It looked like a massive yearbook page, and we updated it with new photos of everyone on a regular basis. It had started as nothing really, just a little project for photography class last year. I had asked a few kids if they would be willing to let me photograph them and they agreed and then somehow everyone wanted in on it. "We look better in your pictures than we do in the mirror," Jenny, a bandana-clad fourteen-year-old, had explained once, shrugging. I assured her no Photoshop was involved—this was them.
The strangest thing of all though was the reaction back at school. Most of the kids in that photography class were in there either for easy As or were really tortured artist types who dressed all in black. Then there were people like me, who could appreciate the arts, even if we didn’t quite have the skills to participate, and figured we couldn’t be that bad at pointing and shooting.
When I put together that project though, something clicked. You looked at the pictures and jumped into the eyes of those kids and felt like you knew everything there was to know about them. Each semester the class voted on someone’s work to be displayed in the glass case in the school’s front hallway, and somehow they chose me. Every time I walked by it, I would see a handful of people stopping to stare, kids who never seemed to notice anything. Even Jason Abington had looked—a few times in fact—and once when I happened to be walking by (because I walked by a lot) he saw me and elbowed me, nodding at the case, and said, "This is yours? It’s really cool." That meant more to me than I’d like to admit. But it was true; the sweet faces of my subjects did all seem to glow in those pictures, like the camera cut down to their core.
I addressed my little posse now. "I’m officially putting you guys in charge of the Wall of Fame." I knocked a knuckle against the bulletin board. "Dr. Michelle has kindly promised to take the photos so you can keep rotating in the new ones. Don’t let her slack off. I’ll be back soon and it better be in good shape." I smiled.
"Ooooh, um, she’s not such a good photographer," Jenny whispered. "Remember the one of me with just one eye open when you were out that one day? It took, like, an hour to get something even that good."
"Good point. We’ll just hope that she’s improved since then. Or else, you’re in charge." I winked. "I’ll miss you guys. Okay, high-fives, everyone." I raced around slapping each soft palm.
Night had fallen by the time we left the hospital. The lights of Chicago were a dull glimmer in the distance as Joan drove through the windswept suburban streets of cozy, quiet Evanston. The city felt much farther away than it actually was from home and the comfortable routine of my life. The car heater blasted, and beneath my puffy parka I could feel cold bands of sweat trickling down my skin. I sighed.
"You okay?" Joan asked, peeking at me from the corner of her eye as she drove, the slush crushing under the tires.
"Sorry, yeah." I kept my gaze straight ahead into the ice-encrusted, velvety night. "I just mean, I think that was actually a lot tougher than I expected."
"Of course, honey, they’re all like family. Besides, going-away parties are designed to make you sorry you’re leaving—they’re sneaky that way." She smiled, and I did too. "But you know what? We’re all right here, we’re not that far away. It’ll be fine."
"I know, I’m just sort of, I don’t know, nervous." A twinge of guilt nipped at me. I didn’t want her to worry, and I certainly didn’t want to remind her that just about twenty-four hours ago she was completely vetoing this whole plan. She had sounded all the expected alarms: Why do you need to stay there? How hard are they going to be working you that they need you on the premises 24-7 when you only live an hour away on the L? Don’t they know there are child labor laws? Sure, I had told her, the whole thing is organized by the state Department of Education so obviously they’re not shipping us off to some sweatshop. But, in the end, there was just no denying the honor that seemed to come with this and that stipend (Joan’s eyes had positively bulged). I had pulled out the packet from Principal Tollman, with all the particulars about the hotel, glossy photos of its grandeur, and a host of clippings from every newspaper and magazine in the city about the glamorous woman—Aurelia Brown, blonde, stunning, unbelievably young, and powerful—who would be my new boss. Joan had to say yes.
But now, as Friday night closed in on me, ushering in what I knew would be an intense weekend of preparation for this sudden new chapter, nerves were getting the best of me.
"I just don’t know what this will be like," I continued. "I don’t know if they’ll like me or if I’ll do a good job. And it’s just weird. I mean, I’ve never even been to camp and now I’m going to be living somewhere else. And I know I want to go away to school, but I would have a whole extra year to get ready for that, you know? I just feel really . . . off." That was the only way to put it. I felt that I was playing the role of me—and doing it badly—in what would be a spinoff of my life. The glow cast by the streetlamps transformed the bare trees lining our path into spindly, tentacled beasts. I shivered and took a deep breath.
"Don’t worry. They picked you, remember? They know you’re special. They want you there," she offered, in soothing tones. "And, besides, you’ll have Dante there. You kids will have each other."
"I know. That’s the only reason I’m not totally freaking out. Imagine what a basket case I’d be if I had to go it alone."
Dante Dennis had been my security blanket, and best friend, for about ten years now. That he was one of the other two kids going to the Lexington with me might have otherwise seemed pure, dumb luck, except that he and I were always neck and neck, vying for the top of the class (politely, of course). So it made sense when he hedged at lunch, sheepishly peeking out from behind his chin-length dreadlocks and grabbing a french fry from my tray.
"You wouldn’t happen to have any news, would you?" He had eased into it, then bulldozed on. "Because I do. And I will die if you don’t have news. Please tell me you’re ditching this town and breezing into the Windy City for a certain fabulous internship." He raised his eyebrows at me—up/down, up/down—conspiratorially. Instantly a wave of relief washed over me.
"You wouldn’t be checking into the Lexington Hotel, would you?" I answered.
"Yesss!" He was practically jumping in his seat now. "Oh my god, we’re going to have so much fun. I mean, who lives in a hotel? Only, like, rock stars and celebrities and maybe those messed-up starlets who, like, divorce their parents. Get me out of this horrid high school and into Chicago society!"
"Yes, please." I smiled, shaking my head. We looked around at the tables full of people who would elect us president of things like French Honor Society, but yet not talk to us ever. "Are you a little . . ."
"Hello?! Yes. Totally nervous. I mean, the whole thing seems like kind of a big deal—Tollman was, like, weirdly excited, and I sure don’t want to mess up. We could get total kickass college recommendations outta this. And these people could probably get us into any school in Chicago without even trying: Northwestern, U. Chicago, they probably know everyone. We’d be idiots not to be nervous. But we’re smart and seriously, we work hard. It’s all good." He swatted his hand at me, no sweat.
And I exhaled. This was Dante’s rare talent—far more impressive than his tenure on the honor roll or his landslide reelection to student government, or the absurdly gourmet bake sale he organized for charity each year, full of the most precious confections you’ve ever seen (he was no less than an artist whose chosen medium just happened to be frosting). No, his greatest accomplishment, as far as I was concerned, was his ability to act as a human tranquilizer for me. He could keep me operating at a sane and steady level no matter how twisted up I felt inside. He had proven his aptitude for it from that very first day I met him at the hospital so many years ago.
Back then, I was a five-year-old roaming the pediatric ward halls waiting to find out who I was and where I would be shipped off to. He had been rushed to the emergency room by his frantic mom after he had fallen climbing a tree one afternoon. He had landed on a mess of sticks and rocks he had collected to build a fort and ended up scraping up his back something fierce and mangling his arm. Tendon damage forced him to stay overnight, and he wandered into my room with his broken arm plaster-casted in a sling. We were up till nearly daybreak telling ghost stories. He went home the next afternoon but promised to visit me once a week as long as I was there, and sure enough, every Friday he would appear, running down the hall, pulling his mom Ruthie with him, his little arms always full of coloring books or stuffed animals or pictures he’d drawn for me.
Joan pulled into the driveway of our town house. Home never looked so good as when you knew you were going to leave it. Ours was tall and narrow, a faded royal blue out front, with brown shutters and a slim covered porch. The place was plenty big for just the two of us and mere blocks from Lake Michigan, which was still and icy now, but would be our favorite escape for afternoon sunbathing and picnicking when the weather was warm.
"Go on in, I’ve gotta get some things out of the trunk." Joan shooed me away.
"Nah," she insisted. "I’ll be just a sec."
With that, I ran up the front steps and to the porch as fast as I could, the icy air chilling me to my bones as the wind howled and whooped around me. My gloved fingers fumbled with the keys and finally the door opened and a blast of heat warmed my skin.
I flipped on the light. Through the living room, back in the kitchen, a shimmering silver balloon shaped in the number 16 danced above the table. A homemade cake and a palm-size box, wrapped in glittering silver paper with a matching bow, waited for me.
I dropped my backpack on the floor and beelined straight to my birthday shrine, unzipping my coat as I went and disposing of it on a living room chair on my way. Joan was already at the door by the time I dug my finger into the fluffy icing and licked it off.
"Part two of the birthday extravaganza!"
"Delicious. And amazing. But it’s not until Monday." That, at least, was the date we had always celebrated since we didn’t really know for sure when I was born. It was the anniversary of the day when I had been found and taken to the hospital where Joan was the first to tend to me, patching up my gashes and scrapes, checking for broken bones, and slowly getting me to talk to her, though I had nothing to say, nothing that was helpful at least.
"I thought since we were already in such a festive spirit, we would just continue the party. Let the good times roll!" She set down her purse and shimmied off her coat, hanging it on the rack by the door. I took the glittering box in my hands and shook it.
"So can I open it?"
"You’d better!" she said, joining me at the table and sampling a finger’s worth of icing herself. "Go on!"
I tore at the paper and opened a white velvet box. Its contents sparkled.
"I know you’re not into jewelry, my precious little tomboy," she said. "But sixteen is a biggie and I thought you should have something pretty."
I pulled out a necklace, webbing its gold chain around my fingers. It’s true: I didn’t wear any jewelry ever, and what few pieces I’d ever gotten had always sat in their boxes untouched. But this one already felt different. For one, it wasn’t a heart or a dangling birthstone or any of the typical kinds of things I was used to seeing on the girls at school. Instead, this pendant, almost harpshaped and running the length of my fingertip, was something entirely new: a single gold wing, its texture softly rippled to give the illusion of feathers.
"I found this at that antique shop I always drag you into with me," Joan said.
"Right, the one next to that bookstore that I always sneak into when you take too long."
"Exactly." She smiled. "I just thought it looked special, like you, and unique." She kissed the top of my head. "I liked the wing, because you’re really going places, you know that? You’re soaring, Haven. You have so much ahead of you."
"Thanks, Joan, I love it, I really do." I gave her a hug and held her an extra few seconds longer than I normally might.
"Maybe you’ll actually wear this one, you think?" she asked, smoothing my hair.
"I’ll prove it." I dangled the necklace from my finger and lifted up my hair. "Would you?"
"I’d be honored." She fastened it on, then turned me around by my shoulders and straightened it in place so it dangled just at that little indented spot at my throat. "Perfect, go see."
I flipped on the bathroom light and studied myself in the mirror. My eyes went directly to the pendant. Generally, everything about my appearance seemed either imperfect or, at best, plain Jane. My nose always looked to me like a blob of uncooked cookie dough. My hair, skin, and eyes were just one shade off from one another in the color spectrum: caramel skin, bone-straight honey brown hair, dark amber eyes. The pink scrubs hanging as they did on my boyish frame did nothing to improve upon all this.
And I had worn entirely the wrong long-sleeved thermal shirt underneath the V-neck top today. My favorites were in the hamper and poor planning had left me with only this old one, with a V-neck just a touch too deep. I looked at the mirror now and wondered if that corner of my scar—the three nasty stripes angled like accent marks and pebbled in texture like burns, located in the space above my heart—had been peeking out like this all afternoon. It was just two inches long but, when coupled with the pair of scars on my shoulder blades, collectively signaled one big, marred canvas. The necklace clearly should have looked glaringly out of place having me as its unworthy mannequin. But somehow this new piece seemed at home. The intense shine of the gold caught the light and cast a soft glow upon my face. I did like it actually. Perhaps I was growing up at last. Maybe this was the first sign of the sophistication to come. Sixteen. It felt weighty, substantial, important.
"I love it," I called out, still admiring it in the mirror. "Thank you so much."