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"Great speaker last night, right?" Vince Flockhart, Fenimore's principal, looked hopefully down at Anne Ehrlich, head of guidance, as she ate her grilled cheese sandwich in the faculty cafeteria. Report had it that the parents had been impressed by the speaker--though half had left in tears and the other half had been digging in the bottom of their bags for Valium.
"He was very high energy," conceded Anne.
"You didn't like him!" declared Vince, peering more closely at Anne's face. He liked to look at that face--it had a sweetness and unconventional beauty that was undeniably appealing--but he was also attuned to its judgment, which he had learned to ignore at his peril.
"My only concern," acknowledged Anne carefully, "is that he may have upset some of our more high-strung parents."
Vince swallowed queasily. The idea of Fenimore parents, jumpy under normal circumstances, whipped into a frenzy by the speaker made him reach in his pocket for an antacid.
"Don't worry," Anne reassured him, "I'm sure they'll be no worse than usual." (This, admittedly, was small consolation--"usual" for Fenimore parents was very bad.) "Besides, we just have to get through the next few months. It's downhill after that."
Her tone was encouraging, but she was not without her own sense of dread. If Vince as principal was the last line of defense against Fenimore parents, Anne as head of guidance was the first. Soon, anxious parents would be dropping by her office to ask whether to capitalize the S in "Secretary of the French Club" and whether to use Times Roman or Courier font on their kids' college applications. Soon, she would be witness topitched battles between kids and their parents that went well beyond the scope of the curriculum ("Maybe if you and Dad had worked harder at staying married, I'd have worked harder at honors chem!"). Last year, three mothers had collapsed in her office from nervous exhaustion, and one of the fathers, an expert in international law, had confided that he hadn't been so tense since he drew a low draft number during Vietnam.
Applying to college was a big deal in Westchester County, as it was throughout much of the country. This was due, in part, to the prestige that certain colleges were assumed to confer--the decal on the car functioning in the manner of a designer logo and marking the kid as a high-end accessory. This was also due to the insecurity of parents, who sensed that their children were unformed artifacts at eighteen and were hoping that an excellent college would hand them a finished product. (What a finished product was supposed look like, of course, was open to question--although the next Steven Spielberg or Bill Gates, with a burning desire to live next door to their parents in Westchester, wouldn't be so bad.)
Fortunately, as Anne reminded Vince, the most stressful period occurred during the first few months of the school year, when the best students (often those with the pushiest parents) applied for early admission. Once that notification had been made by mid-December, things grew relatively calm until the final decisions for regular applicants arrived in April. By then, changes in the angle of light, not to mention the approach of summer vacation, moderated the tendency to hysteria.
Vince, however, did not seem comforted by the reminder that he had only three months of pure hell ahead of him. He heaved a sigh, popped the antacid into his mouth, and lumbered off.
After he left, Marcy Fineman, who taught history at Fenimore and was sitting across from Anne, looked up from scraping the mayonnaise off the top slice of her turkey sandwich.
"Was he cute?" she asked.
"Was who cute?" responded Anne, confused.
"The speaker last night. The one Vince just mentioned. Did he have potential?" Marcy had a way of lagging behind in conversation, her mind distracted by what she wasn't going to eat.
"Marcy, please, he wasn't a day over twenty-five!"
"And what's wrong with twenty-five? You're only thirty-four. You see thirty-four-year-old women marrying twenty-five-year old-men all the time in The New York Times wedding section."
"Really?" Anne looked unconvinced. She knew that, as a historian, Marcy felt obliged to cite evidence for her assertions, but since she often asserted what she wished to be true rather than what actually was, her evidence tended to be fabricated.
"The point is," continued Marcy, disregarding Anne's question, "age shouldn't be an issue. You know you don't look a day over twenty-five. I read in Cosmo that most women don't start to age until their late thirties."
Anne looked doubtful again, but Marcy continued unfazed. "All I'm saying is that you shouldn't rule people out. It's not that you don't attract men--I mean, they're always looking at you. But you don't encourage them. You can't know if you don't like someone until you give them a chance."
"I give people a chance," said Anne, "within reason."
"But your idea of reason isn't reasonable. Personally, I think you're too picky." Marcy paused here to wipe the mayonnaise off the lettuce in her sandwich with her napkin, then continued: "You've met some nice enough guys, but they're never good enough. There was Chris who had that great car and Steven who sent you flowers."
"Steven was sweet," Anne admitted.
"He cooked you dinner. He served you breakfast in bed. He fixed your computer. For God's sake, what did you want?"
"He didn't like to read," noted Anne.
"So he wasn't into books. Big deal."
"Marcy, how can you say that? You're a history teacher."
"Yes, well, I happen to like to read. But I wouldn't judge someone else for not liking to."
"We're talking marriage here," said Anne, "not jury selection. Shared interests are important."
Marcy sighed and looked momentarily despondent. "Rich and I used to have lots of shared interests. We once read through the Declaration of Independence and pretended we were the Founding Fathers. It was very romantic."
Anne was about to say she was sure they would do such romantic things again--but Marcy had already plunged ahead: "I think that you're comparing them all to that first one, what's his name--the one you let get away."
Anne was silent for a moment. "Ben Cutler," she finally said. It was odd how just saying his name could still move her. Marcy was right; she did, unconsciously, compare every man she met to Ben Cutler. "He was exceptional," she admitted in the detached tone she tried to adopt on this subject. She liked to think that she had gotten over Ben, though in moments of solitude his memory still haunted her. "I did let him get away. I was young, and my family thought he didn't have the right background or enough ambition. Even Winnie was against it."
"Your grandmother is a fabulous woman," said Marcy, "but she's a snob."
"Maybe," Anne said quietly. "But I think she's mellowed and would see things differently now. Not that it matters. Ben Cutler is rich and successful and proved us all wrong with a vengeance."
"You're in touch with him?"
"You Googled him?"
"Is there anyone we haven't Googled?"
Marcy agreed. "Yesterday I Googled some kid who picked his nose behind me in the fifth grade. He owns a chain of optical shops in New Jersey. So your guy, Cutler, what does he do now?"
"He writes those travel books, Cutler's Guides to Culture. Sort of a high-end version of Frommer's. They're very popular."
"No kidding," said Marcy, impressed. "Rich and I used Cutler's Guide to Sicily on our honeymoon. It had a great section on Godfather shooting sites and the best places for canneloni--not that I ate any, but it was nice to know." She drifted for a moment. "Rich and I haven't gone anywhere since that trip. They say that you can't really take time off at a top law firm until your first heart attack."
"Marcy!" exclaimed Anne, but Marcy waved her hand.
"So did you contact him? Did you write this travel mogul Ben Cutler?"
Anne shook her head. "I could never contact him now. He's probably married with kids--and it would seem like I was only interested because he's successful and I'm--well, you know--"
"And how is that situation?"
"The same," Anne said wearily. If anything, she thought to herself, things were worse. Her father had just bought a new cashmere sports jacket--she had found the bill for it in his desk drawer on top of a mountain of other bills. The only consolation was that if you were already over a million in debt, a thousand more or less hardly mattered.
As her mind pondered the "situation," as Marcy put it, a small line formed over Anne's forehead, giving her gentle face a touch of severity. Countless Fenimore boys, summoned to the guidance office for the conventional misdemeanor, had kept to the straight and narrow in order to avoid seeing that line form again over Anne Ehrlich's forehead.
"We're going to have to sell the Scarsdale house," she explained to Marcy now. "I hate to do it; I grew up there and Winnie's lived there for so long, but I don't see another option."
"What does your father say?"
"Not much. You know my dad..."
Marcy rolled her eyes to indicate that she did.
"But it's Winnie I'm worried about. I haven't told her yet, and I really don't know what she'll do."
"Well, if you ask me, now's the time to give Harry Furman a chance," said Marcy, returning to the subject of Anne's love life. Harry Furman was a partner in Marcy's husband's law firm, who she'd been pushing Anne to go out with for weeks. "Harry's rich. He has a duplex on Park Avenue. I'm sure he'd love a weekend home in Westchester. So what if he's been married before?"
"He's been married twice before."
"OK, twice. Glamour magazine says twice-divorced men make great husbands; they don't want to strike out. So he's not perfect. I'm sure that this Cutler fellow wasn't perfect either. They're never as good as you think they are."
Anne let herself consider this. Had she idealized Ben Cutler? It was possible, given the time that had elapsed--thirteen years, after all. And even if he had been as good then, he was probably a very different person now. Perhaps her rejection had contributed to making him different: less trusting and less kind. It would be natural for such a thing to happen.
Marcy was about to expound on the advantages of Harry Furman's twice-married state and duplex on Park Avenue, when Anne interrupted. "I have to go," she said abruptly. They were over the half hour she usually took for lunch, and the mention of Ben Cutler had unnerved her, making her eager to get back to work. "I'm up to my neck in early admissions letters, and the Hopgoods have a one-fifteen that's probably going to take up the rest of the afternoon. Mr. Hopgood asked me to prepare a full strategic plan for getting Trevor into Williams. When I told him I couldn't do that, he said they were going to hire their own Ivy packager."
"It's our guidance lingo for a college consultant. Like the speaker last night. He charges two hundred fifty dollars an hour to package kids for college."
"Are you saying that parents hire people to sell their children?"
"Absolutely. They do it for toothpaste, toilet paper, and deodorant, so why not your standard-issue teenager?"
"I must have missed that one," noted Marcy, who admittedly missed a lot, since her mind, when not teaching the Louisiana Purchase, tended to be occupied with whether to have lo-cal Italian or lo-cal French dressing on her salad that day. "But come to think of it, I did have a weird thing happen with a reference letter last week." She paused, taking a sip from her unsweetened iced tea. "Tim Dougherty, one of the seniors in my second-period American history class, asked if I was 'into letter writing.' That's how he put it. Then, his mother called to ask what my 'philosophy' on reference letters was. I didn't know that I had to have a philosophy."
"They just want to know if you're trustworthy. They've all heard stories about teachers who seem supportive but then go ahead and screw the kid in the reference letter."
"How awful!" said Marcy. "Are there really teachers who do that?"
"Of course, screwing is a matter of perspective. Nowadays, saying that a student is diligent and nice can be the kiss of death for admission to a good school."
"What's wrong with 'diligent and nice?'" asked Marcy, looking worried--she had used more or less these words in her reference letter for Tim Dougherty.
"You might as well say the kid is an unassuming clod who'll add nothing to the vibrant atmosphere of the college. You have to say he's of exceptional caliber--the best you ever had, or at least the best in some particular area; it doesn't matter what. A good packager can turn 'the best at being rude and disruptive' into 'a fiercely independent spirit.'"
"Thanks for the clarification." Marcy sighed. She wondered if she should send out another reference letter saying that Tim Dougherty was the best she'd ever had in the production of flatulence during a fifty-minute period. No other exceptional quality came to mind.
"It's ridiculous how competitive things have gotten," admitted Anne, "which explains why the parents are going nuts. They want their kids to have everything for a happy, successful life, and a good college seems to be part of the equation. God knows, I'd probably be buying the prep books and hiring the tutors if I had kids of my own," she noted wistfully.
"Well, thank God, Rich and I don't," declared Marcy. She and her husband had made the decision not to have children, owing, in part, to a desire to remain in Manhattan (a relative impossibility once the financial albatross of a child entered the picture), and because the prospective weight gain associated with pregnancy had a way of making Marcy hyperventilate. "I've got the kids in my classes," she rationalized, "who I didn't have to carry for nine months and who, thank God, I don't have to see after three P.M. I suppose I'll be losing out on those lifetime events like the bar mitzvah and the wedding--but I don't think I'd be very good with the caterer anyway."
Anne said nothing. She secretly believed that Marcy would make an excellent mother--if only she could get herself to eat a doughnut.
Copyright © 2006 by Paula Marantz Cohen