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There was a heavy snowfall that had started the night before as Brigitte Nicholson sat at her desk in the admissions office of Boston University, meticulously going over applications. Other staffers had checked them before her, but she always liked to take a last look at the files herself to make sure that each one was complete. They were in the midst of making their decisions, and in six weeks acceptances and denials would be going out to the applicants. Inevitably, there would be some ecstatic prospective students and more often many broken hearts. It was difficult knowing that they had the lives and futures of earnest young people in their hands. Sifting through the applications was Brigitte's busiest time of year, and although the ultimate choices were made by committee, her job was vetting applications, and conducting individual interviews when students requested them. In those cases, she would submit her notes and comments with the application. But essentially, grades, test scores, teachers' recommendations, extracurricular activities, and sports contributed heavily to the final result. A candidate either looked like an asset to the school or not. Brigitte always felt the weight of those decisions heavily on her shoulders. She was meticulous about going over all the materials they submitted. Ultimately, she had to think about what was best for the school, not for the students. She was used to the dozens of calls and e-mails she got from anxious high school counselors, doing all they could to help their candidates. Brigitte was proud to be associated with BU, and much to her own amazement, had worked in the admissions office for ten years. The years had flown by, seemingly in an instant. She was number three in the department and had turned down opportunities for promotion many times. She was content where she was and had never been terribly ambitious.
At twenty-eight, Brigitte had come to BU as a graduate student, to get a master's in anthropology after assorted minor jobs post-college, followed by two years of working at a women's shelter in Peru and another one in Guatemala, and a year of traveling in India and Europe. She had a bachelor's degree in anthropology with a minor in women's and gender studies from Columbia. The plight of women in underdeveloped countries had always been a primary concern to her. Brigitte had taken a job in the admissions office just until she could complete her degree. She had wanted to go to Afghanistan for a year after that, but like so many other graduate students who took job sat the university while they were there, she stayed. It was comfortable, safe, and a protected atmosphere she came to love. And as soon as she got her master's, she started working on her Ph.D. The academic world was addictive and womb like, along with its intellectual challenges and pursuit of knowledge and degrees. And it was easy to hide from the real world and its demands. It was a haven of scholars and youth. She didn't love her job in admissions, but she really, really liked it. She felt productive and useful, and she was dedicated to helping the right students get into the school.
They had more than sixteen thousand undergraduate students, and over thirty thousand applications every year. Some were eliminated summarily, for inadequate test scores or grades, but as the number of eligible applicants got whittled down, Brigitte became more and more focused on the process. She was meticulous about detail in everything she did. She didn't have her doctorate yet, but was still working on it, taking a class or two every semester. At thirty-eight, she was satisfied with her life. And for the last seven years, she had been working on a book. She wanted it to be the definitive work on the subject of voting and women's rights around the world. While getting her master's, Brigitte had written countless papers about the topic.
Her thesis argued that how countries handled the voting rights of women defined who they were as a nation. She felt that the vote was crucial to women's rights. Her colleagues who had read what she'd written so far were impressed by her eloquence but not surprised by her thoroughness and diligence. One criticism of her work was that she sometimes got so involved in the minutiae of what she was studying that she neglected the big picture. She tended to get caught up in the details.
She was friendly and kind, trustworthy and responsible. She was a deeply caring person and extremely hardworking, and thorough about everything she did. The only complaint that her best friend, Amy Lewis, made of her, to her face as a rule, was that she lacked passion. She intellectualized everything, and followed her brain more than her heart. Brigitte thought passion, as Amy referred to it, was a flaw, not a quality, a dangerous thing. It made you lose perspective and direction. Brigitte liked staying on course, and keeping her goals in plain view.
She didn't like rocking the boat or taking chances, on anything. Risk-taking was not her style. She was someone you could count on, not someone who would act impulsively, or without a great deal of thought. And she herself readily admitted that she was slow to make decisions while she weighed all the pros and cons.
Brigitte estimated that she was halfway through her book. She planned to speed up the process and finish it in five years, around the time she got her Ph.D. Twelve years spent on a book covering such an important subject seemed reasonable to her, since she was also working full-time and taking classes toward her doctorate. She was not in any rush. She had decided that if she completed both her doctoral degree and her book by the time she was forty-three, she'd be pleased. Her steady, relentless, unruffled way of dealing with things sometimes drove her friend Amy crazy. Brigitte was not a fast-track kind of person and hated change. Amy thought Brigitte should live life to the fullest, and leap into things more spontaneously. Amy was a trained marriage and family counselor and social worker. She ran the university's counseling office, and liberally offered Brigitte her advice and opinions. They were total opposites and yet best friends. Amy dealt with everything-emotional, intellectual, and professional—at full speed.
Brigitte was tall, thin, almost angular, with jet-black hair, dark eyes, high cheekbones, and olive skin. She looked almost Middle Eastern or Italian, although her heritage was Irish and French. The Irish heritage of her father accounted for her jet-black hair. Amy was small and blond with a tendency to put on weight if she didn't exercise, and she had all the passion about life that she claimed Brigitte didn't. Brigitte liked to accuse her friend of being "hyper," with the attention span of a flea, which they both knew wasn't true. But Amy took on new projects constantly, and handled multitasking with ease. While Brigitte had struggled with one epic tome, Amy had published three nonfiction books about dealing with kids. She had two children of her own although she wasn't married. On her fortieth birthday, after years of unsuccessful affairs with graduate students younger than she was or with married professors, she had gone to a sperm bank. And at forty-four, she had two boys, now one and three, who drove her happily crazy. She regularly nagged Brigitte to start having babies of her own. She told Brigitte that at thirty-eight she had no time to waste, her "eggs were getting older by the minute." Brigitte was far more casual about it, and wasn't worried. Modern science made it possible to conceive far older than in her mother's day, and she felt confident about it, despite Amy's dire warnings that she was putting motherhood off for too long.
Brigitte knew she'd have children one day, and more than likely marry Ted, although they never discussed it. There was something about living in the protected atmosphere of academia that made you feel, or Brigitte anyway, that she was going to be young forever. Amy always snapped her back to reality by saying they were middle-aged. It was impossible to believe by looking at either of them. Neither one looked her age, nor felt it, and Ted Weiss, Brigitte's boyfriend of six years, was three years younger. At thirty-five, he looked, felt, and acted like a kid. He had studied archaeology at Harvard, got his doctorate at BU, and had worked in the department of archaeology at BU for the last six years. His dream was to have his own dig. BU had many around the world, in Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, China, Greece, Spain, and Guatemala. He had visited each of them at least once during his time at BU. Brigitte had never gone with him to see them. She used the time he was away to continue doing research on her book. She was a lot less interested in traveling than she had been right after college. Now she was happy at home.
Brigitte's relationship with Ted was a happy one. They lived in their own apartments quite near to each other, and spent the weekends together, usually at his place because it was bigger. He cooked, she didn't. They often socialized with his graduate students, particularly those in the doctoral program, like her. They also saw a lot of the other professors in their respective departments. They both loved the academic life, although Brigitte's work in the admissions office wasn't scholarly, but the life they led and shared suited them to perfection. It was an atmosphere filled with intense dedication to higher learning, and both of them admitted that most of the time they felt no different from their students. They were thirsty for all they could learn, and loved the intellectual world. Like all universities, there were the usual minor scandals, affairs, and petty jealousies, but on the whole, they both enjoyed the life they led, and had much in common.
Brigitte could see herself married to Ted, although she couldn't figure out when. And she assumed Ted would ask her one day. They had no reason to get married for the moment, since neither of them was anxious for children. Eventually, but not yet. They both felt too young for any life other than the one they were living. Brigitte's mother often voiced the same concerns as Amy, and reminded her that she wasn't getting any younger. Brigitte just laughed at them both and said she had no need to nail Ted to the floor, he wasn't going anywhere, to which Amy always responded cynically, "You never know." But her own bad experiences with men colored her view of the situation. She was always somewhat convinced that, given half a chance, most men would disappoint you, although even she had to admit that Ted was a really sweet guy, without a mean bone in his body.
Brigitte said openly that she loved him, but it wasn't something they talked about much, nor did they talk about the future. They lived in the present. Each one was perfectly content living alone during the work week, and their weekends together were always relaxing and fun. They never argued, and disagreed about few things. It was a totally comfortable arrangement. Everything about Brigitte's life was steady, her job, her relationship with Ted, and her slow but steady pace on her book, which would eventually be published by the academic press.
According to Amy, Brigitte's life wasn't exciting, but she liked everything about it, and it worked well for her. She didn't need or want excitement in her life, and looking far ahead to the future, she could see where it was going. Her life had direction and forward motion, even if not with great speed. Just like her studies for her Ph.D., and her book. That was enough for her. It was a journey. She was in no hurry to reach her destination or make any snap decisions. Despite her mother and Amy's cynicism, concerns, and dire warnings, Brigitte wasn't worried about it all.
"So whose life are you ruining today?" Amy asked her with an impish grin as she bounced into the doorway of Brigitte's office.
"That's a terrible thing to say!" Brigitte said, pretending to look stern. "On the contrary, I'm checking to make sure the applicants sent us all the right stuff."
"Yeah, so you can turn them down. Poor kids, I still remember getting those awful letters. 'Although we were very impressed by the work you've done during your senior year, we can't figure out what the hell you were doing all through junior year. Were you drunk or on drugs or just lazy beyond belief? We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors, but not at our school...' Shit, I cried every time I got one of those letters, and so did my mother. She figured I'd wind up working at McDonald's, not a bad job, but she wanted me to be a doctor. It took her years to forgive me for being 'just' a social worker." Amy's grades for junior year couldn't have been that bad, Brigitte knew, since she had gone to Brown, and eventually got a master's of science degree at Stanford before getting her social worker's degree at the Columbia School of Social Work in New York.
They were all academic snobs at BU. In the academic world, where you got your degrees really mattered, just as how often you published did later. If Brigitte had been teaching at BU, she couldn't have lingered over her book for the past seven years without publishing it sooner. There would have been a lot more pressure on her, which was why she was happier working in the admissions office. She didn't have the competitive spirit you needed to survive as a professor. Amy taught an undergraduate psych class and ran the counseling office, and did both well. She left her kids at the campus day care center while she worked. And she had a profound love for young people generally, and her students. She set up the first suicide hotline at BU after losing too many students in her early years of counseling. It was a common occurrence at all universities, and an epidemic that worried them all. Brigitte didn't like the implication that by turning down applicants to BU she was ruining their lives. She hated to think of it that way. As usual, Amy's opinions went right to the heart of the matter, and were bluntly expressed. She didn't mince words, whereas Brigitte was always more careful and more diplomatic about what she said, and how she said it. Amy used a more frontal and confrontational approach, with colleagues or friends.
"So what are you doing tonight?" Amy asked her pointedly, curling up in the chair on the other side of Brigitte's desk.
"Tonight? Why? Is it something special?" Brigitte looked blank, and Amy rolled her eyes.
From the Hardcover edition.