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“SEMANTHA! WHAT THE hell are you doing on the floor?” my dorm roommate, Ellie Patton, asked. She stood in our bathroom doorway with her hands on her hips, gaping at me with her black pearl eyes so enlarged that she resembled someone with serious thyroid problems. I realized she must have been standing there for a while calling to me and was getting upset at my not responding.
I was surprised she was up so early. Everything about her was usually frantic and last-minute. We had been together at Collier for my three years of private high school, but this was the first time she had caught me doing it.
For the last three years, I woke up on the morning of my daughter’s birthday and secretly lit a candle. I would hear my sister, Cassie, whispering in my ear, reminding me of the date as well, not that I needed her to do that. Lately, however, I was even seeing her stepping out of a shadow or smiling back at me in a mirror.
Usually, I was home on my daughter’s birthday because it occurred during a spring break. However, this year, the break occurred two days after her birthday, so I was still at Collier, a private high school for girls just south of Albany, New York.
I hadn’t expected to be sent to a private high school outside Kentucky, but Daddy had chosen Collier for me because it was so exclusive, which really meant very expensive and well supervised. My therapist in Kentucky, Dr. Ryan, had recommended it. It had a small but beautifully maintained campus. The main building was neoclassical and resembled a government office building, something you might expect to find in Washington, D.C. There were three dormitory buildings that looked like anything but dormitory buildings because of their elaborate landscaping and porticos. They looked more like private estates.
Our dormitory housed only twenty girls, and none of our classes had more than fifteen students in it. Some of my public-school classes had had nearly forty in them. It was impossible here to avoid being called on to answer a question or have your homework checked. Every teacher was well acquainted with all of his or her students, their work histories, and their families. The story circulated was that they had reports on us that rivaled FBI reports on terror suspects.
The school had a beautiful, technologically modern theater; two playfields, one for field hockey and one for softball; and a spanking-new gymnasium. The library was stocked with computers and had a separate audiovisual room for viewing information or listening to music. Our cafeteria reminded me of an upscale restaurant. The chairs were large and cushioned, and the tables were polished, rich, hard walnut.
Once a month, the school held a formal dinner for us during which the dean of students, Mrs. Hathaway, delivered a report concerning the student body’s overall performance and her expectations for the weeks to come. Attendance was mandatory. Every violation, whether of rules or of the property, was described, and the violators were sometimes publicly chastised. Contrary to what she hoped, however, making it onto what the students called Hathaway’s Hit List was viewed as some sort of accomplishment, a respected act of defiance. I had yet to make the list.
Few private schools gave their students as much personal attention, which meant there were more eyes on us all day and all night than in most other private schools. The restrictions on our comings and goings were also far stricter than at other schools. Our privileges were directly tied to our grades and our on-campus behavior, as at other schools, but at Collier, there was a hair trigger on punishment. It wouldn’t take much to put one of us in a cage, and, of course, smoking, drinking alcohol, or doing any drugs were reasons for immediate expulsion and forfeiting all of the money your parents had spent, and they had spent a great deal.
There was even a rumor that our rooms were bugged and our phone calls monitored. Supposedly, our parents received weekly reports about our behavior and our work. Some even thought it was a daily report. Most of the girls believed the rumors, because almost all of them had given their parents cause to worry about them. It was almost a requirement for admittance that we were not to be trusted or believed. The game played with incoming first-year girls was how quickly one of us could get them to reveal their embarrassing secrets, something that explained why their parents would want to pay so much more money for them to attend Collier.
The secret I revealed was probably the most boring for them. Ellie told me I was one of the longest holdouts, one of the most difficult to break, because I wasn’t as desperate for their friendship. Finally, I revealed that I had been seeing a therapist regularly because of family tragedies and there was concern that I could have a nervous breakdown. Or, as my father put it to Mrs. Hathaway, “She’s as fragile as a blue-jay egg.”
Of course, nothing was ever said about my pregnancy and my giving birth, but when some people my age hear that you have deep-seated psychological issues serious enough to require regular therapy and you’re on the edge of falling into a nervous breakdown, they look at you as if you have leprosy. I felt confident, however, that many of the others had been sent for counseling at one time or another as well. One or two looked and acted as if they had recently been released from a clinic, in fact. But unlike me, they felt that secret was too sensitive to reveal. They probably invented something else or told only part of their story. Ironically, they’d admit to getting pregnant and having an abortion before they’d admit to having been in psychological counseling for years, but that was not true for me. The Cassie living inside me wouldn’t let me do that.
Even while I had attended my private high school, I’d had periodic sessions with Dr. Ryan, when I was home for either an extended weekend or on holiday. It was really my father’s younger brother, my uncle Perry, who insisted that my father arrange that in the first place.
“After all she has gone through, she has way too much emotional and psychological damage, Teddy,” he told him right in front of me. “You can’t just send her off to live in an unfamiliar environment with strangers. She needs support, professional support, and we both know you’re too busy to provide it.”
Of course, Uncle Perry had been right, and if it hadn’t been for Dr. Ryan, I probably wouldn’t have been this close to finishing high school, even one as insulated and protective as Collier. I certainly would never have had the strength to go off to college, not that I thought I would. I avoided filling out applications, but to satisfy my curious classmates, I pretended I had already been admitted to an expensive small college in Kentucky. They believed it. For the most part, everyone believed whatever I said because I said it with such conviction and nonchalance. I think that was because I made myself believe it first.
Even though I didn’t see a therapist on a regular basis here, I had many informal sessions with Mrs. Hathaway. She obviously knew when I had a long break between classes and either casually came by my room at the dormitory or caught me walking on campus and invited me to her office for a cup of tea.
Her questions were always the same. “How are you getting along with your roommate, your classmates, and your teachers? Why aren’t you participating in any activities like the drama club, chorus, or one of the athletic teams? You’ve got to expand your interests, explore, experiment, Semantha. Doesn’t anything we offer interest you?”
Almost always, she’d tilt her head and smile softly before asking, “Have you met any nice boys at our social events?”
All of the girls thought little of Collier’s social events. There were so many chaperones, and the security personnel hovered outside every entrance like killer bees ready to sting anyone for the smallest indiscretion. It was nearly impossible to go off and do something we considered more exciting. It was like being brought up in the mid-forties, when there were actually rules about how many inches apart a boy and a girl had to be when they danced together. And of course, if you wore anything Mrs. Hathaway considered inappropriate, you weren’t even permitted to enter the auditorium for one of the official socials.
In general, the boys we met at these highly controlled gatherings came from brother schools for boys or nearby parochial schools. On very rare occasions, boys from one of the area public schools were invited, but they were usually what Mrs. Hathaway would call the créme de la créme, the honor students. Davina Bernstein said they were rented from Geeks R Us and at midnight would turn into laptops.
I told Mrs. Hathaway that I hadn’t met any boy who remotely interested me or whom I interested. None of my answers to any of her questions really pleased her, but she wasn’t pushy. Like most of the people my father had spoken to about me, she tiptoed and whispered and showed great patience and understanding. I was so tired of this so-called tender loving care that I wanted to scream, but instead, I turned myself into a sponge, absorbed what I had to absorb, and then squeezed it out of myself as soon as I was alone again or when Ellie was on the phone or out in the hallway talking to other girls.
Right now, she continued to stand in the bathroom doorway, impatiently waiting for an explanation for the lit candle and my sitting cross-legged on the bathroom floor talking to myself.
When I was at home on my daughter’s birthday, I lit the candle in my bathroom with the windows wide open so no one would smell the wax melting. Softly, under my breath, I would sing “Happy Birthday” to her and pretend she was there, now almost four years old, sitting on the floor with me, her eyes wide with excitement. I even pretended to give her a present and watch her unwrap it. We would hug, and I would hold her and give her the security and comfort that came with knowing your mother is always there for you, loving you and protecting you. I cried tears of joy for both of us.
Then I would hear someone walking in the hallway or a door open and close, and I would quickly smother the candle flame and hide the candle again in the bottom of a sink cabinet. I knew how furious my father would be if he discovered I had done such a thing. Maybe for a few seconds, there was some awareness of the special day visible in his eyes on the first-year anniversary after I had given birth, but that candle burning in his memory was soon snuffed out. It was truly as though he had clapped his hands over the tiny flame.
I could never forget any of it, even though it was all so painful to remember. Of course, I tried to forget. I really did, and maybe I was making some progress. Maybe that was why Cassie was coming back to me in whisperings and shadows. She was afraid I would leave her in her grave forever.
“Semantha?” Ellie pursued. “Will you please tell me what you’re doing in our bathroom?”
“It’s just something I do in memory of someone I loved and lost,” I told her.
“Oh,” she said. “Sorry.” I knew she thought I was doing it for my mother or my sister or perhaps both.
When Ellie and I were first assigned to room with each other, I didn’t reveal anything about my seeing a therapist on a regular basis. I did that later, when it was clear to me that none of the girls would leave me be until I told them something negative about myself. It was almost as if they wouldn’t tolerate someone who had nothing to hide.
However, I told Ellie the story that was so embedded in my mind that it was practically a recording. I couldn’t avoid telling her, because I never had a mother call or visit, and the logical question was why not.
“My parents at a late time in their marriage tried to have another child, hoping for a boy,” I began. “My father had always dreamed of having a son he would name after one of his famous ancestors, Asa Heaven-stone, a young man who fought and was killed in the Civil War. His portrait hangs on a wall in our house in Kentucky with the portraits of other Heaven-stone ancestors.
“Not long after my sister and I were told that my mother was pregnant, it was determined that my mother was having a boy. The news brought my parents great happiness. They immediately began work on setting up the nursery, but my mother suffered a miscarriage and went into a deep depression. She took too many sleeping pills one day, and we lost her.”
Of course, I didn’t tell Ellie about the things Cassie had done to cause all of this. Only my father, my uncle Perry, and I knew the truth.
Ellie, like everyone else, looked devastated for me and nearly broke into tears.
“Less than two years later,” I continued, “my sister, Cassie, tripped and fell down a stairway in our house and broke her neck. She died instantly.”
When I added that, some people would just sit with their mouths wide open, and some would shake their heads and say, “You poor girl and your poor, poor father.”
I would bear their sympathy like someone who had been beaten beyond pain and thank them.
Ellie didn’t linger after I explained the candle. She nodded, backed out of the bathroom, and closed the door. She either fled from or ignored sad news and stories of family tragedies. It was one of the reasons I could get along so well with her.
I continued with my private birthday ritual and blew out the candle. Ellie never asked me anything else about it again, and, of course, I never mentioned it to her. I didn’t like lying to her. I never liked lying to anyone, in fact, even though my sister, Cassie, had thought that was a weakness.
“There are very few people, Semantha, whom you can trust with the truth. The truth is naked, unprotected. Once it’s out there, it’s alone. Lying,” she had said with that Cassie smirk I had grown used to seeing, “is simply another layer of protective skin.”
I knew the other girls at Collier thought I was unusual in many ways, but my brutal honesty did the most to keep me from becoming very friendly with anyone else but Ellie. Despite what Cassie had told me about the value of lying, she had rarely bothered to do so even when it came to holding on to a friend. I had her way of simply telling other girls and boys whatever I really thought, no matter what the consequences. My quiet manner and my revelation about a potential nervous breakdown already had done much to create a deep, wide valley between me and the others at Collier. This characteristic of being coldly and factually honest at times was the icing on the cake. Even when I sat with them in the cafeteria or walked alongside them in the corridors, most avoided looking at me, and when anyone did, she usually turned away quickly. It was as if she was looking at something forbidden.
From the way the others whispered and sometimes hovered with Ellie in corners, I knew they were peppering her with questions about me. They surely wondered what it was like sleeping in the same room with someone as weird as I was. I never asked Ellie about it, but occasionally, she would reveal some of their questions—mostly, I think, because she was curious about the answers herself.
Naturally, they wanted to know what interested someone as offbeat as I was. What does she like? Does she have a boyfriend? Did she ever have one? Is she gay? What makes her so quiet most of the time? What does she really think of the rest of us? Is she just a rich snob? Does she do anything strange, anything at all that frightens you?
Most of all, they wondered why Ellie didn’t ask to be transferred to another room. Of course, I wondered about that myself, but it wasn’t long before I thought I knew the answer. I never did anything to make her feel uncomfortable. I didn’t take up more room than I should. I didn’t dominate our closets or dressers or bathroom cabinets the way some of the other girls did to their roommates. I was willing to share anything of mine with her. I certainly didn’t keep her up at night talking in my sleep or complaining about the school and the other girls, which was what many of the girls suspected.
“After all, she’s mental,” I actually overheard a girl named Pamela Dorfman tell Ellie. “She confessed that she had and probably still has deep-seated psychological problems, didn’t she? She’s scary. Maybe she’ll smother you in your sleep one night. I’d be afraid to room with her.”
Natalie Roberts went so far as to nickname me Norma Bates, a play on the name Norman Bates from the movie Psycho. To her credit, Ellie always came to my defense, but not so strongly as to alienate herself from the other girls on my behalf. There was a limit to loyalty, especially loyalty to someone she had only met here and probably would never see again after graduation, which was now only a few months away.
There were other reasons she didn’t desert me. Ellie was the youngest in a family with three other children, another girl and two boys. From the way she described her siblings, I understood that they usually overwhelmed her. “Trampled me,” was the way she put it. She had had to fight to get a word in at dinner, had often been teased and criticized, and had always been the recipient of hand-me-downs.
“My sister would get new things, and I always got what she no longer wanted or what no longer fit her perfectly,” she told me with bitterness. “‘Nothing should be wasted’ meant I got the used stuff.”
Ellie came right out and confessed to me that she saw herself as Cinderella without the pumpkin and especially the glass slipper. “How would you like growing up in a family like mine?”
She claimed her parents always favored her older sister, Laura, and her two brothers, Jack and Ray.
“I was at the bottom of the totem pole when it came to anyone in my family caring about what made me happy,” she said. “Sometimes I felt invisible. You know what I mean? I’d talk, but no one would pay attention. Actually,” she added in a whisper, “I think I was the only one of us who was not planned, and you know what happens then.”
“What?” I asked, interested in the answer for obvious reasons.
“The man blames the woman, and the woman resents it and the child as well.”
I didn’t openly disagree with her, but I didn’t believe that was always the case.
Because I talked so little about my family and because she thought asking too many questions would only stir up my sorrow, Ellie talked for hours about herself and her family. In a few short months, I knew whom she’d had crushes on as far back as grade school, including teachers; what her first sexual experiences had been like; and a list of her favorites from ice cream to movie stars and singers. I quickly understood that I had become her longed-for audience. In our room, she did not have to fight to get a word in or dominate a conversation. In fact, she soon felt very comfortable spewing out her anger at and her unhappiness with her parents and her brothers and sister. We hadn’t been together a full week before she revealed her secret, the reason her parents wanted her in a well-supervised school.
Ellie had been a kleptomaniac and had been arrested a number of times, but her secret mental diagnosis concluded that her compulsive behavior was not because of some uncontrollable obsession with stealing but because of her deep-seated need for attention.
“My parents were told they were lucky I hadn’t turned to nymphomania instead,” she said with that thin, evil little laugh she sometimes used to punctuate the ends of sentences. “Little do they know.”
“I’m glad you don’t live in Kentucky and frequent the Heaven-stone Department Stores,” I told her. “We’d be bankrupt.” She loved that. I hadn’t ever thought I was good at dry, sarcastic humor, but Cassie was at my ear prompting me. It was as if she had gotten into my head somehow and, like some traffic cop for thoughts, could direct and redirect ideas. Why I was so good at it didn’t matter. I simply was, and Ellie enjoyed my biting remarks, especially when directed at some of the other girls.
So, with my unselfish manner, my willingness to be her audience and her sounding board, and my occasional witty remarks, Ellie was quite comfortable. As it turned out, that was fortunate for me in another, bigger way, too. She would point me at the first boy who sparked any romantic interest in me since my tragedies, but that wasn’t to come without cost. Nothing came to me without cost, despite what everyone thought about my being from such a wealthy, powerful, and famous Kentucky family. In this case, the price was the end of my relatively close relationship with Ellie, the only person other than my uncle Perry and my father with whom I had become in any way close. I should have anticipated it. Cassie had warned me.