When Charlie Gomes appeared beside
Rebecca in the Woodbridge Preparatory auditorium for the fifth assembly
of the year, she started a little. While the rest of the faculty
cloistered themselves in the back few rows, she chose to sit closer
to the front. Placing herself among the students was an act of defiance,
but it still made her nervous. The sheer number of teenagers, the
intense volume of all of them talking and laughing at once, reminded
her of how vulnerable and isolated she was. She felt small, but
then, she was small.
In her early forties, Rebecca French had gained little weight
since she was the same age as the kids in the auditorium. This was
no blessing. Her skinniness only accentuated her scarecrow-like
appearance. She was pointy in every way that she could be. Her nose,
lips, and eyebrows seemed to be trying to escape her face. Her fingers
were too long. Her joints stuck out like the hinges on a spider's
legs. She had breasts like anthills. Even her shoulder-length hair,
which she battered with a brush each morning, managed, by mid-afternoon,
to creep its way up into something that resembled the rays on a
child's drawing of the sun.
"May I?" Charlie said, gesturing to the seat beside her.
She made a noncommittal face.
The sight of another faculty member didn't comfort her. In
the few months since she'd become Woodbridge's head librarian, she'd
learned not to expect much from the teachers or administrators.
She recognized Charlie Gomes because he taught her son Benji's
Introduction to World History class, but beyond that, she knew little
about him. He wore khaki pants and a plaid shirt with the sleeves
rolled up. His glasses and the pomade in his thinning black hair
reflected red from the house lights above them.
"Another intrepid pioneer, I see," he said. He spoke through
his nose. "Braving the hordes."
"Someone has to," Rebecca said, but he didn't hear her.
"Do you have any idea what entertainment they've chosen for
"No, I don't."
"I don't, either," he said. "I'm always curious to see what
kind of stuff they think will interest these kids. To see just how
oblivious the powers-that-be are."
The comment struck her as inappropriateshould adults
be bad-mouthing the school in front of the students?and she
didn't know how to respond. She nodded slightly, acknowledging only
that she'd heard him.
While the auditorium filled, she kept her eyes on the doors
for Benji. She didn't like to embarrass him, but he was only a freshman
and she worried. Woodbridge students were expected to be independent,
to find their way around on their own. Sometimes she thought he
wasn't up to the task.
The auditorium was built like a stadium. Each row of cushioned
red seats stood several feet above the one before it, so that no
one's view could ever be obstructed. The floor sloped sharply from
the back row to the stage nearly fifty feet below. The lighting
system, designed by the same engineer who'd done the city's opera
house, lit the stage and the back few rows, but left the majority
of the auditorium in total darkness.
The kids, of course, liked the dark, and the faculty let them
have it. That students should be allowed to be so far removed from
any supervision seemed ridiculous to Rebecca, but not surprising.
It was merely symptomatic of the unwritten, over-riding principle
that dictated most of the behavior at the school.
In front of them, a blonde girl in a leather jacket and her
crew-cut boyfriend sat down. The girl leaned her face into her boyfriend's
neck and wetly, greedily bit his ear. Saliva glinted, and Rebecca
thought she saw the pink-purple flash of a tongue dart out and then
back into the girl's mouth.
Rebecca smothered a flash of anger.
"I'm glad to see that you sit down here," Charlie said.
"I always do."
"I like to," he said. "I can't understand these people who
go into education and then put as much distance as they can between
themselves and the kids. Who did they think they'd be working with?"
"I don't know."
"I, for one, like to get as close to the fray as I can. I like
to dive into the mosh pit, to borrow some slang."
Regardless of what the brochures said about community and fellowship
between the faculty, students, and the administration, at Woodbridge,
the kids were in charge. The whole system was set up around letting
the students get away with whatever they wanted, around never stepping
on their toes. Rebecca supposed that this leniency might have had
something to do with modern ideas of adolescent development. She
thought it more likely, though, that the school worried about the
students running home to their millionaire mothers and fathers with
complaints that could cut into the next year's donations.
The young lovers in front of them were now kissing with wide
open mouths. She didn't know if she should say something. Charlie
looked at her, at them, and then at her again.
"This is where the energy is, you know?" he said. "This is
where the excitement is."
She looked anxiously at the kids surrounding them.
"Oh, don't worry," he said. "They don't hear us. It's an interesting
phenomenon. In class, they either hang on your every word or pretend
to. But out in the hallways, in the cafeteria, here, you're invisible.
They don't recognize your existence."
"That is interesting." She didn't mean it. To her, it was just
another sign of the contempt that they had for everyone around them,
everyone who was not a part of their tiny, privileged worlds.
"Is it like that in the library?" he asked. "I suppose things
are different there, yes? The same rules don't apply. I should visit
you sometime. I'd be curious to see how it differs from the classroom.
It wasn't something Rebecca had thought much about. Her library
was a castle to defend. The students wanted to turn it into another
hang-out, another goof-off spot. Recently, she'd begun to realize
that hers was a doomed defense. Her only weapons were her shushes
and the power to eject students for being too loud. Every time she
implemented either one, she only made herself that much more ridiculous
in their eyes.
A group of girls filled the row behind them, chattering loudly.
She recognized one of the voices. It was loud and brazen, and commanded
authority. Molly Chapman spoke with exaggerated rises and falls
in a misguided impersonation of sophistication. Without turning,
without reason (she later decided that force of habit pushed the
hiss through her clenched teeth), Rebecca shushed. It had no effect,
other than eliciting a raised eyebrow from her colleague.
The house lights blinked off, and the bright stage lights came
on, glaring off of the heavily varnished stage as though it were
a still pond. Charlie Gomes was the first teacher at Woodbridge
to be in the least bit friendly towards her. It was too bad he saw
his students, this school, through such a distorted lens. She decided
to avoid him in the future.
"Oh, fabulous," Molly said. "I'm sure this won't be the dullest
hour of my life."
Her friends giggled. Rebecca spun in her seat and shushed again.
In the darkness, she could only make out the silhouette of Molly's
pageboy haircut and heart-shaped face. She had large, round cheeks,
as though a surgeon had inserted golf balls into her face. The boys
in her class probably dreamt about those cheeks. Rebecca thought
she saw Molly's eyes roll.
"Come on, now, Rebecca," Charlie whispered when she turned
back to the stage. "This is no crisis."
Twenty minutes into the experimental ballet troupe's performance,
Charlie fell asleep. While the PA system spat out the musicmechanical
grinds, metallic crashes and clangs, all arrhythmic, dissonant,
pretentiousRebecca was fairly sure that only she could hear
his girlish whimper of a snore. Then the noise cut out, and the
dancers in the black leotards began jerking and jumping around the
stage in silence. For two minutes, the only sounds were of their
feet on the wood and Charlie's breathing. Rebecca forced herself
to sit up straight, to ignore him.
"Wonderful," Molly said at full volume. "This is just my favorite
Neighbors all around laughed. Rebecca spun a second time. "Miss
Chapman, if I have to ask you one more time to hush up, I will
send you to the dean's office."
"Oh, please," Molly said. "Go spit up your breakfast someplace
Someone nearby gasped. Someone else chuckled.
"God, how bulimic can one person be? We all know. It's totally
obvious, and totally gross."
Rows and rows of students must have heard. Even the dancers
probably heard it. Rebecca could actually feel people's attention
shift from the stage to her. Her eyes burned. She felt dazed. She
didn't know what to do but face front once again.
"Try to keep it in until you get to the bathroom," Molly said.
"Oh my God!" one of her friends laughed.
Charlie shifted, snorted, and sat still. The speakers came
to life again with what at first sounded like a violin. It turned
out to be a flock of birds erupting into shrieks.
* * *
Rebecca had worked for years within blocks of Woodbridge before
joining the school staff. She'd been the children's librarian at
the local branch library for longer than Benji had been alive. As
a result, she'd known most of Woodbridge's students when they were
little children, when their parents had brought them to her weekly
story hour. The parents had loved her. They depended on her extensive
knowledge of children's books, and they relied upon her to ensure
that their kids became readers, something they all believed
to be very important.
She'd long been familiar with Woodbridge's reputation as a
training ground for elitist snobs and spoiled brats. Having seen
the students hanging around the neighborhood when not in class,
sporting hundred dollar ensembles and sneers, she'd never thought
to doubt it. She'd also been familiar with its reputation as the
best education a teenager could receive in the city, if not the
entire state. If their college admissions reports were any measure,
its reputation was probably deserved. Since his birth, she'd known
Benji deserved nothing less.
The problem was that after the divorce, the chickenfeed on
which she and her son lived from month to month could never have
covered the tuition. As she understood it, the school spent most
of its financial aid budget on minority students who could lend
an air of cultural diversity to the campus. For years, she tried
to figure out a way to get Benji in. Another parent, one of her
many fans, had suggested taking a job at the school.
"I can't imagine that they would deny a scholarship to the
son of an employee," She'd said. "You certainly could get a job
there. I know the chairman of the Board of Trustees. We walk our
dogs together. I'll have you two meet."
Rebecca often felt guilty about the manner of her appointment.
She thought of herself, especially after the divorce, as a do-it-yourself,
fierce-integrity type of woman. Her guilt only compounded when she
heard that her predecessor had resigned when he'd learned that he'd
be sharing the job he'd held for nearly a decade. She had to tell
herself that this was for Benji, that she was making sacrifices
for the good of her son.
* * *
Rebecca waited in her office until five p.m. for the library
to empty. Students stayed late, studying well after school let out.
She watched them through the slats in her window blinds. She wondered
if they knew she was in there, if they knew it was their presence
that kept her prisoner. They did, she decided. Gossip spread quickly
at Woodbridge, among the students, among the faculty, even among
the parents. She doubted that there was anyone at the school who
hadn't heard about her humiliation that afternoon.
When the last student left, she gathered her things and rushed
The library was on the top floor. Wall-to-wall windows looked
out upon the city. It didn't feel like a library to Rebecca,
and she'd worked in many. Everything looked new and shiny. Natural
light filled the space from sunrise to sunset. It felt more like
a plastic surgeon's waiting room.
She hurried down the five flights of steps and through the
many corridors and lounges with an angry, bent-over shuffle. Her
hands clenched into fists that she couldn't help pumping back and
forth with each step.
She'd been preparing herself for a confrontation since she'd
decided not to go along with the student body's communal sense of
entitlement. These kids had been trained from birth by their parents,
servants, and teachers, by everyone around them, that they were
the universe's center. To meet resistance from a high school librarian,
of all people, certainly must have been infuriating. A backlash,
she'd known, was inevitable.
It had been a long time, though, since anyone had said anything
to her quite so horrible as that.
Molly had transferred to Woodbridge from a school in New York
when her family had moved out west this year. She'd shown up on
the first day of school dressed in the height of East Coast fashion,
and had stuck out like a sore thumb. Within a few days, she'd figured
out that girls in California dressed in colors other than black,
and had adjusted accordingly. Rebecca had paid particular attention
to Molly's career over the past months. As a child, Rebecca's own
family had moved frequently, and her social life had suffered for
it. In high school, she'd been the perpetual outsider. Molly, as
far as Rebecca could tell, suffered no ill effects from her relocation.
She'd ascended the ranks quickly. Rebecca had watched Molly's group
of friends quickly grow and then shrink again when the less popular
students were weeded out. She was a presence on campus. She made
In the parking lot, Rebecca spotted Tess Browning, the student
dean. Tess was a large, heavy-set woman who looked more solid than
overweight. Her arms appeared too short for her body. A pair of
pin-striped pants hung like drapes off her noticeably large posterior.
She was unlocking a metallic green car.
"Mrs. Browning!" Rebecca called. "Tess!"
Tess closed her eyes and sighed. Rebecca chose not to notice.
Feigned obliviousness was the only response she'd come up with as
a defense against the treatment she received from her colleagues.
They thought she was a busybody, she knew. They thought she was
self-righteous. The looks they exchanged when around her hurt her
feelings, made her angry, but she didn't need these people as enemies.
"Tess!" she jogged over to the dean's car, a Lexus, reportedly
a loaner from the Board of Trustees. "I think I need to talk to
you for a minute."
"Actually, Miss French, now's probably not the best time,"
she said, avoiding Rebecca's eyes. Red dotsburst blood vessels,
tiny round scabsfreckled her cheeks. "I should probably be
"I think I need to tell you about a problem I'm having with
a student. I'm sure that you heard about the incident at the assembly
"Really, Miss French, if this can wait until tomorrow. That
would really be great. Please feel free to drop by my office any
time. But I should probably be going now, really. It's awfully late.
Ben's probably waiting for you."
"Benji," Rebecca corrected. "I do need to speak with you, Tess.
I'll come by your office tomorrow. It's about Molly Chapman. We
had an incident at the assembly. I'm sure you heard about it."
Tess climbed into her car, managing, Rebecca noted, to keep
her eyes off of her the whole time. Woodbridge Preparatory's Victorian
Mansion-styled campus reflected from the Lexus's gleaming surface,
tilted at a forty-five degree angle and tinted green. It swelled
around the car's aerodynamic curves. Rebecca watched Tess drive
across the parking lot and down the ramp into the city's streets.
* * *
Rebecca came home to find Benji lying on the living room sofa,
a math textbook open on his chest. He didn't move when she came
in. At first, she thought he was asleep, but when she got closer,
she saw that his eyes were wide open, staring at the ceiling, glazed
over. If she didn't know better, she would have thought he was stoned.
"Feet on the couch," she said.
She stabbed the textbook with her index finger. His ribcage
bent slightly beneath the pressure. He was fourteen now, but puberty
seemed to be waiting for something before it struck. He looked like
a small child.
"How's that homework coming?"
Sooner or later, he'd lie about that kind of thing. Adolescent
dishonesty was one more phase for which she'd been bracing herself
for years. Every time he told her that he was doing well in school,
she expected a phone call from a teacher informing her otherwise.
Whenever he went out with his few friends to a movie, she waited
by the phone for the police to call, having found him drunk at some
party. Someday, that would happen. It happened to all parents. Sometimes
it worried her that it hadn't happened to her yet. In a lot of ways,
Benji seemed to be behind the other kids. She overheard their conversations,
shouted in the hallways, whispered in her library. They talked about
drinking and getting high and oral sex. She didn't know what to
feel about her son's purity, his honesty.
Their apartment was the smallest space she'd ever lived in.
It had no halls, merely a windowless entry room (one that might
qualify as a living room, except that it doubled for the dining
room and kitchen as well) off of which the doors to the bathroom
and the two bedrooms opened. Other than their narrow bedroom closets
and a cupboard in the kitchen, the apartment had no storage to speak
of, so that flat surfaces intended for other uses, such as the kitchen
counter, had assumed the role of stacking space. There was nothing
she could do. The apartment always looked cluttered. Very few of
her belongings had a place where they officially went.
Only two pieces of artwork decorated their walls. The first,
a forty by sixty inch world map mounted on japanned wood, she'd
rescued several years ago from the garbage pile behind a library
where she'd worked. It didn't please her aestheticallynearly
all of its colors used mustard as a baseand she didn't have
any overwhelming interest in geography. It just looked too expensive
The second, which hung on the opposite wall, was a photograph,
a token of what Rebecca considered her most notable personal triumph.
A year and a half after the divorce, Rebecca scrounged together
enough money to take Benji on a two week tour of Ireland. It was
her first time to Europe since her honeymoon, and being there with
her son, without anyone's assistance, proved to her husband and
anyone else who might dismiss her that she could parent alone, that
the Frenches existed as a family, as a distinct, solid unit.
The photograph, which she'd blown up and fitted into a black
metal frame, showed her and Benji, arms around each other's torsos,
standing on the O'Connell Street Bridge in Dublin. A thick fog surrounded
them, making it difficult to discern where the sky ended and the
identically colored River Liffey began. Rebecca had worn her hair
much shorter then, and although she recognized now that it looked
silly, she fondly remembered not having to do battle with her head
every morning. They'd taken the photograph two years ago, and Benji
looked the same. He certainly hadn't grown any. If the teenager
on the sofa had changed at all from the boy in the picture, it was
that he'd lost his baby fat, so that he looked just as young, only
She crossed the room to their half-kitchen and opened the refrigerator,
realizing what she would find only a moment before she found it.
Once again, she'd forgotten to buy groceries. The near-empty shelves
embarrassed her. She hoped that Benji hadn't noticed them. For the
third time in two weeks, she picked up the phone and ordered a pizza.
Later, at the kitchen table, she watched her son eat his first
and then second slice of pizza with a knife and fork. He ate carefully,
precisely, chewing slowly and thoroughly.
"I had a bit of an adventure at the assembly today," Rebecca
Benji swallowed and looked at her blankly.
"Did you hear anything about it?"
He smiled and shook his head. His smile was oblivious. He wasn't
hiding anything out of a sense of loyalty to the student-faculty
division. She supposed it was possible that he hadn't heard anything
because no one was talking about it, but she doubted that. It was
more likely that no one had bothered to tell Benji, because who
would? Who on campus would talk to Benji about anything?
She'd half hoped that she might be able to get some information
out of her son, find out what the word in the hallway was about
the afternoon's events. For once, she'd forgotten all about Benji's
lowly position on the school's social ladder.
"Do you know who Molly Chapman is?"
His smile faded and his eyes looked past her.
"Oh, jeez, Ma. I totally forgot."
He smacked his forehead with the butt of his hand. Rebecca
winced at the sharpness of the sound. Before she could say anything,
he was out of his seat and in his bedroom. She finished off her
pizza slice and decided against another.
A moment later, he returned, now holding an envelope. He passed
it to her.
"She said to give this to you."
"Who said that?"
"Molly Chapman, Ma."
"What are you talking about?"
"She said to give you this letter."
"You know Molly Chapman?"
She opened the envelope and removed a sheet of lined paper
torn from a three-ring binder.
Dear Ms. French,
I want to offer my most sincere apology for my behavior
today. My words were hurtful and mean and uncalled for. I would
do anything to take them back. I have all the respect in the world
for you, your son, and your job. I don't have any excuse other than
that I had a really rough morning, and I took it out on you. I'm
very sorry for that. I know there is nothing funny about eating
disorders because I have some experience with them myself. I'm very
sorry, and I hope you find it in yourself to forgive me.
P.S. I've enjoyed working with Ben this semester. He's a wonderful
She finished the letter, but did not know what to do with it.
She clutched it tightly.
"Where did you get this?" she said. "When did she give this
"She gave it to me in class, Ma."
"In history class." He tilted his head and regarded her curiously.
"Molly Chapman is in your history class? What's a junior doing
in a freshman history class?"
"She's the TA. Ma, is something the matter?"
"A TA? What is this, a state university? I thought the whole
point of private school was that your teachers had to pay a bit
of attention to you. Otherwise, what the hell is all that money
"I'm on scholarship, Ma."
She crumpled the letter into a ball and squeezed it into her
fist. She didn't trust it. She didn't believe there was a sincere
word in it. Molly was trying to manipulate her, she was sure. Why
would she mention her own eating disorder if not to gain sympathy
or pity? Why would she compliment Benji, if not to win points?
"Do you want another slice of pizza?" Benji said.
"I want you to keep away from Molly Chapman, sweetie."
He smiled again. Could he do anything but smile? Could she
say anything that would help him understand the world that the two
of them navigated every day? Did she want him to? Did she want her
son to possess the knowledge that poor people were always at risk
around the rich, that ugly people were held in contempt by the beautiful?
The idea of thoughts like these inside Benji's head made her stomach
"Just steer clear of her. In class, in the halls."
"At least until I talk to her."
"Talk to her?"
"Eat your pizza, Benji French."
* * *
When she got to work the next morning, Tess's office was locked
and empty. She proceeded to the library, which was already filling
up with students half an hour before school started. In the afternoons,
her primary duty was to enforce the no talking rule. In the mornings,
she had to seek out the students hiding thermoses of coffee under
their tables and remind them, as if they didn't already know, that
food and drink were not permitted.
She spotted several perpetrators from the doorway, but ignored
them and marched straight into her office.
Her assistant sat at the front desk, scanning returned books.
He was a young, gaunt man with a thick handlebar moustache and curled
eyebrows. He looked like he belonged in a mortuary.
"I'm going to be in my office all morning," she said. "I'm
behind on a few things."
"Whatever you say."
He chuckled when she passed him, and she knew that he'd heard.
She closed the office door and tightened her window blinds against
anyone who might be watching.
She stayed locked up until lunch time, trying to find chores
with which to busy herself. She'd brought Molly's letter along in
her purse, and it kept calling her back. Each time that she reread
it, she drew further away from the idea that it was merely a manipulation.
There was something else at work. By eleven thirty, when she'd been
sealed inside her office for so long that the room bore her scent,
she thought she understood.
I've enjoyed working with Ben this semester. He's a wonderful
Molly mentioned Ben twice. She wasn't trying to suck up, Rebecca
realized. Molly was reminding her of how close she was to Benji,
of the position of power that she held. The letter was a threat.
At lunch time, Rebecca started across campus to the main office
to find a copy of Benji's class schedule. In a hallway on the third
floor, beneath an oil painting of the school's founder, a voice
Molly Chapman wore a fake schoolgirl uniform that made her
look older, not younger.
Molly's hands fished for pockets, but found none. Instead,
she smoothed the front of her blue sweater. "Can I ask if you got
my note? My letter?"
"Oh. So Ben gave it to you?"
"Oh." Again, her hands dug for pockets that didn't exist, first
on her skirt, and then on her sweater. Finally, she clasped them
together in front of her belly. Her fingernails were painted black
with red tips. "Good."
Rebecca breathed and began inching backwards, getting ready
to leave. Molly stepped forward.
"Will you let me apologize again? I'm really sorry. I feel
awful." She spoke with a different voice now than she had yesterday.
She was quieter, meeker. It sounded intentional. "It was terrible
for me to say that stuff, and I have no excuse."
"No, you don't."
"No. Mm-hmmm. No." Her small eyes peeked out from behind her
cheeks, hopeful and expectant. She didn't look like a sorry person.
She looked like a cartoonist's rendering of one.
"There's no excuse for people like you," Rebecca said. "And
I don't think you are sorry."
Molly opened her mouth halfway, but nothing came out.
"To make fun of my eating disorder," Rebecca said. "It's horrible.
Terrible. I struggle everyday."
A splotchy blush crawled up from Molly's neck, and her eyes
began to water. The expression on her face didn't make Rebecca feel
good, but it made her feel just, and she went on.
"You are a horrible person, Molly Chapman. My library's not
for people like you. I'm banning you until you can prove to me that
you've learned a little something about human compassion. Do you
Molly nodded, on the verge of tears. Her mouth still hung slightly
open. Rebecca turned and strode away. She didn't have the right
to ban people from the library, but Molly couldn't know that. She
had just rounded a corner when, several yards back, distorted by
the halls length, she heard Molly stifle a sob.
Rebecca had lied about the eating disorder. It was a good lie.
It empowered her. It would make Molly think twice about making fun
of a person's physical appearance again. Soon most of the school
would know that the librarian had admitted her bulimia to a girl
who'd mocked her about it only a day before. She hoped the misinformation
might make the students more sympathetic to her. After all, many
of the girls at Woodbridge most likely suffered from actual
eating disorders. Maybe they'd even feel a kinship with her.
As she approached the office, she caught sight of Tess sitting
at her desk, typing at her computer. She no longer needed to talk
to her. In fact, it would probably be best if she didn't.
* * *
She found her son's history class a few minutes before lunch
ended. Charlie Gomes sat at the front desk before the empty classroom,
writing something on a legal pad. He didn't notice when she entered
the room, so she knocked on the doorframe. He did not look up, but
he spoke nonetheless.
"I'm just going to finish my sentence," he said. " . . . and
. . . we're . . . done. Ah, my fellow pioneer. Are you looking for
Ben? Class doesn't start for a few minutes. He should be here soon."
"Actually, I wanted to have a word with you."
"Of course you do. Would this be a colleague's word or a parent's
word?" He leaned back in his chair. "It'll have to be a short one
either way. Class starts any minute now, and then it's battle stations
She pulled up a desk across from his and sat down.
"It's about Molly Chapman," she said.
"Ah, yes. Young Molly Chapman. She's a character, right?" Absently,
he reached for the globe that rested on the desk's corner. He made
two legs with his index and middle fingers and began jogging them
along its surface, making the globe spin. "I just spoke with her
a moment ago."
"Yes. She asked to be excused from her assisting duties this
afternoon. Has a flu, or a cold. I don't remember which."
His fingers quickened their jog. Multi-colored continents twirled
by. The globe's axis whined with a thirst for WD-40. He seemed unaware
of what he was doing, but Rebecca found the whole display terribly
distracting. She tried to look past the globe at the history teacher.
The lenses of his glasses distorted his eyes so that they appeared
"But I'm babbling away, and our time is brief. Continue."
"I don't want Molly to be involved with my son's work in this
class. His grades. His tests. Anything."
Instantly, he snatched his hand up. "Rebecca. Well. Can I ask
"I believe that she may not grade him fairly." She spoke with
measured pauses between each word.
"Rebecca, I don't know what you've heard. I know the walls
talk here, but you're new. Trust me when I say that one should never
listen. They make up their own stories. If someone has told you
something about Molly's integritywell, please believe that
my decision to ask for Molly's assistance in this class was not
made on a whim."
"No, it's not that I heard--"
"I trust her fully. Please believe me. I trust her fully."
"I do not."
His hand crept back to the globe. Rebecca shuddered inwardly.
"The obvious question, then, is why?" he said.
"Molly and I are in the midst of a conflict."
Again, the globe's rotation accelerated. She tried to look
past it, but Charlie's inverted eyes were too much.
"She said some things to me that were hurtful," she said. "I
am punishing her. I'm afraid that she's going to use her power over
Benji to get back at me."
"Punishing her? Rebecca." He cleared his throat. "Miss French.
Please be careful here. Please. I guess I don't understand what
you're trying to do, but"
"I'm trying to protect myself from mockery, from snotty teenage"
"Miss French," he said sharply. His whole hand clapped down
on the globe, stopping it in mid spin. Norway and Sweden looked
up at her, purple and orange surrounded by blue. He took off his
glasses and lowered his voice. "Protect yourself? I understand that
this is a different kind of school, that maybe for some people it's
hard to adapt. But . . . protect yourself?"
"Why should I have to adapt? So I can get used to people calling
"She's a kid."
"She's a mean-spirited, spoiled brat."
Charlie sighed and put his glasses back on. "Rebecca. Miss
French. Rebecca. This isn't a conversation I want to have, and my
class is about to start. First, though, let me say one thing. Molly
Chapman's willingness to assist your son goes far above the call
of duty. She has her own studies to attend to, yet she devotes herself
to keeping Ben's head above water. Without her, he would be failing
"We expect a lot from our students here," he said. "Woodbridge
isn't for everyone. Now please. I have a class to teach."
He watched her over his glasses as she left.
Rebecca concealed herself behind a corner at the end of the
hall and spied on the students going into Charlie Gomes's Intro
to World History class. They moved in small packs of three and four,
and were almost always segregated by gender. Benji didn't show up
until several minutes after the hallway cleared and the classroom
doors closed. His backpack was unzipped, and a stack of textbooks
hung out precariously, waiting for the right jolt to spill out onto
She took the stairs up to the library. Her assistant, shelving
books in the history section, smirked at her when she got there.
In her office, she found a small piece of folded paper taped to
the screen of her computer.
Please come and see me ASAP. I need to talk to you about
an incident with a student. This is urgent.
She placed the note in her purse beside Molly's letter.
* * *
Rebecca left school early that day and beat Benji home for
the first time all year. The apartment smelled like pizza, so she
took out the trash. Then she slid a pile of coats over and sat on
the sofa. If she hadn't been so tense, she would have collapsed.
Instead, she sat up straight, rubbing her palms up and down her
thighs, and stared at the magazine-covered coffee table in front
Seven or eight times in the course of her chastisement, Tess
had used the word "inappropriate." Once that had begun to sound
stale, she'd replaced it with "immature." "Verbally abusive" was
another term that had come up more than once. There had been no
shouting, no heated argument. Tess had berated her as though from
memory. She hadn't even sounded surprised.
"Did her father call?" Rebecca had asked. "Is that what happened?"
"Actually, no. Her father did not call. Molly called, actually.
She told me that she'd gone home early, that she'd cleared it with
all her teachers, but that she thought I should know, too. Then
she told me why."
Benji got home at four o'clock. He dropped his backpack onto
the floor, blinked at Rebecca, and then smiled.
"Hi," he said.
She did not smile back. "I had a conversation with one of your
teachers today," she said.
"With Mr. Gomes. Your history teacher."
She examined his face for a reaction, for some hint of guilt
or shame, but there was none, just that familiar blank look of contentment.
She felt conspired against by that blankness.
"He told me that you were failing his class. Is that true?"
Benji's smile vanished. "No, no. I'm not failing. I failed
a test and a quiz. And another quiz. And that's all. Now I'm doing
"Because Molly Chapman's helping you?"
"Yeah, Ma. She's helping me."
"Why do you need her? Can't you do it on your own?"
Her greatest humiliation that day had been brought about by
her own son. She could handle Charlie Gomes's appall and Tess Browning's
castigations. What she couldn't handle was the story that this had
created, the characters in the gossip that would spread: Molly,
the saintly girl who sacrificed her time to help out the librarian's
mentally deficient son, and that immature librarian who verbally
Benji's face began to redden. For the second time that day,
Rebecca had reduced a teenager to tears.
"Of course I can do it on my own, Ma," he said. "I'm just not
too good at history. I can't remember all that stuff."
"Why? Because you're not as good as the rest of the students?
Is that what you're saying to me?"
"Is that what you're saying to me?"
She hadn't seen him cry in years. Their fights rarely reached
this level. His red, wet face and the harsh, childish breaking sound
of his voice made her recoil a little bit.
"What I'm saying, Benji French, is that if we're going to succeed
at that school, we need to pull our own weight. We're different
from them. You need to pull your"
"I'm not stupid!"
"Did I say that?"
"You think I'm stupid!"
"Did I say that? Do you have any idea how this makes
me look with the rest of the faculty? That woman whose friends got
her the job so her son could get in? And now her son can't do his
"I hate you!"
He ran into his bedroom and slammed the door behind him. A
minute later, he cranked his stereo up on full. She recognized the
CD, a John Coltrane album she'd given him for Christmas that year.
A stack of plates on the white-tiled kitchen counter rattled
along with the bass. The gentle tinkling sound reminded Rebecca
of what she'd always imagined earthquakes sounded like.
Benji's door, like all the doors in the apartment, was just
a centimeter too small for its frame, so that light and sound slid
through the clacks a little more than they would in most houses.
She thought of his twin bed up against the wall closest to her,
and she imagined him lying there, either face up or face down, glaring
at the ceiling or smashing his face in his pillow. Because that's
what they did when they declared how much they hated their parents,
when their parents yelled at them about their schoolwork. She remembered
Their upstairs neighbor pounded on the floor, and the rattling
stack of plates jingled that much harder. Rebecca ignored the thumps.
They'd endured plenty of his tromping upstairs, and he'd never responded
to any of her complaints.
Benji mistook the thumping for his mother. "Go away!" he yelled.
"Leave me alone!"
A few feet from Benji's door hung the Ireland picture. It occurred
to her for the first time that the River Liffey over which they'd
posed was marked on the world map, and she stood up to see if she
could find it. She suffered a brief moment of disorientationwhere
did Europe go?but then she found it. Ireland was a forest
green, untainted by the mustard yellow color that muted the rest
of the map. It looked the way Ireland was meant to look. She spotted
the Liffey, a black, uneven parabola at the eastern edge of the
island. At the river's widest point, less than an inch from the
city, the black line separated into two, and between them, there
was a dot of blue, only a millimeter long.
She imagined the size of the brush that had painted that blue,
the steadiness of the hand that held it. Then she began to search
the map for similarly careful details.