The school principal’s father died, and classes were canceled for the day so that the staff could attend the services. Sad that Mrs. Grant’s father died, but great that there was an unexpected holiday, and on a Friday. That much the two girls sitting on a partially shaded bench in the garden behind their dorm building could agree upon. Although small, the garden was colorful with a display of autumn flowers. The light-haired girl, Patsy, was looking up on her smart phone the significance of chrysanthemums in Eastern culture while the dark-haired girl, Claudia, was texting friends.
“Definitely not,” Claudia said in answer to the suggestion that they go to the Havers Botanic Garden. “Really, you’re such a drag. Study, study, study.” She turned away and texted another classmate. Getting no reply, she groaned and stretched out her bare legs.
Patsy was used to Claudia’s put downs, but still, they were annoying. She had to keep her grades up. Her parents expected it.
Demanded it. They were not rich like Claudia’s parents, but not poor either. They were in the middle. A nowhere place, her father said. You had to work hard to get ahead, to just keep up. Going to the best schools was a necessity for success. If the cost put a limit on frivolities—her father’s word—so be it. Patsy had worked hard, and, now in her senior year, she could ease up, but she liked botany and garden design. Mr. Connors, the science teacher, suggested going.
“We’ll get extra credit if we go and write about it. Only 500 words. Easy.”
“For you, maybe. God knows I could use it, but I’m getting by, thanks to my French grade. Madame Richard loves me. Says I speak French like a native. And she should know. I wonder how old she is. Fifty? Sixty? I bet she’s had lovers. All French women do.”
“Honestly, Claudia. Maybe fifty-five. Years old, I mean. Not lovers.”
They both doubled over with laughter, whooping and hollering.
“We can go bike riding on the path along the river,” Patsy said when she stopped choking, but Claudia was texting again and groaning at every non-reply.
The girls were friends by circumstance. Patsy was thrilled when Claudia moved across from her dormitory room a year ago, a week before classes began. They were the only ones in the dorm, and they spent nearly every day together. Claudia had a lot to say about living in Switzerland, skiing at Zermatt, vacationing on the Riviera, swimming in the Aegean and attending a private school catering to the children of government officials, famous movie stars, and writers. That close comradery changed quickly once classes began. Claudia fit in with the other affluent students, blending smoothly into their niche like cream into coffee. She was not just cream in the coffee, but whipped cream floating on top.
“No. No biking. Too sweaty,” Claudia said, pocketing her smart-phone. She shifted on the bench to move more into the sun. “Why don’t you go home for the weekend? Maybe your brother will be around.”
“No. Rick doesn’t come home every weekend.” It was a reasonable reason to give Claudia, enough to keep her from asking questions.
Patsy had her own questions, questions to which Rick gave only evasive answers.
“Let’s go to Manhattan, anyway. Maybe we could stay in his apartment. Sleep on the floor. Why wouldn’t four good-looking guys want two good-looking girls spending the night? It could be fun.” Claudia, with a sly grin, poked Patsy’s arm.
“Who says they’re all good-looking? Except my brother, of course.” Typical of Claudia to think of partying and sex. Patsy suppressed her own grin. Claudia actually said good-looking girls. Probably didn’t mean it. She was often critical of Patsy’s looks— her hair, clothes, granny glasses, less-than-ample chest. “We can’t. Rick is back in the dorm this year.” He wasn’t, but Claudia didn’t have to know that.
“Someone’s got to answer me.” Claudia began texting again.
“Why don’t you go home? You hardly go home on weekends.” Patsy nudged Claudia to get her attention.
“What for? My parents are seldom there, and when they are, they ignore me. After the kiss, kiss and round of questions about classes and grades, it’s, ‘Bye, bye. Martine will give you lunch, dinner, whatever, and we’ll be back late’.”
After a minute or two of silence, Claudia looked up from her cellphone. “My parents fight all the time, except when other people are around. That’s why they’re always giving a party or going to one. Are your parents happy? Do they fight?”
“No. They don’t fight.” No fights that Patsy was aware of. They just didn’t talk much, and there was less of that the last time she went home. What was there to talk about anyway? Her parents’ lives were conventional, uneventful. “Yeah. They’re happy.”
Claudia went back to texting while Patsy looked up on her phone the meaning of flowers. “When I have my own home and garden, I’m going to plant flowers with special meanings. I think that’d be fun.”
“What. . .? Oh, wait. Lisa’s texted me back.” As Claudia read the text she scowled. “Fuck! Lisa and Dara and others. . . Others? Fuck and shit! They’re all at the Fun Arcade.” Claudia jumped up from the bench and stomped down the path spewing more fucks, shits, and a few other choice words.
“Calm down, Claudia, before someone hears you, and you get demerits for swearing.”
“I don’t care.“ As she sat back down, she mumbled a few more expletives and looked towards the school. “Don’t you ever swear, Miss Goody Two Shoes?”
That’s what she was, Miss Goody Two Shoes. It’s what Claudia and her clique called her on more than one occasion.
“No. It gives a bad impression.” And, her father said, impressions always count.
“Fuck impressions. I feel like it. Besides, there’s no one to hear me. I can swear all I want. Why didn’t they ask me to go to the Fun Arcade?”
Patsy had no answer and didn’t try to find one. The clique of friends to which Claudia belonged was always changing loyalties.
Another loud “Fuck” filled the garden, sending all squirrels and birds into the safety of trees and shadows.
“Claudia, pipe down. You’ll get both of us in trouble.”
Patsy didn’t want trouble. She had avoided trouble all her life. She followed the rules, her parents’ rules, the school’s rules. She was as dull as her parents. Her father worked all the time, nights, weekends. Her mother was a joiner: book club, canasta club, garden club, even though they had no garden, only a balcony so congested with potted plants there was hardly room for sitting.
“Mrs. Snyder is still around,” Patsy said as Claudia’s grumbling continued. “ She didn’t go to the funeral. I saw her.”
“Sneaky Snyder you mean. She would just love to call my parents again. I swear she has it in for me.”
“Well, you do cause lots of commotion with your loud music, swearing, and shenanigans.”
“Shenanigans? Only you would come up with that word. Anyone else would use pranks, jokes, tricks.”
“Whatever you call them, they are mean tricks sometimes. Putting a dead frog in that freshman’s pocket.”
“I told Sneaky Snyder I didn’t have time to be a Freshman Orientation Helper. But, she insisted. ‘Take some responsibility,’ she says. ‘Show some school spirit.’ Oh God. That girl really showed lots of spirit when she screamed so loud they must have heard her all the way into town.” Claudia chuckled and slapped her thighs, but stopped when Patsy moved away.
“Where’re you going? Come on. I apologized to the girl. Don’t you ever do anything you’re not supposed to do? Wait. Wait. Why don’t I drive us to the Fun Arcade? We’ll join up with Lisa and the others.”
“Honestly, Claudia. Why do you want to go when no one asked you?”
“Yeah. You’re right. But, why didn’t they?” Claudia’s voice, a screechy whine, grated on Patsy’s ears, even as she moved farther away.
“Let’s go to Manhattan, then. We’ll stay at my place. Go to a club tonight. I know a guy who’ll get us in.” Claudia was shouting now.
“This afternoon, we’ll shop at Bloomingdale’s.”
Would Claudia never give up? “No. I’m going up to my room to study until lunch.”
Go shopping with Claudia? No thank you. Watching Claudia spend money was not entertaining. Looking at expensive jeans, cashmere sweaters, and overpriced everything was not entertaining, not unless she could afford to buy them. Claudia could wheedle money from her parents with only a little whining. Budgeting was not in her vocabulary. It was in Patsy’s, etched on her brain by her father since she was given her first allowance. That, and “neither a borrower nor a lender be.”Live within your means. Her father’s creed.
The school dining room was designed to give a feeling of home. Round wooden tables with a veneer resembling old maple were set with colored paper placemats that changed as the seasons changed. Ochre, orange, russet, dark green were this seasons’ colors. Café style lace curtains hung at the windows. Students’ paintings and sculpture decorated the walls and filled a glass-covered cabinet. On this unexpected holiday from classes, even with the separate lunch periods combined, the dining room was less than half occupied.
“What a waste. A free day and nothing to do.” Claudia, slamming the lunch tray on the table, plopped down next to Patsy. For several minutes the girls ate in silence.
“OK, I’ll go home with you.” Patsy wasn’t sure why she agreed. Maybe it was because Claudia would probably continue to bug her until one of her so-called best friends contacted her. Maybe because she had never been invited to Claudia’s home before. Maybe because she was tired of doing what was expected. She closed the textbook she had been reading. “Meet you outside in fifteen minutes.”
As Claudia drove away from the school parking lot, Patsy pulled out her cell phone. “We didn’t sign out.”
“What the hell, Patsy. Snyder won’t know we left until head check tonight. So, you get a few demerits. So what? Do you always have to be Miss Fucking Goody Two Shoes?”
Keeping her parents and the school informed where she was going, what she was doing, was a habit, a practice long followed. Patsy hesitated a second, then put away her phone. “No, but I want to stop at my place first. Just get something to wear if we go to a club tonight.”
Patsy, leaving Claudia in the entry hall, went out to the balcony where she expected to find her mother. Not there. Going towards her bedroom, she slowed her steps as she approached the study. Her parents were talking. Why was her father home in the middle of the afternoon? This wasn’t normal. She stopped just outside the doorway.
“You said you had everything under control, Dave. How could you do this? Why did you do this?”
“I was tired of being careful, of being almost rich. Of budgets. So much for necessities. So much for extras. And then, budgeting the extras. At first, the risks paid off, but . . .”
“But you thought you were so smart. My God, Dave! Fraud!”
A chair scraped across the floor. Her mother was crying. “Bad enough you lost our money, but the clients’ money, too. All the years of preaching. Live within your means. You drilled that into Patsy and Rick. And me. Always budgeting. I’m sick of it, too, but I wasn’t about to do a one hundred eighty degree turn and become a criminal to get a few extras.”
“I thought at first, just a little. It was easy at first, but. . . I went too far for too long. I’m sorry, Carol.”
“It’s much too late for that. You’ll go to prison. How are the kids and I supposed to live? We have to get a lawyer and tell the children. Or does Rick know already? It’s why he left school and got a job upstate, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he overheard me on the phone.”
Patsy silently retreated to the hallway and hustled Claudia outside. “Nobody home.” What had her father done? Her questions of the past several weeks were now answered. The longer silences. Rick leaving college. Some answers, but a lot more questions. Her father was a criminal. She’d have to leave school, too. They’d be poor, not just not rich, but poor. All your preaching, Dad. Lies. Every bit of it. All lies.
In the car, Patsy counted her money. Not enough to be extravagant at Bloomingdale’s. Patsy never was extravagant. Spend what you need on only what you need, and you’ll be thankful as you get older. Right, Dad.
She pulled out of her wallet an ATM card. “Do you have a savings account? I’ve had one since I was five years old. I save part of my allowance every month.” Another of her father’s lessons on finance. The importance, the necessity of saving money. Right, again, Dad. For the future, her father said. For a rainy day. Three cheers for your advice, Dad.
She turned to Claudia, waving her ATM card. “Fuck it. Let’s go to Bloomingdales.” Her rainy-day future had just arrived.
© Adelaide B. Shaw
Adelaide B. Shaw lives in Somers, NY. She writes stories and essays and has been published in several journals in print and online in the US and abroad. She also writes Japanese short-form poetry and has been published extensively.