“What? I’m whispering, aren’t I? Hear this? No? It’s, like, me being quiet.”
Okay, that didn’t come out too pissy, did it? Really, I love finding out we have no room for the night – after subsiding on airline nuts and water for practically days. Well, seven hours, forty two minutes, and twelve seconds, to be exact… but who’s keeping count? I mean, seriously, in this petite size 9 jegging-clad frame beats the heart of a lion.
Or a loon, take your pick.
“No,” hisses Mom, giving me a genteel nudge. “It’s, like, you being a nuisance.”
Well, touché. But she started it. Or, rather, David did. Orator, my ass – it’s 2015. Hasn’t his merry band of treehugging hotshots heard of teleconferencing down in the Amazon Basin?
“Ma’am,” interjects the German milkmaid from behind her marble-topped reception desk, all fake European charm, mile-long claws, and hefty blond curls dripping concern and silvery trails of volumnizing hairspray. “I am dreadfully sorry, but it’s pulling up the same as last time. And the time before that. Don’t you just hate computers?”
I lean over the counter to sneak a peek at the privacy-protected display. She could be playing Minesweeper, for all we know. “No. But if you ask me…”
Ask, that is.
Did I, say, have a choice about spending the balance of my summer vacay being stuck on a tarmac without access to… erm, running water? Trekking in the barf-splattered cab under the sky raining cats, dogs, and whatever other domesticated critters? And now, loitering around some stupid hotel that thinks it’s the shiznit just because it shares the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest zip code?
“Please,” purrs Mom, pausing to digest the atrocity on the woman’s gilded nametag. “Umm.. Blossom? It’s dark out. And my card was already charged…”
“Surely, ma’am,” Blossom purses her botox-filled lips as she gives the touchscreen another meaningful volley of taps, “and we would be happy to offer three free nights…”
Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!
“…if you move your reservation to next week.”
No, no, no, no, NO! Seriously, this is friggin’ hopeless!
“Can we hit up the seedy motels now, Mom? I get dibs on the bed without the dead hooker underneath.”
“N then Turdblossom goes, ‘It’s the nation’s capital, Miss, all our hookers come w bodyguards’. She actually said that!!!!”
“Zzzzzing,” pops up an instant response, followed, before I can choke on my ire and Coke, by only a marginally mollifying smiley. “So, what’s the what? U doing the hobo thing till tmrw?”
For all of Mom’s success calling up the neighboring hotels (really, Blossom can take her professional advice and shove it), Wendy might as well be right. Gas topped seven bucks a gallon and is heading into the stratosphere; renewable fuel’s the idée fixe du jour; and where the hospitality outfits within the Beltway aren’t occupied with late summer weddings and similarly asinine shindigs, they’re universally booked for that blasted Global Energy Symposium of David’s.
Which, I’m betting, explains the exorbitant rate Mom shelled out for our own reservations. Ha! No dough’s too rich for the privilege of having me exposed to Daddy Dearest.
“Seriously,” I expertly swype, the screen of my gorgeous smartphone (one gift of David’s I’m actually keeping) high-tech and incongruous in the grandeur of the hotel’s turn-of-last-century lobby. “He sounds like a frigging infection!”
“Look on the brite side,” my BFUHS consoles from the comfort of her cookery-themed bedroom two stories below where I should rightfully be, a couple hundred miles northeast, reveling in the shimmering Manhattan vista. Queens is the new Brooklyn, and Astoria is the closest you can get to absolutely everywhere without rooming at the Plaza.
I bite. “There is 1?”
“How shd I no? C if u can find it, tho.”
I chortle. I’m so gonna miss the dipshit. As in, we’re still going to be buds and neighbors and everything, but that’s where the whole BFUHS thing comes in – Best Friend Until High School. In literally four days’ time, she’ll be bussing to local Queens #450, and I? I will be boarding an ungodly-early Manhattan-bound N train as a true-blue Stuyvesant freshman.
I chortle some more. Wish she were coming along, but man, this year will be rockin’!
“Now, the bed in this here Presidential Suite is excuse enough for my old bones,” drawls Rionni when Stann, the rat bastard, fails to make his intentions clear, because he’s clearly as crazy as a fox, and Rionni can see it, “but why aren’t you across the street, Stephenie Woodville?”
Then, I can see it, too, and close The Seeds of Big Apple in my Kindle app. It’s only taken, like, a minute to register that Rionni and Stann are characters in my book, while the trilling question was quite real; and that Mom is done fruitlessly draining her own phone and is now being grilled by a flesh-and-blood (well, facial-powder-and-expensive-tweed) person.
No wonder they consider me Stuyvesant material. I’m faaaaast.
“Oh, um… Ms. Wren! It’s, ah… very nice to have run into you,” Mom looks as uncomfortable as if she was caught scarfing down a McDonald’s Happy Meal by a fellow Weight Watcher. “And it’s actually Jovelle, now.”
Yeah, ‘now’. Or rather, ‘still’. We’re totally into oversharing and everything, but I so don’t get my mom on this one.
“Jovelle… Jovelle… Not sure if I remember, must not have been… Wait, you don’t mean David Jovelle?! That blond-maned manwhore from EnvSci? That Jovelle?”
“Er…,” stumbles Mom, checking if I’m still engrossed in my book. I drop the phone into one of six (count ‘em, six!) pockets of my spectacularly serviceable boots and put on the best helpful wide-eyed look. Rionni and her well-founded suspicions can wait. “You might be thinking…”
“No, I have never mistaken my pupils,” canorously barks our closely-shorn answer to the Queen of England. Except shapelier. And with a better fashion sense. And an oversized Hearty Songbird Holistic Catering lapel pin. But, y’know, there is something. “Now, what are you and your purple-coifed dumpling doing here? And where is that scapegrace you call your husband?”
“Magenta,” I blurt out, suddenly defensive of the inch-wide strip of dyed hair at ten o’clock off port, began as a bet with Wendy, then unobtrusively grown into what one could call a full-on chronic condition. An exceptionally becoming chronic condition, so there! Except… why am I feeling called upon to justify my self-expression choices? “Purple’s bad mojo…”
“His Bogota flight,” Mom throws in the towel at the same time, thoroughly cowed. Whatever will her patients think of her now? “It’s landing tomorrow.”
“So, what use is he tomorrow?!,” and the doyenne winks at me, an in-your-face I’m-too-old-to-give-a-flying-fuck wink that weirdly makes her look younger than… I don’t know, a well-preserved sixty to around Methuselah’s age. I grin, fighting the temptation to enjoin with, ‘Yeah, girl, that’s I wanna know.’ Something tells me she’d dig it.
Unfortunately, the one I’ll be going home with is my mom, and I’m a sucker for that soft disappointed gaze sure to be bestowed on me if I so much as think of badmouthing David. And so, I obediently whip out my musty family loyalty card. “Dad’s going to be presenting his team’s multi-year findings on the effects of global warming on the western quadrant of the Amazon Delta biome. I think we might be able to get you in, though I understand it’s to be standing room only.”
We straggle into the five-star Drury, bags first, followed by a magnificently unimpressed Miss Tiffany Wren (Miss, and don’t you forget it) and thoughtfully warned to avoid partaking of its woefully inferior kitchens.
‘Mind you, I never stoop to needing this advice, but between us girls, there are times one ought to spit rather than swallow,’ announced the grand dame herding us across the blustery street, too unrelentingly autumnal to cling to any sort of late summer glory. By the time we traipsed past the maze of limos and a veritable motorcade of black SUVs, Mom was flushing nonstop – my laidback horticultural psychologist extraordinaire mom, flushing and squeaking like a little girl that just got handed a spider. Not to be nosy or anything, but exactly what was Miss Wren teaching her and my manwhore of a father?!
As mom digs around in her Trash folder for that blessed Stays and Ties e-vite that should theoretically open doors to Drury’s MFP-reserved accommodations and Miss Wren takes her sweet time imparting to the beleaguered concierge that while she’s joining the festivities for some reason being thrown at this rinky-dink hole, she, for one, is rooming at the far more superior Hilton, I give this very question due thought.
Mom and Dad are both MFP grads. That’s the Mainyu Foundation Preparatory for the Profoundly Gifted, for the uninitiated. Theirs, I had been given to understand, was a high school sweethearts courtship; a Saved by the Bell sugarfest, that yecchy kind. Needless to say, no mention was ever made of David’s clearly legendary wild-oats days. Mom has then gone on playing the Valedictorian card to snap up her coveted Johns Hopkins undergrad and PhD, while Dad was earning his Environmental Sciences creds at the greenest learning establishment in the land, Northland College, Wisconsin. They reunited to get married and have me.
I suppose I ought to feel flattered. But what I currently feel is mystified. Just what exactly could a health food caterer of whatever exalted status Miss Wren happens to be have taught a couple of profoundly gifted life sciences majors?
“MFP didn’t offer a cooking elective, did it?”
Just finished synching the gloriously revived e-vite with the hotel’s computer and in the middle of handing her driver’s license to the second clerk, Mom throws a furtive glance to where Miss Wren’s still getting her victim to truly internalize how deeply Drury management is wrong in not making Hearty Songbird, Inc. its chain-wide choice for the best in organic breads and condiments. “Long story.”
I sagely nod. This should keep us in teas and conversations till Christmas.
“Miss. Miss…!” I break off from my absentminded contemplation of a posh-looking blond boy that was staring, staring, staring, staring right… through me before galloping past a few honest-to-goodness Men in Black bodyguarding… a potted Mediterranean fan palm?, back into the depths of the Drury’s voluminous belly. Looks like Miss Wren’s right on – with food service like this, the loos must be aflush with traffic. “May I program your phone?”
I perk up. Now we’re cooking with gas!
“There, Miss Jovelle, all set. Your room number is 1185. We at Drury hope…,” our concierge espies the hint of quiet outrage worming its way onto Miss Wren’s imperial mien and his practiced spiel goes by way of the dodo. “That is, if you’ve stayed with us before, you might recognize it as part of a smoking wing, and indeed, we were truly holdouts in accommodating our tobacco-loving clientele, but no worries, Madam, ours is now a proudly smoke-free building.”
“Good to know,” solemnly says Mom, accepting the handsets, now programmed with the handy-dandy NFC codes for entering our assuredly nontoxic lodgings. And much as discomfiting your parental units is generally a fine, life-affirming thing, somehow it feels right to see her throw off her embarrassment like a ruined business coat and embrace the Hearty Songbird CEO with the same good grace she showed having had the pride of her wardrobe splattered by a speeding cab on the way to one of her big city planning meetings.
Not to say she’s off the hook for the whole Saved by the Bell bullshit. “So, Mom, wanna stay behind and rub noses? Miss Wren said what you… I mean, what we’re wearing’s cool. It’s not like it’s a prom or anything.”
“I’m quite aware of what Stays and Ties is, thank you.” Mom imperturbably shoulders her bag – and has the effect of parental immunity to having their goat gotten by unruly offspring immediately ruined by the strap getting caught in her black frizzy ringlets. Serves her right! Seriously, what was she thinking, letting them down just as we were slinking out of Hilton?! She wouldn’t be caught dead like that outside home, what with them being a menace on their own and her allergic to most hair-management products. I came this close to asking what’s gotten up her ass, but figured she was desperate for something to do while Miss Wren was dishing out her double entendres.
That, or the prospect of hobnobbing with the old gang called for some camouflage work.
“Yeah, but did you know it’s, like, the first time they’re doing it in twenty years? And so, everyone and their dog’s here? Even the Vice President!”
“So the invitation said,” tranquilly nods mom, goat still very much not gotten. Kudos.
“What it didn’t,” acidly adds Miss Wren, stowing her own Ferrari-trademarked mobile into a tiny baguette (no street corner knockoffs here, designer crap all the way, I’m betting my new skateboard). “Is how many grunts they had toiling night and day to get everyone’s contact info all nice and current. Or if they broke any privacy laws in the process…”
“Which is why you are here?” guesses Mom, earning herself a sharp nod, and just like that, yeah, I can totally peg them for teacher and student. “Honestly, knowing Mainyu, it’s unlikely they don’t have their bases covered.”
“Never can tell, though, hmm?,” blithely interjects a cultured tenor, and a barely silvered shaggy head lowers itself first over Miss Wren’s beringed mitt and then, Mom’s, bare but for the titanium wedding band that it so much a part of her, it seems fused into the cocoa of her finger. “What with the recent ownership changes. Take it you have been following, Dr. Wren, Steph? Oh, and by the way, alleged invasions of privacy aside, the two of you, here, truly make this a pleasure.”
You’d think the V.P.O.T.U.S. himself was but a humble street sweeper, judging by how Mom’s presence is snowballing interest from the crowd like an out-of-control katamari, as Noah Woolverton, Esq. (courtesy of Yale Law, natch) parades us before his well-kempt and disgustingly photogenic coterie. Well, for the most part. A fresher-faced, brighter-eyed copy of the old man extends a hand.
“Noah, Jr.. Nice to meet you, Journey.” Seriously, those peepers are throwing me for a loop. Never seen multi-colored pupils before – amber and purple. Is that even natural? “Nah, the left one’s robotic. X-ray vision, you know?” Junior grins, unperturbed.
“Umm, did I say that out loud?” Is it getting awfully warm in here? I discretely adjust the cowl neck of my tangerine sweater dress. No way am I greeting the first new hottie in a coon’s age blushing like a middleschooler!
“It’s cool, we all get it. Mother started it,” his similarly-pupiled sister gestures towards the loopy blonde half-asleep in an old-timey wheelchair. “Well, actually her grandmother. Or even before, but the older photos are obviously black and white. I’m Rhea. And Mother’s Leah. It rhymes. We’re weird. Bear with us.”
Between Rhea edifying me about the Woolvertons’ fancy-ass genetics (which would’ve gone down oodles better with Junior doing the teaching); Noah Sr. bemoaning his wife’s recent car accident that still wouldn’t keep her from their trip down memory lane / glorified job fair for the freshly-minted alumni of 2015, so, glory be to the deceptively unassuming Mr. Chen and the rest of the painkiller-peddling Big Pharma keeping the missus comfortably drugged up; few more old classmates crawling out of the woodwork to fawn over Dr. Wren and compliment Dr. Jovelle on a great job raising a right little lady (yeah, what they don’t know won’t hurt ‘em); and the exotic potted greenery growing thicker, and more stifling, and more claustrophobia-inducing around our churning little knot each time I look, I finally can’t but acknowledge a fundamental human need that has remained unmet since before we hit Dulles. The baroque fountain at the center of the sweeping ballroom emphatically isn’t helping matters – neither in the physiological sense nor, for that matter, the aesthetic. Seriously, it’s either the can right friggin’ now, or the nudie nymphs get it!
“Heh, that’ll leave a mark. They’re over there past the buffet…” Junior snorts, pointing out an oasis of calm – that is to say, the overflowing hors d’œuvre trays in the rear, staunchly guarded by a wall of guns n’ muscle in de rigueur black shades. Does everyone here need this much protection? And with no one out to get moi (that I know of), what does that make me? A dollar-store Mother Theresa?
I blink. “They who? The meatshields?”
“Huh? I mean, the bathrooms.”
I swallow a mortified squeak. So does Rhea, turning several shades even paler under her blond coiffure. What the fuck is wrong with me tonight? Love at first sight?
“Here, I’ll walk you…”
Yeah, he’s gotta be chivalrous, too. Asshole.
Contrary to Miss (or is it Dr.?) Wren’s belief, the Drury’s capacious facilities aren’t chocked with the digestively challenged. Contrary to mine, recently affirmed by my admittance to the top high school in the tri-state area – I’m a dolt.
As I rinse my sweaty phiz under a faucet not-so-seamlessly merging the ultra-traditional with a sanitary touchless design, I wish I was scrubbing away the memory of that latest gaffe. Certainly my pragmatic side assures that I’d never see those people again, so, I could start swinging off a chandelier and no one of importance (save the meatshields outside the door) would be the wiser; but the panicky vocal minority in my head screams bloody murder. You just don’t say stuff like that about the Deputy Director of the CIA, especially when he may be your future father-in-law, and even more especially, right to his kids’ perfect WASP mugs. No, for real, how am I supposed to deal with them now?!
Then again, points out the no-nonsense, SHSAT-acing side, since I’m taking my sweet time, by the time I complete my toilette, Mom may well be the only one still haunting the ballroom. That MFP-exclusive preview of its big Global Energy Symposium reveal the sibs alluded to, prudently taking my mind off the nymph-infested fountain (‘Father said OPEC’s privately boosting production, on the rumors alone!’), is probably already started. And if not yet, it should, any minute now. Yeah, dollars to donuts, everyone’s in the conference hall across the floor, frantically speed-dialing their stock brokers.
Oodles more confident despite the beginning twinges of what’s got to be my very first de facto migraine (yeah, Mom’s little girl is all grown up now!), I check my phone’s clock, decide to kill time in as therapeutic a way as I can – and conjuring a stainless-steel comb out of yet another boot pocket, commence the recommended hundred brushstrokes on my striped – but more-or-less manageable curls. Don’t know where I got them from – not that I’m complaining – considering Mom’s are… well, Mom’s, and Dad looks like a prize golden-fleeced ram. On a good day. He’s lucky he wasn’t born in Ancient Greece. Jason and his merry Argonaut band would’ve had him sheared before you can say…
“Emergency averted?” The door behind me whispers open, and Rhea chirpily peeks in, checking, no doubt, for any property-defiling inroads. “They’re starting!”
“Unfortunately, I cannot in good conscience claim being glad to see you all again. I am too new a fixture for an establishment as grand as ours, though in time, I hope to be in the position to do just that.
“For now, however, I can and will say how happy I am to be a part of the illustrious Mainyu Foundation family along with everyone joining us for our tonight’s celebration. I can, also, say it is, indeed, a pleasure to meet some of you anew, and to make the acquaintance of others. And finally,” intones the attractively bespectacled Dr. Barnabas Hodge with the pitch-perfect operatic timing. “I will add that never since accepting the post of principal first from the Fairfax County Board of Education, and then, agreeing to persist in my capacity since the son returned to take up the reigns of his father’s legacy, have I been more proud, more overjoyed to be a part of such a noble tradition.”
If I wasn’t growing to be quite so miserable with the lights that feel a little too bright, the speakers too loud, the air too warm ever since my cowardly hide got dragged out of the little girls’ room, and if Mom was anywhere in sight instead of, according to Rhea, stuck with Noah Sr., Mr. Chen, and their little clique of wheelers and dealers, I would laugh. A bitter sort of bedlamite titter. Barnie Hodge ought to have been a barker at some Depression-Era carnival. He’s that good.
“Because…,” seriously, how’s he staying cool as a cuke in this heat, a bear of a man in a dark business suit buttoned up the wazoo?! Is there an A/C up his… Huh?
A plexiglass dais topped with a tallish black box is silently trundling onto the Mainyu-crested felt of the stage, all by its lonesome. No, wait, someone’s pushing it – a girl… I think… my age, nearly invisible behind the frame. I wouldn’t have noticed at all if not for Hodge giving her dark mop an absentminded pat, the kind you award your favorite bulldog. And blast! Now that I did notice, she ain’t exactly melting there either. So, is it just Rhea, her quietly keening mother, and myself, suffocating out here near the back of the conference hall, stuck beneath the buzzing CFL lamps cleverly disguised as bona fide, firelight-reflecting-on-gilded-walls chandelier candles?
“It is my honor, my great privilege to give you…,” Hodge majestically gestures through the syrupy haze, somewhere toward front and center. “Mr. Nigel St. Claire, the man behind it all, the man whose vision, whose singlehanded determination to see our little blue planet thrive is responsible, if I may be pardoned for touting our own horn, for assembling the team of the finest minds the world has known…”
I stifle a sudden gag reflex, biting my knuckles as Rhea stares at the stage, mouth agape, not even reacting to my elbowing her, or that nasty grapefruity / garlicky smell pouring in out of… I don’t know, Drury’s much-maligned kitchens?, or that strange boy, the one with the stomach upset, now rushing in from one of the side doors, completely ignored by the bodyguards, plowing into the seated crowd like a heated knife into butter, and… making straight for where Mom and Mr. Woolverton are getting a way more up-close-and-personal dose of old Barnie than us ducks.
The boy is shouting something, worming between the knees, purses, chair legs, but nobody’s giving a shit, rapt in self-aggrandizing bull, trapped in the rise and fall of the fatherly voice, lost in greedy concentration.
“Once and for all…”
Could it be so many ambitions at once cramped into a humongous space that are responsible for that weird weight around my chest, and my panting breaths wheezing in and out as if I’m not fourteen… as if I’m Miss Wren’s senior by, oh, a few decades?
“Delivering our very own, in-house…”
Or am I just sick? Caught something in the stuffy plane? Or from the German milkmaid behind Hilton’s desk? Or was Miss Wren right, and the Drury really is a flea-ridden rathole?
“Cheap, perfectly replenishable answer to the world’s mounting energy crisis…”
Oh, just you wait, I promise myself, making a vain effort to sit up straight, as Mrs. Woolverton lurches up from her wheelchair with a terrified yelp, then sinks onto her daughter’s wobbly shoulders. Just you wait, Mom, you’re so telling me if this little jaunt to see David was worth it!
“Ladies and gentlemen, Mainyu Prep alumni new and old…”
Wait. Mom! If I’m feeling like shit, if I’m sick, how is she?!
“I introduce to you the revolutionary, and really quite amazing, if I may say so myself…”
My vision wavers, then steadies over a weird… bubble of nothingness concaving above us in the supercharged air.
And then, there is light. So, so, so much light…