Preparing for Power
I knew how to listen in on the telephone extension without anyone hearing a click. Until I left home, my mother never, ever had a private conversation. Eavesdropping was my hobby. I enjoyed it more than kicking a soccer ball against the side of the garage to see how much stucco I could knock off and more than stripping bark from the oaks in our front yard with the claw of a hammer.
If I put just my thumb over the receiver, I could breathe as loud as I wanted, even during the winter with a sinus infection, and no one could hear.
“That is not the point. You are not getting the point.”
“You should have never asked him. You should have just taken the car.”
“Last time I did that, I wrecked it. Do you remember?”
“I dented the wheel well against the median.”
“It’s your car, too.”
“Listen, I am coming to the point.”
“The point is you love him.”
“Yes,” Mother said. “Yes, I adore him.”
Other people’s conversations were more reassuring than unraveling hand-knitted sweaters and more interesting than the stack of old correspondence in my father’s closet. Sitting in the dark of the phone closet off the entryway, with the receiver to my ear, when I was nine, ten, eleven, twelve, I learned the details of mutual funds and mortgage payments, how friendships disintegrate, and the common complaints of a marriage. I knew before anyone had mentioned the topic that my mother planned for me to go to boarding school.
“She can’t go to school here in Fresno,” she told Auntie Petra.
Auntie Petra was two hundred pounds overweight and taught second grade in Compton. The corners of her Venice Beach apartment were piled high with Reader’s Digest and Life. She talked with food in her mouth. “What’s wrong with school there?”
“Don’t get me started on what’s wrong. You don’t have enough time for what’s wrong.”
“Give me one reason she can’t go to school there.”
“Because,” my mother whispered, as if I might be outside her door and not downstairs listening from the phone closet, “this horrible little town is full of horrible little people.”
That summer I was eleven my mother had a terminal argument with her best friend from college. Afterwards, she loathed our little town more than ever, so she and I drove to San Francisco for a weekend to buy autumn overcoats and to eat lunch and dinner in the high-ceilinged hotel restaurants that made my mother happy.
“Why did you argue with Alice?” I asked her. I had picked up that conversation in the middle, and I couldn’t determine exactly what had caused the row.
“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” she said.
“How much older?”
“Fifteen is too long to wait. I want to know now.”
“I’m not telling you now.”
“But I’ll forget to ask when I’m fifteen.”
“You never forget anything,” she said.
We drove past the still windmills in the foothills before Berkeley. “Look at those,” my mother said. “What a scam. Have we ever seen them moving?”
Our first day in San Francisco, the rain started. Mother and I parked the car at the hotel and walked together through the wet summer afternoon, under the department store awnings around Union Square. She was very slender then, and men turned their heads to stare at her. I was tall for eleven, so when my mother and I walked together, I imagined people might think we were sisters or intimate friends, leaning into each other and speaking close.
“Tell me about your argument,” I whispered to her as we dodged animal rights activists outside Gump’s.
“Fifteen is not so long to wait,” she said. “It will give us something to talk about later.”
“I hate later.”
When the rain turned to a downpour, we shrieked as we ran from awning to awning. My new ballet slippers, which I insisted upon wearing at all times, were ruined. The city became a vibrant gray. We shook the rain off the ends of our fingertips. Our summer-weight overcoats were soaked straight through. We stopped, eventually, in a department store café, wet and cold and thinking the whole thing was a lot of fun, and I drank my first cappuccino.
“Listen,” Mother said, taking off her coat, “what would you think about going away?”
“Away where?” I knew exactly away where.
“To school. In Massachusetts, if you’d like. Or Switzerland, if that’s not too far away.”
“Whenever you like. Next year.”
When I was eleven, I had a very hard time telling dreams from reality. I didn’t understand why other people couldn’t remember conversations I knew we had had the day before, or why one day my backyard was a landing strip for warplanes and the next day was just fig trees. I once broke my wrist jumping off the fireplace mantel. Sometimes I could fly and sometimes I couldn’t. I had long daydreams about what came after the farms and the boredom of central California, and more than once I had packed a suitcase to seek my fortune, like the three little pigs who left home in the children’s book. “I want to very much,” I said.
“Really?” She seemed surprised and relieved.
“I want to very much.”
“I want you to,” she whispered in excitement. “I want you to go,” she said. “You have more to offer than Fresno is prepared to accept.”
“I am almost twelve,” I whispered right back at her.
“Yes,” she said. “I think you’re ready. But your father won’t like that at all.” She smiled.
We left the café. The rain stopped and we walked along. She held my hand in her pocket. Her dark hair was curly from the damp. Men turned to get a good look at her.
In the fall, I applied to only one boarding school. “If you don’t get into the best one, you don’t want to go, do you?” If I did not get into the best one, my mother did not want me to go. Nothing but the absolute top was satisfactory for Mother.
At that time, The Claver School had one faculty member for every three and a quarter students. My mother had read various books on prep schools, books with titles like Preparing for Power and Casualties of Privilege, and had discerned that Claver was the best in the nation. The brochure for the school showed silky-haired girls in mahogany-paneled classrooms and relaxed young men in blue jackets coming out of the Gothic Revival chapel. There were photographs of students reading books beneath trees in the spring, and attractive, focused people on cross-country skis. There were exotic court sports to learn, like squash and fives. There was crew to row on the river through the forest and Oscar Wilde to be performed in the intimate auditorium of the school hall. The brochure included Claver’s list of notable alumni, featuring two presidents and dozens of other important historical and political figures.
“What if I want to be a rock star?” I asked my mother.
“You can do anything you want to do,” she assured me. “Just get out of this town first.”
Over the next few months, my father ignored the process of applying and test-taking and the rounds of local and on-site interviews. It never crossed his mind that I might, in fact, get in. We had letters written by the soccer coach and the art teacher and, when my standardized test scores turned out very low, by the psychiatrist in Berkeley who had administered my IQ test. My mother sent off a box of newspaper clippings proclaiming my achievements in sports and the civic light opera, paintings I had done of my brothers eating breakfast, copies of my plays the local children’s theater had performed. I didn’t think much about what might happen if I was accepted. After my bad test scores, I stopped imagining what boarding school might be like. There was no fraught period of waiting for a response, as there was really no point in waiting for anything.
I spent afternoons silently listening in on telephone calls or throwing a tennis ball on the roof to see if I could displace any of the red Mexican tiles.
My brothers sensed something was going on. Richard, who normally threw tantrums but tended not to be downright destructive, smashed all my dollhouse furniture the weekend that our mother took me to Boston for interviews. My cheerful six-year-old brother, Ethan, started crying incessantly, and the weekend I took my SSATs he drank an entire bottle of Dimetapp.
“Why did you drink the Dimetapp?” my father asked gently, once Ethan had recovered from the stomach pump. From a very young age, my brothers and I knew all the brand names of every over-the-counter and prescription drug.
“It’s good for sleeping,” he said.
“Can’t you sleep, Ethan?”
“Worried about what?”
“Kath is curious.”
“You’re right,” my father said. “Kath is curious.”
“Kath is going away.”
In the spring, when I was accepted to Claver, everyone was surprised, and my father could not have been less pleased. “You’re too young to go away,” he said, and, “It’s too far.” Or, “The schools in California are equally as good.” Or else, “You’ll be homesick and miserable and you won’t understand those people.” His reasons varied each time he told me I couldn’t go.
“It’s his money,” my mother would say in a calm and furious tone. “But you’re mean,” she told him. “Can’t you see we got our hopes up?”
“No one had their hopes up,” he said.
“I had my hopes up,” Mother said.
“Then I’ll send you to school in Boston,” he told her.
“Send yourself to school!” she shouted.
“Look,” I said, “if you don’t want me to go because you don’t think it’s best for me, that I understand. But if you don’t want me to go because you don’t think it’s best for you, that’s not quite fair, is it.”
My father raised his eyebrows. “You know what?” he said. “You’re skating on thin ice.” My father loved to say You’re skating on thin ice. He also loved to say There are two chances of that: slim and none.
In the autumn, when I was twelve, my mother took me back to Massachusetts for school. She told me repeatedly on the plane to remember to stand up straight. At the hotel in Boston there was a fire. When it became clear this was not just a drill but an actual fire, I crouched in the hallway with the rest of the guests, waiting for the signal to descend the stairs, certain we were all dead. I shouted fiercely at my mother, “I knew it! I knew I would never make it out of Fresno!” She cupped her hand over my mouth, deliberately and with force. I could not tell if she was embarrassed because I had been shouting at her in front of other guests, or because I had revealed where we were from.
The fire was contained on the fourteenth floor and all the guests in their hotel robes and dress shoes made their way back to their rooms, weary but excited and chatty. I was a little ashamed of the way I had shouted in the hallway, but overall relieved that I might, in fact, make it out of Fresno.
School was a shock to my mother but everything I had anticipated from Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace: the dorm stark and quite a lot like a hospital, with beds in identical cubicles all in a row. There was no room to hang all the MoMA posters my mother and I had bought in San Francisco. There was barely enough room in the plywood closet for the new clothes we had bought at South Coast Plaza and the many, many winter coats my mother was certain I would need back East. Claver was an old boys’ school which had just in the past twenty years begun admitting girls. There was no official soccer field for the girls. We played on a makeshift pitch between the dining hall and the schoolhouse, while the boys played separately, on their own acreage, with their own scoreboard and gardener. There were Latin teachers who still believed girls were a scourge. Girls could get out of dissecting a pig, but boys were obliged: they had been doing it since 1886.
The day she moved me in, my mother showed no signs of hesitation or regret. She behaved as if sending her small-town California daughter to a very old New England prep school was the expected thing to do, as if, like the other families in the dorm that day, four generations of us had done this before we had. Of course, it seemed very normal to me. I was still jumping off couches, expecting to fly.
At the final school lunch, when the headmaster rose from his seat and said, “Parents, say goodbye to your children,” my mother turned to me and said, “If you want to come home, just call me. Just come home.”
“I don’t want to come home.”
The rest of the parents were leaving the dining hall. Every portrait of every headmaster for over a hundred years hung on the wall, admonishing the parents to go. Mommy hugged me goodbye for a long time. “I don’t ever want you to feel trapped somewhere.”
“I won’t feel trapped.”
She opened her purse and handed me an envelope filled with ten one-hundred-dollar bills. “That’s for a taxi to Boston and a ticket home,” she said.
I liked the weight of the money in that envelope. I was twelve, after all. I had never felt so much money all at once. I wanted her to leave.
She gave me a critical and tender look that told me I was probably slouching. “That money is just for an emergency,” she said. She kissed me on the forehead. “Darling, don’t forget to put your napkin on your lap.” She turned and descended the dining hall staircase with the rest of the parents. Her red circle skirt billowed behind her. She did not look back to wave.
Excerpted from Rules for Saying Goodbye by Katherine Taylor. Copyright © 2007 by Katherine Taylor. Published in May 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.