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Pretty Things / (by Janelle Brown, 2020) -

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Pretty Things /   (by Janelle Brown, 2020) -

Pretty Things / (by Janelle Brown, 2020) -

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Pretty Things / (by Janelle Brown, 2020) -
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2020
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Janelle Brown
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Julia Whelan, Lauren Fortgang, Hillary Huber
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upper-intermediate
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16:06:48
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Pretty Things / :

.doc (Word) janelle_brown_-_pretty_things.doc [1.04 Mb] (c: 5) .
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audiobook (MP3) .


: Pretty Things

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Prologue WHEN A BODY GOES DOWN in Lake Tahoe, they say, it does not rise again. The frigid temperature of the lake, its vast depths, conspire to keep bacteria at bay. What once was human fails to decompose. Instead, the body is doomed to drift along the lake bed, in perpetual limbo; just more organic matter joining the mysterious menagerie that lives in Tahoes uncharted depths. In death, there is no disparity. Lake Tahoe is over a quarter mile deep and two million years old. Locals have laid claim to a fistful of superlatives: Their lake is one of the deepest in America, the purest, the bluest, the coldest, the oldest. No one really knows whats at the bottom of that water, but everyone is sure its something dark and enigmatic. There are myths about a Loch Ness monsterlike creature called Tahoe Tessie, which no one really takes seriously even though Tessie sells a lot of T-shirts. But deep-sea cameras have also captured mysterious fish on the lake bed, 1,600 feet down: creatures pale white and shark-like, evolved to withstand the near-freezing temperatures, their blood slowing to a crawl in their veins. Creatures perhaps as old as the lake itself. And then there are other stories: Stories about how the lake was used by the Mafia as a dumping ground for its victims, back when they controlled the Nevada casinos. Stories about the Gold Rush railroad barons who considered the lake a convenient mass grave for the Chinese migrant workers they worked to death building the tracks over the Sierras. Stories about vengeful wives, cops gone bad, killing trails that led to the lakes edge and then went cold. Kids tell each other bedtime stories about corpses bumping along the bottom of the lake, eyes open, hair floating, in permanent limbo. Above the surface of the lake, the snow is softly falling. Below, the body drifts slowly down, lifeless eyes lifted toward the vanishing light, until it sinks into darkness and is gone. 1. THE NIGHTCLUB IS A TEMPLE, devoted to the sacred worship of indulgence. Inside these walls there is no judgment: Youll find no populists, no protestors, no spoilsports who might ruin the fun. (The velvet ropes out front stand sentry against all that.) Instead, there are girls in fur and designer silk, swanning and preening like exotic birds, and men with diamonds in their teeth. There are fireworks erupting from bottles of thousand-dollar vodka. There is marble and leather and brass that is polished until it gleams like gold. The DJ drops a bass beat. The dancers cheer. They lift their phones toward the sky and vamp and click, because if this is a church then social media is their scripture; and that tiny screen is how they deify themselves. Here they are: the one percent. The young and ultra-rich. Billionaire babies, millionaire millennials, fabu-grammers. Influencers. They have it all and they want the whole world to know. Pretty things, so many pretty things in the world; and we get them all, says their every Instagram photo. Covet this life, for it is the best life, and we are Nblessed. Out there, in the middle of it all, is a woman. Shes dancing with abandon in a spot where the light hits her just so and glimmers on her skin. A faint sheen of sweat dampens her face; her glossy dark hair whips around her face as she swivels her body to the grinding beat. The waitresses headed to the bottle-service tables have to maneuver around her, the fizzing sparklers on their trays in danger of setting the womans hair alight. Just another L.A. party girl, looking for a good time. Look close, though, and you can see that her half-closed eyes are sharp and alert, dark with watching. She is watching one person in particular, a man at a table a few feet away. The man is drunk. He lounges in a booth with a group of male friendsgelled hair, leather jackets, Gucci sunglasses at night; twentysomethings who shout over the music in broken English and baldly leer at the women who careen past. Occasionally, this man will plunge his face to the table to do a line of cocaine, narrowly missing the flotilla of empty glasses that litter its surface. When a Jay-Z song comes on, the man climbs up on the seat of his banquette and shakes up a giant bottle of champagnea rare large-format bottle of Cristaland then sprays it over the heads of the crowd. Girls shriek as $50,000 worth of bubbly ruins their dresses and drips to the floor, making them slip in their heels. The man laughs so hard he nearly falls down. A waitress lugs over a replacement bottle of champagne, and as she sets it on the table the man slips his hand right up under her skirt as if hes purchased her along with the bottle. The waitress blanches, afraid to push him off lest she lose what promises to be a sizable tip: her rent for the month, at the very least. Her eyes rise helplessly to meet those of the dark-haired woman who is still dancing a few feet away. And this is when the woman makes her move. She dances toward the man and thenoops!she trips and falls right into him, dislodging his hand from the waitresss crotch. The waitress, grateful, flees. The man swears in Russian, until his eyes focus enough to register the windfall that has just landed in his lap. Because the woman is prettyas all the women here must be in order to get past the bouncersdark-featured and slight, maybe a hint of Spanish or Latina? Not the sexiest girl in the club, not the most ostentatious, but shes well dressed, her skirt suggestively short. Most important: She doesnt blink as the man swiftly shifts his attention to her; doesnt react at all to the possessive hand on her thigh, the sour breath in her ear. Instead, she sits with him and his friends, letting him pour her champagne, sipping it slowly even as the man puts back another half-dozen drinks. Women come and go from the table; she stays. Smiling and flirting, waiting for the moment when the men are all distracted by the arrival of a tabloid-friendly basketball star a few tables over; and then she swiftly and silently tips the contents of a clear vial of liquid into the mans drink. A few minutes pass as he finishes his drink. He pushes back from the table, working to upright himself. This is when she leans in and kisses him, closing her eyes to push away her revulsion as his tonguea thick, chalky slugprobes hers. His friends goggle and jeer obscenities in Russian. When she cant take it anymore, she pulls back and whispers something in his ear, then stands, tugging at his hand. Within a few minutes they are on their way out of the club, where a valet jumps to attention and conjures up a banana-yellow Bugatti. But the man is feeling odd now, on the verge of collapse; its the champagne or the cocaine, hes not sure which, but he finds he cant object when the woman tugs the keys from his hand and slips behind the wheel herself. Before he passes out in the passenger seat, he manages to give her an address in the Hollywood Hills. The woman carefully maneuvers the Bugatti up through the streets of West Hollywood, past the illuminated billboards selling sunglasses and calfskin purses, the buildings with fifty-foot-tall ads hawking Emmy-nominated TV series. She turns up the quieter winding roads that lead to Mulholland, white-knuckling it the whole time. The man snores beside her and rubs irritably at his crotch. When they finally get to the gate of his house, she reaches over and gives his cheek a hard pinch, startling him awake so that he can give her the code for entry. The gate draws back to reveal a modernist behemoth, with walls entirely of glass, an enormous translucent birdcage hovering over the city. It takes some effort to coax the man out of the passenger seat, and the woman has to prop him upright as they walk to the door. She notes the security camera and steps out of its range, then notes the numbers that the man punches into the doors keyless entry. When it opens, the pair is greeted by the shrieking of a burglar alarm. The man fumbles with the alarm keypad and the woman studies this, too. Inside, the house is cold as a museum, and just as inviting. The mans interior decorator has clearly been given the mandate of more is more and emptied the contents of a Sothebys catalog into these rooms. Everything is rendered in leather and gold and glass, with furniture the size of small cars positioned under crystal chandeliers and art clogging every wall. The womans heels clack on marble floors polished to a mirror gleam. Through the windows, the lights of Los Angeles shimmer and pulse: the lives of the common people below on display as this man floats here in the sky, safely above it all. The man is slipping back into oblivion as the woman half drags him through the cavernous home in search of his bedroom. She finds it up a set of stairs, a frigid white mausoleum with zebra skin on the floors and chinchilla on the pillows, overlooking an illuminated pool that glows like an alien beacon in the night. She maneuvers him to the bed, dropping him onto its rumpled sheets just moments before he rolls over and vomits. She leaps back so that the mess doesnt splash her sandals, and regards the man coolly. Once hes passed out again, she slips into the bathroom and frantically scrubs her tongue with toothpaste. She cant get his taste out of her mouth. She shudders, studies herself in the mirror, breathes deeply. Back in the bedroom, she tiptoes around the vomit puddle on the floor, pokes the man with a tentative finger. He doesnt respond. Hes pissed the bed. Thats when her real work begins. First, to the mans walk-in closet, with its floor-to-ceiling displays of Japanese jeans and limited-edition sneakers; a rainbow of silk button-downs in ice cream colors; fine-weave suits still in their garment bags. The woman zeroes in on a glass-topped display table in the center of the room, under which an array of diamond-encrusted watches gleam. She pulls a phone out of her purse and snaps a photo. She leaves the closet and goes back into the living room, making a careful inventory as she goes: furniture, paintings, objets dart. Theres a side table with a clutch of silver-framed photos, and she picks one up to examine it, curious. Its a shot of the man standing with his arm flung over the shoulders of a much older man whose pink baby lips are twisted up in a moist grin, his wobbly folds of flesh tucked defensively back into his chin. The older man looks like a smug titan of industry, which is exactly what he is: Mikael Petrov, the Russian potash oligarch and occasional sidekick to the current dictator. The inebriated man in the other room: his son, Alexi, aka Alex to his friends, the fellow Russian rich kids with whom he pals around the planet. The mansion full of art and antiques: a time-honored means of laundering less-than-clean money. The woman circles the house, noting items that she recognizes from Alexis social media feed. Theres a pair of Gio Ponti armchairs from the 1960s, probably worth $35,000, and a rosewood Ruhlmann dining set that would go for well into the six figures. A vintage Italian end table worth $62,000she knows this for sure because she looked it up after spotting it on Alexs Instagram (where it was stacked with Roberto Cavalli shopping bags and captioned with the hashtag Nballershopping). Because Alexilike his friends, like the other people in the club, like every child of privilege between the ages of thirteen and thirty-threedocuments his every move online, and she has been paying close attention. She spins, takes stock, listens to the room. She has learned, over the years, how houses have character of their own; their own emotional palette that can be discerned in quiet moments. The way they stir and settle, tick and groan, the echoes that give away the secrets they contain. In its shimmery silence this house speaks to her of the coldness of life inside it. It is a house that is indifferent to suffering, that cares only about gleam and polish and the surface of things. It is a house that is empty even when it is full. The woman takes a moment she shouldnt, absorbing all the beautiful works that Alexi owns; noting paintings by Christopher Wool, Brice Marden, Elizabeth Peyton. She lingers in front of a Richard Prince painting of a nurse in a bloodstained surgical mask, being gripped from behind by a shadowy figure. The nurses dark eyes gaze watchfully out of the frame, biding their time. The woman is out of time, herself: Its nearly three A.M. She does a last pass of the rooms, peering up into the corners, looking for the telling gleam of interior video cameras, but sees nothing: too dangerous for a party boy like Alexi to keep footage of his own misdeeds. Finally, she slips out of the house and walks barefoot down to Mulholland Drive, heels in hand, and calls a taxi. The adrenaline is wearing off, fatigue setting in. The taxi drives east, to a part of town where the houses arent hidden behind gates and the meridians are filled with weeds rather than manicured grass. By the time her taxi deposits her at a bougainvillea-covered bungalow in Echo Park, she is nearly asleep. Her house is dark and silent. She changes clothes and creeps into her bed, too tired to rinse off the film of sweat and smoke that clings to her skin. There is a man already there, sheets wrapped around his bare torso. He wakes instantly when she climbs into bed, props himself up on an elbow, and studies her in the dark. I saw you kissing him. Should I be jealous? His voice is lightly accented, thick with sleep. She can still taste the other man on her mouth. God, no. He reaches across her and flicks on the lamp so that he can examine her more closely. He runs his eyes across her face, looking for invisible bruises. You had me worried. Those Russians dont joke around. She blinks in the light as her boyfriend runs his palm across her cheek. Im fine, she says, and all the bravado finally runs out of her so that shes shaking, her whole body quivering from stress (but also, its true, with giddiness, with the high of it all). I drove him home, in his Bugatti. Lachlan, I got inside. I got everything. Lachlans face lights up. Fair play! My clever girl. He pulls the woman to him and kisses her hard, his stubble scraping her chin, his hands reaching under her pajama top. The woman reaches back for him, sliding her hands up across the smooth skin of his back, feeling the clench of his muscles under her palm. And as she lets herself sink into that twilight state between arousal and exhaustion, a kind of waking dream in which the past and present and future come together into a timeless blur, she thinks of the glass house on Mulholland. She thinks of the Richard Prince painting, of the bloodied nurse watching over the frigid rooms below, silent guardian against the night. Trapped in her glass prison, waiting. As for Alexi? In the morning, he will wake up in a dried puddle of his own urine, wishing he could detach his head from his body. He will text his friends, who will tell him he left with a hot brunette, but he will remember nothing. He will wonder first whether he managed to fuck the woman before he passed out, and whether it counts if he doesnt remember it; and then, somewhat idly, he will wonder who the woman was. No one will be able to tell him. I could tell him, though, because that womanshe is me. 2. EVERY CRIMINAL HAS AN M.O. and this is mine: I watch and I wait. I study what people have, and where they have it. Its easy because they show me. Their social media accounts are like windows into their worlds that theyve flung open, begging me to peer inside and take inventory. I found Alexi Petrov on Instagram, for examplejust another day of scrolling through photos of strangers until my eye was caught by a banana-yellow Bugatti and the man sitting on its hood with a self-satisfied grin that told me exactly what he thought of himself. By the end of the week, I knew everything about him: who his friends and family were, where he liked to party, the boutiques where he shopped, the restaurants where he dined, the clubs where he drank, as well as his lack of respect for women, his casual racism, his raging ego. All of it conveniently geotagged, hashtagged, cataloged, documented. I watch, I wait. And then, when the opportunity arises, I take. Its easier than youd think to get to these kinds of people. After all, they provide the world with minute-by-minute documentation of their itineraries: All I have to do is put myself in their path. People open the door to pretty, well-dressed girls without bothering to ask a lot of questions. And then, once youre inside, its all about timing. Waiting for the purse to be abandoned at a table while its owner is in the bathroom; waiting for the vape pens to come out and the proper level of inebriation to be achieved; waiting for a party crowd to sweep you along in its wake and that perfect moment of carelessness to present itself to you. I have learned that the richthe young rich, in particularare so very careless. So this is what is going to happen to Alexi Petrov: A few weeks from now, when this night (and my presence in it) has faded into a vague, cocaine-addled memory, he will pack up his LV luggage for a week in Los Cabos with a dozen of his jet-setting friends. Hell post Instagram photos of himself climbing aboard a Ngulfstream swaddled in Nversace, drinking Ndomperignon from a Nsolidgold ice bucket, sunbathing on the deck of a yacht with the Nbeautifulpeople in Nmexico. And while he is gone, a van will pull up to his empty mansion. The van will bear a sign advertising a nonexistent furniture restoration and art storage business, just in case any neighbors are watching from inside their own gated fortresses. (They wont be.) My partnerLachlan, the man from my bedwill enter the house, using the gate and alarm codes that Ive collected. Hell select the pieces that Ive pointed out for himtwo of the slightly less valuable watches, a pair of diamond cuff links, the Gio Ponti armchairs, that Italian end table, and a few other items of noteand hell load them into the truck. We could steal so much more from Alexi, but we dont. Instead, we follow the rules I set when I first got in this game a few years back: Dont take too much; dont get greedy. Take only what wont be missed. And only steal from those who can afford it. THEFT, A PRIMER: 1.Never steal artwork. Tempting as it might be, that multimillion-dollar paintinganything by a recognizable artistis going to be impossible to move. Even Latin American drug lords wont shell out for a stolen Basquiat that theyll never be able to resell on the open market. 2.Jewels are easy to steal, but the really valuable pieces are often one of a kind, and therefore too identifiable. Take lesser pieces, dismantle the jewelry, sell the gems. 3.Brand itemsexpensive watches, designer clothes, pursesare always a good bet. Throw that Patek Philippe up on eBay, sell it to a tech bro in Hoboken who just got his first big paycheck and wants to impress his friends. (Patience, here, is the key: best to wait six months in case authorities are monitoring the Web for stolen goods.) 4.Cash. Always the thiefs ideal. But also the most difficult to get your hands on. Rich kids carry Centurion Cards, they dont tote around bundles of cash. Although once I found $12,000 in the side pocket of a limousine owned by the son of a telecom magnate from Chengdu. That was a good night. 5.Furniture. Now, this takes a real eye. You have to know your antiqueswhich I do, thats what a degree in art history will get you (if not much else)and you have to have a way to sell them. You cant just set up on the corner with a Nakashima Minguren coffee table and hope that someone walking by has $30,000 in their pocket. Ive stolen three Birkin bags and a mink Fendi coat out of the closet of the star of the reality TV show Shopaholix. I walked out of a party at the mansion of a hedge fund manager with a Ming vase tucked in my tote; and slipped a yellow diamond ring off the finger of a Chinese steel heiress who had passed out in a bathroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Once, I even drove a Maserati right out of the garage of a twentysomething YouTube star best known for his videos of reckless car stunts, although I had to ditch it in Culver City because it was too identifiable to resell. SoAlexis cuff links will go to a jeweler of ill repute downtown, to be dismantled and resold; the watches will be placed in an online luxury consignment store, at a price that will be impossible to resist; and the furniture will end up in a storage locker in Van Nuys, awaiting its final destination. Eventually, an Israeli antiques dealer named Efram will come by the storage locker to peruse its contents. He will pack our acquisitions into crates and ship them to a free port in Switzerland, where no one will bother to check on provenance and customers tend to pay in ill-begotten cash. What we take from Alexi will end up in collections in S?o Paulo, Shanghai, Bahrain, Kiev. For this, Efram will take seventy percent of the profit, which is highway robbery, but without him, we are nothing. And at the end of the process, Lachlan and I will end up splitting $145,000. How long will it take Alexi to notice that hes been robbed? Judging by the activity on his Instagram account, it will take three days after his return from Mexico to finally sleep off the hangover, wander into his living room, and realize that something is slightly amiss. Wasnt there once a pair of gold velvet armchairs sitting in that corner? (That will be the day that he posts a photo of a bottle of Patron at eight A.M. with the caption Shit think Im going crazy need tequila.) Before long, hell register the missing watches. (Another post: a shot of shiny new timepieces lined up along his hairy arm, geotagged at Feldmar Watch Company in Beverly Hills. Cant pick just gonna buy them all.) Still, he wont report the robbery to the police; his ilk rarely do. Because who wants to deal with paperwork and nosy authorities, and all that unpleasant rigmarole over a few trinkets that will likely never be recovered and can be so easily replaced? The super-rich are not like you or me, you see. We know exactly where our money is each minute of every day, the value and location of our most treasured belongings. The fabulously wealthy, on the other hand, have their money in so many places that they often forget what they have and where its supposed to be. The pride in the value of the things they own$2.3 million for this McLaren convertible!is often a disguise for a laziness in the care of those things. The car is crashed; the painting gets ruined by cigarette smoke; the couture dress gets trashed on the first wearing. Bragging rights aside, beauty is ephemeral: Theres always a newer, brighter bauble to replace it. Easy come, easy go. 3. NOVEMBER IN LOS ANGELES feels like summer just about anywhere else. A heat wave has blown in with the Santa Anas, and the sun bakes the packed dirt of the canyons, bringing up the scents of skunk and jasmine. Inside my bungalow, the bougainvillea vines rattle against the windows, shedding their leaves in passionate heaps of despair. On a Friday, a month after the Alexi job, I wake up late to an empty house. I drive down the hill for coffee and a yoga class, and when I return I take a novel onto the stoop of my porch and settle in for a quiet morning. Next door, my neighbor Lisa is ferrying supplies from her car to her backyard, bags of fertilizer that are most likely destined for the marijuana patch shes growing. She nods at me as she passes. Ive lived here for three years now: my little aerie, a woodsy, two-story bungalow that started its life a hundred years earlier as a hunting cabin. I share it with my mother. Our home is tucked up in a forgotten corner of Echo Park, bedraggled and overgrown, too inaccessible for real estate developers and too uncool for the gentrifying hipsters raising real estate prices down the hill. If you stand outside on an overcast day you can hear the groan of the interstate at the bottom of the hill; but otherwise, up here, it feels like you are far from the rest of the city. My neighbors grow pot in their gardens; they collect broken pottery; they write poetry and political manifestos and decorate their fences with bits of sea glass. No one worries about maintaining their lawns up here; no one even has lawns to trim. What people value instead: space and privacy and a lack of judgment. Id lived here for a year before I learned Lisas name, and then only because her copy of The Herb Quarterly ended up in my mailbox by mistake. On Lisas next trip through, I wave her over, and pick my way across my own neglected clutter of succulents to the collapsing fence that separates our properties. Hey there, I have something for you. She pushes a wild lock of graying hair out of her face with a gardening glove, and walks to meet me. When shes close enough, I reach over the fence and tuck a folded check into the pocket of her jeans. For the kids, I say. She wipes her gloves on the back of her jeans, leaving brown crescents of dirt across her rear. Again? Work has been going well. She nods, and gives me a crooked smile. Well. Good for you. Good for us, too. Perhaps she finds it suspicious that her neighbor, the antiques dealer, regularly gives her four-figure checks, but she has never said a thing. Even if she knew, though, I think she might not judge me anyway. Lisa runs a nonprofit that advocates for children in court, children who are there because of abuse and neglect: Im sure it would secretly delight her, as it does me, to know that some of the money that I take from the most spoiled children in the world goes to children who have the least. (And yes, Im aware that the check is an attempt to assuage my own consciencelike the robber barons who write checks to charities and call themselves philanthropistsbut really, its a win-win for everyone, right?) Lisa peers over my shoulder at the bungalow. I saw your mom head off in a taxi at the crack of dawn. She went in for a CT scan. A pucker of concern. Everything OK? Yesits just a routine follow-up. Her doctors optimisticher last few scans were promising. So its likely that I leave the thought dangling there, too superstitious to articulate the word that I most want to say: remission. That must be a relief. She rocks back and forth on the heels of her work boots. So, what then? You going to stick around if shes clear? That wordcleartriggers a little spasm inside me. Clear connotes clarity, but also blue skies, freedom, an open path to the future. Lately, Ive been letting myself imagine, just a little. Ive found myself in bed at night, listening to Lachlans shallow breath beside me, and turning over the possibilities in my head. What might be next. Despite the adrenaline kick that I get from what I dothe self-righteous thrill of it all, not to mention the financial upsideI never intended to do this forever. Im not sure, I say. Im feeling a little restless here. Ive been thinking about going back to New York. Which is true, although when I mentioned this to my mother a few months agoMaybe when youre really and truly healthy again Ill head back to the East Coastthe look of horror on her face was enough to stop the rest of that sentence right in my throat. Might be good for you to start fresh, Lisa says mildly. She pushes her hair from her eyes and settles them on me. I blush. A car turns in to the road and slowly bumps along the rutted asphalt. Its Lachlans vintage BMW, its engine clicking and whirring from the effort of ascending the hill. Lisa raises an eyebrow, tucks the check deeper into her pocket with a pinkie, and shoulders her bag of fertilizer. Come by one of these days for some matcha, she says as Lachlan parks in the driveway behind me. She vanishes into her garden. Theres the slam of a car door, and then I feel Lachlans arms slip around my waist, his pelvis pressing against my backside. I turn in his arms so that Im facing him. His lips slide across my forehead, down the side of my cheek, and end at my neck. Youre in a good mood, I say. He steps back, unfastening the top button of his shirt collar and wiping a bead of sweat off his hairline. With one palm, he shades his face against the sun: My partner is a nocturnal animal, his translucent blue eyes and pale skin more suited to dark places than the incinerating L.A. sun. Eh. Im a fair bit annoyed, actually. Efram didnt show. What? Why? Efram still owes me $47,000 dollars from the Alexi job. Perhaps I shouldnt have given Lisa that check after all, I think with alarm. Lachlan shrugs. Who knows? Hes done this before; he probably got himself bolloxed or something and couldnt ring. I left a message. Anyway, Im going to run back to my place later today, check in on things for a while, so maybe Ill stop in at his shop while Im on the west side. Ah. So, Lachlan plans to disappear again, until we have another job lined up. I know better than to ask when hell be back. Things I know about Lachlan: He grew up in Ireland, in abject poverty, in one of those enormous Catholic families with a kid in every cupboard. He saw theater as his ticket out of this hardscrabble life and came to the States when he was twenty to try to make it on Broadway. That was two decades ago and the events that conspired between then and the day that I met him, three years back, remain murky. You could drive a semi through the gaps in what he chooses to share. But this much I know: He didnt make it as an actor. He puttered along in background roles and fringe theater, in New York and Chicago and finally L.A., and got fired on the first day of his one big break in an indie film because his accent was too Irish. Eventually, however, he discovered that his acting talents could be put to more lucrative, if less legal, uses. He became a confidence man. I didnt much like Lachlan when we first met; but over time I came to realize that he was a kindred spirit. Someone who knew what it meant to drift along the edges of life, looking in. Who knew what it meant to be a child eating canned beans for supper while wondering what it would take to be a person who ate steak. Someone who believed the golden beacon of the artstheater, in his case; fine arts, in minewould light the path out of an ugly life, only to find walls thrown up along the way. Someone who understood innately why one would choose to conceal ones past. Lachlan is a reliable partner, but not a very good boyfriend. Well do a job together, joined at the hip for however long it takes, and then hell disappear for weeks without answering any of his phone numbers. I know he does jobs without me; he wont tell me what they are. Eventually Ill wake up in the middle of the night to find that hes slipped into my bed and is sliding a hand up between my legs. And every time I roll over to him and open myself wide. I dont ask where hes been; I dont want to know. Im just glad that hes backand frankly, I need him too much to press the subject. Do I love him? I couldnt clearly say that I do, but I also couldnt say that I dont. I know this one last thing about him: That his hand on my bare skin makes me go liquid. That when he walks into a room that Im in, it feels like theres an electric current running between us. That he is the only person in the world who knows everything about what I am and where Ive come from, and that this makes me vulnerable to him in a way that is both excruciating and thrilling. There are so many varieties of lovethe menu does not have just one flavorand I see no reason why this cant be one of them. Love can be anything you choose to wrap around the word, as long as the two people involved agree upon the terms. He told me he loved me just weeks after we met. I chose to believe him. Or maybe hes just a very good actor, after all. I have to go pick up my mom from the clinic, I say. I drive west into the midday sun, back toward the side of town where my marks usually live. The imaging clinic is in West Hollywood, a low-lying building that clings like a barnacle to the Cedars-Sinai sprawl. As I pull up, I spy my mother sitting on the steps of the clinic, an unlit cigarette poised between her fingers, sundress strap slipping off her shoulder. I slow my car, squinting through the windshield at her. My mind crawls through the strange elements of this tableau as I pull past the parking lot entrance: That my mother is here, outside, when I am supposed to be meeting her inside the clinic. That she has a cigarette in hand, although she quit smoking three years back. The empty, distant look of her as she blinks in the thin November light. She raises her head when I pull up in front of her and roll the window down. She offers a wan smile. Her lipstick, too pink, is smudged across the bow of her upper lip. Am I late? No, she says. Im done already. I glance at the clock on the dashboard; I could have sworn she said to come at noon, and its only 11:53. Why are you out here? I thought I was going to meet you inside. She sighs and struggles to right herself, the cords in her wrist straining painfully as she pushes herself to her feet. I cant stand it in there. Its so cold. I had to get out into the sun. Anyway, we finished early. She pulls open the door and settles herself gingerly into the cracked leather seat. By some sleight of hand, she has already vanished the cigarette into the purse on her hip. She fluffs her hair with her fingers and stares out the windshield. Lets go. My mother, my beautiful mothermy God, I worshipped her as a child. The way her hair smelled like coconut and glimmered gold in the sunshine; the moist stickiness of her glossed lips plump against my cheek, leaving behind the marks of her love; the way it felt to be pressed against her chest, as if I might climb into all that soft flesh and hide safely inside her. Her laugh was an ascending scale, airborne, and she laughed at everything: the sour expression on my face when she served me frozen corn dogs for dinner, the way the repo man scratched his enormous rear as he hitched up our car to the tow truck, how we hid in the bathroom when the landlady banged on our door demanding the delinquent rent. You just have to laugh, shed say, shaking her head as if she was helpless in the face of such mirth. My mother doesnt laugh much anymore. And that, more than anything else about what has happened to her, breaks my heart. She stopped laughing the day that the doctor gave us the prognosis: She wasnt just tired, like she protested; she wasnt losing weight because she had lost her appetite. She had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer that was likely treatable but only at great cost, and that also had a pernicious tendency to battle itself back from the brink and recur, ad nauseam. You couldnt just laugh at that, though my mom tried. Oh, honey, its OK, Ill figure it out. Its all going to be fine in the end, she said to me after the doctor left the room that first day, gripping my hand as I cried. She was trying to keep her voice light, but I heard the lie in her words. My mother had always lived her life as if she was on a train journey, anticipating the next stop: If you didnt like where you got off, you just got right back on and moved to the next station. In the doctors office that day, she learned that not only had she been booted off the train at the worst station on the line, but that this was quite possibly her final destination. That was almost three years ago. So this is my mother now: Hair thats still short and choppy since it grew back from the last round of chemo, its curl now coarse, the blond color a little too close to desperate. Bosom gone concave, ribs visible beneath. Soft hands now veiny despite the cherry-red polish designed to distract. Gaunt, frail, not soft and glimmering at all. Forty-eight years old and youd think she was ten years older. Shes made an effort todaythe sundress, the lipstickwhich is heartening. But I cant shake the feeling that something is off. I notice a stack of paper folded into quarters and shoved into the pocket of her skirt. Waityou got results already? What did the doctor say? Nothing, she says. He said nothing. Bullshit. I reach across the car and try to pluck the paper from her pocket. She smacks my hand away. What do you say we go get pedicures? she says, her voice as false and sticky as a child with an aspartame lollipop. What do you say you tell me what those test results say? I make another grab for them and this time my mother remains motionless as I snag the papers from her pocket, careful not to tear the pages, my heart building up to a rapid staccato because I know, already, what they say. I know from the resigned expression on my mothers face, the faint black smudges under her eyes where mascara recently melted and was wiped away. I know because this is what life is like: Just when you think youve reached the end zone, you look up to realize that the goal posts were moved back while you were focused on the turf right in front of your eyes. And so even as my eyes scuttle across the CT scan results on the pagesthe inscrutable charts, the dense paragraphs of medical jargonI already know what I am going to see. And sure enough, on the last page, there they are: the familiar gray tumors bleeding shadows across slices of my mothers body, wrapping their amorphous fingers around her spleen, her stomach, her spine. I relapsed, my mother says. Again. I feel it in my own stomach then, the familiar dark spread of helplessness. Oh God. No. No no no. She plucks the papers from my fingers and carefully folds them along the crease marks. We knew this was probably going to happen, she says softly. No we didnt. The last treatment was supposed to be it, the doctor said, thats why weJesus. I dont understand. I trail off before I finish, because this is not the point I mean to make; but my first thought is that we were sold a false bill of goods. But he saidIts not fair, I think, like a child having a temper tantrum. I throw the transmission into park. Im going in to talk to the doctor. This cant be right. Dont, she says. Please. I talked it through with Dr. Hawthorne, we already have a plan. He wants to try radioimmunotherapy this time. Theres a brand-new drugI think its called Advextrix?just approved by the FDA, with really promising results. Even better than the stem cell transplant. He thinks Im a good candidate. A soft laugh. The upside is I wont lose my hair this time. You wont have to see me looking like a cue ball. Oh, Mom. I manage a wan smile. I dont care about what your hair looks like. She stares resolutely out the windshield at the cars that whiz past on Beverly Boulevard. The drug. Its expensive, is all. Its not covered by my insurance plan. Of course it isnt. Ill figure it out. She looks at me sideways, blinking her clotted lashes. Each dose is about fifteen thousand dollars. Ill need sixteen of them. You dont worry about that. You worry about getting healthy again. Trust me to take care of the rest. I do. Youre the only person I trust, you know that. She looks at me. Oh, honey, dont look so upset. The only important thing is that you and I still have each other. Thats all weve ever had. I nod and reach over to take her hand. I think of a bill still sitting on my desk at home, the final invoice for my mothers last round of treatmentsthe bill that Eframs payment was supposed to cover. This will make a third recurrence of her non-Hodgkins lymphoma: Neither the first treatment (basic chemo, only partially covered by my mothers bare-bones insurance) nor the second (an aggressive stem cell transplant, not at all covered) kept the tumors at bay for more than a year. When I recently totaled up the cost of my mothers illness, we were approaching a high six-figure mark. Thisher third roundwill put us well into seven figures. I want to scream. The stem cell transplant was supposed to have an eighty-two percent success rate; so I had taken remission as a certainty, because what were the odds that my mother would be that eighteen percent? Wasnt that why I had nodded, so unblinking, at the boggling price tag for the transplant? Wasnt that certainty the justification for everything Ive let myself do over the past few years? We were almost in the clear is what I think to myself now, as I turn over the engine and pull out into the traffic. It isnt until I feel my mothers cool hand on mine, tucking a tissue into my fist, that I realize that Im crying. But Im not quite sure what the tears are bout: my mother, and the invisible tumors once again devouring her from within, or my own future, and how cloudy it once again seems. My mother and I drive back home in near silence, her diagnosis sitting heavy as a boulder between us. In my mind, I am running through the what next of it all: The medication will be only the half of it, the cost of this round will certainly top a half million. Optimistically, I had no new marks lined up; how na?ve I was, to think I might be able to move on to something else entirely. Now I mentally run through the faces I still have bookmarked on social media, the princelings and celebutantes currently cavorting their way across Beverly Hills. I try to recall the ostentatious inventory of their Instagrams. Thinking about this gives me a nasty little sparkle, a lift of anger that helps me rise above my underlying weariness. Here we are, at this, again. When we arrive home, I am surprised to see that Lachlans car is still parked in my driveway. Theres a movement at the curtain as we park; his pale face flashing behind the glass, and then hes gone again. When we get inside, I find that the lights are off and the blinds are down, casting my home into gloom. I flip on the light switch and see Lachlan standing behind the door, blinking in the sudden wash of light. He turns the light back off and pulls me out of the doorway. My mother hesitates in the doorway behind me, and he stops to look over my shoulder at her. Lily-belle, you all right? Howd those tests go? Not so good, my mother answers. But I dont feel like talking about it right now. Why are the lights off in here? Lachlan peers down at me, his face shadowed with concern. You and I have to talk, he says softly. He grabs my elbow and guides me toward the corner of the living room. Lily-belle, you mind? I need a moment with Nina. She nods but moves toward the kitchen with glacial slowness, eyes glittering with curiosity. Ill make us some lunch. Once shes out of earshot, he pulls me in close and whispers in my ear, The police were here. I lurch back. What? When? Just an hour or two ago. Not long after you left to pick up your mom. What did they want? Did you talk to them? Christ, no, Im not a bloody idiot. I hid in the bathroom, didnt answer their knock, yeah? But they were looking for you. I could hear them asking your neighbor if this was where you lived. Lisa? What did she say? She said she didnt know your name. Right cheeky, that one. Thank you, Lisa, I think. Did they tell her what they wanted to talk to me about? Lachlan shakes his head. Well, if it was something serious, they wouldnt have come politely knocking on my door. Theres a falter in my voice. Right? I turn to see my mother standing there, a plate of crackers in her hand. Her eyes swing from me to Lachlan and back again, and I realize that Ive been talking much too loudly. What did you do? she asks. And at that, I am momentarily silenced, because how am I supposed to answer that? For three years, while my mother has been too ill to work, Ive supported us. As far as were both concerned, I am a private antiques dealer, filling the homes of east side hipsters with mid-century Scandinavian design and Brazilian modernism. To that end, I keep a ten-by-twenty storefront in Highland Park, with a handful of dusty Torbj?rn Afdal pieces in the window, and a sign that says BY APPOINTMENT ONLY. A few times a week, I drive to the shop and sit there in the quiet, reading novels and studying Instagram on my laptop. (Its also a useful way to launder the money I make in other, less legal ways.) And so I pretend that I have somehow parlayed twenty percent commissions on the occasional cabinet into a six-figure income that covers both of our living expenses, plus a fortune in medical bills and my outstanding college loans. Improbable, perhaps, but not impossible. Yet my mother surely suspects the truth. After all, shes a con (more specifically, a former con), too; shes the one who introduced me to Lachlan in the first place. My mother and Lachlan met at a high-stakes poker game she was working four years back, when she still could work. Cons recognize cons when we see one, as Lachlan explained it to me. Professional respect evolved into friendship, although Lily fell ill before they ever had a chance to do a job together. By the time I was summoned to Los Angeles to take care of her, Lily could barely get out of bed, and Lachlan had stepped in to give her a hand. This, at least, is what Lachlan tells me. My mother and I dont discuss Lachlans profession at all, having buried it alongside other untouchable topics like family, and failure, and death. So, surely shes wondered if Lachlan turned me into a con, tooif we arent just clubbing when we disappear at nightbut we tiptoe around the subject, walking a careful line between pretense and willful blindness. Even if she does suspect the truth, I could never admit it out loud to her. I couldnt bear to witness my mothers disappointment in me. But now I wonder if I was an idiot to think that I had ever fooled her. Because judging by the expression on her face, she knows exactly why the police were at our door. I did nothing, I say quickly. Dont worry about it. Im sure its a mistake. But I can tell by the way my moms eyes dart back and forth across mine that she is worrying. She looks over my shoulder at Lachlan and her face changes as she reads something there. You should leave, she says flatly. Right now. Get out of town. Before they come back. I laugh. Leave. Of course. If theres one thing my mother was a real expert at when I was growing up, it was leaving. The first time we left was the night that my mother chased my father out of our apartment with a shotgun, when I was seven, but by my count we left again nearly two dozen times before I graduated from high school. We left when we couldnt cover the rent; we left when a jealous wife showed up on our doorstep; we left when the police did a sweep of the casino and brought my mother in for interrogation. We left because my mother thought she might get arrested if we stayed; we left when opportunity dried up; and we left because she plain old didnt like where we were anymore. We left Miami, Atlantic City, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Dallas, New Orleans, Lake Tahoe. We left even when my mother promised me that we wouldnt leave anymore. I am not going to leave you, Mom. Dont be ridiculous. Youve got cancer. Youre going to need me to take care of you. I expect her to weep, and soften; but instead her face hardens into something immobile and cool. For Gods sake, Nina, she says softly. You are no help to me at all if youre in jail. In my mothers expression, I read disillusionment, even anger, like I have failed her and we are both going to pay the price. And for the first time since I came to Los Angeles I am truly frightened by what I have become. 4. SO IM A GRIFTER. You might say that the apple doesnt fall far from the treeI come from a long line of bagmen and petty thieves, opportunists and outright criminalsbut the truth is that I was not raised for this. I had a Future. That, at least, is what my mother used to say to me late at night when she found me reading Pride and Prejudice under the covers by flashlight: You have a Future, baby, the first one in this family. When I performed on command for her male visitors, doing long division in my head while they sipped dirty martinis on our sagging settee: Isnt my girl smart? She has a Future. When I told her I wanted to go to college but I knew we couldnt afford it: Dont worry about the money, sweetie. This is about your Future. And for a while there, I even believed her. Got caught up in the great American myth, the Puritan ethic of nose-to-the-grindstone-and-thou-shalt-prevail. That was back when I thought the playing field was even, before I learned that it was not flat at all; and that, in fact, for most people not born into privilege, the playing field is a steep incline and you are at the bottom with boulders tied to your ankles. My mother had the ability to make you believe, though. This was her great gift, her sweet con. The way she could fix a man with those innocent eyes of hers, as wide and blue as a spring lake, and convince him of anything she wanted: that the check was on the way, that the necklace in her purse had ended up there by mistake, that she loved him like no one had ever been loved before. The only person she truly loved was me; I knew that much. It was just the two of us against the world; it had been that way since she kicked my father out. And so I always believed that my mother couldnt possibly lie to me, not about this person I was going to become. And probably she wasnt lying to me, at least not intentionally. Instead, the person she was really lying to was herself. My mother may have been a con artist, but she wasnt a cynic. She believed, she truly did, in the great opportunity of life. We were always on the verge of hitting the big time, even as my shoes were being held together with duct tape or we were eating baked potatoes for dinner for the third week running. And when those opportunities did comewhen she won big at the card tables or managed to hook herself a big fishwe lived like queens. Dinners out at hotel restaurants, a red convertible in the driveway, a Barbie DreamHouse with a bow on it. And if she wasnt looking far enough down the road, saving up in anticipation of that convertible being hauled away by the repo man, who could fault her? She trusted that life would take care of us, and it always did, right up until the moment when it didnt. My mother was pretty but not a beauty; though what she was, was more dangerous than that. She had a kind of sex-kitten innocence, with the summer-peach complexion of a child, those big blue eyes, blond hair only slightly enhanced with a bottle. Her body boasted an abundance of flesh that she had trained to swing in just the right way. (Once, I overheard a junior high kid in Vegas call her Tits McGee, but after I slugged him he never did it again.) Lilla Russo was her real name, though she went by Lily Ross most of the time. She was Italian, her family had been Mafia-adjacent, or so she said. I wouldnt knowI never met my grandparents, who had cut her off entirely after she had a baby (me) out of wedlock with a Colombian poker player. (Im not sure which sin was the unforgivable one: the baby, the lack of a ring, or the lovers country of origin.) She once told me that my grandfather had been a mob soldier in Baltimore, with half a dozen bodies under his belt. She didnt seem to want to be around her family any more than they wanted to be around us. The first years of my life were dictated by my father, whose gambling career kept us moving like migratory birds, our resting spot changing with the seasons or whenever his luck ran out. When I think of him now I mostly remember the lemony scent of his aftershave and the way he used to pick me up and fling me so high in the air that my hair would graze the ceiling, laughing at my screams of terror and my mothers shrieks of protest. He was less of a grifter than a bully. Back then, my mother worked odd jobswaitressing, mostlybut her main job was defending me from him: barricading me in my room when he came home drunk, putting herself in the way of his fists so that they wouldnt land on me. One night, when I was seven, she didnt quite manage to get me out of the way, and he threw me against the wall so hard that I temporarily blacked out. When I regained consciousness, there was my mother, blood dripping down her face, pointing my fathers shotgun at his crotch. Her feathery, soft voice hardened to something sharp and lethal: If you touch her again I swear I will shoot you right in the balls. Now, get the fuck out of here and dont come back. And he did, skulking away like a dog with its tail between its legs. Before the sun rose the next morning, my mother had packed up the car. As we drove out of New Orleansheaded to Florida, where she had a friend who had a friendshe turned to look at me in the passenger seat and grabbed my hand. You and I are all each other has, she whispered hoarsely. And I will never, ever let anyone hurt you again. I promise. She didnt, either. When a boy at our next apartment building stole my bike, she marched straight down to the courtyard and pushed the kid up against the wall until he cried and told her where it was hidden. When the girls in my class teased me about my weight, she went straight to their homes, rang the doorbells, and screamed at their parents. No teacher could give me a failing grade without facing my mothers ire in the school parking lot. And when confrontation wouldnt solve the problem, she would just whip out her ultimate solution. OK, shed say to me. Lets move and just try it again. Chasing off my father had unintended consequences. My mother couldnt pay the bills with part-time waitressing anymore. Instead, she moved into the only other profession she knew: crime. My mothers hustle was soft coercion. She used seduction as a means of access: to a credit card, a bank account, a chump who might cover the rent for a while. She targeted married men, misbehaving cads who were too afraid of getting caught by their wives to file a police report when $5,000 suddenly went missing from their checking accounts. Powerful men too wrapped up in their own egos to admit theyd been conned by a woman. I think it was her revenge on every man who had ever underestimated her: the English teacher who molested her in high school, the father who disavowed her, the husband who blackened her eye. When she didnt have a mark on the line, she would hang out at casinos, working the card tables and waiting for opportunity to present itself. Sometimes my mother would dress me up in my fanciest outfitblue velvet, pink taffeta, itchy yellow lace, bought on sale at Ross Dress for Lessand take me to the glitzy palaces where she plied her trade. Shed deposit me in the casinos nicest restaurant with a fat book and a ten-dollar bill; the waitresses would coddle me with bar nuts and fizzy orange drinks while my mother cruised the floor. If it was a quiet night, my mother would take me around with her and show me how to slip a billfold out of a jacket pocket, hook a wallet from a purse on the back of a chair. Imparting little lessons along the way: A bulging back pocket is a better bet than an open purse. Men link their egos to the size of their billfold, while women find cash too bulky. Or: Dont be impulsive. Always look for opportunity, but dont act on it until youve thought three steps ahead. Its not big money, shed whisper as she rifled through a money clip in a casino bathroom, but enough to cover a car payment. So, not bad, right? It all seemed so normal to me when I was young. This was just my mothers job. Other peoples parents cleaned houses or scraped plaque off teeth or sat in offices typing at computers; my mother went to casinos and took money from strangers. And really what she did was no different from what the casino owners did; or, at least, thats what she told me. The world can be divided into two kinds of people: those who wait to have things given to them and those who take what they want. She would hug me close, her false eyelashes brushing my forehead, the scent of her skin like honey. I know better than to wait. My world was my mother, her body the only home Id ever known. It was the one place where I always belonged, in a world in which everything else was permanently in flux; where friends were girls you left behind, a name on a spindled pen pal postcard. I dont blame her, even now, for my misfit childhood. We moved so often not because she wasnt trying to be a good mom but because she was trying too hard. She always believed that the next stop would be better, for her and for me. Thats why we didnt speak to her parents, thats why we left my father behind: because she was protecting me. As an adolescent, I skated through school by making myself invisiblealways sitting in the back of the classroom, reading a novel that Id sandwich between the pages of my textbooks. I was overweight, rainbow-haired, and dressed in aggressively emo ensembles that deterred potential friends and staved off the disappointment of their ultimate rejection. I made perfectly mediocre grades that were neither bad enough for anyone in charge to flag my existence, nor good enough to be singled out for special attention. But by my freshman year at a goliath, cracked-concrete high school in Las Vegas, an English teacher finally noted my missed potential and called my mother in for a conference. And suddenly I was being sent in for mysterious tests, the results of which my mother wouldnt show me, but they made her walk around our apartment with her lips pressed into a thin line of determination. Pamphlets began piling up on the counters; my mother pressing stamps onto fat envelopes with triumphant gusto. A new Future was being planned for me. One spring night toward the end of freshman year, my mother slipped into my bedroom just before lights-out. She perched on the edge of my bed in her cocktail dress, gently pried the book I was reading out of my hands, and began a speech in her soft, whispery voice: Nina, baby, its time we started really focusing on your future. I laughed. You mean, like, do I want to be an astronaut or a ballerina when I grow up? I grabbed for my book. My mother held the book out of reach. Im dead serious, Nina Ross. You are not going to end up like me, OK? And thats what will happen if we dont start taking advantage of the opportunities available to you. Whats wrong with being like you? And yet, even as I asked, I knew what she meant. I knew that mothers werent supposed to stay out all night and sleep all day; they werent supposed to monitor the neighbors mailboxes for credit cards and new checkbooks; they werent supposed to pack up the car overnight and move because the local law enforcement was breathing down their necks. I loved my mom, I forgave everything she did, but as I sat there on the lumpy bed in our latest cockroach-infested rental apartment, I recognized that I didnt want to be like her. Not anymore. I knew that what I felt when I walked through the halls of my school with herthe teachers staring at her skintight bandage dresses and stiletto heels, her peroxided nimbus of hair and her berry-stained lipswas a desire to be anything but her. But what did I want to be? She looked down at the book in her hands, puzzling over the title. I was reading Great Expectations, which the English teacher had given me not long after she sent me for testing. Very superior intelligence. Thats what the IQ tests said. You can be anything you want to be. Anything thats more than a two-bit hustler. So I can be a ballerina? She gave me a withering look. I never got a fair shot at life and youre getting one, so dammit, youre going to take it. So were moving. Again, I know. But theres a prep school up in the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe, thats offering us financial aid. Were going to move there and youre going to focus on your studies and Im going to get a job. A job job? She nodded. A job job. I got work as a hostess, at one of the casinos up there. And even though I felt something jump and quiver inside me at these wordsmaybe we were about to become a normal family after allthe jaded fifteen-year-old cynic in me couldnt quite believe it. And so, what, I took a test and now you think that Ill go to Harvard someday? Become the first female president of the United States? Come on. She sat back and regarded me with frank, blue eyes, wide as silver dollars and as calm as a moonlit night. Oh, sweetheart. Why the fuck not? Needless to say, I didnt become the first female president. Or an astronaut, or even a goddamn ballerina. No, instead I went to a college (not Harvard in the end, not even close) and got a liberal arts degree. I walked away with a six-figure student-loan debt and a piece of paper that qualified me to do absolutely nothing of value whatsoever. I figured that just being smart and working hard would clear my path toward a different life. So is it any surprise that I ended up a grifter, after all? 5. YOUR MOTHER IS RIGHT. We should leave. Today. It is later that day and Lachlan and I have decamped to the darkest corner of an anonymous Hollywood sports bar, whispering as if someone might be listening in, although the only people in this bar are a group of frat types in football jerseys who are too drunk to pay us any attention. Sports games blare from televisions on every surface. Lets just get out of town for a little while, until we know whats going on. But maybe its nothing, I protest. Maybe it has nothing to do with us. Maybe the police just came by my place becauseI dont know. Community outreach. Maybe theres been a crime spree in my neighborhood and they want to warn us. Lachlan laughs. Darling, we are the crime spree. He kneads the knuckles of one hand in the other. Listen, I made some calls after the cops came by. Efram has vanished. No ones seen him since last week and hes still not answering his phone. Word on the street is that he was picked up by the police. So He owes me forty-seven thousand dollars! I protest. And theres still a few pieces in the storage unit that he was going to move for us. The Gio Ponti armchairshe said hed get at least fifteen grand each for them. He prods at his dry lips with the tip of his tongue. Yeah, well, thats the least of our problems. The police were at your house. Maybe Efram gave us up in a plea deal, or maybe your name was just in his contact files and theyre fishing for information. But, either way, we should get out of town for a while and let the dust settle. And if we hear through the grapevine that theyve issued a warrant for our arrest, well know we have to run for real, but at least well have a head start. We have to run? My head spins. But thats not possible. Ive got to take care of Lily. Yeah, well, your mom was right about that, too. Youre not going to be able to take care of her if youre in jail. He starts cracking his knuckles, gently tugging at each finger until it yields with a sickening pop. Look, lets just take a breather and do a job somewhere else. Theres clearly too much heat in L.A., so were not going to be able to work here for a while anyway. It cant hurt to go find new hunting grounds, for a few months at least. He snaps his pinkie, and I wince. A few months? I think of the cancer once again spreading its creeping tentacles through my mothers body. I imagine her lying alone in a hospital bed, an IV snaking into her veins, the steady bleat of the machines. I want to say something like, This is more than I signed up for, but its not true. It is what I signed up for, its just that I believed that Lachlan knew what he was doing and we would never get caught. We were being careful. We never took too much, even when we could. The rulesthey were supposed to be our safeguard against this. He looks at me coolly. Or we can go our separate ways. Its up to you. But Im leaving town. Im dumbstruck by the icy calculation in his words. Am I just a business proposition, so easily discarded when I start to be inconvenient? I cant finish my drink. I thought I dont know how to finish the sentence. What did I think? That we would be together forever? Go straight together, get a house in the suburbs and have a kid or two? No, that was never in the cards. So why does this sting so much? Because I have no one else, I realize. Oh, cmon Nina, love. Dont look like that. He reaches across the table and laces his fingers between mine. It will all be fine. Look, come with me. I promise well figure this out. Well go someplace close enough that you can still come back and check on your mom periodically. Someplace within driving distance, like Northern California, or Nevada. But it needs to be a little off the beaten path, so we can lay low. A resort destination, maybe. Like Monterey, or Napa. He squeezes my hand. Or, hey What about Lake Tahoe? Thats where all the Silicon Valley billionaires spend their weekends, right? Have you been tracking anyone up there? But Im thinking about what will have to happen if I leave town: the home care Ill have to bring in to take care of my mother when shes weak from the treatment, the help Ill have to hire to get her to and from her appointments, the staggering bills that will need to be opened and paid. Assuming I even have the money to pay them. My mothers life is on the line: As long as our bank account remains depleted, there will be no experimental radioimmunotherapy treatment. I dont really have a choice. We need a job that is fast, with a big payoff; and my thoughts catch on something that Lachlan just said. Tahoe. Theres a ruckus at the bar and I look over in time to see one of the football fans vomiting all over the floor. His friends are laughing as if this is hilarious. The bartender, a blond girl with tattoo sleeves, catches my eye with a murderous expression on her face, and I know that she is going to have to clean up their mess. Women always do. I turn back to Lachlan. I have, actually, I say. Have you ever heard of Vanessa Liebling? Vanessa Liebling. A name and face that Ive followed for twelve years, although she didnt materialize on social media until four years ago. An heiress from the West Coast Liebling clan, one of those old moneyed families with their fingers jammed in lots of pies, from real estate to casinos. Instead of going into the family business, however, Vanessas made a career as an Instagram fashion influencer. In English: She travels the world taking photos of herself in dresses that cost more than the annual income of the women who sewed them. For this dubious skill setwearing Balmain in Bahrain, Prada in Prague, Celine in Copenhagenshe has a half-million followers. Shes dubbed her Instagram feed V-Life. Study her Instagram feedas I have, in detailand youll see that the earliest posts on her account are your standard rich-girl fare: loving (if blurry) snapshots of her new Valentino bag; close-up selfies of herself hugging her Maltipoo, Mr. Buggles; an occasional shot of the New York skyline from the window of her Tribeca loft. And then, fifty posts in, having likely realized the career-changing potential of being Instagram-famous, the quality of her photos improves dramatically. Suddenly, they are no longer selfies. Instead, another person is taking the pictures, probably a photo assistant paid to document her every wardrobe change and sip of macchiato. There is Vanessa, strolling through SoHo with Mr. Buggles, holding a fistful of helium balloons. There is Vanessa, in the front row of a Chanel fashion show, wearing sunglasses in the dark. There is Vanessa in a red silk dress, posing next to a snaggletoothed sticky-rice vendor in Hanoi: Vietnamese people are so colorful and authentic! (Dress by Ngucci, sandals by Nvalentino.) Often, she travels to these exotic locales with other expensively clad women, a network of fellow influencers shes dubbed her Nstylesquad. There are hundredsthousands!of other women on Instagram doing the exact same thing she does; she is by no means among the highest profile, nor the most ostentatious, but shes clearly found her audience. And an income stream, too, as she starts shilling jewelry lines and bottled green juices in sponsored posts. A handsome boyfriend appears, usually in exuberant clinches, as if to prove to her followers how much he really adores her. The dog gets his own hashtag. Meanwhile, she grows skinnier and skinnier, her tan darker and darker, her hair more and more blond. Eventually, a diamond appears on her ring finger as she peers coyly through her fingers at the camera. Guys, she writes, I have news. There are photos of the interior of an exclusive bridal salon; her eyes peeking over the top of a flower arrangement. Im thinking peonies. But then, starting last February, the tone of her account suddenly shifts. Theres a close-up snapshot of a mans hand, liver-spotted with age and resting on the edge of a hospital bed. The caption reads: My poor daddy, RIP. Then, for a few weeks, nothing, just a note: Sorry guys, taking some family time, back soon. When she returns, the photos of her outfitsblack now, lots of blackare interspersed with generic inspirational quotes. Nothing is impossiblethe word itself says Im possible! The only person you should strive to be better than is the person you were yesterday. Happiness is not something ready-made; it comes from your own actions. The ring has disappeared from her left hand. And then, finally, theres a shot of her Manhattan loft, stripped of furniture, floors piled high with boxes. Guys: Its time for a new adventure. Im moving back to my familys historic vacation home in Lake Tahoe. Im going to fix it up while spending some me time in great Mother Nature! Stay tuned for my new adventures! For the last few years, Ive watched all this from afar, judging her with distaste. She was a spoiled trust fund kid, I told myself. Not terribly bright, skilled at nothing but self-aggrandizement, leveraging her own insider access to get more of everything that she had done nothing to deserve. Canny at self-image; shallow at heart. Careless with her privilege and hopelessly out of touch with the real world, she was someone who liked to use those with less as props for her own fabulousness: a deluded elitist who believed she was actually a populist. She was clearly at a low point in her life and making some stab at self-actualization, judging by all those motivational quotes. But it wasnt until she announced that she was moving to Lake Tahoe that I started to pay close attention to her. For the last six months since she moved, Ive been tracking Vanessas life closely: Watching as the glossy, professional quality of her photos disappeared, replaced once again by selfies. Watching as the fashion shots vanished, replaced by image after image of a crystalline mountain lake surrounded by stately pines. Looking for a familiar glimpse of a house I know so well, a house that has haunted my dreams since I was a teenager. Looking for Stonehaven. A few months back, I finally found it. Shed posted a photo of herself hiking with a young couple, everyone tanned and glowing with health. They stood on the summit of a mountain, the lake spreading out below them as they laughed with their arms flung around each other. The caption: Showing my new BFFs my favorite Tahoe spots! Nhiking Nathleisure Nbeautifulview. The friends were tagged. I clicked on one and found myself on the Instagram feed of a young Frenchwoman documenting her travels across the United States. Three photos in, there it was: a shot of the couple sitting on a familiar cottage stoop, surrounded by ferns. The open door behind them allowed a shadowy glimpse of a cozy living room, a couch upholstered in old-fashioned brocade that made my heart beat faster. The caption: Cet JetSet ?tait merveilleux. Nous avons ador? notre h?tesse, Vanessa. My high school French was rusty, but I knew what this meant. Vanessa had started renting out the cottage. It takes just an hour to pack a bag. When I tell my mother that I am leaving townthat Ill call often, visit as soon as I canshe starts blinking rapidly and I wonder if she is going to cry. But she doesnt. Good girl, she says instead. Smart girl. Im calling that home aide we used last year. Ill have her come and check on you daily once the radiation starts. Shell clean and do the shopping. OK? For goodness sake, Nina. Im capable of setting up my own home care. Im not an invalid. Yet, I think to myself. And the billsyoull have to pay them instead of me. Youre already on my bank account; Ill top it up as soon as some money comes in. I dont want to think about what will happen to my mother if it doesnt. Dont worry about me. Im an old hand at this now. I kiss her forehead, and wait until I am out of sight before I let myself cry. Lachlan and I check in to a budget hotel in Santa Barbara. Nothing near the beach where we might hear the waves; just a concrete slab and a pool with gray crust soiling the tiles and leaves growing slimy on the bottom. The shower is prefab and it leaks, and instead of miniature bottles of soap and shampoo they offer one bottle of catch-all washing liquid. We lie side by side on the bed, sipping wine from disposable cups, my browser open to JetSet.com. I type Lake Tahoe into the search field and then start scrolling through the listings until one jumps out at me. I turn the laptop around and display the page for Lachlan. This is it, I say. That? He gives me a quizzical look and I can see why: The photograph is of a modest shingled cottage, timbered and painted pale green, nestled in a stand of pines. Compared to some of the other lakefront listings, this one is humble, easily overlooked. The cottage has a worn, Hansel and Gretel quality to it: slatted wooden shutters, window boxes laden with ferns, moss growing up the stones of the foundation. Cozy Caretakers Cottage, the listing reads. Lakefront 2 Bedroom, Short- or Long-Term Rental. Click on it, I command him. He raises an eyebrow at me but he obeys, and takes the laptop. The listing has six pictures. The first is of a tiny living room anchored by a stone fireplace and a faded brocade couch, artwork tiled along the walls and antiques crowding the corners. The furniture is all slightly too large for the cottage, almost hodgepodge, as if someone had emptied the contents of a different house here and then thrown up their hands and walked away. The second photo shows a vintage kitchen dominated by a classic enamel OKeefe and Merritt stove, the wood cabinetry hand-painted with stencils. Theres a photo of a pristine lake view and another of a modest bathroom and yet another of a bedroom with twin sleigh beds nestled up against each other under the eaves. Lachlan squints at the photos. This is your area of expertise, not mine, but that dresserisnt it Louis XIV? I ignore this, reaching over him to click forward to the last photo in the series. It shows a bedroom with a four-poster bed, positioned alongside a picture window framed in gauzy curtains. Theres a white lace coverlet draped across the bed, and a painting of a farmhouse perched over a cascading river. The glass in the picture window is thick and warped with age, but through it you can glimpse the blue of the lake beyond. I know that bed. I know that painting. I know that view. Thats the bed I lost my virginity in, I hear myself say. Lachlan jerks around to stare at me, and at the serious expression on my face he starts to laugh. Seriously? This very same bed. Its a different bedspread, I say. But everything else is the same. And the dresser is rococo, not Louis XIV. Hes rocking back and forth with laughter. My God, no wonder you have a thing for antiques. You got deflowered on bloody rococo. Thats the dresser. Dont know what the bed is, but its not rococo, I murmur. Dont think the beds that valuable, actually. What the fuck is this place? Who puts eighteenth-century French furniture in a crumbling old cottage like that? He scrolls down the listing and reads the summary. I peer over his shoulder. Enjoy a magical stay at the Caretakers Cottage, part of a classic estate on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe! So much charm packed into two cozy bedrooms: Vintage kitchen, beautiful antiques, a working stone fireplace! Lake views, nearby hiking, and just steps away from a private beach. A perfect sojourn for a couple or an artist seeking inspiration! He turns to look at me, quizzical. Classic estate? Stonehaven. That name in my mouth conjures up a strange stew of emotions: remorse and nostalgia and loss and a hot blast of rage. I enlarge the photo of the bedroom and examine it closely. I feel disembodied, my present and past selves split between these two beds, neither of them mine. Its a huge lakeside mansion thats belonged to the Lieblings for over a hundred years. These Lieblings. Am I supposed to know who they are? Founders of the Liebling Group, a real estate investment firm based in San Francisco. They used to be Fortune 500, though I think they fell off a while back. Old money, though. West Coast royalty. And you know them. He is studying me with an expression on his face that suggests Ive betrayed him in some way by keeping this valuable connection to myself until now. Fragments of memories are surfacing from someplace deep within me: The darkness of that cottage, even with the setting sun cutting sideways through the glass windows. The way the coverletblue wool back then, I recall it was woven with some sort of crestscraped against the backs of my bare thighs. The frothy cascade of the river in the painting, water descending to the edge of the painting as if ready to spill over and anoint me. The tender red curls of a boy who smelled like marijuana and spearmint chewing gum. Vulnerability, loss, the sensation that something precious inside me had been dragged out and exposed to air for the first time. So much that felt so vital then that I have since managed to forget. I am disoriented, feeling as if Ive tumbled back a dozen years and landed in the body of the chubby, lost teenager I once was. I knew them. Just a little. A long time ago. I lived in Lake Tahoe for a year, back when I was a sophomore in high school. I was friendly with their son. I shrug. Its all a bit of a blur, frankly. I was a kid. Sounds like you knew them more than a little. He clicks back through the photos in the listing, studying them. So wait. Will this woman Vanessa. Vanessa. Will she remember you? I shake my head. Shed already gone off to college when I was living there. I mostly knew her brother. I met her only once, briefly, twelve years ago. So shed never recognize me nowI look nothing like I did then. I was overweight and had pink hair. The one time we crossed paths she barely even looked at me. I remember it clearly, toothe way her eyes skidded across me, as if I was so insignificant that she couldnt be bothered to register my presence. The way my face burned hot underneath the thick makeup Id so carefully applied to hide my adolescent acne, my rampant insecurity. Benny, though: Hed recognize me now. But I know where he is these days, and its not Stonehaven. Im not ready to think about him. I push him from my mind and pull up Vanessas Instagram feed for Lachlan to peruse. Lachlan clicks through the photos, pausing to examine a photo of Vanessa on a gondola in Venice, the hem of her Valentino dress trailing behind her in a soft breeze. I can see him registering her practiced prettiness, the way she casually ignores the gondolier, the complacent expression on her face suggesting that the picturesque canal and sweating old man exist for her pleasure alone. Still, I dont get it. If shes so rich, why is she renting out her caretakers cottage? My guess is shes lonely. Her father died, she just broke up with her fianc? and moved from New York. Stonehaven is pretty isolated. She probably wants company. And we will be that company. As he scrolls through Vanessas photos, I can see his mind running through its calculations. He is already starting to map our way in: the gentle persuasion we will use to convince her to invite us into her world, the vulnerabilities we will discover and exploit. So, what are we shooting for here? The antiques? Family jewels? All those handbags shes been collecting? Not the antiques this time, I say. I realize that Im trembling a little, maybe because I cant believe Im finally opening this door after all these years. I feel a warm rush of vindictive anticipation, underlined by a whisper of disbelief that this is where the last decade has taken me: from that idyllic lakeside cottage to this cheap hotel, where Im conspiring with a con man. I realize, with a twinge of self-awareness, that I am about to break two of my own rules: Dont get greedy. Take only what wont be missed. Theres a safe hidden somewhere inside Stonehaven itself, I say. Inside that safe should be a million dollars in cash. And get thisI already know the combination. Next to me, Lachlan is suddenly alert and quivering. Jaysus, Nina. Youve been holding out on me. He leans in and breathes into my ear, the tip of his nose cold against my earlobe. So, he whispers lasciviously, did you lose your virginity to a Liebling, or to their caretaker? 6. LACHLAN AND I LEAVE Southern California in the sunshine, the kind of morning when caf? windows are flung open and people eat breakfast en plein air. By the time we make it to the Sierra Nevada foothills the temperature has dropped thirty degrees and rain clouds are gathering overhead. We stop in a small town halfway up the mountains and eat hamburgers at a Gold Rushthemed restaurant called Pioneer Burger with red-checkered tablecloths and wagon wheels hanging on the walls. Forest animals carved from tree stumps lurk near the ladies restroom. I order a surprisingly good burger and surprisingly bad fries. Lachlan carefully brushes crumbs from his lap, frowning at a ketchup stain on his button-down shirt. Hes left his tailored suits behind in Los Angeles, and packed jeans and sneakers instead. Your name is he suddenly says. Ashley Smith. The name still feels sticky in my mouth, unwilling to roll off my tongue despite the time I spent in front of the mirror, practicing. Ash for short. And youre Michael OBrien, my devoted boyfriend. You worship the ground I walk upon. As well you deserve. His expression is wry. Your hometown is Bend, Oregon. And you are on sabbatical from teaching English 101, Marshall Junior College. He smiles at this, apparently amused by the notion of guiding the youth of tomorrow. Am I a good professor? The very best. Beloved by your students. I laugh along with him, but really, I think he would have made a very good teacher in another life. He has a good ear for articulation and the patience required for the long con. And isnt that what a college education is, after all? Its the longest con of all: a promise that leaves your pockets empty and rarely deposits you where it says youll land. But maybe Lachlans talents are more suited for one-on-one tutoringintense and focused and intimate. The way hed once tutored me. Together, we have studied Vanessas Instagram page, using the thousands of photos and captions shes posted there as a road map of her vulnerabilities. She often poses with classic novels, using Anna Karenina or Wuthering Heights as a prop while shes lying on the beach or sitting at a caf?. Clearly, she wants to be perceived as intelligent and creative. So Lachlan will become a writer and a poet, will appeal to her as an artistic soul. As for her recent turn to inspirational quotes: She is attempting to be deep and grounded, perhaps as a counterbalance to the frivolousness of all that couture. So I will be a yoga teacher, the Zen ideal to which she aspires. Shes lonely; we will offer friendship. And then theres the matter of all those come-hither poses, the glittery little minidresses and the bikini shots. She wants to be desired, obviously, Lachlan offers. Ill flirt with her. Just a little. Keep her interested. Not in front of me, or shell think youre a cad. He smears a fry in ketchup, forks it into his mouth, winks. Wouldnt dream of it. And one critical, final touch: Lachlan will pretend to be from old money, a ginned-up family heritage back in Ireland that will be difficult for her to verify. The rich are always the most comfortable around their own kind: Familiarity breeds affection. We seeded the Internet with our new identities before we left town: A Facebook page for Ashley, jammed full of inspirational quotes from Oprah and the Dalai Lama, and photos of women in contortionist yoga poses that I skimmed off other websites. (Plus: A thousand friends bought for a mere $2.95.) A professional website, advertising my services as a private yoga instructor. (Safe enough since Ive sweated through enough Bikram classes in Los Angeles to be able to fake it.) Michael got a personal Web page with clips of his writing (lifted from the home page of an unpublished experimental novelist from Minnesota), plus a LinkedIn bio listing his teaching credentials. The whole thing took less than a week. This is what the Internet has given my generation: the ability to play God. We can make man in our own image, birth an entire human being out of nothing at all. All it takes is a spark, flung out there somewhere alongside the billions of other websites, Facebook pages, Instagram accounts: just one profile, a photo and a bio, and suddenly an existence has flamed into life. (It is also much, much harder to snuff that existence out once its been created, but thats another story altogether.) The odds are slim that Vanessa will ever see how diligently weve worked on our social media profiles for her sole benefit. There are thousands of other Michael OBriens and Ashley Smiths online; it will be difficult for her to locate our particular set in a sea of them. But if she looks hard enough, there we will be, with just enough of an Internet presence to assuage any fears. After all, if you arent willing to display yourself for public dissection these days, people assume you must be devious and unworthy of trust. A little poking around and Vanessa will be reassured that Ashley and Michael are just as normal as we said we were in our rental-site profile. A nice creative young couple from Portland, taking a year off from our lives to travel across America and work on creative projects. Weve always wanted to spend time at Lake Tahoe, we wrote her; were even thinking of staying through the snowfall to get some skiing in. That sounds so lovely, Vanessa had written back almost immediately. Its a quiet time of year, you can stay as long as you like. How long will we stay? Exactly as long as it takes to infiltrate her life, uncover Stonehavens secrets, and rob her blind. And at this thought, I feel a little stab of satisfaction, something vindictive and small that I know I need to suppress. Dont make this personal. Dont make this about the past. Lachlan finishes his soda, crumples his napkin, tosses it in the direction of the snarling wooden bear that looms behind us. The napkin lands in the bears open mouth and lodges there, snagged on splintered incisors. Lets get this show on the road, he says. Dusk comes early in the mountains. The rain begins not long after we leave the restaurant, a fine gray mist, making the road slick and perilous. Long-haul trucks belch their way up the mountain in the slow lane; four-wheel-drive SUVs jacked up on hydraulics whiz past us on the left; we, in Lachlans vintage BMW, stay steady in the center lane. (One should always drive the speed limit when one has fake Oregon license plates on ones car.) At Donner Pass the mountains already have a crust of dirty snow on the highest peaks, and it gleams in the waning light. Nothing about this part of the drive feels familiar to me. Ive only been on this length of highway once, the day that my mother and I fled Tahoe, down the hill toward an uncertain future. And yet I carefully study the damp pines and mountain lakes we pass, nerves on edge, waiting for that nostalgic ping of recognition. It comes once we descend toward Tahoe City, and the highway begins paralleling the Truckee River. Suddenly the curves of the road have a kinetic familiarity. Each passing landmark tugs at me with a flash of recognition: a German restaurant in a crumbling chalet that flies by in the mist; a log cabin with a tin roof huddling in a clearing down by the water; the raw granite of the river boulders, water descending down their faces. They come back to me as visual echoes: memories surfacing from the bottom of a mind that long ago paved over them with more pressing concerns. Its dark by the time we come to the edge of Tahoe City, with its low huddle of shops. We turn right just before town in order to follow the lakeshore south. As we drive farther from town, the vacation homes grow larger, newer, denser; classic A-frames make way for behemoth ski homes with two-story windows and wraparound decks. The pines grow closer to the edge of the road. A snowless ski resort flies past, its dirt slopes carved up with paths from the mountain bikers of the previous summer. Occasionally, we get glimpses of the lake from between the houses, a dark void, drawn up for the winter. The pleasure boats are already dry-docked, to remain covered until May. Even the pier lights have been turned off for the season. I remember this about November at Tahoe, how it felt like you were stuck in a kind of no-mans-land: the summer crowd departed and the skiers yet to arrive, the sun absent but the snow still holding off, everything quiet and still and dormant. A useless chill, devoid of winter pleasures, too damp and cold to even hike. The locals scurrying about their errands like squirrels, hoarding acorns for winter. Lachlan and I drive the last few miles in silence. I stare out at the trees, mulling over my story, puzzling at the edges of the narrative wed conceivedAshley and Michaeluntil the pieces feel like they fit together smoothly enough. A strange mood has come over me, a churning mix of anticipation and nostalgia, a feeling that something is lurking in the shadow of the pines that I should be trying harder to see. I dont realize that my knee is jittering until Lachlan puts a hand on my leg to steady it. Having second thoughts, love? He looks at me askance, squeezes my thigh with long warm fingers. The weight of his hand on my leg anchors me. I weave my fingers between his. Not at all. Are you? He gives me a bemused look. Too late now, isnt it? Shes expecting us before bedtime. If we dont show up she might call the cops and God knows thats the last thing we need. And then the address is before us. From the road, you wouldnt even know the estate was there. The property is unmarked, just a high stone wall with an iron gate along Lake Shore Drive. Lachlan buzzes at the intercom and has barely taken his finger off when the gate creaks open, squeaking on its iron hinges. The driveway stretches into the pines, which are softly lit from underneath by solar lights. I roll down my window and sniff at the air. It smells like damp things: tree roots and decomposing needles and the moss growing down at the lake. It stirs something inside me, a familiar juvenile melancholia: Those lights, the way they dance like spirits in the wind-tossed trees. The mist, the way it reflects diamonds in our headlights. Something magical is here in this grove; all the possibility of my past youth gathering here again, feelings Id long ago forgotten. We pass a grass tennis court, the net sagging with mildew, and a handful of small wooden outbuildings: maids quarters, a butlers cabin, all dark and shuttered. Down the tree-lined slope toward the lake, I glimpse the boathouse, a hulking stone structure that hugs the shore. Finally, the road makes a sharp turn and Stonehaven shoots up before us like a great gray ghost in the gloom. I make a strange sound in my throat despite myself. Id spent so long looking at photos of the house online, but they hadnt steeled me for the familiar coldness of Stonehaven, monumental and admonishing. The mansion is an anachronism, a stone monolith crouching under the dense pines of Tahoes West Shore, timbered and guarded like some sort of medieval fortress. The house hinges at its center, the two wings connected by a three-story stone tower with narrow windows at its peak; it stands watch, like a castle keep, as if girded for an onslaught of intruders. Two chimneys bookend the home, stones mossy and streaked orange with age. The entire house is surrounded by a portico, with the trunks of enormous pine trees serving as pillars. Everything about the house that isnt stone is shingled and painted brown, presumably to blend in with its natural surroundings; but it also gives visitors the sense that the house itself is retreating into the darkness of an encroaching forest. Stonehaven. Three stories, forty-two rooms, 18,000 square feet, plus seven outbuildings. Id done some reading before we drove up, dug up a handful of photos in a back issue of Heritage Home magazine. The house was built in the early 1900s by the first American-born Liebling, a Gold Rush opportunist who had lifted his family out of their immigrant poverty and launched them into the new century as American aristocrats. At the turn of the last century Lake Tahoe had already become the chosen summer residence of the West Coast industrialist tribes. Liebling bought himself a mile of pristine lakefront forest, built his pile, and settled in to study his fellow millionaires across the lake. Somehow the family has hung on to all that land, five generations on. The house itself has been largely untouched since the day it was built, other than the occasional interior decorating whims of the successive residents. Lachlan stops the car in the drive and we stare at the house together. There must be something audibly wrong about the way Im breathingas in, Ive practically stopped altogetherbecause he turns to me, his expression growing suspicious. His grip on my leg is suddenly too tight. I thought you said you didnt remember much about this place? I dont remember much, I lie, oddly reluctant to tell him the truth. He holds his cards close; I will hold mine. Honestly, I dont. I only came here three or four times, and that was over a decade ago. You look disoriented. You need to pull it together. His voice is even and low, but I can hear the frustration building behind it. I am too emotional; this has always been his diagnosis of me, from the very beginning. You cant be emotional when youre pulling a con; emotion makes you vulnerable. Not disoriented. Its just odd, thats all, to be back here again after all this time. This was your idea. I just want you to remember that if this somehow gets cocked up. I push his hand off my leg. I am fully aware of that. And Im not going to cock it up. I look up at the house, smoke coming from one of the great chimneys, lights burning in every window. Im Ashley. Youre Michael. Were on vacation. Were surprised and delighted at how lovely the house is. Never been to Tahoe before, always wanted to come, so excited to see the area. Lachlan nods. Good girl. No need to be patronizing. There is movement from the house in front of us. The front door swings open and a woman appears in a rectangle of light. Her blond hair glints in a halo around her, her face inscrutable in the shadows of the porch. She stands there watching us, arms folded tight against the cold, likely wondering why were just sitting there idling in her driveway. I reach across Lachlan and turn off the ignition. Vanessa is watching us, I observe. Smile. Im smiling, Lachlan says. He flips on the radio, tunes it until he finds a classical station, and cranks it loud. Then he reaches out and hooks me around the neck and pulls me in for a long, lusty kiss, and Im not sure whether its intended as an apology or a show for her. The lovebirds, taking a moment for themselves before they get out of the car. Then he pulls away, wipes his mouth, straightens his shirt. OK. Lets go meet our hostess. 7. Thirteen Years Earlier MY MOTHER AND I made the eight-hour drive from Las Vegas to Tahoe City on the day after I finished my freshman year of high school. The highway traced the border of Nevada and California, and as we drove north and west I could feel the temperature dropping, the oppressive desert heat making way for the mountain chill of the Sierra Nevada. I didnt mind leaving Vegas behind. Wed been there two yearsan eternity in our livesand Id hated every minute of it. There was something about the overwhelming heat of the place: the way the relentlessly beating sun made everyone laconic and mean, the way it drove you into the sterile embrace of air-conditioning. The halls of my high school smelled chronically like sweat, sharp and animal, as if the entire student body was living in a constant state of fear. Vegas didnt feel like a place that anyone should actually live. Even though our apartment building was miles away from downtown, in a cookie-cutter stucco development that could have been torn from the sprawl of any western suburb, the shadows of the Strip still fell on our neighborhood. The whole city seemed to turn toward the money pit at its center: Why would anyone live there if they werent hustling for a quick buck? My mother and I had lived in the airport flight path and every few minutes you could look up and see the planes arriving, the transient hordes coming in for Mega Fortune and margaritas-by-the-foot. Suckers. My mother dismissed them, as though these suckers werent the whole reason my mom and I were there in the first place. Every night, she parked me in front of the TV and drove down to the casinos to try to rip those suckers off. But now we were headed to genteel Lake Tahoe, land of vacation homes and summer people and vintage wooden ski boats. I found a place in Tahoe City, on the California side of the lake, my mother explained as we drove. She had tied a scarf over her blond hair, movie-star style, as if she was sitting behind the wheel of a vintage convertible rather than a Honda hatchback with spotty air-conditioning. Its classier than South Shore, where the casinos are. God, I wanted to believe her. We were going to be classy. And as we drove over the summit and then descended into the lake basin, it did feel like we were shedding our old selves, trying on new, better identities. I was going to be a scholarI closed my eyes and imagined myself walking across a stage with a valedictorian scroll in my fist, Harvard inked on my cap. And my motherwell, she was going to be working the legal side of the casinos, which was a major achievement in itself. I studied the pines and let myself believe that the long list of places where we had lived might finally finish here, in a quiet mountain town where we could fulfill some previously missed potential. Call me na?ve. You wouldnt be wrong. Tahoe City, it turned out, wasnt a city at all, but a woodsy little town that fronted on the lake. The towns main drag was a lazy stretch of hamburger restaurants and ski rental shops, real estate agencies and art galleries selling mountain landscapes daubed in thick paint. The Truckee River spilled out of the lake at the south end of town, weaving its leisurely way down the mountain toward the distant valleys, its current dense with tourists in rubber boats and inner tubes. Nor was our new home an apartment: It was a cabin, on a quiet street that backed up to forest. I fell in love with it the moment I saw itwith its cheerful yellow paint, river-stone chimney, and window shutters with hearts cut from their centers, a promise of the happiness to be found inside. The front yard was a carpet of pine needles, softly rotting underfoot. The cabin was better maintained on the outside than the insidethe living room was dark and the carpet smelled like dust, the kitchen Formica chipped and the bedroom closets missing their doors. But every interior surface was covered with knotty pine, which made me feel like we were chipmunks, nesting inside a tree. We arrived at the beginning of June, just as the speedboats were coming out of winter storage and the boat ramps were backed up to the main road. Those first few weeks, I would walk down to the lake in the mornings to watch the boat boys throwing the rubber bumpers out over the ends of the piers, like fat squeaking hot dogs, and the restaurant owners pulling the sun umbrellas out of storage, killing the brown widows that had nested in the folds. At eight A.M. the surface of the lake was glass, so clear in the shallows that you could see the crawdads creeping along the silty floor below. By ten, the wakes from the speedboats and water-skiers would turn the surface into an icy chop. The lake was filled with snowmelt. It wasnt really warm enough to swim in, not without a wet suit. Still, you couldnt walk down the pier without some summer kid doing a cannonball off the end. Theyd climb out a few minutes later, goose-pimpled and pale. I didnt swim. I spent the summer on the shore, perched on a rusty lawn chair that Id found abandoned in the sand one day, working my way through the reading list that my new school had provided me. The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tortilla Flat and A Lesson Before Dying. I was alone most of the time, but I didnt mind: Friends were an afterthought for me, they always had been. Every evening, my mother girded herself in a spangled cobalt cocktail dress with a slit so high you could almost see her panties, and a name tagLilypinned into her cleavage. Shed drive the forty-five minutes across the border into Nevada, where shed serve watered-down GandTs to poker players at the Fond du Lac Casino. I remember her elation the first night that she came home with a paycheck, like a child with a new toy she couldnt wait to show off. I woke up to the smell of cigarette smoke and rancid cologne and there she was, sitting on the edge of my mattress, an envelope in her hands. She waved at me. A paycheck, honey. So legit, right? She ripped it open with gusto and pulled out the frail piece of paper, but something in her face collapsed a little as she read the number on the check. Oh. I didnt realize theyd take out so much for taxes. She stared at it for a while, then straightened up and smiled. Well. I knew it was all about the tips. One guy tonight, he gave me a green chip for one drink. Thats twenty-five dollars. I hear once you get assigned the high-stakes tables, the players sometimes tip in hundreds. But I heard something in her voice that worried me: a soft flicker of doubt about the path she was taking for my sake. She tugged at the collar of her dress and I could see the pale skin of her cleavage, rubbed red and raw by the sequined trim. I wondered whether the reason that my mom hadnt been able to hold a real job until now was not because no one would hire her without a high school degree and a r?sum?, but because she didnt really want to be hired. Ill get a job, too, I reassured my mom. You shouldnt work at the casino if you hate it. She stared down at the check and shook her head. No, I should. Its for you, baby, so its worth it. She reached out and smoothed my hair against the pillow. Your job here is to study. Ill figure out the rest of it. I started at North Lake Academy the day after Labor Day, the same day that the summer crowds vanished back down the mountain. The roads were suddenly empty of luxury SUVs; no more lines for brunch at Rosies. My mother drove me to school, still bleary-eyed and mascara-smeared from her late shift the night before, and as we pulled into the entrance she made a move to park and go in with me. I put a hand on her wrist before she could pull the keys from the ignition. No, Mom. I can do this myself. She stared out at the stream of kids pouring past our car, and then flashed a smile at me. Of course, baby. North Lake Academy was a small, progressive high school with the stated aim of building well-rounded citizens of the world, endowed by a Silicon Valley mogul who had retired at forty-nine to become a philanthropist and amateur BASE jumper. The campus was a collection of glass buildings surrounded by pines, tucked into a mountain valley within eyeshot of a ski resort. The Academys website was heavy on buzzwordschallenges, self-reliance, actualization, teamworkand it also boasted that twenty percent of its graduates went to Ivy League schools. The minute I walked through the front door of the school in my urban Vegas alterna-girl garbthe black-on-black palette of my wardrobe and makeup broken only by the magenta streaks in my hairI knew that I was doomed not to fit in at the Academy. The kids thronging the halls were swaddled in Patagonia and denim, athletic gear dangling from their backpacks. The girls were all fresh-faced, makeup-free, their bare calves muscled and tight. There were more mountain bikes parked in front of the entrance to the school than there were cars. But sports were foreign to me; all the years of fast-food meals and sedentary reading had left me thick-hipped and soft in the face. I was a baby Goth with baby fat. In first period, as we watched the teacher writing her nameJo Dillard, call me Joon the white board, the girl in front of me turned around and smiled at me. Im Hilary. Youre new, she said. I am. Theres a new guy in the junior class, too. Benjamin Liebling. Have you met him? No. But I wouldnt know if I did. Everyone is new to me. She wrapped a curl of her hair around a finger and pulled it across her face. Her nose was peeling and her hair was crispy from chlorine; I could see over her shoulder that her binder was covered with snowboarding stickers. Whats your jam? I dunno, I said. Strawberry? I like apricot, too. She laughed. I mean, whats your thing. Do you board? Ive never been on a ski slope in my life. She raised an eyebrow. Jesus, you really are new here. So, what then? Mountain biking? Lacrosse? I shrugged. Books? Ah. She nodded soberly, as if this answer required deep contemplation. Well. You really should meet the new guy. I didnt meet the new guy for months, though I sometimes saw him in the hallsthe only other person besides me who always seemed to be surrounded by a bubble of solitude. It wasnt that the other students werent nice to methey were always, like Hilary, pleasant in a wholesome, responsible-citizen sort of way. They invited me to study sessions and let me sit at their tables at lunch and asked me for help with their English papers. It was just that, beyond academics, we didnt have much in common. My mother had enrolled me in a school that believed in the concept of the outdoor classroom, a school that planned kayaking adventures and overnight camping trips and mandated stretch breaks that consisted of wandering through the pines in the yard. We didnt take tests; we went on ropes courses. Most of the other kids had ended up here because they were that kind of kidlocals whose parents had migrated to the mountains because they wanted their kids to be outdoorsy individualists. My mother had selected this school, I suspected, purely because of the financial aid packages, the proximity to the South Lake casinos, and the Academys willingness to embrace a student who was more promising than distinguished. The Academy, in turn, probably looked at meat my half-Colombian ancestry and my low-income single motherand saw diversity. BenjaminBennyLiebling was the only other kid at the school who didnt clearly fit into the Academys outdoorsy vision of the world. Hed recently moved into town from San Francisco, I heard; his family was rich; they owned some fancy mansion on the West Shore. Kids whispered that hed been kicked out of a much more exclusive prep school, and thats why hed ended up here. He stood out, with his flaming orange hair and his long, articulated limbs; a pale giraffe ducking awkwardly through the doors. Like me, he arrived on campus with a foreign aura clinging to him, although in his case it was wealth, not the urban stench of Las Vegas. His T-shirts were always pressed and spotless; his sunglasses had an unmistakable Gucci logo on the earpiece that hed failed to disguise with duct tape. Every morning he unfolded himself from the passenger seat of his mothers gold Land Rover and dashed to the front door of the school as if he thought his speed might make him invisible. Everyone noticed anyway, because how could you not notice a six-foot-two kid with hair the color of a jack-o-lantern? Curious, I looked up his family name on the computer in the school library, and the first thing that came up was a photo of his parents: a woman draped in white furs, neck heavy with diamonds, leaning on the arm of a bald, older man in a tuxedo, his fleshy face rubbery and sour. Patrons Judith and William Liebling IV attend the opening night of the San Francisco Opera. I saw Benny during lunch sometimes, in the library, where I usually retreated to read after wolfing down my PBandJ on white bread. Hed be hunched over a notebook, inking comic-book-style drawings in dense black ballpoint pen. A few times wed catch each others eyes across the room, in our tentative smiles a recognition of our shared new kids status. Once, he sat in front of me at assembly and I spent the hour gazing into the magnificent nest of his hair, wondering if he would ever turn around and say hi; and even though he didnt, his neck slowly flushed pink, as if he somehow intuited that I was staring. But he was a year ahead of me; we didnt have classes together. And neither of us belonged to any teams that might force us to interact. And there was this: His family was loaded, while my mother was struggling to pay the gas bill every month. There was no reason for us to talk, other than our mutual failure to be the right sort of wholesome, responsible citizens. I kept my head down and focused on my studies; the years of bouncing from school to school had left me miles behind my classmates in most subjects and I had to scramble to catch up. Summer turned to fall and then winter descended, and with it came a kind of cloistering, the world bracing itself against the ice and slush. School to home and back again; heat blasting, mittens on. I sat on the bus twice a day, wearing my secondhand parka and leaky snow boots, struck dumb by the magnificence of the snowcapped forests, the achingly blue lake. It was all so foreign to me. I still dreamed in concrete blocks and mirrored skyscrapers. My mother had settled into her job. Shed finagled her way into the high-stakes poker rooms, and even if they werent exactly the promised land shed expectedhundred-dollar chips were still few and far betweenshe was happy to be there. In the evenings, Id study at the chipped kitchen table while she clattered around the cabin in her heels, applying mascara, smelling like Shalimar and lemon verbena soap. The bills that I pulled from our mailbox didnt have PAST DUE emblazoned on the envelopes anymore, which probably had to do with the extra shifts she was starting to pull. Sometimes she wouldnt get home until I was waking up to go to school. Shed stand by the coffeepot, her sequins sagging and her hair tangled, watching me put books in my backpack with a dazed, complacent expression on her face that I interpreted as satisfaction, or maybe pride. One day, I noticed that shed taken her blond down a few notches, from Marilyn platinum to Gwyneth gold. When I asked her why, she just touched her hair and glanced in the mirror with a little smile. More elegant, isnt it? Were not in Vegas anymore, baby. The men here, theyre looking for different. I worried that this also meant that she was looking for men. But as the winter went on, no one showed up in our living room at three A.M. and I took that to mean that things had changed for real. Maybe we really had gotten off at the right stop, for once. I imagined her working her way up the casino hierarchy, maybe to a floor manager, or even into a bona fide day job at the hotels front desk. Maybe shed take up with a nice guy, someone normal, like the genial caf? manager with the salt-and-pepper beard who gave us extra lox on our bagels when we came in together on Sundays. The shield of vigilance that Id erected for all those years was slipping. And even if I wasnt exactly Miss Popularity at North Lake Academyeven if Harvard was still an awful long shotI felt some measure of content. Stability can do that to a person. My happiness was so tied to my mothers happiness that it was impossible to figure out where hers ended and mine began. One snowy afternoon in late January, a day when most of my classmates had decamped to the ski slopes after the last bell, I climbed on the bus back into town and found that I wasnt alone. Benjamin Liebling was sitting there in the back row, limbs splayed across the seats surrounding him. I saw him watching me climb aboard, but when I caught his eye, he quickly looked away. I took a seat toward the front and opened up my algebra textbook. The doors clattered shut and the bus shuddered and heaved, snow tires scraping against the icy crust of the road. I sat there trying to wrap my mind around the concept of logarithmic expressions for a few minutes, acutely conscious of the only other student on the bus. Was he lonely? Did he think I was rude for never talking to him? Why did our non-relationship feel so awkward? Abruptly, I stood up and lurched my way along the rubbery mat to the back and flung myself in the seat in front of him. I swung my legs into the aisle and turned to face him. Youre Benjamin, I said. His eyes were a coppery brown, and up close I could see that his lashes were obscenely long. He blinked at me, surprised. The only person who calls me Benjamin is my dad, he said. Everyone else calls me Benny. Hi, Benny. Im Nina. I know. Oh. I regretted sitting there and I was about to get up and go back to my seat when he sat up and leaned forward so that his head was close to mine. He had a mint in his mouth and I could smell it on his breath, hear it clicking against his teeth when he spoke. People keep telling me that I should meet you. Why do they say that? I felt like hed just turned a spotlight on, and shined it directly in my eyes. What was I supposed to say to that? I thought for a second. Its because no one else wants the responsibility of having to be friends with either of us. Its easier on them if we just become friends with each other. Its their way of pawning off the job. And they can still feel good about themselves for doing a good deed by hooking us up. He looked contemplatively down at his feet, the enormous black snow boots splayed on the mat in front of him. Sounds about right. He stuck a hand in his pocket and pulled out a tin and offered it to me. Mint? I took one, put it in my mouth, and breathed in deep. Everything tasted so fresh and clean, our breath commingling in the freezing air of the bus, that I felt brave enough to ask the obvious. So, should we be friends? That depends. On what? He looked back down at his feet, and I noticed that flush creeping up his neck from below his scarf. If we like each other enough, I suppose. And how will we know that? He seemed to like this question. Well, lets see. Well get off the bus together in Tahoe City and go get a hot chocolate at Syds and make some obligatory small talk about things like where we moved here from and how much those places sucked and how much we hate our parents. I dont hate my mom. He looked surprised. What about your dad? Havent seen him since I was seven. So I guess you could say I hate him, but its not exactly based on any current relationship. He smiled. It transformed his face, from a collection of unsettled features in awkward juxtapositionfreckles, beakish nose, enormous eyesto something pure and joyful, almost childlike with beauty. OK. See, look, were getting somewhere already. So yeah, well go to Syds, and after about fifteen or twenty minutes of conversation well either be bored to tears because we have nothing of interest to say to each otherin which case youll probably make some excuse about homework and ditch me, and well spend the rest of the year avoiding each other in the halls, because: awkwardor well find enough to say to each other to repeat the process a second time, and perhaps a third, thereby proving all of our classmates right. At which point well have done our duty as responsible citizens, by making them feel good about themselves. A win-win. The conversation was so heady, so grown-up and frank, that it was making me feel dizzy. Teenagers I knew didnt talk like this; they tiptoed around unspoken truths and let the unsaid mean whatever they most wanted it to mean. Already, I felt like the two of us had joined some secret society that none of our classmates would understand. So what youre trying to say is that you want to go get a hot chocolate, I said. With me. Actually I prefer coffee, he said. I figured you for the hot chocolate. I prefer coffee, too. He smiled. See, theres something else. Maybe theres hope for this friendship after all. We got off the bus in town and walked along the slushy sidewalks to a caf? on the main road. I watched him lope along in his giant moon boots, the scarf wrapped up around his chin and his woolen cap pulled over his forehead so that only four inches around his eyes were showing. He looked over and caught me staring at him and blushed again, and I realized that I liked how he wore his emotions on his skin. How easy it was to read him. There were snowflakes catching in his eyelashes and I found myself wanting to reach out and wipe them away. Something about us being here together felt completely natural, as if wed already played through to the end of a game and had declared ourselves both winners. So why were you on the bus today? I asked as we stood in line. My mom had another one of her meltdowns and couldnt pull it together to pick me up. He said this so casually that it shocked me. Meltdown? Like, what, she called the front office crying and told you to take the bus? He shook his head. It was my dad. And I have a cellphone. Oh. I tried to act as if this was totally normal, as if Id encountered lots of kids with personal cellphones in my lifetime. I wanted to pluck at him for the details of his world; pull out feathers until I could glimpse the naked shape beneath. And he didnt offer to send, like, a driver or something? Youre awfully interested in my means of transportation. Kind of a boring subject, if you ask me. Sorry. I just didnt take you for a bus kind of guy. He looked at me, something sad flickering across his face. So you know who my family is, I take it. I felt myself blushing now. Not really. Sorry, that was presumptuous of me. Id never had a conversation with a rich person before. Were you supposed to gloss politely over the luxuries that they enjoyed and pretend you just didnt see them? Wasnt their wealth as obvious a part of their basic identity as their hair color, or ethnic background, or sports ability? Why was it rude to bring it up? No, he answered. Its a fair assumption. And we do have a driver, but Id kill my parents if they tried that. Its bad enough He let this thought trail off, and I could see suddenly that the wealth that he wore was as alienating for him as my transient life was for me. We were at the front of the line now, so we ordered coffees. When I went to pull out my change purse Benny put his hand on my arm to stop me. Dont be ridiculous, he said. I can afford a cup of coffee. I felt myself bristling, suddenly wary, wondering what he knew about my background. Of course you can, he said, and quickly pulled his hand away. Then he drew a nylon wallet from his back pocket and extricated a single, crisp, hundred-dollar bill. But why waste the money when you dont have to. I stared at the hundred-dollar bill, trying not to act like an idiot, and yet I couldnt help myself: Your parents pay your allowance in hundreds? He laughed. God, no. They dont trust me with an allowance, not anymore. I stole this out of my dads safe. He uses my birthday as the combination. And then he offered me a big, conspiratorial smile. For someone who thinks hes so much smarter than everyone else, hes really pretty stupid. Looking back at the beginning of our friendship now, I remember it as an awkward time, simultaneously sweet and bitter, as the two of us stumbled around the vast differences in the ways wed been raised; finding common ground mostly in our mutual disaffection. We were a strange, mismatched pair. We began hanging out after school once or twice a week. Some days, Id see the taillights of the Land Rover accelerating past me as I shivered at the bus stop by myself. But increasingly Id find him there waiting for me inside the bus shelter, extra hand warmers in his backpack that hed silently give to me as we huddled in the cold. In town, wed go to Syds and do homework together. He loved to draw, and Id watch him doodle comics of the other customers in his notebook. Eventually wed walk down to the snowy lakeshore and watch the wind whip the water into froth. So, are you taking the bus with me because you want to or because your mom is having meltdowns all the time? I asked him one day in February, as we sat on a snow-covered picnic table, nursing rapidly cooling coffees. He broke an icicle off the edge and gripped it in his glove like a weapon. I told her she didnt have to pick me up anymore and she was relieved. He examined the pointy end of the icicle and then pointed it toward the water like a magic wand. Shes doing this thing she does sometimes, where she doesnt like to leave the house. A thing? Kind of, just, loses her equilibrium. First shell start making scenes in publicyou know, screaming at valets and getting speeding tickets and going on spending sprees at Neimans. And then after my dad finally loses it on her, shell climb in bed and wont want to get out again for weeks at a time. Its part of the reason why we came up here in the first place. Dad thought that a change of scenery would be good for her, you know, get her out of the city and away from all thehe put his gloved hands up and jerked his fingers in derisive air quotes pressure of society life. I thought of the woman who was barely visible behind the wheel of the Land Roverher hands sheathed in leather gloves, her head swallowed up by the fur of her parkas hood. I tried to imagine her swathed in silk and diamonds, drinking champagne for breakfast and spending afternoons being pampered at the spa. I had no idea that going to parties could be so hard. Ill remember that next time I get invited to a ball. He laughed and made a face. Mostly I think Mom was just embarrassing Dad by being so weird all the time. He hesitated. We both were. Besmirching the good Liebling family name. So he dragged us up here to the musty old ancestral estate for a time-out. Like naughty children. Behave yourself or Ill make you stay here forever is pretty much the message. My dads a bully: If he doesnt get what he wants at first, hell just threaten you until he does. I thought about this. But wait. What did you do? He jabbed the icicle into the snow, leaving perfect circular stab wounds. Well, I got kicked out of school, for a start. I was giving Ritalin to my classmates. They decided that made me a drug dealer. Even though I wasnt actually taking money for it. I figured it was a public service. He shrugged. Wait. Slow down. Youre on Ritalin? They have me on everything. He frowned at the whitecaps on the lake. Ritalin, because I was sleeping too much and not paying attention in class and so they figured ADD. And then a lovely cocktail of antidepressants because I spend too much time in my room alone and apparently that means Im moody and antisocial. Apparently if you dont like to participate in things you must be mentally ill. I thought about this. Then I guess Im mentally ill, too. Which explains why I like you. He smiled, then ducked his head as if to disguise it. Im pretty sure they both just wish I was more like my sister. Vanessa does everything she is supposed to. Debutante and prom queen and captain of the tennis team, then shipped off to Dads alma mater so that they can brag about her at parties. Shell get married young and push out a few heirs for them and look pretty in the family photos. He made a face. She sounds awful. He shrugged. Shes my sister. He was quiet for a moment. Anyway, Im pretty sure my dad is afraid Im going to end up being weird, like my mom, so hes trying to knock it out of me before its too late. And my mom puts all her efforts into fixing me so that she doesnt have to face the fact that shes the one who really needs to be fixed. I sat there next to him on the picnic table, wondering what to do with this information. I was unaccustomed to these sorts of confessional friend moments, when the curtain finally gets drawn back and you see whats really going on behind the scenes. We sat there, watching our breath puff into clouds and then melt away. My mom is careless, I found myself saying. Shes careless and she does stupid things, and when she fucks up she runs away. And I know shes got good intentions, at least when it comes to meall she wants to do is protect mebut Im tired of having to deal with the fallout. Its like Im the adult in our relationship. He studied me, thinking about this. At least your mom isnt trying to change who you are. Are you kidding? Shes decided Im going to be some sort of super-scholar-rock-star-president-CEO. You know, no pressure. I just have to overcompensate for all her failings as a human being and be everything she couldnt be herself. Im supposed to reassure her that her life choices havent completely destroyed mine. I chucked the cold contents of my coffee cup into the snow below us and stared down at the brown splashes against the white, surprised by myself. I immediately felt guilty for what Id said, like Id betrayed her somehow. And yet, deep inside, I felt something rise in me, a dark and bitter nut of resentment that Id never before acknowledged. I savored it, let it fill me. Why was my life like this? Why couldnt my mom bake cupcakes and work as a receptionist at a veterinary hospital or a nursery school? Why did it feel like Id somehow been royally screwed by circumstance, that I hadnt had a fair shot and probably never would? I felt something on my back. It was Bennys arm, creeping tentatively across the space between us to rest gently along my spine. Something approximating a hug, without quite going all the way. The padding of our down parkas insulated us from each other, so thick that I couldnt even feel the warmth of his body cocooned inside all those layers. I leaned my head on his shoulder and we stayed that way for a while. It was beginning to snow again and I felt the flakes landing on my face and melting into tiny cold droplets. Its not so bad here, though, I said finally. No, he agreed. Its not so bad. Why were we drawn to each other? Was it simply a lack of other options, or was there something innate about our personalities that connected us? I look back now, over a decade later, and wonder if we came together not because of our similarities but our differences. Maybe the foreign nature of our respective life experienceseach arriving from the far end of two extremesmeant that we couldnt really compare and contrast and find ourselves lacking. We came from such disparity already that all we could do was draw closer. We were kids, we didnt know any better. So thats one way of answering the question. Another way: Maybe first love is merely the inevitable emotional fallout of finding the first person who seems to give an honest shit about you. By early March, our routinebus, coffee, beachhad started to wear thin. The temperature had dropped, due to a polar freeze blowing through, and the picture-book snowscape had hardened into crusted ice. On the sides of the roads, the plowed mountains of snow were black and filthy, a reflection of the general emotional state of the locals as they dragged their way through the third month of winter. One afternoon, on the way into town, Benny turned to me. Lets go to your house today. I thought of our cabin, the spangled fabrics pinned to the walls and the thrift store furniture and the chipped Formica of the kitchen table. Most of all, though, I thought of my mother, of the fuss shed make over Benny. I imagined Benny watching her get herself ready for work, the hot whiff of steam from her shower and the shriek of the blow-dryer. I thought of the fake eyelashes my mom peeled off after work and left on the coffee table in the living room. Lets not, I said. He made a face. It cant be that bad. Our place is tiny. My mom will be all up in our business. I hesitated. Lets go to yours instead. I waited for the sideways look, the one that would let me know Id crossed a line. But he just flashed me a quick smile. Sure, he said. Just promise me you wont freak out. I wont freak out. His eyes were sad. Yeah, you will. But thats OK. I forgive you. This time, when we got to Tahoe City, instead of lingering in town, we changed buses and headed down the West Shore. Benny grew more and more animated the closer we got to his house, his limbs sprawling in every direction as he launched into an inscrutable lecture about comic book styles Id never heard of. And then, abruptly, he said, OK, here, and jumped up, signaling to the driver that we wanted to get off. The bus obligingly shuddered to a stop and ejected us out onto the icy road. I looked across the street at an endless-seeming river-rock wall, high enough to block the view, topped with iron spikes. Benny dashed across the road to the gate and punched a code into a box. The doors swung open for us, creaking as they scraped across the ice. Once we were inside, the afternoon grew suddenly quiet. I could hear the wind in the pine needles, the creak of the trees under their heavy mantle of snow. We trudged along the driveway until the mansion reared up before us. Id never seen a house like it before. It was the closest Id ever come to a bona fide castle; and even though I knew it wasnt that, exactly, it still gave off a foreign gravitas. It made me think of flappers and garden parties and shiny wooden boats speeding across the lake, and servants in uniforms serving up champagne in flat-bottomed crystal glasses. I dont know what you thought Id freak out about, I said. My house is bigger. Haha. He stuck out his tongue at me, pink and raw against his cold-flushed cheeks. You should see my uncles place in Pebble Beach. This is nothing compared to that. Plus its so old. My mom is always complaining that its ancient and musty and shes gonna redecorate, but I think its a lost cause. The house just wants to be what it is. And then he ran up the steps and threw open the front door like it was just a normal house. I followed him in and stopped just inside the entry. The inside of the housewell. My only comparison point, at that stage in my life, was the grand casinos of Las Vegas: the Bellagio, the Venetian, with all their gilt-veneered frippery, gargantuan tributes to trompe loeil. This was something far different: I didnt know anything about the things surrounding methe paintings, the furniture, the objets dart cluttering the sideboards and bookshelvesand yet even in the gloom of that dark, cold entry I could tell that they glowed with authenticity. I wanted to touch everything, to feel the satin finish on the mahogany table and the distant chill of the porcelain urns. From where I stood in the foyer, the house unfurled in every direction: a dozen doorways through which I glimpsed formal rooms and endless hallways and stone fireplaces so big you might park a car inside. When I looked up, to the ceiling that towered two stories above me, I could see wooden beams hand-stenciled with intertwining gold vines. The grand staircase that curled along the far wall was carpeted in scarlet and illuminated by an enormous brass chandelier dripping with crystal teardrops. Wood gleamed from every surface, carved and paneled and inlaid and polished until it almost looked alive. Two portraits hung on the walls on either side of the grand staircase, giant oils of a man and a woman standing stiffly in formal wear, each staring disapprovingly at the other through the gilt of their respective frames. The paintings were the kind of thing that Id look back at now and pinpoint as emerging from a certain, worthless era of portraitureearly-twentieth-century remnants of the Sargent schoolbut at the time I assumed they must be valuable artwork. WILLIAM LIEBLING II and ELIZABETH LIEBLING, the paintings read, on tiny brass placards just like in a museum. I imagined the womanBennys great-grandmother?sweeping through these rooms in her wide skirts, the swish of satin across waxed floors. Its nice, I managed to say. Benny poked my shoulder, as if making sure I was really awake. Its not. Its a robber barons lair. My great-great-grandfather, the one who built this shit heap, got sued for refusing to pay the architect and the builders. Not because he didnt like the house or couldnt afford it; just because he was an asshole. When he died his obituary said he was scrupulously dishonest. My dad has that clipping framed in the library. Hes proud of it. I think hes, like, my dads role model. I felt like we should be whispering. Is he here? Your dad? He shook his head. The foyer, with its soaring ceilings, had diminished Benny, dwarfing even his distinctive height. Hes mostly here on weekends. He goes down to the city during the week in order to, you know, sit in his fancy office with views over the Bay, and foreclose on factory workers who just lost their jobs. Your mom must hate that. That hes not here? Maybe. He looked glum. She doesnt exactly tell me anything. Shes here, right? I wasnt sure if I wanted her to be home or not. Yeah, he said. But shell be up in her room, watching TV. And if she thinks youre here she definitely wont come down, because that will mean she has to actually get dressed. He dropped his backpack at the bottom of the grand staircase and then peered up to see if the noise would generate any activity upstairs. It didnt. Anyway, lets go see whats in the kitchen. I followed him to the back of the house, to that kitchen, where an elderly Latina woman was hacking away at a pile of vegetables with an enormous chefs knife. Lourdes, this is Nina, he said as he squeezed past her toward the fridge. Lourdes squinted at me, wiping hair out of her face with the back of her hand. Friend from school? Yes, I said. Her wizened face broke out into a toothy smile. Well. You hungry? Im fine, thank you, I said. Shes hungry, Benny retorted. He threw open the fridge and rummaged around, emerging with half a cheesecake. OK if we eat this? Lourdes shrugged. Your mama wont. Its all yours. She turned back to the mountain of vegetables in front of her and renewed her attack. Benny grabbed two forks from a drawer and then walked out another door, and I floated behind in his wake, still feeling stunned. We emerged into a dining room, with a long dark table polished to a shine so high that I could see my reflection in it. A crystal chandelier hung overhead, piercing the gloom with shattered rainbows. Benny looked at the formal table, the cake held aloft in one hand, and hesitated. Actually, I have a better idea. Lets go out to the caretakers cottage. I had no idea what this meant. Why do we need the caretaker? Oh, we dont actually have a caretaker anymore. Not one who lives on the property. Its just, like, a guesthouse for when people come for weekend visits. Which happens, like, never. So what are we going out there for? Benny smiled. Im going to get you stoned. And so a new after-school ritual was established: The bus to his house, two or three times a week. Then the kitchen, for snacks, and out the back door, which emptied us onto yet another porch overlooking what was usually the summer lawn, this time of year just a vast field of white. Wed trudge through the snow, matching our feet into the snow prints wed made in the days before, until we arrived at the caretakers cottage hidden at the edge of the property. Once we were inside, Benny would light up a joint, and wed lie there on the musty brocade couch, smoking and talking. I liked being stoned, the way it made my limbs heavy and my head light, the opposite of how I usually felt. I particularly liked being stoned with Benny, and how it seemed to blur the boundaries between us. Lying on opposite ends of the couch, our feet tangling in the middle, it felt like we were part of one continuous organism, the pulse of the blood in my veins matching his, an energy passing between us where our bodies touched. I wish I could remember what we talked about, because it felt at the time like what we were discussing was so vital, but really it was just the silly prattle of fucked-up teenage kids. Gossip about our classmates. Complaints about our teachers. Speculation about the existence of UFOs, of life after death, of bodies floating at the bottom of the lake. I remember feeling something growing in that room, the relationship between us blurring in a confusing way. We were just friends, right? So, why, then, did I find myself looking at his face in the sideways afternoon light and wanting to press my tongue to the freckles along his jawline to see if they tasted like salt? Why did the pressure of his leg against mine feel like a question that he was expecting me to answer? Sometimes I would startle out of my stoned reverie and realize that wed been quiet for a long minute, and when I looked over at him I would see him watching me through those long lashes of his, and hed blush and look away. Only once in those early weeks did we encounter his mother. One afternoon, as we slipped through the foyer on our way toward the kitchen, a voice came piercing through the leaden hush of the house. Benny? You there? Benny stopped abruptly. He gazed blankly at some point on the wall next to the portrait of Elizabeth Liebling, a careful expression on his face. Yeah, Mom. Come in and say hello. Her words seemed to be lodged in the back of her throat, as if the sounds had gotten trapped there and she wasnt quite sure if she should swallow them back or just spit them out. Benny tilted his head at me, in silent apology. I followed him as he trudged through a maze of rooms Id never been in before until we landed in a room lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. A library, presumably, complete with uninviting, jacket-less tomes; it looked like theyd been glued into position decades earlier and not moved since. Hunting trophies hung across the wooden panelingan elks head, a moose, and a stuffed bear standing erect in the corner, all of them with bereft expressions that suggested their resentment at this indignity. Bennys mother sat on an overstuffed velvet couch in front of a fire, her legs tucked up under her, surrounded by an avalanche of interior design magazines. Her back was to us, and she didnt bother to turn around when we came into the room, so that we were forced to navigate the couch and stand before her. Like supplicants, I thought. Up close, I could see that she was actually quite striking; her eyes, large and damp-looking, overwhelming a small, fox-like face. Bennys red hair must have come from her, but hers was more of a russet color now, and smooth, like the mane of an expensively groomed horse. She was thin, so thin that I thought I might be able to pick her up and snap her in half over my knee. She wore a pale silk jumpsuit of some sort, with a scarf tied around her neck, and it looked like shed just gotten back from a fancy lunch at a French restaurant. I wondered where one even had a fancy lunch up here. So. She put a magazine down and peered up at me. I take it you are the voice Ive been hearing around the house. Benny, are you going to introduce us? Benny shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. Mom, this is Nina Ross. Nina, this is my mother, Judith Liebling. Nice to meet you, Mrs. Liebling. I held out a hand and she stared at it with wide eyes, in faux astonishment. Well, someone here knows their manners! She reached out with a soft, limp hand, gave mine a quick squeeze, then dropped it almost immediately. I could feel her taking me in, even as she continued flicking rapidly through the pages of her magazine: the fading magenta streaks in my hair and thick black liner rimming my eyes, the stained parka with someone elses phone number already inked into the tag, the moon boots with duct tape covering the split in the toe. So, Nina Ross. Why arent you out on the ski slopes with the rest of your classmates? I thought that was the thing to do up here. I dont ski. Ah. She studied a photo spread of a fancy New York apartment, folded the corner for future reference. Benny is an excellent skier, did he tell you that? I looked at Benny. You are? She nodded when he didnt. Weve been vacationing in St. Moritz since he was six years old. He used to love it. Hes just trying to make some sort of a point by refusing to do it now that were actually living in the snow. Arent you, Benny? Skiing, rowing, chess, all those things he used to love and now all he wants to do is sit in his room and draw cartoons. I could see the cords in Bennys neck, straining. Mom, cut it out. Oh, please, honey, have a sense of humor. She laughed, but it didnt strike me as a very joyful laugh. So, Nina. Tell me about yourself. Im very curious. Mom. His mother was staring at me, head cocked slightly to the side, as if I was a particularly interesting specimen. I felt like roadkill in her gaze; frozen in place, somehow compelled to stand there forever until she ran me over entirely. Um. Well, we just moved here last year. We? My mother and I. Ah. She nodded. And what brought you all the way up here? Your mothers work? Sort of. She waited, expectant. She works at Fond du Lac. Benny finally lost his patience. For Gods sake, Mom. Stop prying. Leave her alone. Oh fine. Pssht pssht. Shame on me for wanting to know the tiniest thing about your life, Benny. Anyway, go. Go sneak off to wherever you two sneak off to every afternoon. Dont mind me. She turned back to her magazine, snapping through three pages in quick succession, so fast that I thought theyd tear right out. Oh, Benny, you should be aware that your father will be back for dinner this evening and that means family meal. She gave me a meaningful look as if to say, You are not invited, please take the hint and be gone before dark. Benny, already halfway out the door, hesitated. But its Wednesday. Yes, it is. I thought he wasnt coming back until Friday. Wellshe picked up a magazinewe talked about that and hes decided he wants to be up here more. With us. Terrific. His words were drowning in sarcasm. She looked up at this, and her voice dropped to a warning growl. Benny. Mom. He mimicked the tone in her voice in a way that made me uncomfortable. Was this normal, to be so rude and condescending to your mother? But she seemed to take it in stride, kissing the tips of her fingers and flapping them in Bennys general direction. She reached for a fresh magazine and began rapidly flipping pages. Wed been dismissed. Sorry about that, he said as we made our way toward the kitchen. She wasnt that bad, I ventured. He grimaced. You must be judging on a curve. But shes up and out of bed. And your dads coming home. Thats all good, right? Whatever. None of it really matters. But the way his features contorted suggested to me that it did matter, far more than he was willing to let me know. What it means in reality is that hell make an appearance for the meal, because shes woken up enough to lay down the law, and then hell vanish off to wherever he goes in the evenings. He doesnt stick around. Because she doesnt really want to spend time with him, either. She just wants him to come when called, so she can prove she has some agency in their relationship. Benny had done a lot of therapy, I was starting to understand. Why dont they just get divorced? He offered a small, bitter pill of a laugh. Money, silly. Its always about money. For the rest of that afternoon, he retreated into himself, as if he couldnt stop chewing over his mothers behavior. I thought of it, too; the way she flicked through the pages of the magazine, as if compelled by some impulse she couldnt control. We smoked pot and then he drew in one of his notebooks while I did homework, sometimes feeling him studying me from the other end of the couch; and I couldnt help wondering if seeing me through his mothers eyes had damaged the picture he had of me. I left early that afternoon, well before dusk; and when I arrived back at home and found my mother in the kitchen, making macaroni with her hair up in curlers, I felt a warm pulse of gratitude. I gave her a hug from behind. My baby. She turned in my arms, and squeezed me into her bosom. Whats this about? Nothing, really, I murmured into her shoulder. Youre OK, right, Mom? Better than ever. She pushed me back so she could examine me, traced the edge of my face with a pink-manicured finger. And what about you? School is going well, right? You like it? Youre getting good grades? Yeah, Mom. I was, despite the afternoons I was spending getting stoned with Benny. I liked being challenged by my homework; I had grown to love the schools progressive atmosphere and the teachers who engaged us with ideas instead of just handing out multiple-choice tests. Over six months in, and I was already getting mostly As. My English teacher, Jo, had recently pulled me aside and handed me a brochure for a summer program at Stanford University. You should apply next year, after junior year. It could really give you a leg up getting into college, Jo had said. I know the director, and I could give you a personal referral. Id slipped the brochure onto my bookshelf and every once in a while, Id pull it out and study the kids on the cover, in their matching purple T-shirts and radiant smiles, backpacks laden with books and arms slung around each other. Of course it was too expensive; and yet for the first time, that life felt like it was within reach. Maybe wed find a way. My mother was beaming. Good. Im so proud of you, baby. Her smile was so genuine, so truly pleased by my smallest of achievements. I thought of Judith Liebling. Whatever my mothers faults may be, she certainly wasnt cold. She would never belittle me; I would never come up short. Instead, shed put everything on the line for me, over and over again. And now we had made our nest here, safe and warm against the elements. Why dont you call in sick tonight and well stay home and watch a movie? I asked. Distress crossed her face. Too late for that, baby. The manager loses his mind when someone misses a shift. But Im off work on Sunday, why dont we go down to the Cobblestone and see whats playing in the theater there? Theres a James Bond film, I think. We could get pizza beforehand. I dropped my arms. Sure. The timer on the stove went off and she darted away to drain the macaroni. Oh, and dont worry if Im late tonight. I offered to do a double. She gave me a radiant, dimpled smile as she maneuvered the pot to the sink, steam blurring her features. Keeping us in macaroni! One day in mid-April, I looked around and realized that spring had arrived. The mountain peaks were still capped with icy crusts but down at lake level rain showers had wiped out the last of the snowdrifts. With the new season, Stonehaven felt like a different house entirely. Daylight savings had arrived, and now when we got there in the midafternoon the house was still bathed in sunlight that filtered through the dappled pines. I could finally see the green lawn spreading like a blanket from the mansion to the lakefront, as it revived itself from its winter hibernation. Violets materialized along the paths, planted by an invisible gardener. Everything about the house felt less ominous, less oppressive. Or maybe it was just that I felt more comfortable at Stonehaven now. I no longer felt intimidated when I walked up the steps of the mansion; I started flinging my backpack down next to Bennys at the base of the stairs as if it belonged there. I even encountered Bennys mother once, drifting like a pale ghost through the empty rooms with a vase in each hand. She was in a rearranging phase, Benny informed me, tugging the furniture from one side of the room to the other and back again. When I said hello, she just nodded and wiped her cheek with the back of her forearm, leaving a gray smear of dust. One Sunday morning, at the beginning of spring break, my mother and I walked down to Syds to get bagels and coffee. As we waited for our ordermy mother flirting with the genial bearded managerI heard Bennys voice lifting over the other customers, calling my name. I turned and saw him behind me in line, standing with a girl Id never seen before. I walked toward him, studying the strange girl. She didnt look like a local. She was as polished and golden as an Oscar statuette: hair, nails, makeup, everything buffed to a pale gleam. She wore only a Princeton sweatshirt and jeans, and yet I could still feel the money wafting off her in a way that it never did off Benny: something about the flattering cut of her denim, the bright flash of the diamond tennis bracelet under her sweatshirt cuff, the smell of the leather from her purse. She looked like a cover model for an Ivy League catalog, bright and clean and forward-looking. She was studying the phone in her hand as I walked over, oblivious to the noise of the caf?. Benny flung an arm over my shoulder, his eyes flicking back and forth between us. Nina, this is my sister. Vanessa, this is my friend Nina. The older sister, then. Of course. I felt conflicting emotions tug at mewanting to be liked by her, wanting to be her; the knowledge that I never could be, and finally the knowledge that I shouldnt want to be her and yet I did anyway. She looked like the Future that my mother imagined for me; and her presence made me realize how very far away that really was. Vanessa glanced up then, finally noticing that her brother had his arm around someone. I saw something flash across her big green eyes at this realizationsurprise, and maybe delightand then all that fell away as she studied me further. She was well mannered, there was nothing so obvious as an up-and-down glance, and yet I could tell immediately that she was one of those girls who measure. Everything about her was deliberate and watching. I felt her adding up the sum of my parts, calculating my value, and finding it too low to be worthy of engagement. Charmed, she said unconvincingly. And then, just like that, she was done with me. Her eyes slid back down to her phone. She took a step backward and away. My face burned. I could see, maybe for the first time, that everything about my appearance was wrong: I wore too much makeup, poorly applied; I wore clothes that were supposed to conceal my hips and stomach but instead just looked baggy; my hair wasnt edgy and cool, it was just fried from drugstore hair dye. I looked cheap. Is this a school friend of yours? My mother was suddenly beside me. I was grateful for the distraction. Im Benny, he said, and gamely stuck out a hand to her. Delighted to meet you, Mrs. Ross. A sharp flicker of surprise on my mothers faceI wondered if it was the first time anyone had ever addressed her as Mrs.and then it was gone. She took his hand, shook it formally, hung on to it for a half second too long until Benny began to blush. Id love to say that Ive heard all about you, she said. But Nina has not been forthcoming with information about her new friends. Thats because I dont have many, I said. Just this one. Benny met my eyes and smiled at this. You could have at least let me know you had a lovely new friend and that he had a name. She dimpled at Benny. I bet you tell your parents all about your friends. Not if I can help it. Well, then. Us parents should all get together and commiserate. Compare notes. My mother rolled her eyes, but I could see her take careful measure of the way Benny was smiling at me, the faint flush I could feel on my own cheeks. There was a moment of awkward silence, and then my mother looked around. Now, wheres the creamer? I cant drink this stuff without a ton of sugar, she said. Let me know when youre ready to go, Nina. She stepped toward the coffee bar at the end of the counter, a polite masquerade. There, she made a great show of fussing over the sugar dispenser, as if we werent just three feet away. I silently thanked her for her discretion. But Benny and I just grinned silently at each other until we reached the front of the line, Vanessa trailing just behind us. Coffee for me and a cappuccino for my sister, Benny said to the barista. Soy, Vanessa said, still not looking up from her phone. Benny rolled his eyes. Yeah, you can ignore that part. He fished a hundred-dollar bill out of his wallet. Vanessa finally looked up from her phone long enough to notice what he was doing. She lunged forward and grabbed his wrist, examining the money in his hand. Jesus, Benny, are you stealing from the safe again? One of these days Dad is going to notice and then youre going to be in deep shit. He shook her hand off. He has a million dollars in there. Hes never going to notice that a couple hundred bucks are missing. At this, Vanessas eyes shot over to me, and then away again. Shut up, Benny, she hissed. Whats up your butt today, Vanessa? Vanessa sighed and threw up her hands. Discretion, baby brother. Learn some. She was intentionally not looking at me now, as if she believed that disregarding my presence would somehow make Bennys gaffe vanish from memory. The phone in her hand began to vibrate. Look, Ive got to take this, Ill be back in a sec. Dont forget we have to stop by the airstrip so I can look for my sunglasses. She spun and left the caf?. Sorry. Shes usually not so rude. Mom is making her go to Paris with us instead of letting her go to Mexico with her friends, so shes in a mood. But Id already moved on from Vanessas dismissiveness, my mind instead wrapping itself around the vision of a million dollars in a dark vault inside Stonehaven. Who kept that much money just sitting around in cash? What would it look like? How much space would it take up? I thought of heist movies Id seen, robbers filling duffel bags with bright green stacks of bills; I imagined a bank vault hidden inside of Stonehaven, a giant round steel door with a lock that took two people to open. Your dad really keeps a million dollars in your house? Benny looked uneasy. I shouldnt have said anything. But what for? He doesnt trust banks? Yeah, but its not just that. Its in case of an emergency. He always says its important to have cash at the ready, right? If shit hits the fan and everything falls apart and you need to just go. He keeps some in our house in San Francisco, too. He offered this casually, as if it was completely normal to need a seven-figure reserve. For what? I wondered. In case you need to flee a zombie apocalypse? An FBI raid? The barista handed Benny his coffees, and when he turned back to me that familiar red flush was creeping up his neck. But look, can we not talk about my dads money? I could tell by the expression on his face that I had broken an unspoken agreement between us: I was to pretend that I didnt know he was rich, and even if I did know, that I didnt care. And yet, there it was: a million dollars lying around just in case and an airstrip where a private jet was waiting to whisk them off to Paris, two signposts marking the gulf that lay between us. I looked over at my mother standing by the creamers in her worn Walmart parka and thought about how she watched men throw away tens of thousands of dollars every night at the gambling tables, as if it were meaningless paper. And I realized, with sudden clarity, a second intention behind my mothers life choices, the ulterior motive behind her (formerly!) thieving ways. We lived with our faces pressed up against the glass, looking through it at those who had so much more, watching as they so casually rubbed our faces in their privilege. Especially here, in a resort town, where the working class bumped up against the vacation class with their $130 ski-lift tickets and luxury SUVs and lakefront estates that sat empty 320 days a year. Was it any wonder that people on the wrong side of the glass would eventually decide to take a hammer and break it, reach through and take some of it for themselves? The world can be divided into two kinds of people: those who wait to have things given to them and those who take what they want. My mother certainly wasnt the kind of person who would passively gaze through that glass, hoping that she would eventually make it to the other side. Was I? Of course, I know the answer to that question now. But on that day: Im sorry, I said to Benny, stricken with guilt, unwilling to open up this whole can of worms lest I drive him away. Thats OK, its no big deal. He squeezed my arm, oblivious to my inner turmoil. Look, were flying out tomorrow, but well hang out as soon as Im back from Paris, right? Bring back a baguette for me, I said. My cheeks hurt from smiling. You bet, he said. Benny was back on the bus on the first day of school after spring break, twitchy and wired, as if the spring weather had infected him with some sort of nervous giddiness. He jumped out of his seat when he saw me climb aboard and waved two baguettes over his head as if they were swords. Baguettes for mademoiselle, he said proudly. I took a baguette and tore off a piece. It was stale, but I ate it anyway, touched by the gesture and yet also acutely conscious of the fact that the millionaires son had brought me pennies worth of bread (again, in the back of my mind, a flash of green bundles in a dark, hidden safe). Of course, I reminded myself, the real value was that hed listened, and thought of me, and brought me what Id asked for. That was what was really important. That was the kind of person I was. Right? And yet. Jesus, Im glad to see you. He flung an arm over my shoulder in a way that felt strangely definitive. I could tell that something was going on with him, something I couldnt quite read. Sanity at last. How was France? He shrugged. Spent most of my time sitting around eating pastries while I waited for my mom and my sister to finish shopping. And then my dad would lose it when we got back to the hotel and he saw how much theyd bought. Thrilling stuff. Pastries and shopping. Oh yeah, awful. I spent my holiday boning up on biological individuality in the town library. Bet youre jealous. Actually, I am. Id rather be anywhere with you than with my family in Paris. He squeezed my shoulder. There it was again, that strange new flicker of resentmentParis sounded awfully thrilling to me, he could at least have the good grace to appreciate his luck. But it sounded like he really believed that I was more interesting than a vacation in France, and who was I to dismiss that compliment? We ate the baguettes, a carpet of stale crumbs spreading out below us, until we got to the gates of Stonehaven. But once we were inside the property, Benny didnt launch himself up the steps of the house. Instead, as we walked up the drive, he grabbed my sleeve and tugged me to the left, into a stand of pines on the side of the house. Whats going on? He put a finger to his lips and pointed at an upstairs window. Mom, he mouthed. I didnt understand what he meant by that, but I followed him through the pines and down a dirt path that took us around the edge of the property before depositing us at the caretakers cottage. Once inside, he marched into the tiny kitchen where we kept our snacks and pulled a bottle out of a cabinet. He held it up for me to examine: vodka, expensive-looking stuff, from Finland. My pot stash is gone, he said. But I stole this from my dads liquor cabinet. Gone? You smoked it all? Nah. My mom did a room raid before we went to France. She found it under my bed and flushed it down the toilet. He looked abashed. Im in the doghouse. Actually, youre not even supposed to be here. They forbade me from seeing you. Thats why we didnt go inside the house. I put two and two together: His curious bravado, the way he threw his arm around my shoulders on the bus like I belonged to himit was all a middle finger to his parents. What youre saying isthey blame me. For the pot. They think Im a bad influence because, what, my hair is pink? And I dont ski? A hot bubble of self-righteous anger rose inside me. He shook his head. I told them it had nothing to do with you. Problem predates you. They know that. Theyre just beingoverprotective. Irrational. As usual. Fuck them. The vodka bottle was still hanging between us, a totem of some symbolic transition, or of rebellion, or maybe apology. Finally, I reached out and grabbed it. Is there juice? Ill make screwdrivers. Shit, no. Just vodka. He blushed when he met my eyes and I thought of a term that I had read before in a bookliquid courage. I unscrewed the cap of the bottle and lifted it to my lips and took a swig. Id sipped at my mothers martinis before, but this was a proper, showy gulp. It burned; I choked. Benny reached out and whacked my back as I spluttered. I mean, I was going to offer you a glass but He took the bottle from my hand and lifted it to his own lips, convulsing when the liquor hit his esophagus. Vodka dribbled out of the side of his mouth and he wiped it away with the sleeve of his T-shirt. His eyes were watering and red, and as they met mine we both started laughing. The vodka lit up my stomach; it made me wired and punchy and hot. Here, he said, handing it back to me, and this time I swallowed down a good inch before coming up for air. Five minutes of this and we were drunk and giddy, and I was tripping on the chairs in the dining room and laughing from the lightness in my head. When Benny grabbed me to stop me from falling and spun me around, I finally screwed up my courage and kissed him. Ive been kissed, all these years on, by so many men, almost all of them better kissers than Benny. But the first kiss is the one you always remember; and even now I can break that kiss down in detail. How chapped his lips were, but also how softly they gave way. The way he kept his eyes closed even when mine were open, and the way that made him look so serious and intense. The terrible sound of our teeth clicking against each other as we jockeyed for position; him stooping to pull me up to his face as I stood on my tiptoes, balancing myself against his chest. How when we stopped for a moment we both gasped for air as if wed been underwater the whole time. I could hear his heart as I rested in his arms, galloping so hard that it sounded as if it might race straight out of his chest and through the door. It slowed as we stood there for a while, adjusting to this new reality. You dont have to do this out of pity or something, he whispered into my hair. I pulled back, smacked him in the arm. I kissed you, stupid. His eyelashes fluttered, his eyes as soft and watching as a deers. I smelled the vodka on his breath, like sweet gasoline. Youre beautiful and smart and tough and I dont get it. Theres nothing to get, I said. Stop thinking so hard. Let me like you without second-guessing it. But maybe he had a point. Nothing is ever as pure as it seems at first glance; there is always something more complicated to be found if you peel back the unmarred surface of pretty things. The black silt at the bottom of the pristine lake, the hard pit at the center of the avocado. I cant help wondering now if I kissed him as a kind of statement of intent; a way of putting my mark on him. His parents were going to forbid me to see him, they thought I was a bad influence? Kissing him was my way of saying to his parents, Fuck you, hes mine. You dont get to win this one. You may have everything else in the world but I have your son. Maybe thats why I felt so sure of myself as I took his hand and led him, stumbling, to that dormered bedroom with its creaking bed. Maybe thats why I let the fire of the vodka light me up with a boldness I didnt recognize in myself; why I abandoned myself so readily to the tugging and prodding, the clothes on the floor, the tongues against flesh. To the piercing, momentary pain; the gasp and thrust of it all. To the path forward into my future. And yet, however tainted our motivations might have been at the time, what happened to us that dayand in the weeks that followedfelt pure. The cottage was ours, and the things that we did there, hidden inside its walls, seemed to belong to some kind of liminal space. At school, our relationship remained the sameracing past each other in the hallways on our way to class, occasionally eating pizza together at lunch, never really touching, although our feet sometimes found each other under the cafeteria table. Even on the bus to his house, as I felt the electric anticipation building, we still didnt play out the typical boyfriend-girlfriend roles. There was no hand-holding, no doodling initials on each others forearms in blue ballpoint pen or sharing a single soda with two straws. Nothing was articulated out loud, nothing assumed. Only once we got to the cottage did everything shift, as if it had taken us that longthe better part of a day, plus a half-hour bus rideto find the confidence to step into our insurgence. So whos the boy? my mom asked one evening, as I stumbled through the door just before dinner, everything askew. I could still smell Benny on my skin and I wondered if she had smelled him, too, a pheromonal red flag signaling adolescent lust. What makes you think theres a boy? She stood in the doorway to the bathroom, pulling curlers from her hair. Baby, if I know anything about anything, its about love. She considered this for a second. Make that sex, actually. Youre using protection? I keep condoms in the upper drawer of my nightstand, you can take as many as you need. Jesus, Mom! Stop. Just say something like Youre too young and leave it at that. Youre too young, baby. She raked her fingers through her curls to soften them, and then shellacked them back into place with hair spray. Fuck, I was thirteen, so who am I to talk? Anyway, Id like to meet him. Invite him for dinner sometime. I thought about thisshould I confess that it was the boy she met at the caf?? Or maybe she already suspected, and was waiting for me to tell her. But I felt strangely reluctant to bring Benny back with me across the Rubicon that divided our two worlds. It felt dangerous, as if something critical might be broken in the process. Maybe. She sat down on the toilet and tentatively massaged the toes on one foot. OK. I think this is where Im supposed to give you a lecture, so here goes. Sexit can be about love, yes. And its wonderful when its that, and God, baby, I hope thats what youve found. But its also a tool. Men use it to prove a point to themselves, about their power to take what they want. Youre just the first rung on the ladder of their world domination. And when thats the kind of sex youre havingwhich is most of the timeyou got to make sure that youre using it as a tool, too. Dont let yourself be used up by them, all the time believing its some kind of equal relationship. Make sure youre getting just as much out of it as they are. She shoved the swollen foot into a shoe and stood, wobbling a little on her heels. Pleasure, at the very least. I hated how this made me feel. My relationship with Benny wasnt transactional, I was sure of it. And yet my mothers words lingered there in the air between us, injecting poison into my pretty picture. Mom, thats a really antiquated view of sex. Is it? She studied herself in the mirror. From what I see every night at my work, I would say its not. She caught my eyes in the reflection. Just, babybe careful. Like you are? The words came out sounding more spiteful than I meant them to. Her blue eyes blinked rapidly, as if trying to rid themselves of an irritant. A flake of mascara. A flotsam of regret. I learned my lessons the hard way. Im just trying to save you from having to do the same thing. I softened; I couldnt help myself. You dont have to worry about me, Mom. She sighed. I dont know how not to. The last day that I ever saw Benny was a Wednesday in mid-May. There were only three weeks left in the school year, and we were in the midst of finals; I hadnt seen him in almost a week while I crammed for my tests in a last-ditch effort to bring a last few B pluses up to As. When he showed up on the bus and sat beside me that last day, he handed me a piece of paper. It was a portrait of me, carefully inked on thick linen. Hed imagined me as a manga character in a tight black costume, the pink fringe of my hair whipping out behind me, strong legs leaping through the air. I clutched a sword in one hand, dripping blood; and below my boots was a fire-breathing dragon, cowering in fear. My dark eyes gazed out from the page, shiny and huge, challenging whoever looked back to just try it, fucker. I studied the picture for a long time, seeing myself as Benny must have seen me: as a kind of superhero, stronger than I really was, capable of rescue. I folded it and put it in my backpack and then wordlessly took his hand. He smiled to himself as he wove his fingers between mine. The bus coughed its way along the lakeshore, warm spring air leaking through the cracked-open windows. My moms in San Francisco for the week, he said as we approached his neighborhood. She had to go down to the city to get her meds adjusted. Guess she rearranged the furniture one time too many and my dad finally got a clue. He tried to laugh but the noise that came out sounded like the pained squawk of a dying seagull. I squeezed his hand. Is she going to be OK? He shrugged. Its just the same thing over and over again. Theyll dope her up and shell be back and well go through it all again next year. But then he closed his eyes, his lashes vibrating against his pale skin, belying his blas?. And I thought of Bennys own cocktail of meds, the way they kept his lips cracked and dry and his pulse thumping erratically, and I wondered if he ever worried about how much of his mother he had inside him. Does that mean we have the house to ourselves? I imagined finally going upstairs at Stonehaven and getting to see Bennys bedroom, which remained as mysterious to me as it had on the day we met. Id still only ever seen the parlor, the hallway, the kitchen, the dining room, the librarya handful of Stonehavens forty-two rooms, and (I could see now) a reminder of how much I wasnt really welcome there. He shook his head. Remember? Im grounded. They dont trust me with just Lourdes. So my dads up here while Moms down there. Convenient for them both, I guess. He frowned. If his car is in the driveway well have to be extra sneaky, OK? He pays closer attention than my mom. But his fathers Jaguar wasnt in the driveway; only Lourdess mud-splattered Toyota, discreetly parked under the pines. And so we once more sauntered through the house as if we owned it, stopping in the kitchen to pick up a pair of Cokes and a bag of popcorn before going out to the caretakers cottage. There, we sat on the steps, our legs hooked over each others, watching a flock of geese that had landed on the lawn. Occasionally wed toss a kernel of popcorn and a brave goose would creep toward us to gobble it down, eyeing us warily. They grazed and honked, pooping dark pellets all over the beautiful green grass. So. Bad news. Bennys voice broke the silence. My parents are sending me to Europe this summer. What? Some kind of reform camp in the Italian Alps where I cant get in trouble. You know, fresh air and physical exertion and all that stuff that will magically turn me into the boy wonder they want me to be. He flung another piece of popcorn at a goose and it flapped its wings in protest. I guess they think European air is somehow more restorative than American air. He looked over at me. Im flunking three subjects, you know. This is, I guess, their last attempt to fix me up before they give up on me forever. Maybe if you ace your tests theyll let you stay? Unlikely. Both that Ill ace the tests and that it will make a difference. I cant cram and get As the way you do. I can barely even read for five minutes, for chrissake. Why do you think I like comic books so much? I thought of my own summer. Id landed a minimum-wage job at a river-rafting company in Tahoe City, loading and unloading the rubber boats that clotted the Truckee River from Memorial Day to Labor Day. This prospect sounded even more unappealing now that he wouldnt be there waiting for me after work. Shit. What am I going to do without you? Ill get you a cellphone of your own and then Ill call you every day. Nice. But still not the same. We sat in the sun in silence for a while, looking out at the lake. The boats werent out yet; the light that dappled the surface of the water was blinding against all that blue. Eventually Benny kissed me and his lips felt sadder than usual, like we were already saying goodbye for the summer. And when he pulled back for a moment he kept his eyes closed and said, almost as a murmur, I love you. And, heart racing, I echoed his words back. It felt like we had everything we needed, right there, forever; and that with these words we would somehow conquer all of the things in our way. It was the first and last time I ever felt pure, unadulterated joy. We moved into the cottage, and then to the bed. We shed our clothes en route, discarding T-shirts and socks like Hansel and Gretels breadcrumbs. In the bedroom, the dim light glowed across his milky skin, and I traced the red freckles on his chest before climbing on top of him. At this point, after a dozen trysts, wed figured out how we fit together; there was less of the awkward bumping of elbows and knees and more of the thrill of discovery. How it felt when you touched there, or were touched here; what this body part might do when in contact with that one. A childrens science experiment, but with so much more at stake. And thatthe shocking heat of his mouth on my breast, the damp slide of his stomach against minewas why we didnt hear his father enter the cottage. We were so absorbed with each other that we didnt have time to scramble for cover until he was already in the doorway, his bulk blocking out the light from the living room. And then Bennys fathers hand was on my arm and he was yanking me off of his son, and I was shrieking and grabbing for a sheet to cover myself while Benny was exposed on the bed, blinking and stunned. William Liebling IV. He looked just like the photos Id seena big, bald man in an expensive suitexcept that in person he seemed so much larger than life, even bigger than Benny. He must have been in his sixties, but he wasnt at all frail; instead, he had that air of gravitas and power that comes with inherited money. And unlike the pictures that Id seen, the opera photos where he looked so benignly at ease, his face was beet red and his eyes were burning coals inside puffy folds of skin. He ignored Benny, who was scrambling out of the bed with his hands covering his groin, and addressed me instead. Who are you? he barked. I felt damp and exposed. My heart was still on fire in my chest, my flesh still suffused and sensitive; I couldnt reconcile everything racing through me. Nina, I stammered. Nina Ross. My eyes darted to Benny, who was tripping over his giant feet as he grabbed at the boxer shorts hed abandoned on the floor. He inched toward the doorway, his eyes fixed on the jeans lying on the floor of the hallway. Mr. Liebling turned and barked at Benny. Stop right there. He turned back to me and examined me for a long time. Nina Ross. He rolled the name in his mouth, clearly committing it to memory, and I wondered if he was the kind of dad who would call my mother to complain. Probably. Or maybe Bennys mom would do the honors. I imagined my mom telling them both to go fuck themselves. Benny had succeeded in getting his underwear on and he stood hunched there near the doorway, his thin arms covering his naked chest. Dad he began. His father whirled around and lifted a finger in the air. Benjamin. Not. A. Word. He turned back to me and tugged on the bottom of his suit jacket to straighten it. This seemed to calm him. Nina Ross. You will leave now, he said coolly. And you will not come back here. You will leave Benjamin alone from now on. Do you understand? I could smell something in the air, pungent and sharp: It was the anxiety pouring off Benny as he watched me with a helpless expression on his face. He looked shrunken and young suddenly, like a little boy, even though he had at least a half foot on his father. I felt a surge of emotion, a desire to protect him from everything that might break him. I thought of the Nina in Bennys drawing, the superhero with the dripping sword. My heart wasnt racing anymore; I felt calm as I tucked the sheet tighter around my torso. No, I heard myself saying. You cant tell me what to do. We love each other. The muscles in Mr. Lieblings face twitched, as if jolted by an electric shock. He stepped close to me and leaned in, voice dropping to a hoarse bark. Young lady, you dont understand. My son cannot handle this. I looked over at Benny, hunched in the corner, and for a stinging second I wondered if his father was right. I know him better than you do. He laughed then, a mirthless, condescending sound. I am his father. And youhe measured me with his eyesyou are nobody. You are disposable. He pointed to the door. Youll leave now, or Ill call the police and have you removed. He turned to Benny, and ran a hand over his bald pate, as if testing the shape of his skull. And you. You will be in my study in five minutes, fully dressed. Yes? Yes, Benny said, his voice almost a whisper. Sir. His father examined him for a long minute, his eyes running over his sons long loose limbs and concave chest; and then a little sound came out of him, like a sigh, and I could see something deflate inside him. Benjamin, he began, reaching out a hand to his son. Benny flinched. His father stopped, mid-gesture, and rather than leaving the hand hanging there in midair, he instead ran his hand over his pate again. Then he turned and walked out the bedroom door. We waited until we heard the cottage door slam and then we grabbed for our clothes, scrambling to get dressed as quickly as wed gotten ourselves undressed. Benny wouldnt meet my eyes as he yanked his sweatshirt back over his head and tied on his sneakers. Im sorry, Nina, he kept saying over and over. Im so sorry. Its not your fault. I put my arms around his waist but he just hung there limply, as if his spine had snapped inside him; he turned away from me when I tried to kiss him. And I knew then that, even though Id stood up to his dad, Benny certainly wasnt going to. No matter how much he pretended to hate his family, if he had to choose between them and me, it wasnt going to be a contest. I was not a superhero, slaying dragons for him; I was nobody. It felt like a mirror that Id been gazing into had shattered, and now all that was left was tiny fragments I had no idea how to reassemble. He didnt hold my hand as we trudged back along the path to Stonehaven. He didnt hug me when I turned right to go around the house and he turned left to go up the steps to the kitchen porch. He just closed his eyes tightly, as if trying to see something hidden inside his head, and then he said those words once more, barely audiblyIm sorry, Ninaand just like that we were done. So then: finals and June commencement, which at North Lake Academy meant that the entire student body spent the last day of school down at the lake, kayaking and waterskiing and barbecuing tofu dogs on the dock of someones private beach. Id only glimpsed Benny a few times in the intervening weeksa gaunt figure Id spy sloping through the halls in the distance, as my throat seized up with Pavlovian longingand I lay in bed at night imagining how we might finally get to talk at the party. How hed see me sitting on the beach and come over and cry and apologize; and Id of course forgive him and wed embrace and then wed be back together forever. The end. But Benny didnt come to the beach party at all, and so instead I spent the day lying in the sand next to Hilary and her friends, listening to them talk about their summer lifeguarding jobs, and trying not to cry. At one point, Hilary rolled over so that she was facing me, and propped her head up on one hand. So hey. Wheres your boyfriend today? Off on his familys yacht or something? Boyfriend? I repeated dumbly. She gave me a knowing look. Give it up, girl. Everyone knows. Youre not that sly. She smiled. I knew you two would hit it off. From the start. I lay back on my beach towel and squeezed my eyes shut so hard that I saw red fireworks behind them. Hes not my boyfriend, I said. We broke up. Oh. Shit. That sucks. She flopped over onto her stomach and loosened her bikini strings. Hang out with us this summer. Ill find you someone better. Thats the good thing about being a lifeguard, its easy to meet guys. Any thoughts I might have had about this dubious planbecoming a beach bum, making Hilary my new BFF and hooking up with the sunburned summer kidsvanished when I got home that afternoon. The minute I turned the corner to our house, I could see it: my mothers hatchback, packed to the gills with boxes and Hefty bags. I walked up the driveway and stood there, staring through the windows at the jammed back seat. I could see my patched-up moon boots, pressed up against the glass. And I couldnt stop myself anymore: I began to cry, big hideous sobs of despair at how everything could go from wonderful to awful in just a few weeks. Eventually my mother came outside and approached me, her arms extended for a hug. Im sorry, baby. I really am. I sidestepped her, swiping at my nose with the back of my arm. You promised. Wed stay until I graduated. She looked like she might cry, too. I know I said that. But its not turning out how I hoped. Her hands worked at the bottom of her shirt, rolling it and unrolling it. Its not about you, baby. You kept up your end of the bargain. Its just She hesitated. The expression on her face stopped me. This is about Benny, right? Tears were pooling at the corners of her eyes, but she didnt deny it. Nina They called you, didnt they? His parents, the Lieblings? They called you to tell you that he and I were involved? They told you to keep me away from him because Im not good enough for their son. I looked at her and she wouldnt look back at me, just kept rolling and unrolling the hem of her shirt as her ruined mascara ran in rivulets down her face. And as I stood there watching her, my entire life packed into a pitifully small number of boxes, I knew. Theyd driven us out of town. To the Lieblings, we were just trash, a minor nuisance in the way of their world domination, and therefore we had to go. And because they were rich, they had gotten their way. I wondered about the strings that they had pulled, in order to get us to leave. Because how else could they have forced my mom to give up a job, a home, her daughters glorious Future? Theyd strong-armed, theyd threatened. That was the Liebling way, Benny had already told me as much: My dads a bully: If he doesnt get what he wants at first, hell just threaten you until he does. A call of complaint to North Lake Academy, my scholarship yanked. A well-placed word at my mothers job, threatening her livelihood. How easy it must have felt for them to take away the little that we had. After all, we were insignificant to them. I felt my mothers arm creep around me. Dont cry, sweetheart. You dont need him. You have me, and thats all you need. You and I, we are the only people we can trust, she whispered, her voice breaking. Besides, you are better than anyone I have ever met. You are better than their horrible son. Then why are we letting them get away with it? We dont have to let them do this to us, I insisted, growing frantic. We shouldnt let them have what they want. We should stay. My mom shook her head. Im so sorry, baby. But its too late. What about the Ivy League? I managed. What about Stanford summer school? We dont need a fancy private high school for that. She straightened, squeezed my arm, turned to the car as if something had been decided without me. Youll do well wherever we go, if you just apply yourself. That was my mistake. We never needed to come here in the first place. And so we moved back to Las Vegas, and I started my junior year at yet another enormous, concrete institution. And maybe my mom was right that I didnt need a private high school to excel, but our year at Tahoe had also broken something critical inside me: the ability to believe in my own potential. I knew now who I really was: a nobody, disposable, destined for nothing. After Tahoe, my mother lost her footing, too. The first few months that we were back in Vegas, she was giddy, going on shopping sprees for our new apartment and speculating that our ship was about to come in. But by that winter, shed gone grim and silent, once again disappearing to the casinos at night; and this time, I knew that she didnt have a waitressing job. Eventually, she was arrested for credit card fraud and identity theft. She went to jail, and I went into foster care until she got out six months later. When she was freed, we moved to Phoenix, then Albuquerque, and finally Los Angeles. Despite all the disruption, I managed to rise far enough above the underserved herds at my subpar schools to gain admittance to a middling liberal arts college on the East Coast; but not high enough for the Ivy League, not high enough to qualify for scholarships. Still, I was determined to get as far away from my mothers life as possible, even if it meant turning down the local junior college and taking on student debt. I went off to get a BA in art history, still so blindly in thrall to Stonehaven that I didnt think much about career viability. Inevitably, I emerged four years later in a worse state: even more broke, underqualified and lost. The bright shiny Futurethe one in the Princeton sweatshirt, the one on the cover of the Stanford summer school catalogwas not for me after all. The Lieblings stole all that from me, and I never forgave them for it. For a long time I hoped that I was wrong about Benny; I hoped that he wasnt like his family after all, and just needed to be reminded who he really was. For a while, after we first arrived back in Las Vegas, I wrote letters to him; rambling thoughts about loneliness, stories about my depressing new school, little observations underlined by a silent plea to let me know that I still mattered. After a few months of this, I got a postcard in the mail: a photo of the boathouse at the Chambers Landing pier, and on the back a single sentence, in a childish scrawl: PLEASE STOP. So was my mother right? Was my entire relationship with Benny a transaction, a failed power grab between two fundamentally unequal people? Was I just covetous of Bennys life and hoping to take a piece of what he had? And was he just trying to assert his dominion over another human being, trying to live up to the example his ancestors had set? Maybe what we experienced never was love; maybe it was always just about sex and loneliness and control. In a different sort of story, I would have saved that portrait that Benny drew of me, the one where I looked like a manga character; and I would have tenderly pulled it out for inspiration in moments of self-doubt, as proof that I was somebody after all. But the reality is that I burned that picture in the fireplace of our Tahoe cabin before we drove out of town that last day. I sat there with a poker and watched the edges of the portrait blacken and curl; watched the fire lick at those confident eyes and the sword-wielding hand, until all that was left was ash. In a different storyone with a kinder, gentler protagonistI also would have looked Benny up some years later and we would have commiserated and grown close, maybe rekindled a friendship that transcended what had once driven us apart. But again, thats not this story. And while its true that I followed the Lieblings doings from a distanceI knew when Judith Liebling drowned in a boating accident, not long after I got that horrible postcard; I knew when Vanessa Liebling became an Instagram celebrity; I knew when William Liebling IV diedI never bothered to reach out to Benny. Why should I, when hed never reached out to me to explain why hed so easily abandoned me? I was angry at him for so long that it became an essential part of my being, an ache that sat at the pit of my stomach, the tender genesis of all my rage at the world. And yet. When I ran into Hilary on the street in New York a few years later, and she let it drop that Benny had been diagnosed as schizophrenicthat hed been sent home from Princeton after he attacked a girl on his floor and then ran naked and raving through his dormI was surprised when the pang that I felt was not of vindictive rage but of pity. Poor Benny, I thought, as Hilary prattled on about how he was living at some fancy institution near Mendocino, how someone from school had visited him and he was basically a vegetable now, drugged out of his mind. And then, tearing upPoor us. So maybe I did still love him after all. As for the rest of the Lieblingsfor them, I had nothing but hate. 8. VANESSA, VANESSA, VANESSA. Does she feel it, as I walk across the cobbled drive toward hersomething electric in the air, a premonitory tingle? Her intuition warning her that something about memy poised, rehearsed, yoga-instructor walk; the toothy grin slapped across my faceisnt quite right? Does she find herself fighting a strange urge to board the windows, take in the lawn furniture, lock the doors tight, and hide in the basement? I doubt it. I am a category 5 hurricane coming her way, and she has no clue. 9. STONEHAVEN. I NEVER IMAGINED Id someday live in this monstrous heap. Growing up, it was the albatross that hung around the Liebling family neck: an estate so firmly attached to our name that it was impossible to imagine ever letting it go. It felt like Stonehaven had stood there on the West Shore forever, an anachronistic stone monolith that rejected any attempts to dress it up as something new. The house had been passed to the firstborn son of five generations of Lieblings, which meant that someday it would belong to my little brother Bennynot to me. Toxic patriarchy! you might be thinking. Fight against the injustice! But honestly, I wanted nothing to do with the place. I have hated Stonehaven since I was six years old and first came up here for Christmas. My grandparents, Katherine and William III, had mandated that the extended Liebling family spend the holiday at Stonehaven, so we all slowly rolled in one snowy December afternoon, the wheels of our town cars leaving muddy tracks along the drive. Grandma Katherine (never Kat, or Kitty, but Katherine, always with the emphasis on that first ah) had brought in a decorator for the family gathering and, honestly, she had quite de trop taste. When you walked in the front door of the house you were assaulted with the holiday. Swags and garlands hanging off every cornice, poinsettias brandishing their poison petals from the centerpieces. A tree that brushed the ceiling, drooping with silver ornaments and gold tinsel. Full-sized Victorian Santas that lurked in dark corners, their faces frozen mid-chortle, and scared the stuffing out of me. The whole house smelled of fresh-cut pine boughs, a medicinal smell that made me think of murdered trees. My grandmother was a great collector of European decorative arts, the more gilded and elaborate the better; though my grandfather preferred chinoiserie. (Previous ancestors had dabbled in eighteenth-century American, Jacobean, French Revival, Victoriana.) So Stonehaven was full of delicate furnishings balanced on spider legs, and precious objects rendered in bone-thin porcelain. The house was a giant slap in the face to the very concept of childhood. My grandmother sat all of the cousins down on the day we got there. There will be no running inside Stonehaven, she warned us all sternly. Benny and I were perched side by side on a silk-covered sofa in the drawing room, sipping chocolate from child-sized teacups. Grandmother Katherines silver hair had been shellacked and teased until it was as stiff and shiny as the ornaments on the tree; she wore a pink Chanel suit that dated back at least two decades. My mother (Maman, she liked us to call her, though Benny refused) paced silently behind her, tugging on her diamond studs, chafing at being sidelined here. There will be no throwing of balls, or wrestling, or playing of wild games. Do you understand me? In my house, little children who do not follow the rules get spankings. My grandmother peered over her bifocals at the children. We all squirmed under her gaze, and nodded. And then I forgot. (Of course I forgot! I was six.) In the third-floor bedroom where I was supposed to sleep with my baby brother, there was a glass-fronted cabinet full of darling porcelain birds. I was immediately besotted with a pair of bright green parrots, their black eyes like little beads. At my familys mansion in San Francisco, everything in my bedroom was solely for my entertainmentno one got upset if I smeared makeup on my Barbies or fed puzzle pieces to the dogsand so of course I assumed that these birds were toys that had been put there for me. That first night, I pulled one of the parrots from the cabinet and set it next to the bed where I slept, so that it would be the first thing that I saw in the morning. Instead, as I slept that night, a decorative sham slid off the bed, taking the parrot down along with it. When I woke up at dawn, there was no bird, just a pile of shards on the floor. I burst into tears, which woke Benny up, and then he started wailing, too. Maman soon appeared in the door with her silk robe wrapped tight against Stonehavens chill, blinking blearily. Oh God. You broke a Meissen. She nudged a shard of green porcelain with her toe and made a face. Gaudy little baubles. I sniffled. Grandmama is going to get mad at me. My mother stroked my hair, gently tugging out the tangles. She wont notice. She has lots of them. But it was a pair. I pointed to the cabinet, where the remaining parrot was peering inquisitively through the glass, as if looking for his dead friend. Shell see theres only one left. And then shell spank me. Benny wailed some more in the bed beside me, sallow and sulky. Mother swept him up with one arm and perched him on her hip, and then swanned across the room to the cabinet. She threw the glass door open and reached in to grab the remaining parrot, placing it on the palm of her hand. She balanced it there for a moment, and then tipped her hand slightly, so that the bird fell to the floor and shattered. I shrieked. Benny whooped with excitement. Now we both broke one, and she wont dare punish me, which means she cant punish you, either. She came back and sat on the bed next to me, wiping the tears from my face with her soft white hand. My beautiful girl. You are not going to be spanked, ever. Do you understand? I will never let that happen. I was stunned silent. My mother disappeared and a few minutes later came back with a broom and a dustpanI remember thinking that they looked so unlikely in her handand swept the shards into a bag that she then spirited away. My grandmother never came into the bedroom that Christmas (she avoided us altogether, for the most part) and so as far as I know she never noticed that the birds were missing. Benny and I spent most of the rest of the trip outside with our cousins and our nannies, building igloos until we were pink with cold and our snow pants were soaked through, but at least there we were safe from the dangers that lurked inside the house. So yes, I hated Stonehaven. I hated everything that it represented to me: honor and expectation, all that formality, the noose of history dangling just over my neck. I hated it when my grandmother made a grand gesture over Christmas dinner, as she peered down the table at the children, and murmured, Someday all this will be yours, children. Someday you will be the caretakers of the Liebling family name. It didnt make me feel big at all, this legacy that had been handed to me; instead, it made me feel tiny under its looming shadow, as if I was insignificant in comparison to its sprawl, as if I could never possibly live up. I was never supposed to be Stonehavens caretaker and yet somehow here I am anyway. Hooray. Life is ironic, no? (Or maybe I should say bittersweet, unfair, or just plain old fucked-up.) Some days, as I wander these rooms, I feel the echoes of my ancestors inside myself: as if I am another in a line of elegant hostesses, keeping the clocks wound while I await my callers. More often, though, I wonder if I am Jack Torrance, and this is my Overlook Hotel. A few months back, not long after I moved in, I came across an appraisal document for those parrots. They were valued at $30,000 for the pair. Reading this, I thought of Maman gently tipping her hand: Did she know that she was throwing $15,000 in the trash? But of course she did, I realized, and she didnt care. Because nothing was truly valuable to her except for me. Benny and Iwe were her Meissen birds, precious objects she wanted to guard behind glass. She spent her life protecting my brother and me from spankings, until the moment when she died. And sometimes I feel like life has been beating us both senseless ever since. 10. I KNOW WHAT YOURE probably thinking: Look at the spoiled rich girl, all alone in the great big house, trolling for our sympathy when she doesnt deserve any of it. You feel so smug, looking at me! And yet you also cant seem to look away from me. You follow me on my social media accounts, you swipe up to study my links, you watch my YouTube fashion tutorials and like my travelogues and read every Page Six mention you can find. You cant stop yourself from clicking on my name even though you tell everyone that you hate me. I fascinate you. You need me to be the monster so that you can position yourself in opposition to me and feel superior. Your ego requires me. And theres another thing, though you would never admit this out loud: When you look at me, you also think, I want what she has. Her life should be mine. And if I were given the resources at her disposal, I would do it all so much better. Maybe youre not so wrong. 11. I SIT AT THE WINDOW of Stonehavens front parlor, waiting to greet the couple thats making their way through the twilight toward me. The torrential rains of the morning have slowed to a light drizzle that sparkles like glitter in the lights along the drive. Im as wired as a teenager on Ritalin, wound up by the prospect of human interaction. (Giddy! Practically buoyant!) Im pretty sure I havent spoken to another human being in two weeks, other than to tell the housekeeper, in broken Spanish, that she cant keep ignoring the dust on the windowsills. When I woke up this morning, I could feel that the black funk that had weighed on me for most of the year had lifted. In its place, a familiar fizz and pop, as if something inside me had been set on fire and was crackling back to life. I could see everything so clearly again. I spent the morning washing my hair and dyeing the roots back to blond with a bottle of Clairol that I found in the grubby grocery store in town (beggars cant be choosers). I gave myself a mani-pedi (ditto), applied a trio of Korean face masks, and then spent an hour digging through boxes until I unearthed the perfect Lounging in the Manor outfit: jeans and a black designer tee, a blazer in garnet velvet with a gray hoodie underneath. Chic, yet approachable. I snapped a selfie and uploaded it for my Instagram followers. This is what dressing up looks like in the mountains! Nlakelife Nmountainstyle Nmiumiu I tore through the rooms of Stonehaven, cleaning up abandoned wineglasses and plates sticky with crumbs; hid the piles of laundry in the bedroom, straightened the fashion magazines strewn across the tables in the parlor (and then reassessed, and tossed them altogether). I arranged, and then rearranged, a little tableau of snacks in the kitchen, until I thought I might cry from the stress of it all. (To calm my nerves, I reread that days inspo from my own Instagram feed, a Maya Angelou quote Id found online: Nothing can dim the light which shines from within.) Then I sat in the front window with a bottle of wine, and waited. By the time I see their lights coming up the drive, Ive nearly finished the bottle of wine. When I jump up I realize that Im actually quite tipsy. (D?class?, as Maman always said, while she primly poured herself an exact half glass at dinner.) I am quite skilled at deception, though. Four years of documenting my every move online has trained me in the art of looking sober (insert: happy/thoughtful/excited/contemplative) when in fact I am very much not. So I dash to the door, take a breath to chase away the dizziness, slap my face oncehardand then step out onto the front portico to greet them, my cheek still burning. Theres a winter chill in the air, a layer of damp that clings to the stones of the house. Ive grown so thin that even my size 0s feel loose on mecooking for one is just too depressing, and besides the grocery store is so far awayso it feels like the cold is penetrating straight into my bones. I stand shivering in the shadows as their car picks its way carefully along the slick drive. Its a vintage BMW with Oregon plates that are splattered with mud from the highway. The car slows down a hundred yards out. Its hard to make out their faces through the mist and the evening shadows, but I just know that theyre craning their heads to take it all in. Of course they are. The pines, the lake, the mansionit is so much, so much that it sometimes hurts me to even look out the window. (Those are the days that I just climb back in bed and take three Ambien and pull the covers over my head. But thats neither here nor there.) Then their car pulls forward and parks, and I can suddenly see them clearly through the windshield. Theyre taking their time, laughing about something, which stirs up a nest of longing inside me. Even after a whole day of driving together, theyre in absolutely no rush to escape each others company. Then she leans across the car and kisses him, long and hard. It goes on and on. They must not see that Im there, and suddenly its rather awkward that Im spying on them like some sort of Hitchcock voyeur. I step backward into the shadows of the overhang, thinking Ill slip back inside and just wait for them to ring the bell. But then the passenger door flies open, and she steps out. Ashley. Its like the chilly forest has come to life around her. The silence to which Ive grown so accustomed is shattered with a blast of music from the car stereo. (The climactic aria of some opera that Maman surely would have recognized.) Even from twenty feet away, I can almost feel the close, car-heated air still clinging to Ashleys skin, as if shes brought her own personal ecosystem with her. She stands with her back to me and flexes, a smooth little yoga stretch with palms to the sky, then turns and catches me standing there watching her. If this bothers her, she doesnt show it. Instead, she smiles at me with mild pleasure, as if shes used to being observed. (And of course she is: Shes a yoga instructor! Her body is her raison d?tre. Something we share, I suppose.) There is something feline about her, something poised and watching: Her dark eyes scan the space around her, as if measuring the distance necessary to leap. Her hair is a glossy pelt, pulled back into a long tail, and her skin is a smooth olive that absorbs the light. (Perhaps Latina? Or Jewish?) She is unsettlingly pretty. Most of the beautiful women Ive known over the years would flaunt thisthe hair, the face, the body would all be enhanced, amplified, and exposedbut Ashley wears her looks as casually as the faded jeans that grip her curves. Its as if she couldnt care less about being stared at. So of course Im staring. (Stop staring, I hear Maman in my head. You look like a trout when you gawk like that.) You must be Vanessa! Shes halfway toward me, extending her hands to grip mine. And then suddenly I am being pulled into a hug, and my face is buried in her hair, which smells of vanilla and orange blossom. The heat of her, pressed against me, is disarming. Something blooms inside me: When was the last time I was hugged? (For that matter, when was the last time I was even touched? Ive barely even masturbated in months.) The embrace goes on for a half second longer than I expectAm I supposed to pull away? My God, whats the protocol here?and when she finally draws back, I feel flushed and hot and a little bit dizzy. Ashley, right? Oh wonderful. Oh thrilling! You made it! My voice is shrill, almost squeaky, and far too gushy. Was the drive just awful? All this rain. Its been relentless. I hold up a hand above us, ineffectively shielding her from the drizzle. Oh, I love the rain, she says with a smile. She closes her eyes and inhales, her nostrils flaring. It smells so fresh here. Ive been sitting in a car for nine hours, I honestly could use a bit of cleansing. Haha! I trill. (Oh for Gods sake, stop it, I tell myself.) Well youll get lots of that here. Rain, I mean. Not cleansing. Though why not both, I suppose?! She looks a little baffled by this. Im not quite sure what I mean, either. Theres a clatter in the driveway, the sound of suitcases being dragged across paving stones and then bumping up the stairs of the portico. I look over Ashleys shoulder and suddenly I am gazing straight into the eyes of her boyfriend. Michael. Its startling, the way hes looking at me. His eyes are a pellucid blue, so pale and transparent that it feels like Im seeing clear into the center of his mind, where something glints and shines. I flush: Am I staring again? Yes. But hes also staring intently back at me as if he can see inside me, too, and is seeing things that I didnt intend to reveal. (Did he know I was just thinking of masturbating?) I feel the blush rising up through my neck, and I know that I must be the color of lobster bisque. I wish Id worn a turtleneck. I recover, extend a formal hand. And youre Michael? He takes it, responding with a little bow of his own and a funny wry smile. Vanessa. Its a statement, not a question, and once again I have that strange feeling that I have just been identified, that he knows something about me that hasnt been spoken at all. Do I know him? It seems unlikelyisnt he an English professor, from Portland? But thendoes he know me? Its quite possible. I am, after all, a little bit famous, and being Internet-famous is the opposite of traditional fame: Instead of being put on a pedestal, like a rock star or movie star, being an Internet star means that you must always be just within reach of your fans. Special, yes, but approachable; giving the illusion that your life is within clawing distance if one is just ambitious enough. Thats half the appeal. In New York, strangers would often come up to me at restaurants and speak to me as if we were old friends, as if a few liked photos and a handful of comments meant we were besties. (Of course I was always gracious and friendly no matter how unnerving the encounter, because: approachable.) But Michael, in jeans and flannel, hair a little unkempt, doesnt strike me as someone who would follow fashion social media. In fact, when I looked him up online, I couldnt find his Instagram account at all. Hes an academic, thats what Ashleys email had said; so, perhaps not surprising. Academics dont go in for that thing so much. In person, too, he gives off an air of sober intellect; and so I feel the need to check myself. I dont want to come off as frivolous. (Maybe Ill tell him Im reading Anna Karenina?) And yet. Ive learned over the years to reserve judgment about what goes on underneath the surface of other human beings. How many times have I stood and chirped giddily for the camera, flipping my hair around like Im in front of an industrial fan and grinning like a circus emcee, when inside all I wanted to do was drink a bottle of Drano? The ability to convincingly perform authenticity is perhaps the most necessary skill set for my generation. And the image you exude must be compelling, it must be brand-positive, it must be cohesive no matter how fractured your internal dialogue might be, because otherwise your fans will sniff you out as a fraud. I gave a lecture about this at a social media conference called FreshX last year and 250 aspiring influencers (who all looked like variations of me) dutifully wrote it down; and as they did, I felt like I was witnessing my own doom. Michael and Ashley are standing in front of me on the steps, looking expectant. I return to myselfto elegant hostessand smile. Come on in, I say. Youre probably starving. I have a little snack in the kitchen, and then Ill show you to the cottage. And I throw open the doors to Stonehaven, and welcome my guests inside. I can tell immediately that they are taken aback by Stonehaven: the way they stop, just inside the door, and stare up to the ceiling twenty feet above us (hand-stenciled with an old family crest, as Grandmother Katherine used to point out to her visitors). The grand staircase unrolls its scarlet carpet like a feverish tongue, the crystal chandelier trembles overhead, my Liebling ancestors gaze coolly from the oil portraits that line the hall. Michael drops the suitcases on the inlaid mahogany floor with a little thunk and I wince at the thought of the divots this will leave in the wood. Your house Ashley says, emotion naked on her face. She gestures with a finger as if drawing a circle around the foyer. You didnt mention this in the rental listing. Wow. I turn and follow her gaze up the stairs, as if seeing it all for the first time. Well. You know. I didnt want to advertise it. Might attract the wrong kind of people. Oh, of course. A lot of creeps and weirdos on the Internet, she says, her lips twitching up into a smile. Ive encountered a lot of them, I say. Then, realizingOh, I hope you dont think I mean you. Oh, were bang-on the wrong kind of people, true enough. Michael carefully wipes his hands on his jeans, rocks back on the heels of his sneakers. Ashley gently squeezes his arm. Stop it, Michael. Dont scare her. Ive just noticed something else. Youre English, I say to Michael. Irish, actually, he replies. But Ive been in the States a long time. Oh, I love Ireland. I was in Dublin just last year. Was I? Or was that Scotland? Its all a blur, sometimes. Where is your family from? He makes a funny little dismissive gesture. Small village you wouldnt have heard of. I lead the way through the grand foyer and into the formal parlor. Ashleys gaze flicks with disinterest across the objects we pass, as if she is unconcerned about the opulence of her surroundings; but I can see something alert in her eyes. I wonder what Stonehaven looks like to her; I wonder what her own upbringing was like. Probably modest, judging by her dirty tennis shoes and her generic-brand performance fleece. Or is she one of those trustafarian types, whose bohemian appearance belies the size of their pocketbooks? She isnt gawking, which suggests shes comfortable with money (a relief, honestly). I cant quite put my finger on who she might be; and yet every time I glance her way she is smiling at me, which is really the most important thing. She rests her fingertips gently atop an inlaid sideboard, some ancient monstrosity that my grandmother always said was the most valuable piece in the house. So many antiques, she murmurs. I know, its a lot, right? I just inherited the house. Sometimes it feels like living in a museum. I laugh, as if the house is just a quaint bauble that shouldnt overwhelm them. Ashley spins to look at me. Its stunning. You should feel very lucky to live with such beautiful things. What a glorious privilege. In her voice I hear a rebuke, but shes still smiling so Im not sure what to think of the contrast between her words and her face. I dont think anything in this house is beautiful. Valuable yes, but most of it is hideous. Sometimes I dream of living in a minimalist white box with floor-to-ceiling windows and nothing to dust. I try to muster up the proper enthusiasm. Oh, its so true! I dont even know what half of this stuff is, but Im afraid to sit on most of it. Michael is hanging back, studying everything with anthropological curiosity. He stops in front of an oil of one of my distant great-aunts, a grande dame in tennis whites, posed with her greyhounds. You know what, Ash? This house reminds me a bit of the castle. This one in the painting here, she even looks like my great-grandmother Siobhan. This stops me. Which castle? Ashley and Michael exchange a glance. Oh, Michael comes from old Irish aristocracy, Ashley offers. His family used to have a castle. He hates to talk about it. I turn to him. Really? Where? Would I know it? Not unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of Irelands thirty thousand castles. Its some moldering old heap in the north. My family sold it when I was a child because it cost too much to keep up. This explains it then; the strange tug that I felt earlier, as if there was some kind of invisible cord tightening between us. Hes from even older money than me! Its a relief to hear, as if Ive been wearing a formal dress and might now shrug it off and put on cashmere sweatpants. Well, then, you must understand what its like to live in a place like this. I certainly do. A curse and a privilege, right? Hes torn the thoughts straight out of my mind. I feel light-headed. We look at each other, faint smiles of mutual understanding on our faces. Oh, yes, exactly, I breathe. And then Ashley puts a hand on my arm, in that oddly intimate way. Is this what yoga teachers do? Touch a lot? Its presumptuous, but I think I like it. Her fingers are warm through the velvet of my jacket. She frowns. Is it really that awful to live here? Oh really, its not so bad. I dont want to come off as unappreciative, not to a yoga teacher, for Gods sake; not to a woman whose Facebook photo is captioned Without inner peace, outer peace is impossible. (I thought about cribbing this for my own Instagram feed, but what if she looked me up and saw it and knew that I stole it from her? So I used a Helen Keller quote instead.) And youre living all alone? You dont get lonely? Her eyes are dark pools of sympathy; they peel away at the veneer of happiness I thought I was projecting. Well, a little, yes. A lot, sometimes, I say. But hopefully not anymore now that youre here! I laugh lightly, but this is perhaps a little too close to honesty for comfort. I need to shut myself up, but the words just keep bubbling out of me like water out of a faucet that I cant quite control. I shouldnt have drunk that wine. My eyes keep sliding over to Michael, each time noting another tidbit to add to the portrait I am assembling in my mind. The way his hair curls darkly around his neck, overgrown in a manner that suggests that he has more important things to think about than haircuts. The dry skin of his lips, which hover languorously in a wry curl of a smile. The soft burr of his accent, which wraps itself like a snake around the consonants that drop off his tongue. I could swear hes making a conscious effort not to look at me, and I tear my own focus back to Ashley instead. Ashley doesnt seem to notice any of this. She runs her finger along the marble edge of a credenza. All I can think of is the cleaning, she says. It must be a full-time job. For three people. You dont have a live-in staff? Arent those servants quarters that I saw out there? Just a housekeeper, she comes once a week. But she doesnt clean all of it, just the rooms Im using, for now. Im just letting the whole third floor go, and the outbuildingsno ones lived in them for years. Half the bedrooms are shut up, too. Honestly, why bother dusting my great-great-grandfathers hunting trophies? Creepy old relics that no one wants, and Im supposed to care for them forever just because a relative I never met once shot a bear. Am I talking too much? I think Im talking too much, but they are gaping at me as if intrigued, so I just keep going. Stonehaven is freezing and yet Im so hot that I can feel the sweat trickling under my arms and dripping down the sides of my T-shirt. That kind of stuff just has to go. Maybe Ill just give it all away to charity!! Use it to feed hungry children! And then we are in the kitchen, where I have pulled out one of my mothers favorite afternoon tea services and placed it on the table by the window. It makes for a pretty tableau (in fact, I have already popped a photo of it up on Instagram: Tea for three Ntradition Nsoelegant), and yet I wonder if it was overkill: the flowers, the fancy china, food enough for a small army. But we sit without ceremony, and then Ashley is laughing with pleasure as she bites into a scone, and Michael is turning my mothers teacup in his hand, studying the mark on the bottom with interest. They are handsy with each other and chatty and familiar with me, and I dont even have to think about how to keep the conversation rolling because they are doing all the work themselves. I can feel Stonehaven filling up with life, like the wine in my cup (which Michael has slowly, carefully filled to the brim); and as I sip at it and laugh at their jokes I feel the desperation ebbing away from me. I am not alone I am not alone I am not alone anymore, I think, the words thrumming along with the pulse of my racing heart. But then, with a clatter of luggage and a blast of cold air, they are off to get settled in at the caretakers cottage and suddenly I am alone again. I have failed to make a plan with them. I should have invited them to dinner with me! I should have invited them to go hiking! A Tahoe tour, a movie night Why did I just let them disappear off into the night, leaving me here by myself? Why didnt they invite me? (So much for my light shining from within.) When they are gone, I spend three hours looking at photos of puppies on Instagram and weep. 12. THERE ARE WINNERS AND losers in life, and not a lot of space for anything else in between. I grew up secure in the knowledge that I had been born on the right side of that equation. I was a Liebling. That meant that I had been conferred with certain advantages, and while there would always be those who would want to take that away from me, I started from a high enough perch that it felt there wasnt any danger of tumbling all the way down. Right from the very beginning, right from my very inception, I was lucky, because I never should have existed. Maman had been informed by her doctor, mid-pregnancy, that she suffered from severe preeclampsia, putting both her and me at high risk of mortality. He advised my parents not to bring me to termtossed around phrases like hemodynamic instability and ethical termination. He suggested abortion. My mother refused. She forged ahead, through all forty weeks, and delivered me anyway. She bled so much during delivery that they thought she was a goner. When she finally came out of her coma in the ICU, the doctor told her it was the stupidest decision hed ever seen a woman make. I would do it again, in a heartbeat, she used to tell me, as she swept me up in a perfumed hug. I would do it again, because you were worth dying for. Maman loved me that much. My brother, Benny, was born via a surrogate three years later. So I was the only of her two children that came directly from my mothers womb, and although she insisted that this meant nothing to herthat we were both her babiesI could always feel that she loved me more. I was her golden girl, the child that could turn her mood from darkness to light. (Your smile is my sunshine, she would say.) Benny couldnt do that. He was always retreating to his bedroom, his emotional state as heavy and gray as the fog that hung over the Bay. I think Benny reminded my mother too much of the things she hated about herself, as if he somehow reflected and amplified all of her own flaws. Maman came from an old French family; one that came to the States for the Gold Rush but had lost most of its fortune in the intervening years. It was the Lieblings who had the real money, riding the real estate tide that built California. My mother met my fatherthe eldest of three brothers, and a man eighteen years her seniorat her own debutante ball in 1978. Theres a photo of them dancing in the ballroom of the St. Francis, my father towering over my mother, his feet swallowed up by the cotton-candy swirl of her skirts. (Pale rose Zandra Rhodes: Maman always did have exquisite taste.) Theres always an implicit negotiation in marriage, right? I assume, in their case, it was his riches and power in exchange for her beauty and youthbut they also loved each other, I know they did. You can tell by the way they are looking at each other in that photo, the delight on my mothers face as she looks up to meet my fathers intensely protective gaze. Something changed along the way, though. By the time Benny and I were in high school, theyd started living separate lives: my father in a glassed-in Financial District office, alongside the brothers and cousins that made up the Liebling Groups board; my mother in the parlor of our mansion, holding court with her socialite friends. I grew up in San Francisco, a place where everyone knew who the Lieblings were. My familys name was in Fortune, we had a street named after us in the Marina District and owned one of the oldest houses in Pacific Heights (Italianate, quite stately, though not as big as Danielle Steels). When my last name came up in conversation I could see how everything shifted. How people tilted in toward me, suddenly that much more attentive, as if hoping that some of what I had might rub off on them. Smarts mean a lot in the world, and good looks mean even moremy mother, with her closet of couture and her endless low-carb diets, had taught me that muchbut money and power are, of course, the most important of all. That was the lesson I took away from my father. I remember visiting my father on the top floor of the Liebling Group office tower, on Market Street near the Ferry Building, when I was still small. He perched me on one knee and my brother on the other, and spun in his chair so that we were facing out the wall of windows. It was a clear, windy day, and out on the chop of the Bay the sailboats flew south toward the salty flats of the Peninsula. But my father wasnt interested in what was happening on the water. Look at this, he said, and gently pressed our foreheads against the glass so that we could gaze straight down the side of the building. Fifty-two stories below, I could see people scurrying along the sidewalks, clots of tiny black specks, like iron filings being drawn along by an invisible magnet. I was dizzy with vertigo. Its a long way down, I said. It is. He sounded pleased to hear this. Where is everyone going? The vast majority? Nowhere important. Just hamsters spinning on their wheels, never quite getting ahead. And that is the great tragedy of existence. I looked up at him, puzzled and concerned. He kissed the top of my head. Dont worry. That will never be a problem for you, cupcake. Benny squirmed and whined, more interested in my fathers fountain pens than the life lesson that was being conveyed. I felt sorry for all those little ants down there; a faint tug of guilt that circumstance had placed them there, waiting for someone to step on them like bugs. But I also knew what our father was trying to tell us. We belonged up here, Benny and I; we were safe with him in the heights. Oh, Daddy. I trusted him so much. His bulk was the bulwark that defended us all against lifes vicissitudes. No matter how much Benny or I lost controlno matter what self-destructive whims I might obey (Dropping out of Princeton! Financing indie movies! Modeling!)he was the person who reeled us back inside the gates of his protectorate before it was too late. And he always did; until suddenly, at the most critical moment, he couldnt. They say DNA is destiny. And probably this is true for those with gifts coded in their genes: say, a rare beauty or intelligence, the ability to run a four-minute mile or dunk a basketball, or perhaps just an innate cunning or insatiable drive. But for the rest of the world, those born without some obvious greatness, its not your DNA that will get you ahead; its the life you were born into. The opportunities you were (or werent) handed on a silver platter. Its your circumstances. I am a Liebling. I inherited the very best circumstances of all. And yet, circumstances can change. The natural trajectory of your life can be utterly disrupted by one unexpected encounter, setting you so wildly off course that youre not quite sure if youll ever find your way back to the path you were on. For me, its been twelve years, and Im still trying to find my way back. Growing up, I knew what was expected of me. Private school and debate club and tennis team, boyfriends whose last names graced buildings in downtown San Francisco, grades that were good enough (butlets be frankboosted just a tad by Daddys generous donations to my schools). Its true that I struggled occasionally with what my parents called impulse controllike the time I borrowed Mamans Maserati, got drunk, and crashed it, or the time I threw my tennis racket at an unfair judge at the junior nationals. Still, for the most part, I knew how to play my role and hit those benchmarks. Nothing I did couldnt be fixed with a dimple, a smile, and a check. My brother was the one who was irreparable. By the time I was in high school, it had grown clear that Benny wasas Maman delicately put ittroubled. When he was eleven, my mother found a notebook hidden under his bed with elaborately drawn pictures of men being disemboweled by dragons and their faces melting off, so she sent him off to a psychiatrist. He flunked all his classes, scribbled on his locker, was bullied by his schoolmates. At twelve, they put him on ADHD medication, then antidepressants. At fifteen, he got kicked out of school for giving his meds to his classmates. I was in my senior year of high school then, a month away from graduation, already sleeping in a Princeton T-shirt. (Legacy, bien s?r.) The night that Benny got expelled for passing out his Ritalin at school, I could hear my parents shrieking at each other in the music room downstairsa room they sometimes picked for their fights because it was supposedly soundproofed, without realizing that their voices actually carried through the mansions heating ducts. Lately, theyd been shrieking a lot. Maybe if you were ever here he wouldnt feel the need to do stupid, reckless things in order to get your attention. Maybe if you werent such a mess yourself you would have noticed that something was wrong with him before it got to this point. Dont you dare make this about me! Of course its about you. Hes just like you, Judith. How do you expect him to get his shit together when you refuse to do it yourself? Oh thats rich, coming from you.You dont even want me to start on your shit! Your addictions are going to destroy us all. Women and cards and who knows what else youre hiding from me. For fucks sake, Judith, youve got to stop letting your imagination get away from you. How many times do I have to tell you that its all in your head? You are paranoid, its part of your illness. I crept down the hall and knocked on Bennys door and didnt wait for him to answer before I slipped inside. He was lying on the floor in the exact center of the area rug, arms and legs spread-eagled so that he looked like a pale, scrawny version of da Vincis Vitruvian Man. My brother hadnt slipped comfortably into adolescence; it was as if his growing body had outstripped the child that he still was, and left him rattling loose inside this strange, oversized vessel. He lay there, staring blankly at the ceiling. I sat down on the rug next to him and tugged my skirt over my knees. I dont get it, Benny. You had to know that was against school rules. What did you have to gain from it? Benny shrugged. Kids are nicer to me if I give them drugs. You know, there are other ways to make people like you, stupid. Like, maybe make an effort sometimes? Join the chess club. Spend your lunchtime actually talking to people instead of sitting in a corner drawing creepy pictures in your notebook. Well, its a non-issue now. Oh, please. Dad will offer to build the school a new auditorium or something and everything will be forgiven. No. It alarmed me, how limp and motionless he was on the rug, how affectless his voice was. Dad wants us to move to Tahoe. Theyre going to send me to school up there. Some progressive academy thats going to turn me into Paul Bunyan or something. Tahoe? How ghastly. I thought of that huge, cold house on the West Shore of the lake, cut off from everything I considered civilization, and I wondered what leverage my father had over my mother to convince her to move there. Since my father had inherited the house the previous year, wed been up only once, to go skiing over spring break. Maman spent most of our stay wandering around the rooms, gingerly touching the spindly old furniture with a pinched expression on her face. I knew exactly what she was thinking. Bennys arms and legs swept slowly up and down the nap of the rug, like he was making a snow angel. Not really. I hate it here anyway. Cant be any worse up there. Probably better. The kids at our school are so full of themselves. I watched my brother scratching at the crop of pimples that had recently erupted, red and angry, on his chin. They matched the color of his hair, which made them even more obvious. My oblivious brother didnt realize how much harder he was making life for himself; he seemed determined to shrug off all the advantages that came with being us. Back then I still believed that Bennys issues were mostly of his own design, like he could just choose to stop sitting in his room drawing cartoons and acting weird, and then everything would be OK. I didnt understand yet. You dont give anyone a chance, I said. And stop scratching your pimples or youll get scars. He gave me the middle finger. Anyway youre going to be off at college, so stop acting like you give a shit where we live. I ran my own hand across the nap of his rug. It was thick blue pile that the decorator had put in to disguise the ink stains from Bennys abandoned Sharpies. Mamans going to go crazy up there. He sat up suddenly and looked at me fiercely. Moms already crazy. Didnt you know that? Shes not crazy, shes just moody, I said quickly. And yet, there was a whisper at the back of my mind, an awareness that her moods went beyond your average midlife ennui. Benny and I never really discussed our mothers swings but I saw him watching her sometimes, as if her face were a weather vane and he was using it to predict the coming storms. I did the same thing, awaiting the moment when the switch inside her would flip from on to off. One day shed be picking me up at school in the town car, her eyes lit with excitement, calling through the window. I made appointments for facials or Lets go to Neimans or, if she was feeling really heated, Im dying for some decent French, were going to take the plane to New York for dinner. And then, the next day, her rooms would go silent. Id arrive home from tennis practice or a study session to an ominous stillness in the house, and would find her lying in bed, with the drapes drawn shut. I have a migraine, shed whisper, but I knew that the medications she took werent for headaches at all. Maybe Tahoe wont be so bad, Benny said hopefully. Maybe itll be good for Mom. Likea spa retreat or something. She loves those. I imagined Benny and Maman rattling aimlessly around Stonehaven, trapped inside those stone walls, and it sounded like the exact opposite of a spa retreat. No, youre right, I lied. Itll probably be good for her. Sometimes you have to pretend that a bad idea is a good idea because you have no control over the outcome, and all you can do is hope that adding your false optimism to the pile might tip the scale in the right direction after all. She loves to ski, Benny offered. So do you. And youre better at it than I am. Even though Benny had turned into this strange creature, oozy and crusty and fuzzy, his room smelling like spunk despite the housekeepers best efforts, I couldnt look at him without thinking baby brother. Without thinking of the way he used to climb into my bed as a toddler and make me read him picture books, his soft little body pressing warm and needy against mine. Our parents loved us both but they loved me a tiny bit more because I was easier to love, and some part of me felt guilty about that; like, it was my job to make up for what he was missing. So I adored him unconditionally, my little brother. I still do. Sometimes, I think its the best thing about me. Certainly, its the only thing that doesnt feel hard. That day, I reached out and placed a hand on the back of Bennys neck, wondering if he still gave off superhuman heat, the way he had as a child. But he twitched at the sensation, and my hand slid off. Not anymore, he said. And so I went off to Princeton, pretending that my familys move to Lake Tahoe wasnt the end of the world. Of course, it was. Wealth is a Band-Aid, not an inoculation; and if the disease runs deep enough, it will cure nothing at all. I threw myself into life at Princetonsocial clubs, academics, parties. I fit right in, at least when it came to the social milieu (the classwork was a different story). I spoke to my mother weekly, and my brother occasionally, and nothing they said seemed alarming. Mostly, they sounded bored. I flew in for Christmas at Stonehaventhe formidable annual gathering of cousins and great-uncles and family friends with Fortune 500 surnamesand found everyone in a festive mood. We skied. We ate. We opened gifts. Everything felt normal enough; even Stonehaven seemed more welcoming than it did in my childhood memories, jammed with relatives, the kitchen ejecting a steady stream of baked goods and hot drinks. I flew back out again, reassured. Then it was March. I had just gotten home from a dorm party late one night when my phone rang. I almost didnt recognize my brothers voice: It had dropped an octave since we last spoke, and it sounded like a mans, as if he had become a completely different person in the space of a few months. Doofus, its one in the morning, I said. Time zones, remember? Youre awake, arent you? I lay back on my bed and examined the tiny chips in my manicure. What if I wasnt? Whats worth waking me up for? But inside, I already knew. Benny hesitated, dropped his voice to a whisper. Moms doing that thing where she doesnt want to get out of bed anymore. Like, as far as I can tell she hasnt left the house in a week, he said. Should I do something? What was there to do? Her moods changed, they had always changed, but they had never broken her entirely; she always came back. Talk to Dad? I offered. Hes never here. Only on the weekends, if he makes it up here at all. I cringed. Look, Ill deal with it. Really? Awesome. Youre the best. I could almost feel his relief flooding the line. But it was midterms and I was desperately behind in my classes so I didnt have the bandwidth to properly address the drama back home; the thought of my mothers storm cycles, endlessly repeating themselves, exhausted me. So dealing with it meant giving my mom a call, a half-hearted test probe: Im going to ask if you are doing OK and please give me the answer I want to hear. And she did. Oh, honestly, Im fine. She snipped off her syllables with neat, patrician bites; I heard my own voice mirrored in hers, the lack of California in our accents. (No valley drawl in my family; no surfer slang for us!) Its just a little tiring, all this snow. Id forgotten how much hassle it is. What are you doing with yourself? Are you bored? Bored? There was a slight intake of breath on the other end of the line, a hiss of annoyance. Not at all. Im working on ideas for redecorating this place. Your grandmother had such awful taste, so baroque and kitsch. Im thinking of flying out an appraiser and putting some of it up for auction. Selecting some pieces that are more appropriate to the period of the estate. It should have been reassuring, but I could hear it in my mothers voice, the stutter of exhaustion, the effort it was taking her to sound lively and alert. A miasma hung around her, of thick inertia. And by the time I came home for spring break a month later, shed slipped into the next phase in the cycle: the hyperactive one. I felt it in the air the minute I stepped inside Stonehaven: the cool crackle of tension, the brittle edge to my mothers movements as she passed from one room to the next. My first night in town, the four of us sat around the formal dining table for dinner and my mother chattered away at high speed about her redecorating plans while my father tuned her out completely, like she was a static channel on the TV. Before dessert was even served, hed pulled his phone out of his pocket, frowned at a message, and excused himself from the table. In a minute, the headlights from his Jaguar illuminated Mamans face through the window, as he headed down the drive. Her eyes were dilated and unseeing. My brother and I gave each other meaningful looks across the table. Here we go again. The next morning, Benny and I escaped Stonehaven with the excuse that we were going to get coffee in town. As we stood in line at a caf?, I kept sneaking glances at my brother. He held himself with a strange new confidence, his shoulders straighter, as if for once he wasnt trying to disappear. It appeared that he had finally learned to wash his face, and his acne was clearing. He looked good, and yet there was something distracted and aimless about him that I couldnt quite put a finger on. I was jet-lagged and distracted myself, which is probably why I didnt pay much attention to the girl that Benny was talking to at the caf?. She had materialized in line in front of us, an unremarkable teenager in ill-fitting clothes that failed to disguise her heaviness, and thick black makeup that masked whatever natural prettiness lurked underneath. Her hair was pink, a home dye job; I had to look away to avoid staring at the mess shed made of herself. Her mother, hovering nearby, was her physical opposite: blond, overtly sexy, and trying too hard. Bennys poor friend needs a makeover and some self-esteem, and clearly her mom isnt the one to give it to her, I thought idly, and then my phone began to vibrate with messages from friends back East. So it wasnt until theyd already left that I glanced at my brother and noticed the expression on his face. He took a sip of his coffee, then dropped the cup back on the saucer. What? He stared back at me. That girl What was her name? You like her. He flushed. Who said that? I pointed at the top of his shirt, where red splotches marched upward from his chest to start their onslaught of his face. Youre blushing. He put a hand on his neck, as if this might conceal the pink. Its not like that with us. The caf?s windows were fogged with steam. I peered out to see if I could catch a better look at the mystery girl, but she and her mother had already disappeared around the corner. So how is it, then? I dunno. He smiled to himself, and slid down in his chair so that his legs stuck out into the aisle, blocking the path of everyone walking by. Shes smart and she doesnt take shit from anyone. And she makes me laugh. Shes not like other people. She doesnt care who our family is. I laughed. Thats what you think. Everyone has an opinion about our family. Some people are just better at hiding it. He scowled at me. And you like that, dont you, Vanessa? You like people paying attention to you because youre rich and pretty and your family is supposedly important, dont you? Honestly, though, dont you ever want people to look at you and just see a person, instead of a Liebling? I knew the correct answer was Yes, of course. But the truth was that I didnt. I liked hiding behind the name Liebling. Because honestly, what would people see if they did look past it? A girl of no particular ability, no particular brilliance, no particular beauty; someone fun to have at the party but not someone meaningful. A person skating on top of the successes of the people who had come before her. I knew that about myself: I knew I didnt have something powerful inside me, something compelling me toward greatness. I had only good enough. (Oh, youre surprised by this little streak of self-awareness? Just because Im rich and pretty and Internet-famous doesnt mean that I havent spent my time loathing myself. More on this later.) What I did have: a name that meant that this didnt matter, in the grand scheme of things. I could earn a 3.4 GPA and still get into Princeton, because of my family. So yes, I liked being a Liebling. (Wouldnt you?) The only person in the world whose impression of me wasnt ever going to be the least bit impacted by my last name was the person sitting next to me, the person who shared that name. Benny. Whatever, doofus. If you think shes so great, maybe you should ask her out. I put down my cappuccino and leaned in. Seriously. If you like her, make a move. She wouldnt be hanging out with you all the time if she didnt like you, too. But Mom says To hell with them. What do they have to do with it? Please. Justkiss her if you like her. I guarantee shell be into it. What I didnt say: Of course shell be into it, shell be kissing a millionaire! Even if she pretends thats not an aphrodisiac, I promise you its got an appeal that she is not immune to. He squirmed a little. Its not that easy. It is that easy. Lookhave a drink first, sometimes that helps. Liquid courage. No, I mean, its not so easy because Im grounded. As of two days ago. Mom and Dad said Im not allowed to see her anymore. Wait, why? He spun the empty cup in the saucer and it splattered dregs of coffee across the chipped caf? table. They found my pot stash and blamed it on her. They think shes a bad influence. And? Is she? I reconsidered the girls black clothes, heavy makeup, the pink hair. It was true she didnt exactly give off that wholesome-Tahoe-mountain-girl vibe. They dont know her at all. When he looked at me his eyes were strangely luminous, his pupils huge, like he might be able to see things that I couldnt. I remembered his frailty thenthat he could be easily broken, just like our mother. My brother was teetering on a knifes edge; all it would take was a push in the wrong direction and he could end up tumbling off. But I thought I knew the right direction! Oh, I was so proud of myself. A girlfriend, an amour fou! That would normalize him in a way that my parents overprotectiveness would not. Look at me, I thought. Giving my brother real advice, something that might actually help him function in the real world and get out of his messed-up head. I thought I could help him in a way that our well-intended but clueless parents could not. I thought I knew how the world worked for kids like us. I was so very wrong. Benny ended up taking my advice and kissed his little friend. He kissed her and then, apparently, he fucked her. Good for Benny, right? Except that our father caught him in the act and my parents both completely lost their minds. And my brother was shipped off to a summer camp in Italy, from which he sent me morose postcards: Who knew Italy could feel like prison? And: I swear Im never talking to Mom and Dad again. And then, as the summer progressed, longer letters that were more disturbing. Do you ever hear voices talking to you when youre lying in the dark and trying to fall asleep? Because Im wondering if Im going crazy or if its just some kind of coping mechanism because I am so fucking lonely here. And then, toward the end of summer, a letter on thin blue paper that was written entirely in Italian. I do not speak Italian. I wasnt even sure it was Benny who had written it because the handwriting was so cramped and strange, except that it was his signature at the bottom. I was pretty sure he didnt speak Italian, either. I was back in San Francisco at the time, for my first summer break. I had assumed that Maman would also be there with me, but she vanished not long after I arrived, off to a spa in Malibu where they hiked five hours a day and ate only liquefied vegetables and did colonics instead of facials. She was supposed to stay for two weeks but she ended up staying for six. When she came back home, just two days before I was heading back to Princeton, she was as thin as death, her eyes popping from her tanned skull. I feel absolutely amazing, like all the filth from living was just sucked out of me, like Ive been purified, she gushed, but I could see how jittery her hands were as she pressed carrots into her fancy new juicer. I found Daddy in the library, poring over earnings statements. I think Mom needs medication. He gazed at me for a long minute. She takes Xanax. Yeah, I dont think thats helping, Dad. I dont think the spa retreats are healthy for her, either. She needs real professionals. He looked down at the papers in front of him. Your mom will be OK. She gets like this sometimes, and then she bounces back. You know that by now. Telling her she needs a therapist will just upset her more. Dad, have you looked at her? Shes skeletal. And not in a good way. My father pushed aside the top paper with the tip of his finger in order to glance at the file underneath. Id read online that my fathers position at the Liebling Group was tenuous; that my unclehis younger brotherhad just attempted a boardroom coup. The stress was visible in the pouches under my fathers eyes and the furrow bisecting his brow. But he sat back in his chair, as if hed settled something. Look. Were going back up to Stonehaven next week, after your brother gets back from camp. Lourdes is an excellent cook, shell make sure your mother is eating. Its good for her to be up there. Quiet and calm. I hesitated, wondering if I should bring up Bennys alarming letters. What would my parents do, put him on yet more drugs, orworsesend him off to some reform school? Maybe he did need help, but it also struck me that Benny had been through enough alreadyisolated in Stonehaven, shipped off to Italy, his friends monitored by Maman. Maybe he just needed to be left alone, to feel loved for once. I stood there before my father, undecided; but before I could say anything my father rose from his chair. He reached across the space between us and wrapped me in a rare hug, folding me into his chest. He smelled like starch and lemons, a whisper of whiskey on his breath. Youre a good daughter, he said. Always looking out for our family. You make us proud. And its a relief to know that we dont have to worry about you. He laughed. God knows we have enough to worry about with your brother. I could have said something about the letters then. I didnt. Because in that moment it felt like the biggest betrayal to my brother would be to set myself up in opposition to him. The easy child and the difficult child. I couldnt do that to him again. So back to Princeton I went, and that was the last I ever saw of my mother. Eight weeks later, she would be dead. My mother died on the last Tuesday of October. I still hate myself for letting the weeks before her death slide by; for failing to note the fact that she wasnt calling me to check in. But I had a new, all-consuming boyfriend; and then I dumped him; and then there was another; and then my grades were tanking (again) because of the boys; and then I needed a distraction from all that so I organized a weekend trip to the Bahamas. When I returned, tanned and just a little spun out, it finally occurred to me that my mother was MIA. Even then, it still took me a few days to rally myself to pick up the phone, as if I was afraid what might be waiting for me on the other end of the line. Her voice, when she finally answered the phone, sounded like a cloudy day, flat and affectless and gray. Your father has been having an affair. She was as matter-of-fact as if she was informing me of the outcome of an opera board meeting. Downstairs in my dorm, a party was going on, Eminem blasting so loud that the floor under my feet was vibrating. I wasnt sure Id heard her correctly. Daddy? Are you sure? How do you know? There was a letter. She swallowed the end of the sentence, mumbled something I couldnt hear. Girls were shrieking with laughter down the hall. I covered the phone with my palm and screamed out the door, Shut up shut up SHUT UP! There was a sudden, resounding silence, and then I could hear them giggle. Vanessa Liebling has lost her shit. I didnt care. An affair. But of course: Thats why hed been spending his weekdays in San Francisco, instead of at Stonehaven with his family. Maybe thats even why hed moved them to Stonehaven in the first placeto keep them separate from his mistress. Poor Maman. No wonder shed been such a wreck for so long. I wasnt shocked, though; of course I wasnt. My father was hideously ugly, objectively speaking; but that wasnt what mattered to some women. Power is its own aphrodisiac. And the lure of taking what already belongs to someone elseeven more powerful. Most of my mothers friends had already gone through a society divorce, their husbands now married to much younger women (gold-diggers/trophy wives/tacky whores) while they resettled themselves in Four Seasons penthouses with generous divorce settlements. So of course Daddy had affairs; it was an inevitability. Is Daddy there right now? I asked. She laughed, and it was a terrible sound, like stones rattling inside an empty box. Your father is never here, darling. He sent us up here to rot, your brother and me, up in this awful house where we cant embarrass him anymore. Like, whats that novel? Jane Eyre. Were the mad relatives hes shut up in the attic. He thinks my family is the one with the bad genes but lets talk about his I cut her off. Is he in San Francisco? I think hes in Florida, she said, sounding uninterested. Or maybe Japan. Now it was Snoop Dogg on the stereo downstairs, singing in his nasal, soporific drawl. Maman, can I talk to Benny? Oh, I dont think thats a good idea. What do you mean? Bennys not himself. Not himself how? Well. A pause. To start he says hes vegan now. He says he wont eat anything with a face. Apparently hes conversing with the meat on his plate. I thought of his letters. Oh God, everything is going to hell out there. Im going to come home, OK? No, she said darkly. You stay there and focus on your studies. I wanted to reach through the phone and wrap my arms around her until she sounded like herself again. Maman Vanessa. I dont want you here. Her voice was chilly. But, Maman I love you, darling. Now, Ive got to go. She hung up. Sitting in my dorm room, listening to the revelry all around me, I wept. Id been excommunicated. My mother had always wanted me; I was all she wanted. How could she shut me down like that? How could she take away my home? In retrospect, I can see what she was doing: She wanted to wound me in order to keep me away. Because she must have already known then, what her plan was: How she was going to untie our yacht, the Judybird, from the dock and drive it toward the exact center of the lake the following morning right after Benny had gone to school. How she would drop anchor and then put on her silk bathrobe with the enormous pockets, pockets that she would weigh down with a half-dozen first-edition law books that she took from the library. How she would jump off the boat into the chilly, choppy water, and drown there. She didnt want me there for all that. Even in the end, she wanted to protect me. I should have seen it then. I should have realized when it mattered what she was trying to do. Instead of doing what I didcalling my father at his office in San Francisco (he was doing business in Tokyo, his assistant told me) and leaving messages for Benny (also unanswered)I should have booked a flight home right away. As it was, it took me far too long to finally work myself up into a panic and get on an airplane to Reno. By the time the town car deposited me at Stonehaven, my mother had been missing for almost a day. They found the Judybird floating in the center of the lake, a few hours after I arrived in town. My mothers robe was tangled in the rudder. She hadnt made it to the bottom at all, but had drowned within arms reach of the surface, one strong kick away from life. So, now do you feel sorry for me after all? Not that Im pandering for your sympathy (OK, maybe I am, just a little; isnt any shared story just a cry to be understood?), but if nothing else makes me human, I think a dead mother certainly will. In the end, we are all our mothers children, no matter how saintly or evil they might be; and the loss of their love is the earthquake that cracks your foundation forever. Its permanent damage. And then, amplifying that: suicide. Yes, yes, of course, its part of a disease, but still, a mothers suicide leaves you with a whisper of self-doubt that will never, ever go away. It leaves you with questions whose answers will never be satisfying. Was I not worth living for? Whats wrong with me that my love wasnt enough for you? Why didnt I know the thing to say that would have made you want to live again? Why didnt I get to you sooner, and talk you out of it? Was I in any way responsible for what you did? Twelve years on, and I still wake up in the middle of the night, panicked, with these questions echoing through my mind. Twelve years on, and Im still terrified that her death was somehow all my fault. Maybe I should have confronted my father about his affair, but in the months after my mothers death, he was so despondent that I couldnt bring myself to ask. And besides, there were other, more pressing issues: the fragile state of Benny, for example, who could barely be dragged out of the house now, and refused to go to North Lake Academy entirely. (Sometimes when I lurked outside his door I could hear him holding low conversations with someone who wasnt there.) Someone had to decide what to do with the Judybird, which was now dry-docked in the boathouse, a hideous reminder. Someone needed to pack up Stonehaven, where no one now wanted to be, and move us back to our Pacific Heights house. This also meant that someone needed to find a new school for Benny, one that would overlook his precarious psychological state. I was in no shape to do any of that. It felt like Id been driving on high speed and suddenly Id crashed and come to a complete stop. Some mornings I woke up and looked out at the lake and thought of my mother jumping over the edge of the Judybird and felt the same dark tug. My fathers brother and sister-in-law arrived, with toddlers and nannies in tow, to help address the mess left in my mothers wake; and my mothers personal secretary was assigned to the crisis; but even then I couldnt make myself go back to school. I took the rest of the semester off from Princeton and spent my afternoons sitting in the study with Benny, blinds drawn, watching West Wing reruns in silence. Eventually, a friend of my mothers located a boarding school in Southern California that specialized in equine therapy, as if all Benny needed was a vigorous horseback ride to shake off both his grief and his incipient madness. It seemed as good an idea as any. We left Stonehaven in early January. On our last night there, Lourdes cooked lasagna. My father, Benny, and I sat and ate in the formal dining room, with the crystal and the silver, our first proper meal as a family since my mothers death. Lourdes cried as she served us. My father cut his lasagna into perfect squares and forked them one by one into his mouth, as if eating was a chore that had to be endured. The skin under his eyes sagged like deflating balloons; dry red crescents framed the side of his nose, chapped from blowing. Benny glowered at my father across the table, not touching his meal. And then: You killed Mom, he blurted. My fathers fork stopped in midair, cheese strings dangling from the tines. You dont mean that. Oh, I do, Benny said. Thats what you do. You destroy peoples lives. You destroyed mine, and then you destroyed Moms. Your business, everything you do, is about leeching the life out of other people. You dont know what youre talking about, my father said quietly to the lasagna. You were having an affair, Benny said. He pushed his plate away from him and it knocked over his water glass. Liquid slowly spread across the table toward our fathers plate. Mom killed herself because you cheated on her. My father reached out with his napkin and carefully lay it across the puddle of water. No, your mother killed herself because she was ill. You made her ill. This place made her ill. Benny stood. He threw a long spindly arm out and swiped it through the air, as if trying to chop Stonehaven in half. I swear to God, if you ever drag me back here after tomorrow, Im going to burn this fucking place to the ground. Benjamin, sit down. But Benny was already gone; we could hear him galloping heavily across the wooden floors, before he was swallowed up by the depths of the house. My father picked up his fork again and carefully tucked a piece of lasagna into his mouth. He swallowed like it hurt, and then looked across the table at me. There was a grim satisfaction in his expression, as if hed been waiting for weeks (years!) for someone to hit him, and the blow had finally come. Now he was relieved it was over and he could move on. It will help your brother to not be here, I think. This place reminds him too much of your mother. I swallowed against the thick lump in my throat. Then, after a minute, I asked the question I had been afraid to ask for months: The other woman Are you still with her? God, no! She meant nothing. He weighed the silver fork in his hand. Look. I was not always a good husband to your mother, I know. We had our issues, just like any married couple. But you need to believe me that I did my best to protect her. I knew she wasfragile. I did what I thought was best for her. He pointed the fork at me. Just like I try to do whats best for you and your brother. I could see my father studying my face, trying to measure how much anger I was harboring against him. And maybe I was angry (I was! I was so angry), but Id already lost one parent. I couldnt bear to lose two. It was easier to direct my fury toward the faceless mistress, the opportunistic bitch in her San Francisco flat who tried (and succeeded!) to tear our family apart. I know, Daddy, I said. I stabbed at my lasagna, splattering marinara sauce across the white china, imagining his mistresss guts splashed across my plate. He watched me eviscerate my lasagna for a moment, alarm in his face. Then he put his own fork down on the plate and aligned it with the edge of his knife. We have to keep up appearances, cupcake. Were Lieblings. No one gets to see whats in our basement and no one ever should; there are wolves out there, waiting to drag us down at the first sign of weakness. You can never, ever let people see the moments when youre not feeling strong. So youll go back to your life and smile and be your charming self, and move forward from this. He looked up at me, and for the first time since my mothers suicide, there were tears in his eyes. But no matter what, you should know that I love you. More than anything. We left Stonehaven the following morning, leaving behind rooms cloaked in dustcloths, the windows shuttered tightly against the elements. A fortune of gleaming antiques and priceless artwork, a veritable museum that would be locked up and left in limbo for the next decade. Im not sure why my father never sold Stonehavenmaybe out of some deference to Lieblings past, a sense of duty to the unbroken chain of our ancestrybut he didnt. And none of us ever went up there again, not until the day I showed up last spring with a moving truck in tow. My mothers death broke something essential in the rest of us, and the next few years unspooled with one crisis after another. I returned to Princeton and promptly flunked a half-dozen classes; I was put on academic probation and forced to repeat my sophomore year. Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, the Liebling Group was contending with the market crash. As the value of its real estate holdings plummeted, my father was ousted as chairman of the board in favor of his younger brother. But it was Benny who was in the worst shape of all. Poor Benny. He had squeaked by at boarding school (maybe the horses did help) but by the time he arrived at Princeton, his disease had started to take over his mind. I would spy him on campus sometimes, wearing head-to-toe black, flying through the crowds of students like a disoriented crow. He had finally reached his full height of six-six, but he bent himself almost in half as he scurried, as though this might make him invisible. I heard through the grapevine that he was doing a lot of drugs, hard stuff: meth and cocaine. Just a few months into his fall semester, Bennys roommate moved out abruptly. When I went to visit the room myself I understood why: Benny had covered his side with disturbing pen-and-ink drawings, mazes of black scribbles that suggested an ominous tunnel, with the eyes of monsters hidden in the shadows. They papered the wall from floor to ceiling, Bennys nightmares come to life. I stood looking at these, fear knocking dully in my chest. Maybe keep these in your notebook next time? I suggested. Try not to creep out the new roommate? Bennys eyes flew back and forth across the images, as if they were a puzzle he was still trying to solve. He couldnt hear them, he said. Hear what? His eyes drooped at the corners; purple bruises darkened the patches of freckles under his eyes. Disappointment colored his face. You dont, either, do you? Benny, you need to see the school therapist. But Benny was already back at his desk, with a fresh pen and paper in his hand. I could see deep black scratches in the surface of the desk, where hed scribbled so hard that it went all the way through the paper. When I let myself out of the room I stood out in the hallway for a long time, panicked, on the verge of tears. Normal kids crossed back and forth in the hall before me, on their way to football games and concerts; they skirted past Bennys room, as if the very door itself were infectious. It broke my heart. I called the campus medical center and asked to speak to a doctor. Instead, I got a harried-sounding nurse. Unless he does something to harm himself, or threatens another student, theres not much we can do, she told me. He has to come to us of his own volition. Two weeks later, the campus police were called to Bennys dorm in the middle of the night. Hed walked into the room of a girl who lived down the hall from him and climbed into bed with her in the dark. He wrapped his arms around her, as if she was a teddy bear, then cried and begged her to protect him against some thing that was coming to get him. She woke up screaming. He ran off into the night. When the authorities finally found him, he was naked and raving in the bushes outside the library. The psychiatric ward at the hospital diagnosed Benny with schizophrenia. My father flew in on his plane and retrieved him to take him back home to the Bay Area. I cried when they left me behind in New Jersey, but before he boarded the plane my father pulled me in close and hugged me. He breathed in my ear, so that my brother couldnt hear. You need to keep it together now, cupcake. I didnt. Did I mention before that I dropped out of Princeton? Not my finest moment. But I was on the verge of failing anyway, and there was an engineering student Id met who was starting up a dot-com that needed financing. I had that trust fund just sitting there so I thought, Ill be an investor! An entrepreneur! Who needs college anyway? Daddy would forgive me for dropping out when I proved my business acumen, I figured; hed be so proud when I made my first million on my own. Anyway. It didnt end well, but thats a different story. That year was the beginning of my brothers long decade of recovery and relapse: manic wanderings through the streets of San Francisco that would end in back-alley methamphetamine binges; months of seeming normalcy punctuated by suicide attempts. A phalanx of psychologists calibrated and recalibrated his drugs, failing to get the balance right; often, hed refuse to take them altogether because they made him feel dull and drowsy. Finally, my father committed him to a luxury residential psychiatric care facility in Mendocino County: the Orson Institute. By that point Id given up on the dot-com and moved to New York City, but I would visit Benny at Orson whenever I came back to California. The facility was outside Ukiah, a woodsy area in the Mendocino coastal range full of meditation retreats and clothing-optional resorts where aging hippies lounged in mineral-crusted hot springs. The Orson Institute was a pleasant enough place, a big modern facility with rolling lawns and views over the hills. There were only a few dozen patients, who spent their days doing art therapy, tending to an impressive vegetable garden, and eating gourmet meals cooked by Michelin chefs. This was where families like ours stashed problem relativesanorexic wives, grandfathers with dementia, children who liked to set things on fire. Benny fit right in. The medication they gave Benny made him spacey and soft. His belly protruded over the elastic of his sweatpants now. His primary daily occupation was wandering the property in search of insects that he would capture in plastic baby food jars. His suite was decorated with drawings of spindle-legged spiders and shiny centipedes, but at least the monsters that he doodled were real now, and they didnt talk back to him. Even though it broke my heart to see him so defanged, I knew that at least here he was safe. I sometimes wondered what had misfired in Bennys brain, and how much of his illness he had inherited from our mother. Was her faulty wiring the same as his? As we took walks around the Orson Institute grounds I would watch my brother aimlessly ambling, purposeless, going nowhere, and experience a pang of guilt: Why him and not me? (And then, accompanying this, a dull twinge at the back of my brain, a nagging question: What if it was me, too, and I just didnt know it yet?) Driving away, though, what I usually felt was simple rage. I knewI know it nowthat schizophrenia is a disease, written into the brain from birth. But there had to be some alternate version of Bennys life where none of this happened; where he was a normal kid, maybe with some mood swings (like me!), but at least able to function in the world. Surely the trajectory of his life was not supposed to be this, just as my mothers suicide should never have occurred. I called Bennys doctor at the Orson Institute, and posed my question to him. Why Benny? Why now? Schizophrenia is genetic, though there can also be exacerbating external factors, too, he said. Like what? I asked. I could hear him shuffling papers in the background. Well, your brother was quite a drug user. And drug usage doesnt cause schizophrenia, per se, but it can trigger symptoms in people who are susceptible. Hearing this, the timeline started to snap into place: Bennys first psychotic episodes coincided with the period at Tahoe when he started doing drugs. The bad news girlfriendwhat was her name? Nina. My mom had been right, after all. Id given him terrible advice that day: I should have warned him away from her instead of encouraging him. (Amour fou, crazy love Jesus, what had I been thinking?) Oh God, maybe it was even my fault hed ended up so ill. After all, I was also the one who didnt flag Bennys behavior to my parents sooner, who didnt tell my father about the Italian letters or drive Benny to the Princeton therapist myself. My fear of hurting Benny had just let him hurt himself. Sometimes, as I flew back across the country from the Orson Institute, I would imagine an alternate life for us. A life in which my parents had stayed in San Francisco, and my brother had found some kind of therapeutic school before it was too late, and my father hadnt had an affair. A life in which the isolation of Stonehaven hadnt hurtled both my mother and brother over a cliff that they never managed to climb back up. Maybe it was possible that all thisthe schizophrenia, the suicidecould have been avoided (or at least mitigated!). Maybe my mother would still be alive and my brothers issues would be manageable and my father would be stable and we would all be just fine. Happy, even! An optimistic fantasy, of course, but one that grew in power as the years ground on: the lost possibility of an alternate universe, one that spun correctly on its axis, one that hadnt been knocked off kilter by forces I couldnt quite comprehend.

  • WALL-E / - (Disney, 2012)    WALL-E / - (Disney,
  • Winston The Wizard / - (Williams, 2014)    Winston The Wizard /
  • Rory Wants a Pet /     (Pritchard, 2014)    Rory Wants a Pet /
  • Mulan /  (Disney, 2012)    Mulan / (Disney, 2012)

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