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In the blood

In the Blood
by Lisa Unger
In The Blood 1 The winter day was gray and cool, not frigid as it had been. But still it was a very typical January day in upstate New York--barren, chill, flat. I rode my bike around the small, deserted campus, reveling in a quiet that is at its most total right before everyone returns from winter break. The trees were bare, twisted fingers reaching up into the thick, low cloud cover. I had just returned to school from an unbearable holiday spent with my unbearable aunt and unbearable cousins. (And I know for a fact that they feel exactly the same way about me.) But we did bear up, because that's what family does, isn't it? We bear up, together, like it or not. And so they tolerated the dark-haired, dark-eyed sulking interloper, a wraith in their sunny, golden-haired midst. And I tolerated their terrible happy togetherness. But I knew, and so did they, that I had not quite been folded in. I was a cockroach in the batter of their sweet lives. Too polite to remove me, they ate around me. I can't fault them, really. Because they are kind and good, and they took me in against all advice and good sense. And I do try to be polite, and they do, as well. And we are all very good at enduring unhappiness, especially my aunt, who had a great deal of practice early on. "I have created my life," she said, in one of the torturous heart-to-hearts she tried to have with me. "And you're smart enough to do the same." She believes that, she really does. She thinks that we are made and not born, that it is the power of choice that forms our lives. With enough positive energy and good feng shui we can overcome almost anything. She's one of those, the magical thinkers. I think I envy her, even if I can hardly suppress my disdain. It was that time, with graduation right around the corner, when people wanted to know what you were going to do with your life. Graduate school seemed like a good bet, if for no other reason than it delayed my emergence from the freedom and indulgence of academics into the world of alarm clocks and ambition, and nine-to-five. I couldn't see myself sitting in a cube somewhere--file cabinets and ringing phones, office birthday cakes and paper cuts. What was a psychology major fit for, if not for more education? The human mind, with all its mystery, bears endless study. Doesn't it? But if I hadn't quite made any decisions on that front, I knew one thing. I needed a job. There was money for everything--for school and housing, for books and extras. My parents, whatever their failings, had made sure of it. There was an account, and I had a lawyer whom I called if I needed something: Skylar Lawrence, the man with the checkbook. He always sounded young on the phone, like a teenage girl. But he was old, ancient even--stooped and bald, draped in expensive suits, sporting gold-rimmed spectacles. He had known my parents for many years, and was the executor of my mother's estate and manager of my trust. We'd met a couple of times over the years--solemn visits in his office, where he droned on about the status of my mother's investments, budgets, conditions of the trust. I would sit, nodding sagely, with no idea what he was talking about, too shy to ask many questions. When I thought of him, which was really only when I needed money, I always envisioned him dwarfed in his huge leather chair, with his stunning view of Manhattan spread about him like a glittering carpet. With a gnarled hand, he'd press a button and money would appear in my checking account. I know: a trust-fund baby, how annoying. Believe it, you wouldn't want to be me. During my last conversation with Sky, he suggested that I might find some work since my class schedule was light. "It would be a good thing for you," he said. I heard a sharp inhale and slow exhale. He was a smoker; there was an occasional edge to his otherwise youthful voice, sudden bursts of wet, rattling coughs. "To earn something of your own." "Okay," I said. I always said that. It was my stock response when I didn't know what to say. "Because you're an adult now," he went on, as though I'd put up an argument. "And you need to decide what you are going to make of your life. Earning your own way is part of that." "You sound like Aunt Bridgette." I heard the hiss of a match lighting, and he drew in another breath sharply. I suppose it wasn't a stretch to think that this was a scheme they'd hatched together. We choose who we are, she'd said over break, certainly not for the first time. And I could tell that it was important to her that I believe that. We don't inherit everything. "Am I out of money or something?" I asked. "Not yet," he said. "But as you know, there is a period of diminished support after graduation. You won't come into your trust until you're thirty. It was your mother's wish that you find your calling, and earn your own way." "Right," I said. Of course, I knew this. Both Sky and Bridgette had mentioned it repeatedly. But somehow it had always seemed so very far away, that time when I'd spread my wings and fly on my own. Here I was, on the edge of the academic nest and looking down. I had no idea whether I'd take to the air or crash into a pile of bones. "So, when you say 'diminished support,' you mean . . . ?" He told me the small yearly sum I would receive, just to help make ends meet and to provide for some extras should I have a low-paying job. "Your mother wanted you to follow your dreams, make a difference. It was her hope that you'd help people. She didn't want you to choose your career based on how much it paid, but she did want you to do something." Of course, no one ever mentioned my father or what he wanted from me. "I know," I said. "I will." So, that first day back after my winding, solitary bike ride around campus, I walked to the office of student affairs to gaze at the job board. I was weirdly excited. I liked the idea of doing something other than studying, which I had been doing diligently for years. I had been the valedictorian of my high school class. I had a perfect 4.0 average at university. Knowledge and the regurgitation of such in the form of essay and exam came very easily to me. It was everything else that came hard. Dog walker? Coffeehouse waitress? Bookstore clerk? Librarian assistant? Math tutor? The board was a colorful riot of help-wanted notices, and the possibilities seemed endless. The office assistant was typing behind me. Beside me the phone rang three times, went silent, then started ringing again. I ripped off little paper tags with phone numbers on them. I imagined myself tugged down the street by five dogs with bladders about to burst, or rushing between bistro tables delivering espressos to the undercaffeinated, or quietly filing homeless books, putting them in proper order. Is that what my mom would have wanted for me? Did these jobs qualify as helping people? "What about this one?" Startled from my reverie, I saw my psychology professor lingering nearby. He was looking at yet another board brimming with offers. So many people with menial needs, offering positions to those of us desperate for pocket money. It was a sub-economy: easy jobs for overprivileged youth. It seemed like an inside joke. While the larger economy faltered and the working poor labored tirelessly only to make ends meet, some of us drifted on a silly cloud, only asking to receive. Or maybe that's just me being cynical. I walked over to stand beside him. He was squinting through his glasses as he pulled a notice off the board and handed it to me. " 'Single mother looking for afternoon help with her eleven-year-old son,' " I read. " 'After school through dinner, some overnights.' " "Should work with your schedule," he said easily. I had mentioned to him my need for a job before break and he'd promised to be on the lookout for something suitable. In addition to being my teacher, he was also my school counselor. He'd come to the university shortly after I started. And we'd always walked the line of friendship, which was easier now that I was older. Langdon Hewes was a study in propriety. We had only met in public places, or with the door to his office wide open. He was too young to be so cautious, but he hinted at having had some kind of negative past experience. And I didn't pry--because I certainly didn't want to talk about my past either. He ran a hand through the perpetual tousle of his dark hair, and looked down at me from his towering height. "Nanny?" I said, skeptical. "More like babysitter," he said. "What's the difference?" He shrugged, looked up. He had this way of searching the sky or the ceiling for his answers. He'd tilt his head up and squint into nothingness, as if it were all there in the ether, just waiting to be found. "Nannies are for little kids," he said finally. "It's more of a full-time position. Babysitting is, like, more casual, more as needed." He said this with a firm nod that brooked no questioning. Even though he surely knew nothing about nannies or babysitters, I took him at his word. He did have a Ph.D. in child psychology, was the known expert in childhood psychopathy. He'd published several articles in major consumer magazines--including the New York Times Magazine, Psychology Today, Vanity Fair, as well as the ever-important academic journals. Publish or perish; it was no joke at this school. He was currently at work on a book, a collection of case studies that was, he hoped, a blend between a text and something more mainstream. So maybe his opinion on this topic counted for something. At least that's what I told myself. I held the ad in my hand. Unlike the other pink and green and yellow sheets, with their fun or fancy typefaces, this was just a plain white paper, with centered Times New Roman text. It offered nothing but its own simplicity. A need in black and white, waiting to be filled. "You only have three classes this term," he said. "Mine, criminal psychology, and art. Light load. Never a good idea to have too much time on your hands." I wouldn't call him handsome, but there was something pleasant about his aspect. Even his slouch, his perfectly pressed oxfords and chinos (sometimes jeans), those Merrell cross-training shoes, had a kind of comforting predictability. With Langdon, there were never any surprises. My own inner life was always chaotic, churning. I wondered what it was like to be so even, so measured. His presence never failed to calm me. "I'll be your reference." "I don't have any babysitting experience." "You're a psych major," he said. "There was your internship at Fieldcrest. You were fabulous with the kids." He said this with a smile, as though it was a little private joke. "You got an A in my class." My work at Fieldcrest, a school associated with the university for troubled and emotionally challenged young people, had been intense, to say the least. I was pleased that he thought I'd done a good job there. It was the first time he'd said so out loud, even though the internship evaluation he'd written had been glowing. I shifted forward, closer to him, feeling a little jolt of excitement. There was something about the paper in my hand, about his being there, about the prospect of something new in my life. I fished my phone from my backpack and dialed the number as we walked into his office. I sat across from his desk and he sat, spun to face his computer, and started typing. "My name is Lana Granger," I said when a woman answered. "I'm answering your ad." "Oh, great," she said. She sounded slightly breathless. I heard paper rustling in the background. "Can you come for an interview today?" Outside the window, it seemed like a ray of sun had broken through the cloud cover and I saw a little bit of blue in the sky for what seemed like the first time in months. "Uh," I said stupidly. I hadn't expected things to progress so quickly. But why not? I guess when you needed a sitter, you really needed a sitter. I looked at my wrist only to realize that I wasn't wearing a watch. I didn't even own a watch. And I knew that I had nothing whatsoever to do that day anyway. "Sure." "Perfect," she said. She sounded bright and cheerful; nice, I guess. "After lunch, say twoish?" We made all the arrangements, exchanged necessary information like her address ( just a quick bike ride away from campus), her name (Rachel Kahn, son Luke), my phone number. After I hung up, Langdon turned to look at me. He had an odd expression on his face, something I couldn't read. But he was like that, a total brain, his mind always working, figuring, developing theories. "Good work," he said. "I didn't do anything," I answered. "It was just a phone call." "Today is the beginning of your real life," he said. "This could be your first actual job." I couldn't tell if he was making fun of me in that sweet, gentle way that he had. But I found myself smiling at him. It did feel like kind of a big deal, and my stomach was a little fluttery with happiness. And I was glad I had him to share it with. "I'll take you out to lunch to celebrate," he said. "Let's go get some pizza." I thought about my aunt Bridgette, who is not really so unbearable. Seriously. It's only that she's not my mother. Though I know she cares for me, she doesn't love me. Only a child who has lost a mother knows how yawning and uncrossable is the space between those two things. Just because horrible things have happened to you doesn't mean you can't have a happy, normal life, she'd said to me once. I had felt sorry for her, only because I suspected that she might be wrong. I was marked, wasn't I? Forever? But for whatever silly reason as we left Langdon's office, I let myself wonder if maybe she was right after all. Excerpted from In the Blood by Lisa Unger All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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In the blood