Invitation to a Bonfire (6 page)


Donne Girls Spring Into a New Role

From the
Gosling Herald
, April 15, 1927

MAPLE HILL, NJ. Every year the Donne School student body is faced with a problem: how do you throw a good spring formal with no gentleman dance partners? This year, thrifty girls got into the spirit of making-do and decided to use the number-one resource they had on hand: other girls.

A week before the Mix-n-Match Fling, every student entering the caf was asked to throw her name into a hat, and once a quorum was achieved, half the names were drawn to play the role of women, and half were drawn to play the role of men. The lists, posted outside the dorms after dinner that night, caused a great deal more excitement than your usual spring dance theme.

Some girls (we aren't allowed to call them
sad sacks
in print, but readers may draw their own conclusions) were disappointed to find themselves assigned to the male gender, though most (including this reporter) accepted the responsibility with the enthusiasm it required. The girls assigned as “girls” were also looking forward to the event. “I feel like I'm about to meet my new beau!” a sophomore from Rhode Island was heard to say, followed by a cascade of appreciative laughter.

The night of the dance, Donne girls (and boys) were surprised to find the gentlemen better outfitted than the ladies—and slightly outnumbering
them. It turned out that finding a decent “boy's” outfit was such good sport that even some of the assigned “girls” got in on the fun. Never let it be said that our ladies don't relish a challenge! When asked about the meticulous detailing on his cravat, one Donne “boy” (also known as Sharon Lisby) looked affronted and replied quite witheringly, “Of course I wore my very best. What else would be good enough for these young beauties?” Well put.

In the days since this successful party, it's safe to say that all the Donne girls are looking at their classmates with renewed admiration. Margaret Rathburn of New Canaan, Connecticut, described the suit she'd acquired as “one of [her] new favorite ensembles” and the dress she chose for her roommate, Zoe Andropov, as “entirely demure,” adding, “She sat there like a little angel and let me do her face. Turns out she has lovely eyes, once she lets someone line them!” Miss Andropov, tucked in the corner of the room as this reporter conducted her interview, was seen to blush. She did, indeed, look becoming with pink cheeks.

is firm in our opinion that the Mix-n-Match Fling indicates triumphant future endeavors for the entire Donne School community. After all, if we can make gentlemen out of ladies, what can't we transform to our advantage?

Editor's note: Found in the Andropov diary, with several passages underlined in felt pen.




A few times in the following months, Cindy and Adeline badgered me back into the library to try and contact more spirits, though we didn't have much luck. They pared down the people and the accessories, so it was just the three of us, and instead of candles they brought cigarettes. Mostly we sat around while they smoked. There was just one other occasion worth mentioning. It was early in the spring of my second and final year, when the grass was still covered with frozen dew in the mornings, and they made me show up before first bell, slipping a note under my door to indicate the time and place. I walked over with a scarf pulled tight around my neck, coat hanging off my shoulders, grumbling inwardly about missing breakfast. I'd become very fond of morning coffee, and without it I felt sluggish and low. Scratchy throat, itchy nose. Icy wind and early pollen. As I approached the library Cindy poked her head out of the door and indicated I should hurry, so I picked up into a jog and followed her to the basement, rolling my eyes just a bit.

There was another girl there, no one I knew, who introduced herself as Caroline Geiss. A fellow fourth-year and an aficionado of field hockey, hailing from Minnesota. Her legs were covered in bruises, which she wore with pride.

“What are we doing here so early?” I asked, throwing my bag down and shaking the cold morning out of my hair. “Grades? Peeking into the future?” I looked at Cindy and waved my fingers. “Woo-ooh?”

“Why don't you tell her?” Cindy said to Caroline. The girl colored, which was unexpected. All those muscles and wounds, she seemed like the type who could hold her own.

“My friend,” she said. “I miss her.” Apparently, before her parents shipped her off to New Jersey, Caroline had been close with a girl named Laura Shipman, who she'd known since childhood. During the first week of classes at the Donne School, Caroline found out that Laura had had a bad reaction to a bee sting, and had died following a severe attack of anaphylactic shock. Her parents wouldn't agree to bring her back for the funeral, for financial reasons or something else that Caroline wouldn't go into. Now here she was, and as she looked at me her spine straightened out with hope and sincerity. “They said you could talk to her.”

“I don't know.” I frowned. It seemed unkind to promise anything when my past attempts had ended so badly.

“But you can at least
, right?” Adeline tugged my hair until it hurt, and I slapped her hand away. Then I nodded. Because really, why not?

“We better hurry, though, if we want to get out of here before classes start.”

The four of us sat in a circle, Caroline fidgeting beside me. Cindy and Adeline started reciting that same strange poem that always sent me into a stupor, and I closed my eyes, waiting. I didn't expect anything to happen, not again. I thought we'd sit there for five or six minutes growing increasingly bored, until someone stood up and said they were going to get an apple before the caf closed, and that would be that. But then there was a breeze on my face, the scent of clover and cut grass. I reached out and took Caroline's hand, and she squeezed it, tightly.

“Laura?” she asked. “Is it you?”

“Yes,” I said.

I knew it was really me, but then again, I didn't. I was playing the game the way they wanted me to, and for a second it was sweet. A rush of familiarity and bubblegum, swimming pools full of chlorine and toys that could float. It fuzzed around my awareness, bleaching out parts of me I knew to be basic: language, history, loss. And the girls surrounded me with sudden interest, whispering, “Laura, Laura,” as if they all knew and adored
me. When I peeked out at their faces to see again if they were joking, they opened their eyes one by one and beamed at me with total love. A moment in which we were infatuated with each other. And then, the room grew uneasy. Maybe I smiled too wide. Maybe they just came to their senses. When I started squeezing back on Caroline's hand, I felt the bones beneath her skin crunching together like a fistful of crab's legs, and she tried to tug it away. But I tightened my fingers and pulled her towards me, crashing her head into my shoulder a bit harder than I intended to, and holding her there.

“Ouch,” she said. First a whisper in my ear, and then a yelp, a shout, as the others came to her rescue. “Ouch! Get off me!” I gave her one last tug, then let go.

Those girls, they liked me so easily and so much the second they saw me as one of their own.
Laura, Laura
. A girl from their same world, where houses got drafty from size instead of poor craftsmanship, and your uncle came by just to take you and your girlfriends out for chocolate milkshakes, which you sucked up through colored straws. Where you slept in on Saturdays, and could accomplish anything you set your mind to, and where you were given a bright red bicycle with streamers on the handlebars, which whistled as you rode. They'd never known how to make do, to sew the covers back onto old schoolbooks. To sneak into the cloakroom at restaurants and gather tobacco from men's coat pockets in order to make a cigarette with which to bribe the greengrocer. To watch their parents turn into strangers before their eyes, and then be told by those strangers that they didn't deserve any more than what others had, because why would they? The girls didn't want to know those things. And they were equally afraid of the fact that I did, and that I could shed the appearance of that knowledge so quickly. Like slipping out of a skin.

Or maybe they were just scared about the tightness of my grip, the red lines I left on Caroline's hand, and the bruise that formed there the next morning. Not my chameleon face but my strong fingers. None of them ever talked to me again after that. But it didn't occur to me for some time how ordinary and impersonal their fear might have been.


As it turned out, I had bigger problems at school that year than rooming or even ghosts. I had to think about graduation. A concept that had somehow never occurred to me until it was almost on top of me: a hasty exeunt to an invisible offstage. Where could I go? What expertise could I offer? Other girls, I knew, were planning on college or secretarial school, or being set up in New York by their parents. A few were going home to Boston to help their mothers throw DAR parties, and at least one from our class married a dentist and moved to Detroit, having first spent three months showing off her ring and moaning about the impossibility of wedding dinner place cards. One joined the circus, I think. The actual circus. She said she was starting out as a makeup girl but planned to work her way up to an acrobat. I couldn't tell if she was serious, but like the rest she disappeared in a car after graduation and never came back.

Whatever wartime good graces landed me in Maple Hill to begin with had long since worn off. As the date of my dorm eviction loomed I haunted the mailroom, hoping for a letter from the Office of Orphans that had paid my tuition. Perhaps, I thought, they knew a wealthy benefactor. Perhaps they could set me up as someone's assistant. I could make a passable campfire with twigs and leaves and a single match; I could negotiate black-market transactions using only nylon stockings for currency. There had to be something I could contribute to, but despite my fine secondary school education I had no idea what this might be. A university was out of the question, because it cost money, and I thought with some bitterness about the wealthy Moscow girls who'd fled ahead of me to Europe and the new world, their furs and jewel earrings one day scattering to the wind as if they expected to be next in line for a bludgeoning now that the Romanovs were gone. At first I had been glad to be rid of them, elated to skate through a Moscow magically lightened of its bratty debutantes. But as winter lifted and my father disappeared, I did come to find some pity for them, deep within me—pity that they had been forced to leave home and all that they found dear. Now, thousands of miles away and years later, I realized they
were fine. Probably getting ready to matriculate at Radcliffe or Sarah Lawrence, or else perhaps the Sorbonne. The revolution having changed—nothing. Vera once took issue with me on this point, arguing about lost estates and bank accounts absorbed into the national fund, but I'm fairly certain she arrived in Paris with diamonds sewn into her skirt hems.

Well, I shouldn't say the revolution changed nothing. It took my parents, after all.

That last semester as a Donne student I shook out the Moscow lilac seeds I'd saved and used my father's method to sprout them, first soaking them and letting them rest in a wet towel before transplanting them into a window box. I had, at that point, a deep sense that no more good would ever come to me from the country I'd abandoned, and those lilacs were the first hint that maybe I was wrong. The first hint that maybe what I deserved would not be the same as what I got—that I might do better. By making some educated guesses and reading a few pamphlets suggested by the Donne School gardening staff, I managed to adjust the mineral content in the soil just enough for the seeds to germinate and bloom. There was a fair bit of superstition involved, too: thinking they might miss the smoggy Moscow air, I borrowed a cigarette from a girl named Charlotte down the hall, and sat in front of the open window blowing clouds of smoke onto the soil. When the first buds opened that April—in the morning, with muted light gracing the petals as if through heavy-handed stage direction—it softened something in me. There were, after all, a few things in life untouched by people and the things we did. A few things that happened if the conditions were right, no matter who you were. Seeds had their own systems. After that I took to researching horticulture in the library, alternately calling forth and smudging out my family with every turn of the page.

At any rate, with a few weeks still to go before graduation, I had just unlocked my little brass mailbox and pulled out a handful of advertorial trash when one of the Donne School groundskeepers ran up to me. We'd always had a good rapport—I asked them questions about planting seasons and bulb hibernation, and they took pleasure in talking to a young woman who'd actually spent time in the dirt. They taught me things, a
second education in seed varietals and local mulch tucked behind the lapel of my official degree. Most of the Donne girls acted as though the facilities crew didn't exist; at least, not until those same girls had a clanking radiator or a mouse chewing through the walls near their bed. They walked the swept paths and commented on the comeliness of the flowers, all while ignoring the men in brown duck cloth who were weeding under the begonias. Sometimes they got their hands on a bottle of sherry and threw up on the carpeting, taking it for granted that the stain would be scrubbed clean by morning and never bothering to apologize.

I wasn't in the mood for a conversation. Not even with this particular groundskeeper, John O'Brien, who was especially kind and always took an interest.
What are you planning to do next?
I knew he'd ask, and the harrowing silence which would follow that question was more than I could bear. I honestly thought about pretending not to know him, or else hitting him in the face and running out of the room. Throwing the few clothes I had into a bag and making my way to the bus station, scraping together my last few dollars for a ticket to anywhere. For weeks I'd been agonizing over which of my paltry possessions I could carry with me on my back when I left and which I'd have to part with. Now I sparkled with clarity: a couple of sweaters, a week's worth of socks. The skirt I was wearing and perhaps a pair of pants. What else could a girl need?

“Zo! Zoe!” John, as always, was happy to see me—and as always, mispronounced my name. He never quite wrapped his head around
, though it is, to me, more obviously mellifluous than the nasal
most Americans insist on. I gave up on
Zoya Ivanovna Andropova
early; here, I was just Zoe Andropov. Sometimes Zo. “I was looking for you,” John puffed. Apparently he'd been running around campus; his face was pink. “I just found out, and I knew I had to tell you right away.”

“Tell me—what?” I crumpled newsprint between my fingers. He seemed enthusiastic, but what was there to get excited for? Had the fellows put together a collection and bought me a balloon? Americans loved useless presents, I'd noticed. Rewards from bubblegum machines, wooden trinkets.

“There's an opening,” John beamed. “Right up your alley.”

“My alley?”

“Your—I don't know—area of expertise?”

I had trouble with idioms, but even more so with the idea I might be an expert in anything. “You must be mistaken.”

“No, honey, that I am not.” He puffed again, put his hands on his knees, delighted or perhaps on death's door. A redhead, his skin was almost translucent, and veritably boiled under any provocation. “They're building a greenhouse.” He gestured to the rear of the building. “Behind the science hall. Your little green thumb. Gonna be perfect.”

“I could—” I hesitated. “Work there?” He nodded. “Where would I live?”

“Probably let you keep campus housing until you save up for a place of your own.” John stood up straight at last, expelling a great gush of air. “We're all rooting for you, sweetie pie.”

“You are?” My eyes filled up with tears, and I leaned back against the wall of locked boxes. A weight off my shoulders, but still my knees were jelly. They knew, after all. They knew, already. And here I'd been desperate to escape John's high expectations.

After I recovered myself we hurried over to the facilities office; there had been some argument about who was in charge of the greenhouse project, and whether the hiring should fall under the domain of groundskeeping or the biological sciences. But as it turned out, both sides of that coin were keen on my potential, and I was hired with the title of Manager and Caretaker of Hothouse Plants. Following a provisional year, I could be offered a long-term contract, and though I would not be allowed to remain in the room I'd shared with Margaret, a small single would be made available for me until I could secure my own accommodations. In addition to maintaining a selection of fruits and vegetables for the cafeteria and observing student projects (my presence being a failsafe against those girls who slept through their watering or weeding sessions, and those too prim for fertilizer), my purview would include curating a display of exotic flora—a perfect showpiece for the school when anxious parents came to visit. What could be more soothing than warm, green stems bending overhead? And what more appealing than the waxy pink leaves of Stonecrop firecrackers and shock-yellow stamens of Dutch twink daffodils bursting with life while snow gathered in drifts beyond the windows?

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