Authors: Carol Culver
Cindy and the Prom King
I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.
Last night Cindy dreamed she went to Manderley again. In the morning her stepsisters yelled, “Wake up, Orphan Girl,” and she knew this time it was no dream. Starting today she was a junior at Manderley Prep, the most exclusive, expensive high school in the Bay Area, maybe in the whole state of California. No longer would she go to Castle High with its crowded prefab classrooms, its tired, overworked teachers and tuned-out, stoned students. As a poor scholarship girl, she might not fit in with the rich kids at Manderley, but she’d never really fit in anywhere anyway. So what?
Since she’d overslept, Cindy had no time to apply concealer to her face or grab an energy bar. Not that she had zits; it was the freckles she wanted to hide. And there was no way she could have gotten anything into her stomach before ten
without gagging. But still. She threw on a pair of secondhand jeans she’d found at the Goodwill store and a T-shirt with a faded Dutch Goose logo, and grabbed her backpack and her clarinet. Brie and Lauren were already out of the house and impatiently honking the horn of their Jeep Cherokee.
“Next time you’re late, we’re not waiting for you. You can take the bus,” Brie said.
“Sorry,” Cindy muttered. They’d love an excuse to ditch her in the morning, but their mother, Irina, made them give her a ride to school and to her job at Irina’s day spa after school.
“Well, look at her,” Lauren said to Brie as Cindy dragged her clarinet case with her into the backseat. “If it isn’t Benny fucking Goodman.”
Cindy almost dropped her backpack in surprise. Not because her sister had used the f word, but because she’d even heard of the world’s greatest clarinet player.
“Who is he, anyway? I saw his name on your old sweatshirt. Some rock star?” Lauren jabbed Brie in the arm and laughed hysterically. Then her laughter died. “Hey, isn’t that my shirt?”
“You threw it away,” Cindy said. But Lauren didn’t hear her. Not with the music blasting from their new sound system. A few minutes later Lauren turned her head to look at Cindy again. Her perfectly straightened blond hair brushed against her spray-on-tanned cheekbone.
“Just do me a favor and don’t tell anyone at school you’re related to us, which you’re really not.”
“Don’t worry,” Cindy said. They thought she’d claim to be any part of the family her father had married into? As if.
Maybe Cindy would live to regret the day she’d filled out those scholarship forms. Now she’d be at the same school where her mean, self-centered sisters were seniors, members of the popular clique and cheerleaders. And they thought she’d claim to be related to those bitchy girls? Not in this lifetime.
“You’re not going to like it there,” Lauren said, as if she’d read Cindy’s mind. “Everyone’s rich and snobby. If you don’t wear the right clothes or drive the right car, you’re nobody. Of course in your case you’ve always been nobody, so maybe you won’t notice.”
Cindy fastened her seat belt and pressed her spine into the comer of the backseat where she was wedged between a stack of tank top and miniskirt cheerleader uniforms and blue and gold pom-poms. She felt the chill from their cold warnings right through her T-shirt.
“Even Brie and I had a little trouble fitting in at first,” Lauren continued.
“Why do we go there?” Lauren lit a cigarette and blew a stream of smoke into the backseat. At least they weren’t smoking pot today and filling the car with that sweet, sickly smell of weed that would cling to Cindy’s clothes. They bragged to Cindy that the latest shipment they’d gotten from south of the border was the best they’d ever had. She’d seen them hide their stash under the seat cushions of the jeep in snack-sized Baggies Irina bought in bulk at Costco.
Lauren answered her own question. “I’ll tell you why. It’s the cool school, that’s why.”
Lauren must not have noticed the way Cindy’s lip curled down at the comer, not that she noticed anything about Cindy except when she was wearing her hand-me-downs, because she went on and on about Manderley.
“And the football team is number one in the private school league,” Brie added.
Cindy knew her sisters thought their chants and stunts, during which they took every opportunity to shake their booty at halftime, played a huge part in the football team’s ranking. They made no secret of the fact that they spent time on the sidelines lusting over the jocks in their tight Lycra pants. After the games they did more than just lust, unless they were only bragging.
“And they’re teaching Chinese this year,” Lauren said. “Because of the new headmaster. He thinks the Chinese are taking over the world. We either nuke ’em or we learn their language.”
Cindy’s mouth fell open. “So you’re taking Chinese?”
Lauren rolled her eyes at Cindy’s obvious cluelessness. “No, dumb-ass. Don’t you know Chinese is the hardest language to learn? Why would I do that and lower my GPA? I’m trying to explain to you why Manderley is such a cool school. Are you listening?”
How could she not be listening? She was a captive audience, stuck in the backseat surrounded by secondhand smoke.
“Of course it’s a cool campus too.”
Cindy couldn’t disagree with Lauren on that. At the center of the grounds was the old mansion once owned by Gertrude Manderley, early California feminist and poet. Surrounded by green lawns, playing fields, old gnarled trees and new buildings all named after some rich alum, like the George C. Effington Family Auditorium. At orientation she’d noticed every corner, every brick and every stone had a name attached to it, like the Mayard Phillips III Drinking Fountain. It had to be really old because these days who needed to drink water from a fountain when everyone carried their own personal bottle of spring water.
“But mostly it’s about meeting the right people.”
Cindy knew where Lauren got that idea. That was Irina’s theme song. It was why she’d sunk so much money into her string of upscale day spas so she herself could buy her way into Silicon Valley society and meet the right people. Specifically Husband Number Three.
Brie chimed in. “And getting into the right college. Which will be no problem if our cheerleading squad makes it to the finals this year and we get noticed by certain recruiters. We’ll have our pick of all the top schools.”
Cindy bit her tongue. She’d seen her sisters’ SAT scores, and cheerleading stars or not, they’d be lucky to get into Chico State, the infamous party school. If things went as she planned, she’d show them who got into the “right” college.
Her goal was to go as far away as possible, preferably somewhere on the East Coast, and never come back. She knew the drill now. Knew how to fill out the application forms herself, forge the required signatures and write the kind of essay it took to get financial aid. How many clarinet playing, penniless orphans could there be applying to Harvard, Yale and Princeton?
She wasn’t at all afraid to play the orphan card to get what she wanted. Ever since her father died, she’d felt like she was completely on her own. Legally she had a guardian—Irina—who provided a roof over her head and three meals a day and who gave her a job at her spa so she could earn spending money.
But emotionally she had no support from her stepmother or her stepsisters. They wouldn’t miss her when she was eighteen and gone off on her own, and God knew she wouldn’t miss them. In the meantime she was making plans for her future, which began today with a prep school education as a stepping stone to success.
Lauren turned around to sing along to the radio. Cindy stared at the back of her head and wondered for the thousandth time how her quirky, low-key father had ever ended up with their high-maintenance mother.
Twenty minutes later Brie jerked the jeep to a halt in front of the white stone mansion Gertrude Manderley’s patron had built for her a century ago.
“Get out here,” Brie said. “Before we park. And remember, you don’t know us and we don’t know you.”
Cindy slid across the seat and was lifting her clarinet out of the car when Brie started pulling away. She caught her instrument before the battered case bounced on the pavement. One minute sooner and it would have been her butt bouncing on the pavement.
Lauren stuck her head out of the window. “Be out here in front of the quad at four-thirty,” she called before they drove to the parking lot. “Something comes up, we’ll call you. Got your phone?”
Cindy nodded and slung her backpack over her shoulder. Other kids were getting out of their sixteenth-birthday-present Beemers or H2 Hummers. She shivered in the cool morning air. She wasn’t at Castle anymore, with her Best Friends Forever, though she still wore the gold necklace with the dangling letter
Lizzie wore the
and Georgie wore the other
If she were at Castle she’d know where to eat lunch, who to eat with and who to avoid.
She took a deep breath and inhaled the scent of new grass and old money. Yes, this was a different world from her old school, where the smell of exhaust fumes from the nearby freeway blended with the aroma of tacos from the lunch wagon parked in front of the school.
Instead of boys dressed like surfer dudes (though few of them ever went to Santa Cruz to ride the waves), here the guys were totally outfitted in Abercrombie from top to toe. Girls at Castle were still into the bare midriff with the pierced navel. At Manderley a quick glance told her the girls wore layered tank tops, short skirts and flip-flops or even a sundress.
She’d never fit in. Never fit into size two designer jeans even if she could afford them. Never. What had she done? No matter how challenging the classes, how inspiring the teachers, she wasn’t prepared for the shaft of loneliness that struck her as friends greeted friends with shrieks and hugs after a long summer break. Oh, she might put on a brave face in front of her stepsisters, but at heart she was not a loner like her father. She needed friends. She missed her friends. Especially Lizzie.
Unable to quell the hollow sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, Cindy scanned the crowd, trying to pretend she was waiting for someone. Anyone.
Just when she thought she couldn’t fake it another minute, a black vintage Alfa Romeo convertible slowly cruised by. At the wheel was a bronze god. That was the only way to describe him.
“Who … is … that?” a girl on the sidewalk asked breathlessly.
“Some movie star?”
“You got the star part right. He’s the Italian prince the soccer coach recruited.”
“A prince came to play soccer for Manderley?”
Cindy strained to hear the answer but other louder voices drowned her out.
The prince wore dark sunglasses. His skin was the color of warm copper. His hair was as black as obsidian. Cindy stood rooted in place, staring as he drove past. If the first bell had rung she wouldn’t have heard it. If the earth shook she wouldn’t have felt it.
What she did feel was waves of heat rising from the sidewalk, traveling through her body until she was hot all over, making her face flame and her heart pound. Her sisters, who talked nonstop about the guys they’d slept with or given blow jobs to, or wished they’d slept with or wished they hadn’t given blow jobs to, had never mentioned a soccer star. They’d never mentioned a Greek god in a sports car. And they would have if they’d seen him first. But they hadn’t. She had.
A hush fell over the crowd of students as the Alfa turned, and just before it did, the guy turned his head, raised one hand in a half salute, half wave. Cindy couldn’t help it. Her arm lifted all by itself and she waved back.
Why? He wasn’t waving at her. How could he be? She didn’t know him and he didn’t know her. From somewhere behind her she heard the unmistakable sound of girls snickering.
Had someone seen her making a fool of herself? On her first day? Oh, please no.
She dropped her arm like it was made of lead and stuffed her hand into her pocket. The Alfa continued on the circular drive on out toward the parking lot. No more snickers. Just silence. It was as if the whole school was holding its collective breath until he disappeared into the mass of expensive parked cars.
He was gone and life went back to normal. For everyone but her. Shouts, cries and laughter filled the air. She must have been the only one who’d waved at him like he was her friend or something. Now she felt like some kind of clueless dimwit.
Cindy didn’t dare look around to see if anyone was staring at her. She swallowed hard and glanced at her watch like being on time for class was her biggest concern. It was eight-thirty, but no bell rang. Did they really expect students to get to class on time if they didn’t ring a bell?
Was personal responsibility the real difference between Castle and Manderley? Cindy pulled her schedule out of her backpack, turned and went to look for her locker. All by herself.