On a clear and sunny morning in September, a twelve-year-old girl named Alice Mayfair stood in the sunshine on the corner of Eighty-Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City and tried to disappear.
She was tall, so she slumped, curving her spine into the shape of a C and tucking her chin into her chest. She was wide, so she pulled her shoulders close together and hunched forward with her gaze focused on the ground. Her hands, big and thick as ham steaks, were jammed in her pockets as always. Her big feet were pressed so closely together that a casual observer might think she had a single large foot instead of two regular ones.
Her hair was the one thing that Alice couldn’t subdue. Reddish blond, thick, and unruly, Alice’s hair refused to behave, no matter how tightly she braided it or how many elastic bands she used to keep it in place. Living with the Mane, as she called it, was like having a three-year-old on top of her head, a little kid who refused to listen or be good, no matter what bribes she offered or what punishments she put in place.
“Behave,” she would whisper each morning, working expensive styling glop through the thicket before comb-ing it carefully and plaiting it into thick braids that fell to the middle of her back. The Mane would look fine when she left for school, but by the time she arrived at her first class, there’d be stray curls sneaking out of the elastic bands and making their way to freedom at the back of her neck and the crown of her head. By lunchtime the elastic bands would have snapped and the Mane would be a frenzy of tangled curls, foaming and frothing its way down to her waist like it was trying to climb off her body and make a break for freedom. Sometimes, in despera-tion, she’d tuck her hair underneath her shirt, and she’d spend the rest of the day with its springy, ticklish weight against her back.
It always felt, somehow, like the Mane was laughing at her, whispering that there were better things to do than sit in a classroom learning how to
diagram sentences or do long division. There was a big world out there, and somewhere in that world Alice could be happy, or at least meet a girl who liked her, which was Alice’s fondest wish. In seven different schools, over seven entire years, Alice had failed to make even a single friend.
Alice sighed and squinted, shading her eyes from the glare of the sun as she looked up the street, then down at her luggage. A brown leather trunk, monogrammed in gold, stood at her feet. Two brown leather duffels with the same golden monogram were behind her. A pair of wheeled brown leather suitcases—one small, one large—stood at her left and her right.
“This is Quality,” Alice’s mother, Felicia, had said when they’d bought the luggage at Bergdorf Goodman. Alice could hear the capital Q as Felicia pronounced the word. “It will last your whole life. You’ll use this luggage to go on your honey moon.” Right after she’d said the word “honey-moon,” Felicia had gone quiet, maybe thinking that her bulky, clumsy, wild-haired daughter might never have a honeymoon. When Alice had asked if she could buy a purple backpack, Felicia had nodded absently, handed Alice a credit card, and started poking at her phone.
The backpack had a rainbow key chain and a green glow stick clipped to its zipper, pockets full of spare hair elastics, a pouch that held a special
detangling brush, and secret compartments with stashes of treats. Alice rummaged until she’d found a butterscotch candy. As she unwrapped it she felt the first curl, one at the nape of her neck, spring free.
She sighed. A yellow school bus was pulling up to the corner. Parents were taking pictures, hugging their kids, waving, and even crying as the bus pulled away. Alice wondered how that would feel, having parents who’d wait for the bus on the first day of school and maybe even be there when the bus came back.
Alice had started her education at the Atwater School, on New York City’s Upper East Side, where Felicia had gone. At Atwater the girls wore blue-and-white plaid jumpers, white shirts, blue kneesocks, and brown shoes, and they sat in spindly antique wooden chairs in small, high-ceilinged classrooms with polished hardwood floors.
In her first week of kindergarten at Atwater, Alice had broken two chairs, torn three uniforms, and wandered away from her class during a trip to the American Museum of Natural History, necessitating emergency calls to her father, Mark, who was in Tokyo at the time, and to Felicia, who was in the middle of a massage. Alice could still recall the startled look on the guard’s face after he finally found her asleep around the corner from a diorama of Peking Man . . . that and the sound of
her father whisper-yelling on the phone later that week, tell-ing the headmaster that he was very lucky the Mayfairs had decided not to sue.
“Perhaps she’s more of a hands-on learner,” said Miss Merriweather, the educational consultant her parents had hired after that disaster.
So first grade was at the Barton Academy in a down-town New York City neighborhood, where the classrooms were painted bright colors and were full of beanbags and pets, where the kids had recess three times a day, and where they learned to knit and cook in addition to read and spell and add. Alice remembered the squish, and the squeal, when she sat on the class guinea pig. The follow-ing week she accidentally freed the class turtle. The week after that she almost impaled her teacher on a knitting needle, and she had to be hunted down and dragged out of the climbing structure on the playground every time recess ended.
“A different language!” Miss Merriweather had sug-gested brightly. By then Felicia had worry lines in the skin at the corners of her eyes, and Mark had gray strands at the temples of his black hair.
During second grade at École Français, Alice came home every day with her crisp white uniform blouse stained with egg yolk or paint or ink or blood. She had trouble sitting still during her lessons and trouble remembering to speak French
instead of English, and mandatory ballet class was a disaster best not spoken of. (Alice’s parents agreed not to sue the École for negligence after Alice fell off the stage during a recital; the École agreed not to sue them for the injuries the school music teacher, Mademoiselle Léonie, suffered when Alice landed on top of her, not to mention the loss of their piano.)
Third grade was in Brooklyn, at an “alternative school” for gifted students. At Horizons, Alice learned that “alter-native” meant “no rules” and “gifted” meant “girls with parents who think their daughters are so special that breaking Felicia’s antique Chinese export ware is an expression of individuality and not a cause for punishment.” Alice’s parents pulled her out of Horizons after a sleepover party ended with a guest using Felicia’s fancy scented candle to light Alice’s bed on fire, and the culprit’s mother refused to make her daughter apologize. “She was expressing herself via the medium of matches,” said the chagrined mother, a performance artist who specialized in taking time-lapse videos of her underarm hair’s growth.
“Boarding school!” said Miss Merriweather, who was beginning to sound a little frantic, and Alice’s parents agreed with what Alice, had she been present, would have found insulting alacrity. For fourth grade, she was shipped off to Swifton, a private school in Vermont tucked into a picturesque
green valley between two ski resorts. At breakfast on the first day of her second week, a girl named Muffin Van der Meer said, “Show of hands! Who likes the New Alice?” (Alice was called the New Alice because there was already an Alice in the class.) She could still picture Muffin’s smirk after she’d seen that not a single hand had gone up. But Swifton wasn’t a complete disaster. Alice loved skiing and sledding and racing through the snow with snowshoes or cross-country skis strapped to her feet. Her parents were angry but not entirely surprised when, in December, the headmistress called in a panic to say that they’d lost Alice during a trek through the woods. By the time Mark and Felicia had chartered a plane to Burlington, then rented an SUV for the drive to Swifton, Alice’s teachers had found her, deep in the forest, in a small, crooked, but competently constructed igloo. “I’m not hurting anyone,” Alice said. She suspected that her parents would have left her, had the school’s insurance policy and the state’s laws not forced them to bring her home.
Fifth grade was in New York City again, at the Lytton- King School, which tried, according to its website, to “celebrate the special spirit of every child.”
“They’ll honor Alice’s uniqueness!” Miss Merriweather had promised, as Alice’s parents, looking unconvinced, held hands on the love seat. Felicia stared at her pointy-toed shoes. Mark
pressed his lips together. Alice, listen-ing from her spot in the hallway, was pretty sure that her uniqueness would, as usual, be more of a problem than a cause for celebration, but at least at Lytton-King she wouldn’t have to wear a uniform. Miss Merriweather was enthusiastic—“I have high hopes, Alice!” was what she said—but even among the misfits and weirdos, in a class that included a boy named Hans, who picked his nose and ate it, and a girl named Sadie, who spoke only in Klingon, which she’d learned from Star Trek fan fiction, Alice was an outcast. She sat alone at every meal, she read by herself during Activity Choice Time, and whenever kids had to pick partners, she ended up working with the teacher, because nobody ever wanted to partner with her.
At home, alone in the pink-and-cream room that had won Felicia’s decorator a prize, Alice would lie on her bed, underneath its lacy canopy, or sit at her white wooden desk or in the pillowed window seat that over-looked Central Park, and try to figure out what it was about her that other kids didn’t like. She knew she looked different, but that couldn’t be the entire answer. In every school she’d attended, there had been girls with larger bodies or horrible breath or thick and glistening braces, girls who sprayed spittle when they talked or had little mounds of white dandruff flakes on their shoulders, and even those girls had made friends. Alice wore the same kinds of clothes, even the same uniform,
as the rest of the girls. She arranged the Mane as best she could to imitate their hair, and feigned interest in the books and boy bands they liked, forcing herself to sit still and listen to their chatter, even when her body ached to move. Still, there was something about her that made them reject her, almost as soon as they’d met her. Did she smell bad? Was there something about the way her voice sounded, or the texture of her hair? Was it because her parents were rich, or was it that they weren’t rich enough?
Alice had examined every bit of herself—from her toe-nails to the top of her head, her voice, the shape of her fingers and her forearms—trying to pinpoint the difference between herself and other girls. She’d never been able to find it, but she knew it was there. She knew every time a new group of girls looked at her, and then, sometimes before she’d even said “hello,” they’d turn away, giggling and whispering.
“Be patient,” said Miss Merriweather. “You will find your people.”
“You’re fine,” said Felicia, who instead insisted that there was nothing wrong with Alice—at least, nothing that a keratin hair- straightening treatment and the right kind of clothes and a few days of a cabbage-soup-and-hot-lemon-water diet couldn’t fix. Alice’s granny was the only one who’d offered an actual possibility.
“Maybe they don’t get your jokes,” she’d suggested. This had been the previous summer, when Alice had been to visit her for an allotted week. Seven perfect days of digging for clams and floating in the clear water of Cape Cod Bay or, even better, flinging herself into the icy, bracing waves of the ocean, while her granny sat on a folding chair and watched.
“What do you mean?” asked Alice. She and Granny had blanched baby spinach, then squeezed it dry and mixed it into a dough of butter and flour and ricotta cheese and freshly grated nutmeg. Alice used two spoons to scoop the dough into little rounds; Granny dropped them into the pot of boiling salted water. In three minutes they’d be gnocchi.
Granny stared into the bubbling pot. Steam wreathed her face and her short gray hair. “Sometimes, when you’ve got a different way of seeing the world, it can take a while for the other kids to catch up with you,” she finally said.
Alice considered that. Did she have a different way of seeing the world? Was that the problem? Or was it just that she was a big clumsy weirdo who never knew the right thing to say?
For sixth grade, it was boarding school again. “Maybe what she needs is just old-fashioned discipline,” said Miss Merriweather. “A dress code and a strict schedule.” The Mayfairs were dubious,
but they agreed to enroll Alice at Miss Pratt’s in Massachusetts, which turned out to be full of fine-boned girls with silky blond hair and ancestors who’d been on the Mayflower, girls who hated chunky, curly-haired, freckle-faced Alice before she even opened her mouth.
Alice broke her bunk bed when she tried to wedge her trunk underneath it. She crushed her English teach-er’s glasses by accidentally sitting on them during her first Shakespeare class, then tried to run away after her roommate Miranda left her diary on the common room couch, opened to a page that read, in all capital letters, “ALICE IS ANNOYING AND UGLY AND DRIVING EVERYONE NUTS.”
In January she was asked to leave after she stole another girl’s care package and ate all of the cookies it contained.
“I was so hungry,” Alice said, in her smallest voice, in the backseat of her parents’ Town Car, which they had sent to pick her up. Lee, the driver, looked back at her, his expression sympathetic.
“Bad food?” he asked.
“The worst!” said Alice, and she told him about the lumpy oatmeal for breakfast and the endless iceberg- lettuce salads for lunch. “Stealing those cookies,” she said, “was an act of survival. Besides, it wasn’t like Carter was going to eat them. She was on a diet. They were all on diets.” She
shuddered. Alice loved food—cooking it, eating it, looking at cookbooks and food-centered mag-azines, reading reviews of restaurants she wanted to visit someday. She hadn’t done well in a place where her class-mates considered salad dressing a special treat.
Alice was positive that her new school, Lucky Number Eight, would probably be just as bad as the seven that had preceded it, even though it looked different from the rest of them.
The Experimental Center for Love and Learning, a boarding school in upstate New York, where Alice was headed this September morning, had been open for only four years and had moved to its current location over the summer. Most of the links on its website led to pages that said “UNDER CONSTRUCTION!” with a smiley face wearing a hard hat floating above a cartoon hammer and saw. There were shots of one big log-cabin building called the Lodge, which held the dining hall and classrooms. The dorms looked like the rickety ice-fishing shacks that Alice had seen during her winter in Vermont . . . but the lake, and the forest, looked pretty.
“It’s an open environment. It’s a working farm, so the children can learn about the world in a really hands-on way,” Miss Merriweather had told her, before reaching over to give Alice’s hand a squeeze. Dimples flashed in her cheeks when she said, “I have a good feeling about this one,” and
Alice found herself smiling back before she ducked her head, remembering that her teeth, like everything else about her, were too big . . . and that Miss Merriweather had also had a good feeling about Alice’s seven previous schools.
“We’ll miss you, kiddo,” her father had said to her that morning. In a T-shirt and pajama bottoms, Mark was long-limbed and lanky, and in his suits he looked as solid and substantial as a wall, with thick black hair neatly combed, polished black shoes, and that morning, a silky tie the deep bluish-purple of a bruise. He brushed the top of her head with his lips, his Wall Street Journal tucked under his arm, an iPad in one hand, and an iPhone—one of three he used—in the other. “We’ll see you for Christmas.”
Alice stood in his dressing room, surrounded by his suits, wishing he’d stayed longer or said “I love you” before he left. She wished she could hide against the wall, concealed by hanging jackets, the way she had when she was a little girl. She’d wiggle the suits, making them talk in squeaky voices, while her father pretended that he didn’t know she was there and asked the suits if they’d seen her.
Instead, after saying good-bye to her father, Alice had straightened her shoulders (“Don’t hunch!” she heard Felicia scolding in her head) and made her way toward her mother. Felicia’s dressing room was lit by lamps lined with pink satin—because, she’d once told Alice, that was the most
flattering light for a woman’s skin. It smelled like Chloé perfume, hairspray, and the secret cigarettes that Felicia occasionally smoked, and it looked like a doll-house, with the furnishings and the clothes all slightly smaller than what a regular-size person would require. It was where, when Alice was five years old, her mother had said, “I’d like it if you could call me Felicia instead of Mommy.” Her mother’s red lips had curved into a smile. “It makes it sound more like we’re friends, you know?”
You’d never pick me to be your friend, Alice thought but did not say.
She stood and watched as Felicia, elegant before her mirror, used tweezers to painstakingly glue individual fake eyelashes to her real lashes, then tilted the perfect oval of her face, with its high cheekbones and elegantly arched brows, this way and that.
“How’d you sleep, baby?” Felicia finally asked.
“Fine,” Alice lied. She’d had one of her strange not-quite-nightmares again, but she knew, from experience, not to bother Felicia about that.
“I’d take you up to the school myself,” Felicia murmured as she painted her mouth with a tiny brush she’d dipped into a pot of bloodred gloss, “but I’ve got a meeting.”
Alice nodded. Her mother didn’t work, but her volunteering was practically a full-time job.
Diabetes on Mondays, Crohn’s disease on Tuesdays, cancer on Wednesdays, and heart disease on Fridays, with Thursdays reserved for the hair salon, mani-pedis, and Pilates lessons.
Felicia got to her feet, put her slender arms around Alice’s shoulders, and pressed her cool, powdery cheek to the top of Alice’s head, all the while keeping her body angled away from her daughter’s. As if I’m catching, Alice thought, wondering, for the thousandth time, how she could have ever emerged from this slim and perfect woman, and wondering why it was so hard for her to leave.
No one here wanted her. She was an impediment, an embarrassment, an unwanted gift that had arrived without receipt and couldn’t be returned. Her parents would shove her under a bunk bed if they thought that no one would notice she was gone. Maybe it was just that at home she knew exactly what kind of awful to expect, whereas each school was a revelation, a new adventure in misery and isolation.
Alice knew her mother’s dream: that one year she’d come home from school transformed into the kind of slender, smiling, appropriate girl they could have loved. So far it hadn’t happened. As much as Alice wanted to please her parents—to see her father look happy, to make Felicia’s painted lips curve into a smile—she also wanted to run in the sunshine, to play in the dirt or the mud puddles or
the snow, to eat the warm chocolate chip cookies that her Granny baked during her visit every summer, and to ruin her shoes by letting the waves wash over her feet. As hard as she tried, Alice could never stop being herself. She could never make herself be the kind of girl they’d love.
Standing on the corner, sweating in the late- summer heat, still feeling the cool imprint of Felicia’s cheek on her head, Alice kicked at the corner of the monogrammed trunk and shut her eyes, listening for the sound of her parents’ car. A battered white van cruised slowly down the street, then backed into an illegal parking spot and sat there with its flashers on.
Alice rummaged in her bag for another butterscotch and wondered why her parents kept hiring Miss Merri-weather, who’d been wrong about seven different schools in a row. She wondered too whether her new school, the Experimental Center, was as weird as it sounded in the letter the school had sent to parents, which began:
We humbly acknowledge the profound act of surrender it will be to entrust to us your INCREDIBLE YOUNG HUMANS, the most unspeakably precious beings in the world. It’s an honor we take with the utmost gravity, that we are part of the village that will raise them. We will strive to teach the values of honesty,
integrity, and respect for themselves and the world to your daughters, your sons, and your non-gender- conforming offspring. We promise an atmosphere of inclusivity and respect, where hierarchies are nonexistent, where age and grades don’t matter as much as the understanding that we all have things to learn from one another.
Alice shook her head, thinking that getting rid of her every September was not an act of profound surrender for her parents, but one of great relief. And what could anyone learn from me? she wondered. How to break combs with your hair? How to outgrow your entire wardrobe every three months? How to make your mother cry by spilling grape juice on her new suede boots, and then shrink her favorite white cashmere dress in the dryer until it was too small for even a Barbie doll because you couldn’t bring yourself to tell her that you’d gotten juice on that, too?
Alice closed her eyes, testing herself. She could hear the wheeze of a city bus as it heaved itself around the corner, a taxicab that needed a new muffler, one of those electric cars that barely made a sound. No Lee, though. She smiled, remembering how Lee hadn’t believed her when she told him that she could always hear his car, specifically; how he’d made her stand on the
sidewalk, blindfolded (with his wife watching) while he circled the block. Five times he’d driven past Alice, surrounded by taxis and buses and motorcycles and even other Town Cars like his, and every time Alice was able to pick out his car as it went by.
That morning, Alice waited patiently, eyes closed, until she heard the car whispering up to the curb.
“Ready to go, Allie-cat?” Lee asked. The trunk’s lid popped open, and he started hoisting her luggage off the sidewalk.
Alice tried to help. Lee waved her away, saying, the way he always did, “You know I need my exercise,” and then, as always, shrugging as she lifted her suitcase, then her duffel bag, saying, in a gruff Russian accent, “Alice is strong like a bull!”
Alice hated it when other kids teased her about her size, her strength, her weird wide face and untamable hair, but Lee could say anything he wanted, because Lee was safe, and nice, and would never hurt her. Every Christmas, Lee gave her a bag of Hershey’s Kisses, wrapped in red and green foil. On her birthday he always sent a card, and at Swifton he’d mail care packages with Kit Kat bars and postcards of the Statue of Liberty or Central Park.
Alice climbed into the backseat—in spite of her plead-ing and pointing out that she was more
than big enough, Lee never let her sit up front—and buckled her seat belt as Lee pulled away from the curb, heading downtown.
“Allie-cat,” he began. Alice smiled, the way she always did at the nickname that only Lee used. “I understand that this place sounds a bit . . .”
“Ridiculous?” asked Alice. “Bizarre? Possibly illegal?” “Precious,” Lee said, easing to a stop at a red light. “But you need to keep an open mind.”
In the backseat, Alice leaned her forehead against the cool pane of glass. Her eyes slipped shut, which was good, because then she didn’t have to see herself—the parts that were too thick, too soft, too big, too round. As the car sped along the highway she slipped into her favorite daydream: of how somewhere, there were two people, a man as big and strong as the tallest basketball player and a lady whose body was as soft and warm and welcoming as her granny’s when she’d let Alice sit on her lap. They were her real parents, who had been separated from her somehow, and in Alice’s daydream they would run to her, crying, and they would scoop her up into their arms and hold her tight and tell her that now that they had found her, they would love her forever and never let her go.