The flush of the toilet sounded volcanically loud to Natalie's ears. Please, please, just don't wake Maya, she thought as gulped down water directly from the faucet.
On the way back into the living room where she didn't at all remember sleeping the night before, Natalie marveled at the peacefulness of the world outside her aching head: the gauzy morning light and the birds twittering through the half-open window. A sleeping James lay draped across the Modernist reading chair, her dark hair tousled around her head. She looked as still and beautiful as any sculpture in the Met's classical wing.
Not quite ready to get up, Natalie settled back onto the couch and reached for one of the art books on the floor near James. It was open to a blobby beige painting of a man and woman in bed, the man's arm lazily wrapped around the woman.
"Isn't it pretty?" James said, her eyes cracking open.
Natalie glanced back down at the picture. "I think it's sort of sad."
"Exactly," James said, smiling as she opened her eyes all the way. "Let me see it again?"
Natalie slid the book across the rug and watched James study the image. The silence between them seemed unusually intimate, or maybe it was just their being alone together at this early hour. What time was it, anyway? Natalie looked at the cable box. 8:54. Phew. They could still take off before Maya returned from her Sunday morning meditation, and Natalie could worry about making excuses later.
"You know why it's such a downer?" James was still examining the picture. "Because they're fully dressed. What's up with that?"
Natalie noticed that James was wearing an oversize T-shirt from Kripalu, the New Age retreat in the Berkshires where Maya regularly lead all-women retreats. "Crap, please tell me Maya didn't see us last night," Natalie said.
"No, I made sure we were quiet," James said. Then, following Natalie's glance to her chest, she pinched at the T-shirt and smiled. "Oh, and I found this high-fashion garment hanging from the towel rack, so don't worry."
"Thank God," Natalie said. Still, they definitely had to vamoose before their hostess returned and got a whiff of their heavy-duty hangovers, which reeked worse than any of her aunt's high-grade incense.
Just as Natalie was thinking this, she heard a door creaking open and light footsteps padding down the hallway. Maya walked into the room with Gourmet Garage bags slung over both arms. Damn.
"Hello, party people!" Maya cried way too loudly.
"I thought you had a—" Natalie started.
"Canceled for a teacher training workshop," Maya said. "So I decided to dedicate my morning to you two—what luck, huh? I'm making goji-berry parfaits and brewing up some white tea. One of the all-time best restorative meals."
"Restoring is essench," James said. "You've got to live it down as much as you live it up, n'est-ce pas?"
Maya didn't respond, even though James' philosophy sounded directly ripped from her chapbook. "Wasn't Jenna coming?" she asked.
Jenna! Natalie had somehow managed to blot out the memory of Jenna and the total meltdown of their friendship. She groped for an answer.
"She left her inhaler at home," James supplied automatically. "Conveniently enough, she had her dad's corporate town car on standby."
"I never knew Jenna had asthma," Maya said. "You should've told me—I have some great pranayama techniques for that."
James shook her head. "She could use some serious professional guidance. Homegirl was a total mess last night."
Maya opened her mouth to speak, then thought better of it. "Come have a seat," she said. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the hangover."
Natalie shot a terrified glance at her aunt, but Maya, wonderful Maya, was smiling sympathetically. She was always quoting Mother Teresa and prattling on about humble this and imperfections that, but in Natalie's eyes Maya was the real saint.
"I didn't expect to see you this morning, James," Maya said after taking her seat.
James produced her most winning grin; she really was so incredibly beautiful. "I was escorting Natalie home, and when we got here, she asked me to stay the night. I hope you don't mind."
"As long as your mom doesn't." Maya's response came fast and smooth.
"Nah, she's cool."
Maya still hadn't lifted her mug. She was gazing straight at James in that unnervingly intent way of hers. "Oh, I've been meaning to tell you that my friend and I saw the Circus of Fleas last week, and we really enjoyed it."
"Cool," James said, but she clearly had no idea what Maya was talking about.
"You know, at the Brooklyn Theater Project," Maya went on. "Didn't you say that was your mom's theater troupe?"
"Not anymore it isn't," James said after the tiniest pause. "My mom is very talented at moving from one gig to the next. I think nine months is her all-time employment record."
Maya seemed to consider this for a moment. "Well, the only other theater group I know in Brooklyn is the Fiddlehead Company," she said.
James nodded. "Yep, the good old Fiddlehead—that's where she is now." She limbered to her feet and walked over to the window. "I know I always say I'm a Brooklyn baby, but on mornings like these—I mean, look out there. There's nothing so majestic in the world as the actual city on the first Sunday of summer."
The first Sunday of summer. Oh, shit. Natalie rocketed to her feet. "The Final Race!" she cried. It started at 11 sharp. Coach Calabasi was famously "allergic to tardiness" (she was also "allergic to laziness," "allergic to boastfulness," and "allergic to tree nuts"—the last of which Natalie was pretty sure was a legitimate allergy).
The cable clock now read 9:28, which would've been plenty of time if Hisham had been waiting outside in the Stecklow town car. Natalie didn't even have her running shoes with her, so even if she cabbed it to Port Authority and caught the first bus out … There was just no way.
"Chill, Natalie," James said. "School's out for summer, remember? I have a flight to catch in two hours, and do you see me panicking? Anyway, you said yourself it was just a practice."
"Yeah, and the SAT is just a ..." Natalie was too freaked out to complete the analogy. "This practice is a big deal." She rushed over to the couch and scooped all her belongings into her bag. "Trust me."
As she was stuffing her dress into the big compartment where she usually kept a book, Natalie's hand hit against her phone. She reached through a hole in the bag's lining and pulled it out, feeling relieved but also unsettled. Had she really not looked there—she'd been that out of it?
"You can kiss it." James turned to Maya. "You should have seen her looking for her phone last night. It was like she'd lost her baby."
Natalie felt suddenly ill. "I have to go," she said.
"Hon, are you OK?" Maya looked so concerned that Natalie briefly considered asking her aunt to borrow enough cash for a cab to Edgemont. But no, Elena was touchy about borrowing money from her wealthy (and "famously unreliable") ex-sister in-law, probably more so than ever now.
Natalie ran into the bathroom to splash water on her face and throw on her clothes before making the hastiest exit of her life. She jumped in a cab and told the driver to step on it to the Port Authority. She just might be able to catch the 10 bus. She looked down at her calf, where the bruise, a plum the night before, had spread into a grayish shadow that perfectly coordinated with the skin under her eyes.
Natalie lucked out at the bus depot, only having to wait eight minutes to board. Traffic was light this early on the weekend, and all signs pointed to a miraculous salvation. Midway through the tunnel, her eyelids started to feel heavy, and her head filled with a fuzzy slideshow of images from the night before.
The bus jolted to a stop and Natalie's eyes popped open, then shot down to her cell phone. It was 11:02, which meant that the practice had started two minutes earlier. She looked out the window: They were still in Clifton. What the hell had happened? There was no way she'd get there in time. Her only hope was that—some way, somehow—Thisbe Grant would also miss the practice.
When at last the bus stopped outside the Edgemont YMCA, Natalie bolted off and broke into a sprint. She ran past the 7-Eleven, past the Dunkin Donuts, and straight onto the athletic fields of Edgemont High. She didn't need her shoes; she could run barefoot if necessary. At this point, she'd be lucky if she made it before the practice was over, but maybe Coach C would take pity on her and let her prove herself in some 11th-hour salvation scene, to hell with her "winning is 99 percent perspiration, 1 percent inspiration" maxim.
When the track came into view, Natalie fell back against a tree, her lungs cold and empty. The whole scene was deserted; even the coach had gone home. Natalie could kiss U Penn training camp goodbye. There was a sudden rustling behind her and she spun around, irrationally hoping that maybe Coach C. had come back to give her a second chance. But all she saw was a one-eyed gray cat skulking toward the janitors' shed.
She took the long way home, kicking pebbles and cursing Thisbe Grant, who was probably already at her computer, ordering a new supply of aerodynamic jog bras. Well, Natalie had no one to blame but herself.
When she dragged herself into the house, Teddy was in the den watching Oprah. Ever since a recent aha! moment, he'd been toying with the idea of writing a book proposal about "quitting your job to pursue what you really love." His family members didn't have the courage to remind Teddy that a) he hadn't quit his job and b) what he'd really loved was that job.
"Speak of the devil," Elena said as she strode in from the kitchen. The phone was pressed to her ear ,and Natalie couldn't tell if her mom was talking to her or the person on the other end of the line. The furrows in her forehead had deepened over the last few weeks. She looked tired and old.
"Well, thanks for telling me," Elena said with a protracted sigh. "I know these things are never fun."
After hanging up, she gestured for Natalie to take a seat on the couch. "I'm not going to tell you who that was, so don't ask." Elena's face was drained of all color, and she couldn't look her daughter in the eye. "And I haven't seen the evidence myself but …" She broke off, shook her head. "You do realize this has long-term ramifications, don't you?"
"I'm sorry," Natalie said lamely. She wanted to be mad at her mother, but instead she just felt guilty. Her no-show at the track was totally inexcusable, now more than ever. If Teddy remained out of work, then Natalie would probably need to score some sort of track scholarship to college. And if she hadn't even been chosen as the best runner in the sophomore class, then her chances at landing such a scholarship were seriously compromised.
"Just go to your room." Elena's voice was brittle and cold. "We'll talk about this later. I can't … I can't do this right now."
Natalie banged up the stairs and sat down at her computer. Tons of people, mostly girls, had written "WTF!!??"s on her Facebook wall. "Ew" was another popular comment. Wow. Word about her track practice ditchage had spread remarkably fast. Edgemonters really needed to get out more often.
The only posting with a different tone came from Risa Baynar. It was a picture of a girl with puffy '50s-style hair and a pink headband walking down the beach—wait, wasn't that Melissa Joan Hart? This Risa woman certainly was random.
Or maybe random wasn't quite the word. Natalie's eyes shot down a few inches on the page and then she saw Risa Baynar's other posting.
It wasn't possible.
Her eyes glazed over and blurred, but the image—the awful, horrible image—didn't budge. Elena wasn't mad about the missed practice. She was mad about—this.
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