Before she loathed me, before she loved me, Genevra Katherine Winslow didn’t know that I existed. That’s hyperbolic, of course; by February, student housing had required us to share a hot shoe box of a room for nearly six months, so she must have gathered I was a physical reality (if only because I coughed every time she smoked her Kools atop the bunk bed), but until the day Ev asked me to accompany her to Winloch, I was accustomed to her regarding me as she would a hideously upholstered armchair--something in her way, to be utilized when absolutely necessary, but certainly not what she’d have chosen herself.
It was colder that winter than I knew cold could be, even though the girl from Minnesota down the hall declared it “nothing.” Out in Oregon, snow had been a gift, a two-day dusting earned by enduring months of gray, dripping sky. But the wind whipping up the Hudson from the city was so vehement that even my bone marrow froze. Every morning, I hunkered under my duvet, unsure of how I’d make it to my 9:00 a.m. Latin class. The clouds spilled endless white and Ev slept in.
She slept in with the exception of the first subzero day of the semester. That morning, she squinted at me pulling on the flimsy rubber galoshes my mother had nabbed at Value Village and, without saying a word, clambered down from her bunk, opened our closet, and plopped her brand-new pair of fur-lined L.L.Bean duck boots at my feet. “Take them,” she commanded, swaying in her silk nightgown above me. What to make of this unusually generous offer? I touched the leather--it was as buttery as it looked.
“I mean it.” She climbed back into bed. “If you think I’m going out in that, in those, you’re deranged.”
Inspired by her act of generosity, by the belief that boots must be broken in (and spurred on by the daily terror of a stockpiling peasant--sure, at any moment, I’d be found undeserving and sent packing), I forced my frigid body out across the residential quad. Through freezing rain, hail, and snow I persevered, my tubby legs and sheer weight landing me square in the middle of every available snowdrift. I squinted up at Ev’s distracted, willowy silhouette smoking from our window, and thanked the gods she didn’t look down.
Ev wore a camel-hair coat, drank absinthe at underground clubs in Manhattan, and danced naked atop Main Gate because someone dared her. She had come of age in boarding school and rehab. Her lipsticked friends breezed through our stifling dorm room with the promise of something better; my version of socializing was curling up with a copy of Jane Eyre after a study break hosted by the house fellows. Whole weeks went by when I didn’t see her once. On the few occasions inclement weather hijacked her plans, she instructed me in the ways of the world: (1) drink only hard alcohol at parties because it won’t make you fat (although she pursed her lips whenever she said the word in front of me, she didn’t shy from saying it), and (2) close your eyes if you ever have to put a penis in your mouth.
“Don’t expect your roommate to be your best friend,” my mother had offered in the bold voice she reserved for me alone, just before I flew east. Back in August, watching the TSA guy riffle through my granny underpants while my mother waved a frantic good-bye, I shelved her comment in the category of Insulting. I knew all too well that my parents wouldn’t mind if I failed college and had to return to clean other people’s clothes for the rest of my life; it was a fate they--or at least my father--believed I’d sealed for myself only six years before. But by early February, I understood what my mother had really meant; scholarship girls aren’t meant to slumber beside the scions of America because doing so whets insatiable appetites.
The end of the year was in sight, and I felt sure Ev and I had secured our roles: she tolerated me, while I pretended to disdain everything she stood for. So it came as a shock, that first week of February, to receive a creamy, ivory envelope in my campus mailbox, my name penned in India ink across its matte expanse. Inside, I found an invitation to the college president’s reception in honor of Ev’s eighteenth birthday, to be held at the campus art museum at the end of the month. Apparently, Genevra Katherine Winslow was donating a Degas.
Any witness to me thrusting that envelope into my parka pocket in the boisterous mail room might have guessed that humble old Mabel Dagmar was embarrassed by the showy decadence, but it was just the opposite--I wanted to keep the exclusive, honeyed sensation of the invitation to myself, lest I discover it was a mistake, or that every single mailbox held one. The gently nubbled paper stock kept my hand warm all day. When I returned to the room, I made sure to leave the envelope prominently on my desk, where Ev liked to keep her ashtray, just below the only picture she had posted in our room, of a good sixty people--young and old, all nearly as good-looking and naturally blond as Ev, all dressed entirely in white--in front of a grand summer cottage. The Winslows’ white clothing was informal, but it wasn’t the kind of casual my family sported (Disneyland T-shirts, potbellies, cans of Heineken). Ev’s family was lean, tan, and smiling. Collared shirts, crisp cotton dresses, eyelet socks on the French-braided little girls. I was grateful she had put the picture over my desk; I had ample time to study and admire it.
It was three days before she noticed the envelope. She was smoking atop her bunk--the room filling with acrid haze as I puffed on my inhaler, huddled over a calculus set just below her--when she let out a groan of recognition, hopping down from her bed and plucking up the invitation. “You’re not coming to this, are you?” she asked, waving it around. She sounded horrified at the possibility, her rosebud lips turned down in a distant cousin of ugly--for truly, even in disdain and dorm-room dishevelment, Ev was a sight to behold.
“I thought I might,” I answered meekly, not letting on that I’d been simultaneously ecstatic and fretful over what I would ever wear to such an event, not to mention how I would do anything attractive with my limp hair.
Her long fingers flung the envelope back onto my desk. “It’s going to be ghastly. Mum and Daddy are angry I’m not donating to the Met, so they won’t let me invite any of my friends, of course.”
“Of course,” I said, trying not to sound wounded.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” she snapped, before dropping back into my desk chair and tipping her porcelain face toward the ceiling, frowning at the crack in the plaster.
“Weren’t you the one who invited me?” I dared to ask.
“No.” She giggled, as though my mistake was an adorable transgression. “Mum always asks the roommates. It’s supposed to make it feel so much more . . . democratic.” She saw the look on my face, then added, “I don’t even want to be there; there’s no reason you should.” She reached for her Mason Pearson hairbrush and pulled it over her scalp. The boar bristles made a full, thick sound as she groomed herself, golden hair glistening.
“I won’t go,” I offered, the disappointment in my voice betraying me. I turned back to my math. It was better not to go--I would have embarrassed myself. But by then, Ev was looking at me, and continuing to stare--her eyes boring into my face--until I could bear her gaze no more. “What?” I asked, testing her with irritation (but not too much; I could hardly blame her for not wanting me at such an elegant affair).
“You know about art, right?” she asked, the sudden sweetness in her voice drawing me out. “You’re thinking of majoring in art history?”
I was surprised--I had no idea Ev had any notion of my interests. And although, in truth, I’d given up the thought of becoming an art history major--too many hours taking notes in dark rooms, and I wasn’t much for memorization, and I was falling in love with the likes of Shakespeare and Milton--I saw clearly that an interest in art was my ticket in.
Ev beamed, her smile a break between thunderheads. “We’ll make you a dress,” she said, clapping. “You look pretty in blue.”
Three weeks later, I found myself standing in the main, glassy hall of the campus art museum, a silk dress the color of the sea deftly draped and seamed so I appeared twenty pounds lighter. At my elbow stood Ev, in a column of champagne shantung. She looked like a princess, and, as for a princess, the rules did not apply; we held full wineglasses with no regard for the law, and no one, not the trustees or professors or senior art history majors who paraded by, each taking the time to win her smile, batted an eye as we sipped the alcohol. A single violinist teased out a mournful melody in the far corner of the room. The president--a doyenne of the first degree, her hair a helmet of gray, her smile practiced in the art of raising institutional monies--hovered close at hand. Ev introduced me to spare herself the older woman’s attention, but I was flattered by the president’s interest in my studies (“I’m sure we can get you into that upper-level Milton seminar”), though eager to extract myself from her company in the interest of more time with Ev.
Ev whispered each guest’s name into the whorl of my ear--how she kept track of them, even now I do not know, except that she had been bred for it--and I realized that somehow, inexplicably, I had ended up the guest of honor’s guest of honor. Ev may have beguiled each attendee, but it was with me that she shared her most private observations (“Assistant Professor Oakley--he’s slept with everyone,” “Amanda Wyn--major eating disorder”). Taking it all in, I couldn’t imagine why she wouldn’t want this: the Degas (a ballerina bent over toe shoes at the edge of a stage), the fawning adults, the celebration of birth and tradition. As much as she insisted she longed for the evening to be over, so did I drink it in, knowing all too well that tomorrow I’d be back in her winter boots, slogging through the sleet, praying my financial aid check would come so I could buy myself a pair of mittens.
The doors to the main hall opened and the president rushed to greet the newest, final guests, parting the crowd. My diminutive stature has never given me advantage, and I strained to see who had arrived--a movie star? an influential artist?--only someone important could have stirred up such a reaction in that academic group.
“Who is it?” I whispered, straining on tiptoe.
Ev downed her second gin and tonic. “My parents.”
Birch and Tilde Winslow were the most glamorous people I’d ever seen: polished, buffed, and obviously made of different stuff than I.
Tilde was young--much younger than my mother. She had Ev’s swan-like neck, topped off by a sharper, less exquisite face, although, make no mistake, Tilde Winslow was a beauty. She was skinny, too skinny, and though I recognized in her the signs of years of calorie counting, I’ll admit that I admired what the deprivation had done for her--accentuating her biceps, defining the lines of her jaw. Her cheekbones cut like razors across her face. She wore a dress of emerald dupioni silk, done at the waist with a sapphire brooch the size of a child’s hand. Her white-blond hair was swept into a chignon.
Birch was older--Tilde’s senior by a good twenty years--and he had the unmovable paunch of a man in his seventies. But the rest of him was lean. His face did not seem grandfatherly at all; it was handsome and youthful, his crystal-blue eyes set like jewels inside the dark, long eyelashes that Ev had inherited from his line. As he and Tilde made their slow, determined way to us, he shook hands like a politician, offering cracks and quips that jollified the crowd. Beside him, Tilde was his polar opposite. She hardly shook a hand or forced a smile, and, when they were finally to us, she looked me over as though I were a dray horse brought in for plowing.
“Genevra,” she acknowledged, once satisfied I had nothing to offer.
“Mum.” I caught the tightness in Ev’s voice, which melted as soon as her father placed his arm around her shoulder.
“Happy birthday, freckles,” he whispered into her perfect ear, tapping her on the nose. Ev blushed. “And who,” he asked, holding out his hand to me, “is this?”
“This is Mabel.”
“The roommate!” he exclaimed. “Miss Dagmar, the pleasure is all mine.” He swallowed that awful g at the center of my name and ended with a flourish by rolling the r just so. For once, my name sounded delicate. He kissed my hand.
Tilde offered a thin smile. “Perhaps you can tell us, Mabel, where our daughter was over Christmas break.” Her voice was reedy and thin, with a brief trace of an accent, indistinguishable as pedigreed or foreign.
Ev’s face registered momentary panic.
“She was with me,” I answered.
“With you?” Tilde asked, seeming to fill with genuine amusement. “And what, pray tell, was she doing with you?”
“We were visiting my aunt in Baltimore.”
“Baltimore! This is getting better by the minute.”
“It was lovely, Mum. I told you--I was well taken care of.”
Tilde raised one eyebrow, casting a glance over both of us, before turning to the curator at her arm and asking whether the Rodins were on display. Ev placed her hand on my shoulder and squeezed.
I had no idea where Ev had been over Christmas break--she certainly hadn’t been with me. But I wasn’t lying completely--I’d been in Baltimore, forced to endure my Aunt Jeanne’s company for the single, miserable week during which the college dorms had been shuttered. Visiting Aunt Jeanne at twelve on the one adventure my mother and I had ever taken together--a five-day East Coast foray--had been the highlight of my preteen existence. My memories of that visit were murky, given that they were from Before Everything Changed, but they’d been happy. Aunt Jeanne had seemed glamorous, a carefree counterpoint to my laden, dutiful mother. We’d eaten Maryland crab and gone to the diner for sundaes.
Excerpted from Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Copyright © 2014 by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.