Luke Neil sits on a high stool at a long stainless steel counter peeling potatoes and dropping them into a pot of water, his fury barely contained. He might as well be in prison. The kitchen is industrial sized, a bank of glass coolers on one wall and a conveyor belt to carry the students’ dirty dishes to the dishwashing station on the other. After breakfast, he will scrape plates and blast them with a hand-held nozzle before loading them into the trays that will carry them through the dishwasher. Could there be any worse assignments than peeling potatoes and washing dishes? He bristles with the indignity.
He has not come to Harvard to be treated like the help.
He pictures the dining hall where he will eat breakfast with the other scholarship students before Annenberg opens at seven. He imagines setting his tray down opposite the blond girl, Olympia Rainier, on one of the long golden tables beneath the barrel-vaulted ceiling hung with suspended wagon wheels of lights, the arched stained glass windows above wood-paneled walls, the white marble busts of famous men gazing down at them solemnly. The grandeur of the room makes him feel like he is sitting down in Hogwarts. That is the vision he wants—Harvard with all its pomp and ceremony—not this, sitting on a hard stool, his hands starchy from potato peelings. He wonders if being given potato-peeling duty is a veiled slur on his Irish heritage.
The one thing orientation taught him, besides where Widener and Lamont libraries were and the names of the freshmen dorms that face onto the Yard, was that he did not belong here.
In Southie he was the top of the heap. The Portuguese and the Polacks and the Latinos were all strung out way the hell below him, but here, here all he had to do was open his mouth, and the look in people’s eyes changed. It was as if they found themselves talking to the help. They suddenly discovered they were not particularly interested in what he had to say, and they turned away at the first possible moment. The fucking snobs.
And then there was the roommate. They couldn’t have found a worse match if they’d tried. Maybe, just maybe, they did it on purpose to get him to turn tail and run. But he wasn’t going to let the bastards win. In one glance, Luke had guessed that the roommate was a Jap knob jockey. Luke had been raised by his Grand Pop, who had served two years and lost two brothers in the Pacific, and who still went rigid with anger whenever he saw an Asian face on TV or in line behind him. In an ideal world, people were supposed to forgive and forget, but that was bullshit. Did the French or the Russians forgive the Germans? Not by a long shot. How could people forget what they had seen and experienced and lost?
The boy who stood in his dorm room that first day carrying two Louis Vuitton suitcases and wearing tight black jeans, a retro black jacket, white shirt and skinny black tie, his straight dark hair falling in a wedge over one eye, looked like a cross between something out of Men in Black and an anime comic.
Luke knew better than to use the word Jap when he went into the housing office to ask for a new room assignment. The thin, dark-haired woman behind the desk had lipstick a shade too red and skin a shade too white to be real. “This guy’s a slob,” Luke had stated as his objection. “When he unpacked, he threw his clothes on every surface of the room rather than hanging them up. If there’s one thing I can’t live with, it’s a slob.”
Luke had lived too long with an alcoholic mother who couldn’t be bothered to get off the couch long enough to clean the house. He had cleaned up after her because he had to, but would be damned if he was going to pick up after a Jap knob jockey.
Then he got to the heart of the matter. “The guy’s as gay as the ace of spades. You can’t put me in a room with someone who’s gay.”
The tight-assed biddy had looked at him for a long moment. Luke could swear she looked down her nose at him. At last, she pursed her lips and said, “Part of the Harvard experience is the experience of diversity. It is our intention that you be exposed to people different from yourself.” Implicit in the statement was that beggars could not be choosers. He was here on scholarship and he could suck it up or he could find his own way to the door.
Luke sweeps the potato peelings into a pan and empties them into the compost bin in the corner. When he returns to the counter, he wipes the work surface clean, reaches for a cutting board and dips a handful of potatoes out of the pot. With a chef’s knife, he begins dicing the potatoes that will become the morning’s hash browns, his motions rhythmic and savagely satisfying.
That first week, he had wanted to fight everyone he met. The resentment that boiled in him made him wonder if he wasn’t better suited to the McNellis route, which had been the other option open to him in high school. The McNellis brothers demanded respect through the threat of force, and after graduation, they carved out a fledgling organization in protection, drugs and women. Luke had been welcome to join them, but he didn’t see the long-term pay-off in that path. The benefits package too often included jail or the graveyard, so he had chosen school.
But once here, he had felt himself a stranger in a strange land. He hadn’t found anyone he liked on campus, except Jimmy, the barman at Mickey D’s, a bar that appealed to the rugby set. Jimmy had inherited the bar from his father. Otherwise, there would be no way for a Mick to own a bar in this toney neck of the woods.
“Anytime you need a little extra pocket money,” Jimmy said, “You can put in a couple of hours muscling kegs around for me.”
Luke had already taken him up on the offer once for enough money to buy a nice navy wool jacket and a red tie in the Goodwill on Mass Ave. He had taken his sartorial cue—sartorial was a word he had learned just that week—from the J Smith shirt shop across Mass Ave. from his dorm where he had fingered a six hundred dollar cashmere jacket before being encouraged out the door once the sales assistant heard him speak.
He’d never thought of his speech as a disability, had never thought of it as anything but normal, but here it clearly gave away his class as surely as Eliza Doolittle’s in My Fair Lady. He had already found an online speech-coaching program. The only problem was finding a place to practice. If the roommate came in when he was practicing, he fumbled the program away as quickly as if it were porn.
Luke knew what he wanted to sound like. He knew what he wanted to dress like. He knew who he wanted to be like. That was the first step to anything—knowing what you wanted.
He had seen what he wanted his first day on campus as he stood at his dorm window looking out on Mass Ave. and wanting to put his fist through the wall. It was a sun-blasted fall day, dog days of August, the weather too warm and bright to last. On the street, windshields glinted in the sunlight, the traffic steady but polite. The street reminded him of Disney World, quaint and made-up to amuse rich people, every storefront display a work of art, sidewalks hung with the last of the summer flower baskets. Everyone was rich here. Everyone looked like they had just come from the gym and the hairdressers and the fashion boutique. Everything was expensive—an ice-cream cone cost five bucks. Ridiculous. And yet young mothers bought one each for their kids, no sharing required. And the people, the people were undeniably good looking. No fat women in house dresses smoking on door stoops. No tattooed men in muscle-shirts slouching against their beat up piece-of-shit cars. The cars were all new and expensive—Mercedes and Audis and BMWs.
As he watched, an antique red convertible Corvette pulled up to the stoplight in front of his dorm window. The sight had just about stopped Luke’s heart. He would give his right nut for a car like that and the girl in it. The car was cherry red, with curving chrome teardrop air scoops, and with the top down, he could see the pristine white leather interior. The girl was blond, with long tanned arms. Luke imagined her long tanned legs disappearing beneath her skirt. He glanced at the dark-haired boy behind the wheel—short hair, clean-shaven, Latin maybe. The light had changed and the convertible had pulled away.
He wanted to be that man because only that kind of man would have a chance of winning a girl like Olympia Rainer, the girl he’d fallen in love with the first moment he laid eyes on her as she crossed the street toward D-hall. She took his breath away, her hair the color of red gold in the sunlight, full and thick, cascading over her shoulders.
When she pulled open the heavy oak doors of D-hall, he couldn’t believe his luck. She had to be a scholarship student, but she looked like she came from a million dollars, tall and erect and graceful as a ballerina. When she smiled, she had perfect teeth, which to him said money. Maybe she came from a family that had fallen on hard times, her father dead or absent. At once, he wanted to take care of her. He wanted to gather her into his arms and tell her she never had to worry about anything ever again.
On the first day of classes, he was sure he had landed in the right place when he walked into his freshman seminar to see the blond girl sitting in the circle of desks gathered around the whiteboard.
The boy in the red convertible, Nick Starvos, strolled in five minutes late, and in spite of himself, Luke admired his style, cuffed linen pants and untucked linen button-down shirts, the sheen of his loafers screaming old money. Luke noticed the way women looked at Nick, and his gut turned with a mixture of anger and desire.
He wants what the dark haired boy has— grace, ease, money.
Luke hefts a cardboard box of lettuce onto the counter and pulls a box cutter from his back pocket. He drags the blade across the box, slicing open the tape. He would like to take the box cutter to a guy like that, who has everything and who has earned none of it, deserved none of it. But he stifles his McNellis side. Someday, he will have everything the rich boy has and more. He has made it to Harvard, and he will be surrounded by those types, he tells himself, so he had better get used to it. He had better figure out how to learn from them.
He glances out the tall leaded windows of the kitchen and watches Olympia Rainier look both ways before crossing at the crosswalk, her hair falling in soft curls over her shoulders, gleaming red-gold in the morning light. Tall and long-limbed, she moves as gracefully as if she were floating above the ground. Her skin is pale and dusted all over with almost invisible freckles.
She pulls a black apron out of her bag and slips it over her head as she enters the kitchen, her motions as fluid as water. She tucks her hair behind her ear in a gesture that grabs at his heart. He can imagine no more perfect creature than this. She ties the apron in back and then reaches for her hair and gathers it with one hand and twists it into a knot at the base of her nape. Nape is another word he has learned that week as part of his vocabulary self-improvement.
Olympia makes him certain he had chosen the right path. He has never been in love before, but he recognizes this feeling as the best and purest he has ever felt. A woman like Olympia would never fall for a McNellis type.
As she tucks her gold hair into a hairnet, it is clear that she does not notice him. She passes five feet from him as she carries tubs of jams and jellies from the kitchen to the food bar. She picks up two empty glass bowls from the yogurt and fruit bar and crosses to the coolers without ever noticing him. He carries the chopped potatoes to the coolers not five feet from her, and still she does not look up, she does not see him.
He likes to imagine the two of them years in the future reminiscing over this moment, he telling her that he had stocked a cooler not five feet from her and she had never noticed him. They would smile about it fondly. He is that certain of their future. She will be his muse, his raison d’être, a term he learned just this week. Nape, sartorial, raison d’être— he repeats them as if he were still studying for the SAT, as if each word were a block he is laying in his stairway to heaven. Olympia makes him want to become someone important, someone who might win her, might claim her and keep her at his side as his queen. She makes him want to achieve great things.
For now, he knows she does not see him, does not know he exists, but all of that will change this afternoon.