I just stood there, holding my purse, suddenly entirely too aware of the nail I’d broken as I unfastened my seat belt in the parking lot. I’d put so much time into getting dressed for this first day, ironing my shirt, making my hair part perfectly straight, redoing my lipstick twice. Now, though, my nail, ripped across the top, jagged, seemed to defeat everything, even as I tucked it into my palm, hiding it.
Bethany pushed back her chair and stood up. “You can sit on the end, I guess,” she said, reaching over to unlatch the knee-high door between us and holding it open as I stepped through. “Not in the red chair, that’s Amanda’s. The one next to it.”
“Thanks,” I said. I walked over, pulling the chair from the desk, then sat down, stowing my purse at my feet. A second later I heard the door squeak open again and Amanda, Bethany’s best friend and the student council secretary, came in. She was a tall girl with long hair she always wore in a neat braid that hung halfway down her back. It looked so perfect that during long meetings, when my mind wandered from the official agenda, I’d sometimes wondered if she slept in it, or if it was like a clip-on tie, easily removed at the end of the day.
“Hello Macy,” she said coolly, taking a seat in her red chair. She had perfect posture, shoulders back, chin up. Maybe the braid helped, I thought. “I forgot you were starting today.”
“Um, yeah,” I said. They both looked at me, and I was distinctly aware of that um, so base, hanging in the air between us. I said, more clearly, “Yes.”
If I was working toward perfect—working being the operative word—these girls had already reached it and made maintaining it look effortless. Bethany was a redhead with short hair she wore tucked behind her ears, and had small freckled hands with the nails cut straight across. I’d sat beside her in English, and had always been transfixed when I saw her taking notes: her print was like a typewriter, each letter exact. She was quiet and always composed, while Amanda was more talkative, with a cultured accent she’d picked up from her early years in Paris, where her family had lived while her father did graduate work at the Sorbonne. I’d never seen either of them sporting a shirt with a stain on it, or even a wrinkle. They never used anything but proper English. They were the female Jasons.
“Well, it’s been really slow so far this summer,” Amanda said to me now, smoothing her hands over her skirt. She had long, pale white legs. “I hope there’s enough for you to do.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just smiled my fine-just-fine smile again and turned back to the wall that my desk area faced. Behind me, I could hear them start talking, their voices low and soothing. They were saying something about an art exhibit. I looked at the clock. It was 9:05. Five hours, fifty-five minutes to go.
By noon, I’d answered only one question, and it concerned the location of the bathroom. (So it wasn’t just in my house. Anywhere, I looked like I knew about the toilet, if nothing else.) There’d been a fair amount of activity at the desk: a problem with the copy machine, some inquiries into an obscure periodical, even someone with a question about the online encyclopedia that Jason had specifically trained me to handle. But even if Amanda or Bethany was helping someone else and the person came right to me, one of them jumped up, saying, “I’ll be with you in just a second,” in a tone that made it clear asking me would be a waste of time. The first few times this happened, I’d figured they were just letting me get my feet under me. After awhile, though, it was obvious. In their minds, I didn’t belong there.
At noon, Amanda put a sign on the desk that said WILL RETURN AT 1:00 and drew a bagel in a Ziploc bag from her purse. Bethany followed suit, retrieving an apple and a gingko biloba bar from the drawer next to her.
“We’d invite you to join us,” Amanda said, “but we’re drilling for our Kaplan class. So just be back here in an hour, okay?”
“I can stay, if you want,” I said. “And then take my lunch at one, so there’s someone here.”
They both just looked at me, as if I’d suggested I could explain quantum physics while juggling bowling pins.
“No,” Amanda said, turning to walk out from behind the desk. “This is better.”
Then they disappeared into a back room, so I picked up my purse and went outside, walking past the parking lot to a bench by the fountain. I took out the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I’d brought, then laid it in my lap and took a few deep breaths. For some reason, I was suddenly sure that I was about to cry.
I sat on the bench for an hour. Then I threw out my sandwich and went back inside. Even though it was 12:55, Bethany and Amanda were already back at the desk, which made me seem late. As I navigated a path between their chairs to get to my seat, I could feel them looking at me.
The afternoon dragged. The library was mostly empty, and I suddenly felt like I could hear everything: the buzzing of the fluorescent lights over my head, the squeak of Bethany’s chair as she shifted position, the tappety-tap of the online card catalog station just around the corner. I was used to quiet, but this felt sterile, lonely. I could have been working for my mom, or even flipping crab cakes with a spatula, and I wondered if I’d made the wrong choice. But this was what I had agreed to.
At three o’clock, I pushed my chair back and stood up, then opened my mouth to say my first words in over two hours. “I guess I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”
Amanda turned her head, her braid sliding over her shoulder. She’d been reading some thick book on the history of Italy, licking her finger with each turn of a page. I knew this because I’d heard her, every single time.
“Oh, right,” she said, as Bethany gave me a forced smile. “See you tomorrow.”
I could feel their gazes right around my shoulder blades as I crossed the reading room and pushed through the glass doors. There, suddenly, was the noise of the world: a car passing, someone laughing in the park across the street, the distant drone of a plane. One day down, I told myself. And only a summer to go.
“Well,” my mother said, handing me the salad bowl, “if you were supposed to love it, they wouldn’t call it work. Right?”
“I guess,” I said.
“It’ll get better,” she said, in the confident way of someone who has no idea, none at all. “And it’s great experience. That’s what really matters.”
By now, I’d been at the library for three days, and things were not improving. I knew that I was doing this for Jason, that it was important to him, but Bethany and Amanda seemed to be pooling their considerable IQs in a single-minded effort to completely demoralize me.