Carey Oakley sat in the back of the auditorium, her stomach growing tighter with anxiety by the moment. A smattering of around six dozen students, her fellow final-year students in the MFA program at Holbrook College, were seated in the hall, all of them waiting for their turn to present their thesis piece.
A slim girl with a petite body topped with cocoa-brown hair and a lovely, heart-shaped face hidden under a large pair of black-framed glasses, Carey seemed dressed to be one of those girls who faded into the background. Today, that wasn’t by accident—she’d been a nervous wreck about presenting her final project, and part of her hoped that she’d be forgotten about and allowed to graduate with her master’s without having to go through the terror of explaining her art to the small group of professors seated in the front row.
“What’d I miss?”
Carey turned slightly just in time to see her best friend, Lily Carmody, plop noisily into the seat next to her, attracting the glares of the nearby students.
“Not much so far,” said Carey quietly, removing her glasses and giving the lenses a polish with the end of her shirt. “Melanie just spent twenty minutes going on about her sculpture, and that’s all we’ve gotten to so far.”
Lily scoffed. “Jesus, how long does it take to say, ‘This piece, like everything else I’ve made during the entire last year, is about my menstrual cycle’?”
Carey let out a snort-laugh that cut through the still air of the auditorium. This too attracted the attention of nearby students, causing a hot blush to spread across Carey’s face.
“You excited?” asked Lily, giving Carey a little poke to the side.
“Not even a little,” said Carey, the anxiety feeling like a hot piece of metal in her stomach.
“Come on—you’re just talking about your piece,” said Lily, sliding down into her seat. “It’s not like you have to make a new one on the spot or something.
“I’d almost rather do that,” said Carey. “I mean, I’m fine with making art; talking about it is a whole other thing.”
“You’ll be fine,” said Lily, turning her attention to Professor Wilkins, who was in the process of looking over the pieces assembled up front, bending her reedy body over slightly and inspecting them carefully.
“I just don’t have the stupid vocabulary down yet,” said Carey. “Like, everything has to be about a ‘meta-commentary’ on, like, post-colonial power structures or whatever. Nothing any of them says makes any sense.”
“Then there you go,” said Lily. “Just get up there and spout off some nonsense and let your art do the talking for itself. You’ll be fine.”
Carey glanced over at Lily, wishing she could have even a taste of the boundless confidence that her friend possessed. Lily was beautiful, with a warm, open face of perfect symmetry, a head of long hair as sunny and eye-catching as her personality, and the sort of body that never left her in want of male attention.
“Easy for you to say,” said Carey. “Your stuff is awesome.”
“Are you serious?” asked Lily, raising her slim, dark eyebrows in surprise. “Your piece is, like, easily the best up there. It’s not even close.”
As she always did when on the receiving end of a compliment, Carey blushed. “You’re just saying that so I feel better.”
“I’m saying it because it’s true, and it should make you feel better.”
Carey glanced up towards the stage, spotting her painting among the many other pieces. It was, to her, a simple painting that wasn’t worth talking about. A landscape piece of the coast down at the cape where her wealthy family owned a second home, she strove for a realistic depiction that reflected the influence of the artists who had inspired her to begin painting so many years ago.
The rest of the pieces on stage, however, were of the abstract variety. Some were strange sculptures that looked more like collections of garbage than actual art, and some were so crude that she couldn’t believe the artists were comfortable putting something like that on display. She knew she was a bit of a sheltered rich girl, but she didn’t think that her standards of decency were that outlandish.
“Okay,” said Professor Wilkins, a middle-aged woman with silver hair in a simple bob, a slim body dressed in professional attire, and a face with features so sharp they could cut glass. “I’d like to thank Melanie Thorne for being brave enough to go first. As I said before, we will be giving special consideration to those of you who volunteer to be the first to go. Something to think about if you’re looking to get this process over with more quickly.”
Carey considered the option. She knew that just sitting here stewing would be an easy way to become a nervous wreck by the time her name came up on the list, but she couldn’t bring herself to volunteer. Out of the corner of her eye, Lily’s slim, toned arm shot into the air.
“Lily Carmody,” said Professor Wilkins. “Please, come down.”
Lily bounded out of her seat, flashing Carey one of her winning smiles as she sidled down the row. Soon, she was up on stage and pulling her sculpture out from among the collection of art towards the back of the speaking area.
Carey looked over the piece as Lily brought it up front. It was a well-crafted, colorful sculpture made from clay, and though Lily had explained the thought behind it to her countless times, Carey still had trouble making sense of the jargon that went into her friend’s thought process. And though Carey appreciated the skill that had gone into it, the piece struck her as strange, abstract, and a little off-putting. She’d nicknamed it in her head “the hungry octopus,” due to the fact that she’d always thought it looked like the aforementioned animal wrapping itself hungrily around a big sandwich.
“Now, that’s certainly interesting,” said Professor James Cohen, one of the professors on the panel. “Where would you like to start?”
“Okay!” said Lily, clasping her hands together, a beaming smile on her face.
Carey glanced around the rest of the auditorium, noting that Lily was already the center of rapt attention.
Just one of those girls, I guess, thought Carey, finding herself wishing at that moment that she wasn’t so impossibly mousey.
“So, my piece is about the sub-textual relationship between urban spaces and systematic inequality. My references draw upon everything that I’ve encountered over the years, such as the logic systems of Wittgenstein and the Hegelian theory of thesis and antithesis. It’s about everything, from the oscillation of individual moments to the pulse of lust that undergirds every moment that atomizes individuals’ experience in a late-capitalist society like ours. And …”
She went on like that, and Carey found herself struggling to keep up with the jargon and names that Lily fired out at an incredible pace. Minutes passed, the stream of words unceasing. When she was finally done, Lily didn’t appear to be exhausted or overwhelmed in the slightest.
“Very good, Ms. Carmody,” said Professor Wilkins. “Now, if you’re prepared to answer a few questions about your piece …”
This was the part that Carey feared the most. The idea of being under the gun like that, having professors with decades of professional experience firing question after question, making her justify and explain the art that just seemed to come from a place deep inside of herself that she didn’t understand, struck Carey as terrifying beyond belief. She knew, however, that if she wanted to leave the university with the MFA that she prized, there was no getting around it.
Lily handled each of the questions expertly, and by the time she was done the professors seemed to be quite impressed with her.
“Thank you, Ms. Carmody,” said Professor Wilkins. “That will be all.”
Polite applause sounded out through the auditorium.
Moments later, Lily was back in her seat, Carey offering her heartfelt congratulations.
“I have no idea how you did that,” said Carey. “I could barely keep up.”
“Please,” said Lily, waving the words away. “I just tell them what they want to hear. It’s easy-peasy.”
“Now,” said Professor Cohen. “Do we have another volunteer to go next?”
“Do it, do it,” said Lily. “Get up there and get it over with.”
“No freaking way,” said Carey. “I’m putting this off for as long as possible.”
Lily rolled her eyes. Before Carey had a chance to react, Lily grabbed her wrist and shot it up into the air.
“Ah, Ms. Oakley,” said Professor Cohen. “Please, come down.”
Carey’s face turned a deeper shade of red than she’d ever thought possible. She shot Lily a dumbfounded look, as though she couldn’t believe just what she’d done.
“You’ll thank me when you’re done,” Lily said quietly. “Now get down there and kick their asses.”
Carey took a deep breath and stood up, her legs already feeling weak beneath her.
“You’re gonna do great!” said Lily quietly.
The trip down to the stage was a blur. Before she knew it, Carey stood in the center of the auditorium, the eyes of everyone in the place locked onto her. The panel of four professors seated in front regarded her with expectant, skeptical eyes. Carey could’ve sworn they could already tell that she didn’t belong.
“Um, thank you,” Carey started, her voice weak.
“I’m sorry?” asked Professor Wilkins. “Could you speak up a bit?”
Carey cleared her throat, her heart pounding. “Um, first of all, thank you for letting me talk about my piece. It’s been a pleasure to attend Holbrook, and—”
Before she could say another word, Professor Cohen raised his hand to stop her.
“Thank you for your kind words Ms., ah, Oakley, but if you could fetch your piece before you continue.”
“Ah, right,” said Carey.
Light chuckles sounded out from the students. Carey rushed towards the art, her face red and the beginnings of sweat forming at the top of her brow. She couldn’t believe that she’d been on stage for less than a minute and had already screwed up by not pulling her art out right away.
“Oops,” she said, bumping into one of the nearby pieces as she grabbed her piece by the stand upon which it rested.
More chuckles sounded out at Carey’s clumsiness.
Moments later, her piece was set front and center, with Carey standing next to it.
“This is my MFA final piece. I call it ‘An Evening at Throgg Cape.’”
The panel looked over the large painting with careful, skeptical eyes. Carey realized she might’ve been imagining things, but it almost seemed to her that they didn’t know quite what to make of it.
The painting was a sweeping landscape, the perspective set upon an elevated position that overlooked a coast, the ocean stretching into the distance. The sun was depicted as setting over the ocean, and the view along the land seemed to go on for miles. Off-center was a small colonial-style home.
“Well,” said Professor Wilkins. “Do go on.”
“It’s, um, a representation of a memory that I’ve had since childhood. My family would travel to the cape, and the house … here, is my grandfather’s. Well, it was at the time; he left it to us when he passed.”
She felt the words flow more easily the more that she spoke. Lily flashed her a thumbs-up from her seat.
“We all have moments that are fresh in our minds, even though they happened years ago, back when we were kids. And sometimes we don’t even know why these memories are the ones that have stuck. But this memory, when I was around five, um, for me it’s clear why I still carry it with me—it’s because this scene was one of pure beauty, of the majesty of nature, and how it can make you feel at once small and connected to everything else at the same time. And I wanted to capture that feeling, drawing upon my influences in the Hudson Valley Landscape school.”
She let out the rest of the air in her lungs when she finished, her words hanging in the air. Carey even allowed herself to feel slightly pleased with what she’d said. That wasn’t to last, however.
“Yes,” said Professor Cohen. “It’s … technically competent. But what does it mean?”
Carey was taken aback; she was certain that that was just what she’d explained.
“I, um, just said all that.”
“Right, right,” said Professor Wilkins. “You stated that it’s your attempt to capture beauty or some such. But what sort of greater message does it attempt to convey? Art simply can’t be about beauty for beauty’s sake.”
“Not to mention,” said one of the other professors, a stocky woman with short hair, “that beauty is highly subjective. Whose beauty are you conveying here? Western standards of beauty? Your personal ones?”
“I, um,” said Carey, feeling like she might collapse into a heap at any moment, “think that beauty is universal. A scene like this would be beautiful in any culture, and art has the transcendent power to rise above culture and speak to the souls of all of us.”
“So,” said the short-haired professor. “It’s about being … pretty.”
“It’s about more than that,” said Carey. “It’s about the human need to be inspired by things that are greater than themselves.”
“Sounds a little … reactionary if you ask me,” said the short-haired professor.
“I think it looks nice,” said the last professor, a younger woman with red hair tied up into a knot. “There’s no question about her talent. The technical skill here is extremely impressive.”
“No one’s doubting her skill,” said Professor Wilkins. “What we are doubting is her ability to convey the philosophy that we’ve been teaching to her and the rest of the students here over the course of her program.”
Silence hung in the auditorium. Carey wanted nothing more than to crawl into the nearest hole and never leave.
“I think … that should be enough, Ms. Oakley,” said Professor Cohen. “Thank you for your time.”
“I think it’s badass,” said a voice from the back of the auditorium.
Carey looked up, realizing that it was Lily.
“I mean, who cares if she says the right crap? You can’t look at that painting and tell me that girl wasn’t born to be an artist.”
“Thank you for your interjection,” said Professor Wilkins. “Hurry along back to your seat, Ms. Oakley. And tell your friend to keep her opinions to herself, or we’ll have to eject her from the auditorium.”
Moments later, Carey was back in her seat, her hands shaking in front of her.
“They don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about,” said Lily. “Don’t even worry about it.”
That’s exactly what she did, however. The rest of the time in the auditorium was spent by Carey staring off into space, ignoring rest of the student presentations as she mentally relived her nightmare of a critique over and over. After a time, they were dismissed and told that they could expect their final grades by the end of the day.
Soon, the pair was outside of the auditorium, the warm, late spring air and sunlight picking up Carey’s mood slightly.
“I can’t believe that happened,” said Carey. “I can’t believe they ripped me apart like that in front of everyone.”
Lily scoffed. “They don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about,” she said. “They’re a bunch of stupid art snobs who think that studying some stupid art jargon is more important than actually being a talented artist.”
“Maybe I should’ve spent some time actually learning that jargon,” said Carey, looking down as they walked, “then I probably wouldn’t have embarrassed myself like that.”
“The reason you didn’t memorize any of that crap is because you spent your time here actually developing as an artist instead of learning how to talk the talk. You’re ten times the artist of everyone in that room, and you know it.”
Carey couldn’t help but feel a little bit better at hearing these words, though part of her was certain that Lily was just telling her what she wanted to hear.
“Doesn’t matter how good of an artist I am if I can’t convince the professors to give me a passing grade. If I don’t get out of here with my MFA, my parents will kill me.”
“Hey,” said Lily. “At least you won’t be in debt like yours truly here.”
Carey smirked. “That another crack about my rich parents?”
“What rich parents?” said Lily. “The ones who paid for all of your tuition and gave you a credit card to live on while you’re here? Those rich parents?”
Though Carey and Lily went to the same elite school, their means of paying for their education couldn’t have been more different. Carey was still a daddy’s girl in many ways, her rich executive father being the sort who made sure that she never had to worry about anything financially related. Lily, on the other hand, was from a family of much less money, and her path to Holbrook was managed by a combination of scholarships, money she’d saved while working in high school, and student loans.
“Always with the rich parents,” said Carey, knowing her friend was just giving her the business.
“I’m just busting your balls, lady,” said Lily. “If I had the money your family did, I’d be doing the same thing. And it’s paid off—you’ve had the time to become a killer artist. Some of these little rich brats here spend their free time and money getting high and fucking around; you’ve been working like a maniac getting your skills down cold. It’s impressive.”
But before she could say anything, she heard the sound of her phone vibrating in her purse. Snatching it out, she glanced at the screen and saw that she had no less than three missed calls from her mother, along with a handful of texts, all of them reading some variant of “call me, ASAP.”
“Oh, great,” said Carey.
“Problem?” asked Lily.
“Just my mom freaking out about one thing or another.”
“Now I know where you get it from,” said Lily, flashing another one of her winning smirks.
“Give me a sec,” said Carey.
“Don’t be long,” said Lily. “We gotta go grab some lunch to celebrate.”
“Not sure what we’re celebrating, but you’re on,” said Carey, pulling up her mother’s number and hitting “call.”
After less than a half of a single ring, Carey’s mother answered.
“There you are,” she said, her voice heavy with worry. “What’s wrong with you not answering my calls or texts like that?”
“I kind of had something important going on,” said Carey.
“More important than not letting your mother worry?”
“Mom,” said Carey, “it’s the middle of the day and I’m on campus. What could possibly be going on with me that would make you worry?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “I just know you college kids get up to nonsense. I remember when I was your age at school I was running around with a different boy every month. Uh, before I met your father that is.”
Carey shook her head, thinking about just how long it had been since she’d had anything close to a boyfriend. In addition to spending the last year practicing in lieu of learning the finer points of art lingo, she’d all but given up on having any sort of a romantic life. And, she knew, it wasn’t as though she’d had anything resembling one before this year, either.
“Well, I wanted to tell you about something very, very exciting that’s going on this summer back here in Boston.”
“Oh?” asked Carey.
She was a little put on edge by this right away. From her mother, something “very exciting” seemed to always mean “something that I know will be good for you, whether you like it or not.”
“Mhmm,” said her mother. “Now, I know you’ll be coming back here in the next few days to spend the summer now that the semester’s over.” She stopped, as if remembering something. “Wait, today was your presentation, right? How did that go?”
“Um, fine!” Carey said, hoping not to dwell on the subject.
“Oh, great,” said her mother. “Anyway, now that you’re going to be back here, I think you’ll be very, very interested to know that Brady’s going to be back in the city.”
Brady Norwood. Tall, handsome, rich, and the only man who Carey had dated in high school. He was everything that her parents wanted in a future husband for their daughter, and they’d never stopped letting her know how much they wanted the two of them to get back together, no matter how fervently Carey let them know it wasn’t going to happen.
“That’s right. His bank is opening up a new branch in the neighborhood, which means he’s going to be moving back home from New York. And your father and I thought that this would be a perfect time for the two of you to, you know, get reacquainted.”
“Mom,” said Carey. “It’s not going to happen.”
“And why not?” her mother said, a little frustration creeping into her voice. “There’s no reason why a lovely girl like you and a successful man like him shouldn’t be together. Especially since you two were such a cute pair in high school.”
Carey thought about high school, when she and Brady had been inseparable. He’d seemed to her like a different person then—Carey had dreamed of being an artist, and Brady had been full of his own dreams of being a biologist. But when he’d gotten a little taste of what life might be like without the lifestyle his family’s money afforded him, he’d put his dreams aside in order to enroll at Harvard Business School. The two of them had drifted apart, and the last she’d heard of him he was in New York, making money hand over fist in the finance industry.
“We were a cute pair until he turned into a rich brat obsessed with making money. I’ve told you this already.”
“You’re just being silly,” her mother said. “I’ve been talking with Cecelia, his mother, and she made it very clear that he’s still single. We both think it would be just a lovely idea for you two to at least meet up for dinner when you’re back in town. Who knows what’ll happen?”
The last time Carey had met up with Brady it was during a weekend trip that she and Lily had taken to New York a few months back. Against her better judgment, she’d agreed to go out for a drink or two with him. Sure enough, he’d spent the entire time talking about his wonderful career and just how much money he’d been making—in between making cracks about how silly it was for Carey to waste time going to school for something as frivolous as art.
“I tried that already,” said Carey. “It’s like he’s a different person.”
“That’s just because he got a little too New York for his own good. Once he’s back home he’ll be right back to the man he used to be, you’ll see.”
Carey cast a glance to Lily, who was busy typing on her phone.
“Um, I have to go, Mom,” Carey said. “Lily and I are going out for lunch, and I don’t want to keep her waiting.”
“Okay, fine, fine,” she said. “I’ll have plenty of time with you once you’re back in town. Talk to you later, baby. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
Sighing, Carey slipped the phone into her purse and shook her head.
“Bad news?” asked Lily.
“Let’ s get some food,” she said. “I’ll tell you all about it.”
A half-hour later, the two girls were seated in their favorite booth at their favorite diner near campus. Carey had her usual comfort food in front of her—bacon cheeseburger, onion rings, and a chocolate milkshake—and took little bites of it here and there as she finished explaining the situation to Lily.
“Oh, he’s that lame finance guy who we met in New York? He was such a try hard.”
“The worst thing is that he wasn’t always like that,” said Carey, dipping an onion ring into her ketchup. “He used to be this quiet, smart kid who loved biology. And I don’t know what happened. I mean, we used to seriously talk about getting married.”
“And your parents won’t let you hear the end of it.”
“Exactly. He’s from a good family and has a good job, and that’s all they care about.”
“And while you’re back in Boston your parents will be all over you to get back together with him.”
“For sure,” said Carey. “They’ll be riding my ass nonstop until I’m begging him to put a ring on it.”
Lily looked away in thought as she popped a French fry into her mouth.
“Hmm,” she said.
“What?” asked Carey. “That noise means you’re plotting; I know it.”
“Just thinking that you could avoid this whole thing by coming with me back to Holyoke with me.”
“Are you serious?” asked Carey.
“Sure, why not? You can stay with me until we can get a place together for the summer. You can wait tables or something, save a little money, and before you know it you’ll be back here for your last semester.”
The suggestion sat strangely with Carey. It appealed to her as a way of being away from her meddling parents, but Holyoke had a bit of a reputation as a place that was a little too dangerous for someone like her.
“I don’t know,” said Carey. “If I tell my parents that I’m going to Holyoke for the summer then they might freak out, show up at your door, and throw me in a sack. They’re terrified about me being safe.”
“I’m sure you can talk them into it,” said Lily. “Just throw some of that charm on them; they’ll melt in your hands.”
Carey tried to think of some way to let Lily down gently.
“Um, maybe,” she said. “I’ll think about. I mean, I could always go to the place on the Cape and hide out there for the summer or something.”
Lily’s expression turned sour. “Little rich girl, running away to her family’s other house to get away from her problems.”
Carey realized she’d just put her foot in her mouth. Despite the two of them being close friends, Lily’s humble upbringing as compared to Carey’s was always a point of contention.
“Sorry,” said Carey. “It’s just that this is a lot to think about. And I’ve still got the whole evaluation to worry about.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Lily. “You’ll be fine.”
But as Carey picked at her food, the summer that lay ahead of her in question, she couldn’t help but worry that her life wasn’t at all going the way she’d hoped it would.
She had no idea what to do.