By Susan Rebecca White
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Bitter Southerner has always valued the work of Atlanta novelist Susan Rebecca White — and not just because she contributed to our publication in its early days. Her writing matters because it fearlessly reveals the unsavory parts of the South's upper crust. But her fourth novel, which recently landed on our 2019 Summer Reading Roundup, expands her vision to the radicalism of 1960s America — and its aftermath in the lives of two Southern women over the next 30 years. Our Kyle Tibbs Jones wrote that the novel poses two critical questions: “Is it possible to separate our political choices and our values? As we grow older and as we evolve, do we ever truly escape our history?” Today, every Southerner must reckon with those queries. We’re proud to present this advance excerpt, which introduces us to White’s two main characters just prior to their political awakening, as they participate in that iconic rite of passage expected of so many Southern women, sorority rush. “We Are All Good People Here” will be released August 6. Pre-order links are at the bottom of the story. — C.R.
Roanoke, Virginia, 1963
While Belmont did not have national sororities, there were three local ones on campus: Fleur, Pansy, and Carnation (Phi Lambda, Pi Alpha, and Chi Alpha, though nobody called them by their Greek letters). Eve’s mother had been a Fleur during her two years at Belmont, and her maternal grandmother had been the chapter president when she was an undergraduate, so naturally Eve was expected to “pledge the bouquet.” In truth it seemed that every girl going through rush hoped for a bid from Fleur, though the more prudent ones claimed they just wanted to “find the right sorority home for me.”
For decades, rush had occurred during the very first week of the fall semester. A few years back, the school had decided to delay it until two weeks after Christmas break to let the new girls settle into college life a bit before they were subjected to the frantic four days of selection and rejection. But as soon as everyone returned to campus from the holiday, rush began in earnest.
The night before the first round of parties, Mrs. Shuler gathered her freshmen in the parlor for hot chocolate and vanilla wafers. Everyone was abuzz with nervous energy, for Monty House, the oldest dorm on campus and filled with the daughters of Belmont alums, was known as the “Greek house”; while only about half of the girls at Belmont ended up joining a sorority, nearly every girl who lived in Monty House did. Eve and Daniella had already spent the afternoon speculating about who might end up where, Eve insisting that Eleanor Morgan would pledge Pansy, which was known to be prissy. Mrs. Shuler, wearing a tweed dress with her hair pulled back in its trademark bun, stood by the baby grand piano and called the girls to attention.
“I know you all have a lot to do before tomorrow,” she began. “So I will keep this brief. Sororities can be an enriching part of college life, but I want you to remember that, above all, you belong to Belmont. Do not let your sorority affiliation replace your dedication to your academics or your loyalty to school. And tomorrow, as you go to your first round of parties, just be yourself. Act natural. Remember that the girls inside the sorority houses are just as nervous as you are, for they, too, are being evaluated by you. My hope is that every one of you will find the perfect sisterhood, regardless of reputation, and that not too many tears are shed in the process.”
She lifted her hot cocoa mug in the air and said, “Cheers.”
Eve turned to give Daniella an exaggerated look of horror. “Gee, now I’m not nervous at all!” she joked.
Mrs. Shuler had been a Carnation when she was at Belmont, and the rumor was that she had never quite recovered from being cut from both Pansy and Fleur. That was why she was constantly reminding the girls that they belonged to “Belmont first.” Her antipathy toward the more popular sororities seemed to be confirmed when she pulled Daniella aside as she was filing out of the parlor and urged her to “think about Carnation.”
Daniella, who might not have even gone through rush had she not landed in Monty House with Eve, was thinking about Carnation. She was thinking that she did not want to join it. She wanted to be in Fleur with Eve, though she had no family connections, was not southern, and had not attended an elite prep school like Eve had. She didn’t even realize she was supposed to have letters of recommendation until it was too late to try to secure them. Eve had them, of course, but she claimed they didn’t matter.
“I only have them because Grandmommy insisted,” she said. “But you don’t need them. Midge Miller was in Charlie’s class at Coventry and she was a Belmont Fleur. She told me that with local sororities, recommendations really don’t matter. What they look at are your grades and your extracurriculars.”
When it came to that, Daniella was on more sure footing, something Eve reminded her of any time she expressed doubt that she was “Fleur material.”
“Are you kidding me?” Eve said. “You’re so precious, you’ve got a four-point-oh, you’re on the tennis team, and you’re my roommate!”
“Just being associated with you is powerful enough to get me in?” joked Daniella, though really, she was hoping Eve was right.
“I don’t mean that, of course. I just mean that given my family’s history, it’s pretty likely I’ll get a bid, and everyone knows you’re my best friend, so of course we’ll be seen as a matched set.”
“Like salt and pepper shakers,” joked Daniella.
“Sterling salt and pepper shakers, dahling,” joked Eve. “Only the best.”
* * *
Each day of rush, the girls would gather first in the Blue Room, a formal parlor in the Admissions Building, which was rumored to have a bullet hole in the wall marking the long-ago suicide of a Belmont girl that was now covered up by a portrait of Dr. William March, the college’s founder. The Blue Room was where the Rush Counselors would hand the girls their daily envelopes. On the very first day the envelopes simply contained a list showing the order in which the potential pledges (referred to by the sorority members as “pee-pees”) were to visit the houses, since every pee-pee visited every house during the first round. After that, cuts were made, the very most after that first round as a way to encourage those girls who weren’t really “sorority material” to drop out of rush altogether before becoming too invested.
The parties were orchestrated as precisely as a military campaign: the first an afternoon tea, the second skits, and the third Song Night, the only party held after dinner, when everyone wore a formal dress and the sorority members courted the pee-pees with candlelight, dessert, and songs of sisterhood. After Song Night concluded, the pee-pees, still in formal dress, would gather once again in the Blue Room to list the sororities in order of their first and second choice. The Rush Counselors urged the girls not to worry: As long as they were invited back to at least one of the three houses for Song Night, they would get a bid. That was a rule of the college. Indeed, many girls only got asked back to one house on the final night—usually Carnation—and so they had to decide right then and there if they wanted to join that house or if they wanted to drop out of rush altogether.
Very, very rarely, a girl wouldn’t be asked back to any house for Song Night at all. It was rumored that that was why the young woman had killed herself so long ago in the Blue Room: She had received an empty envelope after the second round. But the Rush Counselors assured the girls that such an outcome was extremely unlikely; everyone just needed to trust the system and not think about which sorority was “popular,” but rather which was a good fit. Everyone cries at least once during rush, they said, but ultimately, the system works.
* * *
Daniella and Eve chose each other’s outfits for the first party, the afternoon tea, both wearing knee-length skirts embellished with one crinoline apiece, and a cashmere twin sweater set, Daniella’s baby blue, Eve’s pink. Eve, who as a double legacy could afford to be a little cavalier, wore a pair of saddle oxfords, while Daniella wore flats. They set their hair in rollers the night before, which meant Eve’s flat hair curled up at the ends while Daniella’s waves were tamed straight.
There was a nervous sense of anticipation as the girls gathered in the Blue Room to learn the order in which they would visit the houses. Eve and Daniella were scheduled to visit each house at different times, which was probably good, because Eve would likely try to crack Daniella up while she was making small talk with a sorority member. The three houses sat next to each other, up a little hill behind the library. They were all brick, all Colonial in style, and for rush the exterior of each was decorated with an archway of balloons and a big welcoming banner. Fleur’s archway was made of light pink and white balloons, the Fleur colors, and its banner featured a painted straw basket filled with flowers in an array of pinks, reds, and whites, each petal created by a scrunched-up piece of colored tissue paper held in place with glue. The interior of the Fleur house was a study in good taste, all Oriental rugs and fine antique furniture gleaming with polish—the entirety of Belmont was redolent of citrus polish—save for the very modern Eames chair in the living room. Most of the girls in Fleur came from money, and nearly every member was some sort of campus leader: the student body president, the head of the Junior Achievement Society, Miss Illahee, which was Belmont’s version of a beauty queen, although she couldn’t only be beautiful but also had to have breeding and brains. Daniella was greeted by an attractive brunette named Lauren, who, after learning that Daniella had grown up in D.C., asked if she had ever met JFK. Daniella was pretty sure they weren’t supposed to talk politics, but who didn’t love the young, handsome president? And so she told Lauren about how her mother had poured herself into volunteering for the Kennedy campaign and how he had once stopped by the campaign office and shaken her hand. Lauren gave out a little yelp and said that her mother had volunteered for Kennedy, too, but golly, had never gotten to meet him!
Daniella’s conversations at Pansy and Carnation were dull in comparison. She told the girls that she lived in Monty House, that her dad was a professor, that yes, the weather was gorgeous, and that she most certainly was looking forward to Illahee Day, that much-anticipated but unknown day in spring when all of the girls would be surprised by a bugle call in the morning, announcing that classes were canceled so everyone could go and climb Mount Illahee.
At Carnation, Rachel Tennenbaum asked if she had attended any services in Roanoke. Daniella said that she didn’t realize there was a Unitarian church in town, and Rachel had answered that she meant the Reform synagogue.
The girls were encouraged to dress informally for the next round of parties—Daniella and Eve were both invited back to all three houses—so they each wore capri pants paired with a popover top, Eve’s pastel plaid and Daniella’s turquoise blue. Lauren, the girl Daniella had chatted with about Kennedy at the Fleur tea, played Dorothy in the sorority’s Wizard of Oz sketch. “There’s no place like Fleur; there’s no place like Fleur!” she chanted, while clicking the heels of her ruby slippers. Later she winked at Daniella from across the room while Daniella spoke with a perfectly nice if slightly ditzy girl named Bev, who had been two grades above Eve at their private school in Atlanta and had an obvious crush on Eve’s older brother, Charlie. “He’s just so all-American!” Bev gushed.
After skit day the girls who had been invited back to all three houses had to eliminate one of them to get the choice down to two for Song Night. Eve and Daniella both dropped Carnation, keeping Pansy and Fleur, but agreeing that Fleur was the only one worth joining.
When they returned to Monty House, Eve stopped at the shared phone in the hallway in order to call her grandmother in Atlanta, who had insisted that she check in with her after each rush event. A few minutes later Eve returned to their room, flopped down on her bed, and sighed. “Grandmommy pretends to want to hear all of the ‘fun’ details about the parties, but she’s really just making sure I pledge Fleur. It’s like she thinks I’m going to pledge Pansy to rebel or something.”
“Would you pledge Pansy? If you didn’t get a bid from Fleur?” asked Daniella.
“I guess, but I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.” “Not for you, obviously, but I could get cut.”
“You keep saying that, but you’re going to be fine, really. I mean, look at you—you’re so pretty and wonderful. You’re a shoo-in.”
* * *
The next morning Daniella was awoken by a noise, but she was in such a deep slumber that it took her a moment to realize the noise she was hearing was someone knocking on the dorm room door. Eve remained asleep. Daniella opened the door in her nightgown, trying to be as quiet as possible so as not to disturb Eve. There stood an ashen Mrs. Shuler beside Daniella’s Rush Counselor, Peggy.
Peggy looked as if she were attending a funeral. Daniella felt as if her knees might buckle.
They had been told that if anything “unfortunate” occurred during rush, your counselor would come to you, so you wouldn’t have to show up in the Blue Room with all of the other girls only to leave in humiliation when you were handed an empty envelope. And here was Peggy. Surely she had not come to see Eve.
“Would you come talk with me downstairs, please?” asked Peggy.
“Let me get a robe,” said Daniella, her voice sounding far away even to herself.
She went to her closet and grabbed the pink fuzzy robe her mother had given to her as a going-away present before she left for Belmont. She knotted it tightly around her waist and followed Peggy and Mrs. Shuler down the stairs and into the little den off the parlor where Daniella sometimes studied. The den had wood-paneled walls and elk horns mounted over the fireplace.
Peggy sat beside Daniella on the couch. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” she said. “But you have been released from Pansy and Fleur.”
Even though Daniella knew Peggy’s arrival could only mean news of this sort, her words didn’t make any sense. Released from both? But Lauren had winked at her during the Wizard of Oz skit!
“I’m so sorry, Daniella; I really am. Sometimes there are quirks that just don’t make any sense.”
“Oh my God,” said Daniella, flush with humiliation. Neither house had asked her back for Song Night. Neither house wanted her. Should she have jettisoned Pansy and kept Carnation instead, since Carnation was known to be the least choosy? But she hadn’t made a connection with anyone there, had found the girls awkward and difficult to talk to. And Lauren from Fleur had winked at her. Wasn’t that a sort of promise? Did that not count for anything?
“I was blackballed?” she asked.
“I really don’t know what happened. It’s just an unfortunate, awful thing. But think about this—you have the tennis team, which will be starting up soon, and there are plenty of other organizations you may join—the literary society, the drama club, the Illahee Climbers. There are so many ways, with or without a Greek affiliation, to be a well-rounded Monty.”
Mrs. Shuler, who had remained quiet up until that point, finally spoke. “Daniella, dear, when I was a student at the Madeira School I was taught a very wise mantra: ‘Function in chaos, finish in style.’ It is your choice to function during this chaotic moment, and I imagine that if you do, you will most certainly finish in style.”
Daniella didn’t know what to say. Everyone in Monty House would know she had not been asked back to Song Night. And surely everyone on campus would soon know, too. Yes, there were plenty of Belmont girls who didn’t go through rush, for either financial or personal reasons, but it was different to have tried to join and been blackballed. Daniella couldn’t exactly claim indifference the way those other girls could. Would anyone believe her if she said she had dropped out of rush to focus more on her studies? No. It was a small campus and the girls at Fleur and Pansy knew what happened. Should she transfer dorms, maybe to Hanker House, which was known to be a little bohemian and contained the fewest members of the Greek system? Should she transfer colleges altogether? Would Eve still want to be friends with her, Eve who would surely receive a bid to Fleur and leave Daniella behind, their friendship only a brief distraction before she met her real sisters?
“So I just don’t show up in the Blue Room today?”
“That’s right,” said Peggy. “Don’t come to the Blue Room. Do something nice for yourself instead. Take a long, hot shower; get yourself an ice cream.”
“Because that will make things all better,” Daniella said, unable to stop herself.
“I think you will find that sarcasm will not help your situation,” said Mrs. Shuler, to which Daniella wanted to scream, I’m functioning, you bitch! I’m functioning in chaos.
“Okay, thanks. Thanks for telling me,” Daniella mumbled, and she rose from the couch and walked in a haze of tears back to her room, where she found Eve still asleep, her long blond hair fanning out around her head on the pillow. Sitting on the edge of her friend’s bed, she shook her shoulder.
“What is it?” Eve asked, her voice kind and concerned even in her half-awake state.
“I have to tell you something. Something bad.”
With a snap Eve was sitting up in her bed, alert. “What? What happened?”
“I’m not going to be a Fleur. I’m not going to be in any sorority.” As soon as she spoke the words aloud she started to cry, staccato little sobs that sounded like hiccups.
“What are you talking about?”
“Peggy came to tell me this morning. I’m not invited back to Song Night. No one wants me.”
“But it doesn’t make any sense. You’re perfect for Fleur. You are a Fleur!”
“It’s because my father is Jewish,” said Daniella, and as soon as the words left her mouth she realized they were true. That was why Mrs. Shuler told her to “think about Carnation.”That was why Rachel Tennenbaum was asking her about Reform services in Roanoke. Everyone at Belmont thought of her as Jewish whether she called herself Unitarian or not, and Carnation was clearly the only sorority that accepted Jews.
“That’s absurd,” said Eve. “Why then?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense. I know a couple of the older girls in Fleur from Coventry. Maybe I could ask one of them what happened.”
“You know you’re not allowed to make contact with anyone in the houses until after bids are given. Besides, you don’t need to ask. I know. It’s so clear to me now.”
“I refuse to believe that’s the reason. It’s just too ludicrous for words. I mean, isn’t the whole motto of Fleur that it takes every type of flower to make a beautiful bouquet?”
“Yeah, a Methodist flower, and a Presbyterian flower, and an Episcopal flower . . .”
“I mean, maybe some girl in Fleur had it in for you, was jealous or something, and insisted they cut you, but that doesn’t really make any sense. I mean, if that were the case, why not drop you after the first round? And it’s not like you’re going out with anyone’s ex-boyfriend or anything.”
“It happened with both sororities, Eve.”
“Wait! I just thought of something. How many letters of recommendation did you have?”
“I didn’t have any, remember? They’re local sororities; you told me they weren’t necessary.”
“That’s got to be it! I must have been wrong. I mean, I had three letters for each one! And I don’t even want to be in Carnation or Pansy. But my grandmother insisted on it, so maybe recs were more important than I realized. It must have been a stupid technicality. We just need to get you some recs, and then you can go through rush again next year. Or maybe even get a snap bid before then.”
“I really don’t think it was a matter of recs,” said Daniella, even though a small, dumb part of herself was hoping that Eve was right, that there was some mundane reason why she had been cut; some small mistake that, once rectified, could reopen the door to Eve’s world.
Eve went to Song Night without Daniella and, of course, was offered a bid to Fleur the next day. That night a woven basket was placed in front of their door, filled with twenty-four intricately constructed paper flowers, each one personalized with the name of a girl in the Fleur pledge class. Up and down the hall, girls had their own straw baskets of flowers—or paper cutouts of pansies or carnations—decorating their doorways, all but Natalie, the only girl in Monty House who had not gone through rush at all. Chapter meetings were every Monday and so it would just be Natalie and Daniella left in the dorm while everyone else toddled off to their sorority.
Eve told Daniella that as soon as she got to know a few more of the older girls, she was going to find out what had happened, find out what Daniella needed to do to get in. Daniella appreciated Eve’s loyalty, but she also knew that her friend might let things slip as the semester rolled on. Eve had sisters now, a whole pledge class to befriend; what did she care about a girl who was cut before Song Night?
But true to her word, if Eve was eating lunch with a group from Fleur or walking through campus with one of them, she would always wave Daniella over, throw an arm around her, introduce her all around. The older members of Fleur were nice to Daniella, though it was awkward talking to them knowing that they knew she had been cut—that they had cut her. Worse was running into Lauren, the JFK fan who had winked at her while performing her skit. Whenever Daniella would pass her on campus, Daniella would look away, as if she didn’t see her, but one day she happened to be walking alone to the library when Lauren sidled up next to her, matching her stride.
“Look, can we talk?” Lauren asked.
“Sure,” said Daniella, but she kept walking at the same pace, worried that if she were to stop and turn to face Lauren she would burst into tears.
Lauren reached over and put her hand on Daniella’s arm. “Can you just stop for a minute? Sit down?”
There was a bench nearby. Lauren dusted off the seat before they sat. “I’m so sorry about what happened. I’m not supposed to say anything, but I need you to know that we wanted you. We all wanted you. It’s just, there’s this group of alums that kind of controls things, and they said ‘no.’ They said we could only have twenty-four pledges tops, that if we had more than that the sorority would lose some of its exclusivity, and that everyone we offered a bid to...everyone had to have letters of recommendation. And you didn’t. We tried to argue with them, but they were resolute. I’m so sorry.”
Had Eve been right? Had she been rejected simply over a technicality? Why, then, had Mrs. Shuler encouraged her to “think about Carnation”? She hadn’t had recommendation letters for Carnation, either. But maybe that was what made Carnation different from the other two; maybe its requirements were less stringent.
“The school should have told us,” Daniella said. “They should have let us know so that everyone had a fair chance.”
Lauren looked pained. “It wasn’t fair at all,” she said. “And again, I’m just so sorry.”
And then she got up quickly and hurried off, and the next time Daniella saw her, Lauren gave only the most cursory of smiles.
* * *
Eve, of course, was elated to hear about Daniella’s conversation with Lauren, though Daniella made her swear not to tell anyone else about it. “I told you!” she said, and then her eyes lit up even more. “Daniella! This means all we need to do is get my mother to write you a Fleur rec and the next time they give out snap bids you can get one. Did I tell you that’s how Aunt Pooh got in? She had mono during rush, but later that year Fleur just offered her a bid after someone dropped out.”
Daniella still felt uneasy. If what Eve was saying was true, then why did Lauren seem so pained during their conversation? If Fleur wanted her and she just needed to have a letter of recommendation to get a bid, then why didn’t Lauren tell her that, tell her the exact steps she needed to take?
There was one member of Eve’s pledge class whom Daniella really liked, a girl named Katharine Ridley from Alabama who lived just down the hall from them in Monty House. Katharine—Kitty—was goofy like Eve and always seemed glad to see Daniella. As the semester continued, the three of them grew close, and eventually Daniella allowed Eve to tell Kitty about the conversation she had had with Lauren about the alumnae group and recommendations. After that, any time it was just the three of them, Eve and Kitty would openly discuss how to get Daniella a bid sooner rather than later.
“I think they offer snap bids after Easter break,” said Kitty, “because that’s just after midterm grades come out and some girls are forced to drop because they’re failing. That’s probably our best option.”
“And I asked Mother to write Daniella a letter of recommendation,” said Eve. “So we’ve got that taken care of.”
“Y’all, I don’t even know if I want to join anymore. Seriously, it would feel really queer after they rejected me.”
“Oh, please,” said Eve, waving away Daniella’s words, as she always did when Daniella mentioned her doubts about trying to join Fleur. “Lauren said they all wanted you. It was just a stupid technicality.”
“Here’s the thing,” said Eve to Kitty. “If they know they are going to lose girls after Easter, why not go ahead and fill up? Why not just offer Daniella a snap bid as soon as they receive the letter from Mother?”
“Let’s ask Mandy about it,” said Kitty. “Maybe she knows.” Mandy was their pledge trainer. Like Eve, she was from Atlanta, although she had gone to the Lovett School and not Coventry.
That night after chapter meeting, Eve returned to their dorm room in a foul mood. She wouldn’t tell Daniella what was going on, only said she was sick of all the bitches at Belmont, then stormed off to the phone down the hall to make a call. From inside their room Daniella could hear Eve yelling. Eventually Mrs. Shuler came up and gave Eve a demerit, told her she must calm down or she was going to hang up on whomever Eve was speaking with. Eve returned to their room flushed and steely eyed.
“Well, that’s done.”
“What’s done?” asked Daniella, looking up from her book.
Eve flopped down on Daniella’s bed, as Daniella’s was made and Eve’s was not. “I approached Mandy tonight. I asked her point-blank if you could get a snap bid after your letter of recommendation arrives, and she pulled me aside and told me that she was going to tell me something completely confidential that I couldn’t share with anyone. And then she told me that, just like Lauren said, the girls in Fleur totally loved you and wanted you as a member, but that they weren’t allowed to offer you a bid because you’re Jewish. Apparently there’s a local alumnae association that is really adamant about allowing only Christian girls in the sorority, and they sent some representative over before Song Night to vet Fleur’s choice of girls. And I can only presume that’s what happened with Pansy, too. God, I’m just so sick I can hardly stand it.”
Daniella felt an odd combination of both embarrassment and validation. She had been right. It was because she was Jewish. They didn’t want her because she was Jewish.
“Did you tell them I’m Unitarian?”
This was something of a joke, but Eve did not laugh. “I called Grandmother to tell her I’m dropping out.”
“What? You can’t do that!”
“That’s what Grandmommy said. She told me I was making a ‘grave mistake’ that I would regret for the rest of my life. She told me not to expect her to pay my tuition if I drop.”
“Then you have to stay in.”
“No, I don’t. My parents will pay it if she doesn’t. She’s just a mean old bitch; she really is.”
Daniella looked at Eve, whose face was locked in defiance. “Don’t drop out for me, okay? It really doesn’t matter all that much. All it means is I don’t go to chapter meetings and I don’t have to pay dues.”
“It means so much more than that and you know it,” said Eve.
* * *
Clearly it did, because the next evening Eve’s grandmother showed up, having been driven to Roanoke from Atlanta in her pale blue Lincoln Town Car. Daniella happened to be returning to Monty House from tennis practice when “Grandmommy” arrived. She watched as the colored driver parked on the gravel in front of the house. He got out of the car and walked around to open the rear door of the sedan, holding out his gloved hand to help his tiny passenger emerge from the back seat. Though Daniella had never met her, she knew immediately who it was. Grandmommy wore the Fleur colors, a bright pink jacket over a light pink dress, her elfin feet strapped into pale pink heels, her Fleur pin secured close to her heart. Around her neck were three thick strands of pearls, and in each ear a pearl so fat it must have popped open the oyster it grew in.
Daniella ran up the front steps to find Eve and warn her, but Eve was not in their room. Surely she was with Kitty down the hall, but Daniella hesitated to go look for her, indulging for a moment in the fanciful thinking that if she did not help it along, perhaps this ensuing drama would not unfold. It was all so humiliating, to be the source of so much trouble.
A few moments later there was a knock on her dorm room door, but when Daniella opened it she was faced with Mrs. Shuler, not Eve’s grandmother.
“Is Eve here, dear?” Mrs. Shuler asked. “Try Kitty’s room,” said Daniella.
Mrs. Shuler turned with a sigh and headed toward Kitty’s room, knocking on the door, then speaking quietly with whomever answered. And then Eve shot into the room, as if launched by a slingshot.
“Oh my Lord, oh my Lord, oh my Lord. Grandmommy is here, as in right now, and my hair is a mess and I haven’t taken a shower in three days!” Eve was wearing dungarees and one of her dad’s old shirts, her greasy hair pulled back into a low ponytail. She looked pretty, but not at all like a debutante.
“How can she be mad you’re not ready for her? She didn’t tell you she was coming.”
“‘A lady is always dressed for visitors,’” said Eve. “One of Grandmommy’s rules.” As she spoke she was tearing off the flannel shirt and putting on first her soft pink cashmere shell and then the matching cardigan. She slid off the dungarees and slid on an A-line skirt, then shoved her feet into a pair of kitten heels that happened to be resting beneath her dresser.
“There’s nothing I can do about the hair, but how does the rest of me look?”
“Good. You should put on a little lipstick, though.”
“Right.” Eve ran a tube of pink lipstick across her lips, rubbed them together, then headed out the door. “I would invite you to come with me, but I promise, it’s not going to be pleasant.”
* * *
Daniella did not know what to do with herself while she waited for Eve to talk with her grandmother. She felt antsy sitting in the room, but she felt embarrassed venturing outside of it. The school was so small, surely news had gotten around that Eve was dropping out of Fleur because of her and that Eve’s grandmother had come all the way up from Atlanta to talk her out of it.
She was causing so much trouble. She was keeping Eve from the institution that nearly all of the women in her family belonged to. An institution she might have belonged to as well, if only she could have better hidden her Jewishness. Oh God. What was she even thinking—that she would change her last name? Use her mother’s maiden name instead? Wear a cross around her neck? No. She would not be ashamed of who she was. She would not be ashamed of her father—she loved her father; he was the smartest person she knew, and he made her feel smart, too.
She wondered again if perhaps she should transfer to a different college. She had been accepted at Barnard, but her mother had worried about her living in New York City and Belmont had such a good tennis team and such a lovely campus—and was closer to home. But maybe a place like Barnard was a better fit. There would certainly be more Jewish girls there. She wondered if she would need to apply again or if the fact that she had been admitted once would be enough. She supposed she could have her father telephone the admissions office or perhaps ask a dean at Belmont about doing so. She would miss Eve, miss her terribly, but they were from different worlds, and she didn’t want to continue causing Eve angst.
By the time Eve returned to the dorm room, Daniella had pretty much decided she was leaving Belmont. Eve’s eyes were red from crying, but she was smiling. “Would you come downstairs and talk to Grandmommy? She wants to meet you.”
Why hadn’t it occurred to Daniella that Eve’s grandmother might want to meet her? She was still in her tennis clothes, still sweaty from practice, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. Oh well. She smeared on the same lipstick Eve had used, shrugging at her reflection.
She and Eve walked down the curved front staircase to the parlor, where Grandmommy waited, perched atop an antique armchair. Miss Louise, who had replaced Miss Eugenia, was pouring the old woman a cup of tea from the silver service that belonged to the house, bequeathed by a childless alum who had no one to pass her treasures on to. Every surface of every piece of the silver was imprinted with flowers. During their first days at Belmont Eve had identified the pattern for her—Repousse by Kirk. “Repousse is one you either love or you hate,” Eve had declared. Daniella loved it.
“Cream or sugar, ma’am?” asked Miss Louise.
Grandmother waved away the offer, imperious as a tiny queen. “Neither. Eve, would your friend like a cup of tea?”
“No, thanks,” said Daniella, but she was so nervous her words were barely audible.
“Speak up, dear,” said the woman.
“No, thank you,” said Daniella. She had no idea if she was supposed to sit or wait until she was instructed to do so. Suddenly, her rebellious side took over and she thought, Oh, to hell with it, and just plopped down on the sofa across from the old lady. Eve sat down beside her, so close their thighs nearly touched.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Elliot,” she said. “Eve speaks so highly of you.”
“I hear you are from Washington, D.C.?”
“Georgetown has some lovely old homes.”
“It does,” said Daniella. She wanted to tell her that she grew up in one of them, but she held back. She did not want to pander.
“And my granddaughter tells me you were raised Unitarian?”
“Guilty as charged,” said Daniella. “Weaned on Emerson.”
“Well, that’s just fine. A little unorthodox, but fine. And why did you decide to come to Belmont from all of the way up in D.C.?”
Daniella resisted the urge to remind Mrs. Elliot that Georgetown was closer to Roanoke than Atlanta was. She knew Mrs. Elliot was not talking about geographic distance, but rather culture. “I love tennis, and I was offered a spot on the team. And my mother attended Sweet Briar, so it seemed nice to have a similar experience to hers.”
“Sweet Briar is a fine institution. And tennis is a wonderful game! I always told my children that as long as they learned to play tennis and golf they would do well in the world.”
“Well,” said Daniella, “I’m one for two.”
The old woman smiled and looked at Daniella directly for the first time. Perhaps she was being paranoid, but it seemed to Daniella that Eve’s grandmother lingered for an extra second on her nose, weighing it, determining just how “ethnic” it was.
“You seem like a perfectly lovely girl. I understand now why my granddaughter is so fond of you. And you aren’t flashy at all. There’s really no need for the alumnae group to be concerned. I’m going to talk to them and things should open up for you at Fleur, all right, dear?”
It was as if one half of Daniella split from the other, because there was a part of her, sitting in the formal parlor of Monty House, that felt such pride at having passed muster with Eve’s grandmother, as if being deemed not too Jewish were a great accomplishment. And then there was another part of her that wished she knew Hebrew—or, better yet, Yiddish—so she could curse the old lady in the language of her ancestors. “Not too flashy.” What the hell did that mean?
But it was Eve who spoke, her voice quiet at first, contemplative, as if she were formulating her thoughts while she said them aloud. “Grandmommy, did you know beforehand that the Fleur alumnae would insist on Daniella being blackballed?”
“Why, I didn’t give it any thought,” said Grandmommy, but the expression on her face was furtive.
“But you knew that Daniella and I were going through rush together, and you knew that her father was Jewish and her mother was Methodist and she was raised Unitarian. I told you all about it over Christmas dinner, and you told me about the Jewish doctor you once met on a cruise ship to England. You said, ‘Some of them are perfectly fine people.’”
“Clearly they are,” said Grandmommy, smiling affectionately at Daniella, as if the two of them were old friends.
“You knew. You knew she would be rejected. And I bet Mother never wrote her a letter of recommendation, did she?”
“Well, now we are seeing to it that she is accepted.”
“Oh, it all just makes me want to scream!” Eve cried, the force of her convictions propelling her right out of her chair, so that she was standing, flush with indignation. “You know what? Daniella can join Fleur if she likes, but I don’t want to have anything to do with it.”
Eve’s grandmother jerked her neck up sharply in order to glare at Eve. “Don’t be such a child,” she said.
“Don’t be such a bitch,” Eve responded.
Daniella was sure the old lady would heave herself out of her chair, march over to her impertinent granddaughter, and slap her. Or at least beat her fists against her shoulders, as Eve was a head taller than she was. But instead her eyes pooled with tears and her lips started trembling. And then tears were running down her face, and she was shaking her head and saying, “Well, I never. I never.”
Eve remained standing. “Oh, Grandmommy,” she said, her voice not at all sorry, only exasperated.
A feral look crossed over Mrs. Elliot’s face as she turned her gaze upward to address her granddaughter, index finger wagging. “I nearly died when I gave birth to your mother. Do you hear me? I lost so much blood I nearly died. But it was worth it because she was my own, my flesh and blood, my child, and she went on to have children of her own. And you—you nearly killed her when you came out, but it was worth it, too, because you were flesh from her flesh, blood from blood. And how do you repay us? By turning your back on your family, by turning your back on all we hold dear.”
“I didn’t ask to be born into this family,” said Eve, and she walked out of the room, leaving Daniella alone with Grandmommy, who sat very straight in her chair, lips trembling as she dabbed at her eyes with a white handkerchief she had pulled from her pocketbook, its sides embellished with antique lace.