Max’s jacket, fluttering down and getting crushed beneath the toe of her platform pump as she strides down the sidewalk purposefully to her next case. By seventeen, Max Scott has created so many versions of herself she’s almost lost count—but this is the one she loves best. Previously Max always readily adapted to the style norms of whatever new school she transferred into. And she transferred a lot. As the only child of a single mother, Max had to move whenever her mom’s latest journalism job folded with the local paper. From Denver to Daytona. Another furniture set from USA Rentals, another faux granite kitchenette, another stack of boxes that wouldn’t get unpacked. While none of it would have been her first choice, even Max had to admit it had made her into a keen observer of the human animal.
Here’s who Max was not: that new girl who slunked in the corner with her hands tucked into her sleeves waiting for a vampire to find her irresistible. She did not abide furtive glances and chewed bottom lips. And she would seriously rather be found dead than staring into her lunch tray at a table in Cafeteria Siberia. Please.
Over the years Max developed a system. When it came to being the new girl, Max learned to get herself to the mall. She would set up camp at the food court’s Cold Stone Creamery or enticing equivalent and then covertly watch as most girls passed with envious eyes and snide comments. It was the girls who stopped and ordered a big group-something to share, who dug in while talking each other’s ears off, laughing so hard they sprayed whipped cream, pecan frosting, or pretzel crumbs, that caught Max’s attention. There was nothing Max valued more than those who found the funny.
Once she spotted them, Max watched, listened, recorded, and then Google cross-referenced so by the first
day of school she had their look down with just enough variation so as not to appear to be “trying.” Max’s system helped her to find her peeps pronto, and she didn’t care what brand pants they wore so much as that they could
crack up until they wet them.
Thus one year there was an athletic, ponytailed version of Max who wore sneakers and said “hey” instead of “hello.” In Cincinnati, there was a version who wore leggings for so many months she had permanent seam indentations running up her thighs. There was an eighth-grade version who wore heavy black eyeliner and wasn’t easily impressed. A version who wore teal eyeliner and clapped twice in exuberance upon discovering Pizza Day. One who played with American Girl dolls (fourth grade), and one who gave them buzz cuts (fifth grade). At this point, so as not to confuse the friends she’d picked up along the way, her Facebook photo was Audrey Hepburn in a cocktail dress fashioned from a bedsheet from Breakfast at Tiffany’s—hewing closest to Max’s authentic ideal. Max believed style and wit equipped a girl to best nearly anything. Nearly.
Max had embraced each new school. And she had always been embraced back. That was until her parents decided Max should attend one place consecutively for her junior and senior years to ensure a smooth transition to the caliber of college they hoped for her. So they packed Max off to a rigid—read: humorless—New England boarding school, the kind with a chapel, a crest, and a Latin motto. The thought of it still makes her cringe. And into this vacuum of funny, this vortex of blah and bland, stepped him. The one. The answer. The reason. Hugo Tillman.
Hugo made her feel seen, he made her feel loved, he got her jokes and her style. And then the thing happened that happens at some point to every girl, in every school in the world. Max was informed that he who she loved most was no longer in love with her. Max Scott was dumped. With a few slicing words from Hugo, her life came crashing in. And with no “home” to go to, she settled for the next-best thing—heading to her mother’s latest mailing address: New York City, where Max found the inspiration to channel her roiling misery.
Refusing to return to school, any school, period, Max spent the rest of what would have been her junior year walking the mazelike halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was drawn to the doleful eyes of a nineteenth-century black-and-white photograph. The eyes looked exactly like the ones staring hollowly back at Max in the medicine-cabinet mirror every morning. Camille Claudel, Rodin’s mistress and muse. She’d inspired him, informing the sculpting style that would make him world famous forever, and he, by way of thanks, dumped her ass, stole her technique, and locked her up in an insane asylum when she tried to speak of it.
From there Max roamed the twentieth-century galleries, with their low lighting, low ceilings, and tiger wood walls. The squeaking snow boots she’d been living in called the passing attention of the sparse tourists, but she didn’t care. She was too busy contemplating the O’Keeffes. Along with the naked photographs taken by Georgia’s partner, Alfred Stieglitz. The very photos that garnered him renown and recognition prevented Georgia’s peers from taking her work seriously in her lifetime. Now everyone gets that posing naked is not the route to respect, but how was Georgia to know? She was just making Alfred happy.
Max looped through that wing toward the ornate portraits of Henry VIII’s beheaded wives, their only crime that they accepted his proposal of marriage. Then on to the Greek vases, where goddesses and mortals alike prostrate themselves over hearts broken by callous gods. She spotted Daphne, Io, and Persephone, for whom male attention brought agony and destruction. She sat for hours on a bench across from a painting of Cleopatra committing suicide. How? she asked herself. How is it that civilization evolved the ability to shuttle someone to the moon, but other than capturing its excruciating details in every medium, it hadn’t come up with anything to guide women through heartbreak?
Max walked past the first thermometer, the first coins. Girls have no tools, no systems at our disposal, Max thought.
Turning ourselves into trees is frankly a crap suggestion—thanks, Greeks. Because, let’s face it, Rodin went on to wealth and glory, Zeus went on to turn another goddess into a hamster or a barn door or whatever, Henry handed those wives in at the gallows like he was getting a rebate at a car dealership and got to start his own religion. The guys took and still take hearts with impunity and are fine. More than fine, they have fame and fortune and empires. They still hook up. They still play Wii. And we? We?
Max caught sight of herself in the glass shielding Ophelia from the light. I am scary thin, she thought. I have eggplant circles under my eyes. I want to play Wii. Or at least want to want to play Wii. It’s been centuries. We cannot still be incurring the blow of rejection with as little at our disposal as Cleopatra. Civilization has come up with cars and nuclear power plants, Blu-ray movies, open-heart surgery, and Cesar Millan. There has to be a way to evolve this. I will evolve this, Max thought.
And so she has. A few months later she is her favorite version of herself, which, in her carriage and comportment,
in her choice of dress and words, exudes the confidence of a girl who feels herself to be precisely where she ought
to be. No one would guess, as they admiringly watch her stride down the asphalt to wherever she is needed next,
that this confidence is extremely hard won. Under the navy night sky, Max checks the address texted to her and walks a few paces down to the appointed stoop on Bank Street, the one lined with carved pumpkins. She drops her BlackBerry back into her hard-sided red bag, jogs up the steps, and rings the bell, smoothing her tight, black skirt suit and reviewing in her mind the details of the particular tragedy awaiting her. She notes that the large living room window is pasted with construction-paper bat cutouts. Which confirms her instinct that there are younger siblings on the premises. As the door is unlocked, Max can smell the Old El Paso taco dinner that’s long since been cleared from the table.
“Hello?” A woman with bare feet below her trousers stands rubbing her hands dry on a dishcloth.
“Hi! Mrs. Stetson? I’m Max. I’m here to see Bridget.”
“Yes! The tutor, yes.” Max embraces the cover. Unsure what the mothers have been told, upon arrival she always
follows their lead.
Mrs. Stetson flips the towel over her shoulder. “Her friend Shannon just called to let me know you were coming,
which was strange. Do you tutor many of the kids at Stuyvesant?”
“I tutor all over the city, actually. I work by referral, so, yeah.”
“Can you see if you can get Bridge to come down for some food? I really think she should eat something. She skipped dinner. She’s been locked in her room since I got home. Probably on the phone with her boyfriend.”
Bridget’s mother holds the door open, and Max steps into the front hall, where a day’s worth of the family’s bags
and shoes have been discarded.
“I brought some snacks.” Max points to her bag. Bridget’s mother looks at it, the imposing red leather, the iconic H clasp, and then to Max, her impeccable knockoff and professional attire working to their opposite desired effect. There is a beat of distrust as the two walk to the staircase leading to the second floor. “It’s a huge test,” Max offers. “A lot of kids are really freaked out about it. Don’t worry, I’m an expert.” Bridget’s mother nods uncertainly. Max aims for a lighthearted shrug and heads up.
Her attuned ears pick up the muff led sobs as her toe lifts from the last step. Max walks quickly down the carpeted hall, following the fuzzy thump of a bass beat meant to obscure the keening from those who were ignorantly devouring tacos below. Throwing her shoulders back in a way that her best friend, Zach, says reminds him of Angelina-channeling-Mary-Poppins, Max turns the doorknob, stepping inside a blast of Adele, to find Bridget Stetson in a heap. Her laptop open before her, she is staring at a hundred tiny JPEGs of a carrot-haired boy riding a skateboard. Around her lie a box’s worth of wadded Kleenex, like a bed of wilted roses. Bridgetlooks up from the screen and is met with the f lash fromMax’s camera.
“Bridget, Shannon sent me.” Max drops her bag on the blue bedspread and opens it, exchanging the camera for a sterling flask. She swiftly pours a shot of Kombucha into the cap. “I’m Max Scott, and I want you to drink this. It’ll take the edge off.”
“Where is Sh-Shannon?” Bridget chokes out as she mushes her damp, blond bangs off her puffy face with the back of her sweatshirt-covered hand. “I thought she was coming with you.”
“She just made the referral. Drink.”
Overwhelmed, Bridget swigs the shot and hands back the top with a burning cough. Max pulls a chocolate bar from her bag, opens the wrapper, and hands it off to Bridget.
“N-no. I can’t even think about—”
“Eat.” Max appraises the collage-covered walls and, leaning over Bridget’s desk, unlocks the window. Cool air rushes into the room, clearing the salty scent of tissues and tears.
“I c-can’t—my st-stomach—I may n-never eat again. I don’t understand. How do you know Shannon?” Bridget peers around Max to the closed door as if her friend might appear. “I was just talking to her after . . . after—” But Max knows she can’t bring herself to finish the sentence, to say “he dumped me.” Not yet.
“One bar.” Max places both hands on her hips. Bridget raises an eyebrow, but does as told. Max has never been met by resistance on an Hour One house call. Girls are too desperate for relief to put up a fight.
“You’ll see Shannon tomorrow. Right now you just need to focus on what I’m telling you.” Max watches Bridget bite into the dark chocolate intended to fill her dry mouth with sweetness. Bridget chews with hollow eyes as Max sweeps the room, stealthily dropping framed photos of the couple into her bag along with the obvious “Taylor and Bridget” mementos. She picks up Bridget’s cell and reprograms Taylor’s number to direct dial Max’s cell. She unplugs Bridget’s laptop and—
“Hey!” Bridget coughs, crumbs spurting from her mouth. “What the hell?”
“It’s not safe staying here tonight. No contact with the outside world.” Max slides the machine into her bag and withdraws a bottle of water just as Bridget finishes off the last bit. Max takes the wrapper and hands off the bottle. She then pulls a Limoges box from her bag. “Valerian. All natural megadose.” Bridget takes the pill and slugs it down with a sip from the bottle. “Okay.”
Max picks up Bridget by her elbows and gently steers her along the carpet. “Into bed.”
Max can tell the pill is taking effect, dulling Bridget from the shock of the stimulants and, Max hopes, flatlining her from a high that skirts the prior excruciating low. Helping her to lie down, Max puts a hand maternally on Bridget’s forehead. Bridget mumbles something. “Yes?” Max encourages. “It feels like . . . like . . .”
Max turns out the lamp. “It feels like everything they say. . . . Like he reached into your ribs and ripped your heart out with his bare hands. Like a giant boulder has been dropped there in its place. I know.”
“It, it physically hurts.” Bridget sounds surprised as she rubs the skin just to the left of the zipper on her sweatshirt.
“It feels worse than a boulder. It’s like, like . . . there’s an . . . elephant standing on my chest.”
Max nods acknowledgment as Bridget turns on her side, tucking into a ball as tears trace the vine pattern on her pillowcase. “My head is getting thick,” she murmurs, and Max prays that Taylor’s flaying words are also getting
harder to rerun. Max lowers the volume on the iPod dock until it’s off. The lulling sounds of traffic return to the darkened room.
Max stays with Bridget until her breathing is slow and rhythmic, until she is asleep. Max knows it’s what the body wants in moments of such devastation, to shut down and recharge the adrenals. The tiny hit of fermentation, the magnesium in the chocolate, the homeopathic tranquilizer are just enough to signal permission to the brain to step back from what is far too painful to make sense of just now, in the immediate aftermath of impact. Max stands, covers Bridget with the blanket, relatches the window, and secures a red card on a red cord over Bridget’s wrist. CALL IMMEDIATELY UPON WAKING. Max flips the card right side up. EX, INC.