Some relationships are tit-for-tat. That’s a lesson everyone learns in grade school — you come to understand who plays with you at recess because they want to and who only does it so you’ll give them your dessert at lunch. And you learn how to pick and choose between your real friends and the friends who are only using you.
This only works when you have friends.
There’s a girl at Bramford, Emily, whose parents are divorced. Her mother is a waitress; her father is a landscape architect working in Portsmith.
Her mother loves her. Insists she come home every weekend, when most of the girls remain at school. Makes Emily her favorite meals, asks about her day.
Her father insists she come home, too, to his house in Portsmith. He lets her stay there and he spends the weekend wherever — out with friends, at the office, at the bar. He leaves her big wads of cash and lets her use his credit card whenever she wants. He’s getting her a Lexus for her birthday; he promised; Emily won’t shut up about it at lunch.
Not hard to guess who she goes home with most often.
Nothing wrong with knowing what you want, Kat thinks.
When she’s four years old, Kat makes friends with a girl at daycare. The girl, Mona, is different from the other four-year-olds. When she plays with the dollhouse in the corner, she opens the little door under the plastic stairs and locks the child-doll inside. The parent-dolls block the door, pressing their backs against it, keeping their child inside.
Kat’s favorite color is pink, because she’s four.
Mona’s favorite color is green.
It’s intriguing. Mona is different, and there’s no reason why someone so different would choose to hang out with Kat — but she does. She asks to play dinosaurs. She asks to play house.
She asks if she can stay with Kat this weekend.
Of course, Kat’s parents are happy to oblige, and Kat knows just what to do. Thursday night, she searches the house for prizes.
Her best Barbie doll.
A rainbow bracelet.
A polished green stone.
A stuffed puppy.
She gathers them in a box and sets it on her bed, where the box will stay until she comes home from daycare with Mona at her side. And Mona will see it and know it’s for her.
And Mona will stay.
An offering, that’s what it comes down to. A payment. You pay someone to be your friend and they won’t ever leave — and you know it’s not how friendship is supposed to work, but real friendship doesn’t come with guarantees.
It works until Kat goes to Bramford.
She does the other girls’ homework for them and all she gets is chastised — the girls say her work isn’t good enough, that if they wanted a B+ they could’ve written the essays themselves. The teachers find out and Kat can feel something sever between herself and the nuns who used to think her sweet, a good girl, a Catholic girl.
She offers her dessert to the girl beside her at lunch, but the rules have changed since grade school. The other girls are watching their figures. They turn their noses up at Kat’s offerings.
They trade in makeup now. They trade in secrets — who’s dating who, which boy from town likes which girl from school. They trade in wine coolers and little shot-sized bottles of liquor stolen from the store or purchased from grown men outside.
Kat doesn’t have makeup. She doesn’t know any gossip. She’s not sure how to get her hands on alcohol.
She has nothing to offer.
She cuts her finger. She draws a circle on the floor of the boiler room and stares into the fire.
She offers herself.