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Suffer the Children

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Noreen was chewing on an energy bar or whatever its Colonial Williamsburg equivalent when the classroom came to her. The sun was high in Merchants’ Square that sultry mid-to-late August aft, and she’d spent the lumpsum ogling the fave smokes of the forgotten grandmothers mooring the benches. Had she been a smoker, she might have drawled outs inaudible “hey”s to living history, at her Loyalist lady flicking flint off Richmond light industry, her Patriot the old dame dragging the eff out of a slim. With initiative, or kinder grown daughters, the less inert among them might have said “hi” back, then instead of griping at their grown ones gone back to whiling downtime skimming Founders bios, front-of-stores by a smart set that “dumbwaiter” got hard. But the thing about that was the effort it would take: Effort was for polymaths, tourists. Virginia didn’t mother those anymore.

Noreen’s own mother had allowed her to stay in C-Dubs for the summer after W&M had given the girl a couple wayward thou for seasonal research. She was, she said, thinking through that threadbare Tidewater cash crop destroying the New World meme, something peripherally involving its legacy in Jefferson not worth explaining. More to the point, she’d hashed through a circumspect enough explanation that the fellowship office got, and olds dug. There when Rockefeller first owned the town, the old-timers were thrilled by her excuse to get native, otherwise glutted by proposals for title-ey rest/most-of-world tomes. They wouldn’t read her final product (“culminating practicum”), the both of them knew, which meant she could do whatever she wanted with the money, as long as she did not buy the one type of stuff on the school’s tab.

So for the past six weeks Noreen had actually been commuting back and forth between Swem Library and the ‘rents’ McManse in NoVA to research her senior thesis, which was not really all that much about the T-Jeff but actually a social history of the Legato School. A one-room schoolhouse in Fairfax, Virginia, The Legato School, which as luck would have it is on Route 1-2-3, was devoted to teaching underprivileged children of the Civil War. It had been the topic of a presentation she did for a second grade social studies unit (“Community”), but the gist was good enough for forty-odd pages of distribution requirements as well, narrow yet broad, some kind of shutter system between the Fairfax County Government Center, which wasn’t even there anymore mostly, and the Old Dominion of yesteryear. Noreen was a history major, effortful one, even, and the decrepits knew what she knew, that concertedness is next to godliness, not the other thing.

Straight-on view of the visitors’ center, peeps ignoring brochures—in her birth year 1.1 million!—she looked to where a man not not dressed like T-Jeff was hanging. The Teej was redlocked, ponderous in mock frippery, but they spoke the same language, real butter cream, Paris bons mots, fluent shit one can’t sell in apothecary shops. Maybe they could sneak into the ladies’, for she had fond memories of the bathroom there, resting easy in flop spritz and parabens mumbling bot-a-tot so her fams on the pre-pavement wouldn’t murmur derisive about her inability to pronounce Botetourt when she got out. Should she finish coming on his hypersexed grave? The saltwater taffy goo at those apothecaries had the best aftertaste, though for dates she preferred the Trellis, which was not for sinners’ death via chocolate but uplift by white chocolate balloon.

In said fugue she had half a mind to abandon the enterprise of history, to go for that coffee place outside which she’d two-houred her sedan. It was forever half-empty, and did not even sell the Chowning’s Tavern root beer microbrew, but free wi-fi! Last week the owners changed the password, character-numeral-punctuate incomprehensible that one got the sense was saying nice things (Fr3ed0m?), but she could work there. The chalkboard her bumper hit said so, in four-toned rainbow.

That meant drive, though, and Noreen decided she’d rather check her phone.
>Subj: Do you want to be another statistic?
You know, there’s a saying on George Washington’s grave: “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
They haven’t updated it in a while. Well, here’s ours:
First in math.
First in reading.
First in the hearts of your students.
Do you want them to be another statistic?
We want you to found a national movement to teach them to man up.
*www.virginiaisforlearners.org*

She scrolled up to look again at the sender, Schlemiel or whoever, no, Drew Spotswood, her most recent guy-with-the-glasses, which is to reduce him to the five-alpha reductase inhibitor he would take within the half-decade. Clear-framed-eyed about American exceptionalism, knockknees obscured by newish Bermuda shorts and prescription propranolol (Pdoc’s offering, despite meds rants from his T), he played T.J. ten hours a week for take-out. And she was supposed to meet him for coffee, now! Noreen booked it down DOG Street, her newsfeed a peanut soup.

Drew was a wage-douche with VILF, the name Virginia is for Learners picked up in the mid-two-kayes after some hot stepper some summer nine years back, someone interning for VILF for the name and the ascendant meme, did a mock-up letterhead with it as kind of a joke. VILF was not a joke, but the Founder, descended from Jefferson as it happened, enjoyed it. Name stuck like the swampheat; first family anointed, it stayed on.

Drew had been indoctrinated in the life philosophy of the Founder, Robert Lee Randolph, once a recent graduate of the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, now a movement builder, the one who thought the name VILF was pretty chill. A decade ago, through his side work at the Miller Center as an undergraduate, Randolph had met the state Secretary of Education, Michael Park, who as Randolph’s luck would have it was looking to produce, in child metrics if not in the birthing style.

Park, a boring and ultimately kind of severe man, was then trying to enhance his appeal to the youth of the commonwealth through his nascent relaish with a socially prominent former Olympic gold medalist in swimming, her name not really that big of a deal aside from what her ethnic background contributed to the meme. Like Park himself, girl’d grown up in Burke, and was Korean to boot, albeit Wasian (she hesitated to use hapa; too Chinese). And she had a cute habit of employing Koreatown slang to reach out to the self-possessed self-identified aZn F.O.B. (um, no?) tweens of Alexandria-slash-Annandale, so Park, gobsmacked, was won over, and invited her to make change with him on the regular. Within a couple of weeks they were joined at the .gif, which is what Drew was told to tell everybody in one or another form, or file format.

Park and his wife had once made the cover of one of the big newsweekly things dressed in janitor’s uniforms carrying mop and bucket and spilling the bucket onto a blackboard that was falling off a wall of what appeared to be an American classroom, but definitively who really can say. The guy’s column in there, what was his name, “American Column,” had gotten them on there after running a feature on the two of them called “Park’s Progress,” the testing miracle that would shock the world. Noreen did not deign to open the cover; knew the gist from Drew and blogs. Bleh. She bought a bottled water and one of the gossip mags because who cares. It was hot and she was waiting. Well, she now wished for obvious reasons (Drew) that she’d cared. Had she cared (movement), there was an apochryphal story in the article about Randolph having walked three or four miles in the dark across train tracks and under a couple tressels to tell Park about his original VILF pitch, which would then get to Park’s lady in like exactly the same form, though one could never knew if he was telling the truth. The kids at the Curry School of Ed could not recall having heard anything from Randolph about the evening even though he said he had spent time researching the idea there, run his daily five to seven miles near the overpass there—was there an overpass there?—even though the state recommendation was, what, three to five. And so VILF had become campus shorthand for whatever plagued the morass at all the Virginia schools (public Ivies, please!).

What dogged Drew was confusing to Noreen, her not being too skilled in the ways of quantitative altruism or men. How she had wanted to chat him up about VILF, or anything, unperturbed by a syncopal prodrome! Him seeing her in the sundress she was wearing for him, this pert little San Pelli-green concotion that barred in her rack like a fortress against that impending doom feeling, she didn’t even know what, except that she had nothing to say to him, her not even having met up with him yet. He was late. She rechecked her phone.

The “I don’t want to be another statistic” E-alerts Drew had developed for VILF with Forward Advertising LLC on the advice of a half-dozen post-undergraduate research analysts at the Hale Consulting Group identified prime Tribe choach from an outreach network the collabo labeled the Actionable Offensive. VILF found their noobs in the peat swamps of the James, where in 1693 plus or minus a late night talk show host and a bunch of character actors and milquetoast major generals a college of knowledge teetered toward equality of outcomes, basic decency. Though somewhat bothered by the E-alert’s implication that national greatness impinged on the dregs of the Virginia gentry, Noreen was nothing if not touched that they thought first or second-round of her. Her save children? She dreamed of affiliating with the cause that might stop her restless leg from cramping her sleep, the one Drew would not massage.

With the help of a multivariate spreadsheet Drew had developed, they had assessed who she was and determined her to be one of the Tribe personalities. VILF knew, for example, that Noreen was feeling kind of lame this summer, of which they had made note in their internal rubric on community engagement. Usually she would surfeit this laziness into extra dressing trapezoids at the Cheese Shop, but their invective, were she to join up, might give her higher purpose. Maybe somebody had told her about her thesis? She didn’t even know if Drew knew about it, based on what she eavesdropped in the Square on his friends who were VILF internship alums in between not-talkings to them.

Drew, text: omg so sorry! i can’t make it after all – rain check? ;)
Her back: yeahhhh sure oh, ok! we’ll e-mail
Drew: cool! Talk soon?
Again: yeah ya have a good one

She drove home, not home home, but placeholder home.

The rents maintained a second vacation house on the outskirts of Newtown, which didn’t exist in Williamsburg she knew growing up, but whatevs. Her family had summered there ever since summering was not exactly a “thing” in the NoVA planned community where her family had squatted up past two decades. Eventually gates would become a thing, though, and a bunch of rejuvenant stuff popping on the outskirts of Newtown around the fences, some like megachurches and unobtrusive megaparagovernmental institutions, sold them on the purchase. But they regretted it, it being a real slog for her parents to make the three-hour-ish drive if they didn’t have any obligation to attend some fundraising event. They would sublet the home to Noreen and her rentier bffs, who could then invite over their friends for sick winetastings and slumber ragers that at least had the patina of adulthood, as long as anybody didn’t get hurt, O.K.?

Stanchion at the entrance was Monsieur Cochon, the ceramic pig accessory Mom had bought years before from the Pottery Factory in Toano, out past the outlets. Actually she had bought them at a housewares store in NoVA, but the Pottery Factory was less pretentious to say: Other place was called Persnickety or some such, local competitor to Williams-Sonoma before people knew what home implements were. This li’l piggy was a pallid number, an idea they had gotten from a richass friend of the family before Noreen was old enough to be social and considered her friends her parents’ friends. Per the usu, the piggie blackboard held Mom’s latest salvo for the illiterati:
*Welcome home, Noreen! #summervacay*

They had taken to loving each other in hashtags about a year earlier, around the time the mom got a laptop of some import. The purchase had been somewhat of a boon for Mom, who was now predisposed to using it in front of the couch between the cable news reruns they would wino through in the family room when papa was away. When she could not love her reen-bean in person, she would commemorate her with the Cakebread on the fifty-five degree shelf in the fridge.

Mom: did you get there aight?
Mom: *alright
Mom: *all right (autocorrect sry)

Back in one of the three and a half quarter bathrooms, Noreen looked into it, not texting her back, budding alkie eyes a slow burn under the palpebrae, fluttering prebags souring. Her face was getting fat. It’s like she couldn’t even describe it. Look at it. Hear the crepitus in her neck and her shoulder when she gets up from where she’s sitting. Look at its fat. People wish it was not-fat like the girl she knew who just got engaged but for the likes apparently. He was a cog sci major in college. She did I think biology. Molecular biology, maybe? Evolutionary biology was more for aspiring business writers, and she’s vegan. She could respect it if she felt it were an ethical decision, but in her experience vegan is like jargon for trying to hold onto one’s fiancé after he unfollows your feelings.

Noreen: sorry had to pee
Mom: you OK in there?
Noreen: yah
Mom: xoxo

Yah bless! By the righteous hand of Mom, the fams had finally set up the wireless. But the phone!

Drew: hey! just got yr email
*Noreen is typing…*
*Noreen is typing…*
Noreen: yeah?
Drew: when can u meet?
Noreen: ummm have to check w/moms re: moving sched
Drew: i thought you didn’t have to move this yr
Noreen: summer sitch of it all
Drew: oh right
*Noreen is typing…*
*Boy is typing…*
Noreen: laterz

Laterz with a “z”! The hell? Just -- she was only doing this to avoid talking to him in order to talk to Amina, her upcoming roommate and a friend through the sorority into which Noreen had failed to pledge. Meens, who had ended up as her sort of default companion in college after her friend Heather who she was supposed to room with got off the Columbia waitlist at the last minute and this girl Reyhan in her bedroom triple got to be impossible to live with after Noreen’s inadvertent haymaking about how inauthentic her Ethiopian blackness was, had been AWOL much of the summer doing some kind of prebac premed research thing at Georgetown for her med school app. Whatever Amina’s problems, she was an amiable champ who forced her out of the house a lot, and she liked that Meens lacked a filter through which to sort her thoughts on Drew, the world:
“You’re from D.C.? How is that possible? No one I know even knows you.”

The first day Amina had met Noreen she had made a big-ass deal out of that, which led to an argument in front of a bunch of people, and, so, friends, yay! Meens, who had grown up in Potomac, shared with Noreen a certain cultural capital that was actually in abundance at W&M, but they felt as if it were specific to them: Noreen was from NoVA, and Amina from the D.C. that people who were not from D.C. people actually cared about, Drew cared about. In Amina’s version of Washington ex-speechwriters for Daniel Patrick Moynihan poked their phones to revise their assistants’ drafts of their weekly American columns while their weird-ass kids got pulled out of, she didn’t know, soccer games for pouting too hard. Amina’s mom, for one, used to be an economics professor at M.I.T., her finger on the waterhammer pulse of the global drop-off in her current gig at the Federal Reserve. Amina’s mom was really into cooking and spent almost none of her time at home talking about work. They were from Potomac, and they commuted to Anacostia to tutor, which is good of them because it’s actually really hard to get there via Georgetown from the Metro.

So Noreen guessed it was Amina’s bright idea to waste her residual Drew-energy with a balls-out final weekend trip to Busch Gardens Williamsburg:

Noreen: pleeeeeease it’s gonna be soooooo crowded
Amina: come ONNNNNN
Noreen: but it’s so gd hot
Amina: escape from pompeii/roman rapids/log flume question mark?
Amina: we can park in the france lot
Noreen: NO FRANCE LOT
If we do that we have to get on that tram thing that goes like 4.5 mph
Amina: : (
Noreen: emojis are hell of wack
This is such bullshit
Stop being such a bitch
Noreen: …
Amina: WERE GOING ALRIGHT
Noreen: aight
I hate you
Amina: byeeeeee
Ok ill text u tom

And they were off, Meens the “Shall we?” to Noreen’s resigned “We shall!” Through they went, through colonial town, brickwork of patriots behind them as they pursued the Historic Triangle to its centroid. Road signs all over the place became interstate big, flag big, sort of taking over the space where the treespace did not, where the boy ruminations did not. Them over the train-track rickets, them having remembered themselves away from their own in vitamin D, for the epigenetic insults the ‘Burg out of the sun-exposed space was causing them and everyone to accrue. Trend supplements were not in the spray-on sunscreen.

But then they would come out of it, and into the light of the no place that was the France lot, the revanche that would give them the psychic space to forget for a second that they were in school, in love with Drew. Time for them to be kids, just two gals riding the fall of America out a couple G’s down, gravitationally, financially, hormonally (for they would soon be fat and jostle). Multigravid and married to corporate lawyers, doctors that made them squirm and miss the future public interest lawyers, public health experts they had sexed and seen dragging on their mid-fall jaunts back to the old stomping grounds to throw their overeducated kids a learning bone in Crim Dell. That would be a fucking life! Kidding! Southeastern August obscures foresight.

What they did know: This parking situation was effing terrible. Already there were the international goons, in the lots, ew, austere Eurotrash in their rented U.S. sedans (they try harder), rental agencies red-white-and-green on the billing and not even with a full tank of gas, which converts to what a gallon? Waste is what. No hybrids, no interest, no going, just distance from the touring district and sixty dollars down the ecological initiative that guides the drain.

Look at these people, in their terrible cars, parking in the way of other terrible people who weren’t even wearing clothes even, just walking around the place as if it’s somehow okay to wear like a swimsuit without any kind of coverup, glistening through sprayed sunscreen gross. Had they ever known anybody like Noreen’s mom, who literally, literally would wear latex gloves in order to apply cream-based formulas onto her, because she did not want to glean over her wedding ring and leech out whatever actual good stuff oiled her hands? That was no country for ex-kids: The Busch Gardens from her childhood was never coming back. Why did one need slum tourism when one had the theme park? Here one could chill with the poors and the have-somes off the grind.

What this BG lacked in artistry it more than made up for in residual Busch Gardens-ness: Powhatan himself had built his confederacy here, built it with his own hands, which thankfully been spared from the maculopapular ravages of the rash from the secondary syph. Over their heads an eagle cawed something cowing, its hot potato yowl a yearn to breathe free of forced flu vaccinations. To the left, a seal with a snub nose, the right an eagle with head popped at thirty degrees, a pompous rhino maybe nose blunt to the front. Wildlife conservation. Noreen and Amina took a picture in front of the sign at the front trying to mimic the animal pose.

“We need a third.”

They would not get it and were pushed to the entrance by a family of five digitizing mania.

“Fuck, I paid fifty-whatever dollars for this experience when I could be enjoying my day at Water Country U.S.A.
“You don’t have to use language, Meens.”
“When did Busch Gardens become a slum? Such a Kings Dominion situation.”
“That’s libel, dear!”
“For serious!”
“We could’ve just gone to Virginia Beach.”
“Missay!”

“Do you think anyone knows who she is anymore?”

Like Pocahontas’ journey to relevancy, their Busch Gardens journey began in a post-Tudor village of England, the path to some skyway thing, to, what, Scotland. Loch Ness; plaid tams; horsies. All very Scottish. They crossed the Rhineland into Germany. It was boring. They were hot.

“We need A.C.,” one said at the same time as the other one.

They found it in the fake-thatched biergarten of the picnic woods where the runaway children hid from moms. A longtime institution of the park, Das Festhaus was hoppin’ with the requisite leftover sauerkraut and stagflated nationalist dreams. It was a unified aesthetic, at one with itself as the one gimmick place with the beer. In the late Seventies the operation had had a beer garden on the brewery tour—Amina’s mom had been studying for her PhD in government there at the time—and everyone took part. Then the Williams and Larries wore polos before most of the rest of the state knew how their families made their money, and scornful rubes at the tap would pound flesh for three drink tickets, and sometimes the guys would go back and change their shirts to double up. That was, post-Ford and Carter, their Commonwealth, and these gals were post-that, whatever they were, it was.
As if to conjure up this bounty of non-threads a pigtailed dancing Kraut above them dallied on cobbled shoes with big buckles and Chevy Chase National Lampoon resonance, leder-relevance. In the center platform a euphonium oompahed something meandering, its errant beats a paean to the German chocolate cake behind the bars for people-moving. Meens dismissed the ironclad crowd control around them, flailing toward the food line with such gusto that Noreen, who was in the way, dinged her humerus on the bar. They were third in line, ouch. They were second in line, rub the epicondyle.
“Virginia is so fat,” Amina said, subluxing her left shoulder to sic her grip on a house salad with gelled Italian dressing. “I feel like we’re marching to the beat of our own deaths.” The red onion split.

“Being from Maryland doesn’t excuse you from D.C. area memes.”
“This is Hampton Roads, motherfucker!” She eyed the sauerkraut.
“Again with the words, Meens!”
“Did I tell you about how I threw out my back last week?”
“Like from lifting the baby?”
“Who, Rohan? No, my supervisor. The resident.”
“Yeah. What was his name again?” It was—no, not even worth indulging, again, even for whatever story with which her Drew stories would not, would never compete.

For the past six weeks Amina had been E-mailing Noreen from D.C. pretty much daily about her running thing with this otolaryngology resident who was supervising her research for his supervised project, something about she didn’t know, and Noreen was actually kind of unclear on how Amina arrived at her interest in the specialty but for the following:
“I was thinking about optho, then maybe something like ENT, because derm is like terrible and I thought plastics would be a waste of my time-slash-fertility. And for optho and ENT you need research. And ZOMG the hipster ENT surgeon.”

Amina, who had been a snoop since she unlocked Noreen’s E-mail multiple times when she wasn’t in the room when they were both freshmen, looked up his resume on she thought it was maybe Geocities. Angelfire? In his old headshot had this whole cultural Ashkenazi vibe, though he was also really jacked. Did Noreen know there are only like 5 pediatric ENT specialists in the world?
“And this weekend he was in this total nutritional panic studying for his medical boards, just freaking the eff out about depleting his biotin stores by eating too many egg whites. So I was all like “what am I supposed to do with this?” and he said “you can keep it there!” I don’t even eat egg whites! ENT NEEDS BACON. So all of the sudden I saw that he had this confectioner’s sugar, from when he made me a cake for my birthday… and I could make an AMAZING angel food cake, except then instead of being all white and fluffy and innocent with a daffy raspberry streak I beat too hard into it? So this dense random crap came out of the pan and it was completely awful. I couldn’t even cut it, which was the saddest thing ever.”

Luckily for the two of ‘em, they had better luck with other things that could inflate. So that guy and her, they’d apparently be at each other half the day in a stairwell, the creamy onceover of thrice glorified cement cooling their slacks all adorbs as he went about his biz. The whole shebang would be so covert he’d have to coat her mouth in his palm just to stifle her screams away from the judgment of the peds floor. (Child psych would’ve been game, def, but that takes all the fun out of it.) What’s more indecent, Amina argued, them frotting themselves back into the counterculture or the man on 16-North who shit himself into the afterlife because he can’t elicit an antibiotic for C. difficile? That dude inadvertently breeding passive resistance in that plasmid, and they’re reproducing like with the foot process, which was why his pet name for her was Amina Amoeba. (Why Amina was not mortified by that naming, Meebs for short, Noreen will never know.) Guy’d back her into a corner; she’d latch his hips to facilitate his ambulation, and he’d drain the reserves like a Foley cath folding in on itself. Foley, Foley, Foley! The urethral meatus insertion is holey. Ugh, wordplay. Amina, already a touch heady IRL, was getting a little bi-pole-y.

The resident, who was meticulous and a savant at head and neck anatomy, did not have these kinds of hands in the OR. Again and again he would assert to her that it was totally okay that he did not have hands, and that Meebs would only need his hands in order to get a residency placement that mattered. A bit skep, she concurred, until she looked over his right shoulder with the assist of a busted kickstand one time when he, just overwhelmed with the thick off the Bovie, just, like, awash in the flesh that sticks to the fascia, out of nowhere was like “SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!” It hurt so bad. He hurt it so bad. Actually it was his med student who hurt it, and Amina a witness, but he was about ready to cry there for a sec, in the mask, the eye fog, not calmed down, or scrubbed out, or in the ER for blood draw for serologies. It was almost like a relief for Amina to relive the puncture, punctuating his pain, and she did so often.

So that was the guy, huh? Either way he was not worth her, not worth discussing. From the last one Noreen had gotten the sense that Meens was over it—
“Well, in a way, but after a while it was like—it was just so empowering, this feeling like he would do whatever I told him to.”
“What did you tell him to do?”
“So I started sending E-mails and texts every night after work being like, ‘Yo, you should wear the yellow tie with the French blue chambray tomorrow to clinic.’ And he was totally game. Isn’t that weird?”
“Um, yeah? Def.”
“Did you know in the winter he sometimes wears a tweed coat over his scrubs? Isn’t that so cray?”
“But didn’t you find that weird, that he kept doing it?”
“Not really.”
“Really?”
“Do you ever have that feeling of complete control of another person? I felt like I could, like, fly.”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“Hey, did you know he did VILF? I don’t remember if I ever told you that.”

Was this namedrop supposed to explain anything about how he had educated himself into fucks-up? He had no common sense, she no sense of history, Meens no sense for the common good, and yet the three of them, all educated, would be buoying this state one day, thinking real globe in the simulation town and country that was the ‘Burg. Hello.

“So when’s your last day?”
“Next Wednesday, then I move into my new bedroom with half-bathroom on Sorority Court! Yay!”
“You’re making sorority people sound awful right now.”
“Stop being a terrible person. I have to pee.”

There were roller coasters to go on, lest the dome of her bladder suffer blunt trauma and bleed her or seed her peritoneum from within.
And they both went.

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