Mamma always said that being poor was no crime, but no reason at all for poor manners. One could be poor, but still be a lady. It was all about presentation, and poise, and confidence. Straight back. Elbows off the table. Don’t slurp. Don’t pick your teeth. Cover your mouth when you yawn. Better yet, don’t yawn at all. Look interested. Nod politely. Look at Mrs Watson when she is speaking to you. Say ‘thank you’ when the shop-lady gives you a compliment. Don’t wink. Don’t gag. Don’t swear. Let pregnant women and older men take the empty seat. Keep your legs together when you sit down. Look both ways before crossing the road.
Mamma always said that being poor was no crime, but that money was good, because you could never be happy without money. Money wouldn’t necessarily make you happy, of course, but you’d be downright miserable without it, so it was certainly worth a shot. We had no money, but that meant nothing, because one day there would be money enough to send Lacy to college, because Lacy would be an educated woman, and work in an office, or in a lab, or as a lawyer, or as a doctor. Lacy would be an educated woman, even if Mamma had to take two more extra jobs to get her there. Lacy would make something of herself, Lacy would go to college, Lacy would make this family proud.
We watched Lacy come home every day from school with a big pile of books she’d study cover to cover. While the other girls were painting their nails, gossiping on phones, and, later, meeting boys in deserted locker rooms and under the bleachers, Lacy would cover textbooks larger than she was, filling stacks and stacks of notebooks with her cramped, fluid script. Notebooks went on sale only one week of the year, the first week of October, when they were five cents each, so we had to make our stash last the year. Every margin and cover of the flimsy paper were crammed with notes, sometimes so worn-down that they’d have to be held together with duct tape or glue. When Lacy finally ran out of note space, we’d rummage through the neighbours’ recycling bins to find the previous day’s paper. If the front page photo was light enough, Lacy would rip it out and use it to scribble notes. Sometimes, if we were lucky, we’d find some other child’s half-used notebooks tossed away at the end of the semester, and scribble out the used bits. The covers were often colourful, not like the black-and-white marbled ones we had, and sometimes I’d keep one to hang on the walls: a purple unicorn, the Jonas Brothers, a camouflage hologram I could see my face inside.
But Lacy would be an educated woman, and that meant playing the part, too. No one takes a poor girl seriously, no matter how well she conjugates French verbs or discusses ancient Roman theatre. So, on her days off, Mamma rummaged through the city’s thrift stores, learning their patterns, pouncing on sales. A jacket with a torn sleeve could be repaired. The ripped edge of a silk scarf made a lovely fringe. A dress too short and lumpy could be paired with leggings and a belt. Quickly, Lacy became the most stylish girl in the school, as she carried her books back-and-forth between locker to kitchen table.
Being poor was no crime, but, not only must a lady must look the part, but she must live the part, too. She needed a proper house, not a tenement townhouse in the slums or the cockroach-infested flat all of us had been born inside. We couldn’t afford a house, of course, not a real house, like the ones educated ladies lived in, but Mamma would scour the streets and papers for neglected rentals, the ones with the broken sinks, the holes in the walls, the mice in the attic. The pretty facades with rents too high for us to afford. Every so often, we’d miss one payment too many and come home to find the locks changed or the police waiting. We took steps, of course, to try to save, to pinch pennies, keeping the lights and heat off to prevent the bills from rising, ignoring the overgrown lawns and snow-filled driveways, baking bread in pots because the cooker used less electricity than the oven. Wintry nights too cold for snow would find us huddled some basement corner, wrapped around the solar-generated radiator we’d fished out from some neighbour’s rubbish bins over the summer.
But it did little good. We could never stay in one place for long, and, as the years went by, finding a house to rent became harder and harder.
It was great fun for us, of course, to lark around the large estates and mimic Lacy dressed in clothes far fancier than any we had, but Lacy would be an educated woman, and Lacy would go to college. And it was Lacy who had to endure the hour-long manners sessions, the makeup sessions, the hair lessons. A lady always ties her hair up like so. A lady always holds her teacup like so. A lady’s makeup is never visible, and certainly never the vivid pinks and neon greens we saw on the streets. She always had one small earring in each ear, and never any piercings anywhere else.
Looking back, I suppose any of us might have passed as ‘educated’, given the amount of interest we paid to Mamma’s lessons, but Lacy was the smartest out of all of us, and the only one who could speak English properly without flipping back and forth between the street slangs we’d grown up with. None of us took it seriously, anyway; we conjugated verbs as jokes, quoted Caesar and Shakespeare during games of tag, drew trigonometrical equations with old bits of chalk on the pavement. It was Lacy who broke in the patent-leather Mary-Janes, Lacy who developed a taste for caviar and lamb-and-mint, Lacy who learnt to drive in the Volkswagen ‘borrowed’ from Mrs Fitzgerald-Nottingham down the street while she was on holidays. Lacy, who went to college to become an educated woman.
On her first day of college, Lacy came home and locked herself in her bedroom. We picked the lock and let ourselves in to find her picking her pillow to shreds.
“I met a boy,” she said. Perfect, educated Lacy had med a perfect, educated boy. We slumped to the ground in disappointment. We’d been expecting something profound when she hadn’t come straight to her books. The first day any of us could remember that Lacy hadn’t gone straight to her books.
So much for something juicy.
“What major?” said Tiffany, propping her feet against the wall to stretch her hamstrings. Lacy was a double major in English and psychology, but most of the first-years took similar classes. “I bet he’s an engineer.”
“I bet he’s a math major,” said Mercedes.
“I bet he’s a scientist,” I said. “With glasses. And crooked teeth.”
“He’s not a student,” said Lacy. “He’s a shop boy. He works in the coffee shop. It’s good money. I’ve been counting. If both of us worked in the shops, we could make enough to afford one of those little flats in the south part of town. Maybe even go up to the lake during the summer, and go camping.”
The flats in the south part of town were the roach-infested flats where we’d all been born. Perhaps Lacy was thinking of the same one. We’d left when Lacy was eight and I was two, and, as far as I knew, no one had taken any steps to tear anything down. But Lacy would have had more memories of that than I did.
Three days later, Lacy didn’t come home from school. Mamma folded the laundry and put cold chicken on the table, but her face was tired, resigned. As if she knew what was happening, without anyone saying a word. I didn’t know what was happening; it took both Mercedes and Tiffany three tries that night before I finally understood that Lacy wasn’t coming home at all.
I never saw her again. Two years later, Mercedes performed a similar stunt, disappearing with a tattooed hoodlum to an undisclosed location on the East Coast. Tiffany showed me pictures once, as she was stuffing tank tops, Pokemon trading cards, and socks into a duffel bag before climbing out the window into the night. She was the only one who said good-bye to me. I’m not sure if any of them ever said anything to Mamma.
I had just started high school when Tiffany left, but had recently gone through a large growth spurt which left me taller and broader than Mamma, making me the sore heiress of three closets of passed-down ‘educated’ clothes and patent leather shoes. The shoes weren’t as uncomfortable as Lacy had always made them seem, and both Mamma and I thought they fit me rather well. I took Lacy’s old notebooks off the shelves; English and math don’t change much in the space of a decade, although some of the science was a bit outdated. I corrected everything with a blue gel pen I’d won in a writing contest, jotting down formulas on the old notebook covers I still had hanging around.
Everyone says that doctors are rich, that they make too much money, that they’re horribly selfish and greedy. I clutch my stethoscope as I walk through the corridors, still unaccustomed to all of the attention, the respect. One day these people will wake up, and see me for what I am: a poor girl from a cockroach-infested flat in the slums whose three older sisters passed up the chance to be educated ladies. I’m an imposter. A scoundrel. A fraud. I don’t deserve to be here, among golfers and patrons and the nouveau-riche who speak about yachts and Porsches as if they were carrots and onions.
But I’m an educated woman. I know French verbs and Roman theatre as well as the rest of them, if not better. I’ve studied trigonometry and calculus since I could pronounce the words. I know how to fish through recycling bins for yesterday’s paper, and I know how hard to kick an old radiator to force it through one more winter’s storm.
I’m an educated woman. Just like Mamma wanted.
Just like Lacy was supposed to be.