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In my second novel,Antipodes, Erin Cerise is forced to study abroad in New Zealand to augment her flagging Ivy League prospects. In early drafts, however, Erin chose to study abroad as a means of escaping her public embarrassment and the end of an unhealthy relationship.
This scene shows Erin adeptly manipulating her busy, wealthy parents. While no longer germane to the plot, her character still shines through.
Foreign Exchange required a lot of paperwork. I rearranged the pamphlets and applications on the kitchen table one final time as my parents pulled into the driveway. I had completed everything including the excruciating student visa application. All they needed to do was sign a waiver.
Dad checked the mail while Mom clambered up the back steps. The tone of her greeting suggested I wait until she had changed her clothes.
“Hey, Erin,” Dad said. “Are those college applications?”
“Something better. After considerable thought, I have decided to become a foreign exchange student. That is all the paperwork and applications required.”
“This is way out of left field.”
After an entire day of forms and plans, I was prepared to deliver my planned remarks. “I told Mom about this weeks ago,” I lied.
“Claire,” he yelled in the general direction of the stairs.
“I’ll be down. In a minute.” Mom’s shouts came from just above our head.
I could almost see Dad’s lawyer wheels spinning as he perused my application.
I said, “I have an appointment for Dr. Tan to complete the required medical exam Saturday after orchestra.”
Mom sauntered in and poked through the fridge. “What did you eat, Erin?”
“Leftover lasagna. Third shelf.”
Dad said, “Claire, Erin wants to go to New Zealand?”
Her eyes suggested disappointment before she stuck her head back into the fridge. “I thought we would go to Paris or Barcelona. Doesn’t it take a whole day to get to New Zealand? I can’t say I’m excited about spending half our trip on a plane.”
She thinks I’m talking about my birthday present—the trip for the two of us to go anywhere in the world.
Dad scooped up the papers and held the bouquet toward her. “Erin wants to go to New Zealand for school.”
My mother had this way of laughing—throwing back her head in a guffaw half the neighborhood could hear—which always made me feel like I had said something stupid. “They don’t have Ivies in New Zealand. They have sheep.”
Careful not to cross my arms or slouch, I projected the perfect neutral façade. “As an exchange student. I want to go for next semester.”
“This is way out of left field,” she said.
Dad said, “That’s what I said.”
Mom hated to be wrong. She would never admit to making a bad decision. I could scarcely count all the times I slid an unpopular idea under her nose when she was deep in thought or her own paperwork. That’s how I got to spend spring break in Cabo. This was just one step further. I could push it just one more tiny step.
I lied again: “I told you about this weeks ago. You said, ‘what about swimming,’ so I dropped it. But when I got kicked off of varsity last week, I asked again and you said, ‘uhn huh.’ So I did all this work, filled out all this paperwork, and now I need you to sign it.”
I had her. “Mom? Don’t you remember this?” My eyes said Mom, haven’t you been paying attention to your only child?
Usually when this happened, she would remember me popping into her study or ringing her at work, and she often retrofitted the permission to that conversation, remembering what I had asked only after I had done it. This time, she was racking her brain about whether she had ever heard the words foreign exchange or New Zealand out of my mouth.
My mother did not like to be wrong, and she really did not appreciate someone expecting her to change her opinion or set aside her decisions.
The microwave spun her lasagna, ticking down the seconds until the room was quiet again and she had to answer for herself. We stood in defiant silence until the bell indicated time was up.
She said, “Well, then, it’s finally time for a proper conversation about this.”
Going through the motions was a lot easier once I knew I had won. I had fabricated her approval, so she wanted to be on my side.
“We need to discuss this,” Dad said, but he did not usher me out of the kitchen.
Theirs was a practiced debate 20 years in the making. Dad, the dissenter, was on his back foot the whole way, a fact Mom attributed to his mourning my grandfather’s death.
That hurt so much I had to point the conversation elsewhere. “You know, Cornell has that note about lopsided candidates with unusual personal experiences. How many people do you think spend a semester abroad? Let alone abroad on an island in the Pacific Ocean.”
“Lopsided candidates,” Mom said, her eyes shining. “We were shooting for well rounded, but you could be a very unique candidate who is both.”
She pulled my application toward her. I’d won.