The Heiress’s Education
She arrived under fog of epidural at the culmination of a successful mating season between a hedge-fund magnate and an East Hampton catalogue model. Walked three times a day, fed on plums in sweet syrup, organic tilapia, and steel-cut porridge, she took to bloom like others of her place and time, idling away her youth in a solipsistic haze, pleasuring in what she would, simply ignoring the rest.
At eighteen, sun-kissed and vacuous as any Boticellian fanciulla, the heiress had yet to formulate a single original thought in her brain. But she had never filmed herself while making love, so was deemed eligible for the university. The hedge-fund magnate took lunch with seven Deans nurturing new wings, and provided his daughter with a list of seven distinguished liberal arts institutions she might choose from.
“Thank you Daddy,” the heiress said, “but you know I’ve always had my heart set on Harvard.”
The magnate squirmed in the Sloane leather sofa, swirled his cognac. She was not a stupid girl, but certainly she went about life backgrounded by dream. Probably it was his own coddling and laxity that had robbed her of a proper education. She had not retained a breath of the classics, philosophy, mathematics, arts, foreign languages. Her test scores were hopelessly low. Had he known her heart’s intentions a few years ago, he might have worked something. Hired a tutor. Taken away the phone. Now it would be a difficult business.
“I’ll see what I can do,” is what the magnate said.
In June, the ex-catalogue model latched onto a three-bedroom townhouse near Harvard Square with a helical staircase, Baccarat chandelier, and a vintage Queen Anne piano. She appointed Irma in the guest quarters, and had the heiress’s bed hefted to the master suite. “Daddy will work something with admissions,” she assured her daughter. “In the meantime, get to know the campus, meet some classmates. Maybe try a few books?”
In braids and Vuitton sundress, the heiress floated past glass façades, sweeps of brick and mahogany, drifted in the abstract through Cambridge—to the effect of a feather skimming the inflorescence of a hayfield.
At night, wind whistled through seams in the townhouse siding; she struggled to sleep, wrestled with the hollowness and turbulence that often precedes an expansion of the soul.
The glaze peeled away when she saw him descending the steps of the Widener Library. After eighteen years of somnambulism, it was like a door thrown open inside her. The young man—Emeka Oladipo, a fourth-year student in the International Business School—stopped walking, looked at her with . . . was it recognition? A curious taste on his tongue. Something like plums in sweet syrup.
A young Samson: six foot seven, one massive thumb hooked into his tiny backpack strap. His heart tried to climb up into his neck, but he swallowed it down. Introduced himself.
How to explain such meetings? The children have dreamed each other, but cannot remember exactly when. A breathless minute, then, grasping for answers in front of the library.
Later, in the café, Emeka listened with an amused smile as the heiress told her story. “So, you have come to Boston for an education?” he said, his prodigious knees straddling the tabletop. “An education is easy enough. I will tell you how you can get one.”
“How?” the heiress asked.
The next day at the Sackler, Emeka laughed in wonderment at her. Had she never heard of Picasso, Klimt, Degas? “Not even the ballerinas?” he said. “You don’t recognize these?”
If they had danced before her eyes once, the slippers had left no impressions. But today she had them—in folds of tulle, clenched ribbons, dry, diligent lips—and would never forget them again.
On the Charles River Esplanade, Emeka described the Royal Poinciana on the outskirts of Jos, how a child could run barefoot and ignite the wind to match the flaming blossoms. He furnished her with weathered copies of Kant, Hurston, Ellison, Wharton. The heiress devoured them nights in seclusion, ventured out mornings for more. What blockage had been yanked from the wrinkles of her brain, blessing her suddenly with perfect recall and comprehension?
When Emeka finally came to visit her in the townhouse, Irma served tea, but went fidgety and slipped downstairs to place a call to the ex-model. Emeka took the heiress through a few measures on the Queen Anne piano. “My goodness,” he said. “You’ve never played before?”
The hedge-fund magnate did his best to sound sympathetic when the declination letter came from Harvard, but he had difficulty concealing his relief. “One can’t always have all one’s heart desires,” he told her. It was the first time he had put things quite this way.
“Won’t you try again?” the heiress said.
“Listen, dear. I’m dropping the lease on the townhouse. You’ll come back to the city. Choose another school.”
But the heiress—like a dyslexic child who one morning, miraculously, finds reading the most fluid and natural pleasure—already stood an inch or so taller. She had taken a different complexion about the eyes. Too far along in her metamorphosis to waft back into the dismal vapors of the Upper West Side, she replied, “I’m sorry, Daddy, but I think I’ll move in with Emeka.”
The magnate put a livid call in to the ex-catalogue model, but was rendered mute by the intolerable smugness of her voicemail.
Emeka fed the heiress with books, myths, subtle harmonies. They lay nights together in his studio on Chauncy Street. He gave her Sartre, Hemingway, Morrison, Hesse. Explained how Raphael painted Heraclitus as Michelangelo.
After two glasses of a floral Côtes du Rhône on the ashen roof, Emeka dropped to his knees. His eyes, gleaming like a holy lynx’s, came level with hers. They could both hear her heart drumming outside her body. “Yes,” she said, and again, to be sure, “yes, yes.”
In October, a portrait of the couple in the Plaza’s grand ballroom filled out a half-page feature in the Sunday Times. For all its twinkling glamor, they might well have been standing in La galerie des Glaces. The groom’s head reached a foot and a half higher than his bride’s. According to the column, the newlyweds would move to Paris in November, where Mr. Oladipo would run the European branch of the family business, specializing in the import of high-grade watch diamonds.
The following spring, the ex-catalogue model did some shopping with her daughter on the Boulevard Francs Bourgeois and found herself unnerved by the girl’s strangely cropped hair, the fierce shrewdness in her eyes, and the provocative lines scribed in her cheeks. When the heiress played Schumann for her up in the apartment, the ex-model felt her face crumpling, and had to look away.
Months later, while strolling the Luxembourg Gardens, the heiress felt a twinge in her abdomen. She had been spotting for a few days, but now the warmth flowed out full stream. Her knees buckled. By the time Emeka arrived at the hospital, a thin layer of glaze had already grown back over her eyes.
The second time it happened, she expelled from bed to pour the unmade flesh into the toilet. As she flushed it down, the heiress felt the wood of the world go hollow.
She took up smoking, ceased reading books, lolled about the Rodin gardens, no longer made love with her husband. In heavy eyeliner and Hermes scarves, she dissipated into the diaphanous steam of unreality. The old habits returned, the butterfly drift. Without realizing it, she allowed an Italian youth to seduce her in the open city, acting out the same sybaritic drama as her mother, two decades prior.
While the Italian rode his hands over the heiress’s body, Emeka was sitting on a train from Lausanne. He felt the revelatory jolt from afar, the notion that his wife was nothing more than a golem, a morbid creation of his own mind.
Reduced to boyish motions, subconsciously aware of what had happened in the dusty loft over the Bastille, apologetic of his gargantuan hands, Emeka packed his things. Tears glistened on his cheeks. The heiress shivered in smoke at the Diocletian windows.
“Probably it was her own fault,” the magnate muttered when he read the papers from the Oladipo family attorney.
As a divorce gift, the ex-catalogue model purchased the heiress a six-bedroom Mediterranean home in Santa Monica.
The heiress took to the Pacific air, practiced nights on a Steinway baby grand. Backgrounded by dream? Perhaps. But she had learned from Emeka both the perils and rewards of persistence, and her movements translated especially well to Mendelssohn and Debussy.
The pitch of the coast, the high-shelf symbolism that all things shall flow to sea: this somehow reaffirmed the principle that great wealth might afford even the weakest of spirits constant opportunity for rebirth.
The heiress discovered raw veganism, Jainist meditation, and the sapphic arts, and though the door never opened for her as it had that time before the Widener colonnade, she settled eventually into a sort of half-awakened state with her girlfriend and two Irish Setters in Topanga Canyon.
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