Four days after her interview with Hap the man, Daria received a text from Mariette Bonilla at 6:25 a.m.: “You’re hired. Get yourself in here for training at 10.” Thus Daria found herself standing in the same cold conference room with the same cold girl.
“Let’s get this out of the way first thing,” Mariette said by way of greeting, not looking up from her phone. “I killed my mother when I was twelve.”
Daria sat down.
“If would be manslaughter if I hadn’t been a minor,” she went on. “I despise that word—I kept hearing it as momslaughter. Although at Harvard you lift your pinky and say matricide.”
Daria stared at the confessor. “Did you have a reason?”
“Yeah,” said Mariette, as if fatigued. She leaned back and placed the phone on the table. “She was trying to set fire to my stepbrother, six months old. She wanted to get back at the baby’s father. He sold her some bad rocks.”
Daria continued to stare.
“My sophomore year at Harvard someone discovered this part of my past that I had neglected to mention in the essay.”
“Let’s just say a dustup. Every fucking committee at the College weighed in. Two of my dorm-mates freaked and wanted out. The Eliot HoCo kids came to talk to me in hushed tones. I lucked out in getting a cappella nerds. I got to stay.”
“Did that mess you up,” asked Daria, “killing her?”
She shrieked with laughter. “No, Daria. Not at all.” When she settled down she shook her head. “Remember them crack house days when there was Tupac singing in real life? When I told people at Harvard my mother was a crackhead, they were like, ‘Oh, I saw Jungle Fever on Netflix.’”
Daria couldn’t stop staring at her.
“You want to know how I did it, don’t you? It’s killing you, isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t say it’s killing me.”
“She wasn’t black, my mother. Lithuanian. Lithuanian crackhead from Staten Island. Go figure. My father’s black, Dominican. He wasn’t a druggie, just wasted his life going back and forth to the DR, like most Dominicans do. All her other baby daddies were bad news. She was always taking a bus upstate to visit them in prison. She never had enough money for a ticket back, so she’d be gone for days.”
Daria shook her head. “Did your brother get burned badly?”
Mariette reached again for the armor of her phone. “Yeah,” she said, working it, not looking up. “It was bad for him.”
There were two iPads sitting on the glistening table. Mariette eventually leaned forward and slid one to Daria. When she wrapped up with her phone, she smiled insincerely and looked concerned. “Daria”—pronounced pause—“let’s get another thing out of the way. You need to get your boobs fixed.”
Daria had to restrain herself from looking down, as if to confirm These ones?
“Yours are going haywire. I’m flat-chested and I look great thanks to four years of lightweight crew.”
“You want me to be flat-chested?”
“You can’t be going off in all directions. You can’t go onstage looking like that.”
It was brutal, Mariette’s acting like they were talking about a badly chosen prom dress. Daria was certain that shock had made her immune to presenting the case for common sense.
“I’m having Ramona sign you up for a Toastmasters class at the 92nd Street Y. There’s also a class CUNY gives on V&A that’s worth taking—voice and articulation, not Victoria and Albert. But then why would you think that? You’d didn’t think Victoria and Albert, did you, Daria?”
Daria shook her bead. “I like how you’re able to insult me so matter-of-factly.”
“I know. Isn’t it a great talent? And be sure to have Ramona give you a digital recorder to use. You’ve got to be listening to yourself speak.”
“God, no. My roommate sings into one all day.”
“We’re not asking you to sing, just talk. And I’m having a post-doc tutor you on reading and interpreting scientific literature.”
“Tutor? No way!” Daria realized she was reacting to the tutor in the way she meant for her boobs. Mariette sighed heavily while Daria stood her ground. “I believe in the Pink Floyd song. School’s out forever.”
“Not a good attitude,” said Mariette, “but you get a few points for knowing Pink Floyd.”
“I was never a good student,” Daria protested. “No one can make me go back there.”
“And I want you to be watching all the TED talks I saved on that iPad.” Her eyes flicked downward. “But watch with the volume off. The instructions are in a file.”
“No more TED talks either.”
“Daria”—she said the name exactly like Daria’s guidance counselors—“did you see Stepbrothers? Because you’re reminding me of a stepbrother with your whining. If I hear you say ‘But it’s Shark Week!’ I will seriously hurt you.”
Daria stared at her.
“These things aren’t hard; they’re just habit. A lot of what we preach about behavior mod is true. It’s simply a matter of learning a shortcut. When I was in high school I got a job in a Riverdale mall working this Godiva cart. I thought there was nothing new in the world that I could learn there. But then this idiotic girl taught me how to tie a bow using only one strand of ribbon, not two. Obviously someone taught this idiotic girl. But the point is: process. It was a revelation.”
“Do you use that story onstage?”
Mariette looked at her. “What do you think, Einstein?”
Daria didn’t know what she thought.
“Daria, this has to be worth it for you if it’s to work; do you understand me? Do you understand the concept of opportunity costs?”
She shook her head.
“Why is that not surprising?”
“Can you just train and not insult?”
“You get some more points for saying that.”
“Whose points are we even talking about?”
“To understand opportunity costs you have to ask what this job means to you.”
“That’s easy: paycheck.”
“But what does income mean most to you—is it something you’re enabled to do or something you don’t have to do?”
She’d never thought about it that way. “Not having to move back home with my mother and stepfather.”
“So the price of that is having to watch TED talks without the volume.”
It did make sense, but Daria was sick of these Teachable New York Moments delivered by people who thought themselves exemplar New Yorkers. Her reason for getting into this mess in the first place occurred right after she’d been let go at Harvard. She was meeting friends for drinks near Downtown Crossing and heard the bells of the sadly defunct Filene’s department store. These bells were always bizarre in that they chimed a mixture of church and show tunes. On this occasion they chimed out “New York, New York,” as if daring her to leave Boston.
In that same instant she remembered the time those same bells chimed out “The Bridal March,” way back when her mother dragged her on her thirteenth birthday for the Running of the Brides in Filene’s Basement. Her mother wanted a sensational dress for her remarriage and didn’t care whether it looked good on her. Her three priorities were original astronomical price tag, huge markdown, and a small size. So her mother worked against sweat and zippers to squeeze her freckled pre-yoga flab into a succession of too-small dresses, the fat displaced in every direction. Heinous was the word Daria used for everything bad at that point in her life, and her mother’s heinous displaced flab never left her dreams. Daria remembered telling herself that someday she’d recall this memory with fondness. But there was never any fondness whatsoever, only “These little town blues.”
So far Mariette hadn’t displayed much in the range of emotions, but Daria was sure the girl had as many facial expressions for annoyance as the Eskimos had words for snow. “We’re going to train you, Daria, but you need to find your own story. You can probably guess what mine is.”
“People doing everything for revenge?”
She inhaled heavily. “No, Daria. That’s my M.O. for getting through a day. For Hap, I’m ghetto girl who’s tough as nails, who puts adversity behind her. Ethylynn was ghetto girl with a heart of gold, who goes back to the ’hood and cleans things up.”
Daria listened, thinking how they sounded like American Girl dolls with second sets of knee socks.
“Your story could be that you’re the girl who gets fired but bounces back. You have bad luck at work. People dump on you, treat you like shit.”
This only stoked the coals. “You’re making me want revenge too.”
Mariette looked like she was debating picking up a crying child. “Look, you already want revenge. That’s a given. I told you: we all want revenge. The quest for revenge is the one way we find satisfaction in life.”
“I may be wanting revenge for getting fired,” admitted Daria, “but some people are born do-gooders and don’t see it like that. Like my friend Quentin.”
“The word is altruism, Daria. You need to expand your vocabulary.”
“Well, there are quite a lot of altruists with limited vocabularies.”
“Altruism is simply revenge against the wicked.”
Daria shook her head.
Mariette sighed and looked away. “When I was growing up I knew from the start that I was a screwed-over human being. It didn’t matter whether it was a person or an institution or a government doing the screwing. That was just the reality of my life. But I was damned if I was going to be a victim. I had to work hard round the clock, never letting up. I did everything I could to take care of my brothers, and yet all four turned out a mess. They fell through cracks while I was saved.”
“I’m sorry about your brothers.”
Mariette stared at the well-manicured nail of her index finger as it repeatedly flicked the well-manicured nail of her thumb. “I was always into vintage cartoons, Warner Brothers and Bugs Bunny. When I was a girl I wanted to actually be Bugs Bunny. Why? Because Bugs was a New Yorker and never let shit bring him down. My favorite cartoon is called Case of the Missing Hare.”
Daria nodded. “I know a lot of Bugs too.”
“Is that so? Well in this one there’s this magician who makes the mistake of conjuring a pie under a napkin to throw in Bugs’s face. This is at the beginning of the cartoon, when Bugs turns to the camera and says, the blackberry dripping from his face, ‘Of course you realize this means war.’ That’s what got me through childhood, the motivation for épat.”
“What the hell is épat anyway?”
“Jude will tell you.”
“That’s what Hap said.”
“Hap is right.”
Daria looked at her. “Do you think Hap’s right on everything?”
“I think that’s it for now.”
Daria wouldn’t let it go, her need for an answer.
Mariette sighed and looked down at her phone. “You need to say something to acknowledge the conclusion of our session.”
Daria sighed with a funny sound. “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”
Mariette didn’t look up but made a little sound herself. “Daria Rahill, come on down.”
Seven hours after her training with Mariette, Daria called Quentin Donahue, her best friend from Harvard who still had a great job at the Divinity School because he was smart, normal, and well-adjusted. He’d been traveling to meet with alumni so she hadn’t been able to update him on the Hap pursuit. “I got the job. I started today.”
“Not really. They want me to get my boobs fixed.”
“I know you’re squeamish about anatomy,” she said, “but they want reduction in one and an implant in the other.”
“Well, one of them, Mariette. But they consider themselves The Family with capital letters. So I guess with my boobs it’s all for one and one for all.”
“I hope you’re not getting into some Scientology cult.”
“They hired me to be one of them—onstage giving pep talks.”
“Holy Moses! You giving pep talks?”
“I know! And I don’t want to have a boob job.”
“Don’t do it, Dar.”
More silence, but this time on her end.
“You’re turning them down, aren’t you—job and boobs?”
“I’m broke, Quentin.”
She could feel Quentin becoming concerned. “What are these people even about?”
It was anguish, hearing him ask the questions she had grappled with and lost.
“You know how they say a company has two sets of books?” she said. “Well, they have two sets of offices—not-that-big offices but still two sets. In the slick entrance on the fifth floor there are two clerical girls—Ramona and Romana, both Hernandez but no relation. And then there’s the website guy and a production guy who sets up everything for presentations and a girl who’s his assistant and two people in finance. They hire a bunch of regular contract workers, too. But the main four people have their own office on the eighth floor.”
“Why? What do they do there?”
“The magic happens.”
She could tell he wasn’t amused. “Are they phonies, Daria?”
“It’s like they want to punk people—the dupes who want to make themselves happier. Or I should say the people who believe that making themselves happier is like whitening their teeth.”
She could tell he was nodding on the other end. “You need to bite the bullet and pay for the more expensive white-strips on lock-down at Target.”
“Seriously, Dar, what’s the point?”
“I’m replacing a girl killed by a garbage truck.”
“That’s awful about the girl. But what’s the point? Are you saying they’re scammers out for the money?”
“Hap makes most of its money from the big banks and other creepers of the corporate world.”
“Yeah, but a scam’s a scam.”
“I don’t think they’re financial scammers. They’re not really getting money from unhappy people. I mean, it’s mainly corporations that are paying them all this money. And the corporations are doing it with the idea that they can ‘help’ toxic workers become better people and better workers. But really all the corporations want is to get their non-toxic workers to take the happy pill and be immune from the toxic types. And they also want to identify and isolate the toxic workers. It’s not rocket science to understand how this works.”
“But they also sell their Hap thing within higher ed.”
“They want me to be their nonprofit connection.”
“That’s terrible, Dar.”
“Like I said, I don’t think any of them is doing this for money.”
“But why scam if it’s not for the money?”
Now she was shaking her head and he could tell. “Are you that broke, honey?”
It all came down to that, didn’t it? She wondered what he’d say if she told him that one of them had killed her own mother. “I don’t think they’re bad people,” she finally said. “They’re all so insanely smart it makes me nauseous. In the annals of scamistry, I’d say they’re outliers.”
“But now you’re an outlier with them.”
“Am I disreputable, Quentin?”
“Do you mean would Bloomberg not allow you to be sold in bodegas?”
She felt sorry for herself. “He wouldn’t like me, would he?”
“I don’t get it, Dar. You were so adamant about not ever being a hipster, and now you’re a Hapster—which might even be worse.”
When she ended that call she immediately received another.
“Daria,” said Mariette, “you can keep your boobs. Just get them harnessed. I’ll text you the name of this Russian woman on the Upper East Side.”
Yeah, Daria thought when Mariette hung up. I’m that broke.