The girls were in the library stacks, shelving books, passing the time to get their work-study hours in. It was the closing shift; their supervisor had left for the night. All night they’d been at it, non-stop gossip, their whispers passing through the carrels of the Reading Room, down the hallowed halls and into the Firestone Annex. It was a Monday night. Both girls had finals in twelve hours.
The first girl, the white girl, had heard a rumor about another girl who’d once faked her way to Princeton. It had to have been made up, she said.
“I know this one,” the second girl, the Chinese girl, said. “You mean the girl who faked her admission, right?”
“That’s the one.”
“It’s a true story,” the Chinese girl said. “Her name was Asia. Back home, we talked about her all the time.”
The hour of the night owl had just begun, full-time procrastinators marching in, armed with Red Bulls, Monster drinks, espressos, R-balls, Dexies, bennies, name your poison. The girls had been changing the topic all night—there was the girl in their dorm who’d been giving blowjobs for Adderall, and the Goldman Sachs intern the white girl had been stalking online; the Chinese girl debated getting an industrial in her nose (don’t do it, the white girl said, nose piercings are for heifers!)—but as soon as they got to Asia, they stopped veering off course.
“So,” the white girl said, grabbing a book from their cart. “How’d she pull it off?”
It had been a while since the Chinese girl had last told the story, though she wasn’t surprised that it had spread here, to Princeton, where she could only assume Asia’s ghost resided. “I’m a little hazy on the details,” she said. “So don’t quote me or anything.”
Right then, the Chinese girl stopped herself. Asia’s story was the type that brought back memories she would rather avoid. She had to be careful about the way she told it. She stuck to the surface details, like the fact that Princeton had been Asia’s top choice college, or the fact that her parents enrolled her in the top magnet schools, chained her to a desk at an SAT cram school, nearly went broke paying all that tuition. Her father struck her with the handle of a feather duster whenever she came home with B’s.
“Her father was abusive?” the white girl said.
“I wouldn’t call it abuse,” the Chinese girl said.
“Then what would you call it?”
The white girl frowned. She could think of a dozen other words.
The Chinese girl deflected her friend’s concern. In fact, she’d suffered far worse than the feather duster at the threat of B’s. If it weren’t for that dreaded tung-tew, she often wondered, would she even be here now? These days, as a sociology/psych double major, she struggled to find the right label to fit it all. No single label could explain her bruises, every slap she took on the face, every time her father dragged her by the hair and made her promise to try harder. Worst of all was the discovery that she’d missed out on a normal life, the type of reckless adolescence her new friends at Princeton all had in common. Like Asia, she’d lived her high school years under the protective dome of her parents, her every life decision dictated by what might increase her chances of getting into a top-ranked college. Asia wasn’t allowed out on weeknights, the Chinese girl said with recognition in her voice; her weekend curfew was 8:30. If she ever crushed on a boy, she could forget about flirting. Asia was AP everything, honors this, Dean’s List that, and though her GPA hovered safely above a 4.0, she would have traded a point or two for a better SAT score. She’d taken the exam four times, but always second-guessing herself, she never scored above a 1500.
“Umm,” the white girl interrupted. “So is it just me, or does this sound like every person we know?”
“Isn’t it depressing?” the Chinese girl said, though she wanted to tell the white girl, You have no idea.
“Seriously depressing,” the white girl said. “Welcome to my life…”
As the Chinese girl went on with the story, she remembered all the ways that she and her friends had killed themselves over their college applications. All the meltdowns that came with taking twelve APs, the cool exteriors they’d built up during the day, the limited hours of sleep they got each night. Describing Asia’s morning routine—always awake at 4:30, always the first on the commuter bus to school—she failed to mention that each time Asia stepped off the bus, she might as well have been invisible. At least the Chinese girl had had friends. Asia, on the other hand, didn’t stand out in any crowd. She was rail-thin, her thick black bangs crowding her eyes. She was the girl who never spoke up, the shadow occupying two seats behind you in class. For group projects, she’d get paired up with the janitor’s son—inevitable that two outcasts ended up together—and midway through junior year, the two got assigned to give an oral report on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This occasioned its own milestone, marking the first time Asia brought a boy home. That night she led him up to her room, propped the door open so that either parent could look in. Glimpsing the Princeton catalogs strewn on her desk, the janitor’s son must have blurted something to break the ice. But the thing was, once you mentioned the P-word, there was no turning back. The janitor’s son found this out as Asia waxed on about her dream school, trying his best to listen, though no doubt losing a brain cell or two. Then again, it beat Ovid. In fact, the two never got to The Metamorphoses. Asia blabbered on until they reached curfew, and by the time her parents came to usher the boy out, she apologized for mismanaging the time. She offered to finish the report on her own.
The white girl nodded her head. Uh huh. Uh huh. As she shelved another book, she glanced out a window at the Firestone Plaza. The chapel hazy in the distance, stark shadows of Princetonians roaming in the dark. How easy it was to forget that not long ago, she’d been one of a handful of scholarship kids at her boarding school. She’d entered mid-term, which made it far too late to insert herself among the already established groups. The loneliness had been crushing. Some mornings she couldn’t get up. She binged on whatever she could, hoarding Cheez-Its and Wheat Thins under her bed. She’d fought tooth and nail for a spot in her boarding school, though as the scholarship kids stuck together in group projects and table arrangements in the cafeteria, denying her a spot at their table, she knew she’d have given it all up if it meant she’d have a single friend.
The Chinese girl kept on about Asia, though she might as well have been narrating the white girl’s life. Just like Asia, the white girl would arrive at school exhausted from another all-nighter, daydreaming about her future in class. A Princeton winter, Nassau covered in snow. In her dreams, she was always surrounded by friends. Sometimes it would take a tap on her shoulder to jolt her awake, a note slipped from behind, or in Asia’s case, a message scribbled in the janitor’s son’s scrawl. Lunch today? Here, the Chinese girl mentioned that Asia and the janitor’s son had since become friends. After all, the janitor’s son had made a comeback in class. Thanks to Asia, he was passing English. All of this came with a persistent kick of her chair, a smile beamed her way when their traffic patterns crossed in the hall. A genuine fondness for the P-obsessed girl.
One sun-mottled afternoon, the Chinese girl continued, the two had taken their lunches to the library. Hunched over his PB&J, the janitor’s son listened to yet another one of Asia’s SAT rants. Already on the verge of tears, she explained how her last score had come out ten points lower than her previous one, and how was that even possible? The janitor’s son nodded, not exactly minding if she repeated herself, and by the end of the hour he found himself telling her that his father had the keys to every building on campus. For some reason, he said, he’d been eyeing that key ring for months.
Asia bit into her sandwich. Flakes of crust fell onto her problem set. She listened as the janitor’s son gloated about the previous night. How he’d snuck onto campus with a buddy of his, how they broke into the school activities room, whereupon they printed a fake ID. Here, the janitor’s son said, producing the plastic card. Asia felt a tightness in her chest, but before she could utter a word the janitor’s son leaned in. From a distance it looked as though he were moving in for a kiss, but up close you could see the words forming on his lips. Listen up, the lips said. I’m going to help you get that score you’ve always dreamed of. Then he listed the following steps.
1.) Pay off the smartest girl in your cram school.
2.) Work out a testing date.
3.) Swap out the IDs.
4.) If everything goes according to plan—
“She really paid the girl to take her exam?” the white girl said.
“The girl got her a 1590,” the Chinese girl said. “Apparently she fucked up on verbal.”
“She really thought this would work?”
“They didn’t get caught, if that’s what you mean.”
“Wow,” the white girl said.
“So anyway,” the Chinese girl said, and pushed her cart forward. “Should I continue?”
Summertime. The season of sun. For most upperclassmen that meant dropping the books, hitting the beach and working a tan. Not Asia. In the stuffy indoors of her home—no AC—she hunched over forms, pencil in hand, filling line after line of her Princeton app. The mulchy smell of the forms filled her room like a Princeton pheromone. When she got to the section on standardized scores, she clenched her teeth. The 1590 rankled her. Was it unfair to want the extra ten points? Did paying for an exam make you more or less entitled to a perfect score? The questions burned like a suntan. By Labor Day, the bulk of her forms complete, she received her letters of recommendation, completed her personal statements, yet she still spent entire days obsessing over every word. She delayed until the night before her early admissions deadline, triple checking up into the early hours. Then, bright and early in the morning, she drove to her local post office. Kissing the flap and sealing it tight, she mailed her application in. All she had to do now was wait.
November went by in one long stretch. Each December day proved more excruciating than the last. The white girl remembered the endless days she’d spent on the Princeton waitlist, the type of nauseating pain that makes one’s loneliness even more unbearable. And yet, to hear Asia’s story was to experience a different kind of pain, a taste of the crushing disappointment she’d been spared. On a clear December afternoon, the letter arrived. Asia’s heart thumped as she walked to the mailbox, a feeling in her gut that said this is the day. She was right. The letter was there. But wait! She picked up the envelope, weighed it in her hand, her face contorting six ways as the cold truth sank in. Was there ever an object she hated more in her life? Judging by its dainty size, she needn’t bother tearing it open. Instead, her kneecaps hit the pavement. Tears flooded her eyes. The Santa Ana winds swooped in, scattering her parents’ bills all over the driveway.
In the days that followed, Asia had come down with the rejection bug. A pall had been cast. She was far too ill to go to school. She locked herself in her bedroom—cold sweats climbing her body, hot fever gripping her forehead—not leaving her room except to vomit. Her parents left bowls of rice porridge and Campbell’s soup at her door, taking the empty bowls downstairs to the dishwasher. They didn’t dare disturb their daughter. They heard the occasional object crash, loud sobs muted by a pillow, and then, eventually, silence. It’s been said that this was when Asia came up with her plan, the plan we’ve all come to know, the plan that would eventually undo her. She knew she had two options. One, she could apply to other schools. (But really, what kind of option was that?) Two, she could—
“Fake her Princeton admission.”
The Chinese girl nodded. The heating vents hummed on. Both girls began to shiver.
“It took the girl two tries to get that score, you know,” said a third girl, a Korean girl in yoga pants who’d been eavesdropping. “I know the girl she paid off. You said she took it once. She took it twice. Sorry, I overheard you guys talking, so.”
The Korean girl had been in the same Summer Orientation group as the Chinese girl. They weren’t friends, but they understood the need to keep things cordial. The Chinese girl introduced the Korean girl to the white girl.
“What a pretty name,” the Korean girl said.
“Thanks,” the white girl said, and returned the compliment.
The Korean girl’s eyes were ablaze. After another sixteen-hour Adderall binge in the library, she was heading out to try and get some sleep. The comedown was always worst when you were on uppers, but easier if you had someone to talk it out with. And so, shrugging on her backpack, the Korean girl coolly said, “She went to my school.”
“Shut the fuck up,” the white girl and the Chinese girl said at the same time. They both laughed.
The Korean girl wasn’t laughing. She lacked a sense of humor when she was on the orange pill. She waited for the girls to quiet down, then said, “Yeah, I remember Asia. I was a freshman when she was a senior, so.”
“Where’d she go again?” the Chinese girl said.
“Troy High,” the Korean girl said.
“I know Troy,” the white girl said. “My roommate’s ex went there.”
“Yeah, so,” the Korean girl said.
“What else do you know about Asia?” the Chinese girl said.
“Depends on what you want to know,” the Korean girl said.
“What were her parents like?” the white girl said.
“Poor,” the Korean girl said. “She had to test in.”
“Even for a public school?” the Chinese girl said.
“She lived outside the district,” the Korean girl said. “If you live outside, you have to test in.”
The Korean girl picked up a book at random, flipped through the pages. “So don't tell anyone,” she whispered, returning the tome to its shelf, “but I heard her parents were in on it. From what I know, they were on board from the start. If you ask me, the whole thing was their idea.”
“No fucking way,” the white girl said.
“I don't buy that,” the Chinese girl said.
The white girl said, “Go on.”
Here, the Korean girl’s take on the story was about to depart from what the Chinese girl had said so far. As an orphan herself, the Korean girl had a tendency to exaggerate the connection between Asia and her parents. She didn’t mean to contradict the Chinese girl, but what she understood was this: that part where Asia locked herself in a room for a week? Entirely apocryphal. Sure the girl needed a few days to herself—two, three at the most—but if anyone understood her plight, it was her parents. Asia’s rejection had crushed them as well, not to mention the loss of face in failing to provide for their daughter, though it only took a few days for Asia to emerge from her room restored. Together, the three regrouped and came to an understanding: they would not accept defeat so easily.
With her parents’ urging, Asia tracked down the janitor’s son at Jimmy K’s, the auto repair shop where he worked part-time. No hello, how are you, can I get an oil change? The first thing she asked was what he knew about black market forgeries. The janitor’s son knew quite a bit, he said, but why? Asia filled him in, omitting certain details that would cause her to relive that awful December day. The janitor’s son dropped his wrench. Perhaps he knew this was the last time he’d see Asia. He didn’t tell her, but he’d dropped out of school.
Three days later, he showed up at her house. Asia met him outside. Hands folded behind his back, he explained how he’d gotten hold of a guy, who knew a guy, and the guy had done a careful forgery. Then he brought his hands forward. Here, he said, giving her the fake admissions letter, along with a black frame to put it in. He didn’t know what a fake admissions letter was worth—not much, he figured—so he didn’t mention a fee. Good luck, was all he said, as he turned to leave.
On the day Asia returned to school, letter in hand, the semester began as any other. As soon as she stepped off the bus, the tightness in her chest returned. She kept the letter on her desk throughout first period, the occasional peer leaning over to catch a glimpse. As the day progressed, she heard the routine whispers in the hall, the gossip passed around in class, and by lunch, waiting for a bathroom stall, she realized that all the day’s whisperings had been about her. The Korean girl remembered that day clearly. As a shy and awkward freshman, she had once admired Asia from a distance. She wasn’t one of the girls who flocked to Asia’s locker demanding to see the letter with their own eyes, the savviest ones timing it to look accidental. Nor had she taken part in their empty flattery. Asia’s acceptance was a win for all quiet girls like her, she’d thought to herself, though one year later, when she found out with everyone that Asia’s Princeton admission had all been a sham, she couldn’t help but take it personally. By the time the details trickled down her way, she’d felt duped. Crushed. And yet, though she wouldn’t know it then, something important had happened that day. By her senior year, as the only girl in her class to make it to Princeton, the Korean girl would keep quiet about the few tricks she’d borrowed from Asia’s playbook. All tricks aside, the Korean girl had learned what she now knew as the most important lesson of her life. You had to play dirty if you wanted the world. You had to crave it more than anyone else. You had to be relentless.
Graduation day was one long and tedious ceremony. Asia was one of sixteen valedictorians. With the rest of her class, she sweated as the sun pressed their shiny black robes, waiting patiently through the endless speeches. After the ceremony, her peers flocked to the quad to congratulate each other, sunburnt parents trading handshakes on either side. Through the flurry of camera flashes and swishing robes, Asia kept her composure. The Korean girl happened to pass by when Asia’s father asked if she could take their picture. The Korean girl, who still longed to meet her biological parents, took the camera with a shaky hand. She said nothing as the family arranged themselves in a pose. Standing with her parents, weighed down by leis, Asia’s mind was already at Princeton. Her parents tugged her hand. Then the Korean girl pressed the shutter. The flash went off.
Summer again. After graduation the slow burn came, that magical time when high school grads party endlessly, trying on new identities and shaking their bacchanalian urges. Asia got invited to all the summer parties, and though she attended a few, she always left early. She spent most of the long summer nights holed up in her room, her rejection letter never too far from view. On the other side of the room her framed letter hung on the wall. Asia had never had a boyfriend, and Princeton carried all the emotional damage of a first breakup. One night, after she’d had enough, she took the rejection letter to her bathroom. There, she lit a candle. She stood over the sink, and like a scorned lover, she lit the corner of the letter. The edges curled as she watched the letter burn.
When the time came for high school grads to stop partying and give misty-eyed goodbyes in front of their parents’ parked station wagons, it was now time for Asia to go through with her plan. As the plan dictated, she packed a few suitcases, filled a U-haul truck, and drove with her parents straight to New Jersey. The three-day drive must have been an interesting one. Here, the Korean girl remembered the journey she’d made from her homeland, the pain of leaving everything she loved behind; she thought of the long trips she’d made as a child, being passed from one adoption agency to the next. Asia’s parents were clearly in a state of denial, the Korean girl exaggerated. Why else would they have gone through the trouble if their hearts weren’t just as shattered as hers? How else could you explain the matching Princeton sweatshirts they wore, the bumper sticker proudly displayed on their Camry? As they helped Asia move into her apartment on Nassau Street (if anyone asked, she’d missed the deadline for the dorms), they agreed to send her a monthly check. In return, they asked that she write and call often. Then the sun bowed out, and her father kissed her on her forehead. Her mother squeezed her pinky. As for their last words, the Korean girl said, like so many things in this story, those are now lost.
White noise in the library. Pages turning, cell phones buzzing, keyboards clattering. Chatter from the Trustee Reading Room.
Another fall semester; a different life. As the plan went, Asia assumed the role of a Princeton freshman. Borrowing cues from her newfound peers, she took on the façade of the high-strung achiever. Capable of handling any pressure (even if her own brand of pressure was one of a kind), she sat in on enough classes to make a full-time schedule, finding safety in the largest lecture halls. She took detailed notes, attended open study groups, turned in exams with no name. Befriending a few girls from her study groups, she’d tag along with them to weekend dorm mixers, making their way through all the eating club parties. At the parties, everyone seemed smarter, richer, more anointed than she. Fearing that opening her mouth would expose her for the fraud she was, she learned when to listen and when to laugh politely. Eventually, after weeks of maintaining the persona she’d built, she no longer recognized herself. By then she was used to sitting in dorm lobbies, spread out on a couch, taking notes in her econ textbooks. Other students came and went. Occasionally she’d make conversation, convinced of the illusion herself. Where have I seen you before? You live at Butler, don’t you? Oh, that’s right! Now and then Asia would think about her parents. Though she still received their checks, she hadn’t been calling. There were times she wanted to hear their voices, wanted to vent about her Princeton workload, tell them about the friends she’d made, though she knew that one misplaced word was all it would take to break the illusion. The truth was, the illusion was already wearing thin. Which is all to say it was only a matter of time before—
Everyone has an Achilles heel. For most of us, it’s the same. Asia was no different. In light of the events that followed, it’s clear that her parents’ biggest mistake was not allowing their daughter to date. Now that Asia was getting the hang of things, it was time to take the next big step. What she needed now was a Princeton boyfriend. She’d never been a heavy drinker, but seeing her sobriety as an obstacle to flirting with boys, she’d taken it up. One night, at a tacky-sweater themed party, she met a guy. Blond hair, blue-gray eyes. The guy complimented her on her sweater’s tack, and though it was the same sweater she’d worn throughout high school, she went along with it. They boozed and danced all night. When they both had trouble standing on their feet, they left together.
The guy took her from the party to his apartment, where they collapsed on his grimy bed—traces of poppy seed in his linens—and by the next morning, waking up in a stranger’s bedroom, Asia had forgotten all the secrets she’d spilled the night before. In fact, hangover aside, she woke up happy for the first time in years. She didn’t leave her number on the boy’s desk, just slipped out. As she took the walk down Prospect Ave, the sun shining brightly on its path, she drew the brisk morning air into her lungs. For the first time, things were starting to pay off. What else could this feeling be, but happiness? And yet she recalled nothing of the previous night, the guy’s jaw hanging open, his remarks, his every “Holy shit, Asia! You’re a magician!” No sooner had Asia taken the walk back to her apartment than the guy told another guy who told another guy, who told—
“You guys know how it ends, right?” the Korean girl said.
The white girl shook her head.
“Well, everyone found out,” the Chinese girl said. “It didn’t take long for it to get back to her.”
“And then what?” the white girl said. “What did she do?”
“She stepped in front of a Tiger Transit bus,” the Korean girl said, painting the picture of frozen, statuesque Asia. Nothing but orange oblivion before her eyes.
Silence fell in the library. The white girl’s phone pinged in her pocket. She ignored it.
“Poor Asia,” the Chinese girl said.
“They say girls are catty,” the white girl said, “but guys are just assholes.”
“What else is new in the world?” the Korean girl said.
The mood had dampened. The story always ended with the icky sensation in finding entertainment in another girl’s humiliation. The proper thing would have been to leave it at that, but the white girl wanted to know how it ended. “So everyone found out, huh?”
The Korean girl was unfazed. “By Christmas break, it was all we talked about.”
“They say her ghost is still on campus,” the Chinese girl put in.
The bells of Nassau Tower rang. Ten minutes till midnight. The girls shuddered together, as if on cue.
On every floor of the Firestone Library, night owls yawned, popped more pills, drank more poison. Pages pushed carts stacked with books to be reshelved, the intercom crackling with static. On the sixth floor the girls grabbed their books, strapped on their backpacks, and headed for an elevator. When they got inside, no one said a word. The elevator descended slowly, floor by floor, until the doors opened in the lobby. The girls went their separate ways. The white girl and the Chinese girl went to clock out, while the Korean girl, sending a text to her boyfriend, headed for an exit. She walked through the turnstiles, pushed the glass doors open, and still texting, went out into the night. The air was damp and chill, the wind singing, and if she’d paid more attention she might have heard a faint song in the gale. She had to cut through a dark alley to get to her bike, and in the alley she bumped into a fourth girl, a girl whose glow she saw for just a brief second, but still texting, had barely paid attention, barely realizing it when the fourth girl followed her home.