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       Carpe Diem, p.1

           Autumn Cornwell
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Carpe Diem

  Table of Contents

  Title Page


  PART ONE - Stateside

  CHAPTER ONE - You Can Plan Your Life


  CHAPTER TWO - Grandmas Don’t Blackmail

  CHAPTER THREE - The Advanced Latin Study Group Gals—Minus One





  CHAPTER FOUR - Last Rites

  CHAPTER FIVE - Never Mind

  CHAPTER SIX - You Can’t Over-Prepare

  CHAPTER SEVEN - No Matter What

  PART TWO - Malaysia

  CHAPTER ONE - The Malaysian Cowboy

  CHAPTER TWO - The Golden Lotus

  CHAPTER THREE - Grandma Gerd



  CHAPTER FIVE - Nibbling


  CHAPTER SIX - The “Artist” at Work

  CHAPTER SEVEN - Spring-Zs No More!


  CHAPTER EIGHT - Why Am I Surprised?

  PART THREE - Cambodia

  CHAPTER ONE - My Guardian

  CHAPTER TWO - Bunkin’ with a Cowboy

  CHAPTER THREE - Chasin’ Snakes

  CHAPTER FOUR - The Churning of the Ocean of Milk

  CHAPTER FIVE - Frangipani

  CHAPTER SIX - The Apsara

  CHAPTER SEVEN - Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right—But What Do a Wrong and a Right Make?

  CHAPTER EIGHT - Full Moon in Full Squat


  CHAPTER TEN - Peppy Pete’s Pizza


  PART FOUR - Laos

  CHAPTER ONE - Volo praecessi domus. (I want to go home.)

  CHAPTER TWO - Bounmy

  CHAPTER THREE - Trekking

  CHAPTER FOUR - Mr. Vang’s Hospitality

  CHAPTER FIVE - Freshly Brewed

  CHAPTER SIX - Ta Prohm Revisited

  CHAPTER SEVEN - Don’t These Places Only Exist in Nineteenth-Century Novels?

  CHAPTER EIGHT - Sleeping Wrong

  CHAPTER NINE - Who Am I???




  CHAPTER THIRTEEN - You Can Plan Your Way out of Anything

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN - It Can’t Get Any Worse

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN - It Really Can’t Get Any Worse


  PART FIVE - Where Do I Go from Here?

  CHAPTER ONE - Am I the Same Vassar Spore?

  CHAPTER TWO - The Collage

  CHAPTER THREE - Everything or Nothing?

  CHAPTER FOUR - My Very First Last Date

  CHAPTER FIVE - Frangipani’s Revised Life Goals



  Copyright Page

  For J.C., my husband and fellow adventurer


  “July 27: I’m freezing. My head itches. I can’t remember the last time I had a shower or anything to eat besides sticky rice. This is not how I planned to spend my summer—or end my life. If only we hadn’t answered the door that rainy night in May …”

  (Scribbled on water-stained, college-ruled

  notebook paper with a red felt-tip pen.)




  You Can Plan Your Life

  The package came during the hour of reflection, that sacred time after dinner when we peruse goals accomplished during the day and set goals for the day to come. (“If it worked for Benjamin Franklin, it can work for us,” as Mom would say.)

  We were sitting in our living room, my favorite room in the house, with its stone fireplace and floor-to-ceiling books—all in Dewey decimal system order. And no TV—because that’s “living vicariously through other people.” Dad was editing the proofs of his latest book, How to Increase Your Personal Productivity in 2,000 Easy Steps; Mom was writing in her Journal of Excellence; and I was tackling my Life Goals. This is what I had so far:


  1. Graduate valedictorian from the Seattle Academy of Academic Excellence (with a minimum of 5.3 GPA).

  2. Graduate with honors from Vassar (and receive an honorary certificate because of the whole same name thing) then get PhD in (TBD) from an Ivy League school (TBD).

  3. Marry a 6’5” blond surgeon (or judge) for love by age 25; have three children by age 35 (two girls, one boy).

  4. Publish the definitive book on (TBD) by age 37.

  5. Receive Pulitzer prize.

  The particular goal consuming me that evening was #2. Graduate school was only six years away, so I couldn’t afford to waste a single minute.

  See, I’m not the odds-on favorite to be class valedictorian because I’m extra gifted or super smart. Oh, no. It’s because I do the Big P: Plan. (“Chance favors the prepared mind.” Louis Pasteur.) My rival at the Seattle Academy of Academic Excellence, Wendy Stupacker, never plans—she procrastinates, then crams. Lucky for her she has a photographic memory. We’re tied for valedictorian—for now.

  Of course I had other personal life goals—just not for my parents’ eyes. Like planning my first boyfriend. I had him already picked out: John Pepper. It wasn’t that Mom and Dad necessarily wouldn’t approve of John Pepper. He was one of the first guys admitted to the Seattle Academy of Academic Excellence once it stopped being girls only. He was tall, blond, dressed in primary colors, aimed to be a neurosurgeon, had only minor acne, and no longer wore thick glasses thanks to laser surgery. He totally fit my prototype. Not that he even knew I was a carbon-based life-form who attended his school. However, once I plan something, it’s as good as done. Even if my parents claim I don’t have time for serious relationships if I want to get my doctorate at an Ivy League school.

  “Boyfriends are like water—endlessly available,” Mom told me. “Attending an A-list school is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

  I’d refrained from correcting her that water is endlessly available unless you happen to be tented in the Sahara Desert.

  “How’s this?” I handed my list to Mom, who skimmed, then returned it.

  “After the Pulitzer, then what? Think big, Vassar.”

  I thought a moment, then added Life Goal #6: “Create the Dr. Vassar Spore Betterment Foundation to train the less fortunate around the world how to plan their lives like I did” and handed it back. Two could play this game.

  She laughed. “Excellent! Now that’s what I call thinking big. Wasn’t that a fun exercise? As W. Clement Stone says, ‘Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star.’ Goals give you targets to shoot for. Too many teens today have no idea where they’re going. They’re lost, they’re drifting. Lilith’s daughter hasn’t even applied to colleges yet—and she’s a senior! No wonder she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” She patted my hand. “Not all parents are lucky enough to have daughters like you, Vassar.”

  Mom used to be a life coach. Once I was born, she gave up her career. Or, as she puts it: “I switched careers: from life coach to Vassar’s coach.”

  A full-time job these days.

  But I actually don’t mind the nightly recaps—or visioning for the future. Sure, it borders on geekdom and isn’t exactly my first choice how to spend my evenings, but it keeps me organized. And since I’m aiming for the Ivy League, I need all the help I can get. In fact, once a month, Amber—one of my three best friends (and fellow academes)—comes over during our Hour of Reflection so Mom can oversee her daily, weekly, and monthly go
al lists. Amber also needs all the help she can get since her parents are sports fanatics and only care about her three older brothers’ collegiate football and basketball achievements. Academia holds absolutely no interest for them. Without our support and Mom’s guidance, she’d have been kicked out of the National Honor Society months ago.

  I’d just finished the pros and cons of a PhD in Physics and was starting on the pros and cons of Archaeology when Amber text-messaged my cell phone: Have U asked yet?

  I cleared my throat. “Uh, I was wondering, could I skip my Calculus Tutoring Session on Friday night so I can go to the dance?” Not that any guys ever asked us to dance—we all danced in the “four-girl molecule cluster.” As if that’s how we wanted it. No boys needed here, thank you very much. Better to pretend you don’t care—don’t care that Wendy Stupacker is always every guy’s first choice. Always.

  Dad looked up from his manuscript. He’s an efficiency expert and consultant. Corporations and factories hire him to discover where they are wasting time, money, and manpower—and then to remedy it. In his spare time he writes. This is his second book. The first was coauthored with Mom: Plan Is Not a Four-Letter Word.

  “Did you say something?” Dad asked, clicking his mechanical pencil.

  Mom laid down her pen and asked, “And where is this dance?”

  This is where it got tricky. “At the public high school.” Before she could respond, I hurriedly used my best ammunition: “Amber’s, Laurel’s, and Denise’s parents are letting them go.” In Denise’s case, they were forcing her to go. They felt she lacked social intelligence and needed practice in the necessary male-female interaction skills.

  “You know how we feel about functions at the public high school. It’s not the idea of recreation that concerns us. Of anyone, you certainly deserve downtime activities.”

  “But you can trust me—”

  “Of course we can trust you, Vassar. It’s the public school crowd we can’t.”


  “However, as you know, we’re not going to tell you what to do,” said Mom. “Your father and I reared you to make the right decision. Isn’t that right, Leon? Leon?”

  Realizing he’d missed his cue, Dad affirmed quickly: “Right, right. The choice is completely up to you.”

  I hate it when they do that. That’s the problem with having parents like mine: You’re genetically programmed not to let them down.

  “I’ll think about it,” I said. But we all knew what my “choice” would be. I couldn’t bear the looks of disappointment on their faces.

  As Mom and Dad went back to their journal and book respectively, I text-messaged Amber: They said NO. Told U.

  The doorbell rang.

  “We aren’t expecting anyone, are we?” Mom asked with mild irritation.

  Dad and I shook our heads. Visitors during the Hour of Reflection were strictly verboten.

  “I’ll take care of it.” Mom rose regally from the overstuffed chair that threatened to swallow her up.

  Although a pint-sized five feet two, Mom carried herself as if she were six feet tall with a crown on her blond bob. Birdlike—but a bird of steel. Nothing delicate about her. Dad was only a few inches taller than her, with unruly, reddish-blond hair cropped short, pale blue eyes, freckles, and a compact body in perfect shape for his age—thanks to his daily five-mile run and aversion to beer. Where I got my five feet ten lanky build and dark brown hair and eyes was one for the geneticists.

  Mom placed a beige envelope with a mosaic of foreign stamps on the coffee table, next to the tea things.

  “UPS. For you, Vassar.”

  For me? I wasn’t expecting anything. I’d already received my Jumbo Wall Calendar for the next school year. What else had I ordered from

  Mom poured boiling water over our tea bags. Herbal. No caffeine in the Spore household. (“We get our energy from the thrill of a job well done,” Mom would say.)

  “Who’s it from, Althea?” asked Dad, not lifting his eyes from How to Increase Your Personal Productivity in 2,000 Easy Steps.

  “Your mother,” said Mom in a flat tone, showing him the return address: Gertrude Spore.

  How to Increase Your Personal Productivity in 2,000 Easy Steps dropped to the floor and a handful of pastel Tums popped into Dad’s mouth. Tums were always within easy reach in his breast pocket, since emotions of any sort triggered heartburn. Especially emotions about Grandma Gerd. Dad claimed it was acid reflux, but Mom said it was psychosomatic.

  “What does she want? Tell me she’s not coming to visit.” He chewed rapidly, calcium gathering in the corners of his mouth.

  I wiped off the raindrops and examined the cancellation marks. “It’s from Malaysia.” It was postmarked April 1—my sixteenth birthday, a month and a half earlier.

  Dad burped softly.

  I sliced open the envelope with a butter knife and removed a plain white envelope and a card made of tree pulp decorated with grains of brown rice in a starburst pattern. I opened the card and read aloud:

  “Happy Birthday, kiddo! Can you believe it? I’m sorta on time for once! But, hey, turning sixteen is a BIG DEAL. Open the white envelope.”

  It was a round-trip plane ticket. To Singapore.

  “Ta-da! One all-expense-paid summer vacation backpacking through Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos—with ME! Southeast Asia won’t know what hit it! Toss some drip-dries into a backpack, apply for a passport, and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime … .” I trailed off, stunned.

  “It’s obviously Gertrude’s idea of a joke.” Mom picked up her Journal of Excellence and resumed writing with her fountain pen. (It’s her sole inefficiency.)

  “But the ticket looks genuine,” I said.

  “Oh, she’s up to something. I can feel it,” said Dad, massaging his stomach.

  Poor Dad. Not only was he adopted, Grandpa died when he was six years old and Grandma Gerd had flipped out—turned bohemian. She’d disappear for days, carousing with the seedy artists who lived in the seedy areas of Seattle. So Dad was forced to become a man. He wore a little blue suit and hired and fired his own babysitters, shopped, cleaned the house, and even managed the checking account. Mom said it was the “Only Child with the Impractical Parent Syndrome”: When no adult seems to be taking responsibility, the child by default must, in order to maintain some semblance of a normal life. When Dad met Mom, he was finally able to relax and leave life’s more assertive duties to a woman even more type A than him. An efficiency expert and life coach—it was a match made in heaven. (Or, to be more precise: in an office supply store. They simultaneously grabbed for the same Post-it notes.)

  “We’ll simply thank her and refuse the offer,” Mom said, setting her teacup in its saucer with a decisive clink. She smiled at me, showing her dimples. “Gertrude just doesn’t understand the responsibilities of the gifted student.” Mom insisted upon calling me gifted, even though she knew perfectly well my academic record was the product of good planning.

  The thing was, I’d never even met Grandma Gerd. Or seen any photos of her—Dad said he “misplaced them.” (Highly suspicious, coming from a man who filed his socks. By color.) All I knew was that she was a nomadic artist of sorts. But I always got a birthday present from her, even if it was usually five months late. A Vietnamese mollusk hat on my eighth. A pair of mustard-yellow, pointy-toed Moroccan slippers for my tenth. An oversized leather wombat on my twelfth. And the “collage” made out of a rubber ball and fifteen swizzle sticks on my fifteenth. Then there were all the long-distance calls from Third World countries, with the fuzzy background noise and hollow clicks.

  “Strange,” I said as I put the ticket back in the envelope. “I wonder what made her send—”

  The phone rang.


  Grandmas Don’t Blackmail

  It was Grandma Gerd. Calling collect from Melaka, Malaysia. For an artist, she sure had a good sense of timing. Dad chewed yet more Tums as she insisted on being pu
t on speakerphone. Her exuberant voice boomed up at us from the coffee table. Grandma never talked when she could bellow.

  “Let me guess: It’s your Hour of Refraction. How’s my Leonardo?”

  Dad hates his flowery given name and insists on being called Leon. Not that Grandma Gerd ever does.

  “Reflection,” he said in a compressed voice.

  A series of throaty chuckles, then:

  “Happy Birthday, kiddo! How does it feel to be sweet sixteen?” Then, without waiting for my answer: “So, did ya get kissed?”

  “She’ll have more than enough time for boys after college, Gertrude,” Mom said, in a tone civilized yet squelching.

  “Shame. Sweet Sixteen, Never Been Kissed. So how did you celebrate? Tell me you at least had a big party?”

  Mom said: “Vassar had an intimate gathering after the Latin Triathlon. Some very nice girls from her—”

  “Girls, bah.”

  Mom opened her mouth, then closed it.

  “So, kiddo? What do you think of my gift?”

  But before I could respond, Mom said with a plastic smile, her dimples now two craters:

  “It was very thoughtful of you, Gertrude. Only a month and a half late instead of your usual five. Unfortunately, it’s not on The List.”

  “The List? What list?”

  “Vassar’s summer has been planned out far in advance. The List includes AP English,Advanced Latin Camp, a Sub-Molecular Theory course—”

  “And? What she misses this summer she can make up the next.”

  Earth to Grandma! I had the next two summers meticulously planned—all advanced placement courses and extracurricular activities.

  “If I don’t keep up with those courses, I won’t make a 5.3 GPA—which happens to be the new 4.0,” I said. “And then Wendy Stupacker will get valedictorian—”

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