Mom joins in. “We’re all getting tired of them.”
Finally, Dad pulls up to the drop-off area at the airport. We say our goodbyes and Mom actually cries, which makes me cry too. Lola gives me a hug and tells me to put in a good word to any congressmen or senators who look like movie stars.
“If any look like Elvis, get their phone number for me,” she says.
I hug her tightly. I love my crazy family. I wish my brothers were here. “I love you so much,” I tell Lola.
Mom complains right away. “What about me?”
“Stop,” I say, kissing her cheek. “You know how much I love you. We’re practically the same person. I’m going to be fine. I’m going to meet the president of the United States.” I kiss Dad goodbye too.
Lola’s eyes brighten. “You didn’t say you were going to meet the president! He’s the best-looking of all!”
“I told all of you,” I growl. “You just don’t listen! I’m going to be late for the plane. I love you!” I add, and run off into the terminal and to the security checkpoint.
There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.
—WILLA CATHER, MY ÁNTONIA
“MS. DE LOS SANTOS?” asks a young African American woman with straightened hair cut in a cute bob outside the terminal at Dulles International Airport. She’s holding a sign with my name on it.
“That’s me,” I say, with a big smile.
“Suzanne Roberts,” she says, shaking my hand. “National Scholarship Recognition Program Hostess and Department of Education Liaison. Right this way. You’ll be meeting some of the other students shortly.”
For being so young, Suzanne is all business. Her skirt and coat are a deep royal blue and her blouse is white. She’s perfectly put together. Not a wrinkle anywhere on her clothes or a hair out of place. There’s an insignia on her uniform for the program that looks like a blend with the presidential seal. I note the way she holds herself. The way she walks. She talks as if she graduated from some etiquette school in Switzerland where they teach you how to carry yourself with poise. She has a constant smile that seems real and not polished at all. She’s instantly likable. I want to be like her someday and tell her so.
“You’re sweet, thanks. I hear your essay and self-assessment was a particularly great read for the committee. Congratulations.”
“Thanks so much—it’s so nice to hear that. Are you on the selection committee?” I ask as we walk through the terminal.
Suzanne smiles. “No, those are all highly regarded scholars in the fields of education, law, medicine, the advanced arts, and other areas. Maybe one day. I was a previous scholarship recipient. I’m a congressional aide and for now, I’m just happy to assist the program’s candidates during their time here in Washington, D.C.”
“Cool,” I say, because it is. I can’t wait to meet everyone, to start making connections, to start being part of this great network that runs our country. For a moment, I feel like myself again, the person I was before I discovered the truth about our status.
* * *
I’m sitting in the backseat with two other students while Suzanne drives a black sedan toward the Ritz-Carlton on Twenty-second Street.
“This is Richard Morales,” Suzanne says, nodding toward the tall boy sitting in the front seat who has such large shoulders, he barely fits inside the car. “He’s from Arizona. And an incredible jazz musician, I hear.”
“What instruments do you play?” I ask.
Richard cranes his neck around to look at me. “A little of everything, I guess. But my favorite is the saxophone.” He curls his fingers and begins playing invisible notes. He’s already totally lost in his own imaginary world of music.
The other boy sitting next to me extends his hand, which I shake. His pale fingers are bony and long. “I’m Simon Sebastian,” he says in a nasally voice. “Did you know the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was made in China? And that the FDR Memorial has a statue of his dog?”
“No,” I say. “You know a lot about Washington, D.C....”
While Simon continues to rattle off random trivia, I peer out the window for a glimpse of anything recognizable. I have the window rolled down a little so I can see better, and I’m shocked by how much colder the fall weather is here. Wrapping my coat tighter around me, I imagine myself walking across the campus of George Washington University or Georgetown, watching the auburn leaves falling off the branches of the old trees. I could belong here.
The buildings are so stately and old-fashioned. I’ve seen all the buildings on television before, of course, but I’m amazed by their size and significance upon seeing them in in real life. But when we finally see the Capitol dome, lit up like an earthly moon, I feel a pang, like it’s not for me. I want so badly to feel like part of this country. It’s the only home I know.
The Ritz-Carlton is a collection of dark buildings and many windows. It feels like a beautiful fortress. The ceilings are tall and lovely inside the hotel. I want to just sit in a chair and take it all in, stare at everything and everyone. Instead, I follow Suzanne to check-in, where we are each given a room. I’m sharing mine with a few girls, but they’ve already been there all day. Suzanne tells us to hurry. We’re the last group of arrivals.
She hands each of us a small folder, “This is your itinerary. Inside you’ll find where you’re supposed to be. I will be your guide through most of your stay here. The first Honoree Reception is in about two hours. Get some rest and meet me in the lobby at five, and we’ll walk to the main ballroom together.”
I’m relieved to hear that Suzanne will be with us the entire way. It makes me feel secure as I find my way to my room, which is just as elegant as I hoped. They’ve given us a two-bedroom suite with heavy floral couches and tables that shine like someone has recently polished them. In vases set next to each bed there are bouquets of white roses, which fill the room with a flowery scent that reminds me of Mom’s garden.
I toss my suitcase to the side and plop down on a bed in the room that doesn’t have clothes and jewelry strewn all over the place. It’s a dream, really, and the nicest hotel room I’ve ever been in. If this is a taste of my future, I want it.
I text Mom.
I’m here and in my room. Going to a reception in a couple hours. I have a chaperone named Suzanne. She’s smart and nice. Love you. Talk soon.
No reply; she must be busy.
I hear my roommates enter, but they all disappear into the other bedroom without saying hello. It sounds like they all know each other, and probably no one wants to room with the new girl. Fine, more room for me.
After showering, putting on my makeup and brushing out my long hair, I open my suitcase on one of the beds, unzipping the sides carefully to not catch any of my clothing. On top lies the dress I bought when I went shopping with Kayla. I put it on and fluff out the wrinkles. It’s as bright as a yellow gumamela flower, with an open back and a braid that twists over my shoulders and down to the bottom of the dress’s flowing fabric. I’m dark for a Filipino, nut-brown like my dad, and the color pops against my skin. From my suitcase, I take the amber glass my Lola gave me and feel the smooth sides between my fingers. Preparing my nerves for the dinner, I stick the stone inside my clutch and head out for the reception. I’m so ready for this.
* * *
The ballroom is decorated in layered white and gold bunting, and there are vases of white flowers everywhere. It’s like a wedding—everything is so pretty, and I can’t help but look around, wide-eyed and happy. The event is black-tie, so all the guys are in tuxes and the girls are in long dresses. The room is buzzing, lively. It’s clear everyone is thrilled to be here. There’s an hour before dinner during which we eat cheese and crackers and Suzanne introduces us to as many dignitaries as she can recognize. I stick close to her, as do Richard and Simon. We’re all a bit subdued, and when people congratulate us, we just smile and nod. I meet so many people, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who.
“Jasmine, may I introduce you to Senator Armstrong, Speaker of the House.”
“To Dr. Holly Villa, of the National Health Organization.”
“To the Honorable James Macgregor, Ambassador to Switzerland.”
“To Eugenia Rosenberg, editor in chief of the Washington Post.”
My head is swimming and my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. When it’s finally time for dinner and speeches, we go to look for our table, which is right in front. The head of the National Scholar Foundation speaks first and introduces the top ten scholars. They each give a short speech about their talents and ambitions, many of them in the scientific and technological arenas. In between, Suzanne engages us all with questions, but I can’t concentrate. The whole night is overwhelming, almost unreal to me. Then I cut into the chicken, which is rubbery and hard, and I fall back down to earth for a moment. Dad always says we eat better at home than most people do in restaurants, and he’s totally right.
Simon and Richard chat excitedly at our table. The other honorees seated with us include three girls who I find out are my elusive roommates. There’s Mallory Lynch, a preppie redhead, and Nina Chandra, a gorgeous Indian girl with a hilarious sense of humor. They’re both from Maryland. Then there’s Carrie Mayberry. She’s a classic all-American beauty with thick sandy-blond hair and cornflower-blue eyes who happens to be a Junior Olympics gymnast, a world-class sailor, and has already landed an internship with the New York Times and is a total shoo-in to Columbia, her first choice.
Carrie seems to be the leader of the three girls. Every topic of conversation revolves around what she thinks or whom she knows. Carrie is from D.C., but all three girls know each other because Nina and Carrie go to a boarding school together and Mallory plays on Nina’s water polo club team. All of their parents seem to be involved in politics somehow.
The girls are totally ignoring Richard and Simon, which doesn’t matter because the boys don’t even notice, they’re so engrossed in a super nerdy discussion about binary numbers.
“Are you excited to go to Columbia?” I ask Carrie, trying to make conversation. “Do you like New York?”
She crosses her arms. “Do I like New York? The city isn’t the kind of place that you like or dislike. New York is bigger than any single person. It’s the only place to live really.”
“Oh,” I say. “I guess that’s how Manila used to feel to me...that it’s more than a city.”