Jemima Kincaid is a feminist, and she thinks you should be one, too. Her private school is laden with problematic traditions, but the worst of all is prom. The guys have all the agency; the girls have to wait around for "promposals" (she's speaking heteronormatively because only the hetero kids even go). In Jemima's (very opinionated) opinion, it's positively medieval.
Then Jemima is named to Senior Triumvirate, alongside superstar athlete Andy and popular, manicured Gennifer, and the three must organize prom. Inspired by her feminist ideals and her desire to make a mark on the school, Jemima proposes a new structure. They'll do a Last Chance Dance: every student privately submits a list of crushes to a website that pairs them with any mutual matches.
Meanwhile, Jemima finds herself embroiled in a secret romance that she craves and hates all at once. Her best friend, Jiyoon, has found romance of her own, but Jemima starts to suspect something else has caused the sudden rift between them. And is the new prom system really enough to extinguish the school's raging dumpster fire of toxic masculinity?
Filled with Kate Hattemer's signature banter, this is a fast-paced and thoughtful tale about the nostalgia of senior year, the muddle of modern relationships, and how to fight the patriarchy when you just might be part of the patriarchy yourself.
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“It’s nice to meet you,” I told Old White Dudes #19 and #20.
Every alumnus looked the same. Sure, there were minor variations. Paunches were small, medium, or large. Hair was nonexistent, receding, or artificially puffed. Smiles were indifferent but polite (good), paternal and doting (meh), or lecherously smirky (gag).
But everyone qualified as Old and White and Dude.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. I was at the Senior Triumvirates, Past and Present reception, and the all-boys Chawton School hadn’t merged with Ansel Academy for Girls until 1978. They’d combined campuses and mascots (Angel Tigers, rah rah rah!), but Ansel had lost its name, as in a marriage, the commemorative plaque says. Chawton is a snooty private school in the snooty suburban enclaves of northern Virginia. It neighbors George Washington’s plantation, which should tell you something: it’s steeped in history, history of a certain type. The history of Old White Dudes running shit.
OWD #19 had moles. I bet someone clipped OWD #20’s nose hair. I bet not him. “A pleasure,” said #19.
“The Chawton boys are lucky these days, eh, Davis?” said #20.
“Sure are,” said #19, looking me up and down.
With the instinct born of eighteen years of being a girl in this world, I crossed my arms over my chest. “Why do you say that?” I said as politely as I could manage.
Which was not all that polite.
OWD #19 put a spotted hand on my upper arm. I shook him off and took a step back. “Hundreds of adolescent boys,” he said. “Not one female among usremember, Richard?”
“We could spot the Ansel girls playing field hockey from the maintenance tower”
“Naturally we’d convene there”
“Those gym suits they wore!”
I glared at them, my arms still crossed. OWD #19 chortled. “Your male classmates are very fortunate,” he told me.
“Smile, dear,” OWD #20 added. “It’s not all doom and gloom.”
“This is my face,” I began, “so don’t tell me”
“Hello, hello!” Gennifer Grier appeared at my elbow, beaming at the OWDs. “I am so sorry to interrupt, but, Jemima, we’re needed at the silent auction.”
I gave them a cursory nod and stalked after Gennifer. They’d put the silent-auction items outside, but in early April the evening air still held an unpleasant nip, and the courtyard was deserted. Gennifer’s fake smile vanished. “What’s your deal, Jemmy?” she said.
I hated that name and she knew it. “What’s your deal? Why’d you drag me out here?”
“I had to extract you before you got all three of us in trouble.”
“What the hell. This was a ruse?”
“The light dawns.”
“I was about to educate those assholes. They told me to smile.”
“Like they think my function’s purely decorative.”
“Do you even understand the point of this evening?”
“Of course I do, Ghennifer.” I said it with a hard, aspirated G, as in ghastly. These nicknames weren’t new. If there had ever been any love between me and Gennifer, it had been lost long ago.
“We are decorative,” she said. “We’re a blank slate upon which the former triumvirs can write their own memories of Chawton.”
Gennifer is what you’d get if you googled “perfect American girl”: white and blond and thin. She has perfect teeth, which, like her, are white and straight and polished. Sometimes her prettiness made me think she was dumb. She’s not. She is just about the opposite of dumb.
“Come on,” she said, “let’s pretend we’re checking on the silent-auction table.”
Andy joined us as we straightened the baskets of fancy shampoo, the placards proclaiming an afternoon for eight at the mercer country club and an italian cooking lesson with master chef luigi del carmine. “You two hiding?” he said.
“Jemima needed to be reminded how to shut up and smile and nod.”
“She’s so strident,” said Andy, winking at me. “So shrill.”
“Fuck off,” I said. He grinned. Sometimes he acted like a chauvinistic asshat just to annoy me. And then sometimes he acted like a chauvinistic asshat because he was a white, straight, wealthy eighteen-year-old guy, and chauvinistic asshattery was basically his birthright.
I should note that I, too, am white. And straight. And wealthy, or my parents are. But despite these disadvantages, I do my best not to be a horrible person. I was a feminist before it was trendy.
“I wish we could have a real meeting tonight,” said Gennifer. “We have way too much to do before Jamboree.”
“Jamboree’s eight weeks away.”
“Seven,” said Gennifer. “And do you know how much stuff we have to organize? The election, Powderpuff, prom”
“Beware,” I announced. “Ghennifer Grier has entered checklist mode.”
“My checklists have saved your asses all year.”
“When I reminisce about my senior year of high school,” said Andy, gazing into the Commons, where a black-coated swarm of OWDs was doing just that, “it’ll be to the soundtrack of you two squabbling.”
“Because women don’t debate or argue,” I said. “They squabble.”
“Exactly,” said Andy. “They catfight. I’m glad we’re on the same page, Kincaid.”
If he hadn’t grinned at me, I’d have picked up that shampoo and hurled it at his handsome face. But he grinned and it was over. That was what happened every time. Andy’s magical grin. Not that I had a crush on him or anything like that. He was cute. Of course he was cute. He was Chawton School chairmancaptain of the lacrosse team, smart, too, golden-haired and broad-backedbut I steeled myself against all of that, almost by instinct at this point: he was Andy and I was Jemima, and never the twain would meet.
Or rather, we would meet all the time in the bureaucrats’ wet dream that was Senior Triumvirate. Meeting after meeting after meeting. But we would never meet meet. Like in the biblical sense.
I wouldn’t have attended a biblical meeting with him even if a PowerPoint agenda arrived in my inbox.
Probably not, anyway.
Every year, the Senior Triumvirate got their names engraved on this phallic obelisk thing. Andy and Gennifer and I stood by it. Ms. Edison, our faculty advisor, tapped the mike until the OWDs hushed.
“Senior Triumvirate,” Ms. Edison began, “is one of Chawton’s most hallowed traditions.”
Yawn. She went on. Chawton was unique and special. Triumvirate was unique and special. Senior-class ruling body. Major decision-making power. “I’m pleased to introduce this year’s Triumvirate,” she said. “In the position of Social Committee president, Gennifer Grier!”
Gennifer was wearing a dress so tight it went out for her butt and then back in underneath. The OWDs and I all noticed as she pranced up there.
“And the recipient of the Mildred Mustermann Award for Academic Excellence, Jemima Kincaid!”
I’d been dreading the walk. It’s like: Please look honored, happy, and humble all at once, okay? Oh, and navigate the heels your mom strongly suggested you wear, and be aware that a hundred encrusted alumni are checking you out, but don’t be self-conscious, honey! I like my body until I have to squish it into a pencil skirt.
“And the Chawton School chairman, Andrew Monroe!”
He had the walk much easier. For one, his clothes were built for functionality, not for displaying his body. And he didn’t have to worry about looking too pleased with himself, because arrogance in a teenage boy is almost expectedit’s endearingwhereas in a girl . . .
Gennifer elbowed me. Hard. She’s got a bony elbow. I guess my thoughts were showing, because she hissed, “Smile.”
“This Triumvirate will surely go down in Chawton history,” said Ms. Edison. “They spearheaded a new community-service initiative, Senior Citi-Zen, in which Chawton students went to nursing homes to teach yoga and meditation.”
I squirmed. Senior Citi-Zen had been a failure. An abject failure. To the tune of one dislocated hip, three nasty bruises, and a whole roomful of old ladies cracking up when I told them how important it was to inhale and exhale. Between wheezes of laughter, one called out, “How else do you think I’ve lasted eighty-seven years?”
“Furthermore, this Triumvirate organized an excellent senior-class picnic”
Three kids had gotten suspended for bringing vodka in Nalgene bottles, and Lacey McStern had gotten hit in the head with a Frisbee and had to miss half of soccer season with a concussion.
“a reenergized Hype Club that provided support to all of Chawton’s sports teams”
People went to football, boys’ basketball, sometimes boys’ soccer, sometimes boys’ lacrosse. The. End.
“a senior-class Secret Santa circle”
We forgot to send a reminder about bringing final gifts, so it ended in a maelstrom of hurt feelings. Oh, and dumb old Sam Masterson got Sydney Armstrong a box of eggnog-scented condomsas a joke, he claimedbut Sydney burst into tears because she thought Sam was implying something about her. The teachers caught wind and banned Secret Santa forevermore.
“In short, we’re so proud of this Triumvirate. They had big shoes to fillyoursand they have truly lived up to the challenge. Please give them a round of applause.”
I glanced right, and saw Andy awkwardly shifting from foot to foot.
I glanced left, and saw Gennifer’s wrinking her forehead in perturbation.
I wouldn’t get this chance again.
I elbowed her right in the skinny rib cage.
“Ghen,” I said, “let’s see that smile.”
The reception officially ended after that. Some alumni lingered, sharing one more bawdy tale of Ye Olde Chawton, but Ms. Edison, with a relieved and sort of collapsed look, shot out of there, and the facilities staff started bundling the tablecloths and folding the chairs. “Frosting,” Gennifer said, drawing Andy and me over to the plundered cake tables. She scraped up a big, gloppy clump from an empty platter. “The perfect ratio. Seventy-five percent frosting, twenty-five percent crumb.”
“Gross,” said Andy, edging away.
“I’ve got emotions that need to be eaten.”
She licked the fork clean and dove in for round two. I liked this. Gennifer has one of those cute, compact bodies that never bulge or bloat. She paints her nails with clear polish. If she tucks in her shirt, it stays tucked. She keeps travel-sized beauty products and stain remover in a Lilly Pulitzer pouch in her backpack, not because she needs them herself (Gennifer Grier spills not, neither does she smear) but because she likes to offer them around, either with kind concern (“Oh my gosh, Melanie, here, use my Tide pen and don’t worry about it! I do that all the time!”) or with condescending judgment (“Jemima, you seriously need the Tide pen again? You’re going to have to start reimbursing me”).
I’d never seen her on a frosting bender. “You know what?” she said, her fork diving in for a fourthfifth?helping. “We haven’t been a very good Triumvirate.”
“You got frosting on your nose,” I told her.
“We’ve tried, but nothing’s worked.”
“Truth,” said Andy. “Hand me a fork, would you?”
“Frosting,” I said dramatically. “Our only succor.”
“Haven’t we discussed your use of the word succor?” Gennifer said testily. “Didn’t we determine it needs to stop?”
“Succor means ‘help or support in difficult times.’ Sucker means . . . well, anyway. They’re very different.”
“Not always,” said Andy, licking his fork in a way that was positively pornographic. Gennifer giggled and bit her bottom lip. Yech. Have I mentioned she’s dating Mack Monroe, Andy’s genetic near copy in the junior class? Flirting with your boyfriend’s brother: Isn’t that kind of sick?
“You’re right, though,” Andy said. “As a Triumvirate, we’ve sucked.”
“Sucked?” said Gennifer. “I wouldn’t go that far.”
“We’ve been profoundly ineffective,” I said, mostly to cut the sexual tension mounting between Gennifer and the man theoretically on track to become her brother-in-law. “Have we put on one successful event?”
“Nope,” said Andy. “And we haven’t added anything. We’re leaving no legacy. We’ve made no mark on the school.”
All three of us fell silent, which, given our personalities, didn’t happen much. I mashed frosting around in my mouth. I already had a sugar daze, which made me wonder how Gennifer, outpacing me two to one despite her head start, still stood upright.
“That’s depressing,” said Andy.
“Seriously,” said Gennifer.
“Yeah,” I said.
Not all second-semester seniors would have cared. But we did. We were completely different from one another, sure, and we’d earned our Triumvirate positions in completely different ways: Gennifer was the popular socialite and Andy was the charismatic leader and me, well, I was the nerd. But we had something in common, too. We were overachievers. That was why we were on Triumvirate. Gennifer was super popular. Andy was super charismatic. And I was, well, super . . .
You get the idea.
We didn’t like sucking. We didn’t like being ineffective. And we definitely didn’t like the idea of passing into obscurity. Like most of our class, we had college plans lined up. I was heading to one of those New England schools that put the liberal in liberal arts. Andy had gotten a big merit scholarship to UVA, and Gennifer was going to a state school down south, where, I presumed, she’d run the most selective sorority yet somehow manage to graduate summa cum laude. We were all excited for our futures, but we weren’t there yet. We had unfinished business.
“All we’ve got left is Jamboree,” said Andy. That’s Chawton’s big end-of-year celebration, an all-weekend affair with a bonfire and a Powderpuff game and an alumni reunion and prom. As Senior Triumvirate, we had a lot of shit to do.
“We need a really good theme for prom,” said Gennifer.
“Prom is the worst,” I said. “Maybe we should cancel it.”
“Okay, Jemmy, no”
“The guys ask the girls. Always. I’m speaking heteronormatively because only heterosexual couples even go. The girls wait passively for an invitesorry, a promposaland the guys get to choose who to ask.”
“That’s a problem?” said Andy.
I rolled my eyes at him. “It’s practically a silent auction.”
“The girls still get to say yes or no,” said Gennifer. “That’s a lot of power.”
“What if we change the rules?” I said.
“Let’s have, say, a silent auction,” Andy suggested. “The girls pose on tables and the guys stroll around and bid”
“You’re a misogynistic cretin,” I told him. He bowed. I smiled. I killed that smile so fast, but he saw it. I knew he did.
Andy freaking Monroe.
We straggled out into the April evening. No legacy, no idea. Nothing behind us but a string of failures, nothing ahead but swiftly plunging blood sugar.
“Think,” said Andy. “We’ll come up with something.”
Crispin was at the wheel of our mom’s Lexus. “At last!” I cried, belly-flopping in. “My getaway car! Drive, Jeeves, drive!”
“You’re always horrible after these things.”
“Flee this accursed place!”
He braked. The car stopped. We hadn’t even exited the circle. “You going to act normal?”