In this batch, on this brief flight, already there had been a wizened seventeen-year-old who lived with her younger brother in an apartment in South Boston, their parents back home in Taiwan. She wrote of the microwavable meals she prepared for her bisected family and the bureaucracy she had learned to manipulate for herself, the weekly phone calls from Mom, who had never been able to attend a parent-teacher conference, being unable to speak English and, incidentally, on the other side of the planet, but wasn't it worth it? Because she had six AP scores of 5 and four more exams still to be taken? Because she was first in her class of four hundred, with a very realistic chance of getting into a first-tier college and achieving her dream of becoming a doctor? And the boy from Holyoke whose mother had left her two oldest children to cross the border for her day job in a medical supply factory and her night job at Wendy's, whose father was described as "Unknown/No Information," who was a physics whiz and captain of the soccer team and All-State, who was applying not just for admission to Princeton, but for admission to America. And this last, from a girl in Greenwich, Connecticut, who was smart enough to know that she wasn't smart enough, only just very, very smart, and wrote with preemptive defeat about her hospital internship and the inspiration of her older brother, who had survived childhood cancer to attend law school. Smart enough to know about, or at least imagine, the ones she would be compared with, who had been handed so much less than she, and done so much more with what they had, while the children of privilege were penalized for having been fortunately born, comfortably raised, and excellent in all of the ordinary ways. Sometimes those were the ones who got to Portia most of all.
It was a sparsely occupied flight, of course; if it hadn't been, if there were, for example, a businessman or grandmother or—worst of all—high school–age kid within sight of her seat, she would never have extracted from her bag and opened, and then studied, the contents of these very private, very freighted files. Instinctively, Portia closed the folders whenever the single, tight-lipped attendant cruised the aisle, glancing at people's laps. She dropped her white plastic cup of tepid coffee into the attendant's proffered garbage bag or made the appropriate noises when he said they were ten minutes from Bradley, holding her place with a finger as she held the folders shut. This was the unwritten code of her profession and Portia's own inclination for secrecy, neither one more than the other, really, as if the numbers, letters, declarations, and aspirations within each file outweighed the secrets of governments or espionage cells—which, to the teenagers they represented, they surely did. Outside the window, beyond the ridge of the descending wing, the autumn trees of New England sharpened: electric red-and-yellow branches and spiky green pines divided by the highway. This trip, late in the season for its kind, would be her final airing before the approaching cataclysm of paperwork. In this post–Early Decision era, there were no longer any foothills in Princeton's admissions calendar; there was only flat land, then Everest, and the twenty orange folders in her bag were merely the first-from-the-gate forerunners of the onslaught to come. When that bell curve hit its apex in a month's time, she and her co-workers would simply disappear into their offices or their homes, emerging only sporadically until midwinter, before finally crawling out the other side, pale and gasping from beneath all that aspiration, all that desperation, in April.