Portia picked up her car in the rental lot and took off directly, heading north on 91 to familiar lands. When she had learned to drive as a teenager, Bradley Airport had been at the outer edge of her home range, which extended this far south and as far as the Vermont border in the other direction. The highway was a spine supporting the breadth of New England. It was a part of the world that held firmly to its past, and how could it do otherwise? Indian attacks and iconic American furniture. Austere family portraits and most of the earliest groves of academe, Shakers and Quakers and colonial unrest, the place where the essential idea of American-ness was forged, its very filaments dug deep into the rocky earth. Growing up here, she had sometimes had the sense of walking over bones.
Portia pulled into the school parking lot and left her car. She reported first to the well-marked Admissions Office and was directed to college counseling in a brick building on the quadrangle. She had known many Deerfield students as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, where they had seemed to flow seamlessly into the culture of the college, retaining their friends, their rustic athleticism, even their prep school sweats (which were, handily, identical in color to Dartmouth's). Looking around at the fit and good-looking kids on the walkways, she was struck by the stasis of this vision, a self-replenishing gene pool bubbling up to fill these grand and lovely buildings. These kids were interchangeable with her own college classmates of two decades earlier: the same hale complexions and down jackets and laden backpacks, the same voices of greeting. They were sons of Deerfield, identical to the smooth-faced footballers in the sepia photographs she passed in the entryway of the administration building. Oddly, even the Asian or African-American faces did not overly thwart the general vision of blondness and fair skin.
At the college-counseling office, Portia introduced herself. The secretary, a pale woman with a noticeable blink, jolted to her feet. "Princeton! Mr. Roden's expecting you."
She had spoken with William Roden on the phone earlier in the week, mainly to assure him that she had directions, needed no overnight accommodation, had no special requirements—museum tickets? a room at the Deerfield Inn?—that might make her visit to Deerfield complete. He seemed surprised to learn that she had grown up not terribly far away, and almost distressed—as if her local status, her presumed education outside the prep school bubble, might predispose her, and by extension Princeton, against his kids; but he didn't quite articulate this. Now, bounding from his office, he looked entirely as she'd imagined him: a decade her senior, with a growing middle and fleeing hair, cheeks disarmingly pink.
"Ms. Nathan," he crowed, hand outstretched. "So glad to see you." "It's so nice to be back," she told him, shaking his hand. "It all looks exactly the same."
"Yes," he said. "You grew up nearby."
"Northampton High School," she told him, anticipating his next question. "I used to play soccer here. I'm afraid we didn't stand a chance against Deerfield," she said indulgently, though her team—she remembered perfectly well—had in fact more than held its own.
"Yes, we're very proud of our athletics. Our students train very hard. And I don't know if we still used the old gym at that time." He was too polite to ask her age. "The new gym opened in '95. You should have a look while you're here."