“Aveces,” I said to my mother in her native tongue, “I wish we lived in a house. An actual house. Like, a big house. Where I could have my own room. And a pool—a lap pool so I could do . . . laps. But I know laps aren’t going to happen, so why can’t I spend my money that I earned on a new purse . . . or a pair of cool shoes? I don’t have one pair of cool shoes!”
My mother and I were experiencing an occurrence that is rare as a red moon: We were having an argument. I wanted to spend some of the money I make babysitting and tutoring on something frivolous—so maybe, for once, I could be like all the other kids at Mark Frost Academy. I hate standing out, with my black hair that’s never even been layered and my clarinet case and my white tube socks; the one piece of jewelry I wear is a tiny gold cross, given to me when I was a baby.
After all, I’ve been doing great with my tutoring business. Luckily for me, there are, well, a plethora of idiots at my school. (It’s not that the kids are dumb; it’s worse, much worse. They’re entitled.)
My mother just watched me with her wise, peaceful brown eyes. She was calm. Too calm. Nothing I could say or do, no insult I halfheartedly hurled, would shake her resolve. The more I pleaded, the more I knew I was fighting an uphill battle.
“Beware of envy, mija.” My mother put her soft, warm hand against my cheek. “Envy is poison for the soul.” She leaned forward, her dark almond eyes steady. “Envy may be the most dangerous sin of all.”
I shuddered. Envy? Everybody gets envious—what’s the big deal? I was too angry to agree with her. Wrath was my go-to sin that night. But a few months after our argument, I thought back on that moment and her prophetic words.Why is my mother always . . . correcto?
Model-tall, model-thin Ekaterina Schadenfreude (pronounced “SHAY-den-FROID”), thirteen going on four-teen, was a beautiful girl with a major problem: She wanted what everyone else had. Period. And she was always mad that other kids, especially other girls, got everything they wanted and didn’t deserve (in her humble opinion). Like boyfriend jeans and ponchos, front-row seats to a Jason Mraz concert, the latest Nicole Richie cropped bob, the cutest boy in the eighth grade.
She rode a roller coaster of emotions (like a Mariah Carey song); Ekaterina found pleasure in others’ misfortune (schadenfreude) and pain in others’ good fortune (envy). Envy is basically schadenfreude’s sourpuss sister.
Let’s put it this way: Whether Ekaterina was happy that her current best friend Isabel flunked her math test or her ex–best friend Ennui’s boyfriend dumped her or unhappy because her ex-ex–best friend Olivia’s science project was picked by the National Science Commit-tee or her ex-ex-ex–best friend Thalia’s horse just got five blue ribbons at a recent horse show, the girl was not a lot of fun to be around.
I was called to Ekaterina’s estate, Villa Von Konigs-bergen, by her ex-supermodel mother, Elisabetta Konigs-bergen-Schadenfreude. I was frightened as I approached the house—it had sprung from a Gothic fairy tale, with turrets and gabled roofs and gargoyles, surrounded by eerie ebony statues that seemed to change shape as I walked gingerly past. There was no doorbell and no intercom on the giant arched wooden front door. Just your average medieval-looking lion’s head iron door knocker.
A tall, colorless butler opened the door and escorted me past the foyer into the sitting room without uttering a word. I wish I could say things were lightening up, but the house’s interior made the exterior look like a ride at Disneyland.
The sitting room was dark and gloomy, with over-size fixtures and an inky, frayed velvet couch that looked like it was smuggled out of the Rhineland a hundred years ago. I tried turning on an old Tiffany lamp, but it wouldn’t work. There were paintings, large gray-hued industrial pieces, but the dominating decorative feature was dozens of silver-framed photographs of Ekaterina’s mother posing with various heads of state and famous actors. Many of the photos appeared to be cropped.
As I waited in the sitting room, serenaded by the grandfather clock and the sound of my own breathing (while questioning my sanity), a pack of Doberman pinschers charged in, growling and snapping as I jumped onto a chair, using my Hello Kitty backpack to shield myself. I yelled for the butler, for Ms. Konigsbergen-Schadenfreude (which was even harder to pronounce in my panicked state)—anyone!
Ms. Konigsbergen-Schadenfreude swooped in, making a grand entrance in a beaded evening gown. She yelled at the dogs in guttural German, and they instantly retreated, transforming into whimpering, toe-licking Chihuahuas.
This is what I knew about Ekaterina and her family: Ekaterina’s parents had been divorced for six years and in court ever since. Ms. Konigsbergen-Schadenfreude viewed divorce court as some would view a gym—a good place to burn calories. Once an internationally ac-claimed beauty, Ms. K-S (May I? You get it, right?) had appeared on the cover of German Vogue over two hundred times—a world record, even more times than Claudia Schiffer, whose name Ms. K-S could not say without spitting.
If Ekaterina’s mother weren’t over six feet tall and all shoulders, it would be difficult to recognize her week to week. She was constantly changing her hairstyle, makeup, wardrobe, boyfriends, cars, even her face. Her cheekbones used to appear merely superhuman (she is a German supermodel, after all), but now they looked like she was harboring a family of chipmunks. Her lips expanded and retracted with the Santa Anas.
Ms. K-S insisted we move to the dining room, where we could enjoy an afternoon sauerkraut and Wiener schnitzel (she made her own sausage, she told me proudly). Ekaterina’s mom was about three times taller than me (in spiked heels); I dutifully followed, as did the dogs.
I was seated in a giant baroque chair, which threatened to swallow me whole, and tried to ignore the dogs slavering at their mistress’s side, eyeing me like a break-fast burrito.
Ekaterina’s mother demanded, in her German- accented English, that I help her daughter. Her grades had fallen and could not get up. It was all I could do to concentrate on her words and not the pool floats where her mouth should be.
I thought back on my experiences with Ekaterina. I’d first noticed her in biology class—she was hard to miss, almost as tall as her mother, but blonder and as stunning as a magazine cover brought to life. Her prettiness was annoying—no airbrushing, wind machine, or sex tape necessary—this girl had the goods.
Instead of thanking her lucky stars and paying attention to her schoolwork, Ekaterina would just look around, studying other kids. I could see what Ms. Genetic Lottery Winner was thinking: I wish I had this, I hate her, I wish I had that. Her hair is shiny. I wish I had nI wish I had—I want those boots—I wish, wish, wish, wish, wish . . .
She would make a face if Suzette walked in carrying the latest Celine purse over her shoulder; she would snicker when Edgar stuttered when the teacher called on him . . .
I thought it must be exhausting to be her.
Once I won over the dogs (I brought liver treats for Hermann, Jasper, and Charles), my sessions with Ekaterina would go something like this:
“Let’s turn to page eighty-four in your mythology textbook.”
“Did you see what Mavis was wearing today?” Ekaterina would toss her hair, sending sparks of light up. “I mean, that pattern was, like, so unflattering—she could lose a few, right?”
After a few sessions with Ekaterina, I was still basically getting nowhere—she wouldn’t and couldn’t stop talking about other people. And it wasn’t just her monologues about who had what and who was dating whom and who was going to St. Barts on spring vacation (I didn’t even know what that was) and who was wearing the latest rag & bone (ditto). She’d ask me a million questions. Like, how’d I grow my hair so long? Did I dye it? Were my lashes real? How poor was I? Had I ever cheated on a test?
I’d just sigh and close my books after an hour, vowing to pay Ms. K-S back.
At my cozy little apartment one night, over my mom’s hometown specialty—grilled red snapper with fresh lime—I asked my mother about Ekaterina’s particular syndrome.
Yelena Maria Gonzales thought about it for a moment. “Ekaterina wants to be like everyone she sees,” she said, “because she’s forgotten who she is.”
My mother, as usual, hit the nail on the cabeza. Ekaterina essentially had no identity, which is a sad thing for someone with such an unusual name. I’m sure you’ll agree.
In the ensuing weeks, things went from bad . . . to really weird.
Ekaterina changed clothes, hairstyles, and makeup, redecorated her room, and altered her diet obsessions until the real, true, authentic Ekaterina began to disappear completely.
Whenever I arrived at her house, I wasn’t sure whom I would find. When I opened the door to her room (the door changed colors weekly, the posters changed daily), I was constantly being surprised. And not in a good way.
One day a petite, Rapunzel-haired blonde named Kathee (two e’s) appeared, wearing a bandage dress and a pouty smile, with a total obsession for The Real Housewives of Wherever.
The next day, there would be a brooding brunette named Aniretake (Ekaterina spelled backward—it took me a while) wearing black nail polish and a nostril piercing, who eschewed all social media and would only listen to the Killers. Over and over again.
Soon, a tall redhead named Tina in a tie-dyed maxi dress wearing a peace sign around her neck appeared. On her door were various bumper stickers. Antiwar, anti–global warming, anti-anti . . . She really wanted to talk to me, a full-blooded Latina, about the repression of the native Indian people in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.
With each transformation, Ekaterina’s (or whatever her name was) voice would change, her friends would change, her least favorite classes would shift.
The blonde hated PE.
The brunette hated Algebra 2.
The redhead was calm and motivated to do well in all her courses, especially English Lit (I liked her the most and hoped she would stick around for more than a few days).
But I’m not going to lie; I was starting to get freaked out. Ekaterina’s mother was sending me a check for my services each week—but I thought it was time for a meeting. My mother agreed.
“You’re losing your daughter.”
Ekaterina’s mother sat across from me in the dining room in one of those giant baroque chairs. My feet couldn’t reach the floor. Her lips were pursed. At first, I thought she was thinking. But then I realized that’s how she’d had them done—to be in a constant state of pursing.
“Ekaterina is doing much better in school,” she declared, expressionless.
“Yes,” I said. “The redhead is, definitely. I like her. But it’s taken a lot of work. This isn’t just about school. Have you noticed anything . . . different about your daughter?”
“Is she doing the drugs?” She seemed concerned, but remained . . . expressionless. I’d seen this syndrome amongst the moms at Mark Frost Academy—I called them “cement heads” (never to their frozen faces!). Botox seemed to be part of their four food groups, along with Restylane, Juvéderm, and kale.
“No,” I said, “I don’t think that’s part of the problem.”
“Oh, thank God,” she said. “So what is issue?”
“You don’t notice? All the changes she’s going through?”
She stared down at me from her perch, pursed lips and all.
“Her hair?” I ventured.
“Her . . . wardrobe?” I tried.
“Yes, Ekaterina likes to change the clothes. She iss über-creative.”
“Okay. Her . . . friends,” I said. “What about them? They change every few weeks. That doesn’t seem healthy, and her constant feuds interfere with her concentration.”
“Girls. They are jealous.” She sized me up. “Perhaps you would not understand. You are so lucky to be average.”
I sat back, then shook my head. Ms. K-S waved me off with her large hand, saying something dismissive in German. I don’t know German, but I was pretty sure the writing was on the chalkboard. I excused myself as the dogs nipped at my heels. I gave them the rest of my liver treats, certain that I would never return.
A few days later, Ekaterina’s mother left a voice message on my phone to the effect that, as Ekaterina’s grades had improved considerably, she would no longer be needing my services.
So much for honesty being the best policy.
Sometime in the spring, I noticed that Ekaterina hadn’t been in school for a few weeks. I just assumed that, like so many other students, she’d been sent away for an extended vacation (read: Utah; read: rehab). But as I was heading to another student’s home down her street, I saw flyers posted on every telephone pole and tree:
There was a picture of Ekaterina—tall and thin, with her natural blond hair and preternaturally beautiful face. She was almost . . . unrecognizable. The picture had been taken a year before, in her near-original state.
I was horrified and worried. I called her mother to see what had happened—and what I could do to help.
She left a message for me to meet her at the house. She was something called “post-op” and could not leave the premises.
“It was awful,” Ms. K-S said in her drawing room, her face bruised and wrapped in white medical tape, rolls of gauze poking out of her nostrils. She sounded a million times older than the last time I spoke with her.“
“The dogs,” she said with a sigh. “They ran her off.”
“What? Her own dogs?”
“Well, you know Ekaterina—she iss über-creative soul—she was constantly evolving . . .”
“Well, I’m afraid my babies, they no longer recognized her.”
“Yes, my children, the dogs.” She sniffed. “One day Ekaterina came home from school, and they just . . .” She shook her bandaged head.
“Oh my God,” I said.“I came home and thought I saw a prowler; she must have forgotten her key and ze butler was pruning. Younknow, several houses have been burglarized in my neighborhood, it’s terrible.”
“Wait—you called the dogs on her?”
“Well, yes. I didn’t know it was my Ekaterina. Jasper and Charles, they ran her off,” she said. “Hermann stood watch. Poor thing, they wouldn’t let her near the house. By the time I realized my mistake, it was all over. They’d taken her backpack, pieces of her very cool, latest sweater; they ate her iPhone and one very intense Louboutin.” She choked back a sob.
“Oh my God, oh my God,” I said. “Where’d she go?”
“No one knows. I keep putting flyers up, but I’m afraid the picture is from last year—when she ran off she had shaved her head like Miley Cyrus and dyed her stubble pink. Which was totally creative and evolved, you know? But I don’t have a picture. Sad.”
“This is so terrible,” I said. “Poor Ekaterina . . .”
“Yes. Imagine. I couldn’t recognize my own daughter. I told her all the time to be happy with who she is—like me.” Ms. K-S pushed bloodied gauze back up into her nostril.
I didn’t know what to say. I told her I would keep a keen eye out for Ekaterina and report back any sightings. I walked out of that dark Gothic mansion shadowed by my memories of Ekaterina and sadder than I’d ever been in my life.
Sometimes, when I’m riding the bus from my school to the Valley, I’ll catch a glimpse of a lone figure wandering the streets, a tall, thin figure with one shoe. One very expensive-looking shoe.
And I wonder...