From the New York Times bestselling author of Tell Me Three Things comes an of-the-moment novel that peeks inside the private lives of the hypercompetitive and the hyperprivileged and takes on the college admissions bribery scandal that rocked the country. Read an excerpt of Admission by Julie Buxbaum and pre-order your copy today…
1 CHAPTER ONE
My younger sister, Isla, will claim that she heard the foot-steps before the doorbell rang, like a swelling movie score. On. The. Count. Of. Three. That she knew then what was to come. The guns, the hard metal handcuffs, the cameras, the headlines, the conversion from human being into meme.
The everything being over, just like that.
I don’t believe her.
Isla has also sworn that she had a dream about an earth-quake the night before the big one in Thailand last fall, that she suspected Beyoncé was going to drop that surprise album, that three years ago she predicted everyone would grow tired of cupcakes and start eating macaroons instead. Which is to say that Isla likes to be the first to know stuff, to take credit for willing into being that which is incapable of being willed. I am always the last to know. Maybe this is the biggest difference between us, how comfortable we are anticipating that which can’t be anticipated, how prepared we are for that for which we can’t prepare.
I am not ready. The apocalypse shouldn’t arrive when you’re in flip-flops or wearing sweatpants that have your high school’s acronym (WVHS) spread along your backside. At least, this wasn’t how I’d always pictured the end: I’d expected to need a stash of batteries and a flashlight and canisters of water, none of which would have helped make this moment any easier.
I certainly didn’t expect hungry paparazzi with cameras slung around their necks.
I hear the doorbell, which triggers a Pavlovian burst of joy. The doorbell usually announces the arrival of something good: cosmetics I ordered from Sephora, a swag box from the studio that my mother will pass on to me and Isla; less often and less exciting but still plausible, a script sent in a rush from her agents, which may mean a new shooting location for my mom and a family adventure. Vancouver or Atlanta. Last time, Scotland. Once, luckily, New Zealand.
But it’s 6:30 a.m. on a Monday, a school day, too early for UPS, too early for anything, really, except coffee. It’s still dark and foggy, the world cruelly indifferent to the fact that I am not, nor will I ever be, a morning person. When LA has not yet become the city I love, full of glitter and grit, and is instead a sleepy and quiet town. My toenails are painted in alternating cardinal and gold, a detail that will be dissected by the tabloids later. They match my brand-new oversized Southern California College sweatshirt. This last item, I will, of course, end up regretting even more than my polish or the letters on my butt, a convenient way for my idiocy to be memorialized.
I’ll be honest, since there’s no other way left to be: There’s a whole lot I will end up regretting.
But before I swing the door open, I’m still blissfully unaware of what’s on the other side. In my uncaffeinated haze, I imagine a cardboard box on the stoop: the teal eye shadow palette I impulse-ordered last night to beta test for prom. Later, when all I have is time, when the hours stretch long and lonely, I will realize this first instinct made no sense at all. I didn’t pay for overnight shipping.
When the chime fades, there’s a hard knock and an “Open up,” and I wonder what’s the UPS guy’s problem.
“Coming,” I yell back, and then, “Relax, dude.”
My dog, Fluffernutter, thinks I’m talking to her, and so she lies down at my feet and rolls over to expose her belly. I take a second to give her a quick rub. When I tally my long list of mistakes later, this will not be one of them. Fluffernutter, ever loyal, gave me one more moment of ignorance, an extra second in the before.
Another knock, so I scoop up the dog, kiss the top of her curly brown head, and then open the door with a “Hold your horses.”
When we watch this moment on TMZ, and then again on CNN and MSNBC, and even for a dark minute on Fox News, my face is blurred because I’m only seventeen and still a minor. Afterward, Isla will turn to me and say, “ ‘Hold your horses’? Really?” and I will shrug, like Who cares? though she will be right and again I will be wrong: This will turn out to be another thing that makes me look bad in the court of public opinion, if not a real court one day.
You don’t say Hold your horses to the FBI.
The relief of my blurred-out face is short-lived. My picture will soon be splashed across magazines and newspapers and most indelible of all, the Internet, images borrowed from my mom’s old Instagram posts and therefore legally considered public domain.
On the porch, seven men spread out in a line, all wearing black bulletproof vests, lettered like my pants (though theirs say FBI, not WVHS, of course), guns pointed in that way you see on television procedurals. Two-handed grips. Serious faces.
This must be some sort of joke, I think.
My mother’s fiftieth birthday is coming up, though she has so far refused to acknowledge it, partly because according to IMDB and Wikipedia, she’s only forty-five. The only reasonable explanation for the scene in front of me that I can conjure up on such short notice is this: It’s a gag. These men are strippers. As soon as my mom makes her grand entrance, cheesy techno music will start blaring and they’ll all do that one-piece tear-off. A choreographed move down the line, like Rockettes. Aunt Candy, my mother’s best friend, is exactly the sort of person who would think sending FBI strippers to your door at 6:30 a.m. is hilarious. When she had a colonoscopy last spring, she blew up the black-and-white picture of her poop-flecked insides, had it expensively framed, and sent it to us as a Christmas present with a card that said, Now you know me inside and out. My mom hung the photo in the guesthouse bathroom, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was a modern art masterpiece and not what it really is: proof that Aunt Candy is literally full of crap.
“Can I help you?” I ask, smiling despite the hour. Because it’s still funny, this before-moment, when I think that I’ll get to see these semi-handsome muscley men undress and dance. When I still believe they’re carrying toy guns and not semiautomatic assault rifles. When my default was friendly, not defensive.
“We’re here for Ms. Joy Fields,” they say, and at the exact same minute, I hear my mom exclaim in a panic: “You weren’t supposed to answer the door.”
My mother, Joy Fields—who you probably already know as Missy, the surrogate for the two gay dads on the long-running aughts CBS sitcom My Dad, My Pops, and Me, or more recently as the queen in Blood Moon, the royal vampire show on the CW—is an actress, and therefore, I don’t react when I hear her nervous voice behind me. She’s won six People’s Choice Awards, she can weep on command, and sometimes she speaks with a British accent just for fun.
Which is to say, my mother can be a little dramatic.
Then again, as the world will learn mere minutes from now, I can be a little oblivious.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“Go get your father,” she says, and she puts her arm out straight across my chest, like she does in the car when she has to stop short. A reflex to protect me. Her hair drips water onto her shoulders, and when I see she’s not wearing any makeup, that she’s run here straight from the shower and hasn’t even stopped for undereye concealer, it hits me, finally: This is not a practical joke. This is real.
“Just give me a minute to get dressed first,” my mom says to the man in front of her, like she knows exactly what’s going on, like she’s not surprised that they are here, only that they are here this early, slightly ahead of schedule.
“Ma’am,” the guy in the center says, in a surprisingly mild voice, and he does a hand signal thing to the others that obviously means Put down your guns, which they do, all at once, as synchronized as Rockettes, a bizarre version of my original imagining. I feel a sudden relaxation in my body; at some level I must have known that these were actual weapons, with bullets, and that they were pointed, if not quite directly at me, then close enough. “Someone can bring your clothes later, no problem. Please hold out your wrists. I have a warrant for your arrest. You have the right to remain silent. . . .”
I don’t hear all of it, though I can guess what he says, because I live on this planet and have therefore seen Law & Order. Isla, who despite being one year younger is always one step ahead, must have been standing here at least part of the time, because she’s the one who fetches Dad. He comes running in his pajamas—a T-shirt we bought him as a joke last Christmas that says Master of the Universe (the tabloids will have fun with that too) and fancy pajama pants from Fred Segal, crisp and paisley. He has a phone glued to his ear. I can’t imagine who he could be calling.
The cops are already here.
My mother is led to a waiting car, and they do the hand-on-the-head thing while she ducks into her seat, and for a second, before I remember what’s happening, even though they are gentle, I wince. My mom hates anyone, other than her stylist, touching her hair. She’s convinced she’s thinning at the back ever since an unflattering paparazzo shot of her scalp, exposed on a windy day, was featured on the cover of Star with the headline inside “missy’s” cancer scare!
Thirty seconds later, my phone beeps in my pocket and a New York Times alert reports what I’ve witnessed in real time.
The headline: JOY FIELDS, SITCOM STAR, ARRESTED ON MULTIPLE FRAUD CHARGES IN COUNTRYWIDE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS SCANDAL.
And that’s when I know: This is all my fault.
“Listen, I realize it’s not your fault you’ve been body snatched,” Shola, my best friend and partner in crime, says. It’s a Sunday morning, only three weeks into senior year, and I sit studying for the SAT at the dining table, refusing to put away the books to go swimming. Before now, it’s always been the other way around. Shola, fastidious and focused, me the one begging her to go outside and play. “But who are you and what have you done with my best friend?”
Last spring, Shola managed to get a 1560 on the SAT without a $500-an-hour tutor, and then to see what would happen, took the ACT and walked away with a 34. So she can put her feet up, which she is doing now, literally, on the chair next to mine. If she weren’t my best friend and my favorite person in the world, I might hate her just a little.
“Be supportive of Nerd Chloe,” I say.
Beyond the sliding glass doors, the pool’s bright blue water ripples, a rectangular oasis with chaise lounges scattered around, like wheel spokes. A big woven basket sits full of Turkish towels, all rolled and at the ready. It’s a crime against humanity that I am stuck inside deciphering math equations.
“Please never refer to yourself in the third person ever again. It’s icky.” Shola turns back to reading a romance novel, because even though I have to study and she doesn’t, she prefers hanging out here rather than at her own house, which isn’t a house but a small apartment with only two bedrooms over in West Adams. She shares bunk beds with her three brothers and sisters. “Come on. I’ll even let you have the unicorn float this time.”
Shola, at five foot eleven, is the shortest in her family, but sometimes when we stand next to each other, I have to crane my neck to make eye contact. This is only one of the many ways in which I feel small next to her. Shola is Nigerian American and beautiful, and she recently dyed her short hair platinum blond, like a young Grace Jones, because she has no fear. Sometimes it’s confusing to be best friends with someone so effortlessly cool. We met in seventh grade, before either of us noticed how much better she was at everything, and it’s an unspoken tenet of our friendship not to dwell on my relative mediocrity.
Instead, we’ve gone the much healthier route of my celebrating her accomplishments like they are my own. Her wins are my wins. To be jealous of Shola would be to miss the point entirely.
“Pancakes, ladies?” My mom glides into the room wearing a pristine red gingham apron I’ve never seen before, red short-shorts, and matching four-inch red stilettos, and holds out a giant stack of pancakes plated on a red ceramic platter.
Shola and I grab a few from a red rubber spatula and as she pirouettes back out, my mom stage-whispers: “I swear I put on five pounds just from the smell.”
“Marie Claire profile,” I say to Shola before she can ask. Shola already knows that my mother is not the type to make pancakes on an ordinary Sunday morning because: carbs. Not to mention my mom doesn’t usually color-coordinate her clothing with our kitchen utensils. In fact, this might be the first time I’ve seen her play sexy homemaker, though she does bake a lot of holiday cookies in Christmas movies on the Hallmark channel. In those, though, she’s always forced to wear plaid and cutesy Santa hats.
Readers of women’s magazines would be devastated to learn that unlike her party line—“I love nothin’ more than a burger and fries”—originally coined in a string of McDonald’s commercials in which my mother smiles while digging into a Big Mac, the real way my mom keeps so thin is, spoiler alert, by the time-tested method of not eating, a fast metabolism, religious exercise, and, to leave no room for error, a frightening amount of self-shaming.
My mom spins and does Pilates and works out with a personal trainer named Raj, who she pays to yell in her face and to push her so hard she sometimes pukes. As she likes to say, Fans don’t want to know how the sausage is really made. The truth is that fans don’t want to know that the body they celebrate as beautiful may in fact be the product of a clinical disorder.
True story: Despite the fact that McDonald’s residuals, at least in part, paid for this house, I wasn’t allowed to step foot into one. Isla and I only went once I had my own driver’s license, a tiny act of rebellion and curiosity that ended up giving both of us diarrhea.
Perhaps my parents have taken too much care with our digestive systems.
“One of those ‘at home with Joy Fields’ things. Carrie came early to mix the batter, so all my mom had to do was ladle it onto the pan in front of the reporter,” I explain to Shola. Carrie is my mother’s assistant and one of the many magical people who keep our lives running smoothly.
“Your family is so weird,” Shola says with affection and a full mouth.
“Can you take this test for me? Please. I’ll be your best friend,” I joke, though if there were a way for Shola to impersonate me—short and white, with boring brown hair and boring brown eyes, I wouldn’t say no. In fact, I wouldn’t mind borrowing Shola’s transcript too, since I’ve somehow slipped into the bottom half of our class. We go to Wood Valley, which is not only the best private school in Los Angeles, but is widely considered to be one of the best schools on the planet. When I first got in for seventh grade, my parents would adopt a self-congratulatory tone when talking to their friends, as if this spot at a middle and high school would alone be enough to secure me a particular kind of life, though I still have no idea what that life is supposed to look like.
Exactly like theirs, I think, but with a fancypants degree.
“Don’t worry. Even if you end up in clown college, I’ll still love you.” Shola pinches my nose and makes a boop sound.
“At least someone will,” Isla says as she walks in from the butler’s pantry, holding a racket in one hand and a six-hundred-page Dickens novel in the other. She’s wearing a short white tennis skirt and a high ponytail, which means she’s heading to the club with Dad. She looks like an advertisement for milk. Or Princeton.
“Where’s Isla? Is she upstairs solving the energy crisis and brokering world peace again?” my dad asks, wandering in from the other door in his golf clothes. “It’s almost tee time.”
We are always like this, even without the benefit of an audience. All quips and separate entrances from side doors. A mediocre sitcom come to life.
“Nope, that was yesterday,” Isla says, and for no reason at all other than this is who we are, when I catch her eye, I scratch my face with my extended middle finger. In response, she slowly winds up hers and then pretends to use it to apply lipstick.
My dad doesn’t even blink.
“Your family is so weird,” Shola says again after Isla walks out, not in anger so much as boredom. This is how Isla and I show each other love—with idiotic takedowns and clever ways of giving each other the finger (my personal favorite is blowing mine like a harmonica). It’s the inversion of my relationship with Shola—I don’t celebrate my sister’s many accomplishments as my own, or she mine (if I had any), even though you’d think it would be easier with your own family.
But it’s not. It’s harder.
My dad walks over to me, grabs my head, and sniffs it like I’m an infant. He looks at the pancakes longingly.
“I told your mom she should have told the Marie Claire lady: ‘Do you expect your male interviewees to make goddamn breakfast?’ I don’t think so, but she said Paloma would fire her as a client if she said that,” my dad says.
“Paloma can suck it,” I say, and my dad gives me a high five. We’re united in our hatred for Paloma, my mother’s publicist. If we are actors in a sitcom come to life, she’s our director. Such is the power of Paloma that at last year’s Emmy party, she made our family wear coordinating beige outfits and pose on a red carpet in front of a wind machine, so if you google me, what pops up is a deranged version of a Kardashian Christmas card.
“My mother would wash your mouth out with soap if she heard the way you talk, Mr. Bellinger,” Shola says.
“A boy can dream,” my dad says.
Shola once told me, “Your dad is super hot. He talks like he knows what he’s doing in all the things, Chloe. All the things.”
I think about this a lot, in that strange way a random detail can get lodged in the brain. Not about my dad’s attractiveness or prowess, of course, which is gross and will never be mentioned again, but I wonder at the casual ease with which he moves through the world and convinces everyone he’s got this. That heady combination of white male privilege and substantial wealth that inspires restaurant hostesses to give him the best table, makes investors hand over their money, and generally forces the world to bend to his will.
Though I’ve inherited the white privilege and I guess, eventually, some of the money, I do not got this. On any front. If I were one day given my own fragrance line, it would be named, in that sexy breathy whisper of perfume commercials, Indecision.
“Shola, how many times have I told you to call me Richard?” my dad asks.
“Approximately eleventy billion,” she says.
“Call me Richard,” my dad says.
“Eleventy billion and one,” Shola says, and not for the first time, I wonder what she really thinks of my family. Weird seems too small, too limiting a word, like she’s intentionally being vague.
I might pick these two words instead: lovingly deranged.
“This one’s quick.” My father taps his nose and grins at Shola. “You should give some SAT tips to Chlo. God knows she could use all the help she can get.”
Later, after Shola has gone home to tutor the Littles, what she calls her twin brother and sister, who, in the sixth grade are already taller than me, my mother plops down on the couch. She has traded her apron for a crisp white pajama set with navy blue piping, and she looks like she’s in an ad for expensive linens. I again have my SAT book open, though my hair is wet from an afternoon swim.
“How’d it go?” I ask, and my mom leans her head back against the tufted velvet and sighs. Her blond hair spreads out like spilled water. Whenever people meet her, they can’t help staring, and not only because she’s famous. They stare because she’s flawless. Even in LA, where we have a ridiculous number of pretty people, she’s a Monet in a room full of Bob Ross paintings. All are pleasing to the eye, but a Monet demands you stop and linger. You take a piece of its beauty with you in your mind when you go.
I’ve always wanted to ask but have never gathered up the nerve: What’s it like to look like you? How does it feel to walk around with that kind of power?
Looks-wise, I take after my father. My features add up to a perfectly normal, albeit bland, face. I’m like the art you find on the walls of a hotel room, a photograph of a familiar local landmark designed to blend into the background.
To be clear: I’m not complaining. I learned long ago that there are worse things than being unnoticeable.
“It’s the same interview for twenty years. They ask me how I’m like Missy in real life, and I say, ‘Actually I’m nothing like her,’ and then I try to pivot to promote the new show, though no one actually wants to hear about the new show. Paloma said the pancakes were a mistake.”
She puts her arm around me and brings me in closer for a snuggle. We’re a touchy-feely family. Not a day goes by when my parents don’t say I love you, and often, before bed, they’ll swing by my room to tuck me in even though I’m seventeen and supposed to be too old for that. I realize that if I’m going to rebel—beyond that sacrilegious trip to McDonald’s—I should do it now. I’m supposed to want to ink my arms with tattoos and dabble in recreational drugs and dream of living a life free from my parental overloads.
But Hudson, my half brother, who’s ten years older and the product of my dad’s first marriage, has ruined all of these things for me. He’s tatted out, more ink than skin, and more than a dabbler on the pharmaceutical front, and I don’t think he’s ever listened to a word my mom and dad have said.
He and I share a little DNA, and not much else.
My parents’ worst nightmare—and to be fair, maybe mine, too—is that I turn out like Hudson, who didn’t go to college and instead goes to rehab on the regular.
My mom taps the SAT book.
“So what was your last score?”
“About the same,” I say, and my eyes fill and I fidget with my wet head. This is a lie: My score seems to be going down, not up. “I swear I’m studying as much as I can. I really am.”
Here’s what I want to say instead: It turns out I’m stupider than we thought and I’m sorry.
“Aunt Candy says she knows a guy who can help.”
“Another tutor?” I try to keep the whine out of my voice. Senior year has barely started, but between Mandarin five days a week and my volunteer work at the Reading and Resource Center, on top of studying and homework, I’m already burned out. I would cut down my volunteer hours, but it’s the only extracurricular activity I actually enjoy. Cesar, my first-grade little buddy, is my favorite person in the world after Shola, and I refuse to let him down.
“Not a tutor. An admissions consultant.”
“That’s what Mrs. Oh is for. I thought Wood Valley doesn’t like us to hire privately.” Last week, I had my first meeting of the year with the Wood Valley college counselor, Mrs. Oh. She patted my hand, like she was a doctor about to tell me I had only three weeks to live, and said, “Honey, I think this application list has too many reach schools. With your numbers, we need to be more realistic.”
Then she asked me what I was hoping to get out of my college experience. I couldn’t tell her the truth. That I’m looking forward to fraternity parties and football games and if it doesn’t happen before, a not-so-traumatic loss of my virginity.
“This guy is supposed to be the absolute best. He’s based in New York, but he’s flying in to LA to meet with us. He’ll come up with a list of schools, he’ll help us with our applications, and he’ll edit our essays. He advocates behind the scenes.” I don’t comment on my mom’s creepy use of the words us and ours like she is applying too.
“Aunt Candy says you’ll love him. He helped Philo get into Yale.” Aunt Candy is not really my aunt; she’s been my mom’s best friend for the last thirty years, since they met doing off-off-Broadway in New York. Candy quit acting when she married a hedge fund billionaire and moved into a town house on the upper east side of Manhattan. Now when anyone asks her what she does, Aunt Candy calls herself a “philanthropist” and likes to joke that her wrists get tired from writing so many checks.
I blame Aunt Candy for the fact that no matter how much I complain about my lack of aptitude when it comes to foreign languages, my parents won’t let me quit taking Mandarin. A few Christmases ago, when we were all vacationing at her house in Mystique, she casually mentioned that Philo was fluent. Not a week later, Isla and I both had a private tutor.
If my mother’s gifts are her ability to mesmerize people with her looks and to elevate bad TV dialogue, Candy’s is her unerring confidence and the fact she always knows a guy.
Actually, not a guy. The guy.
“Seriously? This is a done deal?”
“What?” My mom drops a kiss on the center part in my hair and smooths my flyaways with her hands. “It can’t hurt.”
Isla and I sit in stunned silence as my father paces and shouts into his cell phone.
“No, this isn’t like the time we bailed Hudson out for that ounce. These are felony charges. She could go to jail.” My dad’s voice breaks, and Isla and I both involuntarily shiver. My brain had not gone there yet. Apparently, neither had all-knowing Isla’s.
I don’t know who he’s talking to. Aunt Candy, maybe, or perhaps Aunt Candy’s husband, Charles, who probably keeps a team of lawyers on retainer. My mom always says that it’s impossible that anyone could have gotten as rich as Charles has by doing everything on the full up and up. I’ve always assumed that was sour grapes on my mom’s part—as cushy as my mom’s life is, Aunt Candy’s is significantly, outrageously cushier. Even with my mediocre math skills, I know a billion dollars is, after all, a thousand million—but maybe she’s right.
“I know,” my dad says. “I know.”
Isla and I watch him, our eyes moving back and forth as he crosses the room. This feels only slightly better than watching CNN, which we’ve consumed for three hours straight already, injecting their endless, breathless coverage of what they are calling the “college admissions scandal” straight into our eyeballs. The footage played on a loop: my mom ducking into that cop car and being driven away, the tie of her robe flapping out the door, like a broken hand waving goodbye.
I turned off my cell phone—the hate texts and the morning show requests started almost immediately—so I can’t call Shola or Levi. Then again, I can’t imagine what my friends could say that would make me feel better at this point: Sorry your life has turned into an episode of Breaking Bad?
“I’m heading over to the courthouse. The top guy from Dinnison and Cromswell is meeting me there. And my banker is standing by for bail.”
Bail. That’s a word we’ve only ever used in relation to Hudson, and even then, as far as I know, only once or twice. Plus, Hudson has always faced state charges; my mother has, apparently, been arrested for federal crimes. I don’t know what the difference is, but from the way my dad’s voice pitches up, frantic, I gather federal is way worse.
My dad crosses the room, steps over my outstretched legs. Isla’s been glaring at me on and off all morning. What she wants to say but with uncharacteristic self-control hasn’t said yet: If you weren’t such an idiot, none of this ever would have happened.
Isla has ranked in the top five of her class since she started at Wood Valley. Whenever I was studying for the SATs and struggling with a question, she’d glance over my shoulder and say, “Duh, it’s C.” When she wasn’t looking, I’d check the answer key in the back. She was always right.
“They say likely anywhere up to a mil. When we first heard, I called around yesterday. But I don’t know. We didn’t expect this. There were guns. Semis, I think. What does it matter? We should sue them. Emotional distress. Child endangerment. Violation of privacy. I mean, Chloe, her whole life is ruin—” My dad freezes, suddenly remembering I’m in the room. But I’m not following what he’s saying. I’m stuck at “I called around yesterday.”
CNN has informed us that there is a two-hundred-page criminal complaint publicly available online. So much for privacy. I haven’t found the courage to click on it yet, but I bet Isla has.
According to the New York Times, forty-five people have been arrested alongside my mother. From what I can gather, the charges are conspiracy to commit mail fraud and conspiracy to commit honest services fraud.
I have no idea what any of these words mean when they are put together in that order.
But I do know that my mother is being accused of fixing my SAT score and paying bribes to get me into SCC.
My idiocy is right out there, in the open, for the whole world to see.
As I watch my dad stride one more time, back and forth, my stomach revolts.
I sprint to the bathroom and throw up.