Three hours later, with the sun slanting down in the west and flashing occasionally through the clouds and buildings, we were driving back to the Medical Center in the van. I had dropped off Jerry and Charlotte after the session, the highly successful photo session with a terminal cancer patient, and Katy was in the cab with me. She was completely exhausted but still glowing, still exhilarated, eyes bright thinking about it. Her wig was still on and most of the make-up and she was wearing the ‘fun’ outfit that followed the evening dress. We had brought up the IV pole and it was rattling against the door. Katy would look at herself in the different mirrors in the cab: the rear view mirror, the side mirror on her side, and the mirror on the sun visor.
“Are we going to tell them?” she asked, looking in the visor mirror and straightening her wig.
“The agency? I’ll probably never see them again, so I won’t tell them. Do you want to? I wouldn’t want to call them until the ad is final in the magazine, and until I hear about how fabulous they thought you looked. Which you do, I’ll say again.
“Or,” I looked her over, “it might be fun to call them now, and not wait.”
They might not pull the ad even if they knew, I thought. The shots looked pretty good. The photographer was surprised at how well the session went. She tried several profile and off-center shots, but then realized that Katy’s direct gaze, her full-on-into-the camera gaze, eyes filled with catchlights, was what she wanted. The theme of the shoot had started out to be “This jewelry will change how people look at you.” But it ended up as “This jewelry will change how you look at people.”
A few weeks later, a lifetime later, the agency did call me to ask about the model, for more work. The ad had been a surprising success. Once you saw the ad you wanted to have Katy’s calm, intent look yourself. You wanted your own look, your own appearance to say, “Yes, the jewelry is magnificent. But I know what is truly valuable.”
It was great to get that call. But the model was no longer available.
Katy thought about telling the agency. “No, let’s not tell them. They’ll eventually hear about it. The photographer knew, didn’t she? It’s better if they hear it from somewhere else.”
She looked out at the people on the streets, waiting for the bus, walking to the subway, going home. We stopped at a light and she watched the people cross in front of us, just a few feet away from her. “Who is paying for all of this anyway?” she said.
I laughed. “An eccentric billionaire.”
“Okay, it doesn’t matter.” She was watching a mother pick up a baby from a stroller and check the diaper.
“Speaking of telling them, you never played up that character thing at the University, did you?” I said. “It seemed to fade away quickly. And you never went back to the professor.”
Katy nodded, thinking to herself as she looked at the people on the street. “It’s funny,” she said softly. “Well,” she said a little louder, “After today I won’t use that phase anymore. But with Carrie Johnson, I never let her know, the professor, why we did it in the first place. All that trouble and she never knew why. I don’t think anyone knew why, outside of a few friends. I mean, we all were busy and graduated and moved on. But even so, it seemed right to leave it as it was.”
“And it started how?”
She started talking softly and slowly, pacing herself, to get it all out. To remember how it felt. “It wasn’t a planned thing, it really wasn’t. It just fell into place, the different parts, at the right time.”
She paused. We moved along slowly in traffic and Katy watched the people on the street, looking down from the cab.
“Four years ago. At the University. Way before …all this. A couple of friends were playing around with Facebook and facial recognition software. I didn’t know if they were going anywhere with it. But they asked me to help create an identity, a face. They wanted to see if the recognition software could get through disguises.
“I was in drama class then, so we got blue contacts, some foam latex, a blonde wig. We named her ‘Carrie Johnson’. I had done a version of her before at a Halloween party…using the same makeup, same latex face.
She thought about it. “It was a flop at the party, though,” she said. “Nobody even knew it was a costume. And ‘Carrie’ got hit on twice by cute guys who had ignored me without the masquerade.”
“Must have been a hell of a make-up job,” I said. “Also, ’Johnson’ is pretty close to ‘Jansen’”.
Katy nodded thoughtfully. “But I wasn’t thinking anything like that. At the time. Anyway I got all made up again. We got a lot of pictures and started a Facebook page.
“It took off on its own, and got bigger than they needed for the software thing. We had ’Carrie’ get popular, added friends. The friends started out as phantoms but then real people starting friending Carrie. Weird.
“It was a group project. There were three or four of us adding posts and pictures of Carrie at local events. I didn’t do a lot myself with the page but it was fun working with them.”
Katy looked at herself in the truck’s side mirror, turning her head side to side and looking at her hair. “And you know, those same two guys sent messages to Carrie, trying to connect.” She looked over at me, with that appraising look. “I was better looking than Carrie. We gave her this broad Nordic chin. What is it with you guys about blondes?” Her question wasn’t rhetorical. She waited for me to reply.
“About blondes?” I tried to think of a response that wouldn’t sound feeble. “I don’t know, um, one explanation, from the anthropologists, is that it’s about detecting disease or aging, thousands of years ago,” I said, sounding feeble. “But I’d like to hear more. What happened then?”
She looked at me without expression for a moment and then turned back to look at the people on the street.
“Then Professor Wexler,” she continued. “I was taking a journalism class from her in my last semester. She had a reputation as an uber-feminist but an easy grade if you agreed with her. Friends had said she was entertaining in the class, especially when someone was unfortunate enough to challenge her. And I needed the credits.
“Wexler was working on a book, and that book was the class. She would tell us what was in the book and then tell us how great it was.”
“What did you care?”
“I didn’t care, about that. In her class you just sat there and looked at your tablet most of the time.
“Not long after that we started Carrie’s Facebook page, I was in Wexler’s class, and she was lecturing about women politicians who didn’t advance the cause. Women who, as she said, disowned their history. I remember that was the title of her book: Their Selves Disowned.
“In the lecture Wexler criticizes a few politicians, and then jumps on Jansen, you know, the Ohio Congresswoman Elizabeth Jansen. How she didn’t follow politically with her female mentors, how she didn’t acknowledge the feminist voices that made her own career possible. In fact, Wexler devoted most of a chapter to Jansen, on her politics and relations with other female politicians.
“She’s getting warmed up now, and she points out that Jansen had three children, making a big commitment. ‘Jansen made clear choices which guided her goals, her efforts,’ she says. ‘Jansen has said she never used any day care. I guess her children were too good for that. If you are caring for three children, when are you going to focus on identifying patriarchal terrorism, or gender wage discrimination? How much time will you have left to support reproductive choice? Jansen knew exactly what she was doing.’
“I remember that line,” Katy said, half to herself, almost too soft to hear over the noise of the truck. “ ‘Too good for day care.’ ”
She thought for a minute. “It’s strange that I should talk about this. To talk about anything. To care enough.”
We stopped at a traffic light and Katy looked out the window. “You know, for now I can think about those people out there. I can think about that girl there,” she said. “What she is wearing and where she is going. Who she will have sex with tonight.”
She turned to me. “The cancer cells crowd out the normal cells in your body. That’s how you die. Your thoughts get crowded out, too. Your normal thoughts die. All that’s left are cancer thoughts. They are still there,” she said, “but not so close.” She paused.
“I’ll tell the story,“ she said. “It feels good to tell it.”
“It feels great to hear it,” I said.
She looked me over, not speaking. I said, “Sure, my turn next. I will explain all this. You don’t have to ask.” Katy nodded and leaned back again into the seat. The truck moved forward.
“Anyway, her lecture.” she said. “I was listening but mostly texting. And then someone in the back just had to speak up. ‘Wouldn’t caring for her family help Congresswoman Jansen to understand better,’ the student asked, ‘to empathize more, with working mothers and what they need from the community, and from agencies?’ Katy’s voice changed to mimic the affectation that you hear in the classroom.
“It was a fair point, okay?” Katy said. She watched a woman on the sidewalk wolf down a huge pretzel from a street vendor in a strikingly unladylike way. “But really, did it need to be brought up? And did it need to be brought up by this girl? She looked about 7 months pregnant. And she had already asked some mildly challenging questions.
“Wexler’s antennae sprang up instantly. She looked at the girl, and then looked pointedly at her pregnant belly, and the ring on her finger, and then started in on her. Really laid it on. ‘In case you haven’t been listening, ever, we’ve already gone over how far removed a person of privilege will be from the community. A person in Jansen’s position will not magically understand the environments which they have spent their lives avoiding, just because they bear a child who will be cared for by the same privileged structure.’ Wexler stared at the student. ‘You know, this isn’t a class for people whose minds and lives are already cemented in the past,’ she said. ‘Your social view may be too stratified for the dialogues we’re doing here. Perhaps you are looking for special treatment? Does your opinion ‘—I remember that Wexler kind of sneered the word – ‘mean more now that you are pregnant?’ Like that. After a while Wexler let up and we got on to something else.”
Katy paused for a minute. I slowed the truck a little, wanting to hear this. She went on. “We had heard Wexler go off like this before, it wasn’t unusual. And when I asked the student that Wexler had berated about it, she wasn’t terribly upset. She knew how Wexler was. I don’t know why this time, but things started clicking in my mind. I felt as if there was something that needed to happen, something that needed to be revealed. I didn’t know what, though.
“The next night, Sam and Franco were over at my apartment, they were the two software guys, the facial recognition guys, working a little on their programs but mostly goofing around with Carrie’s Facebook page.
“They’re going back and forth arguing about what country to send Carrie to next. Marlie, my roommate then, she was part of the ‘Carrie’ group too, was reading aloud some of the messages that Carrie had gotten. Dylan, he tagged along wherever Sam and Franco went. He didn’t say much but he was the main coding guy. He was sitting on the couch looking at his tablet. After a while I just blurted out, ‘There is a secret connection between Carrie and Congresswoman Jansen.’
“Everyone got quiet then, and stared at me, wondering if they had heard right, and what that meant if they had heard right, and what was coming next. ‘I want to make it look like there is a connection with Jansen,’ I said, ‘but a connection that nobody yet knows about except the two.’
“Another moment of silence.
“ ‘Well, the one doesn’t even exist,’ said Sam after a bit, ‘if I follow you, and the other doesn’t know about it anyway, right? Jansen doesn’t know any of this, does she?’ Sam asked, looking at me closely.
“I was glad that Sam was getting it, maybe. I wasn’t sure if I was getting it myself. ’No, Jansen wouldn’t ever know.’
“Marlie said ‘I personally do not ‘know’ anything either. Can you explain?’
“I said, ‘I want to put references on her Facebook page about things that point to Jansen, but not too obvious. I want to put clues between Carrie and Jansen on other pages, other sources. Like message boards.’
“Marlie shook her head. ‘Nothing,’ she said. Franco was still just staring at me. So I talked more about what I was thinking.”
Katy paused again, catching her breath. “After I explained they were all with me right away,” she said. “I realized that they didn’t care about Wexler or Jansen, or where I was going with it, as much as they were jumping in for me.” Her eyes started to well up at the memory. She started, and felt a tear with a finger. “Well, what do you know”, she said, with a soft chuckle, “you got me crying again. The doctors weren’t sure that the tear ducts were working.”
I wanted to ask Katy where those friends were now, but we didn’t have the time. Or Katy the energy. “And then?” I asked.
“And then everyone was just full of ideas. This clue can go on this website. This reference can be placed there. On the Facebook page we’ll post shots of Carrie at local events, like political rallies. We can post photos of Carrie at the restaurants that Jansen had gone to. We can send her to Washington, DC.
“’That’s great,’ I remember saying, ‘but you know we’re graduating in a couple of months. We don’t have time for the postings to get old. They can’t be only a week old.”
“We talked about that for a while, couldn’t come up with anything. Out of the blue, Dylan spoke up from the couch. ‘I can backdate messages on some message boards,’ he said mildly. We turned to stare at him. Franco said, ‘What?’ Which was an understatement.
“Dylan went on, ‘I figured out how to insert into the history table for some sites, and back date the insertion. If they use the right Java overlay boundary, anyway.’ I think that’s what he said.
“ ‘Pretend we know what that means’, I said. ‘Are you saying that the comment will look like it was posted a year ago?’ And Dylan said ‘Yeah, sure. With an attachment, a picture, if you want.’”
Katy looked over at me, with an inquiring look. I said, “Yes, that could be quite handy. I didn’t know you could do that.” She smiled, a little merry smile. “I thought you might like that.”
“But anyway, so we did. We looked for sites about local history or the Jansen family. We inserted comments about ‘family secrets’, and about a mysterious vacation by Jansen 23 years earlier. We found a website about political scandals and were able to post a couple of vague references to a Jansen embarrassment, starting 23 years previously. Fragments about a child named ‘Carrie’ who was not recognized by the family. Dylan’s trick was just amazing…the comments really looked like they were old. That was so cool.” She hadn’t thought about this for a long time.
“Wait,” I said. “How did Wexler become aware of all this?”
Another smile, lighting up her lean face. “Yes, that was a surprise. We thought we would need a lot of links to Wexler’s name to eventually get her attention, a lot of clues. I was worried that we would have to get way too obvious.
“We knew that she searched on-line for herself all the time. She had told the class more than once. We tried to link her name with Carrie in the on-line comments. For one of the backdated comments, we had put something like ‘it’s lucky for the Jansen family that a researcher like Jan Wexler doesn’t know about Carrie Johnson.’ But it still seemed like a long shot.
“We were going to insert more comments, more clues, but we all got busy and a few days went by. Then Sam is over at my apartment and just pounding on my door. He is flipping out. ‘She wants to meet you!’ he is shouting outside the door. ‘She sent a message to her Facebook page, and she wants to meet Carrie!’
“I let him in and he was still jumping. ‘When can she meet Carrie? How soon?’ He was holding my arms and bouncing on his toes with this huge grin. Meet her, I thought. How can we meet? We shouldn’t even text her.
“ ‘ What does she want to meet about?’ I asked. I was worried that Wexler would have said something about Jansen in the message. It seemed too soon for that. She should have some other reason for connecting, at least that would tell Carrie.
‘I don’t know, something about a women’s house’, Sam said, still excited. ‘We have Carrie down as volunteering at some shelter. She wants to talk about that. So when is the meeting?’ ”
Katy paused. “Up to then the whole Carrie thing had been in the background. But now it was serious. I mean, part of me was saying ‘Absolutely not! This is crazy. You have a month to go before you graduate.’
“But most of me was thrilled that the whole thing had come together and had worked. Or maybe was working. The makeup was good. The preparation was good. We made her look real. We didn’t know where it would go, but it was going somewhere. It was so exciting. I felt, you know, buoyed inside, satisfaction of creation and all that.
“I thought for a minute and said, ‘We’ll keep her waiting for a little longer.’
“Sam’s eyes bulged out and he suddenly got anxious. He stopped bouncing. ‘No, no, we have to respond!’ he said. ‘We can’t lose this chance!’” Katy’s soft voice rose a little as she mimicked Sam’s urgency.
“But we needed to be careful. ‘We will, Carrie will answer,’ I tried to calm him down. ‘She wouldn’t answer this right away, would she? Carrie is shy with strangers. Let’s post a photo of Carrie at some shop near Jansen’s office, like she’s there with a friend. Not obvious, but maybe Carrie is visiting Jansen again.’
I had to interrupt. “This is getting elaborate,” I said.
Katy leaned back against the truck seat, dislodging her wig a little. “Yeah, but it didn’t take that much time. For me, anyway. Sam and Franco were really into Carrie. They put the photos together and posted them. Still, we were on the way to a major prank of a tenured professor at a top university. Anonymously we hoped, but epic either way.
“Two days later, before Carrie answered, Wexler sent another message, another request to meet.”
Katy turned her head to watch the IV bags which were attached to her arm swaying a little with the motion of the truck. It caught your eye; the bags were usually standing still in the hospital room.
“We were even more excited after that. Sam was frantic. He felt that we would lose her if we didn’t answer. “We’ll get back to Wexler tomorrow,’ I said. ‘We need to make sure that she fully believes in Carrie and isn’t suspicious of anything, now or later.’
“The next day ‘Carrie’ replied, and said she would meet. Wexler asked Carrie to visit her at Wexler’s house. Well, we couldn’t agree to that. I didn’t want to be alone with her. We suggested some Italian restaurant near Jansen’s office, in two days.
Katy thought about it, remembering. “The boys were all crazy excited. Me too, but I was hoping for a brief visit and then nothing more. I was still thinking about … uh … getting kicked out of the university, maybe?” She spoke as if that still mattered. It was a nice tone to her voice, a different tone from her hospital voice.
I interrupted and said, “This traffic is just stopped. We’re going nowhere. I am going to pull over into this loading zone for a few minutes.” Katy nodded, not really listening. Reliving the moment.
“The big day arrived. Sam and Marlie took a long time on the make-up. We tried to play up the likeness – blue eyes, straight nose, her chin. We had picked out a nice outfit for Carrie – a Congresswoman’s daughter needs to look good – but we would have to return it as soon as the day was over, you know how it is. We did splurge on a pre-paid phone that we could use for a month. Franco kept trying to place a cam and microphone somewhere in my clothes, but we couldn’t get it to work right. So no videos.
“I was really nervous. I had been in Wexler’s class just a few days before! I thought she would recognize me. Marlie put a scarf around my neck, and Sam added big sunglasses. Part of the reclusive look we had given Carrie.
“But I didn’t need to worry. For one thing, I realized that Wexler didn’t pay a lot of attention to us in class. And then, once we got to the restaurant and I saw her, everything seemed to smooth out. I just got really focused. I felt calm, almost natural, but I knew exactly how I wanted this to go.”
“How did you want it to go?”
“I wanted Carrie to be real to Wexler. I didn’t think ahead about where this was going, as far as Jansen was concerned. I wanted Wexler to believe in Carrie, and to believe the connection to Jansen. It was like creating something out of nothing, out of a bit of latex foam and a couple of notes somewhere on the Internet. I wanted us to be able to do that.
“Wexler was already sitting at a table. I remember she was sitting up straight, very erect. She was wearing an outfit that was totally different from her lecture clothes, which seemed interesting to me. I think she was trying to dress like a hip mom, the mother I didn’t have. She was looking at me but not sure. I needed to seem unsure myself. I hesitated and then moved toward her and stood in front of her, with a small smile but not saying anything yet. I suddenly thought about my voice…had I spoken in class? Would she recognize my voice? For a moment I wasn’t sure what to do.
‘Carrie?’ she said. I nodded and she beamed and asked me to sit.
“Then I almost lost control. Marlie and Sam had gotten there before me and were sitting at the table right behind Wexler! I didn’t know if I keep up the disguise with them watching. So I really needed to make this a short visit. The longer I sat there the more likely it was she would get suspicious.
“But Wexler was looking so warm and solicitous, not like her classroom manner at all. I went ahead and spoke, I had to. We both said ‘Hi , how are you’, both shy and hesitant. ‘Thank you for coming,’ , ‘I’ll have an iced tea’, like that.
“Wexler said, ‘Carrie, I noticed on your page that you volunteer at the Women’s Shelter. I’m researching local support for women’s issues, here in town and the surrounding area. I reached out to talk to you about your work there, if that’s all right with you.’
“I said, sure, that’s very flattering coming from a prestigious source, and so on. I made up a few things to talk about, and found myself working into the conversation some themes that Wexler had lectured about over the semester. Why communities do or don’t support reduction of patriarchal structures, societal filters, like that.
“Oh my God, Wexler was eating it up. She almost forgot what she came for, she was so pleased at hearing her own ideas. I even mentioned a few things from Wexler’s class that Carrie couldn’t have been exposed to. It was risky but the look on her face was worth it.
“Abruptly, Wexler asked: ‘Carrie, do you know Representative Jansen? She supports the shelter, right? I wonder if you have met her there.’ She was looking at me intently.
“I got a little more reserved, more noncommittal. ‘Well, I haven’t talked to her myself at the shelter, I said, ‘but yes she supports the shelter and has been there more than once.’ “
Katy looked at me. “All true statements,” she said.
She continued her story. “Wexler nodded, still observing me. ‘It’s good that she can spend time with those who need it,’ she said, a not so subtle dig. ‘A big family, political duties, and then supporting groups like the shelter. She wouldn’t have much time for anything else, would she?’ I guess she was trying to sound sympathetic, but it came out creepy.
“ ‘Well, she is a busy member of Congress,’ I said, like I was defending her. All this time I am trying not to look at Sam and Marlie. Sam was facing away, leaning way backwards to hear better and he looked just ridiculous. Marlie had her director face on, watching carefully. She seemed ready to flash a signal or a stage direction. I could lose it at any moment.
“We talked a little more, with Wexler giving me more chances to reveal who Carrie was, and me dodging. At one point I took a few things out of my purse and put them on the table, letting her see the ID we had gotten for Carrie.”
“Wait, you got her a fake ID?” I broke in involuntarily.
Katy looked over. “You mean, where could I get a fake ID in a major college town?”
“Okay, forget it.”
“After a bit Wexler said, ‘By the way, are you related somehow to Jansen? You look a lot like her.’ Smiling, super friendly, as if it was an innocent question.
“I tried one more deflection. ‘Do I? That would be nice. I think she looks amazing,’ I said, trying to be calm while my heart was pounding away. You know, like when you think everyone else must hear it?
“Then she asked it. Asked me directly. ‘Carrie, are you Elizabeth Jansen’s daughter? I am sorry but I need to ask. The public needs to ask, to know.’
“I took a deep breath. Heart still pounding away. I mean, it’s moving me back and forth visibly. After a long pause – I had already thought about how long the pause should be, – I said, ‘I suppose that I am tired of hiding.’
“Wexler seemed to jump in her seat. She nodded like she understood.
“ ‘But I am not complaining,’ I said. ‘She has been very good to me.’
“Wexler nodded again, glancing at my clothes, trying not to be obvious about it. ‘Good to you, but not embracing you,’ said Wexler, ‘not acknowledging you. Your heritage is denied. Your self is disowned.’ “
Katy looked over at me again. I said, “Yeah, I get it, the book.”
She turned back. “Right, she bought it. Totally. She believed.
“But now that she had made that connection I had to get out of there. Sam’s head kept turning from side to side as he was trying to hear us with one ear and then the other ear, and that was about to kill me. I got anxious, for real, and said, ‘Look, I have to go now. I’ll be in touch.’
“Wexler’s eyes were sparkling. ‘Wonderful, I will look forward to that,’ she said, seeming to understand my anxiety. ‘Just a quick photo before you go,’ she added, and as we stood up she slipped over next to me and took a shot of us together. I acted a little uncomfortable with that too, which she also seemed to expect.
“I gave her the pre-paid phone number and then we both left. I was able to get a taxi outside the restaurant, and that was lucky. I needed to break off right away.
“I met Marlie and Sam a few blocks away. They were in Sam’s car. After the cab dropped me off I got into the back seat, and closed the door. We carefully rolled up a window or two. Sam calmly called Franco and put him on speaker. And then we looked at each other and just screamed, we grabbed each other and yelled and hugged and let out a combined scream that may have bulged out the car’s windshield. Oh, we shrieked.”
Katy’s face tilted up a little as she recalled the moment. It was an interesting contrast, her soft and weakening voice describing the manic outburst of the three college kids.
“Wexler called me twice the next day. I was less guarded, but ‘Carrie’ never flat out admitted to being Jansen’s …” Katy paused and looked at me. “Is a girl a bastard?” she asked. I just shook my head and shrugged, not wanting her to stop. “…her out-of-wedlock daughter,” she continued, “but ‘Carrie’ was certainly giving that impression to Wexler’s questions. And she was totally believing. Then I told her that I needed to be out of touch for a while.
“And I thought that was it, you know? I mean, maybe Wexler would make a vague reference to the Jansen connection in her class or even her book, but how far could she go? Nothing could be checked, nothing could be verified. She would find nothing. We agreed to not talk about it for a while, just in case. We argued a lot about that. Sam and Franco wanted to tell the world, put everything on a blog, all that. Marlie and I got them to stay quiet until graduation, which was coming up.
“About a week later Marlie woke me in the morning to look at her laptop. She was looking intense and it made me wary and anxious myself. ‘Read’, she said, pointing to her screen. It was an excerpt from Wexler’s book, the chapter with Congresswoman Jansen, in the on-line version of a magazine, called About Us. The chapter had a new section, and it was called ‘Evading the Past,’ and it was about me…I mean, about Carrie…with the picture from the restaurant.”
She paused, maybe thinking about that moment. Being comfortable in bed and still sleepy, waking to deal with some drama or event which would be important and would fill that day.
“I was angry at first,” she continued. “She hadn’t even let me know! Or let Carrie know, anyway. Then I was surprised, and then confused. Maybe it was a set-up for me, a trap. But it looked like the article was for real.”
Katy shook her head. “I don’t know how the magazine was able to do it, to publish that. What proof did they have? I heard later that Wexler had actually called the Jansen house to confirm the existence of Carrie. By some chance she got connected to Jansen herself, and Wexler asked her point blank if she, Jansen, denied having another daughter Carrie. Supposedly Jansen didn’t even answer, she just laughed incredulously and hung up.”
Katy looked at me. “And that was characterized in the article as ‘not denying’. Can you publish that?”
“Don’t ask me”, I said. “I have no idea how journalists do a great deal of what they do.”
Katy shrugged. “I guess Wexler was careful enough about describing the call,” she said. “The article described Carrie, described all the clues that Wexler had found, and Carrie’s resemblance, and her frequenting the places near Jansen’s office, like that. And the way she worded the phone call: ‘Jansen was clearly taken aback, and did not deny anything’ – I guess that was accurate. The article never claimed that Carrie was Jansen’s daughter, but did describe all of the clues and conversations that we had put on the Internet which pointed to the relationship.
“Wexler had said she couldn’t find any birth announcements, for Carrie or for Jansen’s other children. Her actual children. We didn’t know anything about that, but it added to the clues. And of course, the actual meeting with Carrie. A lot of what I said. She either recorded our talk or she has a great memory.
“Anyway, the article was for real. It was out there. We were stunned. We were shocked. You asked about what I expected. This was what I expected times a thousand.
“We were thrilled and worried at the same time. Marlie and I were worried, anyway. Sam and Franco were bursting and wanted even more to tell the world. We had another big argument over that. “Can we wait for graduation, that little thing?’ I remember saying over and over.
“ ‘This could go different ways,’ Marlie said, ‘and at least until we graduate, most of them are bad if we are linked to this. Let’s look at the Facebook page to see if we show up. And toss the phone.’
“We had an anxious moment looking at the Facebook page, to see if our faces were there. But Franco had been good about photoshopping Carrie into public spaces without any of us.
“The story went viral but it was fleeting. Outside the state, who cared? Jansen’s office immediately denied the story, said it was totally fabricated. Which it was, it was literally fabricated. But there wasn’t enough to take action about, no specific accusations.”
Katy stopped talking. I wasn’t sure how much longer she could go without getting back to the hospital. Then, still looking out at the sidewalk, she said, “I’m fine. I’m just sitting here. The morphine is working great, by the way. Yours is better than the hospital stuff.”
After a minute she went on. “Then something must have happened. A few days later Wexler sent panicky messages to the Facebook page, pleading for Carrie to call her. And who knows how many phone calls. We figured that Wexler knew it was a hoax, and we decided not to respond at all. My class with her was over – we just had to turn in the term paper, so no more contact there.
“A week after the article came out, the magazine issued an on-line retraction. A complete retraction by the publishers. They said that there were some factual errors central to the story that needed fixing, they were confident that the errors would be corrected, the article would be re-published at a later date, you know. We weren’t especially surprised but we still didn’t know what the hell was going on. We hadn’t seen anything about it from the university, so we didn’t know what to ask or who to ask.
“But graduation was coming up, and parties, and people getting ready to leave town for good. We moved on. It turned out that the Carrie story was a good story to tell at those parties, but nobody really believed it was us, you know? We had covered it up too well. That was a funny outcome.”
“So how did the University find out?” I asked.
“They never found out, exactly. Sam and Franco had told a few friends – I guess they would have ruptured otherwise – and rumors got around.”
“You didn’t tell anyone?”
“I did tell a few people, later. But it wasn’t the same when I told it. It sounded far-fetched. It was hard to get across the excitement, the pieces all falling into place.”
She looked over at me again. “Yes, today was a little like that, if you are wondering.”
“Good, that was the point,” I replied.
She nodded slightly. “Anyway, just before graduation the Dean of the college called me and Sam in. He told us that he knew everything, and that we were in violation of twelve state laws, sixteen federal statutes, and the school’s entire code of conduct.”
“What evidence did he have?”
“None, and we knew it. Maybe somehow the Facebook page, but we had used aliases for that. The Dean huffed and puffed but couldn’t prove anything. ‘The university code of conduct says I don’t have to prove anything, although I can’, the Dean said. ‘Then why are we here, instead of expelled?’ asked Sam. There wasn’t an answer for that.
“We got probation for a week and even that ended up being suspended. No punishment at all. Sam talked about a countersuit, whatever that meant, but it was time to move on. I wanted to move on, anyway.
“After we graduated I heard that the university had met with Jansen’s lawyers. I don’t know what happened but it probably wasn’t good. Wexler left the university, for one thing. I never heard anything after that.”
She looked at me, calm but exhausted, ready for me to talk. “I have a feeling you know about that. And as I think it over, right now, I’d like to use my next few minutes to hear it.” She settled back into the seat and kept her gaze on me.
I looked back at her. Katy was right, I had heard about the meeting with the lawyers. I was glad to tell her. I had heard it second-hand but it was something that you wished you had seen for yourself.
* * * * *
Professor Wexler had mixed feelings as she walked from her office toward the administration building, heading for the boardroom next to the president’s office. Technically I am having mixed feelings, she thought. Because 95% is elation and 5% is just feeling pretty good. I suppose there will be some problems to solve, but overall this could work out really well.
There were some niggling worries, she would acknowledge. Minor worries is better, she thought. She wasn’t sure about that other word. Of course, the fact checking needed to be done. She would check further on some of the things about Carrie which had been in the article. She would call the Women’s Center tomorrow, for one thing. It’s just good journalism to do that. I would have done it already, she reminded herself again, except that we wanted to make the May edition of About Us and I didn’t have time. I will do it now.
Apart from the humdrum fact checking, her feelings were all on the elation side. The article had been out only four days and everything was happening. The magazine’s editors were pleased and wanted to talk about a regular column. The book publisher had left a message about discussing her next book. And the requests for interviews were adding up. The buzz, the overall buzz, was just great.
Jansen’s office had denied everything, of course. What would you expect? Everyone denies right up until they admit. The denials just made the story better. And they hadn’t said anything about the lack of birth announcements for any of the children. Wexler again thought about the options for how she would bring Carrie and Jansen together for a face to face meeting.
But the keenest elation for the moment was because she was on her way to meet Congresswoman Jansen, in person. Wexler had almost shouted into her phone when the university attorney had called her. One of Jansen’s lawyers had asked for a meeting with the University president George Kyle, with Wexler and the Director of the Communications Department. Valerie Chen, the attorney, would join them. Jansen would be there with her lawyer and another person.
“She must want to meet me!” Wexler said to Chen, her mind racing. “It’s obvious, she is coming to acknowledge Carrie, and to ask for my…ask for the University’s help in getting a sympathetic story out.” Wexler couldn’t help jumping to conclusions, but what else could it be?
Chen had listened for a moment, and then interrupted. “We don’t know anything yet, Professor,” she said. “Let’s see what they have to say. And please be on time.” Then Chen asked about her meeting with Carrie Johnson, and a couple of questions about the background checks. But nothing that Wexler couldn’t handle later. Lawyers!
And anyway, she thought, the fact that Jansen herself wants to meet me shows that she has something to tell us. Otherwise she would send her lawyers alone to threaten us. That proves it.
As she walked into the boardroom, Wexler saw three people already seated. The University president, the Communications School director Francois Levalleé, and a woman she assumed was Chen.
President Kyle was speaking to Chen. “So the story was denied?” he said, doubtfully.
Wexler started to answer but Chen talked over her. “No,” Chen said, “and the article didn’t claim the relationship was true. Just that Jansen had not denied it.”
Kyle shook his head. “Crazy that they can do that,” he said. Wexler was about to speak, to explain about that, when Kyle looked up at her. “Thanks for coming, Professor,” he said, without getting up. “Please have a seat. This is Valerie Chen, our attorney, and you know your boss Francois.”
Chen looked at Wexler, appraising her. “Hello,” Chen said simply.
“Hello,” said Wexler, somewhat uncertainly. She looked over at Levalleé who nodded without saying anything. Why so tense? Wexler thought. I am looking forward to this. And I don’t like hearing that Francois is my ‘boss’. He’s the director of the school but I hardly ever talk to him.
Kyle said to Chen, “What I don’t understand is…” but was interrupted when his aide came to the door and announced the arrival of Jansen.
Congresswoman Jansen and two men came into the boardroom. The four University people all stood and got ready to shake hands and do the introductions, but the first man merely said “Warren Burke,” indicating himself, “Congresswoman Jansen, and Dr. Paul Zimmerman,” he said, nodding to each. The group moved over to the opposite side of the big boardroom table and took seats without speaking. Wexler realized with some regret that the seat she had taken was on the same side as the first three, making the table ‘us versus them.’ But Jansen and I are really on the same side, she thought.
Kyle picked up on Burke’s brevity. “George Kyle, Communications School Director Francois Levalleé, Professor Jan Wexler, and attorney Valerie Chen,” he said, indicating the University team with his own nods. “May we bring in coffee and tea?” Kyle asked, hoping to keep the meeting casual. Burke was cordial but formal and reserved. “Thank you, no, President Kyle.” He looked at Jansen and Zimmerman, and then began.
“Thank you all for your time. We will be brief. We have a short announcement for you and that will be all.” Kyle was surprised at this and tried to ask Jansen something. Burke raised his hand and shook his head. “No, please, just a brief announcement, thank you,” he said. “If you are ready we’ll proceed.”
Wexler could sense President Kyle’s confusion but she was excited. She had been observing Jansen and felt that the Congresswoman was going to open up about Carrie. Jansen had regarded her with an interested, appraising look, and Wexler understood that Jansen would want to meet the journalist who had figured this out. Of course, she needs to be sure about me before she makes a deal for the story. And I am going to get the story! That will make the book a best seller. Well, it would have been a best seller anyway but this will put it over the top. But she’s really looking me over, she thought.
Burke began. “Our concern here today is to minimize the impact of recent events on Mrs. Jansen’s family, her husband and three children. Mrs. Jansen is an experienced stateswoman and deals with controversy and innuendo all the time. But her family does not, so our intent in coming here today, with which I think you will agree, is to limit the disruption to the Jansen family.”
Wexler’s excitement grew. Yes, I can limit the disruption, she thought. I can write it that way. I can present it to the public that way. Her foot started to tap rapidly on the floor and she had to consciously stop it. Wonder why he said three children, though, she said to herself. And I want to talk to Jansen, let her know about me. Not just listen to the male.
Burke paused and looked calmly across the table at the university people. Then he continued. “We’re going to share with you some information today, information which is highly private and deeply personal. We are not going to tell, or request, or hint at any action which we would like for you to take after hearing this information. We think – we feel sure – that you will know what to do, and will do it.”
Wexler’s mood instantly shifted. She laughed inwardly. So they don’t want to open up about this, she thought. And the male thinks he can play on my conscience, leverage my emotions. I’ll just shut up and go away. Typical. I should have known.
Burke turned to the other man, an older man with grey hair and somewhat rumpled suit, and said, “Dr. Zimmerman?”
The older man nodded and said, “I am Dr. Paul Zimmerman, practicing gynecologist here in the city for the last 33 years. MD from Johns Hopkins, affiliations with the University’s Medical Center and with most of the major hospitals in the area.” He had a folder with him and he took out a photograph and held it up. “Mrs. Jansen has three children, and they are pictured here. The oldest is 23 and the twins are 20” he said. “All three were adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Jansen, when they were still infants.”
Wexler’s side of the table, which had already been quiet, somehow got quieter.
Dr. Zimmerman continued. “Twenty-four years ago, Mrs. Jansen was being treated by me and other physicians for infertility and significant uterine bleeding. Mrs. Jansen was diagnosed with multiple uterine myoma, that is, fibroids. We diagnosed ovarian cysts as well. Based on the failure of subsequent treatments, and her family history, we made the difficult decision to remove the ovaries and uterus. The surgery was successful and there were no complications.” Dr. Zimmerman took another sheet from the folder and laid it on the table, pushing it to the middle. “This is a summary from Mrs. Jansen’s chart at that time,” he added. He sat back and turned to Burke.
“Thank you, Doctor,” said Burke. He looked across the table. “The couple’s three children were adopted over the next two years,” Burke continued. “Mr. and Mrs. Jansen, up to today, have not spoken of the adoptions outside the family.
“An inquiry into birth announcements twenty years ago would not, of course, yield anything for the Jansen family. However, the children’s amended birth certificates, with the Jansens as parents, are available if those are needed.”
Burke stopped to let that sink in. He looked across the table at them, one at a time. Kyle looked back briefly and then looked away. Chen held Burke’s gaze and then nodded, almost imperceptibly. Levalleé had not yet read the Wexler article and was hoping his expression was not fully blank. Wexler appeared to be transfixed by Burke’s gaze. She had heard the words but they weren’t making sense to her.
Before they had a chance to stir Burke stood up and raised his hand again to forestall any questions. He said, “Once more, thank you for your time.” Zimmerman and Jansen stood – she hadn’t spoken at all – and they walked out without another word.
The boardroom remained silent. After a moment Wexler realized that the other three were all looking at her, waiting for her to speak. She tried to think of something to say but she was not understanding. She leaned over the table for the paper that the doctor had left, to read it and have it explain what just happened. Before she could get to it Kyle reached across the table and leisurely took the sheet. He sat back and slowly dropped it into a nearby waste can. A slight tink was audible as the edge of the paper hit the metal bottom. Kyle turned back to regard Wexler.
No one spoke. The tension grew and finally she had to say something, anything. “Carrie’s birth must have led to complications!” she burst out, “and then the hysterectomy!”
* * * *
Two weeks later there was a brief epilogue. Kyle met with Chen, Levalleé, and a manager from the school’s IT department, in the same boardroom. The IT manager was reporting on his part in the University’s initial inquiry into the Wexler issue. After he finished Levalleé asked him, “Then you can identify the students who committed this fraud?”
The IT manager said, “Based on the tracing of the e-mails, there is a high likelihood, yes.” Levalleé folded his arms and looked at Kyle. “In that case we need to clear up the Communication School’s role in this, and discipline those who took advantage of my professor.”
Kyle turned to the IT manager. “How many did you say?” he asked.
The manager said, “I think it was at least two people. We have two distinct usercodes. More than four or five and the ruse would be difficult to contain. So in that range.”
“And disciplinary action?” Levalleé repeated.
Kyle said, “Dean Rodriguez has already discussed that with two students who may have been involved.”
Levalleé sniffed. “Yes, I heard about that ‘discipline’. Suspended probation! I don’t even know what that means. In the meantime my whole Communications School is tainted.”
Kyle looked at Chen. “Counsellor, what do you think?”
She considered it. “They did upset some things, and some beliefs,” she said, “and highlighted some weaknesses, within the university and without. Creative in their approach. Good time management, during a busy semester – their grades were fine.” She looked over at Levalleé. “Seems to me, not too far away from doing what they should be doing while at the University.”
Kyle nodded and said, “And I think we can help un-taint the department. Remind me, Director,” he asked Levalleé, “where in the tenure process is Ms. Wexler?”