Economics & Emotion: Does Sense & Sensibility still work?

This has been kicking around my various hard drives for a long time. I think the first draft was in 2004; I know I finished a good draft in 2009, and I’ve tweaked it occasionally since then. It’s been a side project for when Galantier leaves me brain-fried.

I’ve always preferred Sense & Sensibility to Pride & Prejudice, because I think S&S is more about grief, loss and economics than romance. I actually like the fact that the boys go gallivanting off and spend their off-screen time behaving badly, and despite this, Willoughby and Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon feel less like props to advance the story than Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley do. (I do like P&P, and Lizzie certainly got a better deal with Darcy than by staying single or with Mr. Collins, but I just can’t ‘ship Larcy. So please don’t flame me.) I’m sure Darcy has an internal life that isn’t just obsessed with Lizzie, but he feels rather cypherish to me. I see social anxiety and a lifetime of familial manipulation and learned helplessness in Edward.

I read Bridget Jones’ Diary and very much enjoyed it; I’m also a fan of Clueless. I like seeing classic lit reinterpreted. (I enjoy 10 Things I Hate About You, too, and my favorite version of Richard III so far is a punk/steam-punk interpretation.) But I didn’t think S&S could take an update until I was signing a bunch of annual staff documents and actually read, in full, my non-fraternization policy. (Yeah, yeah, shoulda done that earlier, but before Churchilling became a verb in my world, that stack of 9 point legalese wasn’t that real.) My parents can’t forbid me to marry, but my employer does as long as I’m collecting their checks and my intended has a financial tie to the institution. And universities aren’t that different from most modern corporations.

But could the long quiet that characterizes most of the arc of S&S work? After all, the boys do in fact disappear into London’s maw and leave the Dashwoods incommunicado for months in the middle section of S&S. Surely in a Twittered/Facebooked/LinkedIn/Skyped universe, nobody would go completely dark. Except that people do, regularly. Hard drives lose their magic smoke and the internet machine stops working. Toddlers dart in front of you and your coffee lands on your phone. You forget one of your critical passwords. Or we just get distracted or depressed or need to take an extra job and time for our distant friends goes away.

And then there’s the social and financial safety net. Would a modern late Mr. Dashwood have left all his property to his son instead of his wife and daughters? Of course not, because modern Mrs. Dashwood and the Misses Dashwood have rights to community property and survivors’ supports. What about insurance? Social Security? Disability? Yep, we have those… but as 2008 and 2009 and 2010 and 2011 and 2012 and 2013 prove, dropping from a combined two incomes in the low six figures to one in the low five figures does in fact hurt. I remember the first time I didn’t qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit — I felt so very, very rich. And I can imagine it going the other way, too.

Thus… my attempt at S&S reboot. I think stories don’t change — the props and setting and costumes might alter, but not the stories. People need to eat, keep the rain off, and make connections with the world and special people in it. Those have always been a struggle, and perhaps why S&S still speaks as clearly as it does is because we still see the similarities.

Chapter One
Reheated curry scented the staff break room, making Olivia salivate like a behaviorist grad student presented with a wire monkey. She had crossed the University’s Boulder campus four times this morning and the stairwell to the third floor smelled of pizza, Chinese take-out, coffee and pastry. She ignored the vending machines as she fetched her lunch from the refrigerator and eyed her sister’s apple in their shared bag. Will Corrine remember her lunch today? At least once a week, she didn’t; with luck, today would be that day. Olivia’s morning oatmeal had worn thin before her lab procedures class ended at nine, and she’d eaten her own apple between a meeting with her academic advisor and her eleven o’clock Intro to Anthropology class. Those calories were long burned off in the fury of the ending term. I’ll be starving again by midafternoon and if Corrie doesn’t come for her lunch…

Another grad student dashed into the room, shoved a credit card into the card reader and selected a sandwich from the case. Olivia fought down envy while he added chips, soda, a candy bar and a pear to the stack. She waited while Mike and the machine worked out the transaction so she could buy her milk carton.

Mike nodded at her sandwich and carrots, both in reusable plastic containers. “Sorry to jump the line, ‘Liv. I gotta start bringing my own, too. I’m already in debt up to my eyeballs. I’ll be paying for this ham sandwich for the rest of my life.” He balanced the stack and tried to get out of her way. “Lucky you, living at home and so close. My roommates can calibrate an electron microscope but they go all cargo cult when faced with a stove.”

She shrugged. “It’s self-preservation. Catering services are work-study jobs. The frosh you fail today may already be making tomorrow’s sandwich.”

He turned slightly green. “They could kill us all. I’m gonna sleep great tonight. Thanks.”

Olivia reached into her pocket for her change. Dammit. Communications center. Those grant proposal copies for next spring. She had intended to stop at the grocery this morning, but mornings in the Halivand house could be chaotic, and today was more so than usual.

She eyed the card reader on the center bank of the machines. I really want café au lait, she whined to herself. I probably walked nine or ten miles this morning, and a chocolatey sugar rush… ooh, tortilla chips and California rolls… Mmm… Junk food. Her family’s debit card waited in her locked office down the hall. Card transactions have a minimum five buck purchase, she reminded herself. Milk’s all you need, and it’s only sixty cents. No change, remember? We don’t have the money. She was entirely without cash; she’d spent her very last pennies on the grant this morning.

I’ll drink my coffee black. She popped open her sandwich box to cut it into bite-sized pieces. If I eat slowly, I’ll feel full. For the hour it takes to burn this off, anyway. She nuked a mug of water, to which she’d add her homemade cold-press coffee concentrate. She scowled at the University’s idea of a coffee urn. That stuff can clean engine parts, sterilize a scalpel or dissolve my enemies’ bones. I’ll add free-lance prostitution to my C.V. before I’ll drink that.

Lunch tucked under one arm, mug in hand, she unlocked her tiny office’s door and edged around the desk and guest chair to her computer. Stacks of quizzes to be scanned and entered into the Assessment Tracking database filled her inbox, grant applications stood ranked in files, and her own research lurked somewhere in the neat piles. Next week, she promised herself. After finals. She poured coffee concentrate into her cup and sipped, chewed a bite of her peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich, on her sister’s exceptional bread. She closed her eyes and tried to make herself calm. I may not be able to afford milk, but I don’t have to eat vending machine sandwiches on Wonder Bread, either. Back to work. Deal with Troy.

She opened the journal she needed to read before her next class, took a bite, and dialed her brother’s office. Half-brother, she reminded herself. A full brother might treat us better.

“Mr. Fussell is in a meeting,” his supercilious mean-girl assistant said. “He should return soon, Ms. Halivand, but I make no guarantees.”

“Fine. Have him call me at University if he’s back before two, and if not, this evening, after seven, at home.”

“I’ll give him the message, but Mr. Fussell is very busy, you know,” Sandy said. Olivia resisted the urge to slam the receiver into the cradle. She scowled at the handset.

“I saw that,” Dr. Barron said, amusement in her faint Castilian accent. “When you think nobody’s watching, your face is a study in raw emotion.” Olivia’s advisor and mentor took the one seat the cramped quarters allowed and offered a carton of chocolate milk. “You forgot that in the break room. They were out of the regular.”

“Thanks,” she said, feeling her face flame. Dr. Barron had been friends with her parents; she knew the Halivands’ situation. Other grad students charged grant paperwork to their department, or had enough money to not worry about a few copies here and there, but the first wasn’t actually allowed, and Olivia couldn’t risk her position. It’s hard enough for a doctoral candidate entering her fourth year to be kept on staff; we’re sunk if the university won’t pay me. Family money… well, that vanished long ago. “I didn’t, actually. I wanted water today.”

“I saw you this morning at the Communications center. I know you, ‘Via. Let me pretend to be Celine Dion.” Dr. Barron put her manicured fingers to her greying temples and hummed eerily. “You just called your brother, for the nth time, on some matter he’s supposed to manage, and didn’t. When he calls, he’ll plead poverty, though his version of poverty includes a BMW, a McMansion, and full time staff.”

Olivia laughed. “Dionne Warwick, Dr. Barron. Not Celine Dion.”

She wrinkled her small nose. “They’re both horrible singers who exploit the musically obtuse. Did I nail the rest?”

“Yes, I called Troy.”

“What did he forget now?”

“Susannah’s dentist called. Troy’s supposed to cover health and dental until we’re of age. I’ve got us all on University Health and it’s cheaper than anything he could get on the private market, but he didn’t pay the deductible.”

Dr. Barron sighed and smoothed her palm over some of the errant gray hairs at her temples. “Shall I make inquiries about short term student loans? I believe if you can bear to work for HiveCor, I can make sure you have extra money this summer. Better than working here as my off-site assistant.”

Olivia frowned and accepted the milk. She poured it into a clean flask, added more coffee concentrate, corked it and set it aside. “Ugh. HiveCor. Troy’s one of their corporate counsels and his wife works for them, and they’re both insufferable.” Her phone rang. “Speak of the devil… Do you mind?”

Dr. Barron shook her head and leaned back in the chair. She took a phone from her pocket and her fingers danced shamanistically over the screen, texting or emailing or, for all Olivia knew, looking at porn. Who knows what cell phones can do these days?

“Thanks for calling back, Troy,” Olivia said.

“I don’t care what it is, Livvie. The answer is no. We’re strapped between the mortgage on this place and the summer cottage, both car payments, Hunter’s nanny and the cleaners. Heather needs a new laptop. I can write that off on the taxes, but I can’t write your things off, and I don’t have the cash.”

“This is trust-related, Troy. There are bills in arrears at the dentist and Dr. Movakian’s.”

“Dad said, and the will said, and the trust says, I’m supposed to help, not be your ATM. If you’d be a little less extravagant, tighten your belt, the way Heather and I did so we could afford the summer house, you wouldn’t have these problems.”

Olivia counted to ten, silently, backwards, in old English. “The trust also says you are responsible for healthcare payments in total. We have an agreement, a long standing one. It’s two hundred dollars, Troy, combined.”

He sighed with exasperation. “Fine. Give Sandy the details. She’ll send checks.” She heard the click into hold’s dead air. Does Troy miss slamming receivers, too? Olivia rapidly gave Sandy the relevant addresses and amounts, then noted the conversation in the battered notebook she used when dealing with her half-brother. Just in case…

“What were you saying, Dr. Barron?” Olivia said when she capped her pen.

The professor put her phone away. “There’s an opportunity I’d like you to take. It’s good money, fieldwork, and I think you can make a dissertation out of it. Better than the GIS study.”

“Working for HiveCor.” It wasn’t a question.

“As a consultant with academic rights. Will you meet the man? He’s no ogre. It’ll make next year far easier. You won’t have to teach as much, and can finish your paper.”

“It can’t hurt,” Olivia said reluctantly. “I keep hoping I can go to Cornwall, but I don’t have whatever the Fulbrights and the Rhodes want, apparently.”

“You have everything they want,” Dr. Barron consoled. “Mostly, they want half as many applicants.” She perched her spectacles back on her nose and dusted her hands together, as if ridding them of dig dust. “We’ll be in my office about three. Suits?”

“Thank you,” Olivia said sincerely. “I’m sorry if I sounded ungrateful earlier – ”

“No one, least of all you, can be blamed for disliking HiveCor. If you’d been different, I’d have wondered about your mental heath.” She eyed the flask. “Explain this, please?”

Olivia felt herself flush again. Her thin, pale skin always showed everything. “Blame Dad. He got me addicted to café au lait and café mocha when I was about eight. I can’t afford five bucks for a coffee and we’re not allowed personal coffee machines anymore so… ” She looked at her hands, still rough and scarred from last summer’s site work. “I’m headed to the lab. Two minutes on the Bunsen burner and voilà. Decent coffee.” She looked up. “Are you going to rat me out?”

Dr. Barron’s brown eyes twinkled. “Only if you rat me out. I’ve been doing that for years. Why else would our lab still have gas? We’re not chemistry. According to Admin, we were taken off the gas years ago, but they never took out the pipes, just installed a shut-off valve. For future reference, I stashed a French press and a Bialetti in locker six and in cold storage, there’s a dummy nitrogen vessel labeled Fort Dix, 1918, Infectious Material. Fair-trade Ethiopian peaberry this week.”