WORLD’s 2018 Books of the Year
Eleventh in a once-a-quarter series of short short stories. Read previous stories at wng.org/shortstories.
Esperanza grew up poor, without a dad but with a chessboard. All the other chess nerds in high school wanted to sleep with her. She told them that anyone who checkmated her king could also checkmate her. She knew no one ever would.
Esperanza won a scholarship to the University of Texas and moved into a freshman dorm. She didn’t have the cash to keep up with her sorority roommate so she felt right in shoplifting clothes. She got away with it every time until a security guard caught her. No problema: She flashed her student ID and convinced the guard that her rich lawyer-dad would sue him if he pursued the matter. “I beat the system,” she bragged to friends.
Esperanza had a rebellious sophomore year. She hooked up with Mike Khan, the leading campus Marxist. She signed many radical petitions. But when he dropped out, she started playing chess again and met Larry Gardner, a UT professor who advised the chess team. He was a Christian, so she told him if he ever beat her she’d go to church with him. Once he did, then she did—and gained both a Father in heaven and a different faith.
‘When you’re accused superficially, people who care will know or learn what’s true.’
Ten years later she was a professor herself, with a million subscribers to her YouTube channel, and an adviser to a presidential candidate. Because she was pretty and winsome, the campaign asked her to talk about the candidate with male reporters. She worked out of her home in northwest Austin but always met them at the Capitol or some other public place.
One of The New York Times’ most distinguished political writers saw a photo of Esperanza and decided to profile her. He said it was important to portray her in her office, so could he drop by at 3 p.m. and ask a few questions? Esperanza was flattered. She had read articles by and about him so he certainly wasn’t like a horny sophomore. He was married with grown daughters. It would be midafternoon. She said yes.
It turned out to be not midafternoon but 5:57. “Still afternoon but barely,” he said when he knocked on her door. “Got hung up doing another interview,” he apologized. Esperanza smelled his breath and suspected he had interviewed a bottle, but he was from The New York Times, so she minded her manners and let him in.
He asked for a drink of water and followed her into the kitchen. She explained she was putting in new appliances and everything was way behind schedule, so for two weeks she had lived without a refrigerator, stove, or microwave. “How did you manage?” he asked. She explained: An electric kettle heated water, so for breakfast she had instant oatmeal supplemented by flaxseed and powdered peanut butter. Soy milk in individual boxes didn’t need refrigeration. She liked apples and bananas, and opened cans of black beans and peas.
Then things got weird, and bad. The two-timing Mr. Times backed her up against a counter and pressed his face on hers. She broke from his grasp and said, “Let’s keep this professional.” A minute later he left angry. A week later Esperanza read the profile and was horrified. He had portrayed her as a Luddite who used only an electric kettle and claimed refrigeration was unnecessary: “I like to eat apples and bananas.”
One story led to another. The New York Post called her “herb girl.” Other profilers plagiarized the Times, making Esperanza sound like Ridicula. At the Church of Adullam on Sunday, she blurted to mentor Larry, “I hate it that millions of people think I’m an airhead.”
Gardner smiled. “Es, they’re not thinking about you. They’re thinking about what they’ll have for dinner. Besides, don’t you think you’re getting off easy?”
Esperanza was astounded: “You think humiliation is easy? ‘Herb girl’?”
Gardner explained: “When you’re accused superficially, people who care will know or learn what’s true. But think about what wasn’t in the article. Do you remember what you signed when you were a sophomore? What if the Times guy had been a good reporter and connected you with Mike Khan?”
Esperanza laughed: “Good point. But he’ll never be back in my life again.”
She was wrong.