The Freshman Fifteen

changeIt wasn’t as though I was gay or anything.  But I couldn’t deny the weird fascination I had for Libby Edwards. She sat three rows ahead of me in Modern Lit., and spent most of the fifty-minute session chewing determinedly on a pencil.  Once I’d watched as she chewed a No. 2 until it split in half.  She’d calmly spat the lead into her palm and placed the two halves on the desk in front of her. The person sitting next to her, a wormy little guy with greasy hair and glasses had glanced at her with disgust and she’d shrugged as if to say, So I chew my pencils in half. What’s it to you? That made me smile and Professor Simmons had called on me to answer a question, thinking I had smiled at him. Libby, and almost everyone else, had turned to look at me as I stumbled through my answer, which demonstrated that clearly I hadn’t done the assigned reading.

Libby leaned her head to one side as I stuttered, and winked her encouragement. I managed a half smile in return. Professor Simmons noticed the exchange, but simply turned his back to the room and continued with his lecture.

After class, Libby had slowly gathered her things, stuffing them into the large crocheted knapsack that she always carried. I’d heard her telling someone the week before that she’d made it herself, that she crocheted and knitted when she was tense and had dozens of bags, scarves and pashminas and throws that she didn’t know what to do with.

So you must get tense a lot, huh, was the reply.

Oh, all the time, Libby said.

I wanted so badly to meet her, to become her friend, that it was almost an obsession with me.  She seemed like exactly the kind of girl I’d always wanted to be – effortlessly attractive, with an eclectic style, smart, funny, brave.  I sometimes spotted her in the dining hall where she tended to eat alone, or with a bunch of guys who looked like they were either in a band, or not terribly fond of showers.  She seemed not to care what was on her plate or whether she finished it or not. I myself was a bit of a glutton, craving food constantly. My roommate told me that she was surprised I managed to stay as thin as I was, given how I could “pack it in.”

Libby invariably picked at her plate, taking a few bites and then pushing it aside.  She seemed to need only just enough to fuel her body, seemed not to care about taste. Actually, to think about it, that also extended to the way she dressed.  She wore combinations of clothing that were so counterintuitive as to be almost lunatic. Like a pair of Converse sneakers and a tulle skirt that looked like a tutu.  She wore tiny tees over long-sleeved rugby shirts; and once a plaid kilt over a pair of jeans.  Her hair was wild and curly and nappy and long.  And she had a smooth mocha latte complexion that was as unblemished as a baby’s.  She never wore any make-up, but her nails were always painted, and always in wild colors, like neon green and the orange of those plastic cones that road crews use. She fidgeted a lot, in addition to the pencil chewing, often worrying buttons right off her clothing, or pulling at loose threads until she’d unraveled her hem.

I was the opposite. Having finally made it away from my parents, and to a small liberal arts college (that was supposed to give me the guts to be the rebel I’d always suspected I was) the nerviest thing I had managed to do was wear tank tops without a bra, allowing my 34Cs to hang free. Despite my best efforts, I could feel my mother’s disapproval rise in my own chest whenever someone offered me a joint. And I never considered sleeping with some cute guy just for the hell of it, still insisting to myself that love mattered.  Whatever “love” was.  Maybe I was in love with Libby Edwards.  I certainly thought about her enough.

Near the end of the fall semester, Professor Simmons announced a class project. We were assigned to groups of four. He gave each group sample chapters from four novels that we were to read, and together propose one for publication.  Our instructions were to consider not only the quality of the writing, but the marketability.  It was an exercise that I guess was supposed to illustrate the arbitrary nature of the modern publishing house.  But that didn’t matter to me.  What mattered was that I’d been put in a group with Libby.  The other two people were a cute, pert blonde girl named Kylie and an Asian guy named Yeoh, who had features so fine they could be described as exquisite.

After the assignment was announced, we all exchanged numbers and made plans to meet that evening at the coffee shop on campus. Libby walked with me as we left the room, squinting down at the paper where she’d written everyone’s numbers.

“Kylie?” she said.  “This can’t possibly be right.  Someone is named Kylie?”

“Well, there’s also Kylie Minogue,” I reminded her.  “The singer.”

Libby rolled her eyes.

I smiled politely.

“What if I just pretended to read my novella,” Libby wondered out loud.  “I mean, who would know?”

“We would.  Your group,” I pointed out.

“Yes, but only if you read it. And anyway, what if none of us read what we were supposed to read? Who would know then?”

I smiled again, not quite getting her drift.

“I mean, it’s all bullshit anyway. We could just pick one of the damn novellas and tell him we picked it using that stupid process he wants us to use, and then we could all use the extra time working on classes where the grade is actually based on something objective.”

“You don’t think the grade in this class is based on anything objective?”

“Hell no. I mean, who’s to tell what good writing is? And who’s to say that your interpretation of literature is any less valid than anyone else’s?  Or any more valid for that matter?”

“I guess,” I said uncertainly. I was wishing I had something more insightful to say, something that proved I was on her wavelength. That I was as smart as she was.

“The point is,” Libby continued. “Just because he got some school to stick the letters Ph.D after his name doesn’t make Simmons one bit smarter than we are.”

“Well it does mean he has a little more experience in this area than we do,” I said, surprised at how defensive it sounded.

I hadn’t told anyone – and had only recently confessed it to myself – but I wanted to be an English professor myself. Someone who taught literature while writing The Great American Novel.

“Oh, I have experience alright,” Libby said, deliberately misunderstanding me.  “I have experiences that would make ol’ Simmons’ hair curl.”

I smiled because it was exactly the kind of thing that I had always known she was capable of saying, even though before today we had never spoken. I felt like I knew her. Like we’d been friends for years.

#

The first time the group met, we were all supposed to have read one chapter of one of the novellas and report out what we thought of it. I came prepared with a marked up copy of my assigned reading, along with typewritten notes that recommended that the novella not be published, and an outline of reasons why. When it was my turn, I dutifully passed out copies of my notes and went into an exhaustive discussion of what I’d read.  Everyone listened patiently, even Libby whose only reaction was to occasionally look up at me from under her eyelashes. When I was done, I leaned back in my seat and waited for reactions.

“Sounds thorough to me,” Yeoh said. “So I guess we’re not recommending this one.”

“I have a question.” Libby said.  She was tugging at the buckle on her black patent leather Mary Janes as she spoke. “How did the chapter make you feel?”

I looked at her blankly.

“I mean, you talk about prose and syntax and rhythm. But this is all about a woman who realizes that she has to confront some difficult things from her past, including being raped when she was in high school. I was just wondering if that made you feel anything.”

I opened my mouth and closed it again, thinking. “It did,” I said finally.  “It made me feel something.”

Libby looked up expectantly. Kylie and Yeoh were both also waiting for me to go on.

“It made me feel — a sense of loss. And sadness,” I admitted.

Kylie pursed her lips and Yeoh looked down at his feet as though I’d confessed an embarrassing personal detail. Libby smiled at me.

“Well.  Then that changes everything, doesn’t it?”

Kylie and Yeoh looked from Libby to me and back again, waiting for us to reach a resolution.  Not wanting to intercede.

I shrugged.  “But maybe it’s the subject matter that made me feel that way. Not the writing.”

“So?”

I didn’t have a response to that.  And suddenly, I kind of hated her for showing me up.

“My only point is that maybe the only thing makes writing good is whether or not it makes us feel something, don’t you think?”

“Yes, but the structure —” Yeoh interjected.

“Screw structure.  Look a James Joyce for crying out loud.  The structure of Portrait of the Artist as Young Man was damn near incomprehensible, but because of the way it made people feel, it’s a classic.”

This time I wasn’t the only person rendered incapable of producing a counterargument.  I could feel Yeoh and Kylie both assessing Libby with new eyes.

“Anyway, that’s just my two cents,” she said leaning back into her seat.

“Maybe we should do the next one?” Kylie suggested.

Yeoh shrugged.  “Sure.”

When our session was done, we’d decided to recommend my book and Yeoh’s for publication. I gathered my things slowly, but I could feel Libby hanging back. She was waiting for me at the door as I exited the building and fell into step with me.

“I made you mad, didn’t I?” she said.

“No,” I lied. “You were right.”

“I wasn’t trying to be right,” Libby said. “I just had an opinion. Sometimes I come off as condescending —.”

“You didn’t,” I cut her off and continued walking.

“Hey!”

I stopped and turned to look at her.

“I’m trying to apologize here,” she said, lowering her voice.

“No reason to,” I said, meaning it this time.

It had been foolish of me to take her feedback so personally. The truth was, I hadn’t cared much what Yeoh or Kylie thought. I didn’t even care what Professor Simmons thought when I did my assignment. I’d been thinking only about how Libby would react. I wanted her to think I was smart, maybe worthy of being her friend or something dumb like that.

“Let’s go get something to eat,” Libby said. “You hungry?”

I nodded. “Yeah.”

We went off-campus to a Chinese restaurant nearby. Libby ordered Wor Shu Duck, one of those dishes that no one else would think of getting. I stuck to the standard chicken with broccoli and egg roll and we sat in a booth near the back.

“You going to Rascal Flatts tonight?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“You know who they are, right?”

“Of course.”

“I know. They can get a little sappy, but I’m a sucker for that stuff.” Libby propped a leg up on the edge of our table and yanked her tights where they’d become bunched up in the rear of her shoe. “And when else are you going to get to see them for like, twenty bucks?”

“I guess I never really listened to country music,” I said.

“They’re so much more than ‘country music’ though,” Libby said leaning forward for emphasis.  “If I get you a ticket will you check them out?”

“I’m sure they’re probably sold out,” I said.

“We’ll check,” Libby said.  “Oh good, here’s our food.”

Libby talked non-stop as she ate. She talked about her roommate, whom she hated; she talked about her other classes, which were “crazy-difficult” and her high school experience, which was “nightmarish beyond belief”. I found it hard to believe she hadn’t been really popular, but it was true that while high school had been about fitting in, college was about standing out. And Libby definitely stood out. Even though we were just in our first semester, I had a feeling that she would make a name for herself here.

“So what’s your story?” she asked finally. “You keep so quiet in class but I just know you’ve got all these gears turning in that head of yours.” She reached across and lightly tapped me on the forehead.

I shrugged. “I don’t have a story.”

Libby stopped and held her fork mid-air, looking me directly in the eye.  “Of course you do. Everyone does.” She resumed eating. “And one of these days, you’re going to tell it to me.”

While walking back to campus, she jaywalked at every light while I dutifully waited until it was safe to cross.  Libby beckoned me playfully from the other side.

“Jump in!” she called.  “The water’s fine!”

I smiled at her but still waited.

She stuck with me until we got to my dorm, where she scribbled my phone number again.

“I’m getting that Rascal Flatts ticket and we’re going,” she said.  “Eight o’clock tonight. I’ll make a fan out of you yet.” And then she actually blew me a kiss as she walked away.

I felt ridiculously buoyant as I headed up to my room. I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. I had never been friends with someone as cool as Libby. And we were even going to a concert together! Suddenly my freshman year was beginning to look up.

#

            Eight o’clock came and went and there was no word from Libby. My mood darkened.  I was disappointed, then angry, then embarrassed. How stupid it had been for me to think that she meant it! Girls like her had dozens of choices for how to spend their time and who to spend it with. They were like emotional sluts, spreading themselves around so that everyone loved them, but never truly caring about anyone but themselves.  I promised myself I would be as cool as a cucumber when I saw her next. We had one more meeting of our little Modern Lit. group on Saturday afternoon and I wouldn’t mention a word about the concert. She wouldn’t know that I’d pulled my favorite jeans out of the laundry bag and run a special load just so I could wear it, or that I’d rummaged through my entire wardrobe looking for something – anything – that made me look trendy enough to hang out with her. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Then my roommate came charging into our room around one in the morning. She was boozy and disheveled, but this was not unusual for Sarah on a Friday night.  Or most other nights of the week for that matter. She was a soccer player, and her life seemed to consist of three things – practice, drinking and sleeping off hangovers.  Our college experiences were so different, it was almost as though we attended different schools. But I liked her and found her funny, so didn’t mind the occasional puddle of throw-up or grunting hook-ups on the other side of the room when she thought I was asleep.

“Did you hear?” she demanded, flipping a switch and bathing our room in bright, fluorescent light.

I sat up and rubbed my eyes, preparing for some meaningless and arcane piece of gossip that was only important if you were intoxicated.

“No, what?”

“Some girl in Calvert House got murdered!”

I sat up straighter now.  “Oh my god!  What happened?”

“They still aren’t saying.” Sarah collapsed on the edge of my bed.  “There’s campus cops and town cops all over the place. They’ve roped off the entrance . . . it’s like a madhouse over there.”

“Does anyone know who she is?” I asked.

“I am so getting my Mom to come pick me up,” Sarah said, almost to herself. “I mean, how creepy is that? She just fucking got here, like us.”

“God,” I said quietly. “I wonder what if they’ve told her parents.”

“I don’t know, man.  But I’m calling my parents right now,” Sarah said getting up. She semi-stumbled toward her desk, rifling about for her cell phone.

“So are they saying who she is?” I asked again.

“Yeah.  I don’t know her. Some girl named Libby Edwards.”

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