The new girl was saying cheerfully, “Speak now. ‘Tis your cue."
‘She has got to be kidding,’ said the voice inside my head.
“Umm,” said my actual voice, demonstrating my extraordinary ability to throw a wet blanket over any conversation.
In my defense, I should mention that I am the lucky victim of a scholarship for an elite education to this boarding school. My parents said it was an opportunity for me to “improve” myself, and it probably was. What we didn’t know when I started last year was that elite education came with kids from elite backgrounds, whose privilege and wealth intimidated freshman me straight into social invisibility.
Though I had begged not to return for my sophomore year, my parents felt I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth; I have no idea what that meant, but there I was on moving-in day, not even remotely surprised that I was the only one who had not signed up for a roommate.
‘Because no one wants to room with me,’ the voice inside my head explained. ‘I am not fashionable, don’t talk about the right things, don’t play on a team. Oh, and not popular. That last one kind of goes without saying.’
The roommate designations in the corridor indicated only “New Girl” in the slot by my name for room # 2B. Everyone else was running around shrieking at who they’d been paired up with as though they had just won a state championship, wrapping each other in the kinds of hugs you would expect from families greeting returning prisoners of war, dragging enough luggage down the halls to cover a potential apocalypse.
‘No one shrieking here,’ the voice inside my head noted as I dropped my bags down in the painfully barren 2B. ‘No hugging, no chatting, no making plans for decorating.’ The silence in 2B provided a painful contrast to the screaming in the halls.
“Are you Zooey?”
The new girl stood in the doorway. The light from the quad behind her framed a straight-backed silhouette brimming with confidence. She stepped into the room.
‘She is so much prettier than me,’ my voice was quick to observe. Her skin was flawless, her face an attractive oval, her black hair plaited into those complicated braids the athletes do, her figure nicely set off in brand name jeans. ‘Oh, check, check, and check,’ said my voice. ‘She ticks all the boxes of the popular girl.’
I considered the optimistic view that my status could improve through proximity to this pinnacle of the social hierarchy. ‘Dream on,’ my voice piped up with predictable pessimism. ‘I do not have flawless skin, my face is an unattractive pie pan, my hair an unassuming brown, my figure functional at best in bargain store clothing. Pushing me up the social ladder would require a forklift.’
The new girl strode right over to me and stuck out a hand. “Hi! I’m Ariel.” She smiled, a high wattage smile that would put a politician to shame.
‘Oh, she’s good,’ my voice informed me. ‘She’ll play nice to my face, but head right out to ask the dorm mother to switch as soon as she finds out what a loser I am. Which shouldn’t be long.’
I shook her hand as it appeared she wasn’t going to lower the wattage on that smile until I did. “Zooey,” I said like a dumbass since she'd already said my name. ‘Well, that’s just perfect,’ my voice added. ‘We are the opposite ends of the alphabet. How apropos.’ I’d learned the word apropos in English last year and really taken a shine to it.
Apropos: appropriate to a particular situation. This situation was apropos: even my name was in last place.
I waited for Ariel to roll her eyes at my inability to produce more than my name.
She did not roll her eyes. She plopped down on the bed, looked at me with what appeared to be unfeigned enthusiasm, and said, “This year is going to be great!”
‘This roommate is going to become head cheerleader in like two seconds,’ my voice predicted. ‘She will grace the halls with her presence, and all will greet her as befits royalty. Meanwhile, I will be nominated for wallflower of the year for the second year in a row.’ That wasn’t true, of course; there is no competition for wallflower of the year.
Ariel leaned forward. “Tell me something about yourself.” Bright black eyes beamed at me. Really. Beamed.
My brain went completely blank, like I blacked out. When I came to, the new girl was saying cheerfully, “Speak now. ‘Tis your cue."
‘She has got to be kidding,’ said the voice inside my head.
“Umm,” said my actual voice.
“My bad,” the new girl said. “I tend to throw random quotations into the conversation. That was Much Ado About Nothing.”
When I had nothing to contribute to that, she went on undeterred. “So, I’ll say one thing, you say one thing.” She looked thoughtfully around the room. “My mom went to this school. She said it was the best time of her life.”
I thought it was an odd place to start but, having become nothing if not a follower of those more socially savvy than myself, I said, “My Dad runs a hardware store, and my mom is a librarian.”
“Oh, I love hardware!”
‘Seriously? Nobody “loves” hardware. Who does she think she’s kidding?’ my voice demanded. I felt a wave of cynicism threaten to cut off my powers of reasoning.
Apparently, she felt the need to carry on in her charade. “I really like making things with my hands.”
She looked at me with the ‘your turn’ expression on her face people wore in therapy when they’d pass the talking stick. “My dad has a shop in his back yard. I used to like working out there with him,” I admitted.
‘Red alert!’ shouted the voice in my head. ‘Stop talking! Only an idiot likes to work in their dad’s shop. She’s just messing with you.’
“That is awesome to have a dad you can do something like that with,” she enthused. “My dad left when I was little.”
‘Sensitive territory,’ my voice cautioned. ‘She’s going to share trauma any minute now because that is how people get other people to like them.’ I don’t have any trauma to share besides the trauma of my daily life as a high schooler. No one wants to hear about that.
But I had to say something, so I gave it the old high school try. “I’m sorry to hear that. What’s your mom do?”
For a minute I thought I had propelled her straight into stage 2 trauma, but she just said, “She’s an actress. Off Broadway.”
‘Of course she is,’ said my voice. ‘New girl has a famous actress for a mother. The golden ticket to popularity.’
“That’s cool,” I said out loud, underwhelming the conversation with my sparkle and wit.
“Yeah, it’s OK.” Her voice did not sound like it was OK. She changed tactic. “So, let’s see. I’ve travelled around kind of a lot. My last school was in Switzerland.”
‘Oh for crying out loud, will the litany of wonderfulness never end?’ I summoned all my energy and said out loud, “That’s cool.” Have I mentioned I lack social skills?
Here’s the thing: she didn’t ask to switch roommates. She didn’t make condescending remarks about my thrift store wardrobe as she was unpacking an array of brand names. She didn’t mock me for coming from a small town in Vermont rather than straight off the Alpine slopes.
‘This is deeply confusing,’ my voice said.
“How should we decorate?” Ariel asked.
‘She is apparently going to proceed as if she’s actually OK with me as a roommate,” my voice said. Even it sounded surprised in my head.
When I gave her a guided tour of the campus, she was greeted with friendly waves. People started conversations with her. She included me in them. Every. Single. Time. It was kind of nice. ‘Yeah, but kind of insulting too,’ my voice pointed out, “to bask in social acceptance only as a result of standing next to her.’ It wasn’t wrong.
I needed a break. “Look, I’ve gotta go sign up for Theater.” I worked on crew last year as their scenic painter.
“Oh, fantastic! I was hoping to join.”
“They’re doing Beauty and the Beast. Auditions are the end of the week.” The longest sentence I had assembled so far.
“I don’t want to audition. I want to be on crew, make set pieces and props.”
‘You must be kidding,’ my voice said, metaphorically rolling its eyes. ‘She’s going to be radiating wonderfulness on the crew with me also?’ Aloud, I stammered, “I figured, you know with your mom—”
“Oh hell no. That’s her gig. So not into it. I had to rehearse lines for her plays with her. Endless nights spent reciting Shakespeare, Simon, Ives. But I spent my days backstage with the set crew. You thought I was faking about liking hardware, didn’t you?”
When I didn’t answer, she just went on, not taking offense at my unspoken confirmation of her remark. “I really do like making things work. Do you think they’ll let me join crew?” She asked it like there was a huge demand to work on the sets in high school theatricals.
So that’s how we spent our afternoons. In the theater. She for real liked figuring out how to turn a human into a clock or a teapot. When she made mistakes, she would berate herself with made-up Shakespearean insults. “Oh, you errant hedge-pig!” she’d shout. Or “You artless barnacle! You gleeking maggot-pie!” The rest of the crew started doing it too. It was funny.
I spent a lot of time painting the monstrous castle walls. That is apropos, a wall flower painting the walls.
One day I was busy being a wall flower in the theater shop, when Celeste, the lead actress, stuck her head in. She is a colossal diva. Her next level privilege is the bane of our existence. She gave us a look that suggested she had stumbled onto the wrong side of the tracks and said, “I’m looking for Fred,” referring to the play’s Gaston.
‘Obviously not in the shop, dipshit,’ my voice answered her silently.
“Obviously not in the shop, you saucy canker-blossom!” Ariel sang out cheerfully.
“Excuse me?” Celeste squawked. She gave every appearance of either staging an epileptic fit or asking to speak to the manager.
Ariel stepped forward and with absolute confidence faced this outrageous drama queen. “Not. In. The. Shop. And we’re using tools here, so you shouldn’t be either.” Then she steered her out the huge metal doors, saying pleasantly, ‘I do desire that we may be better strangers.’” Closing the door on Celeste’s startled expression, she added, “As You Like It,” to give attribution to her source material.
The shop broke out in applause. “We did like it,” Thomas hollered, missing the Shakespearean reference.
“That was awesome,” I told her back in the dorm that night. “I could never have done that.”
“Why do you always run yourself down?”
That caught me off guard because I didn’t realize it was obvious to other people.
“You don’t even know, do you?” she challenged. “I bet you have a voice in your head telling you you aren’t as good as everyone else, don’t you?”
I didn’t answer, but she folded her arms and gave me the stink eye.
“Only since I got here, last year,” I confessed.
“I used to be the same.”
She nodded. “Listen, my mom is a total bitch. Nothing was ever good enough. I grew up so insecure. I’d dress to hide myself so she wouldn’t comment about what I was eating. I stopped talking so she wouldn’t say what an idiot I was. You get the point. She sent me to boarding school in Switzerland to “cultivate some class,” to use her words.”
“Way. Everyone there was stinking rich, famous, or both. I felt like a turd dropped onto a fancy dinner plate. Do you have any idea what it is like to constantly compare yourself to the kids of the rich and famous? The worst.”
‘Oh, I have a pretty freaking good idea,’ my voice answered, but before I could say it out loud, she went on.
“I had a breakdown. They sent me home. Mom actually hired a tutor for me, to teach me how to talk – no, converse, how to make friends, how to stand right, and dress right, and do my makeup right.”
“You are kidding.”
“No. I’m not. Did it work?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, when I first came here, did you think I was, you know, like a popular kind of person?”
“See? It worked. But coming here I was scared I’d have to room with some popular kid who could spot a fake a mile away. No offense, but when I saw you, I was so relieved. You looked like you really didn’t give a shit as long as I left you alone.”
“I sound like a bitch.”
“You come off like one.”
My jaw fell open. On the floor. In need of being physically picked up and re-attached. ‘She did not just say that!’ my voice roared in my head.
“There was a line in one of mom’s plays,” Ariel went on, seemingly oblivious to my shock. “‘You have a February face, so full of frost, of storm, of cloudiness.’ Much Ado About Nothing. You are so aware you don’t fit in that you shut your face down. It makes it hard for people to know you, much less like you.”
‘Tell me what you really think, why don’t you?’ my voice said. I floundered for some shred of dignity and produced, “Well, I don’t care what other people think.”
“Except you do. I did too, or I wouldn’t have been so miserable. It’s a paradox.”
Paradox: a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement that may have truth. We just learned that word in English. “Like I want to be popular, but don’t want to at the same time,” I said.
“Exactly! We’re a pair of paradoxes!”
“But you seem so, I don’t know, comfortable with yourself.”
“Full disclosure: the tutoring was helpful in some ways. He taught me to stand straight, look people in the eyes, pay attention to them, project confidence even if I didn’t feel it and not to anticipate that the world was looking down on me. Those are good skills. The rest, the hair and makeup and clothes, they don’t matter.”
“I’m pretty sure they matter in this world.” I thought the voice in my head said it, but it turned out I’d spoken out loud.
“Here, I’ll show you.” She switched out my thrift store outfit with her A&F clothes. Did my hair into a kind of cool twisty bun, made up my face with just a few strokes of contour, liner, and gloss.
I stood at the mirror and was startled by an attractive stranger.
“I look pretty good,” I said grudgingly. “But…” She’d gone to all this trouble, and I felt like I was looking a gift horse in the mouth; again, not sure I am using that right, but mostly, I just felt awkward. Like a poser. “I don’t look like myself.”
“Exactly! You know, you only look like yourself when you’re painting.” She handed me a wipe. “Here, take off the makeup.”
I did, feeling my face emerge out from under the Ulta. She handed me the oversized shirt I wear to paint the sets, covered with flecks of color from three productions Then she messed up the twisty bun and stuck one of my paintbrushes through it before pivoting me to face the mirror. “Take the paintbrush and just pretend you’re painting your own portrait in the mirror. Don’t look at the mirror. Paint the portrait.”
It was super awkward for a minute and then I totally forgot myself as I began to see only the lines and shapes, shadows and highlights.
“Zooey!” I turned to Ariel, startled. Apparently, she’d been saying my name. “That’s when you look like yourself. When you’re absorbed in something outside yourself, not always thinking about yourself.”
“I’m not always thinking about myself!” I was stunned by the accusation.
“Yeah, you are. Comparing yourself to others, telling yourself negative things. That’s thinking about yourself.”
I did a passable imitation of a fish, opening and closing my mouth with nothing coming out. Partially because I was too offended to speak. Partially because she was right. I wanted to hit her. I wanted to cry. I wanted my snarky voice to come to the rescue and say something mean. The thing is, my voice only said mean things to me.
“Look. You don’t need everyone else’s approval. You do need your own.”
‘How did my roommate suddenly become a motivational speaker?’ my voice snarked in my head.
‘Shut up,’ I said back. It felt so, so good.
And that's when I turn. I straighten my shoulders and look directly at the girl in the mirror.
“Speak now. ‘Tis your cue.” Ariel looks pleased with herself.
“I look amazing.”
I wait for the voice inside my head to point out that Ariel is still prettier than me. Only it doesn't say anything, and even if it had, I don’t care.
The new girl in the mirror smiles back at me.