All the birthday parties that year were insufferable: A three-dollar-signs-on-Yelp dinner, ruined by an extended worship to krautrock from a man who twirled his wine before every sip. And: Five crowded around a Craigslist coffee table, eating Trader Joe’s appetizers in an apartment too large for its furnishings—celebrating the twenty-third of a woman in tech, still unfamiliar to her money. And: Vodka from Costco. Annie blames herself for that one. She should have set down her re-gifted gift bag and slipped her shoes back on. But he worked for that record label, and she really wanted that internship. A suffering smile for the job—unlikely, yes, but they said she was a real opportunist.
That year, in particular, Annie always felt like she had to pee. She became obsessed with it, the publicness of peeing, the performance of it all, announcing her brief respites with confident grandeur. A full bladder brought comfort, its inconvenience distracting from the anxiety of being an overachiever in college, if only slightly. Annie cherished each one like a child: Released into the world every time she squatted on a toilet seat, only to be reborn through the miracle of hydration. Her friends laughed when she told them this. They said she was just squandering for the metaphor, like a typical liberal artist. Annie was going to phone bank this weekend, and in high school she did release an EP of sad songs about a boy recorded from her bedroom, so she couldn’t quite take offense.
Sometimes she wondered if, as a feminist, she was reducing herself in the eyes of the beholder. Her friends (the ones with alternative lifestyle haircuts, who were currently trying to convince her to get a septum) narrowed their eyes and asked, what do you care what other people think? This question, along with the rattle and spit of her ancient radiator, kept her up at night.
“Lately I’ve had a thing for all the things you can do with a bottle of extra virgin olive oil,” the guy said. He was wearing an offensively purple button-up and sat down loudly next to Annie and Adrienne. Bits of chicken were stuck between his teeth. “The bottle, I mean, not the oil. You can roll it under your feet as a massager. Fill it with decorative pine cones, or a tiny ship.”
Annie stared at her half-started counterpoint composition due in ten hours with a quiet intentionality. Adrienne, who wore winged eyeliner even on Sundays, nodded with the trademark enthusiasm of a woman well worn from unwanted attention.
The guy (like many other guys) took it as an invitation. “Musical instrument. Blow on it, find its resonant frequency. I’m a physics major, you know,” he said, as Annie shifted her notebook to avoid collision with an accidentally spit half-chewed chunk of salad. She was proud of this: Being good at dodging bullets, a pleasure to have in class.
“Oh, what year are you?” asked Adrienne, instead of saying the things she wanted to, because it was the polite thing to do.
“I’m a super-senior. This is my last semester,” the guy said. “I wanted to come to the dining hall one last time before I graduated. Let me tell you ladies, the salad bar is a luxury you sacrifice when you have your own place.”
“And where do you live?” asked Adrienne, who did have her own place off campus, since the price of a dorm was half of her family’s income.
“On the west side of the mountain. The commute’s a bitch, but the rent is cheaper, ‘cause there’s less techies there, you know.”
“Ugh, gentrification, I know!” agreed Adrienne, who was a computer science major.
All three of them were in their university dining hall, built on the east side of the mountain. Every day, a human-sized blow-up cake by the entrance wished them a Happy Birthday!, as if the statistical likelihood of requisite celebration could bring an existential humbling so easily forgotten in papers and projects and counterpoint compositions. Today was Wednesday, so individual trays of carrot cake lined the sweets shelf (tomorrow, vegan brownies). Annie swore there was nothing sadder than bad dessert. Later in life she would be well accustomed to the disappointment of good intent.
“You get it!” exclaimed the guy, and bent down to retrieve something from his backpack, straining his already struggling shirt buttons. “I actually came here to tell you about a show I’m playing this evening.” He handed two photocopied flyers to Annie and Adrienne. There was a sharpie drawing of a topless woman giving head to a lollipop, captioned “TOOTSIE ROLL FRANKENSTEIN.”
“That’s our band,” explained the guy. “I’m Frank. I’m the lead guitar. My friend Fred drew this. He’s rhythm guitar.”
“That’s not a Tootsie Roll,” said Annie, not commenting on the woman.
“It’s 10 p.m. at the Gerlock Tavern,” said Frank. “Usually it’s 21-plus, but since I like you both so much, I’ll put you ladies on the guest list. VIP treatment, drink some free booze, meet the guys. We do Yes covers, and also requests, but no ‘Freebird.’”
When neither of them laughed, Frank asked, “So, what are your names?”
“I’m Mary and she’s Molly,” said Adrienne, as Frank scribbled on the back of his hand. Mary and Molly were the names of Adrienne’s favorite characters in a popular television series.
“Mary and Molly,” repeated Frank. “You know, M&M’s were my favorite candy to get while trick-or-treating.” This was not true; Frank was diabetic. He dreaded every November first, when his friends would pack three candy bars with their school lunches to recover from their one night stands with ghosts and monsters. We all lied for those we loved, or at least wanted to love.
Adrienne refrained from making a bad reference to the white rap artist, because she had a personal rule to not lie more than five times a day, and because she didn’t want to cheapen her personality with pop culture references.
“I’m going to get a carrot cake,” said Frank. He was always worried the dining hall would run out of dessert, and he wouldn’t get his money’s worth. “Truly, meeting you two was the highlight of week. Even if you, Molly, could have smiled more.”
Annie, violently jerked back into the conversation, knew Frank was looking at her, expecting something. Why could she deal with gendered discourse with such poise and sophistication in her essays, yet freeze up when told to smile by a guy who handed out naked women to promote his shitty punk band? She felt flustered, like she swallowed a hot lump of coal whole. She wanted to drown in a pool of extra virgin olive oil, sacrificing her extra virgin body, another suicide-or-murder mystery for the press.
The summer before college Annie’s parents paid a nontrivial sum of cash to send her to a week-long enrichment program. “Practice active listening,” they told her, so she bore through all the birthday parties, emulating Adrienne’s nods. “Stay in action,” they said, so she wrote for the college newspaper even though she only did high school journalism to beef up her sparse resume. “Take risks,” they announced, asking each participant to write down a goal they’d commit to for the week. The point was to put the children outside of their comfort zone. Luckily, Annie’s comfort zone had a shoulder’s width radius. Let go of the little things. Dare to be different. Be yourself. It was Russian roulette with platitudes, and Annie landed on Volunteer to speak up more. But by the time she had won the internal battle to rise up to the occasion and shakily raised a hand in the air, the instructor had moved on.
With this in mind: Annie smiled. She smiled without teeth and returned Frank’s gaze. She, only eighteen, was trying to carve her space in womanhood. But blindfolded and equipped with a butter knife, she instead often found herself pressed between the stalks of patriarchy—systematic and rooted, this she understood. But the resources! The solidarity! Where was the red thread, the trail of breadcrumbs, the axe with which to cut down the beanstalk, when she needed it the most?
Outside, some sort of bird started to sing, basking in the late noon sun. Since she began university, Annie had kept a notebook full of inspiration, marking page by page with the ruthless optimism of a new student in the creative arts. There was a poetry to molding the mundane, to twisting and bending and squeezing it dry, collecting droplets rupturing with infinite potential in a shallow plastic pail.
Seven hours later, the Wi-Fi went down.
Annie paced around her room. She was going to die.
Throughout the semester she had developed a very particular creative process, which involved modifying chord progressions of her favorite songs found on guitar tab websites. Midnight was in a bit over three hours, and in this story, Annie was Cinderella.
“What’s up, buttercup?” asked Adrienne, good, reliable Adrienne, who answered on the first ring.
“My counterpoint piece is due in like three hours. The Internet just cut out in here. I’m literally freaking out. Can I come over?” huffed Annie, though she knew the answer would be yes, and Adrienne would let Annie eat her snacks, too.
The walk up the mountain to Adrienne’s apartment left Annie breathless no matter how many times she did it. The towering steel buildings of campus slowly gave way to family homes with over-glorified gardens spilling out on the sidewalk. Annie noticed someone—a student, probably—stuck a glove on a fencepost, arranging its fingers as a cursory “fuck you” to the neighborhood. She passed by a middle-aged Asian couple, whose Pomeranian yanked on its leash to sniff at her ankles. Annie lived right on the border of this world of pups and honeysuckles, yet: The assignments, the deadlines. Life came both one measure at a time and also all at once, like a scherzo.
When Annie let herself in, Adrienne was asleep on the couch, head in CJ’s lap. “Hey Annie,” greeted CJ, who functioned as either Adrienne’s roommate, or friend with benefits, or girlfriend—no one actually knew, or cared enough to compartmentalize the sexuality of youth, really. That year, most people finally got over policing who other people rubbed genitals with: Because it was Love!, and Love!, in all its naïve blunders and sexy underwear, meant more wedding cakes and rainbow profile pictures to distract people from the harder issues, like being questioned by the police because of skin color, or being denied employment because of gender identity. Everyone was such great allies, for love.
“Hey guys,” replied Annie, who immediately wondered if she should have used a gender neutral term instead. “The Internet’s down in the dorm so I’m here to finish my music homework. I won’t be super fun for a few hours, sorry.” She removed herself from the narrative by putting on headphones.
Adrienne, half awake, and CJ made a noise of understanding. They, too, had so much work to do, but it was the kind of evening for sitting.
But as students in STEM, subscribed to the hard logic of work is worth, they couldn’t just nap and sit, really. They could, however, check email. CJ was waiting for her lab partner to send her the astronomy lab. Like Annie’s composition, it was due at midnight. But CJ, who began most applications with “As a queer black womyn” and had a lifetime of tokenization, wasn’t really worried. It was better than being killed in the streets, which happened a lot that year. It was simply a matter of perspective, which also happened to be the name of their school’s multicultural showcase tonight.
“I need to go pee,” announced Annie, who really just needed a break from her creative process. She thought peeing was a step above checking email in the human cognition ladder. She had just read an article about how computers could predict and automate email replies now, but hadn’t seen anything about them being able to strategically plan when to release their bladders.
“Great,” said CJ, as Annie closed the bathroom door.
While sitting on the old toilet, Annie noticed a bulk box of menstrual pads across from her. She suddenly felt the same hot flash of shame as in the encounter with Frank over lunch. In middle school, Annie would press her thighs together, sitting at uncomfortable angles and stealing glances at her seat while getting up to make sure she didn’t leave behind any spots of blood. Here was Adrienne, intentionally showcasing her period, architecting the heart of her bathroom. Annie sighed. There was still so much unlearning to do.
After washing her hands, she cupped them together under the sink, bringing the pool of water to her lips as if she was taking a ceremonial drink. She wouldn’t actually drink, for she believed tap water to be unholy, thanks to her childhood of filtered water from the fridge. But the metaphor! A baptism for this agnostic child. Let the tides carry you away, and rise, young Lazarus, amongst the sand crabs and broken glass.
“I’m going to Tootsie Roll Frankenstein,” she declared, returning from her break, to no one but herself. CJ, too, had fallen asleep. It was fine. Narrative reclamations needed no audience.
“Why would you ever do that,” mumbled Adrienne. She normally wouldn’t have asked such an obvious question, but no one was their best the moment they re-entered the waking world.
“I want to do something reckless,” admitted Annie. “Being brave is irresistible.” And terrifying, but beating hearts were private jewelry.
Adrienne stretched and yawned. “Like, an hour ago, you were freaking out about your music homework,” she whispered, as not to wake CJ.
“And now I’ve chosen to turn in what I have. I’m tired of working on it. My time is worth more,” replied Annie. In that same summer leadership camp, they told her grades didn’t matter. Annie thought it was hypocritical coming from college educated folk. Sure, no one cared about a B or two, but institutionalized failure was a whole ‘nother horse. All that wasted money.
“Annie, I love you, and that’s why I’m a skeptic. Let me ask: Is redemption really found at the mercy of sexists?”
“I just need to get out,” whispered Annie. Maybe there is crying.
“A change of perspective,” said Adrienne. Annie thought about the Asian couple on their walk, how content they were, complicit and painfully suburban. How fluffy their dog was. Surely their priorities had been hazed by middle age.
“No, I literally mean, A Change of Perspective,” said Adrienne, capitals and all. “It’s our school’s multicultural showcase. If we leave now we can catch the end of it. Transport yourself around the globe without ever leaving your seat. No airfare or anything.”
“Okay,” said Annie.
“Great, I’ll wake up CJ.”
Across campus, the Wi-Fi came back on.
In the end, that year was okay. Okay as in fine, as in passing with a C, as in drifting with the tide of life. The same okay as left-handed responses to disingenuous inquiries of “How are you doing?” by former classmates. I’m okay. Surviving. What’s new? Not much since the last time we met.
Annie, Adrienne, and CJ flashed apologetic smiles to the usher, who just shook her head, and slipped through wooden double doors. They scavenged, like vultures late to the feast, for seats of three amongst the debris of other friend groups.
On stage was a white girl wearing a cotton black dress. “Up next, we have a collaboration between Kathak and Fei Tian dance,” she said with the nervousness of someone self-aware that she struggled with names that weren’t Dave or Alex. “They will be returning to perform a mash-up of, uh…
“Hang-on, I misplaced my sheet.”
Who put her up there, thought Annie. Then: Was it bad of me to think that, because she’s a woman? Finally: Feminism hands out no free passes.
“Okay, I can’t find it. Sorry. They will be performing a mash-up of traditional Indian and Chinese dances! Please give it up for Kathak and Fei Tian!”
The girl bowed and swiftly retreated behind the velvet curtains, signaling on the stage lights. Intricate gold-embroidered silk gowns materialized to an eruption of cheers and performer shout-outs that felt strangely inappropriate to Annie. So much vibrant color on stage, only to be swept away in a month by final exams, replaced with grey sweatpants and coffee stains. It was in performances where Annie got her best ideas that year. Mesmerized, she would always forget to write them down in her inspiration journal, but the ideas would silently tuck themselves into her brain, popping up with little capes and good intention to save her from the agony of a blank Word document.
A violin playing some beautiful eastern melody began to reverberate through the hall. Immediately and inexorably Annie felt a deep sense of loss. On the downbeats, the Kathak dancers hopped in a line, reforming their precise, pinched hands and jangling the ghungroos around their ankles. Dressed in long, flowing garments, the Fei Tian dancers alternated waving their arms and fans, like shoots of bamboo brushed by the wind.
Annie looked over to Adrienne, who had CJ’s face pressed into her shoulder. Adrienne returned her glance. “Come here,” she murmured, and Annie followed. With her head against her friend’s, Annie decided her biggest regret in life was that she would not live long enough to immerse herself in all the cultures of the world. She was on a quest for something real, something to transcend the clichéd, expensive summer camp advice and her stupid, worn metaphors. But for now, in the familiar anonymity of the dark auditorium, tired from the long day, Annie closed her eyes and soon fell asleep.
title from the st. vincent song