When I get home, Kate is standing in front of the mirror in the hallway, wearing her graduation gown and posing, a rolling pin standing in for her sheepskin. “What do you think?” she says, smiling. “Teeth or no teeth? I have this recurring nightmare that I’ll stress eat at the buffet, eat a bunch of broccoli quiche or something and my graduation photo will feature a big glob of green shit between my front teeth.”
She smiles at the mirror again, this time with her lips closed. “Ugh. And that looks smug as hell. Maybe I’ll just take my chance with the arugula and Photoshop it after the fact.”
“Kate,” I say, still quivering with confusion. “I need to talk to you.”
“Okay,” she says, taking off her cap. “What’s up?”
“He was at the toystore.”
“Him. Crispian Neigh.”
She looks annoyed for a moment and then begins to giggle. “What was he buying in a toystore? No…no…don’t tell me. Star Wars? Was it Star Wars collectibles? Figures he’d be into something like that.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, my face hot and my bowels hotter. “Something like that?”
“He’s a nerd, Hanna. He’s like King of the Nerds. As soon as he made his first million he dropped like a hundred thou at auction on some piece of yak hair that comprised the original Chewbacca’s original ass. You know Scarlett Johanssen? You know how fucking hot she is? Well, she didn’t even blip on Crispian Neigh’s radar until she started doing those superhero movies. Then he was like ‘Oh, Scarlett – call me. I fucking love you and shit’ and she was like ‘Er…yeah – thanks but no thanks, Cheeto-fingers.'”
I’m screaming before I even know it. He called her? Another woman? A beautiful woman? A blonde? “Shut up!” I yell, freaked to the foundations by the idea of Crispian being dragged into this world of vulgar gossip and rich sluts who only want him for his money. “You shut the fuck up, Kate – you don’t know him! You don’t care about him!”
I’m crying but Kate has pressed the handle of the rolling pin under the tip of my nose, squishing it up like a pig’s nose. “Hey,” she says. “Don’t make me use this, Hanna. Jesus Christ, what the hell is eating you lately?”
“Nothing,” I sniff, pushing away the rolling pin. “I just…he can just call up Scarlett Johanssen.”
“Oh my God, you like him?”
I turn away and hide my face, ashamed of my own existence. “I’m a mousy brunette in a world of hot blondes…” I manage to say.
“Look,” says Kate, her hand on my shoulder. “Hanna, you’ve got to get over yourself. You’re kind of mousy, maybe, but that’s nothing a little confidence won’t cure. And see someone about the inner ear thing, maybe?”
I sob all the harder. My life is a tomb – black and cold and full of dead things. And bats. Probably bats. And maybe some kind of rising damp.
“Hanna, stop crying,” says Kate. “You’re not that bad. Actually, when you’re not falling over, bleeding from the nose or screaming crazily about sluts you’re…you know…you’re kind of pretty.”
Okay, so maybe not rising damp. I sniff hard and turn back round to face her. I don’t feel pretty. I’m red in the face from bawling and I still have weird hair from the padded helmet they make me wear at work. “I am?” I say.
“Sure. You’re hot. You’re a hottie. Once you get those split ends cut off and learn to use eyeliner properly you’ll be fucking fierce. And obviously, you know, stop dressing like the back room in an Amish rummage sale.”
I shake my head. “It’s no use. He’d never look twice at someone like me.”
Kate sighs. “What the hell did that shitlord say to you to make you feel like this?”
I swallow, my throat like a lump of iron. “He said ‘Call me’.”
Kate folds her arms and narrows her eyes. “He said what?” she says, her voice soft and dangerous.
“He said ‘call me’,” I say, and hand her the card. “And he gave me this.”
She takes the card, exhales slowly and says, “Give me your phone, Hanna.”
I take my phone out of my macrame purse and hand it to her. When she begins to dial I panic. “No, Kate, what are you doing – what are you doing?”
She holds the rolling pin aloft over my head, and by the look in her eye I don’t doubt that right now she would use it. Why am I always surrounded by crazy people? With her other hand she holds the ringing phone to her ear and while I want to scream, I’m conscious that she’s about to smack me quite hard over the head with a heavy lump of wood.
To my utter astonishment, when she opens her mouth to speak the voice that comes out is mine. “Hi,” she says. “It’s Hanna here – you said I should call you?”
“Kate?” I hiss.
She gives me an evil look and adjusts her grip on the rolling pin. “Okay…” she continues, in my voice. Oh crap – do I really sound so Wisconsin? “Yeah…okay. That’ll be great. I’ll see you there. Bye.”
She hands me back the phone. “You have a date,” she says, thin-lipped. “Tomorrow. In the Starbucks near the Heathman. He wants to have coffee with you.”
“But…I hate coffee,” I say. “I prefer tea.”
Kate makes a low, long hissing sound, like air escaping from a tire. “You know what it is, Hanna,” she says, slowly. “You’re perfectly okay looking. In fact, with the right clothes and make up you’d be a knockout. The problem isn’t your looks. The problem is that you’re an asshole.”
That night I dream of rare ponies, spelunking in dark, deep places and suspiciously large vegetables – cucumbers in particular. I shake off the clumsy symbolism and, rising from my bed, realise that today is the day I’m supposed to be going on a date with the billionaire Crispian Neigh.
Holy crap, I’m so nervous. What if my hair won’t behave? It’s bad enough that I’m not pretty or smart or forward or any of the other things that men like, but I don’t even know what to do before I date? Do I have to wax…things? I don’t know how to do that.
I make a cup of tea and stare into it morosely. Kate comes into the kitchen in her workout gear – skimpy crop top and skin tight leggings. She looks glossy and blonde and shiny, like she walked out of an advertisement, like everything I will never be.
“You’re narrating out loud again,” she says, giving me a dirty look as she takes the orange juice from the fridge. “And we’re not having this conversation again. Put on some lipstick, shave your hoo-ha and suck it up, buttercup – you’re not the first woman to feel insecure and you won’t be the last.”
“But I don’t know what to…”
Kate scowls. “Stop thinking about it, Hanna. I know you – you’ll work yourself into a goddamn stew, flake on the guy and then cry for a month, and there is not enough weed on the whole West Coast to get me through a solid month of your bullshit. And I’m counting California too – so you know I’m fucking serious. Just…finish your tea, take a shower, read your mail or something – just chill.”
She takes her orange juice and walks away. I take her advice and go through my mail – mostly junk, but there’s a letter with the University crest on the envelope. Maybe they’re giving me some kind of special award for my work.
I open the envelope and squeal – there’s a check for over eight thousand dollars. Eight thousand! I must have won a prize. I knock on Kate’s door but she tells me to go away, so I’m left to myself to decide what to do next. Maybe I should go and buy some new clothes, or maybe Kate will come and pick out clothes for me?
No, the proper thing to do would be to call the English Department and thank them for the money. So that’s what I do. I call Professor Jarrett at once and speak to her receptionist.
“I don’t understand what I’ve done to deserve this,” I say. “But thank you – thank you so much. Now I won’t feel so bad having coffee with a billionaire. Well, tea, because I don’t like coffee…”
“Wait,” says the receptionist. “Miss Squeal, did you read the letter? We’re reimbursing your tuition.”
“I know! It’s wonderful, thank you so much!”
There’s a mumbling at the other end of the line. “Becky,” someone says, in an undertone. “I don’t think she understands. You’d better talk to her.”
“Hannalore?” Professor Jarrett always calls me by my full name. She’s so proper and British. “This is Professor Jarrett – do you understand why we’re reimbursing your tuition?”
“Um…because I won some kind of scholarship?”
Professor Jarrett sighs down the phone. “Oh dear,” she says. “Look, I think you’d better come in. Probably best I speak to you in person.”
“Can it be this morning? I’m having coffee with a billionare this afternoon.”
Another sigh. “Yes, Hanna. Can you be here by eleven?”
I like Professor Jarrett, even though she’s blonde. She’s over forty though, so that cancels the blondeness out. When I enter her office her expression is serious – worried, even.
“Hello Hanna,” she says. “Please sit down.”
For an English Professor, she doesn’t have that many books in her room. And a lot of them look new. I thought people like her lived in places full of old books, with leather armchairs, like the library in Beauty and the Beast. But without the dancing cups and teapots, obviously. Because that would be weird.
“Hanna, do you have any idea why I asked you to come here today?” she asks.
“Because the department gave me a check for eight thousand dollars?”
She nods. “Yes,” she says, slowly. “We reimbursed your tuition. Hanna, there’s no easy way to say this, but you started out your senior year on academic probation and went downhill from there. To be honest I have no idea how you got that far – you are quite possibly the most illiterate student I have ever had the misfortune to teach.”
Everything sounds so smart in her language. She speaks with the accent of Shakespeare, Austen and the Bronte sisters. I picture fog in the streets of old London town, of cricket on the village green. One day I will go there, and become one of them – I’m way ahead already – I love tea, I’m really smart and I have off-white teeth.
Professor Jarrett quirks an eyebrow. “Hanna, are you even listening to a word I’m saying? Please try and pay attention – this isn’t pleasant for me, even after that thing you wrote on Tess of the D’Urbervilles.”
Oh, this is wonderful. I’m in my element. “I love Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It’s so romantic.”
“Ye-es,” says Professor Jarrett, taking a binder out of her desk drawer. “That’s exactly why I suspected you’d never actually read Tess. Or maybe you did and you simply didn’t understand it.”
“No, I did,” I murmur. “She has a choice between a dark, secretive man who is brooding and sexy or a man who is nice and fun but kind of boring.”
Professor Jarrett takes out a sheet of pink paper and I recognise last year’s essay on Thomas Hardy. “Right,” says Professor Jarrett. “That’s not Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hanna. That’s one of those Twilight books. Probably. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the one where an innocent country girl is raped and made pregnant against her will, a crime which exposes her to all of the double standards concerning the sexual behaviour of men and women at the tail end of the nineteenth century.”
“She wasn’t raped,” I quibble. “He fed her strawberries and was sexy in a dark and brooding way.” I wonder if Starbucks will bring us strawberries if we ask for them? And will he feed them to me? Oh my. “Where does it say she was raped?”
Professor Jarrett takes off her glasses and rubs the bridge of her nose. “It doesn’t, but it’s obvious. Did you somehow miss the part where he is shoving those strawberries in her face, forcing her to eat from his hand? He invades her personal space at every opportunity and she hates it. Didn’t you realise that in every single scene where Tess and Alec are together she’s uneasy, unhappy or crying? Thomas Hardy wrote it that way on purpose. It’s not even subtle subtext, Hanna, but somehow it was beyond you.”
I try to protest, but Professor Jarrett holds up a hand and takes out another one of my essays. “And then there’s this,” she says. “Jane Eyre.” She puts her glasses back on and reads from the page. “‘In my opinion Jane should not have over-reacted in the way she did but instead stayed with Mr. Rochester – that way she could have married him when he was, if not conventionally hot, then at least sulky and brooding. Her punishment for spazzing out at the altar was that she had to marry him when he was all gimpy and blind, and perhaps if she had stayed she could have prevented the conflagration, because she was good at fighting fires.'”
She looks over her glasses at me. “I mean, really,” she says. “In a way I had to give you something for using the words ‘gimpy’ and ‘conflagration’ in the same sentence, but I don’t think you really understood the book.”
“I did,” I kerfuffle, offended. Her blondeness is coming out. “She’s mousy and he’s rich and brooding. And she gets him because he can see her inner beauty and because she’s not intimidated by his broodingness.”
“Or bigamy,” adds Professor Jarrett. “I don’t think I need to say much more, Hanna. Your work was entirely below par, even by American educational standards. Moreover you continually failed to hand in work that conformed to the department guidelines – typed, double spaced, one side of the paper…”
“I always made it look nice!”
Professor Jarrett sighs. “Yes, using pink Hello Kitty notepaper you liberated from the toyshop where you worked. There was one extraordinary essay – I think it was The Mill on the Floss – where you decided to zhush things up with silver pen and experimented with dotting your i’s with smiley faces, but that wasn’t really what we were looking for, Hanna. In over three years you never once turned in a satisfactory bibliography with any of your essays. If you can’t understand why we failed you then…”
My head feels numb. “What do you mean? Failed?”
“I mean failed. I’m sorry, Hannalore, but you failed college. We kicked you out two semesters ago – that’s why we’re reimbursing your tuition. Didn’t you know?”
“But…I’m smart,” I whimper, my whole life an open wound bleeding out before me. “I’m a brunette. I’m deep and I like to read classic British novels.”
Professor Jarrett sighs. “What kind of British novels, Hanna? Because we have quite an extensive canon of literature. Twentieth century? Nineteenth century? Eighteenth century? Pastoral?
“You don’t understand,” I say, my voice rising.
“Satirical? Allegorical? Romantic? Pastiche?”
“I thought you were different. I have a connection to these books…”
“Stream of consciousness? Proto-feminist? Polemic…”
“Stop putting stuff in boxes!” I yell. “I love books. It’s like, my personality or something. It’s in my bones, like clumsiness and biting my lip. You’re just going with some shallow, academic interpretation of these books because you’re blonde and vapid…”
Professor Jarrett holds up a hand again. “That’s enough, young lady…”
“…and you don’t understand men!”
She raises an eyebrow. “Yes, I know that,” she says. “It’s one of the many reasons I married a woman.”
“Well that,” I say, gathering up my bag. “Explains everything.”