Today’s the last day of finals, and I know that after I ace this Intro to Film exam, I’ll be going back to a dorm that’s as dead as the protagonist of the picture I’m currently writing about, the one about the poor schmuck who chooses morality over material goods and winds up lying facedown in the swimming pool at the end of the black and white film. It‘s kind of depressing. Never mind that I know every frame of the film by heart, having watched it four times altogether, three of them in the last twenty-four hours alone. I may not look it but, believe me, I am totally exhausted. I’ve had enough of it, enough of everything: enough of studying, enough of exams, enough of falling asleep—if at all—on the top of my desk with my head propped up on my hands. After this, I’ll be going back to the dorm just long enough to grab my sturdy blue suitcase, wave goodbye to my extra long, extra lonely single bed, and get the heck out of this snowbound college town for nearly a month of winter break. I can hardly wait. All I have to do is to finish up this one last final, to barrel through my analysis of this cinematic classic I’ve seen enough times to last me the rest of my life. Not that I don’t love the film. I do. But, like I said, it’s kind of depressing. I mean, talk about your spoiler alert. When the leading man himself lets you know right off the bat that he won’t still be around by the time you get to the closing credits, you can pretty much drop your hopes for a happy ending on the floor with the fallen candy.
Technically, I was finished with the exam a while ago, but I always like to check it over at least a half a dozen times, in spite of which it appears as though I’m still the first one done. What can I say? I write fast. But this is my first semester at the only state university close enough to bum a ride home once a month or so, yet far enough away to keep my super unsophisticated mother from ever casually dropping in to see if I’m drinking “highballs”—whatever those are—instead of going to class, something, unfortunately, she once saw in a movie. It had to be vintage. New movies make her nervous, as do all new things. Like texting, which she considers a personal affront to her pudgy fingers—nevertheless, when I dared to go all the way out on a limb to explain to her the convenience of voice to text, she wrinkled her nose up at me as though I had to be pulling her leg. But that’s my mother; everyone she knows—including me, her only daughter, her only living, breathing child—not to mention everyone else in the whole wide world, is under suspicion. I’ve been living away at college for a whole semester, yet she still considers my collegiate life brand new, so naturally, like all new things, it makes her nervous, and I guess I’m enough like my high-strung mother to suspect that my own neurotic tendencies are probably congenital, and not, as she insists, merely contagious—as though her rosier diagnosis should somehow make us both feel a whole lot better.
I’m still new enough to the college campus scene myself to be concerned that my college professor, Dr. Messer, might be a jerk since he reminds me so much of my AP history teacher two years before this back in high school who resented any student who could finish his homemade practice exams in a single sitting. The grade on the final essay is going to be purely subjective, and I know that Dr. Messer is dating a girl on the front row who is constantly giving me the evil eye. Basically, I don’t trust either one of them, so once again I’ve done the same thing I’ve been doing the whole semester; I’ve borrowed an outfit from another girl in the dorm, and I’m waiting to turn in my essay exactly two minutes before the bell is about to ring.
Fifty-seven, fifty-eight… it’s showtime, time to stand up.
With my thrift shop camel hair coat draped lightly across my shoulders, and my essay in my icy cold right hand, I descend the stairs of the chilly lecture theatre to an excited chorus of pens scratching frantically in a last-ditch effort to beat the clock. I would have gladly wrapped my coat around more of my shivering torso than my shoulders had I not learned from my father—oddly enough—as early as middle school that success comes quicker to those who get up off their duff and answer the door when opportunity’s golden finger rings the bell. My mother, who got pregnant in the tenth grade, barely made it through high school, and my father—my stepfather, to be exact—is a plumber, though he’s Dad to me in every conceivable way except for one—the least important one—genetics. He likes to say that he wants his “pride and joy” to go to college so she won’t have to “clean the shit out of pipes” for a living like her “unedumacated” old man. And though I wince every time he says it, I also hasten to remind myself that in the Midwest it’s not the words—or even the spelling—it’s the thought that counts. But I also grew up watching enough TV to realize that most occupations tend to involve from time to time a certain amount of cleaning the shit out of pipes—in one way or another—though I still haven’t had the heart to spill those beans on my dear old dad. Instead, I decided to make my father proud of his adopted daughter by becoming the sort of someone he could brag about with his other plumber and plumber-like friends. And though I’m not sure how it’s related, on the eve of my first menstruation, I decided to go to law school because the lawyers I saw on TV always lived in the nicest houses and drove their kids to school in cars that never looked as though they were even distantly related to my father’s white panel van or to the sad, blue clown car that my mother sometimes likes to call her baby.
So, what does all of this have to do with putting on or not putting on my coat as I descend the steep steps of the center aisle and strut my stuff toward my lookalike professor? It means the show is about to begin. I thought at first I might have to stomp my steel-tipped heels halfway down the steps to get his attention, but my act, it seems, no longer needs an introduction. By the look in his eye, I can tell that my lecherous professor has been waiting for me to descend the stairs ever since I rushed into the lecture theatre with my coat held open as a sneak preview of fantasy attractions yet to come.
At the moment, he’s sitting on top of his desk, looking up the middle of the center aisle, no doubt the better to see my skinny thigh-high black suede boots that don’t begin to reach my short, black knife pleat skirt topped off with a tight ribbed turtleneck cropped short to display a far from subtle hint of teenage flesh. By the time I reach the bottom step, I would gladly bet my “A” that he knows the color of my cool pink underpants. But I can pretty much tell I’ve aced the exam even before I place my essay in his outstretched hand. He barely has the wherewithal to close his trembling fingers around my thin blue book, and when I roll my eyes seductively to gaze into his horn-rimmed glasses, I can tell that Dr. Messer is completely mesmerized by my false eyelashes, my bleached blonde hair, and my emerald green contact lenses.
“Zoey Romano,” he says, breathless from his imaginary, physical exertion, “don’t be a stranger after winter break.”
“No way,” I enthuse. “I’m going to check on you to make sure you had tons of fun over the holiday.” I let my index finger poke his sunken chest. I know by the time we get back from winter break, the final grades will need to be posted, which means I know, if I can help it, I will never see his pasty face again.
At first, he’s speechless, but he’s smiling as though he’s just had his very first taste of ice cream. “Happy Hanukkah,” he mutters as I remove my camel hair coat from my ice-cold shoulders with my best fake grin, wave with my fingertips, and swing my narrow hips toward the exit.
Dr. Messer is German, but he knows I’m Jewish because he asked us who was Jewish at the beginning of the school year in an insensitive attempt to get to know the whole class. At first, it was disturbing, since he didn’t bother to ask anyone else if they were Christian or for that matter anything else. He just assumed. I pictured athletes attacking Jews on campus. I don’t know why. I just imagined they’d be the first in line to turn Jew-baiting into an intramural sport. But then he explained that his first girlfriend, the love of his life, was Jewish, and he got starry-eyed at the thought, though I couldn’t help but to grow suspicious when he refused to disclose the details as to how their relationship at some point reached its final dissolution.
Like I said, I removed my coat to give him one last look before he graded my exam. The whole time I pictured the scowl on the face of the girl on the front row whom he’s so obviously dating. Her scowl’s not really difficult to imagine. More than likely it’s the same dirty look she gave me some ninety minutes before this when I first walked in with my coat held open wide. But what do I care? I didn’t go that extra mile to hurt her feelings. I was going all out for the grade, although I suspect there could be a part of me that wanted to give the girl with the smoky, dark, dagger eyes a good look at the kind of man with whom she’s making the rookie mistake of actually dating. More than once it’s crossed my mind that later, after winter break, I might even take her under my wing and explain to her how she doesn’t have to go so far as to sleep with her college professors to get a good grade. I mean, why not? I’m pretty good at giving advice, even if I’m not all that jazzed about taking it. Besides, the two of us have at least one thing in common: as freshman girls, we’re both stuck—though on different floors—in the same, incredibly smelly freshman dorm.
The bell rings on my way to the door.
“Time’s up people,” says Dr. Messer. “Bring your test up to the front.
I look back from outside the door and notice that not one of his students so much as bothers to look up—with the exception of the glowering girlfriend, though, to be honest, even her glower is short, but not sweet.
The professor taps an invisible microphone he holds up in his left hand. “Is this thing on?” he quips. “Testing, one, two. Testing over. Testing over. I mean it, people. I need those exams.”
Without a single exception—not one—the class continues to write.
The first thing I do is head for the restroom. I still feel nauseated from the stairs as well as from my own compulsion to lay it on a little thick. A part of me has a tendency to think that more is better even on those not so rare occasions when it’s not. I also tend to go back later and anguish—sometimes for hours—over every word. I shouldn’t have said tons of fun: that was just embarrassing. What was I trying to do? Turn him into a stalker? Obviously not, but the only other thing I’d managed to come up with besides that tons of fun thing involved a dreidel used allusively to suggest a penis, and I’m proud of myself for having had the good sense to resist a powerful urge to mention that. To tell the truth, I haven’t once set foot back inside a synagogue since my own bat mitzvah at the age of thirteen, and I feel awful now that my Roman Catholic father had to borrow so much money and had to clean the shit out of so many pipes to cover the exorbitant cost. But nothing was ever too good for his “little genius.” So when it finally came time to make up my mind about which school I’d be attending, I turned down the partial academic scholarships to Amherst and Duke—as well as about a half a dozen other top-notch schools—and I decided that, if I could help it, my education wasn’t going to cost my southern Illinois family so much as one red Land of Lincoln cent. Instead, I took the only full ride—tuition, books, room and board—at the closest public institution of higher learning, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, which promised to prepare me for the study of law and still allow me, once a month or so, to see my funky little family—with the assistance of the ride board—practically for free.
The other thing I almost forgot to mention is the stairs, which may have had something to do with my partial loss of self-control when I finally reached the bottom step. I can’t handle heights. I’m serious. I get dizzy in heels. I suffer from acrophobia, that crazy, morbid fear of all things high. When I was a kid, I refused to climb on any playground equipment that was even one inch taller than the height of my very own eyes. One time my father tried to get me to climb a wall wearing all the safety equipment that made it impossible to fall, and I screamed until my father—and not that creepy teenage attendant—had to take not more than a step or two to save me after I’d climbed up to the top of the very first grip. My father, who is tall, actually had to reach down, not up, to rescue me. The attendant thought it was so funny that—when he finally stopped laughing—he measured the wall to tell me how high I had climbed: exactly two feet. But, like I said, that was years ago. Since then, I can honestly say that my fear of heights has gotten, if anything, a whole lot worse.
In the restroom, I scrub off every last bit of make-up until I actually look like myself again. I can’t wait to get out of these clothes, to be myself again completely, and I even consider taking off what little I have on and stuffing it into the pockets of my camel hair coat. But then, even if I don’t freeze to death in the knee-deep snow on the long walk back to the dorm, I’m afraid I might slip on the sidewalk and crack my head or get hit by a car that has suddenly lost all control on the ice. Even the trees under these conditions are dangerous with heavy frozen limbs hanging over the concrete walking paths of the quad. About a month ago, a girl had to go to the hospital when a branch broke off and nearly fractured her skull. I can just see me unconscious in my camel hair coat, my thigh-high boots, and my cool pink underpants riding in an ambulance while the EMT is busy checking out my vital signs—and everything else.
So, why do I do it? Why do I dress like an exotic dancer? Do I like the attention? No, not at all. No, in fact, I abhor it. But, at the same time, I love the results. I never got a B after seventh grade. I’m not saying that I always had to dress like a stripper in search of a pole every time I had an exam. That only came up a few times, and that was mostly later on. I found out in eighth grade that I didn’t actually need the whole outfit—that my mother wasn’t about to buy me anyway, even if I’d wanted it, which I most certainly did not. Instead, I found out totally by accident that by fiddling around incessantly with my bra and bra straps, I could put most of my male teachers—and a few of my female instructors as well—into a trance, during which they would invariably agree to grant almost any unreasonable request. After that, I started using it experimentally for all kinds of things, and most of the time it worked. To get in free at movies. To get free popcorn. Even candy. Of course, there almost always had to be a boy involved and a manager who was momentarily somewhere safely out of sight. I could even go to a restaurant and order the cheapest thing on the menu and leave an hour later having polished off a four-course meal. Naturally, the more adventurous boys always ended up asking me out, but that’s when I’d have to break the bad news about my terrible, imaginary boyfriend who was kind of big, and kind of jealous, and less than a week away from getting out on parole.
Still, in spite of the free stuff, high school wasn’t all fun and games. Good grades still required a lot of hard work. I was kind of a freak when it came to studying and friends at school would always ask me why at night and even on weekends I almost never went out. Invariably, I blamed it on my parents. All I would have to do was to say, “My parents,” and roll my eyes, and my friends would all feel sorry for me, assuming that my parents were cursed with crazy expectations. But the truth—which I never shared with even one of my closest friends back then—was that all I had to do was to take one good look at my own little family and, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t help myself. I’d turn back around and head straight back to my books. The way I saw it, my mother was hopeless without my father, and—in spite of his magical belief in the holy wafer and the mystical wine—my father’s only hope of being saved from a life of endless, unhealthy exposure to human excrement was me, which meant the only one left financially to save me was myself.
All right, I’ll admit it, even back in middle school I knew it was hard to square some parts of my behavior with my feminist beliefs, but the way I figured it until my fellow progressives were politically persuasive enough to at least get an equal rights amendment passed, I had the right—if not the obligation—to level the lopsided playing field any cockeyed way that I could. Who was it said, “All’s fair in love and war?” I don’t have to look it up. I’d bet my mother’s blue car and raise my father’s white panel van that it was first proposed, and then seconded, by a man. Don’t get me wrong; I was never actually kidding myself to the point where I failed to realize that by using my feminine wiles to improve my own condition, I wasn’t particularly doing a whole lot of good for the cause. I only hoped that I was only hurting it a little, and I fully intended to make up for that, and more, after I’d clawed my way up to the top of the heap where finally I hoped to kick my share of self-important, yet insecure, male chauvinistic ass.
At any rate, that was the plan. The truth is I was so focused on school that I didn’t even bother with boys until the end of my second year of high school. Up until then, I kept the cute and the funny boys safe in the friend zone, and after that, I just picked out one who was relatively handsome and smart and appeared to be capable of going somewhere. His name was Jason Hartley and, as it turned out, I was right about going, though I was wrong about where. Because of me, he learned how to study, and his grades improved enough to get him accepted into Northwestern University, just north of Chicago, about which he got so excited that he broke up with me—right after the goodbye sex—and forever left my boney ass three hundred extra lonely miles behind.