This website needs your support

TMN and the Tournament of Books depend on your support. Please consider joining us today.

The Education of Elisabeth Eckleman

Class Begins

Elisabeth Eckleman just left home, and has a lot of difficult decisions ahead of her. In this installment, Elisabeth makes a new friend and isn’t sure if she should bring her boyfriend material to a party. You decide what happens next.

In our last installment, Elisabeth went to a party with her roommate Kat, where she met Wesley, a film student. But when Kat turned up sick right as Wesley started to make the moves, Elisabeth had to decide whether to stay at the party or to take Kat home. You voted for her to take Kat home. Let’s see what happens...

 

After about five tries, I finally start Kat’s Volkswagen.

“See?” says Kat, scrounging for cigarettes on the car floor. “I told you homegirl drives standard.”

Wesley crouches at my window. “You’re sure you don’t wanna crash here?”

I can’t help but notice the proximity of his lips.

Kat lunges across me. “Homeslice is a homebody, you know what I mean, homes?”

Wesley shoots me a look. “What accent is she doing?”

“I have no idea.”

The car harrumphs into first gear, and we squeal onto the unlit road.

“That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!” Kat yells, bonking her head on the window.

“It’s not rolled down,” I tell her.

“Duh,” she says. “I know that.”

Everything’s fine until we get on the highway. Then Kat starts moaning like a cow in labor. “Slow down,” she says, except her voice is a slur of syllables. It sounds more like “Sluh duh.”

“What do you mean, slow down? We’re on the highway.”

“Sluhh duhhh!” she repeats, sifting through the junk on the car floor.

“Did you lose something?” I ask.

She flings empty Diet Coke cans into the back seat.

“Are you gonna throw up?”

She shoots her fist in the air and gives me a thumbs-up.

In the distance, I see our exit. “Can you, like, hold it?”

The thumb turns into a middle finger.

“Well, what do you want me to do?” I ask.

She looks up at me, her eyes at half-mast. “Uh wan-yoo sluhh duhh.

I veer off to the shoulder and yank the gears downward. I don’t think they’re supposed to make that noise. The car lurches, and we’re both thrust forward in our seats. There’s a violent ripping sound as the car shudders to a halt.

I take a deep breath. “Are you OK?”

Kat’s holding a Styrofoam cup in her hands. A single spider web of vomit hangs off its side and into her lap.

“Wow,” I marvel. “That’s impressive.”

She looks at the cup proudly and smiles. “I know.”

 

Later, in our dorm room, Kat leans up from our tiny sink, lines of drool hanging off her lower lip.

“I’m not normally like this,” she says as I stroke back wisps of wild hair from her brow. “Normally I’m fucking fabulous.”

There’s a gurgling in her throat, and she lets fly again.

“Once, at a spaghetti dinner for Brad’s debate team,” I tell her as she scrubs her face, “I got food poisoning and started throwing up. And he got so grossed out that he started throwing up, too, so that every time I barfed, he barfed, and by the time we got to the emergency room, the nurses didn’t know who needed a room worse. Isn’t that funny?”

She claps a hand on my cheek, smiles weakly, and collapses into bed.

“Do you miss Brad?” she asks after a while.

“I do,” I say, cradling a pillow in my arms.

“I’m glad you’re my roommate,” she murmurs. “You have a good heart.”

“I’m glad you’re my roommate, too.” I sit up in bed. “You have good aim.”

She laughs at that. I start to tell her something else, but she’s snoring. Careful to be quiet, I rifle through my suitcase for my packet of Wet Wipes to clean the sink.

 

I wake up at 8 a.m. and leave Kat a note: “There’s D.C. in the fridge if you want any. Call me if you need anything! Love, your favorite roomie”

The line for student IDs snakes around the gym. By 10 a.m., I’m already through the second chapter of my Western Civ textbook, and I’ve redone my makeup twice.

“Oh my God, you must be smart,” says a girl behind me. She’s wearing a baby-T and snug pink shorts. She’s the kind of girl who, growing up in Texas, you learn to hate: blonde, adorable, and so skinny it’s like they sliced her in half.

I shut the book, making a mental note of the page number. “Just bored.”

“If I knew we’d be here this long, I would have brought a lawn chair... Hi, I’m Shelley.” She holds out her hand, and her manicure glistens in the sun. “Ooh, I like that necklace,” she says, fingering an antique locket Brad gave me on our first anniversary. “Did your boyfriend give it to you?”

“Ex.” (A letter I’ve learned to hate.)

“Oh no... What happened?”

I take a deep breath, and tell her the whole saga.

The thing about break-ups is that you never tire of talking about them. I’ve told my story to friends and friends of friends. I’ve told my story to my hairstylist and the guy at the post office. And each time, it feels like a little sliver of sadness breaks free. I have this fantasy that one day I will tell the story and feel nothing, like it’s a tale I read in a book somewhere. In the meantime, though, I always end up crying.

“He’s an idiot,” Shelley tells me. She hands me a pink handkerchief from her purse.

“Actually, he’s pretty smart,” I say, blowing my nose.

“Listen, if there’s one thing I know about guys,” she says, peering at me through lashes thick with mascara. “It’s that they’re all idiots.”

Back when I was in high school, I didn’t have many close female friends. I always wanted one, but the girls in my school were so frivolous and small, interested in jocks and gossip. My best friends were Brad’s debate buddies, who seemed to love the way I challenged them on their ridiculous, sweeping statements. Sometimes at parties, after Brad passed out, we’d stay up talking for hours, about capitalism and civil rights and girls they liked. When Brad broke up with me, I started to wonder which of his friends I could still talk to, which of their friendships would be mine to keep.

“What are you doing for lunch?” Shelley asks me.

I imagine the bleak cafeteria and soggy pizza. “Nothing.”

“Oh my God, you’re coming with me. It’s fajita day!”

Shelley isn’t exactly a friend I would pick for myself—she’s too pretty and perfect—plus, she seems to gasp for no reason—but when you feel as low down as I do, sometimes it’s nice just to have someone who listens.

They finally hand me my student ID. I stare at my photo on it. “Ugh, I look sweaty.”

She grabs it from my hands and looks at it. “No way. You look hot.”

Shelley lives off-campus in a private dorm called the Plantation House. It’s a huge white building with a porch running around all sides and a beautiful old swing. A huge banner hangs outside the entrance: “THINK PINK.”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“Dress code. Don’t worry, you’re fine.”

The inside of the dorm is about the prettiest place I’ve ever seen: There are chandeliers and statues and antique couches, a winding staircase like in Gone With the Wind.

“Can I get you anything?” asks an older woman in a pink Chanel suit.

“Do you have any Diet Coke?”

“Oh, honey.” She opens the refrigerator. It’s stocked.

During lunch, Shelley tells the girls the whole saga about Brad. She sort of embellishes for effect, which I don’t mind, and all the girls gasp in the right places. They stroke my hair and nod empathetically. Actually, it’s kinda nice.

“I can’t believe Brad broke up with you the week before college,” says a girl wearing a pink poncho and a pair of Diesel jeans. “It’s like breaking up right before prom.”

I grab her hand. “I know!”

A Mexican woman with a pink hairnet puts a plate of fajitas and queso in front of me.

“So,” says Shelley, “who are you gonna pledge?”

I look at her blankly. “I’m not pledging anyone.”

The room gasps.

“Oh my God,” she says. “We’re going to change that.”

 

Brad gets to town the day before classes start and of course doesn’t call me until five o’clock.

“Hey, baby, how are you?” he asks.

“I’m being rushed by a sorority,” I tell him.

“I’ll be right there.”

Brad feels about the greek system the same way he feels about football, which is the same way he feels about chain stores and Republicans and Hollywood movies. For two months he wouldn’t let me drink Diet Coke because of some stupid political situation in Kosovo. I switched to Diet Pepsi. What a miserable time.

“I don’t want to tell you what to do,” he says, holding my hand on the side of the bed, “but those people are evil, money-grubbing fascists.”

“They’re nice,” I say. “Besides, how else am I going to meet people?”

Kat pulls an icepack off her head. “You’ll meet people with your sweet personality, your intellect, your rather stunning ability to wear skirts that you don’t realize are completely see-through.”

“Exactly.” Brad knits his brow. “Let’s move outside.”

“Look, Brad,” I say, as he lights up a Marlboro in the courtyard. “I’m not saying I want to do this. But I think it’s wrong for me to rule out something I’ve never tried.”

“You’ve never joined the KKK—are you going to their next potluck?”

“Sororities are service clubs,” I say. “How is it any different than the Boy Scouts?”

“Do not start with the Boy Scouts,” he says, pacing. Brad made Eagle Scout when he was 14—the youngest one in town—but at the time he didn’t fully realize the political ramifications of the Boy Scouts’ pro-God, anti-gay agenda. Senior year he pledged to burn his Order of the Arrow in protest; I happen to know he packed it away in the garage. “Saying that sororities are service clubs is like saying people read Playboy for the articles. Don’t be so naïve, Elisabeth.”

Blood bristles in my face. I grab a cigarette from Brad’s pack and light it.

“What are you doing?” he asks. “You don’t smoke.”

“Don’t be so naïve, Brad.”

Look, I don’t really know what I’m doing. I mean, Brad’s right: a) I don’t smoke, and b) sororities are kind of a creepy, pay-to-be-friends type environment. But Brad has set the agenda for the last two years of my life, and I’m sick of it. Sometimes I feel like eating McDonald’s French fries while I buy Titanic at Wal-Mart—if only to spite him. A lot of his beliefs are good and earnest, but they don’t feel like mine. They feel like something expensive and pretty I borrowed for a party.

“You really shouldn’t worry about me,” I say, trying not to choke on the smoke. I can’t believe people actually like these things.

“You’re right,” he says, sighing. “I do that too much.” He traces a finger around my hand. It still gives me goose bumps. “It’s just that I can’t stand the idea of those clones making you one of them.”

“Come on,” I say, squeezing his hand. “How could they?”

He smiles. “You like that cigarette?”

“Love it.”

“One day, if you’re lucky, I might teach you how to inhale.”

 

The next morning I wake up extra early to press my hair before my very first college class: “Examining the Reality of Reality Television.”

I’d imagined a classroom like the ones in the movies—13 people arguing around a table, wearing turtlenecks—but this class is packed with students, maybe 500. It’s like half the campus is enrolled.

“Is this seat taken?” someone beside me asks.

It’s Wesley. He sits down.

The professor, a young guy with glasses and a goatee, begins talking. “Welcome to ‘Examining the Reality of Reality Television.’ This class is at its maximum enrollment. So I have one question for you.” He surveys the crowd. “Who will survive?”

A few people snicker.

“I’m glad to see you got home OK,” Wesley whispers.

I smile and inch down in my seat. Here is the thing about Wesley: I can’t stop staring at his lips. This is not like me; this is not normal. I don’t even care about lips.

“I’m meeting some friends after this,” he says, leaning in close to my ear. “Why don’t you come with me?”

“Shhh,” says someone behind us.

Actually, I promised Shelley I’d meet her at the Plantation House. It’s barbecue day.

After class, Wesley walks with me for a couple blocks. He seems to wave at everyone we pass.

“Could you believe that guy?” Wesley asks. “‘I consider Jeff Probst a Prospero character, while Simon Cowell is clearly more Richard the Third?’ What a bunch of bullshit.”

“Yeah, if Simon Cowell were any Shakespearean character, he’d be Iago, don’t you think?”

He laughs. “Sure. Of course. I can’t imagine anyone but... Iago...?”

“Iago. From Othello.” I clutch my book to my chest. I hate it when I say too much.

“My bike’s right here,” he says, stopping. “Look, I want to see you this weekend.” He pouts his lips slightly. God, he so knows he’s cute. “What are your plans?”

“I’m not sure yet,” I say.

“Well then why don’t you call me?”

Dammit! I hate it when they put the ball in my court. I don’t want the ball anywhere near my court. I want the ball on the other side of the fence.

“You have my number, right?” he asks.

I nod.

“But don’t wait till the last minute,” he says as he rides away. “I’m a Rules Girl.”

After he’s out of sight, I practically sprint to the Plantation House to tell Shelley. Sometimes, you know, I really appreciate the way she gasps.

“Oh my God, you have to bring him to Pimps & Ho’s this Friday!”

Bring him to what? “No, no, he’s not that kind of guy. He’s, like, arty and stuff.”

Shelley and I sit down at the table. “Elisabeth, this is the biggest party of the year. You cannot miss Pimps & Ho’s.”

“I don’t wanna miss Pimps & Ho’s.” (I don’t?) “But maybe I should go alone.”

“Not fair...” says Shelley. “Not fair to keep gorgeous film geek to yourself.”

“I never said he was gorgeous.”

“Right,” she says. “Like a bad-looking film geek would get you this excited.”

I’m clueless. Part of me wants to bring a date to this party—but what if Wesley has a terrible time? What if Shelley hates him? What if Wesley hates Shelley, and sororities, and thinks I’m a fool to hang out with these people even for the sake of a semi-experiment and good food? And what is a Pimps & Ho’s party anyway?

I would never bring Brad to a greek party. He’d be miserable and would end up preaching to some poor guy about the importance of recycling. But then, if I don’t bring Wesley to the party, what will we do on Saturday? I can’t be alone with him. I’ll just stare at his lips all night. And then what if he tries to kiss me? I think I might scream.

The Mexican woman brings us a plate of barbecue. She’s wearing a pink cowboy hat.

“Oh my God,” I say, taking a big bite. “This brisket is delicious.”

Should Elisabeth take Wesley to the Pimps & Ho’s party or go to the Pimps & Ho’s party alone?