.:VirtualSalt

The Million Dollar Girl
A Novel

Robert Harris
Version Date: October 11, 2008



Chapter 15

Melanie had not answered the knock on her door when Amy got back from dinner with her roommates and Matt. Amy did not want to knock with too much persistence, since she knew that sometimes Melanie took a little personal time off and simply did not answer her door, even though she was in her room. Often, too, she was out with friends in the evening. Getting no answer, Amy had decided to wait until the next day to try again.

Melanie was not known to be an early riser, so Amy went to breakfast and then on to her morning class without checking to see if her RA was available. She was encouraged to be a little relaxed because this morning Tina had seemed to be fine, almost cheerful. When Amy had left for class, Tina had been humming a little bit as she put on her shoes, even though she was not wearing her headphones or playing one of her radios.

When Amy returned from class, Tina was gone. Markayla sat at her desk, sipping what, by the aroma, must have been a really good cup of coffee. She was reading the paper.

“Where’s Tina Nicole?”

“She went to see if breakfast is still on, and if not, I think she was going to the student union to get something to eat.”

Amy looked over at her own desk, to determine how inviting it looked for doing some studying. She noticed that her computer had been turned around again and that there was a small unlit candle on her desk. She examined it. Then she noticed several others placed around the room.

“What are all these candles doing here?” she asked.

“Tina brought them in. When she put one on my desk, I said thank you and asked her why she was giving me a candle. She said it was for security. I told her that the rules of the dormitory will not let us light them, and she said we did not have to light them. Then she said we should light them anyway to disinfect the room. She lit two or three in the bathroom and then left. I put them out.”

“Do you think she will light the ones on her desk when we’re not here?”

“I do not know. We must keep an eye on her. We do not want to be to told to leave the dormitory.”

“Or fined. What do you think she meant by security?”

“I do not know.”

“I’ve got to talk to Melanie or someone about her.”

“Why not call her and see if she is in? Oh, that reminds me. Before you call Melanie, you should call Shelley.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. She called while you were in class.”

Amy returned the call and found herself invited to visit Shelley “to witness my remarkable recovery” from her food poisoning.

Amy was soon again in Shelley’s room, sitting in a somewhat wobbly office chair. Shelley was trying to be up and about, but had to sit down most of the time.

“I’m just about back to normal,” she said.

“When I got food poisoning in high school, I was out for a whole week. So you really are making a remarkable recovery.”

“Thanks. Can’t keep a good woman down. Or even me.” Shelley smiled, but there was no happiness behind it. Amy could see that her friend was still not completely herself or up to speed. Shelley was more quiet than usual, almost thoughtful. In fact, the conversation dropped for a few moments. Amy looked at Shelley, trying to think of something interesting. In a random glance around the room, she noticed the adjusting cord on the blinds of the window behind Shelley had been pulled in half and hung fuzzy-ended and short.

“What happened to the string on your window blinds?” Amy asked, just to say something.

“Oh, it got into an argument with the vacuum cleaner. Ron is supposed to fix it soon.”

“It broke in half? I could tie it for you. Where’s the other half?”

“In the vacuum cleaner’s tummy. That’s why I need Ron to fix it.” Then Shelley suddenly changed expressions. “Uh oh,” she said, getting out of bed and heading for the bathroom. “Time for a word from our sponsor. Be right back.”

When she returned, Shelley got back into bed and pulled the sheet up. “Thanks for coming,” she said. “Sorry about the emergency.”

“I’ve walked that road,” Amy said.

“At least I’m no longer going at both ends. I hate barfing. I’m so glad that’s over.”

“I know what you mean.”

The conversation lulled for another moment. Then Shelley said, “Tell me something, Amy. Do you think I’m shallow?”

“Shallow? What do you mean?”

“You know, shallow. Like all froth and no beer. Lacking substance.”

“Why would you think that?”

“Sometimes I think people think of me as just a bunch of noise and smoke. I mean, everybody laughs when I act up, but is it me or just the appearance of me that’s funny? Now that I’m sick and not funny, is there anything there?” She looked at Amy for a moment and then added, “Oh, I don’t know what I’m saying. Must be the drugs I’m on.”

“What are they giving you?”

“The pink medicine.”

“I don’t think the pink medicine will affect your thinking.”

“But, no, really. I mean, even Ron. Will he think, a year from now, ‘Well, I had a lot of laughs with Shelley, but then it was time to get serious, so I married Hortense, here’?”

“Hortense? Oh, Shelley.”

“You know what I mean. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for showing the usual shallow phoniness to be thought cool. It’s like, what else is really important? But sometimes it seems like such an empty conformity. I mean, when someone says, ‘Take Shelley, for example,’ I just hope they won’t reply, ‘No thanks, I don’t like bubble gum.’ You know what I’m saying?”

“Shelley, you’re probably the most creative person I know.”

“Really?” The comment obviously pleased Shelley.

“And I wish I could be like you in your warm, outgoing way. I feel trapped by my own shyness sometimes.”

Shelley wrinkled her brow in sympathy. “But you seem to have depth. Some kind of anchor that holds you together.”

“Depth?” Amy had never thought of herself as deep.

“Yeah, like, you believe in God and stuff, don’t you?”

Amy smiled. “Yeah, God and stuff.”

“Can you hear my tummy rumbling from there?” Shelley, said, holding her stomach.

“No. I don’t hear anything.”

“From here it sounds loud enough to break a window.” Shelley reached over to her bedside table and grabbed the bottle of bismuth. “I think I’ll take just a smidge more of this pink stuff.” After swallowing a small amount of the medicine, Shelley made a face of disgust and said, “Oh, that stuff is so great. I’m just glad the health center takes care to buy the cheapest, most disgusting form of this stuff. Uck. Vintage year. Not content to leave it as tasteless chalk, they have to add some nasty flavoring so you’ll know it’s really medicine. Mm, mm, good for you.”

“You sound like you’re feeling better already.”

“Oh, I know,” Shelley said, holding up a finger to signal the arrival of a new idea. “They add the flavoring so you won’t drink it unless you really, really need it. Saves money that way, you see. We can’t have these thirsty students swigging down our chalky sludge like it was a strawberry malt.”

“I’m sure you’re right.”

There was another pause. Shelley burped as quietly as she could. Then she continued. “Anyway, so that spiritual stuff is important to you and you think about it, huh?”

“That’s where I find truth and meaning.” Amy felt a little awkward talking about her deepest self. But Shelley seemed interested.

“See? I want truth and meaning, too. I want to be more than a label that describes what I do. Student, girlfriend, maybe wife, high school teacher, business employee, film star, whatever. But I really don’t know who I am yet. I’m still trying to find out. I haven’t gotten around to finding out who God is.”

“Well, maybe you could find out who God is first and then you’ll find out who you are.”

“Yeah.” Shelley did not seem convinced. “Too bad I’m not dying.” Amy stopped looking at the mess on the floor and looked at Shelley. “I mean, then you’re supposed to see everything clearly and know what really matters and all that stuff.”

“You don’t have to be dying to think about those things.”

“I know, but it’d be easier to find time to focus. Right now, life is so busy. Ooh, tell me again how creative I am.”

Amy smiled. “You’re always saying something funny, and doing funny stuff, pretending to be other people.”

“That embarrasses Ron. He wants a normal girlfriend. Sometimes I pretend to be one. But then I feel bad.”

“Bad?”

“For being deceitful.”

“How?”

“By pretending to be an ordinary girlfriend, the kind Ron wants. I pretend to be interested in sports and motorcycles and the stuff he’s interested in. Basketball bores me, but I could never tell him that.”

“So how did you ever start dating Ron?”

“His roommate asked me out first. So I started going with him. He was almost cute and had this kind of shy personality that attracted me. Oh, once he took me fishing and I thought I’d drop dead from sheer boredom. I was bored out of my skull. I think he caught one or two little fish in five hours. I didn’t even catch a cold. I did get sunburned.

“So he was boring?”

“Not exactly. He was okay, just a little weird. Like, his recreational reading was either true crime or disaster investigations. He would have loved Dr. Miller’s critical thinking class.”

“I’m in that class right now.”

“Then you know what I mean. Lots of disaster films. I had that class last year. Anyway, Jon and I would be snuggled together in front of the TV and he’d be like, ‘Did you know that if management had listened to the engineers about operating the high pressure pumps, the nuclear plant wouldn’t have melted down?’ and I was like, ‘Chocolate or vanilla?’”

“Not your area of interest, huh?”

“No, but what is? That’s the thing. I mean, I liked him because he cared about something. He wanted to know what made planes crash and how the cops caught the killers or whatever.”

“Sounds a lot like my dad.”

“Really? See, I respect that. Anyway, one night at dinner I watched him spend at least an hour trying to balance a chocolate chip cookie on two hard boiled eggs. He kept saying, ‘This means something.’”

“Was he going crazy?”

“Nah. Mechanical engineering major. He thought he was onto some new idea. Anyway, I suddenly realized that we were not meant to be. Different planets and all. Ron noticed and made me an offer, so I rushed into his arms.”

“How did the other guy take it?”

“Oh, Jon was cool. By then he thought I was crazy. I think it was ‘good riddance’ for him. We’re still friends. I still ask him if he’s got the cookie balanced.” Shelley put her hand on her stomach. “Speaking of cookies, I hope I don’t have to toss mine any more.”

“Do you feel upset?”

“No, just my tummy is still rumbling. I don’t feel pukey at all.” After a sip of water, Shelley continued. “So Ron kind of caught me as I bounced off the wall.”

“And you’re not sure you are compatible with him?”

“See, that’s what I mean, Amy. You think in terms of compatible and stuff. I mean, most people are like, ‘Wow, he’s good looking, so he’s for me,’ or ‘Check out that babe. What a hottie. I’m all over her.’ But you’re thinking about what makes people compatible.” Shelley paused and looked at Amy for a few moments, thinking. “You’re not really into this live-for-the-moment stuff, are you?”

“Not really.”

“You’re already thinking about getting married and everything, huh?”

“Oh, no,” Amy said, shaking her head and raising her hand to reinforce her words. “I want to get married someday, but right now the thought totally scares me.”

“But you’re thinking about what you want and what will last for a long time. That’s what I want to do. I mean, I know I won’t always be fresh and tasty, so I want to make myself valuable to someone for other reasons, too, to have some substance and find a guy who values that. Somebody who will want to keep me after the ‘Best if used by’ date.”

“Shelley, I think that’s very wise.”

“Wise? Really? Me? Be my friend forever.” Then, almost apologetically, Shelley added, “I get like this whenever I get sick. It makes me thoughtful.”

“I think being thoughtful is good. My dad says one of the problems today is that nobody takes the time to think.”

“It’s nice to be able to talk like this. To have you here. I don’t think guys particularly like thoughtful girls.”

“I hope at least some do.”

“Anyway, I get sick, I get thoughtful. Never fails.” Then, more dramatically, “When I face death, I see my life passing before my eyes. Only it’s not my past life I see, but my future. It’s depressing.”

“My dad is always telling me how lucky I am to be young because my whole life is before me, all the choices still available, all the opportunities to come. Or as Matt says, ‘The banquet of life is still to be eaten largely.’”

“Don’t you hate guys? They’re always talking about food.”

“And eating large quantities of it.”

“Yeah. They’ll eat a couple of racks of ribs and not gain an ounce, but if we just kiss the barbecue sauce off their lips, we gain five pounds.”

Amy had never kissed the barbecue sauce off anyone’s lips, but she nodded anyway.

“And then burping.”

“Or worse.”

Both girls showed expressions of disgust.

“Why do we put up with guys, anyway?” Shelley asked at last.

“Because they need us.”

“Oh, that’s a really progressive view. How selfless, how generous of you. ‘My guy’s a slug, but, gosh, he needs me.’ Amy, that is so retro.”

“Well, what’s yours?”

“I think it’s because we need them.”

“That’s worse. Not only retro but really politically incorrect.”

“Yeah, I’ve probably been brainwashed by the dominant cultural paradigm.”

“Where did that come from? A sociology class?”

“Nah, English.”

“So then, you think you need Ron right now?”

“He makes me laugh. I like to laugh. And he’s fun. I like fun, too.”

“And is Ron someone who could be interested in this substance you want?”

“I don’t know. I hope so. But sometimes I wonder if I’ve just paddled to the shallow end to feel my feet on the bottom. Jon acted like he didn’t have time for fun, but I wonder if Ron has time for anything else. I mean, I wonder if he thinks I’m just a nice crunchy peanut, and once I get stale. . . .”

“Do you ever talk to Ron about your relationship?”

“Oh, that’s real likely. Do you ever talk to Matt about your relationship?”

“Well, no.”

“Talk to a guy about relationships? Come on, Amy. We’re on planet Earth, remember?”

“What is it with guys and relationship talk anyway?”

“Yeah, what’s wrong with guys? Hey, we ought to become feminists. Down with guys.” Shelley made a fist and shook it weakly.

“I don’t know. There are worse things in life than to be needed by a nice guy.”

“Oh, Amy, I can’t believe you said that.” Then, changing tone, “But maybe there’s some truth in it. I just wish I could figure out who to be. And don’t tell me to be myself. That’s the whole problem. I don’t know who myself is.”

“Is that why you’re always playing different roles and pretending to be different kinds of people?”

“No, I’m just acting up. And you know I’m acting, right?”

“Well, usually. I think.”

“I’m acting up to be funny. I like it when you raise your hand and start to cover your mouth to suppress a smile. Or a laugh.”

“I had braces. I got into the habit of covering my mouth to hide them when I smiled. I haven’t quite broken the habit yet.”

“When did you get them off?”

“A little over a year ago.”

“Did you feel dorky?”

“I still feel dorky. That’s why I like Matt. He makes me feel human.”

“Watch out, Matt.”

“Shelley.”

“There’s nothing wrong with dorkiness. Look at Markayla. She’s kind of dorky, but I’ll bet she’s going to go far. I’m sure she’ll be the lawyer she wants to be.”

“Judge, I think.”

“And I’ll probably end up teaching elementary school and acting in community theater. Or as a housewife. Scary, huh?”

“That’s only scary because society makes fun of it. But we don’t have to agree.”

“Yeah, I guess. See, you’re always thinking, and I’m just a cork on the river of life. A cork who pretends to be different people. Maybe I am trying to figure out who I am. The trouble is, acting is dangerous.”

“How?”

“Well, in high school we did a play where I was the love interest of another character. Instead of acting badly, like most kids who are afraid to really get into a role, I just talked to the guy as if I really loved him. We were still in rehearsal when he fell in love with me and said he knew I loved him, too. I told him I was just playing a part, and he said, ‘Shelley, that was not acting. That is real.’”

Amy made a face, sympathizing with the awkwardness.

“Even though the person knows the other is just pretending,” Shelley continued, “having someone look into your eyes and say loving things is totally powerful. It’s easy to believe because we all want to believe it. Even on a stage.”

“No more plays for this girl, then,” Amy said.

“That’s why girls and guys are such dopes toward each other. We manipulate each other so easily because no one wants to believe they are being conned by a pretender.

“My dad says that the first rule of hoaxers and con artists is that they help us believe what we want to believe.”

“Yeah, we’re so gullible, it’s ridiculous.”

“No, what’s sad is that people will lie about their feelings that way.”

“It’s hard to know who’s genuine and who’s just playing a role. In fact, maybe we’re all just playing a role—or a bunch of roles. Maybe we’re all impostors and it doesn’t matter.”

“Hey, I’m glad you said that,” Amy said, becoming animated. “It reminded me of one of my dad’s stories. It’s all about role playing and stuff.”

“Oh, I love stories. Tell me.”

“Well,” Amy began, settling into her chair, “this rock band traveled to India to find a guru named Swami Faquir they had heard about, who supposedly knew all about spiritual enlightenment. Ultimately, it turned out that his own spiritual enlightenment required large quantities of money and women.”

“Your dad told you this story?” Shelley was surprised at the “large quantities of money and women” theme.

“Yeah, but it’s true. He wouldn’t make it up. Anyway, the women part is not the story. When the group got to India and began to inquire for the guru, they were intercepted by a man who said he knew the guru personally. He took them to another guy, who he said was the guru, but the guy was an impostor.”

“‘All the world’s a stage.’ That’s Shakespeare.”

“Anyway, the impostor quickly figured out how to tell the rock band members what they wanted to hear, and developed a number of supposedly wise sayings to flatter their own ideas about life and stuff. Some of them were really bad, like, ‘In the shout of music, the soul sings,’ and since the band members were pot heads, ‘As the smoke rises, so does the mind.’ Stuff like that.

“How do you remember all this?”

“I don’t know. It’s just interesting, I guess. So I remember it.”

“And the group bought this stuff?”

“Yeah, and so, anyway, the band brings this faker back to the U.S. with them and he becomes part of their hangers on, partying with them and talking like a guru. Oh, I remember another. The impostor guru knew quite a bit about Swami Faquir’s habits and was anxious to imitate them, so he had sayings like, ‘A wise man knows the limits of pleasure, but how can we know the limits of pleasure unless we test them?’”

“Sounds like a guy I knew in high school.”

“Well, the group and the phony Swami get pretty popular and people are always asking for interviews. At some point, the Swami says he’s tired of talking to the unenlightened, especially the minor journalists and fans who want to drink deep of his wisdom. So the rock group says, ‘No problem,’ and they hire a guy to impersonate the guru and handle the interviews.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, seriously. They hire a guy to impersonate the guy who is pretending to be the real guru.”

“So we have an impersonator of an impostor pretending to be a Swami who himself is a fraud?”

“Isn’t that a scream?”

“So, how does all this relate to your dad?”

“Well, it turns out that the third guy, the impersonator, is caught on a surveillance camera buying drugs. The cops pick him up and find a fake ID on him, with the name Swami Faquir on it. That’s when my dad heard about it, because it looked like there might be a fraud angle in there somewhere. The guy gets out on bail and disappears. The cops trace the name to India first, only to find out that the real guru—”

“You mean the fake guru.”

“The real but fraudulent guru.”

“The real fake.”

“The genuine fraud.”

“Okay. That’s all clear now.”

“Anyway, the first one, the actual Swami Faquir, is still in India and always has been. Perfect alibi. Hundreds of women will swear to it. So a little further investigation leads them to the impostor guy with the rock band in town, where they discover that the impersonator—the third guy—has disappeared.”

“So what did the rock band say when they found out they had been duped by a phony?”

“They said the cops were lying and trying to fool them and that their guy was real. They wouldn’t tell my dad how much money they had paid the guy, and they refused to have him prosecuted for fraud, so he’s still their guru. To those guys, reality is what you want it to be. If it works, it’s true.”

“Does this mean I have to give up pretending?”

“You know you’re pretending. That’s the thing. It’s when we want to believe one thing so much that truth no longer matters that we fall in love with a falsehood.”

“So we’re back to truth and meaning and stuff. That’s what I like about you Amy. You still believe in that stuff. That’s good.”

Amy just smiled. “Well,” she said, “I need to talk to Melanie, so I’d better get going and see if she’s back in her room.”

“Thanks for coming over. And for talking. My practically sister.”

“You’re funny, Shelley.”

“Thanks. I try.”

As Amy walked back toward her own dorm to see if Melanie was now available, she wondered if her talk with Shelley had helped her friend think about herself and her future in a good way. Amy recalled the saying her father had given her when he presented Tina the Ballerina. “The ballerina lives not for herself but for her dance.” She thought now that perhaps the saying meant more than a call to be her personal best, but a charge to be a model for others. The dance of a candle flame. A light to the world. Show others a reasonable example that they might follow or at least get some ideas from. That was a good way to be useful to others. Feeling useful made Amy happy.

+++

“Yeah, come,” said the voice when Amy knocked on Melanie’s door. Melanie was sitting on the bed, her knees pulled up to her chin, painting her toenails a shiny, deep black. She glanced up to identify her visitor, and then returned to her task. “Hey, Amy.”

“Hi, Melanie. How are you?”

“Late.” Amy noticed that Melanie’s hair had recently been attended to. Maybe the girl was going out.

“Well, I won’t keep you long. It’s about Tina.”

“I don’t think I can move her. The floor’s pretty tight.”

“No, it’s not that. It’s just that I think she needs help.”

“Is she hurt?” Melanie looked up and made eye contact.

“No,” Amy said, drawing out the word a little. Melanie dipped into the polish and brushed the next nail. Amy continued, “There’s something wrong with her.”

“Like that’s news.”

“No, I mean, really wrong. I think she needs counseling or some kind of doctor. She thinks people are talking to her when they aren’t. I don’t know how to explain it. She has a bunch of radios, and she’s trying to get messages.”

“Has she threatened you?”

“No, actually, she seems to like me.”

“I thought you might be able to help her. That’s why I brought her over.”

“Do her parents know about her problems?” Amy asked, changing tack.

“Don’t know. We’re not allowed to tell them anything, even if we knew something. Privacy laws. Tina’s an adult.”

“Isn’t there anything we can do?” The tone made Melanie look up again.

“Look, Amy. I feel sorry for the girl. She’s vulnerable and sensitive. And reality—whatever that is—has driven off and left her standing in the rain. But I don’t know what to do.” She returned to her toes to paint the last nail, then said, “Maybe you could try the counseling center. But don’t get your hopes up.” Melanie released her feet from the edge of the bed and stretched out her legs to view her nails at a distance. She looked at Amy one last time, with an expression that seemed to reveal a caring heart somewhere inside. “Good luck, Amy,” she said quietly.

.



Go on to Chapter 16
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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com