.:VirtualSalt

The Million Dollar Girl
A Novel

Robert Harris
Version Date: October 11, 2008



Chapter 20

Monday mornings at the university are often much easier on the classroom furniture than other days, especially during the early class hours. Students who have gotten little sleep during their weekend revels use Monday morning to recharge their systems, making it necessary to interrupt for awhile the ongoing pursuit of truth and beauty. Because Professor Miller’s critical thinking class met, by student standards, at an early hour, Monday sessions were often less fully populated than Wednesdays or even Fridays. This particular Monday the seating was even thinner than usual because a paper was due. This reflected a universal principle of student behavior. On due days, many of the students who do not have the paper finished stay away from class also. Some hope to claim illness, some are still working on the paper, some may fear the frown of the professor. In any event, professors worldwide often look with wonder over the decimated ranks of their classes on the days that papers or other assignments are due.

The students in Professor Miller’s class who did come gathered themselves into small groups to feel less abandoned. Before they sat down, some put their papers on the table at the front of the classroom, one or two proud that they had finished, but most simply eager to get it out of their hands to symbolize their being finished with it. A few students held on to their papers and perhaps traded with other students to see what else could be said about one’s personal use of reason. Two or three kept their papers hidden in their notebooks, just in case the class attitude became negative toward those who completed the assignment on time.

After these varied little dramas, almost all struggled to wake each other up by engaging in sleepily animated conversations about any topic that came to mind. The topic of the class meeting, logical fallacies, did not come to mind. One of the great principles of the unwritten Constitution of Academia, student version, is that requiring reading or any other work for the same day a paper is due represents cruel and unusual punishment and is therefore unconstitutional. Only the truly scholarly will do the reading, and they, for fear of becoming social outcasts among their friends, rarely admit to it.

While Amy and Markayla had quietly exchanged papers with two other students and sat reading their peer’s work, a small group awakened each other by engaging in philosophical analysis.

“The world belongs to those who tell the best stories, not to those who reason the best. Advertising is not an argument. It’s a story.”

“But advertising is all about appearance and emotion. It’s anti-thinking.”

“Yeah, well appearance always beats thinking. Girls know that guys can see better than they can think. That’s why they spend more time putting on make-up than they do reading philosophy.”

“But it’s gone way beyond make-up. People use fake hair, fake eye color, implants, you name it. They suck the fat from their stomachs and squirt it into their lips. Women pull the hair off their legs and men stick hair into their heads.”

“Don’t forget nose jobs. They get fake noses, too.”

“They do not.”

“No? Well they no longer have the nose they were born with. They have a fake nose.”

“Oh, so I suppose braces give you fake teeth.”

“The point is, people are pretending to be what they are not, just to be attractive or get something.”

“So? Not everybody’s born with perfect looks. Some people like to help level the playing field.”

“It’s being false.”

“Is it false to put a squeaker in a dog toy to inflame their instincts? When a dog hears the squeak, he thinks he’s hurting a little squirrel. It makes him enjoy it.”

“So now men are dogs, and women are squeaker toys. I can’t believe you.”

“No, all I’m saying is that men have instincts to protect women.”

“Men have instincts, all right, but I don’t think I’d describe them as protective.”

“But why should we have to pretend to be vulnerable or weak? Can’t guys handle confident, independent women? Why do we have to act? Be fake?”

“So then we’re gonna stop using makeup because that’s fake?”

“Yeah, and we’re going to open our own doors and pay for our own meals.”

“I already do that.”

“Yeah, and we’re all going to stop trying to be cool.”

“Yeah, right.”

+++

At five minutes after the hour, someone was overheard to say, rather loudly, “Where’s Dr. Miller?” For the case was that Professor Miller, always reliable and normally very punctual, had not yet arrived in the classroom. No one had the answer, so the conversations continued as they had.

When the classroom clock displayed ten minutes after the hour, many students began to wonder aloud whether Professor Miller would make an appearance at all. There was hope in many voices as they said, “Maybe class is cancelled today.” Amy and Markayla, papers ready, hoped their efforts had not been in vain. They talked about what to do with their papers if Miller did not come.

By eleven minutes after the hour, the suspense had gotten too much.

“Why don’t we just call him?” someone finally suggested. Another student pulled out a phone.

“What’s his number?”

“How would I know?”

“Where’s Gina? I’ll bet she has his number.”

“Gina’s not here this morning.”

“So what should I do?”

“Call the switchboard and ask for the philosophy department.”

“Wait, his office number is on the syllabus.”

A call to Professor Miller’s office was answered, after several rings, by the department secretary. No, she had not seen Dr. Miller that morning. Sometimes he went directly to class. No, he had not called in sick. No, she did not know where he was. That was enough information gathering for the class. Some students had already begun to leave, and the others waiting for the outcome of the phone call now decided that there would be no class. No one wanted to ask for Miller’s home phone number, since that would represent an unreasonable effort. And he might just have been home and asked the class to wait for him.

“What about our papers?” someone asked.

“The secretary says to bring them to the office,” said the person with the phone.

Therefore, with joyful hearts at the cancellation, the remaining students left. Those with papers headed for the department office. Some decided afterwards to return to their rooms to get some extra sleep, while a few of the faithful decided to go on to the Cave and have their usual after-class coffee. Amy and Markayla decided to join the group. Markayla had, however, cleverly brought an insulated mug of her own coffee with her.

As the students sat down at their usual large booth, a visiting professor with a heavy accent came up to them. He was holding out his plate with a sandwich on it.

“Look at this sandwich,” he said. “Only two sheets of ham for six dollars ninety five. That is outrageous.” He clearly felt wronged, but did not know how to protest, other than to make public the swindle. The students shook their heads in sympathy, and he moved to another table, glancing back at the service counter to see if the employees were watching. He hoped they were being shamed.

“He should be glad they didn’t give him more,” Jennica said. “The ham here isn’t all that great.”

“Yeah, if life is a sandwich, university life is indigestible.”

“Not much to chew on.”

“A lot of it is predigested.”

“Gotta eat what the professors like.”

“Trouble is, it’s always academic liver and Brussels sprouts.”

“‘Here, eat this. It’s good for you.’ They always say that.”

“Got to swallow what they feed us and then spit it back out on the tests and papers,” David said, repeating one of his favorite ideas.

“Okay,” said Julie, “that metaphor has gone far enough. No more talk about spitting up, please. I’ve done enough baby sitting to have an all-too-real image of that.”

“Always give them what they want. The first rule of making other people happy.” David almost added, “And dogs like vomit,” but restrained himself because he liked Julie.

“They say we’re supposed to think for ourselves, and then they tell us what to think.”

“Yeah, aren’t we here to, like, find ourselves? I mean, I don’t want to be defined by somebody else. I want to become my own person.”

“So what you’re saying is that you don’t know who you are?”

“Of course I know who I am. I have a driver’s license and I can look at it anytime I want.”

“Oh, ha ha.”

“That was tremendously funny,” said Jennica, with a deadpan and expressionless delivery.

“I’m trying to figure out who I might be, who I should be.”

“Why can’t you just be yourself?”

“Oh, that’s the most original advice since the snake said, ‘Why not just try an apple?’”

“I want to do something significant with my life,” said Amy, “and not just sit around and consume products.”

“You want a life with some purpose, when most people in the world want a life of regular meals.”

“Yeah, I mean, we’re like, ‘Oh, disaster, I broke a nail!’ and in some places it’s like, ‘Gosh, another one of my kids starved to death today.’”

To the group’s surprise, the usually quiet Markayla spoke up. “Yes, this is true,” she said. “There is a need for many people to help.”

“So are you going to dedicate your life to feed the starving in far-off countries?”

“Do you know,” Markayla said, “that the world is now a small place? There are no longer very many far-off countries. You think Kenya is far away? Kenya is stepping on and stepping off an airplane. Meanwhile, all you must do is sit.”

“But there are needs here in the U.S., too.” Julie was not keen on living where she might not be able to shower every day.

“Yes, you can help the needy in the morning and still shop at the mall at night. It’s a tough life, but I can see you’re up to it,” Jennica said.

“Oh, shut up.”

“The problem is, how to choose. And it’s just that what seems important to so many people seems to me to be thin and selfish. Like we’re all just trying to look good while we do nothing and are nothing.”

“We’re just all actors.”

“See? We aren’t anything. We’re just acting. Pretending to be something.”

“And some are much better actors than others.”

“Hah! Imagine someone who can’t even act their own life well!”

+++

While this conversation continued, Amy noted that the time for her appointment was approaching, so she got up and politely excused herself, an act of decorum that scarcely anyone noticed. She crossed the courtyard outside the Cave and walked toward the path informally known as Stonewalk by most students, running among some eucalyptus trees along the edge of a large landscaped hill separating some of the classroom and office buildings from the student services complex.

On the other side of the trees was a moderate patch of lawn, where Amy could see two boys playing Frisbee. Sitting in the shade and leaning up against a nearby tree, two girls talked. They had books and papers all around them, and some in their hands, as if their intention had been to study together, but as Amy walked by, she heard one of them relating a conversation. “And then he goes, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll get it in plenty of time.’ And the other guy goes, ‘But you just said she froze you out.’”

Then, near the edge of the trees, Amy saw a dancer. He was dressed in ballet tights and doing leaps and pirouettes, half hidden in the small forest. It was as if he did not want to be seen. He was half singing a wordless melody to accompany his movements.

Seeing the dancer put Amy in mind of Tina the Ballerina and her father’s proverb. “The ballerina lives not for herself, but for her dance.” The saying seemed to be taking on new meaning as a result of her recent experiences. Now she began to think that living for the dance must mean living for the opportunity to give to others. That’s why she was on the way to see the counselor now, in hopes of doing something for Tina Nicole. The ballerina was there to be a helper. Maybe that is why Amy had enjoyed helping Matt fix his car. The dance was her service to those who need her. Matt might have been able to fix his car by himself, but Tina Nicole did not seem to be able to help herself. She was too confused. She needed someone to do what she could not do. Amy hoped that this conference with the counselor would be just the action that Tina would have taken if she had been able.

Dr. Miller had once said, “Those who can think well should think for those who can’t.” Amy had thought at the time that such an idea was somewhat egotistical and perhaps even dangerous. “That’s probably what dictators think,” she had concluded. But now, she had a different view, and thought that Tina was truly someone who could not think well. It was a hard question. “How do you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped?” she wondered. “Someone who is so certain of a false idea that the truth does not appeal to them, does not even seem real?”

+++

“Counselor Blakely will see you now.”

Mrs. Blakely sat behind a large, ornate desk strewn with papers and knick knacks. It was not the neat desk Amy had somehow expected. Nor did Mrs. Blakely’s face reveal the expression Amy had expected. She looked cold, perhaps hostile.

“You are Amy Herbert,” Mrs. Blakely said looking at papers in a manila file folder rather than at Amy.

“Yes. I’m here about my roommate, Tina.”

Mrs. Blakely looked up at Amy.

“Your email about Tina Davidson, saying that she needs help because she has, what do you call them, ‘strange ideas and thoughts that aren’t real,’ seems to me to be offensively intrusive and judgmental. Just who are you to criticize her ideas?”

“I’m not criticizing, I—.”

“Your letter certainly implies that. Are you saying that I do not understand English?”

“No. It’s—.”

“You say she ‘doesn’t know what is real and what isn’t.’ And what makes you think you can judge her reality for her?”

“It’s hard to explain. It’s just the way she acts, and—.”

“You mustn’t expect others to be just like you. There are large differences in behavior. Just because someone is different is not a reason to condemn or criticize them or think there is something wrong with them. Maybe there is something wrong with you, instead. We live in a diverse, multicultural society. And it is our right to live as we want as long as we don’t try to impose our ideas on others.” Mrs. Blakely looked down into the folder again, reading. Then she stood up and walked around to the front of the desk, near Amy.

“These things in your email.” Amy could already tell by the dismissive tone that Mrs. Blakely was not persuaded. “She lights candles. She buys a radio or two. She cannot read Spanish so she is confused by the word Abierto. These are all normal behaviors.” There was a pause. “In fact, Ms. Herbert, tell me. Have you ever taken the MMPI?”

“I don’t even know what that is.”

“The way you single out ordinary events as if they had special meaning makes me think that you may be suffering from abnormal thinking yourself. Tell me. Do you hear voices?”

“No. Mrs. Blakely, please listen. Tina thinks people are watching her. Isn’t that some kind of symptom?”

“Young men are always watching attractive young women,” Mrs. Blakely replied, with particular stress on attractive. The counselor made yet another trip to the manila folder.

“Ms. Herbert.”

“Yes?”

“Are you sexually active?”

Amy closed her eyes for a moment. She thought to herself, “This can’t be real. I must be dreaming. This has got to be a nightmare.” When she opened her eyes, Mrs. Blakely was still there, stern expression and all.

“I’ve asked you a question,” she said, almost snottily.

“I’m sorry. No.”

“No, what? No, you didn’t hear the question or No, you are not sexually active?”

“No, I’m not sexually active.”

Mrs. Blakely had an expression of triumph (which to Amy looked like an ugly smirk) on her face, as if to say, “I thought so.” She began to circle around behind Amy. “And I assume that Tina is a normal, healthy girl with regular dates.”

“I don’t think so. I’ve never seen any guys around her. No one calls.”

“But you certainly don’t monitor her every moment, I hope, do you?”

“No. But she’s never mentioned a guy or a date or dressed to go out or anything.”

“Well, some people are more discreet than the Miss Noseybodies of the world.” The counselor was now behind Amy, talking to the back of her head. “You can be honest with me. You disapprove of Tina, don’t you? You are envious and frustrated that the girl has a satisfying expression of her natural sexuality while you are too tight and rigid to find your own. You seem to be very uptight and obsessive. I think you want Tina to be ill because you reject her lifestyle. Perhaps you are projecting your own insecurities onto her.”

“No, please believe me. That’s not it at all. There is something wrong with Tina.”

“Why must you be so oppressively moralistic? Tina is not hurting anyone, is she?”

“No.”

“Then why do you insist on butting into her life in an effort to force your values on her? And worse, how dare you come to us to ask us to help you force your narrow views on the poor girl? I resent that. I deeply resent that.”

Amy wondered if the next words would be, “Get out of my sight!” or something similar. Instead Mrs. Blakely sat down and made a few scribbled notes in the manila folder. Amy wondered whether mention of Tina’s book would make a difference. She decided that copying barcodes could easily be interpreted as normal also. So she said nothing about it.

“Do you think her parents should be called?” Amy asked a little more faintly than she intended.

The counselor stopped writing for a moment and looked up. “Tina’s life is no business of her parents. She’s an adult, protected by privacy laws. You have heard of the right to privacy, haven’t you?”

“I guess so.”

“She guesses so,” the woman said contemptuously, resuming her energetic scribbling.

After a minute or two, Mrs. Blakely closed the folder with a clearly symbolic slap, her hand slamming down on the top of it, indicating that the case was closed and the discussion now over. She looked at Amy.

“If Tina is really having problems, there is the free clinic available for substance users who would like to take a break for awhile.”

“I don’t think she takes drugs or anything.”

“You don’t think. That’s the truth. The truth is, you don’t know.” She stood up. Amy stood also.

“So, then, I shouldn’t do anything about Tina?” Amy asked as they walked toward the door.

“Ms. Herbert, the question is not what should be done about Tina, but what should be done about you. Tina is an adult. In fact, she is more an adult than you, because she hasn’t come to me complaining of your intrusive, busybody behavior. Get your own life and stop being so up tight about others. Live and let live. And leave the girl alone.”

“I was just trying to help.” Amy felt that wave of emotion that signals the near onset of tears.

“That’s the motto of oppressors all over the world.”

Amy walked out the door. When she was outside the building, she began to run.

+++

There was a knock. Amy opened the door to find Melanie, the resident assistant, standing there. As usual, Melanie looked tired, and now a little sad, as if the burden of the world had become unusually heavy. Her head was upright because of a wide, studded leather collar, but her eyelids hung heavily and her frame seemed to slump under the weight of life. Even the tattoo on her cheek seemed faded. Maybe it was a temporary tattoo that was washing off, Amy thought. In a bizarre moment, Amy felt a kinship with Melanie, the pierced, dyed, tattooed, shop-worn girl. It was a kinship of the tired and depressed. Amy thought that if she had insight into Melanie’s life, there would be much to sympathize with. “Hi, gang,” Melanie said to the three roommates. There was no lilt in her voice, just enough breath behind the words to get them out. “I just dropped by to see how Tina is doing.”

“Tina? She’s fine. She’s right here.” Amy pointed to Tina, who was, as usual, lying on her bed listening to one of her many radios through the headphones. When Melanie saw that Tina could not hear what was being said, she motioned for Markayla to come to the door, too. Then, speaking softly, she said, “I saw Tina earlier today sitting in the stair well up at the top, above the second floor. You know, where the stairs go up to the hatch in the roof. It’s dark up there.”

“What was she doing?”

“Just sitting, I think. I thought I heard her say something, but I couldn’t make it out.”

“Was she with someone?”

“Not that I could see.”

“I am very worried about that girl,” Markayla said. “There must be some help we can get her.” Then, remembering the story Amy had told her about the visit with Mrs. Blakely, she added, “Some help from her parents or from the authorities off campus.”

“Well,” Melanie said, “I can’t give out her parents phone number. You’ll have to ask her for it yourselves.”

“Okay. We’ll see what we can do,” Amy said.

“Thanks,” Melanie said, and turned to go. Amy’s sensibilities were still close to the surface from her own emotional wrenching earlier that day, so that watching Melanie’s sad walk brought moisture to Amy’s eyes. “There’s someone else who needs a helping hand and a loving heart,” she thought. “Whatever she’s doing to find happiness, she sure seems to be looking in the wrong places. Then again, maybe she’s just tired. Maybe I’m the problem, as Mrs. Blakely says.” She sat down at her desk and looked at her ballerina.

+++

An hour or two had passed after Melanie’s visit. Amy and Markayla were once again deep into their studies. Amy sat peering at the screen of her notebook computer and taking notes, while Markayla had just stopped reading long enough to remove her glasses and rub her eyes. She was thinking about making a late cup of coffee.

The quiet was ended by rapidly pounding footsteps on the landing. They came closer and closer and then suddenly stopped. The door burst open to reveal Shelley, eyes wild and hair flying.

“Amy! Amy!” she said breathlessly, “Satan! Satan worshippers!” She was breathing so hard, she could speak only with difficulty.

“What?” asked Amy.

“Who are Satan worshippers?” Markayla asked, putting her glasses back on and focusing on Shelley.

“Room 230,” said Shelley, still panting, “right here. Across the courtyard. They’re drawing pentagrams and all kinds of evil diagrams and, and—” there was just a little pause, “—they are sacrificing chickens!”

A look of alarm flashed across Amy’s face, but it quickly faded as she still sat there, looking at Shelley, standing in the doorway still breathing hard and waiting for a reply. Markayla looked from Shelley to Amy. Amy’s body still faced her desk against the wall; only her head was turned in the direction of the doorway. Then, without saying anything, Amy looked down at the corner of her desk, then turned her head back to the computer screen and continued to read. Seeing Amy’s lack of response, Markayla stood up, agitated and concerned.

“Satan worshippers are sacrificing chickens?” she said, a trace of fear in her voice.

“No, Markayla,” said Amy, still looking at the screen. “The geometry study group ordered take-out chicken. Go back to your work.”

“You’re no fun,” said Shelley, with a frown. She looked over to see if she had gotten a rise out of Tina, but the girl appeared to be asleep.

“Doesn’t she ever study?” Shelley asked, gesturing toward Tina.

“I think she studies in the library,” Amy said. “She’s gone a lot. But I’ve never really asked her.”

“So why are we so jolly tonight? Contemplating death again? Rich uncle die and leave his money to a cat instead of you? Found lipstick on Matt’s collar?”

“No, Shelley,” Amy said.

“Bathroom scale slandering you again? Maybe it’s only water bloating.”

“That’s not it.”

“Oops. I know. You’re doing the calendar X’s, and you’re always cranky then. Sorry. I should have known.”

“Amy had a bad experience with someone today,” Markayla said, trying to be vague enough so that Tina would not understand, just in case she was not asleep. “And she does not want to talk about it,” she added, seeing a look of intense curiosity rush across Shelley’s face.

Shelley frowned. “Okay be that way,” she said with mock petulance. “But maybe I know some things you don’t know, too.”

“Shelley,” Amy said, “I’ll tell you all about it later.”

“Ooh, promise?”

“I promise.”

“Zits and all?”

“Yes, zits and all.”

.



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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