A Novel Excerptby Lina Patton
We are all from someplace else. Kentucky. Connecticut. New York, or Jacksonville. Each time a girl names a place, the city or town or state escaping from her neat, pink lips, my mind darts to some corner of an imaginary map: north, east, west, south, trying to place her, like pressing a pin down. But sometimes girls say places like Athens or Greenville or Lowell, and my mind goes blank, darting to nowhere, like when someone says a word you don’t know how to spell.
But I’m from Minnesota, and so when I introduce myself on that first, hot move-in day, the leaves of the magnolia trees waxy in the windows, the air sizzling in a way I hadn’t known to expect in North Carolina, everyone nods, saying, “Oh, Minne-soh-tah,” exaggerating an accent I have worked not to have. “Yes, Lara, from Minne-soh-tah,” I repeat back, playing along and smiling, because I want them to like me. But then I say it again, normally, just so they know: “Minnesota”—my voice careful with the vowels, pushing them down hard to the bottom of my mouth.
We’re freshmen, the word dangerous and exciting, like driving a car for the first time. There are thirty of us on the first of three floors in Carolina Hall, the only all-freshmen, all-girls dorm at Tallen University. We don’t know it yet, but this is special. Somehow, whoever sorted our acceptances—shuffling our names and numbers through the housing system, the campus halls—dubbed us in a way: all of us knights kneeling, unknowingly. “Carolina Hall girls,” students whisper around campus, on walkways, in libraries, leaning over water fountains, “The Best in the World.” This has become a secret truth passed from year to year, from class to class, in the same way everyone knows the grass is always green. “They dye it,” people say. “They choose those girls special,” they repeat. “Those girls. Those girls. Those Carolina Hall girls.”
We all pretend we didn’t spend time picking them out, that it’s not important, but it is. There’s an unsaid competition about whose room looks the best. And luckily, even though our duvets do not match, because of everything Nicki and her large family—father, mother, grandmother, and three sisters—brought down from New Jersey, ours is on top. We have glossy pink curtains, a black futon, a small television propped up on modern metallic shelves, twinkling lights encasing our ceiling, and a coffee table with a candy jar full of colorful Jolly Ranchers, which are her favorite, in the middle. When my father and I arrived, we both jumped slightly when the door opened—my room already set up, bright and alive, like some foreign Candy Land I was just lucky enough to slide into. We slowly stepped inside, my father reaching to shake the extended hand of Nicki’s dad, who was shouting, “Welcome, welcome, I’m Joey, we’re the Pisanos,” his accent something I’d heard only in movies.
This room is almost nicer than some of our rooms back home, where it’s just my father and me, my mom having left when I was eight. All our rooms there are for necessity, for function, as my father says, which is why I don’t invite new people over: the book under the coffee-table leg; the duct-taped TV antenna, which my father is so proud of, “We get eighteen channels for free!”; the mismatching mugs we use for water glasses that say things like World’s Best Employee and Eat, Sleep, Fish.
Nicki’s right. My duvet doesn’t match. But it’s mine, it’s soft and smells like home, and I would never tell her, but I don’t like hers either.
We learn the names of the boys across the way just as we learn each other’s, and soon there’s the same group of us studying the boys, always piling into Nicki’s and my dorm room, or Tee’s, who has the best view of their front stoop, and peering out the windows. I don’t think I’d be there without Nicki—she brought me along, but I’m glad. Somehow it seems they’re all the most beautiful girls on our hall, plus me.
“That’s Brett,” we say. “He used to model. And Jimmy, from Texas, with the arms. Tom, who maybe has a girlfriend. Travis, the one from Tanya’s econ class. Jason. Mark. Ryan.” There’s something to remember about each one.
Still, we feel competitive about who knows more boys, who knows more about them, and, although we don’t say it, who they know, who of us they want to know. “You’re lucky you’re so thin. And those round-ass eyes,” Nicki says to me one night as we undress for bed, our curtains still slightly open, the dusky black slit of outside just visible. “I bet Eddie just wishes to get a peek of you,” she says, going over to the window and flashing the curtains all the way open before closing them fully. I laugh and tell her to stop it as I climb up to my bunk, trying not to let her see the way my face is flushed. No one has ever called me thin before. I’ve always been normal, average, and for the first time I realize I’ve actually been losing weight. I’ve been so distracted, so nervous that I haven’t been eating. Thin, I repeat in my mind, holding onto the word like a new, gorgeous present.
Of course, because Tanya is one of the prettiest, and most outgoing, she’s the first to bring a boy home. It’s a Thursday, and when a few of us get back from the bar, we hear them. We laugh, almost cry—with laughter and excitement and because we’re drunk—and when we realize what’s happening, we all lean outside her door, listening. She moans loudly and he breathes hard. Something falls from somewhere. And again. We keep laughing, looking at each other in amazement, but as time passes and they grow louder, we grow quieter, our own breathing quickening as we picture them inside.
“Who could it be?” Alice whispers, breaking the silence, and we all shrug, suddenly embarrassed. Slowly we make our way back to our rooms.