FIRST CHOICE by Hannah Felt Garner
by Hannah Felt Garner
It is fall break when we arrive on campus for the interview. No one around but the student workers in Admissions and a security guard in a golf cart, silently cruising under heritage elms. My father and I have just toured a more prestigious college nearby when he announces this little detour on our drive home. I resist but only a little, sick already of a process which will later give me hives. Twice: the day of the December deadline, then again the week leading up to the one in January. My body is leaning as far as it’ll go against the car door. It wouldn’t be my first time jumping out of a moving vehicle, my father’s favorite interrogation site.
After an exuberant campus tour delivered by a junior in plastic flip-flops, my father disappears into the glassy Admissions Office then re-emerges, Ferris-wheeling his arms like a child. “Come on in! They can squeeze you in for a student interview!” I doubt the spontaneity of this arrangement but let myself be ushered in. In a windowless back room, I sit across from a senior Creative Writing major concentrating in Gender Studies, the first time I hear this phrase. Tall and narrow-shouldered in a rumpled button-down, the honey wisps of hair along his forehead framing wideset cheekbones and receding eyes, the senior interviewer has my attention.
“Can you tell me about one of your English essays?” he asks, sussing out the only school subject I want to talk about. “Well,” I say, scooching up a bit in my seventies-upholstered armchair, “in eleventh grade we all had to write a ten-page research paper. I wrote mine…”
I had written mine on men who put women on a pedestal, mistaking their idolatry for enlightenment. I had used as my examples: Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Hesse’s Demian, and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I had told my advisor the selection was the result of thoughtful research, but in truth they were the three texts I had taken off my sister’s bookshelf one summer in middle school after she had said to me, eyeing my Harry Potter: “Isn’t it about time you started reading real literature?” As for the paper, I had turned every draft in late, never finding my footing in an argument. I hadn’t yet the language to talk about gender, about the Bildungsroman, or indeed about the destruction left in the wake of a young man’s coming of age.
“…And if you look at Gatsby,” I say, “you see how, if a man’s idealization of a woman goes too far, he will end up by destroying himself”—confident in my eloquence but ignorant of the misogyny of my point.
We move on to other subjects, but I don’t forget how his gaze heats up when I talk about literature and women. Shaking hands at the end of the interview, he is polite and even-tempered but falters ever so slightly in saying he’s “impressed” by my interests. I feel the shame I always feel when eyes are on my face, but I also think I see my desire reflected back at me. As we make our way to the parking lot, my father pokes me for details: “Did you get the chance to talk about your UN internship?” “I bet he was really interested to hear about your play.” But my hackles don’t rise as usual, because I am calculating under what scenario—alumni reunion? Five years from now?—choosing this small liberal arts college with no theater department will lead me to him.
The admissions letters received, I lay them out on my bed, a neutral map of choices. But even here there is the bias of backdrop: the cheerful quilt my mother bought from a catalog in an attempt to fix what she calls my “negativity,” not knowing how to put a name to sadness. Then there is the bias of lush foliage outside my creaky single-pane window, the mating calls of squirrels and blue jays. With the too-rural, Midwestern, and poorly ranked schools eliminated, it comes down to the liberal arts college and a large, hip university in New York City.
The pull of New York is strong. My sister has been living there for years. My parents and I will go up for the weekend, to see a Neil LaBute play at the Public Theater or the Brahms concerto at Lincoln Center (my sister could have gone professional, she says, but they never bothered to buy her a better violin). Whenever we go, I look around me as though in a virtual reality. I think: can I picture me here in this coffee shop on the Upper West Side? As this Juilliard student? As this Chelsea gallery girl?
The pressure to choose the more prestigious school is also strong. I’m not proud of my acceptances. I didn’t have the grades or the confidence for the Ivy League. And when I hear, too late, of my friend’s application essays—sweet tales of growing into themselves structured around food and painting metaphors—I feel ashamed. Because what I have submitted is a laundry list of exaggerated feats strung together into melancholy prose in a dissociative state, late nights on my neon green bubble Mac; my father standing behind me, his grip on the back of my swivel chair causing an unconscious, controlled wobble. The essay had been my chance to steer my destiny with my own story, but I had allowed even that, even writing, to be directed by him.
After formally accepting, I plan a return to campus, this time alone. The night before, I attend a high school party at the Guatemalan ambassador’s residence. The ambassador’s son Billy is the only new kid in our senior year, and we take his bribe for acceptance in the form of piña coladas prepared in the kitchen blender. We gulp down the frozen drinks, kiss Billy on the cheek, then turn back to the same friends and crushes we’ve had since middle school.
Me and Sami eye each other from opposing sides of the room all night, as is our custom. Then, three cups of piña in, I climb the stairs to go find the girls (who I’m told are sipping cotton candy vodka in the bathtub). Sami climbs the stairs after me and pulls me into a guest room, the familiar dunes of his warm lips finding mine and mine and mine. When we detach, I catch a vulnerable expression on his face, like loss or fear, but then he lifts my skirt to slap my thigh, hard, and his lips resume their put-on snarl: “I need a smoke,” he says.
Next morning, I board the Amtrak local with a hangover. I doze, then spend the last two stops imagining a reunion with the senior interviewer—I’ll come across him on a secluded campus path, and he’ll be standing over me under a blooming canopy of lilacs and say, “I’m so happy you chose to come here.” And I’ll say, “It was meeting you that convinced me. I knew if the other students were anything like you, I’d have made the right choice.”
I’ve arranged to spend the night with a freshman named Liz to preview what life will look like come fall. When Liz unlocks the door to her suite, her three roommates are arranged on the common room furniture. “These—are the Marys,” she says, anticipating a reaction, and then explains that someone in the housing office had thought it funny to place the three freshman girls of the same name together in the same suite. Watching the Marys move around one other in the apartment, I think to myself, “It’s lucky that they’re all beautiful, but in different forms.” They strike me as iterations of the feminine ideal. One, tall, blond, athletic, is something of a Virgin Mary, golden and unerotic. Beside her, the second girl, short, breasty and flirtatious, falls nicely into the Mary Magdalen category. The third, adorned with a nose ring and armpit hair, stands for the pagan alternative, a modern asterisk to the old duality.
“Hey, are you from Brooklyn?” Magdalen Mary asks me, in reference to the sweatshirt I’m wearing. It’s a brandless, gray hoodie that reads “BROOKLYN” across the chest in blue patch letters. “Oh! No. Actually it’s my sister’s. She lives in the city. I just borrow her clothes.”
My sister had bought it off a street vendor outside Atlantic Terminal mall on a cold day in the 2000s when she first moved to the city. Unemployed, college dropout, she spent afternoons walking along Atlantic Avenue from Bed-Stuy to the river. It was the moment she handed the man fifteen dollars for a sweatshirt that she had decided to live.
The gray hoodie didn’t exactly fit in with her nineties garb of furry boots and embroidered coats, so I appropriated it, figuring she wouldn’t notice. By the time I had worn it more than her, I had spent years envying my sister’s insistent freedom up in New York, and as many years being instructed over the dinner table not to end up like her. You might say that wearing the sweatshirt on my second campus visit is a small act of rebellion against the choice I had to make: not to follow her there.
“I grew up in the Village,” Magdalen Mary replies. I don’t know exactly what that refers to, but I know it’s the city. In that moment Magdalen Mary becomes my second reason for choosing to stay.
Two plain-faced guys from downstairs arrive toting plastic bags of potato buns, corn, and liter bottles of soda, fuel for the dorm barbecue set to start in an hour. Liz and Magdalen Mary improvise a fruit punch and dance to femme-pop as the guys de-package the food. I hang back at their insistence—I’m their guest!—but enjoy the crinkle chips and the curves of Magdalen Mary’s skinny jeans and American Apparel bodysuit.
Virgin Mary returns from the train station with her boyfriend in tow. “Hey—Jonathan,” the boyfriend comes up to say, by way of introduction. “I hear you’re joining the crew here next year—congrats! I often think I should have gone in for the liberal arts myself,” he says, then clarifies that he’s enrolled at the number one business school in the country.
As we chat, I can overhear the Marys in the corner, discussing sleeping arrangements. “No, I didn’t tell her to bring a sleeping bag in the end,” I hear Liz say. And I catch something Virgin Mary is telling the others, “Ever since that weekend in the Catskills…” and some outcome I can’t decipher. Magdalen Mary’s response is: “Well yes, then definitely take the blowup mattress, we can set it up in the living room.”
I have just been telling Jonathan about my summer in Italy when Liz comes over to touch my forearm. “Hey,” she says, “Mary and Jonathan are going to stay in the living room, so, is it ok if we put you in her bed?” Magdalen Mary sidles up to add, “You’ll sleep in my room, ok? I don’t snore, don’t worry.”
We descend to gather on the patchy grass in front of the dorm. We sip beer out of Solo cups and pick at our burgers, morsels of watermelon juicing onto our paper plates. The other freshmen gathered look younger than the Marys, wearing oversized brightly colored t-shirts commemorating a service trip to Nicaragua or their hometown travel soccer team. As I survey the smattering of uncool, friendly teens, I think I might in fact be happy here.
“They’re so cute together, right?” Magdalen Mary says to me, indicating Virgin Mary and Jonathan. “She could have had any of the guys here of course. In this context, she’s a ten, but she and Jonathan have been together since tenth grade.” Then she turns to me with eyebrows raised, and I notice dimples like points of exclamation to her lips. “I’m sure you’ll have lots of success next year,” she says, as she reaches her hand to my collar bone and brushes a strand of my hair to the back.
Even in my tipsy exaltation, I have the presence of mind to go to bed early so that I don’t have to change into pajamas in front of the others. I get into Virgin Mary’s flower-patterned flannel sheets, where I can smell her Pantene Pro-V on the pillow. I turn to the wall, feel its cool surface, and fall asleep.
I awake to a touch. I turn onto my back and find Jonathan sitting on the bed. “Mary?” he says in the dark. “No, no, I’m—Alice—I’m—the prospie,” I say. The hand which had been resting against my side shifts up along my oversized t-shirt to my left breast. The hand strokes upwards once against the nipple, then shifts back down to my stomach. The outstretched palm strokes back and forth and the t-shirt gathers awkwardly into creases. No one says a word. “Goodnight,” he then whispers and leans over. My body stiffens as his dry lips smack against my forehead.
Next morning, Liz, Magdalen Mary, and I creep past the sleeping couple on the living room floor and walk up-campus. We set down our trays at a red picnic bench outside the dining hall to eat chocolate chip waffles and orange juice dispensed from a machine. Magdalen Mary spends the meal regaling us with anecdotes of her weekend exploits with upperclassmen. I eat up her performance, thinking next year I’ll do the same, have adventurous sex with men I don’t really know, then laugh about it with my roommates over brunch.
It’s August, and after depositing two bags of dorm room essentials purchased at the local strip mall, my father turns at last to leave. What he says, in lieu of goodbye, is: “I can’t wait to read all the amazing essays you’ll write in college!” As I watch his mini-van descend the elm-lined drive, I promise myself I won’t send a single word.
Orientation week is an Olympics of hall bonding which culminates in an event entitled Diafora, after the Greek. Diafora is kept hush-hush up until the moment where you find yourself in a blackened room with your hall-mates, and invited—not instructed—to share your most personal truth, assured it will never leave the room. After one girl tells the group about the childhood friend she lost to schizophrenia, I put words to the scene etched onto my insides: the afternoon I come home from school, climb the stairs to the sounds of conflict, and stand on the landing halfway up to the third floor as my father forces a pill down my sister’s throat, my mother holding her down in a sickened embrace.
Diafora creates a momentary illusion of equivalence among our family troubles. But in the weeks following, some start to wonder if the lacrosse star from Connecticut who shared the fall-out of his brother’s DUI and the first-gen girl from Philly who described her mother’s drug-induced miscarriage both emerged from Diafora with an equal relation to bonding.
Despite what we had agreed one afternoon when I snuck him into the basement to fuck me against the washing machine, Sami has ceased all communication since arriving at his own college campus. I get nothing from him for weeks, then one morning in October I wake up to geese honking on the grass beneath my dorm window. I slide open my phone to three paragraphs describing a revelation he’s had in the Vermont wilderness. He has created a crop circle in my honor, he says: a large ‘A’ through some farmer’s field. The outcome of an acid trip, I surmise, and determine it best to ignore.
Campus is littered with boys named Dan and David and Josh and Matt, each as indiscriminately needy as the next. The girls on my hall spend weeknights speculating which ones we might hook up with at the next basement party, then cuddle under a blanket watching The L Word DVDs on loan from the library. “What about Elliott? Elliott Lander,” someone says one night. I stay mute because EL is in my philosophy seminar. In class I fix my eyes on his brown leather boots, a synecdoche of him. When I’m alone, I click through Facebook photos, free to linger on the contrast between the crisp fold of his white v-neck t-shirt and the smooth slope of his bicep. The girls pull up a laptop to click through the photos and I avert my eyes lest they recognize my recognition. “Oh, him,” my roommate chimes in. “That guy’s dating a sophomore named Mary something.”
As chummy as we had felt the night of my campus visit, Magdalen Mary gives me the barest smile now when I cross her path on my way to class. It takes me a couple times seeing her wearing my Brooklyn sweatshirt before I realize it is indeed mine. I first spot it layered under an oversized denim jacket she wears to a student art show. It’s just a coincidence, I think. Then I see her at the library with her headphones in, hoodie up, and there’s no mistaking the missing drawstring, which I had pulled out too far and couldn’t finagle back in. She must have found the sweatshirt on the floor of her dorm room after I had left. Maybe it had gotten kicked under a bed. Maybe by the time it was found they had forgotten I was ever there. Figured it was left behind at a party. Asked around their friend group but no one claimed it. Then she tried it on and liked the way it fit. When people saw her in it, it made sense: after all, she was from there.
The first floor RA who buys us alcohol on the weekends knows Mary from frisbee. So I confide in him: I want it back. That first conversation I don’t think I make myself clear. “Are you sure?” he says. “I remember seeing Mary in that sweatshirt a lot freshman year.” A few weeks pass and then he finds me on the steps heading into dinner. “Hey! Turns out it probably is your sweatshirt! She says she’s happy to hand it over, once she retrieves it from her pile of things. She isn’t sure where it is exactly. Maybe in the laundry.”
One night I am leaving the science building when I see EL in his black denim jacket. He is walking away from me, his arm around a short figure in a gray hoodie. The possible made tangible. He has seen her in it, touched her in it. They would be heading to her apartment now, he would pull it off her then. Her breasts filling the wife-beater she has on underneath. The chest of my Brooklyn sweatshirt likely already stretched out, would hang limply over mine. I know then that if and when I get it back, I will never be able to wear that sweatshirt again. It belongs to her.
In early December, our dorm holds a Secret Santa. The afternoon before the unwrapping party I meet with my sculpture professor about my final project. I have purchased seven plain mirrors, twelve by twelve inch squares, and sent them in unpadded cardboard boxes to my sister, father, two best friends, favorite high school English teacher, and first boyfriend. “The piece is essentially conceptual,” he says, working through the idea with me. “These are people in your life who have shaped your self-image. Is it fate you’re playing with, superstition, by sending them through the post without protection?” I admit to hoping some will break, but not others. Though the meaning of the break will depend on which way the distribution goes. “And then there’s the fact that they’re rather ambivalent gifts,” he adds. “A bit violent too?” I volley back. “Yes, maybe you want to force these people from your life to confront something they don’t want to see in themselves.”
At dusk, our dorm gathers on the first floor. Early arrivals get the armchairs and sofa while the rest of us plop down in our sweatpants on the carpeted floor below fairy lights strung along the molding with tape. The first floor RA walks over to me and drops a cushy wad of Christmas wrapping into my lap. He wears a satisfied smile. I tear at the tissue paper until my fingers touch gray fleece. Shame plucks a familiar string in my stomach. I exclaim, “My sweatshirt!” without missing a beat. “Back in the arms of its owner at last!” the RA says. I feel a little sorry now, that I treated him as her accomplice. Sorry, too, that I had made him privy to my demand. “Aw, thank you!” I say to him, and give the Brooklyn sweatshirt a little squeeze, for his sake. “Of course!” he replies, happy with his good deed. We turn to tell the curious onlookers the funny story of it all. Something about our narrative is meant to affirm my presence there, my college choice, and the fitting coincidence of finding what had been lost. But the charade rings a bit false. As though I were being made to thank him, and by extension her, for gifting me what was already mine.
Hannah Felt Garner is a writer and teacher of prose living in Brooklyn, NY. She recently got her MA in English Literature from Rutgers University, where she studied feminist critique and the autobiographical form. After a brush with the art world and a tangle with academia, she has heartily taken to teaching literature and composition to adolescents. You can find her bite-sized culture reviews over at artthouart.wordpress.com and on Instagram at @hannahfeltgarner.