My Friday nights are always the same: after grimacing through heavy deadlifts and squats, I hurry back to my room with a takeout box in hand. There’s always salmon, broccoli and brown rice, my three favorites (and a wonderful excuse to skip the ludicrously busy “daily special” line in the school cafeteria).
Soon, my room is perfectly quiet except for the crunching of broccoli stems and the muffled breathing of my roommate, Margaret, who shares my appreciation of peace, quiet and early bedtimes. After the food is gone, I wipe off my table until I can’t see a single crumb, plug in my headphones, and queue “Columbo” on my computer. Yes, I not only share the domestic habits of a 1980s housewife, but her taste in TV shows as well. When I finally get tired of Peter Falk, I head to the communal shower and prepare for a squeaky-clean hour of reading a novel, before I slip off to sleep. The night repeats every week. For me, it’s a paradise.
Unfortunately, it’s always about this time that the noise starts up down the hall. Every Friday night, I hear them through the walls — the other freshmen girls who occupy every inch of space in front of the bathroom mirror. They giggle and adjust their makeup and miniskirts, as I hold my bathroom urges until the last minute. Eventually, I brave the crowd at the mirror and sneak past them on my way to the stall to avoid any small talk. Admittedly, I admire their makeup skills, but I can’t imagine telling them so — especially when I’m in my Mickey Mouse pajamas. I often wonder if the sound of me flushing the toilet will be buried among their freshman memories.
One Friday last spring, right when I was chewing my broccoli as usual, a hint of perfume slipped into my nose. I turned my head and miraculously discovered Margaret putting on eyeshadow. As she reached for the zipper on her fabulous dress, she murmured that she wouldn’t be back until midnight. I stared at her and nodded. Her heels clicketey-clacked as she walked out of the room. She closed the door right in front of my eyes, and sitting there in my Mickey Mouse pajamas, in my salmon and broccoli-smelling room, I immediately reached to open the window. For some inexplicable reason, the scent was suffocating.
As I was preparing to shut the blinds entirely, I caught sight of Margaret through the window. In the darkness, the sequins on her dress reflected the moonlight. I returned to my desk. Weirdly, I’d lost the desire to watch “Columbo” that night. What happened to my sweet, quiet roommate? It made no sense.
Like me, Margaret never deviates from her nightly schedule of giggling softly at Saturday Night Live, then going to bed at 9:30 p.m. sharp. What could she possibly be doing? What was she possibly doing in such a dress? How was she even comfortable in that V-neck? At that very moment, the silence in my room was stifling. I was absolutely embarrassed.
The following day, I still couldn’t help but think about Margaret while catching my breath after squats. It was then, however, that an unfamiliar voice broke my train of thought: “Ummm, excuse me, hey, but … aren’t you Ivy?” Turning around, I saw the guy who I’d nicknamed “Under Armour T-shirt.” He must have had a routine too, because he was always there at the same time as me. “I have to admit, it’s not often we get girls in here who make me look weak, haha.” His laugh was awkward, but it was cute. “I’m Jeff! By any chance would you like to grab some food … When you’re done?” With 14 more squat repetitions to go, the correct answer have been: “Hey man, leave me alone.” Yet strangely, in that moment, Margaret popped into my mind, and suddenly the idea of eating salmon and broccoli, alone, sounded terrible.
“Umm, actually, OK. Yes. Sure.”
The task of eating and talking at the same time was so unfamiliar that I took twice as long as Jeff to finish my meal. “I have to tell you,” Jeff said while curling his spaghetti. “I never thought you’d be easy to talk to.” I lifted my eyebrows. “My friends talked about this new, Chinese girl who never speaks to anybody else on campus. But hey, now I get to know you!” I was dumbstruck. This weird Under Armour T-shirt guy, Jeff, a complete stranger to me 30 minutes prior, had now apparently become my friend. Just like that, with the snap of a finger, he’d struck up a conversation with a stranger — something I couldn’t possibly imagine. Just like that, Jeff had made himself special, even despite his hipster glasses and dorky T-shirt.
When the dinner conversation came to an end, I stared at Jeff as he waved goodbye. Talking to people was so easy for Jeff. Even my dear, sweet, mellow Margaret looked courageous and dazzling in her sparkling dress, and now, my new friend had that same super power while curling forkfuls of spaghetti. Why was this so difficult for me?
The question lingered. The following day, to celebrate my good grades, I still ran to Zweet and ordered the biggest acai bowl available. As I was chewing on fresh blueberries, a slim, tall girl walked in with a flowy satin dress. She looked like a supermodel. A voice started bubbling in my brain. I slowly moved out of my chair. “Excuse me,” I said to her, blushing a little, “But your dress is stunning.” The girl looked amazed, and her eyes twinkled. “Thank you!” she smiled, with a bit of shyness. “You’ve made my day.”
Her twinkling eyes seemed to have a magical power. As more and more people came in for acai bowls, I couldn’t help but try to smile at anyone who made eye contact with me — the guy I’d seen often in the math building, the long-haired clerk behind the counter, the happy couple with a stroller. The act of a little smile was miraculous — I felt my mood lighten instantly. Just as I thought my day couldn’t have gotten any better, I caught sight of a guy whom I’d nicknamed “White Baseball Cap.” Now the voice within me was screaming. Mr. White Baseball Cap was murderously cute, and I’d wanted to talk to him since the start of the year. He wasn’t on his phone, and his friends weren’t around. Oh, dear god!? He liked acai bowls too?
“Hey … you know … I’ve seen you around a lot lately. Would you mind … telling me your name?”
Eric held out his hand. He had the prettiest smile.
That evening, when I’d finished writing about this memory (or miracle, perhaps), I turned and saw my dear sweet Margaret quietly watching SNL in her kitty blanket again. Down the hall, the bathroom girls were gobbing on a thousand layers of makeup, and for a moment I imagined Margaret and I walking in there and actually telling them how fabulous they looked. I doubted if Margaret was up to the task, however, so I kept my admiration a secret. Yet either way, it was enough to know that a different girl was sitting at my desk just then. Certainly, she was still a little bit awkward, but if she wanted to know the best way to put on sparkly lip gloss, all she had to do was snap her fingers, and just like that, say, “Hello,” and ask. Not even Mickey Mouse pajamas could stop her if she wanted.