Chapter 1 Chapter 1
“THIS HAS TO BE A mistake.”
I pull the extra-long twin sheets up over my ears and mash my face into the pillow. It’s too early for voices. Much too early for an accusation.
As my mind unfuzzes, the reality hits me: there’s someone in my room.
When I fell asleep last night after testing the limits of my dorm’s all-you-can-eat pasta bar, which involved a stealth mission to sneak some bowls upstairs that were forbidden from leaving the dining hall, I was alone. And questioning my life choices. All those lectures about campus safety, the little red canister of pepper spray my mom made me get, and now there is a stranger in my room. Before seven a.m. On the first day of classes.
“It’s not a mistake,” says another voice, a bit quieter than the first, I imagine out of respect for the blanket lump that is me. “We underestimated our capacity this year, and we had to make a few last-minute changes. Most freshmen are in triples.”
“And you didn’t think it would be helpful for me to know that before moving in?”
That voice, the first voice—it no longer sounds like a stranger. It’s familiar. Posh. Entitled. Except… it can’t possibly belong to her. It’s a voice I thought I left back in high school, along with all the teachers who heaved sighs of relief when the principal handed me my diploma. Thank god we’re done with her, my newspaper advisor probably said at a celebratory happy hour, clinking his champagne glass with my math teacher’s. I’ve never been more ready to retire.
“Let’s talk out in the hall,” the second person says. A moment later, the door slams, sending something crashing to the carpet.
I roll over and crack one wary eye. The whiteboard I hung on Sunday, back when I was still dreaming about the notes and doodles my future roommate and I would scribble back and forth to each other, is on the floor. A designer duffel bag has claimed the other bed. I fight a shiver—half panic, half cold. The tree blocking the window promises a lack of both heat and natural light.
Olmsted Hall is a freshmen-only dorm and the oldest on campus, scheduled for demolition next summer. “You’re so lucky,” the ninth-floor RA, Paige, told me when I moved in. “You’re in the last group of students to ever live here.” That luck oozes, sometimes even literally, from the greige walls, wobbly bookshelves, and eerie communal shower with flickering light bulbs and suspicious puddles everywhere. Home sweet concrete prison.
I was the first one here, and when two, three, four days passed without an appearance from Christina Dearborn of Lincoln, Nebraska, the roommate I’d been assigned, I worried there’d been a mix-up and I’d been given a single. My mom and her college roommate are still friends, and I’ve always hoped the same thing would happen for me. A single would be another stroke of bad luck after several years of misfortune, though a tiny part of me wondered if maybe it was for the best. Maybe that was what the RA had meant.
The door opens, and Paige reenters with the girl who made high school hell for me.
Several thousand freshmen, and I’m going to be sleeping five feet from my sworn nemesis. The school’s so huge I assumed we’d never run into each other. It’s not just bad luck—it has to be some kind of cosmic joke.
“Hi, roomie,” I say, forcing a smile as I sit up in bed, shoving my Big Jewish Hair out of my face and hoping it’s less chaotic than it tends to be in the mornings.
Lucie Lamont, former editor in chief of the Island High School Navigator, levels me with an icy glare. She’s pretentious and petite and terrifying, and I fully believe she could kill a man with her bare hands. “Barrett Bloom.” Then she collects herself, softening her glare, as though worried how much of that conversation I overheard. “This is… definitely a surprise.”
It’s one of the nicer things people have said about me lately.
I should be wearing something other than owl-patterned pajama shorts and the overpriced University of Washington T-shirt I bought from the campus bookstore. Medieval chain mail, maybe. An orchestra should be playing something epic and foreboding.
“Aw, Luce, I’ve missed you, too. It’s been, what, three months?”
With one hand she tightens her grip on her matching designer suitcase, and with the other she white-knuckles her purse. Her auburn ponytail is coming loose—I can’t imagine the stress my appearance has caused her, poor thing. “Three months,” she echoes. “And now we’re here. Together.”
“Well. I’ll leave you two to get acquainted!” Paige chirps. “Or—reacquainted.” With that, she gives us an exaggerated wave and escapes outside. If there’s anything you need, day or night, just come knock on my door! she said the first night when she tricked us into playing icebreaker games by making us microwaved s’mores. College is a web of lies.
I hook a thumb toward the door. “So she’s great. Amazing mediation skills.” I hope it’ll make Lucie laugh. It does not.
“This is unreal.” She gazes around the room, seeming about as impressed with it as I was when I moved in. Her eyes linger on the stack of magazines I shoved onto the shelf above my laptop. It’s possible I didn’t need to bring all of them, but I wanted my favorite articles close by. For inspiration. “I was supposed to have a single in Lamphere Hall,” she says. “They totally sprung this on me. I’m going to talk to the RD later and try to sort this out.”
“You might have had better luck if you moved in this weekend, when everyone was supposed to.”
“I was in St. Croix. There was a tropical storm, and we couldn’t get a flight back.” It’s wild that Lucie Lamont, heir to her parents’ media company, can get away with saying these things, and yet I was the pariah of the Navigator.
Also wild: the fact that for two years, she and I were something like friends.
She sets her purse down on her desk, nearly knocking over one of my pasta bowls. Spinach ravioli, from the look of it.
“There’s an all-you-can-eat pasta bar.” I get up to collect the bowls and stack them on my side of the room. “I thought they would cut me off after five bowls, but nope, when they say ‘all you can eat,’ they aren’t messing around.”
“It smells like an Olive Garden.”
“I was going for a ‘when you’re here, you’re family’ vibe.”
I take back what I said about killing a man with her bare hands. I’m pretty sure Lucie Lamont could do it with just her eyes.
“I swear, I’m usually not this messy,” I continue. “It’s only been me for the past few days, and all the freedom must have gone to my head. I thought I was rooming with a girl from Nebraska, but then she never showed up, so…”
We both go silent. Every time I fantasized about college, my roommate was someone who’d end up becoming a lifelong friend. We’d go on girls’ trips and yoga retreats and give toasts at each other’s weddings. I’d be shocked if Lucie Lamont went to my funeral.
She drops into her plastic desk chair and starts the breathing techniques she taught the Nav staff. Deep inhales, long exhales. “If this is really happening, the two of us as roommates,” she says, “even if it’s just until they move me somewhere else, then we’ll need some ground rules.”
Feeling frumpy next to Lucie and her couture tracksuit, I throw on the knitted gray cardigan hanging lopsided across my own chair. Unfortunately, I think it only ups my frump factor, but at least I’m no longer shivering. I’ve always felt less next to Lucie, like when we teamed up on an article about the misogyny of our middle school’s dress code for the paper we were convinced was the epitome of hard-hitting journalism. By Lucie Lamont, read the byline, our teacher elevating Lucie’s status above my own, and in tiny type: with Barrett Bloom. Thirteen-year-old Lucie had been outraged on my behalf. But whatever bond had once existed between us, it was gone by the end of ninth grade.
“Fine, I’ll bring back guys to hook up with only every other night, and I’ll put this sock on the door so you know the room is occupied.” I reach over to the closet, which is just wider than an ironing board, and toss her a pair of knee socks that say RINGMASTER OF THE SHITSHOW. Well—just one sock. The ninth-floor dryer ate one yesterday, and I’m still in mourning. “And I’ll only masturbate when I’m positive you’re asleep.”
Lucie just blinks a few times, which could be interpreted as lack of appreciation for my shitshow sock, a visceral fear of the M word, or horror that someone would want to hook up with me. Like she didn’t hear about what happened after prom last year, or laugh about it in the newsroom with the rest of the Nav. “Do you ever think before you speak?”
“Honestly? Not often.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of keeping the room clean. I’m allergic to dust. No pasta bowls or clothes or anything on the floor.” With a sandaled foot, she points underneath my desk. “No overflowing trash bins.”
I bite down hard on the inside of my cheek, and when I’m quiet a moment too long, Lucie lifts her thin eyebrows.
“Jesus, Barrett, I really don’t think it’s too much to ask.”
“Sorry. I was thinking before I spoke. Was that not the right amount of thinking? Could you maybe set a timer for me next time?”
“I’m getting a migraine,” she says. “And god help me for needing to acknowledge this, but I feel like it’s common courtesy not to… you know. Indulge in that particular brand of self-love when someone else is in the room. Sleeping or not.”
“I can be pretty quiet,” I offer.
Lucie looks like she might combust. It’s too easy, really. “I didn’t realize this was so important to you.”
“It’s a very normal thing to need to navigate as roommates! I’m looking out for both of us.”
“Hopefully by next week, we won’t be roommates anymore.” She moves to her suitcase and unzips a compartment to free her laptop, then uncoils the charger and bends down to search for an outlet. Sheepishly, I show her that the sole outlets are underneath my desk, and we discover there’s no way for her to type at her desk without turning the charger into a tightrope. With a groan, she returns to her suitcase. “I can only imagine what your priorities would have been as editor in chief. We’re lucky we dodged that one.”
With that, she unpacks a familiar wooden nameplate and sets it on her desk. EDITOR IN CHIEF, it declares. Mocking me.
It was ridiculous to think I had a chance at editor when asking people if I could interview them sometimes felt like asking if I could give them an amateur root canal.
It doesn’t matter, I tell myself. Later today, I’ll interview for one of the freshman reporter positions on the Washingtonian. No one here will care about the Nav or the stories I wrote, and they won’t care about Lucie’s nameplate, either.
“Look. I’m also not entirely enthused about this,” I say. “But maybe we could put everything behind us?” I don’t want to carry this into college, even if it’s followed me here. Maybe we’ll never be the yoga-retreat type of friends, but we don’t have to be enemies. We could simply coexist.
“Sure,” Lucie says, and I brighten, believing her. “We can put your attempt to sabotage our school behind us. We’ll braid our hair and host parties in our room and we’ll laugh when we tell people you gleefully annihilated an entire sports team and ruined Blaine’s scholarship chances.”
Okay, she’s exaggerating. Mostly. Her ex-boyfriend Blaine, one of Island’s former star tennis players, ruined his own scholarship chances. All I did was point a finger.
Besides—I’m pretty sure the Blaines of the world won in the end anyway.
“I just have one more question,” I say, shoving aside the memory before it can sink its claws in me. “Is it uncomfortable to sit down?”
She looks down at the chair, at her clothes, forehead creased in confusion. “What?”
Lucie Lamont may be a bitch, but unfortunately for her, so am I.
“With that stick up your ass. Is it uncomfortable to—”
I’m still cackling when she slams the door.
College was supposed to be a fresh start.
It’s what I’ve been looking forward to since the acceptance email showed up in my inbox, holding out hope that a true reinvention, the kind I’d never be able to pull off in high school, was just around the corner. And despite the roommate debacle, I’m determined to love it. New year, new Barrett, better choices.
After a quick shower, during which I narrowly avoid falling in a puddle I’m only half certain is water, I put on my favorite high-waisted jeans, my knitted cardigan, and a vintage Britney Spears tee that used to be my mom’s. The jeans slide easily over my wide hips and don’t pinch my stomach as much as usual—this has to be a sign from the universe that I’ve endured enough hardship for one day. I’ve never been small, and I’d cry if I had to get rid of these jeans, with their exposed-button fly and buttery softness. My dark ringlets, which grow out as opposed to down, are scrunched and sulfate-free-moussed. I tried fighting them with a straightener for years to no avail, and now I must work with my BJH instead of against it. Finally, I grab my oval wire-rimmed glasses, which I fell in love with because they made me look like I wasn’t from this century, and sometimes living in another century was the most appealing thing I could imagine.
It was an understatement when I told Lucie the freedom had gone to my head. Every other hour, I’ve been hit with this feeling that’s a mix of opportunity and terror. UW is only thirty minutes from home without traffic, and though I imagined myself here for years, I didn’t think I’d feel this adrift once I moved in. Since Sunday, I’ve been shuffling from one welcome activity to another, avoiding anyone who went to Island, waiting for college to change my life.
But here’s something to be optimistic about: it doesn’t seem to matter if you eat alone in the dining hall, even as I remind myself that I’m New Barrett, who’s going to find some friends to laugh with over all-you-can-eat pasta and the Olmsted Eggstravaganza even if it kills her.
After breakfast, I cross through the quad, with its quaint historic buildings and cherry trees that won’t bloom until spring, slackliners and skateboarders already claiming their space. This has always been my favorite spot on campus, the perfect collegiate snapshot. Past the quad is Red Square, packed with food trucks and clubs and, in one corner, a group of swing dancers. Eight in the morning seems a little early for dancing, but I give them a you do you tilt of my head regardless.
Then I make a fatal mistake: eye contact with a girl tabling by herself in front of Odegaard Library.
“Hi!” she calls. “We’re trying to raise awareness about the Mazama pocket gopher.”
I stop. “The what?”
When she grins at me, it becomes clear I’ve walked right into her trap. She’s tall, brown hair in a topknot tied with UW ribbons: purple and gold. “The Mazama pocket gopher. They’re native to Pierce and Thurston Counties and only found in Washington State. More than ninety percent of their habitat has been destroyed by commercial development.”
A flyer is thrust into my hands.
“He’s adorable,” I say, realizing the same image is printed on her T-shirt. “That face!”
“Doesn’t he deserve to eat as much grass as his little heart desires?” She taps the paper. “This is Guillermo. He could fit in the palm of your hand. We’re hosting a letter-writing campaign to local government officials this afternoon at three thirty, and we’d love to see you there.”
I’m annoyed by what we’d love to see you there does to my camaraderie-deprived soul. “Oh—sorry,” I say. “It’s not that I don’t care about, um, pocket gophers, but I can’t make it.” My interview with the Washingtonian’s editor in chief is at four o’clock, after my last class.
When I try to hand her back the flyer, she shakes her head. “Keep it. Do some research. They need our help.”
So I tuck it into my back pocket, promising her I will.
The physics building is much farther away than it looked on the campus map I have pulled up on my phone and keep sneaking glances at, even though every third person I pass is doing the same thing. It wouldn’t be as bad if I were excited about the class. I’ve been planning to switch out—registration was a nightmare and everything filled up so quickly, so I grabbed one of the first open classes I saw—but damn it, New Barrett is a rule follower, so here I am, trudging across campus to Physics 101. Monday-Wednesday-Friday, eight thirty a.m.
My T-shirt is pasted to my back and my perfect jeans’ perfect buttons are digging into my stomach by the time I spot the building. Still, I force myself to remain hopeful. This probably isn’t an omen. I don’t think omens are usually this sweaty.
In my pocket, my phone buzzes just as I’m walking up the front steps.
Mom: How do I love thee? Joss and I are wishing you SO MUCH LUCK today!
The text is time-stamped forty-five minutes ago, which I attribute to the campus’s sketchy service, and there’s a picture attached: my mom and her girlfriend, Jocelyn, in the matching plush robes I gave them for Hanukkah last year, toasting me with mugs of coffee.
My mom’s water broke in her sophomore year British Poetry class, and as a result, I was named after Elizabeth Barrett Browning, most famous for How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. College is where the two best things in my mom’s life happened: me and the business degree that enabled her to open the stationery store that’s supported us for years. She’s always told me how much I’m going to love college, and I’ve held tight to the hope that at least one of these forty thousand people is bound to find me charming instead of unpleasant, intriguing instead of off-putting.
“I’m just so excited for you, Barrett,” my mom said when she helped me move in. I wanted to cling to her skirt and let her drag me back to the car, back to Mercer Island, back to the HOW DO I LOVE THEE? cross-stitch hanging in my bedroom. Because even though I’d been lonely in high school, at least that loneliness was familiar. The unknown is always scarier, and maybe that’s why it was so easy to pretend I didn’t care when the entire school decided I wasn’t to be trusted, after the Navigator story that changed everything. “You’ll see. These four or five years—but please don’t get pregnant—are going to be the best of your life.”
God, I really hope she’s right.