The Bad Project

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Chapter 28 Mandy on Forscher Committee/Marianne

Marianne saw Mandy and Bella walking some distance ahead of her across campus. Mandy tore open an envelope. Marianne heard her shout “Yay!” As she got closer to the two, she heard Mandy say “Dean Shope still likes me. She asked me to serve on a selection committee for the Forscher Award for Premedical Students of High Character.” Now Marianne was just a few steps behind and couldn’t help hearing the whole conversation.

“Why’d you think she didn’t like you?” Bella asked, popping a cough drop in her mouth and swerving to avoid stepping on a couple entwined around each other, kissing.

“I thought she might have heard that my entry group is going out without me, but maybe not.” Mandy unfolded a brochure from the envelope and read Bella bits of it as she walked along. “They invite students to apply early in their first semester.” Later she said, “The Registrar and Dean pick the best two and send them to a committee of faculty, a student, and an administrator to select the winner from the top two candidates.” She shook her head. “Shoulda been a premed. This thing pays for a full ride for three and a half years.”

Bella flipped a hand as she branched off the path to go to the gym. “See ya. I’m off to kick boxing.”

“Bye,” said Mandy.

Marianne walked up beside Mandy and smiled. Mandy seemed pleased with herself, almost joyful.

“Hi,” Mandy said. “I’m so excited! I’ve been asked to serve on the Forscher Award selection committee!”

Marianne said, “Congratulations. What’s that for?” Why was Mandy so excited? Did it involve some kind of perk?

“Premeds of high character,” Mandy said, pushing back her hair from her forehead.

“Do you get to travel or eat at the faculty club?”

“I don’t think there’s any travel,” Mandy said. “I don’t know about the faculty club.”

Marianne wondered even more at Mandy’s joy. Was it the thrill of power? “You’re not in science. Won’t it will be hard for you?”

Mandy shook her head and spoke rapidly. “The faculty members on the committee will do that part. I can just talk about character and participation in student events, stuff like that. I’m sure I can do it!” Her eyes were squinted tight and her lips turned down.

Marianne touched her shoulder, “My bad. I didn’t know how it would work. Don’t get all upset.”

Mandy, turned off towards the computer center, smiled at Marianne, and said, “No problem.”

As Marianne walked towards the Los Angeles Times Library, she wrinkled her brow. Wasn’t the Forscher Award that big scholarship that Crystal wanted? The one that made her so scared she’d get caught helping with the Bad Project and lose her chance to get it?

Jim caught up with Marianne, since she was walking very slowly while she tried to remember the name of the scholarship. “Hey there, you look worried. Whassup?”

“Hi. I don’t know. Crystal wants the Forscher scholarship. I just heard that Mandy is on the selection committee. They don’t get along.”

“Aiee. Mandy has some funny attitudes about race. She once complained to the Carson Clarion that I was an incompetent reporter and shouldn’t write up a charity food drive she was running, for no reason at all. Lucky for me, my editor just laughed it off. But this is not good for Crystal. Maybe the others on the committee can keep her under control?”

“Yeah,” Marianne said, “faculty and administrators don’t want to hear any racist comments. But she’s not stupid. She wouldn’t say anything they might see is coming from that direction.”

“Would she have credibility?’

“What if she said Crystal was antisocial and hard to get along with? They’d think she should know about that better than they would.”

“Well, what are you going to do? Talk to Dean Shope?”

“I’m not sure. Better think it over first.” Jim waved and went upstairs to where the rare book collections were. Marianne went downstairs in the library to the study carrels. BeTuck Ma and Janet Su were waiting for her so they could work out a dramatization of Buddha’s life for their class in religious studies.

“Wonder why he picked us for this assignment?” BeTuck said with a mocking laugh. “Geez. I took this class to learn more about Christianity!”

“You know why. Keep your head down and work,” Janet said, chucking him under the chin. His dimples showed and he tried to grab her, but she ducked.

“Okay, okay. What do we know about Buddha anyways?” Marianne asked, sitting down across from them and beginning to unpack her bag.

“I got a cool nude picture of him as a Chinese woman,” BeTuck said, opening his laptop computer and clicking on a huge drawing. Both women contemplated the drawing for one second, then turned thumbs down. “Aw, you’re no fun,” he said. “Here’s a map of Nepal showing his birthplace, will that do for you chicken hearts?”

Marianne had joined a critique group that met in the English Department seminar room, wood paneled and dark, with wooden chairs upholstered in dark brown leather tacked on with big brass tacks. When she arrived, Bella was the only one there. Marianne said hi and laid out her personal essay. Looking around, she decided this room looked like a bar; all it needed was a bartender with a rag. She had never been in a bar, but she had seen them in old movies. The room even smelled smoky, although there was a big “No Smoking” sign on the wall under the clock.

Marianne’s foot clicked against something under the table. When she bent down, she found a black plastic dish from the snack bar with three cigarette butts in it. She grabbed it and took it down the hall to a big trash can, hoping that would make the room smell less smoky. When she returned, all the others were there shuffling papers. Bella put a white, limp paper plate of chocolate chip cookies in the center of the table. No one took a cookie but Bella. Marianne thought she was picking up some weight. She had a little roll of fat around the middle now that hadn’t been their earlier this semester.

Six of them met every week to share their creative writing. Marianne had not known any of them well at first; Bella, one of her literary magazine friends, had invited her. The others were Patricia, Caroline, Kim, Thomas, and Carl. All were more advanced English majors at Carson, and all were good writers in Marianne’s estimation. Bella wrote short stories, Carl wrote short memoir pieces, and the rest were working on novels.

Icy wind blew in the open door and ruffled Marianne’s papers. She got up and closed the door. There was still a cold breeze. Carl said, “Let’s get started. I still have a politics paper to write tonight so I don’t want to drag this out too long. Remember, only read four pages, no matter how long your stuff is. Who wants to go first?”

Kim said, “I do. My chapter is five pages, and it won’t make sense to read just four.” She handed out her manuscript and began to read. Carl scowled at the dark, scarred tabletop.

After she finished, Carl said, “Not enough back story. We don’t know who Erin is until the end of the chapter. You haven’t introduced her before, have you?”

Kim said, “Yes, I introduced her in the last chapter. You were gone last week for your Princeton interview so you missed it.” There was a little twist in her voice when she said “Princeton.” Marianne knew Kim was a junior who had a low opinion of her own prospects. She often said she expected to go to graduate school at UC Irvine, close to her home. Marianne wondered if Kim knew it was also one of the best writing graduate programs in the country. She wanted to believe Kim was just pushing Carl’s Ivy League buttons, not putting herself down.

After several more comments for Kim, Carl said, “Okay, I’m next.” He passed out two pages of his memoir. Marianne thought he probably proposed a page limit because he had written so little. He read the pages to the group. They were about meeting a new boyfriend soon after he came out of the closet.

Bella told him that the hope and attraction were clear and cited parts she liked. She took a second cookie and passed the plate around. Thomas was the only other person who took one. The other writers pointed out places where Carl could add more about the surroundings and add details about the new boyfriend’s appearance to expand the piece. He made no response, glowering at the table with his legs stretched out in front of him and his ankles crossed, trying to emulate Lord Byron, Marianne thought. But not nearly so good looking as Byron.

Each of the writers read aloud. Marianne didn’t volunteer and finally she was the last one who hadn’t read. Carl said, “Well, Marianne, what have you been saving up for us?” His voice grated on her. Before she had joined this critique group, she had turned down a memoir piece about trying to do standup comedy that he had emailed to the literary magazine because it wasn’t within the topic of ‘relationships,’ the theme for the fall issue. He hadn’t been there the two other times she had come to these meetings. Would he attack her piece?

She said, “This is called “Two Chinas” and it’s about seeing China through my own eyes and those of my 11 year old PenGirl, Katie.” She handed out the manuscripts and began to read, not looking up. The dark brown of the table and the subdued light made her feel depressed. She tried to think about telling this story to a friend in a cozy taproom. But it was literally and figuratively cold. Even though she had closed the door, there was still a draft on the back of her neck. She shivered, but kept reading.

When she had finished, Kim said, “Bravo. It’s hard to admit you have bad feelings towards your own Chinese background the way you did in this piece.” She went on to point out a few especially strong emotion-conveying passages.

Others chimed in with their thoughts and suggestions. Finally Carl leaned his chair back on two legs and looked down his nose at her. “Plain and simple prose, no literary qualities at all. Haven’t you learned anything yet? Of course, you’re only a freshman. But still, why be in a critique group if you can only produce such immature musings? Do a better job next time. Make it worth our while to listen to you.” He thumped his chair legs down and stalked out of the room, not saying goodbye to anyone.

“What a grump!” Bella said. “He’s fulla shit. That’s a very well written piece in my opinion. Did you step on his toes, Marianne?”

She thought about the fact that she had rejected his work for Circus, Circus and shivered. But she didn’t want to say what he had against her, because she and Jim had decided not to embarrass any of the rejected authors. She asked, “Why, does he hold grudges?”

“Well, yes,” said Thomas. “Be careful on dark nights, my friend. I annoyed Carl by choosing a different roommate after first year. It took him a whole year to stop kicking at me. We’ve made peace now, at least for the present, but he doesn’t forgive slights easily.” He poked Marianne’s arm and said, “I’d suggest you show your piece to Morgan Wing. Don’t you know her from the lit mag?”

“Yes, a little bit. She invited us over to her house, and she’s come to a meeting or two. Why, would she be interested in the topic?”

“Yes, she’s editing a collection of meditations and concerns of Asian American women. Tell her I told you about it, she’s trying not to have an open call for submissions at Carson, just to ask her friends. But I’m helping her edit it and I think this piece is a good fit, unless she has too many.”

“Thanks, Thomas. I’ll see what she thinks.” Marianne felt a warmth from Thomas’ approval that helped her cope with Carl’s negative comments.

Kim said, “Hey, anyone want to go down the hill to Marie et Cie for a late latte?”

Everyone wanted to go, so Kim and Thomas said they would drive. Marianne went with Kim and Bella. Patricia and Caroline rode with Thomas. As they walked over to the parking lot where Kim kept her car, Bella asked Marianne, “How’s the nonfiction section of the lit mag coming along?”

“We narrowed down to five pieces, and we agonized about how to cut one more out. Jim and I did it somehow. We told the author he could be held over for consideration in the spring issue but he hasn’t let us know anything. I don’t feel great about it.”

Bella laughed. “Carl’s was easier to eliminate, huh? That’s funny, he thinks he’s so great.” Marianne was sorry that Bella felt she had to say that, but of course the literary magazine staff all talked about the pieces they had accepted or rejected at each meeting so there was no way she could have kept her from knowing about it.

Kim said, “Let’s don’t talk about him, okay? You know we used to go out before he came out of the closet. It kind of upsets me to see how self-destructive his behavior has gotten.”

Silence fell until they were strapped in and driving down the Burbank hills towards the coffee shop. “Have you been to Marie’s before?” Bella asked Marianne.

“No, what’s it like?”

“It’s kind of our hangout, but local high school kids and students from Woodbury hang there too. They have great coffees and pastries, funky chandeliers, old movie-scene furniture which is actually probably for sale, ornaments for your room, cards and old books and CDs, lots of things. It feels like a movie set to me.”

“Why not go somewhere in the NoHo arts district? I really like the little places along Magnolia,” Marianne said.

“Yeah, it’s good there, but this is the best coffee place. You’ll see.” Kim laughed. “I work in an antique shop in NoHo and it can get kind of slow down there, but Saturdays are good for business. I wish we were closer to Lankershim, they get more business at that end.”

As they entered Marie et Cie, Marianne picked up a flyer announcing a reading there by some high school students from Studio City. It looked very good; she thought she might see if she could get over to hear it. Their car had arrived first. They wandered around looking at the décor, and finally settled at a modified chess table with thickly padded dining chairs, mismatched but comfy. They took off jackets, then stood in line to order. Marianne got a low-fat latte and a chocolate-dipped biscotti. Bella sighed. “Wish I could afford the calories to eat biscotti. That looks good.”

“Want a bite?” Marianne held it out, but Bella shook her head. Marianne remembered the two cookies she had eaten earlier.

Thomas, Patricia, and Caroline burst in, saying “We got lost. Thomas thought it was on Magnolia, and we had to check the map on Pat’s cell phone to find it on Colfax and Riverside.” They ordered and sat clustered around the table next to Marianne and the others.

“What do you think about Carson’s intellectual atmosphere?” Thomas asked Marianne.

“Um, I guess it’s okay. What do you think?”

“It sucks. All the bloody premeds with their noses to the grindstone, no one wants to take time out to think about how the universe got started or what we’re doing here.”

“Hmm, well they’re not so bad. My roommate is a premed, and she thinks some pretty deep thoughts.”

“But does she want to discuss them? If so, just give her my cell number,” Thomas said, and laughed. He stretched and took a deep gulp of his capuchino. Marianne offered her biscotti around, and Thomas broke off a small piece and dipped it.

“Ah, happiness, dipping. If we only had Oreos,” Pat said.

Caroline raised her eyebrows and smiled. “I wonder if we’ll look back at ourselves here someday and think these were the best days of our lives.”

“OMG, I hope not,” Thomas said. “I plan to make it big, kind of like Stephen King, and live on my heap of money in Palm Beach. I think that’ll have this beat by a mile.”

“I doubt if there would be too many intellectuals to debate the origin of the universe in that scenario,” Caroline said. “Why don’t you move to Paris or New York, where you can find lots of stimulating conversations?”

“Well, maybe. I still like the picture in my mind of Palm Beach. There might be more intellectuals there than you think. Or I could import some.”

“We’ll come visit, for a fee, right Caroline?” Pat said, laughing.

They all finished their drinks and got up to leave. “See you next week, Cindy,” Kim said to the waitress behind the bar.

“Come back soon,” she said.

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