Chapter 4. Marianne Defends Crystal at Entry Meeting/Marianne
“Time for our meeting, come on down,” Mandy called. “Entry meeting, big rec room downstairs, refreshments,” wafted back up the stairs towards Marianne and Crystal. The Dean of Students had appointed sophomore Mandy to be the mentor for the six new girls in the residence hall who shared an entry door and living room.
Mandy switched on the light and stood by the door as the women arrived. The recreation room was cavernous and full of beige couches and chairs; it smelled stuffy. Marianne thought it looked like dunes in a desert, or perhaps camels seated waiting for riders. There was a dilapidated upright piano in one corner. The room was way too big for this small meeting. She watched Mandy counting the women off as they arrived.
“Six,” Mandy said, “that’s right. Have some food, sit down. I want to get to know you. Since we’re a national college, it’s always interesting that we’re from such different places. I’m Mandy, from Oregon, sophomore, probably going to major in Econ. Will you say your name, where you’re from, something you’re interested in?”
“I’m Cosima, from Philadelphia, and I’m interested in politics. And surfing.” Cosima had a sheaf of long wavy brown hair clipped behind her head and streaming down her back. Her clothes looked expensive to Marianne.
“Elise, from New York, interested in men and food. And history.” She looked New York-y, chin-length blonde hair that turned under, Ugg boots, a fringed purse, layers, lots of neutral colors, subtle makeup.
“Cass, from Long Beach, I like Ultimate Frisbee, and camping in the desert under the stars. You haven’t seen stars until you’ve camped in Joshua Tree. And maybe Econ.” Cass was wearing stone-washed jeans and a T shirt with Beach Boys on it, maybe vintage. Her curly light brown hair was short and fluffy around her head.
“Angela, from Seattle, salsa and indie rock music. Oh, and I play in the orchestra. Probably going to major in Music.” She was wearing black overalls and had her dark hair skinned back into a knot at the back of her neck. Her face was rosy and looked freshly scrubbed to Marianne.
Elise got up and took a cookie.
“I’m Crystal from Altadena. I’m a premed.” A groan from the group, and a few people muttered “premed” under their breaths. Marianne noticed that Mandy’s smile was bigger but somehow less convincing. She thought she could read doubt in that expression. Did Mandy think Crystal couldn’t make it as a premed? Was this the kind of assumption that black women couldn’t be doctors that her roommate had been trying to tell her about?
“Shit, will you always shut us up because you need to study?” Cosima asked with a hostile edge to her voice.
Marianne realized she had been holding her breath when Crystal said, “No, I think I’ll study in the library.” Good for her, staying calm like that.
“And you?” Mandy asked Marianne. Her smile relaxed now that she was looking away from Crystal.
“I’m Marianne, from the Bay Area, and I want to be a writer.” That was greeted with a chorus of “Cools” and “Wows.” She wished they’d been nicer to Crystal. Premeds have to deal with a lot of baggage. Or was it about her being black? Marianne shivered a little in the excessive air conditioning and went to get a cup of coffee and a plate with a few pieces of crispy jicama.
When she sat down again, Mandy asked her, “You gonna work on the lit. magazine? My friend Bella is on the board. She says it’s really fun.”
“I don’t know. What’s it called?” Marianne warmed her hands on the coffee cup.
“Carson Circus. It publishes every semester.” The talk became more general for a few minutes, then Mandy called the meeting back to order. “We need to name our entry, and then decide how to spend the two hundred dollars the admin gave us for entertainment this semester. Anybody have a good idea for a name?”
“Hungry,” “Busybodies,” “Angels,” and “E-Wanderers” were called out. Crystal’s idea was Angels, and Marianne thought it was really good, but Mandy appeared not to notice, and Marianne noticed she had that big, bright smile again.
“What about X-Women?” Marianne said. People whistled and clapped. To her, it suggested women of vast potential and mystery.
“Okay, the entry is the X-Women,” Mandy said. So what would you like to do?”
Several hands went up, and Mandy called on Cosima, then Elise. Crystal waved her hand every time, but Mandy somehow never looked at her. Marianne wondered if Mandy was ignoring Crystal on purpose. Beach trips, cookie fests, a Halloween party were put forward.
Marianne raised her hand. Mandy called on her. “I’d like to say that this is my roommate Crystal. She has a lot of ideas. We need to include her, or we may miss out on something great.” Mandy turned red. Elise looked down, fidgeted with the fringe on her purse. Cass gave Marianne a thumbs-up sign.
Marianne was glad that Crystal didn’t wait to see if Mandy would look her way, she jumped right in with, “I’d like us to go to Hollywood, visit the Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and see a movie at the Chinese Theatre. I’m from LA area, and I think those things would be fun,” she said, looking around at the others. Everyone started discussing Hollywood.
“Okay. Any more ideas?” Mandy had that fake smile again, and she continued, “Well, then let’s plan that trip. Marianne, I’ll put you in charge. Let’s talk logistics after the meeting.” The group continued to discuss Hollywood, what they’d heard about it, what they wanted to see. Mandy looked around, waving her arms, trying to gather their attention, but then gave up. She adjourned the meeting, although no one was really listening to her. She asked Marianne to come to her room to discuss plans. As they walked outside to the next entry, Mandy’s smile looked pasted on. She said, “I hope you don’t think I—our mentor training emphasized not spotlighting them or making them feel on the spot.”
Marianne said, “What do you mean, ‘them’? Crystal is really nice, and hella smart. You could have put her in charge, it was her idea.”
Mandy said, “I didn’t want to put too much pressure on her. It’s academically challenging here.” She walked along for a minute and then looked sideways at Marianne. “One of my friends in high school was black.”
Marianne said, “Did you know her very well?” Portland, Oregon was known as one of the whitest cities in the US, so it must be unusual for her to know someone black.
“We both played basketball and hung out after the practices sometimes. We talked about how much it meant to get out, go to an outstanding school.”
“So, did she do something awful? What happened?” Marianne held her breath. Had she gone too far? But this friendship couldn’t have gone well if Mandy was the way she seemed to be now.
Mandy stretched her arms behind her back, then rubbed her eyes. “I had a problem when she got into Harvard and Princeton when I knew she was not even in Honors English or Econ. She didn’t take Calculus either, just Pre-calculus. I think too much Affirmative Action is a bad idea. But still, I know diversity is valuable.” She quickly changed the subject to the arrangements for the group trip.
Marianne drifted back to her room after they had planned the excursion. She wondered why Mandy didn’t have trouble with her since she looked Chinese, but thought probably Portland, had a lot of Asian Americans. As she arrived back at the entry living room, the floor lamp made a circle of golden light around Cass, making her light brown hair look like a halo. She had spread out books and papers to study on an overstuffed brown and tan brocade couch.
“Thanks for speaking up for Crystal,” Cass said. “I was too inhibited.” She had red spots on her cheeks and looked determined. “I’m from Long Beach; I went to school with a lot of black people. I should be more courageous.” She picked at the brocade couch cover with her left hand. “You were great.”
“Thanks. It was no problem.” Marianne felt embarrassed, but smiled warmly at her.
“You know,” Cass said, “ I could probably help next time, if Mandy does it again. I could say, ‘What do you think, Crystal?’” Marianne felt Cass was trying too hard, but was glad to have some support. Mandy had been tough on Crystal, and Cosima’s remark about premeds hadn’t helped. Elise had looked like she agreed with Cosima.
“That’s a good idea. She’ll feel more a part of the group if you speak up to include her. That’s very thoughtful.” She waved goodbye to Cass as she went into her own room. In passing, she reread her quote of the week on a yellow index card above the mirror, saying, “At any rate, when a subject is highly controversial—and any question about sex is that—one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold”—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own. She had a faint thrill thinking of the promise of trying sex by the end of the semester.
Crystal looked up from her computer. “That’s a strange quotation, roommate,” she said. “Can’t tell the truth, huh? That doesn’t go with biology, chemistry, and math very well.”
“It’s from our book of inspiration, so it must be fraught with meaning,” Marianne said teasingly. By the end of the semester she would try the Sex Bad for herself and see if it induced falsehood. She would work up to it, savoring every Bad moment, learning details for her writing. She wondered if whatever had happened to Crystal, that event that sent her into a trance at times, was about sex. She decided it must be, and told herself to be gentle with Crystal when she got to the Sex Bad.
Crystal’s eyes went back to her Facebook scrabble game. She ignored her biology text on her desk, open to the page of problems they had been assigned. She said, “I’m putzing away, playing instead of doing problems.” Although they were in different small biology class sections of about 30 students, Crystal’s and Marianne’s sections were running in parallel with the same assignments.
“I hate those problems.” Marianne said. “I don’t think the profs ever look at them either. Just a minus or a check or check plus. And they take hours to work!”
“Thanks for breaking through with Mandy. I was starting to think I was invisible or something.”
“You stayed pretty calm. I’d have been about to erupt.”
Crystal laughed. “I’m not an erupter. No point. Probably she just doesn’t understand. I save the bad feelings for people who do it on purpose. There are so many Mandys. It’s not worth getting wrung out by them.”
Marianne felt concerned. Crystal wasn’t taking Mandy seriously enough. “I don’t think it’s so simple. You probably should stay out of her way. Have you run into a lot of anti-black racism here at Carson? I’ve found a little anti-Asian stuff here, but not much.”
“Not really awful stuff. Just things like this, because people haven’t ever been up close to a black person and haven’t figured out we’re just human. I get tired of the TV stereotypes, but it doesn’t upset me much.” Crystal took a bite of her apple and a quick drink from her water bottle. “What does bother me is when professors call on me like I’m the voice of the African-Americans. ‘What do your people think about this issue, Crystal?’ they say. It’s hard to deal with that because I’m just one person, a woman from the city, from an upper middle class family. But some profs get upset when I say that I can’t speak for all blacks. They think I’m trying to blow them off.”
“Yeah, I know. I get that sometimes in my religious studies class. ‘Marianne, do Buddhists think that’s against their religion?’ I’m not a Buddhist, and even if I were, I couldn’t speak for all of them. Or ‘Marianne, what’s the snake symbolize to the Chinese?’ They don’t like it when I say, I’m American, not Chinese.”
Silence fell as Marianne sat cross-legged on her bed and opened her biology text to the problems. She opened her phone and sent instant messages to one of her sisters and to her mentor Sharon, then seemed to be concentrating on the biology. She tried to outline the “given” part of the first problem. “I feel smart most of the time,” she said, “but this biology really makes me feel dumb. I don’t understand what these problems are about at all.”
“I think I get problems 1 and 2.” Crystal said, “Do you want to talk about them?” Marianne nodded.
Crystal said, “Look, in problem 1, these pink flowers come from a red mom and white dad, right? So each one has a red gene and a white gene. When the pink guys have kids, some kids get a white gene from mom and also one from dad and are white, some get red genes from both and are red, some get one of each and are pink. Okay?”
Marianne felt amazed she was following Crystal’s explanation. “Sure, that makes sense. But how do I get the ratio?”
“Well, it’s like gambling, sort of. Mom can give a kid a red or a white. Same for dad, right?”
She got excited, suddenly it all made sense. “Right, or they wouldn’t both be pink.”
“See, you really understand this stuff, it’s not so bad. So then, half the kids get white from mom. Of those, half also get white from dad, and those are?”
“White!” Marianne said triumphantly.
“Right. So the other half get red from Dad. And they’re?”
“Okay, then if the kid gets a red gene from Mom…”
Marianne interrupted, “Half are red and half are pink.”
“You get it!”
Marianne realized she was so excited because she didn’t expect to understand. “Thanks! It’s a lot clearer now.” She finished the first problem and worked the second problem, which was very similar except about dogs. Not so hard.
Elise knocked on their door and stuck her head in saying, “Has anyone picked up my bathrobe from the laundry room by mistake?” Marianne thought the nightgown she was wearing was so translucent she might as well have been naked. She really needed that bathrobe.
“Nope, we’re doing our laundry later tonight, haven’t been out there,” Crystal said.
Marianne looked at the next biology problem. She said, “This biology’s like learning a foreign language. I get these now that I know what the terms mean. Our high school biology teacher stayed away from what he called ‘the jargon’ but I wish he hadn’t.” She looked at her watch. “Oops, I better run. I’ve got a short story reading in the English Department. It might be weird but at least they’ll have strawberries and cookies.” She threw her notebook into her book bag and rushed out.