“I want to be bad. I need to learn to be bad. Can you help me?” Marianne Wu tossed her long, black hair, rocked back on her bed, and stretched, elongating herself so that her feet hung out over the floor. Here at Carson College, in the Burbank hills near North Hollywood, she’d escaped the parental control back in the Bay Area. Marianne thought her roommate’s high cheekbones and long neck made her look like the ancient Egyptian queen, Nefertiti.
Crystal hadn’t said a word. Marianne decided Crystal had gravitas. After her stretch, she sat up and slid over to perch on the edge of her bed, leaning forward. “I need to get you to show me what to do.”
Crystal’s glowing dark brown eyes widened. “I don’t know if I’d go looking for trouble. It’ll find you fast enough if you just sit still.” But dimples showed next to her smile, giving Marianne hope she could be persuaded.
“Please! All my life I’ve been hella careful. I feel like I’m gonna explode. Good is sooo boring. Help me learn to express all my repressed bad!”
“Hey, that sounds dangerous.”
Marianne jumped up. “Come on, please? I need an ally, it’s too scary to do this alone. I am clueless about the bad. Please say yes.” The two had experienced an intense orientation for newly-arrived students at Carson College and stayed up late for conversations after they went to bed. She already felt closer to Crystal than she had to either of her sisters, as close as her high school best friend Sonia Yao. It was 2004, well into a new millennium. She needed to begin her life anew, to connect with the human condition so she would have compelling stories to write about.
Crystal’s eyes narrowed and seemed to spark. “You think I know about being bad? Why’s that? I’m black so I have to be bad? That sucks.”
Marianne was shocked. Uh oh! How can I explain what I really mean without offending her? She sank back on her bed, calming herself by gently stroking the soft silk fabric. “I didn’t—mean it that….” As she stammered, the oldies station playing in the background switched to the Bob Marley reggae hit, “I Shot the Sheriff.” Both women laughed.
They sang, “I shot the sheriff, but I didn’t shoot the deputy!”
“Let’s start over.” Marianne put her hands together, like she was praying. “I know I probably have hella wrong ideas about black people. You can help me forget those ideas. But this isn’t about that. It’s weird being so ignorant about life. You grew up with the real mixture of good and bad. But my parents didn’t let me try anything. I didn’t get to make any mistakes.”
Crystal said, “Hey, I’d like to help but I’m not sure. Why do you want to be bad? You aren’t just looking for trouble, trying to get thrown out, are you?”
Marianne cringed as she remembered when that literary magazine editor had criticized her work in front of her entire Advanced Placement English class. He said she shouldn’t try to write until she had some experience. She had to get that knowledge, now that her parents couldn’t get in her way.
She wrenched her mind away from that scene and said, “I need something to write about. Conflict, problems. I want to be a writer. I’m missing half of the human experience. My parents…” she shrugged. “You saw them.”
Marianne knew her parents had done a lot, adapting to this country when they arrived here from China as college students. Her mom was slim, efficient, highly intelligent. She worked as a computer analyst for a healthcare HMO in Silicon Valley. Her dad was a Vice President at a small computer software firm. He was quiet but he could quell a situation with a single glance. After they dropped off Marianne and left, she and Crystal had discussed how many orders they’d given Marianne, how they’d answered all of Crystal’s questions before Marianne could speak, how anxious they had looked as they helped her move in.
The minute they left, Crystal had said, “Whew. Now maybe I can hear what you think about things yourself.” Marianne was excited to be taken so seriously.
Marianne’s cell phone gave a little beep, and she pulled it out, saw it was Susie, her favorite sister from the Bay Area, frowned, and started texting. Her thumbs moved rapidly and she said, “I’ll just be a minute.” Her sister wondered if Marianne had gotten into the premed courses she needed to become a doctor. She reassured Susie that she was in Intro Bio. Susie told Marianne to enjoy being far from her Mom and Dad.
While she texted, “no worries, luv U,” Marianne’s eyes moved about the dorm room. Her bedspread, purple Sari-silk with a two-inch gold border, was opulent, made her think of desert caravans. Crystal evidently enjoyed the plain and simple. Her bedspread was nubby cotton in blue and tan plaid. Marianne put the phone back in her pocket and looked up. They both had lots of library books already piled on their bookshelves. Crystal’s were mostly science and Marianne’s were all literature. Marianne put the phone down.
“Okay.” Crystal said, “What are we talking here? You gonna murder someone? Steal the Dean’s organic carrots? Pain and destruction? Or what?”
Uh oh. Did Crystal think she had always played “Grand Theft Auto” and couldn’t wait to hurt someone? “No, no.” Marianne waved her hands back and forth to erase Crystal’s words. “I think the Bad Project could begin with a tattoo to start with, right here,” she pointed to the lower middle of her back. How many stories can take the reader right into a tattoo parlor? It’ll be great for writing a good setting, at least. And I’ll probably be in pain. I can’t think of the last time when something hurt me physically.” She whirled around and sat back on her bed.
“A target? Wow, that’s risky. Do you know that’s called a tramp stamp? What else?”
Marianne thought a minute and said, “Then I’ll probably do stealing but not carrots.” She wrinkled her forehead, got up and walked around, lightly touching the edge of her mirror, her jewelry case, a book on her desk, as if she were charming each one, collecting the energy to talk about things she’d never tried to do. Then she said, “Smoke, drink,” she lifted a pretend-glass. TV shows she’d seen came to mind so she said, “Maybe try meth or E.” A deep breath, then, “Um, sex. Yes, I think that’ll be the pinnacle of my Bad Project.”
Marianne’s breasts tingled when she talked about sex. The day she arrived at Carson College, she bought a paperback copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at the bookstore. She had been thrilled to find it was a text for a course called “Sexy Women in Literature.” She could see it peeking out of a pile on her bookshelf. She had managed one kiss during her sweet-sixteen party and that was her entire sexual experience.
Would having no plans for hurting people reassure Crystal? Was that what she feared? Marianne’s fingers clenched as she waited to get Crystal’s response.
There was a rap on the door and Cass, another girl from their entry group, barged right in. “Got double stick tape? I just ran out.” She looked around and said, “You dudes have the decorating stuff a little schizo in here.”
Marianne rooted in a box of art supplies under her bed. She handed Cass the tape, saying, “Let us know when you’re ready for us to come admire.” Marianne glanced at Crystal, whose jaw looked tight, tense. The door closed. She raised her eyebrows at Crystal, hoping for the yes-answer.
Crystal said, “Got anyone in mind for the sex? Want to tantalize and burn a guy or just bust the cherry?” The words were lighthearted, but her arms were wrapped around her body and her voice sounded strangled. She took a few deep breaths.
Marianne decided to keep her answer light, said, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t have anyone picked out yet. I have time. That’s going to be towards the end of the semester.”
Crystal said, “I’m worried about what all this stuff will do to you. Since you’ve been so sheltered, you don’t know you should expect problems when you go after the bad. It’ll be fucking hard; it’ll hurt.”
“Like what?” Marianne thought Crystal was trying to say no in a polite way.
“I don’t know. Being bad—it’s sort of a magnet for misery. You should ease into it with a lot of planning. I hope you can avoid the hurting, of you and also of other people around you. But that’s not easy.”
“Yes, but I need to experience pain for my writing anyway. I just don’t want to hurt anyone else.”
The corners of Crystal’s lips turned down and she played with her fingers, bending them back and forth, still not giving Marianne her answer
“I don’t agree that it has to be so painful,” Marianne said. “Why? I mean, embarrassment and trouble, yes, I need to write about those feelings, but pain? No, I’m gonna plan to avoid it for me and everyone else! That’s where you come in. You have to help me see where it can go wrong and se we can stop that before it happens.”
Crystal smiled. “If I do it. If.”
“Let’s be a secret alliance. A Room of Our Own, named after this book of Virginia Woolf’s.” Marianne picked up the book from her desk and held it aloft as if it were a banner. “She saw how women need a refuge. We can share ours, it can be our place of dreams.” She swallowed past the tightness in her throat. That book had been her symbol of why she had to get away from home, go to college far from her family. “What do you have to lose? It’ll be like reading a good novel. Won’t you be interested?”
“Hell, yes, I’d be fascinated. I love the idea of the Room of Our Own.”
“So if you’re fascinated, say yes.”
Crystal held up her palm toward Marianne. “Back off now. I worked hard to get in Carson College, made nothing but A’s in high school, even when…” The silence went on and on.
“Ye-e-e-es,” Marianne said. Now what? Maybe Crystal would respond to comparing their routes to this very competitive college. Marianne said, “I worked my butt off too. It’s so hard to get in here. I can hardly believe I made it. I was always the one at Golden Gate Girls’ Prep who busted my ass for my grades, except in English. And I had to convince my parents to let me go ‘far away’ to LA to college. But we’re here. What’s the problem?”
“I want to be a doctor.” Crystal dropped that phrase like a rock into a deep pool. The silence grew again, and spread through the room, filling it to the brim.
Marianne frowned. “And?”
Crystal said, “I have to be perfect-squared to make it. Perfect grades. Perfect behavior. Black women have to prove themselves all the way. No one assumes we belong, that we’ll go to medical school. And there’s the Forscher Award.”
“So? Come on, fill in the blanks.”
Crystal said, “So, you get caught and I’m questioned and get a fucking negative record because I’ve helped you. Or I get caught doing something bad myself, to keep an eye on you. And that full-ride Forscher scholarship I’m nominated for, they’ll never give it to me. It has to go to a “woman of good character.” Maybe I get you alcohol and you get drunk, have an accident with some asshole, get hurt. Your parents sue me, or the Dean of Students finds out I was drinking and helped you do it too, and it goes in my record. The rules at this school blame the helper almost as much as the student who breaks the rules. See?”
Marianne found these administration threats unconvincing. But Crystal would be offended if she said so. She burst out, “Do you really believe we couldn’t find a way for me to try things without hurting you?”
“I’m not sure. We’re supposed to be smart enough, or we wouldn’t be here. But it might go wrong. My dad is working three jobs to send me to Carson. My brother Jason contributed part of his salary too because Dad—never mind that.” Crystal’s neck cords stood out. Her fists were clenched, pressing down on her knees. She took a deep breath and went on, “They expect me to succeed. I can’t let them down now.”
“Yes, but your dream is to be a doctor.” Marianne’s voice warmed. She really wanted Crystal to find her path, but she wanted her own too. She said, “You see it, you feel the stethoscope around your neck, feel the feverish skin of your patient, see his trusting eyes. My parents want me to do that too, but it doesn’t move me. Actually, it’s the financial aspects that they want for me. But I don’t want it. I need to become a writer. I feel like I’m connected to the world when I sit down at my computer or pick up my pen. Can’t you help me?”
“Wow, you already sound like a writer, Marianne. I just can’t decide if I can help. Part of me really wants to do it. Shit, you’ll be trying to grow up ten years, all at once, and reflecting about it. Bound to be interesting. And I’d like to help you. But I need to think it over.” She paused a moment, then said, “ I’ll tell you tomorrow, okay?”
Marianne thought she had probably failed. She said quietly, “I understand. See you at dinner.”
She got up, took her book bag and went off to study in the English Department student lounge until time for the first literary series talk later that afternoon. She and Crystal had developed rapport in the seven days since they arrived at college. In one of those “get acquainted” exercises, they had even shared that each one had a dark secret she didn’t want to tell anyone ever. Could they stay friends if Crystal continued to say no? So few people here were warm and friendly. The two of them had bonded more than Marianne had expected. Crystal seemed to be her best chance to make a real friend at Carson. And she didn’t think Crystal had another closer friend either. Why couldn’t she agree? Finally Marianne shrugged and told herself to wait and see what her roommate said the next day. She’d try to think of a new strategy overnight, in case Crystal said no.