I'm the type of person who knows and acknowledges her shortcomings. There are just some things I'm not good at. I'm a klutz, for example, so I'm not very good at the whole walking-ten-feet-without-stumbling thing. That said, I would probably suck at having to walk and carry heavy trays filled with food and drinks at the same time.
I'm also not very good at getting yelled at and not being able to yell back. I don't function very well in noisy, people-filled, fast-paced environments. I worked at a fast-food place in high school one summer, and it was a disaster. I mixed up some food orders, and a man with a severe tree nut allergy ended up with salad sprinkled liberally with almonds, instead of with none at all. He sued the restaurant. I got fired and banned from the establishment.
I scan the post titles under the category of customer service/retail on Craigslist San Diego and sigh in despair. Having only that disastrous foray into food service the summer before my senior year in high school, I am not qualified for anything else. Even an eight-dollar-an-hour job replacing the liquid soap and paper towel in dispensers of public restrooms requires at least one year of customer service.
"Like the outdoors? Enjoy the warm, friendly sun and a cool breeze on your face as you work? Do you want to help successful businesses bring in more customers and money? No experience needed. Will train. Start tomorrow!"
I look away from my laptop and glare at my roommate Louise who is lying on her stomach on her bed, staring at the monitor of her MacBook air. "Oh, please. That's one of those jobs where you stand on street corners and twirl signs announcing the grand opening of the sandwich shop or a tax return service. No thanks."
She rolls her big blue eyes at me as she continues to twirl a lock of her long red hair around one long slim finger. "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you're super desperate for a job, Ms. Picky. Beggars can't be choosers."
I imagine myself wearing a cheap Statue of Liberty costume and that goofy foam hat or whatever it is she wears on her head while attempting to toss and catch a giant red arrow advertising ALL THE MONEY YOU DESERVE. I would probably miss the arrow, over-correct, and then fall straight into the path of an oncoming bus.
Louise frowns as she gives me a considering look. "On second thought, maybe it's not such a hot idea. I just pictured you twirling one of those sparkly, spangled signs and poking out your own eye. Let's keep looking."
I hiss and throw a ball of socks at her head, which she successfully ducks. There is a pile of clean laundry on my bed that I haven't put away yet. Louise's side of the room, by comparison, looks like a Pottery Barn ad. Having Louise for a roommate, I've become convinced that I am the most self-assured, well-adjusted person on our campus. It can't be easy for any other twenty-year-old girl to share a dorm room with a Ms. Teen California, who was her high school valedictorian, a semi-professional ice skater, and is currently on a full athletic scholarship because she swims like a fish and is faster than anyone, boy or girl, in the entire school. I restrict myself to indulging in only one hateful thought about her a day. Because as annoyingly excellent as she is at everything, she is also adorable and a good friend.
When I first found out with whom I was rooming, I set out to learn everything I could about her. Forewarned is forearmed, after all. I googled her at the first opportunity and had a major panic attack when I found out who she was. One of the first hits was a YouTube video of her speaking eloquently about why we should ban plastic bags for use in the retail stores in California during the question and answer segment of the Ms. Teen USA. She was wearing an ankle-length midnight blue dress that showed off her curves in a sexy but elegant way. The side-slit that started off mid-thigh gave the audience a glimpse of her broken leg in a dark blue cast. She had fractured it when she fell through a thatched roof while spending the summer repairing the homes in Haiti. I was determined to hate her before I even met her. Even with a broken leg, she managed to snag second runner-up and, of course, Miss Congeniality. The girl who won was Miss Teen Rhode Island, who made the entire audience cry when she made an impassioned plea for Congress to make gender-neutral restrooms mandatory in buildings everywhere for transgender people nationwide. I got a little choked up myself.
I hated Louise on sight. At five-nine, she is also lean, willowy, and gorgeous, like some red-maned fairy goddess. But then she smiled at my parents and me and it was like someone dropped a tiny ball of sunshine in our room. Even my ordinarily stoic father was taken back and stared at her like a creepazoid for a full minute before mom elbowed him, and he managed to stammer a hello.
In comparison, I'm barely five-feet tall, have black hair and eyes so dark they might as well be black, and depending on the time of the month, usually about 5 to 10 pounds overweight. Oh, and I'm Korean by birth. I was adopted from a Catholic orphanage in Incheon when I was nine months old by a pair of hippy, liberal, agnostic, middle-class white people from San Francisco. While Louise has the fair, porcelain-smooth skin of a pampered princess regularly bathed in milk and the blood of virgins, I am fresh-off-the-boat peasant-brown; that is, the color of instant coffee with a generous dollop of half-and-half.
Not that I regularly make a side-by-side comparison between my roommate and me or anything. That would be weird. Besides, I have better things to do with my time, like scouring the Craigslist job ads and the university's job board. I need money, after all.
When I was growing up, my parents were pretty well-off and often indulged me and my brother, Henry. Hank is a 14-year-old comic book nerd in the ninth grade and was delivered to my parents by a stork who flew from Ethiopia. They are currently in the process of adopting a little girl from Ukraine, and it costs them a lot of money. On top of that, my mother, who was the vice-president of marketing for a large hotel chain, was laid off about three months ago in a "belt-tightening" strategy to help the company save money in this somewhat "anemic" economy. She was replaced by the son of the president of the company who had just graduated with an MBA from Wharton. Mom had been working for the company for 25 years and had started as a front desk clerk when she couldn't find a job even after receiving a degree in business from Berkeley. Now jobless and a stone's throw away from 60, her dream of having children that looked like United Colors of Benetton ad may never come to be.
"Hey, you speak Portuguese, right?"
"Uh... No. I took Spanish for four years in high school, and you know I take Spanish now. We go to this very same class together on Tuesday and Thursday mornings." I say this with exaggerated slowness and enunciation, as though I were trying to make myself understood to a mentally disabled child.
Louise smirks and raises her middle finger at me in response. "You're the language minor, airhead. Besides, aren't Portuguese and Spanish similar enough that you could probably get a Portuguese speaker to understand you if you spoke Spanish?"
"Not even a tiny bit." I shake my head in mock disappointment. "All non-English languages just sound similar to you white people, don't they?"
My roommate picks up the ball of socks she had successfully ducked just moments ago and flings it at my head. Direct hit. "You're such an asshole, Chun Li."
In a freshman seminar class, we had a classmate whose name was--honest to God-- Chun Li, like in the Streetfighter game. She hadn't shown up by the time attendance was called, so when the T A called the name, and no one answered, he looked up and by process of elimination, decided I had to be Chun Li because I was the only Asian female he hadn't marked down yet.
He cleared his throat pointedly and stared at me, while he repeated the name. I shook my head and said, "Nope."
His brow furrowed in confusion, but he returned to the attendance sheet.
When he came across my name, I recognized the moment because an expression crossed his face that looked smug and a little self-congratulatory. People always get that way when they hear my name and acknowledge that I share the name of a short story writer loved by college students and literary snobs alike: "Flannery O'Connor?"
At this, I waved my right hand, enthusiastically in the air and loudly proclaimed: "Present!"
He turned beet-red, and the entire class snickered. I don't think he ever forgave me that. Even as I was breaking up with him because I caught him making out with another girl in the library, he brought up that one time I humiliated him in front of everyone on the first day of class. I never told him that my dad's nickname for me is Custard.
My full name is Mary Flannery O'Connor, but my friends call me Flan. I don't know why my super secular humanist parents would name me after a Southern Gothic writer who was a devout Catholic, but maybe they thought it sounded like a reliable Irish name for a little Korean girl. My parents have a warped sense of humor.
"Wait, why are you asking me if I know how to speak Portuguese? Do you see an ad for a nude house cleaner who speaks Portuguese or something?"
"What is it with you and nude housecleaning? Why is that even a thing? You'd think people would want their maids to wear clothes. I don't want ass sweat and snail trail all over my furniture."
I mentally gag at the image. Two weeks ago, I took up a job I found on Craigslist to clean up a "confirmed bachelor's high-rise condo" and didn't question it at all when the poster had asked for my picture. I sent one along with the email to let him know I was interested in the job. When I got there, that dude opened the door in a purple velour robe. He raked his gaze over me from head to toe and leered. Leered! I held up my tiny canister of mace and ran back toward the elevator, never taking my eyes off him.
Louise often says that I have no sense of self-preservation.
"Well, here's an ad seeking an assistant/companion for a university student from Brazil. Must speak English, Spanish, and Portuguese fluently. Current UCSD students preferred. Must have at least a 3.6 GPA." Louise looks up from her MacBook monitor and eyes me meaningfully. "That's you."
"You mean, except for the fluent in Portuguese part."
My roommate waves her hand dismissively. "Girl, you speak both Spanish and English equally well and have made the Dean's List every quarter since we got here. For $500 a week, I'm sure you can manage some Portuguese."
"I'm sorry, did you say $500 a week?" I immediately perk up and sit up on my bed. Before my mother lost her job, she used to send me $500 a month for food and miscellaneous expenses.
Louise is the only one who knows I have only about $10 to my name. Without making a big deal about it, she's been buying extra groceries to feed the two of us, and on the rare times she's been able to drag me out these days, she's always paid, casually telling me to pay her whenever. If I weren't secretly jealous of how beautiful and graceful and smart she is, I'd be harboring a severe girl-crush on my roommate.
Which reminds me, I saw an old Lifetime movie once about two college girls sharing a room, and the homely one falls in love with a pretty one and becomes obsessed with her. Obviously, the pretty one is the heroine, and the homely one ends up locked up in a state institution, never to be seen again. Scared the crap out of me. It came out at about the same time as "Single White Female," which I watched on Cinemax when I was eight years old at 3 AM while my parents were vacationing in Hawaii, and our mom left me and my brother Hank with her pothead sister Megan. It starred that chick from "Saved by the Bell" as the pretty girl. I don't remember who played the homely girl. That movie gave me an unrealistically frightening view of college dorm mates. I was happy to find that Louise is not a crazy person... which often makes me wonder if I'm the crazy, homely one in this equation.
What am I even talking about? Of course I am!
"$500 a week," I murmur to myself in wonder. "And for what, to teach English to a rich Brazilian kid? Awesome."
"Yeah, dude, easy money. It's probably some provincially young boy or girl who just needs someone to take them around the big bad city."
"But a companion?" I ask dubiously. It brings to mind a classic BBC miniseries about a staid, repressed governess traveling with a young charge to the big city and the governess inappropriately falls in love with a wealthy Lord or encounters a handsome, well-decorated military man from her secret past and falls in love with him again.
"Baby-sitting." Louise shrugs. She sits up too, her blue eyes wide and excited. "Oh, this will be the perfect job for you. You have to do it."
"I don't know... the 'companion' part makes it sound hookerish." I frown and wonder at my own reluctance.
Louise rolls her eyes. "Are you kidding me? In what universe does 'companion' equal hooker? You have a messed up worldview, Chun Li. Seriously."
I shift uncomfortably at the look she's giving me. "What? Do I have something on my face?" This is a distinct possibility. My mom likes to joke that I eat like a toddler, and I did have pizza for lunch. I subtly wipe my face.
"You just don't want a job because you're afraid you'll have less time to binge-watch shows like GLOW and Tiger King. And that RuPaul show you're obsessed with."
"Oh, and you don't?" I snort derisively. As much as she likes to pretend otherwise, Louise also enjoys studying and doing her homework with old episodes of Unsolved Mysteries from Hulu playing in the background.
"Not the point, Flan. You've been such a homebody these days. If you're not in class or the library, you're pickling yourself in this room watching bad TV. I'm surprised your ass doesn't have bed sores yet."
"I... go out." Even to my ears, it sounds weak and unconvincing.
"The room is starting to smell like loneliness and kimchi-flavored Ramen!"
I gasp. "Racist."
"They're all you eat!"
"They're all I can afford!" I yell back. It's true. They're five for a dollar at the Vietnamese grocery store in Claremont. And they're super easy to make. Just add water, wait three minutes-- two and a half if you're starving-- and taa-dow! Instant salty and spicy goodness.
Of course, this also means I have gained about twenty pounds since my senior year in high school. Cheap, crappy, easily accessible food... I love it all. I'm thrilled--slash--devastated that they got rid of the Hostess vending machine in the lobby and replaced it with something that dispenses cut fruit, nuts, and yogurt. I do miss those devilish little snack cakes, though.
"Having a job will be good for you, Flan. I'm getting sick of seeing you mope around in your sweats."
"I don't mope." I totally do. I've been in a vicious funk ever since I caught Ryan the T.A. sucking face with another girl in the cartography section, right up against the shelf that held the Eastern Hemisphere map books. Asshole.
"Ryan wasn't even that cute. He picked his teeth at the dinner table. Gross."
I wince in memory. I only started liking him when he revealed in class that his favorite movie was "In the Mood for Love" by Wong Kar-Wai. I had never before met anyone who knew who he was, let alone have a favorite film by him. Ryan was a know-it-all and a blowhard. I was quickly impressed.
"You know, I have this friend..."
I give my roommate a warning glare. "I know all of your friends, Weezy. I'm not interested in any of them."
"You haven't met this one," she snaps. "We dated in high school, like ninth grade, but it didn't work out. We've become super close friends over the years. He's really cute."
"Is he on your Facebook?" I quickly run the faces of Louise's top friends on FB through my mind. Did I mention that I have an excellent memory when it comes to stupid, useless things? Just once, I'd like to be able to use it for good. It would be handy to have the Periodic Table of Elements memorized.
"Yeah, but he's not on it much. Not everyone is on Facebook, you know."
My Grandma Betty is on Facebook. She posts pictures of her gardens and herself hanging out with her friends all the time. Hell, based on her timeline alone, she has a better social life than I do.
"Betty O'Connor checked in at Pedro's in Mazatlán."
I've never been to Mazatlán. Or out of California, for that matter. Well, except for the first few months of my life when I lived in Korea.
"Oh, hey, remember when you tried to set me up with your O-chem lab partner last quarter, and it went horribly, and I didn't speak to you for a week?"
Louise smiles sheepishly. "He seemed like a nice guy. I thought you two would get along, since you both like obscure, weird movies and stuff."
I resist the urge to throw a pillow at my roommate. "There's a difference between obscure, weird, but well-made movies and pretentious, art-house crap made by overly precocious film school geeks."
Louise makes a crude gesture in response-- the jack-off move. "Anyway, you'll like Hunter, I swear. He's cute and athletic... and oooh, he's premed. "
"His name is Hunter?" My turn to make the jack-off gesture. "What kind of parents would name their child Hunter?"
"I don't know, Flannery, you tell me." She pulls all of her hair over one shoulder and picks up a brush, which she begins to run idly through the long, wavy locks. "He's coming for a visit next week. I really think you'll like him. He looks like that guy you like... from that silly teenybopper vampire show."
Since I have three "silly teenybopper vampire show" on my Netflix watchlist, I don't ask her to specify. Weezy isn't a big TV watcher and is one of those people who thinks everything on television is trash. Once I almost got her hooked on "Dr. Who," but she realized what I was doing after one season and stopped watching cold-turkey. I don't think she's ever going to fully forgive me for almost turning her into the "TV junkie."
"All right." I shrug. Why not? Louise was originally from Sacramento, and that's probably where this guy lives. What kind of relationship can I possibly develop with a guy who lives 10 hours away? "Premed, huh? UC Davis?"
"No. UCLA, you lucky thing. If it works out, you too can see each other on weekends." My roommate claps excitedly. "Oh, this is going to be so great."
I groan. Crap. Well, maybe he won't like me. I'm not exactly the kind of girl that a guy who has dated Louise might go for. While she's one of my best friends, she and I are worlds apart. Looks-wise, anyway. Louise tends to date big, beefy dudes with corn-fed good looks and farm boy sensibilities. That "aw shucks" thing drives her mad with lust. Louise is nuts about the John Hughes 80s jock-villain archetype. She and I have watched "The Breakfast Club" 1000 times together, and she is strictly Team Estevez.
"Fine, fine," I say, much to her delight. "But one thing at a time, all right? First, we have to land me this $500 a week tutoring job."
"Write your cover letter in Portuguese. Google Translate is a lifesaver. I couldn't do my Spanish homework without it."
"Oh, sure." I sigh and shake my head. What's the worst that could happen? "Google Translate to the rescue."