“There are two kinds of people in this world,” Janet Winger's father had told her countless times. “Lifters and leaners. Always be a lifter, Janet.”
She had ignored that, as she had most of her father's advice, from the importance of finishing her undergraduate degree to the inadvisable nature of an expensive lifestyle. As for being a lifter? She still sees no sense in it. Take the body of a car: stylized, designed by experts, beautifully constructed, and the first thing anyone notices about an automobile. Also, secondary in the job of support, and uninvolved in propulsion. Why be a transmission or an air filtration system, toiling away unnoticed under the hood, when you could be a carbon-fiber frame with sinuous curves? Classic leaning. And over the course of the last three decades, Janet has become an expert leaner.
Of course, sometimes leaning has its drawbacks. Like today. Instead of providing Janet with a complete set of yesterday's Spanish notes with alacrity and a smile, Andrew Edison is haranguing Tonya Barnes over the prospect of her joining Greendale's comically poor basketball team.
Realizing that the notes aren't forthcoming any time soon, Janet pushes away from the study table, leans back in her chair, and watches the catastrophe unfold. Andrew has a handful of printed pages that he's waving at Tonya as he talks fast and loud about the average salaries for different degree holders, and how basketball will do nothing for Tonya's future career prospects.
Janet looks around the room, first at Brendt and then at Steven, expecting one of them to play the good guy and calm Andrew down or pull him aside or give him a Valium or whatever it takes to silence an overachieving, meddlesome teenage boy. (Not Valium, though, she remembers. Pill addiction, wasn't it?) But Brendt has a faraway look on his face, perhaps pondering that barefooted, hemp-braceleted, pot-smoking, basket-weaving little hippie who, Janet thinks disdainfully, is a bleach job, two deep-conditioning treatments, and several pedicures away from being worth a second glance. (She twitches the ends of her hair up to her eyes, as if to make sure Vonnie's split ends aren't catching.)
And Steven? He's listening intently to Andrew's monologue, his Hallmark-flavored world view no doubt making him insensible to the fact that what he thinks is an entertaining squabble on the road to college romance is, in fact, an irritating detriment to the group's precariously-balanced equanimity.
No help is forthcoming from those venues, and Prudence has added her voice to the chaos, employing her inimitable talent at making things worse by quoting salary figures for WNBA players and including countless stereotypes about lesbians. Amira hasn't spoken yet, but she's observing everything, and at any moment will probably start to compare the situation to something that happened on Freaks and Geeks or My So-Called Life or some other failed 90's dramedy.
Janet isn't interested in hearing it, even if she could, since the volume of Andrew's voice has ascended to the point where “GPA” and “career path” and “sports therapist” are probably echoing around the campus at the same decibel level as one of Dean Pelton's inopportune loudspeaker announcements.
Janet extends an arm, and with a fingertip guides one of Andrew's dropped pages across the table to where she can read it. It's a full-color graph portraying the expected lifetime earnings for Greendale's most popular degree programs, with the ones that might appeal to Tonya in bold print and a larger typeface. Impressive, really. She remembers why it's worthwhile to keep Andrew in the group, and makes a mental note to make use of his Excel skills in her Statistics class.
Tonya's reaction to Andrew has run its course from indifference to amusement to annoyance, and she finally leaves the room, shooing Andrew out of her way like he's a bothersome insect.
“You going to say anything to him?” Steven directs the question to Janet as he nods toward Andrew.
“Who, me? Why would I?”
“He would listen to you. You’ve set yourself up as the leader of all this.”
It’s the truth, even though Janet doesn’t want to admit to it at the moment. “Talking to him seems more like your bailiwick,” she demurs, slinging her bag over her shoulder as she stands to leave.
“Might be, but do you think I have time to worry about solving everyone else's problems?”
“Andrew.” Janet claims his attention. “About those Spanish notes?” She lets her voice trail off just enough not to sound peremptory.
“Oh! Right. Sorry. I've got them right here.” He hands her a sheaf of papers from his backpack, typed and augmented with his precise, controlled caps, the militaristic neatness of which, had they belonged to one of her clients, would have prompted Janet to call in a handwriting expert in order to establish a preexisting mental condition.
Steven is looking at her disapprovingly as she leaves the study room, and now so is Brendt (but he disapproves of everything she does, and while it's amusing - and telling - that he's so concerned with her every action, she can't be bothered), but she knows that Steven will let it go soon enough, and even if he doesn't? Well, it's something she can live with.
That would have been the end of the situation, if Janet hadn't spotted her own disembodied head floating ominously on all those Greendale promotional posters, heralding the death spiral of whatever remains of her personal pride and professional reputation. Her subsequent negotiations with Dean Pelton and the Dean's insanity-tinged grin and easy way with blackmail and unrelenting dedication to pretending that Greendale isn't the hellhole it really is don't go as Janet planned, either.
So Janet has to take a detour to Greendale's stygian gymnasium in order to convince Tonya to join the Human Beings. It's not as easy as she thought it would be. Some of Andrew's ideas have taken root, and the glimpses Tonya's gotten of her prospective teammates haven't warmed her to the idea of collegiate basketball. Still, if Janet has one gift, it's talking circles around other people until they're not sure which way is up, and she makes Tonya so dizzy with her carefully-employed logical fallacies and emotional appeals that the conversation ends with Tonya not only convinced, but excited to lend her talent to Greendale's collection of unsalvageable stragglers.
Janet leaves Tonya doing layups, and is satisfied with the completion of a task that was trickier than it should have been. Her thoughts do flicker briefly to Andrew, who is doubtless holed up somewhere in the library, surrounded by his array of gadgets, studying feverishly in between attempting to create spreadsheets that can quantify all of life's decisions. He'll be furious when he finds out about Tonya's plans, which means that not only will Janet have to deal with salving the tender feelings of every man in the study group, but that she'll also probably lose her source for Spanish notes, at least temporarily.
Something to worry about later, and no match for having overcome the threat of her face representing Greendale to the entire Denver metroplex. But Janet wonders, as she so often has over the past few weeks, why she bothers with the study group, and why she hasn't escaped them entirely so that she can suffer the misery and indignity of Greendale in peace. Well, there's Brendt, for one thing, with his irritating, wide-eyed demands for social justice, and that sardonic smile of his that she plans on removing from his face in some creative way in the near future, even if she has to use her own mouth to stifle it. (Especially if she has to.) And having Andrew around has decreased the actual effort she's had to put into this farce by a good half. As for the rest of them? Probably some kind of social or emotional crutch she's using to get through this temporary regression in her life. She'd rather not contemplate it further, and decides again to go with what she's got until something better comes along.
At any rate, Janet's in a good place the next afternoon, having started the day off with a successful flirtation with a Starbucks barista who was more appreciative of her personal attributes than Brendt is (or pretends to be; he's not fooling her), and she's decided that she can handle any difficulties that may arise in the study group with a few strategic maneuvers.
That's when Andrew waylays her from behind a shrubbery-lined sidewalk.
“You don't care about anyone but yourself, do you?”
Janet would prefer to sidestep him and his accusations, but he's up in her face, all earnestness and loud voice, and since she's not wearing heels they're at eye-level with one another, so she can't tower over him intimidatingly. And of course, there’s that incomplete Spanish homework. She engages.
“Have I ever claimed to?”
Andrew's seething with frustration. “The study group is supposed to be a collaborative effort among peers that will contribute to mutual success. What do you think Tonya joining the basketball team will do for her academics?”
“She wants to play ball. She's not dropping out.”
“Really? Really?” He pulls his netbook out of his backpack, opens it, and shoves it in her face. “Look at this.”
“Oh, too bad, can't see the screen in the sun.” She pretends to be disappointed. “Get with me later, okay?”
“I've got a hard copy.” There's no escaping him. “Here's a chart detailing the average GPA of all of the students involved with various extracurricular activities at Greendale. Note that students in the sports program are all three-tenths of a percentage point below average, and basketball is second from the bottom in terms of overall performance.”
She scans the chart. “Wait, basket weaving is a sport at Greendale?”
Andrew shakes his head. “I didn't think it was valid either, but that girl that Brendt's been hanging around with? Vonnie? She says it's very challenging. She's practicing two hours a day for the intermural basket weaving competition.”
Janet's irritation at Vonnie entering into the conversation is overshadowed by amusement at having derailed Andrew's rage, but he's sharp and catches on fast.
“You're supposed to use your skills for good, not evil,” he says indignantly.
She almost breaks into derisive laughter at that, but Andrew continues, “Tonya's success or failure at Greendale is hanging in the balance. Joining the basketball team could be what ruins her chances of transferring out of here.”
Janet lets loose then. “Isn’t it condescending to think that Tonya can't handle school and sports? She did all through high school, after all. I could also add that the fact that you have a crush on her doesn't give you any say in her personal decisions. I know you're in most of her classes, watching over what she's doing, helping her out. Does she want that? Maybe you should stay out of her business.”
Andrew takes a step back, as if her words had had a physical impact. His eyes narrow, and he spits, “I saw those promotional posters with your picture on them, but now Amira says that the Dean’s scrapping that campaign. Tonya didn't want to join the team until you talked to her, and I think you convinced her to in order to protect your precious ego and reputation.”
“How can you criticize me when you just admitted that you talked her into something for your own good?”
Janet shrugs. “It's ignoble all around. You're just as selfish as I am. You’re just not as good at it yet.”
At that, Andrew raises his chin, but it's not difficult to tell that he's hurt. “Fine.” He turns his back on her and walks off and wait, is that – yes, it is. Guilt. Janet's least favorite emotion. Crap.
If Andrew prefers to stalk his prey from protective hedges, Amira’s ploy is to be still and quiet enough that she blends into her surroundings, giving her optimal eavesdropping abilities. Or so Janet thinks when she glances over and spots Amira sitting on a bench a few dozen yards away where she certainly saw, if not overheard, the entire disastrous conversation.
Deciding not to fight the inevitable, Janet goes over, greets her, and waits while Amira gathers her belongings and stands to walk beside her.
“He’s upset.” As is not uncommon with Amira, her inflection renders it difficult to tell whether her words are a statement or a question.
“Is he?” Janet counters, deft enough to avoid that pitfall.
“You’re upset. Something happened.”
Janet puts on her blandest, most composed expression and turns to look down at the younger woman. “Do I look upset?”
Amira shrugs. “Brendt wants you to do something about Andrew. Andrew doesn’t want Tonya to join the basketball team. Tonya talked trash about every Greendale extracurricular until today. Steven says that if he weren’t a Christian man and a role model for his daughters, he’d have strong words with Prudence about what she said about female basketball players. Brendt says that what Prudence says is freedom of speech, but that she’s still almost always an awful person. Tonya says there’s strobe lights set up in the gym that are like something out of a music video, and that she thinks Dean Pelton rents it out after hours as some kind of club, maybe to the mega church across the street.”
“Now I’m upset.”
Amira raises a finger and smiles. “Sarcasm.”
“Was there something in particular you wanted? Because I’m headed to the cafeteria for a nonfat sugar-free caramel soy latte.”
Brendt's sitting at a booth near the coffee concession, hunched over textbooks and a notepad. He seems relieved to see them, if only to escape from studying, and shoves the books aside when Amira sits down opposite him. Janet slides in beside him, uninvited, and although he doesn't protest, she can tell that he's still irked at the way she'd put Steven off yesterday.
He's shed his leather moto jacket for once, and is wearing one of those screen-printed t-shirts he likes. Then Janet knows how to budge him from his pique. She nods toward the arm nearest her. “Tell us about your tattoo. There has to be a fascinating story behind it.”
(There is, and it's not fascinating. She knows because she's already heard it: Brendt's told her about it not once, but twice, but since he obviously enjoyed it both times and had no clue it was a repeat the second time, she figures the ploy is good for at least one more use.)
Brendt grumbles a little, but turns his wrist over so that Janet and Amira can see the tattoo on its underside. Amira leans over the table and bends down until her nose is almost touching his arm, scrutinizing. “A bear with fangs?”
“Nope, it's the Radiohead bear.”
Janet scoots down in the booth and leans her head back a little, preparing for yet another rendition of Brendt's tale of hipster woe and betrayal.
“Radiohead. The band. It's their logo. I dropped out of high school in 2000, about the time Kid A came out, and it only seemed right to get a tattoo to commemorate the occasion. I mean, there's no way I would ever regret it, or that Thom Yorke would become a soulless cog in the corporate sellout machine, right?”
Amira's following along, and nods at the correct juncture. “Right. No way.”
“No, not right! He did! And now I don't have the money for laser removal, so I'm stuck with this thing for good.” He grimaces down at his wrist with an expression that's almost as fond as it is resentful. Janet thinks that he probably likes having the story of youthful rebellion to recount, and downloaded In Rainbows the day it came out. Without paying.
“Can I see it again?” Amira asks, and studies Brendt's wrist as if there's a message hidden on his skin that she'll be able to suss out if she looks hard enough.
“If you're thinking of getting one of your own, just make sure it's not something you'll regret.”
“Huh-uh.” She shakes her head. “Tattoos are forbidden for Muslims.”
Janet can practically see Brendt deducting cultural sensitivity points from his running total, but Amira continues, “They're neat, though. I like looking at other people's.”
“Let me guess, if you got one, it would be something from TV?” He's teasing her, smiling, but she doesn't catch on and nods, completely serious.
“It would be from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sure, it’s about vampires and the end of the world and stuff, but it’s also about a group of people who band together and take care of each other no matter what. Actually, that’s kind of what I envision happening with our study group, only gradually and with a lot more ironic humor.”
Brendt shakes his head, bemused. “Don’t let Janet hear you say that. Her eyeballs would roll out of her skull.”
Amira turns toward Janet as if to reassure her. “The action sequences and the mythology are my favorite parts.”
Janet yawns and stands up, only half-feigning her boredom. “I’ll let you two discuss the nuances. I’m in over my head.”
“Are we surprised?” Brendt grumbles.
“Well, we can’t all be renaissance men like you, now can we Brendt?” Janet pats him condescendingly on the shoulder, letting her hand linger a moment too long just to irritate him.
“Amira,” she nods in farewell. “See you both in class tomorrow.”
She hates herself for this. No, goddamnit, she despises herself for doing this, for giving in. She, Janet Winger, is the lone island of sanity in the sea of lunacy and shipwrecked dreams that calls itself Greendale Community College, and she’s about to set off a volcano on her island that’s more likely to sink it than it is to create an archipelago of sister islands. Or whatever. She doesn’t give a fuck about her metaphors if she’s not in court.
And why is she doing it? Because she feels guilty. Guilt, an emotion she thought she’d eradicated from her array of available emotions after she’d gotten her third DUI off. That one had crashed through the barrier on the interstate and into a family sedan, which had been completely populated by its requisite family at the time. Tough case. She’s still proud of it. She’s not proud at all of what she’s about to do.
It’s late in the evening, and Tonya is by the bike racks in front of the gymnasium when Janet finds her. “Good practice?” she asks.
“Not really. You saw what I’ve got to work with in there.”
“That’s what I came to talk to you about.” Janet’s ability to lie eloquently has abandoned her now that she’s trying to tell the bald truth. “You don’t want to join the team, Tonya.”
“Huh? Yeah, I do.”
“You don’t. Even you can’t do anything with that team. A pregnant woman? Someone who, with all due respect, was probably born before women had the right to vote? It’s an insult to your talent. It’s like - ” Janet’s mind supplies her with something biblical-sounding she’s probably heard Steven say - “it’s like pearls before swine. And Andrew was right, it’s not going to help your academic prospects. Join the team at a real school when you transfer out of here, but not at Greendale.”
Tonya’s expression grows more nonplussed the longer Janet talks. “What about all that stuff you told me yesterday about the glory of the school and the thrill of conquest and the stink of the feet? Was that all bullshit?”
Janet grimaces. “Yes. It was all bullshit.”
“Fine, then. I could’ve told you conquest’s not that big of a deal. I’m doing this for fun. You sound like Andrew – everything has to be super-serious with goals and objectives. I like playing ball, and I don’t care if it is at Greendale. Plus, my feet? They don’t stink. No clue where you were going with that one.”
“Sting of defeat.”
“Never mind. You’re right, though. In the future, don’t listen to me. In fact, ignore everything I say.”
Tonya smiles up at her as she kneels to thread her bike chain through the spokes. “Are you coming to the pep rally?”
Completely deflated, she says, “I don’t know.”
“It’s gonna be great. Starts in half an hour.” She spots her octogenarian teammate, and waves at her. “Hold on, Sharon! I need to talk to you.” Tonya turns back to Janet and whispers, “You have no idea how long I worked with her today. Zero understanding of the rules of the game.”
Janet watches as Tonya sprints away, and then, feeling as tired as she ever had after a full day in court, sits on one of the concrete benches lining the walkway to the gymnasium, first checking its surface for gum or bird droppings or any other shit, figurative or literal, that Greendale might see fit to cast her way.
It’s Andrew. Janet stands up, not wanting to remain seated while he’s there with his nervous energy and high ideals, making her feel like she’s judged and at some bizarre disadvantage even though that’s stupid, and may she remind the bench that she does not care?
But she has to say this first, because even soulless ex-lawyers can have moments that live to haunt them at three in the morning. “Andrew.”
“Yeah?” He looks at her apprehensively, as if prepared for a repeat of their last conversation.
“What I said earlier about you being selfish? Well, you’re helping a group of strangers pass their classes, and I’m sure we’re getting more out of it than you are.” It sticks in her throat coming out, but she says it anyway: “I’m sorry.”
The corner of Andrew’s mouth turns up in a half-smile, but he has the grace not to gloat. “Yeah, well, you probably had a point, too. What Tonya does is up to her. I came to the pep rally to support the team.” He holds her gaze for a moment, and then, as if eager to break the tension, fishes around in the pocket of his jeans, pulls something out, and hands it to her. “Look, it’s a pocket projector. I can hook it up to my iPod and project stuff onto the wall during games and rallies. Slogans, or pictures of the team making goals or winning games. Not that there are any of those. Yet,” he adds loyally.
Janet turns the small black gadget over in her palm, considering. “Slogans. Go Greendale?”
“Greendale, Can’t Fail?” he offers.
“I don’t think there’s room for enough small print to qualify that claim.”
“I’ll trust you to be my legal council.”
She chuckles at that, and Andrew grins, teeth a flash of white under the streetlamps. Janet has the sudden, alarming realization that teenage boys aren’t supposed to be this appealing – god knows she hadn’t even cared for them much when she’d been a teenager herself – then pushes the thought aside and hands Andrew back his projector. “You’d better go display your school spirit.”
“Are you coming in?”
What the hell. “Yes.”
Andrew holds the door open for her as they walk into the gym, and sarcastically mimes a “go get ‘em, slugger!” movement with his left arm. “Go, Greendale!”
Janet shakes her head as he follows her in. “You say that now, but you have no idea what we may be getting ourselves into.”
“Should be fun though, right?”
“Not as fun as lifting all day.”
“Nothing. By the way, did you happen to do tomorrow’s Spanish homework already?”