This is how it starts:
Jessica's sister is a senior at Barden University.
(Jessica's not a senior yet, but if she were she'd just be a senior inhigh school so it'd be a moot point. That is a good reflection of their relationship: whatever Jessica achieves, it will still only be a shadow of what her sister does. Everywhere she steps foot, her sister will have traversed before her. Everything she owns, her sister has owned once too – or at least owned the better version of it. Jessica comes after everything, like complementary background noise that creates ambiance to enhance what people are focusing on in the foreground.)
Jessica's sister is captain of the BU Harmonics.
(The BU Harmonics are an a cappella group, that is to say they sing covers of songs without any instruments—it's just their voices. They have a lot of theatre nerds in their ranks. Also a lot of show choir kids. They sing Madonna as a compromise so they don't argue about which show tunes are best. They feel very strongly about hair care and grooming in generally, really.)
The BU Harmonics get into the regional heat of the ICCAs.
(This is a big deal. The Harmonics are a new team, a baby team, a nascent tiny thing of a team and this is their first competition of any sort. Thanks to their captain's stellar leadership, they're finally branching out into a competitive world instead of a just singing in empty rooms and circling a cappella music festivals with shoddily recorded CDs doing it 'just for the art' or something equally pretentious. That's what her sister says, anway.)
Jessica's sister is the favoured child.
(Her sister is the crown jewel in the arrangement that is her family. Her sister has achieved something, first kid in the family, extended cousins and all, to make it to college. That makes their parents proud – beyond proud. They, naturally, want to lend their support, physically. Her sister was, after all, not the 'November' baby – the result of an overly exuberant Valentines' Day.)
Jessica's parents decide to watch her sister perform.
(Jessica is sixteen, but still, apparently, too young to be left alone at home to her own devices. It's family, her parents tell her, show a little loyalty. )
Jessica spends five hours in the back of minivan driving down to a middle of nowhere university hosting the rounds.
Of course she does. Why wouldn't she?
College a cappella is actually pretty cool.
Jessica has learnt, through the years, to associate anything her sister does with discomfort, disdain and a whole assortment of other 'dis'-es. This personal policy is, on occasion, difficult given their common fondness for music and Jessica's generally blasé taste for all things pop-culture, but music is a wide enough field that Jessica can minimize risk of overlap. (There's nothing more embarrassing in the world than agreeing with your sister.)
A cappella, by the looks of it, can be a very wide field too. Barden University is a hot bed of a cappella activity: a group called the High Notes performs languidly on stage, mumbling out a garbled cover of a song from RENT she can't quite remember the name of; then, a group called the Treblemakers struts up on stage and busts out into some pseudo-break-dancing thing heavy on the beat boxing and bass with rapping and a chorus that impresses everyone in the room (and maybe prompts something that looks startling close like panties to get tossed onto stage from somewhere in row four); followed by the BU Harmonics with a solidly arranged Madonna/Beatles mash-up medley and choreography that basically involves everyone free-style dancing and miming instruments on stage.
There really must be something in the water at Barden because then, after a brief intermission by a Western-themed group dressed in cowboy hats and boots and red button down shirts, it's back to Barden (again) for a group that looks like they stepped out of PanAm circa 1967.
"The Barden Bellas!" the MC announces.
Jessica doesn't really think much of it. A part of her muses, with the fondness of a cappella groups for puns, why they aren't called the Aca-Bellas instead. Still, she likes knowing names and facts, sureties and details, so she files the group name and the look of their pristinely pressed uniforms into a file in the back of her brain.
They're less like flight attendants and more like soldiers in a procession. The Bellas march on stage like a unit, every step coordinated. As they get into position, a surly brunette snaps at a tall blonde who visibly withers and scurries into position. She blows on a pipe, presumably so they can all match pitch.
The blonde from before almost stumbles over a teammate when she stops singing or a second, voice caught in her throat. She's just on harmonies, so it's not to noticeably, but when she completes her little spin like the rest of them the stop is a little jerkier. She keeps a Barbie doll smile on her face but swallows heavily. Nervousness, probably.
Jessica thinks she's really pretty.
The Trebles are set to tear apart the competitions in the finals, everyone thinks so and the announcers declare as much when they mention their previous winning streak. The Bellas place second. (It's not an announcement that goes over that well because surly brunette shoots tall blonde another withering glare at the news. Jessica feels sorry for her.) Cowboys third. The Harmonics don't place at all. Her sister is distraught, but admits the Bellas arrangement, for all its boredom induction, was astute and clever and their overly literal chorography perfect to the tenth of the second. Her sister admits that the Treblemakers were consummate showman so there was no chance of them flunking out unless the judges were high. She admits the Harmonics can't expect to go too far with a set list comprised of nothing but Madonna, but, still, she says, it was a lot of fun.
Her sister who is always right and perfect and unquestionably brilliant concedes to all of them, happily.
Jessica thinks maybe, if she ever gets to college, she'll join an a cappella group too.
High school is high school. That is to say, high school is miserable purgatory broken up by bits of fleeting amazing-ness. She has the same friends she's had since middle school with a few additions to round off the pack and they do homework together, watch movies, plan shopping trips, have sleepovers, pine after boys, gossip in bathrooms and dream about their futures away from small hometowns that seem more claustrophobic than any cage.
It's as good a high school experience as any.
Certainly, it's not the non-stop hop from theatre production to theatre production to amateur musical for YouTube her sister's ride through young adulthood was, but Jessica is content with the student newspaper, film club and marching band.
Sometimes she sings in the shower or when her friends blare out a Top 100 hit on the radio and it's nice (she can hold a tune, after all) but she doesn't think much about it or practice to hard with it.
Once she trips across her the laptop charging cable in her bedroom floor while she's too busy doing a little dance to the latest single by the latest American Idol and the notes get caught in her throat until she coughs. She's dimly reminded of a pretty blonde girl who did something similar on a stage, once, when she first saw what the world of collegiate a cappella had to offer. Overcome by an urge to procrastinate, she hops on YouTube to see some performances and idly tries to doo-wop to Mariah Carrey chart toppers. It's a fun night until she realises her essay really needs to get finished.
Singing just becomes a thing she does after that, whenever she's bored or too tired to concentrate even if it's just playing songs on loop in her head or especially when she has essays to write. Happy music just makes her happier and it puts this dopey grin on her face all the time.
Some times she's sharp, sometimes she's flat, sometimes she messes up her entrances and exits and is iffy on the key but it's still recognisably the song she intended to sing. It's never bad enough that it leads to her parents barging through the door to tell her to quiet it down or the neighbours complaining or her friends throwing wads of paper at her to make her stop so she doesn't.
She doesn't realise she's made it a habit until the graduating student newspaper editor calls her 'the human radio' in his goodbye speech to the whole club.
He means well, of course, and comments on how's she's always smiling too and how that really helped when he had to push for his deadlines and how her smile isn't almost as bright as her voice.
For a second, she thinks he's hitting on her, especially when, in the brief little after-party (just contraband soda and a lot of potato chips smuggled in to the club room) they have when the final issue of the year hits the press, he comes up to her and shakes her hand personally for all the hard works she's done and shoots that crooked grin that's always on page four next to his article summarising the week. (That's impossible, though, because he's dashing and on the swim team and the kind of guy her and her friends fawn over as they watch cheesy eighties romances and she's a gawky band nerd who does embarrassing things like sing out of key non-stop; she really needs to stop doing that.)
He stays with her for a while even as they clear up the room but she doesn't say much to him.
How could she?
Jessica doesn't really know what she's going to do with her future.
The creeping passage of time brings all sorts of little dramas and developments and strains and solidifying of relationships and activities and a better sense of self but Jessica know, innately, she's an unfinished piece of work – a story still in progress by a writer without any semblance of a plot outline.
She's not like her sister, hyper-focused ahead with an eye on New York's off-Broadway scene or an art-film or two. She's not like her friends who have singled out their ideal sororities and the colleges that surround them. She doesn't even have a murky, fuzzy outline of her idea of a dream.
She's not even sure she wants to go to college, but she's not even sure why. What would she do otherwise? It must be her sister's poor influence because it seems to Jessica that college involves a lot of drinking and partying and that sort of extroversion and social charm that just escapes her. College is going off into a wild unknown all by herself and having to make a whole new set of friends: a reset to square one of all the careful building of networks and getting people to know her name. College is just her out there with parents miles away.
Maybe college isn't such a bad idea.
Or maybe it is.
She needs to put something on the forms, though, so she goes with writing or journalism because her grades in English are pretty good and school newspaper was the high point of her high school career even though it the word 'journalist' feels iffy when she tries it out. She's told that that sort of a dream requires college. Her grades are good, her extra-curricular activities well rounded and her situation obliging for applying for some academic loans and bursaries if she's worried about those costs.
It's a good as start as any to the real world (to adult hood and to having a life of her own) so she goes with a yes.
College it is.
Jessica's college selection is partly decided by copying the choices of her friends and partly by Googling what schools have good journalism courses. When she considers location, she just decides anywhere but where she started and marks out a radius from her soon to be departed home in generic, white bread Middle America that ensures she won't be tempted to zip back home for long weekend and that her parents won't be tempted to visit on those long weekends either but not so far that travelling back for the holidays becomes a nightmare (goodbye, Hawaii and Alaska).
She could make it point to avoid her sister's alma mater but Atlanta is a really nice city and Jessica will be damned if she let's her sister's shadow ruin everything she ever does. (This is something she figured out when she started dating that boy from drama club even though 'drama club' was a phrase inextricably tied up with memories of being dragged to support her sister's bit roles and then supporting roles and then lead roles. Soon she'd started going to those productions without even thinking of the other girl; she only thought about her friends and that boy with the dopey smile who liked to hold her hand but somehow thought that Taco Bell was a good date setting.)
Barden is just another college on a big list of colleges she has to write personal essays for. She makes an off-hand comment about how Barden seems to have a lot of community spirit and their lively a cappella community (because that's something special she can remember about them, at least) in the 'why do you want to come here' part of the survey. It's one of many bits of praise for the merits of colleges X, Y, and Z and, to be honest, applications are so stressful she can't keep track of what she wrote where.
Some of them must have managed to be good essays, though, because, day by day, she gets great big envelopes stuffed with paper in the mail.
Jessica gets letters several colleges but none of the same colleges her existing friends get accepted into. That's the way of the world, she supposes amidst teary confessions and a good venting session about having to be separated.
It doesn't hurt as much as it should. The thought of leaving everything behind should be terrifying and the thought of losing all her friends to time and distance, Facebook notwithstanding, should make her heart ache. Instead, it's just a dull sort of hurt that isn't anything like she found her theatre boy making out with someone else from marching band (that fucking brass section) and cried for days.
She's wrong when she finds out that this sort of aching lasts a whole lot longer.
Jessica is still awful at making choices, especially as far as her future is concerned but deadlines are looming ever so close (and it just reminds her of the speech where the student newspaper editor called her a radio) so she writes the names of her colleges on post it notes, sticks them over the dartboard that once had her ex-boyfriend's picture on it, and throws blindly.
That's how she picks Barden University.