She’s nervous. There. Okay. She admits it. She’s nervous. She’s starting, like, the beginning chapter of her adulthood. Or stepping stone towards it or something. It’s weird and kind of scary. So sue her.
Is it bad she can’t keep this stupid grin off her face? She can’t even tell if she’s good nervous or bad nervous anymore. It’s just a weird stupid jumble of emotions that’s making her cheeks kind of hurt. Gen always told her she smiled too much; it was creepy, she should stop. Jessica wasn’t sure if the unsolicited advice made her keep smiling out of spite or if it was just a positivity thing but it became a habit over the course of high school and her sister’s accompanying tangible absence from the family home.
It’s making her feel kind of weird now, come to think of it. For three years, she walked past her sister’s unused room: saw the old paper sign on it replaced with a nameplate she got on a road trip with her college buddies; saw the shelves gather dust and get wiped clean as reams of paper and piles of old books where shuttled in and out and then on eBay; opened the door to see a vacuous space on an empty desk where a Gen’s computer and mugs filled with stationary had migrated through the years to her college dorm and then to her apartment, out of state, where she presumably was going to live a whole, great new life without Jessica or their parents remotely in it. Was her room going to end up with the same fate? Slowly emptying itself of anything that showed anyone still used it or lived in it?
When Gen had first moved to college, Jessica had wanted to take the room herself. But Gen’s room had the shoddy window that didn’t open right and got it’s share of creepy sounds at night when the wind rustled through the tree branches in the yard right by her window. In the end, Jessica had just stuck with what she knew. Wasn’t that just typical of her?
It’s a small mercy that Gen isn’t around to make things any worse. Jessica is overthinking things enough as it is. It’s college. It’s her first day at her new college. Who cares if Gen went to Barden too? Really what does it matter, she tells herself.
Gen’s conspicuous absence today is part fault of a bad hangover and part fault of Jessica’s request. She may have really, really, really pressed the fact she would rather her sister not be here. (Come to think of it, that may have been what kicked of the whole process of getting a hangover.)
Anyway, Jessica’s parents are more than happy to help get their daughter settled into Barden. They’ve done it before, after all.
When her sister was off at college, it was just Jessica and their parents. It was nice. Maybe it’s a little childish of her, but ever since Gen moved back in after graduation, Jessica couldn’t help but feel a little neglected, even with so much time having them just to herself. After getting a little taste of that attention, only to have it ripped back away from her like that—Jessica really doesn’t want to think of herself as that kind of person but—It was just nice, that was all: being noticed, clearly, even if it was because you were the only person there to notice. It’s probably a character flaw. That’s okay, though, right? College was supposed to be when you saw to fixing these sorts of things, right? It was good she’d noticed it in the first place. That was more than some people and their total obliviousness to their glory-mongering…
Barden’s like she remembers it. Nothing particularly special and filled with the usual humming chatter of students like any other college. It’s still a pretty good school, she tells herself. There’s no reason to feel bad about going to the same school as her sister, not at all. College doesn’t count as a hand me down. It’s stupid of her to think like that. In the end, she was the one who sent off all the application letters, right?
Jessica thinks, maybe, things would go a little better if she spent less time convincing herself of things and more time just accepting her choices. Overthinking was always sort of her thing, though. (Okay, one more character flaw—that was fine. She was fine with that. It was all going to be fine.)
Just her inner monologue telling her things are going to be all fine start to work, her parents, in their typical fashion of being parents, start to gush and coo about their little baby girl leaving them forever and how they can’t handle it. (This is definitely Gen’s fault, Jessica thinks. She’s the one who set the baseline for aggressively attempting to leave the nest. Jessica’s going to be going home way more often; her mother really doesn’t have anything to worry about.)
By the time they find her hall, Jessica is too embarrassed to let her parents anywhere near her room. She only manages to shoo them away when some of the other people in Baker (all freshman, it seems, and Jessica wonders if that was really a great idea for Barden administration to make) offer to help transport the truckload of cardboard boxes Jessica’s parents insisted on her brining. (After Gen subsisted on nothing more than a diet of instant ramen and bags of microwaveable rice, Mom decided to pack some care packages of the nice brands.) They hug before anyone starts crying and when it gets to that point, her parents finally do want to leave, if only to avoid getting over-emotional in front of her. (They bawled when Gen went. Jessica remembers because she had to come along so she could have a chance to ‘look around’ for ‘when she was older’.)
She has the boxes laid out into one side of the room, more or less. She didn’t pick the side, really, it’s just where the first person helping ended up laying the boxes, so everyone else just followed suit (including Jessica, embarrassingly enough). It doesn’t really matter. She can only hope her future roommate won’t mind either.
Speaking of which, as Jessica contemplates what kind of person her roommate might be, she hears a knock on the door. A brunette with curly hair, pops her head through the door and smiles.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Ashley,” the girl says says. “I’m your roommate, I guess.”
She smiles back. “Jessica. I’m Jessica.”
Ashley is pretty easy to get along with. They’re take a similar approach to space management in the room, share a mutual interest in singing along to Top 40 Pop hits, and are doing the same Introduction to Comparative Literature class together. All in all, it’s a pretty good deal. Since Baker Hall comes with a meal plan (and they both opted in for that, though Jessica still isn’t sure why her mother gave her a giant box of instant noodles when she knew her daughter was being fed three square meals a day) they make plans to eat together too. Already, Jessica has escaped the awkward purgatory of eating alone. College seems off to a great start.
Ashley is pretty lax about how she’s unpacking, seemingly content to live out of clothes neatly folded in cardboard boxes and suitcases for the time being.
“The drive here took forever,” she explains, flopping down on the bed after she finally managed to identify the box with the sheets in it and get them on the drab Barden mattress. “I’m too tired. I just want to eat and sleep.”
Jessica giggles. “It’s not even eleven yet. Lunch won’t be ready till one.”
“Ugh,” Ashley says. “Why do we even have to be here? Orientation’s gonna suck…”
Smiling sympathetically, Jessica turns to haul her things out of the last few boxes.
The cardboard on her side of the room is bothering her; she won’t be able to sleep tonight if she doesn’t just get it over and done with.
It was always that way for her. In school, she couldn’t sleep at night unless she knew all her books and assignments for the next day were neatly tucked away in her backpack. Dealing with no homework ready for the deadline was an impossibility too. That kind of thing spilled it’s over into the rest of her life with the onslaught of deadline, schedules and time pressure than came with band and school newspaper.
It was a good habit, most of the time.
But now, after hearing Ashley say how tired she was, she was starting to realise she felt pretty tired too. The drive from her place had been pretty bad as well.
Gotta do what you gotta do, though.
With a big sigh, she reaches into the boxes and pulls out some pictures from home to ward away the homesickness. No real frames, because those would be heavy. Instead she made some at home before she left, taping printed out photos onto cereal box card and decorating the edges with pretty tapes, coloured paper and glitter. A little childish, maybe, but cute and cheery. She tacks them onto the walls one by one. The place will look like a regular college dorm room in no time, she thinks. Just like out of a movie or something.
She realises, after assembling half of her little wall collage of nostalgia, that Ashley is looking at her. She flushes red, an awkward smile on her face trying to diffuse the tension. Does Ashley think she’s a total dork for doing this kind of stuff? She hopes she hasn’t messed things up. She was really looking forward to having a friend to sit with at dinner every night.
“That’s really cool,” Ashley says, springing up off her bed. “Is that your family? Your high school friends?” She gestures generally to the whole collection of photos and Jessica assumes that’s just a polite way of asking her to identify everyone in general.
“These are some friends for high school,” she says, pointing appropriately. “This is us at a football match. We’re the marching band if it wasn’t obvious. That’s me over there. Oh, and this is the school newspaper club holding a car wash fundraiser so we could buy a new printer since the district didn’t have the budget to replace ours until next year. Ah, and this is us outside a movie theatre. We were going to see a sing-along version of something. I can’t remember what. I just remember I sang way too loud for everyone.”
Ashley nods along and Jessica feels like she’s really interested and not just being nice at her long winded explanation. She smiles, trying to keep going.
“Ah, that’s my sister Gen,” Jessica says, jabbing a finger at a picture of Gen in a henley, holding a beer can by the campfire. It was a family camping trip and their dad brought a cooler along with him so he could properly enjoy the great outdoors. Gen hadn’t been twenty-one yet, but she was definitely drinking in college so no one really was too bothered by it. Jessica had been offered a can too but refused it when she saw her mother looking at the three of them reproachfully. Gen had ignored the stare, of course, and laughed along with their father. Jessica just returned the beer to the cooler and went back to toasting s'mores.
Ashley looked amused, raising her eyebrows. “Jennifer and Jessica? My cousins have alliterative name too.”
“Gen with a G not a J, actually,” Jessica corrects. “And it’s not Jessica and Jennifer either?”
“Gen’s not short for Gennifer?”
“It’s short for Imogen. The parents were going for ‘names Shakespeare might have invented.”
“If that was the case, I’d definitely have gone with Olivia somewhere in there.”
“Well, after two they just decided they’d had enough of kids.”
“Oh, quite the handful, were you?”
“Imogen’s not even supposed to be a name you know? It’s supposed to be ‘Innogen’, but someone misread it and lo and behold: a whole generation of girls named Imogen.”
“A generation might be stretching it,” Ashley says.
“I can dream,” Jessica counters.
Ashley laughs. “Yes,” she says. “Yes, you can.”
Ashley is an only child. Despite that (or maybe because of it? Jessica doesn’t really remember how being an only child is supposed to affect a child’s social development or leadership or whatever it is) she’s a pretty outgoing person. Or maybe the better thing to say is that she’s kind of a party person? She likes parties. That’s the point Jessica is trying to get at.
Jessica was never really any good at parties, even the ones where she knew most of the people there. She just didn’t really get what you were supposed to do. It was alright with her friends, of course, because then you could just talk to each other and hang out and that worked basically the same as if you were alone hanging out in a crowded place. It was just when her friends had other friends there too that they also wanted to talk to that it was tricky. Most of high school had been okay since there was, at a minimum, one other friend Jessica had hanging around to talk to while her other friends split up and talked to their other friends.
This was not a thing Jessica could do in college. Not yet anyway. As of now, Ashley was her only real friend friend not just acquaintance talk to each other when you pass each other in the quad kind of friend.
But still, Ashley had invited her because Jessica had said she wanted to make more friends and meet more people. So of course Jessica said yes. She just thought college would be different. She assumed now that she had jumped through the magic portal of wisdom between ages seventeen to eighteen that’d she’d somehow be able to do this and talk to another person at a party (a total stranger!) and make friends with them like she’d never been able to do before in high school.
Finding out things required hard work and effort to achieve was alway a total bummer.
Here she was, at a party, standing alone with a solo cup filled with Coke because after all this time she still can’t pour herself a beer without imagining her mother’s ‘disappointed in you’ face. (It was alway Gen who got that face. Jessica at least prided herself on not being on the bad end of one of those.) Hell, she couldn’t even muster up the courage to pour vodka in her coke. (It looked the same as just normal coke, right? Who’d really be able to tell she was underage drinking then?) What did vodka even taste like?
Maybe coming to the party wasn’t such a great idea after all. Ashley had run off somewhere, talking to a friend from her Philosophy class. In all fairness, she did say ‘Will be okay if I go for a sec? I have to talk to some people?’ but Jessica was still operating on the assumption that ‘a sec’ meant some short period of time.
Why is she so bad at making friends anyway? She doesn’t see anyone she knows here. Even if she did, she probably wouldn’t remember their names. Really, it shouldn’t matter. It’s the first week of the first semester. No one knows each other, technically. She shouldn’t feel as awkward as she does, probably.
After what seems like forever (a time Jessica mostly spends contemplating how bad she is at social stuff and how she got way too cocky over how well college would be going) Ashley ambles back (this time with a different drink in her hand) smiling and giggling. Would she seem really uncool if she asked Ashley for tips on how to talk to other people?
“You alright,” she says.
“Yeah, I’m okay.” Jessica shoots a beaming smile. It would probably be more convincing if she could get her eyes to stop staring at the floor.
“So… see anyone you like at this party?”
“Huh, what? I mean--” Oh. “Ah, no. Not really, no. I’m not really looking for anyone, I mean. I just want to make friends, take this whole college thing slow, you know?”
“Cool, cool,” Ashley says. “That’s a good thing to do.”
Jessica feels more comforted than condescended to. That’s good. She’s pretty sure Ashley means the former too. She needs to stop feeling bad about people just trying to be nice to her. It’s entirely possible people are just nice and don’t just feel sorry for her. (Oh! Too much self-consciousness. That’s a character flaw too. More things to fix by the time she leaves college.)
“Uh, you?” Jessica says upon realising participating in a conversation might actually help move it along. Practice for making friends, she tells herself. It’s all practice for making friends. Friends who aren’t Ashley, as much as she likes Ashley. It’d just be nice to have a few. (But that wasn’t saying Ashley was bad! Even if it was just Ashley, she’d be a happy with that!)
“Well, over there,” Ashley says, gesturing at a group of guys in matching maroon hoodies, huddled together, arms over each other’s shoulders.
“What are they doing?”
“Dunno. But it looks interesting.”
The guys break out of their huddle and into a song and dance routine. Well, at least Jessica know who they are know.
“Those are the Treblemakers,” Jessica offers, trying to be helpful. “One of Barden’s A Cappella groups.” Her sister certainly gave her a thorough education on them the moment she heard Jessica got into Barden. She wasn’t sure what Gen was expecting from her, really, but just sat down quietly and let her talk. It was the easiest way to deal with her when she got like that.
Ashley scrunches her nose up, contemplating.
“They’re pretty cute.”
Jessica chokes on her drink.
Ashley raises an eyebrow. “What? You think I have bad taste?”
“It’s not that…” Jessica says. “I just didn’t expect you to be into a capella boys.”
“A cappella is that thing where they sing without backing instrument or anything, right?” Ashley says filling the gap in from either the context of what the Treblemakers are doing or from some hazy previous knowledge she had.
“Yep,” Jessica says. “Only their mouths. I mean voices. Only their voices.”
“Hmm,” Ashley considers. “If the boys are cute, it doesn’t really matter if they’re in a capella at all.”
For some reason, Jessica quietly sighs in relief. Why she’s relieved she’s not exactly sure. “Some people just think it’s a turn off since it’s pretty dorky, that’s all.”
“It’s definitely dorky,” Ashley replies, “but when boys are kind of dorky, that makes them cuter, don’t you think?”
Jessica remembers her high school boyfriend with his always sweaty palms and tendency to ramble about Star Trek when he got too excited and finds she can’t really disagree.
“I like my share of dorky stuff too,” Ashley continue and Jessica somehow feels even more relieved. “It’s not my place to make fun of anyone. Besides, a cappella isn’t that bad. Singing’s a pretty attractive skill, you know? It’s like how most girls like musicians.”
“Well, like, guys who can play guitar and stuff always seem cool. It’s why so many people try to start bands, right?”
Jessica frowns. “I don’t really think I could like anyone who’s so...noncommittal.”
“Wow, Jessica. I didn’t know you came here to get your MRS degree...”
Jessica flushes, waving her hands about in protest, as though she can literally clear way the last words she said like smoke away from a fire. “I didn’t mean it like that! I just meant I hate people who aren’t dedicated to things. I mean, I just really admire people who kind of-- Um, how should I say this… I just think it’s a good thing in a person when they can be really committed and dedicated to something and focus on that… Like, I mean, even if you’re doing something because you want to impress someone else, I think it’s okay, I just think you should do it wholeheartedly because it’s important to have strong intentions and stuff so you can carry through and really do things properly and not just give up when you don’t get the results you want? I just think it’s good to be like that. To be committed to something, I mean. Um.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Ashley says, waving at her to stop. “Sorry, I didn’t think you’d take it so badly. I was only teasing. Anyway, it seems like you have good taste in guys, then.”
Jessica winces like she’s just ate something bitter. “I’m not sure you could say that.”
Ashley might be laughing at her expression. It’s not a mean laugh at all, though. “I’m sure it’s way better than mine.”
“No way! You’re just saying that to be nice.”
“No seriously, let me tell you about this guy I dated sophomore year back in high school…”
They start rambling on about high school, laughing as they walk back to their room. Ashley’s done for the night or maybe she saw Jessica was feeling a little tense. Jessica thinks it’s great she can talk to Ashley like this: easy and casual and comfortable. She’s happy she’s made the friend, even if Ashley is the only one. If Ashley can understand her like this, then it’s enough, right? Quality over quantity and everything.
Somewhere behind them, the Treblemakers argue over who started late on the beat in their percussion (a guy with tall hair and hipster glasses claims he can just take over the beatboxing if no one else wants to do it) and neither of the two pays them much mind.
For some reason, that night when she goes to bed, Jessica dreams about that one time she went to see her sister and the BU Harmonics in the semi-finals of the national a cappella competition. She remembers the Treblemakers strut off-stage and a set of immaculately groups young ladies in matching uniforms march on after them. In the back row, a pretty blonde girl half-trips and steadies herself, ready for action even if the other’s are glaring at her for messing up. She just gets on with it. Jessica thinks she’s really pretty.