She had been in a toothpaste ad on TV. She was also in my writing workshop.
By the second week of school, I was half in love with her; I assumed everyone was, or would have been, had she not been such a bitch with her critiques.
Interlochen, the land between the lakes, the lochs, which my parents always pronounced wrong: interlocking. Like, how could they not hear the difference? Between the English and the Gaelic? Between something mysterious and sophisticated enough to be a boarding school for the arts, tucked away in the northern wilds, and something that made no sense whatsoever?
Also not helpful was the fact that my stories were the weakest in my workshop—or at least that’s what I gathered, based on their tepid reception. As far as I could tell, the problem was that I’d loved, as a child, The Secret Garden and The Education of Little Tree and other such extremely unsophisticated books, and I used intensifiers like extremely too much. No matter how much I tried to write like Chekhov or Hemingway or Faulkner, I always seemed to wind up with characters having meaningful exchanges with red-winged blackbirds or waxing poetic on trees.
That first year at Interlochen I’d made the mistake of taking an acting class, which I thought would be an easy A. It had not occurred to me this class would include people like Milla Johanson, who had been in a toothpaste ad on TV. My mom about lost it when she saw her in the Osterlin Mall, and only the threat of my refusing to come home for Thanksgiving kept my mother from rushing over for her autograph.
Milla was also in my writing workshop, and if my stories were twee little fairy tales, full of sunshine and birdsong, hers were ironic parables, as dark and intricate as Gothic jewelry. She was a dancer as well, super-model tall and thin with the long-lashed eyes of a deer. By the second week of school, I was half in love with her; I assumed everyone was, or would have been, had she not been such a bitch with her critiques. (“Trite,” she’d pronounced the work of a fellow writer. “An unrelenting cliché.”)
And yet I was the only one who dared to critique her stories in turn. Others praised the precision of Milla’s verbs, the oblique, almost invisible way she described her characters’ appearances, the subtle tension of her scenes. When it came my turn to speak on her latest piece, The Difference between Dogs and Cats, I held silence for a good 10 seconds before I said, “I think this story is a cop-out.”
“Perhaps you could frame that sentiment more constructively,” our instructor, Mr Baldacci, said. He was tall, dark, and close enough to handsome that some of my fellow female workshop members tended to overstay his office hours. Before four years had passed, he’d be married to Avery Eastman Ellis, the smartest girl in our class. Who, for the record, never said much at all.
“These characters,” I said, “are obviously alcoholics, but no-one ever calls them on it. And where is this taking place? Like, is this supposed to be a city or a small town? The East Coast, Midwest, or what? It’s like these people live in a world where it’s totally normal to spend all day Tuesday in a bar. Doesn’t anyone have a job? And if they don’t, I mean, where does their money come from?”
“And?” Mr Baldacci said.
“I guess because of that, I can’t take any of them seriously.”
He nodded slowly, as if taking me seriously for possibly the first time ever. “Thank you, Ms Bailey,” he said, “for addressing the question of class in this story. Anyone else?”
“You know,” said the lanky boy in the back, who’d later go into finance, “I was confused about the talking cat.”
After class, Milla found me in the hallway. “Hey,” she said. “Sarah, right?”
“Sorry,” I blurted out.
She repeated herself, as if I’d apologized for not hearing her.
“Right,” I said, “I mean, I’m sorry if I—back there—it’s hard—” There I stood, with the start of three different sentences hanging before me, as if I were attempting to rewrite this scene in mid-air. “It was harsh. What I said. I mean, it’s not like—” I’d meant to say it’s not like I ever see those sorts of things in my own work, but then stopped, stymied by the realization that I’d said both I mean and sorry twice.
“But not unfair,” she replied, and then I had to backtrack to what I’d actually said, versus what I’d meant to say, in order to catch her meaning. My critique. The Difference between Dogs and Cats.
“What are you doing later?” she asked.
“Later, as in—?”
“Tonight. Are you going to the awards ceremony?”
“Hell yeah,” I said. The Kresge Awards were going to be announced that night, and the winners weren’t alerted beforehand, so no-one knew who they were. Of course I would be there. Everyone would be there.
Milla squinted at me. “Where are you from?”
“Here,” I said. “I’m from here.”
By that I meant this State, this peninsula, its small towns and forests and vast freshwater lakes, its Rust Belt metropolises and blown-out inner cities—the whole shebang. But of course Milla didn’t know any of that, so to her it sounded like I was saying I’d been born right there in the hallway of the Writing House, right there in that very spot.
“All right,” she said, “Sarah-from-here. I’ll meet you there.”
As if this was something we’d discussed. As if I’d said yes. As if she’d even asked.
By the time I arrived, the auditorium was buzzing. I scanned the seats for Milla, listening for the performative laughter of theater people, who always roamed in packs, but finding only the rows of dark Asian heads that indicated the orchestra, and behind them, a gaggle of dancers. I took a seat in the back, in the second-to-last row. I suppose I was planning on a dramatically long walk to the stage, should I be named the winner for fiction.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t know how unlikely that was. But that didn’t stop me from wanting it, in a way no-one in my family would ever understand.
Both of my sisters were studying healthcare at U of M, and their annual tuitions combined didn’t equal a single semester at Interlochen—which wasn’t even college. When they graduated, they’d have jobs all lined up. Whereas I would have “a tough row to hoe”, as my folks put it, if I went on with “this creative writing thing”. I had a scholarship, but even so, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for putting such a drain on my parents’ finances. Or maybe I felt like I should feel guilty but I didn’t.
Really, when it came down to it, I felt like I had to be the best, because I was asking so much of them—which meant I had to win this award.
But that wasn’t going to happen, and I knew it. It didn’t matter how many times I wrote and rewrote my stories, no matter how studiously I expanded my vocabulary, how closely I studied the way that stories were made, or how obsessively I revised. Because art was not like academics or athletics or whatever. Working hard wasn’t enough. To write the way Hemingway did, or Chekhov, or Faulkner, you had to be the sort of person who didn’t want it that bad, the sort of person who didn’t have to work at it so hard.
You had to be the sort of person, it seemed, Brian Evers was. I could hardly believe it when they called his name—an Ohio boy, another junior from my workshop. Soft-spoken, and nice enough, but–really? Brian Evers? Until then, I’d assumed he was second only to me in suckitude. The dude wrote quiet domestic dramas, the sort of thing where people spent a lot of time looking out of windows and having low-key conflicts over coffee.
He was sitting right up front, so he just sort of schlumped his way up to the stage and gave a little wave. And as he did, I was hit by a sort of swimming sensation, as if the seat beneath me might have come loose and was now drifting out to sea. Because if all of these smart people thought Brian’s stuff was so great, why didn’t I see it?
Like, how could I hope to compete if I didn’t even understand what the rules were?
Again, I scanned the crowd for Milla. Maybe her saying she’d meet me here had been a joke, like Kelly Hanson’s invitation to Homecoming—something to laugh about with her friends. At least thinking about that made me angry. Being angry was better than feeling that hollow, childish despair at having failed to win.
My heart leapt as I headed for the door, trying to slip out the back; Milla was leaning against the wall.
“Come on,” she said. And then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, she linked her arm through mine and steered me out of the auditorium.
In northern Michigan, autumn asserts itself not just in its colors but in the hard smell of decay, a smell I’ve always loved, like rotting apples and wet dirt that fades toward the first hard frost. As Milla walked me through the forest, I took a deep breath, steadying myself.
The woods were filled with the plaster work of sculpture students, and as we walked, the evening trembled with the vibrato of some cello student practicing in the open air. It still seemed impossible this place was just a few hours from the nowhere town where I’d grown up; it felt like another world.
And now here I was, being led who-knows-where by this beautiful, mysterious girl.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” she said.