This past weekend, I got into a van full of eleven boys and headed off to Vermont to meet my friend Max’s parents. The eleven boys consisted of a group of 23 year olds who had all graduated from Pratt, boys who had adopted me during my freshman year and showed me the real city while other freshmen were sitting uncomfortably in orientation group after orientation meeting, smiling desperately in an attempt to make friends.
I read “Burning Down the House” and “Franny” while on the trip, the boys occasionally teasing me for still being only a junior in college, only twenty.
In “Burning Down the House,” Charles Baxter mentions a Winesburg, Ohio story about a woman named Alice who, after years of waiting for a man to come back from Chicago and marry her, realizes that she’s been praying to a guy who will never return. In the end, realizing that the man was lying to her, she runs naked through her backyard. They didn’t have Facebook or Skype back in those days, so I, unlike Alice, still had contact with my ex when he was away. Seeing him the way that he really is, without any pent-up emotion or lingering sense of social conflict, was my way of running naked.
It feels like I’ve woken up from a dream, but one that suddenly puts everything into place about the conscious life. In “Franny,” a college girl meets up with her boyfriend after having become disenchanted with the high-minded liberal educated. While her mindset is adjusting, he blabbers on about a paper that he thought would “go over like a lead balloon” but really is, to him, worth publishing. Meanwhile, she’s fascinated with a book about a pilgrim who searches for the answer to the most complicated question of mankind, but the journey itself is so simplified, beautifully. Franny, in the end, refuses to play the part that’s been assigned to her by her highly educated brain family, her liberal arts college, and society, her boyfriend included.
Like going to a funeral for someone you barely know and having to blend into “the crowd,” I had to play a part around the rest of the guys. They wanted me to be cute, the way I was when they first found me walking around campus alone. They wanted me to smoke them up, laugh in that adorable new-girl giggle, and stay positive. So much has happened to me during the past year, and only Max and Steve have been around to watch my development into a young woman. The rest of the guys see me every few months. We assemble for the Fourth of July, moving-in parties, and weekend road trips. This trip, instead of keeping my cool, I finished off half a bottle of rum with a friend of Max’s, not feeling a thing.
My role has changed in the group, as one’s role often changes in stories of de-familiarization. It’s to the point where I had to pretend that what was going on around me was some sort of stupid teenage-fan-based tv drama. I’m not “Steve’s lil Buddy” or “that guy's girlfriend.” I’m the only girl in the group, and even though the guy and I aren’t together anymore, I’m not going away. I wasn’t initiated with or by him.
We see monsters as sympathetic because we, at some point, see their weaknesses. I oddly equate this to seeing villains for their flaws and strengths in Disney movies. Scar just feels entitled to the thrown, but is scrawny and weird. Ursula just wants to be attractive, the ugly guy in Notre Dame is consumed by lust for a gypsy, Garcon has a small-penis complex. In turn, we also see people that we once held in very high, heroic regard as being rude or openly insensitive. This is because we are all human. Though we play roles in certain settings, such as not appearing like the clever stoner in front of my mom or mentioning all the sex I have at school, or being calm and easy-going when you want to throw your ex-boyfriend off of a mountain, these roles are not always problematic. As humans, we have to go as far as to defamiliarize ourselves in order to conform. As writers, we have to recognize these role-shifts as de-familiarization with ourselves, and develop that notion as our craft.