Wednesday, February 17, 2010


They were, collectively, four of the smartest guys you could expect to meet in any undergraduate program anywhere: Ed, the stereotypically nerdy white guy, studying physics; Lee, the stereotypically nerdy Chinese guy, studying political science; Ricky, the flamboyantly gay Mexican guy, studying performance art; and my little brother, Sol, the stereotypically nerdy Jewish guy, studying math. All seniors at a prestigious state university, all living in the same bachelor pad rental house off campus.

They supported each other like brothers, and were fairly outgoing and extroverted for a bunch of geeks. I visited whenever I could, and we would drink beer, push back the furniture, and dance in the living room, or eat foreign food and attend concerts, or sit around getting high and discussing the nature of the universe. Nice, gentle guys. Non-confrontational.

Lee wasn’t Lee’s real name, but most Americans couldn’t pronounce his given name. Still, he wouldn’t be Americanized, if he could help it, and spoke of his Chinese girlfriend back home. He couldn’t get back to her just yet, though. He needed his Master’s degree. He was the last of the group to hear back from his first-choice school, and announced their decision with a wide sweep of his arms when he saw me.

“So, where are you going?” I asked him.

“Wonderbuild.” He smiled.

“Wonderbuild?” I wondered. With his intellect, you’d think he’d be headed for a school I had heard of. Still, I liked the image it conjured in my mind. Wonder build. To build with wonder.

“Wonderbuild,” he confirmed.

“Where’s that?”

“Tennessee. You know this school?”


“It is a famous school. Wonderbuild.”

I glanced back at my brother, and saw him squinting sidelong at the other roommates. They shook their heads, shuffled their feet, looked out the window. “He means Vanderbilt,” my brother said, his voice quiet and embarrassed. The others hung their heads, avoided Lee’s wide eyes. He had been saying it for weeks. They hadn’t corrected him.

“I cannot say that letter,” Lee confessed. His jaw quivered.

“Vanderbilt. Wonderbuild. Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt,” I said to myself. “Here, put your teeth down on your bottom lip when you say it. Vvvanderbilt.”

“Vvvanderbilt,” he repeated. “Vanderbilt.” He nodded.

The other boys looked up at me, faces shining with approval.

“There,” I said. “Now you can go to Vanderbilt.”

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Confessions of a Stock Footage Queen

Conventional prettiness meant a symmetry of features, I learned in high school. I read it in my psychology text. The more average the dimensions of ones face, the more attractive. And my face was conventional indeed. They called me pretty, very pretty.

And being pretty, and slender, and on the tall side, I found modeling work. It paid for my amusements in college: beer, road trips, cashmere sweaters. Even when I graduated, I never had a career. Just jobs that paid the rent—I was professionally pretty as a receptionist, a pharmaceutical rep, a restaurant hostess—with modeling to cover the extras. I never had a magazine cover. I scarcely had a magazine layout. I wasn’t quite tall enough, or striking enough, for high fashion. They didn’t offer me runway work.

But they liked my normal, average, pretty face, and they called me. Photographers dressed me up in goggles and a white coat and shot me marveling over Erlenmeyer flasks full of green food coloring or dry ice. They put me in pencil skirts and shot me smiling in front of chalkboards, surrounded by children. They wrapped me in military fatigues and shot me stalking through the forest, carrying guns.

Soon enough, my image came back to me: on the Internet, in advertising circulars, wherever fine clip art was required. My face went everywhere, places I would never go, showing me doing things I’d never really done.

When I moved through the world, I didn’t have the same versatility as my photograph. People looked and saw a conventionally pretty girl and wondered, “Have I seen her before?” and forgot all about me when I passed, because I was unremarkable in my prettiness, just another pretty girl. Merely pretty and no more. No one ever noticed me.

Sometimes I see girls with horrific scars, burns, or birthmarks, girls with unbelievable acne or giant, crooked noses. Sometimes I hear men mocking them when they pass, or children expressing astonishment. Sometimes I envy them.