Anna Kaye-Rogers • The Illinois Valley
My best friend and I spend some of our time (when we should be writing) discussing The Bachelor; or rather, everything but The Bachelor, because it is the least of our favorites. We consider ourselves feminists, intelligent and good women. We revel in our fandom anyway. The drama, the characters, the emotions presented; even when we see the editing tricks and know what the music cues are trying to do, we let them get away with it, if only for a little while. I imagine a trip to the zoo with her would be the same; awed silence in some exhibits, spending too much time watching the creatures in their big tanks, squealing and running excitedly to the next when we realized what fuzzy creature with too big eyes awaited us. We would come from a place of love and respect, but we would still take advantage of the zoo. The Bachelor feels like that. Logically, each contestant has agreed to be shown on TV, to know they risk pride and reputation by doing so. We laugh anyway. Or we appreciate, or show support, or complain bitterly they have been mistreated- but we do so because watching entertained us; because we get something out of it. Many of those Laurens we give a hard time to have degrees just like us, are more than the fake eyelashes they have put on to be on TV. They have been compressed and flattened for our viewing pleasure; single page bios meant to fit life experience and personality into promo copy and archetypes. The gorgeous one, the crazy one, the brunette one. It’s storycrafting about reality, what our essays are trying to do.
There’s one contestant I am sorely tempted to audition for; despite being in a committed relationship and feeling, inside, I do not belong there. My best friend is my biggest supporter; she would move mountains to help me get on the show, and I know this. But the thought scares me. So many of these girls are like my best friend- beautiful, intelligent, capable. I judged her for not being at my level in her first essay because that was the only room I had to stand on, the only prize I could claim. But she wasn’t even competing. She didn’t need to, admittedly. She had solidly beaten me at everything else.
She is too pretty, the kind of genetics that bless her with good bone structure and American wholesomeness, the kind of blonde hair that ties up in cheerleading bows and charity events. Girls that look like her used to appear in advertisements with aprons tied over dresses and pearls just to make dinner; now she would be on the TV in an open concept kitchen with gleaming appliances and snowy white paper towels, laughing over perfectly prepared dinners and shaking her head at messy children. She holds wine glasses with natural elegance and catches the eye of business and English majors alike. And yet somehow, in spite of myself, we have become friends.
Our first encounter was not in the wild; there is no good story to how we met. She sat on the other side of the nonfiction workshop classroom, a little quiet, a little reserved, a little out of place. I thought she did not belong there, in a space I had mentally reserved for the misfits and outcasts like myself. She was too pretty, too polite, too normal, too… boring. I don’t remember the first time I saw her across the room or in the halls of the college campus we shared. I don’t remember meeting her at all. I don’t remember ever rolling my eyes at her opinions or hearing a thought of hers and thinking she was wasting my time in my class. For a whole semester I workshopped with her, interacted with her, learned and grew as a person with her, and yet I don’t remember her at all. How then could she have become my closest of friends, my most adored writer in a workshop? I try to look back and find the switch in my head, to identify the moment my opinion changed, but the months of kinship have erased anything but the way I feel for her now; the associations I have to her candidness, her openness, her ability to pair reviews of the music and movements she loves most with the deep introspection and self-critique I am not capable of.
Her first essay was not one of the best selections; but it was not the real her, not the version I had come to know. It was so out of character I did not realize it was hers when I came back upon it second semester. At the time the piece had been workshopped I had not been able to place names to faces; first semester was about weeding out those who would not survive the advanced workshop. The pieces I knew her to write were complex, flowing perfectly from section to section almost musically; her favorite subject. She intertwined cultural examinations of privilege and equality with her own life in a small town, the way the stereotypes made beats against the rhythms of life. She was the stereotype to me; too good, too pretty, too well-adjusted and balanced to have the deep chaos I cherished most in writing. But I was incorrect, superficial, surface-level. I needed her good writing to notice her goodness as a person, to stop assuming just because I could not balance a well-structured face with a well-structured sentence no one else could. I had originally written her off because I assumed she did not need writing to make her a whole person, the way I did, but she had already privately, quietly, without competitive ambition or desperation to prove to herself, made it a part of herself.
She started winning awards. She was the better writer. I had started to skim through her real first essay, assuming it would be much like one from first semester that seemed to speak similarly about small towns and familial relationships (not realizing that was also hers). But there was a shift in her writing, small and perfect and incredibly-timed, that pulled the very concept of gravity out from under me. It was everything I wanted my writing to do, to surprise and reverberate and adjust everything that had come before, the perception changed by the new knowledge she had imparted. I could not get enough. I read and re-read, trying to catch her in the act, to see how she had spun a tale with spiderwebs I had not seen in time. She had tricked me, one of us all along, and it had been my misconceptions that had caused the effect, not hers. But it was just not fair. She was extraordinary; talented and intelligent, introspective and beautiful all at once without ever appearing to have noticed it in herself. I did not comprehend how my own insecurities could be shared with a human being who seemed so much better than me.
Yet still, we did not talk. And we may have continued to not talk, but we happened to be selected to workshop our essays on the same day. Did he realize what he had done when he set the syllabus, assigned the schedule? Was it the intentional work of a gifted professor, guiding two writers who needed each other towards each other? I want to believe it was, because the alternative- we lucked into it, and may have lost each other forever if it had happened any other way- terrifies me. I need her to like me, to adore my writing and appreciate the sense of awe I have for her, because I thought she was too good for me as a person, and she thinks I am exactly enough. I do not put her on a pedestal; not exactly, for she is full of flaws and humanity. She has not found a boyfriend. I don’t understand how. But I love that she does have buried weaknesses like the rest of us underneath, that I have gotten close enough to see that the misconception I had is a shield of protectiveness her life has wrapped around her. She has had to crack it, to get past it, to connect to us; but how many unworthy frat boys has her perfection and unattainable-ness protected her from?
She has won awards (I remind people of this constantly; bragging on her behalf) for her thoughtfulness, her warm tone with more wisdom than a small town could teach her. She could not have been contained there, not ever, and when she broke out she took everything she needed with her, improving upon it. She still thinks fondly of where she came from; she could never think she was too good for anything or anyone, but she knew she needed to escape to become exactly what she has turned out to be; nothing short of incredible. And yet we spend our friendship in internet slang and references, nothing academic or impressive about it. We are able to be normal, unjudgeable for each other; it makes perfect sense to me she would spend an afternoon enjoying terrible fanfic because I stopped presuming to think she was too cool for me, and so I send her the worst of it I can find, and we laugh together. I judged her for being better than me, and my jealousy could have cost me dearly. No one has been more kind, more supportive, or more perfectly suited to a strange and wonderful friendship. And I almost didn’t know. I pride myself on constantly thinking deeper, being open to the ideas that suggest themselves to me, but only in pages, on paper. It makes sense then, that her writing is what reached out to me, caught my attention; but how can someone so good be friends with someone so selfish, so oblivious? I wanted to be friends because she wrote well, and I assumed I wrote well enough to be considered an equal. Everything else about her has been a bonus, because it is far more than I deserved. Now, I am overprotective, adoring; but I do not know how first semester me would have reacted to learning that was so.
But what does her beauty have to do with writing in the first place? Why was that perceived as the either/or to writing ability; why did I assume she could have one or the other? I love to cherish and uplift my friends, so why do I always need my friendship to make them worthy, why can I not be as supportive and encouraging to the women I do not know or need? Why does a sense of competitiveness cancel out my ability to acknowledge their positive traits and qualities?
How many of those contestants that I’ve laughed at for saying something I would never say are also better than me? I feel I would get there and focus so much on being the least pretty externally, I would be unpretty internally as well. Who am I to judge someone who has spent more hours in a Sephora than reading Jane Austen? Perhaps she has learned the same lessons as I, in a different way.
Or perhaps those girls are not as glowing and glorious as my best friend and I; perhaps they are given the kind edits. They are uplifted in their best moments, seen through the type of filter I applied to my friend; that they are enough for being themselves and that is what gives the value. That should be okay too; they have friends who think the world of them for whatever they have found as important as writing. I would hate to go on the show and find out that all the stereotypes I have in my head, of girls who are pretty, girls who are ambitious, girls who are intelligent and competitive and unstoppable, are true. But I would also hate to go on the show and find out that I am wrong; that I am the most terrible one of all because I had those preconceptions and those ideas, that I fell for the stereotypes and assumptions. I cannot apply to The Bachelor because I am trying to be a better person, not better than anyone else. I do not want to find myself in a room surrounded by prettier girls than I and be so afraid of being less than them that I miss out on other beautiful friendships. But that’s not the point of The Bachelor; you’re supposed to go and compete, and do whatever it takes to win. I don’t know how to balance my own flaws with seeing the beauty of others; I am not mathematically capable of a value system that contains only addition and not subtraction; in a ranking system something must be lower for something to be higher, someone must lose for someone to win. I do not know what made her break past my guard and lower my defenses; what made me stop competing and start collaborating. I have to assume it was her; it was how she wasn’t competing with me, setting the better example of everything a writer should be. I do not deserve to be on The Bachelor, but she does.
So I nominated her.