Harvard Girl

By Mark Brazaitis

“I guess it’s a little risky, coming back here,” Ariel said to her friend Becca as they sat in a booth at Wild River, a bar outside of Sherman, Ohio. In three hours, Becca would take the stage at the Metropolitan Theater downtown to perform songs off her debut album, A Butterfly in a Field of Moths. When Ariel last looked at the Billboard charts in Rolling Stone, Becca’s album was at number twenty-six, which is how old they both were.

“Risky?” Becca asked. “The show is sold out.”

“But don’t you think at least some people might have bought tickets so they could boo you?”

On A Butterfly in a Field of Moths, Becca hadn’t disguised certain Sherman landmarks or well-known events in the life of the town. Beyond changing names, she hadn’t disguised the identities of the Sherman residents who populated her songs. Ariel recognized all of them, including herself, the subject of “Harvard Girl,” which described how Ariel had abandoned Becca and their rock-and-roll group in order to go to college, ostensibly to become a doctor but secretly “to find a prince from Princeton.”

Ariel was now in her third year at the Tufts School of Medicine. Her boyfriend was a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Boston University.

Becca twirled a straw in her cranberry juice. The bar’s eight other patrons, all male and at least fifty years old, didn’t seem to notice them. Country music played from speakers on the ceiling. On the wall beside their booth was a “Stars of Bass Fishing” calendar from 1984, the year Ariel and Becca graduated from high school.

When a minute passed and Becca hadn’t responded, Ariel said, “Look at what happened to Billy Joel when he wrote about Allentown.”

“A few people burned his albums,” Becca said, flicking her hand dismissively. “No one assassinated him.”

Ariel’s uncle, Sherman’s mayor, had warned her about the mood in town. There had been talk of boycotting Becca’s concert, he said. There had been talk of worse: He believed a number of discontented people had bought tickets in order to voice their opinions. “Well, I just wanted to warn you in case you face some hecklers,” Ariel said.

“If I face them, I face them,” Becca said. “I’ve faced tough crowds before.”

Ariel guessed she was referring to her time as an “exotic dancer” at the Above and Beyond Gentlemen’s Club. Becca’s stripper days were a public part of her biography. Whatever interview she agreed to inevitably included a question or two about this part of her past.

Ariel hadn’t seen Becca in three years, since Becca moved from Sherman to San Francisco. They’d spoken only briefly in their last few phone conversations. But instead of catching up on Becca’s life, Ariel pressed Becca about her songs: “Some people might say that the portrait you paint of Sherman isn’t balanced. It’s weighted toward the bad, the crazy, the mean-spirited, the drunk, the desperate.”

“You mean I forgot to write about how Ms. Stella, librarian for life, reads to two-year-olds every Tuesday at ten?”

“I’m not saying you have to write about story hour at the library. But you did write a song about Ms. Stella. Except you called her Ms. Blanche—very Tennessee Williams of you—and told the world she was raped.”

“She was raped!” Becca said. She tossed her straw onto the table and lifted her cranberry juice to her lips. “I have to write about whatever inspires me,” she said. “And in my case, I’m compelled—that’s the word—to write about exactly what was on your list: the bad, the crazy, whatever. I know Sherman has a good side, even a beautiful side. But it doesn’t inspire me nearly as much as what everyone wants to cover up or pretend doesn’t exist.”

“And you’re the butterfly who flew away from this crazy, moth-ravaged field?” asked Ariel, as neutrally as she could.

“A butterfly in a field of moths is a freak,” Becca said. “It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t know it’s beautiful. It only knows it’s different. Same with the people in my songs.”

Becca sighed and excused herself to use the bathroom.

The stainless steel napkin holder on their table was unusually clean, and Ariel picked it up and looked at her reflection. She didn’t think she’d changed much since high school. Her hair was the same, reddish-blond and curly, although only two nights before, she’d found a gray hair, which she’d promptly plucked—painfully—from her head. Becca’s appearance, on the other hand, had been evolving since the seventh grade. Now her hair was frizzy, shoulder-length, and dyed sunset red. Ariel hadn’t decided whether she liked it.

Becca returned, and Ariel put down the napkin holder. Ariel had another question she wanted to ask Becca, although she didn’t know how to phrase it. She didn’t want to appear defensive or offended. It was about the album’s penultimate song. Its melody had haunted her ever since she’d heard it, but its words stung. Ariel opened her mouth, stuttered, grew quiet.

“Go ahead,” Becca said. “Ask me about ‘Harvard Girl.’”

Ariel blushed. How often in high school had they read each other’s minds like this?  “It’s about me, obviously,” Ariel said.

“Yes and no. Certainly the situation is similar. You did leave the No Exits to go to Harvard.”

“But did you think for a minute that my main motivation in going to college was to find a husband?”

“I thought it might be possible, but only when I was in a bad mood.”

Becca took a long sip of her juice. Ariel lifted her Sam Adams to her mouth but didn’t drink. She didn’t know why she’d ordered the beer. She’d sworn off alcohol after she’d flunked a test in her freshman year of college because of a raging hangover.

“The character in ‘Harvard Girl’ is a composite,” Becca said.

“A composite of whom—me and the worst back-stabbing gold-digger you could invent?”

“It isn’t without a legitimate anger,” Becca said softly.

Becca’s remark surprised Ariel. “Oh. Yeah?”

“You were a great singer, a great guitarist, and you were smart enough to go to Harvard. If you had stayed with the No Exits, you could have made us all rich and famous.”

Ariel was going to protest this fanciful scenario, but Becca said, “And I knew that a hundred sons of a hundred New England aristocrats were going to fall in love with you.”

“You had the math right,” Ariel said. “Minus one hundred.” She added, “You didn’t need me after all. Here you are, rich and famous.”

“Richer than I was in high school, anyway,” she replied, “but not as famous as I dreamed I’d be.” Becca covered Ariel’s hand, which was resting beside the bottle of Sam Adams. “I’m glad you came.”

As quickly, Becca removed her hand from Ariel’s and leaned back in her seat. Her face, which had softened over the last minute, became fixed and wary. “I don’t know,” Becca said. “It was my manager’s idea for me to play Sherman, to squeeze it in between the shows in Cleveland and Columbus. He had no idea about the potential backlash. I’d have been happy never to come back.”

“I’m glad you did,” Ariel said.

“Yeah, you and tonight’s tomato-throwers. The first egg that hits me, I’m off the stage—and no refunds.”

Ariel hadn’t returned to Sherman since leaving for college. She’d had no reason to. Her mother had died of breast cancer when she was fifteen. Fleeing debts, her father had left the country after Ariel’s high-school graduation. Although Ariel’s uncle and his family had invited her to Thanksgiving and Passover, she always found reasons to decline.

But when, in a phone conversation, Becca mentioned that she would be playing in Sherman and asked Ariel if she might come down from Boston to hear her, she agreed, even though she’d planned to see Becca’s show in Providence, Rhode Island, the following month.

“I’ll pay your way,” Becca said.

For most of her life, Becca, who’d been living on her own since age fifteen, couldn’t have afforded a bus ticket to the next town over. Until Ariel’s father had gone broke, Ariel had never had to worry about buying anything she wanted. She worried about money now: Her loans for college and medical school were approaching $100,000.

So she and Becca had enacted their version of the Princess and the Pauper. Ariel wondered, as she often had, if she was jealous of Becca. She knew she would be fooling herself if she said she wasn’t.

“I’ll let you buy me a drink instead,” Ariel had said in response to Becca’s offer.

Ariel couldn’t say her town had undergone radical changes since she’d last seen it, although it wasn’t the Sherman she’d grown up in. By her calculations, four new stores had replaced businesses on Main Street. The Hope Theater, the art house movie theater on Pleasant Street in which Ariel and Becca had often found themselves the only patrons, was now The Tanning Palace. In another eight years, Ariel thought, her history in Sherman would be even more deeply buried. She’d have to excavate the places she held dear: the parking lot of the Smith Brothers’ Funeral Home, where Ariel’s mother taught her to ride a bike; the clubs where the No Exits played; the spots by the river where she and Becca used to study French and trigonometry and demean certain boys in school so as to elevate themselves above their desire to kiss them.

The Metropolitan Theater had also changed. In their senior year, Ariel, Becca, and the other No Exits had performed as part of a fundraiser for the theater. She remembered paint flaking off the ceiling as if the place had dandruff. The balcony always seemed one vigorous stomp of the foot from collapsing. There had been only a single working toilet in each restroom.

Now the place was stately and secure, a venue where a European opera company, albeit from a less-than-major city, would feel at home. And the women’s bathroom, at least, had six flushing toilets.

Ariel sat in the first row of the 800-seat auditorium next to four women she recognized from Becca’s days at the Above and Beyond Club. The opening act was Shattered Dreams, a group from Sherman. The drummer, Jennifer Sims, and keyboardist, Frieda Marcos, had been members of the No Exits. They’d both gotten married and had two children each; Ariel was surprised they hadn’t set aside their instruments long ago, as she had.

At the beginning of the Shattered Dreams’ set, Ariel thought Becca had done well by having them open for her. Their music was peppy and innocuous, pleasant and forgettable. But as they continued to play, Ariel changed her mind. The Shattered Dreams weren’t bad enough so that the audience would be desperate to hear any decent music, no matter how insulting to them and their town. And their songs had no controversial edge, nothing incisive to say about politics or God or, more to the point, the small, short-of-idyllic place where they lived, which might have made Becca’s lyrics seem less personal and provocative.

In their encore, the Shattered Dreams played a No Exits’ song, one Ariel had written. Even if she was embarrassed by how adolescent the lyrics were— had she really described a gaze being “as cold as ice cream”?—she nevertheless found pleasure in the audience’s boisterous applause.

After a break, it would be Becca’s turn. The lights came up, but only a few people sailed down the aisles toward the bathrooms. The rest of the audience remained seated, waiting. Ariel wondered if some people in the crowd had come to riot. She remembered seeing a payphone in the lobby and imagined dialing 911.

The four women next to her seemed oblivious to the impending danger, and she talked with them casually. Three of them were married, with small children. The fourth was in nursing school. Only the nursing student still worked at the Above and Beyond Club.

The lights dimmed, darkened. Ariel sank into her seat like she used to as a child on roller coasters. Oh my God, she thought. Here it comes.

The three musicians in Becca’s band, a drummer, a bass player, and a guitarist—men at least ten years older than Becca—strolled onto the stage. Colored light swirled and a deep, male voice announced: “The Metropolitan Theater is honored to welcome Rainbow Records recording artist and Sherman’s native daughter…”

Well before the announcer spoke Becca’s name, the boos began. They seemed to come principally from the balcony, although Ariel heard a woman immediately behind her join the chorus. In spirited counterattack, the four women sitting beside Ariel, as well as others, stood up and cheered and whistled and shouted. Ariel joined them, although even as she hollered her support, “Harvard Girl” played her mind.

A minute passed. Ariel wondered if Becca was cowering in her dressing room. But presently, she stepped onto the stage. She wore black leather boots, black jeans, and a black T-shirt ripped on the right sleeve. She strode toward the microphone. Despite Ariel’s warning, Becca looked distracted, even perturbed. For a moment, she stared into the crowd as if into an oncoming typhoon. When she crouched to plug her guitar into its amplifier, she had difficulty, and Ariel had an impulse to jump on stage to help her. Becca’s bass player eventually came to her aid.

With her guitar strapped on, Becca approached the microphone carefully. “Sorry I was late,” she said, the microphone trembling in her hand. “I was confused about where I was.” Her trembling subsided. Her expression grew from concern to cunning. She’d been feigning her nervousness, Ariel decided. “I thought I was back at the Above and Beyond Gentlemen’s Club, so I started taking off my clothes. Then someone reminded me I was at the Met, so I had to scramble to put them on again.” She paused. “I couldn’t find my bra, though. I guess I’d flung it far, like in the old days.”

Becca’s joke drew laughter, then applause. A male voice from the balcony shouted: “Take your clothes off again.”

“Who’s up there?” Becca asked. “Hugh Hefner?”

“Come on, slut!” the man shouted.

Looking down at Ariel and the other women in the first row, Becca said in a pretend whisper, “He buys a $12 ticket and expects a $300 show.”

Ariel knew now why Becca had asked her to see her perform in Sherman. If she didn’t play the crowd right, Becca must have known, it would turn against her, send her racing off stage, crying like a failed contestant in a talent show. She needed a ringer, a shill, a countermeasure to the catcalls and boos. No, this wasn’t being fair. Becca wanted what Ariel would have wanted in the same circumstance: a witness, a friend, someone to whom she could turn in her humiliation.

“You’re a disgrace!” the woman behind Ariel shouted. “You’ve disgraced this town! Your songs are vile!”

Becca sighed. “When I was over at Sherman High School…hey, doesn’t that deserve some applause?”

Most of her audience, a high percentage of whom were doubtless Sherman High graduates, complied.

“Thank you. When I was over at Sherman High this morning to give a check to Mr. Phillips, the principal, to buy the marching band new instruments, I was feeling more than a little nostalgic. I thought, ‘Sherman High is the last place I’ll ever be educated.’ I guess I wasn’t thinking about here, tonight, and the lessons a few of you seem to want to teach me.”

There was a shout from the balcony, but the words were garbled.

Becca furrowed her brow. “I never learned how to understand Incoherence. I can speak it fluently, but I don’t understand a word.”

There were laughs and shouts. Becca had managed to make herself appear both vulnerable and defiant—exactly the way she appeared in her songs. This was true, too, of the Becca Ariel knew in high school. Ariel missed being a part of her friend’s polarities, her tears and uncertainty, her boldness and sometimes too-provocative bravado. Ariel had always had a steady temperament, even as her family disappeared. Becca spun around her like a planet, glowing or shrouded in darkness.

“Why’d you shit on your hometown?” a new male voice shouted, although with less vigor than the previous critics.

Becca turned to her bassist. “I didn’t know I’d been scheduled for Meet the Press,” she said. “I would have given you guys the night off.” She turned back to the audience. “What can I say? I don’t write Valentine’s messages. I write songs. And in them, I am compelled—that’s the word—to write about the disrespected, the despairing, the doomed, the damned. For better or worse—and I realize plenty of you think worse—Sherman, Ohio, made me what I am, and what I am is a songwriter who wants to give voice to the overlooked and the ignored. No, I don’t write Valentines to Sherman, but I do write songs about people whose spirit survives the mean business of life.”

The auditorium exploded into applause, and Ariel, who recognized the speech from the Wild River, joined in.

“You’ve been a great audience,” Becca said. “Thank you very much. We hope to see you again soon.” She waved and began walking off the stage. There was laughter, applause. Presently, her band burst into the first song on Becca’s album, “Manny’s Mortuary (Business is Booming in Dead Town).”

Ariel heard only cheers when the song was over.

Next on the set list was “The Happy Homeless,” which quoted Ariel’s uncle, the mayor, saying Sherman’s homeless would be happy by spring because there would be new benches by the river for them to sleep on. Her third song was “If This Book Were a Gun,” Becca’s fictionalized depiction of Stella Lambert’s rape “in the quiet before opening hours, between shelves marked Romance and Horror.”

If this book were a gun,
I’d stick the barrel in his ear.
I’d say, “Before I blow you to hell,
I want to see your fear.
And after, yeah, after I’m done,
I want to watch your blood run
all the way to the sun,
all the way to the burning sun.”
If this book were a gun,
if only this book were a gun…

It was like Becca, Ariel thought, to want to transform a book into an object of more immediate purpose and power. Ariel wondered what the song might suggest about Becca’s own experiences with men. She wondered about the secrets she and Becca held from each other.

Ariel waited with dread for Becca to sing “Harvard Girl.” But Becca finished her set with one of her oldest songs, “Don’t Touch Me (It’s One of the Rules).” Her encore was “This Town,” by the Go-Go’s, which the No Exits used to play as their opener. At the end of it, Becca winked at Ariel and threw kisses at the cheering crowd.

As she left the Metropolitan Theater, Ariel felt relieved that her friend had bullied and charmed the crowd. At the same time, Ariel felt a degree of disappointment. She’d been preparing for a more volatile encounter over what she saw as the legitimate complaints the people of Sherman had with Becca’s portrait of them and their town. Becca, she thought, hadn’t been held close enough to the fire. She’d had the advantages of a microphone and banter she’d rehearsed, if only in her conversation with Ariel at Wild River. It had been no contest.

Immediately after the show, Becca was heading to Columbus. Although Ariel would probably catch up with her via phone in the next couple of days, she regretted she wouldn’t be able to ask her tonight why she hadn’t played “Harvard Girl.” It was the only song on her album she hadn’t performed, and there had been several shouted requests for it. She wondered if Becca hadn’t played it because she was, however passively, conceding Ariel’s point about how the kind of take-no-prisoners, autobiographical art Becca practiced could, despite her defense of it, be insulting, even wounding. Or perhaps it was more personal: Of all the people connected with Sherman who appeared as characters in her songs, maybe there was one she didn’t want to risk alienating.

As Ariel walked down Main Street toward the Hotel Sherman, where she would spend the night, she again considered the changes in her town, the slow conquest of the present over the past. She wondered when she would return. She wondered if Becca ever would.

She began humming a song. It had bubbled up to her lips, one of the thousands of melodies in her brain. They were there with the artwork she’d seen, the novels and poems she’d read. All art, she decided, was like a child. Look at me, it said. Notice me. And sometimes people did notice, and sometimes the exchange produced recognition or shock or disgust or joy or awe. But art was also a way to memorialize, a means to preserve what was disappearing. It was Shakespeare, she remembered, who promised his lover eternal life within the lines of a sonnet.

Ariel was humming the same song when she passed the desk clerk at the Hotel Sherman on her way to the elevator. He looked no older than eighteen, the age she and Becca had been when they’d broken up their band.

“I know—‘Harvard Girl’!” he exclaimed. “Was that the last song she sang tonight?”

Ariel barely heard his question. “It’s about me,” she said, beaming.

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Mark Brazaitis

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