FOR USE IN SCHOOLS AND LIBRARIES ONLY. When her therapist prescribes a five-point plan to help her interact with other people, Carrie Pilby, a judgmental social misfit, gets involved with a colorful cast of characters and finds her eyes opened to a new world.
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Caren Lissner lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, and works as a newspaper editor. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, and Jane magazine.
Allyson Ryan is a voice actress who can be heard in commercials, promos, animation, and audiobooks. She received an AudioFile Earphones Award for her narration of Kaya McLaren's On the Divinity of Second Chances. She also has extensive experience on stage and television and has appeared as "Mom" in several television commercials. Advertising Age nominated her for a Bobby Award in the best actress category for her work as the Duracell mom.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Grocery stores always give me a bag when I don't need one, when I've bought just a pack of gum or a banana or some potato chips that are in a bag already, and then I feel guilty about their wasting the plastic, but the bag is on before I've noticed them reaching for it so I don't say anything. But in the video store, on the other hand, they always ask if I want a bag, and even though, theoretically, I should be able to carry my DVD without a bag, and the bag is another waste of plastic, I always need a bag at the video store because, for reasons that will soon be understood, I believe all DVDs should be sheathed.
The camouflage doesn't work today. I'm only half a block out of the store when I see Ronald, the rice-haired Milquetoast who works at the coffee shop around the corner, approaching. "Hey, Carrie," he says, looking down at my DVD. "What'd you get?"
Uh-oh. I have to give this speech again.
"I can't tell you," I say, "and there's a reason I can't. Someday, I might want to rent something embarrassing, and I don't necessarily mean porn. It could be a movie that's considered too childish for my age or something violent or maybe Nazi propaganda—for research purposes, of course—and even though the movie I have in my hand is considered a classic, and nothing to be ashamed of, if I show it to you this time but next time I can't, then you'll know for sure that I'm hiding something next time. But if I never tell you what I've rented, it puts enough doubt in your mind that I'm hiding something, so I can feel free to rent porn or cartoons or fascist propaganda or whatever I want without fear of having to reveal what I've rented. The same goes for what I'm reading. I want to be able to pick a mindless novel, as well as Dostoyevsky And I also want to be able to choose something no one's heard of. Most of the time, people say, 'What are you reading?' and if I tell them the name of the book and it's not Moby Dick, they've never heard of it so I have to give an explanation, and if the book's any good it's not something I can explain in two seconds, so I'm stuck giving a twenty-five-page dissertation and by the time I'm done I have no time to finish reading. So books I read and movies I rent are off-limits for discussion. It's nothing personal."
Ronald stands there blinking for a second, then leaves.
My rules make perfect sense to me, but people find them strange. Still, I need them to survive. This world isn't one I understand completely, and it doesn't understand me completely, either. People think I'm odd for a nineteen-year-old girl—or woman, if you're technical—that I neither act excessively young nor excessively "girlish."
In truth, I feel asexual a lot of the time, like a walking brain with glasses and long dark hair and a mouth in good working order. If we were to talk about sex as in sex, as opposed to gender—as everyone seems to want to these days—I would say that my mind's not on sex that much, and I was never boy-crazy when I was younger. Which makes me different from just about everyone. I did have crushes on two of my professors in college, one of which actually turned into something, but that's a story for later on. That whole saga only confused me in the end. So much of the world is sex-obsessed that it takes someone practically asexual to realize just how extreme and pervasive it is. It's the main motivator of people's activities, the pith of their jokes and the driving force behind their art, and if you don't have the same level of drive, you almost question whether you should exist. If it's sex that makes the world go around, should the world stop for those of us who are asexual?
I graduated from college a year ago, three years ahead of my peers, and now I spend most of my time inside my apartment in the city. My father pays my rent. I could leave the house more, and I could even get a job, but I don't have much motivation to. My father would like me to work, but he has no right to complain. I remind him that it was his idea to skip me three grades in grammar school, forever putting me at the top of my class academically, in the bottom fifth heightwise, and in the bottom twenty-second socially.
My father is also the one who told me what I refer to as the Big Lie. But that, like all the business with my professor, is a story for later on.
When I get back to my apartment building, Bobby, the superintendent, asks how I'm doing, then takes the opportunity to stare at my rear end. I ignore him and climb the front steps. Bobby's always staring at my rear end. He is also too old to be named Bobby. There are some names that a person should retire after age twelve. Sally, for example. If Sally is your name, you should have it changed upon reaching puberty. Grown men should not be called Joey, Bobby, Billy, Jamie or Jimmy They can be Harry until the age of ten and after fifty, but not between. They can be Mike, Joe and Jim all their lives. They cannot be Bob during their teenage years. They can be Stuart, Stefan or Jonathan if they're gay. Christian is not acceptable for Jews. Moishe is not acceptable for Christians. Herbert is not acceptable for anyone. Buddy is good for a beagle. Matt is good for a flat piece of rubber. Fox is good for a fox. Dylan is too trendy.
I get in through the front door and the stairwell door and the apartment door. When I am finally inside, I experience tremendous afterglow. They make the apartments in New York as hard to get into as Tylenol bottles and almost as big.
I see a therapist, Dr. Petrov, once a week. He and my father grew up in London together. I don't really need to see him, but I go each week because I might as well get my father's money's worth.
The morning after I rent the DVD, I leave my apartment to see Petrov. It's drizzling softly outside. The air, a soupy mess, scrubs my cheeks, and the few remaining leaves on the trees bend under the weight of raindrops and dive to their deaths. A pothole in front of my building catches them, emitting a soggy symphony.
There's something I love about visiting Petrov: His building is on one of those quaint little blocks that almost make you forget how seedy other parts of New York can be. Both sides are lined with stately brownstones whose bright painted shutters flank lively flower boxes, the tendrils dripping down and hooking around wires and trellises. The signs on the sidewalk are extremely polite: Please Curb Your Dog; $500 Fine For Noise Here. It's idyllic and lovely. But the only people who get to live here are the folks who inherited these rent-controlled apartments from their rich old grandmas who wore tons of jewelry and played tennis with Robert Moses.
Petrov's waiting room is like a cozy living room, with a gold-colored trodden carpet and regal-footed chairs. One wall is lined with classic novels, a pointless feature since one does not have the time to read Ulysses while waiting for a doctor's appointment. A person would have to make more than 300 visits to Petrov in order to finish the book, which just proves that someone would have to be crazy to read all of Ulysses. But a waiting room is not the proper place or situation to read any book. All books have a time and a place. Anything by Henry Miller, for instance, should be read where no one can see you. Carson McCullers should be read in your window on a hot summer night. Sylvia Plath should be read if you're ready to commit suicide or want people to think you're really close.
On Petrov's coffee table, there's more literature: the L.L. Bean catalogue, Psychology Today, the Eddie Bauer catalogue, the Pfizer annual stockholders' report. I admire Petrov's ability to incorporate his junk mail into his profession.
The door to Petrov's office opens, and a short guy walks out, lowering his eyes as he hurries past me. No one I've ever passed coming into this office has made eye contact with me, as if it's embarrassing to be caught coming from a therapy appointment by someone who is about to do exactly the same thing.
Petrov stands in his doorway. "How are you doing today, Carrie?" he asks, waving me inside. There are books piled high on his desk and diplomas on the wall. Petrov sits down in a red chair and balances a yellow legal pad on his knee. I sink into the reclining chair opposite him.
"Did you make any new friends this week?"
I think my father put this theme into his head. I don't have many friends, but there's a good reason for this, which I'll explain in the near future.
"It rained this week," I tell him, "so mostly I stayed inside."
Petrov's hand flutters across the page. What could he be writing? It did rain all week.
"So you haven't been outside your apartment much. What about this coming week? Do you have any social plans?"
"I have a job interview today," I say. "Right after this appointment."
"That's wonderful!" he says. "What kind of job?"
"I don't know," I say. "The interview's with some guy my dad knows. I'm sure it'll be mindless and pointless."
"Perhaps by going in thinking that, you'll cause it to be so."
"If you're trying to say it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, that's psychobabble," I say. "If I tell you that the job might turn out to be mindless, then it might, or it might not. The outcome really has no relationship to whether I've said it."
"It might," Petrov says. "You put the suggestion out there." He leans back in his chair. "I think you often thwart yourself. Let's look at how you do it with friendships. Whenever you have met someone, you then tell me that the person was unintelligent or a hypocrite. Perhaps you have too narrow a definition of smart or too wide a one for hypocrite. There are some people who are very street-smart."
"You can't have an intelligent discussion with street smarts," I say. "And even if I could find other people who are smart, they'd probably still be hypocritical and dishonest."
It's true. I went to college with a lot of supposedly smart people, and they'd rationalize the stupid, dangerous or hypocritical things they did all the time: getting drunk, having sex with lots of different people, trying drugs. Nobody did any of that in the beginning of school, but once the temptation started, my classmates got sucked in, then began making excuses for it. Even the self-possessed religious kids came up with ridiculous rationalizations. If they want to believe in certain things, fine, and if they don't want to, that's fine, too, but they shouldn't lie to themselves about their reasons for changing their minds. The hypocrisy isn't any better out of school, especially in the city.
"I want you to tell me something positive right now," Petrov says. "About anything. Tell me something you love. As in, 'I love a sunset.' 'I love Miami Beach.'"
"I love it when people sound like Hallmark cards."
Petrov sighs. "Try harder."
"Okay." I think about it a bit. "I love peace and quiet."
He looks at me. "Go on."
"I guess you missed the point."
He sighs again. "Give me another example."
"I love…when I can just stretch out in my bed, hearing no horns, no chatter, no TV, nothing but the buzz of the electrical wiring in the wall. But sometimes I like the sounds from the street."
"I like that," Petrov says. "Now, tell me something that makes you sad. Something besides hypocrites and people who aren't smart. Tell me about a time recently when you cried."
I think. "I haven't cried in a long time."
I hate when Petrov thinks he knows things about me without my telling him. "How do you know?"
"Because you're guarded. Because you were put into college at fifteen, when everyone was three to seven years older than you, and at fifteen, you weren't socially advanced or sexually aware. All kinds of behavior goes on at college, people drinking, losing their virginity right and left, experimenting with who knows what. Some people respond by trying to fit in, but you chose to opt out of the system completely. Which was understandable. But now, you've been out of college a year and you're still not experienced in adjusting to social changes. Being smart doesn't mean being skilled at social interaction. No one ever said being a genius was easy."
I hear it start to rain harder outside. Petrov gets up, shuts the window and sits back down.
"You've mentioned your father's Big Lie a few times," he says. "I think we should talk about that sometime."
"But not today. I have an assignment for you."
I look at the rug. It's full of tiny ropes and filaments.
"I want you to, just for a little while, be a little more social. Just to see the other side of it, to determine if there is such thing as a comfortable middle ground. I don't want you to do anything dangerous or immoral, but I want you to do things like go to a party, join an organization or club. After you do some of these things, I want you to tell me how you felt doing them. You don't have to start right away. You can wait a bit until you feel comfortable."
"Okay. How about next year?"
Petrov smiles. "That's not a bad idea," he says. "New Year's Eve would be a good night for you to spend time with friends. You could go to a New Year's Eve party."
"Maybe I should just vomit on Times Square," I say. "Then I'd be fitting in."
Petrov shakes his head. "You know I'm not suggesting you do anything dangerous. But I do want you to learn to socialize better. What you should do is work up to spending New Year's Eve with people. We'll start small first. A five-point plan."
Petrov grabs a memo cube that has Zoloft embossed at the top. Some people will take anything if it's free.
"First," he says, "I want you to write a list for me of ten things you love. The street sounds were a good start, but I want ten of them. Secondly, I want you to join at least one organization or club. That way, you might meet some people with similar interests, maybe even people you think are smart." He's writing this down. "Third, go on a date…"
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