Laurens

— Pam Jones

To the kids who went to school with the Laurens:

Lauren A. was fat, the obese fleece of the sophomore class, if not the school. She ate anything that the cafeteria offered from the fry-up menu and apologized for nothing. She sucked down chicken nuggets and puddings and her own private supply of Twizzlers.

Lauren G. was anorexic and picked from a plastic baggie of blueberries at lunchtime with twiggy fingers. She allowed herself a Ring Pop on the days she didn’t finish her blueberries.

Lauren D. combined all of her food into a mush on her plate, turkey, potatoes, gravy and peas together, and ate it that way. She had the same method for dessert, stirring soft serve ice cream into brownie and Oreo debris before drowning it all in milk.

Lauren Z. and Faith Hong had plighted their troth to one another in third grade as best friends forever and ever. As per the rituals of best-friendship, they swapped lunches, though their paper bags usually bore the same thing: turkey sandwich on whole wheat, baby carrots, and a yogurt.

Lauren R. brought sushi, homemade California rolls. She had some kind of access to the teachers’ lounge and stored her Tupperware containers (one for the sushi, another for the wasabi) until the lunch bell rang.

Lauren H. had a five-day rotation for sandwiches: Ham on Mondays, PBJ on Tuesdays, sliced chicken on Wednesdays, hummus and tomato on Thursdays, peanut butter and banana on Fridays.

A grand total of six Laurens in the sophomore class and not one of them sat with the others. There was no enmity, not that anyone could see. They just drifted toward different people.

One would think, however, that sharing a name might offer a thin string of connection. It was always a thrill to meet someone who had the same name as you, and unlike a lot of things, this was a thrill that never quite faded. As this was a small school (“No, five hundred in my school,” Lauren H. would tell her friends from out of town, big cities, “not my grade.”), the six Laurens would reconnect at some point in their education, in class, sitting one in front of the other or in the same auditorium row at an assembly, in line at lunchtime.

At some point, they would look at one another, thinking to themselves about themselves how funny it was that they were all, pretty much, different molds of the same creature. Of course, they couldn’t imagine a life separate from their own; they conjured up fantasies of the other Laurens doing what the individual Lauren did in her own home.

Once, they all found themselves in the same girls’ bathroom on the school’s first floor, the one by the Home Ec. Lab. There were six stalls built along one wall and they had occupied every one. At first, all they could see of each other was their shoes.

Lauren A. wore Nikes, white, the Swooshes on both sides inked with red and black Sharpie polka dots.

Lauren G. wore black platform loafers, her legs writhing out of them in lavender tights that were actually starting to sag on her.

Lauren D. wore maroon Doc Martens, the toes scuffed, the tongues lapping against the cuffs of her jeans.

Lauren Z. wore Keds, one shoe black with white laces, the other shoe white with black laces. The white shoe belonged to Faith Hong, who wore Lauren Z.’s black shoe. This was the sanctity of best-friendship.

Lauren R. wore pretty flats, canvas, plaid Burberry.

Lauren H. wore Chuck Taylors, black, the white rubber caps over the toes graffitied with ballpoint pen, mostly five-pointed stars and spirals.

They watched their shoes swinging or scraping the floor from their respective toilets, each appalled at every girl’s choice all the way down the row of what she put on her feet. (Lauren R. gritted her teeth at Laurens H. and A.—what kind of idiot would draw on her footwear?) And then they flushed, one a little after the other, and unlocked the stalls, facing the long mirror bolted over the sinks. They didn’t come out right away, a little astonished that they did not see five identical versions of themselves, albeit in different shoes. But eventually they had to; they had places to go, people to see, the fourth bell would ring. They approached the sinks and chatted awhile.

“Did you finish Beneath the Wheel yet?” said R.

“I’m in Honors English, not AP,” said H.

“God. Sheehan’s back today,” said Z. “I thought hysterectomies put you out of commission for, like, a semester’s worth of time. And the test is coming up….”

“Can I borrow a hair dealie, if anyone has one?” said A.

“I got a rubber band,” said D.

And the bell went off. And they parted.

Because they had all been face-to-face, they upheld the custom of absolute friendliness, as though they had never thought badly of their fellow classmates. They were such nice girls. They moved down the halls, to Civics, Biology, Gym, English, and for a moment they each stopped midway to their destinations, washed over with the weirdest notion that they had been wearing, at some point down the halls, Nikes, platform loafers, Doc Martens, Keds, and Chuck Taylors. Their feet grew puffier or longer, had painted toenails or (in Lauren D.’s case) a missing pinkie toe.

And then they shook it off, looking at their own shoes. Yes, they were still there.

 

They got home.

The Laurens lived in different parts of town, but it was a fairly small town and their respective neighborhoods were similar: clapboard houses, one or two story, a little garden and forsythia bushes in the front yard, an above ground pool in the backyard, and a Taurus or minivan parked in the drive. Lauren A.’s mother had put in a flying goose windmill next to the mailbox.

Each Lauren, when she unlocked the door and stepped inside, arrived to an empty house and felt a collective, delicious loosening of themselves: they could do whatever they wanted until their parents came home, from thirty minutes to a whole three hours, as the notes left for the Laurens read. They unloaded their burdens, stripping off backpacks, shoes, coats (in Lauren G.’s case, a paisley scarf and a funny little bowler hat), scattering a trail of their things down the hall or up the stairs.

They had considered the possibilities that came with having a house to themselves. There were a lot of small ways to spread out between thirty minutes and three hours.

Laurens A. and Z. might have used the quiet to start their homework.

Laurens H. and D. might have lit a cigarette, keeping the ceiling fans turning and a window open.

Lauren G. might have turned on the TV.

These things rose to mind and faded, as the six girls turned in the direction of their bedrooms, opening doors marked with stickers of hearts and yin-yangs (Lauren Z., Lauren H., Lauren A., Lauren R.), an Enter at Your Own Risk sign scrawled on computer paper (Lauren G.), magazine cut-outs of Sinead O’Connor’s bald head (Lauren D.), Lion King stickers (Lauren H.), and Free Tibet decals (every Lauren). .   They flopped onto beds marshmallowing with pillows. They toed dirty clothes left on the floor. They huffed at air thick with perfume, body odor, spearmint gum, and nail polish.

They loved alone time. But how long could you really enjoy sitting in your own stink? Not that any of them really wanted to be anyone else. It was too—well, too much.

Here’s the thing:

Within the next ten, fifteen, twenty years, when Y2K turned out to be a lot of nonsense, everybody would become linked somehow to his fellow man. Everyone would have a computer. That was the first thing. The next thing was that everyone would become linked to an information superhighway. Everyone would become accessible and nothing, in the next ten years, would become more delicious than taking a peek at what your neighbor would be eating for dinner. It would be a funny idea of spying. They had an idea that you would be looking, and reciprocated your expectations as best they could, whether it was the perfect lasagna, the perfect curls, perfect sex. Even the sloppy versions of these things never failed to seduce. Everyone would reveal themselves to be equal measures voyeur and an exhibitionist. It was perfectly natural, they would tell themselves. Everyone else was doing it.

All the Laurens had computers. None of them would be online until the tail end of the twentieth century. Before then, they would know everything about each other without knowing each other at all.

In their rooms they spaced out.

They zoned in.

They wondered what the other Laurens were doing at this very minute.

What would it be to wear another pair of shoes?

They opened their windows and looked out, from window to window to window…

 


 

Pam Jones grew up in Connecticut and is now planting her roots in Austin, Texas with her husband and cat. She studied Creative Writing at Hampshire College. The Biggest Little Bird is her first novella and other short fiction has appeared in The Cost of Paper.