Very lefreak, p.1
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       Very Lefreak, p.1
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           Rachel Cohn
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Very Lefreak


  For Christobel Botten and Jaclyn Moriarty,

  two great friends from Oz who so warmly cheered

  on this book (and its author) in its original and final incarnations

  PART ONE

  The Song Diaries

  CHAPTER 1

  Happy Birthday to You, Very LeFreak

  It wasn’t the fact that Starbucks did not—would not—serve Guinness with a raw egg followed by an espresso chaser that was ruining Very’s hangover. Nor was Very concerned that she had stumbled into her campus Starbucks on the morning after an overnight “study session” with the beautiful engineering major from Ghana whose name eluded her, although Very knew there were many hard consonants involved. Hey, she wasn’t even bothered that yesterday she’d been fired from her work-study “security” job checking student IDs—a feat that, contrary to her university career services advisor, was not, like, impossible to pull off—yet Very probably could be counted on later today to blow the remaining credit on her maxed-out card for primary wants like new headphones rather than for secondary needs such as food and tuition.

  The fact was, Very wasn’t even technically hungover, unless a sugar coma from late-night Cap’n Crunch consumption, along with several rounds of Red Bull, qualified. It was the excessive inhale of birthday cake and cereal that had done Very in. Like the mild, fully clothed spooning session—rather, study session—with Ghana that had closed out the birthday party her dorm had thrown her, the sugar infusion had felt so comforting in the moment. It was the after that felt so empty, the Red Bulls ‘n’ Cap’n fallout headache, the uncomfortable wake-up with Ghana, two strangers with stale morning breath gazing into one another’s eyes, each silently begging the other: Yo, let’s pretend this never happened?

  Ghana had a girlfriend who was away for a semester abroad, and Very had no intention of getting in the way there. Her random act of intimacy hadn’t been quite as dangerous, she assured herself. It wasn’t like she’d cheated on either her real or her imagined boyfriend with Ghana. Bryan had been her best guy friend before becoming her real boyfriend, but, once their relationship had advanced to that level—when Very and Bryan were two of the only holdouts in their dorm not to go away for Spring Break—it had lasted only a day before she’d been forced to dump him. Bryan was just too good to be true: his own fault. El Virus, Very’s imagined boyfriend, he of the passionate e-mails and IMs and text messages, he who taunted her every thought and feeling by existing in the electronic ether yet who refused to appear in live, physical form before her, had suddenly dropped out of the ether; she hadn’t heard from him since what felt like an eternity (but technically, according to his last text message, since the week prior to Spring Break). The problem with an imaginary boyfriend was, if he chose not to answer her electronic missives, Very had no idea where else to find him. She had no way of knowing whether the “facts” he’d given her about himself were, in fact, true. Maybe El Virus was an engineering student at MIT in Boston; maybe he was a CIA spy on a secret mission to ferret out Al Qaeda moles stashed away on whaling ships off the coast of Nova Scotia; maybe he was an insurance appraiser in Des Moines with a wife, two kids, and a kitten afflicted with cerebral palsy and that was why he could never sacrifice his home for his happiness and leave the family for Very; or maybe he was a bored and restless hacker up in Scarsdale, possibly within breathing distance of her. God, what if El Virus turned out to be some punk thirteen-year-old with a hard-on?

  “Guinness with a raw egg?” the Starbucks counter person repeated back to Very. “I don’t understand.”

  Very didn’t understand, either. The concoction promised to be horrific, but her mother had sworn by this hangover remedy, and while Very had no intention of, like Cat, losing her life to chemical effects, she had to believe that her mother would most reliably have known the best chemistry for curing the after-coma.

  “Just please may I have a latte.” Very sighed. “Triple shot. Whole milk.” What could ruin her kind-of hangover, she realized as she pulled her wallet from her jeans pocket, was that … fuck, she had no cash, and her credit card and Starbucks birthday gift cards were tucked away in her dorm room.

  “Broke again?” a familiar voice from behind her in line piped in.

  Very turned around. Lavinia. Very had never been so happy to see her roommate’s disapproving gaze.

  “Got a fiver you can loan me, Lavinia?” Very asked Lavinia.

  “Jennifer,” Lavinia said. “My name is Jennifer. Here, borrow five dollars. Again. Happy birthday to you, Very LeFreak.”

  That was it! Today’s primary playlist, Very decided, would be called, simply, “Happy Birthday to You, Very LeFreak.” Very’s top personal goal, beyond mythic goals like eating more protein and vegetables or volunteering to teach mobile-electronic-communication skills to the elderly, was to make a music mix to commemorate each and every mood that should strike her. To seek spiritual enlightenment and physical well-being in life was challenging enough, but to exist within one’s soul without proper musical inspiration for each day’s quest was just plain pathetic, an existence not worth living. While some chose to write in journals or blogs to record the loves, losses, obsessions, and miscellaneous musings of their daily lives, Very chose to remember hers via music mixes, her form of daily diary.

  When she died, the future biographer(s) of her Very Unextraordinary Life would only have to unarchive and research her playlists to unearth the everyday secrets of her heart and mind. Very decided this year’s commemorative b-day list would include “The Ballad of Cap’n Crunch” by Pirates R Us, covers of “Happy Birthday” by Loretta Lynn, New Kids on the Block, and “Weird Al” Yankovic, plus an assortment of moody boy-trouble songs TBD and some Irish-pub drinking songs, and conclude with Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” (obviously).

  Or, instead of the birthday mix, she could show her appreciation for Lavinia’s fiver and title today’s list “What Is Jennifer’s Aneurysm?” in tribute to her roommate. Very didn’t know what that girl’s problem was. “Lavinia” was so a better name. A Lavinia might be descended from Eurotrash celebrities; a Lavinia probably went to boarding school in Switzerland, where she had a mad lesbian affair with the headmistress who wrote the glowing recommendation letter that got Lavinia accepted into the Ivy League; a Lavinia would write her roommate’s freshman University Writing course term paper—Very wouldn’t even mind if Lavinia chose depressed ol’ Virginia Woolf—and it would be brilliant. A Jennifer was just a girl who shared a name with so many other girls. This particular Jennifer was a typical one from suburban New Jersey, a girl who maintained a respectable GPA and dressed straight out of the J. Crew catalog. But despite her uncalled-for resistance to being called Lavinia, this Jennifer was a rather endearing one, whose earnest good-girl-ness was almost exotic to Very. Unfortunately for Very’s sleep clock, she was also a Jennifer who woke up at five every morning to row on the crew team and to consequently, unfailingly, disturb her roommate’s first hour of sleep.

  A Very LeFreak was a girl who probably needed a “room of one’s own.” But she could peacefully coexist with a Lavinia as a freshman roommate. “If I don’t mind being a LeFreak, why should you mind being a Lavinia?” Very said. She gratefully plucked the five-dollar bill from Lavinia’s hand. “Thanks!”

  “With logic like that, and you wonder why you can’t finish your Age of Reason assignment,” Lavinia said. She was so feisty—it was what Very loved about her, despite Lavinia’s refusal to write term papers for her. And Lavinia never failed to take on impossible tasks—like waking up at dawn to exercise—as she did now, reaching over to attempt to mat down Very’s tangled strands of fire-hair. “Please let me buy you a blowout at a salon for your birthday present instead of the balance board to play Ultimate Cheer Squad that you not-s
o-subtly text-blasted that everyone could chip in to get you. I really need to see what that wild hair looks like if it’s tamed, Veronica.”

  Her birth certificate would show that Very had indeed originally been a Veronica—named, according to Cat, after Cat’s favorite old movie star, Veronica Lake, with the gorgeous drape of long blond hair, but it wasn’t until her early teens that Very, whose head spouted a very un-Lake-like mass of curly red hair, had discovered her mother’s secret stash of Archie comics and figured out her true namesake. No matter, Very had never been a good Veronica. She was, as Cat used to say, so very Very. She was a Very who, on the first day of kindergarten, when the other kids were dancing the hokeypokey, shimmied with abandon to the song inside her head instead, the one on constant replay from the old disco mix given to Cat by a long-gone DJ boyfriend. While the other kids were shaking it all about, Very copied her mother’s center-aisle Soul Train moves, singing out, “Aaahh, freak out! Le freak! Say chic!” Veronica had been Very LeFreak ever since.

  Very didn’t mind the name. Who’d want not to be a freak? Was such an existence possible?

  Very swatted Lavinia’s hand away from her hair. “Now that I’m so rich, can I buy you a scone or something?” she asked.

  “Buy our room some peace from Bryan,” Lavinia answered. “The boy called the room line about twenty times after the party last night looking for you. And he trolled the hall all morning waiting for you to show back up at our room. Could you find him already and put the rest of us out of our misery?”

  “Poor Bryan.” Very felt genuinely bad for him. But he’d asked for it.

  Very hadn’t meant to break his heart. That was what she did to boys—she had a long history in this sport. She’d warned Bryan of this in advance, so he really had only himself to blame. Very had fended him off for months, since freshman orientation last semester, pleased to grow with him as friend rather than lose him as fuck. Why’d he have to finally go and proclaim his love for her just as El Virus mysteriously disappeared from Very’s online wonderland?

  “Poor Bryan’s ex-girlfriend’s roommate,” Lavinia corrected Very.

  Coffees in hand, Very and Lavinia seated themselves at a corner window table—prime viewing area for watching Morningside Heights students and professors, professionals and psychotics, stroll by. “So did you meet any guys you like at the party last night?” Very asked Lavinia.

  Lavinia shook her head.

  “Girls?” Very asked.

  “How many times do I have to tell you?” Lavinia snapped. “I am not a lesbian.”

  “You seem awfully defensive about the suggestion, crew girl,” Very chastised.

  “Softball players are typically the lesbians, Very. Not rowers!”

  “You just keep telling yourself that, sweetie.”

  “I think I might like Bryan,” Lavinia blurted out, suddenly red-faced.

  “Oh,” Very said, jolted awake. “Wow. Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

  “I don’t know. I don’t think I realized it until recently. I sort of missed him when I was away over Spring Break. Bryan’s just so … there all the time. And then when he wasn’t, I wished he was. But the whole idea is stupid, probably. How could I compete with”—Lavinia stood up and shook out strands of her disciplined brown hair, then ran her hands in a curvy silhouette shape alongside her slim hips as she tried to imitate Very’s party-girl dance moves—“you?”

  “Why would you want to?” Very asked. That was the reasonable question. Very embraced her inner freak because it was who she was—no use denying it—but why would a nice girl from West Orange, New Jersey, who had two stable parents and a solid B+ average and every potential to one day have the house, the car, the career, the kids, try to compete with a LeFreak? Very was spawned from freaks; it was in her blood. The biological father Very had never known had been a ‘shroomer and a mosher, her mother’s one-night tent stand the year Cat had opted to drop out of college and follow some roving music festival instead. Cat had been the queen of free-spirited freaks, but look what happened to her, the victim of her own excesses: one too many geographic moves gone awry, one bad trip down memory lane, dead before age thirty-five. Very felt sure her path was the same as her mother’s. But while Very might not save her own self from the inevitable crash and burn, surely Very could block dear Lavinia’s curiosity from veering toward that destructive path.

  Lavinia shrugged. “You just … Everyone likes you, wants to be you. Guys fall at your feet.”

  Very said, “People like me because they want someone to show them a good time, to break them out of their own shells. They have no interest in who I really am. They like what I can bring out in them, in a particular moment. Where are they when I need help with the courses I’m failing? When I can’t afford breakfast? Where are those guys when I’m puking my guts out in the bathroom stall the next morning?”

  “I’ll always hold your hair back for you,” Lavinia promised.

  That meant so very much to Very. It was settled. “If you like Bryan, I think you should have Bryan. He should be so lucky. But, honey?”

  “Yes?” Lavinia said.

  “Please don’t let me get together with a boy you like. You have to let me know these things first. I’m sorry enough for that momentary brain freeze with Bryan to begin with; but really really really retroactively sorry if he’s someone you were interested in. I might be a freak and a slut and a very bad student, but I really want not to be a bad friend. Deal?”

  “Deal,” Lavinia said, smiling in her suburban-girl splendor of perfect teeth and sensible ChapStick’d lips. Girl so needed the right cosmetics consultation with the next available cross-dressing MAC counter boy-girl. Very vowed to invest her last scraps of funds toward her roommate’s fabulousness makeover rather than blow the dough on the new sound devices she really, really wanted. This would be her birthday present to herself.

  CHAPTER 2

  Tragically, Even a LeFreak Cannot Resist ABBA

  (Esp. on Her B-day)

  Very slept in fits lately, an hour or two here and there: restless, dreamless, hopeless. She could attribute the sleep deficit to any number of stresses. There had been her inability to effectively balance her course load with her recently-fired-from work-study job (phew!), which she’d needed to help finance the college education she had no parents to provide for her. The dorm parties she occasionally organized—from which Very occasionally skimmed funds off the beer money to finance the audio player(s), laptop(s), and rotating cell phone habits her college lifestyle necessitated—required a substantial per capita investment of Very’s late-night time and energy. But mostly it was the simple noise that kept her awake, the chronic chime of technology, messaging her with IMs and e-mails and voice mails, ringing in news of batteries needing charging, songs to be heard, overdue papers, negligible grades, study groups to be scheduled, some guy who thought she was hot and wanted to meet her at the Hungarian Pastry Shop to discuss Kant, some girl-crush inviting Very to a coffeehouse poetry slam, or poor dear Bryan, who would (used to) want Very’s undivided attention to work on The Grid, the online platform the two of them had developed for their freshman dorm. Mute button? As if. Off button? Never.

  Very could blame any of these noises for her lack of restful sleep.

  Very chose to blame ABBA, her mother’s musical remedy for any heartache situation.

  The love you gave me, nothing else can save me S.O.S.

  The song had Very in a trance. If she hadn’t slept for more than four continuous hours since El Virus’s disappearance (if the sudden silence from a stranger she’d never met counted as a “disappearance”), it was because she had listened to the song “S.O.S.” by ABBA so many times lately that it was almost as if no other song had ever mattered, as if the infinite hours she’d invested in building her epic song library had never happened. “S.O.S.” was not only Very’s song of the moment. It was the sound track to her life, defining it, the message inside her brain playing over and over, seeming
ly beyond Very’s ability to, simply, hit the Stop button.

  When you’re gone

  How can I even try to go on? …

  S.O.S., Very thought.

  Exactly.

  Who could sleep when a heart longed so badly and only ABBA understood?

  The other primary obstacle to sleep was sleep’s unreasonable requirement that a body lie still. Very had been moving moving moving her whole life. From a childhood with a mother who loved to wander the world, Very had learned never to settle comfortably into a “home” that could be taken away at any random moment. Why bother to unpack her meager belongings when they’d be moving to the next town, state, or continent, seemingly at the drop of a hat—or of a lover—with no means to support themselves other than Cat’s sheer will that they’d survive, or that a new and improved man would save them? (Never happened.)

  Never get comfortable. That was supposed to be the rule. Even if the dorm room Very had shared with Lavinia for barely seven months felt like the first real home Very had ever allowed herself to settle into. That is, dorm life had felt cozy until lately, until some indefinable what-the-fuck had caused a shift in Very’s body chemistry. She couldn’t pinpoint the cause, but Very felt as if Pandora’s box had recently been opened and had yet to reveal its contents. Until that happened, chaos—mind/body/soul variety—would prevail.

  Tranquility? What was that? The only time Very could remain completely still was when her body collapsed from exhaustion.

  Very tried lying on her bed for a birthday nap—surely she was so entitled? She’d promised Lavinia, who didn’t like the red burn inside Very’s eyes, that she would try to rest. But Very tossed and turned, fully aware that one bad turn and she could easily asphyxiate herself.

  Cables coiled around her body. Wires from her new premium headphones dangled from her ears to the floor, where her iPod was lodged, while inside her left ear, underneath the large headphones, she’d slipped a small earpiece for her iPhone in case birthday calls should ring through. (Very believed in separation of church and state, and in the sanctity of music collections, which deserved their own independent electronic storage devices separate from cell phones—thereby requiring separate but equal, and concurrent, use of both her iPod and her iPhone.) A laptop charger cord extended from Very’s stomach, where her computer rested, to an outlet below her nightstand. Most dangerously, perhaps, a feather boa strung with chili lights dangled from her neck, a birthday gift from the Sylvia Plath Society two floors down, but it was too cute for a birthday girl not to wear all day long, even if the accessory did require nearness to an electrical outlet to achieve its best visual effect. Completely worth it.

 
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