Emma Watson looked out of the window of Pembroke Hall onto the intersection of Angell and Prospect and watched the line of vintage jean-jacketed 20-year-olds blowing on their Americanos and clutching copies of To the Lighthouse and Of Grammatology.
It was her first day at Brown University, and she wanted to make a good impression on her classmates. The phone rang. It was Marina from the publicity office at Burberry. “Emma,” she purred. “I see there’s precipitation in Providence today.”
“I’m just wearing a plain old Mackintosh,” Emma stood her ground. “I want to look normal.”
Her roommate, a porcelain-faced graduate of Dalton and third-generation legacy, applied a tiny bit of Stella lip gloss to the center of her pout and untied the bun she slept in, letting a mess of brown hair cascade down her back. She angled her long body inside the door frame. “Normal?” she said. “What does that even mean?”
“I mean, I don’t want to stand out,” Emma said, trying not to sound cross.
“I don’t like to use words like normal,” the roommate said. “They’re so restrictive.”
She disappeared for a minute. When she got back she was wearing a Burberry vintage raincoat. She eyed Emma’s yellow one. “Is that a three quarter sleeve?” she asked dubiously.
“No,” Emma said. “I got it at Marks & Spencer for my first year at Dragon. It’s just a wee bit small.”
They walked across the quad.
“You know I’ve never even seen any of the Harry Potter movies,” her roommate said.
“I know,” Emma said, taking care to keep her tone light. “You mentioned that several times last night while you were sighing over how hard it was to get bit torrent to download Satyricon on the shared Wifi.”
“No offense,” her roommate said. Her voice fell to a whisper. “But like, I came to Brown because it has the best semiotics program in like, the world.”
“Sasha, why are you whispering?” Emma said. Her roommate whispered a lot, like whatever she was saying was so interesting or controversial that no one should be allowed to hear it.
“It’s Masha,” she corrected her.
Sorry, Emma muttered. Three other girls from their hall, Pasha, Sasha, and Lhasa Apsa, passed by, also pushing their hair around. One of them had giant goggle-like glasses. For a second Emma wondered if she had them on the back of her head, but then she emerged from her curtain of hair, and blinked at her. The air was so thick with the smell of Kerastase she was starting to hallucinate. “Anyway, you were talking about semiotics.”
“Shh…” Masha’s 16-carat Colombian emerald, which her great-grandmother had carried out of Bratislava in her asshole, twinkled on her pointer finger as she held it to her lips. “I don’t want to be thought of as just like, one of those rich chicks who comes here to study semiotics.”
“I don’t think I even know what semiotics is,” Emma admitted.
“It’s, like, really fascinating?” Masha said. “It’s, like, studying meaning.”
“Oh,” said Emma. They were on campus now. No one seemed to be looking at her. Everyone’s hair was in their eyes and was also wearing platform sandals so they were really concentrating on walking. One girl walked into a tree. She cursed in French, wrapped her four yards of hair up in a Pucci scarf and answered her phone. “Hello? No way. Go fuck yourself. Hahahaha.”
“Anyway,” Masha went on. “I would like, probably, and like, no offense, never watch a movie like Harry Potter, because like, I see right through it. You know? To some people, it’s about, like wizards, and that’s cool. But to me, it’s about how capitalism creates a structure of self-serving rituals to make individuals believe that they are members of a community.”
“Oh,” Emma said. Her therapist had told her if she felt uncomfortable at any time she should picture herself in the place in the world she most loved, and to make it as realistic as possible. She closed her eyes. “I’m at the Brentwood Town Center Jamba Juice right now with Taylor Swift. She just ordered an Apple and Greens with a Power boost and I got a 3G with a flax boost. I’m wearing a sundress from Kitson and Uggs, and she’s writing a text to John Mayer about…”
“Anyway, I’m late for Shakespeare Rewrites Shakespeare…” Masha said.
“Oh,” Emma said. “I was going to take that, but, in the end I was just looking for, you know, a class on just Shakespeare.”
Masha sniffed. “What does ‘just Shakespeare?’ even mean?”
“I don’t know. Reading his plays and discussing them?”
Masha smiled sympathetically. “I remember when I was a freshman, I was so caught up in the purity of the author’s identity.”
“Oh,” Emma said. “I’m just a little worn out from making movies, and I kind of wanted to take some time to learn, and to…”
“It’s not really surprising,” Masha interrupted, “Your success in the system where art is exchanged for money means that you have no reason to question it. I get it.”
“But… what about you?” Emma said. She was pretty sure Masha’s dad was a federal judge, and her mother was like, second in command for some big designer and she thought she lived in the Dakota. “What’s your reason for questioning it?”
But Masha was gone. Emma watched the plaid lining appear and disappear as the stiff New England wind blew across the vent on Masha’s coat.
She slipped into her seat. This was the only class that had fit into her schedule, and she didn’t even know what it was called. “What’s this class called?” she whispered to the girl sitting next to her, who didn’t seem to recognize her.
“It’s called Great Books and Good Movies,” the girl said.
Emma was annoyed but determined not to show it. She sat there staring at her pencil. A professor walked in and wrote: Great Books, Good Movies, at the top of the board.
“Crikey,” Emma exclaimed. “It’s really called that.”
“Duh,” said the girl.
That night she went to a party. Everyone was drinking beer. Emma didn’t like beer. For a while she pictured herself at the café at the Tate Modern splitting a bottle of Prosecco and a tuna tartare with Daniel and Rupert. It made her miss them. She took out her phone to send them a text. “Hey lads,” she had written when a guy bumped into her. “Pardon me,” she said.
He was cute. “It’s Ok,” he said. “Hey, aren’t you the chick in the Harry Potter movies?”
“Yeah,” she said. She was actually sort of glad someone had just come out and mentioned it.“I was just texting Daniel and Rupert,” she said. “They’re my best mates, still, so.”
“Daniel and Rupert?” The guy shook his head. “Who are they?’
Emma laughed. “You’re funny,” she said.
“I’m not trying to be funny,” the guy said. “I seriously don’t know who they are.”
“They were in the movies with me,” she said. “Daniel played Harry, and Rupert played… his other friend.”
“I never saw any of those. I don’t even know what they are. Someone just said you were the chick in the Harry Potter movies,” the guy said. “Anyway, my mom is the Exchequer of Mauritania, but that’s not something that defines me. Have you ever read anything by the French social theorist and philosopher de Certeau?”
“No, I haven’t,” she said. “What does he write about?”
“Well,” the guy said. “It’s kind of hard to describe. But you know how everyday life works by a process of poaching on the territory of others, using the rules and products that already exist in culture in a way that is influenced, but never wholly determined, by those rules and products?”
“Not really,” she said.
“Alright,” he said. He looked at his cell phone. “Shit. I gotta go to band practice.”
She went back to the room. Masha wasn’t there. She went down the hall. Sasha and Pasha weren’t there either. Lhasa Apsa, who was pre-med, was actually studying. “Hey Emma,” she said. “They all went down to New Haven, to a party at James Franco’s.”
Emma nodded. She was thinking about the guy. He was cute. She wished she’d had more to say about that de Certeau character. But she didn’t know if it would matter. “Hey, Lhasa Apsa,” she said. “Do you think maybe like, guys here are intimidated by me?”
Lhasa Apsa nodded. “Because you room with Masha? Definitely.”