THE BLOG
01/27/2014 08:06 am ET | Updated Jan 27, 2014

Mandarian Training School

She has forgotten their names, but she remembers the nicknames Zitrina gave them.

"Zitrina" was the nickname inflicted on Zitrina by herself. Her pale czarina complexion bloomed with pimples that would leave scars. She had crimped and watery eyes, a nose as blunt as a doorknob, lips that resembled two pinkish worms. Her Howdy-Doody brainpan balanced atop her spindly neck like an egg on the point of a needle, denying gravity. She rustled in Pacific breezes, her flesh desiccated by viruses and germs. When she entered the National Science Foundation's summer math program for gifted high-school students, she was recovering from her fourth bout with mono. Sunlight made her faint, Zitrina said. Institutional food made her want to vomit. Coarse fabrics made her break out in a rash. If a bee ever stung her, she would die. She was more delicate than a princess and uglier than a toad. Zitrina hated the nine other girls in the program, not for being prettier, but for having as many brains as she did. No longer could she gaze in a mirror and tell herself that she was the brightest of them all.

Zitrina took a special dislike to her because she was a year younger than the others. On the sunny afternoon they moved into the dorm, she confided to Zitrina that her heavy calves made her feel downright bovine. She was proud of knowing a word like bovine. She also figured Zitrina would pick up on the pun with calves. Her finesse with language might have impressed Zitrina if she hadn't blown everything by mispronouncing mandarin as they were discussing a popular flavor of chocolate sherbet.

She learned the faulty pronunciation from her mother. Whenever the children wanted to open a jar of jam before the last one was finished, her mother would say, "One at a time, we aren't mandarians." She questioned her mother's authority in many ways, but she accepted the truth of this childhood dictum until Zitrina corrected her.

"You mean mandarin," Zitrina said. "I know it's supposed to be rude to point out people's mistakes, but if I didn't, you'd go on saying it wrong forever. And everybody would know but you."

Of course Zitrina dubbed her Heifer.

She rejoiced that Zitrina wasn't her roommate. Instead she was paired with a mild girl whose face conformed to the oval diagramed in beauty magazines. "It's the golden ratio," Zitrina said. "A face made of phi." So Heifer's roommate became Phi Face. In spite of Phi Face's perfection, boys paid no attention to her. She never wondered about this, but the other girls couldn't help speculating behind her back.

"Possibly she smells wrong," Zitrina said. "Sexual attraction has a lot to do with smell."

"Or she just doesn't care," said someone else.

"Could be they're awed by a face like hers," Zitrina's roommate said. "I mean, everyone admires the Parthenon, but who wants to live there."

Zitrina's ponderous head revolved on the vertical axis of her neck: twenty degrees left, forty degrees right, twenty degrees left. "Your face is only one element in the dynamics of sexual attraction."

"Then there's hope for you," her roommate said.

Nobody made a sound, but Heifer's throat was distended with laughter.

Zitrina's roommate sang folksongs and played the guitar. Heifer first heard "Blowin' in the Wind" from her. Everybody admired Zitrina's roommate except Zitrina, who stamped her with one label after another. She called her the Beatnik, Lady Godiva, Toe Jam, Bobby Sox Dylan, but none of her nicknames caught on with the others. With Jesus sandals and hair to her waist, she was a hippie, a name not quite born yet.

***

The fifty students were divided into two groups, each assigned a classroom where Monday through Friday they would spend the entire morning and half the afternoon. Heifer found herself in Group A along with Phi Face, Zitrina and her roommate, and a blond from Texas whom Zitrina called Miss Kitty. From the first day the girls sat together, exchanging snide glances as they sized up the boys. Zitrina leaned toward Heifer's ear and whispered, "What a bunch of runts!" With a ratio of three males to one female, she pointed out, they could afford to be choosy. But Heifer felt twenty pairs of eyes gazing stoically at the clutch of girls, resigned to seeing their worst fears confirmed.

She was relieved when a tidy little man entered the classroom and introduced himself as "Da-da-doctor Duh-duh-duh-duh - " It took him almost a minute to get his tongue around his name. Meanwhile he contemplated his shiny black shoes as if they mirrored the secret of the universe. He seemed unconcerned by the stutter, and as soon as he started talking about geometry, it disappeared. Several times during the lesson he pronounced "Pythagoras" without a hitch.

Later Heifer defended him from Zitrina's mockery. "You're just jealous because he's not embarrassed."

"What's the matter?" Zitrina said. "You have a crush on him? Hoping he'll ask you on a date and declare his luh-luh-luh-luh -?"

But Da-da-doctor Duh-duh-duh was not the object of Heifer's romantic longing. Like the other girls, she loved the young professor who taught mathematical logic. His downy cheeks were unshaven, virginal. His eyes soft and startled, as though he might shy away from a smile. Zitrina called him Bambi. From the moment he walked in the classroom on that first day, Heifer knew she and Bambi were destined for each other. His kiss would make her beautiful; her love would make him strong. The other girls felt the same way. They spent hours discussing whether Bambi smelled of lemon or sandalwood, whether he preferred French or Chinese food, whether his belly button was an in-y or an out-y. Each one fervently believed she would win his heart. Even Zitrina dreamed of blinding him with her intellect. When they found out halfway through the program that Bambi was already married, they lost all hope. Zitrina's roommate scrapped the ballad she was writing for him. Phi Face wept into her logic textbook, and Miss Kitty abandoned her homework to go on a shopping spree. Zitrina imagined Mrs. Bambi as a homebody with coarse breasts and an IQ of sixty. Heifer just wanted to die. Without Bambi there was nothing but travail.

Every night she wandered in geometric mazes where lines and angles would not admit their identities. Then she ran the gauntlet of logic, badgered by propositions that began "If X then Y" or "If X then not Y." If sex then why not, she thought, giggling. It was usually past midnight when she opened her set theory notebook and leapt aboard the first equation, its bracketed and parenthetical boxcars chugging into an infinite desert. Heifer's parched eyes ached for sleep, but she had to have her homework done for Doctor Nausea.

Group A had set theory in the afternoon, right after lunch, when Heifer longed to drowse in the sunshine. Instead, hunched over her notebook in the florescent chill, she copied from the blackboards with feverish concentration, terrified of omitting a bracket or replacing a plus with a minus sign. One slip and she would never figure out why infinity equals infinity plus one. "Ahnd zo we zee again zat een ahn een- finite clahss zee whole ees no greater zahn zome of eets pahrts." Heifer's numb hand scribbled furiously as Doctor Nausea began to erase. When the lower blackboards were empty, he seized the overhead board and yanked it down. It slid in its grooves with the inexorable weight of a guillotine. For his next trick, Doctor Nausea would demonstrate that one plus one does indeed equal two, a more complicated proof than the other. "But zen, zee obvious ees zee most deefficult of proof," he said, grinning like Dracula.
Doctor Nausea had grown up not in Transylvania but nearby Poland where, he said, high school was called gymnasium and only intelligent students could attend. He frowned in bewilderment at the titters from Group A. "Vaht ees funny?" In his foreign mouth "gymnasium" became "jim nauseum," from which Zitrina derived his name. Also, he stank of cigarettes. She thought of calling him Doctor Nazi - pronounced the Winston Churchill way, nahzee - but he fled Poland to escape the Germans during World War Two.

"Too bad," she said. "He could have taught set theory at the concentration camp."

"You don't really mean that," said Phi Face mildly. "He's just too smart for us, that's all."

A few days later Doctor Nausea pivoted from his equation and hissed, "Vy ees zees?" The students jerked in their seats as though he'd cracked a whip. They avoided his beady eyes. Most of them, like Heifer, had been frantically copying from an earlier blackboard. He called on Phi Face to answer. A blush suffused her perfect cheekbones as she stammered that she wasn't sure what he wanted. It was a fatal mistake; nobody bought time from Doctor Nausea. With a sneer he explained the question in impenetrable depth. Phi Face was scarlet by the time he finished. "But zen, I could talk all day weezout you understahnd. Perhahps zee life of eentellect ees not for you. Vy don't you marry and hahve babies. For zat you are equeepped." Then he called on a puny twelve-year-old who always had the answer.

Heifer was ashamed to see Phi Face weeping over her notebook, dissolving equations into inky puddles.

***

Zitrina gloated that the twelve-year-old was younger than Heifer. "He's a Prodigy," she said, as though Heifer had been pretending to the throne of child genius.

"He's a zombie," said Zitrina's roommate, cradling her guitar. "Ever hear him say anything except to answer the teacher? Ever look in those eyes? They're like peepholes with nothing on the other side but sky. You can see clouds drifting in there for miles. And he doesn't walk, he floats."

Zitrina's enormous forehead crumpled in a scowl. "Don't be stupid."

"Just watch sometime when he doesn't know you're looking. His feet are half a centimeter off the ground."

Although Heifer doubted The Prodigy could float, she found herself studying his feet as he walked in the classroom or cafeteria. His scuffed Hush Puppies appeared to touch the floor. Then one afternoon she happened to catch him alone. Unable to face anyone, she'd lingered in the empty classroom after set theory, listening to the insect music of florescent lights and deciphering inkblots on her palm. She could have stayed there forever, but after a while she got thirsty and ventured into the corridor. The water fountain was installed in a tiled alcove. Before she knew it, Heifer was curled in the narrow space beside the fountain, feeling cozier than anywhere since she'd left home. She hadn't moved, except to shift the weight on her rump, when The Prodigy descended the stairs and headed for the exit.

He would pass inches in front of her.

The Prodigy was so diminutive Heifer could have lifted him without straining. Pale scalp showed through the fuzz of his crew cut, making his head seem naked and infantile. His luminous eyes were as empty as a baby's. Without the pucker of concentration in his mouth, he would have looked like an idiot. As he neared the water fountain, Heifer's gaze dropped past his madras shirt and khaki trousers, which hung as though on a stick figure, and focused on his Hush Puppies. She thought at first it was an illusion of light on the polished floor, the fissure between his crepe sole and its reflection. She told herself she heard squeaky footsteps. But when he passed the fountain, she could have reached out and held a ruler flat against his heel to measure its exact distance from the floor. Half a centimeter, at least.

Heart pulsing in her open mouth, Heifer watched The Prodigy float to the exit. The glass doors and surrounding window were incandescent, almost opaque with sunlight. He became a line of shadow in the dazzle. She saw him drifting left of the doors, but she never considered calling out a warning. She had no doubt The Prodigy could melt through glass like Caspar the Friendly Ghost or the amazing Neutrino Man. When his forehead struck the window with an undramatic bonk and he slumped to the floor, Heifer needed a few seconds to understand what had happened. She finally started up, but her meaty hips were wedged between the water fountain and the alcove. By the time she wiggled loose, two students entering the building had come to The Prodigy's rescue. One of them removed his shirt to staunch the blood that was puddling like syrup around The Prodigy's head, while the other dashed upstairs for help, leaving a trail of sticky footprints. Relieved, Heifer slunk back into the classroom to gather up her books.
The next day The Prodigy showed up in class with Frankenstein stitches across his forehead. Heifer hadn't mentioned his accident to anybody. She avoided Zitrina's arch, inquiring glance as The Prodigy floated to the blackboard to solve a theorem for Da-da-doctor Duh-duh-duh. She became engrossed in copying the solution so Zitrina couldn't whisper to her. At last Zitrina passed a note. Heifer brushed the note off her desk as though she hadn't seen, but Zitrina retrieved it and stuffed it into her hand. Reluctantly she unfolded the paper and read:

Maybe you can sign up for the same operation.

***

The other girls in Group A trooped off to the restroom between classes. Heifer stayed behind, stranded among their empty desks like a speck of land in an ocean of maleness. She shrank down in her desk seat and considered fleeing to the restroom after all. But Zitrina was especially poisonous today, and Heifer couldn't take any more.

A boy jumped from his chair and shoved himself forward one side at a time, like Popeye the Sailor, until his blunt face hung over her. Orange hair bristled on his flat skull and orange freckles peppered his skin. He stared at Heifer with the eyes of a threatened animal - irises ringed by white, pupils screwed to pinpoints. Above his cocky grin, which looked jammed into place, his upper lip was sweating. He presented her with a scrawled note:

For the answer to all your questions, see other side.

She turned the paper over:

For the answer to all your questions see other side.

Snatching the note away from her, he turned it into a Moebius strip, whipped a tiny stapler from his shirt pocket, and stapled the ends together. With a flourish he delivered his twisted message. "How's about lunch?"

Her smile felt as stiff as a coat hanger. "I never miss it."

Heifer told the others to go ahead without her, and then waited in the corridor until her date strode out of the boys' restroom, where he must have wiped his upper lip with a paper towel. It looked dry and chafed. At the exit, lunging in front to hold the door, he tripped over her foot and pitched headfirst toward the glass. He caught himself just in time. As they blinked and squinted their way across the sunny California campus, Heifer imagined stripping off her blouse to bandage his wound. She wondered if bloodstains ever came out.

Echoed from the cafeteria's lofty ceiling, the tame conversation of students became a madhouse clamor, every banged tray and dropped spoon a violent act. Heifer and her date stood in line for something that smelled of catsup. She waved to the girls at their usual table, but she had no intention of sitting there. She hoped they wouldn't eat with his friends either. After shuffling through the line without speaking or looking at one another, Heifer and her date carried their trays to the edge of the dining area. Each waited politely for the other to take the lead. Finally Heifer said, "There's a table," nodding toward a corner where students in the math program never sat.

"Excellent choice," her date said.

He wolfed lunch as though someone might appropriate his tray at any moment, but Heifer could overlook bad table manners. Nor did she feel ignored. She hated talking with her mouth full anyway. She packed away the meal at a comfortable pace and was just biting into dessert, a cling peach in heavy syrup, when Zitrina descended on them. Phi Face trailed a few feet behind, looking bashful.

"You're welcome to sit with us," said Zitrina.

Heifer's date wiped his mouth with a freckled wrist and leaned toward her as if Zitrina and Phi Face weren't there. "How's about the Handel concert tonight?"

"Hehndel, you mean."

He slowly faced Zitrina, who bristled at his aggressive eyes. "Excuse me," she said. "Do you want to keep making the same mistakes all your life?"

"No," he said, "but I'm not making a mistake. After Handel came to live in England, he thought of himself as English and wanted his name pronounced as an English name. George Handel. Only ignorant snobs call him Hehndel."

Zitrina's knobby nose crumpled in disdain, and she flushed so angrily that her acne disappeared. "You're Crass."

If Crass had slain a dragon for her, Heifer couldn't have been more thrilled. She glanced at him admiringly all through the Handel concert. Afterward, strolling back to the girls' dormitory, she was so attuned to him that she understood at once the furtive hitches and swerves in his Popeye stride. He knew that a young gentleman walked to the outside of a lady, so he was trying to duck behind her as suavely as possible. Heifer was touched that such a point of etiquette could matter to Crass. She wished for the grace to do-si-do around him instead of clopping along the sidewalk with her usual bovine heaviness, afraid to make any sudden moves lest she trample him. She said, "Let's sit down a minute," to spare both of them further embarrassment.

They detoured into a park and settled on a bench near a eucalyptus tree. The night was balmy, illuminated by half a moon. Crass stretched his arm behind Heifer, not touching anywhere but her neck, and said he was from Bakersfield. How's about her? She murmured the name of a hick town in Colorado, ashamed of its sagebrush and manure. She admitted feeling lost away from home and inferior to everyone she met, a prize guppie dumped from a fishbowl into the Pacific Ocean. Schoolwork had always been a breeze, but now she struggled for days without finding an answer. It was hard not being the smartest anymore.

Crass fidgeted as though her problems were taking too long. "So you're not the smartest," he said. "Big deal. You're still in the top four or five percent. And you're beautiful." He was suddenly crooning like Pepe Le Peu. "There's a lot more to life than zee life of eentellect."
As she giggled at his knowing parody of Doctor Nausea and his unknowing parody of the amorous cartoon skunk, Crass pounced on her. There was no other way of interpreting his abrupt, crushing weight and his humid breath forced into her mouth as though he were blowing up a balloon. Bracing her heels in the grass, Heifer arched her back and bucked until she threw him off. He shrieked like a seagull when he hit the ground. "My finger!" She wanted to help, but his legs thrashed so wildly that she couldn't get near him. "You broke my finger! You -" He called Heifer swearwords that the roughest boys in her high school never used in front of girls. He was still screeching them as she abandoned any thought of first aid and stumbled out of the park.

By the time she reached the dormitory, Heifer knew she wanted to die. She trudged beneath harsh lights, which lent the corridor a torture chamber atmosphere, into the cubicle where she labored and occasionally slept. Phi Face muttered hello without looking up from geometry notes. In a desk drawer Heifer found some aspirin, counted eleven tablets in the bottle and decided she needed more. "Got any aspirin?"

Phi Face gnawed her tawny hair distractedly, as though toying with the idea of devouring herself. "I've been borrowing yours. Last time I looked there was plenty."

Heifer went to Zitrina's room. "Got any aspirin?"

"I'm allergic to aspirin, I only take codeine." Zitrina glared, still angry about Crass's insult at lunch. "How was your date?"

"Not too exciting," Heifer said. "Could I have some of your codeine?"

"It's prescription," Zitrina said. "You can't expect me to give you prescription medicine."
Heifer reflected that suicide wouldn't be worthwhile anyway if she needed Zitrina's help. "What about your roommate? Does she have any aspirin?"

"She went to a foreign movie," Zitrina said, sinking back into the pool of interrogation light on her homework.

Since Miss Kitty had already left for an evening of fun, Heifer had to beg aspirin from girls she hardly knew. In the end she collected six more tablets for a total of seventeen. She was afraid to keep asking; people might start to notice. Heifer paused at the water fountain, wondering if seventeen aspirin would be enough to put her down. After all, she was heftier than the average girl. She considered sneaking to a drugstore and buying an economy bottle, but it was too much effort. If she could have walked that far, she would have done her homework.

She swallowed four tablets with several gulps of water. Tomorrow Crass would stalk into the classroom and salute her memory with his upraised, broken finger. And during a moment of silence Da-da-doctor Duh-duh-duh would contemplate his shiny black shoes. wallowing four more tablets, she imagined Bambi's startled eyes when he heard the news: "Which one was she?" The next four tablets dissolved too soon, their granules sharp as glass in her throat. No amount of water could rinse them out.

"Weez every learning cohmes a leetle pain," said Doctor Nausea with a sorrowful sneer. "She vas not equeepted for zee life of eentellect." As the last of the tablets stuck in Heifer's craw and bitterness flooded her mouth, Zitrina intoned her epitaph:

AUT GENIUS AUT NIHIL

Suddenly, Heifer unbent from the fountain. "What are you talking about?" she said casually, as though Zitrina were waiting behind her for a drink. "That's not me you're describing. It's you." Her laughter was frothy and grained with aspirin. "It's you that should be doing this."
Heifer had no idea where to go while the drug infiltrated her bloodstream. She thought about crawling to bed and slipping into irreversible coma before Phi Face noticed, but she couldn't hold still. Even her heartbeat was twitchy. She quickly decided against the restroom, where she would probably throw up. In the recreation room downstairs she could pretend to read a magazine or watch TV, but some girl scout might spot a symptom and blunder to the rescue, degrading Heifer's tragedy into an occasion for a merit badge. So Heifer was still hunkering beside the water fountain when the dusty Jesus sandals creaked up to her and stopped. During a long pause Heifer observed that Zitrina's roommate had tufts of hair on every toe, even the wee ones.

"What's the matter? Are you sick?"

"How was the foreign movie?" Heifer said.

"It was this English film, The Servant. It was creepy and decadent." Zitrina's roommate
descended in a sweep of scented hair. "What's that you're holding?"

"Aspirin," Heifer said. "I'm feeling better, thank you."

"Oh God, your hand's all clammy. How many of these did you take?"

"Seventeen." Heifer smiled goodbye as her train of thought pulled out of the station. In a blinkered moment Zitrina's roommate was halfway down the corridor with Phi Face and Zitrina, huddled, whispering. They broke loose and dashed to the water fountain like contestants on Name That Tune. Heifer said, "First one here is a rotten egghead," but nobody laughed. They looked down on her as though she were already dead.

Phi Face shuddered. "We should call an ambulance."

"I don't see why," Zitrina said. "It's not a lethal dose."

"How would you know?" said her roommate.

"Because my aunt has arthritis and she takes that much aspirin every day. If seventeen aspirin was a lethal dose, she would have died years ago."

"You think you know everything. What if you're wrong and she dies?"

"Well, what if you're wrong and she lives? They'll kick her out of the program."

"Maybe that's what she wants."

"No, it's not," Zitrina said. "Any more than dying is what she wants. She's too young to be here, that's all. She can barely do the work and she can't take the pressure. But if they kick her out, it reflects on us. They think we're nothing but baby factories anyway." She flung a disdainful glance at Phi Face, who was weeping into her shapely hands. "They're just waiting for another lamebrain girl to fall apart."

"We can't leave her on the floor overnight," said Zitrina's roommate.

"Of course not. Somebody might find her and call a doctor. So we put her to bed and act like nothing happened. Tomorrow she'll wake up with a stomachache, but no matter how bad she feels, we get her to class."

"She might die in the room with me." Phi Face sniffled. "I couldn't stand it."

"You could always kill yourself," Zitrina said. "Make it two for the price of one."

***

The next day after classes they took a photograph. Groups A and B filed out of the building and formed ranks on a grassy incline. The photographer shunted taller students, including Heifer and most of the boys, into the back rows.

Front and center of the picture, Crass strikes an arrogant pose, legs spread apart and arms jauntily akimbo, tongue thrust out of his mouth in defiance. None of his fingers is bandaged. The Prodigy is also up front with the girls, gazing absently into the camera. His Hush Puppies appear to touch the grass. Not far away, Miss Kitty looks bored and stylish in a Hawaiian blouse. Phi Face and Zitrina's roommate, standing together at the end of the second row, hold each other upright like grieving sisters. Inches from Phi Face, as though gloating that he made her cry, Doctor Nausea fingers the cigarettes in his shirt pocket and sneers into the distance. Da-da-doctor Duh-duh-duh is contemplating his shoes. His bent head obscures one of Bambi's dreamy eyes.

Zitrina's swollen head seems less grotesque among so many others. The camera treats her kindly, fading teenage eruptions to a tracery of scar tissue and blurring the stamp of rage on a homely face. Heifer winces with sullen fortitude, immune to the graceful hula of palm trees, the ocean breeze tasting of freedom. The caress of the weather cannot dry her trembling hands, still the clammy tingle along her spine, or sheathe the razor carving its initial in her belly. It will be years before she can stomach aspirin again.