By Katie Heaney
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Harriet, the author of her college newspaper's pseudonymous student advice column "Dear Emma," is great at telling others what to do, dispensing wisdom for the lovelorn and lonely on her Midwestern campus. Somehow, though, she can't take her own advice, especially after Keith, the guy she's dating, blows her off completely. When Harriet discovers that Keith has started seeing the beautiful and intimidating Remy, she wants to hate her. But she can't help warming to Remy, who soon writes to "Dear Emma" asking for romantic advice.
Now Harriet has the perfect opportunity to take revenge on the person who broke her heart. But as she begins to doubt her own motivations and presumably faultless guidance, she's forced to question how much she really knows about love, friendship and well-meaning advice.
I am a freshman, and everything is going great: I’m pledging my first-choice sorority, I love my major and my classes, and my roommate, while extremely emo, goes home every weekend to visit her boyfriend and parents, leaving me the room—not that I have much time to spend there. I’m having an amazing time, and would have absolutely nothing to write to you about if it weren’t for my best friend, “Kelly.” She and I have been best friends since we were 12. We applied here together and were super excited when we both got in. I actually wanted to be roommates, but Kelly thought it would be good for us to have space and make ourselves meet new people. But now that I’m actually doing it, she’s not happy. I know there are reasons—her roommate is practically a nun and only leaves the room for class and church, and Kelly didn’t get into the sorority she wanted, which is the house I’m now in. Instead of pledging the house that did bid her, like I thought she should, she decided not to pledge at all. But now she doesn’t do much, and asks me to hang out all the time, and gets mad when I have other stuff going on (especially Greek stuff), which I usually do. She’ll always be my best friend, but I want to do my own thing. All her moping is kind of driving me nuts. Help!
Get a Life
The first thing you need to do is talk to her about this, which, from the sound of things, you haven’t yet done. Why? What’s the worst that could happen—she’ll get upset with you? She already is! Stop blowing her off thinking she’ll just stop asking you to hang out. For one thing, I don’t think you really want her to stop completely. For another, it’s not an efficient plan. All you’re doing now is pushing off talking to her one day at a time. Text her or email her and find at least a two-hour block you both have free, and meet somewhere quiet. Don’t tell me you don’t have two hours free because you do. If you don’t think you do, it’s because you don’t want to find it. I know full well what freshman schedules are like. Most of you are barely in class after one PM.
When you do talk to her, I suggest not starting, or finishing with, or ever mentioning again, any phrase remotely resembling “Get a life.”
What you do tell her is the truth. You know you haven’t been super available lately, and you’re sorry that’s been hard on her. You’re very busy. You need to put in extra legwork now so your new sisters like you and don’t kick your butt to the Greek Row curb before May. You want to make new friends and you want to do well in school. Then listen to what she has to say. Most of the time, it’s easier to find a resolution for this kind of thing than you think. It might not be a permanent one, but I promise it will help for at least a while. You can ask her for patience until things calm down for you—unless, of course, you don’t really want her to wait it out at all.
I want you to think about something for me: What does it mean to say that she (or whoever) will “always be your best friend”? I hate it when people say that. It’s very presumptuous. “Best friend” isn’t a fixed status. It’s not like you guys reached that point and now you never have to work at it ever again. Kelly is having a hard time. She needs you. She hasn’t had your luck with roommates or the somewhat arbitrary approval of fifty girls who wear the same T-shirt. She will feel better eventually, but not right now. I can’t make you be a good friend, especially if it’s to someone you don’t really want to be very good friends with, but I want you to remember that you will be where Kelly is one day. Not in exactly the same way, necessarily, but close enough. I know that asking you to understand that is a tall order, because most of us can’t imagine anything that hasn’t already happened to us. But one day, you will feel lonely and left out and ignored, and you will be like, “Huh, I get it now.”
And at that point you might really want to rely on the person who’s known you for what will soon be half your life. And in order to ensure she’s still there, you might have to give up just a little of your precious time now. Not tons! You may still have to say no to her sometimes, or even most of the time. At least this semester. That’s fair, and I think it’s fair of you to ask her to do her best to understand that.
I’m definitely not saying the only reason you should be there for her now is for your own future benefit. You should do it because she’s your best friend and you love her. But because most of us need the promise of some amount of personal benefit to make us do much of anything, sure, do it for your sake, too.
And finally: Never underestimate the value in having friends from nonintersecting social circles. Who else will so willingly and vehemently agree that your friends are crazy and annoying when they’re being crazy and annoying, if not your other friends who don’t know them at all?
Most humbly yours,
I guess what I am wondering is: is he dead?”
I clutched my phone in my left hand and squinted at its screen, as if, like a Magic 8 Ball, it might produce a response to my question. Instead, my roommate Logan did. “It doesn’t seem that likely to me that he is not texting you back because he is dead,” she said.
“There’s a first time for everything,” I said. “I could be the first girl who can say, ‘The guy I was seeing stopped texting me back, and I didn’t know why, but then I found out he fell off of a mountain before he could hit send. He text-walked off a mountain.’ There could be a tragic movie about me, like A Walk to Remember.”
“This is not like A Walk to Remember.”
“It has some similar elements,” I said.
“Well. Whatever. The last time I checked, last night, he hadn’t done anything on Facebook in forty-nine hours. So I think his continued survival is very much uncertain.”
“I just saw him on Friday,” said my other roommate, Mel, who walked out of her bedroom, where she had been, I thought, watching something on her laptop—YouTube videos of international boy bands I’d never heard of, probably—with headphones on.
“You always join conversations in the middle,” said Logan. “The moment you start listening is the moment you should come out here. Instead of lurking.”
“I was catching up from my bed. I was like, ‘Oh my god, maybe he IS dead and Harriet knows something I don’t,’” said Mel, who took two chocolate chip cookies from a package on top of the refrigerator, poured herself a glass of milk, and sat down next to Logan, across from me. She lowered one of the cookies into her glass and held it there.
“Where did you see him? And what time?” I asked her. I flipped my phone over on its face, as if to punish it. For a moment I thought about getting up to put it on the floor in the corner of the kitchen, to give it a proper time-out, but the dull pulsing behind my forehead confirmed that standing up right now, or making any unnecessary movement, was a bad idea.
“Ummm, I’m not really sure,” said Mel.
“What?” said Logan.
“WHAT??” I said.
“You guys know I don’t recall narrative details well!!” said Mel, repeating a phrase we’d often told her ourselves.
“Yeah, but, this was two days ago,” I said. “Right? Are you sure it was Friday? Or could it have been upward of… sixty-one hours ago?”
“No, it was definitely Friday, I think. Because, I remember”—and here she pointed first at me, and then at Logan—“I was in the hallway on the upper level of NSC, so I must have been on my way to TA hours for Organic Chem,” she said. NSC was the Natural Sciences Center, where she and Logan practically lived. Mel crossed her arms and smiled proudly.
“Congratulations,” said Logan, putting her hand on Mel’s right shoulder. “You have a modest capacity for placing events from your own life in chronological order.”
“What did he look like?” I asked Mel, already imagining it—he’d have been limping, first of all. He’d have been wearing a torn shirt and jeans, and had one arm in a sling, and gauze wrapped around one eye. Or both eyes. It would actually explain a lot if he’d become blind in both eyes. I felt a little better.
“Ummm, I think he was wearing, like…some shirt?” said Mel.
“Mel,” said Logan.
“What! It was like, two seconds! I didn’t even notice that it was him until he had already passed me. All I registered was that it was him,” said Mel.
“But did he seem, like…sad, or anything?” I asked her. “Or…disoriented at all?”
“I don’t know, it was two seconds.”
“Just try to remember anything.”
“I guess he could have been sort of frowning,” she said. “Yeah. His lips must have looked extra tiny, because as I passed him I was like, ‘Did that guy even have a mouth?’”
“What do you mean by ‘extra’?” I asked.
“He has the smallest lips I’ve ever seen on anyone in my whole life,” said Mel. “Including babies.”
“Maybe that’s why he can’t communicate,” said Logan.
“OK,” I said. “This is all beside the point, which is that UNLESS something terrible happened last night, which is something I personally believe is a very real possibility, Keith is alive and, presumably with free will, choosing not to respond to my texts.”
“I just don’t see how that could be it,” said Mel.
“Why?” said Logan. “It happens all the time.”
“Look, he’s weak,” said Logan. “Like all guys. He’s just lucky we’re not living in the Stone Age. He’d never be able to provide for you.”
“I can’t believe you of all people would suggest Harriet couldn’t take care of herself in the Stone Age,” said Mel.
“Yeah!” I said. “I’m self-reliant.”
“You definitely couldn’t prepare your own food,” Logan said.
“That’s fair,” I said, crossing my arms on the table in front of me and burying my head in the crook of my elbow.
“All I’m saying is that if you’re going to willingly participate in our society’s regressive mating rituals, the partner you select should at least bring some survival skills to the table,” she continued. “Keith has no useful skills. He’s a philosophy major.”
“I didn’t select him,” I said into my elbow. “I just want to make out with him again.”
“Read us your last message again,” said Mel.
I sat up and very slowly turned my phone over onto its back. I unlocked the screen carefully, like either it or I could explode at the slightest wrong touch, and pressed “Keith.”
“One twenty-two AM—technically earlier today,” I said. I sighed. “I wrote: ‘heyyyy’—I remember thinking, ‘four Ys is a good, not-crazy amount of Ys’—‘heyyyy, am I going to get to see you this wknd?’ W-k-n-d, to be casual,” I said.
“Right,” said Mel. “Totally the right vibe.”
“I’m worried it was a little too direct,” I said, reading it over again to myself. Maybe I shouldn’t have framed it as a question. Maybe I should have only used three Ys. In daylight, four Ys looked weird. The more I looked at the word, the more it started to look like a bug. Like a disgusting centipede. I put my head back down in my arms.
“Don’t worry about that. Seriously,” said Mel. “At some point you had to say you wanted to hang out again, because otherwise he might’ve thought, like, ‘maybe she doesn’t like me anymore!’ You guys were, like, going out! You’re allowed to say you like him!”
“It doesn’t seem like that’s true,” I said.
“He didn’t say anything?” said Logan.
“No!” I said. I sat back up, checking to see if anything had come in—silently, somehow—in the last ten seconds. “No,” I said again.
“I’m telling you,” said Logan. “Weak.”
“I don’t know what to do,” I said. “I guess that’s…it?”
“Well,” said Mel. “What would Emma say?”
I thought about it for a second. Emma was no-nonsense. She had zero patience for anyone’s bullshit and would find Keith’s tepidity repugnant. Emma told the people who wrote to her asking for advice to have a backbone for once in their sorry lives, and I knew she’d say the same thing to me.
I knew this because Emma was me. To everyone else at school, she was a pseudonymous sage with a weekly column in the student newspaper. Aside from the paper’s editor-in-chief, a senior named Alexia Collins, Mel and Logan were the only ones who knew the column was mine. I’d started it as a sophomore, and written it for a semester and a half before breaking down and telling them. It was briefly very exciting that they knew and I could talk to them about it, until they started using her against me.
“She’d probably say ‘Tell him to go fuck himself,’” I said. I could see myself writing the response to this letter, and I knew that I/Emma would not give Keith the benefit of the doubt. I would tell me that I was wasting my time.
“Exactly,” said Logan. “So don’t stress out over him. He’s unworthy.”
“I think you should text him again. Write ‘See you in HELL!’” said Mel.
“That implies that Harriet will also be there,” said Logan.
“I already am,” I said. “I think I need to go back to sleep for a little bit.” I got up from the table to refill my glass of water and swallowed a second Advil. “Are you guys going to the library later? I work two to six.”
“Yeah, I’ll probably head over after I shower,” said Mel.
“Me, too. Except for the shower part,” said Logan.
After closing my bedroom door, I picked up my laptop off my desk, placed my water on my nightstand, propped up my pillows, and slid into bed. I did not plan to go back to sleep, exactly. I planned to resume my now-multi-day, ongoing investigation into Keith’s whereabouts, physical and emotional.
The last I’d heard from him was ten days earlier. A Thursday. Two days after we’d studied for a quiz together in the library. I’d texted him to ask if he was going to make it out to the bars, and, forty-seven minutes later, he’d texted me “Nah, I think I’m in for the night. Have fun.” Except there was no period. “Have fun” was an unclosed statement, wide open with potentially infinite space after the n. “Have fun” without an exclamation point, the more I looked at it, seemed an almost ominous command. Or maybe it was just sad. “Have fun…like you used to be able to, once.” “Have fun…on your own, specifically not with me.” Was “have fun” without the period a kind of good-bye? Did he think that counted?
I’d texted back “Ah, okay, goodnight (and thanks)!” Exclamation point. And then I’d waited. I didn’t see him out on either weekend night. He didn’t come to the class we had together on Monday, either. So that evening, I’d texted him to ask how his thesis was coming, and he didn’t ever respond. On Wednesday, he showed up late to class and sat down several rows from me, near the door. “It was just because he was late,” my friends told me, and I tried to believe them. Then, last night, at 1:22 AM, after consuming approximately 1.5 shots of tequila, 2 whiskey sours, and 2.25 beers, I’d texted him a centipede.
I didn’t have to think of what I did today, or tomorrow, as “waiting” for him to respond. I knew he wouldn’t. I still sort of believed he might, but I knew he wouldn’t.
I looked at the exchange again, scrolling back to two weeks earlier, back to the last time it had seemed good. I tried, again, to find anything telling, anything that seemed like a warning, but I still couldn’t. A couple weeks back there was a good day of texting each other needless emoticons and giggling sounds, and then he stopped gushing: periods over exclamation points, the smiley face disappeared altogether. Mel and Logan had told me I was imagining things, and reading too much into texts, and that his shift in tone didn’t mean that he hated me now. And maybe it did not. But now I felt I had been right to think it didn’t mean anything good.
Before opening my laptop, I started my search with a cursory examination of the sources available on my phone. Keith wasn’t much for Instagram. His last post was eleven weeks ago, before we even knew each other. He’d taken it at home over winter break. The picture was of an open book in his lap and his dog’s head resting on his outstretched leg, and I remembered that when I saw it for the first time (whenever it was I first looked him up), I considered it proof positive of his intellectuality and sensitivity. I was like, Wow, I cannot believe I found someone who also likes dogs and books.
Next I checked Twitter, which he did not have. A few of his friends did, though, and if he had suddenly died, I thought they might be tweeting about it (“RIP Keith”). Instead I found only a handful of days-old tweets about cross-country practice and New York Times articles. A tweet from Keith’s friend Jake reading “Yoooooo this is too real” seemed mildly promising, but the timestamp and surrounding context kind of made it seem like it probably referred to something that had happened on Game of Thrones.
Next I checked AstrologyZone to see if it had any relevant-seeming predictions about my day and/or love life. “Work now, play later” began today’s entry. “This is a hard pill to swallow for an adventurous fire sign, but it’s important—especially for your financial well-being.” I sighed.
Having consulted all relevant phone sources, I lifted my laptop screen and opened a new tab for the main locus of my search: Facebook. For serious searches, I never dared look at it on my phone. The risk of accidentally “liking” someone’s post seemed far too high. Not that the web version was without its various stresses, though—as always, I was struck with overwhelming panic that I’d accidentally type Keith’s name into my status bar instead of the search box. (Sometimes the fantasy would carry on for several minutes, through several possible outcomes. Maybe I wouldn’t notice my mistake, and his name would sit up there for hours, and I wouldn’t know until he commented with a single question mark. Or maybe I’d delete it right away, but he’d still get a notification.) I took a deep breath, triple-checked that my cursor was in the search box, and, as if typing his name extra slowly would provide added protection against embarrassment, pecked the letters of his name out one by one using only my forefingers. K-E-(quadruple-check the box I typed in)-I—and at that point his full name (Keith Rapp) appeared auto-completed in the box, in what I felt was an aggressive and accusatory move on Facebook’s part.
Keith’s profile picture was not of him, or any human being, for that matter. It was, as it had been for a year and a half, according to the timestamp, a modernist painting. Though I didn’t care much for the piece itself, I’d found this choice and this consistency charmingly self-effacing. It was odd and discomfiting to have a crush on someone and, partway into it, watch him change his profile picture. It forced a reevaluation (“What does he think this picture of him hiking in the woods says about him that the other picture, of him lying in the sun with a T-shirt draped over his face, did not?”), and a recognition that his presentation was something he actively participated in. To come upon an already made Facebook profile was one thing, but to realize its owner, like you, sat there wondering which picture to use, and which facts about himself to include, was nearly heartbreaking in its exposed vulnerability. Do I think about Facebook too much? I wondered.
I was somewhat relieved to find nothing new in Keith’s recent activity, or on his wall—the latest post was still a link to a campus environmental event that had taken place the previous Friday. He’d linked a reminder the night beforehand: at 8:13 PM. I looked at the clock on my laptop’s navigation bar—10:09 AM, Sunday, March 15. As far as I could see, Keith had now gone a little over sixty-two hours without doing anything on Facebook. It wasn’t so long, or so far off his typical usage rate (not that I kept a log or anything), but it was starting to feel conspicuous. But maybe that was only because I’d never before paid quite this much attention.
I could pretend that the inactivity pointed toward something temporarily all-consuming in his life, like an exam, or a serious (but not fatal, or too sad) family issue, or some deep, emotional self-examination from which he’d emerge a better man. Or something. But the explanation that seemed most likely was that he hadn’t used Facebook in a while because it didn’t matter that much to him. Just like the reason he hadn’t been texting me back was probably that I didn’t, either.
We met in January in HIST 365: Special Topics: The Spanish Civil War—Mondays and Wednesdays, 1:10 PM. It was a very specific class, but it was a popular choice among humanities students looking to satisfy their modern history prerequisite because it was moderately easy and because the professor, who was from Spain, made charming, cheesy jokes. I liked to sit near the back of the lecture hall and write them down on the last page of my notebook.
On the fourth day of class, Keith moved past me to sit in my row, and when I stood up to let him by, he smiled at me in polite thanks before taking a seat that left one empty chair between us. That’s when I noticed that he a) was even hotter than he’d looked from across the room, where I’d noticed him the first day, and b) smelled the way all guys should smell, though I hadn’t known I thought so until just then. (The only way to describe it was that he smelled like a Christmas tree, including the lights.)
I didn’t write a single word in my notebook that day. Instead, I stared straight ahead at the whiteboard, trying so hard to appear fully absorbed that I went too far and slipped over the edge into something that must have looked more like hysteria. A few minutes before the end of the lecture, I looked in Keith’s direction with my peripherals, first trying not to move my head at all and then, when that proved dizzying, turning it only very slightly to my right. He looked up from his notebook, where, I noticed, he’d been drawing in the margins, and then he looked right at me. He smiled again, and I kind of half smiled and half grimaced, I think, and quickly looked down at my completely blank page. I picked up my pen and held it point down on the paper, like a prop, until we were dismissed.
The next two classes proceeded about the same, with him one seat away.
After the seventh class, a Wednesday, I had a work-study shift at the library from 3:00 to 6:30. I worked at the circulation desk and did very little but check out students’ books, show them how to work the photocopier, and answer the odd phone call about our hours from people who apparently didn’t know how to check them online. I considered it an ideal campus job because it provided me with several blocks of time a week during which I could reasonably argue that I had almost nothing to do but look at the Internet and people-watch.
- "Katie Heaney's writing is clever and laugh-out-loud funny, and in Dear Emma she's created an honest, hilarious portrait of the pitfalls of modern courtship."—Emily Gould, author of Friendship
- "Sweet and funny and utterly charming, Dear Emma will take you right back to your own torturous, electrifying collegiate entanglements. Plus it has one of those just-right endings that will have you clutching the book to your chest when you finish."—Caroline Zancan, author of Local Girls
- "Katie Heaney's delightful new Austen-inspired rom-com is a hilarious examination of the pros and cons of internet sleuthing and the merits of advice. Extremely funny and supremely clever."—Rebecca Harrington, author of I'll Have WhatShe's Having and Penelope
- On Sale
- Mar 1, 2016
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Grand Central Publishing