The Price of Perfection

February 18, 2008
By Kira Bonk, Romeoville, IL

As Vera walked down the cracking stairs of her aged high school, the brisk January air crept through her pea coat, chilling her bones.

What will it be today? Vera asked herself on the way to the bus stop. Definitely science vocabulary, she decided, rounding a corner as the stop came into sight. Shivering people impatiently waited for the arrival of the bus, but Vera took no notice of the dropping temperature. Instead, she calmly reached into her bag and retrieved a thick stack of note cards.

During the twelve minute bus ride to and from school, Vera studied. She always chose a window seat and constantly placed her bag in the aisle seat so that no one could sit by her. She knew that people were nosy, and didn’t need some annoying person sitting next to her and distracting her from her studies. If Vera were to be academically inferior, she’d feel like a hopeless disappointment. Studying at every opportunity kept her brain active and maintained her straight “A’s” and future valedictorian status.

There sat Vera at her window seat, and although her peers were surrounding her, she could not be farther away. While the rowdy teenagers laughed and boisterously socialized, Vera flipped through her note cards and mumbled to herself.

“Are you praying?” asked a voice that sounded like it came from the seat in front of her. Rather than answering, Vera continued to vigorously flip her note cards and mutter science definitions. “I said, are you praying?” the pesky voice asked again. “Hello? Is this girl in the pea coat deaf?” the voice bellowed to the students in nearby seats. Finally, Vera pealed her attention from the note cards and tentatively asked, “Were you talking to me?” As she looked to where the voice seemed to be coming from, she noticed a pair of bright green eyes gazing over the rim of the seat in front of her.

“Finally, I get a response! What was the hold up?” teased the owner of the magnificent green eyes.

“I didn’t think you were talking to me. I seem to be invisible most days. No,” Vera politely said as she returned to her bus ride study session.

“What do you mean ‘no’?” questioned the person.

“I’m not praying,” Vera stated without losing her pace in flipping the cards.

“Then may I ask what you are doing?”

“No, you may not,” came Vera’s answer as she slipped out of the seat, cupping the note cards in her gloves and getting off the bus.

Rather than continuing studying like she always did on the walk home, Vera began thinking. No one ever talks to me, they all know my priorities, came her first thought. Who was that, anyway? Hopefully he doesn’t permanently ride the bus, I can’t afford not to get those minutes of studying in. Something bad could happen. My grades could begin to drop…I just need to focus, go home, and follow my schedule. With a big, deep breath, Vera entered the front door of her house and headed upstairs to her room.

Plastic containers sat stacked on the shelves that lined the ceiling of Vera’s bedroom. Each had a label with a grade number on it, and inside the individual plastic containers were note cards categorized by school subject. Vera walked to the container marked “Eleventh Grade” and brought it down from the shelf and onto her desk. A laminated schedule was attached to the wall. Each subject was given a time slot, with a short break for dinner and a long space for sleep. There was also a morning and weekend schedule, which Vera kept strictly to.

As the sun sank into the horizon outside Vera’s window, her room was tinted orange. It was then that Vera went downstairs and sat down for dinner, and it was then that she received a phone call.

“May I ask who is calling?” she asked suspiciously.

“This is Toby Robertson. I was hoping to speak to Vera. Is she home?” The voice sounded familiar to Vera, but she had been so focused on studying that the bus ride had not crossed her mind since the walk home.

“This is she. I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are.”

“You mean we had a whole conversation on the bus ride from school today, and you don’t remember who I am? Quite frankly, I’m insulted. I truly believed I was more memorable than that.”

“Oh, the boy with the green eyes. Yes, I recall that brief conversation,” Vera responded.

“So you can remember my eye color, but not who I am? I’ll take it. Better than nothing, I suppose.”

“Your eyes were the only feature I could see over the seat. Look, I’m sorry, but I am very busy. Why are you calling me? I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. I have some serious studying to do, and I don’t like talking on the phone with strange boys I don’t know. Thank you for calling. Goodbye.”

After a night of restless sleep and strange dreams full of contorted green eyes, Vera went through the school day. She had slept too late and missed the morning study block, and by the end of the day she was still feeling guilty.

With a yawn and stack of history note cards, she clambered onto the bus and took her usual seat. After about two minutes, he began speaking.

“You thought about me last night. I saw you yawn when you got on the bus. I know you barely got any sleep.” Vera didn’t answer. She just kept flipping away, mumbling louder to drone his voice. Suddenly, with one swift move, Toby snatched a card from Vera’s hands.

“What are you doing? Give it back! Give it back! I need that! I need it!” Vera cried as he pulled out a pen. For the first time, she got a look at his face. Toby was pale skinned with tousled black hair. His lips were pulled back in an impish grin as he said, “Hold your horses, Vera. I’m just trying to become more than some strange boy, because you don’t talk to strange boys.” When he handed the note card back, a phone number was scribbled over the top.

“I won’t be needing this. I am very busy. I have to study. Don’t call me again. ” Vera crumpled up the card and tossed it into her bag.

“I won’t call you again, unless you ask me. Until then, sweet dreams,” he retorted as he slid down his seat and faced the front.

Toby didn’t call that night, and Vera got less sleep than the night before. She missed her morning study block again, and by the end of the day had decided to work even harder to make up for lost time.

The bus ride was quiet at first, with no little comments from Toby. Vera relaxed a little, sat back in her seat, and continued to memorize English terms. His voice did come, though, but it wasn’t as demanding as it had been on the first day.

“Why do you spend your mornings, afternoons, and nights studying what you already learned that day? It makes no sense.”

Vera just flipped the cards faster. After all, she had to make up for lost time. Alas, she couldn’t help herself, and snuck a peek up to the rim of the seat. The eyes were staring back at her still.

“You don’t have to be perfect,” he whispered.

All of a sudden, emotions swelled up through Vera’s body. “I do have to be perfect! If I’m not perfect, than what do I have left? Studying is the only way that I can be perfect, that I can be the smartest! Stop acting like you know me! You don’t. You don’t know me, because if you did, you would know that being perfect in school is the only thing I want so far in life, and the only thing I strive for. Just leave me alone!” By this time the whole bus was staring in surprise. Vera hadn’t realized that she had been hysterically yelling. The bus doors opened, and she scrambled for her bag and stormed down the steps. It took a couple of minutes of walking for her to realize that she had gotten off at the wrong stop.

Great, more time wasted. I have to really work extra hard tonight, she thought grumpily as she opened the front door of her house ten minutes later.

Against her mother’s wishes, Vera skipped dinner. Sleep was utterly impossible, so she laid in bed all night and tried not to worry. It was too hard for her to keep the worries away sometimes. It was like they were a volcano, and occasionally, that volcano erupted into spouts of unavoidable “what if’s” and regrets. Unfortunately, tonight was one of those nights.

The next morning, Vera slept through her morning study block and nearly failed a test in her last class of the day, ruining her streak of perfect scores.

In her bus seat, Vera frantically flipped through note cards as tears streamed down her face. Toby didn’t say anything during the twelve minutes, and as each minute ticked by Vera became more and more frantic.

I’m not perfect. I’m not perfect. I ruined everything. There’s no hope now. What have I done? Thoughts were racing through her mind at mach speed.

Vera hurriedly got off the bus and was walking down the street when she heard a yell from one of the bus windows: “Vera! I love you.” Vera turned around to see who had yelled, but she already knew who it was. Toby was sliding the window closed just as the bus pulled away.

Vera ran home, flashcards leaving a trail on the sidewalk behind her. Her vision blurred due to the crying, and her hot tears stung in the cold air.

She walked into her house in a state of disarray and dumped her bag upside down over the kitchen table. The crumbled note card fell out, and she quickly unfolded it. Her hands shook uncontrollably as she dialed the number and her stunned parents took in the scene.

“I’m not perfect,” she sobbed into the phone. “I’m not perfect, I’m not perfect, I’m not perfect…”

The next day Toby was riding home on the bus when he heard some kids nearby talking.

“Yeah, dude, they totally took her to the loony bin.”

“Why, man? She seemed pretty normal. Kind of quiet, always studying.”

“Exactly! She got a “D” on Mr. Casey’s test yesterday and totally wigged out. Her parents had to take her to Thomas Psychiatric. She’ll definitely be there for a while. ”

After a couple of phone calls and a lot of convincing, Toby arrived at Thomas Psychiatric. He got a name tag and entered an empty room with a table in the center.

Vera was in a white outfit huddled in a chair. Her hair was messy and she was nervously picking at her lips.

“Hey, Vera. It’s Toby. I heard what happened, and I’m here to see you. I’d like to come around here every day or so, if you’d like me to.”

“I’m not perfect. I failed; I failed! I could have been the best. I was so close, so close,” was all she kept muttering.

“I know, sweetie, I know,” cooed Toby. He placed the plastic container labeled “Eleventh Grade” on the left side of the table and sat down. “So, Vera. What will it be today? I was thinking Art History, but it’s up to you...”

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