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Authors: Abby McDonald

Life Swap

BOOK: Life Swap
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For Elisabeth—an amazing critique
partner, and an even better friend

Tasha

This is
so
not a good idea.

I'm barely five minutes into my first class of the semester when it hits me just how bad an idea this is. Sure, it's not “getting into the hot tub with Tyler Trask while the cameras are rolling” bad, but then what is? I would have to search the world for the people who decided Crocs were a cute shoe concept before I found an idea as bad as
that
, but taking my semester-abroad placement at Oxford University when I barely scrape a B minus. Way up there on the dumb-ass rankings.

“…By now, you'll all be familiar with the basic texts on the reading list…”

I glance down at the dense two-page list they included in my exchange information pack, full of titles like
Political Innovation and Conceptual Change
, and have to remind myself to breathe. I only arrived in England a couple of days ago, but apparently hell waits for no girl, even if she's suffering killer jet lag.

“…And we've got a new face with us. Natasha Collins, welcome.”

My head jerks up, and I look around to find the group staring at me. Instead of the packed, anonymous lecture halls I'm used to back home, I'm sitting in a dim, wood-paneled room, one of a group of just ten students balanced on battered couches and overstuffed armchairs.

“Would you like to introduce yourself?” Professor Susanne Elliot asks, her salt-and-pepper hair falling around a face that, back home, would have been Botoxed into oblivion.

“Umm, sure,” I begin. “I'm Tash—Natasha,” I correct myself. I keep forgetting, Tasha is no more: the version of myself I left giggling and drunk in that hot tub. “I'm here from UCSB for the semester.”

“UCSB?” Elliot repeats, frowning. Yup—definitely no Botox.

“University of California?” I explain hesitantly. “I go to school in Santa Barbara.”

“Oh.” Elliot seems surprised. She shuffles her papers, searching for something. “We don't usually exchange with that university.”

“It was a kind of last-minute thing.” I begin to pick the clear varnish on my thumbnail and ignore the amused looks my classmates are exchanging. I don't know why they have to be so snobby about it. I mean, sure, it's not Stanford, but the UC system is totally second tier!

“Santa Barbara,” the professor repeats. “And what were you studying there?” She looks over her thin wire-rimmed glasses at me.

“I'm…undeclared.” My discomfort grows. Technically that's not quite true, but if I'd told the Global Exchange crew what my classes were, they'd have put me on some kind of international blacklist and branded me unfit for study.

“Well.” She pauses. “Welcome to Oxford. I'm sure you'll find Theory of Politics very…interesting.” She moves on to talk about research-paper schedules, but I catch the slight smirk all the same.

Sinking back in my seat, I sneak a look at my classmates. Dressed in an assortment of preppy sweaters, Oxford shirts, and neat jeans, they look totally at ease: nodding along and exchanging familiar smiles, but then again—they would. They've all spent the past year and a half bonding over dusty library books and term papers while I was five thousand miles away, blowing off classes to hang at the beach and shop. I may have a great tan and awesome bargain-hunting skills, but somehow I don't think those will count for much here.

“…So I suppose that's all. Any questions?” Professor Elliot looks at us expectantly.

I had plenty.
“What the hell am I doing here?”
for a start and
“Why didn't I just go volunteer in Guatemala like my mom suggested?”
I'd been so focused on getting out of California, I hadn't really thought about what would come next.

“I have one.” The sporty blond girl beside me raises her hand a little. “Will we be starting with power theory or basic ideological distinctions?”

I blink.

“I thought I'd leave that up to you. Everyone?”

They all pitch in with enthusiastic suggestions while I smooth down my denim skirt (which is officially three inches shorter than anything my classmates probably own) and wish for the twenty-eighth time since my flight landed that I could take it all back. Not the “leaving the States” part, of course. That was a given. I mean, Christmas in L.A. was bad enough (with Mom and the stepdad alternating their silent treatment with plenty of “we're so disappointed in you” lectures), but when I got back to school, the gossip was worse than ever.

So what could I do? I didn't want to just drop out of college. I may have chosen keg parties over studying and put more thought into first-date outfits than any of my papers, but I'm no quitter. And more than that, I couldn't stand the symbolism—if I dropped out, it would look like it really had all been my fault. Ever since Tubgate, I'd been walking around with a smile on my face, pretending I was cool with what they were saying. The whispers. The tabloid lies. Dropping out altogether would be like admitting I felt dirty and ashamed, and there was no freaking way I would give them all that satisfaction.

So even though the semester had already started, I begged the exchange program, calling that stuck-up administrator every day until she finally broke down and told me that they'd had a mix-up with some girl at Oxford who still needed a spot. And although I didn't meet their oh-so-high Ivy League grade requirements, she could let me go if it was a straight swap: my classes for hers, my roommate for her dorm. School hadn't even started back over there, so I wouldn't miss a day. Nearly three whole months in England. Perfect.

But now I'm stuck in a room full of people who were probably high-school valedictorians instead of spirit-squad captains; I'm struggling to even follow the intro talk, let alone the classes themselves, and I have to ask myself…

Is this really so much better?

By the time our not-so-welcoming welcoming talk is over, I've made a mental note to buy a “Beginner's Guide” to political theory. According to Elliot, I have three days to prepare my first paper, which will then be offered up to my classmates for discussion. Three days!
National Geographic
shots of feeding piranhas flood my mind, and I add yet another note to my schedule: find out where the library is. Somehow, I don't think my usual tactic of cribbing from Wikipedia and the fruits of Google will cut it with this crowd.

Pulling on my fur-trimmed parka, I follow the other students out onto the icy main quad. It turns out that Oxford University is a collection of a couple of dozen separate colleges, scattered across the city. I'll be living and studying in Raleigh College: a group of sandstone buildings set back from the riverbank. I walked around the campus yesterday, and this place is totally gorgeous. Dorms, dining hall, and an old chapel are arranged around these tiny cobbled courtyards, and there are neat lawns and gardens all around. It's pretty for sure, but in this weather, I can't help wishing they'd added heating to the sixteenth-century stone cloisters. Even my favorite Uggs can't keep me warm in this.

Speaking of which… the way my classmates are treating me is giving the weather competition in the subzero stakes. Snatches of their conversation drift back to me in the cold wind, but nobody so much as acknowledges my existence.

“Coming to Hall later?” one of the boys asks, pushing back his floppy dark hair.

“No, I've got to revise for my collection,” a brunette girl answers, her hair fixed in this weird semi-back-combed ponytail. I'd find it easier to understand if they were speaking Spanish, thanks to my core language requirement and four years of high school
“Me llamo”
-ing, but right now I'm clueless.

“I'm thinking bin bags for the Bop on Friday,” the athletic blond adds. OK, so I'm being tactful here; by “athletic,” what I really mean is butch. Cropped hair, baggy sportswear, and if that doesn't paint a clear-enough picture for you, she has a rainbow badge on her bulky backpack. Hey, I'm not judging. I just don't see why a same-sex preference has to go hand in hand with complete fashion backwardness. I mean, look at Portia de Rossi: a hot wife and an
Elle
subscription. It can be done!

“Or maybe—” They duck through an archway into what I think is the mailroom, the old wooden door slamming shut with a hollow thud. I don't try and follow. There's only so much cold shoulder I can take, and besides, I know for sure I won't have any mail. I'll be lucky if my parents send a single card, such is the shame Tubgate brought upon my family—or so my mom says. They're so mad, they're probably redecorating my bedroom as a playroom for my new baby sister-to-be.

Suddenly weary, I weigh the choice between noodles and whatever sludge passes for cafeteria food here. Pulling my jacket tighter, I head for my dorm, squinting against rain now falling in cold slices. I can't take sitting alone in the huge, portrait-lined dining hall again, and at least Ramen will keep me a size four. Tripping up the bare stone staircase, I heave open my door and collapse onto the bed, ready to wallow.

Damp shoes off, sweatpants on, and Joni Mitchell playing low. There. I'm set. Let the wallowing commence.

But just as I'm about to curl up under the covers and wish myself across the ocean, I take a closer look around. Back in Santa Barbara, I share a place with Morgan—it's tiny but in this fun block with other students, super-close to the beach. Here I'm living in a single dorm room; wait, make that a prison cell. Faded gray carpet, a hard twin bed…I get up and slowly take it all in.

The plain walls are totally clear except for a color-coded study schedule and reading list—pinned to the board so perfectly, she must have used a ruler to arrange them. The desk is set with a sheet of notepaper and two pens at precise right angles. And the nightstand—home to the universal “goodie drawer”—holds only a container of vitamin pills, a pocket pack of Kleenex, and a small dictionary.

I sink back down on the bed, this time in disbelief. I think of my own apartment, overflowing with junk, clothes, and noise, and then look again at this temple of order and precision.

Emily Lewis. Just what kind of freak are you?

Emily

“…And I was like, ‘No way,' but she says, ‘Hell yeah,' so we totally started grinding in the middle of the dance floor! Uh-huh…No…Totally! And, like, he was all crazy jealous…Ha! No, totally!”

I shut my eyes tightly, but when I open them, I'm still here: staring at a wall full of foreign photographs while my new flatmate continues her fascinating analysis of modern sexuality.

“No. Way!” she squeals, perfectly audible even in the next room. “Omigod, I can't believe you let him do
that
!”

With a sigh, I swing my legs over the side of the bed and survey the task awaiting me. I'll need cleaning supplies for a start, and some kind of flat edge to scrape the debris off the walls. She probably used Blu-Tack to keep all this up, and I know what kind of grease marks that will leave. Warming to my project as Morgan keeps up her steady stream of “like” and “totally!” in the next room, I methodically begin to peel the layers of magazine clippings and photographs away, bringing order to the chaos until pale cream walls are revealed beneath, soothing and cool.

“Hey, Em!” Morgan pushes the door open without knocking. She's cocked her head to trap the phone on her shoulder, halfway done painting her nails a violent shade of raspberry. “We're heading out to eat—wanna come?”

“It's fine.” I shake my head quietly. “I need to unpack. But thanks.”

“Sure, cool.” Morgan shrugs, but she doesn't leave. Instead, she turns to the huge vanity mirror, finishing her nails and then starting on a fresh coat of mascara. Her blond hair has platinum highlights and is twisted into loose ringlets that fall halfway down her back, shining synthetic and bright against her pale-blue tank top. With the tan and careful makeup, she looks only half real—like some kind of perfect doll. And she's not the only one. This city seems to be home to some sort of junior Stepford experiment.

BOOK: Life Swap
10.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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