“I like your accent.”
“You have nice eyes.”
“You seem really smart.”
No, she doesn’t. She seems dumb as a rock, and I’m just about ready to say so. We freshmen have had group-building exercises all morning, with pizza vouchers going to the person who memorizes the most names or correctly links the right person with the right home town. Now we are responsible for giving compliments to every single person in our 15-person group. We’re lined up, as if ready to meet a firing squad. The girl next to me wears sparkly barrettes. Turn-ons include kittens and hot cocoa in front of a blazing fire.
The complimenting girl has almost made it down the line to me. She started strong, but she’s losing steam. “You have cool shoes.” Then, “I like your backpack.” And now, face to face, girl to girl: “I’ll bet you get a lot of good grades.”
The next complimenter has already started, overlapping the first one. The people running this thing, probably sociology students itching to put their new skills to work, didn’t plan out their time very well, and we’ve only got ten minutes for 225 compliments. You’d think upper classmen would have done the arithmetic. The compliments take longer now, because we’re not supposed to repeat and the easy ones are disappearing fast.
“Your voice is nice.”
“That’s a cool bracelet.”
“I saw you running this morning. You went really fast.”
The complimenter is supposed to hold the gaze of the complimentee. How can the sociology majors think that this will build group spirit? If I see any of these people six months from now, I’ll remember the long gaze and the lies, and I’ll hide.
“Your shirt’s a nice color,” the complimenter says to sparkly barrettes. Turn-ons include kittens and hot anal sex in front of a blazing fire.
“Your smile looks like you’re keeping secrets,” the complimenter tells me, and one of the sociology majors says, “That’s not a compliment.”
“Yes it is,” I say.
The two who are finished take their place at the end of the line — they’ve done the hard part, but they still have to be complimented. They’re whispering and looking over at the corner where the sociology majors made us put our phones in a box. The compliments, more and more stiff, tip over like dominos, all coercion and no truth, like conversation over Christmas dinner. “You have nice earrings.” “I like your shirt.”
“You can go beyond appearances,” one of the sociology majors calls out.
“I’ll bet you’re a nice person,” the complimenter promptly says, and I have to give it to him for quickness. To sparkly barrettes he says, “I’ll bet you’re gentle around old people.”
Turn-ons include kittens and hot anal sex in front of a blazing house fire.
To me he says, “I’ll bet you’re not gentle around old people,” and the sociology majors make him do it again, even though I feel totally complimented. “I’ll bet you have good music.” He gazes at me, just like he’s supposed to.
“Shit,” says one of the others. “That’s a good one.”
No it isn’t. All morning I’ve stayed well under the radar, not just of the sociology majors, but of my new classmates. This is my skill: I can disappear in plain sight. If a picture is taken of us, something that seems dismally likely, it will seem as if there are 14 people in the group, none of them me. Now I’ve got my co-freshmen assessing me, and I need to be careful. I do have a lot of good music.
We’re over our ten minutes, and everybody’s getting restless. The sociology majors have had to swat one of the guys away from the box with the phones. We’re all hungry, and there’s a smell of tomato sauce from the cafeteria next door.
“You have good color sense.”
“Nice job with your hair.”
“I can tell you like green.”
What qualifies as a compliment, anyway? A mere fact shouldn’t count. The longer this goes on, the more sharply I see every one of us, sunburned knees and make-up lines and one guy with really nice hands, and for the love of Christ it’s sparkly barrettes’ turn to compliment. She giggles.
“Are you a design major? Because the way you put those bracelets together totally rocks.”
“Are you an engineering major? Lucky you. You’re actually going to be employed.”
This is like Guess Your Astrological Sign: College Edition. I can’t blame her for finding an angle and working it. I’m just surprised she was able to do it.
She’s good at maintaining the eye contact, too. “Are you a psych major?” she says to me.
“I’m not any major yet. I haven’t even had a class.”
“You look like you know things,” she says, her eyes boring into mine. Turn-ons include kitten-eating snakes and house fires.
“I know I wish this exercise was over.”
“Well, yeah.” She moves to the dude next to me, leaving the rest of her comment unsaid: Do you think you’re special?
Kittens chopped up by chain saws. Anal rape. Conflagration.
Now it’s my turn, and there are no compliments left in the world. People’s eyes are red from so much staring, and I have never felt so visible in my life. Everybody wants me to hurry up already; it smells like lasagna next door. But I can’t think of a damn thing to say. The girl before me cracks a little smile. “Hurry up,” she says.
“You’re very punctual,” I say, kissing goodbye to any hope of ever making friends.
Next: “You don’t feel the need to be too neat.”
“You know what’s in fashion.”
“I’ll bet you have a dog.”
Eventually it’s sparkly barrettes. I say, “You would have found room on a life boat from the Titanic.”
“I love that movie!” She leans forward and squeezes my hand. “Do you really think so?”
Her face is an astonishment. It might actually be emitting light. “Best. Compliment. Ever.”
Gently, I try to get my hand back. “That’s great. Really.”
“I didn’t think you’d be good at this, but you’re the best one here.”
“See what a good compliment can do?” says one of the sociology majors.
“Is anybody else hungry?” says the dude next to me.
I pry my hand back and finish up the line with re-run compliments; everybody’s sick of the exercise now, and we’re all starving. But sparkly barrettes is bearing down on me before we leave the room. “I missed your name at the beginning,” she says.
She smiles. “Hey, Eileen. When the ship starts to go? I’m taking you with me.”
About Erin McGraw
Born and raised in Redondo Beach, California, Erin McGraw received her MFA at Indiana University and has lived in the Midwest ever since. Along with her husband, the poet Andrew Hudgins, she teaches at the Ohio State University and divides her time between Ohio and Tennessee.
Her newest novel, Better Food for a Better World, was issued by Slant Books. Before that she published The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard (a novel), The Good Life (stories), The Baby Tree (a novel), Lies of the Saints (stories, and a New York Times Notable Book for 1996), and Bodies at Sea (stories). Her short work has appeared in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Good Housekeeping, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, STORY, The Georgia Review, and many others.
A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, she has received fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council and the corporations of MacDowell and Yaddo.
Erin’s new novel is about all the things that can go right in an ice cream shop. It promises hippies, contortionists, jugglers. You have to read it.