“There is exactly one of everything in the world. A tulip that looks around and finds its position to be lacking some cannot go and become a rose. Do not be afraid to be a rose, Lila. If indeed you are one.”
This was part of what he had been saying all morning and trying to impress upon poor Lila: that there are no copycats in nature.
Lila was a terrible student. She looked at the teacher with a face of dubious confusion. Though she knew nothing and learned nothing, she was willing and handed in her essays on time. Her teacher was one of seventeen she had ever had. His name was Mr. Phelps. He lived alone and his wife came to visit him with pies of every nature three times a week. His current project was How To Get It Through Her Head.
“By looking at a rose you do not turn a little more red,” he gave as one example. “Loving the song of the bird doesn’t give you a more beautiful voice. You are locked in. All humans are locked in. Each human is a species unto itself. Comparing yourself with anyone — even if she is your age and has curlier, blonder hair — is like pitting pigs against toads. You would not pit a pig against a toad, right?”
She showed that she agreed with him on this fine point but did not change her expression, so he was not convinced.
He asked her patiently, “In what situation would you pit a pig against a toad?”
She hated learning.
Her mother was a terrible woman and permitted Lila to sit with feet on the table. She let the girl beat her in sports because she just didn’t care. Lila never got any better this way, and one of her mother’s suitors thought, upon meeting Lila, that she had been born retarded. But she was not retarded; she just hadn’t been given the proper care. Of course, she did not accept the proper care. Like all things, she determined the rules of her own existence. Her mother couldn’t prevent Lila from being the way she was. But that didn’t stop those who knew the situation from criticising her anyway, fundamentally, for letting such a life exist.
Lila ordered a bouquet of roses and sat with them at her vanity table and looked at them as though, as her teacher had suggested, they were an alien species. She wouldn’t compare them to a bucket of water. She wouldn’t compare them to a snail. She liked snails; they had shells they could curl themselves into. Roses had no shells. But roses were romantic.
On her speed-dial princess phone she called up a boy she had met once, several years ago. He had heard from her monthly, sometimes weekly, since they had danced together that one time. Already he was somewhere on his way to becoming a lawyer, if he wasn’t a lawyer already. His girlfriend was very sleek and not at all lumpy; a girlfriend to be proud of. She had slick brown hair, not at all the sort of hair that one found on imported dolls.
He was exasperated when he found out it was Lila.
“You sent me roses,” she said.
“Can’t you tell I can’t stand you!!” he cried, in a voice he used with nobody except her. She deserved it. She looked into the receiver and one contained bit of her sobbed uncontrollably at the tone he used, but the rest of her was blank with dumb confusion. She didn’t know what to make of it. Who was he again? She put the receiver to her ear and heard a click and then silence. Her tongue lolled out slightly between her teeth as she hung up the phone. She would not pit a cow against a bouquet of roses. Whatever for? The cow would win, surely.