There is a seat missing among us today. One of the regular Unis is sick and cannot come.
A petite girl with a large book of Classical Ballads sits down in the empty chair. She has a taco salad. None of us got a taco salad, because unlike all the other entrees which are eaten with spoon and fork, it is too hands-on. Eating a taco salad would distinguish us from others. She has a side of curried cauliflower, rather than the peppered peas that the rest of us have. She is wearing a blue shirt, not a U-shirt.
We all look at her, unsure how to respond. I wait for another to speak up, but of course, we are all waiting for another to speak up, so none of us do.
“Heya,” she says brightly. “On the surface you look the same/ Makes me wonder what are y’all’s names?”
She puts down Classical Ballads, and proceeds to crunch into her taco salad.
“Our names aren’t important,” I pipe up, and am not surprised to see two others say the exact same sentence at the exact same time, “As humans, we are all quite interchangeable.”
“I think you’ll find that’s just not true,” she said, “come test time, if you sit in lieu/ of someone else, that’d be quite an oopsy-doo!”
“Stop it,” one of the Unis piped up, “Are you aware what you’re saying is quite taboo?”
“John, don’t rhyme with her, that’ll only encourage the cur,” another pipes up, then colors, realizing he has said John’s name out loud, which is, in fact, quite taboo.
“Are you a Creativist?” another Uni demands. “You’re not welcome at our table!”
“It makes me sad to see a group that’s so unstable/ when someone new comes sitting down, she’s quickly slapped an enemy’s label!”
A Uniformist clangs his spoon on the dish. “I must insist that you desist, at this table not a single Creativist is allowed to exist!”
“Everyone, please stop talking,” Un says, “Be calm, I’ll go report this act of stalking.”
Our chewing has gotten out of sync. Panicking Unis are eating their foods out of order—some of us have finished all our peas before our soup, while others have finished our soup before our peas. One of us has dumped peas into his soup. Some of us find our mouths moving without food, as if sounding out silent words. Rather than looking at each other, as Uniformists should, we are all looking at her.
“I am quite curious, if you all eat and dress the same, does that make you spurious?”
“I don’t appreciate your mind game,” one Uniformist growled.
“I am not playing with you,” said salad-ballad girl in blue. “I am merely saying what’s true.”
“Let me explain,” I break in. “Though plain, our lives need no supplement. We are content.”
She looks at me. “You pretend to hide behind an unremarkable life, but really you’re hiding from your internal strife.”
The girl is making sounds with her mouth. She puffs up her cheeks and expels air repeatedly. She snaps her fingers with her non-taco holding hand. We look at her and at each other in confusion: is this some derisory Creativist gesture? The blasts of air and regular snaps, however, draw us in. Listening to it, we again find a rhythm with our chewing. Various Unis speak up.
“You have no place within our bunch. Please let us eat our lunch.”
“You do not belong here. I think this is clear.”
“Your values do not mesh with ours. Leave, before this whole thing sours.”
“Stop!” I say. “Is this the Uniformist way? What merits such a rude display?”
“Fron, she’s turning us into Creativists! We’ve completely deviated from the usual scripts! We’re coming up with new rhymes every time we open our mouth to speak, so everyone, shut your mouths and turn the other cheek!”
I realize that indeed, she is keeping a beat. Our syllables are falling right into her beats, one-to-one, in a way reminiscent of how the Philosophocle Rights and Responsibilities booklet fall into our mailboxes at the beginning of each semester. Unis are drumming on the tables with their fingers, spooning peas every other beat, and opening and closing their mouths like fish.
A Uniformist stands up. We all stare at him. By standing up he has distinguished himself.
“Get out! Or I’ll—I’ll… give you a big clout!”
The girl abruptly stops crunching her taco salad and looks at the offender, who is making threatening arm movements in her direction.
“From your brochure I read that I’d be treated with civility. But since I’ve come I’ve been met with nothing but hostility. Therefore I will now be off, leave behind the halls of lunchtime’s dreary coughs. You can stay and repeat another day—or you can follow the river of what can be said, the song inside your head.”
With this she gets up and starts to leave. She takes her Classical Ballads and taco salad in her hands, leaving her tray behind.
Chairs scrape up as several Uniformists abandon their food, “Please don’t leave without me, I too want to be free!” One Uniformist is busy taking off his U-shirt.
My heart pounds. Should I follow them?
She doesn’t look back. “I do not like what I see. But I am not deaf to your plea. If you want another opportunity, meet me at the Scoop for tea.”
And then she is gone.
“You, you, you!” Un says to the Uniformists who had stood up. “Sit down!”
“I’m sorry. I—I—I didn’t know what came over me,” says the boy who had taken off his U-shirt. He hurriedly put it back on.
“Un, we must not go to the Scoop tomorrow,” someone says. “I don’t know what kind of demonic powers that girl has.”
“We certainly will meet her tomorrow for tea,” Un said, his face dark with rage and his fists clenched.
Un had fought tirelessly for “Uniformist Day” at the Scoop. He had written letters to the Director of Religious Life, the Student Activities Board, the Student Judicial Board, the Board Against Discrimination and For Tolerance, and even appealed to the President. Nothing is going to keep him from his rightful place at the Scoop tomorrow.
“All of us. We will teach her that no one messes with the Uniformists. When we are done with her, I promise you, she will be a Uniformist.”
Un sits back in his chair and takes a deep breath to calm himself down. Nods spread around the table.
“Sit down, everyone. Take a breath, in… out… Straighten your backs. Open your books to page ten.”
We take out our pocket-sized Guides to Uniformisms. All of us—even the ones who had previously protested—read page ten1 out loud. But I cannot return to that previous zen. The girl’s poetry was a unique kind of song. For the first time, I’m not sure that I really belong.
As we read the Uniformization, I don’t process the words at all. They are dull and dreary. I feel I am going through a bleary pantomime. I can’t help but imagine what will happen if every sentence were replaced by rhyme.
There is something beautiful about salad-ballad girl, which none of the other Uniformists understand. Something momentuous, I know, will happen tomorrow. I do not know what, but I know that I cannot allow Un to turn her into a Uniformist.
The Uniformization, which helps us return to a uniform state after we have been disturbed.↩