Tomato

by Qal Fessehaye

Ruth has always had a rather disagreeable taste in things. She likes her earrings too large and her hair too short and her shoes too dirty and her books too old. Nobody ever understood the music she listens to or where she finds it. She keeps it a secret because her relationship with her playlist is a sacred one. Her playlist sounds much like the soundtrack of some sad romantic movie and people would just stare when she sang along.

“How do you know what they are saying?” A girl asked her once.

Ruth shrugged. She knew if they actually listened too, they would find the lyrics echoing their exact thoughts and feelings but she wasn’t in the business of telling people how to live their lives. They didn’t want art that made them feel things. They wanted art that everyone else liked so they could equate themselves to the values of society.

She once went out on a date with a guy who thought he could relate because he only listened to movie soundtracks too but by the time they had finished the movie and she had laughed through an entire horror scene, he said. “You’re into some messed up shit, girl.”

They got a ride from a bunch of his friends on their way back home. Something jumpy was playing on the stereo and she found herself unable to match their enthusiasm as they pumped their fists and sang along to the track. “What’s wrong with your date buddy? Is she sad or something?” The one driving asked.

“I’m not sad.” Ruth tried her best not to sound defensive.

“Why are you not singing along? This not your jam?”

“I don’t know the song.”

“What? Yo, this has been number one on billboard for like ever.” The driver said.

“That just means a lot of people liked it.” She said.

She could hear them whisper in the front seat about how cool she was. It made her smile but it also made her stomach turn.

“You’re so different.” The girl in the front seat finally said aloud to her. She didn’t know the distance Ruth would go to separate herself from people, the pain she’d endured tattooing her favorite quotes to the back of her neck, the piercing guns that had passed through her brows, her lip and both her ear lobes several times, the hair dye that had eaten away at her hair. If she hadn’t needed it, Ruth would have given up a limb to be different from people because she was different and she didn’t want to be the only person who knew it.

Her date thought she was cool too but he didn’t appreciate the fact that she didn’t enjoy a lot of intimacy. “You’re like a closed book. How the hell do you expect to find friends like this?” he said frustrated.

“I don’t need friends. I don’t need anyone.”

He liked her but he could only take so much weird. So he left. But he talked about dating her a lot. It made a lot of girls he dated after her feel inadequate but lucky.

She tried at school just enough to pass. She studied only whatever she found interesting and not a word of what she didn’t find interesting. So she failed a couple of classes. A teacher called her to her office one afternoon.

“I know you’ve passed some of your classes with flying colors. But you’ve failed these two very badly. You are a brilliant girl. Why do you get like this? Why do you dress like this?”

“Like what?”

“All those things in your hair and all that paint on your face. I know what you kids do in the name of individuality these days. It’s not very good for you, Ruth. You are very beautiful without it. I mean look at this. Look at all this.” The teacher came around her desk and fiddled with Ruth’s brightly colored dress. “You look like a tomato, Ruth. Do guys your age find this sexy?”

“I don’t do it for the guys.”

“Then why? Because I think it’s definitely better to dress acceptable. Like have you seen that girl on TV who won the thing the other day? She had on a clean collared shirt and very little make up. Look at what I have on right now. Regular shoes, a nice shirt, jeans. My colleagues find me respectable enough.”

“You look like a nurse.” Ruth said. She wasn’t trying to be rude but her teacher needed to understand.

“What’s wrong with looking like a nurse?” The teacher asked incredulously.

“You are not a nurse. And I am not a tomato.”

After Ruth left, the teacher didn’t feel like she’d made her point but she thought she understood Ruth. She’s rebelling, she thought, and she’s right. Society does put a lot of pressure on people to look like themselves. There’s no more mystery in people. We can tell who they are by the rags they put on. She just smiled to herself and let her go. Perhaps Ruth would turn out to have some hidden skills that would make up for her terrible fashion choices. Kids these days were doing absolutely anything for some attention.

Indeed Ruth had a talent for singing. She joined some lame band composed of three other kids from her school. None of them were any good but they all had the agreement that they would grow their talents together. After another jam session where they tried to find a good blues sound to cover and failed, they sat down to nibble on snacks and get to know each other.

“So what look are you going for with the purple hair?” the bassist asked Ruth. She was a tall, thin girl who like her wore a lot of skirts and had a half shaved head of hair; the rest was dyed a bright orange.

“Nothing. It’s just purple.”

“Mine was aimed at looking like the sun but my hair dresser totally ruined it. I can’t do it again until it grows out or I’m going to go bold.”

“You look like a carrot.” The drummer laughed. The bassist found the joke funny too so she playfully tossed her food at him. “Honestly though I feel like we all fit perfectly with each other. Once we find our voice, we are going to be hitting large stages. I mean we have that punky sort of look. It was meant to be.” The drummer said.

Ruth looked around at the carrot head and the drummer’s permed hair and loop ear rings and the lead guitarist’s tattooed arms, painted nails and eye liner. She had certainly found a place where she belonged. She looked almost exactly like them. She’d done exactly what they’d done to be different that it came full circle.

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