Margethe comes in sobbing and collapses into the chair opposite mine. I look up from my fourth cup of coffee in slightly sleepy confusion and then return to my SAT prep book. "Hey, did you know that 2+2=4?" I ask her, just as a conversation starter. You know, to get her talking about why she was, you know, crying.
She pauses for a minute, her mouth hanging open like one of those dying fish, except with lips and not that gross fish-scale color, you know what I mean... and then she gives a little screamlet--"No!"--before subsiding into sobs again. Whoops. That really wasn't the desired effect. I pause for a minute, reassessing the problem. If you don't have any clue, pick b. Chances are, it's b.
"Umm, well..." I think some more. This is tricky. Don’t spend too long on one question. "Nice day, isn't it?"
She stares at me in wide-eyed horror. "How much sleep did you get last night?" she demands, and I have to think about that too.
"Uhh, some, I guess, why?"
Margethe stands up, and I see through my totally blurred vision that her hands are shaking like one of those guys who runs a jackhammer too long, and for a minute I thought that maybe she'd decided not to go for college but to choose a career as some sort of construction chick, you know the type: starts out all bleached-blond pretty and grows up to be 250 lbs, cigarette hanging out of her mouth, holding the damn stop sign until one day she gets hit by a car, and then nobody comes to her funeral but her three latchkey kids and maybe the two guys she divorced, if they can get money out of it, but then I think that there's no way Margethe could go that way because she signed up for the SATs with me and you can't get out of those without breaking some serious laws. Then I use some deductive reasoning and figure out that she's nervous about something.
"Umm, is something wrong?" I ask tentatively.
"They're today!" she shrieks, and her voice strips my ear drums down to their more canine elements. She starts to hyperventilate, and then she reaches into her purse and pulls out a huge grocery bag full of little brown paper bags. She pulls one of those out and starts breathing into it, in and out, in and out, her eyes wide and scared, and then the bag pops. Everyone in the restaurant hits the deck like the bag was a gun or something, and I guess it did vaguely resemble a gunshot, but I don't see why they're all so jumpy about it, I mean, guns go off all the time, right? As I watch her pull another bag out, I see that everyone around me is crawling out from under the tables, looking like these people I saw once on TV. See, these people were staring at their house, and they looked all, you know, shell-shocked, and it took me a minute to figure out that their house was, like, on fire. Weird. Anyway, then it hits me like a train or a houseboat or something else really big moving really fast: it's SAT day.
You see, a while ago they made this law, where if you want to go to college and have a career and be a success in life, you have to take the SAT. Once a year you have SAT day, and everyone that's 18 has to go out and take it. And we spend those first 18 years of our lives getting ready. I mean, my mom had these SAT prep tapes that she used to wear on her stomach when she was pregnant and stuff, and then I used to play these analogy games with my friends, "cowboy: Indian :: cop: robber," and then we started doing daily bubbling-in drills in preschool. My dad gave me my first set of #2 pencils for my fifth birthday; it was practically the proudest freaking moment of his life, let me tell you. I'm actually using one of those today, just for, you know, luck.
Everyone makes a really big deal about this test because, without it, your life is over. I mean it, like really it is. See, they used to just give you these scores, and that would determine your whole future, but you could still kind of make it by even with a low one; after a while they got tired of all the people taking the test and getting really bad scores and then still getting into good colleges because they had nice grades or good essays or, Jesus Christ, good community service. Then, once the Princeton Review staged that military coup and took over the world, they decided that was just stupid. I mean, if you couldn't pass their freaking test, why were you alive? So, you get a choice: don't take it and become a serf, or take it and have a meaningful life. Of course, if you take it and fail it, you're really screwed: they execute you. Gruesomely, I’ve heard. My dad used to go watch them. He said that one time this guy’s head caught on fire and it was real cool, cause he ran around screaming until they finally dumped gasoline on him. Those Princeton Review guys don't screw around. They're not sponsoring group hugs and little plaques that say, "It's ok to be a loser," you know what I mean?
The big clock tower in the middle of the city chimes eight and we all head off towards the testing center. It looks kind of like a prison, like with bars on the windows and stuff, except they decorated all the walls in a very tasteful eggshell blue color because the state psychologists say it promotes feelings of peace and security. There are rows and rows of desks, and we sit down, our chairs scraping in a big collective screeching noise, like one thousand fingernails sliding down the biggest blackboard in the world... and then they pass out the tests.
After three hours, they call final time. We all stand and shuffle up towards the big score reader thing, one by one throwing our bubble sheets into the slot. It’s kind of like a big dragon, with a huge, gaping maw ready to eat me, except more metallic and without the teeth... whoa, dude, calm down, you did fine...
And then we enter the waiting room. There's Margethe, and god she's starting to get on my nerves, she's got another paper bag out. This one pops too, and once again everyone absolutely flips out--if they would all just freaking chill out it would all be cool, you know, but they didn't take quite so many Prozacs as I did before they came, I guess--wait, except that one guy there, he looks like--oh whoa, he's doing something a lot harder than the little pink pills--and then Margethe comes over to sit next to me. She starts trying to grab my hand, like I'm there exclusively for her moral support or something, but I just kind of push her away and turn to the guy next to me.
"Hey man, think you passed?"
He starts screaming. Whoops.
Then the door opens, and for a minute I think about in those movies when the door to hell opens and Satan comes out, and she's always wearing those little lingerie--I mean, I don't watch movies like that myself, but I've got friends that enjoy them a lot, and I'll be at their house and they'll just pop one in, and what can I do?--and then she does some stuff that I guess isn't too appropriate to talk about, but the point is, it's like the door to hell opening. This little guy comes out, he's kind of bald and scrawny looking, and he says, "Those that passed," in a real official voice and begins to read off names. Mine is one of them. Whoo hoo baby! My life has meaning! Hell yeah!
Then these two guards come in, and he says, "Those that didn't," in a much more ominous voice, kind of like Darth Vader almost, only less deep and evil. Margethe is on that one. Oh great, how many bags is she going to pop before they get rid of her?
They take us all out to the city's main square, and they line up the stupid ones in front of this weird moat looking thing. There are all these big, weird lizards flailing around in the water, splashing the damned and growling--oh whoa, those are crocodiles!--and then they start pushing them in, one by one, and the screams are pretty killer on my ears, but I think it’s a nice symbol of what our world is all about. You screw up the SAT, you screw up your life. You fail this one subjective test and blamo! What’s the freaking point? You’re better off dead.