Sally sells seashells by the seashore. The shells she sells she writes about for her college applications.
“You can’t write about that!” her mom yells at her.
“What other life experience do I have?” Sally asks.
“You should’ve done that community service trip to Guatemala.”
“I know, Mom! Get out of my room!”
Right before the deadline, Sally finishes her essays and sends in her applications. Her top choice is Harvard.
“I cannot believe I’m reading another essay about saving a village in Guatemala,” a man in Harvard’s admissions complains.
“This girl wrote about selling seashells,” Sally’s essay reader says. “ I respect the entrepreneurial sprit, but what a terrible business model.”
He nods somberly. “How’s the rest of her application, Herbert?”
“She’s got the grades, but she’s not Harvard material.”
“Very well. Shall we play squash?”
In May, Sally receives one rejection letter after another. Selling seashells turns out to be a unique, but highly mediocre extracurricular activity. Though she only gets into her safety school, she’s not upset; all she really wants is to start anew.
When she arrives at college in late August, she tells everyone she’s Laura from Chicago. But word gets out quickly that there’s a celebrity on campus. Students talk about her in the dining halls, at the gym, by the laundry machines, in their lectures, in the bookstore, during foreplay, at football games–everywhere is abuzz with Sally sightings.
At her first frat party on a Saturday night, Sally flirts with Josh, a freshman with an expansive Jew fro. They leave an hour or so later, and decide to head back to his room. He tells Sally to wait outside in the hallway so that he can talk to his roommate, Kyle, who’s asleep.
“Hey, man, I need the room,” Josh whispers, tapping Kyle on the shoulder.
Kyle groans and looks at his clock. “It’s, like, three a.m.”
“Dude, just let me have this one,” Josh replies.
“Who are you with?”
“Let me put it this way,” Josh says, “she sold seashells.”
“Say no more.” Kyle pats him on the back, grabs his pillow and heads out of the room. “It’s an honor,” he says, walking past Sally and bowing slightly.
“An honor?” she asks him.
He turns around. “Yeah, I mean, you’re a legend.”
“Come on, you know how it goes,” he says, and perfectly recites the tongue twister.
“You’re confusing me with someone else,” Sally tells him.
The next morning, Sally wakes up before Josh. Quietly, she gets of bed, puts on her clothing, and gathers her things. Standing by the door, she looks at Josh who’s still sound asleep. She thinks his fro may have grown an inch overnight.
“Well, I had a really good time last night,” she says.
He rubs his eyes. “Me too,” he says groggily.
“It’s too bad that my dorm’s so far away,” she comments. “I think it’s like a ten minute walk, maybe even fifteen.”
Yawning, he peers at the clock on his dresser. “It’s so early,” he moans.
“It’s past 11,” she says.
He nods and closes his eyes. “See ya later, Sally.”
“My name is Laura,” she corrects him, but he’s already pulled the blanket over his head.
Sally struts back to her dorm alone. She can’t believe college isn’t turning out how she expected. When she arrives at her room, she finds her roommate Ruth lying in bed in her pajamas, reading her biology textbook.
“Crazy night?” Ruth asks her.
Sally throws herself on her bed. “Guys are ridiculous,” she says.
“I basically asked him to walk me home, but he just went back to sleep.”
“Well, forget him,” Ruth tells her.
“And he called me Sally.”
Ruth looks up from her textbook. “But your name is Sally.”
Sally buries her face in her pillow. The smell reminds her of her mom back at the Jersey Seashore. She never thought she’d miss her.
Suddenly, Sally sits up on her bed. “I thought college was a time when you could reinvent yourself,” she says, clutching her pillow.
“Why would you want to reinvent yourself?” Ruth asks her.
“Because I’m a walking tongue twister.”
“Well, at least you’re somebody,” Ruth says solemnly. She turns towards the window at the sleepy quad below. “I’m just another Ruth from Cincinnati.”
That night, Sally heads to the library to start working on a paper. She tries to find a spot in a quiet study area, but it’s completely packed. Byron, a bespectacled sophomore, notices her and waves her over.
“Hey,” Byron whispers, “you can have my seat.”
“Really?” Sally asks quietly. “Are you sure?”
“100 percent,” he replies. “I’d do anything, and I mean anything, for my sweet, sweet Sally.”
She stares at his glasses that are too small for his face. “Don’t ever call me that again,” she tells him, and walks away. 10,000 students, she thinks, and they all know who I am.
On Tuesday, Sally meets with her academic advisor, Peggy Peterson, a globular woman who’s been at the university for decades. Peggy wants to check in to see how Sally’s first few weeks of classes have been going.
“So,” Peggy says, looking at her computer that’s bigger than she is, “classes have been good?”
“Yep,” Sally replies.
“How’s Oceanography going?”
“And Marine Biology?”
“How about Intro to Linguistics?”
“And Intro to Beach Enterprises?”
“A little repetitive.”
Peggy smiles warmly. “Well, it sounds like you’re doing well, Sally.”
“Academics aren’t the problem, Professor Peterson. And can you please call me Laura?”
Peggy sighs. She thinks back to the students she’s advised who had similar issues. There was Susie who sat in a shoeshine shop. She dropped out. Then a few years later there was Betty Botter who bought a bit of butter. She transferred to University of Phoenix online. And then there was Juan who won one wand one Wednesday. He was an exchange student from a village in Guatemala that attracts teenagers trying to get into Harvard.
“Hey, Juan, where’s your wand?” she’d joke.
“¡Me llamo Lloyd!” he’d yell back at her.
He flew back to Central America two weeks into the semester. She still can’t believe he hasn’t sent her a postcard.
“Listen,” Peggy says finally, putting a hand on Sally’s leg. “No one’s going to call you, Laura. You need to accept that.”
“But it means a lot to me, and I’m not asking for that much.”
“Think of it this way,” her advisor explains, “doesn’t everyone still call Barack, ‘Barry’?”
“Well you’re not the President of the United States.”
“I have to go,” Sally announces, and gets up from her chair. “I thought you were supposed to be helpful.”
Sally leaves the building and walks onto the quad. The wind has picked up, and she wishes she had brought a sweater. A few hundred feet away, two students hopelessly throw a Frisbee. No matter how hard they try, it has no chance of flying in the right direction.
“I’m more than a phrase that’s difficult to articulate properly,” she tells herself as she watches the disc land on the roof of a dining hall.
“No, you’re not,” a guy twirling a lacrosse stick says as he walks past her. “You’re good ol’ Sally!” The curly hair on the back of his head trails majestically behind him.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” she mutters. Stopping to scan the quad, she spots a tree directly in the sun. She walks over, tosses her bag down beside her, and sits with her back on its trunk. It’s a cool day in late September. The sun feels good. She closes her eyes, and she starts to think about the two guys and their Frisbee. She can’t figure out why they were trying to throw it in the wind.
A few minutes later, the warmth on her face disappears. She looks up and finds a guy who looks a few years older, standing in front of her.
“Hey, are you Laura?” he asks.
She thinks about the question for a moment. “You’ve got the wrong person,” she answers.
“I don’t think I do,” he corrects her. “Are you by any chance taking Intro to Linguistics?”
“I thought I recognized you,” he says. “Pretty easy class, right?”
“Yeah,” she says indifferently.
“Sorry,” he chuckles, taking a step towards her, “I’m Peter.” He extends his hand. “Peter Piper.”
“And I’m Sally who sold seashells,” she replies bitterly.
He takes back his hand, which she didn’t shake. “What are you doing right now?” he asks candidly.
“Resting on a tree.”
“What about after that?”
“I guess nothing.”
“Good,” Peter says, “because I have something to show you.”
Deep in the stacks in a musty corner of the lowest floor of the library, Peter surveys the top row of the stacks.
“It’s right around here,” he tells Sally who’s trailing behind him.
“Why am I doing this?” she asks herself.
“Here we go,” he says, ignoring her question, “I found it.” He reaches for a large hardcover book and pulls it off the shelf. After he wipes the dust off its maroon cover, Sally can make out its tiny gold letters:
A Global Compendium of Titillating Tongue Twisters
Horace H. Humphries
“Couldn’t we have just found this info online?” she asks.
“Probably,” Peter admits. He skips to the index, thumbs through to page 1,267, the chapter on etymology, and places the open book in her hands.
Skeptically, she begins to read:
The subject of this chapter pertains to the etymological basis of two classic tongue twisters. Unbeknownst to many, Sally and Peter Piper have superbly rich histories that go back hundreds of years.
Mary Anning was born on May 21, 1799 in the coastal town of Lyme Regis in West Dorset, England, to parents Richard and Molly. Richard, a cabinet-maker…
“OK, can you just summarize this?” she asks.
“Listen,” he says, grabbing it from her, “the point is your tongue twister’s about this amazing woman, Mary Anning, who discovered a huge amount of fossils, which profoundly affected the scientific community, not to mention the gender and class biases working against her.”
Sally stares at the old book.
“What I’m saying,” Peter clarifies, “is that…”
“Quick question,” a freshman, who looks like he just turned 15, interjects, “do you guys use tongue when you kiss?” He bursts into laughter, clutching his stomach in pain.
Peter turns towards him and clears his throat. “What did you say?”
“You heard me,” he says with a toothy grin.
Peter studies the freshman’s baby-like face. “How do you think I got the name ‘Peter Piper’?”
“Because that’s how I beat the shit out of freshmen who can’t mind their own business…with a lead, fucking, pipe.”
The freshman scampers off and shoots up the stairwell.
Peter turns towards Sally, whose tongue is tied. “Sorry about that,” he says. He places the book back on the shelf. “So, what should I call you?”