We met under peculiar circumstances. Cheryl, 73, took me into her life out of necessity. She was the person doctors laid me next to the night I was admitted to the University of Iowa’s Crisis Stabilization Unit, in a reclining chair that doubled as a bed. Too weak to stand but still wanting to run, nurses tall as giants wheeled me into a small room to discuss what my day-to-day would look like. Caseworkers, psychiatrists, therapists. Propped in my recliner chair bed, I managed my first hello to the room, “I’ve never seen this,” I said as I weakly pointed at a TV playing John Wick. “You’re not missing much,” Cheryl said before I passed out.
“I’ve never seen this” became the mantra of the week. Catching up on every action movie in the past decade due to the male inpatients, I was fed up and demanded a girl’s day. Baffled that Cheryl had never heard of the Princess Bride (“how do you not know the Princess Bride! Billy Crystal is basically your age!”) I sought out other movies she hadn’t seen before, a lot centering around Billy Crystal (73 and she hasn’t seen When Harry Met Sally???). Eventually, we land on Legally Blonde, much to the dismay of the men in the ward, who demanded John Wick for a third time. “It’s a story of getting your life back together!” I shouted at Andrew. “It’s what we all need right now, god damnit.”
Elle Woods is the pulse of Delta Nu. Following her breakup with Warner, a sad haze hangs over the sorority house. Realizing an intervention is necessary, Elle’s sisters rally around her as she attempts to get her life back on track to spite Warner. She becomes the best version of herself to spite her ex, pulled there by friends. When her LSAT scores come in the mail, the entire sorority materializes around her. Girls stack the marble staircase and watch as she opens the letter with her back to them. She turns with a squeak, “179!” she yells. The sorority erupts and throws her in the air, with silly string and confetti falling from the ceiling.
Like Elle, I have a deep desire to be liked. After regaining consciousness, the Sunday following my arrival, I immediately aim to win over the unit. Being hospitalized isn’t a popularity contest, but to me, it becomes one. I push Cheryl across the room in her wheelie recliner, making medical personnel laugh, I try to get Andrew’s life together, suggesting a job at the university as a means of getting a degree. I mask my problems with others, saying “look at me, look at me,” as if stability is translated by taking care of others mental state instead of my own. I am not attentive to my needs. The day before our feminist movie marathon, an older woman named Elaine is dropped off. Her husband died. “43 years they were married,” I write down in my notebook, a talking point to return to. I write nothing about my fourth suicide attempt.
Elle confronts Warner at a Harvard party dressed in a Playboy outfit and we get one of the most defining feminist scenes of the 20th century. It’s a scene I quote the most whenever I feel backed into a corner by a boyfriend. “I’m never going to be good enough for you, am I?” She breathes the words as my existence breathes the lifestyle. I sharply inhale. Who, if not me, am I trying to be good enough for anymore? The man with no bedframe who leaves my texts on read? The friend whose conversations leave trails of hatred in my brain? I demand so much and I never know why. They take so much and I never know why. I mold into what people want but have a hard time being what people need.
When people need me, I’m no longer what they want.
My friends put it into words that imply I’m a monster and I start to think maybe they’re right. I’m convinced I’m not broken enough to be moved to the psychiatric ward upstairs but am not fully confident in my wavering mental health. I’d like to be the kind of person who marches myself to the Apple store to buy a one of a kind, early 2000’s orange laptop, but I’m more concerned with the people at the party laughing at me. Will I ever win over those rooting against me? The friends who say they care but never text back? It feels like they’re the only ones waiting for me when I get out.
In stark contrast to the books and hard brick walls of Harvard, Elle’s room is a haven. Dimmed in orange lighting with a pink palm tree backdrop hanging over her bed to match, it’s the bedroom I would have loved to have in middle school. One that manifests Britney Spears album cover “…Baby One More Time” as interior design. It is juicy couture sweatpants dripping off the walls.
Framed in her doorway, Vivian is the female antagonist of the film. Arriving in a purple sweater and pearl necklace, she’s the epitome of upper-class elite. The one challenging Elle on intellect to secure less than average Warner. On Elle’s turf, she doesn’t fit. She uncomfortably asks for a case brief from Elle, her tone subdued, her demeanor less. Instead of acting on the confidence she has had the whole movie she is humble, carefully approaching Elle before making herself at home, perched on the end of her bed.
Their friendship turns from hard to soft. Away from the expectations of everyone else, they meet in the middle, stripped down to their authentic self. “Did you know Warner got waitlisted?” Vivian laughs as she tells Elle a secret best kept between her and her fiancé. “No!” Elle utters in disbelief. Not pitted against each other, they leave way for friendship to evolve.
When Astrid comes along, she capitalizes on things I don’t have. Namely, attention. Andrew and her quickly form a bond and I am immediately annoyed, mostly because David with the chipped tooth is gone and with it, his devotion. Alone with my desire for acceptance, I compete with Astrid to be the best version of whatever an ideal inpatient looks like. I show the nurses that I can color the best owl. “Do you see? Do you see mine?” I ask Brian, the attendant on our floor. “He’s blue because I’m abstract.” A child begging for approval.
At graduation, Elle is all smiles. As she takes the stage as valedictorian, her speech is preceded by a shot to the teacher who doubted her, Professor Stromwell. Their relationship is not as pronounced as her and Vivian’s but starts in the same vein. The one fueled by doubt and insecurity. Stromwell hardly graces the screen as much as Vivian, but her final encounter with Elle holds far more power than the turning point in their friendship. At her breaking point after Professor Callahan makes a pass at her, she tells Paulette that she’s done with law school. Stromwell turns away from the hooded hair dryer she’s under and says with all the confidence in the world, “if you’re going to let one stupid prick ruin your life,” the most dramatic pause sitting between her and the next sentence, “then you’re not the girl I thought you were.”
The movie begins, and ends, with support. Not nearly as loud as sorority sisters lifting her up into the air with confetti, Stromwell sits behind Elle with a soft smile, the biggest sign of approval you can possibly win from a woman of her statue. She is proud of the student she has taught and Elle is proud of the person she’s become. She delivers her speech with an aura of cool and sticks her tongue out at Vivian, who has now dumped Warner and is best friends with Elle. As the cheesy song “Perfect Day” ends the movie the same way it started, she looks up to the ceiling to revel in all she has accomplished by making her top priority herself.
I left Cheryl my number two times, written in letters I hid around the stabilization unit. She never called but, at the time, I believed in her promise she would. I think she believed in her promise she would too before life got in the way. I still wonder today if she’s okay, but all I can do is have faith that she is, just like she had faith I would stop abusing pills. Just like, I now have faith that I can quell my almost obsessive need to make friends. To not go to someone’s three-hour show with flowers just because she unfollowed me on Instagram. That I don’t have to fill up the space of a party because I want to be agreeable. No one has rewarded me the comfort of being okay with myself because I am not okay with myself.
As we huddle around the TV, men and women alike, we hear the words pour out of Elle’s mouth as she signs off her speech to Harvard Law’s graduating class. A silence fills the room as I realize I was right all along. Everybody loves the movie I put on. “You must always have faith in each other. Most importantly, you must always have faith in yourself,” she said, a goodbye to the days of self-doubt. Faith that tomorrow will have love. That your arms can carry your weight. That today, I am okay.