i didn't know her.
she was one of 20 students who showed up for my UCLA Extension "Introduction to Memoir" class last April. all of us brimming with our story, like a cup of coffee ready to spill over and burn you with the hottest version of ourselves.
her name was "Mia More."
at first glance i thought, "really? this is her name?" it sounded like it belonged to a soft porn star, or at the very least, a children's sing-a-long entertainer doing one of those godforsaken tours of the boonies actors seem required to notch up straight out of theatre school.
she wore combat boots, appropriate for the girl who killed the classroom's energy as she stormed in, immediately shifting it from Calm to RED ALERT. she marqueed her name placard with stars and half moons. mine stood in front of my coil notebook unmarked, but for the thick, black "X" i'd predictably had to draw through the letter "a" on the end of "Henriett-" and replace with my "e". [that's right, UCLA course administrator. i misspelled my own name when i signed up for the course. thank you for correcting me.] her hair was dyed that painfully white Playboy-bunny bleach blond. it looked like her scalp hurt. if not from the dye job, then from the ferociously blowdried tufts of hair she'd collected in frizzy bunches around her head. her makeup was slathered thick like war paint, primary-colored, childlike: dark blue eyeliner, deep stained lips—like it was done in a hurry, but intentional. intentional chaos. everything about Mia was intentional—thick lines sketched on her face like a road map meant to take Mia away from herself, but more importantly, away from us.
Mia wanted to be unique so badly, it was painful to watch.
whereas most of us scribbled notes on paper, Mia pounded away on her Mac—loudly. so loudly in fact, that our instructor J. had to ask her to leave during an in-class exercise. yes. she was one of those. a one-upper. we all had to know she wrote 1000 pages a night [or was it 2000 pages?]. we all knew that she had already completed 2 books by the age of 23. and in a smaller group, she gave me feedback on a piece that had run long—14 pages—8 pages over the assigned 6. as two of us waited patiently for her to finish—as she also corrected my grammar—she passively-aggressively sighed, continuing to stroke my piece red without raising her head, "it's really long."
Mia wouldn't listen. she was defiant. she refused to hear why her books hadn't been published yet. she gripped with throbbing fist her winning Wonka idea that it was because her books were "too hard core", not that maybe she had something to learn.
J.'s scalp must have hurt too, from the hair-tearing frustration of being unable to breakthrough to this hardworking, yet belligerent girl. because Mia couldn't yet see there was a difference between plot and story; couldn't differentiate between the lengthy laundry lists of her drug abuse and the "why should the audience care?" point of it all.
yes. Mia was also in recovery. which is why Mia drove me mad.
because here's the truth. i saw myself in her.
Mia was a peacock. i saw myself in the flourishes of her feathering plumage. when she stomped around in those combat boots, i was stomping down the halls of theatre school, hospital halls, the hollowed out halls of a marriage under construction.
with that face full of makeup we played hide-and-seek; desperate clowns. behind broad strokes of color, we hid from ourselves that which we highlighted with vibrancy and gloss for the rest of the world to admire.
and i'd mastered, too, those transparent behaviors we're so sure we've carefully veiled: the pronounced pounding on her keyboard; the measured mumblings under her breath, and i wanted to throttle her when she answered for me in class ..."you have to want it." oh, our juvenile attention getting measures. and the sad irony of it all. that once we got your attention, did we really have anything worthwhile to say?
even as i stared at her across the classroom in silent scorn, i wanted to take her home and tear away, as shiny wrapping paper, the trappings she thought made her real: the gloss and the garb and the goofs she couldn't withhold. i wanted to scrub her clean in a warm, sudsy bath and wrap her in flannel pajamas and hum a sweet tune of peace in her ear.
because that's what i wanted when i couldn't hear.
yesterday, i found out Mia died in a tragic car accident.
i also found out that Mia More was not her name.
[what would you do if you knew you had 9 months to live?]
Mia's parents contacted J. and asked to her to help guide them to writing scholarships/grants in Mia's name. J. was also told that Mia finally "got" it; the pointed power of writing. Mia had written a letter to J. thanking her, but it had never been sent.
we all think we are unique. we have unique talents, but we are not unique.
Mia was like me, defiant, intelligent, grandiose, but in the end, found humility and let herself learn.
[i am like Mia.]
Mia was beautiful, talented and human.
is that when we die? when we finally learn what we need to learn? or when we finally teach someone what they need to know?
because Mia never got to finish her book, but she'll be helping me finish mine.
i didn't know her, but i knew her.