A few weeks ago, I called my older sister in a panic about something that has since become blissfully trivial; probably not getting into a club or something along those lines. She picked up on the fifth dial tone and sounded a bit sluggish.
“Hey Becca, how has your day been?” I asked, planning to inconspicuously steer the conversation towards myself.
“Zachy! It’s been… well it’s been okay.”
“Aw, that’s too bad. Anyways, so I just got back from this thing and—
“I just… I just had the weirdest realization yesterday,” she interjected. “I just feel like Miley Cyrus.” Perhaps it was the degree to which I did not expect that comment that made me forget about my present panic, or maybe I was curious as to what exactly she meant. Whatever the case, I stopped trying to talk about myself.
“I’m sorry, what was that?”
“Miley Cyrus,” she said. “I’m Miley Cyrus.”
“No, but seriously, Zachy. Like, have you listened to her new album?”
“I tried, but I couldn’t get through it. It was just way too out there.”
“That’s what I mean,” she said. “I just feel like I’ve descended into obscurity. Like I got to college and I was a PoliSci major, and now I’m in the film school, and like I joined a sorority but I don’t even like it, and…” She mysteriously trailed off.
“Is that it?” I asked, trying to coax her out of this strange rumination.
“I mean it’s more of a general thing. I guess what’s weird is that even though I wouldn’t recognize myself as I am now if I met myself three years ago, I’m sort of happy. But also confused. Oh, college.”
The phone conversation went on for a bit, but eventually came to a close. When I hung up, I immediately opened my computer and listened to Miley’s newest release Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, searching for answers to questions I hadn’t fully formulated. Listening to the album only confused things more: some standout tracks like “Space Boots” and “Milky Milky Milk” certainly sounded like music, and yet something about them was so deliberately unfamiliar that I sort of lost track of what my original endeavor really was. But, after giving the album another spin, I started to think about Becca’s realization, wondering if—or perhaps when—I’ll have my “Miley moment,” or the moment when I suddenly reel around and realize just what a distortion I am of my previous self, when I look at myself and say Zach, you’ve officially hit Zach Cohen & His Dead Petz and it’s really weird. What follows here is the screenplay for my imagined descent into obscurity as it unfolds over my next few years at Princeton.
End of Freshman Spring – Miley Cyrus circa 2010, release of Can’t Be Tamed
Zach rolls out of bed, the scent of singed tobacco leaves lingering on his The Smiths t-shirt that he got from Urban Outfitters on a strange series of band-related t-shirt impulse buys. Is it tobacco?
He sees that his roommate isn’t in the room. Try hard, he thinks, waking up at a decent hour. Zach looks at the scratched screen on his FitBit and see that it’s 1:32 PM. Nevermind.
Eventually, after a few hours of lounging around in the shared study space in Bloomberg with his neuroscience textbook strategically laying face-up on the table, he gives up pretending to study and gets an early dinner. In the dining hall, he runs into some friends from his zee group and grabs a chair next to them.
Their conversation shifts from recounting their various escapades from the previous Saturday night to contemplating the amount of work they all have waiting for them to plow through on this fine Sunday evening.
“I just don’t know how I’m going to take Orgo next year—I’m having enough trouble in Gen Chem this year. Ugh, being pre-med, honestly,” one of his hall mates remarks.
“Ha, Orgo,” Zach retorts. “Lame.”
“Zach, aren’t you pre-med,” they inquire.
“You know, I thought about it a lot last week, and yeah, no, not anymore.” Their faces of confusion around the dining table compel Zach to justify his response. “I mean, I realized that I just don’t like working with people, you know? I’m probably just going to do research. We’ll see.”
“I thought you came here 100% certain about being pre-med.”
“Things change, what can I say,” Zach stares demurely off into the distance. “Also, honestly, I just failed my Chem midterm, so like, maybe not the right career path.”
As the demoralization from the conversation subsides, Zach returns to work in his dorm, skimming through the chapters he’s left unread for his upcoming neuroscience final. As he digests the material, a sinking feeling pushes him to question why he’s even reading this textbook in the first place. He shoves the thoughts aside, slips on a jumper with the chorus of “Come on Eileen” printed on the back, and sets to work.
Midway through Sophomore Fall – Miley Cyrus circa 2013, release of Bangerz (Deluxe Edition)
On a lovely Tuesday night, Zach leaves 48 University Place at 11:36 PM, feeling slightly accomplished for completing something that others will eventually deem mediocre.
On the way back to his dorm, he gets a call from his dad. Odd, he thinks. I usually get a reminder to go to the CJL more often on Thursday nights, not Tuesdays. Ignoring the immediate confusion, he picks up the phone.
“Hey, Dad! How are you doing?”
“I’m doing well,” his dad responds. “I just wanted to let you know that I mailed you another challah, and you should probably be getting it on Friday.”
“Is it cinnamon raisin?”
“Better. Nutella and pecan.”
“I know. Anyways, how are classes going? Are you still playing club squash?” Zach winces slightly, hoping to have evaded this conversation for at least a few more weeks.
“No I actually dropped all of my extracurriculars and started over fresh and clean. Didn’t get on to Model UN, again. It was awesome.”
“You tried out again?”
“Yeah, it was weird, let’s not talk about it.”
“Okay… well how about that neuroscience class you were excited about taking? What was it? Neuronal dynamics or something?”
“Eh, I decided not to take that. I’m actually in this really cool Gender and Sexuality Studies class. And a film class. Also, this class on Irish modernist literature. I didn’t think I would like Ulysses, but it was actually really good!”
“No one likes Ulysses,” his father responds.
“Well you sound pretty happy! That’s good to hear. You sounded kind of bogged down earlier this semester.”
I am happier. Zach thinks to himself, slowly drifting out of this conversation. I guess I could always try neuroscience and club squash again some other time. Maybe these are the classes I was supposed to take when I first got here.
“Zach, are you still there?” He descends from the echelons of his wandering thoughts.
“Yeah, sorry, I was just thinking about all the work I have to do tonight. Not fun!”
“Well, don’t forget to make sure to give yourself a break. I remember when I went to college, and…” Zach, out of a force of habit, once again drifts out of the conversation upon hearing the beginning of one of his dad’s college stories.
After hanging up from the conversation with his dad and returning home, Zach climbs up on the green roof of Bogle hall. He thinks about his life—how could he not after this conversation with his well-meaning dad? It is a bit odd that after only a year in college, his course of career trajectory and academic passion has shifted dramatically. And yet, he can’t help but feel some sort of fuzziness deep down. Maybe it’s a feeling of belonging, or at least of starting to find his place, however unexpected its actual manifestation.
I just love getting it up, he thinks. He realizes that some celebrity recently said that exact phrase in an interview with W magazine, but he can’t remember which celebrity it was. She had a Disney show…
Midway through Junior Fall – Miley Cyrus circa 2015, release of Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz
Interior. Zach’s mind. Zach’s friends keep asking his why he only speaks in curt sentences. He can’t help that he’s in a screenwriting class and he’s decided that it’s his life’s calling.
The camera pans in a continuous shot to Zach sitting in Chancellor Green library, reading from a book whose title is just obscured enough for the audience to not recognize it. Zach looks playfully into the camera and grimaces. We wonder what he’s thinking.
He rises unexpectedly from his chair in the Green library. He starts making his way to the door, popping his shoulder in a 60’s sitcom campiness that he’s only familiar with from watching Hairspray forty-five times. Once bursting through the doors of the library, a smile swallows his face, and he breaks out in dance. A group of back-up dancers he doesn’t know personally trails behind him.
He sees a friend of his approaching from the distance.
“Hey, man, what’s up!”
“Zach, why are you dancing?” His friend asks.
“It’s a form of expression.”
His friend laughs sarcastically, “Whatever you say,” and then departs.s
The campus lights up kaleidoscopically for Zach, and he doesn’t know if it has something to do with the amazing amount of daylight. But, most importantly, he doesn’t care. Eventually, he makes it to an academic building, and bursts through the double doors. He collides with his Russian Literature teacher.
“Zach! Are you in a rush or just not paying attention as usual?” His teacher chuckles.
“I’m just being me! Just being Zach.”
“Now, I can’t wait to see you again!”
Zach wanders off. He wonder’s if his teacher picked up on his reference to Miley Cyrus’ hit jam “See You Again” from Hannah Montana 2: Meet Miley Cyrus. Probably not.
Zach says to himself, The next time we hang out I will redeem myself. My heart can’t rest ‘till then.
Then Zach calls to his teacher. “Wait, sir! Did you see my most recent screenplay? I put it on my Tumblr. It’s totally free if you want to download it. It depicts Catherine the Great’s ascension to the throne… and other things.”
“I’m sorry, Zach,” says the teacher disconcertedly. “I must have missed it. Was it a surprise release?”
“Yeah, literally no one saw it coming. I uploaded it by accident.”
“Makes sense,” the teacher replies.”
“I can’t figure out how to take it down.”
“That’s unfortunate. Oh, by the way, I saw that you were recently named “Sexiest Vegetarian Princeton Student” by PETA. Congratulations! When did you become a vegetarian?”
Zach is genuinely astounded that his professor noticed his most recent accolade. He whips his head around, gazing off into the distance with a look of wonder and infinite possibilities upon his face.
“Zach…?” The teacher asks. There is no answer.
A montage begins to play of scenes from Zach’s previous life; his trials and tribulations of transforming from a pre-med Neuroscience major to a Slavic Languages and Literature major with certificates in Urban Planning and Sustainable Energy, or whatever. Apparently he’s also a sexy vegetarian, now. While we stop recognizing the Zach that greeted us at the beginning of the montage, we begin to notice something truly remarkable: a smile that was once absent begins to flood across his face.
We don’t recognize him, and in this confrontation with his professor, he certainly does not recognize himself, either. He’s reached his Miley moment, a point of such absolute obscurity, he begins to wonder how exactly he got here. He will never know. He can’t remember much since he started thinking about it. But one thing’s for certain: he’s more him than he ever was before. And he’s pretty damn happy about it. Oh, college, he thinks. The possibilities are just endless.
He walks from the camera, and the scene closes.