The Student News Site of Shorewood High School

Shorewood Ripples

The Student News Site of Shorewood High School

Shorewood Ripples

The Student News Site of Shorewood High School

Shorewood Ripples

Rules: A short story by Sonia Bendre

Esmeralda rolled slowly down the road. The sun had not yet risen, so it was still dark. The dark made her nervous, just like it had used to when she was younger and still had hope of growing up and out of it. She drove forty-five miles an hour (like always). Between the wipers furiously wiping small tears of rain off of the windshield, she could faintly see her reflection, which she saw about as clearly a moth might glance at its reflection in a bedroom window before its instincts glued it to the pane, eager for the light behind it. A red Corolla with a missing headlight blinked past her, and the driver turned her head, as if to confirm her age. 

If there was anything that Esmeralda had accomplished properly in her life it was adhering to the rules. It was what her mother told her was the key to success and her mother’s mother before that. She never knew her father’s mother because after he decided to marry her mother, her mother decided never to speak to him again. Esmeralda had learned from experience the disaster that decisions could make, so she chose to make few of them herself. When she was growing up, she wore her hair down and left it a mousy brown color— like an invisibility cloak that blended her into the school walls, disguising her from any bullies or potential love interests. She might have dyed her hair back then if the rules hadn’t said that the only girls who dyed their hair were looking for attention. She had preferred to think of her silence at school as a tactical move to avoid any disaster that could be incidentally brought upon by a wrong word or hasty phrase. No matter how many times her mother told her that inner beauty was the kind that mattered, the boys at school did not absorb this rule from her mind through osmosis. They liked girls who spoke, who wore colorful outfits, who were more, as her mother said, with the times. Except the girls thought they were the heralds of the times, but her mother thought they were closer to unfortunate products of it. Or symptoms: the other girls had vacillated between being objects of ridicule or victims of disease depending on the news her mother read that morning. Her mother was a product of her own times—and as Esmeralda suspected she had now become a product of hers. 

Soon winter fell. Ice hardened into the cracks in the road, solidifying into stubborn and immovable (albeit more shapely) masses. The next time she drove down the Avenue the speed limit was fifty miles an hour. The roads were not repaved. There was as much traffic as ever. Nothing had become visibly safer to warrant the sudden change.

As always, she drove forty-five. Arriving home, she dialed the Department of Public Works and enquired as to the reason for the change. After pressing three numbers, she realized that her assistant was an automated robot. It demanded her human will from her without offering an ounce of effort in return. Three more buttons and half of Beethoven’s second symphony later, a tired-sounding man told her the reason was “public security and updating technology.” She asked what that meant, and after a long silence, he responded, “Cars drive faster now, ma’am.”

Two years later, under the SPEED LIMIT that now read sixty-five, another sign had appeared, black letters squiggling like snakes on the white background in the dark. She squinted at it. SPEED MINIMUM: forty-five.

She drove forty-five.

She reached a four-way intersection. On the corner across from her, a man danced. He was wearing a blue tracksuit and sunglasses, and his dark skin appeared almost luminous in the early morning sky. One of Esmeralda’s cardinal rules, which she had acquired from the Teen Vogue 1974 Summer Edition, was: Never wear sunglasses when it is dark outside, or you will look like a hooligan. 

The man did not look like a hooligan. He looked like a moth surrounded by light. His arms waved with wild, joyful abandon. His hips popped. His body was a natural conduit for the music to travel through, from his headphones to the air: a live wire.

Esmeralda, encased in her small, stuffy car, did not smile. She let the impression of him sift through her mind as she drove past the intersection, the man fading into a speck of dust behind her. Usually when she drove to work and back, she played classical music. Around five minutes away from the office, Beethoven’s sixth symphony dissolved into reedy gasps– the connection was weakening. 

She worked as a secretary. In her times, if you were an educated woman you could become a teacher, a nurse or a secretary. Esmeralda did not like the vulgarity of children nor blood, so the choice was obvious. Nowadays, women who were educated could become whatever they wanted—very impressive sounding things, like ‘doctor’ or ‘lawyer’ or ‘president’ (the last in theory, not yet in practice). But over 162,000 women her age were secretaries, and she was certain that if some of them had grown up now they would have been doctors. Had their job title changed their value? Their intelligence? Had it ever really been a signifier of any of that in the first place? Her title had changed recently to ‘administrative office assistant.’ This had not changed her daily woes: mountains of papers and an irritable copy machine.

When she arrived, she greeted the receptionist. Ella mumbled a ‘hello’ but was clearly more immersed in her donut. She knew that Ella was the type of person who would take the last cookie on a party plate. Over the course of working with her, Ella had broken twenty-five of the forty-six Rules Of Etiquette in Esmeralda’s pocketbook. 

Nothing was any different than the way it used to be, she decided. Everyone was just using different names for the same old truths. The only thing that stayed the same was that everyone wanted to make everything go faster and look better all of the time. They changed the rules instead of changing the world. It was easier to appear as though you were making a difference if you changed the rules instead of incessantly focusing on changing yourself. 

A few days later, the SPEED MINIMUM became fifty. 

Instead of accepting that the rules had always been cruel and arbitrary, she drove forty-five.