Irish

For the first three months of school, I had no friends. I realize how unbearably tragic that sounds, but it really wasn’t that bad. This is partially because I was so preoccupied with the novelty of my new environment, and partially because I was just a very un-tragic person. In fact, for the most part, I didn’t even realize I was lonely—I honestly assumed that what I was feeling was a general condition.

And to be fair, I did nothing to facilitate making friends. I had a different paperback for every class. I lined them up in order on my locker shelf and read them under my desk. When people tried to talk to me, it took all my mental faculties just to respond, and the effort of making small-talk was exhausting (since then, I’ve realized that it’s not strangers I find so exhausting—it’s small-talk).

No one was mean to me, or if they were, I didn’t really care. They ignored me, and I concentrated on my books and on writing things down as they happened. Once, a boy in my Spanish class licked my face, just to see what I would do. My reaction underlined the very thing that had made him want to shake me up in the first place. I did . . . approximately nothing. I turned in my seat and said in a dazed, dreamy voice, “Oh my God, that’s disgusting.” I still can’t picture the look I gave him, but I remember how it felt—quizzical, wondering. My heart was beating so hard I thought it might burst like a balloon, but none of the underlying shock was apparent in my face or my voice, and after that, he left me alone. Everyone left me alone. Then, this happened:

One day in Geometry, Irish leaned across the table and passed me a note. It said, Hey little girl, you’re on my bus route. I like your shirt. And for a minute, I just sat there looking at it. I knew he was on my bus route. There was no way I could not know—our stops were right next to each other. I was the girl wedged into the corner of the seat. He was that guy who talked to people.

After that, we sat together during homework-time. We played blackjack and tic-tac-toe. He had a vast collection of pejorative terms for Irish immigrants and wanted to know if there were any for Macedonians. I said I didn’t know. I said it was hard to think up derogatives for a country no one knew existed. For awhile, he tried calling me Cracker, but it never stuck. He called me The Russian, and occasionally, “You Commie Bastard.”

When I was with Irish, I was happy. It wasn’t a simple happiness—I remember being very aware that I was not his friend, even though he was mine—but it was school-happy, and made geometry much more interesting. I started feeling markedly optimistic about waiting for the bus, like I had something to look forward to. I liked all the little things about him, the kind of things my field guide was built on:

Irish walks like he doesn’t mind being tall. He’s floppy, with big hands and feet and the same sweater every day. He has actual green eyes, so green they look fake, and freckles everywhere. Because of them, he doesn’t wear shorts, even in PE. I always want to take my pen and map them like constellations.

Before Irish, I used to read under the table until the bell. Now, [we pass a notebook back and forth and] I scrawl knock-knock jokes and cityscapes and pictures of diving birds. Irish presses the pencil down so hard that all the words come out looking sharp and black, but mine are only faint. Dove-gray.

Sometimes, after our conversation has gone on a while, he takes his pencil and scribbles all over the page, crossing everything out. I asked him why he does that and he said, “This way we’re like secret agents. No one will know what we’ve been up to.”

I understand now that he could have been my friend—the real kind. All it would have taken was a more active investment on my part. He tried, but I hadn’t figured out how to recognize the gestures yet. We shared pencils and textbooks and Cokes. I let him wear my scarf. We stood close together, closer than I was used to being to anyone besides my family. He told people I was his sister even though we looked nothing alike, and on mornings when the bus was below freezing, we would huddle together in the seat by the heater and he would let me put my hands inside the cuffs of his sweater. He did all this so easily, like there was no danger in being nice to people. He was definitive proof that you (or at least, he) could affect the world on a daily basis, and even without what happened next, that would have been enough.

This is how he won my loyalty completely. A few weeks after he passed me the note, we were sitting at our table, doing what we usually did during homework-time—so, drawing pictures of rabbits and talking about classic rock. Enter: Ace. Ace is on the soccer team. He’s in a band. He has cool hair, and an extensive selection of rugby shirts. He sits directly in front of us and likes to tip his chair back and rest his elbows on our table. Sometimes this is not a problem. And then sometimes, it is:

He kept putting his elbow in my notes, and once, hard on the back of my hand.

“Hey,” Irish said. “Hey, jerk-off, you just about crushed her @#$%ing fingers. You think you could quit it?”

Ace looked over his shoulder, but didn’t answer. He let the chair thump back down onto all four legs. Ten minutes later, his elbows were back on my notebook and Irish was looking close to atomic.

I watched Ace slide his elbow around, crumpling my list of theorems, scraping it from side to side. The paper went tearing away from the binder rings like a zipper, but Ace didn’t act like he noticed. He just kept rocking, balancing the chair, mutilating my notebook.

Irish took a deep breath and put his hands flat on the tabletop. Then, he kicked Ace’s chair out from under him. Ace fell backwards into our row and hit his head on the table. Now he sits on the other side of the room.

Apart from cementing my allegiance with Irish, this was a critical development because it made me face something I’d been willfully avoiding. Namely, that I’d been sitting there in the periphery for three months, holding perfectly still and letting boys in Intermediate Spanish lick my face. That if Irish hadn’t done what he did, I’d still be sitting there, waiting for Ace to stop sticking his elbows in my personal space, maybe sliding my notebook halfheartedly out of his way, but not with any real conviction.

I wish I could say that this by itself spurred me to action or made me change my disgustingly passive ways, but it didn’t. All that happened was, I arrived at a conclusion, and the conclusion was this: I had no idea how I was going to fix it, but I knew that I didn’t want to just sit there anymore.

21 thoughts on “Irish

  1. I love this story. You always have the best high school stories.
    A lot of kids over the years did a lot of things to try and get a reaction out of me but no one ever licked me. That’s crazy.

    • no one ever licked me. That’s crazy
      Oh, believe me, I thought I was going to die of shock, but when it came to social awkwardness (which I had a *lot* of), I was kind of like a little robot–instead of blushing or stammering or anything like that, I would just . . . power down. Like, if I could just reboot and start over, I could reassess the situation and then it would make sense.

  2. I LOVE YOUR WRITING!!! Can you put all the stuff you ever wrote during high school together and please have it published? Pretty please? I want to read all of them over and over and over again.
    P.S. I didn’t have friends during the first few months of junior high. All my elementary school friends went to a different middle school and I was all alone. That’s when it hit me that I’m not very good at making friends even though I’m generally a friendly person. I spent those months in the library LOL.

    • I’ve got a billion more, so stay tuned (it’s always a matter of sitting down and deciding what I think is important, and then figuring out *why*)!
      it hit me that I’m not very good at making friends even though I’m generally a friendly person
      Making friends is such a learned skill, I think–I’ve known people who were just naturally good at it, but it seems like everybody else has to practice. I’ve had a lot of practice and I *still* have to practice.
      Also, I lovelovelove your icon. That photo always makes me tear up a little, because apparently, when I’m not being a robot who lets people lick her face, I am *hugely* sentimental about . . . Hollywood bombshells who love modernist literature? What?

  3. I don’t know what to say to this. There are bits that strike home, and his description sounds horribly familiar. But I think that this is what people should mean when they say that they want to be nice to others and be friends with everybody. I know what it’s like to have other people’s spit on you (though I actually threw the chewed-up apple back at them) and to have the reputation of “the quiet one alone with her books” and to have people try to include you, but it’d be kinda nice to have someone like that that would be like an older brother. Don’t get me wrong, I have a best friend, but the only class we have together is lunch and otherwise I just have my thoughts, which compared to the pseudo-interest that everyone gives me, I prefer that. But you were really lucky to have him there, for however long he stayed by your side.

    • to have people try to include you
      I think this might actually be where I was going and just didn’t know it–because yeah, people *did* try to include me and it always felt exactly like that’s what they were doing: Making an Effort. With Irish, everything always seemed effortless, which was . . . refreshing, to say the least.
      And I know exactly what you mean about preferring your thoughts. Having thoughts is important–and SO important, if you’re going to write. I don’t know if this is how it is for you, but for me, I didn’t feel like I fit anywhere until I met other people who thought just as recreationally and as enthusiastically as I did (In case you haven’t noticed, I am a huge proponent of thinking.)
      Thanks for sharing this. One of the things I really like about doing these posts is how much I get to learn about other people.

      • I don’t know if this is how it is for you, but for me, I didn’t feel like I fit anywhere until I met other people who thought just as recreationally and as enthusiastically as I did
        This is how I feel. In fact, I think this describes my best friend. But the thing is I need something to do when I’m not with her so I think, which really means daydream. And daydream includes a lot of scenes to write later. And I know what you mean by the effortless thing. I can’t remember really seeing a good example of this before, but I can see how it would look and feel.

  4. I think that within you is a literary masterpiece. The book that’s talked about 50 years from now. I think that high school for most people is reactive with the absence of discovery or conclusion. Moments ebb and flow and and the reasoning gets trapped in the sub conscious mind. I think by writing you’re not only observing the world, but also yourself. This a gift. I believe you’d make an exceptional healer. I love these posts. Thanks, Simon.

    • I think that high school for most people is reactive with the absence of discovery or conclusion
      That was my impression too. Or at least, the conclusions often come later. I think that for a lot of people, adolescence is a really emotional time, and when I was a teenager, I was very distrustful of emotion in any form, so I was always trying to coat with a layer of intellect, or at least force it through an academic lens so that it would make more sense. Even when I look at the things that happened in high school, I’m still trying to make myself make sense :D

  5. Your high school stories, both those you wrote then and your current reflections on them, are so fascinating and real. Your description of Irish and how you two interacted reads like a novel, not the written anecdotes from someone’s real life. Thank you for continuing to share!

    • Thanks for reading! I love novels, I love writing fiction, but I still have this deep, abiding fascination with the Real. I think that’s one reason I like writing YA so much. Because when I think back on high school, a lot of it–even the good stuff–was very unsettling, which sort of makes it seem like the Realest thing that’s ever happened to me.

  6. Thanks for sharing this! I can relate to so much of it. (Once, in middle school, I had zero friends for most of the year. I just didn’t feel like *trying* anymore. Sigh.)

    • I just didn’t feel like *trying* anymore.
      I *so* remember that–that feeling that trying just seemed very exhausting. Also, I didn’t go to middle school, but the stories I’ve heard are pretty much horrible straight across the board. So, I guess what I’m saying is, I’m really glad I didn’t go to middle school!

  7. Fun fact: the idea of not knowing Macedonia existed stopped me for a minute there. Then it occurred to me that going to a high school where pretty much anyone who could qualify for the term ‘immigrant’ is either Macedonian or Albanian is probably not the norm.
    This is amazing, though. Poetic.
    Personally, I always end up with the weird, eternal fate of having friends, but also having no friends, because I of the bad luck to end up taking everything a year early, but not at advanced level, so all my honors friends were in other classes, and so were all my academic friends. So there are many, many upperclassmen not aware I possess the ability to speak…
    Most of the pebble-throwing, reaction-taunting stuff got out of the way after middle/elementary school, though. Small town with 200 kids per grade, it gets old after 10 years or so.

    • going to a high school where pretty much anyone who could qualify for the term ‘immigrant’ is either Macedonian or Albanian is probably not the norm.
      That’s awesome! At my school, the majority of kids from other countries came from either India or Southeast Asia, though I did have a friend from Bulgaria. When my grandfather (the only actual Macedonian in the family) immigrated, the country was still Macedonia, but by the time I was in high school, it had only just stopped being a republic of Yugoslavia, so it was especially non-existent.
      there are many, many upperclassmen not aware I possess the ability to speak
      Oh wow, do I know about *this*–my first semester, I wound up having to take political science to make up for not having had civics (junior high), and it was *all* seniors taking it as an elective. I don’t think I said one word after my hippies/gypsies debacle on the first day.

  8. Hmm. In Kindergarten I was the kid who bounded up to the girl in tears, clinging to her mom, and did the “Let’s be friends!” ritual. Then around middle school, when I transfered from a private school to a public one, I shut down and got shy. I spent the first six months or so doing this thing where I would stare wistfully at a group of girls playing tag, kind of asking-without-asking if I could play. Finally they took pity on me, and we stayed friends until I left school there (though there was this one girl who didn’t seem to like me much; I always thought saw through to my neediness of the time). Somehow I have friends now, though I still tend to be antisocial at heart.
    I liked reading this; honestly I don’t know why. High school stories don’t seem like an interesting topic to talk about. I think the idea of loyalty got to me. That usually catches me. I would love to read more.
    I have to ask: what happened to this person? Did you ever stop being sort of friends?

    • In Kindergarten I was the kid who bounded up to the girl in tears, clinging to her mom, and did the “Let’s be friends!” ritual. Then around middle school, when I transfered from a private school to a public one, I shut down and got shy.
      This is really interesting–I was almost the exact opposite. When I was very young, I was shy nearly to the point of being mute. I mean, I could be completely silent all day if I was around strangers (especially other kids), but I think a lot of it was due to being homeschooled and not getting a lot of practice socializing.
      When I finally started public school (10th grade) and realized that my new life meant being with lots of people, all day *every* day, I spent a month or two not talking, then got so bored that I had to come up with a new strategy. Eventually, I couldn’t get around the conclusion that if I wanted friends, I was going to have to talk, so I had better get good at it. (It took me about another eight months to figure out something to say.)
      I have to ask: what happened to this person? Did you ever stop being sort of friends?
      We did, but it was a long slow thing, where we would lose touch, then re-converge for years and years. Very un-cinematic, but often how things happen in real life, I think.

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