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.