The story I am about to tell happened because of Hemingway. But it wasn’t his fault.
In English, we’d been reading The Old Man and the Sea for almost a week. For those unfamiliar with this particular book, it is 96 pages long. Also, we were on the block system. In case you don’t feel like doing the math, I’ll break it down: we were reading the same 96-page book for an hour and a half every day.
I finished on the second day, but complied with the mandatory Reading Time by bringing another book. M was not amused. She wanted to know where my Hemingway was. Then she sent me to go get it.
At my locker, I just stood there, looking at the inside of the door. I’d taped up pictures because other girls taped up pictures, but mine were sepia-toned and not quite right—postcards of Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe. They coexisted more or less peacefully with my locker-partner’s shrine to Brad Pitt.
I was standing there, seething over M, when Gatsby came down the hall toward me.
This is what I wrote about him a year later,* when we had the same history class, but I’m including it here because here is as good a place as any and sometimes you just need to know about a person:
First, about Gatsby. He is 16, and has black hair and blue eyes, and his teeth are crooked from being kicked in the mouth so many times. He’s not very big, but his body seems angular and tough, like if he were already grown up. He smiles a lot, is always nice to me, and sometimes tries very hard in class, although mostly not.
[In History] he always has something to say, and usually it is something so desperate and passionate and indignant that I envy him for being able to say it, like no one was going to laugh at him for caring so much.
Gatsby is a hard boy to explain to someone who hasn’t met him. Even hard to explain to the people around here, who know him. He’s rough and loud, but in a way, still very gallant.** I like him very much, in the only way I can. I like him in the way of a small girl in the back row of 4th hour History, watching closely, but never saying anything.
That day though, I didn’t know anything about him. I was still unacquainted with his character, his eccentricities. I was only a very quiet, very cautious girl looking at a stranger, limited to what I could see.
And what I could see did not look good. He was holding a red paper Coke cup against the side of his face. When he stopped at his locker, he opened it with a little flourish that was supposed to make me laugh. One eye was swollen part-way closed.
“Hi,” he said. The corner of his mouth had cracked and was bleeding in a tiny bright smudge.
I looked around to see if he might be talking to someone else, but like with Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, I was the only one there. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I nodded.
I’d heard him talk before, to other people. He sold drugs. We were smack in the middle of what is now quaintly termed a “meth belt,” and I’d heard him going over his theories on supply and demand. His voice was lower than you’d think from looking at him. When he smiled, blood feathered out from the cut in his lip.
He dug through his locker, still watching me, but not unkindly. “It’s not bad. I mean, it could have been worse.”
I raised my eyebrows and that made him smile again.
“Of course it could,” he said. “Things can always be worse.” He touched the corner of his mouth with his tongue. “Guess it looks bad, huh?”
I nodded. Every time he smiled, he showed a mouthful of chipped teeth. His skin was clammy-looking. His knuckles were scraped, scabbing over. Every thing looked pretty bad.
“I got lucky,” he said, suddenly. “He was plowed and I got lucky. Almost too drunk to keep standing, you know. If he hadn’t been so drunk, I’d probably be in the hospital. That would be worse.” He held the cup against his cheek and shrugged. “It’s been worse.”
And this story is the truth. It’s what happened, but all I wrote at the time was this:
Gatsby was in the halls yesterday when no one else except me was there. He pointed to a bruise on his cheekbone, said, “I got lucky. If he hadn’t been so drunk, I’d probably be in the hospital. He was just plowed, though. Almost too drunk to stand, you know. It could’ve been worse. Things can always be worse.”
Then I moved on to something comfortable and mundane because I was 16 and sharp enough to know what he was telling me, but not articulate enough to talk about it. What I felt but did not say was that I had seen Gatsby, not in words, but in gestures—that his meaningful features were all in the pauses, in the way he never dropped his gaze or looked ashamed.
I’ve talked before about other people’s stories sometimes being your stories too, and that sounds so simplistic but I don’t know how else to say it. This was one of those moments when stories converged, and later, it was also the moment that made me understand I was always going to fail at describing the world. It was only ever going to be approximate, and all I could do was try, and after that, try harder.
And I hated The Old Man and the Sea, but suddenly I understood Hemingway, what he meant about the dignity of icebergs. How it’s due to seven eighths of them always being underwater.
*By junior year, I’d mostly abandoned the field-guide format. Even though I recorded Gatsby’s contributions to class discussion on a fairly regular basis, it wasn’t until I’d observed him at close range for almost a semester that I finally got around to writing an actual introduction.
**I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. Gatsby wasn’t virtuous or noble—he wasn’t one of the good guys. But this pronouncement stands, at least: he was always nice to me.