By now, it should come as no surprise that Brenna at sixteen is essentially an orderly creature.
True, she doesn’t always do her homework. She has a bad tendency to lose her pens and sometimes she shows up to PE only to realize that she’s wearing one purple sock and one brown one, but she is methodical. Self-contained. She is placid. You’d be hardpressed to hurt her or scare her or break her heart. Basically . . . she is this girl.
Even though she spends most of her time with Catherine, who is perpetually In Love (not always with the same person), she doesn’t believe in things like fate or destiny or soul mates.
When she considers the possibility of a boyfriend, it’s abstract. Which is not to say that she doesn’t think about it. She does, but only in the context of an activity, like sand volleyball. Or backgammon. She views dating as something that might be interesting to try, and also, she wants to know what it’s like to kiss someone. The idea of a boyfriend is appealing in a general way. It is, however, ruled out by the fact that she suspects she may be undatable.
She likes herself—don’t worry. In fact, some days she likes herself quite a bit. But she doesn’t really believe that anyone else will like her. This is mostly because she has a very low opinion of high school boys, but we’ll cut her some slack because so far, her test group has not been promising.
The thing is (occasional crushing boredom aside), she really finds herself very entertaining. She is ironic. She likes 80s horror and Quentin Tarantino and pasting foil decals on her fingernails. She enjoys the color red, but finds orange appalling. She likes Sweet Tarts, coffee, and drawing elaborate pictures of medieval fortresses and panopticons in her physics notes. She doesn’t believe in miracles, she believes in unknowns. When she zones out in class, she dreams the gleaming daydreams of scientists.
These are things she knows about herself. She doesn’t want to change.
But she’s beginning to suspect that if she wants to go on dates, she might have to. She has a hard time imagining that any boy is looking for this—what she is. And she has an even harder time imagining that any of the boys at school have anything to offer that she actually wants. So, instead of scouring her classes for potential suitors, she invents fictional ones. And fictional boys never disappoint.
She wants someone wistful and tender (and nicer than she is), but she wants him to be that way in secret. Sentimentality is only attractive if it’s private. She kind of wants to be adored, but not from mountaintops, never over the PA system. She wants shy, lingering glances and wishes made on stars, because nothing appeals to her more than longing. When she considers herself unromantic, she is lying. Did I mention that she is selfish in the way that only teenage girls can be?
It would be both gratifying and very literary to say that my wishlist ties into my first dating experience, but absolutely none of this has any bearing on what happens next.
Dill isn’t like the other boys in our grade. He’s taller than most of them, but not in a gawky way. He has an actual physique. He’s on the swim team and wears two different colored Chuck Taylor high tops and drives a red sports car.
And the thing is, he notices me.
To a girl who’s spent the last six months only being visible when it’s catastrophically inconvenient, Dill’s attention is a welcome change, but it also poses a set of very complex problems. It’s like being presented with a particle accelerator. I simply don’t know what to do with it.
Dill and I have PE together. We don’t really know each other, but he talks to me sometimes in a warm, casual way that is somehow not casual at all. When I catch him watching my reflection in the weight room mirrors . . . I trick myself that he’s not. I tell myself not to worry about it. I think he might-sort-of-possibly be a little interested, but I don’t expect anything to actually happen.
The thing I fail to take into account is, not everyone in the whole entire world is as passive as I am. There are people out there who know exactly what they want, and have no qualms about going after it.
I was in the locker room after PE and Charlotte came up and said my name, which I didn’t even know she knew, and she said, “There’s a guy named Dill in your PE class, right?”
And I nodded. I never talk to Charlotte much.
“Well,” she said, “I’m supposed to tell you he kind of thinks you’re hot.”
So now I don’t know what to do. Boys don’t usually like me, but especially not boys like him, like tall and outgoing with exciting clothes and interesting hair, not like that.* Now what? Now what? Now what.
Dill, my less-than-covert admirer came up to me in the library today.
“Hi,” he said. “Charlotte’s been giving me a hard time. She says I should talk to you. So I figured I would. So here I am . . . talking to you.”
I gave him my phone number. He says he’ll call me. He’s very tall and has these clear blue eyes that are very steady, like he’s not afraid of me or that at least I don’t seem weird. It’s nice to have someone look at you like that, like you’re not a freak.
Any other week, this whole endeavor might have fizzled. If the timing had been off, even by a day, I might have done my normal song and dance (evaded like a pro), stared blankly up at him until he left.
But Dill finds me in the library on the afternoon of the Ass-Grabbing Incident and I’m still riding high on the sheer adrenaline of telling Pugsly to kiss** off, so when Dill asks if he can call me, I say yes without even thinking about it. Without freezing up or taking a short recess to debate the pros and cons. Without stopping to wonder if phone calls with a stranger are a good idea or if we should have some kind of existing rapport as friends first.
In short, I do the most un-Brennalike thing possible. I smile politely, and I give him my number.
For some reason, I think of this as the end of something, rather than the beginning. Like, I’ve reached some terminal and definitive goal. I’ve won at the game of Boys and should be getting my merit badge any minute now.
But it is not, in fact, the end and there’s no badge. In actuality (as one might expect), this opens up a whole new can of analytical and vaguely neurotic worms.
I barely know Dill at all. He called me last night. When he said he would. I didn’t think he meant he’d actually call. He talked to me for an hour and a half. He told me I was cool 62 times. He counted.
I don’t know what I should do. He’s nice, but it seems like he likes me too much. He says he wants me to be his girlfriend. What does that even mean? I barely even know him. [. . .]
He came and ate lunch with us today. Catherine gets along with him fine. He calls her “Cat” and they seem to speak the same language, which is sometimes tricky with Catherine. She says if she were me, she’d “hop on him in a minute.” He is far from bad-looking.
He wants to take me to the movies. He wants to hold my hand. I suppose all this means that he wants to kiss me. But really, I have no idea what I’m doing. He seems really nice, he doesn’t do drugs, he wears a black trench-coat. He seems within my reach. I don’t even know what I want.
At 16, I would never say these things to any of my friends—to Catherine, for instance—but in the privacy of my notebook, I declare them without artifice or irony. (Much, anyway. Without much irony.) I really, truly do not know what I want. I mean, I want the wistful boy—the imaginary one from my list—but I’m also working on a theory that a relationship with Dill is what I should want. It would be well-adjusted and normal and maybe even fun. It would be, like . . . a learning opportunity.
The thing is, Brenna then, just like Brenna now, takes a long time to get used to things. The fact that Dill calls me on a Wednesday and by Saturday, we are on a movie date—well, that by itself should be enough to indicate that this is not going to end well. In the coming months, I will learn that I am, in fact, pretty much undatable. Just not for any of the reasons I thought. When I make the brash assumption that I know myself, I have literally No Clue.
Here are just some of the problems in the hefty and kind of hilarious laundry list of problems: Brenna at 16 does not like to flirt, cuddle, confess things, share, talk on the phone, volunteer information, display affection, or hold hands in public. She doesn’t like lovelorn sighs, soulful gazes, apologizing, being apologized to, or the question, “What are you thinking right now?” She can be quiet literally for hours. Even on car trips. Even for no good reason. She thinks romantic songs, romantic movies, romantic gestures, and romance in general are stupid.
These are all things that make it very difficult for a relationship to flourish. Or develop. Or germinate. I’d invite you to place bets on how this whole fiasco is going to go down, but let’s be honest. You already know.
So instead of asking for bets, I’ll ask this instead: if anyone has a first boyfriend/first girlfriend/first date/first anything story they’d like to share, by all means, let’s hear it. Because I’m nosy as hell, but also, I’m working on a new theory. And the theory is that you cannot possibly compete with me for the merit badge of Awkward.
There. The gauntlet. It is thrown.
*By next year, I will have figured out that these are exactly the kind of boys who like me. Unfortunately for everyone involved, even though they tend to be interesting and charismatic and fun and there is nothing at all wrong with them, the simple fact is, any attempt at romance is destined to end in metaphorical tears and occasionally real ones. And also, those tears will not be mine.
**Only, yeah. Not that word. The other one.