Life after Dill is much like life before Dill. Except, now that my boyfriend-curiosity has pretty much been satisfied, I spend a lot less time thinking about kissing. And somewhere in the middle of dating and soccer and needlessly complex term projects, Irish has kind of stopped being my friend. Not because of Dill or school or soccer, just simultaneous to those things.
We still say hi to each other in the halls. As long as we are both walking alone. We still communicate using our own private vocabulary, which consists largely of inside jokes, and sometimes he catches me at my locker and presents me with an open package of gummi strawberries or half a bagel for no apparent reason except that he’s hungover a lot and also, he knows that I am pretty permanently ravenous.
He still borrows a dollar so he can buy a Sprite, and he still makes it a point to always pay me back the next day, even though his open tabs with other people are verging on actionable.
We nod politely and smile, and if we miss each other, we do not actually say it.
Because we’re on the block system, Geometry is over, but I still see him most days even, though we don’t sit together anymore. All the sophomores have to take a class called Critical Skills, and my desk is situated somewhere in the middle of the room, while Irish is at the back. With the other drug dealers.
Now, I know I’m supposed to be a professional at this whole writing endeavor, describing and all that, but some things (such as Critical Skills) just seem to defy description. Let’s see—okay, basically this: the class alternates between cripplingly boring and unintentionally hilarious. It involves a lot of activities intended to Prepare Us for the Real World. But Brenna, you say, Be fair. That doesn’t sound so bad.
Let me finish.
When we’re not watching our teacher’s vast collection of uplifting 80s movies and practicing shaking hands, we are performing skits about job-interview hygiene and learning to fold several varieties of origami bird. We are being presented with The Internet. Really.
Between the skits and movies and the handshaking and the origami birds, we are subjected to a barrage of personality tests. And every time we’re handed a new bubble sheet, I sigh and fidget along with everyone else. However, as much as I hate to admit that anything about Critical Skills makes me think, the personality tests kind of . . . do.
The things I learn about myself are not surprises. My Myers-Briggs results indicate that I’m solidly an INTP. So, a walking, talking cortex. With eyes. The Big 5 agrees that I am basically a robot, and I knock it out of the park in the categories of Inquisitiveness and Emotional Stability. My career aptitude test reveals that I am analytical, abstract, self-possessed, indifferent to physical risk, and ranks my most promising employment options in this order:
- Stunt person
- Probation officer
It turns out that Irish is ideally suited for the FBI. We would laugh about this, except for the part about us not really speaking to each other anymore.
For the final, I give my mandatory presentation on stunt performers. Standing at the podium, I’m careful to gesture vaguely and often—make sure everyone gets a good look at my fragile hands, my delicate wrists. Every time I smile demurely or sweep my hair out of my face, it underscores how ridiculous the test result is. I get an A. I never mention to a single soul that my absolute dream job in the whole entire universe is to be a novelist.
It doesn’t occur to me that by presenting on stunt performers, I might be protecting myself. Protecting myself from what? I would have asked.
My reluctance to admit that I’d really, really like to be a writer is complicated. It isn’t because people will laugh or roll their eyes or tell me I’m being frivolous and unrealistic. I mean, yeah, I know they might do and say those things, but honestly, I don’t really mind. Because despite my fascination with pretty much everyone else on the planet, the truth is, I’m just not that interested in what other people think.
No, the reason I won’t admit my secret and overwhelming desire to write books is because I want it too much. And having people know what you want just seems unbearably revealing.
This refusal to voice my hopes and dreams is nothing new. In fact, it’s pretty much an inborn trait. I’ve always been reticent when it came to sharing my personal goals. Public school has just made it a whole hell of a lot worse. It’s kind of made lots of things worse.
If I’m perfectly honest, the self of the last year hasn’t had all that much in common with the girl I’ve spent my whole life being. My new self is stoic and disinterested. She’s closed-off. She refuses to volunteer answers or have opinions or take up space, and maybe she was never particularly gregarious, but before, she was at least entertaining. She was an excellent conversationalist. Now, if she talks at all, it’s mostly to reassure Catherine that her hair looks fine, or to give one-sentence answers when the teacher calls on her in class.
She would not in a million-billion years admit this out loud, but she kind of misses Dill, because even while it was clear that they were pretty poorly-matched, he still made her feel listened-to. And also like she existed.
Jumping quickly to the present-day for a second: last week, I had this really exciting idea to start using more visual aids, so after a lot of rummaging around in my mom’s office, I’ve unearthed some, and here they are. Mostly because I like visual aids—but also because I find the contrast between these two pictures both stark and telling.
The girl on the left is the one who shows up to school each day, precise and pokerfaced—the one who didn’t exist before tenth grade. This is pretty much the closest she ever gets to smiling.
The other one, the laughing one with her mouth wide open and her sister on her back? She lives someplace else—a nights-and-weekends girl. Bright and talkative, she’s perfect for family holidays or babysitting, but I never, ever bring her to class. And that is a real shame, which is something I absolutely do not understand yet.
It’s late May by now. The school year is nearly over and I have just successfully bluffed my way through the ironic Critical Skills presentation. I have successfully navigated my first year of public school, and sitting alone on the rustic and marginally-dangerous rock wall above the cafeteria, waiting for Catherine and eating the rest of Irish’s sandwich, I’m feeling pretty good. I’m satisfied with myself, quietly triumphant. I’ve reached a milestone, and I am a person who really loves milestones.
Then I notice Gatsby, who looks like nineteen kinds of car accident and also like he might have a broken arm. He’s sitting on the other side of the cafeteria, hunched over his tray and trying to feed himself with his good hand—tossing his hair of out his eyes, grinning like he doesn’t even care that everyone’s looking at him.
It comes to me in a disconcerting flash that I am a real, actual thing, the same as Gatsby. I know this because I am taking up physical space. A person could see or hear or touch me. But the thing is, being provable is not the same as being genuine. I’m still the girl who is always dropping her gaze. The one who would rather do her career presentation on stunt performers than admit she needs or wants anything.
Gatsby is laughing, twisted sideways in his chair, and it does not occur to me that he might be just as dishonest as I am, simply making the best of something, putting on a brave face. All I see is someone who never bothers to hide his bruises, and suddenly my triumph is gone and I am very frustrated with everything.
We’ll get our yearbooks today, the perfect end to a perfect year, all those people posed for the camera, so pretty. Like it was really the actual truth. The yearbook staff will have done a good job of smoothing it out, painting it over. Make it look like television, so clean. But the actual school photos will still be there, lined up, the same size, same shape, black and white. Everyone is equal.
Today, Gatsby has his arm in a sling and bruises all over his face. I watched him eat lunch in the cafeteria, leaning forward awkwardly.
In the yearbook, there will be the sports sections, the social sections, “candid” pictures. But that is such a lie. It will be a bunch of popular kids posing for their friends, smiling huge smiles. They will hug each other in color, paint their faces for home-games.
Gatsby’s lip is split open, black with blood, and when he smiles, it is the most candid expression I’ve ever seen.
I write this down like I’ve hit upon some fundamental truth—some profound secret of the world. I don’t quite have the self-awareness to realize that I sound totally bitter, and also that I’m holding forth on things I don’t truly understand. And even though I sound dissatisfied with pretty much everyone else, the girl I’m really judging the one in the school photo. I don’t like her timid mannerisms or her complacency. Mostly, I don’t like that she is me.
I want to be the girl in that second photo, mouth wide open, my sister hugging me around the neck (also me). I want to be real, but not at the risk of being exposed, out there for everyone to see.
And there is the fundamental conflict, the Catch-22. I do not want to show anyone the parts that are most valuable to me and so, most vulnerable.
For discussion: Have you ever felt like you had startlingly different identities for different situations? Why? And if not why, at least, how?
For my own personal edification: I want to hear about the prevalence of personality tests in school. Is this normal? Did other people have to do this? Was my teacher just that desperate to keep us occupied? Inquiring minds need to know!