Treaty of Paris

Things go back to normal.

This is the stabilizing force of the universe, the first rule of high school. For three days, everyone gossips shamelessly and compares stories and buzzes about Rooster’s impressive and bloody header into the windshield. And then, things go back to normal.

For my part, I babysit my cousins and turn in my homework and go on with my life. I still dream about the blood sometimes, but only in a cool, incidental way. I (almost) stop feeling guilty.

Rooster is absent for awhile, and then shows up one day in the middle of the week with bruised eyes and a pad of gauze taped across his forehead. He smiles and performs a little monologue for our History class on how awful it was being stuck at home with nothing to do but watch TV, how he couldn’t watch anything except the weather, because otherwise he might start laughing and any time he changed expressions, the sutures would pull and he would start to bleed through his stitches.

#4 is the only one who doesn’t even pretend to find this funny.

(Graceless transition: None of the above has anything at all to do with the next part, but I recognize that I ended on a very dramatic note last week, and I didn’t want to leave you hanging.)

The autumn of my junior year is a good season, even when it’s crazy-making or confusing. I’m steadily becoming more approachable, and even though I’m still not great at smiling, I’m getting better. At least, I’ve stopped doing the blank stare when someone tries to start a conversation. I’m delighted to think that I may in fact be turning into a real girl.

Out of the blue, people start talking to me.

I don’t mean the smalltalk or the saying hello in the halls, although there’s some of that too. I mean, they start really talking, telling me their secrets—their failures and humiliations and their crushes and wishes and triumphs and all the things that scare them.

At first, I think it’s a fluke, an isolated incident. Then, it’s two isolated incidents. Then I think I’m misinterpreting or blowing things way out of proportion. Then, it just becomes commonplace. By November, I will be dispensing advice on conflict resolution, matchmaking upon request, and helping total strangers write break-up letters.*

A quick note from the present: A few months ago, Catherine was over. We were drinking tea in my living room and being our grown-up selves, and she said, “Do you remember in school, how strangers were always confessing stuff to you? God, they used to tell you everything.”

“Why do you think that was?” I said, because it’s the kind of thing I’m perpetually curious about, and not really because I expected her to tell me.

But she surprised me, even though I don’t think she thought her answer was surprising. She just shrugged and said, “I don’t know, maybe because you looked like you’d actually listen.”

When I was seventeen, this would have seemed like an impossible reason. Simple. Reductive. Blatantly implausible. But now I think it’s the right one.

Even after I started having opinions and inventing outfits and doing a better job of smiling at strangers, there were certain things about me that just didn’t change. I was small and tentative, but resilient. Vague, but unblinking. I seemed harmless, but also unshockable. I had what my cousin M*alice once informed me was a Secret Face. And if you’re going to go out and start confessing things to someone, even a stranger, that stranger should probably be someone who looks like she can keep a secret.

Later, I was different and people never talked to me quite the same way again, but that fall, it was like my expression promised impartiality. Attentiveness. When people told me secrets, they did it like they were throwing pennies down a well.

secret facesecret face 3secret face 2

Senior year, my friend Delilah will compare me to a sphinx and I will laugh and wave her off. I will roll my eyes and smile, and secretly, in my notebook, I will worry that she’s right—that I’ve somehow built myself into a stone girl, someone impenetrable. Not mysterious or enigmatic, but truly unknowable.

During the fall of my junior year though, none of this has happened yet. I’m still diligently struggling with social customs, trying to figure out how it is that people simply make friends. If I’m perfectly honest, I’m just glad people are talking to me. In fact, at this point, I’m so starved for interaction that I don’t even care how uncomfortable the conversations can be.

We did a simulation of the Spanish-American War in History. Mr. Tully had us get in groups of three. I was Spain. Gatsby was the U.S. and Eric, who is a year older, was Cuba. We were supposed to negotiate a treaty, which really meant that Gatsby and I were supposed to negotiate one, since Cuba essentially had no power and was only caught in the middle. At first, the boys were mean to me.** Because I am so little and skinny, I guess, and because I was the only girl.

But then I made Gatsby laugh, and kept making him laugh, and he was much nicer. Whenever Eric said anything rude to me, Gatsby would tell him to shut the hell up, since he was only podunk little Cuba, and not a nautical superpower like Spain. Only not exactly in those words. But he did say podunk. He’s pretty funny, really.

The treaty mostly came out the way it did in real life, except I made an agreement with Eric that Spain could continue using Cuba’s ports as stopovers. And I got to keep Guam. After I told Gatsby about the estimated density of the brown tree snake population, he said he didn’t want it.

After we negotiated our treaty and wrote up our contract, there was still half an hour left in the period, so we sat with our desks pulled together, and talked. We talked about safe things, the weekend, the parties. Mostly, it was Gatsby, grinning, leaning forward companionably, while Eric and I sat quiet.

“It’s alright,” Gatsby said, “if a girl just wants to [rude word for sex], but I ain’t got time for a relationship.”

Then he told us that every time he’s been with a girl, they were both drunk, a stream of one-night-stands. And I don’t know why he told us this, because he didn’t sound proud.

“Sex,” he said, looking sad and still managing to smile. “It’s just another thing to do at parties.”

And he sounded like maybe he wanted it to be something more, or something better. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

He began to laugh, quietly. “You sit there with a girl, handing her another beer, saying ‘Here you go, baby, have a couple more.’ And that’s called foreplay.”

“That’s called date-rape,” Eric said.

Gatsby looked up from his desk suddenly, looked right into my face. “I’m not really like that.”

Eric laughed. “Yeah? Well, she’ll just be making sure she never gets drunk with you.”

“I’m not really like that,” he said again, still staring at me so hard, like he could make me believe it.

I couldn’t look at his face anymore, and so I looked down at his hands on the desktop. He was sliding his fingers towards mine. I saw that his knuckles were split, just like they always are. They never have a chance to heal. That’s what he’s like. The kind of boy he is.

His hands sliding towards me, mine sliding away. I never thought of what to say to him. I still don’t know why he said these things.

The realness of Gatsby is shocking. The meanness and the callousness, warring with these other things—confusion and regret. I can’t help thinking that he’s not supposed to be like this. When I rewind my own mental picture and imagine him as a little kid—at three or five or eight—I see this other boy. He’s supposed to be earnest and maybe even kind of a dork, loud and goofy and sweet, but instead something happened to him. He got whatever life he got, and now he’s this hard, irreparable thing. This crass, charming, violent, sensitive, vicious boy, and I’m a little heartbroken to think that this is it—the person he will be for the rest of his life. The damage has already been done.

And so, I write it all down, but as usual, I miss the most important parts. I walk out of class with the uncomfortable impression that if Eric hadn’t been sitting there with us, Gatsby would have said more. He would have gotten specific or started talking about his feelings and then I wouldn’t have known what to do. Mentally, I rifle through various motivations for his openness and quickly dismiss the possibility that in some roundabout way, he might have been trying to hit on me. Likewise, I decide that he hadn’t been trying to impress Eric, even though that might have been how it started out. No, by the time we bypass the slouching and the posturing and the unsettling date-rape talk, we arrive at . . . what?

A boy with broken teeth and heavy white scars all over his knuckles, who sells drugs and kicks the shit out of other drug dealers after school, and still just wants someone to think he’s a good person.

This is how I learn something very important about people.

Sometimes people tell the truth. But sometimes they lie to you and don’t understand that they’re lying. When someone says opinion like it’s fact, or repeats something false that they wish were true, they are not always trying to convince you. For instance, when someone announces, I just don’t have time for drama, you can be sure with 90% accuracy that they attract conflict like it’s going out of style. When someone narrowly escapes getting into a fight, and then spends the rest of the day talking loudly about how thoroughly they would have kicked the other guy’s ass? They wouldn’t have. Or they would, but they wouldn’t have liked it. Deep down, they’re just glad it never happened.

And sometimes, when a person looks into your face and reaches for your hand and insists in low, desperate tones that they aren’t the person they seem to be . . . they want you to believe them, but only because if they can convince you, then maybe they’ll be one step closer to convincing themselves.

*****

For discussion: Do you ever wish you had a place to put your secrets? I had all these things I really wanted to tell people, but never knew how to say them. (I guess that’s what the notebook was for.)

Also, have you ever noticed this—how it seems easier for people to tell their thoughts and feelings to strangers? Why is that? I have theories (always), but I want to know what you think.

*And while all of this appeals to my sense of nosiness, it is not remotely the same as having my own life.

**The interesting thing is that looking back, they weren’t. Mean to me. They were teasing me the same way they might have teased anyone else, and I was wildly oblivious to the fact that they were just trying to include me.

17 thoughts on “Treaty of Paris

  1. I guess I had a “secret face” at that age, too, because I remember a lot of people coming to me for advice and such, usually about situations that I had no ability to understand but did my best to help with.
    It seemed to me that people felt that I was a reliable source of advice and secrecy because I didn’t talk much. If I could be tight-lipped about myself (they might have thought I was deliberately quiet, trying to be mysterious; I thought I was just average and boring) then I could keep their secrets, too. Also everyone thought I was incredibly smart back then so maybe that contributed.
    I didn’t keep secrets, not really, at least not in high school. In middle school I was overwhelmingly depressed and I fed my secrets to the black hole inside me that ate everything of those years – my feelings and memories included. If it sounds like a rehearsed metaphor, it is. I spent far too much time back then trying to put into words how I felt and I eventually determined that it was exactly like being eaten from the inside out. In high school I was, for four years, one of those people who makes friends just like that and I always had someone to share secrets with. I feel lucky that I had that, and I miss it so much!

    • It seemed to me that people felt that I was a reliable source of advice and secrecy because I didn’t talk much.
      I think this must have been a major factor for me, too. I really didn’t talk much, so who would I tell? Also, the more I think about it, the more I feel like some of it must have been people getting the impression that I was not a judger. (Which I’m really not—sure, there are things I disagree with, but other people’s business is still their own business. Even when it’s kind of silly. Which honestly describes a lot of stuff in high school.)
      I did keep secrets—other people’s, of which I had a lot, and my own, of which I had a few. I also spent a lot of time trying to put things into words, but then I never wanted to tell my conclusions to anyone else, because I was still too worried about what would get lost in the communication gap. These days, I am both better at communicating and less worried about what gets lost. (Maybe that’s just something that comes with practice?)

  2. Over time I have come to suspect that, at its core, what being a teenager is really all about is being convinced that you have a brutally honest view of yourself and everyone else is a foolish liar… and then watching that inaccuracy become more and more glaring in hindsight.
    Also, we did a lot of those treaty rewrite group projects and I still don’t understand the point of them.
    (I’ve accumulated a lot of other people’s secrets… probably more than I have of my own. I don’t know if this is because I’m a good person to tell things to, or if my advice on human nature cobbled together from observance, books, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns is really that helpful.) But telling secrets to strangers is most definitely a thing, and I’ve always thought it was because of the chance to build up your story and shape it however you want against a blank slate of a listener, while friends can tell when you’re revising history.

    • Over time I have come to suspect that, at its core, what being a teenager is really all about is being convinced that you have a brutally honest view of yourself and everyone else is a foolish liar… and then watching that inaccuracy become more and more glaring in hindsight.
      Beautifully put! I think at 17, I would have been so appalled at myself if I’d been able to see just how disingenuous I was, but now, with enough time and distance, it just seems puzzling and cinematic and kind of funny. I mean, I really was very dishonest, even though *I* certainly didn’t think so, and the more I tried to relate to other people, the worse it got.
      And we did a lot of the treaties too. Treaties and mock-trials. And as a person with a strong prejudice against groups, I was not amused.

  3. People haven’t usually told me their secrets, but it does seem like random people will just tell me about their lives, seeking affirmation or support. I think it’s because I was taught to be polite, so I don’t usually push new people away verbally unless there’s good reason (like they’re creepers). It’s something I think I’ve inherited somehow from my mother: She always has people telling her things, like about their family’s health problems. Once, a woman at a craft booth at this huge festival just started unloading on her.
    Also, your story about Eric above almost brought me to tears for some reason. I think it was the rawness of that earnest little spark inside of him that truly wanted someone to believe in something better in him that got to me. Even though I doubt I would be able to get past the drug-dealing, violent, date-rapey parts of him if I had actually known him, it’s a good reminder that people have different parts to themselves that can and should be sought out.

    • random people will just tell me about their lives, seeking affirmation or support
      I think that in high school, this was often what was really happening. People weren’t unloading secrets, necessarily—just feelings. But I had a very limited view of communication, and so anything that even hinted at emotion just seemed unbearably personal to me.
      I don’t count this as a spoiler, but I have to say that Gatsby’s arc will probably only get more heartbreaking from here, because whatever else he was, he was very raw, and *very* earnest. I actually got to like him quite a bit, in a removed way. I never talked to him much, but I liked to watch him in class and pick out all the good parts and write them down. I always felt like that should have been him, only the bad parts kept getting in the way.

      • …that Gatsby’s arc will probably only get more heartbreaking from here…”
        Spoilery or not, at least now I’m mentally prepared a bit. I’ll try to remember to take big, deep breaths while reading in the future. ;) I have the feeling that I’ll experience much the same emotions when seeing the students I’ll have in the coming years once I get into the classroom (meaning that I’ll see kids who are damaged somehow but good underneath & then wonder about how to fix the bad stuff that smothers the good).

        • (meaning that I’ll see kids who are damaged somehow but good underneath & then wonder about how to fix the bad stuff that smothers the good)
          I’m just so, so glad you think about this stuff. I don’t know if it was true, or just my perception at the time, but when I was in school I definitely felt like a lot of teachers were so eager to write off anyone who wasn’t immediately and obviously going to succeed. Mr. Tully turned out to be one of my favorite teachers, simply because he never, ever did that—he treated everyone, even the worst kids, like he was just waiting for them to surprise him.

  4. In high school my English teacher told me I have a Listening Face. I still find many people come to me for advice, or to tell me things, or just to complain about things, but it’s interesting since I never actually seem to know any gossip.
    I often want to ask my friends if they do or feel XYZ or if it’s just me, and can never bring myself to do it out of fear that it IS just me. I usually just write in my journal in those cases.
    It’s much easier to tell strangers your deepest fears and secrets because you’ll never have to see them again, and therefore you will never have to interact with that person with the knowledge of that secret hanging between you.

    • I think a Listening Face is really a good way to say it—having a look that promises you won’t just ignore or dismiss someone.
      I often want to ask my friends if they do or feel XYZ or if it’s just me, and can never bring myself to do it out of fear that it IS just me.
      I think that was really a large part of my reluctance to communicate when I was younger. These days, I’m usually pretty comfortable with the idea that it might just be me, because even if it is, that doesn’t make it any less real. (Although sometimes, particularly if something seems like a really big deal, I still feel like I have to keep it to myself. It’s like I just can’t tolerate the idea that no matter what, I’ll never be able to make someone else see why it *matters*)

      • Although sometimes, particularly if something seems like a really big deal, I still feel like I have to keep it to myself. It’s like I just can’t tolerate the idea that no matter what, I’ll never be able to make someone else see why it *matters*
        I hear that! I think since I’m still relatively young EVERYTHING seems like a big deal, haha.

  5. I think I like to read your stories about high school because they are so different from my experience, but in some ways so similar. An example of this are the friends I had my freshman year. Not my REAL friends, not the ones I hung out with after school. But the ones I sat on the couch in the back of English class with. The ones who smoked too much, and sold to everyone but who would never in a million of years have sold to me because I was supposed to be better than that. We were clever and crude and made each other laugh, and in between we talked about socialism, and music, and how they hadn’t really shared anything with anyone in a long time. One boy, who I think I fell a little in love with in the way you fall in love with people who you see at the bus stop but can never talk to, reminds me so much of Irish that I wonder for days if he made it through the last few years without dying, or being put in jail.
    So, what I meant to say was this: Highschool you and high school Grace were very different, but a lot of the observations and the happenings were similar.
    I have a very open face. I have big blue eyes and rosy cheeks, and a giant goofy smile. I talk a lot, but I’m a good listener too, and I have always been open minded which appears to somehow show on my face. I make people comfortable. These things mean that I can’t sit down in an airport with a book without learning everything about the older lady sitting next to me, and her dear departed husband, and how much he loved dogs. I don’t really mind it, because someday I’ll write a novel, and think how useful all these stories will be then.
    In high school I knew everything about everyone. People liked to tell me things. I was a gossip black hole. Gossip went in, but never came out. And being a black hole, I was the perfect place to hide secrets. I would give advice (that is generally good, although I never take it myself), and make a joke, and sometimes point out things that the person REALLY didn’t want to look at. Then I’d give them a hug (yes, everyone. I’m a huggy person, and it proved to be affective.), and tell them that everyone makes mistakes (or that they deserve better, or that they can fix it if they try, or any number of other Graceisms) and not speak to them again until the next crisis in their affairs.
    It used to make me sad that these people didn’t become my friends, and that they never showed any deep interest in my life. But I realize now that I was like a diary to them. I told them what they already knew, was a comfort, and held all their secrets. It’s never a comfortable feeling, to read a diary. Especially if it only contains the worst bits of your life. And a diary doesn’t exist outside of it’s relationship to you. Of course I was only around when they had a need for me!

    • The ones who smoked too much, and sold to everyone but who would never in a million of years have sold to me because I was supposed to be better than that.
      By my senior year, I had a collection of these boys, and yes, they were patently delinquent and sometimes told me straight out that I was never allowed to become BAD, because I wasn’t “that kind of girl.” Some of them actually did become my friends outside of school though, and we drove too fast and went to midnight movies and ran around in the storm drains under the streets, but there was always this unspoken division between us. It seemed like no matter how close we got, we never got *too* close, which would have ruined our rapport or disrupted the balance somehow.
      I don’t really mind it, because someday I’ll write a novel, and think how useful all these stories will be then.
      I’ve always felt just like this—like I’m banking things for future use, and not in a calculating way. When you listen to people, it’s not the same as taking pieces of their lives, but it’s adding to your knowledge of character. They teach you about what it’s like to be them, and then you just HAVE that.
      It’s never a comfortable feeling, to read a diary. Especially if it only contains the worst bits of your life.
      I really love this. I think it explains a lot of why these kinds of confessions happen. Just this idea that things are overwhelming and you have to tell someone, but it can’t be someone you’re with every day, because then your would always just see your worst things reflected back at you.

      • It seemed like no matter how close we got, we never got *too* close, which would have ruined our rapport or disrupted the balance somehow.
        I have a theory about this. When I start to care too much about my stoner friends, or the ones who drive drunk and think this is not a terrible thing to do, or even just the ones who are so religious and traditional that it’s making them miserable, when I REALLY care about them, like with everything I’ve got, I become responsible for them on some level. And then it can’t just be fun conversations, and walking around suburban neighborhoods at 2 AM. If I care then their horrible choices and self abuse, and the gaping holes inside of them become something I should be affecting, instead of just avoiding. Which sounds awful. But it’s not laziness that stops me caring, it’s self preservation.
        You can’t save people. Or maybe you can, but it would take them wanting to change and a ton of luck to boot. With these people (it’s almost always boys in my experience, but I do know a few girls who have “bones are beautiful” tattooed inside their eyelids, and who think that if they cut deep enough something other than blood will bleed out) loving them is like pouring sustainece down a drain. You will never be able to stop the hole, and you will starve in the effort.
        I’m betting that they can’t care about me for the opposite reason. For fear of sucking me up. Or maybe corrupting me. Or maybe they just don’t know how to care about someone so different from them.

        • I want to say so much about this, but all it would sound like is “YES!” I think this pretty much encapsulates all my high school friendships—even the close ones, the ones I would characterize as best. I was always very aware of not being able to save people, but I was still constantly trying to figure out what would be a reasonable amount of effort to put forth.
          Because, I’m not a saver by nature—I’m a pragmatist. And the pragmatist in me says that sometimes you can still do a lot for a person in the grand scheme of things, with little or no cost to yourself. I was always trying to find that sweet spot—the smallest risk with the greatest return.
          (Because in addition to being a huge pragmatist, I may have also wanted to be a little bit of a magician. Or at least, I was quite Machiavellian. Let’s not talk about that.)

  6. I’ll guess I’ll have to report back after five years in the educational trenches and let you know how I’m doing. :)
    You might be joking, but I honestly hope you do! And I think all the people-experience you bring with you will make such a big difference.
    Honestly, I think the teachers who weren’t like Mr. Tully—who didn’t take their jobs seriously—were the ones who didn’t like kids very much. Which, for a high school teacher, that’s confusing. I don’t know what the right level of emotional involvement is for a teacher, but at this point, I feel pretty comfortable in saying that turning one’s back on a student is not the right level. Short version: Mr. Tully was awesome, and I think you will be too.

    • “Short version: Mr. Tully was awesome, and I think you will be too.”
      Awww, thanks for the vote of confidence! I do think that my experience(s) will make a big difference compared to others, but I know that I still have a lot to learn. If I have any time for blog reading in five years (which seems less and less likely once I do become a teacher), I will *definitely* report back. :)

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