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.
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.