Jane

Jane shows up one day, with no explanation and no warning.

I’m scribbling in my notebook, waiting for US History to start. The late bell hasn’t rung yet, so the class is mostly empty, and then Jane walks in. She crosses the room without looking right or left, and sits down next to me in the desk that normally belongs to Trung Ly.

I’ve seen her around before, noticed her a few times in the halls, but it’s a big school and I don’t know anything about her. In fact, pretty much the only thing I’m sure of is that she wasn’t here last year.

Jane is beautiful in a stark, alarming way, with long dark hair and pale eyes and a hard jaw. She clasps her hands demurely on the desktop, then turns and smiles at me. It’s a ferocious smile, an intense smile. Not entirely comfortable.

She doesn’t say anything, just holds my gaze until I look away. I stare down at my desk and pretend very hard to be busy with my notebook.

When Trung comes in and finds Jane sitting at his desk, he is understandably confused. “That’s my seat,” he says, standing over her.

Jane says nothing. She re-clasps her hands and stares up at him. This time, she doesn’t smile at all.

The whole production is so unexpected and she is so striking that I spend the rest of history class in a frantic state of observation, trying to think how I would describe her if this were a book. She is too imaginary, too fantastic to be real, and yet . . . here she is.

The shape of her face is hard, but delicate. All the edges are clearly defined. She’s not much of a blinker. In fact, in the coming months I’ll decide that blinking is something she only does when she’s feeling bored or vicious or being sarcastic. Otherwise, her eyes are steady. Challenging.

No matter how I try, I can’t come up with the perfect sentence to convey the strangeness of her. Her beauty is unsettling. Witchy. But even that isn’t right. Close, but not entirely accurate, and the description I want is on the tip of my tongue.

I’m on my way home when the right word finally pops into my head and I almost rip the zipper off my backpack trying to get to my notebook so I can write it down.

Puritanical. Her beauty is puritanical.

Jane likes me. Or at least, she finds me interesting.

This isn’t something I have to deduce or uncover or learn by talking to her. Unlike pretty much everything else about public school, it’s obvious right away. She studies me shamelessly. When I glance up from my desk and catch her watching, she doesn’t look away. When our paths cross in the halls, I always have this awkward feeling that she’s been expecting me. I always feel like I’m waiting for her, or at least, waiting for something.

I’m intimidated by her, but also completely certain that on a long enough timeline, we’re going to be friends. I’m just waiting patiently for the right opportunity, the moment. That instant when we finally collide.

Then this happens.

“Hey,” said Dill . We were sitting in his basement, watching The Crow for the millionth time. Lately, we have this weird, non-boyfriend/girlfriend relationship, but I don’t know exactly what kind of relationship it is. Friends, except not.

“So,” he said. “This is kind of awkward, but what do you know about Jane?”

I looked at him. Shrugged. “Nothing.”

“I see her waving at you in class, though. I thought maybe you’d talked to her.”

“No, never. How come?”

“I was thinking I’d ask her out. I mean, she’s pretty, don’t you think? She’s beautiful. I was just wondering if you knew anything about her.”

What do I know about Jane?

Jane stares at me from the corner of the History room every day. Her hair is very dark, almost black, and it makes her skin look colorless. Sometimes, if I glance up and catch her staring, she’ll flick her fingers at me, just once. A crisp, businesslike wave. She’ll smile, which is creepy in and of itself, because it makes her mouth turn down at the corners. I can’t draw her picture, because every time I try, she ruins it by looking at me. She never does the homework, but always raises her hand. She has opinions about things, slow, measured. Never shouting out, never impatient. Always waiting to be asked.

When Tully calls on her, her expression doesn’t change. She always keeps her hands folded.

“Jane, during the Great Depression, a number of Midwestern farmers adopted new and startling ways to deal with the poor market conditions. What strategy did they use to increase demand and drive up milk prices?”

“They farmed.”

“Interesting. Do you think you could possibly be any less specific?”

One slow blink. “They worked.”

Then she looked at me and smiled, like I was the only other person in on some secret joke.

“Jane,” he said the other day. “Would you care to tell me what was significant about the election of 1944?”

“Someone got elected.”

If we pass in the halls, she says hello to me. If she sees me across the cafeteria, she always waves.

“No,” I told Dill. “I don’t know anything about her.”

It’s not that I want to keep Jane to myself.

But I kind of do.

I don’t want the social mess, the complication of me and Jane, and then, Dill.

Intellectually, I understand that someone can be friends with more than one person. I know this. But I still have a nagging feeling that in the highly-specific case of Jane, only one of us can prevail, and it will either be me, or it will be him.

If I were sensible, I’d take the active role, simply collect her the same way my various friends have collected me at various times, by walking up and starting a conversation. But I’m seventeen and not sensible. There is a literal disconnect between understanding that normal social interaction is the best way to get to know her, and actually walking up and saying words. Like, with my voice.

So when Dill asks if I’d do him a favor and get to know her, maybe start hanging around with her in history class so he’ll have an excuse to talk to her, I shake my head no. The look I give him must be bordering on appalled, because he reacts exactly like I’ve just called him a really terrible word.

What?” he says. “You don’t have to. I just thought you guys might have stuff in common.”

I don’t know how to explain to him that you can’t go forcing something that should evolve naturally. And anyway, what he’s actually asking me to do is sabotage my own friendship—with him, and maybe with her. (Even though Jane and I aren’t. Friends.)

The thing is, if Dill starts going out with Jane, it will be the end of him and me. I know this with a clear, objective knowing that has absolutely nothing to do with feelings. It’s just what happens—whenever Dill gets a girlfriend, he stops talking to me and doesn’t start again until they break up.

Before, it didn’t really matter. I was content to occupy myself with soccer and homework and Catherine’s never-ending boy drama, and wait for him to have time for me again.

But things are different now. Since the homecoming dance, we’ve been hanging out pretty much every day, going to movies together, driving around at night talking about Akira Kurosawa and Bruce Lee, going to the playground and pushing each other on the swings. He’s interesting. And fun. I don’t want to lose one of my best—truly, one of my best—friends.

The more I think about it though, the more I understand that I’m going to lose him anyway. The fact of Dill getting another girlfriend is inevitable. He’s what my mom refers to as a serial-monogamist, always more comfortable in a relationship. Every unit of time spent without a girlfriend is just a casual pause until the next one.

And Jane is pretty, and fascinating, and unusual. What’s not to like? It’s going to happen anyway. It might as well be her.

So I give Dill what amounts to my blessing. I look up at him and say, “She seems like a really nice girl.”*

It takes less than a week for them to start dating.

“He’s fast,” says Catherine, watching the two of them hold hands in the halls. “You know how it went. He just smiled that smile, all sincere. And then, he hooked up with her. What happened? I thought you guys were like a thing again.”

I nod, because Catherine is absolutely right—Dill is fast, and I’m beginning to think that this, this fastness, is a problem, but I don’t know how to put the thought into words, so I don’t try. Then I shake my head, because we are most decidedly not A Thing.

As usual, any dismay I might feel is not visible. Inside though, I’m gripped by a silent defeat, like something has been taken from me and I’ll never get it back.

This sense of finality is actually kind of surprising. In general, I’m excellent with concepts like progression and impermanence and the passage of time. I have a very transcendental view of the world, and whenever I’m stuck doing something I don’t want to be doing, washing dishes or running sprints or giving a presentation, I just remind myself that in an hour, it will be over. Time will have moved on and taken me with it, because the moment we’re in is happening, it’s real, but it is never a finite thing.

Still, for all my philosophical bullshit and my ability to extrapolate, I’m uncharacteristically convinced that Dill’s relationship with Jane has a stony permanence. That she is the friend I almost had, and now I’ve lost them both.

*****

For discussion today, and also for my own edification: How do you make friends? Do you take the initiative? Do you wait? Is it easy to just walk up to someone and start talking? And if you do wait, what are you waiting for?

*This is technically a lie. Jane seems like a lot of things. Nice is not one of them.

20 thoughts on “Jane

  1. Basically making friends is still a mystery to me, even though I have somehow managed to acquire some very good ones. Unless I have an “excuse” to talk to someone (i.e. doing a group project or working with them) I rarely approach someone, even if I think they’re interesting. I’m in grad school now, though, and whereas I wouldn’t have approached someone in an undergrad class I do take initiative in getting to know others in my grad classes. I think it’s because it’s a smaller group, we’re going to be stuck with one another for at least 2 years, and we’re all there due to common goals/interests. I guess I’ve always seen it as a social taboo to just talk to someone that you want to talk to. It seems too obvious–and thus, I usually avoid the people that I actually want to talk to. But lately I’ve been realizing how un-useful that way of thinking is.

    -Taure

    Also, “puritanical” was just the right word. Reading your physical description of Jane and then reading “puritanical” was like a lightning strike.

    • I think I was a lot like this right up until grad school too. The smaller classes helped, but also the fact that I was pretty much guaranteed to share at least a few common interests with anyone there.

      It seems too obvious–and thus, I usually avoid the people that I actually want to talk to.

      That’s exactly how it was for me, and I’ve really only been getting better about it in the last few years. I think that the internet does make things easier, especially in terms of connecting with writing-friends—you have a chance to get a sense of each other beyond just making smalltalk, but it’s still low-key, and it seems less invasive to approach someone through email or Twitter than it would to just walk straight up to them and start talking.

  2. I make friends haphazardly! I’m not really afraid of talking to people, per se– I just don’t like making small talk, it’s really tiring. If I happen to find or see something that catches my interest– most often it seems to be if someone likes a band I like– I’ll mention it or ask about it. It’s rare (though it happens) for me to be too shy or awed to talk to someone. When I was 16 or 17, I once went up to Chris Walla from Death Cab for Cutie at a concert to tell him there was someone behind him who clearly wanted an autograph. In retrospect, with the wisdom of age (hoho) and considering what the life of an celebrity is like, I can see how it might have been rude of me to think that Chris Walla ought to just turn around and give this boy an autograph (along with the fact that I moved past a barrier to do so). But at the time my only thought was “What a douchebag, who does he think he is? I don’t even like Death Cab!”

    Anyway. I usually find if I set out to Make Friends, the subsequent friendships aren’t very strong. In thinking about it, my best friends from college were all people in my dorm house, so I guess I end up being friends with the people I see a lot. :-)

    • I just don’t like making small talk, it’s really tiring.

      Oh, man—it took me a really long time to figure out that all social problems I might or might not have really just stemmed from my hatred of smalltalk. I could never understand how I was perfectly capable of entertaining myself for hours, but as soon as I was expected to interact politely over something as simple as the weather, I could never think of anything to say. And then I realized, I can’t even think of anything to say about the weather when I’m by myself!

      I love the boldness of being 17! (You being 17, I mean. Myself at 17? There would have been no correcting of Chris Walla’s behavior.)

      I usually find if I set out to Make Friends, the subsequent friendships aren’t very strong.

      For me, there tends to be two different kinds of Making Friends. One is the kind where you just pick someone out of the crowd because you’re someplace new and want a conference buddy or a class-friend, and for me, those never last. The other kind, though, involves a long period of intent observation and evaluation, and those ones tend to be the friendships with staying power. Once they, you know, get around to even existing.

  3. I’m not all that good at taking the initiative when it comes to friends. I usually wait for them to talk to me first, and then I’m pretty open with them. I have a lot of friends that like to talk to me every now and then but I have few close friends. Both my sister and mother are that way, which is a little strange since they’re both as bubbly and friendly as can be.

    There are a lot of people I remember from school that I thought were nice or that I’d like to become friends with them, but I didn’t go up and start talking to them. Most of these people I never became really close with like I wanted. I waited for them to notice me which is funny because I also didn’t want them to notice me, because I was afraid they wouldn’t like me for me, which happened to be the cause of a bout of me telling horrible lies in elementary and middle school because I wanted so badly for people to notice and like me which has lead me to feel a lot of guilt in what should have been my high school years.

    • I usually wait for them to talk to me first, and then I’m pretty open with them.

      I’ve always been this way—it’s very hard to offend or shock me, and if someone asks a question, I usually have no problem answering, but I’ve always had a bad tendency to wait for other people to make the first move. And the second. And so on.

      I’m only recently really starting to get better about this and to just approach the people I want to know. In some ways, I feel like I’ve missed opportunities in the past through sheer inactivity, but other times, I feel like things have just moved at their own pace.

      These days, one of my best friends is someone who, back when I was in school, I really wanted to know better. It seemed like we had so much in common, so much that would make for a great friendship, but we were still always just missing each other—the cogs weren’t lining up. This went on for literally years, and she graduated and I just assumed it was never going to happen. Then she emailed me out of the blue one day and asked if I wanted to go get coffee. Now, sometimes I think about what if she hadn’t sent that email, and I try really hard not to let people pass me by if I want to know them.

      So, I guess I’m kind of split on this. Things move at their own pace, but I can also influence them if I take the time and the initiative.

      The world is complicated.

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  4. I am horrible at making friends. It stems a lot from the small-talk problem Salom mentioned. Freaking hate that. But it also stems from the fact that I’m very picky and easily disappointed. I think I want too much from people, and when they don’t deliver I find it’s easier to back off that relationship than to deal with it. Dang, writing that out sounds kind of bad. But, I’m impatient. I want friends who I can really connect with, who share common interests and goals.

    It wasn’t until I went to Clarion West that I felt like I made any friends who really fit that bill. And then, living in a house for six weeks with a bunch of people…you can’t help but make friends. And everyone being writers helped a lot, too. We could connect on a level that the ‘real world’ generally doesn’t *get*.

    Problem is now, being an adult and such, I don’t find myself thrust into situations where I’m being exposed to people I might want to know. I have to force myself, by going to an IRL critique group, and SF cons. And still, there is a big part of me that just wants to sit in the corner and watch, so I can avoid the dreaded “Dang, it’s pretty warm for summer, isn’t it?” Because that’s what I do at my job all day, anyway.

    This is kind of a hot button issue with me, the whole making/keeping friends thing. I always think everyone else has it easier than I do, but logically I know that can’t be true.

    • The way I am bad at small-talk is . . . never mind, I can’t even think of anything I’m as bad at as I am at small-talk. It’s like its own terrible torture device, and sometimes I get so impatient that I make shocking observations or ask totally inappropriate questions, not even on purpose, but just because I’m starting to feel claustrophobic. I’m getting better about this though. Because I do in fact have manners. (Sometimes you just can’t tell.)

      I think I want too much from people, and when they don’t deliver I find it’s easier to back off

      I used to think I wanted a lot of from people, but now I think it’s more that I just want very specific things. Mostly, I want a real conversation.

      Problem is now, being an adult and such, I don’t find myself thrust into situations where I’m being exposed to people I might want to know.

      Getting more involved in writing community has been a huge help for me, but I’m definitely familiar with this problem. I did the math one time and I think it came out to me making one new friend roughly every three years. Which doesn’t seem like a lot, but since I tend to keep friends for a long time, it works out. Quality over quantity!

  5. How do you make friends? Do you take the initiative? Do you wait? Is it easy to just walk up to someone and start talking? And if you do wait, what are you waiting for?

    I have mad skills at making friends, for being an introvert. I chalk it up to the fact that I went to a very selective school for K-8th grade, and out of 44 graduates, we had 23 who had been there since kindergarten. We were close. We were all like this massively dysfunctional family. Therefore, when new kids were tossed into the mix at the beginning of every school year, it was like, “FRESH MEAT!”

    Only, not in a bad way. Because of how small the school was, you had to claim your new friends early. And goshdarnit, if you turned out to not like each other all that much, tough shit. You were stuck with them until the next academic year.

    (That’s not to say that friendships never broke up in the middle of the year. But it happened only once permanent (ie, lasted longer than a school year) that I know of, and it was because I slapped someone in the face. I was a terrifying 12-year-old, and I grew up to be a bitchy 16-year old. I’m almost weirdly proud of that title, odd as it sounds. Anyway. Digression over.)

    I usually got the really nice new kids. Because despite never having gone to a different school, I’d travelled all over the States. I had this weird understanding of what it was like to be the new kid, even though I had never actually been the new kid. I understood fresh starts.

    I also was really really good at figuring out who I could actually be friends with. I am strangely good at reading people, when I shut off my brain and go for my gut reaction. Only once was I wrong. And boy, was that ever awkward. Although, that was around the time that my group of friends decided to separate at lunch, so it was kind of nice, because she was more friends with them, so she went that way.

    So now, in high school, I have the same sort of mentality. And because of my odd boldness, I have an amazing group of like-minded friends to ease the difficulty of being stuck in a windowless building for 7 hours every day.

    • I’m absolutely jealous of your friend-making skills—even now, as an adult, I’m just getting good.

      I also was really really good at figuring out who I could actually be friends with. I am strangely good at reading people, when I shut off my brain and go for my gut reaction.

      I’m so glad you know this now instead of taking forever to figure it out (like I did). I always turned out to have a really good read on people, but because it was so non-intellectual, I never trusted it until I could collect some facts to back it up. When it came to people, I could have saved myself a lot of time if I’d just gone with my first instincts and stopped dithering around waiting for my impressions to be empirically proven.

      And yay for friends! My second half of high school was so much better than my first half, and it was entirely due to me having real, honest-to-goodness, awesome friends.

      • I’m so glad you know this now
        I think I figured it out right as I was struggling for a way to put it into words. It’s actually amazing how much reading and commenting on your high school blog posts actually helps me with my day-to-day life.

        Good friends help with life SO MUCH. It seems obvious, but to a high-schooler, nothing can be taken for sure.

        • It’s actually amazing how much reading and commenting on your high school blog posts actually helps me with my day-to-day life.

          I don’t really know what to say to this—I’m just really, really glad. Two years ago, when I was first trying to think up things to blog about, I hit on the high school stuff because it was something I had, something I could talk about.

          Now it seems like a lot more than that. I’m just so fascinated and impressed by what people have to say about their own experiences. It sounds stupid, but it never really occurred to me before that adolescence is an experience that people share—this thing we have in common, even when we each have our own unique details.

  6. It’s easy to make acquaintances. My dog/legs/other acquaintances/ethnicity/interests/uncanny-Catholic-school-Touretteslike reflex for complementing other people’s shoes do most of the work for me. But it is difficult making friends. I don’t mind making friends with people who are very different from me or who flat out disagree with me on a number of things, it’s just hard to feel invested in people.

    Often, I’m afraid that people are too fragile and delicate to handle anything more than small talk. Especially people who are very peripheral. Like those incredibly stressed out looking list-checker type people. (You know, you ask them how they are doing and they tell you about their new car, the vacation they are going to take, how their kid just made the honor roll, etc. The walking Christmas letter people.) Or people who seem a little dogmatic about their identity. Like the sorority girl who never leaves the house without the name of her sorority written in at least 25 places on her body or vegans who’s entire car is held together by PETA bumper stickers. I’m afraid to have real conversations with these people because I think it might do them irreparable harm–like it might make them clinically depressed or something to be pulled out of their comfort zone.

    • It’s easy to make acquaintances.

      This is absolutely where I am too (and where I was in high school, only I didn’t know it yet).

      Like you, I’m really not worried about having huge differences in opinion, or even politics or beliefs, but I have an awful time with the minutia of things, and if talking about those things is the extent of a friendship, it just never lasts. I mean, I don’t even like my own day-to-day concerns, and if I find my yard-work boring, then how I can I do a good job of caring about someone else’s?

      I’m afraid to have real conversations with these people because I think it might do them irreparable harm

      I used to worry about this a lot. (Like, a LOT.) I hate upsetting people, and I never ever want to make them uncomfortable. But just lately I’ve been finding that sometimes it’s worth it to jump in and start the conversation anyway, because sometimes people surprise you, and usually, the absolute worst outcome is that they might walk away thinking you’re strange. Which . . . honestly, I’m totally okay with that.

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  8. I find myself captivated by Dill’s taste in girls. Pretty much everything else about him annoys me (he reminds me too much of someone I used to know), but it seems significant that he picked both you and Jane. I mean, you say Jane was beautiful, and I’ve seen pictures of you so I know that it wasn’t like he wasn’t picking the pretty girls. But you look so fragile in your pictures. Fragile but wise. Like one of those very early photographs. The ones where everyone had to stand around for like 30 minutes? All the women in them look so wise and all seeing, but contained. And Jane sounds like a cat, all fierce beauty and knowledge. But neither of you were… normal. So what is it that Dill is looking for? Someone different, interesting? I know a lot of guys about my age (18) and none of them are looking for someone really like that. I mean, they may find someone different attractive, and date her, but it’s not like that’s the quality they look for first.
    Although, I could just be assuming that’s what he saw. Maybe he just thought you both were pretty, or just good conversationalists?

    • This is an interesting question, and even to this day I’m not sure I can answer it (and believe me, I puzzled over it at the time—especially after he and Jane broke up, which is not a spoiler because Dill breaks up with stunning regularity).

      So what is it that Dill is looking for?

      The simple answer to this is that Dill is looking for the love of his life. I think, sometimes, that he picked the girls who looked like they could support the fairytale, but the thing is, we couldn’t. And not just because we were 17. He definitely saw us as being different, but I think maybe it wasn’t in a complex way. There was no room for failure or imperfection, which as a human being is really scary—to not be allowed to fail.

      In fact, in the near future of this narrative, I have a complete crisis when we’re assigned to draw each other in art and he leaves out all my flaws to the point that his version of me winds up looking like a doll. (That’s actually what kicks off the whole what-is-he-seeing panic.)

      Also, it turns out that Jane and I are excellent conversationalist with each other, but only because she is so weird that she makes even my most whimsical ideas seem totally reasonable. We are not good conversationalists with others (with Dill, for instance), and that is a big part of the problem.

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