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?”
“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.