Junior year is something flashy and fascinating and altogether new. Worlds better than I could have expected.
My schedule is a mix of easy subjects and hard ones, and I have at least one art class every quarter. Each morning, I shuffle sleepily into the art wing to sit across from TS and draw charcoal still-lifes or make sculptures out of clay.
TS is wry and clever and easy-going. She’s the girl I wish I could be. She never gets mad or takes anything too seriously, and she’s kind and funny and sarcastic. She has this hilarious, hardboiled way of talking, like nothing matters and at the same time, like everything matters. She makes even the simplest things seem grim and monumental. She lives life like a noir detective.
At the beginning of sophomore year, we were sort-of/kind-of friends, but I haven’t had a class with her since then and I’ve missed her. Last fall, she was soft-spoken and shy—almost as shy as me—but now she talks easily, reaching across the table to smear glitter on my eyelids or providing a running commentary on X-acto knife safety, and her hair is a bright, outrageous color called “Enchanted Forest.” She hangs out at her older brother’s house parties and smokes behind the school during passing periods.
We laugh a lot and talk about art and music and sociology. She shares her headphones with me and quotes Clerks and Mallrats and My So-Called Life.
She’ll peer into my face sometimes, with a false, doe-eyed earnestness and say, “Why are you like this?”
I always look back at her, shaking my head. “Like what?”
She leans in across the table, so serious. Close to tragic. “Like how you are.”*
I know she’s only saying it to be ironic, but sometimes I think about it anyway. Why am I like this?
But maybe the more pertinent question is, what am I like?
When I picture myself in my head, I’m still the awkward, antisocial girl of last year. The one with hunched shoulders and shaggy bangs, pathologically incapable of having a conversation with anyone she doesn’t already know.
I keep forgetting that’s not me anymore. Intellectually, I understand that I’ve changed, but I don’t know exactly what I’ve changed into.
Little Sister Yovanoff is the only person who seems to have a clearly defined picture of me. She braids my hair into elaborate coronas around my head and does my nails in pastel colors with a silver-shimmer topcoat. She poses me for pictures, moving my shoulders and my hands, adjusting the angle of my head until she’s satisfied with the composition.
My clothes are a weird mix of the ragged and the elegant—thrift-store lace and gray silk and jewelry made from loose pop-tabs and old keys—and I look wistful and surprising in my dad’s work-jeans.
Sometimes, I think I notice boys noticing me—I think I catch them looking, just quickly, just from the corner of my eye. I keep walking and pretend it doesn’t matter, even though it kind of does. Not in an urgent, all-consuming way, but in a way where I never quite know what to do about it.
This new sense of helplessness doesn’t become truly evident, however, until Brody shows up. Because Brody is the kind of boy who never, ever happens to girls like me.
First of all, he’s a senior. But more importantly, he is absolutely everything I’m not—sneering, crass, delinquent, swaggering.
He’s a gallery of various piercings and tattoos, and wears black Chuck Taylors with Damn the Man written in pen on the white rubber soles. He only likes the loudest, most obscure music and has a homemade Dead Milkmen patch safety-pinned to the back of his hoodie. It’s a black marker scrawl on a scrap of white T-shirt that says Dick Is Swell. He’s tall and shockingly bony, but in this way where he makes it seem totally punkrock. Like it’s a choice he’s making.
Even before we had art together, I would catch him watching me in the halls, but not in the quick, furtive way I think I see other boys watching. Brody has never made any attempt to disguise it. He just studies my face with a sly, challenging smile, and once when he was walking with his girlfriend, he stared so long that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I could feel his eyes moving over my features, and when I finally looked up and met his gaze, he winked at me. He made a mysterious clicking noise with his tongue.
He and TS are friends. They’ve been to each other’s houses and they hang out together outside of school. So he sits with us. Which makes every day an exercise in willpower. A contest, like the ones I used to have with Pierre in Spanish class last year, only now the proceedings have taken on a distinctly flirtatious overtone.
Or sexual. I should probably just say sexual.
For my sculpture, I’ve been making a Christmas ornament, a five-pointed star with an androgynous face in the center, rising out of the clay in bas relief.
“I wish I had your hands,” TS said, watching as I shaped the mouth, the tapering chin. “Then I’d be able paint, and make all kinds of cool shit like you can.”
Brody reached out. “Let me see.”
I held out the star.
“No, let me see your hands.”
I offered him a clay-covered hand, holding very still as he touched my palm, then each finger. He stroked the ball of my thumb, the inside of my wrist.
“I wish I had your hands too,” he said. “But I’d use them for something else.”
He winked at me and I tried not to let my face change.
“Don’t be a dick,” TS said.
I didn’t say anything and he let me go.
In the privacy of my journal, I always think that I’m telling the truth.
I mean, the dialogue and the details, all the things I write down—those are the truth, but nowhere close to the whole truth. I spend every morning sitting in the ceramics room, staring across the table at Brody. I spend every day looking cool and inscrutable, and feeling shaken to pieces inside.
TS and Brody as they appear in the margins of my art binder**
Today [. . .] TS tore the corner off a newspaper in art class and scrawled in her blue pen, shoving the note across the table at me, Brody likes you.
She wrote it to me. About me. About a boy who has checkers on his head, who is brave enough to smoke cigarettes in Wal-Mart. A boy who is a real dick.
I don’t tell Catherine or Little Sister Yovanoff about Brody. The predicament is too mysterious. It seems difficult to explain.
But my reluctance to talk about him doesn’t matter. They find out anyway, because Brody is impossible not to notice. He has combat boots and purple-checkered hair. He has no reservations about walking up to me in the halls and slinging an arm around my shoulders, no compunction about pressing his cheek to mine and saying, “Babe,” (yes, he calls me babe) “Babe, when are we going to hook up?”
Catherine is simultaneously impressed by Brody’s boldness and appalled by his lack of manners. She eyes him with deep ambivalence. As a connoisseur of boys, she feels obligated to give him due consideration, but the results are inconclusive. Her professional opinion is that he’s insanely hot, and also totally disgusting.
Typically, Little Sister Yovanoff does not express an opinion one way or another.
In class, Brody reaches across the table to wind his fingers in my hair or pulls me into his lap and cuddles me like a doll, which is hard to comprehend, because immediate family aside, I’ve really never been hugged all that much. I’m too distant or too pointy or too something. I‘m simply not the kind of person that people want to hug. Brody doesn’t seem to notice. He makes it a habit to kiss me on the cheek when he comes into class, and then again when it’s time to leave.
And the thing is, I let him. Despite the forwardness—the sheer, unrelenting presumptuousness—I don’t really mind. Some days I even sort of encourage him, because the truth is, I kind of like it. I don’t feel like I’m supposed to like it, but I do anyway.
The fact is, his sheer, unfaltering cockiness is attractive, and not only that, but he smells really good, and so I’m deeply torn. And by torn, I mean that my developing boy-crazy side likes standing near him, but everything else—mostly my brain—finds him completely unacceptable.
Despite everything about myself, despite being friends with Irish, and watching Reservoir Dogs constantly, and how impatient and reckless and wild I am outside of school, I have never considered the possibility that I am not a Good Girl.
“Hey, sexy,” Brody said as we stood in the doorway before the bell. “Can I take you to a movie this weekend?”
“You don’t have a car.”
He shrugged. “You can come pick me up.”
“I don’t have a car.”
“TS can drive us, then.”
“Brody,” said TS. “Quit being a dick. You have a $%&@ing girlfriend.”
The truth is, I’m glad that TS can always be depended on to rein him in, and I’m glad that he has a girlfriend. I know beyond any whisper of a doubt that I cannot go anywhere with him. I know this in a way that I can never say out loud to anyone. I cannot date him, not because I’m so impressively good, but because if I were to throw Brody into the mix, I suspect that I might turn out to be very, very bad.
For discussion: Are the bad boys/girls still like this, or are they like something else? How do you feel about them? Is there some kind of irresistible appeal in their confidence, or does it just seem invasive and off-putting?
Or, are you like seventeen-year-old me—reluctantly mesmerized by them, yet deeply convinced that you should know better?
*In case you’re interested, that’s a reference to this. (Youtube link contains moderate kissing, suitable for network TV.)
**By this point in my education, I’ve started drawing hundreds of compulsive little ballpoint scribbles of people I know. All the time. On everything.