The Conversation

For the first semester of junior year, US History kind of dominates my journal-keeping.

This is mostly because it’s the one class where something at least semi-interesting happens almost every day, and also, I can scribble manically in my binder for the whole period and never get in trouble, since it looks like I’m just taking really good notes.

Obligingly, Mr. Tully has aced his audition for the role of Brenna’s Favorite Teacher. This has a lot to do with the fact that he’s one of the first ones I’ve ever had who actually likes his job. But also, he’s just pretty cool. He loves history, he loves teaching, and against all reasonable expectations, he really loves his students—yes, even the ones whose grades are below the Purple Failing Line. (Especially the kids below the purple line.)

He’s also the first teacher I’ve ever had who doesn’t seem particularly interested in me. At this point, I’m kind of used to being an impressive student, but Mr. Tully is barely even aware that I exist. At first, I think it must be because everyone else is really loud and I’m really quiet, but after a month or so, I begin to understand that’s not the reason. The truth is, the whole class is such a mess that it would be ridiculous to expect him to have time for the six people who are actually doing okay.

Anyway, it can’t be an issue of being quiet, because #4 is way quieter than I am and Mr. Tully totally loves him, although #4 would probably not see it that way.

In history, we never have written quizzes. Instead, Tully calls people’s names from a list, which he maintains is randomly-generated. I don’t actually believe this. Over the course of the semester, I will be called on exactly twice. Two times. Two.

If #4 only gets called on three days in a row, he’s having a pretty good week.

Almost every afternoon, Tully stands at the front of the room, waiting, while #4 looks down at his desk, going a bright, violent red.

“I don’t know,” he says, low and apologetic.

And Tully nods, looking sad-but-resigned. It’s a look he saves just for #4. Other people get a reproachful smile, an admonition to do better next time. When Mr. Tully looks at #4, it’s weary and imploring. He never bothers to hide his disappointment.

The way the game is played, if someone doesn’t know the answer, other people can raise their hands and take the points. I know the answers, but I don’t raise my hand.

I did once. #4 was staring down at his desk like always—flaming red and tragically mute. I put my hand up, and the look he gave me was so uncomprehending, so betrayed that I felt guilty. I answered the question, told myself I was just taking back my zero from the colonist assignment. Then felt worse.

It’s weird. I mean, I’ve noticed him before, but not like this. Not in this uncomfortable, complicated way. It’s like Mr. Tully’s investment in him makes him magically relevant. Or. . . real.

This afternoon, #4 came in alone, early for once. He didn’t show up yesterday, or on Friday for the midterm. Which is kind of its own new level of failure.

He was sitting at his old desk, even though Tully already gave us a new seating assignment. I’m pretty much where I was before, the same row, but two seats back. Jane sits on the other side of the room, facing me, in that corner by the supply cupboard where the light is burned out.

Mr. Tully was flipping through a stack of papers, but when #4 sat down, he stood up. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

#4 nodded, looking at the cover of his textbook. Mr. Tully crossed the room and crouched next to him, kneeling on the floor. He cleared his throat and took a deep, theatrical breath. Then he gazed up at #4 in supplication and wrung his hands.

“Please, please, please, I don’t know how to make you see that this is important.”

#4 looked down at his desk.

“I know this is not an issue of you being unable to do the work.”

#4 nodded.

“You’re completely capable.”

#4 nodded again.

“I’d really like it—I mean, I’d be thrilled—if you started trying harder. Do you think you could do that? Maybe? A little?”

“Yeah,” #4 said, so low it was almost a whisper. “I could try harder.”

“I would love that.”

He won’t, though. Try harder.

Increasingly, I find myself wanting to tell him all these earnest, sappy things, like how he needs to start doing the damn reading, and Mr. Tully is not the only person who suspects that he might secretly be smart, and how I wish I’d been remotely brave enough to go over and talk to him at the homecoming dance and I’m really sorry I didn’t help him wipe the blood off his hands.

I want to say these things the same way I want to say similar things to other people—tell Valentine that she’s fearless, or Gatsby that he needs to get his shit together. The only difference is, I want to say them to #4 more often.

Despite her various forays into the dating world,* seventeen-year-old Brenna is not really equipped to Deal With Boys. She’s still not a romantic, but #4 makes her feel strangely sentimental anyway. She considers the possibility that it’s because he is pretty. Or because he is vague, or understated, or shy. Because he hangs out with loud, delinquent boys like Rooster and Dweezil, and somehow still seems gentle.

During class, I watch him sleep. I’m getting good at drawing his hands, the way he always cups his elbows.

Catherine is convinced that when you like someone, when it’s really-truly meant to be, you get this special connection to them, a kind of intuition. You have an Understanding.

I don’t exactly know how I feel about #4.** Like I said, it’s complicated. I feel fascinated and curious and intrigued, and also like I do not understand him at all, not even a little. It is the exact opposite of connection.

And anyway, if Catherine’s theory is right, then we are spectacularly not meant for each other, because every afternoon, Mr. Tully calls on him, and every afternoon, I attempt telepathy. I sit there, thinking Jim Crow laws, Jim Crow laws, Jim Crow laws, over and over, and he never, ever gets it.

As a result of the new seating chart, he’s been given a really inconvenient desk. It’s to my left and all the way on the other side of the room, which is pretty much the one place where no matter how I fidget or twist around, I can never seem to get a good look at him.

For two days, I’m gripped by crushing despair (if you’ll recall, crushing despair in Brenna-world is roughly equivalent to mild perturbation anywhere else). I am deeply convinced that I will nevereverever be able to draw his hands again.

But in an unexpected display of boldness, #4 remedies the situation almost immediately. There’s an empty desk behind Rooster (and more importantly, one row over from me), and after Tully takes attendance, #4 just stands up and moves his stuff over to my side of the room.

With pretty much anyone else, Mr. Tully is fanatical about the seating chart—it’s nonnegotiable. But as long as #4 starts the class period in his assigned seat, Tully doesn’t say anything. Sometimes I get the idea that he’s just glad #4 bothered to show up at all.

The uninhabited desk is just close enough for me to listen in unobserved while Rooster expresses charmingly-seventeen-year-old thoughts on girls. To practice drawing the stripes on #4’s rugby shirt, and occasionally catch myself thinking about maybe-possibly someday starting a conversation.

Since the beginning of the semester, we’ve been put in the same discussion groups a few times, but I haven’t really talked to him since the ill-fated colonist assignment. It’s weird, but I sort of . . . miss him, which is ridiculous, since he’s sitting two feet from me and also I don’t know him. It’s in the same mysterious way that I sometimes catch myself missing Jane.

I don’t really know what I’d say to him if we were to find ourselves in a situation where we actually had to communicate, but I’m relatively confident that I could think of something. After all, my conversational skills are improving by leaps and bounds—I’ve been practicing on Brody for a month. Eventually, I’ll think of the perfect opener. Or maybe (just maybe) #4 will do it for me. Maybe?

When the bell rings, everyone scrambles to collect their books. I’m about to stand up—am, in fact, halfway out of my chair—when #4 pushes past me. His elbow collides with my shoulder, but he doesn’t seem to notice. It kind of surprises me, because usually he’s very polite. Like, he’ll hold the door or let other people go first. I thump back down into my seat, feeling mildly aggrieved.

At the uninhabited desk, his jacket is still draped over the back of the chair, but his books are gone. He’s already on his way out, nodding along with something Rooster’s saying.

I sit there, looking at the jacket. I wait for him to come back for it. When he doesn’t, I conclude that I should do something. This is the perfect opportunity—it’s even sort of what I wanted, right? After a second, I reach across the aisle for the jacket.

“Hey,” I call, but he doesn’t turn around.

Hey.” I say again. I say his last name, because there are three Brians in our history class, and also, it’s what all his friends call him. He still doesn’t turn around though, not until I call him by his full name, the whole thing.

He’s looking down at me in a cool, searching way, like he’s waiting for me to justify myself. All of a sudden, saying his name seems like possibly the worst idea I’ve ever had.

I look up at him and kind of shrug. “You forgot your coat.”

Forgot comes out harsh and flat, in a way I never say it. Fer-gat, which is the way my dad and my uncles talk because they’re from Buffalo, but I don’t sound like that, and all those times I was foolish enough to spend my afternoons thinking that I had anything at all to say to him, I was just so . . . wrong.

I stand there, looking up at him, waiting.

After the longest, iciest silence in the history of Ever, #4 takes the coat, turning away, mumbling something I can’t hear. The creases in his shirtsleeve are printed on his cheek. His hair is rumpled on one side. He’s blushing, but yeah, everything makes him do that.

*****

For discussion: Conversations.

Succinctly put, HOW? Like, are you a rehearser, or do the words just magically appear? Do you script things ahead of time, make lists of bullet points? Do you kick yourself later, on the days when you say the completely wrong thing or forget your lines or sound like you’re from Buffalo? (Okay, fine. That last one’s all me.)

*So, Dill.

**Yes.

I know.

Just . . . oh, shut up.

15 thoughts on “The Conversation

  1. Oh, I am definitely an after-planner! I have MARVELOUS conversations after the fact. Fortunately, over the years I have accumulated an arsenal of “things to say” that hopefully don’t come off as canned.

    (Amusingly, my mother thinks I am brilliant and funny, as she has never seen or cannot remember 99% of my source material.)

    • over the years I have accumulated an arsenal of “things to say” that hopefully don’t come off as canned

      Me too! At first I felt like I might actually be cheating, but now it feels more like any other social nicety—remembering to say please and thank you and ask about people’s relatives, only more entertaining.

      After-planning, oh, it will be the death of me. I’m much better these days, but I still can’t help post-judging sometimes, especially when I think of The Absolute Best Thing to say. Twelve hours after the fact.

  2. I am definitely a rehearser. I constantly think about what I’m going to say to someone beforehand. I’m usually bad at spontaneous conversation. I get so nervous when I’m around people that I try to say what I think they want to hear which usually gets all jumbled and doesn’t make sense when it comes out of my mouth. Or I think they won’t like what I have to say. Or I just get so nervous I ramble and once again, it gets jumbled.

    I also script conversations in my head beforehand so I’m not so nervous because I’ll know what to expect, but sometimes (a lot of the time) conversations don’t go exactly like I thought they would and then I have to think on my feet which I’m not good at when I’m speaking to someone.

    I always thought it was funny that I have such a hard time holding a normal conversation when my mom and sister just say whatever is on their minds and it seems so easy for them and people seem to mostly understand them.

    I also regret the things that I say or the things that I don’t say after a conversation. I usually beat myself up over it and fantasize over the conversation going differently. It’s like when Meg Ryan’s character in You’ve Got Mail says that she can’t think of the right think to say until after the conversation has happened and she’s had time to think about it. Sorry that’s a guilty pleasure movie for me :)

    • Although I’m decent (ish) at spontaneous conversations now, it took me a really long time to get there—lots of practice, essentially. These days I do all right, but it can still feel really awkward. I think I’m just in the *habit* of feeling awkward now, so even if I can think back through the conversation later and not see anything I’d change, I’ll still have this nagging feeling that I’ve missed something.

      Also, telling people what they want to hear is overrated. Mostly because it’s not nearly as interesting as telling them what you actually think :)

      sometimes (a lot of the time) conversations don’t go exactly like I thought they would and then I have to think on my feet

      This was one of the hardest things about school for me—being blindsided by someone who just expected me to interact normally. If I wasn’t prepared, it was like my brain locked up completely. Literally the *only* thing that helped was practice, which was kind of miserable. And also realizing that the consequences of failure just weren’t that bad, not in the long-term.

      Honestly, when I finally sat down and did the math, there haven’t been that many things I’ve regretted saying, but there are plenty that I’ve regretted NOT saying. I think, more than anything else, just realizing that has made me a better talker. Or at least, a better friend.

      • I love what you said on the very last line in this comment. I’m in high school, and I’m very shy too, a lot like you were (I’m a silent reader of your blog, been catching up on your posts, it’s harder to read the new ones without reading the old ones!) and I always think about that, there have only been a few times I’ve regret saying something, but almost every day I think, “Why didn’t I say…”
        Planning conversations would probably help me. But when I try, I’m worried of coming off as fake, and not getting the words out right, or forgetting what I meant to say and end up staring blankly at someone.
        Thanks for your posts, your a great writer, and they help me remember that I’m not the only one :)

        • Planning conversations would probably help me. But when I try, I’m worried of coming off as fake

          I had a lot of trouble with this too, and part of it is that I just can’t do smalltalk. At all. I mean, even when I try, I start to get bored and then say something shocking or rude without meaning to. So basically, I swing wildly between fake, and inadvertently offensive. It’s bad.

          Anyway, something that finally made a difference was my mom telling me that when someone starts making smalltalk, it’s not because they desperately want to know your opinion on the weather—they’re just trying to know about you. And since they already want to know, there’s no harm in guiding the conversation toward things you’d rather talk about, and asking them the questions you actually want to know the answers to. Basically, it’s not a fake conversation at all, but a mental cheatsheet of the things you already care about, if that makes sense? Or, the difference between having an empty cupboard, and cupboard full of things to choose from and you don’t hate any of them? (I have to stop making metaphors)(And mixing them)

          I’m glad you’re enjoying poking around in the chaos, and silent readers are always welcome! And any time you want to say something, you should absolutely feel free—I really like hearing about you guys.

  3. This post was physically painful. I mean…. awkward.
    #4 baffles me.

    Conversations: I don’t know. I can sometimes be very charming with a complete stranger, but when I’m trying to speak with a guy I don’t know very well I just end up giggling. And then I feel REALLY embarrassed about it later. And consequently avoid him. This is the reason all my guy friends and ex bfs are asses. They put my back up enough that I don’t do the giggle thing.

    • This post was physically painful. I mean…. awkward.
      #4 baffles me.

      Ha. Haha. Ahahahaha.

      Trust me, I spent most of high school baffled by Things in General. (And him in particular.)

      Giggling is the worst thing! Largely because it’s not something I do normally, so then it just underscores all the ways a situation is Abnormal.

      This is the reason all my guy friends and ex bfs are asses. They put my back up enough that I don’t do the giggle thing.

      I love really direct people, because they don’t make me nervous. You always know exactly what you’re getting, and also that you can be direct too and no one’s going to get upset over it.

  4. I only plan out conversations I’m never going to have. Seriously, I can do spontaneous interaction fine, I can start conversation once I’m in a situation with someone, but I will spend hours planning out situations and the conversation starters that will be appropriate for them and the entire course of the back-and-forth from there. But, of course, these are the conversations I never intend to have and never end up having. Really, in most conversations I’m pretty quick on my feet… it’s the starting of it that’s the problem.

    • Really, in most conversations I’m pretty quick on my feet… it’s the starting of it that’s the problem.

      That’s pretty much the point I’ve gotten myself to now (with years of practice and dogged persistence and making an effort to show some affect and not gape at people like a fish when they talk to me.) But I am *still* not a graceful transition-er and I’m an even less-graceful opener, not to mention weirdly impatient with pretty much any social nicety you can think of.

      Basically, I am that person who never remembers to ask how the drive was or offer you something to drink or say hello. In mingling situations, I have been known to introduce myself twenty minutes into the conversation. When it finally occurs to me. Sometimes (read: professionally) it makes me very self-conscious and I try to rein it in, but then I just sound awkward and stilted, so . . . it’s basically This, or That. I will never be Audrey Hepburn, is what I’m saying.

  5. Succinctly put, HOW? Like, are you a rehearser, or do the words just magically appear? Do you script things ahead of time, make lists of bullet points? Do you kick yourself later, on the days when you say the completely wrong thing or forget your lines or sound like you’re from Buffalo? (Okay, fine. That last one’s all me.)

    I make a point not to map out conversations ahead of time, as I realize it will never go in the precise direction I need it to in order to say what I need to say, the way I want to say it, so I am not a rehearser. However, the right words most definitely do not appear. I always make a mess of conversations I want to go well. And I always kick myself when I end up sounding super-Southern. *groans* It’s always horrible.

    I wish I *could* get the right words to magically appear. I just stumble all over the place and my brain-to-mouth filter tends to randomly shut off. I just talk at the speed of my thoughts. I edit as I go along, which sometimes confuses people. And confusing people is bad when you’re trying to impress them or flirt with them.

    I don’t exactly know how I feel about #4.**
    **Yes.
    I know.
    Just . . . oh, shut up.

    *giggles and snorts with laughter*

    • I always make a mess of conversations I want to go well.

      I *still* do this—even after getting almost all my other conversational foibles sorted out, the second it feels like there’s pressure to perform, I become so goofy and scattered that it doesn’t even seem like me anymore. Like, I am verging on incoherent.

      my brain-to-mouth filter tends to randomly shut off. I just talk at the speed of my thoughts.

      Oh, I know ALL about this one. Usually, it ends with me chattering happily on and on about zombies, while everyone just kind of . . . looks at me until I stop. Intellectually, I understand that not everyone in the whole entire world loves horror movies the way I do, but sometimes I just fail at internalizing it, is all.

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