The new semester brings low iron-gray skies, sub-zero weather, and all-new classes.
Although I’m generally twitchy, not to mention easily bored by routine, I don’t really want things to end. (History. I don’t want history to end.)
Now, I have Intermediate Drawing, Intermediate Ceramics, and American Literature. Never let it be said that I overexert myself.
Drawing is absolutely the best part of my day, because I share a drafting table with Dill and we spend most of the period giving each other goofy, sardonic looks and screwing around with the stencil set.
American Lit. is the worst, because Irish was supposed to have it with me, but he’s still not back from his administration-imposed exile, and it’s starting to look like he might be gone for good. Also, I really, really wish I had another class with #4. But I don’t.
So January is bleak, chilly, and generally disappointing—but survivable.
In the morning, Catherine and I are standing at her locker. We’re in the middle of this semi-amazing conversation of the sort I don’t usually have with Catherine, talking about God and Buddha and whether the absolute polarity of the Yin and the Yang is sexist.
“It is,” says Catherine, with surprising vehemence. “It totally is. Balance? It’s not balanced! If it was balanced, it wouldn’t be degrading to women. What, what is that? To take a list of good things and have them represent men, then put all the shit over here, on this side—here, this is the women!”
“A symbol by itself doesn’t degrade something,” I say, but not with much conviction. The point of the argument isn’t to figure out what I really think, it’s just to take the opposing side and support it effectively.
“Anyway, wet and cold and dark aren’t necessarily value judgments.” I’m fumbling around with mittened hands, closing them on thin air, trying to convey a delicate equilibrium. “Yeah, maybe we associate them with corruption or aberration, but they aren’t inherently negative.”
I’m being disingenuous though, because cold kind of is. In addition to the mittens, I’m wearing my coat, an extra pair of socks, a wool hat and a bright lumpy scarf. And I’m still freezing.
Catherine opens her mouth to disagree, already shaking her head, waving a finger in my face. Then her gaze shifts abruptly.
“Uh,” she says, looking past me.
When I turn around, Jane is standing uncomfortably close, almost touching my elbow.
“Dill broke up with me,” she says. “Can I eat lunch with you?”
I try not to look awkward or surprised. The way she says it is just so coolly unaffected. So factual. And God, I love facts.
“Yeah,” I tell her without hesitating or even looking at Catherine to see if it’s okay. “Sure. I mean, we usually just stay here. Is that all right?”
She nods and walks away, and Catherine and I stand side by side, watching as she disappears into the crowd, hair swinging in a heavy curtain between her shoulders. A big boy in a football jersey steps in front of her. She straight-arms him in the back and keeps going.
“She is so weird,” Catherine says finally, sounding dazed. Almost awed.
I nod, but it’s an acknowledgment rather than an agreement. Jane is startling and unusual and abrasive. And I have never in my life had a problem with that.
I don’t know how I feel about the break-up. Or, I do but it’s ambivalent.
I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t been expecting it. Dill goes through girlfriends at what I consider to be an … elevated rate, and so I always had the sense that to a certain extent, it was inevitable. But there was still this other, stubborn part of me that insisted they were perfectly matched and permanently inextricable from each other. Indivisible.
I’ve spent more time than is reasonable or right thinking about their relationship, and way too much time writing about it. My musings on the topic always sound the same, so I won’t belabor the point, but here’s a general sample:
Whenever I talk to Dill, Jane is always there and I don’t know what to say to her. So I mostly just smile at her.
Before 2nd hour, I was at Catherine and Elizabeth’s locker, and Dill came to get his books, leading Jane by the hand.
Catherine rolled her eyes and said loudly, “That’s just wrong. She’s so weird.”
“Cathy, stop it!” I said, glancing at pretty black-haired Jane, who was watching us with big eyes. My voice dropped to a whisper. “Stop it, she’s nice.”
But Catherine still feels like Dill is a traitor for going out with Christie last year. I don’t. That’s just how he is. But now that he’s with Jane, he might as well stay consistent. She really does seem to like him. He might as well just stay consistent for awhile.
So I go to drawing with the feeling that this is something that we need to talk about. I don’t know what I’m going to say. I don’t even know why it seems so important until I flop down on my art stool and raise my head to see him looking back at me.
I didn’t yell at him, or say anything reprimanding or rude. I couldn’t.
I just sat across from him in Art and said, “Did you break up with Jane?”
And he said, “Yes.”
I looked down and asked, “Did you do it nice?”
He nodded. We didn’t say anything for a little while, just drew.
Then I put down my pencil and said, “Dill?”
He looked up. “Yeah?”
“I think you made her sad.”
The most honest conversation we’ve ever had.
Dill doesn’t say anything else. We’re working on pencil sketches of each other for the in-class assignment and he’s marking out the shadow of my collarbone but not looking at me to see if it’s accurate.
“What was wrong with her?” I ask, even though I usually wait for other people to volunteer things.
“Nothing. She was … She’s strange,” he says, avoiding my eyes.
“Stranger than me?”
That makes him laugh. “You’re not strange, you’re just unique.”
“What’s the difference?”
“I don’t know. There is one, though.”
In his picture, he’s given me a cartoonish rosebud of a mouth, made my eyelashes too long, the bridge of my nose too straight. You could cut glass on it.
I sit across from him, staring at the paper, trying to unpack the idea of unique. I don’t know what it means and I don’t think he does either. The drawing is the exact opposite of what I think unique should be. It’s like he hasn’t noticed anything about me, but has chosen the pictograph, the widely-accepted representation of a girl. She could be anyone.
I don’t know why this bothers me so much, but it does.
At lunch, Jane meets us by the floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the courtyard. She brings a plain bagel and a large coffee and some packets of jelly and cream cheese and arranges it all on a paper napkin in a most meticulous way, which yes, is a little strange. But it’s not off-putting. It does not make her incompatible with our existing dynamic.
She laughs easily, rolling out a steady stream of one-liners. More importantly, she holds her own against Catherine, whose favorite pastime is to shock all newcomers with graphic and slightly hilarious sex-talk.
Jane only sweeps her hair out of her face and smiles a wry, indulgent smile.
It’s weird to think that she used to kiss Dill, and now she doesn’t anymore. I have never kissed him. Or more accurately, he never tried to kiss me.
I wonder if this means he didn’t want to. I don’t really think that’s it though, because even now, the way I catch him looking at me across the drawing table tends to suggest otherwise. Which bothers and intrigues me at the same time, but which I do not vocalize, not even a little. It’s weird to think I might be unkissable, simply by virtue of being “unique.”
Catherine spends most of the lunch hour mooning over her latest infatuation, a sophomore with chocolate-brown eyes. She describes him in rapturous terms, spreading her fingers for every exclamation point. When he walks past at the end of the lunch period, she squeals and turns red and shushes herself with her hands over her mouth.
Jane just gives me a cool, derisive look, like we’re sharing a moment. It’s unexpected, and secretly relieving, like we’re on the same team.
I sometimes think it’s kind of strange how I spend all this time with Catherine, who is basically never not talking about boys, and yet I have very little to say on the subject. And even when I let myself consider it, I mostly wind up saying things like this:
Catherine makes me nervous about boys. She is always worried that they are scheming to look down her shirt, or to touch her. I don’t really worry about that. Mostly, because I have nothing down my shirt to see, and not much to touch, either.
“You are so naïve,” she said at lunch. “You act like you don’t even know that boys totally want your body.”
“Boys want my body?” I asked, trying not to snicker.
“Of course they do,” she said. “All boys ever think about is sex.”
“How would you know?” I asked. “You never even talk to boys.”
Catherine laughed. “Why would I want to? All they ever talk about is $%&@ing.”
Jane never talks like that. She never comments on the weather or wants to discuss homework or parents or jobs. She tells me crazy, fantastical stories about doomed civilizations, and serial homicide, and how she’s really a blue-skinned alien from another planet and I love it, because with Jane, we never have to waste time on what’s real, only what could be.
And this—Jane’s proclivity for the pretend—is how I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am not unique. Not defective or singular. (Not freakish.)
Or at least, if I am, then Jane is too.
For discussion: Have you ever met someone you just clicked with? Who understood you and made you feel normal? Or, if you’d previously devoted a lot of time to fitting in, who made you feel abnormal, but more like yourself? How old were you? Were you lonely before them? Lonely even after you knew them?
Also, have you ever equated unique with broken?
(Also-also: man, how screwed-up is that?)