There’s this boy in my drawing class.
I mean, there are lots of boys in my drawing class. But I’m talking about one particular boy. He’s younger than me, a sophomore with long floppy George-McFly bangs and a black trench coat. I know him from our bus-route, mostly because he’s incredibly loud in the mornings, when everyone else is being quiet.
He’s dramatic, frantic, kinetic, profane—all knees and elbows and shoulder blades. He drops F-bombs like they are a type of exotic punctuation mark. He talks in class constantly, blurting out wild, impossible proclamations and then clapping his hands over his mouth like that will force the words back in where they belong.
Every day in drawing, our teacher stands over his desk, sighing, looking down at his various projects. She says things like:
“Wit, this is unacceptable. I thought we agreed that if I let you take it home, you’d have it done by today. What happened?”
“My stepbrother poured milk all over it.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t leave your projects out where accidents can happen.”
“Did I say he knocked something over? I said, he poured milk on it. Why does no one ever believe me? God!”
Right now, I’m going to just skip the narrative mess and tell you the last part first, because sometimes it’s the endpoint that matters most. So I’ll come right out and say it: in the months that follow, Wit will become the best friend I’ve ever had. He will be the person I didn’t know I needed—funnier than Jane, more outspoken than Catherine, more honest than almost anyone. He will be the first person I actually enjoy talking to on the phone. He will be that friend you have no idea how you ever got along without.
On the afternoon I actually meet him, Catherine and I are sitting in the cafeteria, reading her copy of Julius Caesar to each other. It’s my off-hour, and she’s skipped her social studies class to hang out with me, so I’m helping her with her English homework.
On the other side of the cafeteria,Wit is flapping around in his trench coat. He’s alone, climbing up onto one of the chairs and jumping off again.
Catherine grins. “Hey, let’s go talk to him. You want to?”
“But we don’t know him.”
“So? It’s not like he’s scary. I mean yeah, he’s weird, but it’s cute.”
“No, not like that. I just mean, you know, cute. Come on.”
I’ll be honest—I kind of expect that Catherine will do most of the talking. But Wit seems to have a weirdly silencing effect on her. He immediately makes it his business to entertain us, pacing in a circle, periodically raking a hand through his hair. He’s erratic, floppy like a puppet, jerking to life suddenly, waving his arms and tripping over his own feet. He tells us a very bizarre story involving Marilyn Manson, a gas station attendant, and an electric train.
Apart from the Marilyn Manson story, the first thing I learn about him is that his dad is very religious, which sort of explains the Manson and the trench coat and the expletives, but only sort of.
The second thing I learn is that Wit has this magical ability to make time pass so fast I don’t even know it’s happening. We spend the whole rest of the period sitting on the floor, sketching blueprints of heaven on the linoleum with our fingers, trying to formulate a floor-plan for a beautiful and comprehensive afterlife.
When I squint down at our imaginary drawing, I can even almost see it. “But what about Buddhists? What if you had a really good friend who was a Buddhist?”
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “They’d go there too.”
“But the fundamentalists, though. It seems like they’d just be very upset, and then it wouldn’t be like heaven.”
He looks at me like I’ve lost my mind. “Well, they wouldn’t have to live nextdoor to the Buddhists. Everyone could all have their own little towns.”
“Would they have to stay there, though? I mean, I wouldn’t want to stay in one place and only ever be with the same people all the time for eternity. And what if you had friends who lived somewhere else?”
“No, that would suck. But how would everyone go back and forth?”
“A bus!” we say in unison, looking at each other across the imaginary drawing and bursting into the kind of laughter that only really happens when oh-thank-god-someone-understands!
“You guys are so weird,” says Catherine, kindly.
It’s strange to have become part of you guys just like that, when Catherine and I have known each other for a year and a half, and I only met Wit less than an hour ago. On the wall, the clock says 1:29—one minute to the bell—and I can’t believe that the period has gone by so fast, like no time at all.
We’re still sitting on the floor, just starting to gather up our things, when Brody comes into the cafeteria, looking how he always looks, bored and insolent and totally unselfconscious.
He ambles over and nudges me with the toe of his boot. “Hey, sexy. What’s shaking, Cat?”
“Pervert,” says Catherine. “Hey, I’m going to go put this in my locker, okay?”
She holds up her notebook and I nod, because what she means is, she wants to be in the hall when a certain brown-eyed sophomore gets out of class so that she can accidentally cross his path and possibly make eye-contact.
As soon as the bell rings, Brody crouches down behind me. “Here, let me give you a hand.”
He slips his arms around my waist and pulls me to my feet, which is inappropriately familiar, and only becomes more so when he slides his palms along my ribcage. He stops at a scant millimeter from feeling me up.
Brody: *Is complacent and self-satisfied*
It’s weird, because all I can think about is that time last year when Pugsly grabbed my butt. This isn’t like that, though. It isn’t even like last semester in history when Charles was handing back the homework one afternoon and he looked down my shirt. It’s not offensive or scary, or even very embarrassing. What it is, is stupid.
I take Brody’s wrists and peel his hands off my ribcage. “Quit it.”
“Babe,” he says, turning me around to face him, raising my chin with his hand. “You’re killing me.”
Then he strolls off, looking very tall, wallet-chain clanking.
Wit watches him go with a sharp, thoughtful expression. “That guy just almost grabbed your boobs.”
And I wind up saying something half-hearted and totally obvious. I think I say, “I know.”
Wit doesn’t seem overly perturbed, just stares at me like he’s trying to solve a puzzle.
“What?” I say, twisting away uncomfortably. More uncomfortably than I disengaged from Brody, if you want to know the truth. Wit’s gaze suddenly seems so much more invasive. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
He shrugs. “Just, you. And him. You don’t look like the type, is all.” Then he leans closer, giving me a sly, shrewd look. “But he’s not your boyfriend, is he.”
I shake my head.
And Wit just stares down at me, eyes narrowed like he’s trying to read my mind. “Well, do you want him to be?”
“I can’t really tell.”
“If you didn’t get all freaked out about him touching you like that, why aren’t you already going out with him?”
I take a deep breath, feeling brave and reckless. “Because I don’t think he actually likes me in a real way.”
I’m immediately stricken. Shocked at my boldness, my honesty. Shocked to realize that I never understood the way I felt until I said it aloud.
We stand facing each other, while all around us, students and teachers and janitors pour into the cafeteria, filling it up with bodies and chaos and noise. Wit is squinting down at me, leaning close. I keep waiting for him to ask what I mean by real, and when he doesn’t, it’s relieving.
“Well, anyway,” he says at last. “I’m sure someone does. I mean, you look like a goddamn fairy tale. Just like $%&@ing Sleeping Beauty.”
I don’t know what to say to that, so I laugh and shake my head. It’s uncomfortable to have a stranger look so closely at my face, uncomfortable to have him imply that I might even be beautiful.
“Fine,” he says, shrugging another hard, twitchy shrug. “Don’t take a compliment. But don’t act like you don’t already know it. You’d have to be a $%&@ing idiot not to.”
He walks away abruptly, leaving me standing there with a rushing feeling in my blood that has nothing to do with Brody’s hands on my waist and everything to do with Wit’s businesslike glare an inch from my face.
I go to meet Catherine at her locker, thinking how this is all too foreign, too unsettling. That I don’t know whose type I am, or if there is such a thing as a type.
Catherine is in a rapturous, expansive mood. She neutralizes my new sense of helplessness by telling me all about her sophomore boy—his soulful eyes, his tentative smile.
“And he looked right at me,” she says. “It was like he was looking for me, like he was waiting for me to be there.”
“Then maybe he was.”
In her locker mirror, my face is precise and suddenly unfamiliar. I touch my jaw, my cheekbones, trying to figure out the architecture of my skull. I don’t like not knowing myself. I feel like Wit has seen right down to the core of who I was before I started school, and instead of making me feel recognized or known, it just underlines all the ways that I’ve spent the last year and a half making myself into a stranger.
As is probably glaringly obvious by now, almost all of teenage-Brenna’s existential angst had to do with vacillating wildly between a very firm sense of who she was, and having not the faintest clue how to show it.
Which is to say, I was very comfortable with interior, mind-based Brenna, but had no idea how to perform that person in the real world. I didn’t even know what she looked like, honestly. All made worse by other people having opinions about me.
Do you have an existential angst? A shifting sense of self? Inside versus Outside was my biggest, trickiest balancing act (sometimes still is). Do you have a thing you try to reconcile with something else? Understand, this does not have to be as complicated as I’m making it. I am very good at overcomplicating things.