It’s February. Which is another way of saying that it is brutally, unreasonably cold. In fact, it’s so cold that I’m perpetually obsessed with how cold it is.
In Drawing, Dill lets me wear his fingerless gloves. They’re too big and make me feel like an imaginary creature with very small hands. Which I like, because every imaginary thing is more fun than actual reality. Especially in winter.
He leans his elbows on our table and says, so casually it sounds fake, “Hey, me and Greg and Vee are going to a movie tonight. You want to come?”
And when I look back at him too long, it’s because I’m considering all the things I like best—the blue of his eyes, the width of his shoulders, how he never talks down to me, never treats me like I’m stupid. He drew my picture like I was a doll-version of myself, but so what? He’s interesting and fun. Handsome. Dependable. (Actual, when everyone else is just hypothetical.)
“Sure,” I say, wiggling the gloves so they flop like puppets.
“Cool. I’ll pick you up.”
We’re in the middle of the Self-Portrait unit and everyone has mirrors, but mine is broken into jagged shards. Every day, I arrange the pieces in order on the tabletop, matching them up to a map of pencil marks. It’s easier to think of my face as a series of individual features. Mouth, cheek, forehead. One dark, furtive eye. I don’t know why I decided to do it this way except that otherwise, everything starts to seem too complicated.
I don’t even ask what movie we’re seeing.
“Are you crazy?” said Catherine after lunch. “The last thing you need is to start dating him again. And anyway—” She cut her eyes significantly at Jane.
“What do I care?” Jane said.
“I’m not dating him,” I said. “It’s just a movie.”
“Yeah, and then another one and then—oh, great.” Catherine rolled her eyes grandly. “Now here’s your other helpless victim.”
Brody had broken off from his friends and was heading straight for us. He looked like several adjectives, but helpless wasn’t one of them.
“You want this?” he asked, coming in very close and grabbing his crotch.
I stood looking up at him. Sometimes, at the strangest moments, I can tell that my expression is inscrutable.
He lifted his shirt and pulled a Coke out of the gap behind his belt buckle. “It’s still cold. So, you want it?”
“Maybe,” I said, tilting my head. “It hasn’t got cooties on it or anything, does it?”
He cracked the can open, took a drink and handed it to me. “Now it does.”
I smiled at him, sly, coy, demure, pick-a-word. It was easy. He kissed me lightly on the forehead and walked away.
Jane gave me a dubious look, but didn’t comment.
Catherine said it was disgusting. She said it was repulsive. She said he wants to have sex with me. But I don’t even know what combination of those things is true.
“You’re not going to drink that, are you?” she said as we watched him go. “It’s contaminated.”
I just shrugged. It seemed a shame to waste it. He was right, it was still cold.
Passing over the wisdom of drinking from the same can as someone who makes out with a lot of girls, we need to address a more serious concern. (Even more serious, I mean.)
Right now, we’re going to talk about the wisdom of participating in an ongoing interaction where the entire dynamic involves increasingly bold and inappropriate attempts to be shocking, repeatedly countered by blank indifference. Meaning, wisdom? What wisdom?
And hey—while we’re at it, let’s talk about agreeing to go on a date with a guy who you’ve already established time and again is hugely inappropriate for you and also just dumped a girl who is rapidly becoming one of your best friends. Let’s talk about that.
And by talk about, I really just mean let’s take a minute to acknowledge it. Think about what is right and what is fair. Because this? This is not it.
To recap: Dill asks me to the movies. Brody gives me a Coke and tries his best to scandalize me, or at least make me blush. And somehow, with a speed verging on sorcery, these two events become the concrete embodiment of all that teenage Brenna believes you can expect from boys. Meaning, I make the kind of error in calculation that, from a scientific perspective, is pretty much unforgivable.
I jump to the conclusion that my choices are limited to boys I find attractive but totally unacceptable, and boys I admire for their intellect, appearance, and general fun-ness, but don’t want to make out with. My options, boiled down to two. Why? Because life is so simple that way.
And I refuse, with a flat, stubborn refusal, to acknowledge the presence of a third option, and that is, Boys I Think I Might Kind of Like, But Firmly Believe I Am Not Allowed to Have. (If you want to really talk about dysfunction.)
Since the end of the fall semester, I haven’t thought about #4 all that much.
Which is a lie. I do think about him, but only in the abstract, slightly-literary way of 19th Century poems and bad love songs. Like, sometimes when I can’t sleep and it’s a clear, cold night and the moon is out, I put on my running shoes and two pairs of socks. I go tearing around the neighborhood, and afterwards, I lie in the snow and look up at the sky and wonder what he’s doing right at that moment, which is both whimsical and cinematic.
Then I realize that it’s two in the morning and he’s not doing anything interesting because he’s sleeping—it’s a school night and all normal people everywhere are sleeping. So I get up, shake the snow out of my hair and go home.
It’s a semi-weird behavior and kind of lame, but not a big deal. Right? After all, I am definitively Not Ophelia.
However, the realist in me is forced to admit that I’m changing—only a little, though. Barely. Just tiny.
I’ve never really been what you’d call a creature of habit. I’m vague, unpredictable, capricious in my wanderings. Between classes, it’s difficult to say where you’ll find me. Some days I’ll strike out for the vending machines or the library. Others, I meet Catherine at her locker or go down to the cafeteria for a donut or a cup of coffee. The passing periods are ten minutes long, and if you put your mind to it, you can really accomplish quite a lot in ten minutes.
It takes me almost two weeks to realize that I’ve been following the exact same route to the Art wing every single day, even though there are three different ways to get there, and one of the ways is actually faster.
And even then, I refuse to acknowledge the reason for it. But the reason is this: every morning, Dweezil, Rooster, and #4 are always at the same place in the Art hall, because they are creatures of habit.
I just … like walking by them. (Him, I mean. Really just him.)
I like that he’s shy and watchful and far away. I like that when he looks at me, his gaze could mean almost anything. He could like me or hate me or barely even notice I exist.
By now, I’m beginning to understand that the things I crave are not what other girls are looking for. Most of them seem to prefer melodrama and romance, actual heartfelt declarations. Or at the very least, some kind of basic social interaction. But as we’ve already established, I’m not all that much like other girls.
To be clear, we’re talking about a Brenna who never expresses an opinion or a preference, never commits to anything, never says a single thing she’s actually thinking, and sometimes feels so wild and claustrophobic in her own skin that she climbs out the window in the middle of the night and takes off running, sometimes for hours. So before you feel obliged to make the observation that any of this is messed up, let me just say: I know.
But I don’t know what to do about it.
I don’t even know #4. Really, all I have is a nagging sense that he’s a fundamentally decent human being, who sometimes looks up when I walk by. Which is a thing, but also not a thing, and I don’t trust my brain to know the difference between a boy who is generally aware that I exist, and a boy who is actually interested in that fact.
This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever wanted advice. I just want someone who will listen and commiserate and then tell me how to proceed. And there’s not really anyone I can ask.
Little Sister Yovanoff is no help. She’s recently been navigating her own romantic entanglement, which involves being pursued relentlessly by Golden Boy—Sophomore! Class! President! (and captain of the JV football team).* Any problems she might have are basically the complete opposite of mine.
And Catherine is an even less likely candidate. In the arena of liking boys, she’s one big cautionary tale. She falls headlong into crush-mode like she’s been bewitched. Cursed, even. If she likes someone and he doesn’t return the compliment, she’ll quickly begin to hate him. She’ll resent his lack of interest and take it as a personal attack.
17-year-old Brenna does not understand this. Simply looking at #4 makes her happy. Despite almost two years at the same school, he’s still an unknown quantity, and because mysteries are her stock-in-trade, she enjoys this about him. He is like her treasured Mandelbrot fractals—fascinating and meticulous, but unresolved. Infinite.
More than anything, she doesn’t want to risk destroying the secret sense of exhilaration she gets from walking by him every day (more than anything, she doesn’t want to be publicly embarrassed), and so she stays quiet. Thankfully, because she’s a little bundle of black coffee and rationality, there’s very little angsting, lamenting, or hair-pulling, even within the pages of her private journal. This is because seventeen-year-old Brenna is, in fact, the ice princess her mother warned her about . She is a stone-cold pragmatist and has never in her life seen a problem with this. Hand to God.
Just to be perfectly clear, she is a total idiot. She is, in her own way, equally as dysfunctional about boys as Catherine. Just with less angsting/lamenting/hair-pulling.
And trust me, the lack of angst is only because she has not yet entered the Land of Consequences.
So, I’ve asked you about crushes before—having them, revealing them, pursuing them. The question I have today is different. What I want to know is this: do you wish you had someone to talk to about things? (Anything.) Do you have someone to talk to? Or is it easier to just suck it up, bite the bullet, and go it alone?**
*Ultimately, all that happened was, we had to stop going to the particular sandwich place he worked at.
** Sadly, for some of us, it is.