My sister and I grew up surrounded by boys.
Okay, so we don’t have any brothers, and hardly even any boy cousins, but still, our childhood was distinctly boy-heavy. When we first moved to Colorado, the kids in our neighborhood were mostly guys, and back in Arkansas, I didn’t have even a single friend who was a girl. (Holly lived close by and was my age, but she wasn’t my friend because she only liked relentlessly pastel things like My Little Pony and I was always accidentally making her cry.*)
What I’m saying is that in the course of my life, I’ve built a lot of forts and bridges, shot a lot of air rifles and BB guns and homemade bow-and-arrows. Gone off bike ramps balanced on the handlebars, poked dead things with sticks, chased the cows in the pasture, walked out on the ice.
I’ve done all the fast, reckless, dangerous things** that girls left to their own devices almost never do. Because yes, you might think of it, but thinking of something is still a universe away from thinking it might be a good idea to try it.
And now, at seventeen, I feel a little bit like something’s missing. I look around at the boys I know and think how weird it is that I only ever talk to them when we’re sitting in class. I have this mute, sneaking suspicion sometimes that it shouldn’t be like this. That I should still be running around in the scrub brush, making up ridiculous games and pulling crazy shenanigans.
It’s not that I don’t love my girlfriends—I DO—but even when we’re all hanging out together, laughing and teasing each other, sometimes I get this mysterious sense of restlessness, like I’m missing some deep, integral part of me. Because even though I babysit and go grocery shopping and spend my spare time baking cookies and customizing my clothes and making lacy headbands and fancy barrettes, on the inside, I’m still a little bit (okay, a lot) of a tomboy.
I design elaborate princess hairstyles that have the structural integrity to stand up to the rigors of sledding or cross-country capture the flag. I keep cigarette loads in my wallet and a buck knife in my backpack. I jump off roofs onto trampolines and shoot bottle rockets and climb anything that looks like it needs climbing. I paint my toenails to hide all the places they’re bruised purple from soccer.
Dill is my friend. He is a boy.
Wit is also a boy. And even though I’ve only known him for a few months, I’m already starting to understand that our friendship is something rare and valuable. But Wit is also less aggressively boyish than Dill. He likes to get coffee and talk on the phone and dissect his feelings, all of which I’m delighted by, but none of which is familiar from the friendships of my childhood.
So when April rolls around and I find myself spending more and more time with Dill, it’s sort of not even that surprising. After all, the good things about Dill are obvious.
The good thing about Dill is that he likes things that explode. The good thing about Dill is that he likes gangster movies. The good thing about Dill is that even when he doesn’t like horror movies, he’ll still watch them with me. The good thing about Dill is that he’s cheerful and energetic and up for anything, anytime, whatever the consequences, regardless of whether we might get in trouble. And also, as I’ve mentioned before, he has a car.
In the last year, he’s swapped his red sports car for a pretty excellent truck and now we spend a lot of time driving around in the mountains. He comes revving up the dirt road to my house in a plume of dust and takes me off-roading. Our whole relationship is so different now from what it was in tenth grade, because somewhere in there, he’s started treating me like a real person—with flaws and qualities and interests—and not at all like a generic fill-in-the-blanks girlfriend.
And maybe he’s loud and impulsive and goofy, but there’s a corresponding soft part to his personality too. There’s a soft part to almost everyone.
On the weekends, we do our drawing homework together. He brings me popsicles instead of flowers. He tells me stories about junior high and the different sports he played when he was little, instead of always just asking me exhaustingly factual questions that I don’t know how to answer. I’m enjoying myself.
Some things aren’t much different, though. It’s hard to explain, because I don’t know what I was expecting. I thought the way I felt would change, but it’s not that simple. I thought that because I feel like I should want to be with Dill . . . I would.
I’m disappointingly and repeatedly surprised that no matter how much you like someone as a friend, no matter how objectively attractive you might find them, the feeling doesn’t necessarily translate to love, and by love, I mean the romantic kind. I mean infatuation.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the idea of being taken with someone. I hate that no matter how much I might enjoy hanging out with Dill, I don’t feel taken. In fact, I feel weirdly untethered. Lonely? (Lonely.) Which, come on, that’s bizarre. I mean, I started school with no friends, no idea what I was doing, and now, for the first time, when I’ve finally got my life the way I want it, with awesome, amazing friends and a fun, attractive boy to hang out with every weekend, NOW is when I feel lonely?
But part of it—and here’s the thing—part of it is that as much as I want to be friends with Dill, we’re not. We are absolutely, undeniably more than that, and also less.
“Does he do that a lot?” Dill asked when we were walking to Drawing.
“Who? Do what?”
“#4. He was looking at you just now.”
“Oh. I don’t know.”
But the thing is, I kind of do know.
It’s not that I’m lying to Dill. But I kind of am. I’m awkwardly, secretly thrilled by the idea that #4 is looking at me, and also terrified that he might not be. I hate thinking that I’m reading the context wrong, or maybe even daydreaming it entirely the way Catherine sometimes does. But then I’ll look up and he’ll just be there, standing with his back against the wall and his hands in pockets. His expression is blank, hard to read. It’s nothing.
“You’re just not paying attention,” Dill said. “Come on—like every morning he’s looking at you. That’s completely awesome.” He smiled and gave me a little shove. “My girlfriend is so hot that everybody’s checking her out.”
But it’s not everybody. Really, I think it’s just him.
First comes the irrational bounding puppy-dog hope—this bright, giddy idea that #4 finds me attractive, intriguing, fascinating! Or at least notable?
And then, there is the actual, verifiable fact. He is semi-regularly sort of looking in my direction.
And right after these two things comes a crisp, businesslike voice, reminding me how I’m not even supposed to care one way or another, because I’m with Dill.
With Dill is how I always say it in my head, even though there are probably better ways to describe what’s happening. The real situation would take too many words though, and also I would probably have to face how selfish I’m being.
The thing is, I’m still struggling with the difference between being a girlfriend, and a girl who is a friend. I know that Dill and I should not date, because we are really terrible together. And … I know that no matter how terrible we are, I’m also most definitely his Girlfriend—capital G—because sometimes when we’re parked in my driveway or outside the movie theater, sitting close together in his truck, I let him kiss me.
The reason for this is uncomfortable, and also complicated. The simplest version is that I let him kiss me because I want to be kissed. Which makes me feel shallow and fickle, especially since even less than a year ago, I was so terrified of being kissed that I often went to profound and dysfunctional lengths to avoid it (for instance, chewing cinnamon gum, which Dill is allergic to), and the last time we were provisionally “together,” I wouldn’t even let him hold my hand at school.
Now though, I have no problem being kissed. In fact, I like it. Kissing is nice.
But in this particular case, that’s not a very good reason. In fact, it’s a chilly, selfish one, and when people take the time to picture their ideal relationship, they are typically not wishing for a girl who finds their company generally enjoyable and thinks kissing is “nice.”
What I have to offer is not what Dill wants from me and I know that. I think about it. Being the good little scientist, I stare long and hard. But only as often as I can tolerate, which is not all that often.
Because no matter how incisive and unflinching I try to be, I still hate thinking that by wanting something so simple, so normal—wanting to be someone’s girlfriend—I’m basically just being a really bad friend.
Also, I still won’t let him hold my hand when we’re at school.
Okay, yes—the topic is friends. Again. But this time I want to know about friends of the opposite sex, platonic friends, romantic friends, all the ways that crushes and jealousies and hormones can complicate a relationship.
I want to know the architectural considerations—if friendships weather the strain, if they bear up under the weight and grow stronger. Or if they implode.
*No, seriously. Every incident that left her distraught was purely accidental. Like, one time she asked if she could have a slice of raw button mushroom from my lunch and I gave it to her and she cried because she didn’t like how it tasted.
Then the daycare lady scolded me for making Holly cry.
You know, sometimes it really sucks to be a little kid. Adults never understand anything.