The Break-Up

Let me just start by saying, this is an uncomfortable one.

There are a billion things that seventeen-year-old Brenna doesn’t understand. And some of them—okay, most even—have to do with feelings. This makes her (me) feel pretty shockingly stupid, because theories and facts are what you’re supposed to work hard to master, and feelings are the things you’re supposed to be born knowing about. Instead, I eat up books with a vengeance, while struggling to grasp even the simplest emotional concepts. I kind of feel like a cartoon character.

Here is the story of how I break up with Dill, or else, he breaks up with me.

I’ve mentioned before that as a couple, we have a tendency to bring out the worst in each other. I wasn’t lying, and the interaction that follows is one I’m distinctly not proud of. While lacking in drama and vaguely surreal, it’s exactly the kind of break-up one might expect from teenage Brenna. Basically, I’m saying you’ve been warned.

*****

First, he picked me fifty violets. Wove them into my hair and around my wrists. The leftovers, I stuffed into the pockets of my hoodie.

Later, we stopped to get coffee. It was a warm night and I asked for ice in mine. I knew the boy behind the counter, a little. He was older and I’d had Spanish with him the year before. Here’s most of what I knew about him: Buddy Holly glasses, nerdy in an ironic, contrived way—and nice, always nice to me, even when the basketball players and the wrestling boys would sometimes take my things and tease me just for fun.

“I like your flowers,” he said. “Hey, you think you could spare one?” He gestured to his lapel.

So I handed him one and he slipped it through his buttonhole, while Dill stood against the counter and squeezed my hand more tightly than was comfortable.

“I picked those for you,” he said, as soon as we were outside.

“Yes.” (Factual, remember—so, so factual.)

“So, I didn’t pick them for you to give to someone else.”

“If you picked them for me, they’re mine now. Anyway, a flower is not the same thing as affection. I wasn’t giving your affection to someone else.”

We were at Dill’s truck by then. He was shaking his head as he unlocked the driver’s side. “You’re unbelievable.”

I climbed in, tucking my hair behind my ears. The violets were tickling me. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I mean, I can’t be like you. You analyze everything.”

“Well, it’s a very good way to make decisions,” I said, but I understood suddenly that we were almost to that point where you can’t go back—not ever. “It’s the best way I know of.”

He turned and looked at me, and it wasn’t angry or possessive or aggravated. It was so, so sad. “Are you even into me at all? Because I can’t go through life putting two dollars in and getting a dollar back out. I just need to know if you love me.”

I stared at my feet, my ragged green shoes. The rubber soles were gray with dirt. The tiny dollhouse clock I’d glued to the toe was long gone. “Not like you want me to.”

“And you won’t feel different later?”

“No,” I said, and I knew that it was absolutely true.

The whole time, I kept thinking about Jane, how he said he broke up with her because she was strange, but that I’m just unique. Wit, flopping and jerking when he talks, swearing like a tourettes patient, always calling me out on things, asking actual questions about what I think and feel. Making me explain myself again and again until he understands.

My best friends are the weird ones, which is how I know that I’m weird too. Dill is perfectly normal. Like J. Alfred Prufrock in the poem, I can never make him see what I really mean.

He told me all the things he wished were different about me. How I don’t hold hands with him at school and I can be quiet for hours. How sometimes he gives me the silent treatment when he’s mad and I don’t even notice. He admitted that the time he stood me up last month and then told me later that he forgot, he’d really done it on purpose.

“Why would you do something like that?” I asked.

“I wanted to see what you’d do.”

It’s funny, because when it happened, I wasn’t upset. People forget things, or get distracted. My evening wasn’t ruined. Little Sister Yovanoff and I watched the hockey game with our dad and screamed at the TV and ate ice cream. I didn’t mind that Dill hadn’t shown up to take me to play pool with him and Greg, but the fact that he would do it on purpose, to punish or test me?

“Don’t you ever care about anything?” he asked, and the way he sounded made me sorry and angry at the same time.

Yes,” I said, because it was true. I didn’t know how the whole thing had gotten so nasty so fast, but I couldn’t seem to stop. “Pandas. African elephants and the national deficit and the ozone layer.”

I don’t know why I’m so bad at telling the truth. I care about lots of things. But I care about them in ways that I wouldn’t be able to make anyone else understand.

“Well, I care about you.” Dill tapped his palm on the steering wheel. “I love you.”

“We’re seventeen,” I said in a hard, level voice when I would have rather screamed it.

He took me home. In my driveway, I got out of the truck. I stood there for minute, looking in through the passenger window, dripping with flowers.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to talk to you anymore,” he said, looking away from me.

So now, I’ve had the big break-up. Not a splitting-off or a fading-away, but the real thing. It had everything to do with how we are disastrous.*

*****

Dill is true to his word. He avoids me to a degree that I didn’t even know was possible. In addition to finding all-new routes through the building, he doesn’t come to our writing class for a week.

When I actually discuss the break-up with someone else, Wit is the one I talk to. Mostly because he brings it up, but also because he doesn’t seem to expect me to be distraught or emotionally fragile.

We’re sitting on the curb, out by the back parking lot. He’s smoking and ditching English—two things that he does habitually. I’m staring out across the track and the practice fields, pulling up handfuls of grass and stacking them in an untidy mound.

“What’s wrong with you?” he says abruptly. “Are you all tragic and sad because you dumped your $%&@ing jock-boy? You didn’t have to. You could’ve just kept going on dates and making out with him casually. He wouldn’t have minded.”

“No, he minded. Anyway, I think he dumped me. Look, do you know how many boys have asked me out since we broke up? Three.”

Brody doesn’t count.”

“Okay, then two. But I didn’t even know one of them. Why would someone ask out a girl they didn’t know?”

Wit mashes his cigarette out on the curb with the kind of ferocious dignity that only belongs to sixteen-year-old goth-boys with impressive eyebrows. “God, sometimes you piss me off so much.”

“What are you talking about?”

He sighs, knocking his shoulder into mine. “Okay, so you’re like this really decent-looking girl, right? You’re pretty, and it’s like you—I don’t think it’s that you don’t notice—I think you just don’t care.”

The thing is, I can’t quite bring myself to admit it, but he’s right. I’m pretty, and I don’t care. Later, I will. I’ll care a big-fat-alarming lot. I’ll obsess about it to a degree that I’ve never obsessed over anything in my life. But right at that particular moment, I’ve hit the sweet spot of my high school career. My stock has never been higher, and all I can think is that I’m kind of terrified by it.

“It doesn’t matter,” I say, and something in my chest feels hollow, but I can’t tell if it’s because I’m lying, or because I’m starting to panic.

Wit sighs again, shaking his head. “You’re only saying that because you’re not ugly. If you were ugly, then you’d care.”

Later, I’ll grow up to be self-aware. Or, if not that, then at least be more articulate. I’ll be able to explain some of the things that bother me—the things that have always bothered me, but I never really had the words for. For now, though, I just feel helpless and kind of frantic. Scared of everything.

“Please, what is so great about being pretty? Everyone’s always acting like it matters, and it doesn’t. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Wit rakes a hand through his hair. “God damn it,” he says, but he sounds exhausted. “It’s not supposed to mean anything. It just makes things better for you. Don’t you get that? I mean, these guys like you. Brody, your $%&@ing jock-boy, they’re crazy about you.”

The way he says it is utterly final, and all at once, I can feel the panic ratcheting up again. These are the big, shuddering ideas I’ve never talked about with Jane or Catherine or anyone, because if you’re not even supposed to admit you could possibly maybe be pretty, how can you ever talk about it?

“No,” I say, and I almost whisper it. “They just don’t know me very well.”

“Well, whose fault is that?”

“What I mean is, if they did, I don’t think they’d even like me that much. I’m weird, Wit. I think about weird things. When I talk, it’s about weird things.”

I don’t know how to make him see what’s really bothering me (scaring the hell out of me)—that I’m so afraid I’ll never figure out how to have a relationship where someone actually knows me. That it was easy before, when no one ever noticed me, because as long as they weren’t noticing, there was nothing for them to misjudge or make assumptions about. That there’s nothing wrong with people thinking you’re attractive, except that after awhile, it starts to define you (becomes the realest part of you) and when boys I don’t know come up and trap me against the wall and say cheesy, appalling things like Hey good-looking, I don’t feel happy or proud, but sort of claustrophobic.

When I equate being pretty with being grossly misunderstood, what I’m really struggling with is the idea of inside versus outside, which is a huge, tricky concept and one that will dog me for the rest of high school.**

Right in this moment though, all I know is that I’ve spent pretty much my whole life staring at the world through a magnifying glass, and now, just when I should be starting to compile my data, drawing some well-reasoned conclusions, everything is suddenly very confusing.

I haven’t quite reached the point where I’ll stop understanding myself completely, but we’re not that far off now.

We’re getting there.

*****

Now, the discussion topic.

Basically, before all this, I never thought I was the sort of person who was remotely defined by their relationships, but my break-up with Dill sends me into the kind of identity crisis I didn’t know was even possible. (And remember, existential crises are one of teenage-Brenna’s main hobbies.)

So how do these things work for you? Do relationships come naturally, or do you have to struggle to figure them out? Does the process tell you anything new about yourself?

Interestingly, when Little Sister Yovanoff starts dating during my senior year, she does it with such absolute ease and self-assurance that it’s shocking. So, I know that kind of natural facility exists, but even observing her closely, I’m totally unable to isolate the components.

*Which, wow. YES.

**Also, beyond.

18 thoughts on “The Break-Up

  1. This is less a comment about relationships, and more a sort of solidarity about that point where, having been a weird girl for basically all of high school, suddenly boys you’ve never really talked to start noticing The Pretty and acting differently. I didn’t get overt stuff, though – it was more, suddenly guys who’d been neutral or friends would look at me weird, or get uncomfortable if I wore clothes that accentuated the fact that I was a girl (such as swimmers, or skirts), and it was all very subvocal but still undeniably THERE. The whole thing made me feel weirdly ashamed of being a girl, even though part of me found it thrilling, because as much as it was nice to entertain the idea that I might Actually Be Pretty, any benefits to be derived from it were drastically offset by the fact that I had no control over who saw me that way and how it altered their behaviour, and I didn’t feel I could address it openly without breaking some inviolate taboo.

    Weirder still, though, was the part where, weeks or months or years after high school, I’d find out guys I’d barely spoken to had had crushes on me, or discussed my relative hotness with other guys I barely knew, or even – weirder still – that a friend had crushed on me and somehow I’d remained oblivious. It was, and remains, very odd to think that so much that was ostensibly relevant to me was also hidden from me, and it remains one of my social paranoias to this day that someone will start liking me that way and I’ll react the wrong way. (Marriage evidently does not solve this.)

    Also also, and on another non-sequitur: do you read the webcomic Dresden Codak? Something tells me you’d like it, particularly the main character, Kim. One of the most beautiful comics has just been set to music on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=c_ODXzeatrU) and I definitely think you’ll enjoy.

    Also also also, having just read (and loved!) The Space Between, it feels like your teenage personality greatly informs Daphne’s worldview, and that there’s a lot of your idea of Four in Truman, too. Is that deliberate? Or am I clutching at straws?

    • The whole thing made me feel weirdly ashamed of being a girl, even though part of me found it thrilling

      This is very much how I felt, which meant that it was always so hard to talk about (or even think about) on an actually-useful level. Honestly, I never really understood the idea of ambivalence until I hit about 17, and suddenly I was ambivalent about everything :)

      I had no control over who saw me that way and how it altered their behaviour, and I didn’t feel I could address it

      It’s funny—it wasn’t like I’d never known people or had friends before starting school, but school was absolutely the first place where I realized that to be around people meant they were going to assemble their own versions of you—their experience of you would be A Thing, separate from how you felt, and there were going to be times when from your perspective, the two versions didn’t even resemble each other.

      the webcomic Dresden Codak

      Oh, that is gorgeous! I got to poking around on the site a little, and this one is basically the entire story of my brain:The Process

      it feels like your teenage personality greatly informs Daphne’s worldview

      So, I’ll be honest—teenage-me informs A LOT of Daphne (not so much the dainty princess aspects, obviously, but the weird, pragmatic parts for sure). In The Replacement, Mackie was really dissimilar to me in almost every way, so it was kind of fun to then go on and write Daphne. She’s certainly not a one-to-one correlation, but she’s still kind of this anime-doll version of how I experienced things when I was about sixteen—a lot of gather-information/arrive-at-a-conclusion.

      As for Truman and #4, I’d say Truman is actually a lot more like a few other boys I’ve known. He’s extremely prickly, and also, I think, kind of remote, whereas #4 (my complete and utter terror of him notwithstanding) was super-nice and not nearly so cynical or impatient or self-protective. Which is not to say that Truman isn’t nice, but … well, it’s really not the first adjective that comes to mind :)

      • “What happened to your hat?”
        “A bird stole it.”

        :D

        It’s funny you say Truman’s prickly, because I didn’t read him that way. Maybe that’s because we see things from his POV, though, and can therefore understand his motives; whereas I only tend to think of people as prickly when I don’t understand their reactions to things.

      • *grins* So glad you like it! Watching that video of Lantern Season before reading this entry suddenly made a lot of sense, especially with Kim’s personality. Also, that comic is just the best :)

        • Cheat at Truth or Dare only to find there’s no prize

          Forget locker combination, so you change schools

          Try drinking less than 7 pots of coffee a day

          A bird just landed on your head

          Yes, yes! A thousand times, YES!

          Also, with Truman being prickly, I just couldn’t think of a better word, but I know there is one—somewhere? Because when the book starts, he has lots of reasons for being dishonest and inaccessible, but he still is those things (which is totally not a personal judgment, because I love dysfunctional characters). But for instance, hostile would be the wrong word, because he’s not really. Or resentful, either. Man, he’s just bleak!

  2. Mostly unrelated, but something that this post made me think of. What I find interesting, and one of the biggest things that makes this kind of high school experience seem so very different than mine, is the fact that it felt like, for me, everything was so defined by history. By senior year, relationships were practically all taken in to corners, and there was absolutely nobody who didn’t have complications… 12 years with the same 200 kids, and it felt like there was absolutely nothing left. Even the kids you weren’t friends with you knew far more about than you wanted to. Sure, most of us didn’t really know each other in any meaningful way, but everyone was so shrouded in reputation that it was kind of just killing time until you could get out and get to know new people… by junior year it seemed like every possibility had been tired out years ago.

    • 12 years with the same 200 kids, and it felt like there was absolutely nothing left

      In one way, this is kind of an amazing idea to me, since I had such a relatively short time in school, and the school was so big. In another way though, I think I know what you mean, because the whole time I was homeschooled, I knew the same group of people, and we were so close-knit that it was never even an issue of whether or not you particularly got along with them—you just knew them and knew how to interact, and that was your village.

      just killing time until you could get out and get to know new people

      I still know a lot of the same people I knew growing up and I love them a lot, but during high school, most of us did take a pretty significant break from each other, and I think it was precisely because of this. For a long time, the small group was comforting, and then after a while, it started to feel closer to confining, and we all sort of broke out and went our separate ways, just to get some air.

  3. When guys like me, which isn’t particularly often but happens none the less, it’s because of who I am. I am not beautiful, but I think that I become pretty to them, in the way that affection changes how you see someone.
    Sometimes they like me because they like how I make them feel. I have a certain charisma, a certain energy that appeals to people who lack focus. Sad boys, geeky boys, kind and quiet boys sometimes fall for me. I just like to talk to people, I like people to be happy and chatting. I’m like that with everyone. But boys like that, they get a little kindness and start to pull. I cannot be sunny and laughing and kind. That isn’t really who I am. Or… it is. Really, it is. About 50% of the time. But the other half of me is much darker, and sharper. A fluffy bunny I am not. I have claws and teeth, and I enjoy them. I like to fight, to lash out. I like people who lash back. My claws would shred nice, quiet boys. So they love half of me, and have to be protected from what they don’t see. Which is the same as not loving any part of me at all. You can’t cut a person up, and even though it’s not their faults that’s what happens. They like me, and because of it I have to be the person they like. I can’t find it in myself to hurt boys like that. They are fragile, and incapable of dealing with the force of nature that I am when not self contained.

    I don’t know if this seems really random, or if you can maybe see how you’re story brought this part of my life to mind in me. The men in your school looked at you and saw your beauty. The boys in mine, or some of them at least, saw a sort of savior, or maybe just a friendly face. Once I had carefully disentangled myself from one of these boys, I would have a terrible feeling of dread. Because I have no idea how I will ever find someone who will love, or even just see all of me.

    • in the way that affection changes how you see someone

      I think this is such an important thing to understand, and also what scared me so much about affection as A Concept when I was younger—that someone’s view of you has the potential to be so subjective, almost like a caricature!

      Sad boys, geeky boys, kind and quiet boys

      Oh, this was always, always my kryptonite! I adored them, but they also made me really cautious, because I was so afraid of how it would play out in the end. Because the more time I spent getting to know other people, the more I started to noticed the really abrasive, hazardous parts of my personality. Which, it might go without saying, but adolescent-Brenna was basically built to destroy sensitive boys.

      the other half of me is much darker, and sharper.

      Where you look warm, I had a real tendency to look fragile and like I needed someone to protect and defend me, when what I actually needed was someone to push and challenge me and help me double-check my work. (Okay, I also probably needed a hug, but I was not in any state to admit to an affectionate side at that point in my life.)

      So they love half of me […] Which is the same as not loving any part of me at all.

      This was the heart of *all* my existential angst during my late teens and early twenties—this idea that even if I could figure out a way to show all the facets of my personality, it was going to look very off-putting to a certain cross-section of people—possibly a large one—and no one was going to be onboard with the whole deal.

      I don’t know if this seems really random

      Trust me, it doesn’t! A lot of what you’ve said is exactly what I was trying to get at—how, even when I felt like I had a pretty solid sense of myself and my priorities and what I liked and wanted, I was still really scared that what was there had no place in the larger world—that as a personality, it simply wasn’t for mass consumption.

      (It probably goes without saying, but my fears of winding up as a lonely mad scientist in a dilapidated castle did not come to pass, it was just a matter of finding someone sharp and loyal and irreverent, who just happened to have a titanium core.)

  4. I’m really happy you posted about this, because I think seventeen-year-old Brenna and seventeen-year-old Kristin had a lot in common. I spent a good chunk of my high school relationships explaining to boys about how I was a robot. I did not have normal high schooler hormones. And I was also weird and confused and marriage and kids and commitment in general scared me to death. I truly believed for most of my teenage life that I was incapable of really really falling in love. And it honestly didn’t make me have existential crises – it was kind of a relief. Because love scared me.

    And then when I fell in love for real, it was horrifying – but I was relieved again. Because I realized I wasn’t broken, it was just that high school wasn’t for me what it was for so many others, and that was okay.

    So anyway. That post probably qualified as TMI, but whatever – I just wanted seventeen-year-old Brenna to know that I get it. :)

    • I just wanted seventeen-year-old Brenna to know that I get it.

      And look, I know I maybe already told you this, but I can pretty much guarantee that it’s why I was (am) so affected by your not-poem, and hanging onto the coffee cups with both hands. Poems about love almost never have a thing to do with me. But that one does.

      And it honestly didn’t make me have existential crises – it was kind of a relief. Because love scared me.

      What’s funny is, I was SO scared, but I didn’t know it. I thought I wasn’t scared of anything—not pain, not failure, not loss. Not anything. Which made the fact that I eventually fell in love just the most relieving thing, partly because it meant I could, and partly because it turned out to not be so bad after all :)

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