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.