Last week, we left seventeen-year-old Brenna post-breakup, newly single and increasingly cynical. And I don’t mean cynical in that desperate, idealistic way that her sophomore self was, where the disenchantment really meant just caring a lot about things she couldn’t change.
I mean cynical in the sense of Whatever. This is stupid.
It’s not a good look. It’s not a good feeling. But more than that, it doesn’t make any inherent sense.
The thing is, nothing bad has happened to me. Nothing much has actually changed, and yet I suddenly feel like the whole world is a giant lump of pointlessness. It is completely unprecedented that a non-traumatic breakup with a perfectly nice, perfectly decent boy could turn a girl into such an unrelenting pessimist.
It starts with my ill-tempered crisis about dating and relationships and beauty, but quickly grows to encompass All the Everything. And while initially it still seems recoverable, the situation is then worsened by a variety of factors. By the fact that Jane hasn’t been at school for four days.
At first, I wait by her locker, trying to look casual and like I belong there when Rooster and #4 come to get their books.
It doesn’t work.
Rooster and Dweezil laugh and elbow each other and tease #4 loudly about his inability to get a girlfriend. #4 just shakes his head and looks someplace else. Despite my newfound reluctance to take the world seriously, I feel excruciatingly out of place, and Jane does not show up.
After awhile, I don’t even bother with her locker anymore. She is never waiting for me outside my writing class now. I know that when I pass the speech and debate room after second hour, she won’t be there, and I don’t know what to do about it. It’s like she’s disappeared.
“What do you mean you don’t know her phone number?” Catherine says. “We’ve only been hanging out with her every day for the entire semester.”
I shrug. “I don’t know, I just hate calling people.”
This piece of intelligence is absolutely true. At this point in my life, I have never asked a single person for their number, due to my intense dislike of making calls. As far as I’m concerned, the telephone should die in a fire.
Catherine sighs and shakes her head, but by now, she’s very accustomed to my lax social skills. “Well, Dill used to go out with her, right? He’ll know.”
So I wait for Dill after lunch, leaning against his locker until the warning bell rings and he’s pretty much forced to come over and get his books or else be late. I smile and start to speak, but he just reaches around me to turn the lock like I’m not even there.
“Hey,” I say, waving my hand in front of him, but stopping short of actually touching him. “Jane’s been gone and I don’t know her number. Could you give it to me?”
It’s the first time I’ve said anything to him since the night we broke up, and I keep being distracted by the fact that I suddenly think my voice sounds weird. I know I’m saying all the wrong things, and being totally inconsiderate and invasive when I should be giving him space, but I don’t know what else to do.
He just maintains a frighteningly neutral expression, looking off over my head. “I don’t have it with me.”
“Well, can you get it for me?”
He shrugs. “Yeah. Yeah, I have it written down. I’ll see if I can find it.”
He leaves me there, arms at my sides, watching him all the way down the hall. In that moment, every single thing about the world feels shaky and out of balance. Off-kilter.
Because I have no idea what else to do, I walk down to the cafeteria, half-hoping that Wit will have skipped English again and we can split a cup of coffee or go for a walk and talk about relationships and the appalling lack of meaning in the world and the Jane Situation, and how someone goes about calling someone else on the phone.
But Wit isn’t there.
In fact, the common area is mostly empty except for a tall, skinny boy sitting at one of the round tables, hunched over a pile of office forms. A tall, skinny boy with orange hair and a billion freckles.
For a second, I just clasp my hands in front of me and consider him. I stand there, trying to get used to the idea of him, to make it seem right and reasonable that he would be there.
He glances up. “Hey—oh, hey!” Then he reaches for me, grabbing my hands, swinging them back and forth. “Buckaroo, what’s up?”
We both laugh when he calls me that, but it sounds empty and sort of false. We look at each other for a long time, and then he drops my hands.
“So,” I said finally. “How are things? I mean, where’ve you been living?”
He met my gaze, looking embarrassed and sort of shy. He shrugged. “Oh, you know. I been at an apartment, friends’ houses, my mom’s. I just been living, I guess.”
I smiled a little, “Another step towards becoming that bum you always aspired to be.”*
He laughed softly and I was sorry. “Yeah, I guess,” he said. “Yeah, it is.”
We looked at each other a long time, smiling, just staring uncomfortably into each other’s faces. Still red-haired, still freckled, still green-eyed, still Irish.
But older now too, hadn’t shaved in awhile. Not really my friend. Maybe never my friend, but it has always mattered so much that he was nice to me when no one else was.
He took a deep breath suddenly and blurted out, “Oh God, I don’t even know what to say!”
And I just looked down, hands held childishly behind my back, thinking of all the things he could tell me that I would love him for later. “I miss you.” “I’m sorry.” “I screwed things up.” (“I plan to stop selling meth.”)
What he did say though was about as good as any of those. “Buckaroo,” he said, “I’m thinking about getting myself registered for school next year.”
And who cares if it’s just thinking? Who cares if it’s all bullshit and it will never really happen? He said it out loud. And when he says things, it’s always just so $%&@ing easy to believe him.
Our conversation is short and uncomfortable, but also kind of transformative. I don’t really think Irish will get his act together, but then, I never believed he was coming back in the first place, and in this regard at least, I’ve been proven wrong. I start to wonder what other things I’m wrong about.
The next morning, I catch Dill in the west hall, before first hour. “Do you have Jane’s number”
And because she’s been gone for a week by now and because I already want to put my head down on the linoleum and go to sleep, or collect fifty-seven empty bottles and throw them against a wall, or scream into a pillow because I don’t want Irish to be a drug-dealer anymore, everything else suddenly seems very, very easy.
(This sudden easiness? This right here is the beauty of acute nihilism.)
“Dill,” I say, folding my arms across my chest and looking up at him. “Just give me her number.”
We stand facing each other in the hall, toes almost touching. He’s looking down at me in this very monolithic way, like he’s tremendous, taking up space, and I am very, very small. Which is true, but suddenly doesn’t feel true.
Instead, the whole interaction feels totally contrived, like a social studies skit or one of those practical exams where you play-act the parts,** and all the time I spent last year thinking that I was insubstantial or see-through? I am not that girl anymore.
Last night I dreamed that Jane came back to school. I walked into the building this morning feeling hopeful for the first time in what seems like centuries. Guess who wasn’t there.
And every time I ask Dill for her phone number, he says he doesn’t have it on him, or says that he doesn’t remember it, or says he lost it. So today I didn’t ask, I just looked up into his face and said, “Dill, just give me her phone number.”
He sighed and recited it like a poem.
The way I say, unequivocally, what I want from Dill is magical and kind of amazing. The idea that you can just declare your objective and people have to give it to you? Amazing! The whole encounter is eye-opening. It is so small and so commonplace, and also a complete revelation.
And no, it doesn’t solve the problem of Jane, and how she is missing. It doesn’t mean that Irish will come back to school and do his homework and not sell meth and not wind up in a whole lot of trouble. It doesn’t solve the fact that graphing parabolas is really boring, or cure me of my global cynicism or my fear of making eye contact with #4, but it reminds me that every single moment is a tiny little bridge to the next one.
Nothing is foregone, nothing is certain, and maybe meaning isn’t inherent, but even if it isn’t, that doesn’t mean you can’t still make your own.
Discussion topics are getting really hard because I feel like I’ve used up all the straightforward questions and nothing that I’m talking about is very straightforward at all anymore. Because a lot of times that’s what happens when you start thinking about the world—there are all these little divots and incongruities and sticky-out parts, and your brain can just get very noisy.
And now, at the end of junior year, Brenna’s easy, self-explanatory lessons have mostly been learned, and for the rest of high school, things are just very, very noisy.
*This is actually intended to be a joke, although a very ill-timed one. The year before, we were pretty constantly discussing how he wanted to be a professional hobo, to heat up cans of baked beans on a flat rock in a campfire and ride the rails and have a dog with a piece of rope for a collar. So I’m making an inside reference that’s supposed to allude to our shared history, but which is shockingly not-right for the moment. I am very bad at identifying appropriate circumstances.
**Later, I’ll start to realize that these are always the moments where something significant changes for me—when things become detached and kind of artificial, like I’m standing outside it and can see all the pulleys and the wires, but someone else is in charge of the words coming out of my mouth.