That Time When Brenna Was a Small Angry Nihilist

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.

Irish?”

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”

“I forgot.”

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.

6 thoughts on “That Time When Brenna Was a Small Angry Nihilist

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve been enjoying your high school posts for a while, but I’ve found the last few especially beautiful. This one makes me think about how life sometimes seems like a continual process of losing people–friends, almost-friends, people you could have been friends with if you had known how. I’ve spent the last several years of my life moving relatively often, and every time I feel like there’s a whole layer of peripheral relationships that I lose, because those relationships were based on particular circumstances that don’t exist anymore, and it always makes me sad. I know that this is part of life, but I can’t make myself accept that it’s in any way right or OK for those people to just disappear from my life, for all of that friend-potential to dissolve into nothing (or, worse, into the kind of social media friendship that gives you the illusion of being in touch even though you never actually talk again). I also think that it’s probably partly my fault, because I’m not good at knowing when it’s worth making an effort to see someone outside of the circumstances that threw us together. I worked at a bookstore for a few years, and I had a few coworkers that I think I could have been friends with if I had known how to do it. I wonder how some people just seem to *know* how to make, and keep, friends. It has gotten easier for me as I’ve gotten older, but it’s still not totally easy or intuitive.

    • life sometimes seems like a continual process of losing people–friends, almost-friends, people you could have been friends with if you had known how

      I’m only really starting to figure this part out in the last few years, honestly. For me, the learning curve has always been steep, and even when the first steps happen easily, I’ve always had to rely heavily on the other person to figure out how to actually progress the relationship.

      And I’ve always been fascinated by those people, the ones who know how to do it, but it does make me wonder how many great friends I’ve missed in my life because they were people just like me, who didn’t know how to read the cues or say the right thing at the right time in just the right casual way.

  2. Brenna, Thank you so much for relaying your high school experience to your readers. It makes me feel as if my high school experience wasn’t such a waste after all. Every one of your entries helps me to reflect on my experience which definitely has its parallels with yours, and makes me realize it wasn’t so bad. I also think about how much writing material I have stored away about just the middle school and high school years. Might have to pull those out one day and use them!

    • Hi, Kristin! I’m really glad you’re enjoying the high school posts—I love doing them. High school is just very fascinating to me, because so much change is happening in such a short space, and while you’re very close to being the person you’ll eventually become, there are still all these really huge gaps. I love that!

      And I’ll be honest, some of the posts make me think very seriously about things I worked weirdly hard to avoid at the time. Because no, it wasn’t that bad, but I can really only say that now, in retrospect!

  3. … But… But… Is Jane okay?
    :c I like Jane. And Wit. I like those two.
    You know who I don’t like? Sure you do.
    Ohmygod, Dill is driving me nuts. Seriously. The number thing? What is that?!
    And yes, I know that he was actually a really nice guy, and you’re not doing him justice yada yada yada.

    Also, have you noticed how dark these posts are swiftly turning? It’s funny, because it feels like those periods in your life where just everything goes wrong. So, not funny “haha,” but like “I’m going to go kill myself and eat an entire pint of Dove’s Carmel Pecan Perfection (the crack cocaine of frozen dairy), probably not in that order” funny. So maybe not funny at all, but dramatic and depressing.

    Don’t worry, I still love them. If nothing else they remind me why I’m so glade to be done with high school!

    • … But… But… Is Jane okay?

      Okay, so I debated intensely how this part of the story should play out, and the truth is, this particular approach to the timeline is the only way I could come up with to cover all the information. So, I promise-promise-promise that Jane gets a whole post to herself next week.

      Also, have you noticed how dark these posts are swiftly turning?

      YES! And it was one of those things that I did *sort of* notice at the time, but not until the entire tone of things had already been darkening for months. But what makes it funny (and yes, not funny “haha”) is, the weird situations and the dark things were already happening—the whole entire time I was in school—but until I actually started participating in my own day-to-day life and having real relationships, I was kind of invulnerable and those things had absolutely nothing to do with me.

      So, from a purely narrative perspective, I’d say that this is the point in the story where teenage-Brenna finally has to contend with far more serious considerations than jerks in Spanish class, but also turns out to have the tools necessary to start to facing off with some of them.

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