Jane Comes Back

Okay, wow. It has been FOREVER since I put up an actual high school post!

To reorient: A long time ago, before hyper-productive writing trips and knee surgery and that time I revised a book, we left teenage-Brenna post-break-up, marginally assertive, and newly intent on locating the missing Jane. (And also a little bit of a nihilist—not even a regular, run-of-the-mill nihilist either, but like a fancy one. That’s old news though. She’s already growing out of it.)

Following my awkward showdown with Dill, I have Jane’s number. Like, physically have it. On a scrap of paper. In my possession. This is alarming, because it means that now I actually have to do something. Also, Catherine will not stop teasing me over my phobia of the telephone.

I call Jane’s house after dinner, hating the sound of the signal ringing on the line. My aversion to the phone is hard to explain. I don’t freeze or stutter, I don’t panic. It’s more like as soon as I’m in the true, tangible act of calling—as soon as I’m actually holding the receiver to my ear, I just … really, really want to hang up.

The impulse is bizarre and kind of embarrassing. Sometimes I consider the possibility that it might be neurological, but I don’t really think that’s the case. I think part of it might be that I sometimes have a really hard time understanding what someone’s saying when I can’t see them. Also, I’m beginning to suspect that I don’t have the greatest hearing and that’s probably why I sometimes have trouble understanding people even when I’m looking right at them.*

I’m about to just call it a wash and put the receiver down, when a girl answers. I ask for Jane and she says, “Are you her friend from school?”

It’s a weird question because it’s incredibly direct. Because it implies that Jane has only the one friend.

“Yeah, just—I hadn’t seen her in a while.”

“She’s not here.”

I have the unsettling feeling that this will be it. That I’ll thank the girl for her time and hang up the phone and that will be the end of the whole production and also of my friendship with Jane.

But the girl takes pity and says—pleasantly enough, “She’s in the hospital.”

I take a second to process that. I think about it. Sometimes people go to the hospital. I have never been in the hospital, but hospitalization is a known circumstance. It seems possible.

“Oh,” I say. “Will she be coming home soon?”

“Yeah. Maybe tomorrow. Or after that.”

I stand there in the kitchen, leaning my elbows on the counter, shifting from foot to foot. “Could you let her know I called?”

“Yeah, I will. She’ll like that.”

The idea of Jane in the hospital is a troubling one. I can tell, just from the way the girl says it, that it’s not hospital as that word would fit into the most basic equation of car accident or walking pneumonia.

If it belongs anywhere, it sits inside a set of brackets across from things like self-harm and malnutrition, totaling grimly to a whole-number sum of depression.

And because I can recognize the signs retroactively, I just grip the receiver tighter and nod. Later, I’ll wonder why I’m not more shocked, why I don’t feel disoriented or blindsided, but just then, standing in the kitchen, all I can think is that this has probably been coming for quite awhile.

Jane got out of the hospital yesterday. This morning, she walked over to meet me at school during my free hour.

We stood in the parking lot, looking out at the soccer fields. They’d just gone over it with the riding mower so everything was short and flat, except for one yellow dandelion, jutting up, inexplicable.

I shaded my eyes with my hand. “It took me a week just to get your number. Did you like how Dill was completely useless about the whole thing?”

“I don’t like anything.”

“Well, I like that flower,” I said, pointing at the dandelion. “It looks like it means business. Do you want to go get coffee?”

“I don’t want anything.” Then she grinned at me. “Yeah, let’s go get some $%&@ing coffee.”

She turned away and the sun on her hair made a rainbow, like light shining on a bird’s wing. I thought about that. I want lots of things, all the time. I just never say them out loud.

I want Jane to be okay. I want her to be happy and the skin on her arms to be smooth and uninterrupted. I want Irish to come back to school and have it be like when we used to be friends. I want for Gatsby to not wind up in prison and for Dill to stop acting like I don’t exist, or like I somehow ruined his life.

These are things I have no control over. My wanting them is unrelated to whether or not they happen.

Jane and I sit on the same side of the wooden booth at the coffee shop, even though I would probably never sit that way with Catherine or Wit. We talk a lot, but we don’t talk about where she was all week, or why, or anything like that. We talk about how our creative writing teacher might be a crackhead, because at least that would explain some of his more erratic behaviors. We talk about surrealist painters and how much we love the movie Grosse Pointe Blank and whether Jane will be locker partners with Catherine next year and why green pens are better than other kinds.

I’m a little unnerved that I could have missed so many of the signs leading up to her absence. It wasn’t that I glossed over things or ignored them, so much as I just didn’t find even the most telling symptoms to be worth remarking on.

Jane is really skinny.

But so am I, and so is Wit, and so are lots of other people who take decent care of themselves and get plenty to eat.

Jane is cynical, but this is high school, and so is pretty much everyone I hang out with.

Jane often has unexplained scratches running down her arms. But so do I and so does Little Sister Yovanoff, and so does anyone who plays contact sports and climbs trees and wrestles with dogs.

But the thing is, Jane doesn’t do those things. Jane is kind of a homebody. She paints and draws and drinks coffee. Sometimes she goes for walks. She pulls her food apart into tiny fragments and eats it like she’s doing science, and even taking into account her proclivity for saying hilarious things at inopportune times, I can’t ignore the fact that she’s been getting in trouble in class a lot lately.

She’s always been a little bit of a smartass, but in the last few months, her attitude has deteriorated drastically, mutating to include things like doing her entire persuasive speech in Farshivushian, and being sent to the office for calling our writing teacher a m*****f*****, and telling her guidance counsellor that she hoped his head caught on fire.

So I sit next to her, drinking my coffee and reevaluating all the data in the my mental Jane file in a diligent attempt to come up with a more accurate picture.

“Why aren’t you acting weird around me?” she says suddenly, like she can actually see my wheels turning.

And I just shrug and shake my head.

“I mean it,” she says, spinning her cup so that a little wave of milky coffee slops over the edge. “Why are you just acting regular and normal and not asking me a whole bunch of lame, cliché questions?”

“Do you want me to?” I say and wait for her to laugh or nod or look away, but in the whole time I’ve known her, Jane has always maintained excellent eye-contact.

“No,” she says, staring right back into my face. “It’s good this way. I just didn’t expect it.”

It crosses my mind that maybe I should be asking the questions anyway, trying to find out what’s really wrong, but the thing is, I’ve had enough time to redraw my mental picture of our friendship, and for all practical purposes, it doesn’t look any different now than it did two weeks ago. The café is still our favorite place to hang out, and Jane is still wry and funny and sardonic. She still slips her arm through mine and likes movies about contract killers and takes milk in her coffee.

The thing is, nothing has changed.

I just have more information.

*****

For discussion: Do you know how to talk to your friends? Do you know how to talk about the hard things, I mean? The uncomfortable ones? (The ones that would be much, much easier to ignore, except that they are also the kind of things that actually matter.)

Also, for my own edification—the telephone: greatest invention ever, or bane of your existence? Am I the only one? I can’t be the only one!

*Which has no bearing on this particular story, but I mention it here anyway because it comes back into the narrative later.

14 thoughts on “Jane Comes Back

  1. Wow, there is so much to respond to here. Back in high school and early college, I didn’t know how to talk to my friends about the things that mattered. We were so caught up in being perfect students and getting better AP or SAT scores than one another that we didn’t think about the things that really mattered. Years later, I realized how much I had missed when two of my closest friends, out of the blue, disclosed their sexual assault experiences while we were sitting in a fast-food Italian restaurant. I didn’t know how to respond then and I didn’t for years afterward…until it became my actual job to know how to respond to those things. Even though I still feel guilty for not asking more then, I think they both just wanted it out there — not to be coddled or pitied but just to be heard.

    I think your response to Jane then was the best one possible for her — it showed that you still thought of her as a real person, not a specimen or something wholly different than she was two weeks prior. I try to take that approach now and it’s worked for me. After my sister has a massive stroke at age 31 and we spent a week in the hospital with her, my mother said that she was impressed with “how good” I was at talking to my sister and being normal in the hospital. I had to do the same thing three years later when my dad has a heart attack and triple bypass surgery. I just try to remember that I wouldn’t want to be reminded every moment of my problems or why I’m in some horrible place — that I would just want to be remembered and reminded of who I am outside that. By doing that, I hope the people in my life also know that I am there for when they do want to talk about the scary stuff, too.

    • I didn’t know how to respond then and I didn’t for years afterward…until it became my actual job to know how to respond to those things.

      I’ve always been a little bit in awe of the people who seem to just have a very good instinctual sense of how to respond to extremely emotional situations. I sometimes have to remind myself that most people aren’t born knowing how to navigate crises, and they acquire the skills through exposure and practice, the way we learn everything.

      Even now, I’m much better at just listening (alertly, intently … aggressively) than I am at being perceptibly warm or comforting, and there have definitely been times where I’ve felt like I should have done a better job in a particular situation, but I figure our best course is just to learn how to approach things in ways that play to our strengths.

      my mother said that she was impressed with “how good” I was at talking to my sister and being normal in the hospital

      This is something that I think is *so* important—reassuring people that even though a situation might be adverse and frightening, they don’t have to lose their relationships and social interactions too!

      • Even now, I’m much better at just listening (alertly, intently … aggressively) than I am at being perceptibly warm or comforting, and there have definitely been times where I’ve felt like I should have done a better job in a particular situation, but I figure our best course is just to learn how to approach things in ways that play to our strengths.

        What good advice about playing to our strengths. I’m like you in this regard — I’m better at listening or offering resources than I am at being a comforting person, esp. physically. I’m trying to be better at this more and more, but it’s still awkward for me to do the back-patting or hand-holding or hugging in most cases.

        • but it’s still awkward for me to do the back-patting or hand-holding or hugging in most cases.

          Ha! I’ve long since accepted that yeah, I have to Not Do That, because it never comes out normal, just awkward and stiff. I have to just be comforting in *my* way, because if I try to use anybody else’s way, it winds up weird and uncomfortable for everyone!

  2. I missed these posts!
    I talk to my friends. About their problems, or their worries. And if they won’t talk about something, or if they want to avoid something, I have to do a mental check. “Am I enabling them by ignoring it?” “Do I think that s/he would feel better after talking, does s/he want to talk?” “Does it matter if s/he wants to talk about it, when it’s REALLY something they should share with someone?” “Does s/he know that they can talk to me about it?”
    If, after this thought process, I find that I really feel my friend should talk to someone about whatever it is, such as in your Jane situation, I’ll make sure that they know I’m happy to be their diary on this one. Or, I’ll admit to feeling the way I know they are feeling (it’s never a lie. Our feelings are universal) or tell a story that I know will make them feel more comfortable sharing. (This is ALMOST never a lie. If it is, I say “I was reading a book where….”) Sometimes they know what I’m doing, but that’s okay. Normally they talk anyway. And they almost always feel better for it. 99% of the time people just need to share some of their burdon. The other 1% of the time involves me hugging her/him and trying to make them smile. Some wounds have to be secret for a while, and everyone is allowed their secrets.
    Sometimes I push things, though. I have a friend who is very depressed, always is. She’s not a talker, but I can’t seem to let it go. I’m forever asking “So, how happy do you think you are?” and we’ve developed a kind of secret language to talk about it. It seems to help, that she knows I care. But she would never talk about it without my prompting her. She has more secrets then the rest of us, and they’ve started to keep her secret instead of the other way around.

    • “Am I enabling them by ignoring it?” “Do I think that s/he would feel better after talking, does s/he want to talk?” “Does it matter if s/he wants to talk about it, when it’s REALLY something they should share with someone?” “Does s/he know that they can talk to me about it?”

      Oh, this is so, so good! Now I’m at a point where I’m a lot more conscious of these kinds of considerations, but man, it took awhile. (It just seemed so much easier to leave people to their own devices because, well … it’s usually easier.)

      Now I’ll sometimes push people, but as you said, it’s only in situations where no other approach is likely to help and where there’s really no chance of the person volunteering the subject on their own. Most of the time, I still feel awkward about forcing a conversation, but I can’t think of an instance where I’ve ever regreted it afterward.

      we’ve developed a kind of secret language to talk about it

      This is exactly what wound up happening with me and Jane, because it was really the only way we could actually have the kind of conversations that needed to happen. If we were communicating through code or a fantasy narrative, we could always just be much more honest about things.

      • I spend a lot of time doing the question game with myself. Sometimes I feel really guilty about even having the discussion. Because my friends are big kids now, and can talk if they want to. It’s not my right to decide what’s best for them. But… sometimes we aren’t in the best place to do what’s best for ourselves, you know? So there’s a thin line there, between presumption and negligence.

        With that one friend, my one who is always so depressed, who I talk with in a secret language, with her it’s different. She can’t be trusted to take care of herself, the same way that if I was not on anti-depressants I could not be trusted to make acceptable choices. She lives in a dark, inside place. We all spend a lot of time knocking on the door, checking that she’s doing okay. If we didn’t, and she got worse, she would never ask for help. She can’t. So we push. It is the obligation of our mutual love, that we have to invade her privacy like that. And I am always grateful that she never resents the intrusion, but takes it as it is intended. She’s sort of wonderful that way.

  3. I’m good at dealing with people when they’re upset, mostly because I force them to respond. “Are you okay?” “Yeah, I’m fine” “Really?” “Yes.” “Do you need a hug?” “No.” “Do you want me to keep asking questions, or go away?” And a lot of the time they want to actually talk. When they start scary-crying, though… that I find it tough to deal with. I usually end up crying too, because I can empathize with almost anyone about almost anything.

    The other thing is, sometimes you don’t even have to respond. They just need to know that someone is listening and that they care.

    I sometimes have a really hard time understanding what someone’s saying when I can’t see them. Also, I’m beginning to suspect that I don’t have the greatest hearing and that’s probably why I sometimes have trouble understanding people even when I’m looking right at them.*
    My mom kept dragging me to the ear people when I was younger because she just couldn’t belive that my hearing was normal. But I’ve recently realized that I need to lip read more than I think I do — if I don’t have my glasses on and someone talks to me, I have nooo idea what they’re saying. Also, it’s just as much an understanding issue, because I can hear the cadence of their voice just fine, it’s the meaning of their words that are tough.

    • I honestly find the scary-crying tough to deal with too, but I think it’s on kind of the opposite end of the spectrum from you. I’m really unlikely to start crying due to someone else being upset, but I also don’t really know what I *am* supposed to do and I’m a really bad hugger. Like, it is wildly awkward for everyone involved. So I usually weather the crying best if we can just move past it and treat it like a peripheral thing on the way to the “real problem.”

      I can hear the cadence of their voice just fine, it’s the meaning of their words that are tough

      Honestly, this is the biggest thing that happens to me on the phone—when I can’t see someone’s face, especially if I don’t know them well (talking to a telemarketer, calling in a restaurant order), it’s like they’re just making vaguely-verbal noise. Although, I totally understand my sister when she mumbles, even on the phone. And by mumble, I mean she doesn’t believe in consonants.

      • The not understanding someone without seeing them thing is actually REALLY common, even in people without hearing problems. It’s related to how your brian deals with language. If you’re a super visual person (or someone who doesn’t hear well) you relate the lip movements and expressions of people to the words, without the noises being of much consideration.

        • The most ridiculous thing is, I have an excellent auditory memory (which means that I’m super lazy about taking notes), but it all depends on how much I understood when the person was talking. In college, I had this biology professor who had a really bad stutter. I did not get a very good grade.

  4. I have a hard time talking to friends, or anyone for that matter about the hard stuff. I want to be able to help, to fix things for them, but I know I won’t be able to do that, and that anything I might try to say may come off as forced or cliche. I’m the kind of empathetic person where I’ll walk into a room full of nervous people and become nervous, if someone is crying beside me I’ll become sad, if a friend is laughing at something I don’t think is funny I’ll probably laugh. So if someone bears their problems upon me, I’ll tend to carry their weight, and it makes me uncomfortable.
    If needed, I’ll offer words of encouragement, reassurance. I’m good at helping them to look to the future instead of dwelling on the present. But really, most of the time I end up talking like everything is normal, nothing’s changed, because I know if I were in that situation I wouldn’t want to sulk but to just have someone to be with me as if nothing has changed.
    As for the telephone, I get uncomfortable as well. It’s like there’s a missing piece to the interaction, I get nervous when I can’t see their expression or movements, and awkward pauses are much more awkward over the phone than they are in real life. And I’m far too good at zoning out and getting distracted by what’s around me than focusing on a single voice.

    • I’m the kind of empathetic person where I’ll walk into a room full of nervous people and become nervous

      This is a quality that is so wonderful and so mysterious to me that it’s almost like a magical power. Like, it’s so foreign that when I was younger, it never even occurred to me that something like this existed.

      I do put a lot of value on fairness and thoughtfulness, and I especially want to treat people kindly when they’re upset, because I think it’s important, but if we get right down to it … I’m actually a pretty un-empathetic person. Most of the time, when I find myself in sympathy with someone, it’s through observation rather than internalizing an emotion. I used to think I’d learn to be more empathetic over time, but now I just think I’ve learned to compensate for it in other ways.

      It’s like there’s a missing piece to the interaction, I get nervous when I can’t see their expression or movements

      This is so, so true. I never realize exactly how much I depend on nonverbal cues until I’m on the phone or even trying to get a sense of someone through email, and it’s like I’m only getting a tiny sliver of what’s happening.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s