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.