The autumn of senior year, most of my free time is spent pretending to be giddy and lovestruck over Holden. It turns out that I am a very good pretender.
Or, I can’t actually tell if I am. I might just be an average, or even a bad pretender, but everyone else is so prepared to see exactly what they’re looking for that it doesn’t matter.
As regards the whole Holden Situation, Delilah is running this show like a champ. She has completely memorized his schedule, allowing us to strategically position ourselves in all the places he will probably walk by. (This is pretty much fine by me, because he will also probably be with #4.)
But why am I even going along with this, you ask? The truth is, there’s no easy answer.
Okay, there are about five. Or maybe six. Or more. Okay, fine. There are really quite a lot of answers.
I love Delilah. And not just because she smiles like a supernova and kisses me on the cheek when she sees me and brings me purple lollipops and wish-bracelets and always wants to hold my hand. I love Delilah because she is just incredibly easy to love, because some days she loves everything.
I want to make her happy, because I understand on an acute, wordless level that she’s not, and even though she shrieks and laughs and flings her arms around my neck, she’s actually pretty unhappy. And scared. And angry. And worried about Jane. And when we talk about whether or not Holden might possibly have been looking over here just now, and make sure to be standing at the end of the math hall every day after lunch, that goes away for awhile.
She loves the idea of giving this to me, this grand, epic present of him, and really I’m okay with it, because he just seems so … likable. And also I know, with reassuring certainty, that despite anything Delilah says or does, there is no way in blue iceskate-devil hell that he will ever, ever be interested in me. It is basically the most risk-free proposition in the entire history of the world.
Still, there’s a small, principled part of me that insists I should break down and tell the truth. That Delilah will be just as happy cheerleading for #4, and extra-happy that I was honest with her. But I know that isn’t really true. Whatever she feels about Holden is too complicated to just abandon for the prospect of some other boy. Particularly one with none of the loud, charismatic qualities she admires.
Also—and here’s the panicked, selfish part—if she were acting even remotely the same way about #4, I would die.
Because Cobalt and Delilah are EMBARRASSING.
They’re always engaging in the kind of loud, obnoxious antics that teenage girls are famous for, laughing like crazy people and nudging me in a huge, obvious way, and then calling Holden over to talk to us on some totally ridiculous pretext. Which is mortifying, even though he’s always really nice about it, and even though it’s always Cobalt who actually does most of the flirting.
And the thing is, most of the time I don’t even mind pretending to like him. Holden is super easy to be around. He’s the kind of person who actually looks at you when you’re talking, and his default setting is always to treat everyone like they’re basically okay. Sometimes he asks me about my weekend, or scoops me up over his shoulder on the volleyball court, and all of this makes me feel normal and real, and not like someone who recently arrived here from another country or another planet.
Holden is charming. He’s smart, and surprising, and so I make the effort—I do. And not just because of some misguided impulse to make Delilah happy, but because I honestly enjoy talking to him.
In Great Books, we turned in our take-home exams and our school-issue copies of Giants in the Earth. I was standing with Holden and Celia, waiting for the bell.
“So, how many books did you actually finish?” Holden asked me, smiling in a tricky, conspiratorial way.
“Um . . .” I began to tick them off on my fingers. “Three. The Catcher in the Rye, Crime and Punishment, and The Time Machine.”
“Wow, overachiever right here. I only finished one.”
“The Sun Also Rises. It was short.”
I nodded. “I hate Hemingway though. I mean, I tried, but nothing was happening. I stopped when they got to Spain and everything was dusty. What happened at the end?”
“It was stupid,” he said. “It was exactly the same way it started. They’re just sitting in the car, talking about how they wish things would be different, but they know it can never happen. It’s like, the whole point of the story is just—” he was looking down at me, sitting carelessly on the edge of Ms. Lily’s desk, talking with his hands. “Sometimes, you want something, and it’s really great and everyone else wants it too. They’re all trying so hard to get it, but nothing’s working. But you, you sit back and you wait, and while everyone else keeps trying and trying and not getting it, you just sit back and you wait. And you don’t get it either.”
When Holden says this about wanting things, I suddenly get a frantic, out of control feeling in my chest for no good reason, like my heart has unexpectedly sprouted feathers and wants to take off. I believe in some dark, irrevocable way that he’s just told me my future, and am curious if he can see the wanting on my face. I wonder if he’ll think it’s because of him. I feel that if he does, then today I will have been extra-good at my job.
Also, I don’t know where I got this rigid, merciless idea about what it is I’m supposed to want.
Since October, Little Sister Yovanoff has been dating Froggy from our PE class, and Froggy isn’t even that cute or that clever or anything. He’s honestly pretty average, but it doesn’t matter, because she seems to like him.
Also, the way this happened is the exact opposite of every interaction I’ve ever had with any boy ever.
To set the scene, Little Sister and I are standing against the bleachers in our dress-out clothes, and Froggy is kind of hovering around the edges of our conversation, but not saying anything. He always kind of hovers around us without saying anything.
We are in the closest to an argument that we usually ever get. Which means not an argument, but Little Sister Yovanoff is unhappy. It’s the last week before the drive-in movie* closes for the season, and she wants to go.
I can’t take her though, because as soon as school lets out, I have to drive halfway across the state for club soccer, spend the night there in a motel room with five other girls, play the game, come home, and then go to work. There is literally no room in my schedule to take her to the movies.
“Just don’t goooo,” she whines (Little Sister is an inveterate whiner).
I tell her I have to. I tell her it would be a dick move not to, since I’m starting sweeper, and our goalie—who is one of the five people on the team who I genuinely like—would never forgive me.
It is at this moment that Little Sister Yovanoff does a shocking thing. A thing that underlines all the profound and monumental ways that we are truly not the same person.
She turns to Froggy, who is standing three feet away from us, staring at the floor. “Froggy, you have a car, right?”
“Yeah,” he says, glancing up with his hair in his face. “A truck. Why?”
“You should probably take me to the drive-in.”
Not do you want to go? Not what are you doing tonight? or it would be fun if or have you already seen? or even take me to.
I have never, ever dreamed of giving any boy a clear directive in the form of you should.
And Froggy nods and goes pink and looks away, trying not to seem too outrageously pleased, and since then, they’ve been dating.
It’s the kind of thing that I cannot even begin to process, because in the world of teenage Brenna, it just doesn’t seem possible. Initiating some sort of actual conversation with #4 does not seem possible. Conversations are things that happen with other people.
“Have you talked to Holden today?” Delilah asked me in the library.
“Well you should. He can’t very well express his undying love if you never talk to him.”
“Since when am I in the market for undying love anyway?” I was standing with my back to her, trying to decide which Virginia Woolf novel to write my essay on. It was between To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway.
“I thought you wanted a boyfriend.”
I shrugged and put Mrs. Dalloway back on the shelf. To the Lighthouse is simpler, which is lazy thinking, but considering the amount of reading we have to do every night, I don’t really care. Also, I don’t want just any boyfriend, but that seemed too difficult to explain.
“Look,” said Delilah. “Are you in the mood for a boyfriend lately? Just tell me yes or no.”
I nodded. “Maybe. No. I don’t know. I feel like I shouldn’t be. I mean, that’s how Catherine is all the time and she mostly just winds up being unhappy.”
“That’s different though. Catherine wants things too much. If you just want one thing a lot, I think that’s okay.”
“You should be way older than fourteen.”
She smiled. “Well, my birthday’s in two weeks.”
Delilah is really young, and I’m always having to re-remember that. She’s young and irate and hopeful and indignant and idealistic, and when she talks about Holden and her face lights up, I can’t even tell if it’s because she’s completely smitten with him, or because she just wants to do whatever she can to make me happy. And also, it doesn’t matter.
I could tell her the truth, except that I feel like I can’t. Which makes me a bad friend, and also a dishonest one. I’m desperately afraid that if she knew what I really wanted, then she and Cobalt would just act exactly the way they do now, only it would all be directed at #4 and somehow, I don’t think I could stand that. It simply does not feel survivable. Also, what if me liking him is the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to him? What if he thinks I’m stupid? What if he is really, really mean to me? Also, I know that he would never be really, really mean to me, which is one of the things I like about him, and I’m still terrified that he will be anyway.
Delilah sighs and leans against me. “What are you thinking about?” she says, winding the end of my ponytail around her finger.
I shrug and put my arm around her. “Nothing. It just feels weird.”
“I don’t know. Wanting someone to like me, I guess.”
“Wanting someone charming and fun and outgoing to like you isn’t weird,” Delilah says. “Holden is a really great guy. Anyone would want that.”
Which is superficially very true. And also just incredibly, appallingly false.
As usual, when it comes to navigating the vast and horrific world of feelings—specifically feelings about boys—teenage Brenna is a little bit of a train wreck. One of those reluctant, dysfunctional, non-dramatic train wrecks. But still.
So, you. Do you have a version of this? What’s your version? And for the love of god, why? Have you ever picked To the Lighthouse over Mrs. Dalloway because you’re secretly kind of lazy? Have you ever done something stupid and pointless for a friend? Not because you understood it or because it made sense, but because it made them happy?
Also, have you ever done everything in your power to avoid leaving your very narrow comfort zone and then told yourself you were doing it for a friend? Because I have a sneaking suspicion that that’s what we’re really talking about here. Just so we’re clear.
*Drive-in movies. An obsolete concept involving watching a double-feature from your car. There are many things that make the drive-in awesome, but the main one is, you can bring Carl’s Jr., a gallon of ice cream, and your dog with you, and no one will yell at you. You may not bring fireworks or a BBQ grill, but you can probably still have fun without them. Also, even though I just said obsolete, that’s not really true. The one in the city where I grew up is still totally open.
Hi Brenna. This doesn’t have anything to do with your post. But this actually just happened across the street.
Oh god. They are SO cute! (I just really, really want the one with the black mask and the white eyebrows. Or the butterscotch one. Or or or …)
The one with the black mask is Miracle. The firemen pulled her out after the fire was already over. She didn’t have a name before that. She has one glacier blue eye. Kind of reminds me of the way you describe Jane.
We didn’t say so on Craigslist, but this fire happened because the family’s downstairs tenet was cooking meth and ran outside when the fire started without warning the family with the dogs that was sleeping upstairs. I wanted to tell you because sometimes you write about meth in CO.
Ick. Ick. Ick. (I wondered about the fire after what you’d said on twitter …)
Honestly, I haven’t seen as much meth activity in the news since moving to Denver, but it was a big problem in high school and back when I was in college, I worked in a photo lab where I printed the crime scene account for the police department, and there were just a huge number of lab busts. (And fires.) And man, I just don’t get it. It’s POISON, people!
As a teenager I tried to push myself out of my comfort zone as often as I believed I could get away with it. By this I mean, I did things that made me uncomfortable whenever I thought there wouldn’t be any repercussions. I confessed to crushes when I knew the boys in question wouldn’t reciprocate, for example. And then I’d tell them, “I didn’t think so. Thanks for listening. Bye!” and our friendship would generally continue as usual. As an adult I’ve been more successful at ACTUALLY confronting things that make me uncomfortable and have dealt with a lot of things by just DOING them instead of sitting around wondering whether I should and why I do or don’t want to. I still think about everything I do but I tend to do the in-depth thinking after, because if I over-analyze my actions before I take them, I never will.
On the subject of leaving your comfort zone for a friend, I definitely did that. I’ve always turned into a sort of mama bear where my friends are concerned, even though I’m no older than most of them and younger than several. One incident comes to mind – a friend needed to go to Planned Parenthood to pick up her prescription for birth control pills. I skipped out on Drama Club rehearsal (I was a club officer but effectively only a gopher) to take her even though I was still really freaked out at the time to think that my friends were having sex – we were both seventeen but I was what my mother calls a “late bloomer.” My friend’s boyfriend, who was a year older than us, was off at college and couldn’t drive her so I did what she needed me to do. It was so overwhelmingly awkward for me that I adapted pretty quickly out of necessity.It seems silly now that I made such a big deal out of taking a friend to pick up a prescription but it was far, far outside my comfort zone at the time.
I tried to push myself out of my comfort zone as often as I believed I could get away with it. By this I mean, I did things that made me uncomfortable whenever I thought there wouldn’t be any repercussions.
Oh, this was me to a ridiculous degree! If I noticed I was scared of something, I would immediately make myself go do it. Unless it constituted some sort of genuine emotional risk. In which case, I would avoid avoid avoid!
I still think about everything I do but I tend to do the in-depth thinking after, if I over-analyze my actions before I take them, I never will.
I think this is a really important transition for *all* the over-analyzers out there. (Hi guys, hi!) I don’t think I actually went out and took the first step in making even a single friend until I was about 22, because I always thought about it too much. One day I had this realization that I couldn’t keep waiting for people to come to me, because even though it had worked out pretty well so far, if I just kept waiting forever, I was going to miss out on a *lot* of people.
It was so overwhelmingly awkward for me that I adapted pretty quickly out of necessity.
Wow, this was me too. I was definitely the “chaste” one in my friend circle, and I wound up having to get over my sense of conversational awkwardness pretty fast, because all my friends, but particularly Wit and Catherine, were just shockingly frank all the time. In a lot of ways, I think being willing to put yourself in awkward situations is really valuable, because when something crazy happens down the line, you’ve already had experience with weirdness and new things. And then it’s not such a challenge to think through the circumstances and decide what to do.
I was not-even-very secretly lazy throughout all of high school. It was more than a little bit tragic. But even more often than that, I did truly outlandish things to avoid leaving my narrow comfort zone, a large number of which I justified on behalf of my innocent friends, and basically anything else in the universe I could make into an argument. That was probably more than a little bit tragic too.
Okay, fine—to be perfectly honest, my laziness was never much of a secret either. Considering that my typical academic approach was to just kind of stare balefully at my homework and occasionally … poke at it. Just gently. Just to see if it wanted to kill me.
My abiding horror of sticky, gross, inconvenient emotions was a secret though, because I was mostly very good at looking like every pathological avoidance was just a sensible decision I was making, and like I was way too reasonable to ever resort to dishonesty or defense mechanisms. Shameless Rationalizers, Unite!
In the two weeks before I broke up with my boyfriend, I pretended that everything was fine. We were in a long-distance relationship; I’d seen him at the beginning of the month and I was about to see him again, in the presence of multiple family members (he was my cousin’s best friend), in two weeks.
I pretended that I was looking forward to it and that I was wildly excited about seeing him again. I pretended partially because I didn’t want to admit to my cousin that I was thinking about breaking up with his best friend, but also because I didn’t want to admit to MYSELF that I was doing it. I still wasn’t too clear on what exactly had happened when I saw him (it wasn’t until much later that I realized it was sexual assault–for some reason I didn’t consider that on the list of possibilities at first when I tried to quantify what had happened) and I wasn’t sure why I felt so strongly that I needed to break up with him. Which made it very hard to justify breaking up with him when he’d always been so wonderful to me. We’d been a thing for a year and a half, and everybody (both families, our friends) was very comfortable with it and happy with it, and I didn’t want to burst the Utopian bubble of peace and harmony when I didn’t even know what had gotten into me. I kept telling myself that I was overreacting and everything would be better when I saw him again.
So instead of thinking very hard about it and getting around the mental blocks so I’d know what was going on, I pretended it wasn’t going to happen for two whole weeks.
His happiness while he thought I was looking forward to seeing him–the plans he kept making, the sweet things he said to me–made me more guilty than the look on his face when I told him it was over. I haven’t done anything like it since, because even now, when I know why I broke up with him, I am haunted by the guilt of knowing I lied to everyone for two weeks. Especially knowing I lied about it to the one person I should have told immediately.
Oh man, I have SO many thoughts about this right now. But especially thoughts about how people (particularly girls, and often even when we ostensibly know better on an analytical level) are just incredibly socialized to take into account everyone else’s feelings when we’re making a decision. And how HARD that makes it!
Even after I kind-of/sort-of recognized what was happening re: boys and girls, I just watched so many of my friends feel indecisive and pressured and do things they didn’t really want to do, and every time I let someone kiss me Just Because, or went out for way too long with with a guy I knew I didn’t really want to date, I was basically doing the same thing. It wasn’t until I was probably a sophomore in college that I even started asking myself any of the hard, simple questions that really get to the bottom of a relationship—things like, if one of her regular friends talked to her like that, would she still hang out with them? If one of my regular friends were that careless about my feelings, would I like them anymore? And it was weird to understand that so often, the answer was no, but there was this weird disconnect when it came to guys, and girls were often willing to make exceptions for boyfriends over the kind of behaviors we would have just walked away from in any other context.
(Also, I think that when something goes really wrong in a relationship—or even just in your life—at least for awhile, there’s this very natural impulse to take a deep breath and carry on like it’s all still okay. Because if you can carry on like something’s not really wrong, then … nothing’s wrong. Maybe it’s kind of like that weird tiny moment when you’re chopping something and the knife slips, or you whack your elbow on the corner of the door, and for a second, nothing hurts at all. In fact, there’s kind of this bright endorphin rush, but somewhere in the back of your head, you can tell that in a second, the nerves are going to start screaming and then you’re going to have to just elevate your hand and breathe through it. Maybe it’s like that.)
I took so long to reply because I don’t really do the kind of things you’ve described in this post. I have my little comfort zone, yeah, and I don’t like leaving it, but for the most part, my friends have very similar comfort zones, so it works out. Or it’s just enabling us, I don’t know.
When it comes to school, I almost always take the easiest way out. For example, last year, my history class was really really hard. I knew that if I worked my butt off, I would get a high B, an A if I was super-incredibly lucky, but if I did the bare minimum, I would get a mid B. Since it makes no difference on my transcript, I did the least amount of work possible. And I was totally okay with that. (My mom, on the other hand, totally wasn’t.)
I’ve pretended a lot for my friends. I’ll get them a gift, (like, for example, a pencil case with dancing limes on it) and they’ll say, “oh, you remembered that limes are my favorite fruit!” I just go with it. I mean, how do you respond to that without it very quickly turning into super-awkwardness?