The Secret Crush

I am excellent at keeping secrets.

I keep every secret anyone ever tells me. I keep them like they are going out of style. I keep them so long that I forget them. I keep secrets even when they are not, strictly speaking, secrets at all.

But this post is not about that.

This post is about the one semi-excruciating time when I didn’t. Keep one.

First, about Greg. Greg is huge. He’s not the tallest boy in school—there’s a senior on the basketball team who’s close to seven feet. And he’s not the heaviest—there are still a few who outdo him when it comes to sheer poundage. However, taking height and weight into account simultaneously, he’s easily the biggest person I’ve ever encountered. He is patently tremendous and has no problem scooping me up with one arm and carrying me around on his shoulder like a doll.

We start hanging out together just before Thanksgiving break, because we have the same off-hour. Mostly, we go over to his house and eat Poptarts and he teaches me to play the bass. He makes up songs about me and I help him with his homework, and sometimes we hang out together at parties or go to movies on the weekends. With anyone else, I might be worried that spending so much time together would mean there was an expectation of it turning into Something Significant, but Greg also happens to be Dill’s best friend, so no matter what, it never, ever feels like a date.

Greg is a classic extrovert and a big self-starter. He likes autonomy and discipline and taking the initiative. He’s a Seven Habits of Highly Effective People type of guy. Until I met Greg, I had never actually heard anyone use the word proactive in conversation.

I like hanging out with him because I can always just say whatever, do whatever, and he never acts like I’m strange. The fact is, he’s way more focused on manifesting a purpose-driven life than on whether or not I happen to be wearing matching socks.

The Afternoon of the Secret is hard to describe. It’s one of those cold, gray days when the sky is flat and low and the whole world seems not-quite-real. Everything is a little too pale and a little too glassy and a little too imaginary, which is probably why I accidentally say what I think in the first place—I just mistake the entire situation for a very vivid dream.

The conversation starts innocently enough.

It comes about because of a Student Council fundraising scheme in which we all fill out a survey in homeroom and get matched up with a handful of other students whose views and personalities complement our own. Then, if you pay a dollar, they’ll give you a printout of your algorithm-approved matches.

Seventeen-year-old Brenna is way too above this whole endeavor to even bother filling out the survey,* but Greg is enthusiastic. Since I generally make it my business to know as much as possible about Everyone Ever, I’m his go-to girl when it comes to evaluating his matches. He’s proactively on the hunt for a relationship and so I go down his list with him, describing the relative merits of each girl and offering my opinion on whether or not they’re appropriate girlfriend material.

We spend close to an hour sitting in his truck, talking about romance and dating and whether you can really measure a person’s character simply by looking at their smile.

I don’t remember a single name on his sheet. But I do remember this conversation, and not just because I wrote it down. At the time, it was actually kind of seared into my soul.

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The Conversation

For the first semester of junior year, US History kind of dominates my journal-keeping.

This is mostly because it’s the one class where something at least semi-interesting happens almost every day, and also, I can scribble manically in my binder for the whole period and never get in trouble, since it looks like I’m just taking really good notes.

Obligingly, Mr. Tully has aced his audition for the role of Brenna’s Favorite Teacher. This has a lot to do with the fact that he’s one of the first ones I’ve ever had who actually likes his job. But also, he’s just pretty cool. He loves history, he loves teaching, and against all reasonable expectations, he really loves his students—yes, even the ones whose grades are below the Purple Failing Line. (Especially the kids below the purple line.)

He’s also the first teacher I’ve ever had who doesn’t seem particularly interested in me. At this point, I’m kind of used to being an impressive student, but Mr. Tully is barely even aware that I exist. At first, I think it must be because everyone else is really loud and I’m really quiet, but after a month or so, I begin to understand that’s not the reason. The truth is, the whole class is such a mess that it would be ridiculous to expect him to have time for the six people who are actually doing okay.

Anyway, it can’t be an issue of being quiet, because #4 is way quieter than I am and Mr. Tully totally loves him, although #4 would probably not see it that way.

In history, we never have written quizzes. Instead, Tully calls people’s names from a list, which he maintains is randomly-generated. I don’t actually believe this. Over the course of the semester, I will be called on exactly twice. Two times. Two.

If #4 only gets called on three days in a row, he’s having a pretty good week.

Almost every afternoon, Tully stands at the front of the room, waiting, while #4 looks down at his desk, going a bright, violent red.

“I don’t know,” he says, low and apologetic.

And Tully nods, looking sad-but-resigned. It’s a look he saves just for #4. Other people get a reproachful smile, an admonition to do better next time. When Mr. Tully looks at #4, it’s weary and imploring. He never bothers to hide his disappointment.

The way the game is played, if someone doesn’t know the answer, other people can raise their hands and take the points. I know the answers, but I don’t raise my hand.

I did once. #4 was staring down at his desk like always—flaming red and tragically mute. I put my hand up, and the look he gave me was so uncomprehending, so betrayed that I felt guilty. I answered the question, told myself I was just taking back my zero from the colonist assignment. Then felt worse.

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In the morning, Little Sister Yovanoff dawdles on the porch. Which isn’t surprising. Any time we’re supposed to be in a hurry (to catch the bus, for instance), she’s always a few steps behind.

When I turn to check her progress, she’s still poking around by the front door.

“Come back,” she says. “There’s a thing for you.”

The thing is a plastic freezer bag of Hershey’s Kisses with a note inside asking me to the Homecoming dance. The note is anonymous, and also written in Dill’s handwriting, with his red rollerball pen.

“Did you leave a ziplock bag of candy on my porch?” I say, catching him at his locker.

His eyes widen in surprise, but the truth is, he’s easy to read. “Someone left a bag of candy? Maybe there’s something inside.”

When we get home, Little Sister Yovanoff (ever the pragmatist) gets out a mixing bowl and plunks herself down on the living room floor. We sit across from each other and unwrap the candy piece by piece. We find Dill’s name in the second-to-last one. There are 87.

At his locker the next morning, I say, “Okay, I’ll go to Homecoming with you.”

I don’t say it this way because I’m mean or ungracious. At least, I am never ungracious on purpose. It’s just that I’ve thought about it, and I’ve decided that this is what I’m going to do.

Dill says, “That’s not how it’s supposed to go. You’re supposed to tell me yes.”

“I did tell you yes. Just now.”

“No,” he says, looking mildly aggrieved. “Like with—like I did, with a note. Or . . . balloons or something.”

I think about this. Then, I take a deep breath and say, without any irony or ill will, “That seems kind of complicated.”

Ever since I told him I would go to the homecoming dance, Dill has been bringing me flowers in the morning. A single cheerful daisy—simple, sweet. We are sort of (sort of) dating again.

The first time he brought me a daisy, I thanked him for it. I put it on my locker shelf and forgot. At lunch, Little Sister Yovanoff accidentally set her Spanish book on it.

“Oops,” she said. “Were you saving that for something?”

Later, when I showed up to History without my flower, Dill wanted to know where it had gone. I tried to explain that I couldn’t just carry it around with me all day.

He said, “It was for you to appreciate. You can’t appreciate it if you leave it in your locker.”

So I carried the second daisy with me, even though it got gross-looking and started to wilt. It made my fingers sticky, and left a weird metallic smell, like you get if you hold a handful of pennies. When I showed up to Tully’s class with it, Dill grinned.

“You have my flower!” he said. “That’s so cool.”

“Classy,” muttered Rooster, who still has stitch-marks on his forehead. “Giving your girlfriend dead flowers.”

Across from me, #4 sort of laughed and sort of didn’t. He was looking past me and then he put his head down on his arms. I set the flower on the edge of my desk and tried to forget that my hands smelled filthy and like metal.

I wrapped the third daisy in a paper towel and ran it under the faucet in the bathroom. I came into History with a wilted daisy and a handful of soggy paper. No one said anything.

It’s not that I want things. I don’t care about romance or dating or being given things. Daisies are Dill’s favorite flower. I like primroses and violets. When he brings me something that he likes and I don’t, it’s confusing.

We don’t have to like the same flowers or the same music or movies or gum or anything else. But it would be nice if he recognized that the things I like are different from what he likes. I just want someone who pays attention, who takes into account what other people are thinking and doing.

This whole business of daisies is unsettling. It’s like a really clunky metaphor for the business of relationships, and last year I was naive enough to think that maybe I could demystify romance if I just studied the equation long enough. Now, I’m forced to admit that I absolutely do not understand. Anything.

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The Accident

This is not going to be a funny story.

I mean, yes—if I tried hard enough, I could probably think of a way to make it seem clever or ironic. But that would be a cheap thing to do, and while I’m shockingly up-in-my-head sometimes, and too glib (inappropriately sardonic), I am not in the business of cheapness.

I don’t have a written account of what happened, and in a way, I’m glad. When you write something down, it’s like that version becomes the official one. It starts to eat away your memory and whatever you left out will slowly disappear, until all you have left is what’s on the page.

So, I remember the little things because I didn’t write them down. And other things I’m almost sure of. I think it was a Friday. I think they were both wearing white T-shirts, but I couldn’t swear to it.

Here are the things I remember:

We were standing in the bus circle, waiting for route 38 to come and take us home. In two weeks, Irish would get expelled and I would not be devastated, or even very surprised. I remember that Irish was smoking, which he wasn’t supposed to be doing, so we were standing strategically, Little Sister Yovanoff and I positioned in front of him, arms linked, while Irish cupped the cigarette in the palm of his hand so the security guard wouldn’t see.

It seems important to point out that in this moment, I was really, really happy.

So happy that I was actually thinking about how happy I was, arm-in-arm with my sister, discussing John Steinbeck and watermelon gummi-O’s and whether or not I should grow out my bangs. (We decided yes. Which is good. Because they were really terrible).

Her hair was dyed a purple so purple it looked black. Mine was summer-bright, strawberry-and-caramel. We were like this perfectly mismatched set—her, and then me. Rose White and Rose Red. We were like this idealized version of us that only ever really existed in pictures.

me high schoolmaddy high school

In my head, I was making up a fairytale, how we went on an adventure. I was thinking how glad I was that we were related but didn’t look like it, how easy that made everything. How strange it was to be standing outside with your sister and a boy who used to tell you all the time that he was your made-up brother and now he only talked to you when none of his cool friends were around.

Little Sister Yovanoff and I leaned against each other, laughing at Irish’s jokes, at the plume of smoke drifting up from his hand. The sun was so bright and the grass was so green that for weeks afterward, I kept dreaming about it.

Here is what happened next:

They came across the parking lot together. The other boy, Rooster, was much bigger, and the way they were hanging onto each other, it was hard to tell who was holding up whom. Except Rooster had a hand against his face. He was putting most of his weight on #4’s shoulder, and every time he stumbled, I thought they would both fall.

And still, no one really noticed. No one looked at them, not really, not even me. (Before this happened, I’d always been so unshakably sure that I saw everything.)

We kept talking, quoting lines from Tommy Boy and debating the usefulness of the word “circumambulate.” Little Sister Yovanoff was teasing Irish about the cigarette, pretending she would slap it out of his hand.

Then #4 dropped Rooster on the grass in front of us and straightened up. His T-shirt was splattered red.*

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The Zero

I consider my junior year to be an opportunity for change. It’s a fresh start. A chance to actually be authentic or real, or possibly even enjoy myself.

I don’t realize exactly how much I’m changing though, until I’m forced into an uncomfortable situation, and once there, I make the kind of decision that Sophomore Brenna would just never make.

It’s the last period of the day. I’m in history class, and Mr. Tully is assigning us random partners because even though he is, in many ways, a fundamentally decent man, he still believes in torturing us with strangers.

I’m hoping I’ll get Pony, or else Dill, but in a cruel stroke of luck, they’re assigned to work together. When Mr. Tully finally calls my name, it’s to pair me with #4.

“Wait, who do you have?” Dill asks.

I tell him.

“Ooh—that sucks,” he says. “Welcome to doing the whole thing yourself.”

And I don’t say anything, because Dill may or may not be right, but that’s completely immaterial. I don’t have the slightest problem doing the whole thing myself. I love doing things myself. What I hate, as in hate with a fiery toxic HATE, is group-work.

Our assignment is to draw a picture of a colonist and make up a story about them—a biography explaining why they left England for America.

We’ve been in school for about a week at this point, and I’ve spent that week feeling pretty good about things. Like I finally know what I’m doing and have even achieved some new kind of mastery. I have leveled up.

Then, I glance at #4, who is sitting back by the supply cupboards—waiting for me, but not really looking like he’s waiting for anything—and all that goes straight out the window.

I meander across to him, clutching crayons and butcher paper. I stand over him, trying to act like everything is normal and okay, like I’m cool, or at least acceptable. The kind of girl he wouldn’t mind spending the next twenty minutes with. He doesn’t say anything.

Brenna: Hi, I’m Brenna.

#4: I know.

Brenna: . . . Okay.

Sometimes moments are excruciating because someone is being purposefully awful or doing something cruel to you, and sometimes they’re excruciating because they just are. This is the second kind.

I take a breath and compose myself, accepting that the next half-hour is not going to be easy. In fact, it’s going to be miserable.

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The Brand-New Girl

If Sophomore year was the year of Learn by Watching, then Junior year is the year of Boys. And I mean that in a whole spectrum of ways. It is the year of noticing boys, and of studying them and admiring them and being noticed and of having friends who are boys.

This boy-onslaught is made possible, in part, because the girl I just spent a whole year being seems to have vanished over the summer.

The easiest thing would be to say that in the last three months, I’ve completely transformed. But that’s not really true. Instead, it’s more like I’ve reverted. I’ve simply gone back to being the at-home girl—the one who makes physics jokes and likes Warren Zevon and glitter lipgloss and sewing beads and sequins on her shoes.

Already, I’ve become less pokerfaced and more Mona-Lisa-ish, and I’m actually kind of looking forward to going back to school and trying again. Like Beckett says, fail again, fail better.

I’m particularly excited because Little Sister Yovanoff is starting tenth grade, which means that I finally have daily access to a girl who understands me. We ride the bus together. We are locker partners. We are on the same soccer team. We share shoes and clothes and ice cream cones and coffee and look absolutely nothing alike, which means that I can basically be best friends with my little sister and there are no social consequences.

shoes and stars

On the first day, I am wearing leaf-green Chuck Taylors with gold foil stars sewn all over them and jeans paired with an old-fashioned thrift-store blouse. I’ve cut the sleeves off, tailored the bodice. The blouse has tiny fake-pearl buttons and a high lace collar and a crumbling cluster of dried rosebuds safety-pinned to the shoulder. It makes me look vaguely Victorian and also strangely frail.

Little Sister Yovanoff is similarly bedecked, resplendent in ragged cut-offs and tiny plastic barrettes. With her burgundy velvet blazer and her purple hair, she looks bold and statuesque. She looks much sturdier than I do.

Me and Dad

I spent an unreasonable amount of time trying to find pictures of our outfits, but sadly, it seems the best I can do is the close-up of my shoes (yes, those are soccer socks I’m wearing. What? I had a lot of them), and a shot of my second-favorite outfit from that era—also quite lacy. You’ll notice that my dad has the decency to ignore the state of my jeans. Which are actually his jeans. My dad is nice.

School is anticlimactic. I go to my classes, introduce Little Sister Yovanoff to Catherine and Elizabeth, use up my shiny new free hour by driving around with one of my sophomore-PE friends.

Things do not get interesting until US History, which is the last class of the day. I show up after the warning bell, only to find the room half-empty. Honestly, this should already tell me pretty much all I need to know, but because there’s some stuff I still haven’t figured out yet, it doesn’t.

Ponyboy is there, so I take the seat next to her and congratulate myself on having a class where I already know someone. We play Outsiders for a little, which mostly just means her asking me how prison was and me asking her if she had a good time at reform school.

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This Is Not a Story About Boredom

Okay, I lied. It totally is—but it is also a story about hope and curiosity and how under the right circumstances, an unsolved mystery can be like a metaphorical lighthouse. Yes, I just said the phrase metaphorical lighthouse.

For awhile now, I’ve had this tidy plan for my high school posts. It involved character development and narrative arc and me making a timeline on a piece of notebook paper and I was going to be very chronological and organized. Those who know me will understand how laughable this is. You will understand that it just couldn’t last.

So I’m taking a small detour, because I’ve stumbled upon something I want to talk about. And by stumbled upon, I mean it was handed to me again and again.

In the last month or so, I’ve gotten a number of emails from people who are currently in junior high and high school and who’ve had some incredibly personal and insightful things to say about a deceptively rough topic: boredom.

A lot of the correspondences involve frustration—people wondering how to stay sane and if it will get better and most especially, how to survive it on a daily basis. These are good questions and to be frank, I have no answers. Boredom is a tricky thing and it comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes. I can’t tell you how to beat it. But I can tell you what I did.

Here is an admission: for most of my life, I thought people who got bored were just lazy thinkers. I’d always been able to entertain myself, either with a book or a story I was making up, a long run with the dog or an impromptu living room dance-party with my sister. People who got bored just weren’t trying hard enough.

Then I started high school and boredom became my number-one hobby.

When people find out that I was homeschooled by hippies/gypsies/raised by wolves, a lot of times they’ll ask if public school was a big adjustment. I always say no. I tell them I adjusted well and adapted quickly and kept my head down.

And that’s true.

But there’s also another true thing, and anyone who’s ever worked with animals in captivity will spot the signs immediately.

Brenna at sixteen is restless—a fidgeter. She tears up looseleaf paper like a neurotic hamster and chews the erasers off her pencils and picks apart the layers of her pressboard desk. If she were allowed up out of her seat, she would pace just as tragically as the tigers at the zoo. She begins to wonder whether or not it is possible to die from boredom. Literally die.

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Inside-Out and Backwards

Sophomore year was the year of Learn by Watching, and this worked out, because watching was what I was good at. I learned about rules very quickly, mostly because I have always had an unhealthy obsession with them. And what I learned was this: even though they told us that the rules applied to everyone, it was not actually true.

That fall, I went through an ill-advised phase where I borrowed my dad’s clothes a lot—especially this one particular T-shirt from Flying Dog Brewery, with a Ralph Steadman drawing advertising Road Dog Porter. Due to the shirt’s alcohol related message, coupled with Flying Dog’s PG-13 marketing slogan, the dress-code violation was twofold, but I was never once told that I needed to cover the shirt or turn it inside out, or even to stop wearing it in the future.

So yes, I’d begun to suspect that rules did not apply equally, but I didn’t know it for a fact until this happened:

The scene – As with most of the more dramatic scenes that first semester, it takes place in English class.

The star – A boy who sits at the back of the room and typically sleeps through class. Apart from spotty attendance and a general lack of involvement, he’s remarkably well-behaved. He rarely does the work, but is never unruly or impolite. He holds doors for people. He never draws attention to himself, which is something that sophomore Brenna identifies with to an excessive degree. The class is the last one of the day, and is basically an exercise in chaos.

Other players in the drama –

  • Nick has the desk directly behind our reluctant star. Nick is very tall, very loud, and can usually be counted on to be the one instigating the chaos.
  • TS sits next to me. She likes Punky Colour hair-dye, Vans skate shoes, and Kevin Smith movies, and is the closest thing I have to a real friend.
  • Lucas, who early on cemented his role as resident humanitarian and classroom advocate, is unable to resist getting involved, and in a misguided attempt to secure justice, kind of makes things worse.
  • M is still M, but becoming more so every day.

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