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.

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The Break-Up

Let me just start by saying, this is an uncomfortable one.

There are a billion things that seventeen-year-old Brenna doesn’t understand. And some of them—okay, most even—have to do with feelings. This makes her (me) feel pretty shockingly stupid, because theories and facts are what you’re supposed to work hard to master, and feelings are the things you’re supposed to be born knowing about. Instead, I eat up books with a vengeance, while struggling to grasp even the simplest emotional concepts. I kind of feel like a cartoon character.

Here is the story of how I break up with Dill, or else, he breaks up with me.

I’ve mentioned before that as a couple, we have a tendency to bring out the worst in each other. I wasn’t lying, and the interaction that follows is one I’m distinctly not proud of. While lacking in drama and vaguely surreal, it’s exactly the kind of break-up one might expect from teenage Brenna. Basically, I’m saying you’ve been warned.


First, he picked me fifty violets. Wove them into my hair and around my wrists. The leftovers, I stuffed into the pockets of my hoodie.

Later, we stopped to get coffee. It was a warm night and I asked for ice in mine. I knew the boy behind the counter, a little. He was older and I’d had Spanish with him the year before. Here’s most of what I knew about him: Buddy Holly glasses, nerdy in an ironic, contrived way—and nice, always nice to me, even when the basketball players and the wrestling boys would sometimes take my things and tease me just for fun.

“I like your flowers,” he said. “Hey, you think you could spare one?” He gestured to his lapel.

So I handed him one and he slipped it through his buttonhole, while Dill stood against the counter and squeezed my hand more tightly than was comfortable.

“I picked those for you,” he said, as soon as we were outside.

“Yes.” (Factual, remember—so, so factual.)

“So, I didn’t pick them for you to give to someone else.”

“If you picked them for me, they’re mine now. Anyway, a flower is not the same thing as affection. I wasn’t giving your affection to someone else.”

We were at Dill’s truck by then. He was shaking his head as he unlocked the driver’s side. “You’re unbelievable.”

I climbed in, tucking my hair behind my ears. The violets were tickling me. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I mean, I can’t be like you. You analyze everything.”

“Well, it’s a very good way to make decisions,” I said, but I understood suddenly that we were almost to that point where you can’t go back—not ever. “It’s the best way I know of.”

He turned and looked at me, and it wasn’t angry or possessive or aggravated. It was so, so sad. “Are you even into me at all? Because I can’t go through life putting two dollars in and getting a dollar back out. I just need to know if you love me.”

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The Fence

This is the story of how I did not behave honestly or say anything useful or kiss #4 over the fence, even though I kind of wanted to.

This is the story of how I eventually decided that whatever was happening between me and Dill had to end, and how it still took two more weeks for me to actually do anything about it.

This is the story of how I knew once and for all that I was a bad girlfriend.

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Boy Friends

My sister and I grew up surrounded by boys.

Okay, so we don’t have any brothers, and hardly even any boy cousins, but still, our childhood was distinctly boy-heavy. When we first moved to Colorado, the kids in our neighborhood were mostly guys, and back in Arkansas, I didn’t have even a single friend who was a girl. (Holly lived close by and was my age, but she wasn’t my friend because she only liked relentlessly pastel things like My Little Pony and I was always accidentally making her cry.*)

What I’m saying is that in the course of my life, I’ve built a lot of forts and bridges, shot a lot of air rifles and BB guns and homemade bow-and-arrows. Gone off bike ramps balanced on the handlebars, poked dead things with sticks, chased the cows in the pasture, walked out on the ice.

I’ve done all the fast, reckless, dangerous things** that girls left to their own devices almost never do. Because yes, you might think of it, but thinking of something is still a universe away from thinking it might be a good idea to try it.

And now, at seventeen, I feel a little bit like something’s missing. I look around at the boys I know and think how weird it is that I only ever talk to them when we’re sitting in class. I have this mute, sneaking suspicion sometimes that it shouldn’t be like this. That I should still be running around in the scrub brush, making up ridiculous games and pulling crazy shenanigans.

It’s not that I don’t love my girlfriends—I DO—but even when we’re all hanging out together, laughing and teasing each other, sometimes I get this mysterious sense of restlessness, like I’m missing some deep, integral part of me. Because even though I babysit and go grocery shopping and spend my spare time baking cookies and customizing my clothes and making lacy headbands and fancy barrettes, on the inside, I’m still a little bit (okay, a lot) of a tomboy.

I design elaborate princess hairstyles that have the structural integrity to stand up to the rigors of sledding or cross-country capture the flag. I keep cigarette loads in my wallet and a buck knife in my backpack. I jump off roofs onto trampolines and shoot bottle rockets and climb anything that looks like it needs climbing. I paint my toenails to hide all the places they’re bruised purple from soccer.

Dill is my friend. He is a boy.

Wit is also a boy. And even though I’ve only known him for a few months, I’m already starting to understand that our friendship is something rare and valuable. But Wit is also less aggressively boyish than Dill. He likes to get coffee and talk on the phone and dissect his feelings, all of which I’m delighted by, but none of which is familiar from the friendships of my childhood.

So when April rolls around and I find myself spending more and more time with Dill, it’s sort of not even that surprising. After all, the good things about Dill are obvious.

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The Ice Girl, Redux

It’s February. Which is another way of saying that it is brutally, unreasonably cold. In fact, it’s so cold that I’m perpetually obsessed with how cold it is.

In Drawing, Dill lets me wear his fingerless gloves. They’re too big and make me feel like an imaginary creature with very small hands. Which I like, because every imaginary thing is more fun than actual reality. Especially in winter.

He leans his elbows on our table and says, so casually it sounds fake, “Hey, me and Greg and Vee are going to a movie tonight. You want to come?”

And when I look back at him too long, it’s because I’m considering all the things I like best—the blue of his eyes, the width of his shoulders, how he never talks down to me, never treats me like I’m stupid. He drew my picture like I was a doll-version of myself, but so what? He’s interesting and fun. Handsome. Dependable. (Actual, when everyone else is just hypothetical.)

“Sure,” I say, wiggling the gloves so they flop like puppets.

“Cool. I’ll pick you up.”

We’re in the middle of the Self-Portrait unit and everyone has mirrors, but mine is broken into jagged shards. Every day, I arrange the pieces in order on the tabletop, matching them up to a map of pencil marks. It’s easier to think of my face as a series of individual features. Mouth, cheek, forehead. One dark, furtive eye. I don’t know why I decided to do it this way except that otherwise, everything starts to seem too complicated.

I don’t even ask what movie we’re seeing.

“Are you crazy?” said Catherine after lunch. “The last thing you need is to start dating him again. And anyway—” She cut her eyes significantly at Jane.

“What do I care?” Jane said.

“I’m not dating him,” I said. “It’s just a movie.”

“Yeah, and then another one and then—oh, great.” Catherine rolled her eyes grandly. “Now here’s your other helpless victim.”

Brody had broken off from his friends and was heading straight for us. He looked like several adjectives, but helpless wasn’t one of them.

“You want this?” he asked, coming in very close and grabbing his crotch.

I stood looking up at him. Sometimes, at the strangest moments, I can tell that my expression is inscrutable.

He lifted his shirt and pulled a Coke out of the gap behind his belt buckle. “It’s still cold. So, you want it?”

“Maybe,” I said, tilting my head. “It hasn’t got cooties on it or anything, does it?”

He cracked the can open, took a drink and handed it to me. “Now it does.”

I smiled at him, sly, coy, demure, pick-a-word. It was easy. He kissed me lightly on the forehead and walked away.

Jane gave me a dubious look, but didn’t comment.

Catherine said it was disgusting. She said it was repulsive. She said he wants to have sex with me. But I don’t even know what combination of those things is true.

“You’re not going to drink that, are you?” she said as we watched him go. “It’s contaminated.”

I just shrugged. It seemed a shame to waste it. He was right, it was still cold.

Passing over the wisdom of drinking from the same can as someone who makes out with a lot of girls, we need to address a more serious concern. (Even more serious, I mean.)

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The new semester brings low iron-gray skies, sub-zero weather, and all-new classes.

Although I’m generally twitchy, not to mention easily bored by routine, I don’t really want things to end. (History. I don’t want history to end.)

Now, I have Intermediate Drawing, Intermediate Ceramics, and American Literature. Never let it be said that I overexert myself.

Drawing is absolutely the best part of my day, because I share a drafting table with Dill and we spend most of the period giving each other goofy, sardonic looks and screwing around with the stencil set.

American Lit. is the worst, because Irish was supposed to have it with me, but he’s still not back from his administration-imposed exile, and it’s starting to look like he might be gone for good. Also, I really, really wish I had another class with #4. But I don’t.

So January is bleak, chilly, and generally disappointing—but survivable.

In the morning, Catherine and I are standing at her locker. We’re in the middle of this semi-amazing conversation of the sort I don’t usually have with Catherine, talking about God and Buddha and whether the absolute polarity of the Yin and the Yang is sexist.

“It is,” says Catherine, with surprising vehemence. “It totally is. Balance? It’s not balanced! If it was balanced, it wouldn’t be degrading to women. What, what is that? To take a list of good things and have them represent men, then put all the shit over here, on this side—here, this is the women!”

“A symbol by itself doesn’t degrade something,” I say, but not with much conviction. The point of the argument isn’t to figure out what I really think, it’s just to take the opposing side and support it effectively.

“Anyway, wet and cold and dark aren’t necessarily value judgments.” I’m fumbling around with mittened hands, closing them on thin air, trying to convey a delicate equilibrium. “Yeah, maybe we associate them with corruption or aberration, but they aren’t inherently negative.”

I’m being disingenuous though, because cold kind of is. In addition to the mittens, I’m wearing my coat, an extra pair of socks, a wool hat and a bright lumpy scarf. And I’m still freezing.

Catherine opens her mouth to disagree, already shaking her head, waving a finger in my face. Then her gaze shifts abruptly.

“Uh,” she says, looking past me.

When I turn around, Jane is standing uncomfortably close, almost touching my elbow.

“Dill broke up with me,” she says. “Can I eat lunch with you?”

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Jane shows up one day, with no explanation and no warning.

I’m scribbling in my notebook, waiting for US History to start. The late bell hasn’t rung yet, so the class is mostly empty, and then Jane walks in. She crosses the room without looking right or left, and sits down next to me in the desk that normally belongs to Trung Ly.

I’ve seen her around before, noticed her a few times in the halls, but it’s a big school and I don’t know anything about her. In fact, pretty much the only thing I’m sure of is that she wasn’t here last year.

Jane is beautiful in a stark, alarming way, with long dark hair and pale eyes and a hard jaw. She clasps her hands demurely on the desktop, then turns and smiles at me. It’s a ferocious smile, an intense smile. Not entirely comfortable.

She doesn’t say anything, just holds my gaze until I look away. I stare down at my desk and pretend very hard to be busy with my notebook.

When Trung comes in and finds Jane sitting at his desk, he is understandably confused. “That’s my seat,” he says, standing over her.

Jane says nothing. She re-clasps her hands and stares up at him. This time, she doesn’t smile at all.

The whole production is so unexpected and she is so striking that I spend the rest of history class in a frantic state of observation, trying to think how I would describe her if this were a book. She is too imaginary, too fantastic to be real, and yet . . . here she is.

The shape of her face is hard, but delicate. All the edges are clearly defined. She’s not much of a blinker. In fact, in the coming months I’ll decide that blinking is something she only does when she’s feeling bored or vicious or being sarcastic. Otherwise, her eyes are steady. Challenging.

No matter how I try, I can’t come up with the perfect sentence to convey the strangeness of her. Her beauty is unsettling. Witchy. But even that isn’t right. Close, but not entirely accurate, and the description I want is on the tip of my tongue.

I’m on my way home when the right word finally pops into my head and I almost rip the zipper off my backpack trying to get to my notebook so I can write it down.

Puritanical. Her beauty is puritanical.

Jane likes me. Or at least, she finds me interesting.

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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 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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