Life after Dill is much like life before Dill. Except, now that my boyfriend-curiosity has pretty much been satisfied, I spend a lot less time thinking about kissing. And somewhere in the middle of dating and soccer and needlessly complex term projects, Irish has kind of stopped being my friend. Not because of Dill or school or soccer, just simultaneous to those things.

We still say hi to each other in the halls. As long as we are both walking alone. We still communicate using our own private vocabulary, which consists largely of inside jokes, and sometimes he catches me at my locker and presents me with an open package of gummi strawberries or half a bagel for no apparent reason except that he’s hungover a lot and also, he knows that I am pretty permanently ravenous.

He still borrows a dollar so he can buy a Sprite, and he still makes it a point to always pay me back the next day, even though his open tabs with other people are verging on actionable.

We nod politely and smile, and if we miss each other, we do not actually say it.

Because we’re on the block system, Geometry is over, but I still see him most days even, though we don’t sit together anymore. All the sophomores have to take a class called Critical Skills, and my desk is situated somewhere in the middle of the room, while Irish is at the back. With the other drug dealers.

Now, I know I’m supposed to be a professional at this whole writing endeavor, describing and all that, but some things (such as Critical Skills) just seem to defy description. Let’s see—okay, basically this: the class alternates between cripplingly boring and unintentionally hilarious. It involves a lot of activities intended to Prepare Us for the Real World. But Brenna, you say, Be fair. That doesn’t sound so bad.

Let me finish.

When we’re not watching our teacher’s vast collection of uplifting 80s movies and practicing shaking hands, we are performing skits about job-interview hygiene and learning to fold several varieties of origami bird. We are being presented with The Internet. Really.

Between the skits and movies and the handshaking and the origami birds, we are subjected to a barrage of personality tests. And every time we’re handed a new bubble sheet, I sigh and fidget along with everyone else. However, as much as I hate to admit that anything about Critical Skills makes me think, the personality tests kind of . . . do.

The things I learn about myself are not surprises. My Myers-Briggs results indicate that I’m solidly an INTP. So, a walking, talking cortex. With eyes. The Big 5 agrees that I am basically a robot, and I knock it out of the park in the categories of Inquisitiveness and Emotional Stability. My career aptitude test reveals that I am analytical, abstract, self-possessed, indifferent to physical risk, and ranks my most promising employment options in this order:

  1. Stunt person
  2. Probation officer
  3. Novelist

It turns out that Irish is ideally suited for the FBI. We would laugh about this, except for the part about us not really speaking to each other anymore.

For the final, I give my mandatory presentation on stunt performers. Standing at the podium, I’m careful to gesture vaguely and often—make sure everyone gets a good look at my fragile hands, my delicate wrists. Every time I smile demurely or sweep my hair out of my face, it underscores how ridiculous the test result is. I get an A. I never mention to a single soul that my absolute dream job in the whole entire universe is to be a novelist.

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The Ice Girl

Here is where we last left high-school Brenna: she’s just been asked out on her first-ever date and now, in the privacy of her physics notebook, she is hastily backpedaling.

On the surface though, everything looks neat and under control. Smooth as glass.

The date goes down like this:

Dill shows up at my house precisely on time. He wears matching shoes because he wants to make a good impression on my parents. I don’t tell him that whatever impression he makes will have nothing to do with shoes and everything to do with whether or not he strikes them as being interesting.

The movie is enjoyable. There is popcorn, which I like. (Soccer season has started, and I’m perpetually starving.) Dill is polite, entertaining, and very much a gentleman. When the movie is over, he asks if I want to hang out for awhile and get to know each other, and even though my interest in kissing has kind of evaporated, I say yes.

So instead of taking me straight home, he pulls into one of the scenic overlooks above the city, where upperclassmen go to flail around in the back seat and grope each other.

I consider this. Even at her most flustered, new Assertive Brenna has a certain coolness, a chilly mantle of calculation. She is self-possessed. She is completely without diplomacy.

“I’m not going to make out with you,” I said. “I don’t know you very well.”

He laughed. “I didn’t bring you up here for that. Really, I meant I want to hang out. To talk.”

He was looking across the seat at me, smiling awkwardly, and he wasn’t even lying. Much.

But Dill is true to his word and doesn’t try to kiss me. Instead, he unbuckles his seatbelt, leans back, and starts to talk. And I spend the next two and a half hours feeling really, really happy. The city looks kind of glorious, lit up below us like a sea of colored sparks, and I’ve been waiting for months to have a conversation with someone who is not my sister.

It turns out that Dill is a lot of fun to talk to. He’s animated and enthusiastic and actually thinks about things like art and religion and philosophy.

There is, however . . . a problem.

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The Real Boy

By now, it should come as no surprise that Brenna at sixteen is essentially an orderly creature.

True, she doesn’t always do her homework. She has a bad tendency to lose her pens and sometimes she shows up to PE only to realize that she’s wearing one purple sock and one brown one, but she is methodical. Self-contained. She is placid. You’d be hardpressed to hurt her or scare her or break her heart. Basically . . . she is this girl.

Even though she spends most of her time with Catherine, who is perpetually In Love (not always with the same person), she doesn’t believe in things like fate or destiny or soul mates.

When she considers the possibility of a boyfriend, it’s abstract. Which is not to say that she doesn’t think about it. She does, but only in the context of an activity, like sand volleyball. Or backgammon. She views dating as something that might be interesting to try, and also, she wants to know what it’s like to kiss someone. The idea of a boyfriend is appealing in a general way. It is, however, ruled out by the fact that she suspects she may be undatable.

She likes herself—don’t worry. In fact, some days she likes herself quite a bit. But she doesn’t really believe that anyone else will like her. This is mostly because she has a very low opinion of high school boys, but we’ll cut her some slack because so far, her test group has not been promising.

The thing is (occasional crushing boredom aside), she really finds herself very entertaining. She is ironic. She likes 80s horror and Quentin Tarantino and pasting foil decals on her fingernails. She enjoys the color red, but finds orange appalling. She likes Sweet Tarts, coffee, and drawing elaborate pictures of medieval fortresses and panopticons in her physics notes. She doesn’t believe in miracles, she believes in unknowns. When she zones out in class, she dreams the gleaming daydreams of scientists.

These are things she knows about herself. She doesn’t want to change.

But she’s beginning to suspect that if she wants to go on dates, she might have to. She has a hard time imagining that any boy is looking for this—what she is. And she has an even harder time imagining that any of the boys at school have anything to offer that she actually wants. So, instead of scouring her classes for potential suitors, she invents fictional ones. And fictional boys never disappoint.

She wants someone wistful and tender (and nicer than she is), but she wants him to be that way in secret. Sentimentality is only attractive if it’s private. She kind of wants to be adored, but not from mountaintops, never over the PA system. She wants shy, lingering glances and wishes made on stars, because nothing appeals to her more than longing. When she considers herself unromantic, she is lying. Did I mention that she is selfish in the way that only teenage girls can be?

It would be both gratifying and very literary to say that my wishlist ties into my first dating experience, but absolutely none of this has any bearing on what happens next.

Dill isn’t like the other boys in our grade. He’s taller than most of them, but not in a gawky way. He has an actual physique. He’s on the swim team and wears two different colored Chuck Taylor high tops and drives a red sports car.

And the thing is, he notices me.

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