In the morning, I get ready for school.

I brush my hair and do my Spanish homework and put on my makeup, but the whole time, I’m thinking about what happened to Gatsby. I want to understand the situation (the circumstances), but I can’t seem to get it figured out, so I stop trying.

This is actually easier than you’d think. I have a lot of practice at ignoring anything about school that I find upsetting. All year, I’ve been entertaining myself by pretending things, like the door to the math wing is really a portal to Hell, or time has stopped and if I can draw three perfectly round circles, it will start again.

Mostly though, I pretend to be someone else. Not like wittier or more confident or cooler, but someone else like Morticia Addams or Joan of Arc or Marilyn Monroe. I pretend to be Tinkerbell. I pretend to be Alice in Wonderland, because if this is Wonderland, then it doesn’t even matter that nothing makes sense.

I go to school as Queen Elizabeth I, because maybe her natural complexion is buried under an inch of foundation, but at least she knows how to run a country.

Later, things will sort-of/kind-of be okay. Gatsby will show up to US History—the scrapes on his face scabbing over, his bad arm strapped against his chest. He’ll smile around the room and joke about this being the only time he’s ever been arrested that resulted in him not being punished, either by the court system or his dad.

He’ll grin and say, “I guess that’s the big secret. I just have to stand there and get my ass beat.”

The morning is for worrying though, and wondering. It’s for impeccable deportment and Queen Elizabeth.

In art, I sit across from TS and Brody. The semester is almost over, and we’re working on our final sculpture assignment, chipping tiny pieces off blocks of plaster and sanding down the edges. Everything is dusty and the fact that my chisel is held together by duct tape is ruining my sense of monarchical dignity. I don’t like how the plaster dries out my hands.

I don’t like that something mysterious has taken place and I don’t have answers, but TS proves to be is an invaluable source of information. She was smoking in the back parking lot when it happened and saw the whole thing.

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The Strange/Scary/Stupid Day

It had been raining all week, which was weird. It hardly rained at all that year, and never in winter.

When Gatsby came into history, his shirt was wet, and there was mud on his shoes and in his hair. He looked strange, and smaller than usual—pale except for a little scrape, raw and bright on the point of his chin. He was dragging his backpack by the strap, letting it hang down so that it bumped along the floor as he walked. When he dropped into his seat, it looked awkward.

“Sorry, Mister T. Unavoidable.” Which is what he always said when he was late, but his voice cracked a little. He kept opening his mouth like he wanted to say something else, but couldn’t make the sound come out.

When he saw me watching him, he stared back and raised his eyebrows. But when he saw that Valentine was watching too, he ducked his head, fumbling one-handed with his backpack. He looked sick, but sicker than normal.

Valentine leaned across the aisle. “What’s wrong—something’s wrong. What’s wrong with your arm?”

“Nothing.” When he took out a pen, he was shaking.

After roll, Tully told us to work on our final projects while he ran down to the library. He told us to behave ourselves, but not as though he expected that we wouldn’t.

After he was gone, Valentine turned to face Gatsby. “Something’s wrong.”

Gatsby looked away and said very carefully, “I kind of hurt my shoulder.”

Valentine was out of her desk now, standing over him, hands on her hips. “I want to see.”

He shook his head.

“God damn it, Gatsby. Let me see it.”

She grabbed him by the collar and yanked hard, and he shut his eyes, biting off a short, harsh cry.

She looked down inside the gaping neck of his shirt, then let him go, backing away stiffly, her arms at her sides, her voice high and quick and breathless.

Ohmygod.” She said it in a rush, like it was all one word. “Jesus.”

He didn’t say anything, just nodded. He looked very tired.

“So, who did that? Who did that?”

He reached out with his right hand, his good hand. “V, I—”

She twisted away, skipping back. “Got in a fight. You got in a fight, Gatsby. What—was it over some petty drug bullshit? Did Shark-Boy tell you to ‘stand and recognize,’ some shit like that? You better $%&@ ing recognize this, Gatsby. You are on probation. You are not supposed to fight anymore.”

He opened his mouth. Closed it again.

“Take off your shirt,” she said, looking terrifying.

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The Bad Class

Last week, we kind-of/sort-of touched on the defining problem of my junior year, but in case it wasn’t clear, I’ll just come right out and say it. Public school has not only made me unshakably sure that I’m a Very Good Girl (a paragon of virtue, even), but also that goodness is quantifiable.

I have some theories as to how this happened.

Sad fact: most of my goodness is strictly relative at this point. Simply put, a large chunk of it comes from spending every afternoon in US History, surrounded by people who are much, much worse than me. And they are worse. The truth is, even though I picked the class—walked right up to the office lady and asked to stay—I don’t really belong there.

“Tully’s 4th hour?” I heard Oswald say to Thompson last week, because they couldn’t see me sitting there beside the potted plant, waiting for the guidance counselor. “I wouldn’t teach that crowd for anything. Honestly, look at the attendance sheet. I think they must’ve just Xeroxed the probation roster from [nearby boys’ detention center]!”

And in a way, that might not be unfair. I know that a lot of the kids, especially the boys, have been in trouble, and some have even been in corrections before.

Our class has more D’s and F’s than all the other History sections combined, Tully says, looking sad. He takes his purple marker and draws a line on the rank sheet. Above the purple failing line are my student number and five others. Everyone else is underneath.

The way Oswald talks about Tully’s class is snide and kind of vicious, which doesn’t really surprise me because it’s Oswald. He’s not a nice guy.

Later in the year, this will be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt when my regular counselor goes on vacation. Everyone will be assigned temporary guidance, and I’ll luck into Oswald and then watch in horror as he throws out my proposed schedule and presents me with an academic monstrosity of his own design.* It will include Business Administration and Interior Decorating, because, he says, that way I’ll have something to fall back on if college doesn’t work out. If our school still offered shorthand, I’m sure he would have signed me up for that too.

He won’t take into account my GPA or my test scores, or ask about my extracurriculars. In fact, he won’t even look at my transcript. All those things that defined me so clearly at the beginning of the year—grades and sports and irreproachable deportment? None of them will matter. He’ll study me blandly, and I will be reduced to nothing but torn jeans and battered green shoes. Of no consequence. Hopeless.

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Treaty of Paris

Things go back to normal.

This is the stabilizing force of the universe, the first rule of high school. For three days, everyone gossips shamelessly and compares stories and buzzes about Rooster’s impressive and bloody header into the windshield. And then, things go back to normal.

For my part, I babysit my cousins and turn in my homework and go on with my life. I still dream about the blood sometimes, but only in a cool, incidental way. I (almost) stop feeling guilty.

Rooster is absent for awhile, and then shows up one day in the middle of the week with bruised eyes and a pad of gauze taped across his forehead. He smiles and performs a little monologue for our History class on how awful it was being stuck at home with nothing to do but watch TV, how he couldn’t watch anything except the weather, because otherwise he might start laughing and any time he changed expressions, the sutures would pull and he would start to bleed through his stitches.

#4 is the only one who doesn’t even pretend to find this funny.

(Graceless transition: None of the above has anything at all to do with the next part, but I recognize that I ended on a very dramatic note last week, and I didn’t want to leave you hanging.)

The autumn of my junior year is a good season, even when it’s crazy-making or confusing. I’m steadily becoming more approachable, and even though I’m still not great at smiling, I’m getting better. At least, I’ve stopped doing the blank stare when someone tries to start a conversation. I’m delighted to think that I may in fact be turning into a real girl.

Out of the blue, people start talking to me.

I don’t mean the smalltalk or the saying hello in the halls, although there’s some of that too. I mean, they start really talking, telling me their secrets—their failures and humiliations and their crushes and wishes and triumphs and all the things that scare them.

At first, I think it’s a fluke, an isolated incident. Then, it’s two isolated incidents. Then I think I’m misinterpreting or blowing things way out of proportion. Then, it just becomes commonplace. By November, I will be dispensing advice on conflict resolution, matchmaking upon request, and helping total strangers write break-up letters.*

A quick note from the present: A few months ago, Catherine was over. We were drinking tea in my living room and being our grown-up selves, and she said, “Do you remember in school, how strangers were always confessing stuff to you? God, they used to tell you everything.”

“Why do you think that was?” I said, because it’s the kind of thing I’m perpetually curious about, and not really because I expected her to tell me.

But she surprised me, even though I don’t think she thought her answer was surprising. She just shrugged and said, “I don’t know, maybe because you looked like you’d actually listen.”

When I was seventeen, this would have seemed like an impossible reason. Simple. Reductive. Blatantly implausible. But now I think it’s the right one.

Even after I started having opinions and inventing outfits and doing a better job of smiling at strangers, there were certain things about me that just didn’t change. I was small and tentative, but resilient. Vague, but unblinking. I seemed harmless, but also unshockable. I had what my cousin M*alice once informed me was a Secret Face. And if you’re going to go out and start confessing things to someone, even a stranger, that stranger should probably be someone who looks like she can keep a secret.

Later, I was different and people never talked to me quite the same way again, but that fall, it was like my expression promised impartiality. Attentiveness. When people told me secrets, they did it like they were throwing pennies down a well.

secret facesecret face 3secret face 2

Senior year, my friend Delilah will compare me to a sphinx and I will laugh and wave her off. I will roll my eyes and smile, and secretly, in my notebook, I will worry that she’s right—that I’ve somehow built myself into a stone girl, someone impenetrable. Not mysterious or enigmatic, but truly unknowable.

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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 story I am about to tell happened because of Hemingway. But it wasn’t his fault.

In English, we’d been reading The Old Man and the Sea for almost a week. For those unfamiliar with this particular book, it is 96 pages long. Also, we were on the block system. In case you don’t feel like doing the math, I’ll break it down: we were reading the same 96-page book for an hour and a half every day.

I finished on the second day, but complied with the mandatory Reading Time by bringing another book. M was not amused. She wanted to know where my Hemingway was. Then she sent me to go get it.

At my locker, I just stood there, looking at the inside of the door. I’d taped up pictures because other girls taped up pictures, but mine were sepia-toned and not quite right—postcards of Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe. They coexisted more or less peacefully with my locker-partner’s shrine to Brad Pitt.

I was standing there, seething over M, when Gatsby came down the hall toward me.

This is what I wrote about him a year later,* when we had the same history class, but I’m including it here because here is as good a place as any and sometimes you just need to know about a person:

First, about Gatsby. He is 16, and has black hair and blue eyes, and his teeth are crooked from being kicked in the mouth so many times. He’s not very big, but his body seems angular and tough, like if he were already grown up. He smiles a lot, is always nice to me, and sometimes tries very hard in class, although mostly not.

[In History] he always has something to say, and usually it is something so desperate and passionate and indignant that I envy him for being able to say it, like no one was going to laugh at him for caring so much.

Gatsby is a hard boy to explain to someone who hasn’t met him. Even hard to explain to the people around here, who know him. He’s rough and loud, but in a way, still very gallant.** I like him very much, in the only way I can. I like him in the way of a small girl in the back row of 4th hour History, watching closely, but never saying anything.

That day though, I didn’t know anything about him. I was still unacquainted with his character, his eccentricities. I was only a very quiet, very cautious girl looking at a stranger, limited to what I could see.

And what I could see did not look good. He was holding a red paper Coke cup against the side of his face. When he stopped at his locker, he opened it with a little flourish that was supposed to make me laugh. One eye was swollen part-way closed.

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