Too Much

Oh, high school, you crazy, crazy diamond.

So, it’s been a really long time since I’ve done one of these posts. And I can make tons of excuses—book stuff, holiday stuff, constant travel—and they are even legitimate excuses (insofar as excuses are ever legitimate), because all those things actually happened.

If I’m being honest though, those are not the reason I haven’t trotted out teenage-Brenna in awhile. The truth is that I’m just moving very slowly now. The reason for this is that by November of senior year, the eighteen year old version of me has become a creature who thinks waaaaay too much.

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Right before the start of senior year, a troubling thing happened. Not shocking, but grave and disappointing all the same.

What it was was this:

“I’m not coming back in the fall,” Jane said as she and I sat in Denny’s, drinking coffee and eating pie respectively.

I mashed my pie with the back of my fork. “I thought you were going to think about it.”

She gave me a bored look. “I did think about it. What I think is that it’s bullshit, so I’m not going to go anymore.”

The way she tilted her head and popped her eyes wide was calculated to make me laugh, but the actual sentiment was a little too grim. I didn’t really have anything to say to that, so I didn’t say anything.

The fact that Jane drops out is not even that surprising. She’s never really been too good about passing her classes, and at this point, I’m pretty much used to people leaving and not coming back. In fact, so many of the juniors dropped out last year that by the middle of April, I’d started keeping a log of it in the back of my American Lit. binder. It’s funny to think that in tenth grade, it seemed blatantly impossible that anybody would ever drop out. Now it seems commonplace and kind of inevitable.

School is a little bit lonely without Jane. It would be a lot worse, except that now all the teachers and hallways and upperclassmen are at least vaguely familiar, and I have other friends, and even if I didn’t, I’m marginally less weird about just biting the bullet and talking to people. And it’s not even like Jane is really all that absent from my life. Sure, she’s never waiting for me outside English anymore, but we talk on the phone a lot, and sometimes she walks over at lunch to meet us.

The thing that happens next turns out to be a sort of catalyst—the first rumblings of a long, stupid landslide.

At the time though, I have no way of knowing that.

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Jane Comes Back

Okay, wow. It has been FOREVER since I put up an actual high school post!

To reorient: A long time ago, before hyper-productive writing trips and knee surgery and that time I revised a book, we left teenage-Brenna post-break-up, marginally assertive, and newly intent on locating the missing Jane. (And also a little bit of a nihilist—not even a regular, run-of-the-mill nihilist either, but like a fancy one. That’s old news though. She’s already growing out of it.)

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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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Girl Friends

Before I started high school, I had this big tight-knit group of really awesome friends. We grew up together, were homeschooled together, spent weeks and months and years together. It seemed like I’d known them forever, and when you’ve known someone forever, everything starts to seem simple and easy. Even the squabbles and the disagreements and the petty jealousies are just so incredibly easy.

You can lie on your back in the grass with your heads together and look at stars—spend your weekends hiking and camping, paddle around in canoes and catch snakes and toads and crawdads, swim in the river, play hide-and-seek in the train yards, sneak out after curfew, eat popsicles on the curb in front of Safeway, build tree forts and sleep out on the trampoline and pick all the worms out of the gutter when it rains and throw them back on the grass. You can understand each other without ever having to say anything.

So, I had all these really awesome friends. Who I’d grown up with. Who I’d known forever.

And then school started and I realized that I had no idea how to make new ones.

This wasn’t a social emergency or anything. Or, it was, but it didn’t feel like one. On the very first day, I was adopted by a group of very nice girls who let me eat lunch with them and always talked to me before school and between classes. Nice girls who gave me fashion tips involving stores I couldn’t afford, and admired my hair, and who put up with me. Because no matter how nice they were, that’s how it always felt—like they were putting up with me.

I knew early on that I wasn’t a good fit. Too detached and too silent, I had no patience for things like stress or homework or senior boys who didn’t know we existed. Sometimes when I was with them, I started to feel like I had no patience for anything.

The last straw came somewhere around mid-January of my sophomore year. We were all sitting at one of the circular cafeteria tables for lunch, and I don’t even know why it was the last straw, just that it was. We were talking about sports and activities, and how you need a well-rounded transcript to impress colleges, and they asked me what extracurriculars I had.

I said soccer, and one of the girls suggested I rethink that, since it only really counted for colleges if you played for your school, and I nodded and said, “I’ll play for school in the spring.”

The look she gave me was tender as she carefully explained that in high school, a lot of people tried out but they didn’t all make the team, and I should probably have at least one choice that was more dependable, like Spanish Club.

And like that, I was done.

It was strange, because nothing about the conversation offended me. I wasn’t hurt or mad or even very surprised. It was just that in that moment, I understood that none of them knew me at all, not even a little, and more than that, even if they did know me, they probably wouldn’t like me that much.

The next day, I sat alone, with my sandwich and my book, and Catherine came and sat down next to me. She asked why I was by myself, if I’d had a fight with the girls I usually hung out with.

I shook my head and said, “I don’t think I belong there.”

And she just shrugged and got out her lunch. “Well, I can’t help with that. They’ve all hated me since eighth grade.”

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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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