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.
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.