The third installment of this story. Trigger warnings for self-harm and relationship abuse.
He made me think, and he encouraged me to say what I was thinking. No one else did that, at least not on any topic more emotionally invested than how to solve a physics problem. I wouldn’t say that no one else cared what I thought, but no one else cared enough to talk my thoughts out of me.
“I have a favor to ask,” he said one evening when class ended early.
I raised an eyebrow. “Ask.” I hadn’t meant to sound commanding; I was just curious.
He took a step back. “Easy there, killer,” he replied, winking. “Didn’t mean to make you mad. I was just wondering if you might have time to help me with my paper.”
I glanced at the clock. “For about an hour. What’s yours about?”
He took another step, this time sheepish. “I, um, haven’t started yet.”
Now both eyebrows shot up. “It’s due Thursday.” That was two days away.
“I realize.” He smiled wryly. “And I’ll start just as soon as I can come up with a topic. Speaking of which, what’s yours about?”
“The Chocolate War and how it’s basically the first young adult novel,” my face started to flush, and I slid my eyes toward the ground.
“He’s letting you do that?” He slung his backpack over his shoulder and started walking toward the library. I followed.
“It’s a significant development in contemporary American literature,” I returned, meeting his gaze again. “It’s a legitimate paper topic.”
“But you don’t think, maybe John Updike’s ‘A&P’?” He held the door open for me to walk through first.
I stopped to stare at him. “‘A&P’ is a short story, so it pretty much couldn’t be the first young adult novel.”
“I stand corrected,” he smiled and ushered me inside.
I’ve never been a fan of the door thing. Even when a guy’s intentions have been more polite and less look-at-me chivalrous, I’ve still felt uncomfortably self-conscious. I like to think I don’t want people to pay that much attention to me. So I was ready, for an instant, to feel defensive and socially inept.
Except that it didn’t happen. There was no moment where I lurked awkwardly in the doorway, trying to reconcile social expectation with my own discomfort — before inevitably deferring to accepted polite behavior. There was just a moment when I made one point, he responded, and we both moved on.
Inside the library, it was nearly deserted but not quiet. There were more people talking on phones or to each other than were doing any kind of focused studying. We didn’t bother keeping our voices down.
“What about Catcher in the Rye?” he continued without missing a beat. “It’s a young adult novel, and it was written something like twenty years earlier.”
I shook my head. I’d already gone through this in my own head while writing. “Catcher is a book with a teen protagonist, yes, but I don’t think that’s the same as a book written for teens. The dif–”
“What’s the difference?”
“I was getting to that,” I explained. “In Catcher in the Rye, Holden’s telling his own story, looking back on his past from somewhere in the future, yes?”
“I suppose that’s true,” he replied, “given that he’s the one narrating. Yes.”
“Now it might be — and this is where I have to do more reading — that there are clues that Holden is only looking back on these events from, like, a week later. But when I read it for the first time — and maybe wasn’t paying the best attention to things — it felt like there was enough perspective, at least with what he chose to put in and leave out, that he was maybe telling his story from a lot later.”
He grinned. “You’re cute when you’re nerdy, you know that?”
“Then I must always be cute,” I smiled. “In The Chocolate War — “
“Super nerd,” he laughed. “Didn’t you notice I just called you cute?”
“I’ll get to that in a minute,” I said, waving my hand dismissively. “This is important. When a chapter is being narrated from Jerry or Archie or whoever’s point of view, it’s actually being told through their present teenage eyes. All we see is what they see; all we know is what they know.”
He nodded, the corners of his lips twitching up. “This is significant?”
I shrugged, staring out the window at the cone of light from a streetlamp. “It’s maybe the first time an author wrote a book that portrayed teens as full people themselves rather than as undeveloped adults. And the first time it showed that teenage problems could be real problems. But,” I turned to him, “what was this you were saying about me and cute?”