A Story About Jane
A story on heartbreak, grief, and a fleeting friendship.
By Ila Kumar
Everything Your Mother Doesn't Know is a monthly meditation on growing up. Stories in this column speak to the way adolescence, despite its ephemeral nature, is full of enduring/interesting lessons.
Girls are good at knowing when something bad is about to happen.
I could feel it in the air, the way certain highly attuned animals can detect an earthquake before it happens. Something about her face, or the way she crossed her arms, gave away our shared deceptions, the way a love letter may feel profound and beautiful until it is betrayed by the fact that it was written by a careless hand.
Jane had three piercings in each ear. Her earring collection was impressive: hoops, studs, and long, dangly ones with disco-white stars at the bottom. When I met her four years ago, she only had one piercing, and she cut her hair in a straight line. She had angles now, and slightly blonder, shorter pieces of hair framed her face. The book she borrowed from me was on the bottom shelf of her bedside table. I stared at these things to distract myself while she sat on her bed, facing me, using hand gestures I had never seen before. Jane was mad at me, somewhat unfairly, but the idea that she even cared enough to be upset was touching.
The space between us widened with the discomforting thought that our relationship no longer consisted of just us. We were changing, and I was noticing. Our friendship was produced by our relationship with others, which was produced by our relationship with our childhood selves, which produced our relationship with the future, which caused anxiety about the present. I hated realizing those masterfully orchestrated subtle shifts and layers of change in focus.
Jane had a name that one finds in math problems… if Jane had three pairs of earrings that each cost two dollars, calculate the number of … Our habit of texting one another constantly about anything we thought about or keeping lists on our phones of the things we didn’t want to forget to talk about bespoke a capacity for lifelong friendship. She was very tall and very funny. This can be a tough combination for a teenage girl. If you’re tall, people will always think that you ought to be prettier so that you can fulfill your destiny of being a supermodel. And if you’re funny, well… the boys that we knew were devoid of any real sense of humor. We left them to their comedy.
We met when we were fifteen, a special time in our lives when we were on the cusp of finding out that sex is about gravity, that ketosis is a bad-intentioned joke, and that scandalizing the masses is central to the vocation of a teenage girl, which makes those rifts before you go to college, the ones that your mom will tell you are natural, even worse. Our conflicts are fleeting and categorized as ‘growing pains’ only by our parents. To us, they are not fleeting. They are only difficult.
But that’s only half the story.
It’s best not to get this confused; there are different ways of needing somebody. There are differences between wishing you were in the passenger seat of someone’s car and knowing that no matter how many other people you meet, it’s never going to feel the same without her.
And so here you are, the college sophomore with flat-ironed hair, innocently following your friends to a bondage-themed party jointly thrown by the campus sex magazine and the sailing team. The girls you hang out with now are talking to their prospects in a corner of a house that is kept better than you expected. The people next to you belong in a comedy group, and are talking about top surgery and how, if you’re lucky, your doctor will let you choose what your nipples will look like.
“Can you get shapes?” someone asks. You hear them discuss stars and triangles. What about a different shape on each boob? Someone suggests a sun and moon, a Virgo and a Pisces, fish and chips, or maybe two halves of a heart, like a best friend’s necklace.
You tell your new friends you’re stepping outside to say hi to someone, but instead, you keep walking, all the way back to your dorm room.
Mostly, you just miss her. Who else would have the jokes and the sympathies that never fail you, that give you the strength to live on and on with your wounds and your mediocre nights? You wonder how she’s doing at college. You wonder if you should reach out. You can’t weigh your options if they are too heavy to hold.
You want to ask her if the book she borrowed from you is still on her bedside table. You pray she never gives it back, that she never drives to your house and puts it in your mailbox without a warning, a word, or a knock. You want to tell her to treat the book as a bookmark, saving the place in your story.
You are learning that heartbreak, grief, and friendship are just things we feel. They don’t need to exist. But Jane exists, and she’s out there somewhere, maybe thinking about you, maybe not. You suffer for a fiction and you profit from one.
This is a horrible thing. About earrings. About haircuts. About fighting and promising to never do it again.