There’s nothing I hate, and nothing Truman Alexander loves, more than the sound of Truman Alexander’s voice.
“I found the ending solipsistic, manipulative, and metaphorically facile.”
That’s Truman now, treating sixth period to his opinion of The House of Mirth. And yes, vocab bombs like solipsistic are part of Truman Alexander’s everyday speech.
“I can understand why some people would be moved by it,” he says, lacing his fingers on top of his desk. He shoots a glance in my direction. “But they’re just playing into the author’s hands. At the end of the day, it’s not very sophisticated.”
I note the emphasis on that last word at the same time Truman’s eyes dart away, as if to leave just the trace of a doubt in my mind whom he was referring to. He’s both courting and dodging one of our legendary arguments. Because the last time we clashed, I wiped the institutional tile floor of the AP English classroom with him.
Metaphorically, of course.
“Lily Bart’s ridiculous pride is what killed her,” Truman continues, his tone growing even more self-important. He’s forgotten yet again that he is in a classroom, and not one of his precious debate tournaments. “She had plenty of opportunities to improve her situation, but she insisted on maintaining a façade of misplaced honor that was, frankly, tiresome.”
I have to roll my eyes at that one. Because Truman Alexander is the very definition of tiresome. He sits across the aisle in a button-down shirt, freshly pressed shorts, and loafers--a formal island in a sea of sweatshirts and slides--pontificating as he stares with that unblinking gaze that lets everybody know Genius Truman is in the house. We’ve all been listening to Truman since he was a seventh-grade brainiac with a compulsive need to tell everyone exactly what was on his mind.
High school Truman isn’t much of an improvement. You’d think being Alton High’s master debater would give him all the outlet he needs for listening to himself talk. Instead, it’s rendered him even more in love with the sound of his own voice--a voice that makes my skin crawl. Especially when Truman seems to have completely and, I suspect, willfully missed the point of a book I absolutely loved.
Rather than give him the satisfaction of knowing I noticed his passive-aggressive digs, I sneak a text under my desk. Jordan and her prom committee cochairs are out scouting locations right now.
Where you at?
Jordan responds with a photo. It’s the courtyard garden from the Blessing mansion where Harper, the third in our trio of best-friends-since-toddlerhood, volunteers every weekend. Harper calls it her “happy place,” and who could argue with that? Sculptures peek from behind shrubberies, and trellises of budding flowers frame an open space that manages to be sprawling and intimate all at once. In the background, an old brick wall supports masses of ivy and the skeletons of what look like climbing roses.
This is THE place. Search over. It’s perfect.
Ten other pics follow, and it’s clear Jordan has embarked on one of her epic party-planning crusades--more than embarked; the boat has left the harbor and is sailing away to Prom Paradise. Looking at that garden, I envy her. Today is the first truly pretty day of spring: crystal-blue sky, warm enough to go without a jacket but chilly in the shade. The world outside the window behind Ms. Laramie’s desk sparkles. Jordan is out there while I am stuck in here, listening to Truman freaking Alexander’s freaking infuriating voice.
“Furthermore,” he adds, “if Lily hadn’t been so spineless and indecisive, she wouldn’t have made such a mess for herself in the first place.”
“Okay, that’s just wrong,” I blurt out. I told myself I wouldn’t engage Truman today, but he’s managed to pull me in as only Truman can. “First of all, Lily Bart’s mistakes are part of what make her an interesting and realistic character. Second, Lily might be the only truly honest person in the circles within which she has no choice but to sink or swim. Which leads me to my third point, which is that Lily is backed into a corner. She has no other options.”
“Lily has options left and right,” Truman counters. “She either doesn’t choose, or she chooses the wrong ones.”
This is rich coming from Truman. His family is one of the wealthiest in Alton. There’s no way he could identify with a well-born but penniless girl who falls prey to the schemes of those whose acceptance she needs to survive.
“Every option is one that forces her to subvert her true self,” I inform him.
“Everyone in the book is subverting themselves in one way or another. Do they overdose on chloral hydrate?”
“Have you ever been a woman without choices?”
I feel my cheeks redden, feel my grip on the discussion start to slide. “I don’t think you’re exactly qualified to talk about this book.”
“That’s an ad hominem argument. So I win.”
He sits back smugly, while the heat in my face dissolves into the sensation of a million tiny worms wriggling down my neck and arms. I can’t be the only person who’s repulsed by Truman right now. I look around for confirmation of this, only to see that everyone else in the room is half-asleep. Even Ms. Laramie looks like she’s nodding off on her perch at the edge of her desk.
The bell rings, jolting them all awake. I snatch up my bag, ready to bolt. But Truman isn’t done arguing. Of course. He decided years ago that I was his extra-superfun intellectual punching bag--the one person who can never be allowed to express an opinion without challenge. It’s probably because I’m the one person who ever challenges him. Everybody else is smarter than me; they let Truman talk in class so they don’t have to deal with him after.
I put my bag back down on my desk. I rummage around for some lip balm. I take my time unwrapping a piece of gum and putting it into my mouth. I pray Truman will get tired of waiting and leave.
He remains at his desk. And I can’t hang out here forever. I have to walk by him in order to get out of the room. I gather my things and make a beeline for the door.
I avoid eye contact, leaving no opening for further conversation. The last time we sparred in class he followed me afterward, trying to argue that Jay Gatsby was a tragic figure and not a social-climbing thug. He used words like archetype. He recommended websites I might like to check out for additional reading. He made me want to punch him in the throat.
I can’t do that today--deal with Truman in general or punch him in the throat specifically. I have to let it go, if for no other reason than that boring to sleep an entire roomful of our classmates is bad karma. I’m not boring. Nor am I anywhere near as hateful as hating Truman makes me seem. If you asked any random person who knows me, they’d say, “Oh, Skyler Finch? She’s cool. Fun. Just your average cool, fun girl.”
Truman Alexander brings out the worst in me. Of all the reasons to hate him, that is probably the biggest.
Second biggest? His refusal to take a hint and back off.
“When you’re navigating the high-stakes world Lily Bart was, you have to be calculating and logical,” he says.
“Lily followed her heart,” I respond against my better judgment. “It wasn’t in her nature to be calculating.”
“So she faced the consequences.”
Now that I’ve had a chance to collect my thoughts, what I should have said earlier comes to me. I take off my glasses and rub my eyes, trying to massage away an oncoming headache.
“You know, Truman, the whole purpose of that book was to make you feel a little something about those consequences. Maybe question whether we want to live in a society where people who aren’t equipped to play the game--or who choose not to--get crushed like Lily Bart did.”
This shuts him up, momentarily at least. I might not have wiped the floor with him, but we’re even now.
He shakes dark hair out of his eyes, and I’m forced to admit that, objectively speaking, Truman has more than a few things going for him in the appearance department. His face may be moon-shaped, but his eyes are bottle-green, and he wears those crisply ironed shirts and shorts quite well. He could be more popular if he weren’t so Future CEOs of America. He could even be considered hot if you find bulging backpacks and brows furrowed deep in thought attractive.
I don’t. When I’m not in class with Truman, I try to think about him as little as possible.
“I need to get going,” I tell him. “Was there something you needed?”
“Yes. I had an idea just now.”
He pauses, leaving me unsure whether this is a dramatic interval, or whether I’m supposed to dig for more. I hold up my hands, begging him to get on with it.
“I was thinking we could use you in debate. Have you ever considered joining?”
“No. I’m busy enough.”
It’s the truth. Show choir, clarinet in orchestra, yearbook . . . I’m involved in pretty much everything but sports, and that’s only because I don’t have an athletic bone in my body.
“What are you focused on, though?”
I squint, trying to figure out how we went from The House of Mirth to what Truman seems to be implying is my unimpressive lineup of interests and activities. “Are my extracurriculars a problem?”
“It’s not my place to say. . . .”
“Apparently you’re making it your place.”
“Well . . .” He casts his gaze toward the ceiling. When he looks at me again, it’s down the nose. “There’s no disputing you do a lot. But is there anything you excel at?”
A surge of righteous rage steals my voice. I bite my tongue until I can shake the words loose. “I excel at life. You know, living in the now? You’re always either in some debate tournament or acting like you’re practicing for one.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being the best at what you do. Striving for success isn’t a bad thing.”
It is if it makes you an arrogant pain in the butt. The only thing that keeps me from saying this out loud is Ms. Laramie shooing us both out into the hallway. I’m not sure, but I think I hear her door lock behind us.
“So I lack focus. Then why would you want me on your debate team?”
“Trishna is moving and there are still qualifying tournaments coming up.”
I look past him to where his debate friends are gathering for practice outside the speech and forensics room. Every one of his teammates looks like a puffed-up Truman wannabe.
“If you stick with it into next year, it’ll look good on your college applications,” he says.
“Not a concern. I already know where I’m going.”
“How can you know that as a junior?”
“I mean I’m only applying at State.” He makes a face. “What? All my friends are planning to go there.”
“I just thought you’d want to be better than all your friends. Never mind.”
“No, wait. Don’t say never mind. What does never mind mean, anyway?”
“Just that you’ve clearly got your life set up the way you like it. Far be it from me to suggest any improvements.”
“Oh . . . kay . . .” If anyone needs a life improvement, it’s Truman, with his uptight pseudo-intellectualism and his tiny squad of debate nerds who treat him like their savior. He’s got his nose so far in the air--and they’ve got their heads so far up his butt--that it’s a wonder he can even find his way around school. “First, implying that I lack the drive to succeed is presumptuous. And second, how do you know my life is so perfect?”
He deflates slightly. “I brought up debate because I thought it was something you’d enjoy and benefit from. It’s not like I asked you to rob banks or clean toilets.”
Now he looks hurt, and I feel bad--but also mad that Truman has put me in a position to feel bad and mad. I hoist my backpack onto my shoulder, forcing myself to take a friendlier tone.
“Well, thank you. But I’m good. And now I really do have to go. So . . . bye?”
He waits a beat before dismissing me with a nod. “Have a nice afternoon.”
I turn and start walking away, feeling pretty good about how that ended. I made my point. We said a civil farewell. And here’s the real win as far as I’m concerned: nobody had to have the last word.
“I still think you should try it!” Truman shouts after me. “You could start tomorrow and be ready for the Westwood tournament next week!”
Luckily for my sanity, Eli the anti-Truman is waiting for me at our bench in the commons. He bolts to his feet when I walk up.
“Hey, Skyler. How was English?”
I pull in a cleansing breath and try to relax. Eli is sweet and laid-back. He navigates the social waters of our school like the captain of some amazing cruise ship. In the seven months that we’ve been dating, I’ve become convinced I am probably the luckiest girl alive.
“English sort of sucked, but it’s fine now,” I tell him. “Why do you look so weird?”
“No reason.” He flashes a shy smile, which widens to a full-on grin. “Well, maybe there is one.”
He turns me around to face the end-of-day crowd; then he reaches into the pocket of his shorts and pulls out a pitch pipe.
“I have something to ask you.”
Out of the traffic steps Mitch, Eli’s best show choir friend. Eli blows a long E, and Mitch starts to sing.
“Well, a certain dance is coming in the month of May. . . .”
Next to Mitch appears Ravi, second tenor in the Glee Club barbershop quartet.
“A special night of romance, so that’s why we’re here to say . . .”
The last two guys in the quartet pop out. “Eli would be honored if you’d make his dream come true. . . . Please, oh, please let Eli go to prom with you!”
At the last line, seven of our closest friends pop out of the crowd holding hand-painted signs, each bearing a single word.
The last sign is held by none other than Harper. She steps out of the group and starts working the crowd, getting the rest of the commons cheering. And now Jordan’s at my side with her phone, capturing for posterity the fact that I have no words. Literally, I can’t say anything except for “Oh my God” and “This is amazing” and “I can’t believe it,” which, okay, is actually a few words. But if I were to try and say something eloquent like, “Eli, this is such a sweet surprise and I’m honored and humbled by the whole thing,” I would be unable.