Girls like unicorns, don’t they?

“I got you a present,” S. said.

I stopped digging for books in my locker and looked at him. “What?” We were in the tenth grade and he sat behind me in algebra. He’d drawn a button in the corner of his desk. We joked that if we pushed it, we’d start a nuclear war. I usually turned around and tapped it whenever we had a test.

“A Christmas present,” he said. “I wanted to give it to you now instead of in class.”

signing a yearbook in a new dress
signing a yearbook in a new dress

“Oh.” I took the brown paper bag. My stomach dropped. Getting him a present hadn’t occurred to me. “Thank you.”

Students jostled by. It was the last day before the winter break and everyone was loud. I looked in the bag and a unicorn stared up at me.

“You like it?” S. asked.

I nodded, glad I was one of those invisible students. No classmates were paying us any attention. “He’s cute,” I said, which was true. And I did like unicorns. Most of the books I read during class had unicorns or dragons on the cover. Or princes.

S. pushed up his glasses and tugged at his nylon jacket. “Maybe I’ll see you over the break,” he said.

“Maybe,” I said, closed the bag, and put it on top of my books. “I don’t know if I’ll be around.”

He nodded and dashed into the next passing crowd of students.

At home I put the unicorn on my shelf and panicked. Maybe he gave this to me because he likes me. No. He can’t like me. But if he does like me he’ll ask me out and if he asks me out he might want try to hold my hand. Or something. No. No. No. I hid the unicorn in my closet. I didn’t want to think about it or my dad to see it.

The first day of algebra after break I ignored him. I sat up straight and didn’t turn around. “They washed the button off my desk,” he said. “But I’ve put it back.”

“That’s nice,” I said not turning away from the numbers I was scratching across my notebook.

“You okay?” he asked. “Did something happen over break?”

I titled my head so that my hair would hide my face. “I don’t walk to talk about it,” I said.

S. was quiet. He was quiet a lot after that. A few times during the rest of the school year I thought about turning around and saying I was Russia about to nuke the school, but I didn’t. I felt too guilty.

Sometimes my characters don’t do the nice thing or the right thing or the understanding thing. I’m tempted to make them good people every minute of the day, but what would they learn? How would they change? That makes me wonder how much the protagonist should change. Is change always necessary? Must there be some revelation? Or does the reader have to change? That seems like a lot to ask?

But I don’t like obvious lights flipping on the character’s head–like everything will be easy from here on out. Like they’ve understood the meaning of life and all is well. They ought to see something new though. How much and what?

8 thoughts on “Girls like unicorns, don’t they?

  1. Shelly, what’s the reader (and the writer) supposed to see? The same thing? Does that happen?

    Squirrel, seems I was commenting on your blog when you were commenting here–about the same thing too. Ha. And I’m glad were not perfect. We wouldn’t be writers then.

  2. I think we create what the character “sees” but not what the reader sees. And that’s ok. When I get comments from readers on my nonfiction books, they often have taken away things from the material that I either never consciously intended or that I didn’t even necessarily agree with. So what I wrote and what they “see” aren’t always the same, but the reader has created their own meaning out of what they read and thus arrived at a whole new place from where they started. I guess the hope is that our fiction gives the reader enough room and interest to invest their imaginations in our character’s stories, making our characters their own, in the process. And for that to happen, I think the story needs to go somewhere- either full circle, or into new territory, but something happens along the way that changes how the character sees, or how the reader sees the character, (hopefuly both) if that makes sense (?)

  3. I like all the comments on this post.

    When The Missus-to-be and I were still becoming acquainted, I used to tell her that I liked complexity, but didn’t like complication. Because I was still in another relationship at the time, the implication was that my getting to know her was more the former than the latter.

    The first time I visited her at her place, in her office she had a corkboard over the computer. (We’d met online, back in 1991.) She’d tacked a cartoon there: a lone woman, forlorn and a little bedraggled-looking; the speech balloon coming out of her head said, “I’m rather complicated.” That cracked me right up.

    Characters in my own stories seem to be at once the most complicated and complex people I know. Personally, I like it when they know they’ve seen something — but missed something else even more critical. It doesn’t do to pull the rugs out from under their feet too often, but all those looking-back moments — simple poignant what-might-have-been memory, to surprise, to remorse — do make them more believable characters. More likable too, I think.

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