There are also varieties of scale with epiphanies. There are massive realizations that lead to epic results. In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor realizes he has a power inside him he hasn't tapped into, and it leads to victory in a battle that destroys a world. In Emma Cline's "Los Angeles," worlds aren't shaken, but the main character, Alice, has a pretty rude shock that is likely to change her attitudes about life quite profoundly and suddenly.
And then there are the tiny little epiphanies, the ones that more closely mirror how learning and getting better actually happens in the real world. Most people have one or two truly profound moments of self-realization in life, the kind that lead to abrupt U-turns where you never go back. The rest of life is slow and gradual change, sometimes in a good direction and sometimes in a bad one. If you have more changes in the good direction than the bad one, you're winning.
Jill is winning, but slowly
While we're all in this process of gradual change, we are capable of holding contradictory ideas. That's because we're still partly in an old mode of being while changing to the new one. We can do this even if we are capable of identifying our ideas as self-contradictory. That's where Jill is in Kristen Iskandrian's "Good with Boys." Jill isn't a hot girl. She's not going to win attention from boys off her looks. Jill craves this attention even while she is ashamed of it: "I loved boys so much, it was a sickness, it was a secret. I had to pretend I didn't love them as much as I actually did. I didn't want to be boy crazy. Once boy craziness became your signifier you couldn't be taken seriously as an artist." (Her art fantasies seem no more realistic than her romantic ones, but she's a kid and allowed to dream.)
Jill develops a strategy of trying to corner a niche market in the boy hunting game. She decides to become what you might call a "low maintenance chick" or a girl who is "one of the boys." Jill describes her attraction like this: "I was zany, I really went for it, I knew all the good dick jokes. Everyone talks about personality like it's a bad thing but the fact is without one, you've got nowhere to go but ugly." She is trying to be what the other girls are not, but in the process, she's also being what she isn't.
She has studied boys in an attempt to infiltrate them, to sneak past their defenses and get them to notice her. Jill isn't without success, and she does have some insight into the male mind, although even her insight is full of questionable conclusions:
I was good with boys because I knew what they wanted. I could enter the simple machines of their minds and see how their gears turned. Most of them needed a lot of oil. To be told, a lot, how correct their opinions were, because most of them believed that opinions were like facts--provable and true. Thinking something, for a boy, meant not-thinking all other things. When two even vaguely conflicting ideas rubbed together, they either quickly chose one and discarded the other, or abandoned them both for a new and better topic...She sees boys as the opposite of her own, riven mind. To her, they overcome self-doubt by smashing whatever doubts they might have. It never occurs to her, in spite of her own pretensions she is putting forth, that the boys might also be acting, might be suffering as many internal struggles with opposing ideas as she is.
I'm sure there will readers who highlight that passage and think it's meant as a straightforward critique of men, but to some extent, that would be like saying Robert Frost posited that good fences make good neighbors. These are words from an unreliable narrator, beguiling because much of the passage is true, but sometimes true for the wrong reasons. In any event, practically speaking, the effect of Jill's belief is that when she carries it out, it's not going to have the effect she wants. She even seems to have an understanding that her strategy is flawed, admitting she occupied for boys "a genderless place where I neither quickened the blood like the obvious girls, nor inspired the bravado often necessary around other boys." She is safe for them to be themselves. Which, of course, means they do not see her in the way she wants to be seen.
|Jill would be a good character on this show|
Jill's self-contradictory logic gets toppled during an overnight trip with her school to a science museum. She is interested in a boy named Esau Abraham, whose mother, inconveniently, is chaperoning the trip. Even more inconveniently, she is a stereotypical Jewish mother, hawking over her son's every move. Jill actually has to stop watching Esau as his mother puts hand-sanitizer on him, because it's a turn-off for her.
Jill's main contradiction is that she is trying to be casual, but it's impossible to be casual when she really wants something so badly. She has tried to imbibe a Zen sense of not wanting from her aunt, who tried to tell her that the ideal state was one of neutrality. But she is, as the kids would say, thirsty AF. Her plotting is obvious to Esau's mother, and also to the other girls, one of whom tells her, "Could you be any more obvious?" Jill even realizes that neutrality is probably a pipe dream--she notes that the aunt who preached it to her was a QVC addict--but she strives for it anyway.
Another of Jill's contradictions is that she can see the hypocrisy of other girls, but not in herself. This is partly because she necessarily sees the other girls as competition. During an earlier class trip, she saw a girl use a cheap ploy to get next to a boy Jill had been plotting to get close to. She was offended by it, but also admired the girl for using it. From that day, she decided that "If you wanted a boy's attention, you had to get it. You had to take it." Her first move at the museum is to try to stake out a sleeping spot away from the other girls and near Esau.
She is quick to see other girls as silly or false. When Caroline protests too much about being offended by a boy's idle threat to do a panty raid that night, Jill mentally derides her: "Caroline definitely wanted her underwear to be stolen. I could see right through her. I didn't like this kind of game-playing. I didn't like silliness, the silliness so often ascribed to our sex. I was constantly trying to get out from under it."
She thinks she is direct, when she's actually being quite coy in some ways (like not telling Esau she likes him). She thinks she is hiding her true intentions when she isn't hiding them from anyone who knows how the game is played. She thinks she's neutral, when she's entirely too emotionally invested. She thinks she's got a grown-up understanding of the true meaning of middle school, but she's the most middle school girl in middle school.
She's a victim of her own worst impulses, meanwhile thinking she's outsmarted them. She is wise enough to realize Esau is probably just a passing phase, yet she still imagines a complicated future for her and Esau. She tells herself she's "good with boys" when she isn't. (The two bawdy jokes she tries to tell to prove how she can think like a boy are both flops.) She tells herself she's a favorite of mothers and grandmothers, but the only mother who sees her in the story is immediately wise to her ploys.
And yet, she's going to be okay
The reason Esau's mother is on to Jill so fast is because Jill is trying something a lot of women try. Jill is actually kind of precocious to be experimenting with being a guy's girl at such a young age. Other women don't try it until they are adults, at which point they get locked into it and end up in romantic disaster land for much of the prime of their adult lives. Jill is finding out now the limitations of this approach. She will refine her ideas and move on to something new, something where she can be more authentically herself. Something better, if only better by inches.
Jill realizes she is on the wrong path when her plot with Esau fails. It turns out Esau is more into his friend than he is into her. The mother embarrasses her. When Jill's epiphany happens, it's quiet. She doesn't even realize it's an epiphany, because it comes to her as a question:
What was this broken mirror inside of me, that showed me I was ugly, showed me I was wrong, but persisted in its reflection that I was better than other people? Could low self-esteem loop all the way around and become narcissism?
Yes, Jill, I think you answered your own question. Nicely done. While Emma Cline's "Los Angeles" was about giving yourself too much slack as a young person to make bad decisions, "Good with Boys" is about the right kind of mistakes, the inevitable learning curve of growing up. I've been watching Netflix's "Big Mouth" recently, which is entirely about the awfulness of adolescence. One of the major themes of the show is how much kids going through it want to know that they're normal. Jill is normal. In fact, she's ahead of normal.
The story ends with a sweet little denouement. Like Jill, I was dreading the release of the butterflies, because I thought it would be a little too sweet. But it isn't. Jill leans on Sarah, "whose tallness usually got on my nerves." Jill is learning that other women are not her enemy. She longer has to occupy space away from them. She can get close to them. She expects a lecture on butterflies, but "the three men merely counted to three and unlatched the doors, and all of us were made to forget for a second, as wings filled the air, what was hurting."
Jill is going to be okay, even if she doesn't know it yet.