Field Notes on Being

Rebecca Bernard

They agree to meet on instant messenger at midnight. He’s usually on AIM at that hour, gifted with a computer in his bedroom, but she must sneak to the family computer, mute the sound, balance quietly on the squeaky office chair, shivering in the middle of the night air, heat turned down to aid sleep. She logs in, waits for the window to pop up. She won’t message first, an etiquette born of gender roles, born of his cooler-than-hers status. Born of? A thrill maybe in being made to wait. Of being chosen.  

The year 2000. Paige, a sophomore in high school, Nate, her crush, also a sophomore but with a late birthday so he’s a year older, technically. A boy already equipped with a license, and a car. A hand me down from an older brother. Trappings of his coolness.

A window pops up but it’s a friend, Amanda, asking about an assignment from history class and Paige types a response and does her best to solidify her watery heart. Another window, this time her friend Pete wondering why she’s on so late, and then her best friend Liz asking if he’s on yet, and he is, yes, but he’s away. Painful. Truly. The message cryptic: pizza rolls

She waits.


In their high school stratosphere, Paige is average in recognizability and stature. Part of a group but not the group. Appearance-wise, Paige does not look like a Paige. Or how she imagines Paiges ought to look: limp, moon-faced, pale. Instead, she’s tall, gawky, entirely unsure of the impression her face makes. Not versed in makeup. Hair utterly basic, brown, and straight. Clothes modeled after male indie rock icons—thrifted little boy t-shirts, holey jeans. Some pride in her footwear, not Chucks but old-style Nikes, flat soles, skinny white swoosh. 

Each day she manages only to be herself and this is a good thing, she hopes. Occasionally doubts. Of course.

Nate and Paige met in math class, assigned seats, naturally. He plays baseball, is part of the Clique (the group), which wouldn’t ordinarily draw her toward him, but there’s something in how easy their conversation feels, the depth of his smile when she makes him laugh, which is surprisingly easy to do. The irreverence he inspires in her. Or is it rebellion? 

Gray-blue eyes, too prominent Adam’s apple (does that mean something?), lanky body akin to her own. But it’s his seeming interest in her that sets her on edge. Friends?—more? Not just a swooning from afar, but a body that seems to see her back. 


The first time he messaged her, went out of his way to get her handle, and the hey its Nate message appeared. A firework in her belly, just wow. The conversation slow, lasted maybe thirty minutes? Then he stopped responding. This back in October. Now it’s December.

Still away. Pizza rolls. How many, what kind?

After that first October message, she messaged him a week later, hey. And he replied, sure, but not much more than that. So it was nothing, meant nothing just friends. She could handle friendly. But then in class, jokes. Repartee even. He touched her wrist for a minute and why? No comment. 

Other girls know how to flirt but not Paige. She and Liz discuss, what is flirting? What isn’t? How obvious need one be? How unwieldy the girl-body feels. How aflutter the chest can become. Every childhood firefly glimmering at once, then dark. 

Midnight plus ten minutes. Paige swallows. Longs for something to drink—water, juice—but to risk more squeaking, more creaking floorboards, no. She waits. Tells Pete she’s a night owl. Tells Liz, she’s dying.

In a week, she’ll be in Florida with her father and brother, off to visit grandma and there will be no AIM, no computer, nothing. A literal desert, palm trees, oranges, dixie cups, no boys, no progress possible. Then a new semester and the classes will shift and the Rubik’s cube that brought them together can easily turn, turn, turn.

The box appears. 

Nategrate23: Hey

Paigeapple11: hi

Paigeapple11: …pizza rolls?

Nategrate23: Yeh so good.

A minute passes. 

Nategrate23: whatre you up to

Paigeapple11: nothing really. just hanging out.

Nategrate23: cool

Another minute passes.

Paigeapple11: i saw these two squirrels chasing each other earlier like side by side and I thought it was a shark for a second, like how they were next to each other. It was really weird.

Nategrate23: haha. Weird.

Paigeapple11: it was!

Another minute passes. Two minutes. Three minutes. Paige messages Liz, ugh ugh ugh, why why why. Liz with what??? Paige hugs her knees to her chest. Just mortifying. Why does she even bother. Then:

Nategrate23: im bored.

Paigeapple11: sorry.

Nategrate23: not u. just bored. 

Paigeapple11: yeah. 

Nategrate23: yeah

Nategrate23: so you still want to meet up?

Paigeapple11: yeh, okay.

Nategrate23: cool. whats your address? 

Zing bow pop ding. The chest a pin ball machine. 


Two weeks before, Nate first suggested the idea of sneaking out. The car, necessary of course, and could Paige leave her house undetected? sure. Not that she’d tried before, but rebellion, she was that kind. Right? The question had been raised in math class, at their side-by-side desks. You ever sneak out? And sure, I mean no, but I could probably. We should sometime. I get so bored.

Now, unbelievably, they are onto logistics. How it’ll take him 12 minutes to get there. How he’ll wait at the bottom of the driveway and flash his lights so she knows it’s him. How she’ll sneak out the back door, hurry down the long driveway. How they’ll wait thirty seconds to see whether she’s been discovered necessitating a hasty retreat and, if not, they’ll hit the Silver Diner. It’s open all night. 

She thinks about what she’s wearing but not really. Jeans, a favorite boys orange soccer shirt over a long sleeve shirt, classic Nikes. A coat because it’s winter and freezing. She doesn’t wear makeup. Does she brush her hair? Probably not, though she looks in the mirror. Studies her face. Sucks in her cheeks. How to understand what anyone else sees? Impossible. 

The totality of her kissing experience earned in games, spin the bottle, etc. And what is this? a date or nothing like it. Because hadn’t Liz mentioned the rumor she’d heard about Nate and Anna (Anna: agreed-on-pretty, popular, soccer-player) a pair with history, even? 

But what does Paige know but now. A quick message to Liz, it’s happening then the away message, carefully plannedout—and to the window to watch for the lights. 

Herself, she hopes, what’s really glowing. 


In Florida, over winter breakphoneless, computer-lessPaige will alternately pine for her friends, her semi-autonomous life in Maryland, her bedroom and access to AIM, and then savor the memory of sneaking out, the bulb of possibility that her crush might like her back, that either way she has this memory worn soft as a favorite stuffed bear. The sense that as she sits in the car with her father and brother and grandmother, she holds inside a secret life, an undiscovered self. 

Listening to Fugazi on her discman on the drive down, falling asleep in the matching twin bed beside her grandmother, sitting at a dinner theater performance of The Glass Menagerie, she will work over the details of the diner date (was it a date?), and the warmth of his car on the drive back, the feel of his back as they huggedand she’ll make eye contact with the waiter, a boy older but not old, and she’ll hold his eye longer than necessary, then look away. 

Only later, on the drive home to Maryland, will her thoughts veer darker, less hopeful. At a gas station somewhere in North Carolina where they stop to pee, get gas. A bathroom especially sad, utilitarian, gross. She’ll squat over the toilet to pee and watch a tiny spider, no bigger than the moon on her pinkie, hurry across the bathroom floor, this room its home. And something inexplicable and sharp will root itself in Paige’s throat, and she’ll feel so badly for the tiny spider, fear for its being squashed on accident or on purpose, fear that the confines of its little life are here, just here. Fear that it must live in this stink and know nothing of the whipping, windy world outside the concrete walls, even just so far as the trash-strewn grass outside, or the spindly forests aiming skyward beyond that. 

And as she pees, her leg muscles throbbing to keep her afloat above the gnarly seat, another likelier thought that maybe none of this is truethe spider is fine, the spider knows no betterthough her concern feels true. Instinctive. Beyond projection to a kernel of honesty, like the water park of coursing blood that makes her feel alive inside, thinking of Nate, and dreaming of reciprocal love. The possibility that someone she likes might like her back, that what’s surely impossible could briefly come true. Even if also, she knowsmust believe or intuitit won’t. 


They order pie at the diner. Apple for Paige and coconut creme for Nate. They also get cups of thin coffee, and Paige likes the process of opening the little cream and pouring it into the cup and moving her spoon around. In part because this allows her something to do, and what’s difficult she finds is thinking of something, anything to say. 

This began in the car, slipping into the passenger seat and closing the door, the car a coupe, hot air blasting. Did she say thanks for getting me? she can’t remember. Just the warmth of the vehicle and his proximity electric and the darkness of her house as they watched it waiting for lights to turn on or hopefully not. All clear, and then they were off. Only, something was off because when she opened her mouth to speak, nothing felt right to say. 

Whatever had enabled her charisma in math class—confidence, personhood?—in the boy’s car, she was suddenly wordless.  

I mean, Jesus Christ she couldn’t think of a single thing to say. And why? In pre-calculus she was funny! Bold, even. Though, of course, they were in class, so it was conversation limited to asides, chitchat with the distraction of group work, formulas and theorems their mainstay.  

In the diner, she feels a deep boringness which only makes her feel more unable to think of things to say. And if this is her one chance, then fuck.

“You’re quieter than in class.” 

“I know, right?” 

“Are you tired, or?”

“No, just. I haven’t ever done this.” She hears herself, defies the urge to cringe. 

“Done what?”

She looks at him, his hair crushed under a ballcap, his thin neck. His eyes not looking at her but at the pie, his fork.

“Snuck out, I guess.”

He shrugs, pokes at his pie. “Since I got the car it’s pretty easy.”

“Where do you go usually?” 

“Here or a friend’s.”


A silence or the threat of another silence, and she wills herself to say something but he speaks instead.

“So what do you do outside of school?”

“Me and Liz like to take the metro into DC. Explore. Go to shows, I guess.”

“That’s cool. Do you ever go to parties?”

“Not usually. Is that mostly what you do?”


Paige closes her eyes. Worries this is weird and opens them. “I guess we just talk. I mean me and Liz and Pete and Nadia, we talk.”

“About what?”

“What it is to be a person? Lately at least.”

Nate looks out the window to the bright parking lot. Paige inhales the diner smell, its cleaning solution and eggs. 

“I like that. How you say it.” He looks at her, eyes blue-gray, shiny and curious. “So what is it to be a person?”

Paige shrugs. She doesn’t know, not really. “I guess just how strange it is to be alive, you know? Like to have a consciousness and all. That’s what we talk about.”

“Huh.” He looks down at his pie, three-quarters eaten. “You should try a party sometime.”


“If you wanted,” he shrugs. 

“That could be cool.” And is here where Paige ought to have reached across the table, taken Nate’s hand? Or else angled her face coquettishly, puffed out her lips? Or else laughed throatily and said, I can party. Instead. “I’ve never been to one. In high school I mean.”

Nate stares back at her, studying her. A gaze not unkind, maybe curious, or honestly, she has no idea what it means, none of it. Then he brushes his hair from his forehead. “You’re not like my other friends. Girls, I mean.” 

“Yeah?” She rolls her eyes, not on purpose but in embarrassment. 

“Yeah.” He raises his eyebrows. “Do you not like apple pie?”

She looks at her plate, crust missing but nothing else. Dismembered mess. “I like the pie part, but not the apple part.” 


And though she tries her best not to be self-conscious, this is also who she is. Who she can’t help being, who she hopes that he likes back, improbable as that feels in this moment, herself. Paige. Bare.


They stay at the diner maybe an hour and when Nate says they should probably go, not to get too risky with time and absence, Paige says yeah of course, and they pay, him offering to cover her pie and coffee and her wondering if this means something other than he comes from more money, a greater allowance. 

Back in the car, in the darkness and heat, she feels the impending end too finely. Is she meant to be sexy here? Alone in a car with a boy? But she isn’t sexy, has never thought of herself this way at least. Instead, smart. Or witty, maybe? Does she need someone to see her prettiness, crack her open like a geode to expose the girl bits within? No, dumb. 

The ride is quiet, not altogether an easy quiet, but better than the ride to. Before she knows it, they’re at her house, and she doesn’t want to hesitate in case he misreads her hesitation for a desire to kiss him, which it is of course, but to be rejected in that way is too much, so she must act with purpose. 

“Thanks for getting me.”

“Yeah. No worries.”

She puts one hand on her door handle then turns back, the moment if there ever was one, and she offers her hand as if to shake. He looks at her confused then reaches forward to hug her and they hug, maybe a single beat longer than necessary, then her door’s open, winter flooding in, and she says see you in class, which may or may not be true come the new year. And he says something back, but she can’t hear it.

She closes the door as quietly as possible, walks up the long driveway, and he waits for her to disappear from sight, which? Means something or nothing and she slips inside through the back door, and all is complete.


In the spring, Paige and Nate find themselves not in math class, but in physics, once again side by side, but not for long, as soon their chatter in the back will irritate their teacher Ms. Engle and Paige will be moved to the front, where remarkably her grade improves, the concepts suddenly making sense. The relevance of space and time. Something, at least, to that effect.

And once they’re no longer seated together, the sole reason for their initial connection after all, social circles not synced up, there isn’t so much reason for them to talk in person or on AIM, and Paige will wonder how much of her life will be orbital? The coincidence of two bodies in the same space, and once they’ve fulfilled their loop, gone. And how many loops is she in, even now? All that’s miss-able and all that must be seized. Noticed, if she’s able to pay close enough attention. To remember.

And later, the thought that maybe these orbits aren’t, after all, a gift? The appreciation of seeing the tiny animal scurry, knowing it’s there, just to be noticed? 

The metaphors mix and skew and adult Paige will still not be able to make clear sense of her high school self and whether this boy had ever liked her like that (if only she’d been more forward? Drunk? Less shy? Plied him with questions? All tools gained in her 20-something toolkit), but maybe it’d just been friendship, someone who liked her mind, and that was something, too. To be liked (even if not like-liked) for being who she was. 

All life experience a series of small gifts, observations, field notes on being. 


Inside her house, returned undetected, she stops in the kitchen for a tall glass of water. Goes back to the computer briefly, just to check her messages, a few from other friends, one from Pete but why?? And fifteen from Liz, an imagining of all that could be happening, what hadn’t happened. Nate’s message says ‘diner’ and that means you! Now Liz is away beddddd but Paige types something to her anyway just in case she wakes up to see it, which she won’t. But she needs to record it anyway, so out it comes.

so im back. And it was all right? Good? I don’t know. I felt weird at first but then it was better? But nothing happened, like we didn’t kiss, so what does that mean? And he said I was different than other girls, which I don’t know is that good or bad? I guess I don’t know what’s supposed to happen, how do you know if someone likes you? We hugged but? Was I supposed to do something? Would he have done something if he liked me for real?

She glances at the shift in her buddy list. Nate no longer away, also returned. Almost 2am and she needs to go to sleep. But.

She double clicks his window.

Shivers in the middle-of-the-night cool. A sound somewhere in the house, but it’s just the settling noises that used to worry her as a little girl. Not anymore.

She starts to type, then hesitates, highlights everything and deletes.

A feeling, something running across the gap between her jeans and the top of her sock, but when she brushes her leg, there’s nothing there.

One part of being a person is new things, so thanks for being my first sneaking out. 

She hesitates then clicks enter. Exes out the window so she doesn’t have to look at it, but sits in the dark room for a moment, just in case a response is coming. 

Rebecca Bernard’s debut collection of stories, Our Sister Who Will Not Die, won the Non/Fiction Prize held by The Journal and was published by Mad Creek Books in August 2022. Recent fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Ninth Letter, and Bellingham Review among other venues. She is an incoming Assistant Professor at East Carolina University and serves as a Fiction Editor for The Boiler.

Artwork: “ColorDekapende” by Cynthia Yatchman

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