I wrote this chapter several years ago, as I did the rest of these excerpts from my unpublished Darien High School memoir. Today it feels like a #MeToo debate in relatively innocent microcosm.
The only character to reappear in this week’s excerpt is Molly, who refused to read Camus’s The Stranger to me. As reported in “Friendship and Honesty,” when she found out that I’d told a mutual friend, she stopped speaking to me for six months. In that episode, I also worked out that I had to cut back on what I thought of as honesty.
A girl named Emily, who sounded severe when she spoke in the social studies course we were both taking, made a point one day of walking with me to my next class. “Are you looking for a reader?” she said.
It happened I was. We scheduled twice-weekly sessions for the period before social studies. She’d meet me in the book closet set aside for me by the school library.
Emily never attended Group parties, but she was friends with several members. In the library closet, despite the cold metal surfaces of the shelves holding row after row of dusty books, she was warm and even funny, in a quietly ironic way.
One reading session, I said I was surprised I hadn’t really been aware of her before this year.
“I choose to spend my time on my own or with my family.”
“Do you ever find it—I don’t know—limiting?”
“Sometimes I wish my parents didn’t expect me to entertain guests. They’re always hosting corporate parties.”
“I’d hate that.”
“I have a duty to them.”
“Duty? I think you’re devoted to them.”
“They’re the two best people I know.” Then she said, “But about your not being aware of me, to be honest, your disability made me nervous.”
She’d told me before that she kept her deepest feelings to herself, and so I was pleased she’d opened up to me.
But then our teacher assigned Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night without giving me enough notice to arrange to have it taped. I’d enjoyed the talking book narration of Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. But the only way I would get any sense at all of Armies of the Night was to skim, and the only way I could think to skim was to have Emily read the first sentence of each paragraph. I’d be short-changing myself, but the alternative was reading none at all.
At the start of our reading session before the class discussion, I explained what I needed.
Emily said, “Are you serious?”
“I don’t have much choice.”
She sighed, then viciously turned pages as she jumped from paragraph to paragraph. Distracted by her annoyance, I got even less out of the book than I’d hoped.
My next mistake, several sessions later, was to ask how she’d feel about getting together after school.
She sighed with exasperation. “Not only do I not want to be more than a friend; I don’t even want to be a friend.”
“Just to talk,” I added. She didn’t deign to respond.
Nothing I said could have done justice to her impromptu, amazingly grammatical rejection, which I wrote down word-for-word as soon as I could.
In the days that followed, mortification transformed into respect. By being so honest, she’d shown how “good” she was. I was hardly the only high school student who fetishized honesty, but my obsession with “the good” was unusual, even eccentric. It had begun with my reading Dostoyevsky’s novels about the saintly Prince Myshkin and Alyosha.
Emily didn’t show up for our next reading session. I’d need to find someone to take her place, but decided to hold off until the following scheduled session, just in case. When I walked into the library closet that next time, she was waiting.
Sitting down across from her, I debated whether to say something, but it would only come between us if I didn’t.
“I hate to put you on the spot, but you do realize we missed our last session, right?”
“How can that be? What day?”
I told her, even though she was too compulsive to have forgotten.
She got out her notebook. “I don’t see it here.”
“But we always meet then.”
“I guess I was in language lab. I totally forgot.”
I concluded I had to cut back further on honesty. It already meant refraining from saying anything critical about my friends. I now added showing interest in getting to know someone better. Simply by making such a suggestion with Emily, I’d made her uncomfortable.
As overeager to please as I’d been before, now I just tried not to annoy her. Paying close attention to how I acted, I noticed I snorted when I found something funny and rumbled “Hm” when I disagreed with something she’d read. Sometimes when I made a responsive noise like that, she let out a deep sigh. Maybe I imagined it.
But I didn’t just imagine it when I said her name once too often.
“What do you think, Emily?”
She snapped, “I hate it when people say my name.”
Okay, I guessed it could sound kind of patronizing.
A favorite subject in school and among parents was “maturity,” as in, “She’s so mature,” or, “How can he be so immature?” It went alongside that other scientific-sounding judgment, “socially awkward,” the euphemism for “strange.”
I said to Emily, “People are always talking about maturity. What is maturity, do you think? Are there many mature people in our grade? What is social maturity anyway?”
She sighed. “You know, the things you talk about are either too intellectual or stupid, or both.”
I got the “too intellectual” part, but “stupid”? Didn’t it mean, I wanted to ask sarcastically, I was at last fitting in?
One day she told me, “You think too highly of me. I’m the most average person you know.” Another day she was “the most terrible person you know.”
At the time, I interpreted her claims as revealing a doleful modesty. Later I realized they were part of her ongoing effort to keep me at a distance.
* * *
“You shouldn’t have told Emily you were interested in her,” Molly scolded me on the phone.
“I didn’t. I only suggested we meet after school.”
“It could have felt like that to her.”
“Are you saying it did?”
“I’m not speaking for her. I’m telling you what I think.”
“Okay, so what if I had been interested in her, to use your phrase? For the sake of argument.”
“It would be wrong.”
“You’re saying I shouldn’t be interested in a girl?”
“You’re entitled to be interested in a girl. But she’s doing a job.”
Molly had read for me for two years before getting irate over the Camus episode. We’d since fought like cats and dogs, but at least she wasn’t accusing me of having behaved badly with her.
I said, “She volunteered, like you. She can un-volunteer, like you did.”
“She’s doing the right thing by you. You need to do the right thing by her.”
“All I did was suggest we meet after school. If I asked you the same thing, would you interpret that to mean I was interested in you?”
“That would be different.”
“Because we’re friends.”
I was touched Molly said that. But instead of letting her know, I stayed on point. “Emily was becoming a friend, too, so how is what I said to her wrong?”
“Like I said, by your asking her when she was trapped.”
“I didn’t trap her!”
“She’s in that tiny closet with you, all by herself. How could she not feel trapped?”
“Is that what she told you?”
“She told you I made her feel trapped.”
“She told me the situation made her feel trapped.”
“Which means I did.”
“I guess. Yeah, you made her feel like she had two choices. Either she walked out or she stayed but rejected you. No one likes to be put in that position.”
“She had a third choice,” I said: “‘Yes, let’s get away from this prison cell of a closet and talk.’”
“But she didn’t want to, so it wasn’t a real choice.”
“This is ridiculous. If I’d said, ‘Wanna sleep together?’ maybe, just maybe, I could see your point.”
“No need to be crude,” Molly snapped. But she didn’t hang up.
My rhetorical point made, I said, “It wasn’t as if I was trying to hurt her. Couldn’t she just as easily have been pleased that I thought of her as more than a reader?”
“You can’t put people on the spot, that’s all.”
Because Molly felt so strongly about what she said, I had to take seriously the possibility that I’d created a bad situation. But to concede even this much would be to deny my own feelings. I thought I’d been brave to broach the idea with Emily.
A popular question of the day was whether men and women were fundamentally different, one of those annoying either/or, “nature versus nurture” imponderables. Other than physiological differences, I’d long believed we were all human beings. The differences were between people, not between men and women. But Molly’s harangue gave me a glimmer of how men might be different from women, or at least boys from girls. If Emily’s and my situations had been reversed, I doubted I would have felt as she had. I’d have felt flattered.
Then I thought about it some more. If I were working for a girl from an impulse of sympathy and without any feeling of attraction, and then she tried to take it beyond that… Well, I’d find that awkward, wouldn’t I?
I hated to think Emily was reading for me out of sympathy. But why else would someone like her volunteer as a reader? Besides, sympathy was an emotion that reflected a person’s better side. It was up to me to transform myself into more than just someone in an obvious need of assistance.
But what mattered right then was whether Emily and I could get past the awkwardness. I liked her. I respected her. And she was a good reader.
Meanwhile, as she’d done after the Camus fiasco, Molly stopped speaking to me.
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