Molly has appeared several times in these excerpts from my unpublished Darien High School memoir, but always in a minor role. Now here she is in some of her complexity.
The three other recurring characters are Theresa, Priscilla and Scott. Unknown to my high school friends, Theresa had been my girlfriend for nearly a year, but as told in “I’ll Follow the Sun,” that relationship was over. Priscilla has come up in more than one episode as consoler, such as after my date from hell. In last week’s episode, “Soap Operas,” Priscilla and Molly were in competition for the favors of Scott, a guy at the heart of the clique we called The Group. That didn’t mean they stopped being friends.
Molly had been my most dependable reader our freshman and sophomore years. However, toward the end of sophomore year, she’d told me Camus’s The Stranger, which we’d been assigned in English, “embarrassed” her, and she couldn’t read it to me. On finding out that I’d mentioned her refusal to a mutual friend, she phoned to snap at me, “That was a betrayal,” and hung up. She didn’t speak to me for six months.
She never told me why the novel bothered her. I found someone else to record it, just in time for a class assignment. While reading it, I tried to figure out what had troubled Molly. There were some sensual passages, true, but they seemed pretty innocuous. Maybe it was the atheism of the main character, Meursault. Molly was Catholic, and pretty serious about it.
I was glad midway through junior year when, at long last, she stopped for a word with me between classes. After that, what had been a reading relationship evolved into friendship. We’d have sandwich lunches together amid the metal shelves of old and dusty books in the closet that the library had set aside for my readers and me. I felt comfortable with Molly because I didn’t think of her as either attractive or unattractive. Perhaps two years of reading together had created a form of incest taboo.
During one of our closet conversations, she said, “Morality isn’t simple, is it? I take Church teaching seriously, but sometimes I wonder.”
“About the teaching in general or something specific?” I asked.
“It doesn’t seem realistic to condemn premarital sex.”
That was obvious to me, but I knew it was a big step for Molly. I said, “I do think we’re too young to be having children.”
“Of course we’re too young, but sex doesn’t have to mean babies. Not anymore.”
I thought of the care Theresa and I had taken to ensure she didn’t get pregnant. I couldn’t tell Molly about that, so I just nodded.
“Except I think what bothers me isn’t what the Church says,” she continued, “but that if I ever have sex, it will make me too vulnerable. I’d get emotional, like my feelings were all jangled, and all those feelings would be tied up with the guy. I don’t want how I feel to depend on someone else.”
Was this about Scott?
I said, “You think the guy would deliberately hurt you?”
“Guys hurt girls all the time. I know they don’t always mean to, but it doesn’t matter—I worry I’d still come away wounded.”
“It’s funny how you can think in advance about being hurt but not feel able to defend against it.”
“You’re talking about intellect. I’m talking about emotions.”
I’d been accused of intellectualism before. To me, “intellectual” was the highest calling, one that I could only ever aspire to. But Darien High’s students put “intellectual” in the same category as spoiled food and unwashed hair. Knowing it made me cautious in how I discussed emotions, so I stayed quiet.
Molly continued. “I do wish the Church didn’t take such a hardline position.”
This was safer territory for me. “I’m lucky. Religion interests me a lot, but I don’t feel trapped in any one church’s doctrines.”
“I don’t feel trapped. I feel like I’m arguing with it. It’s like arguing with your mom or dad.” Then she turned the question on me. “Don’t you ever feel adrift?”
“All the time. But I doubt that signing up with this or that church would help.”
“It helps me.”
She said, “The Church need to work with kids to solve problems, not pretend that what has gone on forever has suddenly stopped.”
I valued Molly’s openness with me. So I resolved to be equally open with her.
In that spirit, I told her on the phone one day that I wasn’t sure about the sincerity of some of my friends. It was a time when I was feeling more than usually misunderstood.
“You’ve got great friends,” Molly said. “Why so cynical?”
“I do have great friends. But you know what I mean, right?”
“Not really. If anyone has a problem, it’s kind of up to you to help them overcome it, don’t you think? I mean, have you ever thought how you make things difficult?”
“Oh, you know, like how you’re so quiet at parties.”
I pictured myself sitting alone at a party, the epitome of futility.
“I can’t hear at parties. People with sight compensate in loud places by reading lips and gestures. Besides, I have nothing to say.”
“You! Of all people, you have nothing to say?”
I stewed over her criticism for several days before deciding she was right. The reasons for the limits of my friendships weren’t the fault of my friends. In addition to my difficulty in hearing in loud places, there was my inability to play vision-dependent games. On top of that was my preoccupation with books and other things that didn’t make for party talk. No one’s fault, or if anyone’s, mine.
I resolved to stop saying anything critical about friends. I was obsessed with honesty, but honesty didn’t require it. It required that I face up to my part in my problems. Fair or not, the only part I could do anything about was me.
But Molly was holding me to a double standard. On the phone a few weeks later, she said, “I don’t have anyone who thinks of me as her best friend. Most of the time I don’t care, but sometimes it hurts. Tonight, it hurts a lot. You understand, right? You’re the only person I can tell.”
Now who was questioning the sincerity of her friends! But I kept my sense of vindication to myself. Besides, her unhappiness put my own in perspective. I knew she was well liked, so if her friends were letting her down, it was at worst because they just weren’t thinking. The last thing they wanted was to neglect or otherwise hurt her. Same with my friends and me.
The immediate cause of Molly’s unhappiness was that her birthday was coming up the next Monday and it looked like none of the usual Group party hosts had remembered. She’d been working at so many jobs to earn money for college, like that ushering job for the senior play, that she’d had no time for parties.
I called Priscilla, ostensibly about something else, in order to get in a word about Molly’s birthday. She took the hint, and on Sunday, the night before Molly’s birthday, she hosted a party for her.
To read all my memoir excerpts to date, along with other recent posts, please go to the blog page of my website here.