In high school, we knew even as we were living through them that we’d look back on our social lives as a series of soap operas. That’s what I discover from the section quoted this week from the journal I kept at the time.
In this excerpt from my unpublished high school memoir, several characters from previous installments come back for more. Molly appeared in two episodes: one where she reluctantly encouraged me into the date from hell, and another where she showed surprise when I gave a class presentation.
Perry was the guy in the first episode who forgot to get a birthday card for the girl he was seeing, and Priscilla was the girl who tried to reassure him. She’d also tried in vain to help me look on the bright side of the date from hell. In both cases, Doug was choreographer and driver.
As the first episode explained, we were involved with a clique of academic high-performers that unimaginatively called itself “The Group.” Scott, who makes his first appearance in these excerpts, was at The Group’s heart, in more than one sense.
Mr. Munro was the teacher who lined his classroom’s front row of desks with shapely-legged girls and taught the Transcendentalists.
I’ll reiterate that names are changed, along with some personal details.
I’d suspected Molly was interested in Scott, but I was still surprised when I heard the rumor. It was hard to think of her as other than a sometimes-combative friend and former reader.
That Scott was the object of girls’ interest wasn’t news. They flocked to him. A Group fixture, he was an outgoing, energetic guy who gave every impression of going on to a successful career. Guys liked him, too. Doug told me he considered him his best friend. To my mind, Scott was shallow, a devastating high school verdict that I had a horrible feeling said more about me than him.
Then I heard Priscilla was also interested in him. That was an even bigger surprise than the rumor about Molly. Doug and Priscilla had ceased to be an item. Even though Doug and I spoke every day and he seemed to hold nothing back, I had no real sense how the end had come about. At parties Priscilla and he still talked and laughed together and seemed completely at ease.
On the phone one evening, I took advantage of something Molly said to get at the truth. “Speaking of Scott, there’s a rumor going around that you’re interested in him.”
“You’ve got to be kidding. No way I’d be part of his harem—anyone’s harem. The whole thing’s a farce. He isn’t worth it.”
When Molly said he wasn’t “worth it,” I believed the rumor.
Three days later, she called me. “I still love him, but I absolutely won’t chase after him. I don’t want to be like Priscilla.”
“What do you mean?”
“The three of us went to this diner the other night—”
“I know. So anyway, Priscilla got all upset and told him things weren’t supposed to be like this.”
“I bet you all think the same thing.”
“Sure. But Priscilla would be the one hurt the most if Scott rejected her. Her whole life revolves around him. She can’t talk about anything else.”
“Really? I think of Priscilla as—I don’t know—self-sufficient.” She’d always been the one to make others feel better, like Perry when he forgot the birthday card and me after my date with Gretchen. It was hard to think of her in such need.
“She keeps a lot bottled up, especially around guys.”
Priscilla sounded uncharacteristically bitter when I spoke to her, also on the phone. “Oh, Molly’s interested all right. She acted like she was just being friendly at that diner, but she was competing with me for the honor of being the most knowledgeable about him.”
“You know, about his plans for school, his vacation last summer, his cousin in Memphis—someplace like that.”
“Molly has a good memory,” I said, “and she’s curious about everyone.”
“I know, but…”
I finished her thought. “But she was there with you at the diner, and why else would that be.”
I wrote in my journal:
I recognize it sounds like a soap opera. If this were published in later life, everyone concerned would be embarrassed. Yet here we are in high school. We treat the present as if it were all-important because we cannot be certain about the future. Our diversion is the present, and it is definitely diverting.
I was flattered that girls trusted me enough to confide in me. Except sometimes I felt like an Ottoman sultan’s eunuch spy. Of course, what I endured was nothing like what those poor spies did. They must have asked themselves, why did they de-ball me when there was nothing wrong with me and I’d done nothing wrong? Unless they were so loyal that they embraced their role in service to the Sultan. I supposed, though I wasn’t sure, that castration at least spared them from sexual desire. I fantasized about some magical way, other than castration, to erase desire and spare myself all my stupid agonizing over girls.
It hardly took a rocket scientist, or psychologist for that matter, to see that our soap operas were an elaborate choreography around sex. In the old days, the ones we read about in history books as if they’d occurred on another planet, people our age were already married and girls were bearing children. Instead of getting at what we might really be after, we talked about feelings, loyalty, fairness.
Once in a while, we broached the subject a little more directly, meaning with excruciating clumsiness. Priscilla’s preference not to wear a bra became a topic of Group interest.
“I find them—I don’t know—too restricting,” she told Perry and me when we were off in a corner at a party. “I mean,” she continued, “I’ll wear one if it saves me from getting into trouble, like having some stupid teacher say something or, you know…”
“I do know,” I said. “I can see Munro insinuating it into class discussion and making you talk about it.”
And how, I asked myself, would that be different from what Perry and I, as well as Priscilla, were doing? His being an old gasbag?
It was annoying to think that even talk about an article of clothing could laser my imagination straight to a woman’s body. What could be stupider! I imagined a serious-minded girl like Priscilla looking at her chest in a mirror and saying to herself, all that fuss over these? Meanwhile, here we were, Perry and I, no more able to climb above our basest instincts than a pair of rodents.
Priscilla acted matter-of-fact. Did she realize that talk about bras did this to guys? Could such an intelligent girl be so naïve that she didn’t? Or did she realize but didn’t care? In her understated, intellectual way, did she care and was secretly gratified?
All the rules about sex were window dressing for two extremes. If a girl liked you in a certain way, your interest was welcome. If she didn’t, you were the dregs. At that party, Perry and I were walking the perimeter of acceptability. One step inside that boundary, and we would be condemned as perverts. Worse, we would have felt the justice of it.
Morality, it turned out, was all about what girls thought of you. So much for those Transcendentalists.
I don’t wish to create a false sense of anticipation. My high school memoir doesn’t report how the war over Scott concluded, and I don’t remember. I’m pretty sure Molly and he didn’t end up going out together, but I can’t recall what happened with Priscilla and him.
There was actually a third girl at that diner meeting, but my high school memoir already has lots of participants. One more, and readers might give up in confusion and despair. But come to think of it, that third girl might have been the winner, at least for a few days or weeks.
To read all my memoir excerpts to date, along with other recent posts, please go to the blog page of my website here.