i. faceless history
There had been other girls. Tall girls, girls with glasses, Indian girls, Asian girls, girls with freckles, girls who had spent weeknights in the library and weekends at house parties. There were girls who played guitar and girls who played lacrosse. Impolite girls and bitter girls and dumb girls—god, had there been some dumb girls. And pretty girls, too. Girls who wore shirts that skimmed the flat plane of their midriff, their abdomens hard and muscled, then sloped down at the chest and suggested teenage cleavage; girls with their ears pierced, girls who could wear jeans and a T-shirt and still look like magazine models. Girls who brushed through the curtain of their hair with an absentminded hand, and left them looking carelessly windswept.
The girls Adam had dated in college sampled a variety of archetypes. In Molly’s mind, they were less a group of individuals and more a faceless history: a ghostly mass of breasts and legs that had accumulated in their wake a series of semi-humorous memories, the hungry days of her husband’s boyish consumption. It did not bother her so much as make her curious, and perhaps laugh airily to diffuse the awkwardness.
Why, she tended to wonder, had he chosen her? Why did plain Molly Walcott from Hartford, Molly who had taken classical piano lessons, Molly who drew sketches of figures at their desks in the middle of class—why did she stand out? What made her different? She was not, she knew, exceptionally pretty, nor exceptionally smart, nor exceptionally… anything, for that matter. Average height, average family, average life.
Perhaps, she decided, that was what made her so remarkable: the fact that she was so un-remarkable. The mean, the median, the mode of his mistakes, made manifest: Molly Walcott. Standard.
That was a lie. The history of Adam’s romantic conquests was not without identity.
The memory of Cara began on the first week of freshman year, when she had moved in down the hall, and during an orientation meeting, Molly had watched her peel a plastic cup into shredded petals, a makeshift blossom. She had restless hands, artist’s hands: the kind of hands that could make things.
Later that week, Cara had appeared at her doorstep, Thursday evening, a towel wrapped around her torso. Droplets of shower water clung to her skin; the mascara had streaked slightly, like black watercolor, pooling around her eyes. The wet tendrils of her hair dripped.
If Molly looked surprised, Cara ignored it.
“Can I borrow your moisturizer?” she said.
That year, and every other year of their friendship, Molly was struck by how boundlessly interesting Cara was: how she had stories of Tokyo and Lisbon and Buenos Aires, how she seemed to exist timelessly and everywhere at once, a bony figure plucked lightly from time and space, the history she seemed to occupy. You could never be sure whether you’d see her, but when she was there, she made you know it: when she walked, it was like slow motion, the way the wind would touch her hair, how she pursed her lips over the words when she read in the library. It wasn’t that Cara was pretty, or smart, or nice. It was that she could be everything at once. It felt as though she had not been born, but materialized in the world fully-grown: Athena from the mind of Zeus. A perfect and contradictory storm. The kind of electricity you could never predict.
Adam was late coming home from work again. It was a February night, a Wednesday, and the snow was falling in flurries but the ground was too wet for any of it to stick, so the roads were coated in a grey slush. Molly was stirring the spaghetti Bolognese in the cast-iron pot Adam’s sister Genevieve had bought her for her birthday last year; his mother had bought her a apron from Williams and Sonoma. Molly had long stopped wondering why the gifts were so frequently culinary, when she had never expressed any desire in cooking; as though they, vague yet abundant in their generosity, defaulted to a domestic sphere, and without saying so, pushed her further inside: Mrs. Molly Kauffman, wife. After ten years of marriage, Molly had accumulated drawers full of kitchen appliances, tools. Still, the dish she made most frequently remained spaghetti Bolognese.
Years ago, when they’d first graduated college, Cara had gifted her a personally annotated volume of A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. I’ll like you always, she’d written. Happy birthday. They hadn’t spoken for months. The package was a surprise in her mailbox. Molly hadn’t heard from her since.
The door opened, and Adam, his hair tousled somewhat, appeared. His tailored suit jacket was slightly askew.
“Hey,” he said, and kissed her on the cheek, the musk of him clouding her. He glanced at the stove. “Spaghetti, huh?“
She averted her gaze from the red sauce, simmering; the steam felt like acute pinpricks against her cheeks. “Mhm,” she said, and then, as a footnote, “I was really busy today.“
“Oh.” Adam craned his neck over her shoulder, toward the living room. “Kids back from practice yet?“
“Yeah, they’re upstairs in the bath."
”'Kay,“ he said, and turned away, began walking toward the staircase. When he turned, Molly thought he smelled a little bit different. Almost like perfume.
ii. one day i’ll love you
Dhruv had helped her unload the essentials—a desk lamp, a drying rack, her bedding—from the Datsun into the freshman quad. The four hours in the car had been tense and weird in a way it never had been with Dhruv, not in all the five years she’d known him. Her thighs had stuck to the vinyl seats, the old radio crackling as they crossed state borders.
Last week he’d said one day I’ll love you, Car and then tried to kiss her, and she turned her head and apologized, because that’s what she was best at these days, saying sorry. Something had severed between them, a kind of understanding cracked open, the yolk of it gushing, searing. Painful.
—You’re gonna do great here, he said, and smiled, kind of, his tongue pressing the gap between his teeth.
She pretended not to see the expectant look on his face. When he left, the door had rattled, and then clicked.
He had left a plastic cup of water on her desk. She picked it up, then almost threw it away. Almost.
That kid next door was a piece of work. He blasted shitty rock at top fucking volume, even at 3 a.m. when Cara was trying to read. He acted like he was the most important person on campus. Like even the sun orbited around him.
She turned a page, scratched her nose. Ugh, god. Her skin was so dry.
—…and he’s got a sister, Genevieve. She paints miniatures. Cara?
Cara glanced up. —Shit, I’m sorry, Moll.
—You get distracted so easily. Molly had left a pink ring of lipstick around the mouth of her mug.
—I know. I’m sorry. I’m just so busy. Her paper on natural imagery in Romantic poetry was due Thursday.
—It’s fine. I know you’re busy.
—I’m stunned you like me at my most insufferable, she deadpanned.
Molly looked bemused. —Car. I’ll like you even if you grow an arm and get a mohawk. I like you always.
I like you always
one day I’ll—
—Well, your new boyfriend sounds great. I can’t wait to meet him.
—Yeah. He lives down the hall, actually.
—No shit. How come I’ve never met him?
Molly laughed. —Because you don’t know anyone in our hall.
—That’s not true!
—Anyway. I was thinking we could all get dinner sometime next week. Maybe after your paper’s due?
—That would be great. Cara smiled. What’s his name again?
Two in the morning. The late hours of Thursday. Or—she checked the clock—early Friday. She banged on the door, dull thuds barely permeating the bass that shook the walls, her fist sore and ineffectual.
Finally, it opened. He looked sweaty, his dark hair matted to his forehead, his eyes glazed. He stepped outside and closed the door.
—It’s three in the fucking morning, she said over the bass.
—I’m aware, he said, and smiled—boyishly, she thought, his teeth forced into alignment by years’ and dollars’ worth of orthodontia.
—I’m trying to read.
—Sorry about that.
—You should be sorry. Wanna know why? I’ll enlighten you. You should be sorry that your taste in music died in ‘88 with the relevance of metal rock. You should be sorry that you are steadily depleting your own hearing ability with knock-off subwoofers that were, I should inform you, not intended for literal 24/7 use. But most of all, you should be sorry that your privilege and sheer fucking egotism blind you completely to the fact that you are nothing but an entitled, Grade A, asshole.
She realized at this point that she had been yelling. She hadn’t stopped to draw a breath. He was remarkably quiet.
And then he held out his hand. —I’m Adam.
She stammered. —S-so?
—So… He looked around, as if to check whether anyone was listening. —Are you coming in, or what?
6:30 am. She extricated herself from under the weight of his arm, her skin clammy, then went to the bathroom. Her skin smelled like him. It had been dark and they were both flushed and he had pressed himself against her, his chapped lips, his warm hands pressing into her.
Sitting on the toilet, she noticed the parallel lines of her thighs, negative space.
There was a chance that this wasn’t Molly’s Adam, that this was some other Adam who lived in their hall. There were bound to be other boys called Adam.
But staring at herself in the mirror, the smeared eyeliner, those sad eyes, the bruises that he’d sucked into her neck, she knew what she had done. Another thing broken. Another irrevocable severing, a ruining. The worst version of herself.
Because…why? Because he’d made her feel wanted? Because she felt like a thing desired, and his eyes trailed over her when she had taken his hand, and this was new, and it was nice, and so she’d given in. She imagined Molly in his bed, the soft curve of her against him, the fact that she’d been here too, had seen this before, had maybe even stared at this mirror at this time in the morning.
one day I’ll love you
There was nothing special about this. About her. This life was never hers. She was only ever borrowing it.