The next day—the day before he walked the Shaman’s Highway—Jason sought out Molly in her usual haunt on the second floor of the Walter E. Langsam Library. The Langsam was the main library on the University of Cincinnati campus. This being the week prior to semester exams, it might have been packed with students cramming for their finals. But the warm weather was too tempting for many. The plaza and the grassy areas near the library overflowed with students who had decided to combine study with sunbathing.
Many of these student sunbathers were young women. As he approached the glass double doors to the library, Jason allowed himself a few glances at the sea of young female legs and exposed midriffs—many already showing the beginnings of a summer tan.
There were so many women out there in the world, and yet Molly was the one who seemed to have a hold on him; and at the same time it seemed that this emotional bond could destroy them both.
Jason did not seriously wonder if Molly would be among the sunbathers. That wasn’t her style. She was serious about school, serious about her grades, and she wouldn’t attempt to turn a study session into an afternoon of recreation.
Once inside, Jason bounded up the carpeted steps to the second floor of the library. He made a right turn down the wing where Molly’s favorite study cubicle was located. Sure enough, she was there, with her back turned to him, her shoulders and dark hair hunched over a textbook.
“Hey, Molly,” he said, maintaining a respectful distance. Two weeks ago she had been in his bed. He had touched her in the most intimate ways. But now, after all that had happened, it seemed necessary for him to maintain a formal space when addressing her.
She looked up, obviously recognizing the sound of his voice before she turned around.
“Hey,” she said.
Jason walked forward so that he could lean over the front of the cubicle as they spoke, so that she would not have to conduct their conversation turned around at an awkward angle. He could see her hard-set expression; and he knew immediately that this reconciliation—if that was what this was going to be—would be no simple matter.
“How have you been?” he asked.
“Fine. What do you want?”
“I just wanted to talk to you.”
“That’s funny. You haven’t wanted to talk to me for the past two weeks.”
Jason felt his frustration rising. Was she going to spar with him each time she spoke? He had made a mistake, he had treated her poorly; and his presence here was a de facto recognition of that wrong. There was no need for her to make matters worse than they already were, by spurning an obvious olive branch.
“Well, I’m here talking to you now,” he said. His experience with women had taught him that nothing could be served by groveling before them. They didn’t respect guys who begged and pleaded. Surely she would be able to see that he was sorry for the way he had treated her. He didn’t have to spell it out, did he?
“You’ve ignored me for the past two weeks, but you’re talking to me now. I’m honored, Jason. Really I am.” The sarcasm in her voice was raw and biting. Looking at Molly’s clenched face, her eyes drawn to narrow slits, Jason understood how badly he had wounded her.
Was there any chance that she would simply forget about it? Among his male friends, quarrels and minor transgressions could usually be smoothed over by simple and low-key gestures of reconciliation. Why did women have to be so damned complicated by comparison?
“That’s right,” he said. “I’m talking to you now, though, like we’ve both acknowledged. Look, it was never my intention to hurt your feelings. Hell, Molly, I like you a lot. You know that, I think.”
“I know that you liked me when I was your lunch and beer drinking buddy, Jason. And you liked me well enough to let me help you kill time and blow off some steam in your apartment that night two weeks ago. But you obviously didn’t like me well enough to acknowledge me after that, did you?”
“Molly, that isn’t it. I wanted to give you some space.”
“’Give me some space’? Wasn’t it pretty clear that I wanted to spend time with you—to be with you? Do you know how humiliating that was that day in the quadrangle, when we made eye contact and you simply turned and walked away? This whole thing about ‘space’: Are you saying that you want to be free to hook up with a different girl every Saturday night? Is that what you’re saying, Jason?”
“No, Molly, that’s not what I’m trying to say.”
“Well then, Jason, what are you trying to say? Are you saying that I entrapped you somehow? Is that what you think?”
“No,” Jason said. This single word of denial came out far more defensively than he had intended. It wasn’t a matter of Molly entrapping him. It was far more complicated than that. When a man allowed himself to fall in love, time and the momentum of circumstances had a way of conspiring against him. And then lots of people got hurt. Jason knew this well, having grown up and witnessed the farce of his father’s life. His father might have been a famous novelist—another Dan Brown or Stephen King. But instead he had gotten married and taken a mundane, soul-crushing job teaching high school history. That turn of events had killed his dream and sealed his fate. It had also brought misery on his wife and children.
There was no way that he could explain all this to Molly, though. Nor did he intend to try. It was a part of himself that he was more than a little ashamed of, and therefore defensive about. Molly would never understand, having come from a normal family of textbook high achievers.
If he told her the entire truth, whatever feelings she still had for him would instantly turn to disdain. On the other hand, if he told her nothing she would remain convinced that he was an insensitive jerk.
Neither option was exactly ideal. But he wasn’t going to give Molly a Lifetime movie version of his screwed up childhood. That simply wasn’t an option.
So instead he said: “I’ll let you get back to your studying, then.” This was an innocuous enough response; but the previous words exchanged between them gave it a subtext: To hell with you, then. And this, of course, was not what Jason intended. He didn’t know how to bridge the gap now—the gap between what he needed to reveal and what he was capable of revealing.
He turned and walked away, and Molly Russell resumed her studying.