Each contact with a human being is so rare, so precious, one should preserve it.
– Anais Nin
Sipping the straw from a tall cup of A&W root beer, she leaned across the front seat to flip Silk Degrees to side two. With her narrow, tanned arm extended, and frizzy blond hair tinseled by filtered Westwood sun, the Beetle’s Pioneer car stereo speakers cranked out the perky bass line of the first measures of “Lowdown.” Reclining back into the cozy confines of the German jalopy, she accepted his offer of more French fries.
“You know, Darin, people are bound to be talking about us by now,” she said with a conspiring grin.
“Let ‘em. I know what we have, what we mean to each other.” Scarfing, then swallowing, the last remnants of a cheeseburger, he added, “Personally, I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he lied for the thousandth time.
Mollie grasped his hands, having to navigate her soft fingers around the cumbersome gearshift to do so; his compliance, expected. They’d been facing forward at the lot’s embankment, shaded by sycamores, until the motion of sideways set a course from the periphery to a meeting of the eyes. Not soon after, as was always the case, she leaned into him and kissed him quietly on lips, ketchup previously brushed away to avoid an unwanted blotch here or there.
Pulling back, gazing deeply into his hazel pools, she proclaimed, “You’re the best. Not sure how I would’ve got through this year without you.”
“You would’ve. Really. You’ve got plenty of friends.” Inwardly, after more than a year, he could control the wanting. Once you recognize and accept the futility; a bright mind, a pretty face and a soul guided by wanderlust have their own path to travel, the overwhelming stretches of land without you.
“You wear humility well, babe, but they’re chicks. You’re my go-to-guy. And, I need you now. He . . . he’s been doing it again. Really bad this time.”
“Oh, Mollie, I’m sorry.” His cue: her downcast eyes, a hint of a blush, her reaching for a Kleenex from her macramé bag. “I’m here. Talk to me.”
One early Spring evening of 1976, high up in Benedict Canyon, notorious for the Manson murders, party host, Cliff Belcher, proposed a “Bong-a-Thon,” with the victor earning not only bragging rights but two front row center seats to an upcoming concert of their choice. And yes, his daddy was in the biz and could get anything with a call out to his secretary. The canyon parties of Benedict, Beverly Glen, Coldwater, and Bel Air were infamous for acts of gallantry, or stupidity, depending on one’s perspective. Exclusive invitation earned the invitee warm kegs, powdery lines sniffed in through a twenty, ludes, acid, barbies, PCP, the no-host bar, and bongs, pipes and joints as prevalent as the coyote howls in the sad, empty distance.
Mollie huddled on the mahogany brown leather couch with her closest friends, Dana and Sherry, observing the participants clumsily inking their names to a sign-up sheet on the antique dining table. Names were drawn randomly to form the competitors. The rules were simple: take turns hitting from the bong, hold it in for ten seconds, and whoever passed out first was through. What was left of the winner would continue on to the next round.
“Did any of you read Archie comics growing up? Darin asked Mollie, Dana, and Sherry, having made his way over from the Pong machine.
“That’s a random question,” sneered Dana, glancing away.
“Hey, Darin,” said Mollie, who was holding her drink of choice: rum and coke.
As Sherry stirred her Jack and coke with her finger, staring disinterestedly at the bong throng, Dana remarked, “While you were reading comics, Darin, girls were already asking boys out. You see, chicks are always a step ahead of guys. It’s not your fault, really. It’s nature.”
“As natural as you balling a coll—”
“Mollie! That’s no one’s biz but ours.”
“Sorry, Dana, must be the ludes you slipped into my drink.”
“My ass.” Darin grappled with images of Doris Day and Brian Keith in the film With Six You Get Eggroll; as it pertained to court and sparking Mollie, it also meant courting and sparking Dana.
“I was into Peanuts. Something about Peppermint Patty. She was my girl. A bit of an outsider. Scratchy voice. Not as pretty as Lucy and Violet, even Sally. But she was seeking. What? What do I know? They were lines in a series of panels.” Mollie had momentarily captured the attention of her friends. The boy supposedly named after the Mack the Knife guy was right there in front of them hitting on their girl.
“I get it, Mollie. That’s the deal with art. Film, TV, books, paintings. When you see yourself in it, you gain more awareness. I learn more about myself from a Jackson Browne lyric than staring at the mirror pathetically trying to shave.”
As Mollie and Sherry joined Darin’s laughter, drinks were sipped, and Dana glared as if a prized possession was being auctioned at Sotheby’s.
Screams of exhilaration and disappointment nearly replaced the studs in the two-by-fours in the walls. The first winner had been declared.
“Girls,” Dana intoned, “how about kicking back by the pool.” A declaration, not a question.
After an awkward press of the pause button, Mollie stood, hugged Darin, whispering, “Let’s talk again, and less about comics.”
“Gnarly-assed round, brothers!” sung in slurred cacophony by Cliff, patting the back of the survivor, who swayed uneasily, coughing up a phlegm-less gag.
“He digs you, Mol,” teased Sherry.
“Too sensitive, honey. You’ll only break his heart,” asserted Dana, rearranging chaise lounges with the others, as chicken fights raged, water splashing from all directions.
Led Zeppelin reverberated not just out on the pool’s deck, but off into the vast slopes and rugged hills, serenading bay, laurel and California oak. “Dana, what makes you think I can’t branch out, away from guys I’m usually into?”
“Yeah, Dana, you claim Wyatt’s yours, but I don’t see you with the guy under your thumb,” noted Sherry.
Seated on thick comfy pads, Dana in the middle, she replied curtly, “And you don’t see what I don’t show you.”
“Whoa. We’re not about keeping secrets. We’re Carly’s girls. We have no secrets.” Usually mellow, Sherry’s temperature was rising.
Dana responded with barely a flinch: “She also said sometimes I wish, often I wish, that I never knew some of those secrets of yours. Doesn’t it make sense that we each have stuff that only we know about?” Mollie chose that moment to catch her friend’s eyes.
“Like doing a college guy? I mean, Dana, he’s frat. They sleep around. Is that what you need? You’ve got such a big heart. How do you know he isn’t with some sorority queen right this sec? You’re okay with that?” Mollie was feeling the ludes and her drinks kicking in.
“I’m not okay with that, but I accept it. I know that when we hang out, he wants me. He’s hot, loaded, and his father has the jet. I’ve invited you guys. When are you going to bring someone so we can fly to Vegas or Mammoth and party? Mollie, maybe you can ask Archie comics guy instead of him?” She directed a backwards thumb to the blitzed booming bombast by the kitchen.
After first, the rolling eyeballs, followed by the pointed middle finger, Mollie excused herself to use the bathroom. At the foot of the staircase, sitting side by side were Darin and Gracie, the girl known for being in the cyclone of drama that would put Pattie Boyd to shame. Observing them from behind the baby grand, they held hands without touching, reached understanding without nodding, were best friends without ever spending much time together. Moments later, Gracie rose, Mollie hid behind the wall, waited then approached with head down.
“Mollie. Hey. You okay? Tell me you’re not smashed like the rest of these bozos.”
“Just a little. Sorry. I was . . . preoccupied.”
“Yeah? Talk to me?”
She smiled coyly.
“Last night he just came at me. It wasn’t anything I said or did. And I just took it. Like I always do. You’ve suggested before that I need to break the cycle. I’ve tried. But when it begins, it’s like this flood of water weighs me down, my arms can’t move, the wall presses into my back. Darin, the way I step away from it all, I might as well be watching a movie.”
What she loved most about him was he didn’t respond the way other guys had in the past: “I’ll kick his ass for you,” “I’ll take care of it,” action being the obvious option. No, Darin listened. Sentences carried no agenda. Questions opened her heart to determine her own course ahead. When it didn’t work, as was the case with Cliff once again, they’d revisit it and throw more spaghetti against the wall.
“If you want, I’ll ask a few other sensitive, mushy buds of mine and we’ll go kick his ass this side of tomorrow.”
Another plus was Mollie’s self-effacing laughter, like the ringing bell we all rang on our childhood bicycle’s handlebars. Yanking on the side lever again, her seat folded back into its most horizontal position. “We’re All Alone” left them momentarily alone in their thoughts. “Request?” he asked.
Opening the glove box, Darin knew most of her car collection by heart. The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys was a shared favorite. Winwood’s vocals had crossover appeal to both sexes. The title song, matching eleven-plus minutes of length with a sultry, moody homage to Dylan symbolism, often stood in as transition between burger and back to the real world as it did this day.
Shifting to face her, noticing her lengthy frame covered in blue jeans and a turquoise work shirt, he asked, “Linguini or penne?”
“Okay, here’s one.” He pretended to throw a handful against the VW’s windshield. “You’re a fairy princess.”
“Never gonna happen.”
“Right,” he smiled, “in a forest. One of your magic powers is that you’re able to wave your trusty wand and sprinkle the twinkly dust and have anything you want. For you, for others, for all the creatures in the realm.”
“And I choose the poisoned apple . . . time and again.”
“Not sure if ‘choose’ is the right word. Sure, our faculty can be convincing that we are the masters of our universes, but crap does happen. Did I have any say when in fourth grade Sandy Balser stole my Schwinn from the bike rack, ending up totaling it when he hit a chunk of concrete, body flying end over end? How about last year during driver’s training, when, behind the wheel, I was faced with two squirrels dashing across a bend on Sunset to meet their inevitable grizzly doom beneath the car’s wheels? Did I ask for the piano movers to lose their grip on our antique Korean piano, its outcry of dissonant chords, splintering wood, slithering down the stairway like a burlesque star gone terribly wrong? Do you choose him? NO. Do you allow him to control you? NO. Is there a way out? There is always more than one possibility.”
“Let me guess, babe, you’re not going to tell me how.”
“That’s what the magic wand is for, not-Sleeping Beauty.”
“Darin, it’s just that I’m so damn tired of fighting. Giving in is easiest. Walking away isn’t an option. He’s made that clear. And you know my friends love me, but they have their own shit. Don’t you ever have problems of your own? Why are we always talking about me?”
He didn’t want to reveal that just being next to her was a resolution to the smallest of problems he ever had. Moving through teenage life with his head down, and his smile up, Darin was Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.” To ask someone experiencing abuse, someone who was still weighing whether she invited it or she, in fact, was a victim only further advanced his position. Being there for Mollie was being there for him; this was the most important friendship he’d had.
Mollie’s eyes closed briefly, mesmerized by the solos in the song, thinking about the penne, the wand, and the way out through the dense forest. Whether she sensed his furtive glances, always above her chest, at least Darin could allow himself the pleasure of tracing in his mind her bedazzling hair; as if the ringlets were rays emitting from his own immediate sun.
“What are you thinking, Mack?”
The song nickname never grew old. “That I love you. Unsinkable.” His name for her was better, as instead of a Three Penny Opera song from the late 1920s, hers was a Titanic survivor.
“I know you do.”
Crazy. Stupid. Stop. His mantra to remind him of the tacit understanding they shared as far as crossing any lines in the shape of a heart.
Dammit. I can say it once, can’t I? Her instinct was more palpable; and with that, she repositioned herself, offered a guarded smile as he gathered up the discarded wrappers and cups, then the engine turned over and vibrated with rattling chains on the verge of stalling out.
At the gate they ran into various friends. Being a non-event, no one teased them. Shakespearean tragedy had no place. Truth was truth. Best to know your place, move on in and curl up with a good book.
And so, he did.
And did so after graduation, the few times after, and eventually into a cordoned-off area where the corners of memory find solace in surrender.
None of us is prepared for the Western Union telegraph man on the bicycle, the hooded figure with a scythe, the folded flag, the devil at the door. A few weeks ago, Darin received word that she was gone. Like so many countless friends over the years, they’d lost touch. Fully aware of her years-long health struggles, and knowing how dedicated she was to the fight, the news hit hard.
In this age of texting, he was one of the lucky ones: He was informed by Sherry, who, as it fell to him, needed his consolation as much as he needed to offer it. Forty years on, the pattern was still there: Helping others in whatever way they needed, helped him. Turns out Sherry validated what Darin intuited during those A&W afternoons: Mollie had been running all her life. Running from her past. Running from where she landed. Running beyond where she went. In this context, it followed that she could never fall in love with a young man who would have offered her stability and unconditional love.
Darin, too, had been running, though in a different way. Waking up alone each morning, missing out on having a best friend for life and children together, he often wondered if his penchant for such an outwardly caring comportment—what some might conceive as a selfish, evasive tactic—undermined his willingness to open his heart to love. At the finish line there was only a phone call and the flickering of fleeting memories. We always have them, but they’re overrated.
Don’t tell Darin “You can always go back anytime.” Being there when it happened is what we lose. We lose touch, for whatever reason. And losing touch hurts to a power of two, when you never got together to love and hurt as lovers in the first place.
Dedicated to KFF.