Remember that time I wrote a book?
People ask me about it all the time, and more often than not, I don’t really want to talk about it. The fact is, I spent six years straight with this story, so by the time I finally chose to share it with the world, I was ready to put everything associated with it behind me, at least mentally. When you write a roman a clef based on the most difficult experience of your life, you want a little bit of separation when you can finally get it.
Anyway, May 12 feels like a good day to draw attention to the story, which I miss every once in a while. As most of you know, the main character Molly is 17-year-old me, and as great as it feels to no longer have to think about that period of my life anymore as I did while I was writing about it, sometimes I want to revisit the character, who Sami Gardner describes as “so earnestly eighteen as she tries to navigate those first torturous steps into adulthood. Donovan creates a sympathetic character in Molly who grounds the story. She feels like a real girl so you can’t help but root for her.” I get caught up in a lot of weirdness here in NYC, and while having a terminally ill parent in high school certainly isn’t normal, I’m nostalgic about my youth on occasion, as I only concerned myself with one thing at a time then, and that felt simple. There’s a great deal of innocence and naivete in “Molly” that is completely gone, so I reread certain passages of “The Wingmen” today, the 7-year anniversary of the death of the person I loved most in this world.
You can hear more about “The Wingmen” through my old podcast with Matt Lewis, who remains one of my biggest champions and cheerleaders for reasons I’ll never fully understand.
Here are some of the intro scenes in “The Wingmen,” if you’re so inclined to check it out:
April 27, 2006
From the doorway, I could see his pill bottle. The transparent orange tube, which should have been empty, was half-full and sealed shut on my father’s nightstand. I sighed, knowing he’d refuse to take cancer medication from his 17-year-old daughter. The last time I’d told him to swallow his pills, he accused me of conspiring against him with “the others” (our family members) and throwing him under the bus, an ultimate betrayal.
Stepping into my parents’ room, I called his name several times. It wasn’t until I started singing Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” that he jolted back to consciousness and acknowledged my presence.
“I want to wake up in that city that never sleeps,” he crooned, waiting for me to cut in and chant the rest of the lyrics.
And find I’m king of the hill, top of the heap. I longed to belt out the entire song, an incomparable homage to the place where he spent his college years and 20s, a tourist hotspot I desperately wanted to explore, but medicine time didn’t lend itself to jovial renditions of tunes about the greatest city in the world.
“Dad, you need your pills,” I said, picking up the container.
For a while, he merely stared in my direction, his cataracts making my skin crawl. His washed-out gaze reminded me of our late cat Cuddles, who had passed away from kidney failure a year earlier, so I tried to focus on another part of his body. I had no interest in stealing even a glimpse of his legs, which had shrunk to the size of chicken limbs. His cheekbones looked ready to poke through his jaundiced skin, which was sprinkled with brown liver spots resembling bruises. There was nothing good to see, so I reluctantly went back to his filmy eyes, both of which had been identical to my own just a month earlier.
“No,” he said.
A loose cannon, I lacked the patience for any kind of defiance. Was I going to have to pry open the lips of my own dad, who was 40 years my senior? Was I even capable of exerting such force and aggression on the person I loved most in the world? I wasn’t sure, but I did know he was beginning to frighten me.
“Please just listen to me, okay?” I begged, my heart rate through the roof. “If you don’t take these, you’ll die.”
“Good. I’m too exhausted to do anything,” he said.
“You can wash them down with water. It’ll be over before you know it and you can go back to bed.”
“Why are you so hard on me nowadays, Molly?” he asked. “You used to be on my side. I was your favorite person in this whole family. When did that change? What did I do to you?”
He couldn’t see it, but there were no “sides” and I wasn’t ganging up on him. Before I could explain that I simply wanted him to watch me get married someday (but not escort me down the aisle, as I found the tradition archaic and creepy), detect unfit romantic suitors, ask my future kids to be his wingmen before taking them to Baskin-Robbins as he’d done with me my entire life, and coach me through adulthood—his eyes shut. It was unclear whether he had fallen asleep or was putting on an act to scare me away, but he didn’t answer when I started pleading with him to stay awake.
“Great,” I mumbled, shaking his shoulders back and forth. When he wouldn’t budge, my panting intensified and several possible explanations came to mind. What if I’d waited too long to give him his meds? What if my biggest fear—that he would pass away in front of me—had finally become a reality?
Clutching my dad’s prescription bottle, I rushed to the kitchen to find my silver Samsung flip phone. Skimming my contact list, I wondered whether there was anyone I could call, other than my mother. She had meetings all day, and because I’d inherited her workaholic tendencies, I knew better than anyone did that she needed her professional life to escape from the bleakness of our home situation every once in a while. My 24-year-old brother Chase was accompanying his pregnant wife Amy to a doctor appointment. Somewhere in Newport Beach, his twin Chris was working tirelessly and running on no sleep. In Los Angeles, my rebellious 22-year-old sister Marissa was managing her new bohemian clothing store, which was taking longer to become a hit than she’d expected. For once, my siblings and parents couldn’t come to my rescue. It was all on me.
I need Jon, I thought, but resisted phoning my first love and ex-boyfriend for emergency advice. Chances were, he’d see an incoming call from me and hit the “Ignore” button. I didn’t have time for pettiness and lamented that he was among the few people I knew who could actually be of some help in that particular scenario. A seasoned camper with a love for all things outdoors, he could provide information on all sorts of remedies for sicknesses, wounds, and health conditions. But I didn’t dare reach out to him. He had been ignoring me for four months, long after he had learned of my dad’s diagnosis, and that wasn’t about to change. I may not have been an adult, but I knew one thing: fear and rejection are not a good combination.
After tossing my phone onto the blue couch, I charged back upstairs, naively hoping to return to a better situation than I’d left behind.
“She hoped to be wise and reasonable in time; but alas! Alas! She must confess to herself that she was not wise yet.” – Jane Austen, “Persuasion”
August 25, 2005
Scotts Valley, California
The first surprise that night was the humidity. There are many perks to my California hometown, among the best being its dryness, so I was perplexed by the suffocating heat sweeping across the Bay Area so late in the summer. I tried not to think about it as I waited outside my house for Jon, my boyfriend of seven months, to arrive.
It was actually our seven-month anniversary, which felt like an epic milestone, so I was a little surprised that he hadn’t said a word about it all day or responded to my late afternoon “happy seven-month anniversary” text message. Was it something I said? What did I do?, my 17-year-old self wondered, willing him to love me as much as I loved him, as usual.
Though we definitely had an unbalanced relationship, he’d always done nice things for me. During previous anniversaries, he’d showered me with roses, boxes of See’s chocolates, and dog-themed Hallmark cards that featured Pomeranians, as I had one of my own and loved her very much. With the exception of the flowers, I presented him with similar gifts and my famous chocolate chip cookies—the only thing I could bake. Given his flair for romantic gestures and ability to outdo himself pretty much every month, his tardiness and general unresponsiveness were out of character.
An hour earlier, Jon had asked whether he could come to the house. I’d said yes and ended our short exchange with “I love you,” my default response. Rather than reflexively say it back, he hung up the phone. Something wasn’t right.
When 9 o’clock rolled around and there was still no sign of Jon or his Prius, I began to pace my front porch, which was still damp from an unexpected afternoon downpour. The dark sky reminded me of my dad’s detailed explanation of the summer solstice sun cycle, which had been a major talking point in our household for as long as I could remember.
On June 21 of each year, my dad told us the story of summer solstice, and one of the things I never forgot was that nighttime begins a minute earlier every day after that. The early nightfall made me think about something else, too—that summer was ending.
Unlike most people about to start their final year of high school, I had no desire to be a senior. My boyfriend had just finished up at Scotts Valley High, making him my “high school sweetheart,” a title connoting a memorable chapter in life that inevitably ends, and often badly.
A driven young man with out-of-this-world ambition, my significant other had good reason to be excited for his future. Since birth, he’d wanted to attend Harvard and obtain a law degree. Before turning 18, Jon had acquired his pilot’s license, become a star wrestler and debate team champion, won chess championships, and become a junior wilderness guide. Each accomplishment, he said, would boost his chances of going to school in Massachusetts, his birthplace. He’d lived in Cambridge until Kindergarten, when he moved across the country with his father and stepmom. Though primarily raised in California, Jon felt pretty misplaced among laidback west coast residents, especially since he preferred Lacoste shirts and peacoats to the sandals and shorts look. That evening, I reflected on the first time he gushed about his Harvard dream, which governed his every move.
“I’ve wanted to be an Ivy Leaguer since I was this tall,” he’d said, lowering his hand down to his hips. “I remember saying it at age seven. I was sitting on the couch watching a movie when I promised myself I’d find my way back to Massachusetts. And I’ve wanted it for myself ever since.”
I was impressed by his drive, which drew me to him in the first place. After all, I dreamed of becoming a famous author, the “next J.K. Rowling,” so to speak. I doubted I could pull it off, as fantasy writing wasn’t my thing, but aimed high regardless. Jon appreciated that I wanted the world for myself. Even so, he’d recently used his own goals to distance himself from me, implying that our days together were numbered and that our relationship had always had an expiration date.
Luckily for him, his dreams were about to come true: he was just days away from leaving for Harvard. Though I’d hoped to maintain a long distance relationship, at least during his first few months in college, Jon wasn’t keen on this plan of action. He said what we had was never meant to last beyond his high school years. And because I was a year behind him, well, it sucked to be me.
I first noticed the headlights, but as the car drove past a few more homes, I recognized the curvy shape of Jon’s green Prius. Though I assumed he wasn’t paying attention to me, I smiled and waved as he parked in my driveway.
Jon put the engine to rest, but stayed in his seat a moment to end a phone call. Moments later, he stepped out of the vehicle without so much as a “hello.” I greeted him with a hug, curious as to why neither of us had said anything—and why he hadn’t shown up in his trademark North Face zip-up, boat shoes, or crimson scarf. It was super hot and all, but he never went anywhere without his preppy attire, not even in the summer.
Pushing past me, Jon climbed the steps of my porch. In our unusual silence, I heard my mom’s shrill, frantic voice coming from inside the house. She was worried about my severely ill brother Chase, who had gotten a bug on his trip to Brazil.
“Happy seven-month anniversary,” I said, forcing a grin.
“Yeah,” he replied with a swift move across the porch.
“I have an anniversary gift for you upstairs,” I said, alluding to the “Molly and Jon” photo album I’d spent several days putting together. “I’ll go get it.”
He sighed, briefly looking over his shoulder. “Want to sit outside for a few minutes?”
“Sure,” I replied, wounded.
Wrapping an arm around my bare neck, he walked me over to my mom’s bench. Once we were seated, Jon rested his head on my shoulder.
“So my brother, Chase contracted some kind of virus in Rio,” I said, hoping to ease the tension with normal conversation.
“That’s no good. It happens when you go to corrupt countries.”
I placed my hand on Jon’s leg, but he didn’t reach for me.
“I love you,” I whispered, hoping to kill the awkward vibes once and for all.
For the first time since I’d know him, Jon mirrored his stoic California motorcycle license mug shot. He didn’t smile or frown, but his blank expression was uninviting and indicative of terrible news. Sliding one hand out of his jean pocket, he rubbed the bottom of my chin. I never liked when people did that. I fought the urge to swat his hand away.
Jon leaned into my face, leading me to believe he was going to kiss my cheek. Instead, he went for my ear and began to speak in a hushed tone.
“We have to go our separate ways now.”
My heart sank. Grabbing his hand, I yanked him up from the bench with me.
“Now?” I asked. “You’re not leaving for Harvard for another two days.”
“It’s time,” he said, offering me a hug. Glancing over Jon’s shoulder, I spotted one of our neighbors shutting his car door. I wondered whether he’d overheard our exchange. Even if he hadn’t, the whole neighborhood would still learn of the breakup within 24 hours.
“Can I write to you?”
“That would be too painful for me,” he mumbled against my tangled, frizzy blond hair, which hadn’t yet adapted to the unexpected humidity.
“Yeah, right,” I whispered, fuming.
By the rehearsed nature of his line, I knew he’d repeated it to himself over and over again before showing up on my doorstep—perhaps even on the drive to my house, as many aspiring actors do before auditions.
“Look, I just want to be your friend,” I spat, equally guilty on the dishonesty front. “I don’t see why we can’t talk while you’re gone, if we keep it platonic.”
“That’s not the best way for you to move on.”
I swallowed. He glanced back at his Prius, which was still tingling from the 10-minute journey to my neighborhood.
“All right, see you later then,” I said, before Jon could tell me he had to get going.
He stared at me again, so I leaned in to kiss him goodbye. He returned the gesture for a few seconds, which I thought meant he hadn’t totally checked out of our relationship. That was the first of many wrong assumptions I’d make. Wanting our final encounter to last for memory’s sake, I intensified the kiss and pulled his hips up to my own. Once we’d moved beyond peck territory, Jon released my embrace.
“Enough. Goodbye, Molly.”
I entered the house shocked and unwilling to explain the details of the split to my overly curious mom and dad. Before either of them could corner me, I sprinted up our flight of stairs and ran into my unlit bedroom, shutting the door to the concerned shouts of my mother.
I slid to the floor with my back pressed against my bedroom door, weeping silently, hoping my parents would assume I was just moody from hosting the high school freshman orientation all day, and too drained to socialize. But sleep didn’t come easily that night, nor would it for most of my senior year.
Copyright © Laura Donovan 2013
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