The last two slivers of ice in the cup of ginger ale are melting, and Molly does not know what she will look at once they are gone. In the middle seat on the airplane, she studies the arms of the travelers next to her instead. On her right, a white button-down sleeve, hairy knuckles, and a wedding band. On her left, a pilling cheetah print cardigan with gaudy bangles crowding a gold watch. As she listens to the ambient roar of bodies breathing inside this airborne waiting room, she wonders how many people are going home, and how many people are going somewhere else, like her. She crushes her napkin in her fist like a worry stone, and remembers how, years ago, Julianne went out of town for a week, and said they could help themselves to whatever they found in the fridge. An open invitation, Molly thought, not a simple courtesy. Julianne was the pastor at the church where Seth worked, and she went on a pilgrimage in Portugal. On her kitchen table, she’d left handwritten instructions regarding care and feeding for her dog, when to mow the lawn, and to “eat whatever you want” with a smiley face. But on that first night as she started dinner, Molly had second thoughts. While it seemed a waste to not use the wilting bundle of kale in the crisper, the fresh chunk of Parmesan wrapped in wax paper may have been too far a reach. After all, the Parmesan could last until Julianne returned from the pilgrimage to Portugal the following week. Did Molly really have the right to take the cheese? She was the kind of person who stood in the requisite fancy cheese aisle in every grocery store, glancing over the labels and comparing the price per ounce for a lump of brie or goat’s milk, before choosing a generic pre-sliced medium-sharp cheddar instead. She thought that people like her, who lived off tips from $12 entrees, weren’t allowed to splurge on fancy cheese. But Julianne had said what she said, so Molly fished the grater out of the back of the cabinet, unfolded the wax from the Parmesan, and watched the cheese disappear.
Later, after their week of housesitting, she asked Seth: “Was it really okay for me to use the cheese? Did Julianne ever say anything about it to you?”
It’s been years since this moment, but Molly is almost sure that Seth put his hand over hers and said, “No one worries about cheese as much as you do.” If not, he must have made the joke when she presented the impromptu pasta dish to him and wondered out loud if the hefty amount of Parmesan had made the dish too salty. This dinner was like most dinners for her: resourceful, made on the fly with whatever she had in front of her. The pseudo-Bolognese was made from some German sausage links and a few frozen hamburger patties she’d defrosted in the microwave, along with a plain jar of pasta sauce, fistfuls of sloppily chopped wilting kale, as many cloves of garlic as she could stand to dice, and the mountain of fresh Parmesan. Maybe she could have learned how to make pasta sauce from scratch if she’d actually bothered to ask questions at the café where she worked all those years, those same years when she and Seth were in love and he made fun of her for thinking too much about cheese but still said she was a good cook and an even better singer, and they both tried so hard to live the kind of lives they wanted to live.
She and Seth had met through their friend Mark, who they both sort of disliked because he had the confidence of someone with rich parents who doesn’t realize that’s where his confidence comes from, but who was also annoyingly talented. Mark and Seth were both graduate students at the prestigious music program in their city, studying composition and conducting. For his thesis, Mark wrote an hour-long choral production inspired by the landing at Plymouth Rock, and Molly landed the major soprano solo, a soaring leitmotif that came and went. Seth happened to be in the audience the night it premiered. Mark had already sweated through his dress shirt when he introduced them to each other, and said distractedly, “You two should talk, you both do music things,” before running to find his thesis advisor.
They both did music things, but mostly what they liked was shit-talking and arguing about music. When they went to a bar later, Molly admitted she didn’t like the lyrics in her solo.
“Aloft with the wind, here we search, here we strive, here we build a home,” she intoned. “What does the wind have to do with anything?”
Seth shrugged, “I didn’t hear that part.”
“Hearing is your entire job.” Molly sipped her whiskey and ginger. “You’re bad at your job.”
“I mean I heard the notes, because the notes are the important part,” Seth insisted. “I didn’t hear the words. I don’t care about lyrics.”
“So when you write songs for a choir, everyone only says –” She threw back her head and sang a series of ahhs in a way she thought was funny, but she couldn’t tell if Seth was trying not to laugh because she had made a good point, or if Seth was trying not to laugh because she was embarrassing him. Molly didn’t care very much about choral music anyway; she only sang for Mark as a favor. She’d been working the theater scene for years, landing plays from time to time, but mostly musicals, trying to work her way up to a regional touring production. She liked the small yet robust theater scene here, she told him, and being a big fish. She said this, even though she’d taken plenty of unpaid community theater roles, just to say she’d been Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, even if their nightly audience barely tipped 70 people.
“With a face like this, the only acting I could ever do was theater,” Molly said over their second round of drinks. When Seth asked what she meant, she pointed at her nose.
“You’ve got a Franz Liszt nose!” Seth proclaimed.
“Excuse me?” Molly was ready to fight for the honor of her nose. Only she was allowed to say it was too big.
“The concert pianist,” Seth said. “He was a seventeenth century classical music sex symbol! The first pianist to perform in profile. The front rows were filled with women losing their shit over his nose.”
Molly bought him another drink for that compliment alone, even though she had to work the Saturday morning brunch rush in a matter of hours.
“I thought about going to New York after college,” Molly said. “I even went there on spring break with my roommate, and we talked about what it would be like. We’d split one of those ratty apartments with three other people, and we’d still be so broke, and we’d never get the parts we wanted even though we auditioned hundreds of times. And I just thought, why bother? There are lots of ways to act and perform and lead an artistic life, you know? Theater doesn’t just happen in New York.” She took another sip of her drink. “Plus, I hated it. New York.”
“I have to tell you something,” Seth said, his face grave. “I hate musicals.”
This did not surprise her even a little. “Of course, because you hate words. You probably hate anything with a plot. Or joy. Or people.”
“No, I like people,” he said. “But I also hate New York. Does that help?”
Seth liked people so much, he had taken a gig as the assistant choir director at Gathering Presbyterian, a large suburban church known for its affluent, elderly, and strangely left-leaning congregation. It didn’t pay much, but it was exactly the kind of job he wanted, and he led their thirty-person choir, mostly white-haired retirees, through their biweekly rehearsals and Sunday performances. If he could do worship music for the rest of his life, he said, he would be happy. If he minded that Molly was agnostic, he never said so.
After a couple months of dating, Molly showed up for one of the Sunday services, sitting awkwardly in the middle so she could get a good look at Seth while he conducted the music. Though her mother had half-heartedly taken her to Sunday school growing up, religion had never stuck. But the worship music Seth helped select, his arrangements and conducting choices, and the choir’s tired voices growing stronger, reduced her to tears in minutes, forcing her to dab at her face with the back of her hands and avoid eye contact with those around her.
This was when she first saw Julianne, who stood up at the pulpit and spoke in a dreamy way that suggested she was still thinking about what she wanted to say as she said it. She kept pushing her pale blonde hair behind her ears like a middle schooler, though she had to be close to forty. When she sang a few lines of the refrain from the choir’s first song, make me a channel of your peace, her voice was disarming and silvery. From her spot in the pew, Molly didn’t think about God or Jesus, but another worshipful thought entered her mind: this is a woman doing exactly what she was born to do. Aside from the weighty task of being a spiritual leader – whatever that means, Molly thought – Julianne was a storyteller and a performer too. And she was good at it.
For a pastor, Julianne had a striking lack of religious or Jesus-featured art on display at her house. But half the books on her shelves were about Christianity or Islam or Buddhism or general spirituality books with watercolor-tinted covers. Bookshelves lined nearly every wall in the house, and the TV was smaller than the microwave, and the bathroom was painted a godawful shade of newborn baby pink that somehow grew on Molly, and the den still had an unfinished game of Scrabble left out on the coffee table that she didn’t feel she had the right to touch. The fact that this house had both a den and a living room seemed chic to her, though the outside lacked curb appeal. The nine-hundred foot ranch house was totally plain, aside from the picture window facing the street. Julianne lived alone with her dog Scout, who had been trained to nose the bell hanging from the patio door to signal he needed to pee, breathed heavily in the summer humidity, and gazed whale-eyed at Molly whenever she walked by. Julianne, Molly noted, kept her necklaces in order of length on a corkboard and organized her books alphabetically by author and genre, and used her iron often enough that it sat unplugged on the edge of her dresser.
Something about the empty house nagged at her like the hangnail she chewed on all week. She wondered if Julianne had anyone else to help her finish the game of Scrabble, who distracted her from writing her weekly sermon, who borrowed her books and returned them dog-eared. She wasn’t sure, but this might be the first house she’d ever set foot in that was owned by a single woman. Molly had never given relationships much energy. Before Seth, she often imagined what her future would be like if she never married, and instead became one of those radically independent older women who had hundreds of lovers and wore silk scarves and big bangle jewelry. Julianne was not one of these women. Yet she’d crafted a small, quiet life for herself here in a Midwestern suburb ten minutes away from the church where she preached, and that too felt radically independent.
Julianne went to Portugal for a week because she was leading a pilgrimage of sorts to Fatima for a dozen deep-pocketed congregants, and she wanted someone to housesit and dog-sit Scout for her. Seth told Molly, “I was the first person who came to mind, since she knows I’m a poor graduate student.” He got two hundred bucks out of the deal, and Molly tagged along because she wanted to be around Seth. By then, they had only been dating for six months, but she felt compelled to make dinner for him, and wait up for him to come home from rehearsal with her stomach growling in a way she had never waited for anyone before. She was twenty-five, and she was pretty sure she’d been in love at least once, but never enough to stave off hunger and resentment. She hadn’t told Seth yet. Instead, she tried to channel it into everything she did, and hoped he was smart enough to figure it out and say it first. After the pasta sat on the stove for an hour on low, the cheese congealed and gluey, Seth walked in without fanfare, and when they sat on the patio in the dark with their faces lit by a few tea lights Molly found in Julianne’s bathroom, he asked if she needed help practicing her lines.
This is the moment Molly returns to, over and over again: the disappointing bowl of pasta that Seth didn’t mind eating, with a pastor’s dog sniffing at the napkins in their laps and mosquitos biting their arms, and her saying yes out loud and the small, quiet knowledge that she was saying yes to a life with him.
Molly can feel the plane dip slightly, then level again, slowly making its descent, and her stomach follows the motion. The ice in her drink has watered down the ginger ale. On the screen in front of her, a little cartoon plane shows their progress over a map, and a flight attendant stops by to pick up the napkin she is reluctant to let go.
Molly is on a plane to New York because a month ago, Seth broke up with her after one of the fights she had gotten so used to having, they had become another touchstone of their relationship, like their memorized coffee orders. They moved in together after three years, when Seth started a doctoral program in music, and they chose the cramped ground-floor studio because it was possible to haul his piano into the space that was supposed to be their dining room. Molly didn’t mind that the piano took the place where a table belonged, and they ate meals on the couch instead. For the first week or two, Seth tried to compose a new melody for school, but still played along as she memorized her solo in Company. Until, from upstairs, they could hear their neighbor booing. It happened almost every time either one of them rehearsed; a low, resigned protest worse than stomping or an angry knock on their door. Seth could laugh it off more easily than she could. Perhaps because, Molly thought, he rarely raised his voice louder than necessary, and risked being heard.
Once she wrapped up Company, Molly quit her server job and stopped auditioning for what she thought would be a few months, until she had saved a cushion for them to fall back on. She started working as a receptionist for a plastic surgeon’s office, where she received an inflated hourly wage and frequent remarks about how easy her nose would be to fix. Soon, she quit taking voice and dance classes to save more money, and then an entire year slipped by, and she still hadn’t returned to the stage. Her life had simultaneously fast-forwarded and become stagnant without her consent, until finally, she was angry enough to tell Seth their arrangement didn’t feel fair anymore.
Molly said she wanted Seth to consider taking a second non-music job so she could go back to auditioning and maybe take on a paid gig, if she got lucky.
Seth said he never asked her to stop auditioning. That was a choice she’d made, and seeing her not doing what she loved broke his heart.
Molly said she’d had no choice to stop auditioning, since they had to pay bills and save as much as they could spare, since he was already drowning in student loan debt that even he admitted he would probably never pay off in his lifetime.
Seth said the debt was his problem, not her problem.
Molly said it was her problem, because she wanted to marry him, so eventually it would be her debt too, and she wanted them to buy a house someday and have a good life.
Seth said they had never agreed they would get married. He never made any promises.
Molly asked what they were still doing together, then.
Seth looked at her, and before he said anything else, Molly knew this was it.
After Seth left that night to sleep on Mark’s couch, she stared at his piano and thought about the sermons she used to sit through at Gathering when she and Seth first started dating, and how the messages never meant anything to her. Maybe this is how it feels, she thought, to believe in the comfort of a higher power your entire life, and then see the gaps in logic, and watch your safe understanding of the world fall away.
Sometime last week Seth called her because they were supposed to be friends now, though to Molly this means talking with the same cadence and frequency they did when they were still a couple, minus the fights and the split bills, and adding more stomachaches and heartache. Seth said, “I have bad news. Scout died.”
Molly remembered Scout nudging the bell on the patio door with his nose and said, “Julianne must be so sad.”
“I saw on Facebook that she got a new puppy a few months ago,” Seth said. “She was preparing for the inevitable. Scout was an old dog.”
“Her house has a good backyard for a puppy,” Molly said.
“Oh,” Seth faltered. “I didn’t tell you? Julianne moved. She got a new job at another church.” When Molly snapped that he never said anything until now, he tried to recover. “I guess I forgot? It’s a huge Presbyterian church in New York. Ten steps up from what she was doing at Gathering. It’s a huge change for her, and she deserves it.” He paused. “You sound mad. Did I do something wrong?”
That afternoon, Molly drove through the suburban neighborhood for the first time since she and Seth housesat four years ago, and saw a freshly painted mailbox in front of the ranch house, and new flowers planted beneath the picture window. She circled the block to look a second time. Julianne didn’t live there anymore, and she couldn’t believe it. She also couldn’t believe that Seth didn’t know this mattered to her. Hadn’t she told him this story? The story of the week they spent housesitting for Julianne, and how she decided one night making dinner, what kind of life she wanted to live. She drove past once more, and this time she stopped and parked, hoping no one will knock on the window and ask what she was doing. She doesn’t know how to explain that she’s crying because she misses a house she never even lived in, and because you can’t make a home from someone else.
At first, she splurged on the airfare to New York because she needed to do something decisively for herself, by herself. She knew sitting in a dark theater would remind her of the first thing she loved. She could picture every actor pausing before their entrance to relax their shoulders and take one deep breath, like she used to, and know they were all part of something together. A show would remind her of all the ways she used to be seen, and that she was capable of being a thousand different people. Seth would have seen a show without complaint to make her happy, because he really did love her. But knowing he silently suffered through every flourish and belting ballad would have ruined it. Now, she has tickets to see Hadestown by herself tomorrow, and an old college friend who lives in Queens will let her sleep on her pullout sofa later tonight.
But when her feet land on the sidewalk in front of the Presbyterian church on 84th Street and Molly looks up at the grey stone, she wonders if maybe she has taken this too far. Out of curiosity, she looked up Julianne on Facebook, and then the address of the church where she works and the time for a Saturday evening service, which by now is already halfway over. Going to the church was not part of her plan, but now she is here, and she might as well go inside. After she pushes open one heavy door, she slides into a spot near the back of the church, hiding her duffel bag underneath the pew and folding her hands in her lap in a way she hopes looks prayerful. At the front, a choir rustles their sheet music, and a woman in a black dress conducts them through yet another hymn Molly doesn’t recognize. Beside her, a bald man wearing a striped tie has a hymnal open, and she peeks at the page number before picking up a hymnal herself. The notes are a language she knows well, and the words she can follow along, and she sings for the first time in a long time, louder than she probably needs to, causing a few heads in the pews in front of her to turn and look. The bald man beside her glances her way. She takes this as a sign she is doing something right.
If Julianne gave a sermon tonight, she’s already missed it. But she stands again at the pulpit to give the weekly announcements, her hair catching in the last of the daylight illuminating the window behind her. Julianne will be visiting the sick on Tuesday and is still accepting appointments. Their spiritual book club will meet at three o’clock on Wednesday. Next Sunday is a feast day of some sort. Molly chews on a hangnail, listening, waiting for her next cue. The final song lifts, and she watches Julianne proceed out, her face alight, and one by one the pews begin to empty, every person leaving the church looking bright and returning to the noise of their everyday lives. Molly turns her head, unsure of when to leave, and sees that Julianne stands near the door, shaking hands as everyone makes their exits. She stands, slings her bag over her shoulder, and joins the slow march of bodies.
As she waits, Molly wonders if Julianne will remember her as the girl the assistant choir director at Gathering used to love. If she will be the girl who cleaned out the fridge while she was away in Portugal, and if she would ever guess that she and Seth had sex in the guest bedroom early one Sunday morning before he left for the 7:30 service. She and Julianne met once or twice, by way of Seth’s hasty introduction, but they never had a real conversation. Molly doesn’t know if Julianne misses the house with the backyard, and doesn’t know how big or small her new apartment in New York is, and if there’s enough room for a puppy to run around. She doesn’t know if the life she left behind was better or worse than the one she has here and now.
Then she is standing in front of Julianne, who takes her hand, smiles, and says she is happy Molly was here tonight. She doesn’t recognize her. But they aren’t really strangers, because Molly has received the same blessing Julianne bestows everyone who shakes her hand, and the handshake feels as sturdy as four bedroom walls, a confirmation that she is allowed to be part of something again, an invitation she will accept this once. Molly lets go of her hand and in a few moments, she is standing on the sidewalk with the church at her back, watching cars roll by, start and stop, brakes squeaking. She is hungry and she still hates New York. And yet as she stands there, people on the sidewalk step around her as if she’s part of the scenery, like a parking meter or a fire hydrant or a pile of dog shit or even just the dumb tourist she appears to be. The longer she stands there, the more it feels as if they aren’t shuffling past her, but are offering her a sacred space to stand, still and undisturbed, and say yes with her pilgrim heart to another kind of life.