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 Category:  General Fiction
  Posted: March 16, 2020      Views: 66

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Ash Wednesday
"Molecules - Part 3" by Mark Valentine

Previously on "Molecules" - Dan and Carie are doctoral students and Teaching Assistants who are forced to share an office at Caltech.Their relationship gets off to a rocky start when Carie makes fun or Dan's poster of Einstein that includes the quote: "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Dan bets Carie that one day she'll believe in miracles. The loser must buy dinner for the winner. Dan tries to be nice to Carie in spite of the fact she is mean to him. At one point, just before the Christmas break, Dan loses his temper and lashes out at Carie, making her cry. Dan feels terrible about this and drowns himself in alcohol during the Department Christmas party. The story is told in first person from the point of view of Dan Polachek (whom Carie calls "Rudy" because he did his undergraduate studies at Notre Dame). Now that you're all caught up, on to chapter 3.

I went back home to Pittsburgh for the holidays. It was a much needed break from the west coast. I spent time with family and old high-school friends. On Christmas Eve, a few cards came for me in the mail, including one with a return address label that read ‘C. Carlson, 2801 Weber Drive, Seattle WA, 98115’. She sent me a Christmas card? It was a picture of Einstein and the caption read "Merry e=xMAs". Inside she simply wrote ‘I hope you have a Merry Christmas’. How do you figure this woman?
I thank her for the card when I see her in January. I also apologize for having been so rude to her before the break. She responds with “You’re welcome” and “That’s OK”. Not the breakthrough I’d been hoping for. I thought perhaps that my apologizing might prompt her to do likewise, but, as my psych major friends tell me, human behavior isn’t as predictable as gravitational lensing.
There are a few times in January where Carie begins a conversation that appears to come from a more personal place, but it seems that they’re always interrupted by a phone call or a student’s knock at our door. In my fantasy world Carie is intending to apologize at those times, but then I tell myself that, if she really wanted to make amends, she’d find a way. At any rate, the détente we have reached suffices for me, and apparently for her. We do not feel the need to pursue the office-switching option we had separately discussed with Dr. Jianwei.
February brings Ash Wednesday and yet another opportunity for me to be the object of ridicule. I try to come up with comebacks for the barbs that she will undoubtedly fire at me upon seeing ashes on my forehead. At some point, I decide that comebacks are not in keeping with the spirit of the season so I’d be better off just accepting my forty lashes. ‘Offer it up’, as my mom used to say.
I go to 7 am Mass at St. Philip’s. At the Sign of Peace, my eyes wander around the church. There, one aisle over and two pews back, I swear to God, is Carie Carlson! Our eyes meet. My mouth is agape. She shrugs her shoulders and points to her forehead as if to say “Why not?”
I wait for her outside afterward. “What are you doing here? I thought you were an atheist?”
“I was…and still am. But I felt a need to repent, and this seemed as good a place as any. Besides I wanted to talk to you, and it seems our office hours always get interrupted by…you know, work.”
“Go figure.”
“Wanna get some breakfast?”
I’m taken off guard by this invitation. I clumsily explain, “It’s a day of fasting.”
“Wow, you really do drink the Catholic kool-aid, don’t you?”
“I’m afraid so.” I can’t imagine what it must have taken for her to extend this olive branch, so, I quickly add, “Tell you what, I’ll come with you and have some coffee.”

I am still trying to get my psychological bearings as we walk to the IHOP. Once we are seated, she begins quizzing me. “So that’s a Catholic Mass, huh?”


“A lot of kneeling, and sitting, and standing. It’s hard to keep up.”

“It helps you get your cardio workout in while you worship.”

“I noticed the Gospel was about not advertising the fact that you’re repenting, and yet, here, everyone in the church was wearing a sign of their repentance on their foreheads. What’s up with that?”

For just a moment, I think, Did she go through all of this trouble just to set another trap, to make a point about Catholic hypocrisy? The look on her face though seems more playfully sparring than disdainfully scorning, so I decide to engage. I wade in carefully; “Well, I think Jesus was borrowing a page from moral desert theory. That theory holds that one’s motives are what counts. Thus, if you do something good for the purpose of getting praise or some reward, you sort of negate the moral value of the act.”

“So you wear ashes because you have sinned, but the public display of repentance is itself a sort for a sin of pride, no? It looks like the act negates its own aim. Sounds like a classic ‘Jessie’s Girl’ paradox.”

“Ah, trying to hoist me with my own petard, I see.” I say this because I had introduced her to the pop-philosophical concept of a ‘Jessie’s Girl’s’ paradox. It’s based on the Rick Springfield song from the eighties where Rick wishes that he had Jessie’s girl. The problem though, is that at the moment he gets Jessie’s girl, she becomes Rick’s girl and not Jessie’s. There is a logical contradiction in his premise that renders his wish unfulfillable. For once though, I have a counter-argument.

“The key is that, for the moral value of the act to be negated, there has to be some expectation of reward or praise. Now, maybe in first century Jerusalem, people looked at penitents with admiration, and maybe that still happens in some places today, but I can tell you with certainty that, in 2016, on the campus of the California Institute of Technology, nobody wearing ashes on his or her forehead should expect that they will be viewed positively. In fact, the opposite is more likely true.”

“Well played. You’re getting better at this debating-using-reason-and-logic thing.”

“Thanks. Although I’ll have to admit that my intentions are not entirely unsullied.”

“How so?”

“Part of the reason I make sure I get ashes is because I know it’s un-PC to do it. So it’s my way of saying ‘F you’ to the prevailing culture. I was going to ask Father if he could fashion my ashes in the shape of a middle finger, but that seemed a bit over the top.”

I have dropped my guard a bit by admitting that, and I’m waiting for her to pounce. Instead, she laughs - with me, and not at me. I like when she laughs.

“So is your ‘F You’ directed at anyone in particular” (she raises her hand), “or the culture in general?”

“The culture in general. I know that your thoughts on religion are well thought-out. Heck, you’re the smartest, and most independent person I know. You’re not one to blow with the prevailing wind. You know how I can tell that?”



Carie smiles at my disbelief. “Well, like I said, I need to repent, and I figured a large gesture was in order to convey the depth and sincerity of my atonement.”

“What do you need to atone for?” My question is a bit insincere. I can think of plenty of sins she should be confessing.

She wasn’t quite done quizzing me yet. “I’ll get to that.  So, part of the whole Catholic thing is that you guys give something up for Lent, right?

"Yeah, that's part of the tradition."

"What are you giving up?”

“I generally give up alcohol. It’s not creative, but it keeps me out of trouble – at least for forty days.”

“You want to know what I’m giving up?”

You’re giving up something?”

“Don’t look so surprised. Yes, I’m giving up something. I’m giving up being mean and condescending toward my office mate.” The expression on her face changes from playfully sparring to dead serious. I know she is sincere. “That’s the reason I came this morning. I want to apologize, really and sincerely, for the crappy way I’ve treated you since we met. I don’t know why I do that. I think it comes from a place of insecurity. I need to make sure that others, especially men, know that I’m smarter than them.”

“Smarter than they.”

“Touché, Rudy. But you know I’m serious, right?” There were tears welling up in her eyes.

I am taken aback. “Yes, yes. I absolutely do”. There’s a moment of silence before I add “and I can’t tell you how much that means to me.”

A long pause ensues. I figure she’s giving me time to decide whether or not to forgive her. After she deems that I have had sufficient time, she asks, “So, are we good?”

“Bow your head.” She does as I instruct. I do my best Pope Francis imitation as I extend my right hand over her bowed head and make a sign of the cross while intoning “Te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii,  et Spiritus Sancti.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means we’re good.”

She gets up from her side of the booth and walks around to mine.

“Get up,” she says.

Now it is my turn to follow instructions.

When I stand up, she throws her arms around me and hugs me tightly for a good ten seconds. I’m stunned. She releases me from the embrace. Before I have time to react, she says, “I gotta run. I’m meeting Jeff for our exercise class. Thanks for coming to breakfast with me. And thanks for the absolution. I’ll see you in the office this afternoon.”

I was guessing that she mentioned her boyfriend, Jeff, just to make sure I didn’t interpret the hug as anything more than a sign of friendship. I didn’t.

As she is about to leave, she mentions casually. “By the way, I think it’s good that you’re giving up alcohol.”

“Why is that?”

She flashes as impish grin before quoting me, “Hey Dr. J, don’t you think Carie’s beaufitul?”

“Oh my God, you heard about that?” I turn beet red. “I’m sorry – I was really drunk.”

“No problem. I’m not offended. You’re not the first guy to think I’m pretty. Some guys even think that when they’re sober.”

“I am so embarrassed. You know I don’t JUST think you’re pretty, right? I also think you’re smart, and a good teacher. And now, I might have to add kind to the list.”

She winks at me. “Time will tell. Don’t give me too much credit – I haven’t earned it yet.” And then after a pause, she confidently adds “…but I’m gonna.”

She grabs the check “I was hoping you’d have a bigger breakfast so that my first act of kindness could be picking up the check. As it is, now I have to settle for buying you a lousy cup of coffee. Man, you suck, Rudy.” She smiles and adds “By the way, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I owe you a dinner because nothing short of a miracle could explain my change of heart. Well, it’s not a miracle, it’s a conscious choice, made possible because I have a good role model.” She points at me as she says that last part and then she leaves.

I can’t help but smile.

A word about Jeff. Jeff is Carie’s boyfriend. Let me begin by saying I am not envious of him – remember, until just now I had despised Carie. Jeff is a second year law student at UCLA, which is just a short car ride away. He has a great tan and perfect hair. I’ve met him several times when he has stopped by our office to pick up Carie. He seems nice enough, but there is something about him that doesn’t quite sit right with me. Again, it’s not that I’m envious of his relationship with Carie - I could care less whom she dates. It’s that she’s nice to him, and if she is capable of being nice to him, I have to come up with a reason why she isn’t nice to me, or at least why she hasn’t been nice to me until today.

Also, I might be envious of him.

Carie keeps her Lenten resolution. She talks to me, jokes with me, brings me coffee and says thank you when I do the same for her. She invites me to go out to dinner with some of her friends and introduces me to them, not as her office mate, but as her friend. She continues to call me Rudy. For some reason, now that she is kind, I am able to stop fantasizing about her neck and that spot behind her ear. I like having her as a friend.

(thanks for sticking with it - one more chapter to come)



Author Notes
Thanks to those of you still with me. As is the case in the democratic presidential race, the field has been narrowing with each chapter. I'll name my next child after the one person who reads all four. I know what you're thinking - Maggie and I are 60 - true, but we're also both on work-from-home status for the indefinite future, and we're getting pretty bored. But enough of that, a few notes...

Gravitational lensing is the phenomenon wherein light is bent as it passes by large objects in space. Einstein predicted that this would occur as a consequence of space being curved. He was subsequently proven correct by observations made during solar eclipses.

Moral desert theory is a branch of ethics that is concerned, among other things, with assigning moral weight to actions based on a number of factors including the intentions of the actor. "Desert" in this sense refers to things deserved (as in "getting one's just deserts") and is pronounced like "dessert" even though it is spelled like the place with lots of sand and camels.
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