There comes a point in a story, particularly in a short story, where there is a hook or maybe an epiphany of sorts. Where there is finally a hint of where the author is going or what she's doing and you can begin following the trajectory towards the finish. In Alice Munro's "Jesse and Maribeth" from her collection The Progress of Love it comes when one of two friends lies about an amorous adventure. It was meant to be a tease and then when a little time passed she was going to give in and admit the joke.
"I didn't at all mind the lying. Once I had taken the plunge into falsehood--by saying Mr. Cryderman's name--falsehood felt wonderfully comfortable,"
This says much about the narrator that only in retrospect have I decided showed poor judgement or just plain carelessness in her friendship with a schoolfriend. It was only one in a number of signs of what was to come.
"In high school, I had a tender, loyal, boring friendship with a girl named MaryBeth Crocker. I gave myself up to it, as I did to the warm, shallow, rather murky waters of the Maitland River in summer, when I lay on my back, and just fluttered my hands and feet, and was carried downriver."
When one day at school MaryBeth, short and rather chubby but graceful, sits down next to Jesse in order to share a songbook, Jesse is a little stunned at being chosen. Once again in this story, Jesse tells of her experience in this friendship from the vantage point of adulthood, though she's looking back over this progression of events as though she's reliving them and firmly back in her young adulthood. There is no jumping around in time in this story.
Very early on there's a hint just what sort of friendship the two are (or are not in this case) going to have.
"In the books I had read all through my childhood, girls were bound two by two in fast friendship, in exquisite devotion. They promised never to tell each other's secrets or keep anything hidden from each other, or form a deep and lasting friendship with any other girl."
The two become fast and close friends--even changing the spelling of their names to Jessie and Meribeth, though the teachers fail to recognize Jessie's spelling as they do Meribeth's. Despite their closeness sometimes Jesse finds herself "slipping away" while MaryBeth talked.
"Not that I wished to be elsewhere, or even to be alone. I understood that this was what friendship was like."
And maybe the friendship between adolescents is just like that and it's only with time and experience does friendship become real and more meaningful? In her third year of high school Jesse is begins to work for a married couple, the Crydermans, doing simple tasks like getting the vegetables ready for dinner or ironing. But Jesse finds herself more caught up in the drama of their marriage. Mrs. Cryderman, older than her husband, is unhappily expecting a baby and recounts to Jesse bits of her life, her fears and displeasures.
"However much I mocked the Crydermans to MaryBeth, I wanted something from them. Attention. Recognition."
And that's where the lie comes in. Talking one afternoon about sex, spurred on by the visits of MaryBeth's sister's boyfriend to their room (MaryBeth living with her older sister rather than her parents), she begins concocting a story involving Mr. Cryderman.
"The affair I conducted that spring with Mr. Cryderman--in my head, and in front of MaryBeth--may not have been that important in my life, but it kept me busy. There was no more sense of drift and boredom, when MaryBeth and I were together."
And when MaryBeth finally calls Jesse on her falsehoods, their friendship falls apart. Jesse takes it as an excuse to act poorly towards her once close friend, and it separates the two for good. Until one day when Jesse is a grad student and she comes across MaryBeth who's working for an insurance agent. By then the Crydermans have long been gone, moved away with their baby. Without malice MaryBeth begins chatting away as though their friendship had never ended or been strained.
So perhaps it is the "progress of love" (or here maybe friendship) that it's with a certain fondness that MaryBeth recalls their friendship even while Jesse "had been herself all along"--even now unaccountable. I like how Munro comes at this story--from a mirror-like perspective. Jesse tells the story, but MaryBeth is the one who grows.
Do take a look at Buried in Print's thoughts on the story--as usual she sheds good light on the story and fills in bits that I missed. Next week sometime (it being a holiday week so I might not be around much) I'll be reading the next story: "Eskimo".