Growing Pains: A Cautionary Tale

I have seen many boys arrive in Paris. The new students exult in their freedom, waste time, drink to excess, and make a hundred worthless friends, wide-eyed and wondering at every witticism. I hate to see them because I was one of those scholars who does not understand the significance of his studies.

At home, I never saw anyone drunk. We never discussed anything more significant than the weather; that is, I am sure my parents did, but they did not see fit to include me in any such counsels. I did not really have a sense of what was good or proper. My parents had handled that with iron control, and saved me the trouble of any decision on the matter.In the city, I discovered that not only could I drink as much wine as I liked, but I could start to talk about nearly anything and have people join in. I doubt that these conversations ever delved into serious matters, for my new friends were as frequently inebriated as I was. Because we were all overly jolly, the inanity of our conversations never seemed odd.

Our most grave subjects were women and money. Since we needed the latter to obtain the former, and I had a large allowance by students' standards, I was popular among the young men of the cafes. The girls also seemed to like me. That was all to the good, but it did not make up a large part of my life. If I succumbed to the coquettish wiles of a girl one night, the next, my fellows congratulated me. Perhaps I would see the woman again: she would pass me on the street and blush, or some other night she would seduce another of my companions. It did not matter to me. I loved their soft lips in the night, when my mind was fogged with drink, but in the mornings my head hurt, and if the poor girls had not quit my bed by sunrise, I had nothing to say to them. I wanted them for the time of the darkness, but afterward, I could not bear them in my life. Fortunately, there were many girls in the city who did not mind this loose arrangement. They seemed as happy to leave as I was to see them go.

The same situation existed with my friends. At first, I thought they were like my brothers. We hailed each other on the street with first names and embraces. They showed no shame in discussing last night's debaucheries in front of any company, and I knew no better than what they taught me.

Considering my reprehensible companions, it was lucky that I met him. He was the best of a bad lot. He did not borrow money, which was good, because by the time I met him, I had no more left to give. All he wanted, then as much as now, was to drink and talk, both to prodigious excess. He was fascinating. He always was, to those who shared his proclivities. My friends sought his company, and I followed them in that as I had in so much else. He was not like them; he always had something interesting to say, even if it made no sense when one was sober.

We became friends, as much as anyone can call someone a friend when they only associate under the influence of alcohol. By that standard, he was as much my friend as the rest of them, and an admirable specimen. He gave me advice, and I trusted in it as one drunkard trusts another: wholeheartedly and with much laughter and slapping of shoulders.

Fortunately for me, he was not stupid. He told me which of my companions was abusing my trust. It was quite a long list. On his advice, I stopped lending money entirely. I also spent more time with him than with my earlier friends, since he seemed more concerned with my welfare. Once my supply of money dried up, my first acquaintances no longer sought my company. He did not abandon me; indeed, once he realized how often I was alone, he sought me out.

Perhaps he truly was my friend, if he was truly anything, or anyone's friend. He would not discuss the matter with me. I do not know if he believed in true friendship, or if he was as cynical about that as about everything else. It did not matter. I was floating in an alcoholic daze, marveling at Paris and at the incredible intelligence I thought I possessed. We talked for hours on end. He did not have to claim to be my friend, because it did not matter whether he was or not. I never declared that he was my bosom companion, as I had with the first group. This association was more comfortable. It never went anywhere, but neither of us wanted anything more than a sympathetic ear.

There were fewer women in my life after I lost so many acquaintances. The only one I can remember is the one I cannot forget. She tolerated my morning irritability, the first day, and was there the second night, to my surprise. She was there in a month, and two more. I did not question it for fear of disturbing my good fortune. She was all I wanted in a woman: absent during the days, warm and passionate at night. She asked nothing of me but a place to sleep, and I was happy to provide that.

After she had slept with me long enough to become a fixture in my home, she was not there one night. That was not overly odd. When she was not there the next, I worried. No one who knew her could tell me where she was, and, equally strange, I could not find my drinking companion anywhere. One of the men suggested that they had run off together. I knew that could not be what had happened; if either had been so inclined, they would have gone months before. But once the doubt was planted in my mind, I could not make it leave, not by wandering the streets, not with copious amounts of brandy. Sleep soothed some of my worries.

A movement on the bed woke me. It was still dark, but not so much that I could not tell who it was. The question, "Marcelin, are you awake?" only confirmed my belief. At least I knew now that they had not abandoned me in favor of each other's company. He would not have returned if they had.

"Now I am." I am not the sweetest tempered person when I am roused in the middle of the night, particularly not when I have had too much brandy the night before.

"She didn't want you to know, but I have to tell you." After that ominous sentence, he had the consummate gall to pause.

"Tell me what?" I was not in any sort of mood to allow him to be melodramatic. The alcohol weighed heavily on my mind.

"She was pregnant." I had never felt so sober in my life. "She didn't think you would marry her, so she bought pennyroyal. She sent for me and told me not to tell you, but she had to confide in someone. The medicine -- she took too much. It worked, but she did not stop bleeding. There was nothing
anyone could do. I'm so sorry."

He stopped, as if he had said everything there was to say, though he had only begun to scratch the surface. She was partially right; I could not have married her if she had not been pregnant, but in that condition, how could I do anything else? She killed my child. I did not love her, but I would have
loved a child. But she had the audacity to murder the babe without even asking me. I could not speak. I was too disgusted.

The feeling intensified a hundredfold when he kissed me on the cheek once more and murmured, "I am sorry." My mind cleared, as it does when I am horrified beyond measure. For the first time in a long while, I realized my situation. I could almost pity him his rough voice and filthy clothing, and his pointless, wasted youth. I could feel sorrow for his withered soul, trapped inside a self-absorbed body that had nothing better to do but destroy itself, year in and year out. But I could not pity myself. I could not tolerate that I was no different from this man, who, I was suddenly sure, might have fathered as many unborn children as I, and perhaps caused the deaths of their mothers in the same hideous fashion. I was the sort of man who squandered money and ruined the lives of maidens. I had never hated myself so much.

I had to push him away and fight my way out of the grimy bedclothes. He made a hurt little noise. Perhaps I struck him by mistake, or perhaps he was crying. I do not know if I was, but I ought to have been. I could not accept comfort from this man, or friendship, not for another moment. It was too hideous to think that I was like him in any way, and damning to believe that I could be worse.

He left when I pushed him away. He may have thought that I wanted to mourn privately. That did not matter to me. I only wanted to be free of that reminder of what I had been, and what I would never be again. The next day, I found a different apartment and left nearly all of my possessions, but no address.

I have never returned to the places I frequented with my midnight lover and my once dear friend. I have found new friends. They are rarely drunk. They love to talk, but when they do, it is about things which actually matter in the grand scheme of life. We want to make the world better. I owe a great debt to the city and the country, more than any of them do. None of them share this feeling. They are not as driven to perfection as I am. None of them have killed a woman.

Yesterday, he came into the cafe where I was talking with my friends. I had to leave immediately, before any of them saw my discomfort. He followed me, of course. He could never understand when it was a bad time to talk. Halfway down the block, he hailed me. "Marcelin! Where have you been?" He had been drinking.

"Don't call me that." My voice was as rough as his, though for entirely different reasons. "Leave me in peace. I have outgrown you."

That stopped him as if he had run into a wall, but I continued walking. I wanted to escape. He called after me, "Who are you, if you are grown? What shall I call you, if not your name?"

"I am Enjolras."

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