The desire to spit is widely underrated as a motive. Yet it was known throughout the university I attended, for instance, that the founder of Pan American Airways, one of its illustrious and discontented alumni, had built the PanAm skyscraper over Grand Central Station in New York with the single-minded purpose of being able to spit, from the height of his office window, on his old university club in Vanderbilt Avenue, a 20-story building and now a pitiful dwarf somewhere 30 stories below. The man who thus conspued his alma mater was South American, a foreigner bound to have been socially marginalized as an undergraduate, a greasy wop and a sore loser in the fraternity game. PanAm being the first transcontinental airline, however, it is no exaggeration that the world owes its concept of travel to the psychopathic inversion caused in an outsider by his experience of the establishment and to the vengeful pleasure with which he set out to invert its hierarchy.
My loved one’s impulse stemmed from a similar feeling of isolation, a kind of anticipatory claustrophobia which is often the lot of those who are too perceptive, too precocious, and finally too clever for their own good. It has been said that in order to succeed, in society as in business, one has to be fool enough to see only the trees—not the forest of adverse consequences, necessarily attendant upon one’s every action, in all their dizzying ramifications from here to the county jail. For her, the role of such an ingenue was infra dig, something like Virginia Woolf being asked to do the voice of Little Red Riding Hood in a Disney film, and the whole prospect of having to become fool enough and slave enough to end up rich enough and free enough was as sickening to her as the sense of being blackmailed.
Worse, blackmailed into some kind of freestyle confidence trick. For, like her family, society as a whole offered no guarantees, only vague, generic, schoolmarmish promises to the effect that everything will be all right as soon as one has acceded to its demands and put one’s John Hancock on the dotted line. “Stuff this racket,” thought the young girl, laconically and without ceremony, as a grown man might, sweeping everything into the same gutter with a single jerk of the broom. “Stuff John Hancock.”
Perhaps this rational side, an aspect of character ill suited for being shut up all the youth long in the skin of a Bivona peach, was really where all her troubles began. There was more of Lolita in me at the age of 29 than there was in her at 17, and I embellish for effect only slightly. White lies, dark eyeshadow, and the rest of the powder-room arts were as alien to her deportment as Armani to Sir Winston Churchill; she had few girlfriends in whom she liked to confide and took little pleasure in the few confidences they had to share with her; while the boys were apprehensive, seeing in her peachy physique, her dislike of sports, and her ready sarcasm qualities unfit for the discotheque of American adolescence and hence unlikely to garner approval, curiosity, or envy in any other environment worth considering. Her gaze had the directness of innocence, which is the unmediated rationalism of childhood, with only a hint of slyness about the corners of the eyes, which puckered into the tiniest of wrinkles when she heard something incredibly funny or merely incredible. Flirting, for her, meant laughing out loud, and granted, by this awkward definition she was an incorrigible flirt.
That she told no fibs and kept no secrets, that she shied away from devilry and was bad at playacting, that she did not use either makeup or people, were all traits more or less certain to put her at a sexual disadvantage, which, in turn, would translate into a social disadvantage. And, shameful truth to tell, this unnerving immediacy, this transparency of motive, this total absence of mystery other than such as attends adventures of the intellect, was not what had attracted me to her. As a man—and, even more shamefully, as a member of society—I had counted the sum total of these traits as a defect of her palpable uniqueness, an inadequacy that was all the more disconcerting for being admirable. It was a drawback, like honesty in a thief. It was a burden, none the lighter for being a sack of precious stones. It was an embarrassment, like going out to dinner with a women’s decathlon champion.
Worst of all, as an obstacle in the way of emotion, it appeared impassable, unyielding, genetically fixed, like an intractable juryman who insists he is not convinced beyond reasonable doubt of the accused’s guilt while his gregarious fellows suspect him of just having been born grumpy. Had I been able to come out of myself for an instant just then, I might have screamed in disbelief: “What, you, naysayer par excellence, awful scourge and incorruptible justiciar of American culture, you, too, want to feed on crumbs from the high table? Because there you are, wanting what every other man wants in a woman, mystification and masquerade and tales of the Arabian nights, which, as you know perfectly well, is the material basis of America’s progress toward a totalitarian Eden!
“Confounded fool, you got lucky and found the one woman in a million who is a fellow dissenter, an innocent creature who shares your values—for whatever reason, be it fastidiousness, alienation, pride, resentment at being swindled, or maybe because she was dropped as a baby, why should you care, because there is always some reason for people being the way they are—and you turn round and reckon this uniqueness of hers a genetic defect! Don’t you understand, this young American is everything you could ever hope to find, a throwback to the era of the Civil War, to the time before any of this insanity started, to ‘the civilization of 19th-century America,’ which, as your idol Orwell wrote, ‘was capitalist civilisation at its best.’ Take a good look at any literary document of the epoch, and you will see that such phrases as without a suspicion of a flirt or without a hint of the languid woman of fashion about her were used as a matter of course in those days to characterize its great heroines. So what’s your problem? I mean, what is your defense?”