If the typical life of a young couple resembles an Oriental bazaar, where the clamoring for jewels, perfumes, spices, silks, and other aphrodisiac appurtenances of fata morgana breaks on the morose tightfistedness of those who can afford them, in my case the reverse was true, not only because I could afford nothing, but because my fiancée’s not clamoring for jewels and perfumes was symptomatic of the abnormality I had vowed to correct. The first problem was insoluble, and hence nothing to lose sleep over, but the other was a source of nightly torment.
In one of his essays Orwell calculated how many pairs of silk stockings were equivalent to the labor that went into the making of a bombing plane, but what concerned me was that the silk stockings my fiancée showed no signs of coveting cost the equivalent of 28 tins of Portuguese sardines. A silken folly from Cadolle in the Rue Cambon, likewise spurned at 3,000 francs, was equivalent to what I might get in a lucky week for a review in the Times. Finally, a ring with a sparkle lively enough to engage somebody, to say nothing of the fairy-tale solitaire clear enough to augur a cloudless ménage, was no more procurable, for all its being so callously unwanted, than any of the jewels on display in the Tower of London. But one fine day, fate intervened.
When we left New York, where some of her family dwelt in what to the bourgeois eye is palatial splendor, Kay had thrown away the letter of acceptance to an Ivy League university, a decisive gesture that was as scandalous as lighting a cigar with a winning lottery ticket. Ivy League universities played a massive role in the emergence of futurism as the newly dominant force in American culture; while protesting vociferously their obligation to keep at arm’s length the vulgar consumerism of business, they quietly did their master’s bidding. And so long as Harvard and Yale kept quiet, who could say that feminism, multiculturalism, or any of the other liberating mirages were only consumer trends? Thus purchased with the proverbial gold of silence, their influence was as great as that of any of the three branches of government, their prestige comparable to that of the Church in medieval Europe.
Hence, in the unanimous view of the entire diaspora of Kay’s family, hers was an act of something more insidious than momentary madness. It was like Sartre rubbishing the Nobel Prize. That this was consequent on her having taken up with a foreign loafer had not been lost on them, of course. The name Svengali had been dropped a few times, along with such words of foreign extraction as hypnosis, guru, and goy. Many members of the family were Jewish, or seemed to be when it suited them. As to the question of race, it was with aplomb graduating to fierceness that they described themselves as American.
A leading firm of private detectives had been retained to establish whether the loafer was benign or vicious—whether his manifest lack of means was a bee in a rich man’s bonnet or actual evidence of bad character—and before long, the answer had come back loud and clear. The girl was on the wrong track, willful and heedless, and would need to be taught a lesson.
Now penury, by virtue of its being the punishment they had heard most about since childhood, was the only one whose mechanics they thought they really understood. Teaching someone a lesson meant depriving the culprit of money. But since they hadn’t been supporting Kay in the first place, money would need to be given her so it could later be taken away. And for this to happen a suitable excuse was required, such as a wedding.
Fate seemed to be playing into our hands, though it would be long before the game of cross purposes posted a score in dollars and cents. Kay had applied to Cambridge and was accepted as an undergraduate by one of the colleges. This news almost wrecked everything. Now the name of Cambridge, as ominous in its way as Oxford—or Knout, or Zeitgeist, or Montparnasse—clothed her in its authority and sanctioned her past and future misconduct. What had been merely an isolated outbreak of recusance now seemed to have all the logistical wherewithal of a coup d’état staged with the aid of a foreign power.
The family’s position was not to be envied. They knew they would have to send Kay to Cambridge, because denying the young the opportunity to better themselves through institutions of higher learning was a dangerous move to contemplate. Quite apart from the university fees, this meant paying for Kay’s life abroad, for her life with me, and for all my pleasure which would one day be hers.
And there was the simmering insurgency to deal with, devious foreigners and dark forces of reaction, and the injection of the money that somehow had to be administered with Machiavellian precision before it could be withdrawn to devastating effect. Thus, like some rowdy pink-cheeked Hegelian in a university beer-cellar brawl, fate had got the American family in a dialectical viselike grip, and it was now only a matter of time before the silk stockings, the whisper of French lace labeled Cadolle, rue Cambon 14, and the fairy-tale solitaire clear enough to suggest a cloudless union would be mine, all mine. I mean hers, all hers. A slip of the tongue, really.