Issue 102, Spring 1987
Pauline had forgotten about the straw seats on the train. She had a half-hour’s ride from Newark to the Hoboken ferry terminal, and the moment she took her seat she was attacked through her clothing by a vicious meshwork of woven bristles; it was like sitting on a hair shirt. She had dressed for the heat—it was August and near ninety—and she wore a loose voile outfit which, even with her slip under it, provided very skimpy insulation against railroad upholstery.
A woman across the aisle from her had spread a newspaper under herself. Pauline had only a book of poetry with her, which she certainly wasn’t going to sit on. She was seventeen and not inclined to be offhand about looking ridiculous in public. And she did think the woman looked ridiculous, settling her skirts over the paper like a hen brooding newsprint.
So she sat on one hand and fanned herself with her book.The train hadn’t left the station yet, and outside the window she could see across the street to a theater marquee. Below it there was a poster of a couple about to kiss, a man with a pencil mustache and a woman with marcelled hair. Even from a distance the picture of their profiles leaning toward each other made her smile in recognition as though she were looking at a picture of herself. She had spent several hours the night be- fore in the front seat of a boy’s roadster while it was parked behind the playground of a grammar school. She did not think that the boy, whose name was Harry Bitt, was himself important, except as the agent of certain sensations, but she was in awe of these sensations, and she reviewed them constantly.
It was very hot, and it would be worse in New York, with its reflecting pavements and the massed crowds diffusing their own conglomerate body heat. Pauline didn’t mind the weather except that she had to pull at her bangs all the time to keep them from frizzing. All summer she had been going into New York as often as they would let her, on the excuse of running errands for her father’s dry goods store, picking up samples of edge-trim and dropping off orders for white cotton batiste. Her visits always pleased her and gave her a great feeling of personal superiority, although they involved a lot of aimless walking in tight shoes, and she generally got lost at some point toward the end of the day; once an oily-haired man in a plaid coat had followed her for blocks, calling out, “you want a map, doll?”
The train began to move, jolting forward so that Pauline was jerked across the raspy seat; then it stopped and began again. Outside the window there was a constant dull flow of scenery—flat–fronted brick buildings. Once they were out of Newark these gave way to a bare and marshy flatland, like a giant vacant lot. Along the horizon there were water towers and crows flying. Pauline liked this part, which gave her a sense of traversing the steppes or the moors, some bleak European wastes.
She took up her book, which she thought she should read since she had brought it with her. It was a copy of Baudelaire in French, and Pauline’s French wasn’t nearly good enough to read most of it without a dictionary, but she knew some of the shorter poems almost by heart, and she moved her lips over the phrases. In her room at home she read them aloud in a languid chant, trying to absorb into her own personality something of the poem’s atmosphere of sonorous corruption, and rehearsing her own allegiance with ennui and other delicate monstrosities.
She was trying to figure out what the word ”chevelure” meant when the lines ”luxe, calme, et volupté” started her thinking about Harry Bitt again and sent her back into that smug nostalgia staying on as aftermath from the night before. She did not resist; she intended to keep thinking about it as much as possible. He was a pale, soft–faced boy, smooth and blond, who went in for soothing hugs and fluttery kisses. With encouragement, a more serious and urgent side of him showed itself, and it was the fact of having worked this transformation in him which lingered most powerfully in her imagination. She kept going over the exact sequence of it; she wanted, if anything, more mental repetition, a more insistent record, since the experience had otherwise all the vagueness of the invisible, witnessed, after all, with her eyes closed. It was to rescue all of it from the blurred realm of private evidence that she always reported everything that happened on dates to her friend Bunny, but these were only lists and lacked the audacious nuance of the real thing.
When Bunny listened to Pauline’s descriptions of what happened with Harry (in June it had been Ray) her eyes glistened; she asked intelligent and sometimes peculiar questions. Pauline liked explaining, but she felt there was something too soft, too romantic, in Bunny’s attitude.
Still they were really friends — outsiders together—egging each other on in their shared scorn for the monkeyish antics that passed for hilarity in their high school. Minna Green played the piano with her feet at parties; the captain of the football team had once set a live chicken loose in the auditorium. Pauline couldn’t believe the fatuousness of all this, the “rampant stupidity,” as she and Bunny liked to say. It made them style themselves as aloof and eccentric by contrast; in class they rolled their eyes at each other across the room and passed sarcastic notes.
This avowed indifference did not, of course, make them favorites in most crowds. It was harder on Bunny, who looked so mild and blinking in her middy blouse, and who had once had a balloon filled with ink thrown at her back. Pauline was more convincing—she was a trim, nervously pretty girl, with a clear, slightly nasal voice. She had thin, peaked shoulders and carried herself well; she was also quite vain and a little too eager to be original about her appearance (today she had tied a striped ribbon around her hips for a sash, with somewhat awkward results). Older boys were sometimes drawn to her; she had that slyly knowing look when she was being quick and satirical (always flattering when you were not the target) and a sudden, fresh smile.