Monday, December 3, 2012

Meeting the Monolith

Back in '68 or '69 when I was in high school in New Haven, a Housatonic "Valley Girl" attending  St. Mary's, I aspired to be an intellectual.  Those were the hippie days, and Yale University had a Free School, taught mainly by grad students, through which I took a class in child psych and another, in the evening, on existentialism.  One night after class I headed to where I had parked my mother's Buick Skylark, but it was... gone.  I was a teen-aged girl stranded in the city.

I had befriended a twenty-something woman in the class who happened to be a close friend of my beloved St. Mary's English teacher, Mrs. Nuelsen.  So I ran back to the class for help and the friend--let's call her Kirsten--offered to put me up for the night.  My stepfather was at work on the night shift at the factory, so my mother had no means to come and get me.  In fact, we didn't even call my mother--life pre cell phones!--until we had gotten back to Kirsten's apartment, where she kindly spent a good deal of time on the line reassuring my mother while I wilted with embarrassment.

Kirsten was very pretty and very smart, like my teacher.  She and her husband and their year or so old baby lived in an unremarkable apartment except for a piece of furniture that I later came to know as the iconic Eames lounge--her husband, I gleaned, was a grad student in the architecture school.

Kirsten brought me a pillow and some blankets for the living room couch, and then she looked puzzled, as if she'd forgotten something.  She apologized, "I'll look, but I don't think I have any pajamas."

I cannot tell you how this admission shook up my virgin teen world.  How could she not have pajamas or a nightgown?  Did they sleep without clothes?

Really, I was that naive.

I think Kirsten finally did come up with something for me to wear so that  I didn't have to sleep in my skirt and turtleneck sweater--in those days my mother wouldn't even let me wear jeans to work at the mod boutique, where the entire staff wore bell bottoms.  So I changed, and lay on the couch, and it was quiet, and then I could hear Kirsten and her husband in bed...talking.  They talked and talked and talked. For what seemed like an hour.  I couldn't hear anything they were saying, but the idea of a man and a woman in bed talking was a complete paradigm shift for me.  It suggested a level of intimacy that I knew my parents--my mother and father, my mother and stepfather--had never had.  I just knew this in my bones.

Think of it--a man and a woman could lie in bed without their clothes on and talk!

And then I knew why I had taken the existentialism class.  It wasn't because I wanted to be an intellectual.  It was because I yearned for something--anything and everything--beyond my Housatonic Valley Girl roots.  And my night at Kirsten's was kind of the equivalent of meeting the monolith in Kubrick's 2001:  A Space Odyssey.

The next morning, we all had breakfast together--Kirsten, me, her husband, and  their baby, whom she fed in his high chair with a little spoon.  I marveled at the kitchen wall, covered with pages torn from magazines.  Images they liked; I can't even remember any now--it was more the idea that you could get away with something like this.  My parents' house was all Colonial crap and Hummel figurines, except of course for my Danish modern bedroom with the conical orange  lamp and Paul Klee poster.

Not that this couple's world was perfect.  Kirsten mused during breakfast that she thought she wanted to go back to school to study philosophy, and her husband asked why--what in the world would she ever do with a graduate degree in philosophy?  She shrugged as she fed the baby another spoonful.  "I don't know; it just interests me."  I ached for her and the fact that her husband didn't honor her desire, despite their intimacy.  Because I was in love with her.

And so came the third epiphany:  that no relationship, however emotionally intimate, is perfect.

After breakfast, Kirsten and the baby drove me to St. Mary's, where I went straight to the office to get a pass because I wasn't wearing my uniform.  

And my parents picked me up after school, and told me that the Buick had been erroneously towed by the New Haven police, even though I had been completely legally parked, my parents also learned.   And that they had yelled at the cops for leaving a young girl alone on the streets in New Haven at night.  These were the cops I'd seen drag Jim Morrison away by the hair at the New Haven arena, after all.

Sartre wrote, " first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world, and defines himself afterwards."  Thanks to a '64 Buick and those cops, I'd had an existential surge.

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