The Anatomy of Pretty Girls by Robert Wexelblatt

 

1. What Comes In At the Eye

“I didn’t see you. Sorry.”

On the Tuesday morning after Labor Day I entered my final year of public secondary servitude by walking down an institutional corridor with walls green as envy, with floor tiles yellow as anxiety, nothing soft to absorb the ricocheting salutations and taunts. She was stowing things in her locker and, as I passed, stepped back to shut the metal door. We collided, chin to hair, shoulder to scapula. It wasn’t much of a shock; nevertheless, rolling it over and over in my mind the way the sea does a stone, I’ve come to consider it a blow of fate.

Blaming fate is overdoing it, I admit, but superstition is always the most popular religion with every generation, the most commonplace way of carrying out the human task of making the senseless significant. We like to believe the universe is full of signs and portents, a cosmic code arranged with us in mind: tie your shoes the wrong way and someone will die, that traffic jam made me miss the plane that crashed—in short, everything happens for a reason. More people succumb to superstition than are prepared to admit to it. I refuse to think this collision was just an accident yet I’m ashamed to claim it was fate. If the stone is turned over long enough it grows smooth and polished and looks made on purpose.

At first I thought she looked like my cousin Marjorie but the resemblance was misleading, a coincidence of height and coloring. I saw how wrong I was the next moment because I saw her precisely, my eyes letting everything in. This is rare. Normally, we edit what we see but this was a flash of photo-realism. I saw her skirt (beige), her blouse (purple, a good color for her), her shoes (brown and clunky ones of which I didn’t approve), her eyebrows (dark, elongated, well shaped), her lashes (made for looking through shyly), her lips (full), chin (rounded), hair (long bangs, dark, abundant, unstylish); I took in the bracelet on her wrist (turquoise and gold), her calves and ankles (astounding), her knee socks (most girls wore either stockings or nothing), her black book bag (not a backpack). Note again her words to me: “I didn’t see you.” This verdict of invisibility took precedence over the perfunctory, not necessarily insincere apology. Had she said Sorry first, everything might have gone differently. It would have given me confidence, would have meant that post-collision she saw me as clearly as I saw her.

My reflex with new acquaintances was to make a joke of myself, of being underweight. This was to disarm critique. “Usually happens when I’m standing sideways,” I chuckled and regretted it but too late. Her lips smiled but her intelligent, honest eyes looked puzzled. Then her expression changed and I thought she looked sad. This sadness affected me. I couldn’t help feeling I had disappointed her, failed even before I had begun. I saw that she was three interesting things, a stranger, pretty, and unhappy.

That she was pretty is, of course, what is called an immediacy, in my case nearly an emergency. While I was sure she was pretty, I felt instinctively that no one but me could see it, that only I could grasp that her prettiness was in fact not prettiness at all. The prettiness of a pretty girl is always obvious, but she was something different, higher, and in her quietness and despondency, her prettiness was obscured; she was, I imagined, like a flower gathering its strength all night to bloom in the morning. If I were invisible then so, in this special sense, was she—except to me, only me, and this distinction I conferred on myself made me proud and wary.

She was interesting and what I find interesting is a kind of doubleness, or transition, a becoming-something-else, a shadow line between two states: wit and intelligence, for example, child and woman, prettiness and beauty. So I saw that she was pretty but becoming something better than pretty, and I saw that she was a dejected stranger, doing time like me.

I found out later that her father had gotten a promotion and his company had moved him so that his eldest daughter would miss the joys of a senior year among her friends in Rochester, a city I still think of as the home of a seductive accent, with invitingly open vowels. Success for her father meant extirpation and exile for her and, worse, that whatever she would have to do to fit in, to accumulate new friends, would scarcely be worth the effort, since it would all come to an end in ten months. Her life was interrupted; she was, so to speak, striking our town a glancing blow, then she’d be off to college, starting a life of real consequence when I would become invisible forever.

 

2. Pretty Is As Pretty Does

I began my inquires without finesse, hoping that my indiscretion would go unnoticed in the general sorting out of the new year. I succeeded when I ran into Camille Lefevre in the cafeteria during lunch period on Wednesday. I went straight to the point because Camille and I had been on more or less friendly terms since elementary school. Yes, there was a new girl in her A. P. English class, perhaps the very one in which I was so interested.

“She was wearing a purple blouse yesterday.”

Camille made a face. “So, you’re noticing blouses now? What next?”

“It was purple, imperial purple,” I insisted, undaunted.

Camille cast her eyes toward the fluorescent lighting. “Imperial? Oh boy.”

High school, like Hell, is a hothouse. In fact, I picture the Inferno as an eternal secondary school, teeming with demons, lorded over by a damned hierarchy spring-loaded for punishment. In either place it isn’t hard to access information about newcomers. The demonic are at home in hell and flourish there. This may explain why even the few people who were happy in high school are reluctant to own up to it. “Abandon hope all ye who enter” is a threat only to the non-demonic; that is, those who have hopes to abandon. In high school and in Hell gossip is a reward for some, a punishment for others.

Camille, who was not demonic, took pity on me. “Okay,” she said, “sure, I noticed her. We all did.”

I was alarmed. This contradicted my conviction that only I could see her properly, that I alone was able to appreciate her. “Really?”

“You didn’t hear the story? I’d have thought it’d have made the rounds by now,” said Camille and patted my arm. “Poor baby, you really are out of the loop, aren’t you?”

Camille was not a pretty girl but a ferociously intelligent one. She constructed her formidable defenses out of facetiousness and sarcasm, which I respected. Her essential kindness was like a twelve-carat diamond locked in a safe deposit box, brought out only on special occasions and exposed only to the elect.

“What happened?” I asked with an impatience that so amused Camille that she had to make an effort not to go on teasing me.

“Okay. It’s the first class of the year, right? Mrs. Cianci—you know her?”

“Cianci? Sure. Looks a bit like a starving Doberman, adores Emily Dickinson, plays favorites and smokes Winstons in the parking lot.”

Camille looked at me with appraising eyes. “You’re well informed.”
“I was afraid I’d get her.”

“You don’t love Emily Dickinson?”

“Nuts about Emily, but glad I got Mr. Rousseau.”

“Lucky ducky. He’s the one who assigns Crime and Punishment every year, isn’t he?”

“And Madame Bovary. But we’re getting off the point.”

“Oh, right. The new girl.”

“The new girl.”

“You don’t even know her name, do you?”

I didn’t care that I didn’t know her name. It was good that she should be a tabula rasa, though I knew this was a vain fantasy of the Pygmalion variety. Names are stories and I was intimidated by the story of her past. To me, it would have been ideal had her existence begun on the Tuesday after Labor Day.

“Her name’s—you want to know?”

“What is it?”

“It’s . . . alliterative. Guess that’s why it stuck in my mind. Victoria Vanderwal. Dutch, I suppose, at least on the dad’s side. Maybe the mother’s English. I mean, Victoria?”

Victoria Vanderwal. It was imposing; it had dignity, roots. It was a triumphant, queenly name, and I folded up its seven syllables for later consideration.

“Okay. So? English class? Yesterday?”

“Well, Cianci started off by calling the roll. Your treasure sat at the back. She said ‘here’ kind of quietly. Then Cianci went into the big speech about the great things we’re going to accomplish.”

“Not much of a story,” I said, checking the clock high on the wall.

“Idiot. Here’s what happened. Brenda Mars and Suzy Venanzi were sitting right in front of your Vicky and of course they were chattering. They hadn’t stopped from the moment they sat down. This boy, that boy, this car, that club. They were loud too; I mean I could’ve taken notes. Cianci frowned and squinted.” Camille screwed up her face and craned her neck. “She’s an English teacher, so she’s near-sighted. But Brenda and Suzy went right on and then Suzy broke into this giggle that was the last straw for Cianci. She picked up her roll book, studied it, and then she let ‘Miss Vanderwal’ have it with both barrels.”

“What?”

“Told her she was making a rotten first impression, that apparently she didn’t appreciate the privilege of being in an A. P. class—and, since she was a transfer student, it was entirely possible an error had been made. ‘An alternative can easily be arranged,’ she said all snippy and snobbish—you know, like Vicky’d be sent down among the knuckle-draggers. I guess her feelings were hurt.”

“Whose?”

“Cianci’s. Queen Victoria sat there like a statue.”

“She didn’t—”

“Nope.”

“—say it was the others? Brenda? Suzy?”

“Nope. I said like a statue. You know, bent knees, hands in lap, stone face—an allegory of Patience, or Martyrdom.”

The bell rang.

You’d think a debut so noble and self-sacrificing would have ensured Victoria Vanderwal’s acceptance by the coterie of Brenda Mars and Suzy Venanzi. They were bound to feel grateful and just a little guilty. Brenda and Suzy were unmistakably pretty girls; they had rich fathers and were high up among the high-school aristocracy, self-absorbed but good at answering test questions. Even the rumors about oral sex with the local dukes and barons couldn’t touch them; they were immune. I imagined Victoria being gathered into their herd.

I was of two minds about such a development. On the one hand, though my heart ached for the injustice she had endured on her first day, I rejoiced that Victoria had behaved so well. The story justified my opinion of her character. On the other hand, I was horrified that she would now be taken up by the Suzy-Brenda circle, another pretty girl fallen into the world of MasterCards and giggling, the jockeying for position. Such an elevation could only degrade her unless she miraculously held out against it, and this seemed as implausible as Ms. Cianci ordering her class to sing Dickinson’s lyrics to the tune of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”

As it happened, things worked out otherwise. The pretty girls, the whole Suzy and Brenda set, decided that the new girl had just been showing off, trying to ingratiate herself, that what she’d done wasn’t in the least remarkable and that, in fact, all she’d done was to sit there stupidly. Perhaps this meant that they didn’t find her pretty enough. Camille reported this to me a couple days later with the canny smile she wore whenever people confirmed her low opinion of them.

“By the way,” she added, “she’s really good in class. I mean Cianci’s spiteful. She’s after her all the time and Vicky answers her picky little questions in full paragraphs. Calm and dead-on. She never complains and, of course, she never raises her hand. Okay? Over and out.”

Pretty and smart and serious, self-contained, solitary, persecuted, rejected, traduced. And what ankles.

 

3. I Dream of Vicky

No, not that sort of dream but a pre-adolescent nightmare, the anxious dream of a timorous boy.

My innocence was, I knew, out of season, a sort of culture lag. I was stalled in the prolonged childishness people think of with more contempt than wistfulness. But love comes before sex and innocence isn’t necessarily just a deficiency of information. Perhaps it’s the spirit that’s essential and the body’s just contingent. I still don’t know; however, I knew even then that what I felt for Victoria Vanderwal wasn’t Platonic love, which, according to the man himself, is sublimated desire. There wasn’t much physical desire or, at least, I didn’t want there to be. I was holding fast to that fleeting, self-deluded period just before the muddy tidal wave of puberty washes over everything.

In my dream Victoria was seated on a bench reading a fat novel, no doubt a Victorian one. This bench was in a vast park that had suddenly appeared right beside the school, replacing the parking lot and athletic fields. It was an idealized park, an enormous empty garden, pastoral and inviting as a golf course without the golf. Her bench was under a huge tree, a sycamore, the Tree of Knowledge. A pair of squirrels chased one another at top speed, probably on their way to copulating. I watched her read. Is it Dickens, one of the Brontë sisters? Then Billy Caruso trudged into my dream with two snickering cohorts, whom he dismissed before sidling up to Victoria, my Victoria. Billy wore jeans, a T-shirt, and a leather jacket, as if it were half-a-century ago; it was humiliating to think that my unconscious could be so unoriginal. Billy leaned over Victoria and said something but I couldn’t hear the words, though I understood their purpose. She laid down her book, seemed to ponder Billy and his reputation (girls, booze, one picturesque motorcycle accident, two famous touchdowns, all the glamorous gossip). “No, no,” I shouted, but of course I was inaudible as well as invisible, a weightless ghost in front of the dream’s Seurat foreground. “Not the bad boy, Victoria; it’s so trite!” Caruso looked my way and smirked derisively. This was the real nightmare moment, to realize that to him I wasn’t invisible at all.

Caruso set his rear-end down on the bench, too close, threw a muscular arm around Victoria’s shoulders, and whispered in her ear while continuing to stare at me. She didn’t turn a hair but her patience, her emblematic and statuesque serenity, was spoiled by a faint smile. This smile, I thought, isn’t even the result of a wish to spite me. To her, I’m invisible. I didn’t see you. Sorry.

I would have liked to murder Caruso, which I guess is to say, I wanted to be Billy.

 

4. Prolegomenon to a Taxonomy

Girls who know they are pretty.

Almost all pretty girls fit into this category. Among self-consciously pretty girls are those who leverage their looks, zealous manipulators who account prettiness an asset the way governments do ballistic missiles. Others consider their prettiness a burden, or pretend to. Though they complain of being misjudged, of having to cope with unwelcome suitors, they would never choose to be other than pretty. There are some girls who are convinced they are pretty but actually aren’t pretty, merely symmetrical, hard, and accustomed to coarse compliments. A few pretty girls like to appear scrupulous about their prerogatives. While declining to wield their power, when they don’t need it, they insist that others acknowledge this as a virtue, as if they have overcome a sore temptation. Even as they protest that they have overcome the temptation they are succumbing to it. There are pretty girls who are self-regarding in their prettiness, reflecting on themselves to the point of concluding that they are not pretty but beautiful, justifying their self-love. Some pretty girls, though obviously aware that they are pretty, nevertheless cannot overcome their anxiety about the precise measure of their prettiness and are mortified that other girls should be prettier.

Girls who are pretty without knowing it.

How could it happen that a pretty girl would be unaware of her prettiness? Some may be unconscious of their prettiness simply because they are unobservant to the point of stupidity. One would think a pretty girl with five healthy senses would be conscious of her prettiness if only because those around her tell her she’s pretty over and over, implicitly and explicitly. Nevertheless, some pretty girls, though no less concerned about being pretty than those in the first category, convince themselves they aren’t pretty despite all the evidence to the contrary. Why? It might be because they have exceptionally high standards of prettiness, but I doubt it. I think it’s more likely to be either a form of modesty, a fear of Nemesis, or, most usually, a wish to escape the onus of being a pretty girl, for example having to cope with the envy and resentment of their unpretty friends. A spiritual burden attaches to any distinction, even the most superficial, even prettiness.

The rarest of pretty girls must surely be the one who’s never been complimented on her good looks and so is sincerely oblivious to them. The prettiness of such a girl is, in my opinion, the most precious and most precarious, especially because her prettiness passes over into real beauty. I believe there are forms of beauty that can go wholly unnoticed; while pretty girls are always being told they’re pretty. So, how could it be that a pretty girl wouldn’t suspect that she’s pretty, wouldn’t be told? It can only be because others don’t recognize it; that is, because she’s a swan whom everyone—or nearly everyone—mistakes for a duckling.

Men and boys swarm round prettiness. You can see this in any gathering and with males of any age. They can’t help it. Female prettiness is only doing its stuff which is to say it’s nature’s tactic for tricking us into moving the genes along. Like mayflies, pretty girls often have only a brief season of prettiness in which to manipulate, but are themselves even more profoundly manipulated. Pretty girls can be cruel but they’re never a serious threat because, in the end, what is there for them to do but attract? They seek completion and relish getting chased until they catch. This must be why pretty girls have no repose and are never sufficient unto themselves. Pretty doesn’t care to look inward. That’s what beauty does. We don’t need Plato to tell us that we love the beautiful; but whether it’s beautiful because we love it or we love it because it’s beautiful is a question fit for his teacher, who hardly ever came to a conclusion. Bird-watchers feel a compulsion to know if that flash of feather they glimpsed was a sparrow or a junko. Naming matters. Adam gave everything a name before tasting of the Tree of Knowledge. This must signify that naming is at best only a provisional sort of knowledge, a baby step down the path of thought. I too needed to name what I saw; I needed to decide if Victoria Vanderwal was to be named pretty or beautiful.

There’s something unreckonable about beauty. Sure, a beautiful object can be analyzed; anything can be—a thoroughbred’s stride, a pitcher’s motion, a vase’s proportions. Aesthetic analysis can be absorbing, even illuminating; and yet, after you’re finished, beauty remains untouched, beyond the ratios and symmetries; unlike prettiness, beauty can’t be explained because it can’t be explained away. Unless beauty degrades itself it remains as inexplicable as grace. If it can be explained away then it isn’t beauty, but prettiness.

My hypothesis was that, since Victoria Vanderwal evidently didn’t know she was pretty, it followed that she must be beautiful.

Pretty or beautiful?

Here’s a bit of aesthetic philosophizing via distinctions.

Pretty’s a whim, beauty a thought. Pretty’s ephemeral, beauty durable. Pretty charms, beauty absorbs. Pretty is like wit, beauty like imagination. Pretty’s narrow; beauty has scope. Pretty teases; beauty subdues. Pretty’s frivolous, beauty in earnest. Pretty chatters while beauty’s serene. Pretty can be clever, but beauty’s wise; the more silent the more profoundly it speaks. Pretty may not be common but it is familiar while beauty is forever unexpected.

Notwithstanding these differences, the pretty and the beautiful can call up the identical feelings, especially in males of the chivalrous, literary sort, who readily mistake the pretty for the beautiful. The final novel Mr. Rousseau assigned that year was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In it I found a funny sentence on this very point. Savage, bred on Shakespeare, falls for Lenina, reared on mandatory sexual promiscuity. Savage yearns to adore Lenina and do heroic things to win her. But Lenina’s a girl who’s easy to love close up but impossible to adore from afar. Lenina is pretty, not beautiful. Huxley records the moment when Savage first senses his error this way: “He was obscurely terrified lest she should cease to be something he could feel himself unworthy of.”

Deciding whether a girl is pretty or beautiful is a practical matter and a momentous one, especially if you’ve gauged the risks of disillusionment and the degree of your unworthiness. If you dare to approach they will react differently, and it’s always prudent to know with whom and what you’re dealing.

It’s no objection that my admittedly overwrought distinction between the pretty and the beautiful is subjective. Most verdicts are subjective and yet they can alter lives. Certainly I’m aware there are objective truths in abundance, truths of the kind Brenda Mars and Suzy Venanzi were so good at mastering; but, in my opinion, the truth that really counts must always a subjective one. And, as to Victoria Vanderwal—even though she didn’t see me—I reached my verdict.

So, how does a pretty girl who doesn’t know she’s pretty, who is, in all actuality, beautiful—how does a girl like Victoria Vanderwal behave?

 

5. The Death of Phil Berg’s Father

It was amazing how instantly he became taboo. I’d known Phil Berg since first grade and he’d never been what you could call popular but now nobody wanted anything to do with him at all. Superstition again—that is, people didn’t just behave as if what he had were catching, they really believed it.

Phil had a square torso with one limb at each corner. His lips were thick and his hair, the color of a rusty bucket, grew in tight waves from low on his forehead back over his long skull. He was a nice guy but shy, unathletic, diffident. In general, his grades were good, but in high school he excelled at algebra and trigonometry, attainments that did less than nothing for his popularity. I liked Phil well enough but we’d never been close, not even in a geographic sense, since he lived on the other side of town. We shared no interests, only a decade of propinquity; yet, after all, we’d grown up together. I’d been to his house a couple of times over the years and had even met his father, a more weathered version of Phil, just as square and half again as large.

There was no lingering illness, no time to get accustomed to the idea. One day Phil Berg’s father had a lethal heart attack and the news spread.

In general, pretty girls are inoculated against the malignity of fate. What did their prettiness signify but that they’d been singled out for happiness? Even when throwing a tantrum or luxuriating in a sulk, they were happy, every pout a prelude to a giggle. Phil Berg was the antithesis of a pretty girl. He must have been lonely but now his solitude was raised, as he’d have said, to a power; his father’s death had pushed him still further away from the campfire, toward outer darkness.

Pretty girls bunch and move in phalanxes. They love their neighbor only to the extent that their neighbor is exactly like them. Except for the plain sidekicks pretty girls cultivate, their closest friends are usually their bitterest rivals. Unlike Mr. Berg, the daddies of pretty girls don’t die. They’re sustained by the obligation to cherish, admire, and spoil their golden daughters; their paternal anxieties over these shining girls probably provide plenty of cardio-vascular exercise.

I confess I didn’t want to feel for Phil either—I did, but there was no merit in it because my sympathy was involuntary. I didn’t like imagining being Phil Berg, with a defunct father, with the underpinnings of my life suddenly knocked from under me. I’m afraid I shared the general sentiment that somehow Phil had made a mess of things. I suppose I feared empathy was risky, as if to imagine a catastrophe were to bring it nearer. Nevertheless, we boys had some sense of propriety and this was pricked by the guilt-trips imposed by our parents. So, six of us who’d grown up with Phil reluctantly decided to go over to his house two days after the event. We’d go after dinner and pay what our parents, with grave formality, called a condolence call. None of us had more than a vague idea of what we were supposed to say or do.

We didn’t like the idea of arriving singly in the house of mourning, compelled to stand stiffly before an unknown quantity of Bergs. We agreed to meet up at school and go together, like a platoon heading over the top.

“Do we dress up?” somebody asked. The consensus was that something as serious as death called for ties and jackets. “And be sure you shake his hand,” somebody added, asserting the expertise that came from losing a grandmother. The idea was to express solidarity and support, albeit for the briefest possible time. That we felt no solidarity and could support no one was beside the point. Even death—or perhaps death especially—was not an occasion for sincerity, just ritual. We would be going to see Phil for form’s sake alone and, like pallbearers, so that each of us would only have to hold up only a sixth of the burden. The hollowness of the whole thing was summed up in the phrase, “At least—” as in, “Well, at least we’re showing up” or the expert’s reply to the question of how long we should stay: “At least fifteen minutes.”

It was dusk. The street was lined with cars and the house all lit up. Those cars made us feel ashamed, certain that we were the only hypocrites. Our dress shoes clattered on the wooden porch. A middle-aged woman heard us and greeted us with disconcerting enthusiasm at the open door.

“Oh, good,” she said. “You’re here for Phil.” She positively beamed at us. Phil must be in a bad way, I thought.

She conducted us into a packed living room. It looked like a party was going on, though a party with a broken leg, so to speak. Food was heaped on every flat surface, from whole hams to ginger snaps, ice buckets, bottles of soda, juice, carafes of ice water, cheeses, fruit baskets, cold cuts. People stood around talking with glasses and plates in their hands. I noticed that the closer they were to the couch, where Mrs. Berg sat in state wearing a black dress and looking stunned, the softer their voices.

“I’m Phil’s Aunt Thelma,” said our hostess while herding us toward the widow. And so Phil’s mom was—that is, a widow, no longer a wife, hardly even Phil’s mother. The new role seemed to have overwhelmed her. Mrs. Berg looked smaller than I remembered. She didn’t look up at us. She just continued staring into space. It was unnerving.

Aunt Thelma leaned down toward her and said in a loud, cheery whisper, “Look, honey. These boys have come to see Phil.”

We stood at attention before her in two ranks, as awkward as if we were there to ask her to dance.

I took a quick glance around. There were no girls from school, pretty or otherwise. None. Just a couple little girls, cousins I supposed, maybe neighbors. They were huddled together in a corner and looked bored.

Mrs. Berg took a moment to focus on us, a half-dozen boys offering silent condolences. She looked indignant. Who were we to overrun her living room? What did we know of her husband whose heart had failed? High school boys ignorant of birth and marriage and death, of everything that mattered. Had we ever been true friends to her poor, lonesome son that we should show up here, now? But when she spoke Mrs. Berg was gracious, albeit dismissive.

“Thank you for coming. I think Philip’s in the dining room. I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you. Right through there.” Aunt Thelma officiously pointed the way.

In the next room was the Bergs’ version of the standard suburban dining room set, the polished mahogany table, eight serious chairs, crystal chandelier. The table supported even more food: cakes under plastic, hors d’oeuvres on oval platters, peeled carrots and celery radiating around a bowl of dip, two unopened jars of olives, several unidentifiable things still wrapped tight in tin foil, a lasagna square as Phil or Mr. Berg. All this food looked desperate to me, an abundance frantically trying to fill into an emptiness that was too empty.

A couple of the chairs had been moved into the far corner where it was darkest, and on them sat Philip Berg and Victoria Vanderwal. She was holding Phil’s left hand in both of hers. Victoria sat silently, again like Camille’s allegorical statue. Phil’s eyes were cast down, both feet planted flat on the floor, the three joined hands resting on his broad thigh. He looked up at us and hastily rubbed his eyes with his free hand, not removing the other from Victoria’s clasp.

Phil told me later that he had been in Cianci’s class that first day—an assignment error that was soon corrected—and that he’d gone up to Victoria afterwards to tell her he admired what she’d done, that it was terribly unfair, and that she shouldn’t think all the teachers were as mean as Cianci. He had made himself visible, you see; dull, square Phil had been gallant and welcoming and not shy. Though he was transferred out of her A.P. English class he and Victoria were in pre-calculus together and, when she realized she was behind, she’d gone to him for help with the homework. So, they’d become friends. She was, in fact, Phil’s only female friend. No pretty girl would let herself be seen with Phil Berg.

 

6. Annunciation and Renunciation

Pretty girls have their own peculiar way of walking. I don’t think it’s deliberate, even among the most self-consciously pretty. They can’t help it any more than I can describe, or ignore, it. I enjoyed watching Victoria walk as much as I liked watching her sitting still and would find opportunities to do so between classes or after school. In motion Victoria excited me because I was acutely aware of all that was moving, the elements that were her body. Adolescent male sexuality is a sort of imaginative butchery; it’s about parts. Walking is a corporeal activity. But Victoria’s gait was less unique, less touching, than her stillness, of which I’m reminded by Renaissance paintings of the Annunciation. I understand what those old masters were aiming at. This is fitting because I transformed Victoria into an object of contemplation. To me she was like a masterpiece I alone had recognized, purchased, and hung in a private room where no one else was permitted to enter. Stillness has little to do with desire, let alone dismemberment. Such stillness is inviolable, entire unto itself, and that’s exactly how I thought of Victoria Vanderwal.

As intensely visible as she was to me that year, I remained irremediably invisible to Victoria. I was not exasperated by my invisibility; on the contrary, I carefully preserved it. Why? Adults smile indulgently at their adolescent selves, especially their crushes, perhaps because it’s best to believe in the childishness of an intensity they can no longer feel. So they go to reunions and hug the now corpulent men or women who had enthralled or intimidated them decades before. The old laugh at their outlived emotions as if such things were meaningless and had not laid down the patterns of their lives. That everything which moved us in our youth should be dismissed as, in my mother’s casual phrase, “a phase.” That prettiness in a girl is just a phase is obvious; but, for me, Victoria’s beauty wasn’t ephemeral. What I felt wasn’t merely committed aestheticism.

All that year, I was aware that her own invisibility was inching closer. No doubt for Victoria those ten months were a hiatus, a pause to get through before life really got started. Of course I would have loved to know her dreams and ambitions, her thoughts and feelings, but this is only because love is tainted by the cruelty of curiosity, the wish to penetrate. Maybe it’s ineluctable that a boy’s greatest erotic fear should be of inadequacy as a girl’s is of being violated. But all this I renounced by sustaining the pathos of distance.

In May there was the prom which, of course, I dreaded. It really was awful. With a heavy heart I asked Danielle McDermott (blonde, blue-eyed, pretty) and, to my surprise, she said yes. Victoria went with Phil Berg. I couldn’t take my eyes off them all night. I watched them dancing, talking, and they were so heartbreakingly ill-matched that I felt no jealousy. For this staring Danielle let me have it in the parking lot and I merited every word, even the foulest ones. Her words were like the gravel under my shoes, gritty and hard. It was bitter to know that, for her, I would forever be the jerk who cheated her out of the sweet prom memories pretty girls are owed. I felt guilty, soiled, forlorn, and cruel. We skipped the parties and I took her home early.

The last time I saw Victoria was at graduation. The day was inauspicious, a gray, heavy sky sinking over the football field until it finally precipitated on our heads first in a hopeless mist then a steady rain. We sat in our soaked robes, parents in the stands behind us as the speakers refused to cut their orations short. I was too far from Victoria to see her clearly though twice I stood up and turned completely around, pretending it was my parents I was looking for. The second time I caught a glimpse of her; she sat motionless, again the emblem of something miraculous and comforting, like an enceinte virgin.

The speeches were pompous, humorless, hackneyed and safe. With labored nostalgia and inflated aspiration the speakers put me in mind of people straining at bicycle pumps. Rain ran down our necks like reality’s critique of this orgy of idealism.

Recalling yet again the only thing Victoria Vanderwal had ever said or would say to me, I had to appreciate the aptness and concision of, “I didn’t see you. Sorry.” I smiled to think how those words would have looked written into my yearbook below her picture. I didn’t care for Victoria’s photo, by the way. It was quite a disappointment. The photographer had contrived to make her look merely pretty, as if everything distinctive had been air-brushed out so that she’d conform to a set of national specifications. The picture was of her and yet, in it, she was invisible.

The valedictorian wound up in a high voice promising to speak “for a new generation that would fulfill the great work of our predecessors—” flattering the gallery, of course, but as unconvincing and pretentious as the school’s Latin motto: Eruditio Disciplina Ingenium. She ought to have pledged that we would avoid repeating the errors of our forebears by committing novel ones of our own, that life was likely to do to us exactly what it had done to them, that every generation expresses the little freedom it wins for itself in a spiderwork of necessity, that experience might not make us wiser but it would certainly make us forget.

The band blew a bedraggled recessional through their wet instruments. There was a low cheer, some embraced, others scampered toward the grandstand or headed straight for the parking lot. I searched for Victoria but couldn’t spot her through the fog, the swirl of sopping acetate and dripping tassels. Ignoring my beckoning parents, I tried for one last look. I thought I glimpsed her from the back—that heart-breaking walk—making her way toward the stands and her family. A bald, grinning man pulled the girl to him and, before her blue robe disappeared under his black umbrella, I saw that it wasn’t Victoria at all. It was just another pretty girl.

So she turned invisible and passed into my memory for good along with the anguish of youth. There she still sits, light as an idea, immutable as a sculpture and as blind.

I was sorry I didn’t see her.

 

 

Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008. A new collection of stories, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, is forthcoming.



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