– THE KID
– THE KID
...Where is she?
Where shall I ever see her as she was?...
It is a typical liability of learned antiquarians and intoxicated technologists alike to project themselves in fantasy to some period in the vanished past or fictitious future. Such idylls, however, however circumstantially elaborated, only reveal the timidity of the imaginations that indulge them, for they shrink for entertaining the full consequences to consciousness that life in such estranged circumstances would actually entail—how different its contents, and how benighted, that mind must be, that could welcome the ministrations of a Saxon leech, let us say, or how bewildered, to find itself technologically exalted above the natural world, amid whose partial inhospitalities we have evolved to be capable of a limited happiness!
Now, I am myself too sober to holiday so far from lived experience, and too cognizant of my own contingency to suppose that I could remain the singular being they have made me in any but my own times, and but for the appearance (and disappearance) of an unprecedented (and irretrievable) phasis of the beautiful, to be commemorated below, I would never have pretended to regret having been born—not centuries too early or late—but a scant nineteen years too soon: not (and this needs saying in this day of microchips and genetic engineering) to postpone my senility until some chemistry, or circuitry, can protract it unto eternity (for gladly would I sacrifice the years added at the back-end for those stolen at the front), but to bring my early middle age concurrent with the fragile interval wherein the prodigy aforementioned ran its brief career.
It is an index of how unstable an epiphenomenon that phasis would prove that its precipitating cause lay in a field of operations wholly unrelated to the beautiful, namely, in a change in the foddering of dairy cattle. For the hormones fed milch cows to increase their yield duly recurred in their secretions, albeit in very trace amounts; but so fantastically bio-active are these compounds, and so widely consumed their vehicle, that, shortly after their introduction, the symptoms of puberty began to appear in children as young as seven. Now, puberty, und die Folgen, had, of course, been the specific property of adolescence since that category had been invented; but to include actual children in a developmental stage by definition supposed to follow childhood, presented, not so much a non sequitur to logicians, as an inconvenience to marketers, and the anomaly was speedily accommodated by the invention of a new consumer demographic, “tweens.” This expedient, however, left adolescence somewhat embarrassed for a content; but to the professions interested, this conceptual vacuum was seized on at once as an opportunity to aggrandize their own several jurisdictions, and finding its lower bound blocked by interests more formidable than their own, psychologists, therapists, counsellors, social workers, parenting experts, and so on (and on), extended adolescence in the one direction open to it—upwards; so far upwards, indeed, that soon twenty-four year-olds, and in some university “student life” departments, twenty-eight year-olds, were sanctioned, as “late adolescents,” to exhibit one or another of the puerilities hitherto expected to have been outgrown by seventeen.
Only one of these, with its anatomical and postural concomitants, and inevitable accoutrements, will absorb us in what follows: hebetude—the propensity, that is, specific to adolescence (as its Greek root shows), to become so completely transfixed in some actual oddment, or mental figment, as to dissociate from the social situation, or surround. This state is not concentration (though it is as impenetrable as the deepest concentration), for its focus is indeterminate; nor is it distraction, for it seems not to require a focus at all: it comes over the subject involuntarily, and yet, as independent of external stimuli, arises autonomously. The subject leaves the “arena of mutual monitoring” (as the sociologists call “company”), where all see and are seen, hear and are heard, for the nebulous sequester of the middle distance; and, indeed, like a (real) child that believes that in covering its eyes with its hands it has actually disappeared, the adolescent somnambule is startled, upon returning from “away,” to discover the presence of others, and a good minute may pass before full re-orientation to the surround ensues.
So far adolescence, as originally conceived. But a conceptual revolution had, in the meantime, as we saw, occurred; and suddenly this fugue-like teen-age condition—this pre-adult bathyscaphical self-submergence—could be (here and there) observed to supervene upon the carriages and the countenances—the limbs and the lineaments—the figures and the features—of beautiful young women in their early or middle twenties, as, with the extension of adolescence, it was licensed to do, and they to undergo; and when it did, the happy result was that ephemeral phasis of the beautiful that I have it in mind to commemorate, to which I have given the name of The Kid.
I may perhaps be taken to task for using the (presently) contentious word “beautiful” in this, or, indeed, in any connexion. But as I am the discoverer, and eulogist, of this phenomenon, which, but for my somewhat specialized sensibilities and opportunities, might have lived and died unobserved, I do not see how those who were too blind during its heyday to notice, or who were born too late to witness, it, in its avatars, can dispute with me about its description. A phasis of something must after all have that something as its substrate. Snow must be there for cold to emanate from it. And we are now in a position to see that what differentiated this species from others in the genus, beauty, was a peculiar complication of factors whose conjunction was impossible until then and, as I will later explain, irreproducible since. For a beautiful sixteen year-old girl drifting adolescently into an adolescent “away” may be (is merely, was always, and still is now) a kid, but she is not The Kid; and a beautiful twenty-four year old woman, fully cognizant of the power she wields, is (and was then) no sort of kid at all. Neither the inchoate personality of the one, nor the fully realized beauty of the other, though necessary in combination, was of itself (of course) a sufficient condition for their complication to occur. It was only when the former suffused the aspect and the attitude of the latter with her own dissociated habitus that the fully adult beauty was transubstantiated into The Kid.
Still, it cannot be denied that certain physiognomies proved more receptive to this transformation than others; indeed, in my (prescriptive) experience, the correlation seemed absolute. The Kid in fact was never full-figured, broad-bottomed, or buxom. Protuberances of the pyknic, adipose or gluteal persuasion were contraindicated; prominences—what the anatomists call processes—acromioclavicular, costal, condylar, spondyllic, patellate—and above all the twin promontories of the anterior superior iliac spine, which, sighted from a distance, were as the Mounts Erebus and Terror to at least one aspiring swain’s Antarctic landkjenning—positively prerequisite. But not, again, sufficient: for the loss of orientation to the surround is always a psychical absence (or presence elsewhere), and these particular propitiating osteological grounds are independent of the psyche and irresponsive to its vicissitudes: exhibiting such a silhouette made the subject no more than a potential receptacle of the infusing, or rather the obtunding, influence in question.
But besides what we might call —using the adjective in its exact oncological sense—frank hebetude, with its total catatonic abstraction, there are partial losses, not indeed of contact with the surround, but of confidence in one’s footing within it, producing the uncertainty, tentativity and sheepishness typical of adolescence as originally conceived, and to these psychic states the body does respond, not, or course, anatomically, but posturally, in what the ethnologists call “displacements”—shrinkings, weight-shiftings, fidgetings, hair-twistings, and the like; and if Ortega is right, and our gestures disclose our psychological orientation involuntarily, The Kid was more often in possession of her avatars than their episodes of utter dissociation suggested. Experienced (at her age) the subject must needs have been; urbane she was not, or not continuously. Lord Chesterfield (whose last words from his death-bed were a reminder to his servants to bring his visitor a chair) would have despaired of her “graces.” Such suavity as she could maintain was unexpectedly belied by sudden descents into gawkiness. Pretended savoir faire gave way unpredictably to genuine mauvaise honte. The “all-growed-up” young woman in her mini-dressed aplomb became a tomboy again (and, indeed, a certain insecurity of gender was indivisible from The Kid, however emphatically she leaned girl); and for a longer or shorter time, the twenty-six year-old was fourteen.
But enough of generalities! Let me briefly pass in review a very few (of the very few) avatars of The Kid as I was privileged to observe them in their consummate moments. Each was, in different ways, and for different reasons, an imperfect participation in Her; but when taken together, disclosing to the eye of apperception a glimpse of the forever vanished Ideal.
R*** was, indeed, nearly perpetually posturally tentative. She had, not so much a gait, as a tread. She placed her sneakers (these were inevitable with The Kid, and, in R***’s case, aptly so named, for their flimsy canvas uppers, even when fully laced-up, as R***’s never were, and flat rubber sole made these putative “athletic shoes” unsuitable for any locomotion but sneaking) leerily, as if expecting a craquelure in the trompe l’oeil varnish of the painted sidewalks to propagate from every probative footfall. She evaded the pupils of her interlocutor like a scryer expecting to discover in every black surface a demon beckoning her to hear his indecent appeals. She did, however, albeit sporadically, but thanks to her peculiar craniometry, memorably, exhibit the hebephrenic oblivion in which I have placed the principal differentia of the phasis under examination. For R*** was beautiful, though her beauty was of a kind that won her few admirers among her peers. It seems that “some strangeness in the proportion” is a maxim more canted with than credited. Most look to be pleased, not ravished. But the beautiful partakes of the mysterious, and, though far from the “mediocre features, symmetrically disposed” that constitute the aesthetic ideal of most Americans, to whatever vintage of callowness they belong, R***’s decidedly prognathous facial index and exophthalmic green eyes so perfectly acquiesced the one with the other, and with her fawn elf-locks and orange complexion, that, once seen, her beauty “lived upon the eye,” and could not be denied on grounds of aesthetic theory: and one was every time surprised, upon seeing it after an absence, by its unfailing emergence from features so separately unpropitious. In her interludes of hebetude, her forgetful jaw slackened enough to part her lips, and part-way over those wary viridescent globes drooped her long, star-pointed lashes. Rarely was the psychical introrsion of The Kid so visibly symptomatized; and this it was that made her occasional syncopes so memorable.
R*** was naturally elfin, and mostly shrewdly affected the shoddy jeans and disfigured t-shirts of the gamine; occasionally, though, and, one supposes, designingly, she broke out a very, very short pleated green skirt. This was hypnotically arresting—to my own imagination, it proved ineffaceable—but, as any degree of malice aforethought is incompatible with The Kid, on such occasions her allure was that of the young woman she actually was, unexpectedly fetishistically garbed.
M*** was one of those giraffe-like girls who began unself-consciously loping about New York around the time The Kid was enjoying her brief meridian. Of course, there had always been very tall girls before these herds appeared; but—discouraged, perhaps, by male-chauvinistic prejudices, or male sexual insecurities, from displaying it fully—they contrived to diminish their camelopardian stature by slouching when walking, hunching down when seated, head-ducking, flat shoes, horizontally-striped jerseys, and other self-miniaturizing expedients. The psychic ceiling once burst, however, not only did already tall girls uncoil their long slender lengths and tendril-like appendages, but—and such is the plasticity of juvenile soma—children who might not otherwise have felt permitted to grow tall, veritably sprouted. And thus was a great gain won to the beautiful: for it was discovered how well girls work in the perpindicular.
M*** was one of these megafauna; and, in addition to being wonderfully tall (else she would not have figured in this little libro de la mia memoria), wonderfully beautiful. She was Sif among us Nibelungs (especially on the subway did she so appear), except her hair was black amber, and, (unlike Sif,) she lost nothing by its being boyishly cropped, as on occasion she condescended to allow it to be. Set by nature’s own “free and unwithdrawing hand” in her now-aquamarine, now argent-vive eyes, and thus perpetually, were the over-large black pupils that the would-be femmes fatales of the Bel Epoque risked blinding themselves with atropine to attain for a single chandelier-lit evening. I never descended those obsidian vortices without recalling with what alien intelligence and intentions an octopus at the Brighten Beach aquarium once levelly returned my merely human gaze. Indeed, the great Scholastics were wrong on the metaphysics, but right on the instinct, for once the beautiful passes a certain threshold, it really is the transcendental property they declared it to be; and however often one reminded oneself that, in the case of M***’s eyes, the threshold leapt was, in mundane ophthalmic fact, one sixty-fourth of an inch of pupillary diameter, the effect remained irremissibly inscrutably acosmic.
All the more penetrating, then, and precious, those few seconds during which M*** became The Kid—when, for example, pulling her inevitable backpack from under her chair to return her notebook or to retrieve some item that could more conveniently have been left at home on East 11th Street than ported to the wilds of 14th, she would discover herself caught in that act, and uncertainly return my smile; or when, while using her inevitable mobile telephone to photograph some indifferent detail, she became so absorbed in framing the image that she resigned her giraffine fluidity of limb and actually lumbered like a moose (in her own expert Minnesotan estimate, the most graceful and most awkward of animals); or—but seconds, I say, for M*** was too conscious of how she appeared to others to intermit her self-presentation for much longer than that, and then, only when she thought herself likely to be unobserved, or oblived the observer—or, perhaps, trusted him enough (as she never did me) to overlook her moments of maladdress, or love her beauty all the more for them.
Then there was K***, who, by her own account, spent her actual childhood cleaving to her mother’s hand or hiding behind her skirts, and now hid behind the oversized spectacles that had constantly to be pushed back with her index finger whenever, startled, she looked up from her drawing pad to discover herself among classmates…and Z***, with her inevitable skate board, and limbs she could so little control that she never repeated a posture, and who, though silent among adults (as she thought of them), turned into a teen-age chatterbox with her girlfriends…and T***, who, running her hand through her short date-brown hair, never failed to produce another crop of unruly cowlicks…
But the delicate composite of forces that brought The Kid into existence was too fortuitous to sustain her there for long. She was, indeed, undone by regression on one side and hypertrophy on the other: from above, by the puerilizing of adulthood; from below, by the sophisticating of childhood. Childish adults—expert children; παιδαριογέροντες—pueri seniles. These two trends had long been bending towards a juncture; at last it came; and ever since, children without innocence, but with plenty of self-possession, and adults without maturity, but with plenty of self-assertion, have come to comprise a single age-less regime, roughly poised around fifteen, and proudly calling itself “culture;” in which the beauty of beautiful young women remains—for a transcendental can never die—and remains, indeed, puissant enough to ravish the eye, but never, never since, poignant enough to break the heart; and where the only votary of The Kid finds himself impervious to all but the charms of the one last beauty still left for him to embrace.