Perhaps the most important word to use in describing our relationship to the world of people, with its mixed intimacies and enthusiasms, is ambivalence. I feel it keenly sitting at breakfast in the hotel.
I sit alone, with two carnations in my hair and a beaming interest in everybody. Cindy the waitress delivers a smiling round bagel, halved, and a strawberry parfait that resembles a castle. I eat carefully and look over everyone. Today I anticipate smiling at so many strangers that when I arrive back at college tonight, my smile shall have worn cleanly out.
But I am full of the idiot fears of the novice traveler. I wonder if I am ill, if I will take the Dramamine at the right time, if my suitcase is too heavy to board. I wonder if-since I am small, defenseless, and possess not repulsive features-the man who drives the shuttle to the airport will choose to kidnap me.
I will bring my own face along, of course, having no other, and will publish my exuberant grin at every checkpoint. I will have about me thousands of potential friends who I might gain with the remark of a moment, but owe no loyalties afterward. It is the easiest kind of friendship.
The driver does not kidnap me. But the weight of my suitcase exceeds the limit, so I haul out 17 pounds of Dostoyevsky, Melville, and Twain and carry them on my back to the terminal where I sit beside an old woman with misdirected eyes who navigates her teeth into a sugared muffin. We exchange smiles-a victory-but have no time to speak as we board.
As the plane turns onto the runway I watch from the window. I know the clouds are coming. Why must we have televisions in the backs of our seats when we have clouds? The screen before me reads, in cartoon letters and blue, "YOU above all." I chuckle that man, since he can by incalculable networking take a metal barrel into the sky, forgets that he is made from the dust. My profound thoughts make me feel only a little smug.
Inexplicably I also feel that my face is on fire with shame. I try to think of a noble reason for this, and then realize I am baking in the heat of the stranger beside me. He has been talking urgent business into a piece of hot technology, and his good fashion frightens me. My lips twitch with the possibility of asking him outrageous questions, like whether he thinks he's a technology addict, just as he turns on the football game. Do I fear him more than he fears me? Which of us is guiltiest for the silence between us?
Several minutes later I lay my copy of The New York Times in my lap, so that if he won't talk to me he will at least think me intelligent. I busy myself writing about the clouds-calling them a mute ocean-when he reaches across and slams the window shade halfway down.
"Glare, glare!" he says, and makes an apologetic face.
I begin writing about him. Sometimes writing is my only way to level the world with a punch. Thankfully I recently learned to write backward, as it is often better to publish the judgments of the heart while obscuring them from their subject.
The carnations fell out of my hair hours ago, and I wonder how two bodies can sit so close and simultaneously wedge between themselves the long timbers of disinterest and studied composure. My ambivalent heart knows it is not good for mankind to be this alone but frequently feels too threatened to risk care even for a moment.
Over New York Harbor I finally speak. First I bite back many sentences, one being, "I hope you listened to the talk on flotation because I didn't."
Instead I say, "Are you going home?"
Yes, to be with his wife and child.
"You?" he asks.
I'm going back to school with 17 pounds of dead writers.
I breathe better now as conversation ensues, and am glad I risked the ounce of care.