Kristine Langley Mahler


The others know how to get where they are going. They cope tearlessly with tragedies, they belong, they don’t leave a trail of litter behind them or show smudges. They intend. They are resistant.

You prepare for compliance, your manners careful and meticulous. You extinguish fires before you reminisce—emptying the road maps, perhaps learning to read them—and you take on ghosts, you guard a forest (it won’t help).

You long for a hand to hold (or just a boy) to take you, complete you. An end starts as a glorious adventure, but the habit of constant exposure (a fault of which you are aware) goes off-key quickly; the length of your itinerary is the problem.

You put the balance of your desire in a safe place, and in another, keep the record of all that is lost. You thought you’d made notable efforts, but you need, you need. You don’t have restrictions, you have other problems: a shortage of popularity, a service curtailed to a long-distance destination. You don’t exist.

You wrestle with your destiny, your station (it is with you at all times). An unhappy experience, to be left. So you try to make friends with a crashing bore, a wolf to your Little Red Riding Hood. You know. You talk to him awhile; your problems have begun.

He is tall, blond, devastating. He says he is at Yale (you think it may be true). He wonders why you’re reading Eliot. You let him buy you dinner, let him in your home. You don’t know his friends or family, you don’t know what he is really like. You say, sweetly, “I’m really sorry, but. Umm.” He persists, and you change, subtly. A different conduct. You meet again under carefully fenced circumstances, melodramatic, not where you wanted to go.

You occupy the night, a necessary luxury, your latest misstep (you simply can’t cope) girdling a different matter. You back into the corridor, pull a curtain across your mistake. He won’t find out.

A journey long-distance, a room, a procedure less formalized. At specified points he stops, he announces, your time runs out. He is the agent of the condition. You claim that custom allows your weight, your heft (you’re allowed, but you will pay). You are instructed, you obey, you adjust. You’re well-equipped for that. He may give you a gracious and sincere thanks; that’s expected.

You hear a tone change, an eerie whistle, a reminder: you don’t count now. You find yourself in a terrible light, an emotion you swat (he has a club). You can’t keep your place unless you save the seat in front of you. You don’t wander off.

Boys are under no obligation to a girl. You won’t get the sort of consideration you were promised a girl deserves. You moan and heave and stand in the rain; your slot unlocks, turns on, opens and shuts, opens and shuts. You are sure everything is in good working order. You call a boy, but he refuses to respond to your coaxing. You change, out of line. He does not appear. You meant to be used, not taken home. You cannot settle for a boy if he won’t come.

You stay modest, a young girl, grimly pleasant, a maid marked by your hunger.

A dream, to put yourself in the hands of a boy, hips and hotels, a guide you need, a passport to desire. He does it, it doesn’t hurt, he can save you. You travel, you visit, you need proof of your attraction. You won’t find the things you need (the kind of dress you’d wear to a prom, specific plans that require one).

You rack up moments, emergency items to remove the silence. One picture is worth thousands of words he doesn’t say. The expense of duty may cancel out the bargain. You remember no more than you would at home—you supply information about your certainty. It is not wanted. You don’t have the vaguest idea why the prospect is terrifyingly remote. You clutch yourself. You have plenty to do before that moment when he is nudging away from you. You make a stab at being more fun.

It is really quite simple.

You go through customs that embarrass you. You do it neatly and completely (you save yourself time in the long run; one night is everything you’ll need).

You are as secure as possible. When you want something from the one you want to love you, you’ll strain your rules, folding horizontally at hipline, the potential active. You’re unhooked, released, arranged, but your destiny will sneak in. You turn on full force, leave the door closed for thirty minutes, ready in another half hour. You know all about how to be open-minded.

A girl can set a poor example if what’s wrong with one person characterizes everyone. She is eager to think, talk, act, react differently. She’s not eager to make comparisons between life at home and life as a girlfriend (when in Rome…well, you know). She is extra careful, she pays attention to boy-girl customs. She isn’t given a great deal of respect. She hasn’t managed to solve her problems, but she is without rancor. A boy is a language she can poorly pronounce.


The original text comes from The Seventeen Book of Etiquette and Entertaining (1963), Chapter 12: "On the Move: Planes, Trains, Busses, Motels, Hotels and Ships." Following standard erasure practice, no words/letters have been added (although occasional punctuation has been), and all words/letters appear in their original order.