The Unkindness of Acquaintances or Baby’s First Heartbreak
On a recent five hour train ride from Rome to Turin, a young boy of about eight years walked down the aisle and stood at my shoulder. “Ciao,” he said. “Ciao,” I replied. He said his name was Giovanni. I smiled and told him mine. He turned and left, summoned by his mother, who was whispering something to him.
A minute later, Giovanni walked down the aisle again. This time, he walked past me to the seat across the aisle, where a young girl was coloring away industriously in her coloring book.
Giovanni had clearly been told by his mother that she had intended for him to introduce himself to the young girl instead. He repeated his opening line to her. Unlike our communication, which consisted of bemused albeit pleasant enough silence, the exchange between Giovanni and the girl took off immediately. Soon the girl’s mother and Giovanni exchanged seats so the children could sit next to each together. Giovanni sidled into the seat. He confidently took what he clearly thought was his rightful place, picked up a colored pencil, and got to work on the page facing the one the girl was working on. Soon, her name, Miranda, studded his every sentence.
It was an adorable scene. They hit it off instantly. The boy had a rare charm. His shining eyes were full of humor and he was quick to smile. The girl, remarkably self-possessed for someone so young, kept steady at her work even when he began slowly to inject humor into their interchanges. All of the adults in earshot followed the charming scene, the picture perfect portrait of childhood bliss.
In their early moments together Giovanni and Miranda worked in silence, only looking each other’s way shyly once in a great while, when the other wasn’t looking, talking only tentatively about what colors different parts of the picture should be, asking for a certain
color pencil, and the like. Giovanni saw that the rules were Miranda’s, and the coloring book, pencils, and seat were too. Then he began subtly to bring some playfulness into the conversation. She responded to the overture. At first sight, Miranda appeared to be an extremely serious child. Short but solid, sporting thick glasses and an unflattering haircut, her appearance alone did not draw the eye the way his did. But Giovanni’s conversation made her come to life.
Miranda was transformed. His wit was quick and sophisticated. As they colored away, he would make a quiet observation that made her laugh with pure joy. Both then returned to their initial, serious, working posture, until she would say something that would make him giddy.
After a remarkably long time, the coloring gave way to pure joking, and the quiet tones of their conversation predictably shaded into gleeful noise. Now they were weak with the hilarity of what had become an elaborately funny conversation. Perceiving that their interactions were too rowdy for the train, their respective mothers reclaimed them, returning everybody to the original seating arrangement.
The girl never fully recovered. Giovanni, who didn’t like the arrangement either at first, adapted more quickly. After a few minutes, he could be heard laughing with his mother, playing some kind of game involving clapping. But Miranda, who had before he arrived been completely absorbed by her coloring, which she clearly took much more seriously than he did judging by the differences in the quality of their results, could not now get her mind off of him. When the girl was out of earshot, checking on Giovanni, our traveling companion marveled over Miranda’s intelligence and learned in Italian from her mother that she was unusually gifted intellectually. We could tell her mother faced some challenges that go with that territory and was happy and proud but exhausted.
Miranda was furious that she and Giovanni were separated. She did not mince words or body language when it came to letting her mother know how angry she was. From elation, her demeanor transformed into discontentment, disapointment, and dejection. She was like a flower which, suddenly blooming beyond its wildest dreams, wilted just as quickly…and was now beyond resuscitation. Finally, her mother, grasping the gravity of the situation and patiently persevering in reading a book aloud to her–a book that looked very advanced for a child that age–eventually managed to get Miranda interested. Only then did she start to look a little less glum.
Soon it was time for both of the young children to get off the train, coincidentally at the same stop. Miranda went over to say goodbye, asking Giovanni if they could be friends. “No,” he said, “I can’t. I already have a girlfriend.”
It was amusing to hear this interchange, considering that Giovanni was hardly old enough for a real girlfriend, even by the rushed standards of today. If I had to guess, I would say he was about seven to ten. But some of us had observed the entire acquaintance develop over the previous couple of hours, and noticed an affinity rare even for children, whose friendships often seem to come more easily than those of adults. So it was impossible to feel anything but pain.
We winced with empathy on Miranda’s behalf. Who among us had not experienced some radical rejection that had left-at best!-an emotional scar. Perhaps we were projecting, but we wondered, why on earth couldn’t they be friends? Or maybe Giovanni was just joking around and she knew that.
What do we conclude from a drama such as this? Are we all just cruel by nature? Were nature, fate, or the gods up to their cruel games again? Or was this boy, who seemed so sweet before, encouraged to behave this way in a culture that makes friends into commodities and categories, shrinking the possibilities for deep connection by pigeonholing us into mutually exclusive types of friends (girlfriend, friend of convenience…) and giving us a script for how all of our interactions will play themselves out? Doesn’t the post-modern Western culture of selfish individualism reward those for whom friendship, and even what passes for romance among more mature adults, has little intrinsic value?
I recently saw the movie “Young Adult” (Dir: Jason Reitman, 2011). The main character, destabilized by divorce, job loss, and a feeling her life was going nowhere, decides to return to her hometown to win back her teenage flame, who is now happily married with a newborn baby. He is making all the right choices these days, while she is drinking far too much and doing everything wrong. “I think I’m an alcoholic,” she announces to her nonplussed parents. She swears, she’s cynical, she’s out of touch with reality. She’s a person of poor character, or a clinical narcissist, it’s hard to tell. We are clearly supposed to think she is superficial, and she is that-par excellence. But her ex-boyfriend, portrayed as the good-hearted family man, only stares blankly when she tries to summon up memories of their wonderful times together in sexual communion. Is he missing some vital depths as well? His stance toward her is rigidly moralistic, uncompromisingly therapeutic: you have no right. You are messed up. If anything, we all just feel sorry for you.
Well, two can play this little game, whether of morals or health.
Is it so right or healthy to be able to leave someone behind like this, with no sense of the tragedy that involves for the other person, whose heart is left hanging?
Even if the parting of ways was necessary by exigency or fate, or without doubt for the best, should there really be no backward glance?
Declarations of love, in action and words, mean something to the one who truly loves, who takes that ultimate of all personal, intimate risks. Though that was not the situation for the jaded drama queen in “Young Adult,” certainly it was the case for Miranda, whose encounter with the abrupt withdrawal of Giovanni’s affections was horrible to watch. This withdrawal was aided and abetted by his mother, who suggested he introduce himself to her in the first place but now had no words of wisdom to share when it came to protecting the feelings of a child other than her own. No helpful whispers from her now.
Surely Miranda deserves better.