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Castles in the Air
I had wanted to get away.
Now, after the letters and telegrams had been read, after the steward had placed vases and bowls of flowers on the bureau, and my son Kippy had converted his bunk and the contents of the bon-voyage baskets into an extravagant barricade of outsized jars of caviar, hothouse fruit and chocolate bars, I took off my earrings, my beaded hat from Mr. John's and the scarlet coat from Trigère that still wasn't paid for. I lay down on the other bunk and was dispirited because I derived from the stateroom little of the rapture I had anticipated.
As a child, I had traveled almost every year with my family to England for the summer, and I remembered how each cabin then had seemed more enchanting than the last. Now that I was twenty-five, with a six-year-old child of my own, perhaps I shouldn't have expected to be charmed instantly by a stateroom. But perhaps, I thought, all my preconceived ideas would turn out the same way, flattening with experience into dim shadows, like Mr. Eliot's shadows that fell so gloomily between the idea and the reality.
I wished that I were more like Kippy, artless, untroubled and reacting in accord to a single heart and a single mind. I wondered whether there would ever come a time when I could reconcile what I wanted to do and what I felt I should do with what I did. I hoped that by going away, by being alone with the added stimulation of alien people, sights and customs, I would in some way be able to disentangle myself from the octopus of my doubts and fearsand misgivings.
I had wanted to leave New Yorknot the city, which I lovedbut the life I lived there, which seemed to claim from me barely more than an acceptance. I wanted to be a stranger in a world where everything I saw, heard, touched and tasted would be fresh and new, because wonder and awareness seemed to have disappeared from my life, leaving an excessive familiarity with an existence of routine.
Each day had been as undistinguished as the next. I got up, dressed, went to the office, worked, left the office, stayed home or went out, and fell asleep knowing the whole process would be repeated the following day.
It had started five years before. Disillusioned as one can only be at twenty, having by then already been married and divorced, I wanted to get as far away as possible from my own background and experience. Public relations had seemed to be the answer. But the work that once had offered such scope and excitement had eventually become contained and diminished in the tools of the tradea typewriter, two telephones with push-buttons, and a rotary index, the Wheeldex.
I particularly disliked the Wheeldex. It symbolized all that disturbed, all that irritated. Attached to its polished steel frame were a thousand cards, detachable, each bearing a name, address and telephone number. They were small rectangular cards classified by color into the categories of Radio, Television, Newspapers, Magazines, Manufacturers, Advertising Agencies, and a mass of pale- green cards set aside for Friendsa rough and wistful designation for a group of people who were mostly acquaintances and business associates. It seemed to me that I spent most of my time riffling through the Wheeldex calling people I didn't care for who in turn called other people I didn't know to arrange things that meant nothing to me at all.
I became an executive, and for a while I delighted in my job. When the delight wore off, I was afraid to exchange the known devils for the unknown, because by then I had come to terms with the Wheeldex and the thousand people whose names I knew, whose telephone voices were familiar and whose faces I seldom saw.
By planning publicity campaigns, planting stories, sending forth publicity releases, setting up advertising tie-ins, organizing public appearances and guest spots on radio and television, I tried to achieve a state of public awareness and acclaim for clients who rewarded me generously for my efforts.
No matter how much I made, however, I was always in debt. I ran up preposterous bills that took months to pay off. Strangely enough, I bought, I imagined, only what I needed. I just happened to need a lot of thingsclothes, books, records, flowers, presents for this friend's birthday and that friend's wedding. The rent for my Fifty-seventh Street apartment was high, and every month there was an irreducible pile of envelopes with cellophane windows billing me for groceries, cleaning, laundry, the telephonesI had three gas and electricity, the window-cleaner, the doctor, the dentist, the drugstore, the newsstand, and besides all these there would be a mountain of accounts payable to department stores and various shops. I never quite knew how it happened, but I found myself in the comfortless predicament of working at a job I didn't like for the money to pay for a lot of things I didn't need.
Wonderful Mary Greig, who loved Kippy and me as though we were her own, looked after Kippy while I worked. Beset with unknown longings and a hunger for the indefinable, I would often turn to Mrs. Greig and say I was unhappy and that nothing seemed to interest me any more. "No wonder," she would reply tartly, "leading the rat-race you do. You should find yourself a good man and get married." And then as the telephone rang, she would add humphingly, "I suppose this means another late night. Well, enjoy yourself."
And off I would go with someone who perhaps also suffered from a vague, unshakable malaise and feelings of dissatisfaction. Either we would set off on a perpetual scavenger hunt for the newthe new restaurant, the new play, the new game, the newfangled and featured, all of which might have been new but which were never differentor we would chant our troubles back and forth at each other. While agreeing that we needed a change of some sort, we would ruefully condemn ourselves for our apathy and go on living the same old way.
One day, after an infuriating morning at the office, when the susurrus of the air-conditioning machine had interchanged sticky humidity with damp chill; when the cardboard container of black coffee had overturned and flooded the desk; when a publicity campaign I had worked on for seven weeks was rejected, I finally felt, after months of irresolution, that I had reached the breaking point. Something had to be done.
It was too late to cancel my lunch appointment. I went along to the restaurant and waited morosely for the arrival of a man I'll call James. James was late and, having experienced an unproductive morning of work, he was also in a cantankerous mood. We picked at the antipasto and idly guillotined a few acquaintances, and by the time we had drunk two glasses of Orvieto and eaten too much manicotti, we had decided that New York was a hateful place inhabited by hateful people. James, who had just returned from the Far East, was contemplating a trip to Africa.
"I've always wanted to go to the Far East," I said mournfully. "It's one of my favorite castles in the air."
"Well, why don't you go then?" James asked. "At the risk of being a bore, may I quote you something from the last chapter of Walden?" This was a favorite piece of reading of his, and now one of mine, and I believe he knew it almost word for word. "`If you have built your castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put your foundations under them.'"
"Oh, James," I protested, "you know it's not as simple as that. I don't have any money."
"You make enough," he said.
"I know," I said wearily, "and I spend it."
"Well, if you take my advice," he said, "you'll book your passage now and worry about money later."
Another glass of Orvieto added weight to his suggestion. I telephoned my secretary and told her I wouldn't be back for the rest of the afternoon. At James's direction, I floated off to the offices of the American President Lines and emerged an hour or so later a little more knowledgeable about the Far East than I had been before, with the assurance of a cabin for Kippy and myself on a cargo ship sailing in three months' time for Manila and Hong Kong.
It was astonishing how much better I felt once I had settled on a definite course of action. I embarked on a reading jag about the Orient, plunging into reference books with all the intensity of a schoolchild determined to get the best marks in the class. Having a passion for notebooks, I started a fresh one for recording arbitrary and agreeable information about Far Eastern culture patterns, concepts, whimsies and phenomena. I brooded over the doctrinal complexities of Hinduism and Buddhism, and delighted in the knowledge that birds' nest soup is actually made from birds' nests. I discovered that a bêche de mer is a sea slug and ginseng an aromatic herb, and that both are esteemed by the Chinese as great delicacies. I found that a nilgai is a blue cow indigenous to India, that Far Easterners don't like shaking hands and that in Siam, silver-plated tiger skulls are sold for ashtrays.
I devoted another section of my notebook to more practical agendareminders to get a joint passport for Kippy and myself, to get visas, to get a tenant for my apartment, to get inoculations against plague, cholera, typhoid and tetanus. It was somewhat discouraging to find out that the process of escape was largely a matter of routine paper work and visits to the doctor.
At the same time that I was entering pages of medical advice into my notebook, I gathered together introductory letters and addresses of people that I might call upon.
A month from my departure there remained only one uncompleted detail: the apartment had to be rented. After that I would pack, and Kippy and I would leave for the coast, and at last be on our way.
A real-estate agent produced a host of prospective tenants who for three weeks traipsed through the apartment, finding it alternately too large, too noisy, inadequately furnished, overly furnished, too small, overpriced, anything and everything, but never right. Then, mirabile dictutenants, and I began to pack.
In a pandemonium of blue tissue paper and lists, overturned boxes and cartons, the dining-room table awash with a chaotic hodgepodge, Mary Greig and I faced supreme decisions.
Ought Kippy to have six pairs of shoes, or would four be enough?
Where was the extra socket for the traveling iron? Was there room for my black silk suit? Should I take Kleenex and camera film, or would I be able to buy them along the way?
Were there any books I wanted to take that I could do without?
Finally, the luggage was packed. All was in order.
I went to my last farewell party in New York.
And three days later Kippy and I were aboard the President Madison, a cargo ship sailing from San Francisco, bound for Manila and Hong Kong.