“I am a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot,” he says, quoting Thoreau, but without the name-drop. The way his eyes turn sideways, like a flounder’s, lets me know he’s watching to see if my face is shaped like confusion, or if it’s blank like a moony-eyed dove.
I show him what knowledge looks like: a scowl. Did you really think I didn’t know that?
“You’re none of those, unless you’re Thoreau. You’re just a pretentious humanities major who read Walden and thought it was really deep. And that it might impress girls.”
It was no sigh, no moan; it was a real scream. Soundless, of course—tight-lipped and thin, as his smirk disappear behind his teeth. Smoke curls off the tip of his cigarette, forgotten like a brief candle in the half-moon of plastic in the ashtray.
“Well, it does,” he concedes, “unless they’re pretentious humanities majors, too.”
My mother had taught me to read six months before, and I was very proud of my knowledge. Not book-reading—that came in kindergarten—but reading men, like tea leaves: for all their novelty, their goatees and earrings and coffee-cigarettes-and-Kant dates where they spend no money, they are laid open and spelled as phonetically as any words on a page. Their symbols are open-ended, like images in damp tea leaves shaken onto ceramic saucers.
College boys are sneakier, she said. They like to drop obscure quotes to size you up. Be tall.
He looks puzzled again. His cigarette, forgotten, had burnt down to the filter. I sip from the plastic lip of my coffee cup and say nothing to acknowledge either his admission that I called him out or his accusation that I’m every bit as pretentious as he is. I am, and I know it; this is just a power play and I gain leverage by staying quiet.
There is no way to deconstruct silence without forfeiting it.
Each fact can have a thousand motivations, all equally valid, and each fact a thousand faces. These are ours, and I attempt to divine 999 other reasons he might have quoted Walden and looked at me fish-eyed.
“You know, ” I say, knotting my scarf, “transcendentalism is anti-intellectual, anyway.”
“So is dating, ” he retorts, lighting another cigarette. “But you knew that.”