From Autonomy, a novel

 

 

1964

 

Paul Steiner and Penny Nowick started working at Continental Data Systems within a month of each other. She was one of only two female programmers in his department and, unmarried at twenty-five and passably attractive, was regularly ambushed with goony compliments and crude requests for dates by (mostly married) coworkers. The fact that Penny was visibly spooked by this attention only tended to inflame it. It was uncomfortable to watch a shy woman clumsily baited, and anyway Paul couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. Penny’s pleasantly rubbery features awash with uneasy expressions, her slumped posture, the functional clothing she wore, were as dull to his eyes as the sketch of a department store blonde in the newspaper.

It was only after they were assigned to work together that he began to revise this impression.  The project was challenging, the best assignment that either had yet been given, and sometimes they worked late into the night, guided by flow charts they’d taped to the walls.  Despite the glacial air conditioning that chilled their offices even in February, Penny so literally warmed to her effort that her hair sprouted wisps and she would kick her pointed, talcum-scented shoes under their table. One day, after she had complained about the snack room’s boiled leftover coffee, Paul brought her a small gift of instant espresso and an office mug with a cute ladybug painted on it, hoping she would understand it as a play on her expert debugging. The flustered abjection with which she received the mild tribute made him wonder whether she’d mistaken it for a come-on. 

As far as Paul went, she had nothing to worry about. He was already dating a gorgeous modern dancer named Emily, for however much longer that lasted. She liked to discuss very basic dilemmas in human relating, a lot, which he hadn’t discouraged at first. He had never spent longer than ten months with one girlfriend, and he was beginning to realize that he would not beat this record with Emily.  

Paul invited Penny to celebrate the completion of the first stage of their project. They chatted animatedly about Fortran and office politics through the smoke and hubbub of a jam-packed midtown restaurant. He noticed that she ordered the most basic spaghetti dish on the menu and then barely touched it. “Do you want something else?” he asked, and she furiously colored, as if the mechanics of eating in public embarrassed her. 

Two weeks later, as their collaboration was winding down, he suggested another lunch at the same noisy Italian place. Again, they easily discussed work and gossiped; then Paul, aware that he still knew nothing personal about Penny, began to turn the conversation to his own decision to move to New York, and then to the temporary living situations he had suffered through before finding a really nice pad on the Upper West Side. He didn’t mention that he had broken up with Emily, even though he had spent the week second-guessing his decision, because he didn’t want to give Penny the wrong idea, or get sidetracked to his personal life.  

As he’d intended, Penny began to open up in kind. She’d always had to hide her passion for math from schoolmates and family. Getting a scholarship to a state school where she’d been able to finally learn something had felt like a prison break, total rebellion. After graduate school she had moved to New York. But whereas Paul’s Manhattan blinked like a pinball display of amphetamine parties, wild op art, nude theater, and faces like eye-popping flowers or dim doubloons out of a pirate’s chest, Penny confessed that she found the city to be harsh and inhuman. 

 “It’s true that nobody judges you,” she said. “Of course nobody here sees you, so how could they judge?”

“I guess when I first moved here I found the crowds overwhelming.”

“When I get out of a rush hour subway I feel like I’ve been flayed alive. Once this really awful thing happened when I was on my way to my first job interview. Well, forget it, I guess.”  She blushed and looked down at her tangle of orange spaghetti. “Let’s say, once I get home after work I tend to spend a lot of time reading in my apartment.” She forced a rueful, social smile and Paul observed that her uneven teeth were wine stained, so that the impression she left on his eye was a bit ghoulish, a girl grinning in negative. 

“Well,” he said uncomfortably, “I’ve heard some subway stories. But you know, when it gets warm you could walk from your place down to Washington Square Park. You have to get through the tourists, but it can be fun.”

“It does get strange to spend the whole weekend without talking. You start feeling invisible. Sometimes it seems that if I just started screaming and running completely amok, nobody would even notice.”

Recently a Queens barmaid had been murdered in a courtyard on her way home after work. Thirty-six neighbors had overheard her screams for help without calling the police. Newspapers deplored the inhumanity that was undermining urban life. 

Was this the kind of invisibility Penny was worried about?

 “No.” She reflected. “I think the problem is me. When I’m really being honest, I see that I might want to get swallowed up, because I’m lonely a lot of the time, but I tend to avoid the things that you need to go through to connect with people.”

Paul was disconcerted by Penny’s revealing what was possibly a deep psychological problem. He couldn’t come out and suggest that she might need to see a professional. Instead he said, “You know, everyone has a hard time getting close to people.” He added, “I’ve made bad moves in relationships.”

“Except, I bet it’s not the same,” Penny said, with look of frank pain in her eyes. “Because when I start getting involved with someone, I actively sabotage the process, sometimes aware that I’m doing it. Why would I do that? Because of stuff in the past, like ten years ago.”

What had happened?  It seemed like she wanted to tell him, or for him to be able to sense it. To guess. Did he want to find out?  Yes, from a distance, without feeling obligated.

“Maybe all you need is more recognition for your talent. I’ve told everyone on the floor that you’re one of the best analysts I know.”

“That’s really nice.” She raised one hand to her face.

“No, I mean it,” he told her and then waved for the check. 

Paul was single, it was almost spring, and he was gearing up to start asking girls out again.  He did get a little obsessed when he wasn’t having sex regularly. That was how he understood his heightened awareness of Penny. He envisioned them saying goodnight in a sudden fierce clinch at the door of her forlorn apartment. He began to have semi-sexual fantasies about coaxing her trust: they would spend a night together in what he pictured as her single bed (although he basically hated having to sleep all night, even in a large bed, with anybody). In his fantasy he was able to infuse her chilly emptiness with warmth. Now he felt there was something enticing about her blandness.  

Although he still didn’t find her unique enough to be sexy, he was beginning to enjoy looking at her, to feel amused by the angles at which she arranged her hosed legs and discreetly bare feet under her desk, or to observe the delicate pinching of her nostrils when she was faced with some pointless intervention by a manager. Once he overheard her work challenged by a perversely moody director named Freddy Katz, whose profane patter seemed inspired by his striking physical resemblance to Lenny Bruce. “This looks like such bullshit,” Paul heard him mutter, “that I ask myself, is it secretly brilliant? Industrial sabotage?” Paul understood this as a gruff flirtation, but Penny was so bent on defending herself that Katz walked away while she was still talking, pointedly crooning a moronic pop ditty. Paul was relieved not to have to step in. He began to have disjointedly erotic dreams about Penny in which they were at one moment feeding the slot of a mainframe with rubbery punch-cards and then, in defiance of logic, were fused in a Hadean crook of the subway in spastic, orgasmic embrace.  

Paul’s imagined seductions of Penny didn’t change the tone of their daily relations.  He became, if anything, more subdued in her presence. Until once, not having a plan for the evening, he impulsively suggested that they catch a midtown movie after work.  He handed her his New York Post movie clock, which she studied with nervous concentration, finally zeroing in on one of the films he least wanted to see.

As he sat beside her in the garish dark his exasperated boredom discharged itself in a series of spasmodic sexual impulses. Without turning, he examined her lips in profile, trying to make out her powdery warmth through the fetid brawl of old seat-velour, carpet and popcorn.  Finally he summoned the courage to take hold of her hand. Then he had to keep holding it. It was pliant and cool and he had no idea what to do with it.  By the end of the movie, he had decided never again to attempt to fulfill his fantasy of breaking through to Penny.  He knew she was leaving the next day for her yearly vacation, a perfect pretext for putting her into the taxi he spotted as they stepped out from under the brilliant white glow of the theater marquee.  

The following day, Paul found himself chatting with Freddy Katz in an elevator. Freddy invited him out for a lunchtime hot dog. It was an early cameo of spring, and office workers milled out of revolving doors, surging over the sidewalks, ebullient and underdressed. Freddie looked his unsavory self in a cheap flared jacket, overgrown haircut and Cuban-heeled boots. He was a brilliant programmer, maybe nearly thirty-five, and his career was going nowhere, probably because of the impression he gave of near-hormonal volatility. Even the pleasant, slightly humid weather managed to offend Freddy. He took issue with Paul’s banal remark on the day’s warmth, insisting that it was cold out for early April.    

“Well, okay,” Paul smiled, dabbing his mouth and wrists with the cheap napkins they gave out. “I’m not a meteorologist. Maybe it is cold.”

 “Let me tell you about crazy weather. As in your friend, Penny? I wouldn’t go back for that scene if you paid me. First she’s Good Penny. Then you get Bad Penny. And neither one is all that hot.”

What? There was no way. He must be lying about Penny. Yet she was crazy. It was now clear to Paul what he somehow had overlooked, that Penny had a screw loose. He got away to his cubicle, tried to focus on a bug in the code that was waiting for him on his desk. Every few minutes his mind would return to the problem of Penny. He had been accused by former girlfriends of coldness. Indifference. His stomach was lurching. Even if Penny had done something with Freddy, so what? In his mind, a flickering peepshow displayed Penny in scenes of unlikely debasement. Bad Penny? He couldn’t help watching. By the time she came back from vacation, he hoped he would be able to face her without letting on that she had wrecked his composure. He could have had her himself. He’d practically turned her away.

After work he decided to walk down to the Village, intending to phone a friend, maybe go hear folk music. He sat at an outdoor cafe with espresso, watching pretty and then even prettier Village girls stream by, wishing that one would make eye contact. Unfolding the new Cue for the listings, he eventually grew so immersed that when a petite, auburn-haired girl crossed from the opposite side of MacDougal and spread her hand over his paper to say boo! it gave him a start.

“What are you doing here?they greeted each other with tickled friendliness, as if Paul and Helen had not been avoiding such an encounter for years.