When I was seeing Kilty (how, even today, the word ‘seeing’ mesmerizes me), the fact of my blindness was never mentioned, referred to, or alluded to. My recent friends cannot believe that could have been the case – indeed, from my present vantage point, I myself can scarcely believe it, especially since Kilty and I were so intimate in everything else. But in this respect my relationship with Kilty was not unusual; I was equally reticent about the subject with practically everyone else. The silence must have been a testament to the force of my will.
I now understand that, at the time, I was in the grip of the fantasy that I could see. The fantasy was unconscious and had such a hold on me, was so intense and had so many ramifications, that my girlfriend’s indulgence in it was the necessary condition of my loving her. Indeed, if I got interested in a woman and she interfered by hint or gesture with it, I would avoid her, feeling sad and frustrated. Yet there was hardly a day that I did not feel defeated, patronized and humiliated – when I did not wish to be spared the incessant indignities that assaulted me. To give a fairly innocuous example, I still come across a man I have known since my university days, several days a week, in a club to which we both belong, and every time I see him he tells me his name. I have gently told him many times that I recognize him by his voice, but to no effect. Although this man is a historian of international stature, he seems to lack the sensitivity to realize that a voice, in its way, is as distinctive as a face. Could it be that the fantasies that sighted people have about the blind are based less on reality than those that blind people have about the sighted?
I needed to be accepted on my own terms by Kilty and anyone else I was close to – it was easier for me to conduct myself as if I could see. So the fantasy was not wholly irrational. In order for me to live as if I could see, it had to remain largely unconscious. I had to function as if I were on automatic pilot. Talking about the fantasy, analyzing it, bringing it out into the open would have impeded my functioning. Or, at least, that was my unconscious fear. I went overboard. I allowed the fantasy to pervade every part of my life: the way I dressed myself, wrote books and articles, collected furniture and paintings. But even when I was most under the influence of my fantasy, I maintained the habit of checking external reality. I never walked off a cliff, for instance. Without such continual verification, I could not have survived in the sighted world.
Over the years, I have often asked myself, How was it that my girlfriends all played along without once slipping up? Was my fantasy contagious? Did I seek these women out because they were susceptible to my reality and, in their own way, could take leave of that reality and mold themselves to mine? Anyway, isn’t that the sort of thing that all people do when they are in love – uniting, as it were, to become, as Genesis has it, ‘one flesh’? Yet I wonder if, in my case, their accommodation prevented them from really getting to know me and me from really getting to know them, thereby condemning me to devastating isolation. But then, the fault was mine. I no doubt impressed them with my mastery of my surroundings. I did not feel limited in any way, and I think I must have felt that from the moment I became blind, two months short of my fourth birthday, as a result of an attack of cerebrospinal meningitis. When I was twenty-three, I published a youthful autobiography, which dealt with my illness and my blindness, but by the time I met Kilty eleven years later I had all but disowned the book as juvenilia, so I never mentioned it to her.
When I bounced back from my bout of meningitis, which lasted some two months, I probably forgot in my conscious mind what it had been like to see. Unconsciously, I assumed that I could do everything that anyone else could do – indeed, I was scarcely aware of any change, for I was incapable of distinguishing between sight and the absence of sight. Keats says that in ‘darkness there is light’, but the entire experience of darkness and light became, in a sense, meaningless to me. As a four-year-old child, I imagined that my world was everybody’s world. If I had been older, I might have experienced my blindness differently – hesitating, perhaps, to put one foot in front of the other, moving about with outstretched hands, or clinging to the end of my mother’s sari. Had that been the case, I would have experienced blindness as frightening, tragic, debilitating. As it was, I laughed and played, jumped around, ran about, hopped and skipped, climbed up and fell down – much as I had done when I could see.
This happened in Lahore, in then undivided India. At the time, my four sisters and one brother were all younger than twelve, and, like children anywhere, they made no concessions for me. My Westernized father, a born optimist, did not curtail his aspirations for me. Instead of equating me with the blind beggars outside the gate, he took inspiration from what Milton had attained and wished the best for me. Only my mother, a religious woman with very little schooling, was unable to extend herself to my new condition. Believing that blindness, like poverty, was a curse for misdeeds done in a previous incarnation, she would search my face for some sign of my bad deed and, finding it innocent, was sure that my blindness was merely a passing curse of the evil eye. No matter how much or how often my father, a medical doctor, explained to her that the long, raging fever had damaged my optic nerves and that I would be permanently blind, she insisted that my condition was temporary. She carted me around to healers and astrologers who prescribed Ayurvedic or Unani treatments, along with a variety of penances. She tried all of them. That was her form of denial, and it must have reinforced my own denial – my habit of living as if I could see. Within seconds of meeting a woman, I was able to surmise what they looked like – even the shade of their lipstick. But what they were not to know was that I had reached that level of mastery only after years upon years of using alchemy to transform my ears into my eyes – of developing, in Keats’s words, ‘blindness keen’.
At that time, in India, the blind were considered uneducable, and there were years at a time when I was not sent to school. Eventually I went to a school for the blind in Arkansas and then to college in southern California and then to Oxford and Harvard. I became a writer. Paradoxically, in order to live in the world, I had to live as if I could see, and yet that very way of living was a hurdle to acceptance by others, especially by any woman I loved, for, as long as I continued to hide from myself, how could I expect her to truly know and love me? Still, I met women and fell in love with them. One such case was Kilty.
It was November 1968 when, as if to soften the edge of a miserable wintry day, a shy young woman whom I had encountered at parties around town walked into my office at the New Yorker magazine. When I was first introduced to her I’d remarked on her unusual first name and she had told me that actually it was Katherine, but then when she was being brought home from the hospital her mother had proposed several nicknames, including Kathy, Katrina and Kat, but her father had said that the baby looked too uncommon for any of them, and had come up on the spot with ‘Kilty’. It had stuck.
‘I see you’re busy,’ she now said, backing out of my office and starting quickly down the hall.
I dashed after her and caught up with her near the elevator.
‘Don’t go away, Kilty.’
‘I don’t want to disturb you,’ she said.
‘You are not disturbing me – you’re brightening my day.’ I was surprised at my words, but her shyness encouraged me.
Kilty laughed in a girlish, high-pitched way, and her laughter rippled along the corridors. As we walked back to my office she would, now and again, fall behind or step ahead, to make way for curious colleagues, who had come out of their offices to look at the source of the laughter.
Sitting down and facing me across my desk, she said, ‘I think you know my father from the Century.’
Every now and then, I had indeed encountered her father, Timothy Chaste, at the Century, a men’s club for writers, artists and amateurs of the arts, situated on West 43rd Street.
‘I am a fan of yours, and I wonder if I could trouble you to read my poems,’ Kilty said, and pushed a folder across the desk. She had a little girl’s voice.
‘I’d love to read your poems,’ I said, and asked where I should return them to her. I seemed to remember she lived somewhere outside the city. She said she used to live in Pleasantville, but her parents had recently bought a co-op apartment, with a big mortgage, on Fifth Avenue. Last spring, when she graduated from college, she had moved in with them. She added quickly, ‘Maybe instead of your just sending your comments by mail we could have coffee somewhere near here and talk about my poems.’
We agreed to meet at Schrafft’s the next day, and I walked with her to the elevator.
Kilty’s poems turned out to be all about love and were rather elegiac. The voice was that of a confused college girl. The verses seemed formless and incomplete. Still, when we met for coffee, I had no trouble saying encouraging things about them.
‘Thank you – you can’t imagine how much your opinion means to me,’ she said. Her little girl’s voice, though shy, sounded to me like the jingling of bangles on a beckoning hand.
‘Gosh, I wouldn’t have thought my opinion would be so important to you,’ I said, and then, realizing that I seemed to be inviting compliments, I looked away.
‘I think of you more than you know,’ she replied.
Christmas was approaching. Kilty persuaded me to install a Christmas tree in my apartment – I had never had one before – and came round one evening to decorate it. She arrived with a sewing basket containing, among other things, pipe cleaners and colorful scraps of fabric and pieces of felt. While we sat and talked, she started stitching together some birds. Her sitting on my Italian-silk sofa and bending over the sewing in her lap – even as my mother, my sisters and my aunts had done, knitting, stitching and embroidering at home – gave the room a family touch.
When she had an assemblage of colorful birds, she showed me how to bend their little pipe-cleaner legs around the branches of the tree and we worked rapidly until much of the front of the tree was alive with the small, auspicious things. Now and again, by design as much as by accident, I touched Kilty’s hand: it was long, shapely and competent.
On Christmas Eve she invited me to dinner with her parents and her younger sister, Bronwyn, at their apartment. Mr Chaste seated me between Kilty and himself and talked to me as a friend, while his wife went through all the correct motions of a cordial hostess and treated me as one of the family. Nevertheless, the evening seemed a little stiff and forced, especially because Kilty acted as if I were her parents’ guest, conspicuously avoiding speaking to me. Yet the more she ignored me the more I felt drawn to her.
Early in the new year we had dinner with two friends at a German restaurant. When I walked her home, she seemed excited, almost hyper.
As we approached her building, I cautiously put my arm around her, and fully expected her to disengage herself gently. Instead, she turned her face toward me and rested her head on my shoulder.
I found myself kissing her. We circled the block, kissed again, crossed over to the park side of Fifth Avenue, kissed again and
In the morning, just as I walked into my office and was wondering about the appropriate time to call Kilty, the telephone rang.
‘It’s me,’ Kilty said. Perhaps because of her little girl’s voice, the greeting sounded very intimate. ‘Beware,’ I told myself. ‘Go slow. It takes you forever to recover from a love affair.’
‘Last night was wonderful,’ I said, not quite certain whether I was saying the right thing.
‘What are you doing tonight?’ she asked.
That’s a question that I should have asked, I thought.
‘I’m taking you out to dinner,’ I said quickly.
In speaking to her, I seemed to veer from caution to boldness, from one extreme to the other.
‘Same German restaurant?’ she asked.
‘I thought you might like a change.’
‘This little mouse is a homebody. She likes the same nibbles again and again.’
I found the way she talked in her little girl’s voice about nibbles both exciting and threatening. I was reminded of my mother, who had a girlish side, and who, like a child, was by turns sweet and arbitrary. I recalled how the atmosphere of the household would change from rational discourse to arbitrary fiat whenever my father went away and we were left under my mother’s thumb. One moment she’d be very cuddly when all I wanted to do was go outside and play, and the next moment she would start shouting at me for no reason I could imagine.
When Kilty and I went out to dinner that night, we happened to get the same table and the same waiter that we’d had the night before.
‘The same as before,’ she said. ‘This little mouse –’
‘I know. The mouse doesn’t like change.’
We both laughed.
Over dinner, Kilty told me that at boarding school and at college in Toronto she had painted posters and watercolors and sold them to fellow students in order to help pay for her education. When she came to New York, she felt that she had no practical skills for getting an ordinary job, so for the first month or two after graduation she had tried out painting as a career, and had made the rounds of galleries in SoHo and Greenwich Village. Although the gallery owners were very taken with her paintings, she didn’t sell any. Her father then suggested that she try modeling – she was stunning, with a delicate face and deep blue eyes set off by long jet-black hair – and that was what she was doing now.
Modeling: what an odd suggestion for a father to make, I thought, and I asked her if she liked being a model.
‘No, I don’t – it’s horrible. Many of the models I have to hang around with at the agencies have never set foot in a college, and they shamelessly offer themselves to slimy hustlers just to get one measly little job. Outright prostitution would be more honest than modeling.’
‘Doesn’t your mother object to your modeling?’ I asked.
‘What’s wrong with people admiring a beautiful body? It makes me happy that God has given me good looks to share.’
I was taken aback by her abrupt change of stance. I quickly turned to another subject, and asked her whether she had ever thought of going to graduate school.
‘After you’ve lived and worked in New York City as an adult, it’s hard to go back to campus living,’ she said.
‘I suppose anything would be better than the dreary life of a graduate student,’ I said, trying to be agreeable.
‘How can you say that?’ she asked sharply. ‘I thought that, as an Oxford man, you had the highest regard for academic life. As it happens, I’ve been seriously considering going on to Yale for a PhD. I love studying. I could even become fond of New Haven.’
Glossing over her contradictions, I told her about my experience as a graduate student – how I had loved Oxford but found Harvard cold and uncaring.
‘What was Oxford like?’ Kilty asked eagerly. ‘Bronwyn talks about going there when she finishes college.’
There was so much to say about Oxford that I could think of no one concrete thing. I finally said, ‘I had my happiest years there.’
‘What were your friends there like?’
I told her about Dom Moraes, a vivid poet friend of mine, and, on an impulse, described the funny way we’d sometimes talked, inserting ‘tiny’ before certain words and attaching ‘kins’ to others.
She suddenly became excited. ‘You mean I might say to Dom, “I’m having a tiny dinner with Vedkins”?’
‘That’s about right. And sometimes, if we were especially silly, we would call each other “ducks”. I think that was a take-off on “duckie”, which is what English shop assistants used to call us.’
‘How wonderful! Can we talk like that to each other?’
‘You don’t scorn such talk as precious and adolescent?’
‘I’d love calling my tiny boyfriend Vedkins.’
Gosh, what have I let myself in for? I thought. That stuff had sounded pretty silly even at Oxford when we were undergraduates.
‘I don’t think that kind of fatuous Oxford talk would go over in America,’ I said.
‘Why do you always think in big categories, like women and America? The “tiny” stuff will be our private talk, just between you and me. You know, I still call Bronwyn “Roo”, and she calls me “Piggy-winks”. And sometimes when we really don’t want anyone to know what we’re saying, we talk pig Latin, lickety-split. So you see that we Americans have silly talk, too.’
‘What are you thinking?’ Kilty said a moment later.
‘I was just wondering if you minded that I wasn’t an American.’
‘You are such a wondrous bird. Don’t you know that we Americans are all originally immigrants?’
‘So you don’t mind?’
‘I find you very exotic – like baklava!’
On the street corner, I hesitated between turning south and taking her to her parents’ apartment and turning north and inviting her to my apartment. Kilty instinctively turned north, and I fell in step.
Once we were inside my apartment, she sat down on the sofa. I sat down next to her, and we embraced.
Later, as I switched off the lamp on the bedside table, I remembered an episode with Gigi, my first serious girlfriend, when I had suddenly become impotent. I started shivering.
‘Why are you shivering so?’
‘It’s no good!’ I cried, pulling away from her. ‘I’m good for nothing.’
‘You should have nothing to do with me,’ I cried into the pillow.
‘I can’t stop shivering. It’s all over.’ I was getting maudlin. ‘You don’t know awful things about me,’ I said. ‘I’m not a man.’
I expected Kilty to say, as Gigi had done, that I shouldn’t worry, that it didn’t matter – I wanted her to console me – but she did nothing of the kind. Instead, she said, ‘First-time jitters.’ She threw herself on me and wrapped herself around me, biting and licking me. I remember thinking that she was as voluptuous as a Zola heroine.
I revived in a rush. She was initiating me into making love with my whole body. My relief, however, was momentary. Her wild passion stirred a new fear in me, different from the earlier, paralyzing one but equally intense – that she would be demanding and uncontrollable. I never stopped to think whether she was actually wild or I simply perceived her that way, because I was still ignorant of the true scope of a woman’s passion and needs. Even as I was delighting in her unrestrained lovemaking, I worried that I might not measure up to her expectations, and so a more desirable man would materialize and tear her away from me.
‘You’re scowling. What’s the matter?’ she asked.
‘Nothing. Just for a moment, I had a bad thought.’
‘What was it?’
‘I was remembering some losses.’
‘You are my strange, tiny Vedkins. My very own tiny Vedkins.’
I take things too seriously, I thought. I must learn to enjoy things. She’s being playful. That’s part of lovemaking.
I fell asleep with my cheek resting on her shoulder.
Where shall I put the question? I asked myself. The apartment? There’s no romance in that. In a restaurant? That’s a public place. On the Top of the Sixes, with a stunning view of the city I love? That’s touristy. On a boat on the Circle Line? That’s certainly romantic, but also public and a bit tacky. Take her away to an inn somewhere in the Catskills? That’s sort of middle-aged – OK for divorcées and widowers but not right for young love. Walking along the Brooklyn Bridge? That’s all right for spring, but not for the winter. Still, I didn’t want to let another day go by. We’d been together now for only a few weeks, but I was deeply and irrevocably in love. Trying to learn from what I thought of as mistakes with other women, I was determined not to be tardy and casual. I felt that I had to take control and act quickly.
When I was in high school, I had fallen under the spell of J.D. Salinger and his toy epic, The Catcher in the Rye, and had been mesmerized by Holden Caulfield’s ingenuous question to a New York taxi driver: ‘You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?’ In my adolescence, I had identified with those migrating ducks.
I decided that as soon as Kilty and I got together that evening, I would coax her to take a walk with me in Central Park and steer her to the duck pond. We had generally been meeting for dinner at my apartment after she finished her day of modeling – or, what was more likely, looking for modeling jobs. But that day she was held up during some modeling session and didn’t get to my apartment until about nine-thirty, by which time it was dark and not safe to be out in the Park. It was also fiercely cold. I had to put off my proposal until the next day, and I thought that that was just as well, because it happened to be Saturday and I could take her to the Park in the afternoon, when the sun might be out.
After we’d had a potluck – since I was incompetent in the kitchen, she always did the preparing – she slumped down on the bed, uncharacteristically neglecting to wash the dishes, and said, ‘I hate my body. I hate men gawking at me. It makes me shy all over. When I’m posing for the camera, I always squirm and fidget, and then they have me start all over again. That just makes the sessions longer and more agonizing.’
‘You are tired, sweet – just close your eyes and rest,’ I said, lying down next to her and reaching for her.
‘Leave me alone,’ she said, and she turned to the wall and began crying into the pillow. ‘I hate you,’ she sobbed.
‘You can’t mean that,’ I said, trying to get close to her.
She edged away from me, toward the wall.
‘Has something happened?’ I asked weakly.
‘You should know.’
‘Kiltykins,’ I said, ‘what has happened to my tiny girlfriend?’
‘Don’t you dare call me that.’
She had never spoken to me that way before, and she seemed so remote that I myself started crying.
‘Please turn to me, please look at me,’ I pleaded, but she kept her face averted and pressed into the pillow. I ventured to stroke her back, but she didn’t respond.
‘I hate being a kept woman. Why haven’t you asked me to marry you?’ she demanded, her voice muffled by the pillow.
‘Oh, no! Is that what’s rankling you? This very evening, I was going to ask you to ma-ma-marry.’ I still couldn’t say the word without stammering, so the sentence remained unfinished. I was now almost thirty-five. The long years of wanting to be married hadn’t helped me overcome the feeling that I could never be married.
‘You were really going to ask me?’ Suddenly warm and tender, she wiped my tears away with the end of the bed sheet and snuggled up next to me, as abruptly as she had earlier turned her back on me. ‘I feel like a bad girl. Will you forgive your tiny Kiltykins? Sometimes demons take hold of me. I don’t know where they come from, but they come and go like dog days.’
‘I was going to propose to you this very night, and then we could have tied the knot whenever you wanted.’
‘What were you going to say?’
‘Some sweet things,’ I said, and I told her of my plans.
‘Well, let’s go there tomorrow, just as you planned – by the duck pond,’ she said.
‘You don’t think I’ve ruined the surprise?’
‘But I haven’t given my answer. A lady needs to be properly wooed and given time to think.’
She then threw herself on me passionately.
The next day I took Kilty for lunch at a little Italian restaurant on Madison Avenue, and afterward we walked over, through a cold, sunless afternoon, to the pond. It was windswept and bleak, and there was not a single duck or child in sight.
‘Well?’ she prompted.
I was flustered. ‘Will you marry me?’ My words came out in a single breath. I wondered whether I had surrendered to her what should have been entirely my initiative.
‘In books, men kneel on one knee.’
I knelt down, and she seemed happy.
‘But I’m waiting for your answer,’ I said.
‘You know so little about me. I gave you my answer when I slept with you.’
‘I was hoping for a definitive response, sweet.’
She flung her arms around me and kissed me powerfully, murmuring, ‘Yes . . . yes . . . yes . . . yes.’
As Kilty and I were walking back to my apartment, after the formalities at the duck pond, I said to her giddily, ‘The moment we get home, I’m going to telephone my parents in New Delhi, and Jasper and Miriam, my friends in Oxford . . .’
Her hand in mine went rigid.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Yes,’ she said, in a distant voice. Then she said, ‘You aren’t to breathe a word about marriage to a soul.’
‘I won’t if you don’t want me to – but why not?’
‘Don’t ask me any questions unless you want me to flip.’
‘I won’t,’ I said accommodatingly.
Her spell – or whatever it was – passed, but the rest of the way home I stepped along in a gingerly fashion, as if my very balance had been shaken. Finally, in the evening, when she was her relaxed, flirtatious self again, I asked her the reason for the secrecy.
‘I must speak to Pappy and Mother before anyone else hears about our marriage. You can’t have any idea how much persuading it will take to get them to agree. I’ll have to find just the right moment, or everything may go kaput.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘You talk as if your parents regarded me as a pariah.’
‘The problem is not with you, sweet. It’s with them. You don’t know my parents. Mother is so moral, with such strict principles, that she would never give her consent – never accept you into the family if she knew that you’d already slept with me.’
‘Why does your mother have to know anything about that?’
‘She has her ways of finding out. Ever since I was small, she has been able to look right through me and know whether I’m lying.’
I tried another approach. ‘Maybe I could have a word with your father in the club.’
‘You don’t know Pappy. He’s very possessive of me. Only Mother can bring him around.’
‘I know he’s eccentric,’ I said, ‘but he has always been friendly to me at the club. I think I can talk to him man-to-man.’ I realized as I spoke that I owed such self-confidence to Kilty.
‘Please don’t even think of talking to Pappy,’ she protested. ‘If you love me, you will let me handle my parents in my own way.’
‘I will, but I need to understand what I’m up against.’
‘If you must know, Pappy and Mother want for their daughters blond, blue-eyed, tall, all-American boys, who are good Protestants like themselves. And you are dark, and unconventional in looks and on top of it, an Indian and a Hindu. Another thing against you is that you are a writer. Pappy has had so little success with his drawings that he never wanted us girls to go near anyone who was in the arts. He wants us to marry doctors or lawyers.’
I said to Kilty, ‘You’ve got to lead your own life. It may take your parents some time but they are good people and they will accept anyone you love.’