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Oct/Nov 2006 Spotlight

Hello, Ms. Highsmith, 1964

by David Massengill

Photo by Jim Gourley


I shadowed her along the sun-bleached beachfront, and gulped my espresso when she finished hers. A flat-footed, fortyish Texan in Levi's, she was easy to follow. French girls in Friday-night skirts and heels maneuvered her like water does a sinking brick.

As festive men and women brushed crotches in the bars of Cannes, Ms. Highsmith and I stood at the railing above the rocks, the length of two corpses away from one another. Come evening, the Riviera darkened like clotting blood.

A bright bedroom scene flashed open in my mind, featuring myself and Ms. Highsmith and Mr. Ripley, her fictional creation and my fictional crush. Upon helping me unknot my tie, Ms. Highsmith stepped back to watch. I advanced onto the supine Mr. Ripley, and tugged khakis below tan line. Experiencing the work of my hands, lips, tongue, and heart, he would no longer have the drive to murder.

But Ms. Highsmith suddenly broke away from the railing, so I withdrew from my fantasy.

I chided myself for trying to map my own storyline. After all, I was the reader and Ms. Highsmith the author.

 

She wore sunglasses when I found her again in the Nice museum. Wearier of a second chase than a first meeting, I sidled beside her. We both stared at a painting of a giant lime on a tablecloth, radioactive green on frosting-pink.

"It's a pleasant break from lemons," I said. I actually wanted to blurt that I felt more like a friend than a fan, that I was aware of her struggle with publishers and her defeat in keeping a lady. If she only knew how I understood her hatred of the States and her disgust for human waste.

"I've had to spend most of my 30s in New York, too," I told her. "Isn't it splendid to not be freezing in November?"

I wondered how the Europeans in the gallery interpreted us, this stocky madame and delicate homme, and if they'd mock us if we ever pretended to be a pair. Then I recalled the celebrated literary pals Edith Wharton and Henry James, and the rumor that they were at ultimate ease when yachting around Southern Europe together.

"You're a stranger," Ms. Highsmith told me. "Distance is all I ask of strangers."

She progressed into the bowel of the museum, and I exited onto the terrace. Above me, a brawny maintenance man had thighs wrapped about the trunk of a palm tree. My excitement and embarrassment increased as he strung lights down the shaft. I fled, and again considered Ms. Wharton and Mr. James and the ways of 100 years ago. I would have preferred that time when no one expected you to share your secrets with more than one confidante.

 

While hiking Mt. Vesuvius alone, I found a place remote enough for Ms. Highsmith and myself to settle. A bruised-looking patch of land just below the dry lip of the volcano could hold our house. Our disdain for the societies that cluttered the surrounding continental plates would ooze forth and pour down the slope.

Ever aloft, we would stay protected.

I was ready to confess to Ms. Highsmith right then that what we had in common was of a more intimate nature than our country of origin, that our erotic waywardness made us weird traveling companions. Yet I couldn't share this with her—she remained distrustful in France, and I was friendless and franc-less at the end of a two-week vacation I'd foolishly hoped to stretch into a life.

I suppose I could have stayed in Italy, and become a male version of Ms. Highsmith by imitation alone. But I lacked her imagination, and what I desired was much more tangible.

So I left the comforting rubble of the volcano and returned to gleaming America. I stopped imagining expat liberty and accepted my fate as a rather private copyeditor at the country's most popular bridal magazine.

It was on lunch break in Washington Square that I let a name other than Ms. Highsmith's pierce my numbness. "Ed," the fellow said. Though they'd tried—in Times Square, in the shadowy gaps between subway cars—I'd never before allowed unknown men to approach me. Now I reached out and felt his hand pump mine.

"I'm Wilson," I dared speak in return.

I came to prefer snowball fights over crime fiction.

 

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