When my sister Vicky and I were teenagers we talked a lot about hating people. Hating came easily to us. We would be walking down the street, notice a perfect stranger, and be suddenly struck by how much we hated that person. And at the dinner table we would go on and on about all the popular kids we hated at high school. Our father, who has a very logical mind, sometimes cautioned us about this. ``Don't waste your hate,'' he would say. ``Save it up for important things, like your family, or the President.'' We responded by quoting the famous line from Medea: ``Loathing is endless. Hate is a bottomless cup; I pour and pour.''
But being hated by us was not the worst thing we could say about a person. There was an even lower category, for which Vicky and her two best friends, Ann and Emily, had coined a special term: pituh. There was no word in the English language that specified all the particular characteristics that made someone pituh. Though it was pronounced something like the first two syllables of ``pitiful,'' the term certainly did not mean that the person was pitiful or pathetic in the sense of being an outcast. On the contrary, most of the people our group considered to be pituh were the reigning leaders of the popular clique: the girls with perfectly groomed beehive hairdos who giggled and flirted and were always fixing their makeup; the arrogant guys they flirted with, athletes and class leaders who considered me a nonentity because I was lousy at sports. It was these slaves to peer pressure who we considered the most pituh of all--the vast majority of students who did not realize that we, as oddballs and deliberate non-conformists, were far superior to them in every way.
We were the first hippies at our high school. We wore ancient sandals, carried our books in cloth sacks, and let our hair grow long and untamed. Vicky and Ann were the most daring. They pried discarded gum out of the school drinking fountains and casually popped it into their mouths to chew--making sure, of course, that pituh-people were observing them. The resulting expressions of bafflement and awed disgust were a joy to behold. Vicky and Ann insisted they weren't just doing this for effect. They claimed that ABC gum had a far more subtle depth of character than the unripened fresh stuff.
The pituh-people at school were not the only ones we took pleasure in bewildering. There was also the general public. Ann had spent a year in England when her father was on sabbatical there, and had returned with the ability to speak, when she chose, in a gratingly intense cockney accent. ``'Ave yuh gawt inny boiros?'' she demanded of drugstore clerks, who had no idea she was asking for a ballpoint pen. But the best use of her accent was a game the three of them called ``The Pitiful Encounter,'' which they played frequently on streetcars.
In order to understand ``The Pitiful Encounter'' it is necessary to point out that Ann was not as attractive as the other two. She was not unpretty, but she was overweight, with a fleshy face and mousy hair. Physically lazy, she carried herself with a slump. Emily, in contrast, was tall, thin, delicately featured. There was an elfin quality about her. And Vicky was a real beauty, earthier than Emily, with huge blue eyes, prominent dimples, and thick strawberry blonde hair. Her looks were so stunning that, had she not consciously chosen otherwise, she could easily have been a member of the popular pituh-group at school.
On the Saturday ``The Pitiful Encounter'' was born, the three of them had gone shopping downtown, and were waiting for the streetcar home. Vicky and Emily--for some reason I now forget--looked almost like normal people, in skirts and blouses that actually matched, their hair pinned back and neatly groomed. They were even wearing makeup, in which they would never have been caught dead at school. Ann was dressed in one of her typical outfits--a discarded sweater of her father's, mud brown, moth-eaten and far too big, which emphasized her plumpness. It looked particularly hideous with an olive green skirt she had found at a thrift store, frayed at the hem and unfashionably long, which she wore with thick black knee socks. As usual, her hair was a mess, falling into her eyes.
Vicky and Emily boarded the streetcar first and took two seats together. The only other empty seat was two rows ahead of them. Ann, who was not timid, asked the icily prim-looking woman sitting in a single seat directly across the aisle from Vicky and Emily if she would mind moving, so that she could sit with her friends. The woman sighed irritably, but began gathering her parcels together.
And then Vicky, aware of how outrageously dowdy and bedraggled Ann looked, was struck by sudden inspiration. ``Don't bother moving,'' she told the woman. ``We don't want to sit anywhere near her.''
The woman frowned, rolled her eyes, and sank back into her seat, shaking her head.
Ann was momentarily nonplussed. Then, responding to Vicky's subtle but significant nod, she caught on. ``But I thought we might, yer know, 'ave a little chat,'' she said to Vicky and Emily with a sad, hopeful smile, laying on her cockney accent.
``Go away!'' Vicky said, loudly enough for the other passengers to hear. ``You can't sit with us!''
``But I jist want t' be yer friend,'' Ann faltered.
The woman Ann had asked to move was looking back and forth between them. Some of the other passengers had fallen silent, listening. ``Well you can't be our friend! You talk funny. We don't like you!'' Vicky savagely retorted.
``Just leave us alone,'' Emily added, finally getting the idea.
Ann cringed away and took the seat two rows ahead.
``Can you believe she actually thought we would let her sit with us?'' Vicky asked Emily, bristling with indignation, her voice clearly audible throughout the car.
Emily put her hand over her mouth, but she was unable to suppress a snort. ``That hair!'' she said.
``I know!'' Vicky began to giggle.
Ann pushed her hair out of her eyes, biting her lip. The shocked passengers were glaring at Vicky and Emily now, and casting looks of concern at Ann.
``And those clothes!'' Emily gagged. ``They look like they came out of a garbage can.''
``Hand-me-downs,'' Vicky said cheerfully, imitating the complacent banal manner of a popular pituh-person. ``I bet she can't afford anything better. Not that it would matter what she wore.''
``I know,'' Emily agreed. ``Nothing would make any difference, would it.'' And they both dissolved into giggles again.
Ann sank lower in her seat, staring straight ahead, wiping her eyes.
The unfriendly woman Ann had asked to move leaned forward and tapped her on the shoulder. ``Just ignore those nasty girls,'' she said gently. ``You're a better person than they are. Remember that.''
Ann struggled to suppress her own giggles, to press her lips together and maintain her miserable demeanor in front of the now kindly woman and the other outraged passengers. Only when they got off the streetcar could she let it out, explosively, as the three of them staggered away arm in arm, bent over in mirth.
It worked even better the next time they played it: an old man gave Ann a dollar, and on his way out told Vicky and Emily they should be ashamed of themselves. Another time, a woman with a little girl comforted Ann, and told her child she hoped she would never grow up to be like those horrible girls. Such responses were irresistibly entertaining. They rode the streetcar now with no destination in mind, continuing to play ``The Pitiful Encounter.'' They practiced and honed it--though it often required an almost superhuman effort on Ann's part not to ruin it all by bursting into laughter in front of some compassionate stranger.
But on one memorable occasion ``The Pitiful Encounter'' had unexpected consequences.
Ann was sitting by herself in a double seat, across the aisle and one row behind Vicky and Emily. The other passengers didn't seem to be noticing them that day--no kindly person stepped forward at the usual moment. Perhaps their role-playing had grown routine, after so many performances. To get things moving, Vicky and Emily had no choice but to become more brutal, adding special twists to their usual insults.
``You'd think she'd at least go on a diet,'' Vicky said. ``And all those hideously disgusting pimples! You think she ever washes her face?''
``She doesn't take too many baths, or brush her teeth, that's for sure,'' Emily said, wrinkling her nose and fanning the air in front of her. ``That is, if they even have toothpaste, wherever it is she comes from. Do you believe that voice?''
``I know. God, the stupid way she talks!'' Vicky agreed vehemently. ``She says everything wrong. She should learn that we don't talk that way in America, if she expects anybody in this country ever to be her friend.''
``Can't 'elp the why I tawk,'' Ann mumbled, her lip quivering.
Vicky rolled her eyes in a brilliant imitation of pituh-behavior. ``God, how can somebody so pathetic even stand to exist?'' she asked, shaking her head in wonder.
``You have a very charming accent. Where do you come from?'' said a male voice.
Vicky and Emily spun around. Because of the lack of response, they were further along the streetcar line than usual now, where the tracks passed the University. None of them had noticed the three boys who had gotten on at the university stop. But now the boys were standing in the aisle, and one of them had his hand on the back of Ann's seat.
Ann hesitated. Nothing like this had ever happened before. All three of the boys were extremely good-looking, and not the least bit pituh--especially the one leaning over her, with his hand on the back of her seat.
``Uh, I'm from, uh London, England,'' Ann finally said.
``That's very interesting. Do you mind if we join you?''
``Er, uh, no,'' Ann said, fighting the impulse to glance over at Vicky and Emily.
The especially good-looking boy slid in beside her; the other two took the seat behind. Vicky nudged Emily, who was openly staring at them. Emily quickly turned back; the two of them did their best to look straight ahead and pretend indifference, to listen, and not watch what was happening to Ann.
``You must be pretty sophisticated, coming from a cosmopolitan city like London,'' the boy was saying. ``How long have you been here?''
``Since, uh, the beginning of term,'' Ann improvised.
``Funny we haven't noticed you around campus before,'' another of the boys said.
``Oh, I ain't at University yet,'' Ann said in her richest cockney, finally beginning to relax and enjoy herself. ``I'm in 'igh school.''
``You seem much more mature than that,'' the other boy said. ``Probably because you've traveled so much.''
Vicky and Emily glanced at each other, not smiling. This was getting a little tough to take--these were college boys!
``You must find the attitudes around here pretty provincial,'' the boy beside Ann said. ``Especially among high school students. Those little kids can be pretty narrow-minded--and too ignorant to know it.''
``You should really be hanging out with people more on your own level,'' another boy said.
``Vicky, what are we going to do?'' Emily whispered.
``I don't know!'' Vicky muttered grimly.
``Listen, uh . . . What's your name?'' the boy beside Ann said.''
``Hi. I'm Art, and this is Bob, and Gary. I think Bob's right; you're wasting your time with those high school children.'' He looked up at his friends. ``What do you think? About Friday night, I mean.''
``Great idea,'' Bob said.
``Friday night?'' Ann asked, unable to control her curiosity.
``We're having a party on Friday night,'' Art told her. ``Why don't you come? We'd like to get to know you better. And you'd meet lots of interesting people.''
``We'll make sure you have a great time,'' Gary added encouragingly.
``Come on, Emily,'' Vicky said, standing up with determination. ``Enough is enough.'' They moved across the swaying streetcar aisle. Vicky smiled charmingly at the boys. ``Hi,'' she said. ``I'm Vicky, and this is Emily. We're really Ann's friends.''
The boys turned reluctantly away from Ann and regarded Vicky and Emily with silent hostility.
Vicky brandished her dimples. ``Uh, you know that was just a game,'' she explained. ``Ann really is our best friend. Right, Ann?''
Ann said nothing.
Emily pushed back her long, white-blonde hair. ``We do this all the time, just kind of for laughs,'' she said. ``We're all in it together, aren't we Ann?''
Again, Ann said nothing.
``For laughs, huh?'' Bob said, not sounding at all amused.
``Pretty juvenile sense of humor,'' Art remarked.
``It's a sign of deep insecurity, putting another person down to try to feel good about yourselves,'' Gary pointed out.
``Anyway, we were in the middle of a conversation,'' said Bob, the gorgeous one beside Ann. ``Would you mind letting us continue it?''
``Ann, tell them!'' Vicky insisted.
``Tell them what?'' Ann asked her, sounding completely innocent. ``That you two walk around with yer noses in the air, treatin' me as if I was dirt? And then these three young men start treatin' me like a 'uman bein', and suddenly yer all cozy and sweetsy?'' She folded her arms across her chest.
``Ann!'' Vicky cried out in furious, powerless frustration. ``The game is over! Stop it! Just tell them the truth!''
Bob sighed, giving Vicky a disgusted look, and turned back to Ann, who smiled sweetly at him. ``This is our stop,'' he said. He tore a page out of his notebook and wrote on it. ``Here's our address and phone number. Call us if you need a lift on Friday.''
The three boys got up, brushing rudely past Vicky and Emily. ``'Bye, Ann, see you on Friday,'' they said, grinning engagingly at her, and dismounted the streetcar with casual college boy aplomb.
Now Ann was the only one laughing. ``I just couldn't resist,'' she gasped, barely able to get the words out. ``I mean . . . when . . . when would another opportunity like that ever come along?''
``Ann, we are never going to forgive you,'' Vicky said, fuming. ``Will we, Emily.''
``Never,'' Emily agreed. ``What's their address, Ann?''