Although Connie works hard to present the appearance of being a mature woman who is experienced with men, her encounter with Arnold reveals that this is only a performance. She has created an attractive adult persona through her clothing, hairstyle, and general behavior and gets the attention she desires from boys. But Connie confuses her ability to command attention from boys with her desire to actually have them pursue her in a sexual way. The love and romance evident in songs she listens to and images of pop culture that surround her are much different from the reality of adult sexuality. Although Connie does experiment with sexuality, such as when she goes into the alley with Eddie, she is fearful of actually becoming an adult. Arnold Friend takes her by force into adulthood, but this violent act represents a shift within Connie herself: the abandoning of childlike fantasy for the realities of being a mature woman.
The line between fantasy and reality is blurred by Arnold himself, who never quite falls into one category or the other. His physical appearance makes him seem both human and less than human, and Oates never makes explicit whether he is reality or fantasy. He may be simply a strange man, he may be the devil, or he may be a nightmare that Connie is having from staying in the sun too long. In any case, whether this experience is fantasy or reality, whether Arnold is human or demon, the effect of the experience and Arnold’s interaction with Connie changes the way she views the world.
Connie’s conflicts with her family and efforts to make herself sexually attractive are part of her search for independence. As a teenager, she is dependent on the adults in her life for care and discipline as well as for enabling her social life. Her friend’s father, for example, drives her and her friend to the movie theater. Although Connie often fights against her family, particularly her mother and sister, they constitute the only life she really knows. Her experiments with creating a sexy appearance and enticing boys in the local diner serve as her attempt to explore new worlds as well as a new side of herself. However, until Arnold Friend arrives, her explorations have always been swaddled in safety. She may go into an alley with a boy for a few hours, but no matter what happens there, she will eventually be driven back home to the familiarity of her family.
Connie’s search for independence has a brutal outcome. When Arnold Friend arrives and interacts with her as the mature woman she has pretended to be, he yanks her out of her childhood adventures and places her firmly into an adult world from which no one will rescue her. The things Arnold says to Connie accurately represent the search she has undertaken as a teenager seeking maturity. For example, he says, “I’m your lover. You don’t know what that is but you will” and “The place where you came from ain’t there anymore, and where you had in mind to go is cancelled out.” Arnold, a strange and ambiguous character, embodies all the confusions, doubts, and fears that accompany any adolescent’s quest for independence. In Connie’s case, her search concludes in the story on a dark, ominous note. Her search may continue, but all signs point to a more permanent end.
Dizziness overwhelms Connie at the moments when she realizes Arnold can and will overpower her. Initially, Arnold’s presence causes Connie to feel torn between desire and fear. But as the situation progresses, fear overtakes her. When Arnold lies to Connie about his age, her heart begins to pound, and when she sees that Ellie is also a grown man, she feels “a wave of dizziness rise.” Dizziness overwhelms her again when Arnold becomes impatient with her resistance. She knows that she is in over her head, and the realization makes her more vulnerable. She realizes that he is lying to her and his intentions are not necessarily good, but she cannot do anything about it. Dizziness is her fallback reaction and allows Arnold to gain an even stronger hold on her.
Music functions as Connie’s bridge from the real world to her fantasy world. Connie enjoys escaping her life by listening to music and daydreaming about boys, and she gathers her ideas about romance primarily from songs on the radio. The happiness she finds with boys is rooted in these romantic fantasies rather than in the boys themselves. When Arnold shows up at her house, she is again reveling in the music she is listening to, and it takes her a moment to realize that it is the same music that is emanating from Arnold’s car. Even before Connie has noticed this similarity, she finds herself entranced by Arnold. Music relaxes Connie, and the fact that she and Arnold are listening to the same music lowers her guard just a bit. Connie has gleaned her idea of romance from her favorite music, and her encounter with Arnold reveals that the romance in her music is much more appealing than the reality of adult sexuality and seduction.
Arnold Friend’s flashy gold car, with its outdated phrases written on the sides, is an extension of Arnold himself: extreme and not entirely right. The car gives Connie her first clues that there might be something wrong with or dangerous about Arnold. She complains that the color of the car is so bright that it hurts her eyes, and she is puzzled by the phrase “Man the flying saucers” on the front fender, which was an expression that her peers used to use but that has fallen out of fashion. This reinforces Connie’s sense that there is something not quite genuine about Arnold; he claims to be the same age as she is, but he is not entirely convincing. Not only is the car itself rather off-putting, but Arnold presents it as the vehicle that will transport Connie to her new life. Once Arnold’s true, violent nature comes through, the car becomes a symbol of all that is dark and ominous about his character.