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.