“That’s bullshit,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“You should be,” she said.
“Whatever is, is good,” she repeated his comment. “That isn’t the basis of religion, if there is such a thing.”
His professor, standing next to him, smiled, stabbed his carrot in the dip on the table, nudged him with his beer, and took a bite.
“I think I hear a phone ringing somewhere,” the professor said. “I’d better answer it.” He looked again at his student, and walked off smiling and taking a drink of beer.
Now, alone with this woman, he wondered, “Why me?” What past injury or grievance stoked such obvious anger, and her rage. What made her so irate? Why would she pick a fight here at a garden party over finger sandwiches and light beer?
“Because, in the end, that’s where every religion ends up,” he responded fighting his curiosity and confusion. He set down his plate of cucumber sandwiches.
“Do you know anything about indigenous cultures?” she said, setting down her plate. “I mean, anything?”
“Let’s see,” he said, putting his hand on his chin and looking skyward. “I don’t know, human sacrifice?”
“Are you that ignorant?” she asked, emanating scorn.
When he got the invite to the garden party for faculty and fellow graduate students, he was skeptical. His professor, who had just abandoned him, had suggested maybe he’d get laid. He didn’t expect an ambush from a woman as beautiful as she was angry.
Ever since he’d left his mother crying on the doorstep when he left home for college, he’d been in a dark cloud, one that would let light in but wouldn’t let anything out; nobody could really see who he was. He liked it that way.
Now he felt that cloud dissipate, blown away by the storm she stirred up. He was exposed and vulnerable. Now she could see him because he recognized a light in her green eyes, a glow lit from a fervent, boiling brilliance and rage. Until now, he hadn’t seen anything like the light her eyes revealed. He panicked. Was this contentious woman his ideal?
He was happy arguing with faculty and other students. Picking fights was his specialty. But this time, she started it. And it felt like it might lead to an actual fight, a brawl, a consequence.
When he looked at her face, time seemed to slow and he noticed something. She had freckles. Scattered like stars below two raging green suns on her burnished brown skin, the little spots made him feel like he could melt. He gathered some resolve.
“Look,” he said. “You’re right, I don’t know shit about indigenous culture.”
In a rare moment of intuition and intention he said something else.
“Maybe you can teach me,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “I could do that.”
“If you’ll let me tutor you on morality and ethics,” he said, picking up his can of beer.
“Sure,” she said. “Fuck you,” she added.
As some of their colleagues and his professor watched, the two of them exchanged phone numbers the way two people exchange insurance information after a crash.
As a kid in New Mexico, he and his friends would catch grasshoppers. He’d hold one in his hands, cupped like a parenthesis around the insect that jumped like a beating heart. “What do I do with it now,” he would wonder. As he looked at her phone number on the cocktail napkin, he felt the same thing.
Their next meeting didn’t go well.
The argument continued. He pressed her on methodology and epistemology. She questioned how a market with winners and losers could be moral. As she left the coffee shop, she slapped him.
After she did, he held his hand up to his face and closed his eyes. The sting felt like a sunburn. He had a smile on his face. When he opened his eyes, someone was standing there.
“Are you OK?” they asked.
He felt the stupid smile on his face. He put it out like cigarette when mom was coming around the corner. He gathered his stuff and left. But on the walk home he kept putting his hand to his cheek, like he’d just gotten his first kiss.
The next day he wrote her on the campus’s new but glitchy electronic mail system.
“Why did you go all Bernadette Devlin on me yesterday?” he asked.
“I’m surprised you know who she is. She’s my hero,” she wrote.
“She’s one of mine too,” he wrote.
Devlin was an Irish hero who was famous before and after she slapped the Home Minister on the floor of Parliament. For most people this would be trivial pursuit, but for them it was foreplay.
They stayed on email. Back and forth they went about methodology, epistemology, and ontology and then eventually to what they thought of each other, all on a screen with illuminated green text and a relentlessly blinking, green, square, cursor. She seemed to be literate in just about everything, her brain like a busy bee hive glowing with that rage and always building the next argument and counter argument.
“You’re such an asshole,” she wrote. “You don’t seem to grasp that I don’t care the slightest about you.”
“Fine,” he wrote back. “Let’s stop writing each other.”
But they kept at it.
“I don’t really feel comfortable with your love of Margaret Thatcher,” she wrote. “That’s messed up.”
“Who do you love?” he asked
“Don’t try to do psychological stuff on me,” she wrote. “Ok? You won’t win.”
“Why would I want to do that?” he asked. “Why would I want to win?”
“Hmmm. I can feel it,” she answered. “Harriet Tubman. Gloria Anzaldua. Frida Kahlo. Rosa Luxemburg.”
“Rosa Luxemburg?” he asked. “How about Hannah Arendt?”
“I’m not sure about Hannah,” she wrote.
“Because you’ve never read her,” he typed.
“And you’ve read Anzaldua?” she responded. “I think maybe you think I’m not as smart as you. Which is wrong.”
“I don’t know,” he wrote. “I’m not that smart.”
“Well,” she wrote, “you are the only one who can distract me from my work, falter in my purpose. But you are an asshole.”
“Nobody is going to dispute your designation of ‘asshole’ when it comes to me,” he wrote. “I am one. Guilty!”
It went like that for days.
“Why don’t we go on a date?” he typed, finally.
“What?” she asked back, “You like me?”
“Yeah,” he wrote back. “I like you a lot.”
Why did he use that term, “a lot,” one he hated?
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever written,” he thought, and he buried his face in his hands in front of the computer terminal. Maybe if he was in the 7th grade it might have been romantic.
But really? “I like you a lot?”
He sat there for what seemed like an eternity waiting for her response. The green cursor just blinked, and blinked, and blinked. It was mocking him.
Then a response.
“Ok,” the message read. “Let’s do it. Let’s go on a date.”
“Finally,” he thought, but wondered again, “Now what?”
He’d meet her at the nicest place in town. She’d be impressed. She’d be annoyed. The hotel bar he often drank at would be perfect. It would keep her off balance.
She was late, but the wait was worth it. She wore her hair up as always, but she was in something elegant, purple with an embroidered gold edge, not the Raiders of the Lost Ark get up she usually wore.
What would it be like to be on a date with her? Until now, he’d wait for the modem to lock into that low hum, then read her messages, diatribes really, criticizing him, his work, and opinions. He loved every word of it. But since their first meeting, he couldn’t stop thinking about what the monk he visited when he first arrived in Santa Barbara told him about seeing God in people’s eyes.
But now here she was, walking across the lobby toward him for a date. She saw him and maneuvered across the room to sit in the big chair opposite him.
“What the fuck?” she asked. “Why here? You’re going to rub capitalism and colonialism in my face?”
“Of course!” he said. “My paymasters are here.”
There was a pause. She gave him a penetrating look he would become addicted to.
“I like it,” he explained. “And nobody knows us here, our students, our professors, would never come here.”
“Yeah, well it looks like we just walked into Room With a View,” she said. “The Elephant Bar,” she repeated the bar’s name mockingly.
“Where’s Hadji?” she asked. “They should put Hemingway’s head up there too.”
She looked up at the fake Ibex heads mounted around the lobby bar.
“You have something against hunting?” he asked.
“Have you ever been?” she asked, knowing the answer.
“No, and the only thing I’m hunting for now is a fun night out with you. More fun than fighting.”
She had the darkest, thick reddish hair. He wondered what it would be like when it was as turned loose as she was. He wondered how it would feel to run his hands through it. Her eyes looked out over everything like a soldier in a fox hole. And then there were those freckles.
“C’mon, you can say you’ve been here, right?” he said.
She stared back at him.
“Ok,” she said leaning forward, “But buy me a fancy drink.”
“Another dirty martini and a Singapore Sling for her, please,” he asked the waitress.
The drink, when it arrived, was a feat of mixology.
“There’s your fancy drink,” he said. “Go native!”
“Fuck you!” she said, and sipped.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“Good,” she said. “You know I hate you, right?”
Before he could answer her rejoinder, she rhapsodized about – or satirized – the drink.
“I think they’ve done it. Made a cocktail I’ll remember. Not sweet or cloying. Not bitter just to challenge. Just the kind of thing that would get you out of bed in the morning to write another chapter of For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
“Who doesn’t,” he said.
“You are a classic narcissist,” she said. “Totally stopped at when I said, ‘I hate you’ and missed what I said about this fucking fabulous drink.”
She looked at him and smiled.
“Can I have your olives?” she asked.
“This time, Franny, the answer is no,” he said. “The only reason I order these is for the olives. So, no.”
“Well, well, well,” she said. “You never cease to amaze me, Lane.”
He looked at her and smiled. She looked back at him skeptically.
“Looks like we’ve both read Franny and Zooey,” he said.
He was staring at her. He could hear himself saying, “Troppo fiso!”
“You have a staring problem,” she said.
“I think I’m looking at someone stronger than me,” he said. “Someone who’s going to kick my ass.”
“Yeah,” she said, “But do you dance?”
He held his breath for a moment, shuffling through reasons not to get on the dance floor.
“You know how I detest it,” he said.
This made her smile, she laughed, grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the floor.
A small band had started to play. They were playing a very respectable version of On a Slow Boat to China.
“This is such a racist and sexist song,” she said.
“I know,” he said. “Everyone should be outraged.”
“It’s like a rape fantasy,” she said.
“Except when Ella Fitzgerald sings it,” he said.
The singer kept singing. They kept dancing.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like you’re much of a dancer.”
“I’m not,” he said, then he twirled her around. “But I try.”
They danced around alone on the dance floor.
It was the band’s first song, and when they finished playing, they found themselves standing with each other, awkwardly, on the dance floor.
“Better than that email thing,” he said.
“I guess,” she said.
They sat back down. They drained their drinks and ordered two more.
“This really sucks,” she said.
“What do you mean?” he said. “We’re getting drunk at the fanciest place in town, my treat.”
“I think I’d rather the earth open up and take me straight to hell than admit it, but I’m starting to like you,” she said.
He felt that childish feeling again, the hunt, the chase, the capture. But maybe she was catching him.
“Let’s dance again,” he said.
And they did. Now the band was playing “At Last.” The singer was doing something as close to Etta James as anyone could in such a place. He was drunk though, so, for him, it might have just as well been Etta herself.
“You really don’t know how to dance, do you?” she said.
“No idea,” he said. “Where’d you learn?”
“High school gyms and the VFW.”
Then they kissed.
And then they looked at each other.
“That was inappropriate,” he said.
“I’m going to report you,” she said.
They kissed again, deeply, deliberately. By now there were lots of elderly people shuffling around, and for a moment, they forgot themselves.
The song ended.
“Hey,” she said putting her finger under his chin, “let’s go play pool at Elsie’s.”
For a moment he thought, “This is a set up. She’s going to kill me.”
This is what it meant to suffer love. He thought of his students, especially Dart, for whom school was a kind of purgatory. What would Dart do if he was murdered?
“Is this going to be on the test?” Dart would ask.
“Dart,” he’d answer. “Maybe. But remember there are 50 questions on the test. If you miss this one, you’ll be fine.”
“Pool,” he said “So, tonight we do things I can’t do sober and try them when I’m drunk?”
“Yeah,” she said and pulled him from the dance floor. “It’s a test.”