He didn’t wake up to an alarm that morning. Instead, it was his roommate playing Tracy Chapman in the kitchen and banging pots and pans. It was annoying. Sometimes he thought he’d prefer two weeks in a Virginia jail rather than living with his lefty buddy.
He looked at the rows of books on the shelves of his book cases. He looked at his pencils in neat rows on his desk. From his pillow, lying in bed he could see a row of shirts and pants. This is what they’d find if for some reason he died suddenly.
As he glanced around the room, he took comfort for a moment; maybe this is how he’d be remembered, by his books and things. But then it washed over him. He knew he’d be remembered for the slight, the harsh word, the critical comment, the ever so subtle mockery of an item of clothing, the things people truly care about. His demise would be met ironically: “What a shame!” they’d say and snicker. His books, pencils, papers – including his earth shifting thesis on H. Richard Niebuhr – notes, and clothes would end up in the dump. This made him chuckle.
“What’s for breakfast, comrade,” he said walking into their small kitchen.
“You know I don’t cook for you, asshole,” his roommate said.
“C’mon,” he said as he sat down at the kitchen table. “I’m an oppressed minority. At least you can give me some coffee.”
“Minority?” he answered. “I don’t even know where you’re from. You look as white as a conquistador to me.”
“You’re on to something there my friend,” he said. “My past is mysterious as your dark and dusky skin.”
This made his roommate laugh as he filled a mug full of coffee.
“No cream for you,” he said.
“Yes, I’ll drink it black.”
As he sipped the hot coffee, he noted how good it was but he also spotted something on the table, an envelope.
“Is this invite for me or you?”
“Somehow they sent it to both of us,” his roommate said. “They know we’re married.”
“Fuck you,” he said. “It’s weird. I heard about this party from my advisor.”
“You gonna go?” he asked sitting down with his breakfast.
“God,” he said looking at him taking another drink of coffee. “You make such a good cup of coffee, sweet heart.”
His roommate laughed again.
“You’re such a fucking asshole,” he said. “But I love you. Please pass me the hot sauce over there beautiful.”
As he handed him the bottle, he wondered again if it was a good idea. But he’d already decided.
“Sure,” he said. “I’m not going to have an ex-wife if I don’t get married, right?”
“Exactly,” he said shoving a piece of toast with egg into his mouth. “And here’s your song.”
They both sang in unison when the line came around on the CD player, “Do me baby, do the humpty, humpty hump.”
After they laughed, he stood up with his cup of coffee and tightened up his robe.
“I know you’re not going,” he said. “You’ll be planning the revolution.”
“Maybe I’ll show up to watch you strike out.”
He showered, got dressed in his usual uniform, khaki pants and a blazer, jumped on his bike and rode down to the campus. He ditched his bike and walked up the stairs to his cubicle. He ran into Dart, a surfer kid from Irvine who was his student.
“What’s up Dart,” he asked.
“She’s crazy, dude.”
“Who you talking about, buddy.”
“That anthro TA,” he said, he pointed to his temple and made a circular motion. “She’s way hot, like flaming hot, man, but she bought an E Ticket.”
“Sounds interesting,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. Anthropology is a fake thing anyway. She gives you trouble, I’ll go talk to her.”
“She’s intense, man.”
He kept walking up the stairs and dismissed Dart’s panic as just a product of too much pot and time in the sun. He was a good kid. There wasn’t much room for compassion in his heart, but he felt like giving Dart a break was like freeing a squirrel caught in a bear trap.
He did some reading and writing and then it was time for the stupid party. He walked back down the stairs and jumped on his bike and rode over to the professor’s house. He ran into his advisor who had had a few beers already. They were joking and laughing about a colleague who gave an entire lecture on original sin with his zipper down.
“That’s so perfect for that asshole,” he said. “But whatever is, is good, right?”
“Excuse me,” a woman standing nearby said.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“You should be,” she said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Whatever is, is good,” she repeated his comment. “That isn’t the basis of religion, if there is such a thing.”
His professor smiled at him, dipped his carrot in the dip on the table.
“I think I hear a phone ringing somewhere,” the professor said. “I’d better answer it.” He looked again at him, and walked off with his can of beer and a smile.
“Because, in the end, that’s where every religion ends up,” he said setting 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 indifference and incredulousness in equal parts.
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 part to let anything out. The cloud meant nobody could see him.
Falling in love seemed impossible, but at that moment he began to feel that cloud dissipate. Even though he felt exposed and vulnerable, he recognized the light in her eyes, a glow lit from a fervent, boiling brilliance, and from rage. It was a light that no other eyes revealed. He felt a panic that this contentious woman might be his ideal.
Later, he would keep falling in love with her and the way she could scream, “I hate you,” or whisper it in his ear.
“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 enlighten me,” he said.
Their eyes met.
“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 watched, they exchanged phone numbers the way two people exchange insurance information after a crash.
Their next meeting didn’t go well.
When they met, they kept up the argument. 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.
The next day he wrote her about it 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.
After that incident, they stayed on email. Back and forth they went about 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 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 said ever,” 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. When the message appeared, he felt that weird feeling he felt back home when he caught a grasshopper in his hands, holding it like parentheses. It would jump in his clasped hands like a heartbeat.
“I got it,” he thought. “Now, what do I do with it?”
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.
When she arrived, she was as late as she was beautiful. 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 shake 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. Her eyes were green. Her skin was a brown, burnished by the sun, and her cheeks were dotted with freckles. Her eyes looked out over everything like a soldier in a fox hole.
“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.
“Looks like we’ve both read Franny and Zooey,” he said.
“Yeah,” she said, “I can keep up and then I’ll fucking pass you.”
He looked at her. He was really staring at her. His eyes were fixed on that light from the ancient flame that burned in hers. He could hear a voice saying, “Troppo fiso!” She would always say he had a staring problem, holding his gaze at her much longer than she liked.
“Let’s dance,” he said, breaking his reverie.
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 was he catching her in his hands, or was she 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 a long time.
“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.”
For a moment he thought, “This is a set up. She’s going to kill me.”
He thought of his students, especially Dart, for whom school was a kind of purgatory.
“Is this going to be on the test?” he’d often ask.
“Dart,” he’d say. “Maybe. But remember there are 50 questions on the test. If you miss this one, you’ll be fine.”
What would Dart do if he was murdered?
“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.”