She sings of her home community.
I worked when men were hungry
I worked when men were angry
I worked when men were lonely
Once they walk away
There’s nothing left to love
They lied about the money
They iied about the women
They lied about the drinking
Once the lies crash down
There’s nothing but a hush
More than once I cried here
More than once I hid here
More than once I bled here
It is a place so cruel
I can’t live in my skin
I’m running from myself
And what they made me do
And what I have become
September 13, 2016
That event, that encounter, whatever it was, that rip in a timeline, threw me into a dark place, back in that dark place, the one I told you about, from early on. It’s like when I first went through it, and I can’t seem to find a way out. It’s been what, two weeks? Three now? About that? About three weeks, and I still can’t focus, except for short periods. Not that I was doing that great before that encounter with a familiar, but I am back there, in that period. . . . Yes, the one I told you about, the one that started about three months after she died and lasted for months, maybe three or more, where I felt emptiness, a huge hole in my being, and I couldn’t find anything to fill it.
That describes it pretty well, a huge hole, a dark place that can’t be filled, but that also makes it sound like some form of mild depression. It was more than that. It is more than that. It’s being in this place and not knowing how long it will last, if it will ever end, if there is any way out, if there is even a way to crawl out like a worm. It is all there is, and it is without movement. You’re in turmoil, constant motion, in this stillness, buried, covered in an inky cloak.
I know. I kept saying to you, “I don’t want to have these feelings any more.” It was odd, you said, how I phrased that. Like they weren’t my feelings, like these emotions were coming from the outside, striking my body. You were right. I didn’t own the feelings. I didn’t know how to own them. My feelings did feel foreign.
That hole, that dark sphere that consumed my body, that empty space, that engulfing unknowing, yes, unknowing is good way to describe it, that unknowing was always there. I couldn’t fill it. I tried drinking, exercising, writing—nothing made me feel better. I tried to seek out very consciously a way, create, yes, create ways to process my grief. I tried to read books on it, like A Grief Observed. I made a CD of some of my wife’s favorite songs, some of the ones we played at the service. I played it over and over. Sometimes when I was driving. A few times, a song would come on that hit me hard, and I would have to pull over. I tried to force myself to feel it all. It seemed to work for a while, then I stopped feeling grief. I started feeling darker emotions.
I had no hope that this could change, and I couldn’t even find the relief of a good cry. A grief that had been so physical became cognitive—vaporous thoughts keep looping back to the same state. It was unrelenting. Very alone. Yes, alone in some desperate way. Even though my sons were around at that time. And some of their friends. Some even living at my house. It still felt alone.
I thought if I could hold a woman for twenty or thirty minutes, I could cry and I would be okay. I thought about calling an escort service and asking how much they would charge for a call girl to come to my house and hold me, but I didn’t. I was too embarrassed. I felt pathetic. . . . I know. This was all early, soon after my wife died, before we reconnected, before we ran into each other at that breakfast place, and started having coffee. Even, later, after we reconnected, I just couldn’t ask you. Couldn’t. I was afraid it would come across as creepy, or needy, or, I don’t know, something. Weak, I guess.
About this time, it was coming up on the end of the semester, the Fall semester. Trying to move and keep functioning was hard enough when I had to get out of bed, get dressed, go to the office, meet with people, do paperwork, try to hold the department together, when I couldn’t even hold myself together. I was worried about what would happen to me with two weeks off. I couldn’t find any kind of diversion, escape, safe place. I would go to a movie and leave twenty minutes in. I tried to read and found myself going over the same paragraph, again and again. I tried to write and stared at a blank screen. I spent evenings sitting alone, in the dark, in silence, staring at the wall, at the dull, muted light coming from the street. I mean actually staring at the wall, at the blocks of light, which seemed more like shadows. It was like I expected to find something in there, some kind of answer or connection. Like I was staring at petroglyphs. Staring for hours. For entire evenings.
Somehow, I made the decision to try to learn to play the guitar. I’m not sure where this came from. I was convinced I had no musical talent. I grew up in a house that without music. I had tried to learn to play the drums in junior high. It was a disaster. I couldn’t carry a beat. I stood in the back of the band with my snare drum and sticks and pretended to play. In college, I had tried to learn guitar. I bought a cheap guitar. The neck warped before I could learn basic chords. It was almost impossible to play. I didn’t take lessons. I tried to learn chords from a book. So, then, a few months after she died, I have no idea where this pipe dream of learning the guitar came from. I told my son, my older son, who plays guitar, that I was going to try to learn for six months. If I didn’t get anywhere, I would give him whatever equipment I bought and call it quits.
I don’t think buying a guitar pulled me out of the hole. I think I was starting to feel better. It had run its course. Maybe that’s why I could muster enough hope and courage to walk into a guitar store and talk to a young pimply-faced kid who had probably already given up on his dream of becoming the next Hendrix. It was painful. I felt like an idiot. But I bought a Stratocaster and an amp and started playing chords and scales for five or six hours a day. For the first time since my wife died, maybe even years before then, before she started to become almost constantly ill, I could finally focus on something. My mind slowed down. I took lessons and did okay. I even started to write some songs. I felt like I was doing something.
But in the last two weeks or so, I haven’t even been able to play my guitar. I stopped taking lessons. I am back to watching mindless television, having my two drinks. Just two. It takes the edge off a little, but it doesn’t move me anywhere. I don’t seem to be able to act. I am waiting for something to happen.
I don’t want to be here, in this place. I keep thinking that I have to unearth this place, but I am not even sure where here is. I know the place is not entirely physical, but I can’t help thinking that things would be better if I could just get in my car and start driving west. Escape from that, as if it were soil you could reach into, deep, with your hands. But I can’t. I have responsibilities. So, I keep going to work. Moving through days. Hearing about problems. Trying to solve them, some of them. Not making much of a difference. A lot of grade complaints that are like being caught in the middle of a Faulkner novel, between multiple realties. The realties play out on parallel tracks without having much of an effect on each other, except for a few little facts here and there that are nothing more than points of reference for saying that these realties are supposed to line up. I don’t even try to figure out what happened anymore. I let people talk, try to make them feel like I am interested, paying attention, assuming it will all end in a whimper.
They just fuse together. Most of them. There was one, about Charles—yes, your Charles—that was a little different. . . . Yes, even a teacher as good as Charles, as loved as Charles, has a grade complaint from time to time. The last one was years ago. This student came in and showed me a paper that Charles had graded. Charles gave him an F--- . . . Yes, an F with three minus marks after it, and all Charles wrote on the paper was “Mayonnaise.” I think it was Charles’ way of saying bullshit without saying bullshit. I explained this to the student and then I told him, “Go talk to him. Tell him you realize that you were bullshitting. Tell him you want a chance to show him what you can do and ask him if you can start over and write an entirely new paper.” The student went to Charles, who allowed him to start over. A few weeks later, the student came back to tell me he earned an A- on the new paper. That one worked out well, but that kind of outcome is rare. Students think I have more power than I do. They also think they have more power than they do. They extend that notion of being in a consumer economy to their education. “I paid for this course,” they often tell me. They are simple. Simple and unschooled. They want to believe in fairness and goodwill.
A few days ago, I think, maybe it was last week, this student, Bess, Bess Abbott, came in my office. Maybe you’ve heard me speak about her. Or Lisa. I think she was in Lisa’s Romantic poetry class. Most of the faculty in the department know her. Half the university knows her. So her name floats around in empty spaces. She came in. Bess and another student.
She, Bess, was practically dragging along this another student. My office door was almost closed, barely an inch of a crack for the florescent light of the hallway to cut the room in two. I was trying to discourage people from coming in. I was trying to say don’t bother me, unless it’s an emergency.
So, I was sitting in my office, doing some paperwork, secluded in a soft circle of light, incandescent light. To help with the migraines. I wasn’t prepared for an interruption. I wasn’t expecting it. I was trying to concentrate on the Fall schedule, had it ninety percent done, but the last ten percent wouldn’t fit. I moved one person to fix a problem, then I had to move four other people to make that work, then it all slipped into chaos, and I had to start over again. I was frustrated, spinning my wheels, confused.
Then, without even knocking, without even asking if she could come in, if I were busy, if I had time to see her, Bess pushed the door open. She bolted in, as if riding a wave of industrial, bureaucratic light from the hall, as if she were exposing me to the world, the other student sucked along in her wake, barely visible, bleached in the glare. I raised my hand to my forehead as a visor until my eyes could adjust. I have trouble adjusting now. To any shift, any change.
Just talking about this simple little encounter, this nothing of an event, I can feel my stress level rising. It shouldn’t even affect me. It is nothing more than a moment in the blur of a day. Especially when I was meeting with someone I have a history with, at least with Bess. I hadn’t met the other woman.
I know Bess pretty well. As well as I let myself know any student. I know you have seen her. Maybe at that party. You would know her, if you saw her. She’s tall and thin, long red hair, attractive, often dresses almost like a model, except for her black-framed glasses. She wears the glasses, oddly anachronistic, a throw back to the fifties, like the ones Elvis Costello wears. She wears them, I am sure, to undercut her looks and her wardrobe, to say I am not who you think I am. I’m smart. Take me seriously. I am probably making her sound like a stereotype. She isn’t. Not at all. There is something unknowable about her, mysterious, striking in that way when someone seems to hold something back, which draws you in. Now, I am probably sounding like I have a crush on her. I don’t mean that. What I am trying to say is that there is something that makes her stand out. She is attractive in the most basic sense of the word. She attracts.
I think she thinks we are friends, whatever that means to someone at that age, from her generation. And I do like her. She was in my Comp I class her first semester. After I read her first paper, I encouraged her to major in English. By the end of the semester, she switched her major from History to English, and I was her advisor.
I had never seen the other student with her. She was a little heavy, Asian, I would guess Hmong, or Cambodian. With that round, full face. Head dropped. She seemed embarrassed, uncomfortable, unsure about being in my office.
I was startled. I just don’t adjust. I guess I just said that. Sorry, it just bothers me. Boundaries still seem blurred to me. Even after all this time, I still find myself confused by abrupt events. Since the beginning, since the first few weeks and months after my wife’s death. . . . I know, it’s hard for me to even say her name. Since her death, since the first months, I’ve had trouble adjusting, dilating my eyes to the change in light, balancing myself, sorting the living from the dead.
Still, almost every night, she is in my dreams. Not lucid dreams. Not the kind of dreams when you are watching yourself dreaming, rewinding the action, starting over, trying to make it come out okay. Not that kind of dream. But a dream I am as locked into as any waking moment, watching myself move through space, unable to control my actions. People come at me, objects seem to hurl toward me, one thing after another, and I just move through all of it, slowly, as if I were floating. These dreams, they’re the kind that carry over into the waking state, without a clear demarcation. When I wake, in that moment, for several minutes I think, it seems like a long time, I can’t focus my eyes. I am not even sure I am awake. I have to think myself from the dream world, where I am with my wife, into the waking world, where she is dead, consciously working out a path, like I am working through a research problem, reconstructing the events, her long illness, her death, the funereal, that entire string of rituals that don’t even seem a part of my life, that seem like something from a movie. Some mornings, it seems like it’s hours before I am fully back with the living.
Even during the day, I struggle with it. I might be driving home, thinking I have to hurry because she might need me, or she might have cooked, have dinner on the table, be waiting for me to come through the door, and I’m running late. Then, it hits me that she’s gone. Everything dulls and slows down, like at the very moment the doctor told me she had passed. I hear the words again. I know she’s gone, but I can’t quite grasp it because all my habits, all my routines, tell me she is still here, somewhere to be found.
It’s these dreams and habits that keep her here. My habits seem to override facts, or that part of my mind that deals with facts. There was this time, after she had been released from a week in the hospital, I brought her home and went back to work to catch up on a few things. By the time I got home, she wasn’t there. I couldn’t reach her on her cell phone. Without really thinking, I assumed she must have started to get sick again, she must have gone back to the hospital. When she finally called me back, I was driving around the hospital parking lot, trying to find her car. She was at the grocery store. When I told her I was at the hospital, looking for her car, she must have thought I had gone insane. She asked, “Why would you assume I was back in the hospital?” As soon as she asked the question, I thought to myself, This is crazy. What am I doing? Why would my first response be to drive around the hospital parking lot looking for her car? It was an action without thought—habit. A routine in the body that comes from the body as an instinct. The body seems to move without thought or purpose. Driven by habit. My body was waiting for the next crisis. It was habitually conditioned to react in a certain way.
I should tell you—I am a little uneasy about this, I don’t want to be misunderstood, I don’t want you to worry—I should tell you I am okay. You should know that, before I say this. I want to say, should say, sometimes, less often now, but sometimes, I hallucinate. Don’t jump to a conclusion about this. I am not hearing voices. It’s just a few times, just a few times, I thought I saw her walking through the house, just a glimpse, in my peripheral vision. By the time I could swing my head in her direction, she seemed to have disappeared around a corner. And, I am convinced she turns on lights when I am out of the room. Sometimes, when I turn off the TV, start to walk from the room, maybe twenty or thirty seconds later, it pops back on. She moves objects. . . . No, I am pretty sure about this. About a month after she died, I was in a hotel room, one where we had stayed before. I was sitting at the desk, with my laptop, answering emails, then this plastic thing that holds information about the hotel and brochures about the town, all of the tourist type things, flew across the table and onto the floor. She was there. I think she was telling me she was there.
I am just trying to explain why I have so much trouble adjusting to anything that happens abruptly or quickly, without warning. Explain why I am confused. I feel like I have been hit in the face, there is pain, I touch my mouth and see blood on my hand, and I can’t quite figure out what happened. I start trying to work my way through it. I try to make sure I am awake. I touch my chest to see if my body is solid, to see if I can feel it. I look around to see where I am, what time it is, who is near me.
When Bess bolted in, I didn’t even recognize her at first. I was confused that there was this other person with her.
“Can we talk with you?” she said.
Before waiting for an answer, she sat down at the round meeting table next to my work desk, pushed aside piles of papers, the Fall schedule I was trying to sort out, as if it were her office and I was the intruder, as if none of these papers mattered at all, and then nothing. She just stared at the other young woman. I was still trying to adjust, trying to figure out what Bess wanted, who this other woman was, some student, who this person was, why they were in my office. After a while, I couldn’t tell you how long, Bess raised her eyebrows over her glasses, as if to utter a command to speak. I saw the lips of Bess’s friend open and move, as if words were being formed, then nothing.
“This is Lia,” Bess said. I think that was the name. “She wants to tell you about what’s going on in one of her classes.”
My God, I thought, a grade appeal. Drama. Adolescent drama. A morass of emotions. Some rehearsed story of abuse, lack of respect, lack of fairness, lack of communication. Long stories that are rehearsed, maybe written out in advance, that never get to the point. I didn’t want to deal with this. I just wanted to finish the Fall schedule.
Bess grew weary of the silence and began speaking for Lia.
“She has Dr. Barnes for a Poly Sci class . . .” After I heard “Dr. Barnes,” my mind went blank. I was back in a confused state again, hit in the face, trying to think my way back to the moment. After a few minutes, only a few I think, I recovered enough to realize I hadn’t been listening to a word Bess was saying. For some reason, I tried to blame all of this on Bess.
“I’m sorry Bess. I . . . I need you to start over.” I took out a pen and a notebook I keep for administrative business, a spiral notebook, so I know where things are. I never seem to be able to file anything.
“Lia is in Dr. Barnes’ Political Science class.” Bess’ speech was now painfully slow, as if she were speaking to someone who barely understood English, as if she thought I was too stupid to understand speech at a fast clip. She’s from New Jersey. She probably thinks all of us Southerners are all stupid, even her professors.
“Lia’s been having problems. Barnes is so conservative. He keeps talking about the liberal bias in higher education. He ridicules her. In front of the whole class. She’s smart. She works hard. She’s a good writer. And she barely has a D in the class. She might even flunk it. Fuck, she has a 3.7 GPA, a history major, in the honor’s program, and she’s barely passing a stupid Poly Sci course. She can’t drop it. She needs it for her minor. To graduate next semester. She’s also having problems in Dr. Cooper’s class. The same problems.” Bess was speaking at a clip again, her speech keeping pace with her anger, which was building. Lia was turning red, probably shocked by Bess’s language, or uncomfortable with her anger, her familiarity with a professor. Bess was too much in the moment to even realize she had said “fuck” in a professor’s office. She understood the nuances of language. She knew she could say “fuck” in front of a professor if they were in a group, having beers, but not in anger. She would know it was entirely inappropriate in my office, especially when she was complaining about another professor, another department chair.
“This process has to start with the professor. You need to speak to him directly.” I felt like I was babbling, repeating meaningless phrases.
“You’re a department chair, aren’t you?”
“I am not his chair. He’s a chair in another department. The person who has some power over him is the dean. Dean Bennett. Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities.”
“You won’t help her?”
“I can’t intervene. There’s a policy that doesn’t even begin until the final grade is posted. Then you go to the instructor, then the chair, then the Grade Appeals Committee. Since he’s a chair, you would go to the dean instead. If you feel something needs to be done now, if there’s some kind of abuse or discrimination, if he’s not following the syllabus, you could talk to the dean. The dean might decide to talk with Dr. Barnes. Even though he’s the dean, he probably can’t do much of anything at this point unless Barnes, or Cooper, or whoever, is doing something egregiously unethical, something like abuse, or discrimination.” As soon as I said that, I regretted it. I never mention abuse or discrimination unless the student brings it up. I don’t want to even suggest that the student should launch a particular kind of argument. I don’t know why I said that. I guess I was still off balance. Dazed.
Of course, this was not unusual. I often said stupid things, regretted it immediately, tried to pull the words from the ether, kill them off, eradicate them. The more you want them back, the more the words hang there, like a billboard, in neon. The best thing you can do is don’t react. Don’t act like you want to take something back. Say something else, something outrageous, to pull attention to the new words. Redirect.
“I know Barnes is a fucker, but I can’t fix that.” That’s what I said. That was the something else. That would be enough.
Lia turned red. Bess just sat there, staring at me. I wasn’t sure whether she was shocked or pissed. Probably more pissed. She clearly wanted something to happen right away. She wanted it fixed. She turned to Lia, then back to me.
“There are things going on in that department,” Bess said. She left the comment hanging. She didn’t elaborate. It just hung there. And I didn’t want to get into another department’s business. Couldn’t. Couldn’t do that. Wouldn’t.
I turned to Lia. “From what Bess has said, you feel like you should be getting a higher grade.” I looked at Lia for confirmation. She smiled slightly, her face still red. “You feel like he is biased in his grading.” The same small smile. “I don’t think the dean, or anyone else, will intervene on those grounds in the middle of a semester.”
“So she has no recourse?”
“I didn’t say that. I said that there’s a policy. She can go through several levels of review. The process begins once she has a grade. You can’t file a complaint about a grade until you have a grade.”
“But all this crap is going on now. Does he have to rape her to get someone’s attention?”
Bess was frustrated. Lia was embarrassed. I couldn’t even tell what I was feeling, except I remember thinking, This has got to be the worst grade appeal meeting I’ve had in years. Bess, I am sure knew nothing about my feelings toward Barnes. I would love to do something to make Barnes’ life more miserable, brand him, hurt him. I had no doubt that he was being arbitrary, using his power to push around a meek student who thought all she just needed to work hard and follow the rules and a good life would find her. She was far too young to realize that the very rules that claim to protect you are always stacked against you.
I’ve been in the academy too long. I’ve seen how policies are developed with the best of intentions and then mutate into rules that do more harm than good. Long ago, at another university, I may have told you about this, I served on a committee that was charged with developing a sexual harassment policy. At that time, not many universities had this kind of policy. So, we worked it out, practically invented it from scratch, over an entire academic year. It was a good policy. It protected students and educated faculty. It meant to transform the culture and make the university a place that respected women. Within a decade, the policy seemed to forget the students, reduce them to a pretense. It became more about protecting the institution against lawsuits. Within two decades, it became a means for the administration to attack tenured professors. If a professor caused too many problems, the provost would file an Affirmation Action complaint on behalf of a student, usually on the slightest rumor, typically without the student even knowing about it. The provost didn’t even have to win the case. All he had to do was make the professor miserable for three months, make him hire a lawyer, spend thousands of dollars launching a defense, give his enemies a slight hint of scandal. It became a medieval exercise of royal power. If I draw and quarter a person here or there, guilty or innocent, it doesn’t matter, then everyone else will fall into line. People have families to support. Most of us will not take chances.
“So there’s nothing we—Lia—can do?” Bess asked.
I am not sure, but I think Bess asked the same question twice, maybe three times. I probably didn’t answer her at first. I was still having trouble focusing.
“There’s a process. It is a clear and detailed process that everyone follows. The student. The teacher. The everyone. The process starts at the end of the semester.” I almost said something about sexual harassment and discrimination again. I checked myself. Sometimes, if I can’t seem to get through to a student, I repeat the same simple statement over and over. “The process starts at the end of the semester.” This is all I had, and it is not what Bess wanted to hear. She left in a flurry. Lia sat there for a moment, not picking up on Bess’s cue to leave, as dazed by the whole conversation as I was. In time, she realized what had happened. She muttered “thank you” and left.
All I wanted was for it to end. I wanted to get back to working on the fall schedule, close my door enough to shut out that light from the hall. I wanted to get back to something routine, like playing scales or moving names around on sheets of paper.