He Says . . .
He Says . . .
She sings about her reactions to First Male Voice's offer/threat
He wants me to go with him
He says he wants to love me
He promised to be gentle
He's looking to the future
He says I will forgive him
He says he can become him
He says he can become him
Can I learn to trust him?
Can I learn to trust him?
December 6, 2016
Charles called me last night. Late. Or later that he usually calls. About eight or so. He wanted to have dinner, which odd, just because we are in exams. Charles has a tendency to disappear during exam week. It’s just him and papers and exams, maybe some last minute conferences with students, but pretty much no contact with colleagues or friends.
I hadn’t eaten yet, but I didn’t really want to go out. I had been grading papers and having a few drinks, well, only one so far, more on the horizon. I find it hard—harder than I used to, harder with my focus like it is—to grade papers in any state—certain harder entirely sober.
When I was young, when I could push myself, all I needed was coffee. Way back, at the beginning of my career, before I was even tenure-track, teaching a four-course load, I often went through two sets of essays in an evening. I sat there for five or six hours. Plowing through them. I'm sure I didn’t think that hard about establishing a meaningful dialogue with my students. I’m sure my comments were about what you would expect from a lizard brain—pure reflex, a series of rubber stamped reactions. When I returned the papers, I would watch the students look at the grade and then put the essay in their backpack. I am sure most of them never looked at the comments. Some of them even threw their essay into the trashcan as they exited the classroom. They knew I would see them. They were sending a message. But, for some reasons, I kept writing the comments they never read, at least, most of them. It continually amazes me what we are willing to do when we are young, eager to please, and full of hope.
Now it’s harder. I struggle to face a set of papers. I grade a couple, then stand up and pace around the room, muttering words of encouragement to myself. Or cursing at the gods for making me a teacher. I fix a drink. Then I do a couple more. It’s like an old clock unwinding, slowing down as each minute passes.
A good friend of mine, at another university, late in his career like me, told me a story about his son. The kid, who was about eight at the time, was having a nightmare. So, he goes into the kid’s room and wakes him. Then, he asks his son what the nightmare was about. His son said, “There’s a monster in the bushes in front of the house.” So he asks the kid, “What’s the monster doing?” His son says, “Grading papers and drinking whiskey.” It’s like we all end up in the same place. Grading papers and drinking whiskey. Monsters.
So, Charles called when I was doing my monster thing with a handful of papers, slogging through a class set. I was a little concerned about driving half way into a set of papers, that is, the better part of a Bourbon downed. It was my first, but it was probably closer to a double, if I’m honest with myself. I don’t measure out shots and probably pour them heavy. . . . I know you wanted me to do that. Measure the shots. It just goes against the grain of who I am. I just don’t want to be that precise. So I eyeball it. Close enough. . . . It’s not like I’m pouring an eight-ounce shot. I knew I would be fine to drive. I just didn’t want to be involved in an accident with liquor on my breath.
Since my wife’s death, I have have developed this odd—condition, is probably the best word. Almost every night, I sit home alone, feeling lonely, wishing I was with friends. At the same time, I dread the idea of being in a social environment. I'm sure I send signals that I want to be alone. I do, and I don’t. If I force myself to go out, I usually regret it. I slip. I do something I regret. I feel out of place. Everyone else seems to be a couple, and I am there alone. And people rarely ask me to join them. I am not sure whether this is because I would be a single guy with couples, an oddity, or because I still have the stench of death on me.
But back to Charles. Yes, Charles. My initial reaction was to tell him no. Stay at home. Keep grading. Keep drinking. But I feel like I need to keep pushing myself to get out. Even when it doesn’t end well.
I hope you are not interpreting this as related to you, to us meeting. It’s not the same. It’s easier for me to meet with you for coffee, same time, every week. Most weeks, at least. It becomes a habit. That probably sounds bad, too. Habit. What I’m trying to say is I don’t have to make a decision. It has become a routine. In a good way. As something I look forward to. As something that helps hold me together. And it’s just us, without couples, or a crowd. It has helped me to get out of my head. But, a last minute invitation to a dinner, late at night, when I had already begun to shut down, is hard. Surprising. Jarring.
It was also particularly unusual for Charles to ask me to dinner on short notice like this, besides the business of it being exam week, with the cold setting in, some patches of ice on the roads. Neither of us have good night vision now. When we get together in the evening, he usually makes arrangements weeks, at least days, in advance. We meet early in the evening. So, I wondered if something was up. I wondered—dreaded.
I haven’t been thinking as much about the party, about my exchange with that guy, my shadowy friend, as I have started to call him. That was months ago, way back at the beginning of the semester. Or the student complaint Charles thought I mishandled. That was months ago, too. I think, anyway. I’m not really sure about the timeline. I have lost a sense of sequence. It seems like, way back, from the time when my wife starting to become sick consistently, when things were bad, events just mushed together, more like loops. Not a chronology—loops. But something seemed to be in the air. Something with Charles.
Maybe he was worried about me, I thought. I haven’t been around the office much. So, I hadn't seen him during the week for a long time. We used to just run into each other during the week. Sometimes, we would get together on Saturday for breakfast or lunch, but I don’t think he has been around during the weekends. He's probably been going to that gambling casino on the reservation with Lincoln. He must think it’s good luck to bring a real Cherokee with him to the Cherokee Casino. Maybe, because we hadn’t seen each other in a while, he wanted to check on me, run a little psychological inventory to make sure I wasn’t drooling on myself, that I could form coherent sentences, that I wasn’t suicidal. If I told him I couldn’t make it, he would know I was just making an excuse. Everyone knew I didn’t have a social life. If I said I was a little too close to the legal limit, he would assume I was drinking myself silly each night, which would not be entirely inaccurate, because I was, at least, drinking almost every night. I would have to go. So I asked him if we could meet close to my house. I would not drink at dinner, which he would probably assume was an attempt to cover up excessive drinking, especially if he could smell anything on my breath. It seemed a no-win situation, but I thought, with maybe way too much analysis, that saying yes was the best option.
This is how it has become with me. Even the simplest decision is overwhelming. I shouldn’t have had to even think about a response. I should have been able to say yes or no, without analysis, without considering all the angles. But—I don’t know. I just starting thinking things through, and it—everything—becomes so complicated.
We agreed to meet at a small Italian place about a mile from my house, which I could reach through back roads. I ate a handful of mints and headed out the door, wondering if I truly am actually drinking too much. I didn’t know if I was overly sensitive to being labeled with a drinking problem. Or, if I were exhibiting classical alcoholic behavior. If I am trying to hide having a few drinks, maybe I am having more than a few. Maybe a couple of fat shots are more like four or five or six. Some nights, I do feel a little tipsy, but I get up and go to work each morning, and I never drink during the day. This is my line of thought as I was walking to my car. Then I thought, my God, this is an alcoholic thought process. Maybe, I should just stop drinking for a while.
I must have taken more time to get ready, change my shirt, put on decent shoes, and grab some mints than I realized. I walked in, asked for a table for two, thinking I would be there before Charles, because I live about ten minutes closer to the restaurant. The hostess was seating me when I saw him, already there, already with a glass of wine. He said hi, without rising, without extending a hand. Just a cheerful enough hello. Charles is not a hugger. He doesn’t like touching in any way. He is not even crazy about handshakes.
“You want some wine?” he asked as I sat down.
“No, I’m driving. Had a cocktail before you called.” I was still in a bit of a panic about my potentially alcoholic thought process, so I decided to admit to the drink, to be honest, that is, without saying that the cocktail was probably closer to two, maybe three. Cocktail? I never use that word. I must have thought it sounded more social, less like some old guy drinking alone. So, maybe it wasn’t exactly an honest admission. It was more of the kind of admission that consciously appeared to be honest but was really a cover-up. My mind was running in circles, as usual. Heading to some dark place.
It all started like a normal dinner between friends. We chatted about some things going on in the department, at the university, in the town. If this had been a meeting in my office, I would have been growing more tense, waiting for the moment when the conversation would turn apocalyptic, as conversations with Charles usually do. That night, I was fairly relaxed, even though I wondered if he was evaluating me, keeping mental notes, wondering if he needed to intervene in some way, pull me out of the Slough of Despair, or Despond, or whatever Bunyan called it. Or maybe he thought I was dangling my toes in the River of Death. I don’t know why I was having a civil conversation with someone I liked and respected, and my thoughts were drifting to a book I had not read since an undergraduate course, a book I didn’t even like back when I was young enough to like almost all of the books I thought I was supposed to like. Now, I am past all that. I don’t like Chaucer. I don’t like Shelley. I don’t like Faulkner. Of course, I don’t say any of this out loud among other academics. We need to protect pretentious undergrads. If they want to spend six months or six years trying to understand The Waste Land like it will somehow improve the quality of their lives, God bless their little hearts. I'm past it. I can't muster the need to impress colleagues, or even students.
Even as I was eating my salad, the conversation was starting to turn. He went on a little rant about fake news and the election. That guy who had read the fake news story about Hillary Clinton running a sex slave ring out of a pizzeria in DC had barged into Cosmo’s, or whatever the place was called, to “self-investigate” and make sure there weren’t any little girl sex slaves in the kitchen. I know fake news, he said, tries to look real, but who would believe bullshit like this? And the guy fires a shot in the air to get everyone’s attention, like he's a cowboy out West, on the frontier. It was one of his typical rants, but I understand it. It makes me angry, too. But this was beyond a heartfelt discussion of the news. He was livid. His face red. Every once in a while, he stopped to catch his breath—calm down—then, after his little break, his eyes darting around like someone might come into the restaurant, attack him, spray bullets at random targets, he launched into the next phase of his rant.
Then, more. Then, on to me. About half way through the entree (I ordered chicken lasagna because nothing on the menu looked good, except maybe Veal Chops, which I was afraid to order that in front of Charles, who can be judgmental in unpredictable ways, and I didn’t want to catch crap about eating veal, even though he is by no means a vegetarian or vegan or a member of PETA), anyway, half way through the chicken lasagna, he asked if I had done anything to investigate the things going on in the Poly Sci department. Ordinarily, I would have thought that this was just Charles wanting to invent a pretense to share some academic gossip, but after his outburst about that student, Bess’s friend, Lia, or whatever her name was, I wasn’t so sure.
“No,” I said. “Nothing.” I had heard nothing. I was not getting out much. I wasn’t hanging out in the places where gossip circulates. Even when I am doing well, I don’t hang around in high gossip areas. I wasn’t even going to all the meetings that I was required to attend.
For the first time in the evening, there was a lull in the conversation. He looked down at the floor. Perturbed. His brow furrowed for a few seconds, then smoothed, as if he were reacting to sharp, transitory tooth pain. I was wondering if I had somehow disappointed him. I constantly feel like people expect more from me than I can deliver. People—students especially, even faculty, maybe especially faculty—they all think chairs have power, but we don’t. We can’t hire anyone, we can’t fire anyone, we can’t give raises—this is all the work of committees and deans and the provost. It's not even herding cats. The job is more like trying to slightly change the direction a group is moving by pretending to accidentally bump into one of them. It’s less like Hume’s colliding billiard balls and more like particle physics, predictable only at the broad level of probability, not in the least at the level on an event. Of course, sometimes, you can fix a problem because people think you have power, but this is rare. But Charles, if he knows this, would never accept it. He thinks I can fix things. So, there, in the middle of his linguini, on his third or fourth Chianti, Charles looked up, straight into my eyes.
“Last week,” he began, “I had lunch with a friend in Political Science.”
“Greta?” As soon as I said Greta Tram’s name, his brow furrowed again. I knew it was Greta. She is one of only two women in the entire department, and Charles wouldn’t be friends with any of the men there. They’re just not the type of people he would find it easy to, I don’t know, be with, I guess.
“Well . . .”
“It doesn’t matter.” I shouldn’t have said that I thought—knew—it was Greta. So, we proceeded as if I didn’t know who “the friend” was.
Charles looked down again, just for a minute. Then straight back into my eyes, so he could gage my reaction.
“This friend—I’m not going to mention a name, she, she or he, didn’t want me to mention a name, or repeat anything—the friend is concerned about things she is hearing from some of the female students. I don’t know whether or not I should even share this. The friend has been told—subtly threatened—to not say anything. Barnes claims he is working behind the scenes to address the culture there, but he also suggests to her that she should not go to the administration. More than a suggestion, really.”
I was already thinking that there’s nothing I can do to fix a problem in another department, a problem that might be a big problem. I can’t even fix problems in my department. If there is something wrong with the “culture” of the Department of Political Science, which for some reason has a doctoral program, so they have a large faculty, twenty some tenure-trackers, which is enormous (when you consider many Poly Sci departments have three or four faculty), and sixty or seventy grad students (also huge). I think they only graduate three or four PhDs a year, and maybe one of them finds a tenure-track job at a small institution, maybe not even every year, maybe just one every other year. I don’t know why the program is allowed to continue. But it’s there. Because it’s there and it’s big, it exerts a certain force.
“I don’t know what I can do, especially if I don’t even know the facts, if I only know generalities, and those only second-hand.”
“I know. I wasn’t expecting you to do anything. I wouldn’t expect you to do anything. I simply thought you should know. I wanted to mention it, in case you heard other things, from other people. In case other people might get to a point where they want to talk to someone.”
When he said, “I wouldn’t expect you to do anything,” there was a certain tone. Maybe I imagined it, but it felt like an indictment. It felt like he was calling me a coward. Or maybe he thought I was unhinged, unable to do, whatever, I don’t even know what.
And it was puzzling. If Charles were referring to Greta, which he almost certainly was, Greta was a full prof with national reputation. Formidable. I’ve heard that most of the grad students are afraid of her. Her male colleagues, most of the department, seem to ignore her, but they certainly don’t seem to control her. I’ve never seen anyone from her department challenge her in a college or university committee meeting, though they might sometimes roll their eyes when she talks about vaguely feminist issues. I say “vaguely” because she is not what I would consider to be an overt feminist. She’s British, and she talks about “fair play,” which she approaches more from abstract ethics than anecdotes or particular situations, I would say from a Kantian or John Rawls type perspective. And “fair play” covers a wide range of issues for her, from concerns about admitting under-prepared students who accrue debt but have little chance of succeeding to extending healthcare benefits to grad students. So, I am always surprised when one of her colleagues rolls his eyes when she mentions an issue like recruiting more women into Engineering and the sciences. Of course, the social sciences and other disciplines as well. But especially Engineering and the sciences. I don’t know why this would be controversial.
“My friend, she said that there are things going on with the graduate students, with how they are treated. There are comments made about women throughout the program. They are much harder on the female students. They are often told, by more than one male prof, that they are not capable of doing the work. Told, clearly told, but not directly, not in an overt way. Not many of them finish their doctorates. Maybe two or three in the last decade. They make comments about how they are dressed in front of the entire class. It’s not at all subtle, but it is not exactly direct. So, it is harder to challenge, if you know what I mean.” Then he stopped. Started eating his food. Like we had been talking about the weather.
Then he seemed to tear up. I’m not sure. We were in a restaurant with mood lighting. Dim. Candles on the table. I might be wrong, but I think his eyes welled up. I was startled. I stopped eating also, held my fork in midair for a few seconds, then put it down. I looked at him and waited for it. I didn’t know what. He stared at me for a while. Then, he said, “Threats can be very subtle. They can—I really believe this—they can do more harm than physical violence. At least, with the hits and the slaps and the pushes—that’s real. You know what that is. You don’t doubt it’s happening. You might still think, in some sort of victim logic, that you deserved it, but that doesn’t come from the hits or slaps. That comes from the words. The physical stuff, the hits and all, you know that’s real. With the words, with the subtle threats, you doubt yourself. You wonder, ‘Am I imaging this. Did he really mean what I think he meant?’ That’s what makes it worse. Physical violence might damage you from the outside, but you have a chance to save the part of you that can muster the courage, the physical strength, the willingness to absorb the blows, the willingness to resist. With the physical violence, you can still establish an identity. You can be beat down and stand up again. Words destroy you from the inside out. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. I want you to understand that. That’s all I want.”
Those words. Exactly. I am pretty sure that I am remembering his words exactly. I am remembering this entire event exactly. His face went blank for a while. It seemed like minutes. It might have only been twenty seconds or so, but we both just seemed frozen. I think I stopped breathing. I realized, at some point, that I had not been breathing. Then he blinked and started to eat again. Then, at that moment, I realized that I hadn’t been breathing. I took a breath, slowly. We both starting breathing again.
“I understand,” I said. “My wife. The two of you were close. I know. I know.” He gave his head a few shallow nods up and down. I knew he and my wife had, over the years, many talks about her past. It was almost like there was a secret code between us—the three of us.
I knew, without him saying anything, that he was not going to back away from this, whatever “this” was. He would be there and stay there and become involved in all of it.
“Be careful, Charles,” I said to him. I probably shouldn’t have said this. The moment was complete. Enough had been said. I couldn’t help it. I was worried about him.
He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I have tenure.”
I knew this would be his response. We’ve had this conversation before. He knows it makes me crazy when academics assume that tenure will protect them. It's like he couldn't help himself, either. He had to say it.
In the past, when we have had discussions about tenure, I have told him tenure is overrated. It doesn’t really protect anyone. I say tenure is like being President for Life of Uganda. It’s only worth something, if you want to live in Uganda for the rest of your life. And, even then, they can still assassinate you. So, it could be a short life. That’s how I feel about tenure. If they want to get you, they will find a way. They will find some sort of policy they can warp into a club, and they will beat you to death with it. I haven’t seen this sort of thing happen here, but I’ve seen it at other universities. More than one. You can’t think you’re safe. You can’t say, “I have tenure.” That’s just stupid. That’s naïve.
I told him this many times. I have said this to him so many times that he rolls his eyes whenever he hears me repeat it. It’s like when I am talking to one of my sons, and I am saying some kind of “dad thing” that they have heard before, a hundred times. I thought about saying it again. I was thinking, I am going to say this, make him listen to it, even if he rolls his eyes and ignores it. But I didn’t.
“Please, be careful.” That was all I said. I said it once. Then, I said it again.
For the rest of the evening, which was not much longer, we returned to idle conversation. Charles even asked me if I had been to a basketball game recently. I am not sure why he asked. I go to a game every two or three years, usually because it’s tied to a recruiting event. Maybe Charles wanted the evening to end feeling normal, like we both weren’t now bound by common knowledge that there was a secret in our midst. Maybe not a secret. Maybe that’s the wrong word. Shared knowledge. The kind of knowledge that binds people together. We both knew it was there, but we didn’t know what it was or what to do about it.
It was there. And it had weight. I hope he knew that I didn’t doubt what he said about that other department. I know this kind of thing happens. It happens much more in some departments. I would like to do something about it. Maybe, the opportunity will come up. Maybe I will be talking to the provost in the hallway and I can say that I’ve heard things about a department on campus and he should know what I’ve heard. I usually preface this kind of comments by saying, “I know you can’t respond to what I am about to say. I only want to pass on what I’ve heard. It is something I think you should know.” I do that, on occasions. You never know if it has any impact, but at least you have made someone higher up aware that there might be a problem. I guess I could have told him I would try to do this much, try to find an opportunity to pass it up the line. But I didn’t.
As we walked out of the front door of the restaurant, I asked Charles if he were okay to drive home. He had at least three or four glasses of wine, probably more. He said, “Oh, yea, I’m fine.”
We said goodbye. No hug. No handshake.
“Are you doing okay?” he asked with a softer tone that I usually hear from him. He didn’t mean about drinking and driving. He meant me. Was I okay? He wasn’t a colleague right now, and I wasn’t his direct report. He was a friend. And he was the friend of my dead wife. He wanted to let me know he was connected to me.
“Yea. I’m fine.”
“We were all worried about you for a long time. You really okay?”
“Yes. I am not . . . great. Certainly. But I’m okay. Okay enough. Thanks.”
After I turned the key in my car, I glanced at the clock on the dashboard. It was 11:23. On a school night. I’m usually in bed by 9:30 or 10:00 and up by 5:30 or 6:00. I’m not really an early to bed, early to rise person. The nights are the hardest time for me. I go to bed early because I am ready for the night to end. I wake up early because I can’t sleep. I have trouble sleeping.