First Male Voice
First Male Voice begins to stalk another woman.
I saw her
Looked at me
Right at me
I saw it
I want to have her
I want to have her
In the end
She's going to love me
She's going to love me
In the end
I'm going ti get her
I'm going to get her
In the end
January 10, 2017
I don’t seem to be able to filter stimuli these days. . . . I know, how fucking academic is that statement? I could just say I’m bewildered and confused, but, instead, I talk about filtering stimuli. I don’t blame you for laughing.
So, let me start over. I’m bewildered and confused. It seems like everything is coming at me fast and I’m moving slow. It’s like everything hits me full force and raw. Even the least little thing annoys me. Like a student coming in with a simple problem. Like not being able to find my car keys. Like the turn signal in my car.
Something has changed in my car’s electrical system. A short, maybe. Or a fuse ready to blow. Something unseen. I suspect . . . I know. I jump to worst possible outcome, like I want another disaster in my life. I assume—know—they won’t be able to figure it out or fix it, so they’ll start to mumble about how things used to be, how they used to be able to fix anything with a few wrenches and some baling wire and a roll of duct tape. They—the mechanic guys who work on my car—don’t use the word, but they're talking about complexity. This is how the world will end. I am convinced of it. Big data will keep creating alternate versions of ourselves, ghosts in the machine, then when the ghosts take on enough mass, it will all shut down. The machine knows what we will buy. It knew how the country would vote weeks before the election. It will eventually learn how to eat its young.
They, the mechanics, half of them without a full set of teeth, know it, at some level. They voice it in between their racists rants about Obama. The world will end in complexity because everything is part of some grid. A roach is going to crawl into a server in Omaha, and the entire infrastructure is going to collapse. I don’t believe in that butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil affecting something in New York, but I believe in the Internet and the grid and Big Data. I believe in networks. I believe that complexity is real. I believe that simple problems have profound effects. I believe that teenagers in the Republic of Macedonia can write a fake news story about Hillary Clinton running a child sex slave ring out of a Pizza place in D.C. and then some idiot will drive all the way from Oklahoma and walk into that very pizza place with a gun to free the sex slaves. Everything is too interconnected. Every moment can contain its own profound disaster.
So, I am worried. I am worried that my right turn signal is blinking too fast. The left one is still at the normal speed, but the right one goes “clack, clack, clack” about three times faster. Even if it’s just some idiosyncratic anomaly that is unconnected to anything else, which I don’t believe, it’s annoying. Like a nagging voice. The entire time I am approaching a right-hand turn, I am tense, like something bad is about to happen. I know now—I have learned since this turn signal thing appeared like Jesus from the clouds—that there are thirteen right-hand turns between my home and campus, thirteen times when I have to listen to that “clack, clack, clack,” which seems to be picking up speed, subtly, but enough to notice, and I think the entire car is going to explode. My head with it.
Thirteen right turns on the way to the office. Thirteen. I was already in a bad mood by the time I started to walk down the hall to face my day. The winter holiday was awful. I’m depressed about the election. So, I started rereading The Federalist Papers. Thought it would make me feel better. It didn’t. I read and kept asking myself, Where is our Hamilton? Where is our John Jay? Where is our James Madison? Over the break, I tried another attempt at dating, which ended in the same comic pattern. I didn’t know how to process that bad date situation. I needed to do something. So, I thought I would follow your advice and put myself out there on in cyberspace, on a dating site. My biggest fear is that some student I failed will find it and spread it all over Twitter, but I went ahead anyway. I threw up a profile. The next day, I spent a few hours on the site. It seemed to be filled with desperation and false hope. It’s so—Darwinian. After two days of it, I tried to shut my profile down. They won’t allow you to do that, so I just stripped all the information from it. It's still out there. My profile. Lingering on like its own ghost.
Over the break, over the days alone,I kept trying to find ways to make me feel a little better. For some bizarre reason, I started to write love/seduction poems, something along the lines of Donne’s “The Flea” or Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” something to get some distance from my own experience, something that would help me to laugh at myself. I thought to myself, If Kurt Vonnegut wrote love/seduction poems, what would they look like? I wrote thirteen of them. They’re kind of funny, in places. I made myself laugh, so that helped a little. This is even more bizarre, or sad maybe, but I decided I would buy a wild pair of socks every time some woman took a chip out of my heart. I went out and bought a pair of socks that had Edvard Munch’s The Scream on it. I’m going to try to celebrate the fucking victory. That made me feel a little better.
But not much. Not for long. It’s a stressful time anyway. The spring semester is gearing up, so there are all sorts of problems. Students need to be advised at the last minute, and their advisor is not around. They have holds on their financial aid and need a memo from me saying they’re in good standing. Low enrolled classes have to be cancelled, which means faculty need to be shifted around. As I walked down the hall, all of this in my head, unable to focus, I wasn’t even looking much ahead. I was staring at the pattern in the tile, which I had always found soothing. I raised my head to say “good morning” to Chris, that nice woman, that decent person, our admin, and then I saw Charles pacing in front of my office. The start of classes is still a week off. He is usually not even around. Most of the faculty aren’t. But, there he was. In this moment of time. An unexpected presence. That voice you don’t want to hear.
Pacing. He was pacing. On the rare occasion when he is waiting at my office door, he doesn’t usually pace. He sits in that couch in the hallway, just outside my office, motionless, like a Buddha. Today, he was pacing. His hands were in his pockets, so I assumed he must be angry at me. I was in no mood for it.
I hadn’t talked with him since that phone call after my encounter with Barnes, so I thought, Here we go. Into dark territory. Charles was clearly agitated. It has something to do with Barnes wanting me to reel him in. Something to do with the grade complaint, that Lia student, the issue as conveyed by Bess, as validated by Charles’ anonymous friends, this thing that should have nothing to do with me. Charles has been poking around the Poly Sci department, defending Lia, placating Bess, enraging Barnes. Now, again, he is going to ask me to get involved. . . .Yes, I’ve been through this sort of thing with Charles before. Of course. He is passionate about standing up for students, so much so that he will believe a student’s story entirely, uncritically. Charles has the theoretic foundation and skill to engage in extremely sophisticated textual exegesis, to explore the nuances of words and punctuation, phrasing, rhythm. A graduate student once told me about his lecture on some Byron poem. He kept reading the poem over and over, asking, “Tell me what you are feeling, feeling, not hearing, but feeling from the rhythm. What is Byron trying to say with the rhythm?” The class kept throwing out interpretation after interpretation, none of which hit the point Charles wanted them to “feel.” The graduate student told me, with each repetition, each reading of the poem, Charles, standing behind the lectern, increasingly exaggerated the beats in the meter. Eventually, his hips started to move with the beats, slightly at first, almost imperceptibly, then more obviously, until he was almost humping the lectern . . . Yes, humping is how the student described it. The class, the student said, understood at this point, but they were just too embarrassed to say anything.
Once Charles’s frustration built to a high pitch, he blurted out, “Sex! It’s about sex!” It was, apparently, an orgasmic moment. For Charles, at least. For the students, I think it was like having your grandmother pull out a large dildo at the dinner table. They, as this student told it, just sat there, not knowing how to respond. . . . Okay, so maybe this is not a great example, but it’s so Charles. Anecdotes like this make him so endearing. There are hundreds of them. Anecdotes. Stories. It’s hard to be mad at a guy who teaches with such abandon.
I am just trying to say that he has a great mind. He publishes and publishes. These articles, they are much better examples of what he is capable of. They are remarkable exercises in close reading. You might have read one of his articles when you were in that senior seminar with me. I think I had the class read something he had written on Hugo’s “Et Nos Facta Est,” which is a work well out of his field. That article, that’s how insightful he can be.
But, when he listens to students complain about being mistreated by faculty or administrators, he regresses into a level of innocence that seems like it could not part of the same person. He enters a world of pure motives and stark contrast. From the simple sign of him pacing in front of my office door, I knew he was coming to me to speak about a horrible injustice, a tale not so much a Faulkner novel, something with multiple realities, but more like a medieval morality play, something so simple, so full of import, so demanding of redress.
“Morning Charles. Come on in,” I said. I am sure I didn’t convey much warmth with this. I really didn’t want to talk to him.
“I need to talk with you,” he said.
“Obviously,” I said.
“So you know,” he said.
I just looked at him. I tried to say, with a look, with nothing but a look, that you are acting stupidly, you are acting like someone who is naïve, unschooled.
“I don’t know anything. I just know there’s something,” I said. I’m not usually like this in the office. I am not usually so snotty, even if the occasion, the behavior of a student, the narcissism of a faculty member, warrants it. I can usually be calm. Understanding. I just couldn’t in this moment. Not today. Not now. I was tired. I did not have patience that day.
Once I unlocked my door, I swung my arm in an exaggerated gesture, as if to say, “Enter. Enter. Yes, by all means, enter.”
I followed Charles in, and he continued to pace as I dropped my briefcase on the floor and hung my coat.
“Why don’t you sit?”
He looked a little startled. I think he didn’t realize he was still pacing. He didn’t realize he was already signaling panic.
“I’m going to get a cup of coffee. I’ll be right back.”
He sat. I didn’t expect him to, but he sat. I heard his foot tapping the floor as I walked into the hall. Heard it all the way down the hall. As I was pouring my coffee, I heard it. As I walked back, still, I heard the tapping. When I walked back into the room, tapping his foot, still tapping it, rapidly increasing in speed.
Then, he started talking before I could sit down and pull out my spiral notebook to take notes. Not that I take a lot. I am very cautious about what I write down. One of my friends, chair in another department, had all of his notes, files, and even his hard drive subpoenaed as part of a lawsuit about a tenure decision. If anything is likely to blow up into a lawsuit, you are better off having no notes or a few phrases. Something indecipherable. Runes. Marks that comes from another time.
I take notes when someone says something that compromises their story. I sometimes even read my notes back to the person and ask, “Is that correct?” And then make a note that the person had verified what I wrote down. I hate every minute of it. I feel like I have to assume that every situation has the potential to evolve slowly, incrementally, by half measures, into a maelstrom, that every word I speak or every word spoken to me is potentially the catalyst.
“I assume this is about Lia’s complaint?”
“Who? Oh, yea. Not exactly.” He paused for a moment. Charles often did this, typically before he says something he feels warrants a dramatic response. That’s what I assumed, at least. Maybe, I am wrong.
To be honest, yes, to be honest, I have never been sure whether he is summoning up courage or accessing a mental script or simply pausing for effect. “Tangentially,” he said, in his most academic voice, in that thing he has become, in a parody of who he wanted to be. That is how he began. Then he said, “But it is broader than that. After that girl—Lia—spoke to me about what was going on in her class, or Bess spoke to me, I’ve been talking with some students in Political Science. It’s not like I’ve been seeking them out or investigating or anything like that. Well, maybe I have tracked a few of them down. Ones who were in my class at some point. Ones I have known from someplace or other. This semester, I have had students in my classes who are also taking classes in Poly Sci or they have friends who are Poly Sci majors. I’ve been talking with some of them, and it is clear to me that there are some bad things going on there. There are problems. There are things that must be addressed. A reckoning. Yes, some things must be addressed.”
Another pause. Eventually, I asked, “And?”
“They’re not treating students very well. Some of it is along the lines of what Lia was saying. And Bess. Students who have traditional belief systems—mostly evangelical Christians, but also conservatives, just your run of the mill Republicans, nothing like Tea Party people—they, these students, are challenged in front of the entire class in ways that go beyond the norm. That’s with some profs. Other profs seem to go after the students who are trying out progressive beliefs. You know how they are, these new students. They read half a book on Marx, and they start saying something about the class struggle every time they try to answer a question. Some of these Poly Sci profs tear them apart. This is beyond teaching critical thinking. This is not questioning or testing beliefs. It sounds more like the profs are shaming or humiliating students for having the wrong values, the wrong beliefs. It seems like random abuse for the sake of abuse. Sadistic. It seems sadistic.”
He was waiting. Still. Unmoving. For an eternity. Waiting for my reaction.
“That’s a hard thing to prove.”
His response was quick, loud.
“I’m not asking you to prove anything. I'm just saying that these students don’t like what’s going on. The ones I talked to were not the ones who were being shamed—bullied. They were the others. The witnesses. They feel uncomfortable with what’s going on in the classroom. One guy said to me, ‘It’s like watching the police beat some guy on the street. You don’t feel like you can do anything to stop it. And you have to watch some horrible thing.’ I don’t know why we let things like this continue. Do you understand? There are things that must be addressed.”
“It’s hard to prove what goes on in a classroom. You know this. Even if you prove it, faculty have rights. There has to be due process.”
“There’s other stuff, too.”
Another pause. A long one. I was thinking, over and over, What bullshit! What bullshit! I forced myself to take a deep breath. I think I dropped my head. As if to say, What are you doing? What are you thinking? Why are you pushing this?
“Like?” After a long silence, this is what I said. I didn't want to encourage him. I wanted it to be over. I wanted to sink back into my mindless bureaucracy.
“The department had a retreat. Professors and grad students. None of the female profs were there. I don’t know why. Robert Simpson was there. He won’t speak in public, but he confirmed some things. Off the record. He told me he left early, so other things could have happened, after he left. There was apparently a lot of drinking. Some of the students were underage. There was apparently—I don’t know if what I heard would be classified as sexual harassment. I don’t know if there was some sort of threat, but some women felt very uncomfortable with what was going on. It goes beyond suggestive statements. There was—I was told some faculty were damn close to sexual assault. I was told—I know this is on the level of rumor, but I heard it from more than one person. I was told that some faculty and students paired off. Student who were not involved, they felt—like they were witnesses, like they were now carrying a burden they could not unload, like this would remain with them. This, this is what I was told.”
As he hit the end point, he had been slowing down. The foot tapping had stopped. He seemed to be melting into his seat. I realized I was shaking my head. I stopped. Force myself to stop. Forced an end to an involuntary action. Charles realized I had been shaking my head, as if I were picking up the beat of his foot, as the thumping had died. He was pissed. He probably felt betrayed. Disrespected, at the least. I couldn’t help it. I wanted him to stop telling me this. Whatever this was. I dropped my eyes.
“What?” he said. “What?”
I shook my head again, without even raising my eyes. I couldn’t help it. It was involuntary. I couldn’t even look at him. I just didn’t have the energy for it. Charles was expecting moral outrage. He was expecting me to leap into action. And there, in that moment, I was feeling the weight of the dust in the air, floating down, landing on me. I was on the second floor of an academic building, and I felt I could smell the earth, the loam, at the depth of a grave, six feet down. I looked up again. I met his eyes. He was wonder-wounded. . . . Yes, you are right. An odd phrase. An archaic phrase. But I—I felt that he was looking at me like I was the first murderer.
I thought, for some reason, for some bizarre reason, of one of my professors in grad school, of an event in a graduate seminar, a moment that has stuck in my memory, that I keep coming back to, that I cannot forget, and, now, in this moment, it resurfaced. This professor, in an Elizabethan drama class, the professor, he handed out an offprint of a PMLA article he had written, a high point of his career, and he said, “A momento mori.” This event, commemorated, this event, that should have signaled a triumph, a high point in his career, and, then, with his words, it became the culmination of futility. A skull held in the hands of someone living but soon to die.
I thought of this, and I was wondering, now, as I am sitting here, after all this has passed, what am I supposed to feel? Charles wants me to feel responsible. He wants me to feel culpable for the actions of others, what they have done, when I wasn’t there, present, among the victims, as if I should feel some collective guilt. As if I should atone. As if I should take on the history of man’s inhumanity to man. Yes, man. This is about man. About man and the oppression of women. And collective guilt. Charles is always so—apocalyptic. I could not escape him.
My wife used to say that I was incapable of feeling guilt. There’s some truth in that. We are all horribly flawed. This I believe. We all—most of us—do the best we can. This I believe. We need to forgive ourselves, and guilt is the worst form of self-abuse. It radiates harm. It destroys our ability to be human, and it does the same to those around us. That’s what I feel. I try to live by this. But, in that moment, I could not bear the weight of my friendship with Charles. I could feel anything but the anger and disappointment in his eyes.
We were without motion, gazing at each other, at an absolute impasse. He realized it, and I realized it. Without words, he walked away. Without words, I dropped my eyes and tried to regain my equilibrium. I felt as if I had been beaten.
I stood up. Almost fell. Almost lost my balance. Eventually, I moved my feet, paced to the other end of my office and looked out of the window. I saw nothing but sky and clouds. I realized I had stopped breathing. I forced myself to take in air. The stale air of that old academic building. I walked over to my desk and took a drink of water from my stainless steel water bottle. The one I keep on my desk. The one I can—must—refill. The one with normative morality printed on it, screaming at me, Reuse, Refill, Save the Planet. The one that makes me think I am doing something for sustainability. For the future. For the children of my children’s children. The ones I will never meet. The future has its own burden.
I almost choked. The water had probably been sitting in the bottle for days. It tasted acidic. I could almost feel the texture of bacteria on my tongue. I wanted to spit it out, but I swallowed, to punish myself. I remember thinking, I deserve this. Then, immediately, I began to think about how much I missed my wife. I kept thinking, I am alone. Totally alone. I was standing there, in my office, whining to myself, as if—I don’t know.
At that moment, the dimensions of my office seemed to be expanding to a universe I could never know, to a physics I could never control. I started to think, I have got to stop this. I have to steady myself. Regain who I am. Return to the living.
How can I take all this in? How can I balance myself?
Process it. Think it through.
Charles has a tendency to amplify rumors. People across campus talk about this. They say he is “tightly wound,” or he “spirals out of control.” I’ve seen people in meetings roll their eyes, shake their heads, raise an eyebrow when he is speaking. I understand their reaction, but I don’t know that it is always warranted.
Charles believes in the whiteness of the whale. When it comes to students, he believes in the whiteness.
I must believe that there is always some grain of truth in what he is telling me, but I usually feel it is fairly safe to dial back anything he says, especially if it involves someone else’s misconduct. But he was being more careful with these rumors. He seemed to be sticking closer to the facts, showing appropriate caution, qualifying his statements. When Charles is letting his imagination run in all directions, I feel like that grain of truth is not going to be so significant. As I am listening, as I am calmly listening, I am thinking, Once I peel away all the embellishments, I will find the truth, and the truth will not be as alarming as Charles believes. As I was listening to his hesitating, cautious, suggestive description of what students told him, I began to feel anxious, as if I were about to walk into a dark room, an unfamiliar room, filled with whispers.
If only I could creep away into a corner, away from the voices.