First Male Voice
November 8, 2016
First Male has murdered her lover and he tries to convince her that her lover has abandoned her and she should return to him.
First Male Voice
You've got to need me now
You've got to need me now
I know you miss him
I can miss him, too
I know he left you
But he left me, too
He was your lover
He was my best friend
My feeling's left me
When he disappeared
The tears so icy
Leave me numb and mute
I can't imagine
Where I'll go from here
First Male Voice
I once knew a girl
She left her man
The one she should have loved
The one who gave her all
They found her in the woods
She was hurt real bad
That's all that I'll say
She was hurt real bad
That's all that I'll say
Why would he leave me now
I miss his touch so soft
He held me in his arms
So tight it felt like home
First Male Voice
You've got to love me now
You've got to love me now
It’s been a bad week. At least, I think it’s been bad, not in a horrible, catastrophic way, but just bad in a I-feel-dead-inside way.
What does that say about my life? I can’t even be sure whether or not my week has been bad. This is sort of like the few dates I've had. I finish the evening, go home, and myself, Was that a date? Or just a friend thing? I can’t make a judgment. I feel out of sorts for no apparent reason.
Everything is ordinary, or it’s death by a thousand cuts, depending on how you look at it. Not a day singular, but days. That is, a day indistinguishable from days. A pattern without much form. Even at this time, barely midday, I have already had a stream of people through my office, and now I couldn’t tell you who half of them were. Several complaints about professors. Professors complaining about students. Several professors complaining about other professors. Not a lot of joy in any of these meetings. Not a lot of satisfaction. And I still need to go vote. I’ll probably have to stand in line for hours. I should have voted early. I kept forgetting, putting it off.
I have this vague recollection of something Virginia Woolf wrote. Of course, much of what I know these days is a vague recollection of something I read a long time ago. I feel like I am forgetting more than I am learning, like I’m on some downward slide toward absolute ignorance or Alzheimer’s. Anyway, this is something I remember. I think. She, Woolf, wrote something about how she felt most days were more non-being than being. In “A Sketch of the Past,” I think. That pretty much describes it. Most days, it seems like I am not even aware of the movements my body is making. It’s instinct. Or habit. Motion without a clear sense of purpose or intent.
Things come at me, and I react. Somehow, I deal with them, in some sort of lizard fashion.
I do remember that Steven Thomas came in to complain about a student yesterday, or maybe that was days ago. It was one of those prophylactic meetings. He wanted to get his side of the story on the record because he expected the student to come in and complain about him. It was not even mid-semester yet, and he told the student he had missed too many assignments and had too many absences to pass the course. The student had passed into the mathematic netherworld where even perfect scores and perfect attendance for the remainder of the course will still result in a final grade of F-. The student should have just cut his loses and walked away, but apparently he, the student, went through a range of objections with Steven that began with “I’m going to lose my scholarship” and ended with something like “I’m going to talk to the department chair.” So, Steven came in to show me the math.
I know you must have met him at some time. You probably don’t know him well. I would guess you heard about him from Lisa and would stay away from him. He was at that party. . . . No, it’s not that he’s a bad guy. It’s more like, I don’t know, like he’s programmed. That night, at the party, I mentioned that I had seen him with a group of students, mostly females. It’s always mostly females. In a glance, a brief glance, I knew everything he had been saying, everything he was going to say, from a few visual cues, because he is so, well, programmed—in an academic way. He was clearly telling one of his stories—lectures, one of his lectures—one I have heard a few dozen times, and his audience was dutifully listening to every word. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I could probably recite the performance word for word. I don’t want to give the wrong impression. He is actually a good lecturer. Students love him. The world is his classroom. No matter the venue, he is in lecture mode, as if reading from a carefully scripted text. It is odd how much of the lives of academics is scripted text. Layers and layers of it. At conferences, you see it. Someone in the audience asks a question, which is from something he or she wrote, so the real question is, "Why didn't you read my article, you poser?" The speaker gives an answer that is almost word for word what he or she wrote in some article. The answer rarely relates to the question.
I’ve taught with this guy for almost two decades, written annual evaluation letters about him, a lot of them, and I don’t have a clue who he is, but I know his lectures. Just from his gestures, I could tell which lecture he was delivering. He pulled out his iPhone and showed a couple of pictures to the crowd. Looks of amazement from the women. A few uncomfortable laughs from the men. Later he lifted his pant leg above the top of his socks. Giggles from the women. Brooding envy from the men. He was talking about aesthetics and beauty and gender. The theme of this particular lecture is that men are not attractive or sexy. Only women can be beautiful and sexy. What any of this has to do with nineteenth-century realism, his specialty, I could never fathom. In Steven’s world, it probably didn’t matter, as long as it entertained, as long as he could believe his students loved him, told their friends about being in a class with him. At some point of his lecture, almost as if he had a shill in the audience, a student always asks, “What about Brad Pitt?” That is when he pulls out his iPhone and shows a picture of Brad Pitt, then a picture of Angelina Joelle, then a mashup animation of the photographs superimposing on each other and becoming the same face. He must have paid someone a lot of money to develop this. He is not tech savvy. Then he says, “Brad is handsome, but only because he looks exactly like a male Angelina. In other words, he is handsome because he looks like a girl.” . . . Girl. Yes, he uses the word girl, not woman. Always. On campus, he will say hello to female students by saying, “Hey, girl.” Like he is one of them. A female post-adolescent. Somehow, he always gets away with it. If I used the word “girl,” it would show up in my course evaluations. But the lecture. Back to the lecture. Later, he talks about how one of the sexiest things a woman can do is wear traditional hose and let her skirt slide up to show a little thigh. Then, he lifts his pant leg to show a little of his calf and says, “See, not sexy at all. No. It’s comical. Men are only suited for battle and farce.” It’s all scripted, carefully crafted and perfected through performance after performance. Students love it, even the women—the girls—even the ones who claim to be feminists. The nubile proto-feminists, they are Steven's tribe. He seems to cast a spell. He seems to say, I am the one guy who can make you happy. I am the one guy who will never abandon you. To me, there is something creepy about the guy. It feels like there are always subtle threats between the lines. He’s also a little like Trump. The seeking adoration thing. I wrote something about that in my blog.
I wanted to ask him about Brad and Angelina breaking up. I’m sure he is not happy about it, still sad, even though the news broke five or six weeks ago. He will have to revise his lecture. He won’t be able to use that little mashup on his phone. That might be the real reason he came into my office. He wouldn’t talk about celebrity gossip, but I am sure he needed to emote about something. So, he picked a student at random. He came to see me. He emoted. I listened like I cared and didn’t have anything better to do.
I have heard it all, and none of it amounts to much. When I am in meetings with him, my mind drifts. It’s not that I’m not listening. It’s more like I hear everything that Steven says and I am thinking about something else at the same time. I keep drifting to some of the bad television I had watched over the weekend. I spent about half of Saturday in bed, drifting off from time to time, as I watched a marathon of Hardcore Pawn, that show about a pawn shop in Detroit. Even though it’s a reality show, or claims to be, every “unscripted” episode is the same. People who are behind in their rent or child support come in to pawn a ring and baseball cards, which they think are worth thousands of dollars and the pawn guy says he will give them $80 for it all. Then the seller says, “I want at least $1,200. You will give me $1,200. You’re going to go back into your vault and get me the money.” Then words are exchanged and two big security guys push the seller out of the store, his ring or baseball cards clutched close to his chest.
It’s hard to believe that people think strategies like this will actually get them what they want. As I was watching episode after episode, drifting in and out of light sleep, I was trying to figure out why people would watch a show like this, without entirely acknowledging that I was one of those idiots who tune in—for a marathon of episodes, no less. It’s voyeuristic melodrama. These are real people in desperate situations. I am sure that viewers feel—feel, not think, but feel almost a cellular level—that, yes, my life might be a mess, but at least I can pay my rent and put gas in my car. I wonder if it ever goes beyond this for most viewers. I doubt that many people watch the show and reflect on their own lives, start to realize, “On my God, I do the same sort of thing at work. I am engaged in the same sort of self-defeating behaviors. I am trying to bully my way to a good outcome.” The whole point of watching one episode after another, each one basically a repeat of what just happened in the last episode, is that you don’t have time to reflect on anything. I was listening to Steven, half listening, because I knew where the conversation was going, reliving episodes of Hardcore Pawn, and reflecting on why other people seem incapable of reflecting, and spiraling downward into the kind of depression that I usually only feel at night, when I am alone.
And I am not sure why Steven even bothers with this kind of meeting, which we have several times a semester. I always say the same thing. He tells me his view of what happened. I tell him, “Just make sure you follow the policies you set up in your syllabus.” It’s the only thing I could possibly say in the situation. It seems like we are all just locked into these scripts that get repeated over and over, and we usually don’t even see the pattern.
Since we were alone in my office, for some stupid reason, I decided to say that I had heard a rumor about him and a student or former student. Almost as soon as I started down that path, I regretted it. I am sure that a new chair, someone intent on doing a good job, would have had a talk with him as soon as the rumor bubbled up out of the marsh. I have no illusion about such meetings, the ones where you air out the issues, whatever those might be. I shouldn’t have said anything about it, but, for some reason, I told him what I had heard, not mentioning the name of the source, of course, and he looked appropriately shocked and denied it, adding he had never acted inappropriately with a student, which is what I knew he would say.
I have no formal complaint. I have no proof. Most of what I do is paraphrase sections of the Faculty Handbook, like a nagging alter ego. I have become the physical embodiment of that voice no one wants to hear and everyone pretty much ignores. So, I paraphrased the non-amorous policy for Steven, he nodded as if he understood, without acknowledging that it had anything to do with him or his behavior, and it may not. What do I know? That said and done, accused and denied, I listened to him as he continued to complain about several of his colleagues, none of whom had done anything I needed to address. Steven rushed into my office, waved his arms around for forty minutes, then seemed to be pulled elsewhere by the very currents he had created. Those few moments were about as productive as the rest of the day, which I can’t remember.
Sometimes, I am in my office too long. I have to leave and take a walk across campus. The whole point of these walks is to get away from the chaos, get away from the people in my department and the problems, maybe cool down when I am angry and ready to yell at someone. So, I was walking, practically in a daze, and I ran into The Third, Whitcomb, Herr Doctor Professor James L.W. Whitcomb, III. I think I told you about him. The Third. That’s what I call him. It’s easier to get out. As usual, he was wearing a bow tie and jacket. He practically flagged me down and started talking, without hardly taking a breath. Sweet guy, but he’s so academic that even I think he’s pedantic. He’s so Southern he makes me feel like a New Yorker. He said that he wanted to talk to me about a university committee we are both on, one that is trying to find ways to increase opportunities for undergraduate research. Barnes, his chair, is pushing him to be active on the committee and find ways for Poly Sci undergrads to learn practical job skills. Barnes is always difficult. He’s always looking out for his career, his department, his students, in that order. The Third claimed he wanted to discuss some ideas, that he valued my input. I think I went through the whole exchange on the sidewalk without understanding the point of it. Maybe, he wanted some advice on how to handle Barnes. This committee on undergraduate research was one of those things the dean thought was important because the provost thought it was important. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. It just shouldn’t be that political. Or that complicated. Figure out some incentives for the students (some grants, some awards, etc.) and some incentives for faculty (extra travel money, awards, whatever), put it in a report, and move on. The report will go on a shelf to collect dust.
When he stopped me to ask for advice, if that was actually what he wanted, if it weren’t something else entirely, I am sure The Third didn’t know about my history with Barnes. I never told this messy story to anyone else, except Charles, which was a mistake. I regretted telling him immediately. I was afraid he would blab it all over campus, but he didn’t. I asked him to keep it in confidence, more for my wife than anything. Because this happened way back, a few years before she passed. But this time, with this confession, as far as I know, Charles never passed it on to anyone. He was close to my wife. That’s probably why he was careful not to repeat it.
I don’t mind talking about it now, but then it was hard. It was still fresh. I needed to talk to someone, but I didn’t want it to get out because it would circle around, become something else, and then come back to hurt my wife. Or my kids. I’m building it up too much. You're probably thinking that I’m going to tell you something horrible. It’s not that bad. I haven’t murdered anyone. It’s just one of those life things that almost everyone goes through in a marriage. It just was.
Anyway, Barnes once told my wife, even though he hardly knew her, had maybe only met her at some university event and exchanged a few comments about the weather, so even though they were basically strangers who knew each other by sight, I don’t think my wife even really knew his name or where he fit into the university, or that he considered himself to be influential in the state, despite all this, the fucker walked up to my wife—I’m not sure that he even knew her first name—and said, just blurted out, that I was having an affair with his wife. I wasn’t. I was never even close to having an affair with her. Or any other student. Or any other woman. At that time, I was mentoring Angie, the Mrs. Barnes, helping her to present at a conference and revise a seminar paper for publication, all of this in my office with the door open. We were never even remotely, remotely close to having an affair. Apparently, he didn’t even say, “I think my wife and your husband are having an affair.” He apparently stated it as if he had empirical evidence—documents, or photos, or DNA, or something.
You know me. I am not even good at meeting women now that I am single. Every attempt at dating ends badly. I probably need to call that friend of yours, the one you introduced me to, arranged a meeting with. I should probably apologize to her. I know it was comic, how it went, that coffee date, or whatever it was. Lincoln and I laugh about it. About me. About him, also. Lincoln Wray. He is good at meeting women but not so good at making the relationships work. I am pretty good at making a relationship work but terrible at meeting women, which makes sense, when you think about it. If you are good at meeting women, it’s probably because you enjoy the adrenaline rush. You’re going to keep going after that, so you develop those skills. If you’re good at meeting women, you don’t worry so much about a relationship ending. Things get rough. You bail. If you’re not good at meeting women, you’re more likely to stay with a relationship when things are bad, push through it, learn how to make things work. Lincoln and I have joked about writing a self-help book for men. He would take the part on tips about meeting women, and I would take the part on tips about making a relationship work. It would be one of those two in one books. You start one side and read tips about meeting women. Lincoln’s part. Then, you flip it over and read tips about making a relationship work. My part.
Anyway. This thing with Barnes. This accusation.
My wife asked. Well, sort of. She wrote on a sheet of paper: “Are you having an affair with Angie Barnes?” She knew immediately from the look on my face that it wasn’t true. I was angry. She saw it. I’m still angry. I asked her, practically yelled at her, “When would I have time to have an affair?” As she processed my reaction, her face went from a nervous, agitated state to a blank stare to a slight smile to a silly chuckle. For years, I was either in class, in meetings, driving the kids somewhere, taking care of my mother when she had Alzheimer’s, or taking care of her when she was sick. Unless I had convinced the Mrs. Barnes to jump into a broom closet somewhere on campus for ten minutes between classes, nothing could have possibly happened. I think that realization hit my wife at the blank stare phase of her reaction. Then she probably realized there would be no earthly reason why a woman as attractive as Angie would be remotely interested in me. The absurdity of it all hit my wife at the silly chuckle phase.
Of course, from the perspective of Barnes, the one who gleefully imagined himself a cuckold, the supposed affair might have made sense. I could see his line of logic, as he thought through his suspicions, as going something like this: “Why would she have an affair with an older man, balding, with such ordinary looks, ordinary at best, maybe more like homely, why not some young man? But, wait, she married me, whose only draw is a bit of money and prestige, so why wouldn’t she have an affair with him? She must have terrible taste in men. She chose me; therefore, she might choose someone like me, or worse than me, someone like him. It could be true. Therefore, it is true.” Political Scientists. This is how they think. Add in a few stats and you have the whole discipline here in a single, sorted anecdote. . . . I know. You’re right. I shouldn’t say that. It’s a snotty thing to say. I shouldn’t criticize the discipline because I don’t like Barnes, but it’s hard not to have some bled here.
Barnes has family money, lots of it, and is attractive enough, and he’s well known in his field. He has even written a book with a prominent senator and another one with a former governor, so he runs in circles of powerful people, quite unusual for an academic, even a Professor of Political Science. He is, in my humble opinion, a pathetic excuse for a human being, but he has money and power. I have nothing but a handful of books that have sold a few hundred copies—total, not each. I’m not even a very good teacher.
My wife was over it pretty quickly, the part between us, but she was pretty damn angry at Barnes. I think she even tracked him down on campus, went to his office, and cussed him out. I can imagine what she might have said. Something like, You troll, you stump of a man, how dare you come between my husband and me? You are nothing but dog shit I am getting ready to scrape off my shoe. If your wife had any damn sense, she would have an affair and then leave you. You deserve to die alone, you worthless cunt. This is all conjecture on my part. Conjecture. But that is what she would have done. She was angry. She kept getting more angry, and then, one day, she wasn’t angry anymore. So, I am pretty sure she hunted him down and unloaded on him. Good for her.
I’d rather you didn’t mention this to anyone, but it’s not a big deal. I am less concerned with it getting out than I was. Before, that is. When my wife was still alive. Now I don’t care so much. It’s a little awkward being in meetings with Barnes because we have this history that will forever connect us, make us something more than just colleagues, eyeing each other, not necessarily plotting against each other, but waiting for little opportunities to inflict damage, whether slight or significant. Maybe this is more true for me than for him. He might have realized he made a mistake. At some point, after Barnes talked to my wife, after my wife talked to me, after the point when I think my wife talked to Barnes, after the flash to accusations and counter-accusations, Angie came to my office to say she appreciated everything I had done for her but she couldn’t work with me anymore. She never said why. She knew she didn’t need to. The why was hanging in the air. She apologized, without saying what she was apologizing for, and that was it. She said a few nice things about my wife, whom she had never met. At least, I don’t think they had met. Maybe they had talked briefly at some party. I mostly listened. Occasionally, I said, “I understand.” I may have suggested someone else who could help her finish her project. Then, before she left, almost as a final good bye, almost like those students who thank you for the course and say “have a nice life” as they exit the classroom, she said, almost as if to say “thanks but I am gone forever,” with that kind of finally, she said, “I don’t know how I can keep fucking this guy.” Every comment up to that point was measured and subtle, implied, not stated. Then, wham, a statement like that. She had never said anything like this to me before. I am not talking about saying “fuck” in front of me. I mean there had never been that level of . . . What? Intimacy? Friendship? A shared secret? There had never been that between us. Whatever that was. And it was final. We haven’t spoken since. It was almost like she disappeared from campus.
I don’t know why I drifted off into that digression. Probably, more than you ever wanted to know. The funny thing is, as my friend, this is the worst confession I can ever make to you. I can’t confess that I killed anyone, or that I molested children, or that I misused departmental funds. The deepest, darkest secret I can share is that I was accused of having an affair when there wasn’t even a hint of it. I don’t know if I should be proud of that, or if it’s just pathetic. It doesn’t feel like I have led an exemplary life. It seems more like, I don’t know, more like my life was ordinary, without ambition, without initiative. Without enough events to warrant words on a page. Without any thing of note—good or bad.
I guess, with all that, the point, maybe, the point I was trying to explain, was why I was puzzled that The Third stopped me on the sidewalk to ask for advice on how to handle Barnes, though not directly, just to hint at it, hoping that I would jump in and give advice. I think I started to wonder if Charles had actually told him something. I had trouble concentrating during the encounter, brief as it was. The meeting didn’t seem to make any sense, like it had some other agenda. I was wondering if he knew something about Barnes, Angie, my wife, me—all that happened between us, or didn’t happen. He could have heard something from Barnes or Angie, I guess. Or, maybe he overheard my wife screaming at Barnes in his office. Maybe half the department heard it. I was thinking that he wanted to talk about something else, maybe his progress toward tenure, but this was in the late afternoon, I had an exhausting day, deadened by the sheer banality of it all, and I kept drifting. On a better day, I might have found a way to let him talk about what he really wanted to talk about, but not today.
The week was a blur—except for Steven and The Third. They stood out for some reason. They drifted out of nonbeing into being. I could not even pull a single event from the rest of the hours, the days, the weeks. I must have kept some notes. Maybe I can look at those tomorrow and try to remember what happened yesterday and today and the other days, if I have time, if I care enough in the morning.
In the evening, last night, I went home and sat in front of the television and watched some shows, also a blur, and had a few glasses of Bourbon. About nine o’clock, I started to feel like I wanted to accomplish something before the day was over, so I picked up a book from my night stand, almost at random, one I had bought months ago and had not started. It was titled The Pursuit of Happiness. I bought it in the same spirit that most people buy sex manuals. They think they will become better lovers, their partners will pay them more attention, they will feel less lonely. All that happens is they wind up pleasuring themselves as they glare at the erotic illustrations, which are usually pen and ink drawings, shadowy outlines of people who, they are convinced, have a more fulfilling life. . . . Yes, I believe that. They think these figures, cartoons really, have a more fulfilling life, these images that are essentially mere lines, empty containers.
I stayed up late and read most of The Pursuit of Happiness—which doesn’t even have drawings, something to trigger self-loathing and fantasy—not because it was interesting, more because I was hoping to find some clue for straightening out my life. The author is a rat psychologist—a neuroscientist, some guy who probably did undergraduate research on rats running through mazes or pushing little levers for food pellets on the way to becoming a journalist who then became a writer of pop psychology bestsellers. He summarizes decades of research—brain scans and blood samples, all that—to discover people are most happy when they are in the pursuit of a goal. Yet, throughout, he quotes or summarizes literature, as if to say, see, I am right, rat psychology and literature both agree, we are most happy when striving for something, so Ulysses spends decades finding his way home and then leaves after a short visit. I guess, if we embrace his hypothesis, Sisyphus was the happiest man of all times. I wonder, though. I wonder if we don’t feel happiest when we are in the midst of destruction and chaos. As a species, we seem to long for it. We seem to long for suffering or, at least, the spectacle of suffering.
I didn’t finish the book. I kept reading through phrases like “statistical dependencies among experiential particulars,” growing more disoriented with each Germanic phrase, which oddly seemed like prayers, a long series of prayers. Some sort of technocratic prayer. Once I hit “insouciant sophistication,” five pages before the end of the book, I couldn’t go on. I was angry and even more depressed than when I started. Who the hell reads a book about happiness and ends up more depressed?