With fists, with words, with kindness
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The title “visiting instructor” suited me. Born into a life of hippie nomadism (even living out of a van at one point in my childhood), I’d been roaming since I’d left home at seventeen. An impulsive enrollment in graduate school at the age of thirty had been intended to impose order on my life, but at thirty-five I was as adrift as ever. And so, coming to the end of a short-term teaching contract, I took comfort in the thought that I would soon leave Atlanta, where I’d lived for six years. The question was where to go next. My fresh MFA degree qualified me to wait tables. Out of better options, I applied to and was accepted by a PhD program, which if nothing else would buy me a few more years of sanctioned reading and writing while postponing the repayment of my student loans. The year was 2003, and it was dawning on me that I couldn’t keep doing this forever.
E. was twenty-three and a student in one of the fiction-writing classes I was teaching in my final semester. In the margins of her first story I’d written, “Too cute” — my shorthand for sentimentality, though I might also have been referring to her physical self. Thin, brunette, and comely, with big eyes and a turned-up nose, E. was undeniably cute. She wore business attire to class and a large diamond ring on one hand. I assumed she had a husband, but I was so removed from thoughts of marriage myself that I wasn’t sure on which hand the wedding ring was supposed to be worn. Not that her marital status concerned me. In truth I found her a little ridiculous, trying so hard to be a grown-up that she was missing out on her youth (a judgment I rendered even as I was trying so hard to stay young that I was missing out on adulthood). Rushing to grade a stack of stories, I had written, “Too cute,” without the faintest idea that my hasty criticism would cause her to burn with shame and anger, or that these feelings, over the coming weeks, would flare into desire.
Our affair began with an e-mail. E. wrote to say she would be a few minutes late to class because she was meeting the governor down the street at the capitol building. I replied as if she were kidding, and she clarified that she wasn’t. She really had a meeting with the governor.
“Of the state of Georgia?” I asked.
“That’s the one. I talk to him all the time.”
E., it turned out, was a political lobbyist. I’d never met one before, but I’d imagined old men in suits. I was full of questions, which she answered before asking her own questions about me. I was happy to regale her with my stories of travel and adventure. I steered clear of politics. Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush was still a fresh wound for me, compounded exponentially by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent buildup to the invasion of Iraq. Also, deep down, I knew that E.’s politics differed from mine, and I didn’t want to think about that. She bore no resemblance to the enemy in my head.
I ’d first voted in 1992, the year Bill Clinton had been elected president, so I was accustomed to political victory and a sense of inexorable human progress. I understood well enough that there existed an entity called the conservative — a cartoonish bigot, a Bible-wielding prude, a jug-eared ignoramus, an obese pig devouring everything in his path — but I’d never had to engage directly with this mythical creature. I felt secure among “my” people in the city of Atlanta. We shared some basic beliefs: that black and brown people were cool, and that white people should make a special effort to try to understand what life is like for them; that every citizen in our wealthy country deserved access to healthcare and a decent education; that what consenting adults did in their bedrooms was nobody else’s business; that women were more than simply mothers and wives (not that there was anything wrong with being a mother or a wife); that religion and government should be separate. When E. told me the name of the organization she lobbied for, I didn’t even pause at the word Values. I had values, didn’t I?
We e-mailed more frequently as the semester went on. Her messages became like a drug for me. Whenever I’d been away from my computer for more than a couple of hours, I’d hurry home to see if she’d written, and she always had. Sometimes we would e-mail back and forth for an hour at a time — just friendly exchanges between a visiting instructor and an intellectually curious young student. And then, without my noticing how or when, we crossed a line. Nothing had been overtly declared, but the truth was understood — or, at least, I hoped it was. Drunk after a night at the bar, and frustrated by the game E. and I seemed to be playing, I came home, turned on the computer, and typed a response to her latest more-than-friendly missive.
“What are we doing here?” I asked. “Am I just imagining things, or is there something going on between us? Isn’t that a wedding ring on your finger? What’s the deal?”
Then I went to bed.
I woke the next morning with a dry mouth and a feeling of shame that took me a few moments to trace to its source. Trembling and hungover, I waited for the computer to boot up, loaded e-mail, and saw that she had responded. I hesitated, then clicked on the message:
“I’m surprised by what you wrote, but yes, there is something happening. What do you want to do about it? My husband is gone. We’re separated. It’s over. I keep thinking about leaving my ring at home but just haven’t had the heart to yet, until now.”
I pushed my chair back and stood, arms raised as if I’d just scored the winning three-pointer. Then I returned to my seat and responded.
“Great! (Whew! I’m so relieved.) Let’s pause everything until I turn grades in after class. No more e-mails. We’ll pick it up from there, if you’re still interested. Deal?”
Her last story for my class was about a girl from small-town Alabama who falls for a slightly older boy from California. The boy had grown up hippie; the girl, country. What they had in common was the need to escape. Together.
The day final grades were due, I was headed down the hall from my office to the printer when I nearly collided with E. at a blind corner. Without a word we embraced and kissed.
I finished up my work, and we walked like teenagers on a first date through midtown Atlanta. In the shadows of skyscrapers we stopped for ice cream. The following day we met at Piedmont Park, and after a stroll along the pathways, I kissed her against her car.
“You’re trouble,” she said.
A few days later, on her lunch break, she visited me at the place I shared with a PhD candidate who was going through a divorce. (He had kindly left for the afternoon.) I showed her the apartment, whose best feature was a balcony that overlooked the elevated train and, beyond that, a massive freight yard. I told E. how I loved to sit there at night and watch the gleaming trains coming and going, the forklifts toting shipping containers around the yard, the insect-like industry of it all.
“I’m more interested in the view from the bedroom,” she said. She looked at her watch. “I only have an hour.”
In the bedroom she pulled her dress off over her head, turned her back, and crawled onto the bed like a cat, moving her hips to draw attention to a line of square white beads strung across the top of her thong panties. The beads had letters on them, like Scrabble pieces. They spelled FUCK ME.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“Nice” was my wimpy response.
We made love, though I was less enthusiastic than I should have been. The problem was E. scared me a little: her hunger, her ambition, her conviction, her marriage, her youth, the way she went after what she wanted.
E. came by often during lunch and occasionally after work. On Saturdays we took our time in bed, then walked around my neighborhood, ate in cafes, and made love again before she sped back to her home in the suburbs.
One day I led her to the campus of the Carter Center, a peace organization founded by former president Jimmy Carter, a Democrat. I showed her a pond and a rock garden with a bubbling waterfall that had been a gift to Carter from Japan. It was one of my favorite places. As we stood at a lookout point with a view of the Atlanta skyline, I noticed that E. seemed stiff, uncommunicative. I wondered if I’d done or said something wrong. We’d never fought, and I didn’t want to start now.
Later, on our way back to my place, she said, practically spitting with fury, “Jimmy Carter was a horrible president.”
Her intensity surprised me, and I groped for a reply. I said the late seventies had been a tough time to be president, and he’d done a hell of a job as an ex-president. Everyone said so.
She stopped walking and looked at me fiercely. “He’s a terrible writer, too.”
I had no answer for this. I hadn’t read any of Carter’s books, but I liked that he had written so many after his years in the White House. But I didn’t want to fight with E. about it. It was true that sometimes (OK, often) I felt rage at those who’d voted for spoiled rich kid George W. Bush and his sociopathic sidekick Dick Cheney. I was incapable of understanding such an act except in terms of evil or stupidity. Gore would never have taken Osama bin Laden’s bait and turned the world into a medieval battleground between Islam and Christianity. Gore would never have used the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq. No way would Gore have slashed taxes for the rich while increasing spending, transforming Clinton’s budget surplus into a huge deficit with sickening speed. Just a couple of years into Bush’s presidency, the results were already disastrous. And who was to blame for the global chaos and the sullying of this country’s good name? The woman walking beside me now, a self-proclaimed Christian who, in fact, supported murder for oil abroad and a philosophy of greed at home.
I held my tongue only with great effort, but after a moment the rage passed. This was my usual experience of anger: a brief internal explosion that damaged only me. I avoided conflict by avoiding people with whom I disagreed, including members of my own family. But E. was so good-looking, so clever, so mysteriously devoted to me. She didn’t seem to care what I believed about the world. The least I could do was return the favor, ignoring her loathsome politics by focusing on the qualities I was growing to love. Soon enough, the Carter Center had passed from our thoughts, and we were back at my place making love again.
One weekday morning E. invited me to accompany her on an errand across the border into Alabama, in the very place she’d grown up. After an hour’s drive, we reached a small town indistinguishable from the other small towns we’d passed along the way: a stretch of strip malls and residential neighborhoods without a distinct center. She told me about competing in beauty pageants from early childhood through her teens.
“Really?” I asked. I pictured her onstage as a child, tears of joy streaking her mascara and a glittery tiara perched on her stiff hair. I imagined her as a teen in a bathing suit and high heels, a forced smile stretched across her face. I suddenly craved her even more, this earnest former beauty queen with a Southern twang, pretty and sweet and wicked in bed.
“It was an easy way to make extra money,” she said with a grin. I didn’t buy her casual coolness, but I didn’t challenge her. I figured she wanted me to think of her as having transcended her homespun origins.
We passed an old Victorian house where E. said she’d been made to pose for a portrait as a little girl. The painter had seemed vaguely sinister to her. Stuck sitting before him for hours, she had pressed “SOS” into the soft wood of the chair with a fingernail, in case the man kidnapped her. I laughed, and she seemed surprised; she hadn’t been aiming for comedy.
Only later did I put these two stories about her youth together — the beauty pageants and the portrait — to form a picture of a girl who had been trapped and ogled. She didn’t talk about her parents.
We drove by her former home, a simple house on a tidy street, the neighborhood neither wealthy nor poor, neither rural nor suburban.
On our way out of town we stopped at the grocery store, where we ran into two women she knew, both in their sixties, probably friends of E.’s parents. They asked after her and her husband while cutting their eyes at me, this stranger with the goatee and the edges of tattoos peeking from his short sleeves. “Everybody’s just fine,” E. said to them, and she snuck me a sly grin. I could see how badly she wanted to introduce me to these women as her lover, a college instructor (elevated to “professor” for effect) who went to poetry readings and drank at bars frequented by black people. She probably wanted to reveal the whole mess: her dying marriage, her brazen affair, her new self emerging from the chrysalis of beauty pageants and painted portraits. I was relieved when we walked away, leaving the women’s curiosity unsatisfied.
Instead of returning to my place, we continued on through Atlanta to the suburban starter home E. owned with her estranged husband — a new house among endless other new houses, hers distinguished only by a dying lawn, the grass as sparse as a teenager’s beard. Inside, the vacant rooms smelled of freshly laid carpet and held the promise of furniture not yet purchased. She pointed out the nook where her husband spent his time drinking light beer and watching NASCAR. They’d been married only two years, and he hadn’t touched her sexually in months. He was a youth pastor and currently at “the cabin” praying about the state of his marriage. I didn’t want to know any of this.
My slightly manic tour guide failed to show me upstairs to their bedroom, for which I was grateful. I did not want to see their bed, probably a king-size four-poster, an expensive wedding gift. Afraid that a righteously furious, gun-toting youth pastor might burst in at any moment, I was eager to go, but E. ignored my cues.
“I want to show you something,” she said, and from a closet she produced a polished steel sword on a wooden stand. Brandishing it, she explained it was a replica of the elf princess’s weapon from the first Lord of the Rings film. Runes and ornate scrollwork decorated the long, curving blade and gilded handle. I didn’t know how to react. I’d seen collectibles like it advertised in the SkyMall catalog while flying and had always wondered what kind of person spent good money on such a thing. Now I knew.
I asked what it was for. Self-defense?
E. looked down, embarrassed. “It means I’m a badass,” she explained in a small voice.
I felt bad for teasing her. I didn’t want to discourage what I liked best about her: her spirit. I reached out to touch her hand, and she put her arms around my neck and pulled me down to the living-room carpet.
By this time we had openly, if briefly, discussed our political and religious beliefs, which for E. were one and the same. Though I didn’t like the odds of our staying together, she had compared us to a famous political odd couple, Democrat James Carville and Republican Mary Matalin. Debate was healthy, she’d said, and I’d agreed, grateful to be offered a way out of my doubt.
But the sword — what could it mean? I, too, had read The Lord of the Rings when I was young. I, too, had longed to escape this confusing, unsatisfying world for a magical land where good was good and evil, evil; a place where heroes really existed and everyone knew their place. But I had eventually replaced that fantasy with another, almost as unrealistic: the dream of fame. After dabbling in baseball, stage acting, and rock-and-roll, I’d turned to writing, the ultimate dreamer’s pursuit.
E. didn’t crave recognition. She’d probably gotten more than she’d wanted on the pageant stage. Instead she’d toted her magical fantasies into adulthood, becoming a Christian-values warrior, an elf princess who kicked ass in a demon-haunted political world. Her professional life was devoted to protecting “traditional” families against the forces of sin: homosexuality, feminism, atheism, and general depravity. The irony of her present status as an adulterer was certainly not lost on her, but we didn’t talk about irony.
I decided to fall for her. And fall was the right word. I felt as if I’d been hanging from the edge of a cliff, and all I had to do was let go. To celebrate my surrender to happiness, I invited her out on a proper Republican date: dinner at a basement steakhouse known for its martinis. The rough-stone walls were set with torch sconces like in a castle. Seated at our table, I felt like a king — or, at least, a favored prince. I had grown to appreciate E.’s philosophy more, especially in terms of how it might benefit me. In her mind the most important human unit — greater than government, friendships, or professional networks — was the nuclear family. And she viewed family as a monarchy in which the man was king and the rest were followers. I’d never wanted to lead, but now I wondered if by refusing that role I’d simply relegated myself to servitude. And, besides, weren’t the best leaders those who didn’t crave power?
After two martinis (shaken until little floes of ice floated on their surfaces), I switched to deep-red wine to go with my meat. The waiter joked about my ordering the “queen cut” of prime rib — a mere twelve ounces to the king’s sixteen — and E. and I laughed.
Over dinner we decided that she would move with me to Kalamazoo, Michigan, population seventy-five thousand, where I would attain my PhD. I had never visited the city and knew nothing about it, but E. admitted that she had secretly been checking online for job opportunities in the area and had even made a couple of inquiries. Much of what she did at work was marketing, she explained, and everything came down to marketing. She also wanted to take over the management of my writing career. I didn’t know what managing a nonexistent career entailed, but I liked the sound of it. With such a woman beside me, success seemed like a glowing chalice nearly within my grasp.
Rent was so cheap in Kalamazoo that, to save money, I moved there two months before classes started. I’d originally planned to hunker down in some miserable hole of a student apartment and try to make do on my meager stipend, but with E. coming I chose a roomy one-bedroom on the bottom floor of a well-maintained Victorian. The place would have cost a fortune in Atlanta.
Kalamazoo in summer, with the students gone, felt lifeless and eerie. I walked the desolate streets of downtown, with its shuttered storefronts and men hanging around on corners. So this was the Rust Belt. Bleak. Privately I thought E. had to be crazy to follow me here. When three large boxes of her belongings were delivered, I dragged them into the living room, where I would look at them often to prove to myself that everything was going to work out as planned. I imagined introducing E. to my future colleagues. Her conservative beliefs, once they inevitably came out, would distinguish me from the other writers. I would be a man with a truly open mind, not a typical liberal who surrounded himself with other liberals while talking up the virtues of diversity. And E. would be prettier than the other writers’ girlfriends. Jealous, my peers would assume she was dumb, but once they got to know her, they’d have to admit that she had brains, too, and ambition. With her to spur me on, I’d quit wasting time and money in bars. I’d finish my book, get it published, and rise fast.
One evening, after dining at the house of one of my professors, I called E. and got her voice mail. I told her how wonderful the night had been and how the only thing missing had been her. The next morning I left another message. By the third day without a response, I’d developed a cramp in my gut, as if I’d drunk too much coffee. My solitary walks grew longer, my calls to E. more frequent and despairing.
The e-mail appeared after five days of silence. With no Internet access at home (I was waiting for E. to move in before taking on the expense), I did all my online business at the downtown library, a modernist cube popular with homeless men and recovering addicts from nearby halfway houses. I read her words on the screen, blinked, then read them once more.
“A. knows everything. It’s over. Don’t ever call me again.”
A. was her husband. I logged off, bolted to the bathroom, and emptied my cramped guts into the toilet. Outside in the bright, broiling sun, I walked quickly down the sidewalk, dialing E. on my cellphone, planning to leave a message. She surprised me by answering on the first ring.
“I’ll make this brief,” she began, her voice as rough as a saloon singer’s: A. was right there with her. They’d been fighting for three days. She hadn’t slept. She sniffed and fell into a hiccuping bout of crying. “It’s over,” she said. “We can’t ever talk again.”
“No!” I shouted, attracting the attention of the vagrants around me. E. remained silent, and it occurred to me that I had nothing else to say. “Call me when you’re finally alone,” I managed. “OK?”
“OK,” she whispered, and I hung up before she could do it first.
I felt ill and hardly slept. During the day, when I should have been writing, I walked through the scorched, empty town. When the sun sank near the horizon, I went to some bar for a happy-hour discount burger (my only meal for the day) and enough alcohol to blunt the pain.
As I walked the streets, I tried to reason away my feelings, muttering like a crazy person, telling myself that E. and I were opposites and our breakup had been inevitable. I reminded myself that her political views were abhorrent; that she had voted for and still supported George W. Bush, who’d caused more harm in the world than any other president in my lifetime; that she was a hypocrite, supporting morality and families while she screwed around on her husband, whom I now pitied while still reviling. How cruel she’d been to take me to her house, to make love with me on the living-room carpet beside her elf sword.
Oh, what wouldn’t I have done to make love to her again? I’d have dropped out of school, moved back to Atlanta, gotten some meaningless job, joined her church, and voted Republican. Now that she was gone, I cared about nothing but her, though I suspected the only reason she’d initially been attracted to me had been my romantic fantasy of writing something important someday, a book that would change lives. That seemed stupid now — the vain, childish reverie of a kid who’d read too much Kerouac and Hemingway and wasted his youth daydreaming. God, how I hated her.
Eventually I began calling E. again. She said she needed more time to think. She didn’t know what to do. Sometimes she didn’t believe it would ever work out for us. Other times she talked of coming to Kalamazoo after she’d settled her affairs in Atlanta. She couldn’t decide. It was all so stressful and confusing. One week her husband had developed a brain tumor; she couldn’t leave him like that. The next week the tumor seemed to have cleared up. She’d shout into the phone. She’d cry. I’d call her a liar, a manipulator, a cheater, a hypocrite. Eventually she asked if I would put her boxes on the porch to be picked up by a delivery company. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t refuse without seeming like a baby.
The boxes disappeared one day while I was out. I stared at where they’d been and held back tears, embarrassed by my pain. What had I expected? How could I have been so stupid?
E. and I went on e-mailing and phoning each other. Over time the longing and anger mutated into something like contempt. During a pause in our communication, I started to think about her less. But then she called again to say she missed me and wanted to meet in Chicago the following weekend, or maybe the weekend after that. The daily conversations resumed as we planned our tryst — until A. found her phone bill, and the drama of the breakup repeated itself. We played it out like bad actors who could barely remember our lines. That’s when the chemicals that had soaked my brain, creating the feeling we call love, diminished. Eventually the contempt faded, too, until all that remained of our affair was a faint wistfulness.
Years later E. e-mailed me to congratulate me on a job I’d taken. She was proud of me, she wrote, and not surprised. I was engaged by this time and living more or less permanently in a medium-sized Midwestern city not so different from Kalamazoo. Barack Obama had been elected president, and the mood of the day was “hope.” I often imagined the seedy riverfront of my new city experiencing the kind of renaissance that had recently transformed downtown Kalamazoo from a blighted urban area to a decent place to spend an afternoon.
E. had finally, mercifully divorced and now lived in a downtown loft with a single father whose children she loved as if they were her own. At her current job, she wrote, she had helped strike down a state law forbidding gay couples from adopting. I had to read that last part twice to be sure I’d gotten it right. I wondered how deep E.’s political transformation went but thought it best not to ask. I wrote back that I was happy for her and proud of her, and I wished her the best. Out of habit I almost signed off with “Love.” Then I remembered we didn’t say that anymore.