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I was a revolutionary, p.22

I Was a Revolutionary, page 22


I Was a Revolutionary

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  “I’ve been through it myself,” he says. “I’m here for you if you want to talk.”

  When Linda left, it felt strange to have time to myself again. Between teaching and our life together, my attention was always directed by the concerns of one or the other. Since January it seems all I’ve had is time, and without marriage, teaching has rushed in to fill the void. And so over spring break I’m not on vacation or visiting family. I stay home and tinker with my syllabus and course schedule, reading a new book I want to incorporate into class next fall. The Friday before returning to school I get an e-mail from Lauren. For a brief second I misread the name, mistaking it for another please-leave-the-house note from Linda, and feel relieved when I realize the error. Lauren’s message is brief. She says the D.C. trip fell through and asks if we can meet. I type: Come by my office Monday. My cursor hovers over SEND, then I delete and type: Walk tomorrow? giving her my home address and the time.

  The following afternoon I’m grading papers when Lauren knocks, forty-five minutes late. She’s wearing jeans and a red sweatshirt too big for her. Kwame’s, I imagine. “Sorry, I lost track of time.” I pull on my jacket and step onto the porch. A cold front has come through and a heavy gust of wind kicks up over the railing. She lowers the hood of the sweatshirt and says she needs to make a phone call before we head out. “Forgot my cell,” she says. “Would you mind if I used your landline? It won’t take a second.”

  “Of course,” I say, pointing toward the kitchen. She takes the handset from the cradle on the wall, looking at me over her shoulder before dialing. I walk upstairs to my study to give her some privacy. A minute later she calls out my name and I tell her to come here. I’ve taken off my jacket and slung it over the back of my chair. Linda and I used to work here together, our desks at opposite walls, surrounded by bookshelves. But for a few stray paper clips, hers is cleared out and the bookshelves stand half full. The wooden stairs creak from Lauren’s languid ascension. When she appears in the doorway, she’s looking all around her like a thief casing the joint. “Last throes of winter out there,” I say. “I thought we could talk here.” She agrees. “So tell me what happened with Washington.”

  She explains that the donors who fronted most of the money pulled out two days before, an unforeseen result of the ongoing financial collapse. She’s looking across the hallway where I’ve left the bedroom door open. I imagine what she’s seeing. The built-in bookshelves we put in ten years ago that span an entire wall. The green leather ergonomic reading chair by the window imported from Sweden. The attached bath we added with a whirlpool and a dual-head standing shower. “Look at this place,” she says, unzipping her sweatshirt. “This could be my parents’ home.”

  I feel a rush of embarrassment, followed by anger and disgust. She’s right. I’d often found myself wondering what the hell had become of us over the years. When we were young we’d believed in Karl Marx and permanent revolution but in middle age had come to find our faith in Martha Stewart and the permanent renovation of our home. It wasn’t always this way. For a number of years after leaving the movement we were still active politically, but slowly, after returning to school, the concerns of the professional began to eclipse the political. We used to spend entire days knocking on doors, and now we write checks to progressive organizations and donate to Democracy Now! before dashing off to the university for a meeting.

  “It was my wife,” I say. “She wanted all of this.”

  “Your wife,” Lauren says. She takes a step across the hallway to look farther into the bedroom, as if it were a diorama in a natural history museum. She leans against the door frame and I rise from my chair and move to stand behind her. “Where is she?” she says. “Ex-wife,” I correct. I touch her shoulder and my hand moves to her nape and down her spine, but her sweatshirt is so baggy, I wonder if she feels anything. “She did this to you?” I say nothing. I follow her eye-line to the California king, where pillows we bought from a hotel while on vacation after claiming the best night of sleep of our lives are stacked neatly at the head of the bed. “Why’d you let her?” I take her hand. “You didn’t have a say?” Then I lead her inside.

  Afterward, we lie silent. I think maybe she’s fallen asleep, but then she rolls away from me and asks, “Do you sleep with many of your students?”

  “This is a first.”

  “Sure it is.”

  I feel defensive, then strangely flattered by the awful cliché. “And you and Kwame?”

  “We have an open relationship.”

  She pulls on the red sweatshirt, zipping it up over her bare breasts, and drinks from a cup of water I set on the nightstand the previous evening. I tell her how when Linda and I lived in the collective everyone slept with each other and how much I hated it. She asks if that’s where we met. I shake my head. “In school. SDS. We’d been active for a few years but dropped out when it felt like protesting wasn’t enough.”

  She stands and the sweatshirt falls past her underwear, hanging mid-thigh.

  “How’d you learn to make bombs?”

  She looks out the window, glass at her chest.

  “Don’t get any ideas,” I say.

  “Oh, please.” She turns, a cruel smile on her face. “Do you know how easy it would be to find out? I was just curious how a bunch of college dropouts became underground bomb-makers before the Internet.”

  “We weren’t underground,” I say. She has a bemused look on her face. “The book got a few things wrong.” I’m explaining, watching the pale of her skin start to rouge, when she cuts me off.

  “Were you planning on telling me this after you fucked me, or had it crossed your mind when you were holding court at the bar, talking Fred Hampton and bombs?”

  “I did know him,” I say. “And I never said anything about bombs.”

  “You said you’d been underground!”

  Her body’s tensed, ready to pounce on any answer I might give, when I hear a funny sound I can’t quite place. She stoops to the floor, pulls her jeans from under the bed, and removes something from the back pocket. Her cell phone. “Thought you forgot it at home,” I say. She looks at the screen, shaking her head. Quickly she pulls on her jeans—“You’re a liar and a bad fuck”—and leaves.

  In the following days I try to get hold of Lauren, but she has stopped coming to class and won’t respond to my e-mails. When Brad calls me at home in mid-April, I’m sure she’s gone to the administration, but he only asks how I’m doing with the separation. Often this is his way of priming you for taking on some extra duty—advising an additional thesis, letting a prospective student observe class, filling in for someone on sick leave—and I wish he would cut to the chase.

  “We’re getting divorced,” I say.

  “So you’re not going to try and work it out,” he says. “It’s mutual, then?”

  “This was my decision,” I say, feeling resentful of his prying.

  His response, a plaintive hmm hanging in the phone’s static ethers, makes me furious. This could go on all night. I tell him I have papers to grade. “Hang on there a minute,” he says. “I was just flipping through my calendar here and thought we could pick a time for a year-end lunch.” Almost a decade ago Brad began the tradition of taking each member of the department out to lunch after finals, a nice gesture that allowed him to “check in,” as he likes to say. We set up a time after my last class and I’m thankful to finally get off the phone.

  How quickly a semester moves. I struggle to learn their names, and then I have them, and then our time together is over. I feel good that we rebounded from a rocky start. I take pride in what I feel is their genuine interest in the complexity of the state. In the final weeks we’re almost at the present. We’ve covered the rise of cultural conservatism, the growing activism of the right over the last few decades. We’ve talked about the Summer of Mercy in 1991, when men and women chained themselves to fences outside clinics in Wichita and laid their children down before cars trying to enter the parking lot. We don
t know it yet, but in a matter of weeks a member of an increasingly militant antiabortion movement will murder abortion doctor George Tiller in his own church. We’ve discussed the state Board of Ed banning Darwin from science curriculums. Do they know that it wasn’t until 1986 that liquor by the drink was legalized, as well as other “sin amendments” like the lottery and wagering? They do not. We’ve looked at clips on YouTube of Topeka’s own Fred Phelps protesting, with his followers, at the funerals of Iraq War dead, shouting at aggrieved families that their sons and daughters died because God is punishing us for homosexuality. We’re reading What’s the Matter with Kansas?

  At the last class, I walk the aisles slowly as I collect their final papers. Lauren’s chair, a long time empty, has become the spot where a neighboring student places his backpack. I’ve checked with her other teachers and they report she hasn’t been in class for weeks, but it’s only when I e-mail Kwame that I find out where she is. She’s taking a break from school, he writes. Went to San Francisco to work for a single-payer group on healthcare reform. I write back asking for more details but he doesn’t respond.

  When I meet Brad, he’s already sitting at the table of the restaurant he suggested, the Italian place downtown where I saw Linda having dinner. “Fancy,” I say, taking a seat across from him. Usually we just grab a burger at the union.

  “It’s the end of the semester,” he says. “We should celebrate.”

  It’s late afternoon and the restaurant is nearly empty in these dead hours between lunch and dinner. We reflect on the semester’s classes, float plans for the summer. He tells me about his divorce and I listen politely, occasionally commiserating, though I realize my regret at having stayed in the relationship too long is no match for his pain at having been unable to save his. Our plates have been cleared and we’re finishing our glasses of wine when he says, “There’s something I need to tell you. Something difficult.”

  “It’s only been an hour,” I say. “Why cut to the chase now?”

  He smiles, but it turns into a grimace. “This isn’t easy for me.” He looks down at the white tablecloth. “The administration has decided not to renew your teaching appointment.”


  “I’m so sorry, Paul.”

  “You’re serious? Why?”


  “Did Lauren come to you?”

  “Who’s Lauren?”

  I look around the restaurant. People, like us, doing what they do in restaurants.

  “Because I left Linda?”

  “No, of course not.”

  “I’m a good teacher, Brad. You’ve read my evals.”

  “I know you are. That’s why I’m sure you’ll find a good spot at another school.”

  “I’m sixty-one and never finished my Ph.D.,” I say. “No one is going to hire me.”

  He tells me he can make some calls, that he has friends at many colleges. I’ve had only one glass of wine, but I feel flushed, florid, as though I’ve had several carafes. Then I put it together. Of course. “This is because of the book.”

  A look of confusion comes across his face.

  “You’re scared of having me on staff.”

  “The book?” he says. “No, we’re past that.”


  “The book’s history, Paul.”

  “You’re caving to their pressure because I was a revolutionary.”

  “Revolutionary? I defended you, remember,” he says, exasperated. He puts his elbows on the table. “Look, I know this is a shock, but this isn’t about the book or Linda. This is about the economy. The university is hemorrhaging money—they’re trying to figure out how to keep the people they have to pay.” He says things like “tuition spike,” “massive cuts,” “furlough days,” but I barely take it in, dazed.

  “What about my classes?” I finally say. “Who’s going to teach them?”

  “Someone with tenure, most likely.”

  “Who?” I say. “You?”

  “Maybe,” he says. “I don’t know.” He leans back in his chair. “Honestly, I’m not sure whether the Kansas course will survive. They want a more global, international focus. They’re talking about restructuring the major, combining departments even. It’s a real shitstorm.” He shrugs. “We have no idea what’s going to happen.” I’m trying to imagine which is worse, the thought of Brad teaching my class or the idea that it won’t be offered at all. All that history, forgotten again. And then I’m standing. And then I’m walking away from the table.

  A few weeks into summer vacation Linda asks me to leave the house a final time while she gets the last of her stuff. I e-mail back, saying I will, but I don’t. I wait in the study, updating my CV for the first time in years. When I hear the keys in the lock and the groan of the front door, I don’t say anything. I listen to the pop of her heels on the wood floor, the rustle of her turning over mail that still comes in her name that I collect in a pile on the kitchen table. Then she’s coming upstairs. She goes to the bedroom and I hear her rummage through the closet, the sound of hangers sliding over the metal rod. As she leaves the bedroom, she glances toward the study—“Jesus, you scared me!”—and drops an armful of clothes to the floor. “What the hell are you doing here, Paul?”

  “I wanted to see you.”

  She looks down at the pile of brightly colored summer dresses and skirts. She’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt, the way she used to on the weekends when we’d run our errands or spend a few hours knocking around the yard. “You’re not supposed to be here. You said you wouldn’t.” I tell her I didn’t mean to scare her, that I was just enjoying the sounds of her being in the house again. The curl in her hair has returned and she’s pulled it back in a ponytail. Though Linda’s only a year younger than me, she’s always looked youthful, and now I’d wager she could pass for late forties. She squints, sharpening the pierce of her brown eyes. “This is exactly why I didn’t want you here. We’re not getting back together, Paul.”

  “I know that. I don’t want to,” I say. “Just talk to me a minute.”

  She comes into the study with a huff—“One minute”—and leans against her old desk. I used to love working here together, our fingers hammering at our keyboards in a seductive kind of call-and-response. I swivel slowly back and forth in my big chair, staring at the gaps in my book collection, the parts of the alphabet she has boxed somewhere in storage. I point at Reform or Revolution. “Remember when I bought that for you, the Luxemburg?” She turns and picks it off the shelf. The spine is heavily creased, like it might break if someone so much as coughed near it. I bought it for her in a used bookstore in Boulder, and the previous owner’s ink ran blue all over the margins. She flips through the pages, smiling. “Poor Rosa.”

  “You forgot to take it.”

  “You keep it,” she says. “I remember well enough.”

  “Do you?”

  “You want to quiz me about the dialectic of spontaneity and organization?” She closes the book but doesn’t put it back on the shelf. She holds it in her hand as if maybe she will take it with her after all. She looks at her wrist, but she’s not wearing a watch. “I told you I didn’t want to do this. I want a clean break.”

  “There’s no such thing. We have a history.”

  “What do you want from me?”

  “Who is he?”


  “The guy you’re seeing. I saw you having dinner together. That night you said you were coming here but didn’t.”

  She thinks a long moment, trying, I imagine, to conjure that winter night. “Richard? I’m not seeing him,” she says. “He was interviewing for a position.”

  “There’s a hiring freeze,” I say.

  “He’s taking my place,” she says quickly.

  “What are you talking about?”

  She gathers herself and says: “I was going to tell you. I just . . . I was offered a job in New York. At Columbia. I’m taking it.”

  “You’re leaving the universi
ty? You’re leaving Kansas?”

  “I couldn’t turn it down, you know that. Ivy League, Paul,” she says, smiling now, as if expecting me to congratulate her. “Besides, I need a new start.”

  I sit there, silent, trying to imagine her strolling along Broadway instead of Massachusetts Street. Impossible. When I finally respond, I don’t tell her not to leave or that I’ve been let go by the university. When I speak, I describe everything I remember from the day we filed past Fred Hampton’s coffin in Chicago. I ask if she remembers.

  “Of course,” she says. “That’s when we left.”

  “What happened to us?”

  “What do you mean?” she says. “We grew apart.”

  “No, what happened to us.”

  “We grew up.” She raises the book, its red cover showing a picture of Luxemburg. “Is this what you wanted? She was killed by reactionaries and dumped in a canal. We were training ourselves to shoot guns. The Panthers were storing bombs in the housing projects. What did we think was going to happen? You don’t win an arms race against the Pentagon.”

  “Maybe I wouldn’t have gone underground, maybe I wouldn’t have set bombs—”

  “Do you actually wish you had?”

  “—but I never would have ended up like this if it weren’t for you.”

  She pushes herself off the desk, looming large above me in the chair.

  “You’re fooling yourself. Even then you didn’t have it in you. You want to know why we didn’t go underground? Why we lived in this house? Because you wanted this too, you just didn’t have the guts to take responsibility for making it happen.”

  “That’s not true.”

  “You let me be your excuse to leave the movement, just as you let me getting hired here be your excuse to not finish your dissertation. You’ve used me to not be accountable for decisions you couldn’t make and now you’re blaming me for it.”

  “You’re wrong, Linda.”

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