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Simon Sobo Writing

A collection of opinion pieces and chapters from his novels

1968 Changed Everything: The beginning of the novel

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Chapter 1

   October 1968 The University of Buffalo

Majestic elms line the wide pathways crisscrossing the campus.   Autumn reds, muted orange, and here and there yellows vibrantly set the trees off against the blue sky.  The wind is whipping up, swirling leaves with each gust.  Students are hurrying in every direction.

 Then, as everyone gets to their class and settles in, the only sound is the exuberant wind, which, this afternoon occasionally whistles as it did last night during the storm At the beginning of the class the students are determined to stay awake.  Later many will drift off.  Torpor is always a concern of the faculty.   Particularly because the lecture hall is overheated. Hoping to combat that, an enormous central window has been swung open which allows crisp fresh October air to blow in.  That window frames a perfectly placed large maple tree, which has turned a spectacular scarlet, as it does every October. While it is hoped the students won’t drift off to never-never land, there is an even better reason for the students to be alert. Twenty-eight-year-old teaching assistant Jeremy Slater is on a roll.

Every campus had one in the sixties, a teacher who could turn on his students with his ideas and passion. Cynics have compared Jeremy to a rock star giving a concert.  So have admirers.

Jeremy’s hazel eyes light up whenever his discoveries hit their mark.  When he gets going, ideas keep popping out of his head.  One thought stimulates the next, then the next.  Riff after riff.

Sitting off to the side in the classroom, CC belongs to him. She’s gotten prettier and prettier, but now, in her senior year, she has become beautiful. Her ginger hair, streaked blond by the summer’s sunshine, frames her large green eyes.  There is a hint of sadness in them, but each time Jeremy hits the right note they sparkle.

CC’s eyes instantly dropped to the ground the first time they met Jeremy’s.  In the worst way she wants to hold his eyes with hers. So they linger, simultaneously fearing she might panic again, but she is increasingly hopeful she won’t. He wants the same thing. But he doesn’t dare. Carol, his wife, owns this part of him. As she should.  His heart is beating on the double. As is CC’s.

With the class full, and his mind crystal clear, this is the closest Jeremy has come to living out his dreams. Fantasies rarely become actual, but when they do, danger seems to disappear. He knows he is scoring again and again, beginning with his first lecture a month ago. Especially today. Everything has come together.

Pointing in CC’s direction, a classmate whispers to the student next to her, “Look at CC.”

She smiles. “I know.”

“Look at Professor Slater!”

The two students have big, knowing, sarcastic grins on their faces as they watch CC and Jeremy.  It doesn’t entirely erase their envy.

Jeremy writes WITTGENSTEIN on the board.  Emphasizing the V pronunciation in Wittgenstein, he speaks dramatically.

“You have to understand that Ludwig Wittgenstein placed truth above any other human quality.  To many people how it is valued  isn’t important. Certainly, most have a choice about whether or not to pursue it.  He didn’t.  Meaning, he’d be seized with doubt. An alarm would go off in his head whenever an idea seemed untrue.”

Imitating Wittgenstein, Jeremy shouts, “No!”

He looks around the room.

“No!” he repeats dramatically, as if on stage.

Jeremy continues. “A conclusion, agreed upon by everyone else. Including himself three minutes before, suddenly has become doubtful.  Wittgenstein was particularly sensitive to the power that groups of people have to capture other people’s agreement, the pressure they put on others to go along with them, not least because he is as likely as anyone else to go along.”

Jeremy’s voice rises. “Suddenly Professor Wittgenstein would snap out of it, recognize that he had been duped. What he thought was true wasn’t true at all.  He’d be seized by doubt.”

Jeremy faces the class. His eyes move from student to student as he speaks.  Finally, they rest on CC.  Her shyness, which ordinarily has protected her, is dissolving. Every word, even Jeremy’s hesitations, work its way through her, singing in a rhythm that is becoming rapturous.  Having arrived, his eyes remain on her as he continues his lecture, gripping her with every syllable.

“He was a professor of philosophy at Cambridge University.  He never published a single article. He never wrote a book.  The world eventually learned about him from the notes taken by his students, which were published later on.  But without acclaim from the usual places, his reputation was remarkable. Those who listened to him lecture knew he was the real thing. Other Cambridge philosophy professors would sit in at his lectures, wanting to harvest his ideas. Bertrand Russell called him ‘the most perfect example I have ever known of genius.’”

Still carried away, Jeremy continues. “Who was this man?” He waits a few seconds for his question to resonate.   “Sometimes, during a lecture, he’d drop what he was talking about.  He’d moan, ‘Idiot!’ It wasn’t theatrics.  He felt like an idiot.”

Again, Jeremy hesitates for the class to savor that thought.

“A monumental battle was taking place inside him. What he had intended to say, no longer made sense to him.  The remarkable thing is that his misgivings didn’t issue from the challenge of a listener, but from his own doubts, which had gained the upper hand.”

Jeremy takes a deep breath before proceeding.

“Ordinarily people don’t do this. Not in public. They don’t doubt themselves that way.  It can be crippling.  The mind is meant to function quietly.  We are confident enough of our ideas so we don’t have to go over them a second and third time.  We possess them. They possess us. When challenged, we can usually hold on to them, even if a bit of doubt creeps in. Perhaps it is stubbornness or laziness, or we may simply be unwilling to abandon such a nice comfortable place in our mind.  We don’t often venture into new territory.   We don’t want to.  Challenges from others are the last thing we need. Perhaps that is why we join groups with basically the same ideas.”

He stops, letting the silence speak.  Then cries out. “Not Wittgenstein!”

Again, he is silent, looking around the room.  Once again, his eyes stop at CC.

“Being in a state of doubt can be fascinating. Hamlet, which many consider the greatest play ever written, is all about doubt.  We empathize with Hamlet’s discomfort.  We wait to see what he will do.  But no one wants to be like Hamlet, a frenzied soul tortured by his confusion, on a pathway to self- destruction. We try to end doubt as soon as we experience it.

“It isn’t just us.  When we see doubt in others, it’s unpleasant.  Like they have lost it. Anguish is best kept private.”

Again, Jeremy gives a bit of time for his thoughts to be digested, then continues.

“So you would think Professor Wittgenstein would lose his audience when he would lose his way. . . Jeremy calls out happily. “Just the opposite!”.

He hesitates. Once again, he stares at one student, then the next, but this time energetically.

“The students in Wittgenstein’s classroom were mesmerized by the process.  He led them wherever he was going.   He wondered how, until then, he had not seen his mistake. He had an unusual talent.  He could cogently present the problem he was having without appearing too self–critical, too nebbishy. The opposite. It was a kind of courage.  He was proud of his uncertainty. He’d go over what did and did not make sense, as if it were a fascinating puzzle.”

Jeremy looks in CC’s direction. Again, their eyes lock, but very quickly, self-consciously, she breaks it off.  He is still there when her eyes return.

“So, in the end, his public self-doubt was a kind of strength.  It was part of what drew the professors to his lectures.  They knew all too well where he was.   They, too, were often stymied.  Most had run out of ideas long ago, not a good thing when you are in the idea business.

“It was the way Wittgenstein went about it. His students recollected his previous encounters with confusion.  And because again and again the answer would materialize, not knowing became a fascinating place to be, suspense that was about to be resolved. Out of thin air, like magic, Wittgenstein would come up with a new way of looking at the problem that a moment before had stymied him.  The cavalry arrived just in time.”

Swept up by his momentum, in his excitement, Jeremy is now staring almost exclusively at CC, as if he is speaking to her and her alone.  The other students are aware of this, but they did not take Jeremy’s course to be given lessons in proper professorial behavior.  He has a reputation.

Nor did it seem unusual that someone as beautiful as CC would pull a lecturer’s eyes toward her.  Everywhere she went, others’ eyes were drawn to her. Particularly today. She’s put it all together. Achieved perfection. The other females in the audience are certainly jealous, but they are also encouraged.   Having spent considerable time that morning in front of the mirror doing themselves up, and not necessarily dissatisfied by what they saw, they’re hoping Professor Slater might leave CC for a moment and look their way. If it were a modern concert, they would be holding up lighters. Or screaming, or moving in synchrony to the music, hoping against all odds, that, even for a fraction of a second, they would get the eyes of John Lennon.

Jeremy continues speaking dramatically. “Logical positivism, when it was new, had been able to answer a lot of questions that philosophers had long been perplexed by. The name had a ring to it, like existentialism, which had captivated the French and German philosophers. Logical positivism was quintessentially English.   Good English words describing philosophers’ most noble virtues. Logic. Clarity. Having the certainty of mathematics. Ever forward to the next challenge.  No artsy-fartsy French poetry junking up the English mind.”

Jeremy walks back and forth in the front of the lecture hall. He’s teaching a course in literature not philosophy, but he had to give this lecture. He continues.

“Everyone was excited. They thought they had finally reached the promised land. One after another, philosophical paradoxes were dissolving due to the power of their new tool.  Does God exist?  If you followed logical positivism’s logic, the answer was clear. Then pouf!”

He again hesitates for effect.

“The party was over. They were back to square one. Logical positivism led to a serious contradiction. Once again, they had painted themselves into a corner. No one, not even those in the world-renowned Cambridge University Philosophy Department, could think his way out of the trap. Not even Wittgenstein.

“What was Wittgenstein’s solution?  He quit philosophy.  He became a hospital orderly, then a gardener. He never mentioned to his coworkers that he had been a professor at Cambridge. For ten years, no one heard a word about him, or from him.

“Then one day he reappeared.  He had discovered a way out of the trap.  He founded a branch of philosophy called ‘ordinary language philosophy.’  Basically, pleased by the irony, he said that philosophers should study how ordinary people communicate.  That was the way out of their puzzlement.”

Smiling broadly, Jeremy continues. “In other words, the study of philosophy, all the years spent carefully defining, clarifying, refocusing . . . driven by a powerful need to get at the truth, that is not the way to get there. Philosophers should toss it all out. The language of ordinary people—gardeners, hospital orderlies, his colleagues for the last decade—held the real answer.  Cutting flowers or pushing a gurney undoes the paradox.

“The professors loved it.”

Jeremy swings his arm as if he is swinging a scythe, with a rhythm that could be part of a dance step.

“It was a coup de grâce to the steel certainties that once had been their bulwark against confusion, that had kept them focused, but which no longer functioned. They had been imprisoned by logic and precise language.”

Imbued with conviction, there is a musical quality as Jeremy continues. He smiles. “Among philosophers, a convincing new paradigm is as exciting as the discovery of the New World— fresh, beautiful, new thoughts, unhindered by doubt.

“If it were a soccer match, they would have put him on their shoulders for scoring the winning goal.  If he were . . . What’re the words to that song?” Jeremy’s face lights up. “Rudolph! The red-nosed reindeer.”   He starts to sing it. “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer . . .”

CC loves it—the simple modesty of childhood songs blended with philosophy at the most profound level. Her delight is transparent. She still remembers when true was true, before becoming complicated by further elaboration.

“As Rudolph went down in history . . . That’s what happened to Wittgenstein.”

He repeats his name as if it were a magical word. “Wittgenstein!”

The bell rings.  Students file out.

With students swarming around him at the lectern, Jeremy’s eyes have not stopped wandering to CC as she gets her books together.  Books pressed against her breasts, CC attempts to seem businesslike as she approaches him, but her eagerness isn’t hard to discern as she joins Jeremy’s entourage at the front of the classroom. She waits patiently as, one by one, he answers the questions of the students. When he is finished and they have left, he turns to CC. Like her, he is not very successful at appearing calm and collected.

“You seemed interested in Wittgenstein,” he says as casually as he can.

“My brother Mark talks a lot about him.”

“Really.  What did he tell you?”

“How he came from one of the richest families in Europe.”

“True.”

“How he gave away all his money. Every penny.”

“He was extremely intense and impulsive.  All of his brothers were. His father tried to educate the impulsivity away. He was a titan of the steel industry. He hoped to prepare at least one of his boys to step into his shoes.   But he failed. They went in the opposite direction, totally uninterested in business.  They did, however, absorb one quality from him.” His tone of voice changes.  “He was incredibly exacting.”

He stops, letting what he is saying sink in.

“Imagine this.  Paul, Ludwig’s brother, was practicing on one of the seven grand pianos in the Wittgenstein’s mansion when he suddenly shouted at Ludwig in the next room, ‘I cannot play when you are in the house. I feel your skepticism seeping…from under the door!’

“Each of the brothers continually felt scrutinized.  Ludwig was lucky.  As a philosophy professor, he had found a good outlet.

“But that feeling, of being scrutinized, is a sickness, paranoia. Being alone with self-doubt is a plague.  Three of his brothers committed suicide.”

“Jesus.”

“Not Jesus.  Jewish.  By other people’s standards, he was enormously successful, the star professor in the finest philosophy department in the world.  Yet he continually felt like he was failing, incapable of meeting his standards.

“Geniuses frequently have that quality.  Jascha Heifetz would practice his violin until his fingers felt like they were falling off.  And then he would practice another two hours. What he heard coming from his violin again and again sounded wonderful, but there were always a few notes that weren’t wonderful enough. Perfect moments would not suffice.  He wanted the impossible. Perfection throughout. He often got there, repeatedly, at least according to the critics, but he could hear what the critics couldn’t. His playing was not perfect.

“Fortunately, despite his dissatisfaction, he liked to perform in front of an audience.  He was a bit of a peacock. He bathed in his audience’s adulation.

“Vladimir Horowitz wasn’t so lucky. Despite ecstatic reviews, despite rapturous responses from his audiences, he repeatedly lost confidence in his ability to get where he felt he had to be.  He couldn’t perform from 1953 to 1965.  It’s happening again. He’s stopped playing in public.”

“You think that is Jewish?”

“Well—”

“My brother told me Wittgenstein wasn’t Jewish.”

“He was raised a strict Catholic by his mother.  But his father was Jewish and his mother’s father was Jewish. That’s where the problem came from.”

“You really think it was being Jewish?”

“Maybe not. I’m not just talking about an exclusively Jewish quality.  People who know Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese film director, say that despite the masterpieces he keeps producing, he often talks about how he isn’t measuring up to what he wants to achieve.  Not one of his movies has come  close to what he expects of himself. . . . Partly it’s about being Japanese.  Only the emperor is entitled to be godly, meaning perfect. . . . But he’s got a bad case of trying to get there.  The glass may always be half empty. His job is to fill it. He doesn’t understand anything else. Did you see Woman in the Dunes?  They had it here at the festival.”

“No.”

“It’s about this guy who is trapped in a large sand pit.  He must get rid of the sand that has encroached on his house from the night before, or it will be engulfed. So each day, while it is daylight, he digs the sand away.

“It returns as he sleeps. The cycle never ends.  Eventually, he becomes resigned to his fate. For the existentialists, that acceptance is what matters. We’ll be reading The Myth of Sisyphus in two weeks.  The same thing.  He uses every ounce of his strength, every last bit of it, to push a boulder up a hill.  If he stops, it will roll back and crush him.  Each time he gets to the top of the hill, the boulder returns to the bottom, and he has to start over again.  The existentialists thought they had the answer.  Choose to do what you must do.  By making it a choice, you are in charge.”

Skeptical that existentialists have found the answer, Jeremy exhibits the smile of his tribe, the perennial doubting Jew.

“Eh?”

Without self-consciousness, appreciating his manner, from some ancient part of herself, CC smiles, touching his arm affectionately.

She imitates him. “Eh?”

He laughs.

Jeremy continues: “Existentialists think choosing to do what you gotta do puts you in charge. I don’t know how that’s a victory. It doesn’t change that you gotta do it.”

“My brother Jay does everything he’s expected to do.  It never occurs to him not to do it.  Yet he feels very much in charge of his life.”

“That’s one solution. . . . It’s got to be boring.  But . . .”  He looks into her eyes.  Wittgenstein really fascinates you, doesn’t he?”

“He does.”

Do you have a class now?”

CC glances at her watch. “Not ’til two-thirty.”

“Let’s go to my office.”

She follows him out of the classroom, then through a series of corridors.  Both she and he are aware of the possibilities privacy will afford. As they walk along, they smile at each other repeatedly.

His office is a hole in the wall with books piled high on his desk.  He clears some books off a chair for CC to sit.

“So what is it about Wittgenstein?” she asks.

“It isn’t that complicated.  He was a genius. His thought went where no one else was going.

“You’re into geniuses?”

“Everybody is into geniuses.”

“That’s not true.  I never thought about it until college. My idea of a stupendous human being was John Lennon. My other brother Mark was into Tom Seaver.  Last year, he had a great year.”

“The pitcher?” Jeremy asks.

“Right.  He’s a big Mets fan. Before Seaver, it was Duke Snider and Bill Sharman.”

Jeremy concurs. “Sharman had a sweet jump shot. A perfect jump shot. It was magic. . . . Swish.”

“Until midway through high school, it was all about athletes for Mark.  Then all of a sudden Mark’s hero became Ludwig Wittgenstein.”

“Sounds like your brother and I have a lot in common. Including Duke Snider. Did you ever see him play?”

“I was too young.”

“Those somersault shoestring catches. Ballet. Not every time but you see him do it once and it gets fixed in your memory. No one has ever done that before. No one since.  You never saw him do it?”

“No.” She studies him before continuing.  “Does someone have to be a genius for you to be interested in them?”

“You want the truth or bullshit?”

“The truth.”

“The truth is, that’s what matters to me.  The truth? I mostly ignore people unless they are very special.  I can fake it.  I do fake it, but—”

“So that eliminates me.”

“Are you serious?  Did you ever look in the mirror?”

She is quiet, pleased but uncomfortable.

There is a mirror on the wall “Take a look at yourself.”

She barely glimpses.  Her embarrassment has now fully taken over. It’s not just the compliment which ordinarily would allow her to relax and let down her guard. Jeremy’s flirtation turning serious so quickly has flustered her.

“It must be hard on your wife.  You expect her to be perfect?  She’s one of the nobodies that aren’t worth your interest?

“She says I’m a baby. I’m into heroes like a ten-year-old.  She’s waiting for me to grow up.”

“Is she right?”

Jeremy shrugs. “I’m sure she is. But I am who I am.  Even if I could change it, I wouldn’t. Doesn’t matter. I can’t.”

“Most people find a way to be satisfied.”

“Most people live a lie.”

CC says nothing.  She doesn’t know what to say.

“By the way, this Sunday I’m having a barbecue.  Several students are coming.  You’re invited.”

 

* * *

It is Sunday afternoon in late October. With the long gray Buffalo winter ahead of them, Jeremy and his wife, Carol, are thrilled that it is still warm enough to remain outside for their barbecue.  Their home is modest, but lit by the sunshine; the fall colors surrounding their yard are spectacular. Especially since both of them grew up with their worlds limited to the indoors, apartment houses in Brooklyn, museums their only taste of beauty. A backyard in the country, any backyard, is as exciting to them as Prospect Park.

Jeremy is manning the charcoal. Carol is setting up the table.  Carol is just under five four, slightly chunky, but pretty. Her red hair and large blue eyes are striking. Full of energy, she brings out a pitcher of iced tea.  Then she returns to the house and comes out with napkins and paper plates.  Then she goes back into the house.

“I think I hear Alyosha crying,” she tells Jeremy.  “Lately, he’s only been napping half an hour.”

“I was counting on a two-hour nap.”

“He’s just fussing.  I’ll be back,” she tells him as she makes her way back to 18 month old Alyosha.  She arrives at his room.  In his sleep, he’s whimpering. Every once in a while, he screams angrily into his blanket before returning to quietness.  Tiptoeing, Carol moves forward, watching him without being seen. She moves quickly, having practiced it so many times. At the crib, she gently takes his hand.  Softly, she sings, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”

She needs only one line. He hardly whimpers when she leaves and makes her way back to the outside, singing the song to herself.

“ If you’re happy and you know it and you really want to show it—

Returning outside, her singing stops abruptly as her eyes are drawn to CC, who has arrived with three other students, two guys and one other female. She is startled by CC’s beauty, frightened by its implications.

Each offers her a hand as their name is called.

“Carol, this is CC, Deborah, Gabriel.  You know my cousin Jeff.”

Jeff has brought a football.  Jeremy grabs it.

“Go long, Jeff.”

Jeffrey takes off.  Perry, their Lab, runs alongside, barking. Jeremy throws a perfect spiral, which Jeff catches without breaking stride. As the catch is made, Jeremy glances quickly at CC. Carol notices.

“Now you, Gabriel.”

Once again a perfect pass and once again Jeremy steals a look at CC, but this time he is aware Carol’s watching him.  CC also sees Carol’s reaction. Her eyes drop to the ground.

A little later, Jeremy hands out hot dogs and hamburgers from the grill  while Carol goes back and forth to the kitchen.

When they are finished eating, sitting around on the patio, Jeremy takes out a joint.  Carol isn’t too happy that he’s brought out pot in front of the students, but she says nothing. He hands it around.  They all take a few hits.  Carol takes only one, refusing a second. “Someone’s got to function,” she says.

She cleans up while the others space out.  As the afternoon winds down, CC approaches Carol shyly. “Can I help?”

“No thanks. I’ve got it under control.”

CC nevertheless clears the dishes from the table and follows Carol inside.

“You took the bus, right? No one’s going to be driving stoned?”

“Right.”

“Okay.”

Carol forces a smile.

“Are you a junior?”

“Senior.”

She holds up her hand, her middle finger crossed over her index finger for good luck. “Hopefully, I’ll graduate in June.”

“Oh come on.  Jeremy tells me you’re smart.”

“He’s talked about me?”

“When he told me who was coming. You’re a senior–ready to take on the cold, cruel world?”

“Not yet. Going to school for social work after this, although my father  tells me I should be a lawyer.  Says I think like one.”

“Do you?”

“I can get like that sometimes.  I was on the debating team in high school. But I’ve already been accepted at Columbia for social work.

“That’s a good school. Are you going home?  Did you grow up in the city?”

“When I was young, we lived in Queens.”

“Where in Queens?”

“Kew Gardens Hills.   Actually, Simon and Garfunkel grew up there.”

“Did they?”

“Art Garfunkel always makes it seem like he is from Forest Hills. I think  he was embarrassed. Kew Gardens Hills was on the wrong side of the tracks from Forest Hills.  But all of their songs about home­—that was Kew Gardens Hills.”

“Were your parents embarrassed?”

“Not really.  They saw it as a step up from Brooklyn.  On the way to Great Neck.”

“So what was Kew Gardens Hills like?”

“I just remember there were always a lot of kids outside.  It beats Great Neck by a mile in that regard.  It was garden apartments, which my parents thought was a step up from apartment house apartments.”

“Sounds nice.”

“Well, not really. Five of us lived in four rooms, and we couldn’t afford much of anything.  My parents slept in the living room on a Castro Convertible.”

“That’s no fun.”

My father went to law school at night, and by the time I was four, my family made it to Oceanside, then to Great Neck.  How about you?”

“I’m from Brooklyn all the way,” she says proudly, ignoring CC’s earlier put-down.

“I don’t really know Brooklyn.  My mom and dad are both from there.”

“Did you ever see where they grew up?”

“My Mom took me once to Fortunoff in Brownsville. It looked pretty dangerous.  This one guy approached the car looking for money from us. My mom had us lock the doors. That’s about it.”

I was in the good part of Brooklyn, Bay Ridge. There were no muggings. Jeremy’s grew up somewhere near, Manhattan Beach. I think near Sheepshead Bay.”

“You don’t know?”

“Jeremy’s origins can get confusing.”

“He’s never taken you to where he grew up?”

“Not really.”

“How come?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where’s Sheepshead Bay?

“You don’t know? Typical Long Island.”

“What do you know about Long Island?”

“Nothing. That’s a whole different world.”

“You weren’t curious about Brooklyn.” Carol asks.

“I guess not.  Brownsville scared me.”

“So how are you going to be a social worker? You can’t just stay in your office.”

CC shrugs. “Maybe I will be a lawyer.”

“Really?”

“I just don’t like the bad mood my father came home with after work.  And I really do want to make the world a better place.”

“If you can do something like that it would be nice.”

Despite Carol’s instinct that Jeremy’s attracted  to CC, a bond is forming between them.  The marijuana has loosened their tongues.

“Jeremy’s mentioned you a few times.  I was wondering what you would look like.”

“Am I what you expected?”

“Unfortunately, yes.  Jeremy may seem like he is ruled by his brain, but he’s a typical guy.  His hormones are in charge.  He gets a certain look when he talks about particular students.”

CC is pleased she has been mentioned by Jeremy, less pleased that Carol sees her as a rival.

“You must have been his prettiest student,” CC offers.

“He tells me his smartest. Don’t know about that. But if he believes it,  what the hell. I’ll take it.  We were both undergrads at Penn.  It’s funny. Even when he was a student, he liked to lecture. He has so many ways of looking at things. Totally unique.”

“He gets so carried away by his ideas.” CC gushes a bit too much, which Carol notices.

“When I met him, he wanted to be a rock star. He loves being on stage.”

CC smiles happily. “Was he any good?”

Carol shrugs.

“ He probably wasn’t good enough.  His band went nowhere. But I think he has found his thing.”

Inspired by the stars in CC’s eyes, Carol continues.  “When he gets going, he can be a real turn-on. Like his hero Wittgenstein. I assume he’s spoken about Wittgenstein?”

“He has. He just gave that lecture

“He has that lecture perfected. . . . It’s very polished. He may have wanted to grow up to be Duke Snider when he was a kid, but now he wants to grow up to be Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Certified Genius. Were you wowed?”

CC blushes.

“Don’t worry. I remember how irresistible he was when he got all excited about some new thought.” She grimaces.  “But now—”

“He doesn’t do that to you anymore?”

“I’ve heard his schpiels a thousand times.  It’s pretty hard to get excited.”

“I can’t imagine it getting old.”

“Believe me, everything gets old. His thing with ideas is like an addiction. He has to have them.  Like food.  Happy when he’s got a new one, grouchy when there is not enough. Fortunately, he has other qualities.”

“Like what?”

“It’s not obvious.  He enjoys being Peck’s bad boy.  He won’t win any awards for being a responsible adult, but he’s actually a nice guy.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s plenty. There is very little cruelty in him.  Insensitivity yes—there is a lot of that. A real lot.  He thinks about himself too much. That’s Jeremy.  But intentional cruelty—no.  In a marriage, kindness is what counts. If he could just get his head on straight and finish his dissertation, we’d be in a good place.”

“His dissertation is a big problem?”

Carol swallows hard. “Really big.  The fact that Wittgenstein didn’t publish has been a perfect excuse.  Jeremy can’t just get it done and get his damn doctorate.  Anything less than a masterpiece, something that will live for centuries, anything less would be humiliating to him.” Carol laughs as she finishes.

CC smiles approvingly.  “I like that he aims so high.”

“I know that sounds heroic, but the other side of it is that it leads to deep fears. The professors in the English department are nationally known. It’s an unusually creative department. I don’t know why they’re here, but right now U of B’s English Department is hot. It’s attracted top talent—John Barth, Leslie Fiedler. That’s what brought Jeremy here.”

“I’ve heard it’s one of the best.”

“That’s the problem; the competition is ferocious.  High expectations make daily life uncomfortable.  If he were training for the Olympics, that would be one thing.  Everyone understands that kind of glory, the ups and downs of trying to be the best.  One minute, he believes he is a genius. . . .”  She .  “The next, he’s a no one.  Do you know Dr. Malev?”

“The chairman?”

“He believes Jeremy is extremely gifted.  Dr. Malev has said something to me.”

“That must be exciting.”

“Yes and no.”

“Why no?”

“Because several of the faculty members treat him like he’s a jerk.  Don’t know if they are jealous, or think Jeremy is too full of himself.  But when he has had contact with his supervisors, nine times out of ten he comes home deflated.  Fortunately for him, soon enough, his belief that he’s the next Wittgenstein comes right back.”

“Still, it’s exciting.”

“He needs to get his doctorate done.”

“I didn’t realize there is so much pressure on him.”

“It galls him that he’s not there yet.  Thinks he deserves in, on the basis of all the great ideas he has.  Dr. Malev and a couple of other senior faculty members actually do find his ideas exciting, which is very nice, but everything hinges on his dissertation.   And that’s not working so well.  It’s not easy to knock off a masterpiece.”

“So he’s given up?”

“Are you kidding?  He has the energy of a madman.  Over a week he’ll write twenty, sometimes fifty pages. Good pages.  I’ve read them.   Great pages.  But by midweek, he’s doesn’t like them.  He tears them up.”

He thinks that makes him Wittgenstein because he did the same thing. I remind him Wittgenstein didn’t have a wife and kid.”

“So, all that talk about geniuses—he thinks he’s one?”

“Half the time.  The other half– don’t ask- he knows how stupid it sounds to others, how stupid it is to think that way, when he believes it, he is a handful.  They used to tease him in high school. Called him ‘Pompose.’  For pomposity. And that’s when he wanted to make it with his band. He’s already figured out the perfect defense.  If not in this life, than after he’s gone, someone will discover him.”

“He’s said all that?”

“No, but we were watching this movie about van Gogh, how he never sold a painting when he was alive.”

“Really?”

“Not a single one. Jeremy got all choked up.  I asked him about it.  He said it was nothing. The movie just made him sad. But the way he cried . . .” Carol wipes a tear. “Boy, I just had one puff of the marijuana and it’s made me like Jeremy.  Motormouth,”

“So he has delusions of grandeur?”

“Right after college, he had something published in The Yale Review but nothing since. I don’t really think it’s delusions of grandeur.  He’s able to laugh about it with me.  But whatever that genius thing is, Jeremy’s got a bad case of it. I swear. He thinks geniuses are the only people that truly belong on Earth.  Everyone else is taking up space. That’s one side of it. Then, suddenly, he’ll hate every word he’s written. He fears he’s ordinary. Being like everyone else scares him.  He thinks I wouldn’t love him.  No one would.  Which is so crazy.”

“You’re saying he is really screwed-up.”

“Yes, in his way.  Mind you. Everyone is nuts when you really get to know them.  Jeremy is Jeremy. He’s just a guy. He talks up a storm, but I still see this college kid. Both of us were kids when we met…You’re Jewish, right?” Carol asks CC.

“Yes.”

“A lot of Jewish men are like him.  Very ambitious.  Can’t imagine their life as not getting to the top. Nervous as hell that they’re not up to it, that they’re a nobody. That’s what Jeremey talks about a lot.  Genius or being a nobody. Nothing in between.  Like the rest of us slobs.”

“Still, I think it’s exciting.”

“Maybe, but it’s not easy to have incredible standards. It’s hard to be around.”

“Really?”

“I’m not complaining.  Well, I guess I am. I’ll say this.  He never bores me.  He’s gotten more and more interesting the longer I’ve known him.”

“But you’re saying having an ambitious husband is no fun.”

“This is way beyond ambition. The genius thing . . . I’ll admit it can lead to accomplishments, but over the last year––his time is running out to get his dissertation done. We’re not having a good time.  If we just can get through this crisis, then I could put up with my genius husband.”

“Do you save the pages he throws away?”

“I should.  If he ever gets to where he thinks he belongs, they will be worth something.”.

She stops, listens carefully:

“I hear Alyosha. You want to meet him?”

CC has a big smile. “Absolutely.”

Carol takes CC to his room.  She lifts him out of the crib, smells his tush, then hands him to CC.  CC’s had practice with her brother Jay’s little boy. She shakes his hand back and forth. Then squooshes her nose, singing “Aly-o-sha” in a melody as she moves him inches from her face. He smiles happily. Holding the baby, CC follows Carol into the kitchen, then outside, feeling as if she has joined the family, but unfortunately, she is picturing herself in Carol’s place.

****

Early evening, CC is on the pay phone in a small alcove in the second- floor dorm lounge.  She is talking quietly, trying to keep her conversation private.  Fortunately, there is only one other person in the lounge, CC’s friend Brittany, who’s unlikely to gossip.  Mark, her brother, is in his Dwight Street apartment in Berkeley, phone in hand, spread out on the couch.

“Mark, come on.”

“The last three times we’ve talked, we’ve landed up talking about Jeremy.”

In his appearance, Mark has matured into the male version of CC, unusually handsome, almost pretty.  His eyes are sensitive, which stands out all the more with his gruffly unshaven face, the style in Berkeley. His gestures are robust, almost exaggeratedly so.  He speaks with a deliberately aggressive edge, which took him time to cultivate as he struggled to bury his childhood softness and emerge as his version of a man.  It was necessary as it is for most guys. At a certain point, junior high for most, being a sissy is not allowed in the company of other guys. Despite his effort, he can’t altogether cancel out his still delicate persona.  Country Joe and the Fish are playing in the background.

“Mark, he’s married. He has a one-year-old son.”

He teases, “I know you, CC.”

Almost swooning, she replies, “I’ll admit, he’s the most brilliant man I’ve ever met.”

She looks Brittany’s way, fearful that she has heard something. She hasn’t. She’s laughing away at the Jackie Gleason show on TV.

Mark’s picked up on CC’s swoon. He teases her.

“CC, you’re in love. You’re in love. That’s what it is.”

She grits her teeth. “It’s not so simple.  I like his wife a lot. Someone said she has lupus.  I could never do that to her.”

“Strange coincidence.  You’ve got myasthenia, and he’s flirting with you.  Does he know?”

“I don’t know how he would.” Then, after thinking it over she adds, “Maybe.”

“Myasthenia is not a small thing.”

“No comparison.  You can get really sick from lupus.  You can die.”

“There’s a tiny chance, but so could you. Your Jeremy has a thing about rescuing sick women.”

“I don’t even think he knows I have myasthenia.”

“Are you sure?”

“I don’t know who knows, who doesn’t know about it.  I don’t talk about it. Well, once or twice.”

“Telling you– this guy loves to rescue dames in distress.”

“Mark, let’s keep it simple.  He’s married.”

“Big shit.”

“He talks a lot about Wittgenstein. Your hero.”

Mark’s very pleased, “What about him?”

“How Wittgenstein demanded so much of himself.  Jeremy’s got the same problem.  Everything has to be one-in-a-million good or he can’t go with it. He’s like you.”

“I’m not like that.”

“Since when?”

“Give me a break.”

“Anyway. There’re problems with that. He hasn’t finished his dissertation. According to his wife, several professors in the English Department love him, but they can only extend the deadline for his dissertation so long. Some hate him.  They can’t stand his self-importance.  His time is running out. Carol’s worried that—”

“Carol?”

“His wife.  If he doesn’t get it done by this summer they are going to cut him loose. He’s feeling incredible pressure.”

“She told you all that?”

“More or less. We were stoned.”

“Oh.”

Mark is pleased that CC is still smoking dope, happy that he turned her on to one of life’s treasures.

CC continues: “He worries a lot about the upcoming deadline for his dissertation. Practically every night he can’t sleep. Lately, nothing she tells him comforts him.”

In a boasting tone, Mark proclaims, “Me, Jeremy, and Wittgenstein.”

She teases him affectionately. “Yeah.  You like to make things ten times harder than they have to be.”

“You don’t get it, do you?”

“What’s there to get?  How to be crazy?”

“You think Jeremy and I are crazy?”

“And Wittgenstein!”

“You think we are crazy?”

CC doesn’t answer.  She’s pleased that she has gotten under Mark’s skin.  He’s pleased that she is in love with someone that is so much like himself.

* * *

A week later, after Jeremy’s class ends, CC comfortably follows him into his office without being asked.

“I liked Carol.”

“She liked you.”

“Hopefully, we can get together again.  Ever eat at Main Moon?” she asks.

“The take-out place?”

“They have incredible dumplings.  They have some tables.  I go there a lot.”

“It’s not going to happen.  Carol’s not happy about my friendship with you.  When she heard you came to my office, she let me have it. She doesn’t want me seeing you here.”

“Something I did?”

“No. She likes you.  It’s me. She doesn’t like the look I get when I mention you.  Things heat up quickly if I even say your name.”

“She’s that jealous?”

“Not usually, but I think she has good reason.”

“What do you mean?”

He moves CC’s hair out of her eyes.

“You can’t figure that out?

He moves closer to her.  She doesn’t retreat.  Jeremy tries to kiss her. She turns her head away.

“Jeremy, no.  Carol . . .”

But as he backs off, he can see the disappointment in her eyes. He goes to kiss her again.  Her hand moves up, covering her lips. He plants a kiss on her cheek, puts his arms around her in a fatherly way, but soon that becomes romantic, tensing her up. Nevertheless, he senses her resistance is losing its hold on her. Practically overcome with desire, he has one thing on his mind. He’s hoping her ‘no’ will soon become yes. He won’t be able to control himself if they get there.

His persistence may be winning out. Although afraid, her desire keeps interrupting her intention, which is to end it right here. Every time that happens he senses it, as well as the opposite.  At first her desire slipped through her armor. Now it’s taking over. She’s lost.

There’s a knock on the door.  They quickly disengage, straighten their clothes. Jeremy’s erection is poking into his pants.  He sticks his hand in his crotch and directs his penis down to the floor.  CC finds that funny. And exciting.

That night in bed, Jeremy tosses and turns, imagining the fantastic romance awaiting him.  Carol notices but decides not to ask him about it.. That same night, CC lies in bed more than content.  In ten minutes, it will be midnight and her twenty-first birthday will begin.  Her mother sent her the incredible sapphire stud earrings she always loved when her mother wore them.  They arrived in the afternoon. When CC opened the package she was stunned, surprised her mother noticed. CC had never said anything, but evidently her mother saw the way she looked at them.

Still, her mother loved those earrings.  It’s not like her to be this generous.  Too often her mother seems to ignore her about things like this. That’s not accurate.  When she was a little girl her mother told her that she would grow up to be beautiful, like Cinderella.  But since then her mother has been on her, unhappy with one thing or another, trying to improve her. Yes It has all been in the service of her mother’s vision, to get her to a very nice place, but mainly CC has experienced her as an incessant critic.

Trying the earrings on, she gasps at their beauty, almost disbelieving what she is seeing, that they are on her ears and then in the mirror she sees the rest of what is before her. Her own beauty. She likes what she sees, which is not the usual.  She returns to the earrings. Noticing how bright they are in the lamplight, how blue. She turns to put one of them in the shade. She likes that color blue as well. Her hand returns to fingering the one on her left ear. As she does so a wave of love for her mother. settles within her.  She doesn’t usually feel this way. It is a much greater love than the one familiar to all of us on a good birthday. Has she finally arrived, become the person her mother expected? For the moment the answer is yes.

She keeps the earrings on in bed, to sleep with them. As soon as her covers have been pulled up and she allows herself to be sucked into her pillow, her hands go to the sapphires, this time to both of them, touching them, squeezing them, rolling them over perhaps to confirm that they are truly hers. She enters the reverie before sleep that she seeks every night. Her hand moves to her hair, flows back with it.  Once, twice, a third time. Slowly, slowly. Then she pushes harder with her index finger, feeling her scalp. This usually puts her to sleep. Twenty-One cries out in her mind.  Thanks Mom. But it is Jeremy’s kiss that now fills her mind and thrills her. The possibility of that ends a perfect day before her birthday.

 

 

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