On Campus Notes From a Young Professor: Writing and Teaching Through Charlottesville’s Culture Wars
The police are there, expecting us, academics in revolutionaries’ outfits.
My girlfriend wants the state of Virginia tattooed on her bicep. So gay , I say, and she agrees. But secretly I’m pleased. I like a woman who will root herself and who is proud. I like that she is from Virginia, a place in which I have no memories. On her skin, the state looks like an iceberg with a long left tail that floats upon a placid sea.
My friend is squinting at our U-Haul, which is wrapped in thick, painted snakes. She has walked over to help me wrap cheap cups in expensive bubble wrap, and stayed to talk about education. She’s sitting on the concrete steps of the apartment talking to my girlfriend, and it becomes real to me that I am leaving Philadelphia—that there are reasons to leave a place other than being ready.
I move into a board and batten house to which someone has applied a layer of flimsy faux brick. Next door is a small white house, the width of a single-wide trailer, up on cinder blocks. The ghetto , people say when I tell them the street. They mean that it abuts a housing complex where all the residents are black. This complex has a basketball court, a soccer field, and a community garden where tomatoes and kale are growing with astonishing speed.
It is a forty-five minute walk from my house to the university, and to do it, I cross a round intersection which has at its center a bronze statue of Lewis and Clark. Correction: and Sacajawea—she is difficult to discern from where I stand outside the bookstore as she has been cast crouching behind them. Many automated voices tell me to WAIT, WAIT.
The university is low stone walls and deep purple bell-shaped flowers dangling from stone arches. It is rectangles of lush green lawn, across which day-drunk boys drive golf balls into Benz SUVs. We are the cavaliers. That is what it says on all the sweatpants, the sweatshirts, the sleek black SUVs full of parents.
Sexual harassment complaints are like parking tickets, my professor says. I’d rather pay the fine than change my routine.
I have not always been as now , Poe wrote in “Tamerlane,” while a student at the university. The story goes: Before Poe dropped out of the university—his family would send him no more money and he was two thousand dollars in the gambling hole—he etched on a pane of glass in his room, Oh Thou timid one, do not let thy/Form slumber within these/Unhallowed walls/For herein lies/The ghost of an awful crime.
I get an email. While clearing topsoil from land adjacent to the north wall of the university cemetery, a landscaping crew notices changes in the color and texture of the soil. They dig on, carefully now. They find sixty-seven unmarked grave shafts. An 1898 alumni bulletin reveals, “In old times, the university servants were buried on the north side of the cemetery, just outside the wall.”
When my girlfriend speaks, she speaks over people. She has come for Halloween, but stayed for Hurricane Sandy. I am not amused when she pulls the blanket edge around her chin like a nun and tells me to climb every mountain. I notice that I am harder and harder to amuse. I have been writing about bluegrass music. I have been writing about men.
The missing posters are split down the middle and have two different pictures. I notice them first in the small neighborhood store where I buy Diet Coke and wine. In one picture, a young black boy in a black suit, purple sweater, and purple tie stands facing the camera, hands in his pockets. He wears glasses and cocks his head. One side of his lapel shines more than the other because of the way the sun is hitting it. In the other, a young black girl has on grey tights and black boots. The eye is drawn to her shapely butt, encased in a tight skirt. She looks over her shoulder, hair swept to one side.
At the paper where I work fact-checking articles, I call the missing trans woman’s grandmother. Her name was Sage, the grandmother says. Print that.
I don’t know, my editor says. If we change that, we’ll have to change everything.
I move. The front of my new house is also brick, but it is real brick. This house was once a mansion on top of a hill where white people forced black people to perform the tasks of their bondage. Our neighborhood is named after this house. The old front of the house has columns and faces what is now our backyard. In the backyard is a church which chimes every hour from eight in the morning to eight at night. At noon and six, it is fancier, a song. The floors are painted green and none of the outlets have three prongs.
The students are gone and suddenly I can pop in any place for a cup of coffee without waiting. I spend a lot of time wearing sweaters in the air-conditioned library. I notice that all the people who work at the library café are black and most of them are women. When I step up to the counter I am quiet and ingratiating, but the woman who rings me up talks to a woman pouring an iced coffee and does not look at me. I notice that the women who work at the library café have staked out a table in the seating area where they put their purses, cell phones, and the books they are reading, and I take a seat next to it. On her break, the woman who rang me up is on FaceTime with her son and I hear his voice—high, almost falsetto.
I find I enjoy television, any flashing screen will do. I can watch it for hours if I am also drinking beer. When I’m running low, my friend comes over and brings more. He comes from a small town nearby and knows how to bush hog, but these days he drops liquid onto clear slides in one of the university’s labs. When we are cleaned out, we burst out my back door onto the lawn, through the church parking lot, and onto the bridge.
We shoot pool in the upstairs of a dive bar where you can still smoke. In here, the men have red faces and neck tattoos and the women are equal to two university girls. They have breasts like mine that spill over the lips of their spaghetti-strapped tops.
Come here, my friend says, putting his hand on my waist. He drives a truck—small, American and blue, and I would like it for myself.
My professor says, Stop talking. My professor says, Will the women in the corner please stop talking?
If you’re so unhappy, why don’t you leave? My girlfriend says.
She means our relationship, but I get other ideas. This has not previously occurred to me. My general strategy is to push and push—a person, a place, a thing—even if nothing about it is working.
My students are silent when I enter, texting or looking at their desks. I wear a blazer and a black dress I bought from the business section so my students will not mistake me for one of them. Our room is huge, with a capacity three or four times our numbers.
What? I say, cupping my ear. I keep having to tell the girls to speak up. The girls have long hair sharp as razor blades, and the boys are in moccasins, the kind my dad used to wear on the beach in Martha’s Vineyard. He was a Jew in a foreign land. These students look foreign too, in this large room. I wonder where they feel at home and I guess, at the current juncture, nowhere.
In the posters of the missing white student, her eyebrows are over-plucked and strangely arched, as if she received some misguided beauty tip. Every morning when I wake up I google her name and every night before I sleep. Why? It has been two years and the young black trans girl is still missing and I have not been doing that for her.
In a stone amphitheater, the students light one thousand candles and distribute pink Skittles. Thousands of university students and residents of the town search for the missing white student wearing reflective vests. My group is assigned to search behind the bagel store and all along the train tracks. An older black woman in sneakers watches silently as two middle-aged white women in reflective vests frantically go through her trash.
The body of the missing white student is found in a shallow creek bed over which a cloud of buzzards has been building.
Winter. In the cold, I take the bus, but I still must walk to and from it. Policemen in police cars look at me as I walk. Nothing to see here! I want to call out. I’d like to show them the cottage cheese globs on the inside of my thighs that bulge through the holes in my tights and rub together. I walk over the bridge where, underneath, buses idle in a line.
If one more man on the bus sits next to me when there are seats standing empty. If one more man nods his head at me from the back of a loading truck. If one more man honks at me from a motorcycle. On the bus, an old man wants to talk to me. He asks for directions somewhere, or he asks my name. I pretend I can’t hear him talking. I stand at the light across from the CVS on campus. Next to me is a man in a business suit and aviator sunglasses. I can feel him turning toward me. If one more man stands close behind me at the crosswalk. Touch me, I think, and I’ll kill you .
The students in the bars turn their faces to read our signs—END RAPE NOW.
In the company of SLUTS, we pass other girls, girls in brown leather riding boots who hold cell phones in the yard of a light blue sorority house and spit words in our direction.
You’re here for one night, says one. Then you’ll be gone.
She’s right. The police are there, expecting us. We are sheepish and polite, academics in revolutionaries’ outfits. We turn back.
I march with scholars of English, history, political science. I march with nursing students, hospital workers, nineteen-year-old students. Perhaps the writers are at home, writing.
I have only two registers—either I am yelling or I am silent. Either the people I know—friends, colleagues, parents, lovers—are with me or they are against me. Six months—the end of spring and most of summer—pass this way.
My professor says, This person is not the same person. This character does not add up.
Now I am alone in this apartment again. You’re free, said a woman who was no longer my girlfriend. I have delayed returning to the apartment for the new semester for as long as possible. My girlfriend’s things are still here. I walk around the apartment with a plastic bag and put things in it—her basketball shorts, her unscented lotion, her statue of the Buddha. In the process, I look at my own things. The pink leopard print chair, the stack of pale dishes my father bought, one set each for the two children he wanted. It becomes possible, I notice, to see myself again. It begins to snow and I put Martha Wainwright on again. You have no idea how it feels to be on your own in your own home with the fucking phone and the mother of gloom in your bedroom.
Daniel Pantaleo murders Eric Garner. Tens of thousands flood Manhattan from Greenwich Village to police headquarters to protest a grand jury’s decision not to return an indictment. They stage die-ins outside the Barclays Center and pour over the Brooklyn Bridge, causing lane closures on the bridge, on the West Side Highway, and at both the Lincoln and the Holland Tunnels. In Washington, there are marches outside the White House and over the 14th Street Bridge. In Boston, thousands block traffic on I-90.
Here in Virginia, a small crew of students roams through the libraries of the university. They yell, stand on tables, do their duty, and are gone. Later, on an anonymous comment site, some spectator of the demonstration writes: Did anyone just see all that farm equipment walk through Clemons?
The next morning in class, my students blink at me and stare at the Formica table tops. They fold and unfold their hands. They go to the bathroom. They drink a lot of water.
They have torn down the bookstore at the Sacajawea intersection and are building a hotel. It turns out the WAIT WAIT voice is for the blind so I no longer listen. The liquor store is decorated with green leprechauns.
Now that there is not a professor or a girlfriend to say things to me, there are only the things that I say to myself. For example, he will just have to wait. For example, there are more options than being a sucker or the one who does the sucking. I do not know if I am right about any of these things.
When my girlfriend lived in the apartment I was fastidious, stressing the clean sink, the made bed, and grumbling a lot about her shoes. Now that I live in the apartment alone, I revert to my naturally slobbish ways. I let dishes pile in the sink, I leave the greening water used to boil broccoli on the stove, I let walnut chunks fall on the floor for later fetching. I sit on the back porch and read the paper for hours while the wind blows and the church bells clang out the number of hours I have been there. I read things I’ve never read, things that have been sitting on my shelves for years. I fall asleep on the couch with all the lights on.
I show my apartment to a friend who would like to have it. She’s kind and good. We split a wheel of cheese. Perhaps, I tell her, I will move back to Philadelphia where I am the square instead of the angry woman.
That night, a black university student is pulled aside by a state agency police officer outside an on-campus bar. His head is cracked against the pavement and he is kept from rising by an officer who shoves knee to back. In the video somebody yells, He’s bleeding . From the ground, the student yells over and over that he goes to the university. He also yells: How does this happen?
I dream that two of my students, blonde girls in leggings and oversized university sweatshirts, are my roommates. I am there when they come home with some boys. I punch the smaller girl as she poses in the mirror. The kitchen is covered in mirrors, obviously. I kick the tall one as she lies on the floor doing leg lifts. Her stomach makes an oofing sound. Stop preening for them, I say. I don’t know what the boys were up to while I was up to this.
My professor says, Sometimes when people tell you that you need less of a thing, you actually need more of it.
Spring comes. In the shade of the university’s cool stone passageways, girls wear creased sundresses and flip flops, and the boys look much smaller without so many sweaters. One of them holds the library door a long time so that I might walk through it. The wind bends the trees and the light takes a long time to die.
On a small strip of grass between parking spots in the departmental parking lot, my professor is standing, books tucked under an arm, singing opera. Mi mi mi mi , he sings, lifting his face toward the sun.
I meet a girl in my program in an alleyway on the way to the farmer’s market. The girl has thick beautiful hair and wears hiking boots in the Saturday morning sun. Look, she says, pointing to the garden that belongs to the public housing complex. There are brussel sprouts green as chunks of dragon flesh and tomatoes that have busted and split in places from the sun, and are now leaking gutsy juice.
This morning, three people said good morning to me. There was a white woman in a wheelchair, sitting in the street waiting for her ride. There was a black father teaching his son how to twirl a pole around the parking lot of an auto repair shop. The boy was learning. All this time I have been walking to and from the university, I could have been walking around my own neighborhood.
Now the hotel at the Sacajawea intersection is covered with purple National Gypsum paper and metal scaffoldings for easy access to each floor. As the bus turns, a crane sits high in the sky. Things will always be built. And built, and built.
I walk across the bridge listening to a story. Behind the train tracks are brick buildings with old white letters, behind the brick buildings are mountains, and behind the mountains is the purpling sky.
I walk a street of square brick homes with large windows. The door to a yellow house is open. A woman stands in front of a chest of drawers in the foyer. Her back is to me, she is packing a box, and the radio is on. In two weeks, I won’t live here anymore.
I am twenty-eight. I know this time and place will never come again and that in many years I will want it back, or I will at least believe that it belongs to me. Moments later in my friend’s little car we pass these same houses, but moving in the other direction and much faster now and if I were that better person already I might have turned my head to look again at what was inside.