by Joshua H. Liberatore
Katherine picked me up around eight for the event, which was to be held in the second-floor ballroom of the Student Union. “Well, we’ll be a little late. It doesn’t matter. I’m sure no one will save the world without us,” I said with a laugh. Katherine grinned. Although we had met only that October, she was already well accustomed to the more biting moments in my humor. I’ll even say she appreciated that about me, perhaps seeing in herself as well the incipient bulge of a growing skepticism about many things. As for me, the afternoon in the library had already imbued the day with a certain cool, almost elevating, bitterness. Long hours with the Scottish Enlightenment and Tolstoy will do that to a student of ideas sometimes, if only because the sense of inspiration and high purpose gleaned from the efforts of past great minds contrasted too painfully with the disappointing shallowness of present-day politics. Saturdays were often like that.
Our student group was part of a coalition effort to raise money for the families of political prisoners in Nicaragua, and the heads of various student organizations on campus had put together an evening benefit, to which we had haplessly invited all of our friends in hopes of breaking even on the event. By which I mean to say friends in other groups, friends outside the group, friends who weren’t “active” per se, even friends who simply didn’t care about what we were doing, but we loved them anyway. And who could blame them for not showing up? Ten dollars for a plate of vegetarian lasagna and a bunch of activist clones patting themselves on the back for their paltry achievements in the local leftist movements wasn’t exactly the preferred form of weekend recreation among college students, even among my own friends, who constituted a decidedly unique, if not totally disparate, subset of American undergraduates. I went through the familiar sham routine of inviting them, encouraging them to come, telling them the discussions would be interesting, and finally, forgiving them for having something better to do. Hell, I thought, in all honesty I had something better to do, as morsels of my afternoon reading slowly turned themselves over in my mind’s mouth, still savory from the page. I grabbed my vest, and walked out the door, pausing to receive Katherine’s understanding look, that conspiratorial blink of the eyes that I had seen before from her. For an instant, I wondered whether I had said something out loud. Then we were off, and I knew it didn’t matter.
We arrived as things were just getting started. James was introducing the panel. I scanned the audience of two dozen or so familiar faces. As per usual, there were no surprises. But, it was still early at least. There was still time for the stragglers to show up. We never had more than twenty or so right at starting time. But who was I to talk? I couldn’t even get there on time, I observed, straining to look at the watch on my companion’s wrist, which, as if in earnest, was playfully eluding my inquiry at the bounce of our hurried march. People would trickle in little by little, I reconciled, looking up, and I felt Katherine tugging at my sleeve as James nodded for us to sit down. I felt a slight twinge of guilt spike through my brain at the look of him, tall, thickly built, with that serious brow that suggested to me the most curious combination of fierce anger and lofty idealism, of which only fastidious activists like James, veteran social workers, and weary priests seemed to be capable of evincing. In my experience anyway, it was those types who shared that look. Those who believed in what they were doing, I had no doubt, but all with that burdensome backlog of nearly perpetual hopeless cases, which inevitably tempered the satisfaction of every success. This was a serious brand of folks, and our own leader was a budding young champion.
James the great organizer. On the other hand, I could never help thinking that he was somehow cruelly misplaced in the world, his brawn more befitting an athlete than an organizer. He had the look of a fighter, alright, but there was always the hint of a physical battle he would much rather be fighting than the war of ideology and rhetoric in which he was officially engaged. I had known him two years already, and I couldn’t shake that impression from the first. He scared me in a way, I guess. Maybe it was his size that threatened me, his overwhelming physicality that called out the more significant gulf separating us. He should have my body, I remember thinking, to fit better the sixties prototype of the tall, gangly orator, whose piercing physiognomy added an element of intensity to the seriousness of his words, made somehow more convincing by the singleness of purpose chiseled into his face. But not sturdy like James. No, you wanted the impression that this was someone who was picked on as a kid, who had been a little uncomfortable around the big boys at the playground. You wanted to believe he was still a little angry about that early, but substantial, abuse. It somehow solidified the image of his discontent and gave credibility to the enormity of his claims. It made you believe he could accomplish anything, by virtue of his private suffering alone. But James was big and strong and commanding and was a living relic of a much older mythology. Sadly, though, his bulk didn’t seem to fit his contemporary role. And how did he get so big anyway on an all-vegetarian diet? I wondered, suddenly returning to the room, the microphone, and the smell of garlic and broccoli. Yes, something clearly was not right about his shape. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“Morris Feldman is here from Amnesty International to talk discuss their latest efforts. . . .” he bellowed, as I settled into my chair next to Katherine. Damn, I was already perspiring from the walk and the heat of the lights and the podium burning down on my chest from the stage. I removed my vest to correct it.
“Is it hot in here?” I whispered to Katherine, she leaning down to catch my words.
“I’m fine,” she whispered back. Same blink. Same smile. She’s on to me, I thought. Too perceptive, Katherine. She can see my doubt streaming out of me, coming out at every pore. It made me terribly uncomfortable that she knew my secret. At the same time, it put me strangely at ease. I would either have to tell her about it one of these days, I thought, or this is it for me.
“Did you guys hear that Richard’s flight was delayed? He’ll be a little late,” a voice informed us in a whisper from behind. Leslie Thompson, another interesting specimen. Very intelligent, very contradictory. Quite pretty actually, but she dressed so sloppily and neglected hygiene so exuberantly, I always had the feeling that she had the most to hide of any of us. She had that remarkable talent of appearing to care so much while not really caring at all. It was pure theater. I couldn’t decide whether I was amazed or disgusted by her. Maybe I was attracted to her, intoxicated against my will by her slovenly earthiness, her vibrant aura of sexual permissiveness, her pungent aroma. She was a total mystery to me, which turned me on at times so profoundly I felt weak in her presence, defeated by my wretched lust for her. And yet I felt repulsed by her. God, what a mess! She was smart, maybe that was it. She read books, I knew, not just books about organic farming movements in Costa Rica, but interesting books. Novels. Joyce. She was an English major. She knew Shakespeare. But what a charade, I thought. As if she could pull off this brilliant performance and no one would detect her shallowness, her flagrant hypocrisy. No one would suspect her, because she was beautiful and she seduced you with her radicalness. She escaped all definition, and people were drawn to her. But it was a travesty, I reminded myself. I don’t buy into her game for a second. Neither does Katherine, I surmised, drawing my shoulder from Leslie’s receding touch to look up at Katherine. No way, I confirmed, she doesn’t buy it at all!
Richard Farley was our keynote guest, a prominent political activist and writer for a major leftist magazine. He was flying all the way from Washington for our humble little gathering. A little late, I thought. I wonder how late. He might have just cancelled altogether and I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. He probably had real work to do anyway, no time for this sorry hand-holding with middle-class guilt. I didn’t blame him either, no more than I blamed my own friends for not coming. He might be better off not witnessing this sad assemblage of neoliberalism, the squirrely hair and tattered clothing, the tired eyes of late-night discussions in coffee houses, the pathetic evidence of futile organization for a revolution in ideas that would never be realized. His not showing up certainly wouldn’t be the first disaster of its kind that I had witnessed.
I recalled with a flash of irony and good humor how embarrassed I had been when the environmental tea and granola break I had organized in high school went terribly and irrevocably awry, when I had foolishly let school administrators and the cafeteria director intervene in the planning. But I couldn’t possibly do all the work, I thought. Why not let them help me order the supplies? The student council doesn’t have the money anyway to bankroll this event. At least they are showing interest in the cause, I had figured. Then I was scandalized to show up at my own event only to find the tea being ladled out in Styrofoam cups and the granola bars wrenched from their double-sealed factory wraps, the hungry masses of hormones and morning eagerness grabbing for seconds and thirds, while the meeker were left in line without their share.
Perhaps this course of events had been somehow preordained, and I had simply showed up at the right audition. Perhaps I had been cast unwittingly for this absurd role . . . or was this just small-town provincialism and high school small mindedness that were keeping me from effecting real change? Or worse yet, was I part of some larger farce, of which I would become cognizant only now, a handful of years and as many organizational failures later? Was this the apex of my abortive career as an enlightened mind, a socially responsible person? Was it really that hopeless for change?
And there were other attempts, all variations on the same theme of well-intentioned uselessness. Of course, there were the trees we spent Saturdays planting around the schoolyard, the front lawn, beautifying the parking lots, already overstuffed with the handsome sedans and expensive jeeps of our spoiled coevals. We had chosen the hardiest species, those that would fare well, we thought, against years of unwarranted attack from lawn mowers and snowploughs, the clumsy bumpers of imprecise parking jobs. Our main enemies were the machines, right? We didn’t consider then the scars left by key-wielding teenage suburban angst that I would eventually discern on the atrophied trunks of abused saplings. We couldn’t predict the amputated branches, the plucked leaves, the careless footfalls. How could we have? We thought we were doing good. We thought others would understand.
And was I even exempt from such carelessness? I myself drove a ‘77 Cadillac, which, because it was old and cost me only $700, felt guiltless compared to the lavish consumerism that surrounded me. How did I reconcile the low fuel efficiency and thick emissions that nullified any “sacrifices” I was making for the cause? I don’t remember how I convinced myself of my own impunity. I just remember how mad I got when someone ripped the beautifully intact hood ornament out of its socket and made off with it while I was in class one day. The car itself didn’t last much longer anyway, and many cold winter afternoons my brother and I ended up walking home from school, leaving the car to rest in the parking lot, sometimes for weeks on end until it would start again. And it wasn’t even that far for us, just shy of a mile. Later, when I finally did abandon driving altogether and went away to college, that distance would seem almost negligible to me. We’d felt so inconvenienced at the time, though, but at the same time slightly vindicated by the ease with which we survived the crisis. Still, I don’t know how many times I thought of just getting rid of the old thing and becoming a full-time pedestrian. I guess I wasn’t willing to go that far. That and the element of hypocrisy hadn’t yet occurred to me.
Yes, now it made perfect sense to me in retrospect. I’d never really committed to any movement, either out of skepticism or just immaturity. Now, though, I knew it wasn’t immaturity that was pulling me from the group, it was plain old skepticism. Or realism, to be more precise. I guess that now I was finding real reason to doubt that any of this was actually worth anything, no faith that it would successfully change anything or anyone. It seemed a big waste of time. We prided ourselves on being “active” and fancied ourselves superior to fraternities and other meaningless student affiliations that didn’t actually do anything productive. I had bought into that claim at one point, maybe because I thought I was finally part of something that mattered, to which all those failed attempts in high school had been mere stepping stones. But now I wasn’t so convinced.
So we put up flyers, we screened documentaries, we discussed the horrors of sweatshop labor in Indonesia, the evils of multinational corporations, the doublespeak of NATO; we carried the occasional poster, signed the occasional petition, participated in the occasional demonstration. So what! It was all such a farce, because no one ever talked about ideas anymore. No one ever came up with anything original. No one ever said anything that Rousseau hadn’t said better. I was tired of the buzzwords, the burned-out slogans, and the bankrupt mission statements. We weren’t any more successful at getting people to think about real questions than our seventh grade geography teacher who hollered at us for misspelling Luxembourg. Christ, we weren’t even thinking ourselves. It was all warmed-over material from a lost generation anyway, who themselves were rehashing what had already become trite among the Beats. It was a farce. It was all semantic distortion. No one even paid attention to the words he was using anymore. No one knew what the words actually meant. And I was tired of it. At least fraternities aren’t pretending to be anything different from what they are, plain as day. It’s the speciousness of it all that’s exhausting.
That’s right, I remembered, Katherine and I had talked about this before. Down in Georgia, at that rally. I had heard some one cry out in earnest, “No More U.S. Intervention!” brandishing a sign to the same effect.
“Now there’s a cogent thought!” I quipped. Katherine and I were making our way around the periphery of the action, the stammering podiums, the booths disseminating leaflets, the worn-out looks of weary travelers. That’s about all we had done all morning: walk around. No one was actually doing anything, and nothing was happening. The crowds of angry people lined up at the gates of the Army base didn’t seem to be disrupting anyone’s day. No one seemed to be watching. The TV camera crews were all at ease, waiting for a story.
“Yeah, intervention where?” she added. I saw my opening.
“Exactly! What does that mean anyway? I bet he can’t tell you.” I proceeded cautiously, still testing her complicity.
“It doesn’t matter what it means, or what he thinks it means. Either way he expects you to believe it and repeat it without thinking about what the words mean. He’s just saying it, after all, without any pretense of explanation or corroboration.”
There was my green light. I went ahead now, full throttle, sensing in her someone capable of real dialogue. “That’s just it,” I added. “But I don’t think it’s even a question of believing it or thinking about it. Nobody is even listening. They’re hearing the words, they recognize certain syllables, but they’re not listening. They don’t process what’s being said, and that’s how the implication of the words gets totally lost in transmission. Look at these girls, for example,” I said, pointing to a long booth, where a young girl and her sister were passing out pamphlets denouncing the atrocities of the infamous School of the Americas, a military unit of Latin American mercenaries trained by the U. S. Army to brutalize the citizens of their respective countries and provide armed support for whatever dictator our government was backing that month, blah, blah, blah, for which cause we had all gathered down in Georgia to protest.
I continued, “I mean, she probably hasn’t even got to the Pearl Harbor lesson in her elementary school social studies class and she already propagates the ‘No More U.S. Intervention!’ that her parents have brainlessly adopted without even explaining to her why a School like this might possibly exist on God’s green earth. She’s been fed on organic vegetables from infancy, but do you think she understands why the apple she is eating costs three times what I paid for mine, and that probably less than one percent of the world population knows a standard of living that affords them such luxuries? Do you think she can envision what the world would be like without U. S. intervention, whatever that means? Do you think she knows what that might mean?”
“Do you know what that world would like?” Katherine interrupted, stopping to look up at me, a little taken aback by my sudden diatribe.
“No, of course I don’t,” I replied.
“Of course you don’t,” she repeated with finality, starting to walk again.
“But that’s not the point. The point is that no one really knows what that world would be like, and certainly not these people,” I gasped, drawing my hand across the panorama of bodies surrounding us, by now amorphous and frightening to me. “No one knows, and no one can know. But that’s not what bothers me the most. A lot of people talk about things they don’t really understand, especially in our cozy little college town, so famously liberal in its views. What bothers me is that people aren’t appreciating the complexity of things when they say something like ‘No More U.S. Intervention!’ People aren’t thinking about the web of implications that that statement contains. And what’s more: they don’t want to. They’re afraid to. I know at least that I am afraid to.”
“Well, you came down here anyway. Explain that to me!” she challenged.
“I’m afraid to.” I repeated and we both laughed. I was glad to see a little humor returning to our conversation. Katherine had a good sense of humor. That’s why I didn’t mind talking to her, didn’t mind exposing myself a little bit. Because she knew how to see the absurdity in things, and that’s exactly what I wanted someone else to recognize. I couldn’t quite get there with the others. They were over the fence a little too far. I couldn’t reach them. They would be quick to call me a cynic and fault me for thinking too philosophically about what they called “real problems.” The real problem, as I saw it, was that they weren’t thinking at all. Katherine was though. Katherine was thinking. So I talked to Katherine.
“Well, I was just wondering why you came down here if that’s the way you feel,” she prompted.
“It isn’t the way I feel, it’s just what I think,” I parried.
“What’s the difference then?”
“The difference is that one of them I can explain and one I can’t.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she offered, now with a smile.
“Look,” I said. “The truth is: I don’t know why I came down here. I’m not exactly enjoying myself. I don’t feel right about this and I don’t belong here.”
“When did you start feeling that way?”
“About three hours into the drive. It was already pretty late, it was my turn at the wheel, and you remember, by then our plan to hold the vans in caravan formation hadn’t really worked out, so our van was separated. It was quiet, and the whole thing seemed kind of surreal. Most people were sleeping. Some kid was babbling on about ‘how socialism works on a small scale’ to some girl, who was inevitably listening in pathetic rapture. . . .”
“Oh, Rob, from the Labor Rights group?”
“Yeah, whatever. It was crap, that’s all. He was going on and on, and it was all straight out of some damn pamphlet and I thought I was going to be sick. After a while, though, they finally shut up and I kind of struck it up with the guy in the passenger’s seat, because I was starting to get a little sleepy myself and needed something to get me through my shift. We had put the music really low so people could sleep. Anyway, he’s a nice guy. Anthony, I think. We talked for a while.”
“Where’s he from?”
“He’s actually from down here, Atlanta, he said.”
“No, I mean. What group is he with?”
“I don’t know,” I mused. “I think he’s an independent.” We laughed again. “Anyway, I mean it: he’s really from Georgia or something. I mean, his parents have since moved to the Midwest, but he grew up down here. He said it was weird for him to be driving all night to make it down South. He said Georgia never really seemed like much of a destination to him. He’s a little older, I think. Been out of school for a while. Our conversation was fading though, and I could tell he didn’t really feel like talking anyway, so I just started focusing on the stream of white under me and put the cruise on, sat back a little bit. Drove like that for quite a while. Everything is quiet, except the tape player is softly playing ‘Homeward Bound.’ And the only thing I could hear besides the music is this real soft sniffling, like somebody was crying. I glanced behind me to check the cabin, and everything was totally still, perfectly calm, as it had been for the last hour or so since Engels had shut up at last. I couldn’t figure out what was making that noise. It sounded like somebody quietly weeping, but too soft really to be sure, could just be breathing, or some whistling snore. It was so quiet and surreal and late that I didn’t really know what to think. Maybe I was just so damn awake all of sudden, my ears were experiencing some sort of hypersensitivity. I just turned forward and looked at the road ahead. And a feeling of profound sadness suddenly came over me. I don’t really know how to describe it other than that the van just seemed really heavy all of a sudden, like it was just overloaded. The air was kind of stale, and just sad, really sad. By the time I realized that I had heard someone crying, the noise was gone. I happened to look over at the only other person who was awake, hoping he could share the strangeness of the moment with me, or at least shake that silence with a word or a joke or something. Something. But when I glanced at him quickly and saw him rubbing the reddened sockets, where a second ago the glasses had been, I snapped my head back to center, trained my eyes on the road ahead, and didn’t move them until my shift was over and we crossed the Kentucky border.”
Meanwhile we had stopped walking, having long reached the end of the periphery. Now we were facing an interlude of small houses that seemed to fade, almost imperceptibly, into the sleepy town that was adjacent to the fort complex. Neither of us spoke, letting the quietness of the scene sink in. I observed privately that the strangeness of that abrupt, yet subtle, change of backdrop was remarkably similar to the one which characterized the outer edges of our own college town, that invisible border across which one suddenly saw no signs of student life. Instead the eerie absence of university buildings and the reappearance of school-age children and well-kept lawns dominated the view, suddenly replacing the littered walks of campus and the blooming kiosks of yesterday’s flyers, as if one had entered an entirely different realm altogether, a realm that was not only physically detached from the institution that was its economic epicenter and very lifeblood, it was also blissfully indifferent to its inevitable distractions, its wild commotion, its frenzied insularity. Here it was calm, quiet, and had the look of home. The few times I passed into that realm for the rare babysitting job or the seasonal visit to the local cider mill, I was immediately struck by the overwhelming comfort of the place, the familiar anonymity of quiet living, gardening in the spring, lemonade stands in the summer, raking leaves in the autumn. In a word: the life to which I genuinely aspired. My true ideal, maybe. I wondered. . . .
“Wow. I thought I might have lost you there, captain.” Katherine was nudging me. “You still with me here?” she queried, smiling at my brief, if substantial, departure.
“Yeah, I’m here. Here is right where I want to be.” I returned with a grin, coming out of the thick haze of memory and fantasy, which had gripped me so suddenly.
“I think I know what you mean.”
“I had a feeling you would.”
“Well, should we head back and catch up with the group?” She winked.
“Guess we should.”
We turned around and walked back to the demonstration area, where, judging by the sound of things, something different was happening. Shivering a bit, I zipped up my vest and followed Katherine’s lead back to the excitement.