Aaron Landsman: Lysis
At 11½, while the boys around me were turning muscled and thick voiced, I stayed knock-kneed. Whenever I spoke, a battle raged in my throat between the forces of alto and bass, with neither side able to claim victory for long.
My father the Philosophy professor was my best friend. We lived together on Maple Street in Northfield, Minnesota, a college town surrounded by cornfields. I would try out concepts on him over breakfast; practicing on him the way more normal boys would use their dads to hone sliders and fastballs.
“Dad,” I said one morning while he read the sports page, “I am a pacifist.”
“A pacifist, Colin?” I saw one thick eyebrow emerge over the top of his paper.
“Yes, I decided.”
“Hmmm,” he said, turning over the idea in his mind. “I don’t believe you.”
“But, I decided!” Alto won that round.
“Well, how about if someone was coming at you and wanted to kill you?”
“But – ”
“Okay,” he bore down on me like he was pitching a no-hitter. “This is what a pacifist is. This is the logical conclusion to that doctrine, okay? What if your family was threatened?” Strike one. “What if someone had a gun, and you had a gun, and they had your family against a wall, and all you could do was shoot them or your family would die.”
“I would die because you were a pacifist? How fair is that?”
He didn’t know how not to take me seriously, and he seemed to confer failure and pride at the same time. It made me want to do better by him. “That was the Holocaust, Colin, that was the revolution. And I’ll tell you what, before you romanticize any doctrine like that at all, you should know that the people who made it through those times to tell us about them are the ones who shot back.”
“But – ”
“By the way,” he said, smiling. “Do you know that in any heated conversation about politics, it takes an average of 10 minutes for either Hitler or the Holocaust to come up.”
“Honestly, I haven’t figured it out either,” he’d shrug, which was comforting. “I just know that I don’t know. Ambiguity is the spice of life, right?” I was too young to know. Strike three? “Would you mind grabbing me another cup of coffee?”
I couldn’t grasp the fact that most boys my age didn’t know what a doctrine was, or a holocaust, or a pacifist, or ambiguity, or if they did know they wouldn’t be dumb enough to talk about it around anyone else. Nobody wanted to seem too smart. They all wanted to move away and become lawyers, or doctors, firemen or police, whereas nothing would have made me happier than to keep the family business alive. Professor & Son. Weiss & Weiss, LLC, Plato Our Specialty. Basis Of Western Thought.
My mother had left a long time ago, long enough that I knew if I saw her again she would look different than the picture I had in my sock drawer. Dad barely mentioned her.
I became my father’s wife and I grew into the role. I packed him lunches along with my own in the morning, I cleaned up the dishes and cans after his cursory meals, I waited for him to come home from the bar, where he often held court with several of his most devoted students, before I put out the light.
Dad had done his doctoral work at Harvard with quite a bit of fanfare. He wrote on the cyclical nature of history as evinced in the parallel frameworks of the ancient Greeks and the Cuban revolution. As a joke he started calling himself ‘doctor’ to make fun of the academics he knew who could barely work a Band-aid. The day he was supposed to defend his dissertation he completely lost his nerve and just rode his bike through the city, around the narrow, jagged streets of South Boston, talking to me as if I were sitting behind him on the baby seat, though I was off with my grandparents at the time. He wouldn’t have had a hard time at his defense; but I think he didn’t want to see that part of his life, where all that mattered was thinking well, come to an end.
When we got to Minnesota, after a series of semester-long guest lecture stints that took us from Beloit to Pomona to Wichita—he called us itinerant preachers of discourse—he was offered his first real faculty position in Northfield. He wrote ‘PhD’ on each piece of paper they had him fill out, and crossed his fingers that no one from Harvard would notice. There were some whisperings a couple of years later among the older faculty, but by then he was a fixture, a hero, and he livened up dinner parties with his stories and his generous spirit. They’d watch the game with the sound turned down so he could fill up the room with his own Marxian-inspired sexually-inflected jokes about the dialectic between the pitch and first base. I was usually at home then, reheating last night’s pizza, and reading, and reading, trying to catch up.
The cool thing about Plato, Dad would say, is that, at least early on, he was not only expounding on a subject, he was embodying it. What you come to realize as the reader of, say Lysis, for example, is that the dialogue is about the nature of friendship, about the process by which we become something. Truth is embodied in that search, so that having the answer is not only not the point, it’s antithetical. And what made my dad an interesting professor was that he could embody Lysis within a class discussion before the students knew what was happening. “After all,” he’d say, smiling and opening his arms out wide to everyone, “Don’t we all just want to be friends?”
On the midterm exam for his Revolutionary Philosophy class that first year in Northfield, he asked the following questions:
- Write about which Platonic dialogue best illustrates the concept of the Marxian Dialectic and why. Support your thesis with concrete examples.
- Describe the effect of Marxism on 19th Century Christianity; describe the effect of Marxism on contemporary notions of the ancient Greeks.
- Describe the inter-team dynamics in the 1987 world series winning Minnesota Twins in terms of a) the Platonic concept Uthyphro, or b) from the point of view of the Sophists.
The Twins had won the Series for the first time that year, and everyone, no matter how disconnected from the philistine world of sports they claimed to be, watched with awe and abandon. In class, my father compared Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbeck to Moses and Aaron, to Churchill and Roosevelt. The students talked about the test for days, and they wrote personal notes to my father telling him how they felt they had been asleep throughout their academic life until now, that they finally felt they were ready to learn.
He became a kind of rock star on campus, and soon we had students over at the house regularly. Earnest young men with facial hair, in corduroys, told me how lucky I was, and their co-eds, accessorized in black-framed glasses and barrettes, doted on us both, on my ability to toss off an Arendt reference before tearing off down Maple Street on my dirt bike to meet friends.
“Who are all those girls at your house?” Timmy Federman asked after we’d arrived at the decrepit, unused farm where we played many afternoons. Timmy was stocky and confident and wore a crew cut his father gave him every two weeks with a set of clippers he got at Sears. He puffed his chest out and tried to walk tough but the baby-fat kept him humble.
“Students.” I said. The wind blew through barn slats, which smelled of hay, wood and mildew.
“Who’s the girl who sounds like she wants to be older,” Timmy asked.
“That’s Anita. With the gravelly voice?”
“Yeah. What’s her problem?”
Anita was from Brooklyn, a dark and mystical place in my mind, way better even than Boston, where we’d come from. She had jet-black hair, she called her skin color ‘Café Con Leche,’ which made everyone laugh in a slightly uncomfortable way, so I laughed, too. Anita came from a family of what my dad called the ‘verifiable proletariat’—her father was Puerto Rican and her mother Dominican, which Anita said was a very controversial mix, straight out of West Side Story, because the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans didn’t usually get along. She was paying her own way through school with loans and scholarships, and she was a couple years older than everyone else.
Anita, in tight jeans and bright tacky sweaters she said she got in a neighborhood called Williamsburg, was mystifying to me, even beyond the way most women were then. I wanted to smell her body. I didn’t even know what that meant except that when she went by me I always tried to catch a whiff. She often regarded me with something I mistook for potential, but what I see now was probably sympathy.
“Yeah, what’s her problem,” Timmy said.
“She’s one of the proletariat,” I told him.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.”
“Who are they?”
“Duh. They’re from Brooklyn.” I sighed, doing my best to sound world-weary.
One evening, Anita and I were sitting on our front steps while she smoked a cigarette. My dad had a rule against smoking in the house, because he said he didn’t want it to be a bad influence on me, but he was fine with me going outside to sit and chat with smokers. This was mid-November, two weeks after the midterm, on a Friday. Anita was wrapped in an old green leather jacket, a couple of scarves, and the kind of brimmed hat that old men in whiskey ads wear, and I wore my down parka with the ski hood up. I poked at the soles of my boots with a stick, and Anita squinted and exhaled. She seemed lost in thought.
“What are you guys doing for Thanksgiving?” she asked.
“You know those Jenny-O Turkey Roasts?” I said.
“It’s like a turkey without the bones, like a loaf of turkey meat? Sometimes there’s something inside, some kind of buttery sauce.”
“No, I don’t know about a Jenny-O. We usually go to a diner.”
“What’s a diner?”
“I miss them, you know. Everybody in my family talks kinda like me.”
“Well, Jenny-O is probably what we’ll have for Thanksgiving. Some potatoes, some string beans. Buy a pie at the store, I don’t know.”
“Huh.” She ground the end of her cigarette into the side of the steps and dug her hands into her pockets.
“What about you?” I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders. “I wanted to go back but I can’t afford it.”
“My writing teacher, Larry Doyle? He invited me but I think he’s not just interested in talking about books, you know?”
“What else does he want to talk about?”
She looked at me and laughed, and so did I, involuntarily. “I think he wants to discuss Latin Cultchah.” The last two words she squinched up in her mouth and made them sound Puerto Rican.
“Well let’s see if we can’t do something about that.”
“You gonna hook me up?” She asked.
“I’ll make the connection, if that’s what you mean.”
“Alright.” Anita punched me in the leg, and I felt like I’d been kissed.
When we came inside, my dad was having an earnest, excited conversation with two young men named Thomas and Devin about the American idealization of youth as it related to the second careers of 80’s pop stars, specifically the re-emergence of Rod Stewart as a soft-style R ‘n’ B crooner.
“I mean I prefer the earlier work like everyone,” he said, “but he was getting a little geriatric to keep up the wild boy act, you know?” When he saw us he said, “Hello boys and girls!”
“Dad,” I said, with mock gravity.
He lowered his voice, held out an arm. “Yes, my son.” It was our little performance for the students.
“Our friend Anita here has never experienced the subtle mysteries of The Jenny-O.”
“It’s not true!” He said.
“Yes it’s true,” she smiled.
“This is a tragedy,” he said. “A tragedy. Is there a way we can remedy the situation, do you think?”
“In fact I think there is. Because Anita’s only other plans for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday are to go and investigate Latin culture with your colleague Doctor Doyle.” My voice cracked on ‘Doctor,’ and everyone stifled a laugh.
“Oh dear. We can’t have that,” he said, suddenly sincere. “Jesus, he’d probably want to show you his etchings.” The two boys Dad had been talking with were squirming with jealousy on the couch. Each would have given his left nut, as Dad would say, to have Thanksgiving at our house with Anita, but had already made plans to be with their families in big suburban houses in Minnetonka or Wayzata.
Dad reached out an arm and said, “Glad to have you aboard, Anita.” He turned to me with seeming purpose. “And I’m sure you’ve made Colin. Very. Very. Happy.” Everyone laughed. I felt heat rushing up from my neck through my ears and cheeks.
There was no margin of error allowed where my logic was concerned. After everyone had left that night, I told my Dad I found Anita’s Puerto Rican and Dominicanness attractive. I probably said interesting because I was young enough that my attractions still shamed me and Dad said, “I don’t know how I raised you to be so insensitive.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“What do I mean?!” He held his arms in a tense triangle in front of him on the kitchen table. “I mean fetishizing another person’s ethnic background, you know, objectifying them, is not just inappropriate, it’s offensive.”
“It was just more of a curiosity thing.”
“Well exactly, that’s the kind of pathology that every liberal who idolizes other cultures falls back on. It’s like touching a black person’s hair and saying how neat it is; Jesus, I mean can’t you see what she’s got to put up with in this school?” I couldn’t, but that was not the point.
When I stopped by to watch him teach Revolutionary Philosophy one afternoon after fifth grade was done for the day, I saw the patience he had with his students. When they didn’t take in a point the way he wanted, he blamed himself for not getting it across.
“Was Che’s family money a sort of demon that, like, dogged him to become more extreme in his thinking, do you think?” one of them asked.
“That’s a pretty easy reading of the situation, Mark,” he snapped, then caught himself. “I mean, sure, some of the world’s great revolutionaries never had to worry about putting food on the table. You know, Lenin, Engels—I mean we could discredit most of what was done in the name of Marx in the first half of the 20th Century if we used that as a criteria for, what, for authenticity, I don’t know. But it was still done, so can we really dismiss it?” He paced the room, the class rapt as his voice began to raise a little, people shifting in their seats, following him with their eyes. Then he stopped, looked down, sighed, and smoothed his beard. For what seemed like an hour, there was pure silence, punctuated by a car passing the window. He looked at his watch, looked up at the group and smiled sheepishly. He controlled time. They laughed involuntarily. “I’m not doing a great job of asking questions today,” he said. “What I’m trying to find out is if it’s possible to see Fidel and Che as examples of evangelists rather than revolutionaries.”
“Or those are the same thing,” the student said suddenly.
Dad’s eyes lit up. “That’s exactly what I mean.”
Another student caught on. “So the Christian ideology in Marx gave them a sort of, like, religious fervor?”
“Maybe, maybe,” Dad said, pacing again. “Maybe they let Marxists believe in the revolution the way Jesus led his disciples to believe in the resurrection.”
“So we’re back to that ‘it’s all Jesus’ fault,’” Anita cracked from the back of the room. Dad didn’t’ miss a beat. “Well, that’s a given, isn’t it?”
Thanksgiving Day we cleaned the downstairs of the house maniacally, throwing away piles of Sunday papers, unpacking boxes of dishware that had been dormant since we’d gotten there, sloshing the mop over the floors, vacuuming the carpets, reaching its long hose up to suck away the cobwebs in the corners where the ceiling met the wall.
She arrived with two bottles of wine that Dad said she must have gone all the way to St. Paul to get, because the liquor stores in town only carried the kind with a metal cap and these definitely had a cork. “I have a little supply in my room,” she said, “For special occasions.” It was an incredibly cold day, and Anita had a down vest over a leather jacket, underneath which she wore a hodge-podge of alluring and sensible: mukluks, velvet dress, long johns, a ribbon necklace. As soon as she walked in the door, my dad’s air changed slightly. He could barely hide his nervousness, covering it with jokes, flourishes, laughter that was a little too loud. He immediately disappeared into the kitchen to open a bottle of wine.
I watched him go, and then turned to Anita, rolling my eyes at him, and said, “Lady, may I take your coat.” I bowed gravely and she laughed and did a terrible English accent.
“Why yes, kind sir,” she said, heaping outerwear onto my outstretched arms. My heart beat faster each time she leaned toward me with a scarf, jacket, hat, vest, glove. I sniffed, hoping it wouldn’t be conspicuous, then I stumbled back to the closet while she found her way into the living room.
Once dinner was on the table I no longer existed. Anita and Dad laughed and joked like old friends. It turned out she could keep up with him better than almost anyone.
“Was the hemlock thing kind of a way for Plato to say too much free thinking can get you in trouble, or whatever?”
My dad laughed. “Yes, I suppose you could say that.”
Later, Anita broke a rare pause. “My folks think I am doing Pre-Law. They think I’m going to move back to New York in two years and go to Columbia or NYU Law and work on contracts for Smith Barney or Boeing or a big Pharma.”
“Wow,” Dad said.
“Big Pharma?” I asked.
“They make medicine,” she said.
“The make money off medicine,” Dad said.
“Oh. And you’re gonna work for them.”
“That’s what my parents think.”
“Anita’s in a bind,” Dad said. “She’s too smart by far, but not honest enough by just a little.”
“Woah.” She was stunned.
“Takes one to know one,” I said, looking at her intently.
We all let it drop, and after a minute, Dad said to Anita, “Do you want to go to the bar?”
The phone rang while they were getting ready.
“Maybe it’s your grandmother,” my dad nodded to me, then turned to Anita. “She calls on holidays,” he said.
“Oooh, I want to hear what your mother sounds like,” She said to him flirting playfully, and ran to answer before either of us could get up. She came back later to say that it was for me. “It’s no grandmother,” she said dramatically. “It’s a girl!” she beamed, then winked at my dad.
“Colin!” he said. “You didn’t tell us you have a girlfriend!” He was so proud.
“Uh, I don’t,” I said, looking at Anita. “Have fun, kids.”
“What’s Colin gonna do?”
“The dishes,” Dad said.
“Hello?” I said, as I heard the door close behind them.
“Is this Colin Weiss?”
“This is Holly Golden.”
It took me a minute to remember. Back of the room, toward the window. Laughed too loud. Very bright-eyed. Bit of a teacher’s pet.
“So. How are you?”
“Are you having a good Thanksgiving?”
“I guess. We had Jenny-O turkey roast my dad made.”
“Oh. What’s that?”
“It’s like a loaf.”
Neither of us said anything. I had no idea why she was calling but for some reason I didn’t want the call to end.
“So,” I said.
“How come you’re calling me?”
“I wanted to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.”
“Oh. Thanks. You too.”
“Do you want to ask me anything?”
“Did you also have Jenny-O?”
“Oh god, no,” she laughed loud enough I had to hold the phone away. “We always have a huge turkey and like 20 people over. Maybe you and your dad could come over next time.”
“Okay.” Another long pause. Well – “
“I gotta go for dessert,” she said. “Bye Colin.”
She didn’t hang up and neither did I.
“Are you glad I called?” she asked.
“Okay. See you.” And then we did hang up.
Dad and Anita came in together, a couple hours later, laughing.
“I drove,” she said, “‘cause he’s a little shaky. We gotta get him up to bed then I’m gonna borrow your car to get home.”
“Why don’t you just stay.” Dad said.
“How’s your girlfriend,” Anita winked.
“It wasn’t a girlfriend.”
“Oh?” my dad asked. Batter up.
“It was mom,” I looked right at Dad.
“What?” Strike one. He looked a little wobbly on his feet.
“Where’s your mom?” Anita asked.
“Uh—” Dad said. Pop foul. Strike two.
“She’s living in Ireland now,” I said. The story poured out of me. I made up details and combined them with what I knew to be true. “She’s fine, by the way. Married. To a guy who runs a pub. She’s good. She’s coming to the States in the summer and wants to try and get together.”
“Oh, that’s great!” he breathed out. “Maybe we can go to visit her in Boston.”
“I don’t think she meant you.”
Strike three. Man stranded. Anita kept looking at us like she was waiting for one of us to bust out a joke or a quote. I folded my arms and stared at my dad, tight lipped with something I didn’t know how to feel. The silence was like the ones I’d seen in class when he made people try and figure things out without him, only there was no noble search for ideas tonight.
“I think I’ll just walk home,” Anita said. “It’s not that far.” My father looked away from me for a moment then got up, too and barreled into his room. I didn’t say anything to Anita as she zipped her vest, buttoned her coat, re-wrapped her scarves and pulled down her hat so that it half hid her eyes.
I stood on the front step in my jeans and t-shirt watching her walk home for as long as I could stand it. Until my eyes were burning dry with the cold, and the skin around my jaw got tighter and tighter, and I couldn’t have said anything, no matter how much I wanted to.