On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction
When students here can’t stand another minute, they get drunk and hurl themselves off the top floor of the Gehring building, the shortest building on campus. The windows were tamper-proofed in August, so the last student forced open the roof access door and screamed Fuck! and dove spread-eagled into the night sky. From the TechInfo office I watched his body rip a silent trace through the immense snow dunes that ring the Gehring building. A moment later he poked his head from a dune, dazed and grinning, and his four nervous frat brothers whooped and dusted him off and carried him on their shoulders to O’Dooley’s, where they bought him shots of Jaegermeister until he was so drunk he slid off his stool and cracked his teeth against the stained oak bar.
In May a freshwoman named Deborah Dailey heaved a chair through a plate glass window on the fifth floor of the Gray building, then followed the chair down to the snowless parking lot, shattering both ankles and fracturing her skull. Later we learned–unsurprisingly–that her act had something to do with love: false love, failed love, mistimed or misunderstood or miscarried love. For no one here, I’m convinced, is truly happy in love. This is the Institute: a windswept quadrangle edged by charm-proofed concrete buildings. The sun disappears in October and temperatures drop low enough to flash-freeze saliva; spit crackles against the pavement like hail. In January whiteouts shut down the highways, and the outside world takes on a quality very much like oxygen: we know it exists all around us, but we can’t see it. It’s a disturbing thing to be part of. My ex—Ph.D. adviser, who’s been here longer than any of us, claims that the dormitory walls are abuzz with frustration, and if you press your ear against the heating ducts at night you can hear the jangling bedsprings and desperate whimpers of masturbators. Some nights my ex-adviser wanders the subbasement hallways of the Gray building, and screams obscenities until he feels refreshed and relatively tranquil.
I used to be a Ph.D. student, but now my job is to sit all night at a government-issue desk in the TechInfo office, staring at a red TechHotline telephone. The TechHotline rings at three and four a.m., and I listen to distraught graduate students stammer about corrupted file allocation tables and SCSI controller failures. I tell them to close their eyes and take a deep breath; I tell them everything will be all right. The TechInfo office looks onto the quadrangle, and just before dawn, when the sky has mellowed to the color of a deep bruise, the Institute looks almost peaceful. At those rare moments I love my job and I love this town and I love this Institute. This is an indisputable fact: there are many, many people around here who love things that will never love them back.
A Venn diagram of my love for Alexandra looks like this:
My inventory of love is almost completely consumed by Alexandra, while hers is shared by myself and others (or, more precisely: - J - > - M - ; $x s.t. xŒ(J«M); $y s.t. yŒJ, yœM; $z s.t. zœJ, zŒM).We live in a cabin next to the Owahee River and the Institute’s research-grade nuclear power plant. Steam curls off the hyperboloidal cooling tower and settles in an icy mist on our roof, and some nights I swear I can see the reactor building glowing. Alexandra has hair the color of maple syrup, and she is sixteen years younger than me; she is twenty-five. She sips tea every morning in the front room of our cabin, and when I turn into the driveway and see her hair through the window I feel a deep, troubling urge.
Alexandra is the daughter of my ex-adviser, who has never claimed to be happy in love. On Wednesdays at noon he meets a sophomore named Larissa in the Applied Optics Laboratory and scoots her onto the vibration isolation table and bangs her until the air pistons sigh. Every morning my ex—adviser straps on snowshoes and clomps past our cabin on his way to the Institute, gliding atop the frozen crust like a Nordic vision of Jesus. I have given Alexandra an ultimatum: she has until commencement day to decide if she wants to marry me. If she does not want to marry me, I will pack my textbooks and electronic diagnostic equipment and move to Huntsville, Alabama.
When students jump off the Gehring building, they curse and scream as though their hands are on fire. I can’t say I blame them. This is the set of words I use when I talk about the Institute: hunger, numbness, fatigue, yearning, anger. Old photographs of this town show a cathedral of pines standing in place of the bare quadrangle, and a sawmill on the Owahee in place of the nuclear plant. People in the pictures stare at the camera with an unmistakable air of melancholy, and looking at them I wonder if there was ever a happy season on this peninsula.
Alexandra tells me I’m ungenerous toward the Institute; she tells me the cold has freeze-dried my kindness. Here is a fact I cannot refute: on nights when the TechHotline is quiet and snow is settling in swells around the Gehring building, the silence is pure enough to make you want to weep. Windows in the Walsh Residence Hall blink off, one by one, until the quadrangle is lit only by moonlight. Icicles the size of children work loose and disappear into snowdrifts. Bark-colored hares hop lazily toward the Owahee. In the early-morning dark, before the sun climbs over the Gray building and the Institute begins to stretch, you can wade into a drift and lie back like an angel and let snow sift down onto you, and the only sound you hear is the slow churn of your own unwilling heart.
Slaney is the name of this town: a few thousand houses and shops crushed up against the Institute like groupies. Slaney has a short but tragic history: founded in 1906 by a Swede as a company town for the Michigan Land and Lumber Company; within a year there were four hundred inhabitants, six board-inghouses, two general stores, a meat market, an icehouse, a whorehouse, seven saloons. The Swede, his heart full to bursting with pride, felled the tallest white pine in the county and propped it in the middle of Slaney’s main drag as a monument to the town’s greatness. By 1925 there was nothing left around Slaney except birch and tamarack and scrub poplar, and if tumbleweeds existed up here they’d have blown through the abandoned streets with a lonely rustle. The monumental white pine was dragged off to the sawmill in the middle of the night by timber thieves. The Swede drank himself into a stupor in Dan Gunn’s empty saloon, then passed out during the twelve-block walk to his house and nearly froze to death.
That spring the hills hiccuped with dynamite blasts from prospectors looking for iron ore, and the state legislature chose Slaney as the location for the brand-new Michigan Engineering Institute. Every year in Slaney someone loses grip and commits an unspeakably self-destructive act. Here is something my ex-adviser does not think I know: seven years ago, when his ex-wife still lived in Slaney, he followed her to her house on Huron Street for eleven straight days, and one night as he crouched outside her kitchen window he was knocked unconscious by a blow from a policeman’s nightstick. When he woke, he was shackled to a stainless-steel toilet. Ontonagon County, I’ve heard, has the toughest antistalking laws in the state.
On Friday nights the TechHotline is quiet. Dormitory windows are dark as graves, and the quadrangle echoes with shouts of horny undergraduates. I lock the TechInfo office, and Alexandra meets me on Mill Street outside the Caribou Lounge, where a six-piece band called Chicken Little plays Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway and Nat King Cole. Twenty-one-year-olds wearing circle skirts and two-tone shoes jam the dance floor and Charleston like they’re scaring off demons. Rusty, the bandleader, wears a white silk suit and by eleven is drenched in sweat. I lindy until my knees ache, but Alexandra’s just getting started: she climbs onto the stage and whispers into Rusty’s ear. He says, We’re gonna do one for the spitfire in the pretty pink blouse. I sit at the bar and watch Alexandra press up against strange men, and remind myself how miserable it was to be alone.
On Saturday nights students throng to the Newett Ice Arena to watch the hockey team lose to future NHLers from Houghton and Escanaba. Bartenders on Middle Street stockpile pint glasses and rub their hands together, waiting for the postgame crush. My ex-adviser locks his office door and drinks a half-bottle of sherry, then calls his ex-wife in Sturgeon Falls. He waits until she says Hello? Who is this? John, please–then hangs up. Afterward he dials the TechHotline, stammering, and I tell him to close his eyes and take a deep breath; I tell him everything will be all right. He says, I’m sorry, Joseph, good Christ, and begins to sniffle. Snow ambles down outside the TechInfo window. One Saturday, drunk, my ex-adviser called and managed to say, Listen, I’m not going to repeat this: my daughter can be somewhat difficult, and I frankly don’t know if you’re up to the challenge.
The Swede kept a leather-bound journal detailing the events of his life from the day he arrived in Slaney until the day he died, and I read a Xeroxed copy of it when the TechHotline is quiet. Town has grown faster than even my most incautious estimates, he wrote in 1911. Andrew Street now one-quarter mile long. Irish, Finns, Cousin Jacks have come, and for some reason a band of Sicilians. No chicken for eight months. When Slaney was booming in the 1910s, lumberjacks from as far as Bruce Crossing would descend on the town on weekends and get knee-walking drunk on Yellow Dog whiskey, then smash pub stools to splinters with their peaveys. Their steel-calked boots punched holes in Slaney’s plank sidewalks. A tenderloin sprang up along the eastern edge of town, and the Swede met a young prostitute named Lotta Scott at Hugh Grogan’s place on Thomas Street; she charged him two dollars. Disarmingly frank, he wrote. Eyes dark as bituminous coal. Slim ankles. Short patience.
Excerpted from On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction by Karl Iagnemma. Copyright © 2003 by Karl Iagnemma. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press Trade Paperback, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.