There ought to be a law against parties held by graduate students in the humanities. The world is full of misery as it is. Why add another couple of hours spent on a rickety chair in a dimly lit room filled with old but still useful furniture and young but already useless people?
I went anyway because I heard that Alina was leaving the Ph.D. program to attend medical school. By the end of spring she would move to another city, and after that the only way for me to get naked with her would be to become one of the cadavers in her first year anatomy course. The party was my last chance.
Sitting immediately to my right, Alina looked graceful even in a sagging armchair whose faded upholstery was pockmarked by cigarette burns dating back to the days of unfiltered Luckies. Despite her proximity I still had to compete for her attention against a loud, carefully modulated voice coming from across the long coffee table with its de rigueur display of local beer, cheap wine, and unhealthy snacks. The voice belonged to Jan – an improbably tall and even more improbably handsome Dutchman in his late twenties who shared a large sofa with his diminutive girlfriend and two other students. For someone with years of advanced training in reflective thinking, Handsome Jan’s conception of the world and his place therein was remarkably uncomplicated: he talked, the world listened, and anything outside this binary relation was a Kantian ding an sich, forever unknowable and therefore of dubious ontological significance at best.
And talk he did. About film (Tarkovsky was a second-rate Bill Viola), science (it is only one narrative among many), music (avant-garde composers are wimps for not embracing ultrasound), and just about everything else under the sun. None of it was deeper than the opening paragraph of a Wikipedia article, but Handsome Jan spoke with the quiet authority of a man who, in the midst of a miserable academic job market, had received two tenure-track offers, both from big research universities in highly desirable locations. Without having published a single page, or even defended his thesis yet, he was already a hit, a smashing success. Short of a sudden massive stroke, nothing could stop Handsome Jan from talking.
Or so I thought until it was proved otherwise by an unfamiliar guy who, unnoticed by anyone, sat quietly on the floor just to the side of the open door, his back against the wall and a bottle of beer in his hand. As I was getting ready to ask Alina for a date, a pizza delivery boy holding cardboard boxes materialized in the doorway and asked the guy by the door who ordered the pizza. The guy by the door pointed toward the sofa - where Handsome Jan was in the middle of untangling another convoluted metaphor (something about the non-Euclidean aesthetic of distorted lines in Frank Gehry’s buildings) - and suggested loudly enough for everyone to hear: “Ask the erudite faggot over there. He seems to know everything.” He then took another sip of beer, put the bottle down on the floor, stood up and walked out of the room without saying another word.
During the long moment of silence that followed his departure my eyes overflowed with tears because I nearly choked on a potato chip while trying to suppress a yelp of joy. Before I could reach for a napkin to wipe the tears off my cheeks, Alina suddenly leaned over, put her hand on my knee and, looking into my teary eyes, quietly said: “Don’t pay any attention to that homophobic asshole.”
By the time I got the full import of her compassionate advice (the potato chip still in my mouth) Alina was already at the other end of the room, with her coat on and heading for the door. I thought of running after her to say something to clear up the misunderstanding, but decided this would only push me deeper into the closet she had already built for me in her mind. So I busied myself with a slice of pizza instead, and before long a damp night cab was carrying my deflated hopes across the river back to my apartment in a more expensive but no less depressing part of town.
I never found out who the laconic guy was, except that his pointed choice of words all but guaranteed that he was not in any way affiliated with the university. Perhaps he was one of those neighborhood types who go to such parties to score free booze and an occasional gender studies major who likes to get ravished by a hairy brute before writing another chapter of her thesis on the metaphysics of male oppression. Whoever this guy was, I remember him with affection and gratitude. For having given Handsome Jan a nickname that stuck for life like a herpes virus to a nerve cell. And also for having convinced me that in conversations, lectures, peer-reviewed articles, and scholarly monographs one should always follow the same principle one does when being interviewed by law enforcement officials: It is never too early to shut the fuck up.