I was wearing a woman’s bathrobe and galoshes, and had tied a scarf around my waist. I was too conscious of touch, by then, to wear regular clothing. But I needed to talk to Professor Litvak again, so I had to wear something.
“Come in,” he said, when I knocked. “Tell me about it.” His office smelled of the endless papers which spilled off his desk and littered the floor, and I wondered if he knew which was where. He wrote prolifically: in addition to his frequent articles and reviews, he published a book every three years. “See Dolores?” he asked us, on the first day of class. “Dolores, please wave.” Dolores sat in the back of our lecture hall and wrote down everything Litvak said. The sight of her small, weathered fingers typing briskly on a laptop was unsettling, like a caveman riding a dinosaur. Each summer, he told us, Professor Litvak went to the country and read Dolores’ notes and all the articles he had e-mailed her about, which she compiled for him. Then he wrote one-third of a book.
His course was called “Cold War Theory” and was cross-listed between the History and Comparative Literature departments. As he pointed out to us, we two groups of students were not used to seeing each other in class. He liked this—he believed in a liberal arts education. As he spoke, he would run back and forth down the aisles, hopping onto the stage with an acrobatic flourish surprising for a man of his age. “Does anyone know what the Cold War was about?” he asked us. He was tall and broad, with scraggly grey hair that shot from his skull to the heavens.
Claire Marssen stood up and began speaking quickly. We had seminar together last year, and I always suspected her of memorizing talking points in advance. “The Cold War was a period of US-Soviet tension and competition that lasted from shortly after the end of World War II into the early 1990s,” she buzzed. “These years saw an intense rivalry between the two superpowers of the post-World War era that manifested itself in numerous spheres including technology, espionage, sports, the military, the arms and space races, and proxy wars.” She exhaled.
“Please sit down,” said Professor Litvak. “And congratulations, you can read. Now does anyone know what the Cold War was about? What was it about?”
There was shuffling, muffled laughter. People whispered into their neighbors’ ears. Claire looked sick.
“Freedom!” someone finally yelled.
“Monkeys in space!”
“Who said power?” Professor Litvak leapt off the edge of the stage and began strutting down the aisles. “Who? Where are you?” A boy stood up, wearing glasses and a cardigan. Litvak also wore a cardigan, navy with dark brown buttons. “You? Was it you?” The professor jogged up to him, shook his hand, and went back to the stage.
Speaking slowly and deliberately, he told us that the Cold War was the inevitable fracturing of the Platonic tradition. For the first time in two thousand years, the Western world was forced to confront its assumption that power equals truth. I wrote this all down, catching up during the long swigs of water he took while his words settled over the room. “So fighting for power was fighting for truth, and fighting for truth was a grab at power.” He wrote furiously on the board, boxes exploding into arrows and equations in scribbled prose. “And what good American has ever doubted that we are the truth? In which case, shouldn’t we have power? Certainly more than the Russians. And so forth.”
But eventually, one won. “One won,” Litvak repeated, enunciating. “We had two competing systems of truth, and the rich, happy one won. Isn’t that lovely? Aren’t you glad? A hockey game was co-opted into the Cold War! Infants, don’t you find that preposterous?” He surveyed the room warily. “Do you find anything preposterous?”
We learned that life had always been about power, only the powerless were ignorant of the systems that owned them. But then the Cold War started, and power-talk rose over our nation like a thundering wave. “Darlings, when my children were young, we had bomb shelters in our town. The teachers told them that if a nuclear bomb was to strike us, would they please be so obedient as to wait quietly under their desks for the radiation to pass?”
Did we know how it felt to be scared of being bombed? We did not. We did not know anything. Our parents were hippies who in the crisis of raising us taught us only how to keep ourselves safe, like too many of their friends had not been. Then they filed for social security and dumped a fucked-up world on our shoulders. “Secure?” Professor Litvak screamed, leading us to the edges of understanding. “Children, do you realize we are the only country to have used the atomic bomb? Because when you are shitting your pants scared that the Russians are about to fuck you, you fight, and you get proud. We are the truth! And we have the power! And we will win! Because, infants, if you don’t fight, then the terrorists have won.” He smiled mischievously at us, trying to turn our minds on. “Did I say terrorists? I meant the bloody fucking Communist bastards.”
Those of us who read the papers knew that politicos accused each other of having a “cold war mentality,” a term Professor Litvak claimed to have coined. (I have the citation somewhere.) He explained that there were now two types of people in this country: those who knew the Cold War was over, and those who did not. “My dear peons,” he exclaimed, “who is Us, and who is Them? Please raise your hand if you are an Anglo-Saxon male whose family has lived in this great country for more than four generations.” About twenty lonely guys raised their hands, a small percentage of the throbbing crowd that filled the hall. “My poor boys,” our professor told them, “you are a dying breed.” What Litvak said scared us. We were used to right answers. The Gods had been pushed back behind the clouds and under the earth, and the Chinese were seeding rainstorms. The seasons and the tides came from gravity, and we did what we were supposed to do. It wasn’t a matter of power; we thought it had to do with responsibility. We were Achievers. We took APs and played lacrosse and ran Shakespeare Club. I could type 85 words a minute and got straight A’s for fourteen years. All of our parents were proud of us. They had Sputnik, but we had Google Earth.
Professor Litvak asked us to think about the sources of power in our lives, and to make a list. This was our homework. “Do you understand how an image is created or where your meat comes from? Who shapes your laws and with what ends in mind?” He was extremely open-minded. He needed to be—we were looking for freedom. So, sitting in our rooms, we made our lists. We thought about why we were here and where we were going, why we chose our majors and why we took classes we didn’t like. Curious roommates peered over our shoulders and asked what we were doing, and some of them, once we told them, started following us to class. Soon Litvak’s lecture hall teemed with everyone we knew. As we compared what we had recorded, he stared wisely down from the podium, or wound through the aisles with a Socratic flair. Our lists grew, and Litvak wrote what we told him on the board.
“What is on your list? You. You there. Stand up. Read.”
Rachel O’Hara flipped her hair and looked up at him. She’s really pretty, but I sort of hate her. I asked her out once freshman year, when I was still pretending I liked girls, and she said no. “No,” she said. Not even, “No, thank you.”
Litvak waited for her to start speaking. “I don’t really want to,” she said, trying to smile it away.
“Ok, you can add ‘looking cool’ to your list.” He made air quotes as he spoke, mocking her to her face. I was ecstatic. “Anyone? Can I have a volunteer?”
Some kid stood up, clutching his paper. He seemed anxious. “The sound of ocean waves,” he began. I think he and I had a Spanish class together freshman year, though I remember him being sort of stupid. “Love. My parents’ expectations. My friends’ happiness. The train schedule. Hunger. How my girlfriend looks at me. Desire. Slate.com. My grades. Commercials. My bank account balance. What’s on the radio.” He sat down.
“Lovely,” Litvak said. He looked genuinely pleased. “Children, what is power? Mann says there are four types of power: economic, ideological, military, political. You in the suit. Does everything on your list fit into one of those categories?”
“No.” He had called on Easton Perigren, who was wearing a blazer.
Easton bent to his chair and squinted over some papers. “Most of them,” he said.
“Weather,” he said, “booze. My eyesight.”
“Gentle children,” Professor Litvak said, “what are the sources of power in this room? Feel free to yell.”
“Electricity,” someone called.
“What about me, your teacher? Speaking of which, why are you sitting where you are sitting? And why aren’t your feet up?” We had chosen our seats based on who we liked and who we didn’t, whose notes we wanted to copy and who we knew would have extra gum. People who looked alike were sitting together, and some of us were close to Litvak while others were far away. “Those people have power over you!” he howled. “Why are you wearing clothing? Some of you are sleeping. What brought you here, if you need to be asleep?” In our rooms, we thought about the list on the board. Our cell phones were starting to freak us out and our computers had been profaned, so there wasn’t much else to do, anyhow. I looked at my calendar, covered in Post-Its, and I felt queasy. Time wasn’t divvied up into little boxes, and life didn’t fit on sticky yellow squares. I gathered them up. When I went to throw them away, I saw that my neighbors were doing the same. Everyone’s garbage was full.
“The Cold War was about security,” Professor Litvak said. “Darlings, what makes you feel secure? Please take a moment. Write it down. What I am Secure In, by whatever your name is.” I started writing, though most people had stopped taking notes by then. My classmates looked confused. “Write, infants, write! You, what have you come up with? Stand up.” He had called on Carlos Mariani, who looked horrified. He stood up slowly, one tendon engaging at a time. “What I am secure in,” he finally began. A few of us chuckled. “Show your classmates some fucking respect,” Litvak spat. “That my mother is proud of me,” Carlos said. “That my friends got my back. That the sun will rise tomorrow. That eating food makes me less hungry.” “That was beautiful,” Professor Litvak said. He smiled kindly, a rare gesture. “Children, please think about security and insecurity.” Security indicated sources of power, and so we added them to our lists: body image. Relationships, our nation’s borders. Self-esteem. We started sitting in different seats, trying new arrangements. Litvak encouraged us to move while he spoke. “Add to your list!” he called to us, his rousing, rallying battle cry. “Your clothing, how much money is in your wallet. The shape of your nose or your breasts. The size of your cock, whether or not your girlfriend is cheating on you.“ We learned that these sources of power were tied into our views on kinship, popularity, belongingness, the good. If something had power over us, we weren’t free. “Money!” Litvak roared, a lion prowling the Serengeti. “Money money money! Who is a senior? Who is working at an investment bank next year?” He ran to a boy in an oxford whose hair fell messily over his face. “You! Are you more excited about your job or about making money?” “Aw, it’s not like that, Professor,” he said. “What are you studying?” “French and Italian.” “Why are you not moving to France or Italy?” Oxford Boy said nothing, shrugged his shoulders, and sat down. Back in our rooms, we stared at our lists. We added things every day, every hour. Good jokes. Friction. CNN, the blogosphere. Rupert Murdoch. In the hallways of our dorms, we started smiling at strangers, and in the bathroom, we chatted through minty, foaming mouths. Professor Litvak taught us that money has no intrinsic value. “You could wipe your ass with a twenty!” he cried. “And why not?” We had literally bought into the government. “Who is discontented?” he hollered. His voice thundered from a deep part of his stomach. “In the sweats! Stand up! Do you feel discriminated against, as an athlete?” Nicky Wiczewski looked dumbly out. He was wearing a full sweat suit, head to toe, and gym shoes, like he always did. He was on the football team.
“You think people assume you’re dumber than you are?”
“Sometimes,” he said.
“Does it make you work more or less hard?”
“Less hard, I guess,” said Nicky. He scratched the back of his head, like a monkey at the zoo.
“Thank you, sir,” said Litvak. “You may sit down.” He turned to us with his arms out. “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the effect of prejudice.” He bowed. We began to recognize the social constructions that made us feel good and bad about ourselves. The way mean boys look at you. How your flirtations are received. The price of clothing. Brands. All down my hallway, people were emerging from their rooms. Usually doors were closed; the hallway was a thoroughfare, not a gathering space. We used it to separate ourselves, to travel through—I walked to the bathroom, or to Luke’s, four doors down. But now it was teeming with my neighbors, some of whom I’d never seen before. Rick Samsky was playing the guitar, and Laurel Hershen was braiding some girl’s hair. I found out later her name was Martha. I walked over and sat with them. Martha’s hair was beautiful, straight and blonde. When Laurel was finished, I asked to touch her braid. I tugged on it, a little bit. It was like the softest rope ever.
“Can I touch your hair?” Martha asked. I told her she could. I had a fresh crew cut and my scalp had been cold. She rubbed her hands over my skull a few times, sort of thoughtfully. “It feels like a suede sofa,” she finally said. I guess it did. Rick came over and touched my hair, too. He said he hadn’t had a crew cut in years. His hair was so matted I couldn’t run my fingers through it. Laurel’s curls felt like slinkies, and Ameesa Martin’s felt like corduroy. In class, Professor Litvak kept talking about power. He taught us that power was animal, it was anything that made us feel or caused us to move. We didn’t know what he was talking about, but we kept making our lists. We nailed them to the walls, pens tied on with strings like we were opening checking accounts at the bank. Always adding, we turned to faces. Lorena Wii’s eyebrows were like the fuzzy caterpillars I used to play with at camp. Marisa Loring told me my nose felt like running her finger down a knifeblade. We touched cheeks and felt the rising heat of a blush. We felt pores, bumps, eczema, moles, constellations of freckles. Hormones. We touched nailbeds and bellybuttons. Rufus Quiriano’s boom box pumped thick basslines through the floorboards, and we started to dance. Music. Litvak told us to remember power, that power was the force that had construed our lives.
We were deconstruction workers, he said. “Tear down this wall!” we cried, banging on locked doors.
Power was everywhere, in the air, the smells, the music. We could feel it rising out of each other’s flesh and bracing our walls. Lyman Broan’s neck smelled like sea salt, and I reminded him of his great-aunt’s apartment. Our doors were propped and our furniture was in the hallway, our rooms smelled of smoke and bodies and food. We explored for exploration’s sake. We didn’t need pills or condoms. We were learning. I felt untethered, and I wanted to talk to Professor Litvak. He could explain anything. His office was on the fourth floor of Adamson Tower, a neogothic castle on the north side of campus. I climbed the stairs slowly, wondering whether he would be in. The waistband of my pants dug into my flesh—I hadn’t worn clothing in days. The door was open but I knocked anyway.
“Come in, my boy,” he said. The walls were dark wood and lined with bookshelves, but there must have been as many volumes stacked in the piles on the floor. “Please sit.” I introduced myself and told him I was confused. I wanted to understand power but I felt helpless. He wished me to explain further. I was terribly excited. What I really wanted was for Professor Litvak to open his mouth and tell me the secrets of the universe, which I suspected him of knowing. He gave me some books and sent me away. “I didn’t expect you kids to be so crazy,” he said. I closed the door behind me. Life in the hallways was dissolving. We trolled them thirstily, hunting for something to overpower us. We were too free for our own good. Kelley Richter went nuts over color and painted all of our rooms, mine in lime green with magenta stripes. Our bathroom floor was covered in small white hexagonal tiles that faded through bland arrangements of stripes and flowers, and Kelley and Gino Grizzoli painted each one a different shade of grey. It was very subtle. We acted in the interest of harmony: as long as we kept quiet, no one bothered us. We owned our hallways, and the administration had no idea. We were just trying to get comfortable.
“Infants!” bellowed Professor Litvak. “Knowledge is power! Ideas shape human souls that shape the world!” Slumped against the walls of our hallways, we talked: about history, literature, biology, ethics, cosmology, astrology, numerology. I learned that the universe has an inside and that that the Chinese hold six and eight as lucky numbers. But we were also supposed to remember language, for language had power over us, too. During the Cold War, Americans believed there was no “freedom” in Russian. Did we understand that language itself was an approximation, that we were lying the moment we opened our mouths? So we stopped speaking; we focused on the other senses. We remembered the taste of fresh fruit, and of cold butter on bread. My hearing got sharper, and I listened to the termites in the walls and the squirrels outside the window. Rufus’ bassline hummed quietly beneath. We smelled storms hours before they arrived, and I felt clean, like a washed bowl after you dry it. We were finding freedom.
The bathrobe was Laurel’s; the scarf and galoshes, my own. I needed to talk to Professor Litvak again, to tell him it was working. The sky darkened as I walked, and I realized I hadn’t used a clock in months. The stairs were tiring; I hadn’t exercised much, either. Litvak’s door was open, and though he looked tired, I thought he might have looked glad to see me, too. I told him that we had discovered the sources of power in our lives, that we had relinquished ourselves from them. I was secure, I was happy. Nothing bad was going to happen. We had love and life and freedom.
“Seeing it does not make it go away,” he said. Even without him moving, his office felt like it was throbbing from the effort of containing him. “Watch: You look ridiculous in that bathrobe.” I was embarrassed.
“Why are you here?” he asked “You told us to come,” I said.
“You didn’t have to. You wanted something.”
“I was just wondering where it comes from,” I said. I was afraid I was in love with him. “My job is just to name it,” he said. He didn’t even look at me. “Power is everywhere. Now come sit on my lap.” He raised his chin to me and nodded, as though granting a child permission to pet his dog. I went to him. I had shaved that day for the first time in weeks and his cheek scratched at my neck. He smelled like sour milk and I remembered how young I was. “This isn’t fair,” I said. “You’re in a position of authority.” “I know it,” he said. “Leave if you want.” When I did leave, much later, my body felt heavy with every step down the stairs. I sat down at the second floor landing and held my face in my hands, letting the emotion pool there. Across from me was a small alcove, bearing a statue. I had never noticed it before, though I guess I always knew it was there. A proud stone man stood in miniature, his cloak billowing around him. His features were finely carved and I knelt to get a better look, to run my hands along his perfect robe and touch my fingertips to his tiny eyelids. A breeze swept through a window, and I almost expected his garment to ripple. The stone floor was cool on my knees, the dust grainy beneath. I lowered my palms to the ground, feeling the floor push back. Dust danced around me and I tried not to sneeze, wanting to preserve the moment.