Issue 157, Winter 2000
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, Pussy! and dove spreadeagled into the night sky. From the Techlnfo office I watched his body rip a silent trace through the immense snow dunes chat ring the Gehring Building. A moment later he poked his head from the dune, dazed and grinning, and his four nervous frat brothers whooped and dusted him off and carried him on their shou lders 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 place-g lass 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. Foe 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-PhD advisor, 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-advisor wanders the sub-basement hallways of the Gray Building and screams obscenities until he feels refreshed and relatively tranquil.
I used to be a PhD student, bur now my job is to sit all night at a government-issue desk in the Techlnfo office, staring at a red TechHotlioe 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 dose their eyes and take a deep breath; I tell them everything will be all right. The Techlnfo 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 char 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 ochers (or, more precisely: |A|>|M|; 3x s.t. XE (AnM); 3y s.t. yeA, y~M; 3z s.t. ze A, Zf M). 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 the 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-advisor, 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-advisor straps on showshoes 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 co marry me. If she does nor wane to marry me, I will pack my textbooks and electronic diagnostic equipment and move co 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 chis 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 face 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 chum of your own unwilling heart.