Strong opinions

He had a lean torso with clumsy thick biceps that faded into thinness at the elbow. In 1995, many guys still wore the remains of the Poppy Bush era’s fringe haircuts; he’d shaved his to the scalp — the better, maybe, to perch wraparound sunglasses. The cut had the effect of accentuating the huge eyeballs and thick lips. When he walked into the film class I was taking that summer, often a few minutes late, he’d grab a desk and swing his sandaled feet atop the nearest unoccupied one. He spoke a handful of times, once to ask our professor to spell “extra-diegetic.” She had forbidden us to write and present our final project on obvious auteurs: Woody Allen, Coppola, Scorsese, like that. He chose Kubrick (how’d he get away with it?), and when it was time to show and discuss his favorite scene he chose the billiard room pas de deux between Peter Sellers and James Mason in Lolita.

Three months later he flaunted his contempt for punctuality again, this time more than fifteen minutes late for our first fall semester course. Outnumbered and insular, English majors at my public university in those days stuck together; his acknowledgment with a nod that he recognized me signaled our faint boredom with the required thing. The nod unsettled the sunglasses from the top of his head, though: they fell with a clatter at the moment that the late Philip Marcus, one of America’s preeminent Yeats scholars, was making a fine point about “Under Ben Bulben.” A wonderful teacher and a delicious bitchy companion during office hours, Marcus was a horror whenever he read poems aloud—imagine an assistant vice president of human resources delivering a speech through a vocoder. But a guy whom I’ll Carlos asked a question about the Mareotic Lake. I was nerd enough to catch the reference to the Witch of Atlas, a Biblical figure about whom Shelley wrote a poem that I’d read in my spare time because that’s who I was.

For several weeks I paid attention to Carlos. Sometimes he came on time. Most of his questions demanded that Marcus clarify a reference Marcus assumed we got (to the Cornell professor’s credit, he never patronized his students). How we chatted each other up after class I don’t remember; Carlos approached me, though, remembering me from last summer’s film course. Three years older, girlfriend with spiked jet bangs who met him to drape herself on his arm like a blouse ready to be hung, he didn’t need me, but in those ten-minute after class bullshit sessions I realized he respected my brains. In gratitude I gave him my copy of Nabokov’s Strong Opinions, and he looked flattered that I remembered his Lolita presentation. A disappointment he would turn out to be: guile and fluency of manner exceeded his intelligence. His opinions about Joyce and Yeats were commonplace—“That dude did great fucking shit with words!” he said once, and I can confirm it because the sentence is in my journals. Never fear: those biceps and the way he wore jorts (it was 1995), tight V-neck shirts, and sandals were their own provocation. At the time I worked and had to split directly after class, so the only time I followed him and his girlfriend to the cafeteria felt subversive and creepy and marvelous.

When the semester ended, I made the most courageous move of my life. In those days before the internet we still used the phone book to find each other. He had a listed number and address. Over the holiday break I wrote him a three-hundred-word letter explaining how much our chats about Nabokov and Joyce had meant to me. I said nothing offensive or cheeky. To my shock, Carlos responded and went longer. As I expected, he shared his unease: he thought when he saw the envelope that my “sexual preferences ran towards [him]”; because they didn’t, though, we could continue our conversations, he said. For the next four months we would exchange more letters and even phone calls, most of which came from him. I learned that he had been a physical therapy and English double major and worked at a hospital; that he smoked bushels of crippy; that he had a crush on a woman who lived in his girlfriend’s condo in North Beach.

“Is it creepy that I leave notes and poems on her dashboard?” he asked.

“Of course not,” I said. “It means you like her.”

He played guitar—on the phone he strummed the opening chords, note perfect, of Soundgarden’s “Fell on Black Days.” He showed me the songs he’d written to this woman, one of which he’d called “When I Think of You.” When I reminded him that Janet Jackson had a good song with the same title he got uptight: “I don’t her stuff well enough.” The odd part was that we never saw each other again after the last class in December: an epistolary platonic romance. I still lived at home and used the house line. My mom asked once if this guy who often called and whom I hadn’t brought to the house was gay. That was enough—I could never see him. David Bowie’s “Strangers When We Meet” was a comfort; when I commemorated Bowie in January I singled out this Outside track for its swelling arrangement and cut-up lyrics. He sought inspiration too: he was reading Dante, which was one way he one-upped me. The letters were good: he wrote sentences and used punctuation as he was taught. I’ve kept them.

A week after my own graduation he wrote his congratulations (“Now that you’re out of that jail, we must share a pitcher of beer”). I didn’t respond. The thread had snapped, no one’s fault, a result, I’d learn five years later, of hardening into a complete person with lusts and caprices. Thanks to Carlos, I wrote a run of short stories in which he figured as a catalyst, a disturbance. So deep was my cover that the friend who read my drafts shared her, ah, curiosity about this new direction but went no further.

I didn’t appreciate his looks until much later. I’m confident my sexuality wouldn’t have bothered him; he was probably flattered by the attention. And I still wonder what that beer we never met for must have been like. Every few months I’ll Google his name. He’s had trouble with the law, often serious—what a prescient metaphor, that jail line of his, har har.

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