OKAY! With the publication of the following, I will have officially finished plumbing the depths of my mostly-unfinished essay reserve. I will then re-commence my usual quasi-thought-through “live” fare, for which I apologize in advance (as usual).
The following is a rather unflattering portrait of a very unhealthy relationship I was in for my first few months of graduate school. Though it doesn’t incriminate anyone per se, out of sensitivity to the other protagonist I have altered his name, academic discipline, physical characteristics and anything else that might make him easily identifiable to strangers.
Not much by way of universalizing the grad-school experience, or even teachable moments in this tale — just abject proof that sometimes, smart people can be real dumbasses.
The First Year of Grad School: Seminar, Inculcation, Mansplaining, Alcoholism
The months preceding graduate school had been as surreal as they were barren of gentleman callers. I’d fled New York in July after skipping out on the sublet in Greenpoint I’d “scored” on two weeks’ notice in April, after my ex-boyfriend kicked me out of our beautiful Carroll Gardens apartment (to be fair, I had rarely paid rent there). The sublet was in an un-air-conditioned railroad unit where I effectively slept on the kitchen floor, and was often jostled awake by the intermittent vomiting of my roommate’s two highly neglected cats. I did not feel guilty about abandoning this apartment a month before I said I would.
2005 had been a year in which I found myself in a personal-life Nietzschean abyss. With the clock ticking on my time in New York anyway, I had nowhere else to go but back to my parents’ house in Oregon, a home I’d left, amicably but allegedly permanently, at the age of seventeen. Luckily, I also “had” to go on the pretense of my parents “needing” me. The universe had smiled upon me for long enough to grant my father a debilitating hip ailment that “required” my help (I’m kidding; obviously I was not glad about my father’s osteoarthritis). My mother had been called to direct a study-abroad trip in Italy, which involved ditching my normally very self-sufficient dad four weeks before his joint replacement surgery. In exchange for room, board and more meals out than I could consume without bursting (my dad adores restaurants as much as my mother adores her own cooking), as well as a modest allowance for incidentals (which at the time was alcohol), I would, at age 28, return home to be my father’s home assistant, and while he was at work I would practice German and get ahead on The Elective Affinities.
The summer mostly consisted of me electing not to have any affinities, and instead staring my personal abyss in the face until, as Nietzsche warns, it started staring back. I’d mope around the house watching Gilmore Girls in syndication, “refurbishing” garage sale furniture to bring with me down to California (I framed a giant mirror in mosaic tiles, so that the finished product weighed no less than 75 pounds). Newly single in my hometown, I was kept company only sporadically by a few high-school friends who were now married with children, and stuck on my childhood twin bed, still covered by its New Kids On The Block duvet. I was largely terrified about starting graduate school, but I was also hoping it would be teeming with smart, interesting guys I wanted to date.
Once I finally arrived and had a sweet new room in a big apartment all to myself, I had the means, and two months hanging out only with my dad and some toddlers had given me the motive—now, all I needed was opportunity, which was much more difficult to come by than I’d expected. The OC megaburbs had spectacular weather, delicious health food and the beach. But they did not have the kind of guy I like, which is best described as “anyone but a McMansion-living, Jag-driving Republican,” who are the near-entirety of Orange County’s male residents in their thirties and forties. Not to mention that it went both ways: Orange County guys like long, tan legs and big, fake bosoms. In Theodor Fontane’s spectacularly boring Schach of Wuthenow, the protagonist is as uninterested in a young woman hideously scarred from smallpox as she is uninterested in a shallow rapist (spoiler alert: he rapes her and it’s awful)—basically, minus the violent sex crime, that’s about how the eligible bachelors of the OC and I regarded each other.
Also, something you learn your second day in graduate school is that nobody outside graduate school either understands or cares what you do, so as far as dating is concerned, you are pretty much limited to your fellow students (or faculty, if you are disgusting, which I am not). Academically, grad school could not be less like college—they’re paying you and not the other way around; you actually do all of your reading (usually twice!) sometimes even like it. But if you’re single, socially, it is college all over again: house parties and hookups, and a level of interpersonal intrigue befitting the teenaged.
Life in my section of Palo Verde—where they put all the single students—was like returning to a dormitory where everyone was ten years younger than me and weird. It was like the mental hospital in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Physicists, in which Cold-War era spies pretending to be mental patients who think they are Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein (keep up!) engage in a surprisingly hilarious series of misunderstandings (spoiler alert: their psychiatrist is the one who’s really crazy! Keep up!) whilst surrounded by the breathtaking Swiss countryside. Except, you know, in California, and I couldn’t at all tell if I was crazy, or if the socially maladjusted 24-year-olds all around me were.
The first person I met besides my roommates Beryl and Elena was Judah my historian neighbor, who waved at me through his window one night as I brought in groceries from my car. He invited me up to his barren apartment to play Scrabble and drink box wine, and it was apparent that if I wanted to meet anyone, his was the wagon to hitch to: class hadn’t even started yet, and he knew everyone. Soon he invited me, Beryl and Elena to a party down the hall, in an apartment identical to ours, where my first real chance to meet a guy could arise. I was hoping for an all-out masquerade bacchanal like in Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story (which Anglophones know as the source material for Eyes Wide Shut)—but I got was seven sweaty dorks playing cards.
As such, I was heavily pessimistic about my romantic odds, but Elena bet me $20 that if I wanted it, I could find it. The key was to assess my relative levels of desperation and dignity. The first guy I met was Isaac, who looked like it was the week after his Bar Mitzvah, and had purchased a meal plan in one of the freshman dorms because his mom wasn’t there to cook for him. Then there was his amorphous roommate Mike, who was covered in a layer of grease and smelled palpably of masturbation. It looked like winning at Kings would be my only triumph of the night, and I was already regretting the forty-five seconds I had put in to styling my hair. I was just about ready to bounce when in walked Judah with his newest friend—a fellow historian, Gabriel, who was nice-looking and appeared to be my age.
During the next round of Kings I confirmed this, by making an elaborate show of how I must be the one to drink when the “oldest person” was commanded to: “I’m 32,” countered Gabrial, and that combined with the fact that he knew passable German was sufficient and necessary cause—Gottlob Frege, the founder of first-order logic, would have been proud, I’m sure. When, about half an hour later, Isaac and Mike’s party died down and Gabe asked, “D’you have any beer?” I could not beckon him fast enough to my own place.
Dating Gabe made me feel dangerous — that night, he revealed that he was only wearing his glasses to cover up his black eye, which he had gained recently in a fistfight while drunk. I don’t have to tell you the size of red-flag that is for entering into an actual relationship, but for a self-administered rebound fling after three years with an actor who had never punched so much as a time card, Gabe was a certified bad-boy.
The next morning, he “took me out” to the Costa Mesa Omelette Parlor, where my robust hangover and I managed to put down three forkfuls of hash browns, and he ate everything but the table and his side of fruit—which, he explained as he wrapped two orange slices in a napkin, he loathed so much that he couldn’t even bear to look at it as he ate something important, like bacon. Over coffee we discussed (or rather, he orated upon) German political philosophy. It was like being at brunch with Nietzsche, minus any of the beautiful imagery (“What is language? A moving army of metaphors.” All I had was a moving army of tiny dudes holding up tiny red flags and telling me to get the fuck out of there.)
Gabe’s only indication of awareness of a world outside his research was when he proclaimed definitively that he “hated” lesbians: “They’re disgusting, and they’re useless,” he concluded, because he, personally, found them (all of them) physically repulsive, due to the fact that they had the gall to be sexually uninterested in him by nature.
Instead of pouring coffee on his head and leaving him to be chauffeured back from Costa Mesa by his own homophobia, I not only swallowed that bit of inexplicable hatred and gave him a ride, but I also paid for his meat-omelette massacre, given that he’d “left” his wallet at home, “accidentally.” As I pulled back into the Palo Verde parking lot, Judah emerged from our building with a smirk in my general direction, and beckoned Gabe up to his place to retrieve a borrowed book. “Um, can you wait here?” Gabe asked, honestly believing that I would not only voluntarily prolong this morning of shame, but that I would display it in the out-of-doors, complete with whatever awkward and possibly bigoted good-bye marked its conclusion, a desperate, simpering Gretchen to his absconding Faust. I told him that if he wanted to find me, he knew where I lived, and then I went home and wrote Elena a $20 check. She ripped it up and taped it to the refrigerator with a note that said “I don’t take money from ho’s!”
I didn’t see Gabe again that day, for as it turned out, his primary gifts were in academics, alcohol consumption and the bench press. Mathematics, wallet-remembering, anger management, and a rudimentary sense of direction were all, apparently, for lesbians. So you’d think that would have been a bullet dodged. And yet, for reasons I still do not fully understand but that had almost certainly to do with my refusal to have a Nietzschean abyss as my primary companion for any longer, I proceed to date that fucker for six more months, which was a learning experience almost as rich as the graduate seminars I’d just begun.
Judah, my friend Eileen and I quickly assigned Gabe a nickname: The Monster (das Ungeheuer in German), in honor his astoundingly short fuse. We all agreed, however, that his charisma, charm, and high academic standing made him an adequate dating prospect, so long as nobody got serious about anybody. We all especially admired his academic intensity, since he was a third-year student and our Impostor Syndrome was so pronounced that we considered that wise. He was already studying for his comprehensive exams, which to us were a far-off hellscape of imaginary torture we all secretly believed we would fail. Our part of Palo Verde was brand-new construction, so there were few if any students living near us who were already writing their dissertations—that to us was beyond human conception.
So for several months, Gabe was the wisest and most experienced grad student I knew, and I sought to put to use all of my reading of Erich Auerbach’s theory mainstay Mimesis, and imitate almost everything he did. The first step was to divide my time between exactly three pursuits: studying, working out, and drinking. Everything else—including personal relationships of any sort—was inconsequential. “I have a cousin in the NBA,” Gabe told literally anyone who would listen, in pursuit of his own preferred pastime, diegesis (or, in his case, mono-gesis). “And you know how he got there? He says: Every chance I had, I played basketball. I played when everyone else was sleeping. I played when everyone else was goofing around. I played and played and played.”
Even at this rudimentary stage of my development into a literary scholar, I was astute enough to understand such an allegory, and I obeyed. Studying was everything; everything else was nothing.
Except, of course, for drinking.
I don’t know when it was that I realized that Gabe wasn’t a dangerous bad boy or a badass with a scholar’s heart: he was extremely ill with alcoholism, and his disease was enthusiastically enabled by the grad-school milieu. During our ill-fated relationship, Gabe had a tremendous influence on me, in several different ways: his reflexive response to any display of human discontent on my part with incessant generalizations about women (which he pronounced “wee-mons,” to be funny) awakened long-dormant feminism. His lengthy diatribes on everything from neoliberalism to the scourge of analytic philosophy (practitioners of both being PERVERTS!) made me investigate my own opinions on these phenomena (first: anti; second: pro). His raging jealousy of any man who so much as looked in the general direction of any woman he had dated for any amount of time made me appreciate in retrospect my utterly oblivious actor-boyfriend of yore. And his heart-wrenching alcoholism changed my relationship with drinking forever.
All of this would have been little more than a passing annoyance that offered me sporadic and unsatisfyingly drunken physical companionship, had the entire affair not played out in public, its every flourish broadcast through the megaphone that was Sven. Sven was another one of these grad students who was book-brilliant and life-questionable: he once passed out cold in my apartment, falling over so tree-like that his noggin actually punched a hole in my particleboard wall. When paramedics arrived to attend to him, he refused admit that he’d smoked marijuana earlier in the day, and his reason for keeping a medical fact from medical professionals was: “I thought my department would find out and I’d lose my fellowship.” Less Auerbach, more Grey’s Anatomy, everyone.
Anyway, when Sven wasn’t busy fainting in my kitchen like a Victorian housewife, he was introducing me to the wondrous world of grad-school intrigue. He took great pleasure in introducing me to the woman Gabe had dated before me, a knockout fellow historian named Sienna—I think he anticipated some sort of epic hair-pulling lady-scholar throwdown, but instead Sienna and I became super-tight friends almost immediately, since it turned out neither of us had ever viewed Gabe as a long-term prospect. It was through Sienna that I learned of Gabe’s tendency to drink to excess and then demand a heart-to-heart, the subject of which was that he just couldn’t be in a relationship. He once got inspired to do this in the middle of an overnight trip to L.A., effectively stranding Sienna eighty miles from home.
Gabe and I had “big, serious talks” about the State of our Relationship (by which I mean: he mumbled at me; I nodded indulgently) every time he got drunk, which was often. And every time that happened, somehow Sven was in earshot, ready to blab the entire sordid mess to the whole School of Humanities. I was part of some bullshit grad-school soap opera, and I didn’t even really have any feelings at stake, other than a wounded ego that just kept getting more wounded every time Gabe would drink twenty, even thirty beers at a party and then get straight-up scary.
The rules of our non-relationship were: he got to date, or attempt to date, anyone he pleased, from random friends of his sister’s who invited themselves down for visits to statuesque art students he’d hit on in front of me. He was a version of Bertolt Brecht’s ultimate villain, Mack the Knife, who manages to have several wives at once but would cut the throat of anyone who cuckolded him. Any attempt on my part to reveal in public that Gabe and I knew each other was tantamount to the clingy possessiveness endemic to “wee-mons,” but even the most innocuous conversations I dared broach in his range with other be-phallused humanoids put those poor guys in immediate physical danger. There were a few other guys I could have dated by this time, but they were afraid to come anywhere near me.
Meanwhile, Gabe’s drinking was making me hysterical. I had never been with anyone who simply refused to stop imbibing long past the point of severe intoxication. Once at a party, as I left in tears, he caught up with me and admitted: “I’m a boozehound. I’m going to drink, and it’s more important to me than anyone or anything else.” And yet, everybody I knew found this behavior hilarious, if not simply a sign of how serious of a scholar he was. It is not an understatement to say that abstaining from alcohol is basically like saying, “I do not wish to be accepted into academia.”
One of the funniest jokes Germanists tell each other comes from a Walter Benjamin essay about Swiss literature, in which he recounts the legend of authors Gottfried Keller, Arno Böcklin and Carl Böcklin at a pub. The Böcklins exchange a total of three sentences over several hours; in response, Keller yells: “I came here to drink, not to yap!” Most American academics are here to drink and yap; they consider consuming alcohol to shameful excess a form of research. A vigorous imbiber myself, I had always been around drinkers, and I had even been around a few alcoholics, but in New York the worst thing you had to do was pour them into a cab and stuff a few twenties into their bra. Here it was different—because this guy was an intellectual role model for his peers (and me), and because the volume of alcohol he consumed was beyond anything I have ever seen. But to my cohorts he was “hilarious.” To the grad-student community, he was awesome.
One week into Spring quarter, Gabe got super-drunk, crawled into my bed, and explained that he just couldn’t do this anymore, because there was “no eros there. There’s just no eros.” (Even his drunken breakup-language was pompous). Slightly tipsy myself, I cried through the night, and sulked through most of the next day, which coincided with a road-trip to LA for a foreign-language pedagogy conference with Sienna and Eileen. A few panels about “multiple cultural literacies” and one motel-room viewing of the Miss Universe contest later, I was 100% officially Over It, and could not believe I’d wasted what little social time I’d had in my first year of grad school on a raging alcoholic chauvinist homophobe.
Gabe had taught me a minor amount about study habits, an alleged butt-load about historical stuff I neither remember nor care about, and more than I ever wanted to know about Freud by spending half a year subject to the vicissitudes of an unapologetic Id. One who, in the end, provided a nasty reality check about my own drinking, which had spiraled out of control in its own way: my in-room miniature refrigerator was always stocked with both liquor and beer, which I regularly drank alone. In the past two months, I had actually vomited from drunkenness, an act I had heretofore avoided for fifteen years. I regularly assumed that at least one study-day of the weekend would be lost to a hangover, an affliction that seemed to get exponentially worse with every month I aged.
So, soon after I quit hanging out with Gabe (who insisted we remain “Best Friends” upon our breakup, effectively keeping me from dating anyone else—nein, Danke) I quit alcohol. The result in graduate school was immediate designation as a Grade-A ruiner of all things recreational, and large-scale ostracization from many social groups at once.