Bleak College Days
A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance
You were just eighteen when you first came to New Haven. Marie drove you up from New York City in her friend Jean-Luc’s car, and Celeste stayed home. She said she wasn’t feeling well, but the truth was that she hadn’t wanted you to come here, that she didn’t want to have anything to do with your coming. Celeste didn’t even want you to apply to your father’s school, and your grandfather’s also, and she did everything she could to discourage you from it. She told you that you wouldn’t like New Haven, she told you that the weather was bad and the people were unkind; she told you that Bleak College was a brooding place, which turned out to be more true than she could probably have known. She even told you that you, with your troubled academic past, wouldn’t get in to Bleak. Don’t get your hopes up, she said, when you were filling out the application form, in life there are the swift and the slow and you are not the swift. But Bleak College took you swiftly enough, and you were elated; all summer you were so happy that Celeste couldn’t stand it. Then you arrived here, this was in the fall of 1988, and you wondered if she hadn’t been right after all. Remember how you sat in a corner of the dining hall, because you couldn’t stand being exposed in the middle of so much open space? The name for that was agoraphobia, and the dining hall was full of pigeons, which got in through cracked windows high up, and shat on the tables; at mealtimes they came down to steal food, and seemed to prefer the vegetarian entrees, which you did not eat, not because you liked meat, especially, but because the vegetarians belonged to the ranks of the swift, with their invariant ethics and autumnal sweaters made from repurposed rope fiber, whereas you were among the slow, the agoraphobic, the cornered, watching the pigeons and wondering who was watching you.
Agoraphobia means fear of agoras, which didn’t make any sense to you, because, although you have never been to an actual agora you’ve seen photographs of them in books on Ancient Greece, and they do not look like places where you would be afraid: a few piles of stone on a weedy knoll, the sketch of something no more threatening than an average-sized newsstand, incomparable to the great railway stations of the nineteenth century, which were, you read somewhere, the model for the dining hall, and still they call the condition agoraphobia and not, what would the Latin be for fear of railway stations, you don’t know, but you know there is a Latin word for it. There is a priest in the Vatican whose job it is to invent Latin words for modern phenomena: telephones and Vaseline, Kleenex and eighteen-wheel trucks and the television news. If only you could have asked that priest what the word was for railway stations you might have been able to name your fear correctly, which might have made the fear go away, because wasn’t that the nature of fear, to be nameless, to be dispelled by names, in which case was the word agoraphobia deliberately inexact, was it, in other words, a secret means by which the disease perpetuated itself?
O, god, I forgot to take my pills.
I don’t know what would have become of me if I hadn’t met Momus. He was a junior but for some reason lived in New East House, a low limestone-faced fortlet that was built in the 1930s with the idea of keeping people out, and refitted in the 1970s with the idea of keeping people in. It was traditionally inhabited by freshpeople and mid-year transfers; I don’t know what Momus was doing there—maybe he thought he was being original.
Momus hadn’t yet reached the height of his notoriety, which would come the following year with his all-nude production of Othello in the college cemetery, but he was already infamous for misleading campus tours. One story I heard from a disappointed freshman concerned the library, which, according to Momus, was rebuilt with money from a shipping magnate whose son had committed suicide out of romantic despair while an undergraduate at the College. What he had actually done, Sam said that Momus had said, was put his head in one of the mechanical dumbwaiters the old library used to transport books from one floor to another, and then wait, and… Momus made a grinding sound, as of a head being severed from its trunk by a slow-moving dumbwaiter full of books. The shipping magnate left the college a fortune on the condition that they tear the old library down and construct a new one in its place, with various features that would prevent anyone from getting hurt in it. Which is why, Sam said Momus had said, all the dumbwaiters in the Werner Halbstarker Junior Library are securely locked! Also, no flight of stairs is more than eight feet long, and no window is more than a foot and a half wide. It was, Momus concluded, the only heartbreak-proof library in the world.
“Only it’s all bullshit,” Sam said bitterly. “I measured the stairs.”
“Just as well,” I said.
“But he lied to us,” said Sam.
“He told you a story,” I said. “It’s not the same.”
In my freshman seminar on Introduction to Historical Problems, we had just considered the difference between historia and fabula, things as they were and things as we wanted them to be. Was there any way of knowing things as they were? our professor—actually a graduate student named Earl, who had a club foot—asked, his black bushy eyebrow suggestively arched. If you peeled all the fabula away from the historia, would you have the truth, or the bleached bones of a skeleton? I was thrilled by the importance Earl seemed to attach to fabula, and I thought Momus was doing the same thing. He was improving the world by fleshing it out with something more interesting than the truth.
I have no idea why Momus chose me to be his friend. Maybe he thought that was original, too. One night when I was leaving the library, I saw him perched on a low stone wall, smoking. He wore a bright red scarf, which, combined with his vaguely pyramidal body, made him look like a safety cone with a neon streamer dangling from it.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said. This was almost certainly not true. How could he have known that I was in the library, and why would he care? “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to bed.”
“I was thinking of driving to Milford, to see the dog races.”
“Isn’t it too late?”
“Never too late,” Momus said. He blew on the tips of his fingers, as though to launch a kiss or an eyelash in my direction. “Do you want to go?”
“I don’t have a car,” I said.
“Ah,” said Momus. “My mistake. Well, good night.”
A few days later I saw him in the Café Oblique and he waved for me to join him. “Quid agistis?” Momus enjoyed speaking Latin to confound people, but I had had three years of Latin in high school.
Momus smiled. “Did I catch you checking out Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana the other day?”
It was true: I’d been looking into the mythology of the Puritans for my Historical Problems class. Still, I didn’t feel like that made me special. People at Bleak were forever checking out books like that. The library couldn’t keep the works of Jonathan Edwards on the shelves.
“Did you know Mather was a necromancer?” Momus asked. “It’s true. Even as he was busy preaching against witchcraft, he had a laboratory where he re-animated corpses. Or tried to,” Momus said, registering the steep increase in my disbelief. “You know where he learned necromancy? From witches, of course. Mather was a total hypocrite.”
“Really?” I said doubtfully.
“You doubt?” Momus scowled. “Listen.”
For what seemed like a long time Momus unwound a story about Mather’s one successful attempt at necromancy, which, ironically, involved returning an even more powerful necromancer to life. I was pleased to be the recipient of one of his stories but at the same time I couldn’t help noticing the seams: the places where he trifled with well-known facts in ways that made me doubt he had read the Magnalia at all.
“Which is why he writes, Doe not call up any that ye cannot put Downe,” Momus said. But that line came from H.P. Lovecraft, an author I knew only too well.
“Huh,” I said.
Momus seemed to see that I saw through him. With sudden urgency he asked, “What are you doing for dinner?”
“I’m going to West Orange for Vietnamese. Do you want to come?”
“But you don’t have a car.”
“Ha!” He could refute me now. “My girlfriend is driving.”
“I don’t want to be in the way.”
Momus laughed. “How could you be in the way?”
His girlfriend, Jenny, turned out to be a voluptuous blonde woman in her early thirties, whose otherwise shocking beauty was eased a little by a heavy jaw and wide-set bulging eyes. She was nonplussed when I followed Momus into her oldish Toyota Corolla. I got the back seat, which was buried in clothes and smelled for some reason of baby powder.
“You must be the friend Bill’s been telling me about,” Jenny said.
Bill? I thought. But of course there was no reason why Momus shouldn’t go by Bill.
“This is a new friend,” Momus said.
Jenny leaned around the seat; her blouse fell away from her breasts. “What do you do?”
I stammered something about being interested in history.
“Oh, history,” Jenny said, and drove us through the outskirts of New Haven.
I couldn’t help thinking how strange it was to be in her car. I’d never met her before; I barely even knew Momus and still didn’t understand what he wanted from me. It was like I had consented to be kidnapped. We drove for a while along little roads that crossed over and under the highways—Jenny was clearly taking some kind of shortcut. Momus talked about Ablette, our school’s notorious secret society. He was hoping to be tapped. He’d heard from reliable sources that they owned an island off the Connecticut coast.
“Where they experiment on animals,” he said. “Breeding them to make them intelligent.”
“Really?” Jenny said.
Aha, I thought: I’d just understood what Momus was doing with Jenny.
“Yes,” Momus said. “They’ve had some successes, over the years, too. They bred a dog that could talk, but only in Finnish.”
“They think it was Finnish. Unfortunately, the dog died before they could verify it.”
“Huh,” said Jenny. “I used to work with a girl from Finland.”
“Too bad they didn’t know about her,” Momus said. “No, I’m only kidding. This was years and years ago. Now they work mostly with mice. They’re trying to breed them to have opposable thumbs.”
I laughed and tried to pass it off as a cough. Luckily Jenny’s car made a lot of noise and neither of them heard me.
“Anyway,” Momus said, “I hope they tap me. They’re far and away the most interesting people on campus.”
The restaurant was in a strip mall, between a hairdressers’ and a pharmacy. There were a couple of Vietnamese families eating there, and many empty tables. We had an awkward dinner: not only did Jenny and I not know what to say to each other, I got the impression that Jenny didn’t really know what to say to Momus. I wondered how long they’d been going out. So as before Momus did most of the talking: he told us about the time his family had spent in Africa when he was a kid. They’d lived in a big house with servants and a pool and tennis courts, more or less exactly what you’d expect, only one day Momus came home from school and found the housekeeper on the kitchen floor, her throat slit.
“All the servants had been murdered,” Momus said.
“Oh my god, why?” Jenny asked.
Momus shrugged. “The police never found out. Politics, probably.”
“What did you do?”
“No one would work for us, so my mother had to cook,” Momus said.
“Weren’t you afraid to stay in the house?”
“No, we had it cleaned up.”
It was shocking to think that Momus might be lying about something so gruesome, so important, but on the other hand his story was vague and rang less than true. Africa? Politics? The more I doubted Momus, the more I found myself looking at him, in the hope that his chubby face, his close-cropped hair already touched with gray, or his thick white fingers would tell me whether to believe him or not. I was so intent on Momus that I paid no attention to Jenny that night, and when she drove us back to campus and dropped me off at New East (she and Momus were going on to take a walk in the arboretum) there was distinct sarcasm in her “Nice to meet you.” But the whole evening had been so strange that it didn’t occur to me to worry that I had offended her. I didn’t understand what I’d been doing there at all.
I saw Momus often that fall. We saw movies by Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr at the Bleak Film Society; we played chess at the Café Oblique. We took walks around campus, and admired the statues on West House and the strange windowless tower behind the anthropology building. Inevitably at some point Jenny joined us. She picked us up in her car and drove us to places she knew about in Connecticut: a mall in Hamden, a movie theater in West Orange, the dog track in Milford, where we watched greyhounds yip sadly after the mechanical hare. I thought it was sweet that Momus saw Jenny so often, but I didn’t understand why he brought me along on these expeditions. Did he want a chaperone? Or merely a witness to his ever-so-slightly scandalous relationship? There was another possibility, but I didn’t see it until one October night when we ate dinner at an Italian restaurant in Wooster Square. Momus was talking about Ovid, who had, he said, been exiled from Augustan Rome because of his Ars Amatoria.
“And what,” Momus said, “was so scandalous about the Ars Amatoria? Does Ovid propose overthrowing the state, or reinstating the Republic? No. It’s just people having sex. Why is it that people are so shy of talking about sex?”
“Bill, ssh,” said Jenny. “People are looking at you.”
“But tell me, why? No? I’ll tell you. It’s because an open view of sex would free the woman from her ancient role as property. What we repress, when we repress sex and sex talk, is female freedom.”
“Women aren’t property,” Jenny said dryly. “We have the vote and everything.”
“But you still... belong! What would you do if I said, go ahead and have sex with him?” Momus gestured at me with the back of his hand. “What if I said, it wouldn’t bother me in the least if the two of you had sex?”
Jenny’s throat flushed a deep red. “I don’t want to sleep with your friend.”
I blushed too. Jenny’s rejection hurt me, even though I hadn’t imagined sleeping with her until that moment. What would I have done, I wondered, if she had said yes?
“That’s because you’ve been conditioned. Garçon!”
A waiter approached us, more out of curiosity than obligation.
“Let us have another bottle of your Chianti,” Momus said.
“Bill, I have to drive,” Jenny said.
“Then you’ll only have a little.”
The wine was brought and we drank it. We talked about regular things: I think Jenny might even have asked me how my classes were going. We left the restaurant more than a little drunk and walked the perimeter of the square, enjoying the fine old houses and the clear stars overhead. Momus and Jenny held hands and I hung tactfully back so as not to give them the impression that Momus’s proposition was still on my mind. But of course it was, how could it not be, Jenny was beautiful, even if she wasn’t what Celeste would have called the sharpest crayon in the box. I spun out fantasies in which the three of us drove to Jenny’s house in Hamden and undressed in front of—for some reason—a big brick fireplace. I rolled us around on featherbeds, on waterbeds. At last we returned to Jenny’s car.
“Well,” Momus said with nervous pomp, “now where to?”
“I’m taking you home,” Jenny said.
And she did. She dropped me at New East; there was some murmured discussion, then Momus also got out of the car. “Good night,” he said, and hurried upstairs to his room.
I saw Momus many times after that, but not Jenny. I assumed that she had talked to Momus and our threesome was off the table for good. By the middle of November it was too cold to walk around New Haven; Momus and I huddled at a table in the back of the Café Oblique and drank unhealthy quantities of cheap bitter coffee. Momus talked a lot about Ablette and his chances of being chosen for that exclusive society.
“I hear they’re diversifying,” he said. “It used to be that the only way you could get in was if your father was in. Now they’ve got women, gay people, people of color.”
“Diversity and tolerance,” I said, these being two of Bleak College’s watchwords in the late Eighties.
“I believe in both,” Momus said solemnly. “Even if they reduce my chances of being tapped, as a WASP.” Then, catching sight of someone who had just come in, he nodded. “See that guy in the blue coat? He’s one of them.”
“Maybe you should say something to him,” I said.
“Are you kidding? That’s suicide. You have to pretend you don’t know. Wait, stop looking at him, look at the wall!”
I stared at a poster which told me how to administer the Heimlich maneuver.
When the danger had passed, Momus went on. “The question is, have they heard about my exploits?”
“Don’t be impertinent. Jenny isn’t an exploit. I mean, with the tours.”
“I’ve done some amazing things! Last week I convinced a group of prospective parents that Bleak College was founded in the eleventh century, by the Danes.”
Momus took off his small round glasses and polished them on the end of his scarf. “Do you really think I think of Jenny as a stunt?”
“I don’t know, Momus. It just came out.”
“I love her,” he said. He put his glasses on and glared at me through them. “We’re going to get married.”
“After I graduate. Or sooner. Maybe we’ll do it this coming summer. We already picked a place. There’s a beach over by Westport, a state park. I’ll wear a white suit.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“It’s a risk I’m prepared to take. Anyway, I can have it cleaned.”
“I mean, getting married.”
“Why wouldn’t it be a good idea? I love her,” he said again. “I don’t see any reason not to go forward.”
“It’s just that…”
“She’s old? Please. I thought you were open-minded.”
“I was going to say, you’re young, actually. I don’t think Jenny is old.”
“Thanks for that. And I’m old enough to know what I want. I’m older than anyone in this fucking school. I don’t mean, chronologically. But in every other way. Think of me as being fifty.” Momus ran his hand over his hair. “Your middle-aged friend.”
With his double chin dropping into the folds of his scarf, his high forehead and short hair, he really did look middle aged. “I’m sorry if I offended you.”
“Tut,” Momus said. “I have a thick skin. Now, can I beat you at chess?”
After that conversation, I didn’t see Momus for weeks. I wondered if I really had offended him, or if he was just busy. It was the busy time of the semester for everyone: papers were due, exams coming up. I spent a lot of time in the library, reading about the Puritans. I’d also begun seeing a girl named Gabby Furst, whom I’d met in the dining hall. Gabby was from Philadelphia; she had dark curly hair and was planning to major in psychology. Neither of us thought we were beginning anything serious, and when we finally took our clothes off, in my room in New East, a small but perceptible disappointment passed between us: an acknowledgement of the diversity of human bodies, and a recognition that we were, to each other, facts, rather than dreams.
In early December, the first snow fell in New Haven. Late that night, Gabby and I staggered into the lobby of New East House, arm in arm. We had just kissed, or were about to kiss. A lock of Gabby’s hair had frozen several inches above her head, like a horn.
“Have you seen Bill?” Jenny asked.
She was curled on the sofa in the social area, a square of carpet with several pieces of vinyl furniture arranged around a television in the hope of attracting a gathering, although no one ever gathered there. I didn’t know how she’d got into the building. I’d never seen her on campus before. She wore tight jeans and a big white cable-knit sweater, and she looked like she’d been crying.
“Not for a week,” I said. “Is something wrong?”
“We had a fight,” Jenny said.
“I’m sorry.” I wanted to sit on the sofa with Jenny and console her, but I didn’t want to give Gabby the wrong impression, nor was I sure the impression would have been entirely wrong.
“I’m worried about him,” said Jenny. “He’s so drastic.”
“Did you knock on his door?”
Jenny shook her head unhappily. “I don’t know which one it is.”
The three of us went up the stairs, an awkward procession. We knocked on Momus’s door. There was no answer. I listened at the door but no sound came from the other side.
“I guess he’s out.”
Jenny took an appointment book from her handbag, wrote in it and tore off a page. “If you see him, will you let me know he’s all right?” She smiled awkwardly as I took the paper from her hand.
“Thanks.” Jenny swiveled past us and strode down the stairs. She was much shorter than I remembered, at most five feet tall. When she and Momus and I went out together she must have been wearing heels.
“Who was that?” Gabby asked.
“Really?” Gabby turned and gawked. “She’s so old!”
The horn of ice on Gabby’s forehead melted. We rolled around on my double bed—actually two single beds pushed together—then lay on our backs, looking at the orange streetlight diffused brightly by the falling snow.
Momus re-appeared the next day. He was sitting by himself in a corner of the dining hall, drinking coffee and toying with a bowl of sad-looking steamed spinach.
“On a diet?” I asked, taking the chair next to him.
“Iron is good for you,” Momus said. “Did you know that melancholy is caused by a deficiency of iron?”
“Where have you been?” I asked, suddenly annoyed. “Jenny was looking for you.”
“She thought you’d done something drastic.”
Momus smiled. “I was writing a paper.”
“We knocked on your door, but you didn’t answer.”
Momus noted the first-person plural pronoun with a quick, sharp look. “I must have been listening to music. I do that, you know, when I work.”
“Fine, but will you call her? She’s worried about you.”
“Let her worry. Jenny is sweet, but I can’t be the center of her world all the time. She needs to develop her inner resources.”
This, coming from a twenty-year-old, about a woman who was old enough—biologically—to be his mother, struck me as highly insulting.
“I thought you were going to get married.”
“The one has nothing to do with the other. I love her, but I’m not blind to her faults. I don’t think she would want me to be, either. We have to correct each other, that’s what marriage is. We correct each other and thereby find…”
“I was thinking, freedom.” Momus ate a forkful of spinach. After a while, he said, “Did you know that Jenny is literally a witch? It’s true. She’s descended from a line of witches. One of her ancestors barely avoided being burned at the stake.”
“Witchcraft, obviously. How am I supposed to know? You’re the historian, look it up. Her last name is Riggs. The Riggses of Hamden, Connecticut.”
“OK, I’ll look.”
“Do. And, if I could make a suggestion? Don’t live my life. You have one of your own. Although you may not have discovered it yet.”
Heedless of Momus’s advice, I called Jenny. My motives were good. I thought that she deserved to know Momus was all right; I didn’t see how she was supposed to develop her inner resources when she was worried that her boyfriend, her fiancé, might be dead. I called at eight-fifteen, which I imagined to be the best possible time to call someone: too late to interrupt dinner, too early to disturb sleep. It was not a good time for Jenny, however.
“What do you want?” she asked. “I’m just going out the door.”
“I saw Momus,” I said. “He’s all right.”
“Bill. I saw Bill in the dining hall. He’s all right.”
“Oh.” There was a rattling on the other end of the line. It sounded like Jenny was shaking a bowl full of little stones. “Did he say where he was?”
“Writing a paper.”
“Oh.” Jenny’s voice was small and flat. “Well, thanks.”
I could sense that Jenny was going to hang up on me and I didn’t want her to hang up. “Listen, there’s something I have to tell you.” This sentence began as a pure lie but as I got to the middle of it I realized that I did want to tell Jenny something. I wanted to warn her not to go out with Momus.
“Yeah? Go ahead.”
“Can I tell you in person? It’s kind of hard to say over the phone.”
“I’m on my way to work,” Jenny said.
“Where do you work? I’ll meet you there.”
“No, don’t do that. Maybe… Is this important?”
“It’s pretty important.”
Jenny sighed. “I’ll come by after my shift.”
She called at two-thirty in the morning and told me to be downstairs in fifteen minutes. I’d fallen asleep, and for a moment I couldn’t remember who this old-sounding woman was or what she wanted from me. Then I washed my face, brushed my teeth and ran out, with a guilty look back at the mostly dark windows of New East: was Momus watching? Jenny’s Toyota pulled up and I got in.
“Where do you work?” I asked.
“None of your business.” She glared at me. “What did you want to tell me?”
“You want to talk in the car?”
“Yeah,” Jenny said.
“Can we at least go around the corner or something? In case someone is watching?”
“Fine.” Jenny stepped on the gas and we lurched forward. She drove to the parking lot of a closed diner. This wasn’t what I wanted: I’d pictured myself talking to Jenny in a bar, or, better, in her house, a candle and a bottle of wine between us, not in her cluttered car which smelled of baby powder. “OK, talk.”
“Momus didn’t tell you where he was because he doesn’t want to be the center of your life. He thinks you don’t have any inner resources.”
“What? What does that mean?”
“Also, he thinks you’re a witch.”
“He said that?”
“Yes,” I said solemnly. “And nothing he tells you is true. For example, there is no island where people experiment on animals.”
Jenny frowned. There were little drops in her eyelashes: tears, I thought, but actually some kind of silvery makeup. “Nothing?”
That was surely a lie, but on the other hand, I thought, then, maybe it wasn’t. Momus could have lied to me about wanting to marry Jenny. He could have lied to himself. I had no way of knowing for sure. Jenny sat stiffly in the driver’s seat of her car and didn’t say anything. After a moment her shoulders began to shake. She coughed. She reached a hand toward her eyes but, remembering her makeup, let it drop. A small real tear left a blue-black trail on the side of her cheek. She believed me, of course. She believed everything.
The horrifying thing is that I still didn’t know what was happening. I thought Jenny might be grateful to me for telling her the truth about Momus. I twisted awkwardly in my seat and put my hand on Jenny’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” I said. I squeezed Jenny’s shoulder in what I hoped was a consoling way. Here we were, two people sitting in a parking lot at three in the morning, both of us angry at Momus: I thought I had the right to console her. But deep in my breast, hidden, even from me, burned the simple thought that I might now take Momus’s place, and Jenny saw it.
“Ugh,” she said, “what are you doing? Get your hand off me!”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, retreating.
Jenny turned to me, her face terrible. “You creep! Get out of my car!”
“I didn’t do anything,” I said. With lifeless fingers I unfastened my seat belt and opened the door, still hoping that Jenny would relent.
“Jerk!” she shrieked.
I stumbled out of her car and shut the door gently as if to underscore the fact that I meant no harm, that I had never meant any harm. Jenny threw the car into reverse and screeched into the street. I watched her go. With a detachment which alarms me as much as anything else about this scene, I noticed that the interior light in her car was still on, and I worried that I hadn’t closed the door completely.
I went back to New East House and lay on my bed. I’m a monster, I thought. In the sharp greenish light of Jenny’s creep I saw what I’d wanted to happen and by that light I looked hideous and wicked. After a certain amount of time, the phone rang. I didn’t answer. The only person who could be calling was Momus and I was afraid to talk to him. I had ruined everything, I thought, and in my mind Celeste said, Yes, that’s what I meant by not being the swift. At a certain point there was nothing more to think about. I lay on my bed in a kind of stupor, unable to want anything. It seemed possible that I would lie there forever. I would become a campus legend: Who’s in that room at the top of New East, the one that’s always locked? —Oh, that’s the monster. Finally the sky lightened with what passed for morning in New Haven in the middle of December. It was the last day of the semester. I was going home.
Now I come to the frightening part of the story. It begins with Momus forgiving me. He did it almost brusquely: I came into the Café Oblique and he motioned for me to sit with him. After an awkward silence I said, “Momus, listen—”
“I already know,” he said. “Jenny told me.”
“I shouldn’t have called her. I just—”
“You did what you thought was right,” Momus said. “Didn’t you?”
“I was confused.”
“Put it behind you. Vita brevis.”
“OK.” I hesitated. “Are you—”
“Fine,” Momus said. “I have weathered the storm.”
I wanted to ask if he and Jenny were still together but Momus gave no sign that he wanted to be drawn out. “Listen, I think it’s going to work with Ablette,” he said in a low voice.
“I had a conversation. Obviously, my interlocutor didn’t tell me he was one of them. But I had a strong feeling that he was checking me out.”
“I hope they take you,” I said. “You’re right for them.”
“Do you really think so?”
“I do.” I meant it sincerely. I’d never met anyone who had such apparent depths as Momus. If I had been him, I would never have forgiven me. The part of me that was him, that thought the way I imagined Momus would think, still hadn’t forgiven me, although over the winter break it had grown tired of shouting. How had he turned, where had he looked to find this much forgiveness?
“Thank you,” Momus said. “I know it’s indiscreet, but… if they do take me, I’ll let you know.”
Momus and I played chess as before; we saw movies as before: now they were by Truffaut and Godard. As the winter resigned itself to being upstaged by spring we started going for walks again, endless walks, that led us to East Rock, where, Momus said, the city of New Haven had harbored royalists during the Revolutionary War: they lived in a cave on the back side of the hill. The river at the edge of East Rock Park was swollen with snowmelt. The trees began to put out little green buds.
One day we stood outside an abandoned Victorian manor on Prospect Street, which the college had protected from its students’ curiosity by means of a high chainlink fence. “What’s in there?” I asked, hoping for a story.
“Don’t know,” Momus said. “Don’t care.”
“Mm hm.” He stuffed his hands into his coat pockets and looked triumphantly at the cracked asphalt.
“Wait. Did they…?”
“Congratulations,” I said. “Now you will know all.”
“No one knows all.” Momus kicked a piece of gravel through the fence. He seemed to be making his mind up about something. “But there is something I want to show you. Do you have plans for tonight?”
I was supposed to see Gabby. “I can change them.”
“All right. Meet me at midnight, in the New East lounge.”
“This will require some courage on your part,” Momus said. “Are you sure you can be brave?”
“Fine. Shall we?”
He turned away from the abandoned house, his red scarf flapping in the wind.
Midnight in the lounge of New East House: no less frightening place could be imagined. Some freshpeople are watching The Empire Strikes Back: “Do, or do not,” they say along with Yoda. “There is no try.” Momus comes down at twelve-fifteen, wearing, unusually for him, a sweatshirt and jeans. He motions for me to come with him and I follow. No one sees him or notices that I am gone. We walk a short hall that twists back toward the lounge and ends in a blank metal door, to which Momus has the key. Beyond the door, stairs lead down.
“Is this something to do with…?”
“No questions yet,” Momus says.
We are in the tunnels under Bleak College: the fabled tunnels. Everyone claims to have explored them, the way everyone claims to have had sex. As with sex, reports from the tunnels vary in a way that suggests many people are lying. Some say they have found stockpiles of food, others, animal heads, taken down from the college walls in conformity with the new sensitive age. There are stories of rooms full of cots, made up with sheets and blankets against some disaster in the past, or still to come. There are stories of electrified doors, hidden alarms. I am excited to see the tunnels but also in a way disappointed: if there’s any part of Bleak College which does not need Momus to turn its fact into fabula, this is it. The tunnels themselves conform unsurprisingly to their actual function: they follow fat pipes and bundles of electrical cable from one building to the next.
“Neat,” I say, trying to hide my disappointment.
Momus looks at me as though I’m an idiot. He walks a little faster, turning sideways now and then to slip past a pipe he identifies as hot. I very quickly lose track of what direction we are heading. We’ve taken many turns: we could be at the edge of campus or next to New East. I wonder if we are going in circles, if Momus is trying to get me lost. For the first time I am afraid.
As if to reassure me, Momus begins talking, but what he says is far from reassuring. “People used to die down here,” he says. “In the early days. Each year one or two of the undergraduates would go into the tunnels and not come out.”
“Come on. These tunnels weren’t even here back then.”
“Not these tunnels, no. But other ones, older ones.”
Older ones? Momus is losing his touch. He isn’t paying attention to detail. “Tunnels dug in the late seventeenth century, by monsters,” I suggest. I can’t help but feel a little superior.
“No, not monsters. Just old tunnels. You’ll see.”
After some further navigation Momus unlocks a door marked NO TRESPASSING—absurd, as if we hadn’t been trespassing all along—and leads me through. We are in a different kind of tunnel now. The walls are brick, the low vaulted roof of the tunnel is black with soot. Water trickles along a channel worn in the stone slabs of the floor. White lichen daubs the edges of the bricks.
“Where are we?” I ask.
Momus doesn’t answer. “You know Jenny and I broke up,” he says.
“I didn’t know. What happened?”
“It’s not worth talking about.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I hope it didn’t have anything to do with what I—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Momus says.
And we go on in silence.
After a while Momus starts talking again. “Apparently Ablette used to practice human sacrifice,” he says. “As part of their initiation process.”
“Apparently?” I ask, my voice studiously nonchalant.
“The interesting thing is how they’d do it. They wouldn’t, like, cut your throat or anything. No. They would manacle you to a wall and… just leave you there. And they, the person who was being initiated, would come back every few days and ask you, What is truth? The idea being that eventually you, the sacrifice, would know the answer. And you’d say it. And that’s how the initiation worked.”
“Where did you hear that?” I ask.
As I expect, Momus doesn’t answer.
I’m annoyed with Momus’s horror-movie talk but at the same time I have begun to feel an alarming doubt. These tunnels are real. They are old. Could Momus be telling the truth? Bad things certainly happen in the world, and not just in Africa, either. I have read enough history by this point to know that the Puritans were scarcely less savage than the people they displaced. Or really not less savage at all. The name of the college we attended was not Bleak College; it was not founded by Prosperity Bleak; the name of its secret society is not Ablette; there is no Episcoscope, no West Tower; these are only stories I made up to keep pace with Momus, or rather, to outdo him, but one thing that occurs to me as I follow Momus through the tunnels is that even the most frightening story protects its readers from a world which is much more frightening, not because bad things happen there, although they do, but because we have so little control over what happens, we don’t get to say where it begins or where it will end, and we have so little idea of what’s coming next. At this point I really start to feel the weight of the earth over our heads. What is the Latin for fear of tunnels? Momus would know, but I am afraid of Momus. I don’t know where he is taking me and, more and more, I don’t want to know.
© 2008-2017 Paul La Farge. All rights reserved.