I.e., classmates in the history Ph.D. at Stanford. Let me describe them to you briefly. Victor was a pudgy Russian with a buzz cut and the creases of a permanent scowl making their parentheses around his wide mouth. He was a smoker, a complainer, a medieval historian whose dissertation would have been on the Islamic underpinnings of the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas—if he had stayed at Stanford long enough to write it. He walked like an old man or a baboon: upper body canted forward, ass thrust out behind him. Taking a line from Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (you can see what kind of jokers we were, down there at Stanford), Alex and I said that Victor’s ass was being blown into the future by the wind coming from Paradise. It was impossible to imagine Victor in any kind of sexual relationship he didn’t have to pay for, and in fact he seemed to have no sexuality at all, until suddenly, just before he moved to Menlo Park, he introduced me to his girlfriend, a small dark woman with the narrowset eyes and hooked mouth of a vulture. She looked at me suspiciously, as though she was afraid that I might try to steal something from her.
“How long have you been going out?” I asked Victor when she’d gone to the bathroom. (We were in a restaurant.)
“Three years,” Victor said, scowling.
I did the calculation. Victor had been seeing this woman practically since we moved to San Francisco, and yet I’d never met her or even heard about her. Where had he kept her? I wanted to believe that she had been living in another country, that she and Victor had carried on some kind of deeply touching correspondence until Victor finally had enough money to import her from her native village, but in fact she was from Toledo, OH and had met Victor at a Jewish speed-dating event in Noe Valley. New vistas of Victor were opening to my imagination: during at least some of the hours when I thought Victor was at Stanford, or, later, at the company he started with some friends from Stanford, he had actually been with this woman, Mindy, doing I dared not imagine what.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Victor looked to the bathroom to be sure that Mindy was not already on her way back to us. In a low voice he said, “Because I wasn’t sure she would stay.”
I wanted to cry. All this time Victor had been harboring the secret of his tiny vulture-like girlfriend because he was afraid he might lose her, and my first thought was, who else would want someone like that? But that was unkind, people want people of every description, there are so many of us, and our desires vary so widely, that if you were to comb the earth you could probably find ten thousand men the right age who dreamed of vulture-like women, men who in the deep secret of their sleep imagined themselves to be dead rabbits waiting to be consumed by the sharp beaks of huge, silent birds, men who admired the grace of the vulture’s apparently effortless flight, ten thousand men any one of whom might meet Mindy on a bus or in a bar or at work, and in the end the reason I wanted to cry was because Victor had been so afraid of this for so long, and at the same time he’d been so proud that he hadn’t been able to admit to me, his housemate, one of his few non-work friends, how afraid he had been. It made me feel how precarious everything is, and at the same time, how precious, how much everything in the world is wanted, even if not everyone wants it, even if almost no one wants it.
“And now?” I asked.
“Things are better,” Victor said, and indeed, when Mindy came back to the table, I saw an engagement ring on her finger, a skinny loop of platinum from which a huge diamond stuck itself forward. It reminded me of the way Mindy stuck out her own large head.
That was practically the last time I saw Victor. The Day of Outrage was coming up, and the defacement of his special chair, and after that he moved down to Menlo Park, where he and Mindy shared a house. They invited me to a party in the spring of 1998, and I went, not so much because I wanted to go as out of a lingering loyalty to my old housemate, even though by then I had realized that the two of us had almost nothing in common. And in fact the party was just as awful as I had expected it to be: men in polo shirts and baggy shorts stood in Victor’s yard, talking shop and telling jokes in jargon. I felt like I’d infiltrated a convention of magicians, and if only I’d known a little more about magic I would have been able to learn some of their tricks. Victor stood behind the grill, a serene smile distending his face as he flipped burgers and herded sausages. He greeted me with a nod, and lifted his arms as if to show me how he would have liked to embrace me if only there hadn’t been so much meat to cook.
“Where’s Mindy?” I asked.
Victor nodded to the house, where, through the picture window, I saw a group of shady women holding glasses of white wine.
“So far,” Victor said.
We talked about nothing for a few minutes. Mindy didn’t come out. Finally I excused myself, and I drove back up the peninsula, my eyes stinging with barbecue smoke and the curious hollow feeling of having—like the angel of history—watched something once present become the wreckage of the past.
Then Alex: African-Cherokee-American from North Carolina by way of Brown U., he was fussy, quiet, short. Victor and I used to make fun of his faddish diets, and the bottles of arcane nutritional supplements which filled our pantry. Alex pretended not to care, although in fact I think he was disappointed in us for not knowing how to take care of ourselves, and then also possibly a little insecure about his own regimen—was it as good as he thought it was? And if it was so good, why did he have to keep adjusting it?
Alex was like this about everything. He was like the world’s third-most-perfect robot, his superiority tinged always with the anxious knowledge that he would eventually run into the two robots who did things better than he did. Victor complained that Alex had control issues, and I really couldn’t argue. He kept the apartment immaculate, color-coded his research folders, and dated a series of academics, all of them with close-cropped hair and wire-framed glasses. He was only ever completely at ease when he was talking about music, because there was basically no one in the world who knew more about the kind of music he liked than he did. Alex was so far ahead of Victor and me in terms of musical knowledge that it wasn’t even fun for him to lord it over us; instead he turned professorial and taught me to appreciate the science-fiction-inflected sounds of Cybotron and Model 500 and Drexciya, a group so obscure, even the people at Aquarius Records in Berkeley hadn’t heard of it. Sometimes when Victor was out (at work, we thought, but maybe courting Mindy?), Alex and I would get stoned and put his albums on, one after another. Alex’s whole body seemed to go limp, as if he no longer had any need to do anything about gravity, and he talked about strange things: the possibility of psychic heredity, i.e., the transmission of innate characteristics by some other means than the genome; the possibly extraterrestrial origin of human life, the possibility that much of recorded history had been falsified by the keepers of a few important archives, the existence of forgotten civilizations in Africa and Central America and under the ocean. We swam together through the twilight of his thought for hours, then, abruptly, Alex lifted the needle from the record and went to wash his face. He came back perfectly sober and laughed at me for being spaced out.
“Get with the program,” he said.
“What’s the program?” I asked.
“You’re going out,” he said, “and I’m going to read Hayden White for forty-five minutes, then go to bed.”
Alex was the most theoretically inclined of the three of us, and the only one who really understood the poststructuralists, not only Hayden White, but Foucault, Barthes, Ricoeur, Paul Veyne: the writers who argued from various grounds that history was a fiction or a confluence of fictions. Victor said the arcana of theory fit with Alex’s general prissiness: what was theory if not a revulsion against the dirt of fact? But I thought it had to do with the way Alex thought about things when he was stoned: the possibilities he saw for the world to be radically different than it was, the possibility that the world was very unlike almost all the stories we told about it.
Do you like how I’ve worked historiography into this description of my housemates? I didn’t even have to think about it. Historiography was what we all talked about; it was what we had most in common.