Chapter 7 – William

Hello Beautiful

auGust 1983

William missed the First class by accident. It was late summer, and there was a baking heat. He’d just completed the final

batch of player interviews Arash had asked him to conduct, and he’d stayed in the Northwestern gym a little longer to watch practice. He knew he was too busy with studying and teaching, not to mention a baby at home, to spend time there, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. It was summer training camp, and he knew only half of the players on the team now; the juniors and seniors had been William’s teammates, but the freshmen and most of the sophomores were strangers.

When the training camp began, Arash had asked William to help by interviewing the incoming players about their prior injuries. “You’re the man to do it,” he’d said. “The youngest kids aren’t clear yet about which staff member is important and which isn’t. They look at me and think I can bench them, so they won’t tell me the truth.”

“My job is to open them up,” William said. “Share your story, and they will.”

And so William had found himself in a small office in the back of the gymnasium with a clipboard containing the details of every player on the roster. One by one, the students came in to see him. Over and over again, William told the story of his knee. The details of the first injury in high school, and then what had happened to him in the air under the net in his final season.

When he was done talking, the player almost always said, “How’s your knee now?”

The first few interviews, William said, “Fine.”

But with repetition, he thought, That’s not true, and the whole point of me being in this stuffy room is to tell the truth, so they’ll tell the truth. After that, he said some variation of: The knee still hurts, but I didn’t rehab it properly. I can still feel the places where it broke. Invariably, the players leaned away from him at this point, as if the damage might be contagious.

But telling the truth worked. The boys—the freshmen looked young to William—told him what had happened to their bodies, growing up. Only one or two were unscathed and fully intact—that’s what they claimed, anyway. Nope, zero injuries. No accidents. I’ve been lucky, I guess. Everyone else had a story. Two of the boys had been in car crashes because of drunk drivers, leading to a broken shoulder in one case and a herniated disc in the other. A freckled kid from a famous basketball high school in Oklahoma had recurrent Sever’s Disease: terrible heel pain from growing so tall so fast while playing a lot of basketball. The boys who had also played football had histories of concussions. A cocky freshman who introduced himself as “A-one from day one” had torn a hamstring. A sturdy six-and-a-half-footer with a prominent forehead told William that his shoulder frequently dislocated but he’d never told a coach or trainer, because he knew how to pop it back into place. A player from Los Angeles said, “Does it count if I was stabbed? Because I was stabbed in the lower back a couple years ago.”

“That counts, yes,” William said, trying to hide his shock. “It certainly does.”

At the end of the final afternoon of interviews, William stumbled out of the warm room. He felt the impact of all the injuries he’d heard about. When those young men ran the court, they didn’t look like college kids; their preternatural athleticism made them appear superhuman. The isolation scorers set screens for the lumbering

bigs, who in their turn made plays from the post, shoveling passes to the open man. The scrimmages were punctuated with shouts of pleasure because of how good it felt to play at this level. Before the interviews, William never would have guessed at the pain inside the talented young players. He remembered seeing Sylvie’s sorrow. He remembered some of his own anguish, with the shattering of his knee and the opening of the envelope from his father. Now William could see pain as if it were a dark cloud chasing each of the players across the court. They were outrunning it, for now. William had outrun it for a time too.

“They’re telling me about all the bad things that have happened to their bodies,” William said to Arash. “Not just what happened on the court.”

Arash nodded. “I’m glad.” “You’re glad?”

“They need to let that out to someone. We hardly ever ask each other how we’ve been hurt. You did better than I’d hoped for, William. Excellent work.”

William was surprised. Arash rarely gave compliments. But as the words settled inside him, he knew that those boys wouldn’t have shared as much, or at all, with someone else. William wasn’t sure exactly why this was; his broken knee was part of it, but not the entire reason.

After leaving the gym, William walked the sunbaked paths of the campus, looking at strangers and wondering not if but how they had been hurt and how well they’d recovered. When he paid close attention, he could almost see their stories in their silence, like the wake that trails a boat. Abusive fathers, distant boyfriends, bad choices, debt, dreams of success of one kind or another that they feared would never be achieved. When William was close to the university library, he spotted the elderly history professor sitting on a bench. There was a droopiness to his posture that sent William over to him.

“Are you okay, Professor? Can I help you?”

The old man looked up at him, and William had a flash of Charlie peering up at him from his armchair. “You’re the tall one.”

“Yes, sir, William Waters. It’s very hot out here.” “Yes, it is, William Waters. Yes, it is.”

William positioned himself in front of the old man so that he cast him in shade. “Do you need help?”

“Oh, well, don’t we all? Why don’t you sit down beside me, William Waters? A little sunshine never did anyone any harm.”

William sat down beside the old man. He watched students— about half the normal number, because this was the summer semester—move groggily across the quad. He could hear the old man’s ragged breathing. The professor smelled of lemons, or perhaps lemonade. William closed his eyes for a moment. The baby woke up a few times a night to be fed, and Julia and Alice would fall right back asleep afterward, but William was often unable to. He would listen to Julia breathe, more deeply than she used to, as if she needed more air now. The only way to make sure the baby was breathing was to lean over Alice’s bassinet and put his ear to her mouth. Her inhales and exhales were almost silent, so William would get up and listen, to make sure she was breathing, several times each night.

When William opened his eyes again, the air was light purple, and the professor was gone. It was twilight. The trees in his line of sight were darkening to silhouettes. William blinked several times, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. His body was stiff. His knee throbbed. He looked at his watch and took in such a sudden breath that he coughed. His Scientific Revolution class had ended forty-five minutes earlier. He was the teaching assistant. There was no one else in charge; for all intents and purposes, he was the professor. William scanned the landscape, looking for a solution. The outlandishness of this predicament would require an equally strange

fix. Perhaps a magical tree that could turn back time to when William had sat down on this bench.

In all of his education, William only had one teacher not show up for class, and it turned out that the man had been locked out of his house during a torrential rainstorm, with no access to keys or a phone. Other than that occasion, every teacher had walked into the classroom right on time, if not early. In cases of illness or a family emergency, enough notice was given for a substitute to be called. A college classroom with a mysteriously absent professor was unthinkable. William pictured his students, first bored, then confused. They would have told the department secretary on their way out of the building that he’d never showed up.

William sat very still on the bench. The baking heat of day was gone. The sunlight was gone. He thought of the players’ torn ligaments and concussions and painful heels and dislocated joints, and he felt immovable. He had made a terrible mistake, one he couldn’t erase. When darkness cloaked him, when he had to hold his hand in front of his face to see his fingers, he walked home. He was relieved that Julia greeted him normally; this told him that the department hadn’t called looking for him. He thought that maybe he should tell her what had happened. Julia was great at solving problems, and this would probably seem like a softball to her. He could hear her saying that he simply had to call the department first thing in the morning and apologize, and all would be fine. But, he thought, his wife was no longer interested in answering his questions. She wouldn’t understand why he’d been at the gym either

—Julia had no idea he’d embedded himself in the basketball team. He’d be embarrassed to tell her that he’d fallen asleep on a bench in the middle of the afternoon—what kind of a man did that? He wondered what the old professor had thought of him slumbering beside him.

“Are you all right?” Julia asked him, near bedtime. “Yes,” he said. “Of course.”

His sleep was even more disrupted than usual that night. Alice cried out, and his heart jackhammered in his chest. What do I do? he thought, so many times that he forgot what problem he was swimming away from in the darkness. He was just left with the question and the visceral sensation of panic. When William woke up early the next morning, he opened their front door to pick the two daily newspapers—one local and one national—up off the mat. It’s a new day, he thought. He decided that he would tell Julia about missing the class. He was exhausted and didn’t know what else to do. He imagined his wife before he’d disappointed her, before the baby was born. That version of Julia would wrap her arms around his waist and issue clear instructions. His head aching, he thought that maybe the old Julia would come when he summoned her, sensing from the shadows of the past that William had no other hope.

He bent down to pick up the Evanston newspaper and scanned the front page. He was about to go into the kitchen when he saw, in the lower-left corner of the page, a small photograph of the elderly professor. The text below the photo said that the man had died of a massive stroke around dinnertime the night before, in his home. The professor had won a prestigious history prize earlier in his career and was widely known for a best-selling book about World War II. He’s dead? William thought, and the word dead dropped to the bottom of him like an anchor.

With this news, and the weight of that word, the silence inside William expanded until it filled him completely. He’d had to fight for coherence, to make sense of his life, for a while now, but the fight was no longer possible. He knew this, holding the paper in his hand.

William took the newspaper with him when he left the house. For five days, he left the apartment at the usual time, with his packed lunch and his academic books and papers. He ignored the library and only walked in and out of the gym. He watched training camp for a few moments, from the shadows in the back. He didn’t let anyone see him. He looped the quad and the bench where he and the

professor had sat. He walked past strangers and cataloged their pain. He stayed far away from the history building, but he noted, as if to document his own disappearance, the time as he missed his second class, and then his third. He missed a meeting with his adviser too, and William imagined the deepening confusion in the professor’s eyes while he waited at the appointed time. The bow-tied professor loved history so deeply, he could only feel bewildered by William’s lack of commitment.

The part of William that knew history—the dates, the statesmen, the critical moments when the future hung in the balance—had become inaccessible to him. The idea that he could stand in front of a full classroom and hold forth for an hour was unthinkable. When he bought a sandwich from a food cart, his voice was so soft that he had to repeat himself three times in order to be heard. William closed his eyes and saw his notes on the players’ injuries. The rough drawing of an elbow or a knee. He’d been so surprised when the baby-faced freshman told him about being stabbed that William had drawn a picture of a knife.

He went home each evening at the normal time. Julia looked at him with mild curiosity but didn’t ask any questions. William knew, in his bones, that she wouldn’t want to hear about his experience these last few days. He was nothing like the husband Julia had planned into existence when they’d married; he had the urge to apologize to her for this fact but knew that the apology would annoy her. He pressed a bag of frozen peas against his knee; walking all day had made the joint ache. He felt faintly relieved that the department hadn’t called his wife yet. He knew these were the last days of his marriage—he couldn’t continue like this or continue to be married. When Julia offered him her cheek, he kissed it; he tried to memorize the sensation of her weight in the bed beside him. William was pretending to be a husband, but there wasn’t much left of him, and the clock would run out. And it did. On the seventh night, with his

fork in a chicken breast, after telling flat lies about his day, he learned that Julia knew the truth. Some of the truth, anyway.

“I don’t understand.” His wife stared at him. “Why would you miss your classes? Where were you?”

William was letting everyone down: his wife, his adviser, his students. William remembered the younger version of himself being drawn to history because it taught cause and effect. If a person does this, then that happens. But the cause-and-effect levers inside William had malfunctioned; he was a defective machine.

“I wish I could have been better for you,” he said.

“I literally don’t understand,” Julia said, and mixed in with her confusion now was anger. She hated surprises, hated to have her feet swept out from under her.

“I know.” He couldn’t explain; he couldn’t build a case. William was a fake, a liar, a pretender. He pushed his chair away from the table, walked into the bedroom, and pulled down an over-the-shoulder bag from the closet shelf. He considered putting his manuscript inside but didn’t. He grabbed a sweater, with the thought, I might be cold. He opened his dresser drawer and took the old wallet from the back. He removed the check from the wallet and scrawled For Julia Waters on the blank side. He wrote a few sentences on a piece of paper from the pad Julia kept bedside. He was careful not to think about what he was writing and careful not to reread the text once it was finished.

He walked into the living room and handed the check to his wife. “What is this?” she said, her eyes on her husband’s face. “What’s

happening?” When William didn’t respond, Julia looked down at the check. “Ten thousand dollars. From your father? Your father gave this to you?”

“You should deposit it,” he said. “It’s for you.” Then he handed her the folded piece of paper and walked out of the apartment. Later, it would occur to him that he didn’t look at Alice in her bassinet, didn’t

think of her before walking out. Julia called after him, but he kept a steady pace down the stairs.

Time worked strangely for him that night. He started walking and eventually found himself on the shore of Lake Michigan. The lake had always been a presence—spotted from between trees or from the windows of some campus buildings—but William never went there deliberately. The lake reminded him of Boston, of the choppy ocean that sat alongside his home city. The fact that this enormous expanse of water was a lake, even though it had no end in sight, felt like a mistake. Surely this flat, seemingly endless basin deserved a different designation than lake, the kind of thing that you could jog around in thirty minutes.

The lakeside path suited William tonight, though. He was able to walk in a line, and when he was too tired to go on, there were benches. He could rest his eyes on the black water. He slept sitting up a few times, buffeted by the soft summer wind. Drunk or homeless men were sprawled across some of the benches, and William spotted dark forms curled beneath a few trees. He alternated between walking and sitting in this night world. On his final bench, before the sun began to climb back into the sky, he wondered how far he could walk into the lake before he would be entirely covered by water.

With the arrival of the new day, William’s brain restarted, as if fueled by the light. But the engine was made of remnant parts. He didn’t know what to do. He would never return to the apartment he’d called home. Julia and Alice deserved the best possible husband and father, and they were better off without him. He couldn’t go to Northwestern—he’d been pretending to be a graduate student all along, and surely they had figured that out. He shouldn’t have been accepted into the program in the first place; he imagined that they’d already offered his teaching-assistant position to someone else. It felt meaningful too that his own pretend teaching career and his life with Julia had expired with the ancient professor. William had met

Julia in the old man’s class, before the professor’s skin became translucent and his eyes watery. The true teacher had died and, like a wave crashing against the beach, wiped away all of William’s measly efforts at a life. The university gym was harder for him to attach his attention to. Thinking about Arash and the sinking of balls through nets felt like putting his hand on a hot stove. Not painful, exactly, but searing, and designed to keep William and his thoughts away.

He had the sensation that he had cut himself out of his own life, the way a child cuts a figure out of a blank piece of paper. The sun glared from a cloudless sky, while William wandered through unfamiliar sections of Chicago. A part of his brain kept working on the same question: What would the cool lake water feel like, rising over his skin? William crossed the river and canals, passed thumping factories, traversed neighborhoods that would have frightened him in the past because everyone was poor and outside in the summer heat. No one said anything to him that day, though, not even about his height. He was either disappearing or he looked too dangerous—too other—to engage. Later, he would think, No one wants to be near someone who’s that close to gone.

In the dark center of the night, he saw Charlie standing in a doorway. His father-in-law met William’s eyes and offered his warmest smile. William was able to see the pain in Charlie, the same way he’d seen it in the college basketball players, the way he’d seen it in Sylvie on the bench. His overtaxed liver, his unsatisfying work, his broken heart: William saw it all and said, “I’m glad to see you,” because he was. But by the time the words left his mouth, Charlie had disappeared. William stared at the empty space his father-in-law had occupied, and then continued to walk.

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