Picture a seminar room with tables in a horseshoe and some twenty grad students, mostly in black, each propping up a Styrofoam cup of lukewarm liquid. I explain the videographer in back by saying a class transcript may help with a book on memoir I’m writing.
Following a script, I apologize for leaving my phone on but claim I have an administrative problem to work out halfway through our three-hour class. At planned intervals, my coconspirator, Chris sometimes, calls, putatively to ask — harangue? — me about swapping classrooms. The students hear me be jovial and accommodating, though I hustle him off the phone, saying let’s talk at the break.
An hour before he’s due, Chris steams in. A tall, fiftyish poet with a shaved head, he’s tight-lipped his mouth into a line and is claiming that this is his seminar room. We need to clear out. Now.
We’re playing against type. He’s known as low-key and easygoing, and I as — how to say it? — noisy? Southern? He raises his voice. I suggest we step outside. He steps forward, I step back. He’s tall, I’m short. I try to defuse the situation. He says for once I should do what everybody else does and cooperate. He tells me to go fuck myself — or do I only remember it that way? Then he heaves a sheaf of papers into the air and stalks out. The students are agog. On the tape, they cut their eyes away from us to connect with each other.
Paralyzed silence. Am I okay? the codependent kid asks, Bambi-eyed. I explain the ruse, and the group’s burst of laughter is a collective awkwardness. One joker claims he’s suing for trauma, since he flashed back to his parents fighting.
You’d guess that these bright, mostly young, fairly sensitive witnesses would nail the event down to the color of Chris’s socks. And yet around the room, with each student reading from spiral notebook or legal pad the mistakes pop up like dandelion greens.
There are memory aces, of course. Maybe one, rarely two — of twenty to twenty-five per seminar — come with wizardly photographic recall. They get the facts spot on. They nail quotes verbatim and don’t mess up physical details, or even intervals of time. (Getting time wrong is a common memory screw up, even for the young.) How often did he call? The wizards are dead certain it was three times, with ten-to-twelve-minute gaps in between. And Chris’s pants were khaki, his shirt denim, not vice versa; he wore not loafers but black Nikes double-knotted with two holes unthreaded. Marvels, these observers.
Reviewing student blunders in these classes, I correct details on the board, fix dialogue and interpretative errors. By the end, we’ve chalked up an agreed-on version. During this time, I sometimes implant new facts — I give my adversary a leather bracelet he doesn’t wear, and even have him fiddle with it nervously.