They sit on the grass in a loose circle. Rain has steamed the patches that remain to a fecund spill of harlequin and jade. The one with long hair and glasses is a swaying stem, her pod at the edge of splitting open. “He had a whole philosophy about the virtues,” she says. Her hands flit out to catch the round putty of this idea then stretch it out, out.
On these summer days when dusk falls near bedtime, the lunch hour employs a more forgiving clock. Two men in dusty coveralls striped with orange reflective tape sprawl on a bench next to chain link. A temporary enclosure wraps around campus like silver Christmas ribbon, knotted somewhere hidden, impossible to pull free. You’d have to find the shears. Behind them, a sign strapped to wire: Do Not Move Fence. Someone has not only tried but succeeded. The lousy lot of us — students and faculty and staff, our shared absence of virtue rendering us indistinguishable from one another — has such an excess of time on our hands (or perhaps a paucity of imagination when it comes to selecting a target for our disaffection) that we need reminding how to treat a fence.
The younger one is white, filmed with dust, his red goatee threaded to rust. He holds a phone — or the amalgam that now passes for a phone — aloft. A noise crackles from it. His buddy’s hair fans in every direction. He is black, though in this case the speciousness of the designation is even more palpable than usual. Dry soil has powdered them to an identical tone.
Race, of course, is about everything else that churns under the surface we imagine solid. It is thrumming here. In the way they speak, sit, gaze. The one on the left splays his legs and drapes his arms, one over a knee, the other along the back of the bench. The one on the right leans forward, stiff, holding the phone-like object. Whiteness and blackness is in this posture, this way of taking — or pretending not to take — the measure of passing students.
The crackling is a voice, a distant Barack Obama. The president’s unmistakable cadence, the falling and punctuated pauses, is carrying across a field of cameramen and wind, piped through the pinhole speaker next to the tiny screen now aloft in the younger man’s grip.
Has something happened? While I was in my lunchtime yoga activating the parasympathetic nervous system with happy baby, did another plate shift? Another city block catch fire? Another of my neighbors fall in the dark hush of a redacted narrative?
I look around at the others. The grass-bound circle of literary acolytes is now far behind me. Women perch on metal chairs outside the student center which houses a new Panera. This is the most popular lunch spot on campus despite a growing national suspicion of Bread’s intentions. A beauty in a creamsicle dress and platform heels turns heads like a stadium wave, collapsing construction worker and student into one undifferentiated hunger. The only ones oblivious to her liquid progress are two younger men striding past. They clutch the straps of their backpacks, heads bent at such an angle they almost meet at the temple. The one speaking rushes out words and stumbles over them. They hadn’t run it with the new numbers — that must be why — that’s why it turned out like that. Neither breaks stride as the sundress swirls across their path.
The president’s voice pings off leaf, satchel, water bottle, sunglasses. If something has happened, the light would scour this plaza instead of skidding as it does off bared calf and shoulder. The fountain would pound instead of froth, the faces furrow, the gazes tunnel into the things we call phones, seeking an answer or maybe a map in those digital libraries that far out-Alexandria Alexandria itself.
When it happens, whatever it is, so much we think is solid in this place will tumble like rockfall into the ravine through which we course. Momentum we imagined our earned and maybe even natural pace will back up behind that unthinkable-but-now-here flash of history. In that instant, downstream will transform into the bewildered trickle of a future uncertain how to fill the space it occupied when it was so lush, when it was able to slake the thirst not only of its own banks but of everything in us that came there to drink.