I found your last letter in a drawer the other day. Been schlepping it around from apartment to apartment thirty years now. It’s on Oxford stationary. You say you don’t know if you’re coming back. You outline what I should do with the contents of the storage unit should you not cross back over the pond. What block of books will go to which favorite former student.
Then I had to call you international long-distance to say the storage building had burned down. If you had any doubts about coming back to this city that call would remove any lingering ambiguity. As if the town was telling you not to let the door hit you on the way out.
I didn’t follow the story in the news. Never learned who set the fire. But a cookie-cutter yuppie subdivision sprang up soon after the wreckers and scavengers hauled off the last bricks of the former factory that housed your decades of books and papers.
I don’t blame you for not keeping in touch. Why would you? I know I was a kid that you liked. I took so many of your classes. Freud, Nietzsche, Kant, Hume. You made totally unintelligible philosophizing clear to a roomful of art dummies. Even then many of us knew you were way over-qualified. Slumming it for the benefit of high-school washouts who were rarely capable of stringing together more than a couple sentences, much less formulating a coherent argument. You entrusted me with your belongings over your sabbatical year and look what happened.
I’m not proposing metaphysical or magical forces. Whoever torched that building did so for the most worldly reasons rather than to send a sign to an itinerant academic. Still, afterwards, I imagine your memory of me would inextricably be linked to those flames.
All that remains is the uncomfortable armchair and ottoman. It’s been in the corner of my parents’ living room, rarely used over thirty years, awaiting your return. I didn’t take it with me when I moved back to Chicago. By then it seemed to belong where it was. Plus, as I mentioned, it’s really not very comfortable.
I imagine you’ve amassed a library to replace the one that burned up. I can see decades more of grateful former students writing you letters with their updates. News of publications, exhibits, marriages, babies. Bet you answer every single one. None remind you of things going up in smoke. Maybe you leave your wife or husband for one of them. Upend your life a time or two. In the absence of any actual information all I can do is suppose and invent.
Would you have come back if that building hadn’t burned? Would we be friends now? This letter would never have been written. Instead you’d get texts and email, maybe an occasional postcard. Not an unsent letter. Like all the others this letter isn’t really meant for you but for strangers and for myself. The people who will read it don’t know you and never will. That long ago arson doesn’t play any role in their lives. Maybe they have some other disaster in their memory that will come back when they read about what happened to you. Some will have had a teacher who they kept in touch with long after graduation. Some will live in Chicago. Maybe even in the very development where the storage building used to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if the one that went up thirty years ago has been demolished and replaced with another by now. It’s not in my part of town. I don’t pass by very often.
But when I do, it all comes rushing back. All my dumb philosophy papers. So utterly certain. How your gently ironic red-pen notes nudged me toward nuances I wouldn’t fathom till years later.
Are you still teaching? Are you even alive? Many of these notes are to people I know are dead. Even the living are dead to me. Because we are not in touch. They only exist in my mind and on these ancient pieces of handwritten paper. The person they’re addressed to is unrecognizable even to himself in the mirror. No stopping change. It’s the only constant as some Buddhist or Existentialist or Fatalist once said. If you were here you’d correct me. Cite the relevant text. Tell an appropriate anecdote to extend the resonance of the idea. I hope you’re doing that for someone somewhere.
You were so good at it. A rare gift to be a true teacher.
Listen to a conversation with my old friend, Ben Terrall, and read a review of a mess of play.
Made you another playlist.