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Three years ago: I came into Fayetteville, Arkansas, riding in an old Ford, sleep deprived, sipping whiskey from a coffee mug. I’d found my roommate’s ad on Craigslist, and he’d generously offered to collect me from Bentonville, the nearest airport in a town almost an hour away from Fayetteville. I was nervous when I saw him through the window of the arrivals lounge. There was a vacancy about his gaze, and he moved with the careful slowness of a man trying to appear sober.
Leaving the cool, air-conditioned airport, it felt as if I’d walked into an oven, the air so thick it didn’t seem real. I followed him to the Ford, relieved to see his friend behind the wheel. My roommate had just finished a round of exams; he looked as exhausted as I felt. We shared the whiskey and I gazed out of the window at the wooden houses on the edge of the woods. Most had a porch. I saw one with a rocking chair.
Our house was the same, wood panel, with a porch, and as we pulled up onto the drive I saw myself writing there, pen in one hand, whiskey in the other. We arrived at around six thirty in the evening. It was still very hot, the streets bathed in dappled light. The cicadas were singing loudly from the trees. My roommate had put a bag of fireworks on the door handle. He’d written on it in marker pen, “WELCOME TO ARKANSAS.”
It took a moment for me to focus when he opened the door, for the lounge was murky. There were dirty plates, clothes, open containers full of half eaten leftovers. “This way to your room,” he said, stepping over the debris. We went through the kitchen. I could hear our shoes peeling from the floor with each step. Dirty dishes were stacked high in the sink. There was the smell of old garbage.
My room was empty save a mattress and an American flag hanging from the wall. A trail of white powder lined the edges of the room. Borax, my roommate explained, for killing roaches. He left me to send an email to my family. When I went back into the lounge, he’d taken off his shirt and was passed out, lying facedown on the sofa.
The next day, I explored the town. I opened a bank account, caught off guard by the friendliness of the staff (“How are you today?”) The walk up the hill to the university in this heat was not easy. I was drenched with sweat. On the campus grounds: sprinklers feeding thirsty lawns, Greek amphitheatre of white stone, a pavement bearing the names of graduates, from the end of the nineteenth century to the present. After exploring for only a few hours, I lay down in the shadow of one of the campus buildings, taken suddenly by heat exhaustion.
Later, I sat on the porch, leafing through books on grammar, trying to remind myself of the essential rules, the parts of speech.
I was anxious about teaching. It’s a strange thing, teaching in a country you’ve lived in for only a few weeks. You consider yourself a guest. You want to study your surroundings, merely observe. And yet your job is to be an authority, to make assertions and demands.
I was to teach English Composition, a mixture of rhetoric, essay writing, and critical thinking. My classroom was in the engineering building: a harsh concrete affair my roommate told me would be the best place to take shelter from a tornado. The room was more like a lecture hall than a classroom, with seats rising from head-height to what felt like the far distance. I was nervous, watching the students filing into the room. Here, the undergraduate girls all wear running shorts and long T-shirts. The boys wear khakis, polo shirts and sunglasses. Anybody not dressed this way appears almost subversive. Although I was nervous, I was keen to know them beyond this general impression.
Some were interested in my accent (“What are you doing in Arkansas?”); others seemed suspicious, thought I spelled things wrong. Usually, this was because I used the British spelling (Once I wrote “analyse” and three young men at the back muttered, “He’s spelled it wrong… he can’t spell.”) But there might have been times when I was simply so nervous I couldn’t remember how a word was spelled.
After the first couple of classes, I began to relax and enjoy myself. I took pleasure in assigning articles for the students to read, leading discussion and debate.
I’d assigned a diagnostic essay, a writing assignment I would use to get a sense of their abilities coming into the classroom. I asked students to tell me about a gift they’d received that had meant a lot to them, and the results were interesting, even moving. For one student, the gift was a photograph his girlfriend had given him of the two of them together. They’d gotten into different schools, and he wrote eloquently about the pain they’d felt parting ways. Another student talked about his gift from God – his healing hands with which he’d saved a woman’s life, curing her of her cancer.
When I mentioned the second example to my roommate, he became angry, as did some of my colleagues. Some of my fellow teachers had grown up in small towns in rural Arkansas with strict religious and often right wing political upbringings. For them, this young man represented the oppression and ignorance of a world they had struggled to escape. I was less indignant. I’d gone through a Christopher Hitchens phase. I felt I’d talked a friend out of Christianity, and, before leaving for the States, tried to talk him back into it – not Christianity, as such, but the value of keeping an open mind.
Yet I was forced to consider the issue further when we discussed the subject of gay marriage. One student, a member of a Christian fraternity, told me he was struggling to write anything other than what the bible says about homosexuality; while a bright girl, always smiling, told me she would write her essay in favour of the legalisation of same sex marriage, even though she, too, thought homosexuality was a sin.
“It’s just easier to argue,” she said. “It’ll be easier to get a good grade.”
“But what do you actually think?” I said.
“Because of my religion, I believe it’s wrong, but – ”
“But you’ll be able to argue, using logic and reason, that it should be legal?”
“Oh yeah. Pretty easily.”
In our pedagogy class, we talked about how some students came to university with preformed notions about the world that were so heavily fortified it was difficult for them to consider new ideas. We read arguments about what certain ring wing proponents saw as the “liberalisation” of students within the university. They criticised those English professors who indoctrinate students with liberal ideology. Others argued that professors have a duty to introduce students to these ideas – ideas like Marxism, progressive gender theory – to fight against what they’d been raised to believe, ideas that were then bolstered by the likes of Glenn Beck and Fox News. Opinion in the class was mixed. Some thought it was dangerous to be so explicit about your beliefs when you have the power to give an A or an F. “We’re in ideology,” said one teaching assistant, “nothing you say or do is free of it. So you might as well just be open about what you believe.”
I knew some teachers who told students the Bible was incompatible with critical thinking. I had a friend who, on his first day, said to the class, “Okay, before we begin, I want to tell you that I’m a Marxist, anti-capitalist…”
I tried to keep some distance from the ideas I presented to my own students. And for the most part, this was easy, for, in my experience, most of my students, regardless of the things they’d grown up to believe, were open to new ideas, and were rarely offensive, or reductive. But there were times when it was more difficult, as when a student gave me an essay in which he argued that AIDS was a punishment from God. He sat opposite me in my office as I read through his work, playing with his iPhone.
The academic year seemed to pass quickly. I struggled to balance teaching and writing, and wrote only a couple of short stories. The humidity lifted. The leaves on the maple trees turned red. And though the town was beautiful, the roads peppered with red leaves, I felt that things at the house were falling apart. My roommate said he needed to get out of Fayetteville. He was tired of this little college town. He’d already got a degree in fine art, now he was taking his second in chemical engineering. He was an excellent painter; but he hated what he perceived as the pretentiousness of the art world, and had been inspired by Barak Obama’s call for more engineers.
He lost sleep over worries about money. I often woke to him whistling and cooking at three in the morning, in the kitchen just beyond my bedroom door. He had to take a job to help pay for his student fees, and struggled to find time between working and catching up on sleep to study for his exams.
The house was infested with cockroaches and camel crickets. One night, I found my roommate hiding behind a chair. “It flew at me,” he said, his eyes wide. “One of them flew at my face.” We bought a dust buster and fell into the routine of vacuuming bugs from the carpet. In my bedroom, it was mostly camel crickets, genuinely frightening insects with large back legs, long antenna, and which seem to actively jump in the direction of whatever they perceive as a threat.
My second summer: I’d moved into another apartment in a quieter part of town. I wrote for most of the day everyday, cultivating an obsession.
Rather like teaching, travelling to a foreign country to write this intensely might be something of a paradox; locking yourself away to imagine, to render some place you already know well (all my stories were set in England), while at the same time, this new environment, fully formed, lies waiting beyond the walls of your apartment.
Because I had nothing to do but write, this summer seemed slower than the last. The weather was the same, of course, as it is every summer here: blisteringly hot, at least with the occasional thunderstorm – and then, for a moment, the air is cool, and the roads turn to rivers. Sometimes I went out onto the porch to watch the train going by, blasting its horn, or to watch a thunderstorm. In the evenings, after dinner, I’d sometimes watch the rabbits playing in the grass in the fading sunshine.
Most of my friends were out of town.
I might have gone slightly mad, found myself muttering strange, solipsistic things to the checkout girl at Wal-Mart.
It was this summer I met M, a poet in the MFA programme, who managed, somehow, to get me out of my apartment.
When we weren’t writing, or grading student papers, we went to the park to throw sticks for her blue heeler, or to the farmers market in the town square.
One night, a few months into the fall semester, we went for a drink at a bar called Roger’s Rec, a dingy, smoky place with billiards and cheap metal tables and chairs, and which was once a popular hangout for hippies during the seventies. Somehow we got onto God and religion and what it is was that each of us believed.
“I have a habit of bringing these sorts of things up,” I said. “I’m not very good at small talk. Especially not after three pints of pale ale.”
“That’s okay,” she said, “I’m the same.”
I said my father was an atheist and my mother could probably have been called a Pantheist, and so I was somewhere in between, whatever that meant.
M spoke of her strict Christian upbringing, how she’d broken free of it – like so many undergraduates – when she went to university. She was interested in returning to some sort of faith, a search for God, she said, but on her own terms.
When I met her parents, I could tell they were good people, friendly, intelligent and kind. They live on a small farm, not commercial, but producing meat and milk – sometimes pork – for them and a few others in the local community. We went there for Christmas. And I enjoyed talking to her parents about religion, about God and faith, the wood-burning stove aglow while the snow painted white the fields and mountains. M, however, kept finding excuses to leave the room.
As time went on, I began to realise why it was difficult for her to talk about this subject with her parents. She could no longer believe what they believed. She could no longer believe that what the Bible said about creation was absolutely true. In her teens, she’d been told that desire was an aspect of the devil. Sex before marriage was a sin. She’d developed a fear of hell, a fear that then took the form of a subtle, yet perpetual – and perpetually vague – anxiety.
Sometimes, I wanted to say, “listen, there’s no such thing as hell.” But I soon realised it wasn’t so simple. I became frustrated. I began to realise the damage this sort of ideology could do to children – it made me think of some of my own students – and that echoes of this trauma could remain in a person even after the brain, the logical brain, relegated much of this belief to the status of crude political dogma.
Worst of all, M struggled to feel fully accepted by her parents. They supported her, were kind and loving, but their beliefs and her inability to share them meant she felt a kind of distance. It made her desire for freedom – for a reality beyond that which was given to her when she was too young to refuse, to question, seem like a sin. For if she only believed, as they did, the distance between them could be closed.
Last summer, my third summer in Arkansas: M and I were kayaking across the White River.
We started at the creek, not far from her parents’ farm, where we’d been working. We took with us cans of beer, and went swimming in the creek before joining the main body of the river. The water was cold and I could feel the fish nibbling at my toes as I stood, submerged to the neck, watching the sparkling surface for snakes.
We sunned ourselves on some rocks after the first swim.
M squinted at my waist. There was a tick half buried above the waistband of my shorts, its tiny legs wriggling.
“Oh God,” I said. “It’s in my flesh. What should I do?”
“Here,” she said, “I’ll get it.”
She pulled it out with the swiftness of a professional. There was a small amount of blood. I was laughing, and sort of honoured to have been bitten by an Arkansas tick. But then I remembered something.
“Do you think I’ve got Lyme disease?” I said.
“I think you’ll be fine,” said M.
“I heard they spread Lyme disease. Is that not true?”
“I’ve known a lot of people who’ve been bitten by ticks, never known any of them with Lyme disease. I think you’re good.”
“Well,” I said, “I’ll tell you if I start to feel weird.”
She made a face, as if to make fun of me. I’d been staying in the loft of the barn; as soon as I walked in, there was a large brown spider sitting on my shoulder (the brown recluse is an Arkansas native); I found snakeskins in the woods, and M’s parents told us, when we were working: “Keep your eyes peeled for copperheads.” So far, I’d fallen victim to chiggers, which leave you in fits of itching. And now, in addition, the tick.
We took the kayaks from the bank and paddled downstream.
The woods around us were still, silent; the only sound the soft thump of an oar breaking the water, or the hiss of a can of beer being opened. We smiled at each other, communicating a sort of relief.
It had not always been easy, working on the farm. We were not allowed to share a room. And there was the emphasis on the traditional, statements about women and “their role,” or “the role of the man,” which set our teeth on edge. A pale, skinny writer, I’d been intimidated by the idea of so much physical work. M had told me, half joking, half serious, “with my dad, every new boyfriend, he has them building fence.”
At a fourth of July party a few days prior, I found myself in an argument with a retired Marine. As part of the family tradition, his son would serve too. Rudely, I addressed his son, telling him he needed to think critically about the military, about why America was at war, so he could make up his own mind. His father and I exchanged hostile words, until (luckily for me) M dragged me from the scene.
As we left the creek, we were carried along on the current, and then floating in its middle, the green forest on each side, emphasising the width of the river. We paddled to the edge so that we could look into the forest, at the vines, trees, banks rich with hidden life.
M pointed at some snapping turtles up ahead, standing perfectly still on tree roots that came up through the dark water. This became our imperative, paddling as quietly as possible so we could get close to them. Every time, the turtles seemed to feel us coming, plopped into the river, and were gone.
I’d never seen snapping turtles in the wild before. There was something delightful and funny about the way they leapt into the water as we approached, as if their bathing on the roots was an act of deepest privacy.
Each morning at six, M and I tackled odd jobs on the farm, watering the orchard, digging potatoes. M’s father taught me how to drive his tractor so I could bring hay from the fields to the barn. The heat made the work much harder than it already was, though we caught the sun, and we felt healthy. Finishing in the afternoon, I’d take an outdoor shower, only a thin wall of tin between my naked form and the Ozarks, the water fresh and cold – M would hand me a beer through the makeshift curtain of cloth. Then we’d write for a few hours, read, or nap.
For M and I, the appeal of this world lay in its sensuality, the light-headedness of physical labour and good food. One night, M’s father and I played music together on the porch (I’d taken my drum set.) We ate meals as a family, talking instead of watching TV. And, as we said grace, I began to feel the prayer connecting to something meaningful, to the toil of the day, to hands pressed into soil, to heat and sweat and the cyclical nature of this place: in the morning, the fields bathed in mist, in the evenings, the sun fading into the mountains; and perhaps most of all to the generosity of her parents. (That her father trusted me to drive his tractor seemed as much a miracle as any other.)
I felt at peace as we drifted downstream.
Then there was the sound of faint thunder in the distance.
“I’m getting tired,” said M.
“It’s going to rain,” I said.
“I know. We should hurry. I don’t want to get caught in a storm.”
I opened another beer.
And for the rest of the way, the thump of our oars in the water seemed ominous, emphasising the silence that followed, the darkness overhead.