The longer Henry taught, the clearer it became that his was the last generation that would remember a world before technology had thoroughly consumed everyone’s life. This fact made him feel pleasantly anachronistic, as did the wool tweed coats he’d started wearing during his first year as an assistant professor. He imagined he now looked something like the white haired professors he’d studied with in college: they’d lectured enthusiastically and earnestly about biological theory, pausing now and then to bemoan the disaster science writing had become since the ubiquity of the personal computer. He couldn’t pretend to that charming a level of technophobia, but he still felt, bubbling up in his throat like a not-quite swallowed mouthful of beer, that all the dozen, or perhaps two dozen, times he checked his email every day were a complete and total waste of time. Weren’t there better things he could (and should) be doing with his day? Like reading the journals he insisted the department subscribe to, or writing that now long overdue article, or taking a look at those peer-review essays?
Despite all these responsibilities, he apparently had plenty of time for Facebook, that moronic website everyone he knew had recently become enamored of, primarily, it seemed, so they could spy on friends from the past they hadn’t bothered to keep in touch with, which was exactly what he used it for. Since joining the website he’d reconnected with dozens of old college and high school friends. Well, not friends, but former friends. He tailored his information so they could all easily see that he was now a professor of biology at a liberal arts college in Maryland. They’d see he was married, would see his little girl was five years old, and that his wife was still beautiful. And no one would know they’d grown so distant from one another that he took every excuse – a cold, his wife’s cold, insomnia, real or faked – to sleep on the living room couch with the dog curled at his feet, cramping his back.
It was through Facebook that he’d ended up getting back in touch with Brian, whom, in college, they’d all called Tower. Though Henry and Brian had lived together for three years, they’d fallen out of contact as soon as college had ended. Over the past thirteen years, Henry had only heard about Tower through common friends: apparently, he’d moved back to Richmond, and had bought an enormous house in the suburbs where he lived, alone. Henry had laughed when he heard this: it was so exactly Tower, so within the lines of convention and yet so distinctly outside them. He’d often imagined his old friend in his big white house, every window dark but the one that flickered with a sickly blue light as he hunkered over a video game controller.
The vividness of this image was perhaps what had propelled him to look Tower up on Facebook and then, when he had a paper accepted at a conference at MCV, he’d sent an email and suggested they meet up. Tower wrote back and said that’d be great, and to call any time, or just show up and why not just stay out at his house? There’d been no chance Henry would do that – his hotel was paid for by a research travel grant – and, anyway, the main reason he went to conferences was to have a few days alone, a few dozen hours of quiet when he remembered what it was like to be able to think. Whenever he first entered those anonymous conference hotel rooms he felt light and ageless and could pretend that maybe he in fact was the person he’d always imagined he’d become; a well respected and even admired academic, and not the person he seemed to be, a tired, grumpy, thirty-eight year old man caught in an unhappy marriage that was held together by a shy daughter who often seemed almost afraid of him.
This story can be read in its entirety in the Summer 2010 issue of The Antioch Review.