The last kid of the day needed help organizing her European history notes. Every night they take notes on the fat book, crossing terms off a long list.
This same class was taught to me by a fat man with a perfectly spherical belly and a nasal drone. He had a vanity plate made for his car with his initials followed by the letters, PHD.
“You know how this all ends?” I said to the kid. “Everybody dies. Everybody. Including us.”
She smiled faintly, creased her looseleaf, dutifully read until she found the boldface term from the sheet, wrote it on the piece of looseleaf, highlighted it in pink, crossed it off the handout. I made sure she didn’t copy all the words out of the book, just the important ones. For nearly an hour we sat, looking at two huge pages in the big, fat book.
Some chart of inbred monarchs took up merciful space. Parliament, the Puritans, Oliver Cromwell. Why must we be interminably tortured by the machinations of these long-dead Brits? Who cares what blood was shed on their rainy island?
We can’t know everything that happened, or even anything that happened. There’s hardly even time to figure out what happened to us. I scroll back time in my texts, examine the paltry evidence, and still don’t know why. There are no answers, in the textbook or the texts.
In the bookstore across the street, I could make out the title of a novel. In the novel in the bookstore there was a far more interesting story about people who never even lived that was somehow more true than the supposed facts in this big, fat book.
I asked the kid how everything else was going. Good, she said. I wanted her to think about the future, not the past. What did she want to be when she grew up? She had thought she’d be a lawyer, but lately in English they were studying Freudian psychology, and that was pretty interesting, so maybe a psychologist? Oh, also, they had been talking about “exi-sten-tialism?” and that was really interesting.
I let her talk. The sheet of terms, “Oliver Cromwell,” “Glorious Revolution,” “William and Mary,” “Acts of Toleration,” “Bill of Rights,” lay reproachfully. I began to feel guilty about taking the parents’ money to talk to the kid about ideas we both found interesting. How dare we speak of ideas in the café? How dare we talk and converse, when there were boldface names of dead people to memorize?
What a weakness I had, I thought, for existential thoughts, and existential thinkers. What refuge I once took first in ideas, and stories, and even supposed facts. When I had the big, fat textbook there was no such thing as texting.
And forgetting for a moment the difference between our stories, and the years between the years, I wanted to weep, watching her turn the pages of history. Not for what had happened, but what might. Someone would break her heart one day, or maybe already has, though she has serious eyes and a strong, quiet voice and constellations painted on her black fingernails.