AT LUNCH WITH LAURA in the student cafeteria, Les stood in line with a tray, and loaded up from the selection of comfort foods, potatoes, meatloaf, tacos, pizza, and burgers. He told her about his self-transcendent experience with the fishflies under the country bridge years ago, hoping to lead her into a discussion of knowledge based semi-mystical achievements.
“Sounds like a religion to me,” she said with her customary smirk, looking a bit like Drew Barrymore in that crazy movie about Chuck Barris.
“Well, in a way,” Les said, checking himself, “but I think the important element is the being outside of one’s self that is, you know, the thing of it . . . and how that was, and can be, . . . achieved through uh, you know, a solid appreciation of nature, the knowledge of nature.”
“What?” she said, wrinkling up her nose as they settled at a vacant table.
“I’m just trying to put into words the experience, that mystic’s self-transcendence, you know, that experience of losing your-self, through a sort of deeper understanding.” Les paused for a moment and while watching Laura shovel her meal into her mouth added, “it’s a kind of . . . ineffable-“
“I didn’t get enough potatoes, did you try those potatoes? They are goot!” she said in her play voice.
“I, no,” he chuckled, “I . . . I just think that apparent meaning in things is different than the subjective meaning we often add to things.”
She made a moue.
“You know, like some composer writing a symphony and saying it’s about the creation of the universe, or about the battle of Loos, or something.” Les poked a bit of chicken, thinking, “I mean, how can an A-note be about anything? It’s just a freakin’ note, it’s devoid of symbolic purpose, . . . I mean, the composer can say it’s about such and such, but does that really add anything to the appreciation of something purely fuckin’ tonal?”
Laura didn’t respond, a few moments passed while they ate.
“Anyway, I think it’s kind of a fascinating question-” Les re-attempted kindling a discussion.
“I’m going back for more,” Laura said suddenly and jumped up, leaving him leaning forward over his plate. He went back to forking chicken enchilada casserole into his mouth and letting his eyes roam the room full of undergrads.
He noted with dismay the number of young women who were dressed in their pajamas and house slippers, as if lounging in their parents’ house. Big screen televisions broadcast The Price Is Right every day, and there were students watching the show, sucking on their fingers, their feet on the chairs.
Les tried to analyze what he found so ridiculous about their behavior. It was something to do with the odd level of comfort they possessed despite being out in public, carelessly in their sleeping clothing, like little children. But then, it was possible that they had somehow decided that the dining hall was in close enough proximity to the dorms, that they really were at home sort of. Just a short walk down a cement path cutting through some greenery, easy enough in fuzzy slippers. All it required was forgetting that there were hundreds of strangers seeing you in your PJs.
It all made Les feel uncomfortable, he didn’t want to see them watching daytime television in their lazing about outfits. He wanted them to be grown ups, stimulating, exciting people. Passionate? He wanted them to be mature, to care about things, to participate in some kind of adult culture. He wanted to rail against them maintaining their childhoods like those church people who want to expand their religious culture bubbles to include all public spaces.
Laura returned with a big helping of soft serve ice cream covered in chocolate, evidently giving up on the potatoes.
“The line for the ice cream is ridiculous,” she said, rolling her pretty brown eyes as she took a mouthful of it, “Oh it is so awesome!” She said this with an exaggerated enthusiastic deep voice. This always made Les laugh.
“Is there any deeper hell than day-time television?” Les said, gesturing with his chin over his shoulder at the big screen.
Laura glanced at the television and went back to her ice cream, “I don’t know,” she said kind of listlessly.
“Look at those kids over there, enraptured,” Les said, nodding at the undergrads in their pajamas and chuckling.
Laura glanced over between spooning her soft serve, “It’s a comfort for them.”
Exactly his point, Les nodded.
“They get to recreate being home,” Laura said. “It’s not hurting anyone, so what if they choose to while away their free time with crap television?”
“I guess I wonder why they bother to come to university; isn’t there anything here more engaging than that?” Les rubbed his chin with his napkin and cleaned the grease off his mouth. “Maybe the university isn’t challenging them enough.”
Laura looked concerned, “What do you care what they do?”
“I’m, you know, I’m just observing.”
“You’re constantly criticizing, you can’t be happy like that. You’re always looking for ways to be miserable,” Laura said with some stress in her voice.
“I’m just thinking about things. I’m curious about people,” Les defended simply, “I’m just trying to understand them.”
“What’s there to understand? They’re kids watching TV.” She finished her ice cream and checked her phone for the time.
“Don’t you think it’s interesting, I mean . . .” Les thought about it a moment, Laura looked annoyed, “that children could be raised in sewers-“
“Actual sewers, you mean?” Laura interrupted with a skeptical air, her brow lowered, she was having none of this.
“Yep, right under Main Street . . . children, they aren’t self aware, they can’t compare their world to anyone else’s, like dogs, dogs don’t know some dog has a better life than theirs,” Les said.
“Mmm,” Laura said, leaning back in her chair and folding her smooth arms, “I guess.”
“They could be raised in actual sewers, later on they grow up,” Les said, smiling, “and actually, sort of reminisce about the sewer.”
“Uh huh,” Laura offered distractedly.
“Former sewer babies might even argue that those were the best years of their lives, you know, frolicking in the waste,” Les piled the plates on his tray readying them for transport to the drop off near the exit. “Momma’s sewer foraged dinners were the best!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Laura said, suspicious of the tact Les was taking, examining him as if he were wearing a tin-foil skull cap.
“The point is,” Les pressed on, “I think people just want, or think they want, . . . or they value the most, whatever, . . . whatever is familiar to them,” he said waving his hand at the big screen television. “They love what is familiar, they never challenge themselves and in many ways that means no growth, just endless childhood, endless comfort. And the university is trying not to challenge them too much, trying to maintain them, holding their hands so they don’t drop out, so they don’t lose money.”
Laura screwed up her nose and made a sort of baby-faced sneer, “I don’t think you have that quite right.”
“Well then, there has to be some kind of criteria with which you judge what you love, right? In other words, you need to have an idea of why you think some things have value, you know what I mean?” Les paused, “some things have value, some don’t,” Les was watching a woman jumping up and down with exaggerated enthusiasm on The Price Is Right, old Bob Barker hosting. “And someone’s got to be responsible, somehow we have to maintain the education as being of value, we can’t just lower the bar so far that kids who do nothing but watch TV are easily pushed through the system . . . graduated, you know, our best so-called intellectuals.”
Laura looked at him blankly.
“Oh, uh-also, this happiness thing, I mean,” Les returned to Laura’s earlier remarks about his criticism, “just maintaining happiness, don’t you think happiness due to lack of knowledge is no real achievement?”
“What are you talking about now?” Laura wrinkled her nose, her brow creased with worry.
Les stood up balancing the dishes, “Can you imagine doing that show for forty or so years?” he gestured at the television, “That’s some dedicated passion.”
“I guess,” Laura sniffed.
They headed out of the cafeteria, they walked past the young women in their PJs, enraptured by the televisions. Les deposited their waste, and dropped their utensils into the soapy water, letting the conveyor belt take the rest of the food and dishes. Les caught a glimpse of the Hispanics and blacks working in the kitchen in the steamy heat, hairnets on their heads. When he first arrived he had been struck by how everyone in the service sector of the university had been a minority, but he’d gotten used to it.
Signs all over the doors proclaimed no food was allowed out of the cafeteria as they pushed through them.
Laura took his hand, hers under his, and they walked together quietly back to Lebrun Hall.