I’ve found myself spending a lot of time staring very closely at things recently. There’s a moment in the movie Blue, a lyrical piece about a woman coming to grips with the death of her husband, when she slowly dips a sugar cube into her coffee and she watches the coffee as it diffuses layer by layer into the cube, always getting ever so slightly higher in the cube than in the air.
My partner, my lover, she’s still alive, but I also am facing the prospect of losing her, even if only for a few years. She is trying to cheer me up, making funny faces and jumping around in a futile effort to make me look at my computer screen, where she takes care of me from the other end of the earth, and make me feel better about life. I cannot take my eyes off the muscle at the base of my thumb, watching in rapt fascination as the lines appear and merge and split and disappear as I slowly, ever so slowly, move my thumb. Or I watch each car as it passes by on the sliver of highway visible from my home. The object of my rapture is not important, it is an empty pitcher into which I blankly pour my brain so that it may take a different shape. Any shape but the shape it is in if I look at her and let myself feel.
Now I am looking at the clock she picked out, the first thing she picked out for the house and one of only a few, and feel my usual mild discomfort at the smooth unticking motion of its second hand. The house did not come furnished, why could she not pick more of the furniture? It took her two years to go from finishing her work to getting her PhD. My job here was for three years. The time it took her isn’t considered exorbitant in academia, and my job is considered to be a long one. It is just part of being an academic that we can not plan our life to be together.
Sharply, she orders me to look at her again. I oblige. Don’t worry. she says, you’ll get the job. The only job in the same city. It has come time to wrap up this job, this job that would have allowed us to be together. I cannot re-apply for the same job, and there is one other job in the same city. My happiness is dependent on my winning a single competition against hundreds of others, and there are almost no alternative paths to it.
I mumble about watering the plant and get up. My toe catches on the empty plastic bag that’s been lying for the last few days on the floor next to my table, moves it another inch. The Indian subcontinent moves north an inch every century, surely this bag will get to the dustbin eventually. What’s the point of cleaning up when there is no one around and nowhere to go?
2020 has changed so much for me. If I had spent it with my family, I would have found myself embroiled in a hundred pointless internecine conflicts about both the most significant and the most trivial things, simultaneously. As I actually spent it, I had to seek human connection by joining a slack group of grocery volunteers.
Thanks to academia, I am in a country in which I have no network, to which I have no connection. Thanks to academia, I am almost completely dependent on my partner for human connection. Thanks to academia, I will no longer have her.
Having watered the plant, I come back to the computer. I ask her to tell me about the farmers’ protests. They are facing an existential threat to their livelihoods, but at this moment I am almost envious of them for having the space to worry about real problems. We talk about it for a while, and then she needs to go to sleep. I cut the call, I pick up my pen, admire for a few moments the cantankerous cacophony of the five fonts with which the brand name is written. I tear my eyes away, so that I can create a break in time. A break that allows me to re-orient my consciousness, so that I may refocus my mental energy.
I am now the perfect academic.