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The Clash of Civilizations
The Swedish Wife
by Stephen G. Bloom | Author's Links

They were a strange pair, that's for sure. Pilar was from Stockholm and, as you might expect, had fair skin, very blond hair and drop-dead blue eyes. Before you reach any conclusions, though, let me say this: Pilar was no va-va-va-voom knockout. She was pleasant-looking enough. Her features were rather plain, cut from an assembly line of modest noses, foreheads, chins, cheeks, breasts and butts. She did have a pleasing, self-effacing manner, but that struck you more because it telegraphed distance when you were certain she seemed engaged. Ethnic men and women often lean toward guests at a party, touching hands or forearms to make a point. Pilar kept her distance, eying you cautiously, rarely saying much. The thing about Pilar, though, was that even though she came across as icy, you were sure she didn't mean anything by it. That's just who Pilar was. Maybe she was a product of Swedish stereotypes, after all.
     Having said all this, I was perplexed when I first met Pilar's husband, Charles, who was as Latin as it got. Charles was dark, even swarthy, with a thick, jet-black moustache and a gray-streaked ponytail that slid out from the back of a crumpled beret he wore. Charles had a motor mouth, and on occasion, the only way to shut him up was to get up and say you had to be somewhere else.
     Frankly, I found the whole beret thing rather pretentious. My guess is that most people agreed in my assessment since we weren't living in Paris at the time, but in Bloomington, Indiana. Charles and I had just gotten teaching jobs in the English Department, where we were brand new assistant professors. Charles' specialty was Latin American literature; mine creative writing. We immediately formed a bond for several reasons, one of which was that our colleagues had no place for either of us outliers, who were as far away from classical English literature as possible. There were other reasons for our kinship. We were outsiders to the Heartland. Charles was born in Cuba, and had turned into fast-talking street academic with a Ph.D. from the University of Miami. He had previously taught at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, as well as at one of the Claremont Colleges in Southern California, but when it came to tenure, both institutions had passed him over. At Indiana, Charles was the first Latino the department had ever hired. His publishing record was spotty, less patrician than egalitarian, but how many Latinos with Ph.D's and teaching experience were out there?
     However lowly our colleagues viewed Charles' pedigree from Miami ("I wasn't even aware they had a graduate school there," Arthur Kastor, the department's chair and Shakespeare scholar, asked either incredulously or sarcastically when he first met Charles at that year's MLA convention in Chicago), it certainly was more legitimate than mine. I had gone back to school and received an MFA from San Francisco State after my first book of short stories was published. The slim volume of 128 pages had surprised even me when it got starred reviews in Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus, and was picked as a Selection of the Book of the Month Club. "A model of short-form narrative, destined to be a classic," raved Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times. Who was I to argue? The movie deals my agent had prepared me to weigh carefully never came, but I still had a decent book under my belt, and I naively thought its accolades would put me in good stead with my new colleagues in Bloomington. Boy was I ever naïve. I was soon to discover that anything published by a trade house, not an academic press, was sneered at in the academy. The more copies sold, the more you pandered to the public, and how good could a book be if the public read it? Besides, serious writers were never supposed to make money from their writing.
     I had gotten lucky, though, when it came to this, my first job in higher education. I was an unwitting product of supply and demand. Few professors in the department either wanted to or were capable of teaching creative writing. That, plus a spate of demands from angry students the previous spring to hire a writer not a scholar, for better or worse got me the job in a faculty search that started in late May.
     Our colleagues in the department didn't quite know what to make of Charles and me. Depending on whose perspective you took, either they - or we - were an awfully odd lot. The majority of the faculty was made up of large clubby women whose sense of fashion was white tube socks, Birkenstocks and baggy Chi pants. The men for the most part were effete snobs, experts in narrow topics of obscurity (if they were over 50), or radical deconstructionists of the critical school of cultural analysis (if they were younger). None could write a sentence of less than 50 words and 10 adverbs. For the life of me, while I understood the individual words, I never could figure out what they meant when strung together. A favorite at the time was contextualization; everything had to be contextualized, and once you did that, your argument had to be posited and framed. Among the older set, epistemology was popular, and among the deconstructionists, hegemony was often invoked. Teasing data from the text was also big. At the first fall faculty retreat, when Kastor passed around the table the department's set of goals and objectives, an earnest young professor suggested that a secretary "generalize the document," which I soon gathered meant that she take the pages to the office Xerox machine on the third floor, make 27 copies, and then distribute them to the faculty. I winked at Charles, who nodded his head ever so slightly.
     Charles' nod that day bound him and me together in both an artificial and a real way. We were outcasts because of where we had come from, what we taught, how we viewed the real world, even what we looked like. Actually, what made us pariahs was who we were. Down to the marrow in our bones, we were fundamentally different from our colleagues - certainly we needed to think that. When students gravitated to our classes, closing out our courses during the first day of registration, we both realized what a grave blunder we had committed. Our fellow faculty members might forgive us many missteps, but student popularity would not be among them.
     Actually, when my wife and I first met Pilar and Charles during our third week in Bloomington, we thought they'd be the signs of life we'd need to survive. Charles was earthy. His clothes were particularly rumpled, the shirts wildly wrinkled, the pants not close to being creased. He used his hands when he talked and was more in your face than I had been accustomed to, even back in ethnic San Francisco. On occasion, Charles smelled. He must not have taken a shower for days that first evening when he invited Linda and me over to the small A-frame house near the campus that he shared with Pilar.
     As already noted, Charles and Pilar were a study in contrasts, even down to their names. Pilar was most assuredly not a Swedish name, and Charles was hardly a Cuban moniker, yet as we got to know them over the course of those first years, we realized that this reversal of appellations suited them. In the beginning, at least, Linda and I hoped that Pilar and Charles would serve as a respite from the bland diet of food and friends we had resigned ourselves to when we moved to Bloomington from San Francisco. Although Linda would vigorously deny this, her favorite local restaurant in Bloomington had become The Olive Garden, and this from a woman who in San Francisco rolled gnocchi by hand.
     That first evening at their house, we were eager to get to know both of them. "Come whenever you want; when you get there, you get there," Charles had told me in that grandiose way of his, arms outstretched like a conductor's, when I ran into him at the faculty mailboxes Friday. Charles had made a big deal of the dusty bottle of Port wine he had found at the little grocery store around the corner from their house, and I wanted to reciprocate in some way, so I bought a bottle of Concho y Toro cabernet. As Linda and I made our way through a cluttered porch to their kitchen that evening, we felt as though we were entering through the backdoor of a hole-in-the wall bodega off of Calle Ocho in Little Havana. The aroma of garlic, olive oil and cilantro was powerful and overwhelming. On the stove, something was sizzling, and as we walked through a dense cloud of steam, we were rewarded with smells so fresh and piquant that it is not an exaggeration to say our mouths began to salivate. Pilar had arranged seven platters - marinated squid, ceviche, sautéed mushrooms, chorizo, midnight-sandwich hors d'oeuvres, morros and red beans, and grilled mariscos. With a flourish, Charles opened the Concho y Toro, and the four of us clinked our tumblers. "Salud!" Charles said in a robust, lusty way that made all of us laugh.
     Linda and I sat on a lumpy futon couch, balancing our plates, utensils and wine glasses, as Charles did his best to keep our tumblers filled, all the while exhorting us to try more appetizers, which we found delicious. Pilar joined us in the living room cum dining room, but said little. I thought she must have been preoccupied with the dinner, camarones con alho (shrimp with garlic), and presently excused herself to tend to a cacophony of smells, dishes, pots and pans in the kitchen, not to mention Santiago, a rambunctious black lab that kept on going back and forth from the kitchen to us, nibbling food off Charles' plate.
     "So, are we going to make it here?" I started with Charles, half joking, half serious.
     "Only if these uptight sons of bitches allow us to do what we know how to do."
     I was taken aback by the acidity of Charles' comments, not because of what he said - after all, his sentiments pretty much mirrored my own - but by their intensity.
     "Remember, this is your first academic job. I've been through this twice, and I know these sons of bitches all too well. They'll fuck you at every opportunity. The last thing they want is to open up their club of white boys and girls to us. They'll do everything they can to fuck us."
     Jesus, this was a side of Charles I hadn't seen before. He was bitter, but then again, he knew more about academic politics than I did. Still, the way he spit out fuck and sons of bitches made me sort of wince. I suddenly felt transparent. Being a Jew, I never felt like I belonged to an exclusive club of anything, but then again, no one ever got me confused with being black, Asian or Hispanic. I didn't know how to react, so I stayed quiet for a while, which in this case, probably was the right thing to do. A journalist friend of mine once advised to let silence work for you; the less you say, the better. If you stay quiet, the talker will take up the slack. No one likes dead space.
     During the briefest of silent interludes, I mulled over the last two words of Charles' mini-rant, fuck us. Charles had forcibly put us in the same company, co-joined newcomers from the big city, olive-skinned, male ethnics, strangers knocking on the same shut door. That's the way Charles wanted Kastor and the others to see us. Two peas in a pod was the expression that at the moment came to mind. I wasn't sure this was so good. After a suitable pause, when I was certain not to look at Linda, I volunteered that I thought it prudent to give Kastor and the others a chance. "We just got here. No sense in pissing them off more than our presence already pisses them off. Give 'em some time. They'll get to know us and we'll get to know them."
     It was a reasonable thing to stay, considering all the options, a strategy of neutrality, of moderation. But Charles would hear nothing of it.
     By this time, Linda had adroitly excused herself from what she surely sensed coming. "Poor Pilar. She must need some help in the kitchen. I think I'll go see," Linda said, slithering off the futon couch and rising to her feet in what seemed like one motion. As she rose, I caught Linda arch her eyebrows ever so slightly, and I noticed that when she had said "I think" she gave the words just a hint more enunciation than usual - two signs that meant we'd surely discuss Charles' outburst when we got home that night.
     Charles certainly played the aggrieved renegade, and whether he was or not wasn't the point here. The more wine Charles drank that evening, the more he ranted about these "rural yahoos who'd like nothing better than to bounce our asses out of this place."
     The garlic shrimp were as good as they smelled, and sitting around the table afterwards, Pilar put her hand on Charles forearm, which she seemed to do with the utmost of discomfort, but that did little to still Charles on the matter. Linda tried to get Charles to change the subject of conversation (of course, it really wasn't a conversation at all, more like a scatological screed, and the food had been so wonderful!). Linda was momentarily successful when she fully directed a question to Pilar about how she and Charles had met.
     "It was in Cuba eight years ago, at a writers' convention," Pilar started, allowing for an almost imperceptible smile at Linda's trump. Pilar's announcement was at once interesting and diversionary, which explained why Linda and my subsequent responses were so encouraging.
     "I was finishing my master's degree in Spanish, and had the summer off. A girlfriend and I from Upsala applied for visas to Cuba to attend the exposition. Garcia Marquez was going to be there, so was Octavio Paz and Mario Vargas Llosa. All the big wigs. It was going to be something. The first and only time all these Latin America writers would be in one place at the same time."
     At which point Charles took over. "The whole thing was supposed to be a tribute to Jorge Amado, the Brazilian who'd been passed over for the Nobel Prize every year. They didn't like the fact that he's a communist." When Linda and I looked momentarily blank, Charles said, "You had to have known about the Havana conference. The New York Times, CNN, ABC, everyone was there. It was news. Imagine, a writers' conference making news."
     We nodded, and in fact, were encouraged by this turn of events, even though Charles now had the floor. "So, I got an academic visa, which wasn't hard to get at the time. I had just finished up at Miami, and this was an important conference for me. My parents practically shit out a brick when they learned that I was going, they being from Cuba and hating Fidel so much, but this was business I told them, a place to make connections, to see the writers I'd been studying, although they didn't understand that part of it. My father almost disowned me when he found out I was going. Maybe he thought I'd stay."
     Neither of us bit on that, but Linda, bless her heart, steadfastly refused to let the thread drop. "So, how'd you two hook up?" she asked. "I mean, how'd you get together?"
     Charles preceded to regale us with an elaborate story of getting smashed at a bar in downtown Havana, falling asleep, then waking up somehow to find two Swedish girls surrounded by ten or fifteen Cubans downing mohitos, and how Charles and a writer from Nicaragua suggested that the four of them walk along the promenade to get away from the drunks.
     "Charles just kept on looking at me, smiling, and when he asked why I was there, not at the bar, but at the writers' convention, I said, 'You're not the only one who gets to enjoy these books, you know.'"
     At the end of the week, Pilar returned to Stockholm, and within a month, Charles had gotten the job at the college in New York State. When Pilar finished her studies, she had nothing better to do, so she joined Charles, tutoring students in Spanish, and within several weeks, the two were a couple, happily living in a rented farmhouse in the upper Hudson River Valley.
      "Until the fuckers tried to fuck me," Charles said.
      It was back to Charles and how everyone was trying to screw him. By this time, Charles had lined up four shot glasses on the table and we were sipping what unquestionably was wonderful Port, the stuff Charles had uncovered at the corner grocery store. I kept on noticing the Port level dropping precipitously in the darkened amber bottle as Charles kept on refilling our glasses, all the while explaining in what became increasingly hazy detail to Linda and me how the English department chair did an end run around the promotion-and-tenure committee, and after two years how Charles one morning found out that his contract had not been renewed.
      By this time, I was getting to the point where the room was spinning. That must have been about the time when Charles put that silly beret back on his head. He was stroking his ponytail, foaming at the mouth about threatening the president, the provost, the dean, and the department chair with a lawsuit. I looked around for Pilar, who was nowhere to be found, but maybe she had slipped back into the kitchen. Linda, who can hold her liquor better than I can, must have realized that we at that very moment had to engineer an exit, which we did, as I recall, gracefully under the circumstances. How we got home that night is anyone's guess.
      "Why do the best prospects always turn out to be crazy?" Linda said the following morning as I got up to pee.
      "It wouldn't have been so bad if the food hadn't been so good," I croaked from the bathroom.
      "Isn't that how it always turns out?" Linda said, as I got back under the covers, my head splitting as much from alcohol as from disappointment, thinking that she might not just be talking about Charles and Pilar.
      From that evening on, Charles became a force to contend with. He seemed to take pleasure placing me in the worst of political positions. I wanted to succeed with this motley crew of academics who had every right, if not to outright hate me, certainly be wary of me. I didn't have the Ph.D., the union card, and had somehow slipped through all the checks and balances designed to weed poseurs like me out. I was popular among students. I could not do much of the administrative heavy lifting of the department because I didn't share the same academic knowledge (and rigidity) as my colleagues. Still, at every juncture, there was Charles tweaking our fellow professors. Believe me, by and large, I felt the same way about most of them, but I'd never dream of telling them to their faces that they were incompetent, racist fools. I'd be cast to the stockade with Charles, despite whatever I did to try to distance myself from him. It got to the point that whenever Charles came by my office, I'd give him 15 minutes, and as the second hand struck the appointed number on my clock, I'd get up and say I had a meeting to attend. Sometimes, he'd even walk with me to my imaginary meeting, which called for some fast talking (and walking) to rid myself of Charles, before doubling back around the building to my office.
      "He is trouble," Linda, the mistress of understatement, said to me one evening over pasta and (homemade) pesto sauce. "He's his worst enemy. Hers, too. How does she put up with him?"
      "I wish I knew. Maybe you could learn from her."
      "Yeah, right," Linda said, placing a tiny dollop of pesto into a spoon and then expertly launching it as a projectile at my head.
     One of Charles' problems was that while he was a hustler, like most academics he had no experience in the real world. His time-management skills were non-existent. He was a good teacher, but spent too much time grading student papers, writing pages and pages of comments. When students scanned to the bottom of Charles' undecipherable penmanship and saw a B-, they'd crumple up their papers into a ball and toss them into the wastepaper basket. On end-of-semester course evaluations, several female students wrote that Charles could be "intimidating," a nebulous charge some of the women faculty cooked to mean he was a misogynist. Charles squandered away his research time, applying for Guggenheims and Fulbrights without having the most remote chance of ever being successful. The research papers he did write he submitted to fringe academic journals, adding fuel to Kastor's mounting argument that Charles hadn't jumped through the requisite hoops for tenure. Charles never volunteered for any faculty committees, and when Kastor put him on the department's diversity committee, a natural for both Charles and for Kastor, hushed word whispered in the hallways was that Charles got so angry at something one of the Birkenstock-wearing women professors said that he threw a chair at her. Of course, that never happened, an event turned into hyperbole, a literary device that coincidentally the professor had written a book on (with regard to the novels of Virginia Wolf). But that was Charles' rap, that he was prone to violent outbursts, however unfounded the vague charge was. But this was not a court of law where evidence must be introduced, argued and adjudicated. No one came out and said as much, but Charles' reputation coincided nicely with the faculty's comfort level with each other. Charles had a "Latin temper," and what was worse, some faculty members just shrugged their shoulders, implying well of course, Charles couldn't be blamed for any of it because of his heritage. Not that it was relevant, but all through this period of accusation, Charles wasn't taking care of himself physically. He took these charges seriously. Who wouldn't have? But he started showing up for school wearing shirts with holes in them, dirty pants that smelled of cigarette smoke, garlic and Santiago.
      I wasn't privy to any of the meetings of the faculty's secret tenure-and-promotion committee, so anything I gleaned came from several of my colleagues, who actually weren't all that bad once they lowered their guard. I hated the patrician, elite protocol of academia. To my mind, it was militaristic, based more on rank and longevity than on talent or promise. In a curious way, though, perhaps because I was an outsider to the smoke and mirrors, I somehow was able to sail through tenure. I had set out to publish more short stories and that's what I did. None ever reached the height of my previous success, but in a moderate and steady manner, I was publishing workaday stories that circulated my name in small writerly circles, which my academic colleagues thought was just fine. Enough of that heady, premature fame. I'm quite sure another rave review in the Times would have, in fact, doomed me with my colleagues. I encouraged talk of going to an academic press to put out a second collection of my latest stories. Now that he's one of us, he understands the incremental value of creating knowledge and circulating it among those who matter. I knew this was bullshit, but my job wasn't to force them to come clean to that charge. Maybe that's what separated me from Charles. He was always trying to stick his thumb in their eyes. I went out of my way to shake their hands.
      To no one's surprise, the tenured professors voted to deny tenure to Charles. The dean rubberstamped the faculty's decision, and just when Charles was looking very long in the tooth (at this point, he was just 45), the outgoing provost, a renegade himself, unilaterally overturned the department's vote, and granted Charles the tenure that had so far eluded him at this institution and two others.
     I'm not sure whether my colleagues would call Charles' tenure a pyrrhic victory or not. I think a couple of them actually worried that he'd come back with an Uzi and shoot them. But Charles wasn't violent, just temperamental and egocentric, a man accustomed to getting his own way even when he had no right to it.
     Time has a way of ebbing faster than you'd expect in a slow-moving Midwestern university town, and while walking down near the river one day, Linda and I got to talking about how our hopes were raised, then dashed, years ago by Charles and Pilar. "No American wife would put up with Charles. That's why they're still married. Do you know anyone who'd stay with him?" Linda asked angrier than she usually gets during these kinds of talks. "And besides, he smells!"
     Through it all, at least as far as we could tell, Pilar stayed the dutiful wife. She had gone back to school and had gotten a Master's degree in Spanish, and was about to enter the Ph.D. program in Scandinavian studies. Linda and I rarely saw them socially. We didn't socialize with my colleagues in the department either, but had stitched together a group of friends in Bloomington, some who worked for the university, others who did not.
     We did run into Charles and Pilar not long ago at the local food co-op. That seemed a natural place for all of us to bump into each other. I hadn't seen Pilar for several years. Maybe I had seen her while tooling around town, but I never had stopped to talk to her. It was funny how in even such a small community our paths seldom crossed.
     The Co-op had just started a bakery, and while it was ridiculously expensive, it was the only place to go if you wanted anything but the squishy white bread at the Kroger. Charles was wearing his beret, and for some reason, outside of the department, in this little hippy grocery store surrounded by students hurrying to the checkout lines, I for the first time realized how gray his hair had gone. When I spotted him, Charles was talking to a Co-op employee slicing a loaf of bread, using the bread-slicing machine.
     "You really ought to carry Cuban bread," I overheard Charles telling the blond girl, who was no more than 21. "Midnight sandwiches on a French baguette are not kosher. There's just something that doesn't taste right about them. Cuban bread, now that's good bread." The girl said nothing as she pressed down on the machine. At that point, Charles was just an irksome old man bothering her, haking a chainik is what my grandmother would have called it.
     Pilar stood by Charles, who was carrying over his shoulder a nylon grocery sack. As soon as Pilar saw Linda and me, she smiled. It was the same smile I remembered from the first night so many years ago at their house. "So nice to see both of you," Pilar said. "It's been so long. We really must get together. Don't you think, Charles?"
     We all agreed, and promised to set up another dinner soon.    


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