Gustav and Leon met at Falafel King. Gustav was a closet smoker, Leon a nude model. They came to tolerate these alter egos, each secretly embarrassed by the other’s debauchery. They’d discovered, in line, that besides sharing a taste for baba ganoush, they both held the opinion that everyone at Jaundice College was a Marxist. Had they been gay, their lives would have been set, for they were truly perfect for one another. Gustav led seminars on Neorealist Cinema and biked; Leon lectured on Russian Literature and chased women.
Their conversations went something like this:
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I hate Visconti.
Why don’t you drop him from the syllabus?
I hate the syllabus.
Why are you teaching this stuff, then?
To be perverse.
They were the right people to open up a corner coffee shop. Of this fact, Leon was certain. He wanted to make more money than the small pittance earned from nights of nudity at the local art school. Of course, they’d need a backer, to get started. But Leon was quite sure he could convince Gustav to go in on the venture, especially as a creative project. Their conversations went something like this:
Gus, it’s a fail-safe plan.
Business? I don’t have the time, the energy … the death wish…
Don’t think of it as a job. Don’t think of it as an investment. Just imagine … shelves lined with every book you always wished was in a coffee shop, tables of feminists smoking over their latest novellas, students reading Dostoyevsky for the first time —
Yes, yes, coffee. We’ll host fireside chats. Hold Readings. Play Edith Piaf in the background.
As bakers mix chunks of chocolate in cookies, so Leon dropped morsels of wisdom into silences. After pausing for effect, an interruption enduring almost the length of John Cage’s 4’33”, Leon would announce that the ancient Greeks had believed that it was enough to live an excellent life. He’d sigh and scratch his beard, eyes staring through the yellowing water stain in the top right corner of the classroom. The moments of drama, having nothing whatsoever to do with the arc of his lectures, having everything to do with Tolstoy, greater education, and the professorial persona, were essential to Leon’s lectures. He firmly believed that any interruption of War and Peace was a move to save the educational system. And the system, on the whole, was failing.
On a particularly be-morseled day, a student approached Leon after class.
This student was Oklahoman — about as much of a foreigner as a person can be while still calling himself American. His voice had a sing-song quality, oscillating like the pendulum of a bolo tie that swung from his rubbery neck. He took notes and smoked — a pack of pencils and a pack of Marlboros per day. The madman had surprising influence over Leon for two reasons. One: he was a product of Leon’s mind. And two: he thought the system reeked.
You’ve got to meet this guy, Leon said one night through a mouthful of falafel. Gus, he’s practically a member of the lumpenproletariat — he has no stake in the economic system. I don’t even think he’s enrolled in the university.
Gustav, however, was a bit more interested in talking about a student who’d been giving him the eye the other day.
You’re starting to sound like one of those Marxists you’re always going on about. Leon, I’m sure he’s great, but I have a major ethical dilemma over here. It’s classic — I never thought it’d happen to me.
What are you talking about?
Selena. My student. She was flirting with me through my whole screening of Bitter Rice.
Santis. What should I do?
Listen, Gus. Let’s all get together — the four of us. We’ll see what they think about the coffee shop.
The four of us? Listen, how many times do I have to tell you that I’m not interested in that plan? Anyway, I can’t take Selena anywhere.
I’ll ask my student, you ask yours. We’ll have a good time. Just a meeting of professors and students.
They met up in the neighboring town. The buildings were aligned on the road like browning, crooked teeth. The occasional empty lot gaped — a break in uniformity, a missing tooth. In one such empty space, a man walked in circles.
The foursome entered a yellow pub. They sat in sync, wooden chairs clunking on a wooden floor. They consumed beer, the oldest, most widely consumed alcoholic beverage and the most popular drink after water and tea. Two present were well-versed in the art of seduction: the madman caressed Leon’s thoughts with his own while Selena grazed Gustav’s arm with her nipple. Each tantalized with calculated strokes. Each pushed just hard enough and then receded.
They left the town in pairs. On Monday Gustav would croon about silken hair. Leon would nod, his mind on the madman’s ruminations. Gustav would sigh about what could never be. Leon would ponder what could.
The affairs became obsessions.
With a forked tongue, the madman bisected “the system” into advocates for and contenders against. He argued for revolution without cause. He called for contrariness. As their interactions increased in frequency, Leon began to realize that he no longer believed in the whole thing.
The system, Gus. The fucked-up system.
I teach Crime and Punishment and my students think Dostoyevsky was a genius. They never question his authority. But what if Dostoyevsky was wrong? He uses his protagonist to prove that justice exists. But what if
What if what? What if there is no justice, is that what you’re saying? Why don’t you go read Nietzsche with the rest?
I’m saying that you have to kill off a character to figure out about justice. If Cain never killed Abel?
Then they’d both be alive. You’re going mad. You’re incoherent. Why don’t you grow up and stop acting like my eighteen-year-old student.
… Are you still seeing Selena, then?
Gustav was still seeing Selena. No. It wasn’t right. She’s my student.
Leon soaked a bit of pita in olive oil until it was saturated. This is what I’m talking about, Gus. Why not? Why don’t you just fuck her? It doesn’t matter.
Gus winced as Leon raised the pita to his lips and took a bite, olive oil oozing from the pores of bread and dribbling down his chin.
One day in his youth Leon had prayed and looked for a sign from God. That sign had not been forthcoming, although the sudden appearance of bird poop on his shoulder could have been deus ex machina of spittle upon his foolish request. Now he was looking for the non-sign, the anti-sign. The other day he’d been walking across campus and had encountered a couple having an argument. Faceds purpled, the kids were clawing the air. From what he could gather, the fight was about the exigencies of capitalism. Something about a poor miserable army. Faceless, jobless people. Later, one of the kids had appeared in his office to clarify a grade and had revealed that the fight had been part of a performance art piece. The kid, wearing sawdust-colored pants and a brown shirt, was in awe of nothing.
Leon was through with the play-acting. Look, kid, art is born out of horror, he wanted to say.
In his office across campus, Gustav watched Selena from his office chair. He was fascinated with the parts of her body that folded — the inner elbows and the backs of the knees. The hairs that grew in these places were microscopic in skin doughy like baby flesh. He wanted to consume her, not sexually but emotionally. He wanted every one of those hairs, a small army, to stand at attention when he passed.
Leon didn’t have a brother. He needed to do it but he didn’t have a brother. And he wouldn’t be able to stomach it, at any rate. He hadn’t been pre-med in college, not because he hadn’t been career-driven — academia required certain professional aspirations — but because he’d hated blood. He’d hated blood so he’d studied literature.
Regardless, there was something missing.
Leon couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t read. He gnawed at the problem for days. He finally had to admit to himself, however, that fratricide only required a brother of sorts. “And he said, ‘What hast thou done? The voice of they brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.’” Genesis 4:10. And so, a week later, Leon bared his teeth at Gustav in a smile.
I’m not in the mood for falafel tonight.
What do you mean? Gustav was a little taken aback.
I just mean that maybe we should try something new.
There’s an Italian joint down the way.
Or we could order in.
Order in? Leon, what?
Great idea, Gus. Let’s order in. You know, we could definitely order in.
They sat in opposing chairs. Gustav thought that the open Chinese food boxes scattered between them looked like the mouths of silent baby birds. Bits of carpet fuzz clumped on the floor only served to further the illusion of a bird’s nest. To Leon, the boxes were more like a collection of pulled molars.
The knife was weighty in Leon’s right jacket pocket. He tried to think about anything else that would distract him from the knowledge that in a few minutes, Gustav would be dead. He took a shallow breath and thought about the student in his office: the bland pants, bland shirt. The kid’s face. The overall impression of sawdust. “To stand in awe of nothing, Numicus, is perhaps the one and only thing that can make a man happy and keep him so.” Horace, the Epistoles.
Leon stood up. He closed the distance between his and Gustav’s chair, crushing several takeout boxes in the process. White rice exploded at his feet. Gustav was talking about literature, drunkenly raving about one of his favorite books. Leon couldn’t make out any of the words. He crouched near Gustav’s feet, pretending to help himself to broccoli and garlic sauce. The knife was out, and fluids would soon pool in the Chicken Lo Mein. The madman was calm, collected, noting only that sweet and sour sauce had always looked a bit like blood jelly. As Leon slowly raised himself up, weapon clutched behind his back, he understood a little of Gustav’s babbling.
Perhaps Gustav had just felt like talking about Dostoyevsky. Or, perhaps Gustav had understood all along what Leon had meant by “order in.” They both knew the name. Every student of Russian literature knew the name, feared the name, loved the name. Leon had based his career on the name.
At that thought, Leon turned quickly and slid the knife back into his pocket. Shaking, he sank into the food. There would be no murder.
After that night, Gus and Leon saw each other on occasion at Falafel King. Their conversations were stilted. Gus continued to see Selena until she graduated, at which point he started seeing another of his students. Leon avoided the madman but continued half-heartedly to plan his coffee shop. Occasionally he thought about an odd incident that had occurred while he’d been walking home the night of ordering in. He’d passed an empty lot across the street and had been able to make out a man walking in circles. At first, the man had seemed to look a great deal like him. Some squinting revealed that the man was, in fact, featureless, in every way. Leon had stumbled resolutely onwards, figuring it was time to sleep the alcohol out of his system.