A Glimpse of Hope
By Dirk van Nouhuys
A guy used to work for me who had been a professor of Slavic Languages. His tenured position was two or three jobs back on his resume and not relevant to what I was hiring him for, so in his hiring interviews I didn’t question him about his exit from academia, and some how after that it was impossible to ask. He was a handsome guy in his early 50s with broad shoulders, flax-colored hair fading thoughtfully to white, and live body language. His light eyes were alert, aggressive, friendly but constantly probing skeptically. Perhaps his eyesight was one reason he was an excellent tennis player, better than I, and we played regularly during the time he worked for me. I prefer to play people who have about my skill, or a little better to stretch my game, which made me wonder if in playing with me he was needlessly fawning, if he was playing to keep in good with the boss, which he did not need to do because his excellent work spoke for itself. There was something in him that was a little hypocritical, and yet defied anyone questioning him; skepticism seemed to bounce of his chest.
What he was hired to do was write computer manuals, which he called ‘computer shit writing’. He never pretended to respect his work or respect himself for doing it; he did it for the money and did it well. He specialized in writing about something called object-oriented programming. Most people think of computer programming, if they think of it at all as they daily use it, as a long set of instructions like one of those French recipes you struggle to follow step by step for hours, but often in object-oriented programming you spend most of the program defining carefully the data it is going to use, and, if you do that right, end with a brief instruction to make it all happen, like a recipe for an intricate omelet where you carefully specify each ingredient, and finally say: mix and sauté. Programmers who had been trained in the old sort of narrative programming often had trouble learning to work in this more poetic way, but his writing helped them.
He was the kind of man who had difficulty keeping relationships with women. He tended to see them in white and black. His affairs lasted a year or two, at first filled with hope, and then with ironic disappointment. When I first met him, he was going with an Asian American woman. He brought her to a lavish company party. There was free champagne and mountains of shrimp and a middle-level rock band. She was quite Asian in style, clasping my hand in both of hers and saying she was grateful to me for the opportunity to come, as if I were responsible for company functions, and she visibly sparkled at her lover whenever she turned to him. When I commented to him about this later, he said, “O, she knows how to jerk my leash when she needs to.” Within a year he told me with a mock-nonchalant, sardonic smile that she had returned to her husband.
He had married in his early 20s and divorced after a few years. He had not spoken to his wife in two decades, and seemed comfortable with that arrangement, but intermittent conflict and estrangement from his son, who had been raised by his mother, was a chronic torture to him.
We shared fondness and admiration for Chekhov and in particular his novella, “The Woman with the Pet Dog”. The title is variously rendered but he strongly preferred that translation. It tells the story of a married flâneur who strikes up a casual affair with a woman, also married, at a resort on the Black Sea. After years of sporadic, tacky rendezvous, on the last page he comes to feel that their relationship was the only meaningful event in his life.
One day we were playing tennis in a park that adjoined a typical Cupertino apartment complex, which showed us only a three-story wall interrupted by the small, frosted windows of bathrooms of apartments that surrounded an unseen courtyard with a pool. The tennis courts were laid out so that in this game my friend had his back to a wire fence and behind that a gravel path that ran between the courts and the wall. It was spring and the air was fresh but quickening with the incipient heat of noon. I noticed a woman walking on the gravel path behind my friend. As Tolstoy often describes Anna Karenina, she was full figured but with small hands and feet and a light step, made all the crisper in this case by very high heels, which crunched in the gravel. She wore tight white slacks and a ruffled blouse, and her blonde hair was a mass of curls. She moved along idly, her pace determined by the sniffing and scratching of a frisky, white Pomeranian on her leash.
I soon lost the game and we approached each other to change courts. When we met at the net pole I drew his attention to the scene behind him with a gesture of my head. As he turned to look I said in jest, “Do you think she is the one?” He continued looking for a long moment, then shook his head ruefully, and we resumed our game. But for the duration of that moment I saw his eyes had lost their skeptical aggressiveness, softly filled with hope beyond hope, and then emptied.