Though he had theretofore resisted the diminutive form of his name, in his new office, Randolph felt, for the first time, like a Randy.
If Randolph were truthful, he could admit that he began acting like a Randy months before Isabela and especially the week before the holiday. That Tuesday, after Isabela had wished him a tepid ‘Happy Thansgiving’ and he was sure she was gone for the weekend, Randolph had picked up the little silver picture frame on her desk and spit-washed her face and meagre breasts through the glass, swirling his index finger until she blurred into a mucoid uni-boob. He returned the frame, packed his things into two blue copy-paper boxes and shuttled them to his new office, hoping his bonsai would survive the transition and the dark holiday. Even with the lamps he purchased, the room was dim, but he determined to keep the fluorescents off. His new office sat at the back of a musty corner near the janitorial closet, but it was, he reassured himself, his musty corner. He drove home for the break pleased with his victory and the progress and restraint he showed in achieving it.
Before Isabela, DIY was the subject of Randolph’s irritation, and before DIY, Crystal, before Crystal, Fatima, and before Fatima, Randolph’s mother, the Virgin Mary and a girl who sneered at him in second grade.
Before Isabela, when Randolph was first hired at Wilma Randolph, an HBCU, the department chair, Carol, introduced him to Dr. Ivan-Yorke, saying that he should meet with her at least twice during the semester so that she could provide a letter for his file. Other than the fact that Randolph and DIY were two of the only three black professors in the department, he wasn’t sure why he was assigned to Ivan-Yorke. She didn’t work in his specialisation and hadn’t written anything of note in decades. Her eyes sat high on her head and deep in her face, which, because of its plumpness, reminded Randolph of gingerbread dough. Randolph had seen her the day of his interview limping down the narrow hallway in what he described later to his friend Reggie as some sort of funereal mumu but which at the time struck him as a plain black dress.
‘This is Dr. Randolph Green, a new assistant professor,’ Carol had said, ‘from Preston.’ Dr. Ivan-Yorke glared coolly down her square glasses before lifting her head slightly and gesturing for Randolph to examine the collection of office mugs displayed on her shelves. Randolph’s glance—for he was astute at times—picked up a DIY theme. One mug, lavender with white lettering, said, ‘Keep Calm and Do It Yourself.’ Another said, ‘A Job Is Never Done until I’ve Done It.’ Carol looked at him apologetically, laughing a little. ‘That’s right. I forgot to tell you that everyone here calls Dr. Ivan-Yorke ‘DIY.’ Her favourite saying is—’
‘Do it yourself,’ DIY interrupted, with one flaccid arm raised toward her collection.
‘Ha,’ Randolph forced.
‘Come closer,’ DIY whispered. ‘I’ve been here for over twenty years.’
There was no one in the hallway or the nearby offices. Randolph didn’t understand why she spoke so quietly.
‘I’ve read some of your work,’ DIY mouthed. ‘Why did you leave the prestigious Preston?’
‘You know,’ Randolph said. ‘Wanted to try something different.’ He didn’t say what he told others: that he wanted a reprieve from performing his status as an anti-stereotype or that he needed a break from the beneficence of liberal guilt, all eyes on him, the expectations of smiling, gesturing women. He felt one of his migraines already. They started in the small indentation at the base of his head, where neck meets pituitary cavity. The veins constricted as though a nylon cable were forcing the blood up, up and out of his forehead. Pressure flooded the ocular nerves, concentrating itself behind one eye or the flat bone around his temple. He felt no aura, only the violence of it all.
‘You know how it is,’ Randolph repeated.
‘I don’t,’ DIY said, turning back to her desk.
Carol and Randolph saw themselves out of the office.
Randolph hadn’t wanted to share an office any more than he’d wanted to teach at a historically black university, but Wilma Rudolph is the only other university in the city and was the only one still looking for an advanced assistant professor in the late spring, and by then he’d have done anything to get away from Preston and what he and Reggie called its ‘tyranny of whiteness.’ It turned out, to Randolph’s dismay, that while the students at Wil U were mostly black, the faculty was nearly as homogeneous as Preston’s, especially in the humanities. The school, he felt, was run almost entirely by women, and Randolph came to understand them as an unholy sisterhood of pseudo-feminists, with DIY as their unofficial leader, Carol their henchwoman-in-training and Isabela their likely successor. A black man, he told Reggie, was just as much a token there as on the other side of the city.
The consolation prize for the job was his double office with the most enviable windows in the building. The other non-tenured faculty members were housed in two slums on the third and fourth floors of the building, sitting five or six people to spaces that should be called carrels. But the two faculty members who shared the office previously left on short notice, bequeathing to Randolph a large well-lit space of his own. Until Isabela.
She was hired in late September, a month into the school year, after the department chair of Spanish and Portuguese received complaints from students that their class was unassigned to an instructor. A professor from the Spanish department walked into Randolph’s office with a woman at her side, gestured toward the partition and second desk and told Isabela, ‘This will be yours,’ before she introduced herself and Randolph’s new office mate. Isabela smiled in a way that most people, including Randolph, would perceive as warm, and asked his department.
‘English, Literature really,’ Randolph smiled back.
‘Oh, good. You will help me. I’m from Venezuela. My writing in English is not so good.’
‘Well, neither is my Spanish,’ he’d laughed.
‘This is my first time teaching in the States,’ she said. ‘I taught in Venezuela.’
‘It’s my first time teaching at an HBCU, too,’ Randolph wanted to make that clear.
‘It’s a beautiful campus, very green,’ she said.
‘It’s a campus,’ he said.
She smiled and nodded for a reason Randolph couldn’t interpret, then began to unpack the little rolling suitcase she had brought. Randolph showed her where to find office supplies, how to adjust the thermostat, which had a tendency to stick, and how to sign up for the university’s text-alert system. At Preston, crimes on or near campus were summarised in a monthly email from PR, probably to minimise the sense of widespread criminality, though the numbers were likely similar to Wil U’s. At Wil U, crimes were part of the daily tableau. Alert: reported sexual assault on the fourth floor of Wiley. Alert: students robbed outside of McGill. Alert: black Mitsubishi Gallant stolen from West Featherringhill parking lot. Sometimes students sounded like they were going to fight in the hallway. Once, two faculty members did. The anxiety didn’t even register for Randolph anymore, he said, but he thought Isabela, especially as a woman, should be prepared.
Isabela, however, seemed almost unfazed as Randolph told her the stories. She nodded, her eyes serious as he spoke. ‘The school where I taught in Caracas is very violent.’
‘Hmm,’ he said. ‘Where I grew up was rough, but I didn’t expect it at a university, even one in the South or in the hood.’ He put the word in scare quotes. ‘Ghetto?’ he asked, unsure if she understood.
She shrugged and twisted her lips, as if to say she’d expected it. ‘People are the same, where you put them.’
Randolph shrugged this time. He finished the tour of the office by telling Isabela that he liked to keep the lights off because of a sensitivity to artificial light and, he emphasised, because of the great windows in the room. The office faced south and was fully lit until the late afternoon most days, the trees outside providing just enough shade so that the sun never felt sharp. She nodded slowly, her lips pursed. He continued, ‘We can close the office door if things get too loud in the hall.’
Randolph realised as soon as the words left his mouth their potential for misinterpretation. He should probably keep the office door open, for her sake, for the sake of propriety. He watched her face for discomfort and found none. Still, he started to explain that he hadn’t meant anything, but she just said, ‘Yes, I don’t like lots of noise.’
He thought they would be friends. They were about the same age, unmarried and content with that status. Randolph didn’t want to date another coworker, and Isabela, he said, wasn’t his type, anyway, though Randolph’s friends would say that wasn’t true. He wouldn’t even meet with his former co-workers at the Preston campus, for fear of running into his ex, Crystal, a history professor who said that Randolph’s passivity belied chauvinism and that his book proposal, The New New Paternalism: Romantic Racism and Sexism in the Post-Postracial Era, was going nowhere until he confronted his own masculinity issues. Crystal confused Randolph, because she wanted him to be angrier, scarier in bed, bought him books on erotic asphyxiation, called him Smaller Thomas during an argument, and concluded that he had low T, but broke up with him after he got ‘too rough.’ She couldn’t have it both ways, he argued. ‘You always over-correct or under-correct, but never get it just right,’ she cried.
When describing Isabela, then, Randolph oversold her undesirable aspects: She was not unattractive, but flat, bland yet aggressive. She wore her brown hair in a ponytail, which accentuated her ears. All of her features were tiny—her ears like those of a little old man, and her nose, a narrow point with a slightly beaked end—yet over-pronounced.
Isabela, he later learned, wanted to settle into life in the U.S., maybe find a tenure-track job, before dating. It was a perfect situation for maintaining a platonic relationship, which Randolph insisted he wanted. They both felt underdressed among the students, who alternated between church- and club-wear to classes. They laughed easily. She ate trail mix from a zippy bag. Randolph ate granola mixed with M&Ms. They kept their respective desks tidy and arranged their bric-a-brac just so. They shared disbelief at their students’ general boldness.
One rainy day in mid-October, Isabela sighed, a bit dramatically, Randolph thought. She must have had an altercation with a student, but when he asked, she said, ‘Randy, it is very dark in here today. May I turn on the lights?’
Randolph considered how to answer. He didn’t want this to become a pattern. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Well, remember, I keep them off because I can’t deal with the fluorescent bulbs. I get migraines.’ He pointed to his chestnut-coloured forehead and frowned.
She nodded. ‘Yes, but it is very dark.’
‘It’s fine today, I guess. I’m leaving soon, but in general, I prefer not to have them on,’ Randolph fiddled with his necktie.
She turned on the lights. The department chair, Carol, stepped into the office as Randolph packed up his bag.
‘Oh, Randolph, I’m glad I caught you,’ she said, her face flushed, though it always looked that way. ‘I was going to email you, but I was walking by the office anyway. Dr. Ivan-Yorke says you two haven’t officially met for a mentoring session. Remember you need to meet twice each semester. I wouldn’t wait too long. You know how it is after the break.’
‘I’ll get on that,’ Randolph fake smiled.
‘Great. Hi, Isabela,’ Carol said before she left. ‘How’re you liking the office?’
‘It is very nice with the lights on,’ she said, looking at Randolph.
Carol paused, and glancing at Randolph said, ‘I suppose it would be.’
Randolph didn’t know what to make of Isabela’s comment at the time, so he focused on Carol’s. He’d avoided his mentoring meetings because DIY struck him as another nut among many in the school’s canister. Though he was 6’3, he felt something shrink in her presence.
A few days after the first time she requested more light, on a day which Randolph did not recall as particularly overcast, Isabela beat him into the office, and when he arrived all the lights were on. He sat down at his desk and considered how he should approach the situation. Perhaps she didn’t understand the severity of his medical problems. He could call her over to his desk and pull up a Wikipedia page about migraines. He could say, in Spanish, that he really preferred natural light to all of this fake stuff, which changes the rhythm of the brain and disrupts work. He could tell her that he’d been generous by using headphones, instead of speakers, to listen to music, so the least she could do was let him leave the lights off.
He said, pantomiming an expansive space, ‘The windows are very big, bright, don’t you think?’
She said, ‘Yes, but an office without lights? It is very strange. It doesn’t look nice.’
‘What about a desk lamp?’
‘Desk lamp,’ she spit the words out like they were made of metal.
‘It’s a little light that sits on your side of the office, for overcast days.’
‘I know what it is. I will think about it,’ she said, turning back to her computer. She did not offer to turn off the lights. ‘It is cold in here,’ she said, pulling her sweater around her chest.
When Reggie called Randolph that afternoon to check on him, Randolph tried to describe the environment accurately, starting with DIY. ‘She’s at least seventy and limps along the hallways with a cane, flashing warnings at visible and invisible offenses. She’s not the department chair, but you’d think so,’ he said.
‘Sounds like Black Crazy personified,’ Reggie said, though he said that about nearly anyone he saw as overworked, and about most female academics who happened to be black. Reggie had served as Randolph’s assigned faculty mentor at Preston through the Minority Mentoring Programme. He was about ten years older than Randolph, and had written a book called Black Crazy: Tipping Points in Black Literature, 1874-1974. He took Randolph to lunch once a month, observed his classes a few times and wrote a recommendation letter that would sit in his Interfolio queue should Randolph choose ‘not to fool around after this little experiment is over and get a real job at a research university.’
‘She’s Black Crazy alright. I’ll tell you about her later. But look, Reg, I want to pick your brain about my new office mate.’
He described Isabela as ‘a wall with a nose,’ hoping to avoid a lecture.
‘Good. I’ve told you before—’
Reggie repeated his stock advice, the same advice Randolph’s parents and all of his other mentors, formal and informal, repeat: ‘Don’t screw it up. Err on the side of passivity. Don’t date anyone in the humanities departments. Don’t even look at those women’s legs when they pull out their short skirts in the spring or when they prance up the stairs in those leggings.’ Lost in his lecture, Reggie failed to give Randolph any useful suggestions about the light situation.
Randolph assured him that there was no chance of him dating Isabela and said goodbye. Before he hung up, he heard an incredulous ‘Mhhhm,’ though Randolph supposed he could see why Reggie wouldn’t believe him. At Preston, Randolph had broken two of Reggie’s rules at once by dating Crystal—both colleague and white woman—and a third when he told him he wanted to take a break from the research setting and get a teaching job at a liberal arts school for a couple of years. ‘You’re on your way to Black Crazy,’ Reggie shrugged. ‘If your students don’t kill you, the 4-4 load will.’
The teaching load was heavier than Randolph expected, even after hearing Reggie’s stories of lost colleagues and ‘scholars who showed so much promise early on,’ but the environment bothered Randolph the most, the cramped classrooms, the oldness of the place, its sharp luminance. In meetings, Randolph pouted while DIY sat on her elevated chair whispering, the women leaning in, straining to hear her. That’s how they all were, Randolph concluded, making you lean into them and accommodate their every whim, their eccentricities. Randolph had begun to hate the whole lot of them.
When he returned to his office—their office—after class the next day, the door was open and the lights were on. Randolph thwacked his folder and a stack of papers on his desk without looking at Isabela.
‘You can turn the lights off,’ she said without looking up. She was wearing one of those sweaters, with a lowcut oval neck, that usually look good on really skinny girls, yet somehow it did not, Randolph insisted, look good on Isabela.
‘Oh, no,’ he said. ‘It’s fine.’
‘No, I did not know if you were gone for the day or for a class. It’s okay,’ she frowned, nodding toward the light switch.
‘I’m only going to be here for a few more minutes. It’s fine.’ Randolph fumbled through his desk drawer for a bottle of Aleve and his prescription pills, looking from one bottle to the other, as if making a decision about which level of migraine he had. He rattled the pills around and poured one into his hand. He could feel her mouth mocking him, even with her head turned, her little beak scrunching up.
‘It’s a real condition, you know,’ Randolph started, loudly, ‘over-illumination. I literally get headaches from these lights, all fluorescent lights.’
He pointed to his head. ‘You’ve never had a migraine, I guess.’
‘No. It’s okay, turn off the light.’
Randolph asked his three o’clock class how they would deal with ‘an inconsiderate roommate who, for instance, made a lot of noise while you were trying to sleep.’
Someone said, ‘mind games.’
Another said, ‘Man, I’d tell him to keep it down. When I gotta study, I don’t have time to play.’
‘Just ask for another roommate,’ someone else said.
‘Like that would work,’ several people seemed to say at once.
On Monday, he got up twenty minutes early to beat Isabela into the office. When she came in, she smiled and said hello as though nothing had changed between them. Randolph made small talk, taking the opportunity to build a bridge, if a bridge is defined as the path to getting one’s own way.
‘Would you like me to get you the desk lamp?’ he started. ‘You know, this was my idea, and I feel bad about adding an expense. I can buy the lamp.’ That sounded fine, he thought, not too pushy, but hopefully rhetorically manipulative enough to remind her of the gravity of the situation.
‘That is fine,’ her mouth went from neutral to something else. They didn’t speak again that day.
The morning Randolph presented her with the lamp, in what he hoped was a cute mosaic pattern, Isabela did not smile. She paused with tight lips and said, ‘Thank you,’ leaving the lamp untouched.
She beat him to the office for the next couple of weeks and turned on all the lights except her desk lamp. Whenever one left, the other adjusted the lighting to his or her preference. Randolph researched over-illumination, looking for ways to convince Isabela of her insensitivity. Two of the friends he polled said he was making a big deal out of nothing; she probably just didn’t understand. Two other friends said she was being a jerk, and there was no way she could misunderstand. Jerry, a mutual friend of Reggie’s, said, ‘This is the kind of petty drama that can only happen with a woman. She’s the aggressor, but watch out now, or she’ll make it all look like your fault.’ Reggie said this was about power and that Randolph could only lose, whichever way he played it. If he acted aggressively, he became what ‘they’ always knew he would be, and she won. If he let her have the office, she won. ‘How do you think I went from Reginald to Reggie?’ he said. ‘You can’t win, brother.’ The Richter needles in Randolph’s temples charted small hills.
What else could Randolph do? He’d tried reasoning and compromise. He fantasized about driving Isabela out of the office, delighting in her expression at the sight of a fake rat spinning in her chair or a Spanish-English dictionary on her desk. He’d seen people on reality television rub their testicles on their housemates’ mattresses or pillowcases and brush the inner rim of a toilet with their toothbrushes. The victims never found out until they met for the reunion episodes and watched the footage together. Randolph wasn’t ready to pull his balls out over this, nor did he like the way they could implicate him in a potential misreading of the situation, but he thought about it.
One late morning while she was still in class, Randolph went over to Isabela’s desk and flattened the bag of trail mix she always kept there, crunching a few of the nuts with his thumb and watching their oil streak the plastic. As quickly as he could, he removed all but a few of the yoghurt-covered raisins and put them into his pants pocket. He flicked the desk lamp on and off three times and returned to his desk to eat the raisins before they melted into a mess, the cream and hydrogenated oils thick and sweet against his gums.
When he returned from class, Isabela was out of the office, and a book called Microaggressions had been left on Randolph’s desk. He tossed the book to her side of the office, not caring where it landed. When he pulled his lunch bag out of his desk drawer, he found his sandwich spotted with four abnormally large dimples on each side of the bread, like deep fingerprints. Randolph removed the bread from his sandwich, placed it back into the paper bag and ate the smoked turkey directly from the plastic.
At his urban middle school in Chicago, a kid was shot for allegedly stealing someone’s lunch. At Wil U, a faculty member was caught going through another one’s desk drawers, and a fistfight broke out in the hallway. The woman won. At Wil U, a boy had been jumped for leaving the library at the wrong time. At Preston, Randolph found that people with money committed these assaults but left fewer traces, the violence psychological. He heard stories of girls saturating tampons with ketchup and sticking them into other girls’ thousand dollar handbags. They published anonymous glossy newsletters accusing male professors of roving eyes or worse and tucked them into faculty mailboxes. Caracas or not, Isabela didn’t know how Randolph’s dual schooling had prepared him to get ugly. She didn’t know with whom she was fooling.
In fact, Randolph would call his problem one of duality, twoness, though not in the purely DuBoisian sense, but in the sense that he was of two minds about most things, and very few of those things converged. He maintained two social media pages, one for colleagues and one for old friends who knew him when. Both included the phrase ‘it’s complicated’ under his name. Reggie would say that the tyranny of whiteness both emasculated him and expected him to adopt hypermasculinity. Randolph could find no non-binary position on the continuum. He could only flip-flop.
Randolph didn’t tell Reggie about his sandwich or the raisins, but he told him that the migraines were getting worse, even with the dose of amitriptyline he’d been prescribed. Reggie said, ‘Those headaches will go away once you stop feeling like you have to be some kind of standard, once you just let it all out. The problem is once you do that, you won’t have a job. For me it’s nosebleeds. I call ’em my monthly cycle. The pressure has to come out some kind of way.’
On a Tuesday, while Isabela and the lights were out, Randolph snuck over, again, to her side of the office. She had apparently hidden the trail mix, because it was not in sight. In the silver-framed picture on her desk, she hugged her toddler nephew and wore a red cocktail dress. Randolph fingered the floral-print cup that held her collection of number-two pencils, most of them yellow and sheathed in those soft cushions that slide over the top. He pulled the sheath off of one of the pencils and squished it around in his hand. The pencils were freshly sharpened, the goldenrod, brown and black contrasting attractively. Randolph took a sheet of Isabela’s scratch paper, then used each pencil in succession, dulling the lead by pressing hard as he drew little spirals, each stroke of the pencil a little ecstasy. He hid the blackened paper in his messenger bag and removed any dust or traces of broken points that landed on the desk and rearranged the pencils as he remembered them. He didn’t want to be the next blip on the text-alert system. Alert: robbery and assault in office of non-tenure-track female faculty member. Suspect: tall black male, generally thought handsome, accused of keeping the lights off in a suggestive manner, eating fourteen yoghurt-covered raisins and breaking a desk lamp and eleven pencils.
He returned to his own desk, locking up the blackened scratch paper, his lunch and all of his office supplies. He noted the spot where the blue edge of his bonsai’s pot lined up with the silver crack in the file cabinet.
The Monday before Thanksgiving, Randolph arranged a mentoring meeting with DIY, hoping to feel her out about the potential for a new office. He planned to discuss his upcoming annual review and then to casually bring up the situation with Isabela. He knocked and stepped into the office carefully, but she whispered, ‘Just have a seat. You don’t need all that false formality with me. How is your semester going?’
‘It’s okay, an adjustment.’
She watched Randolph’s face too carefully, for too long, before she said. ‘You don’t like that office mate, do you?’
Randolph laughed, debating whether he should tell her the truth, unsure what she would do with it. ‘I just don’t want to make her uncomfortable,’ he started, and felt compelled to apologise for this dishonesty, ‘but actually she’s making me uncomfortable.’ DIY didn’t stir. He looked away from her eyes; their cloudiness reminded him of marbles you might trade away. ‘You’re a woman,’ he began again, feeling like a liar, for her femaleness seemed, to him, buried far beneath the nest of thinning hair, the severe black clothes. ‘I don’t want it to look bad, you know, like I’m doing some kind of exercise in male domination,’ he chuckled.
DIY made a pfff noise with her mouth and leaned back before she leaned in. She took deep inhalations from the back of her throat and exhaled the words without parting her teeth. ‘That’s your problem,’ she said. ‘You’re afraid of the light.’
He started to speak, but she gave him a withering look.
‘You think you’re too good for this school. It’s obvious to me. You don’t want to be exposed, so you overcorrect in some places, but it all comes out somewhere else.’
‘I don’t think I follow,’ Randolph said, the word ‘overcorrect’ pinching his ego.
‘That’s one of your other problems.’ She paused her rebuke for a moment before trying again, ‘There’s this saying in law, ‘mutatis mutandis, the necessary changes have been made.’ It doesn’t apply to you.’
‘And how exactly is this relevant?’ The veiled hints and analogies were too much for Randolph’s migraine.
‘Sometimes the problem is the environment; sometimes you are the environment. In your case, you think you’re making changes, but you take the problem with you, like you did exchanging your old job for this one,’ she said, tapping one side of her head. Then she gestured with one hand for him to leave.
Randolph left the meeting furious with DIY, though he couldn’t put his finger on exactly why. He asked Carol about the new office that day, and though it looked like another demotion of sorts, it represented, for him, a battle he won, growing a pair.
As he walked out of the faculty meeting one wintery afternoon, Randy paused near the adjunct who’d moved in with Isabela, a skinny guy with adult acne. ‘How do you like the new office?’
‘It’s good,’ he said. ‘Nice windows.’
‘Why do you guys have the lights off? Are you a migraine sufferer?’
‘No, Isabela’s idea,’ the adjunct said. ‘She gets really hot, so she keeps them off. You know, boiler’s right under us.’