Benjamin Markovits

You Don't Have to Live Like This



When I was younger I was never much good at telling stories. If I scored a goal at Pee Wee soccer, which didn’t happen often, I used to try and describe it for my brother over lunch, over the hot dogs and potato chips. Then he kicked it there and I ran here and he passed it to me there. My brother called these my “this and then this and then this” stories. I don’t know that I’ve gotten any better at it.

We shared a bedroom for years, but in sixth grade I moved into the backyard extension, built out of the old garage. It had its own door to the garden and on Saturday mornings kids used to leave their bikes outside and walk straight into my room. By that point I’d given up on soccer; my friends and I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. There would be six or seven boys sitting on my bed, on the floor, on the chair by my desk, with dice, pieces of paper, pencils and homemade maps. We kept the curtains closed and the lights on.

My parents began to worry about me, my mother especially. “You seem like a reasonable human being,” she liked to say. “You don’t look violent.”

I was kind of scrawny, blue-eyed and fair in the face but black-haired. My brother, who is three years older, belongs to a completely different physical type. Brad played tight end on his Pop Warner football team and might have started in high school, too, except my mother wouldn’t let him. When we were kids he used to sit on my chest with his knees on my puny biceps, trying to make me say stuff I didn’t want to say. “Dungeons & Dragons is gay. Say it.” If I refused, he’d kneel up on his weight until I squealed.

Most of my friends graduated to more strategically sophisticated games like BattleTech and Risk, but when I was fourteen or fifteen I realized that the real thing (war, I mean) was much more interesting than any fantasy. I started reading Churchill’s memoirs and Sandburg’s life of Lincoln. Probably my favorite battle of all time is the second El Alamein. Tank strategy in the Sahara turns out to be highly complex, and I checked out from the public library all the biographies of Lumsden and Montgomery I could lay my hands on. But I also had a soft spot for Nelson at Trafalgar and Meade at Gettysburg.

I didn’t wear fatigues around school or sign up for ROTC or anything like that. In most ways I was a pretty average nerd. Military history was just my nerd specialty. I got good grades. I played the trumpet in band. The only weird thing I did, apart from read books about war, was collect lead soldiers. My bedroom was full of these guys, arranged in actual troop formations on the windowsills and in my closet and on top of the chest of drawers. They freaked my mother out. She couldn’t understand why I spent so much time on what she called tiny metal dolls.

The truth is, I didn’t really understand it myself. My childhood was happy and suburban. I used to ride my bike to elementary school and when my brother and I were small we sometimes set up a lemonade stand in the front yard. When I was older, over the summer, I made six bucks an hour mowing lawns. My parents paid for everything else, but I had to pay for my “war shit” myself, my father said. Yard work in the heat of a Louisiana day was the only kind of suffering I put myself through as a kid. I probably dreamed about war because I wanted to know what I was made of — under the gun.

My mother hoped I’d grow out of it, and I guess I did. Two weeks before the start of freshman year, I wrapped the soldiers in cotton wool and packed them in shoe boxes. I didn’t particularly want to go to college, but my parents made me.

What do you want to do with yourself then, my dad asked.

“Don’t know,” I said. “In your day I might have got drafted.”

“Not if you went to college, you wouldn’t.”

He was a journalist and union organizer (from Montreal, originally); a tolerant, social, easygoing guy. Even as a kid I could tell that women liked him. But he didn’t know what to do with my obsessions.

“What’s going on here?” he said. “You want to enlist?”

“Mom would never let me. Besides, I’m too chickenshit. Guys from my high school have enlisted. Not my type. Anyway, it doesn’t have to be war. I’d be just as happy gold-rushing or homesteading or something.”

“I think you missed that train.” Later, he said, “I don’t understand what the hard work was for. All those grades.”

“You tell me, Dad. Getting grades is basically the only thing I know how to do.”

“So go to college,” he said.

My mom helped me pack and they put me on a plane to New York. It was my first time flying into JFK, but I didn’t go into the city. Instead I caught the Limo to New Haven, which sounds grand but was really just a regional bus service. You always had to wait for the bus to fill up — sometimes it took an hour, a bunch of kids sitting on their duffels. Six or eight times a year, for four years, I made that journey: in August and December, in the second week of January, after Thanksgiving or Spring Break, in June. Every time you go back home you feel a little older, every time you leave you feel younger again.

When I showed up at Yale I wasn’t ready for the chances that came my way. I didn’t even know what they were. Something in my personality had to change to make room for girlfriends, that much was obvious. But I didn’t realize until later that my classmates were checking out more than the opposite sex. They were looking for the kids who might cut a figure in the world one day: future senators, millionaires, newspaper editors, hotshot lawyers. It helps to know important, influential people. Some of them even hoped to become such people themselves.

Not me. I majored in history. I got more grades. I went through the usual transitions, involving girls and alcohol. In high school my friends and friendships were very innocent — my college friendships were less innocent. But I had a pretty good time. Even if the feeling didn’t go away, that there should be a better test of who I am than middle-class American life.

MAYBE THIS IS WHY, TWO days after graduation, two days after throwing my hat in the air, I flew to England. My brother was winding up a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford before going to law school in Chicago. I lived with him for a couple of weeks, then took over the lease on his flat. It was one of these psychologically complicated family financial arrangements. I didn’t win any scholarships but my dad offered to pay my way. And what started out as an MSt in US history turned into a doctoral thesis and took up five years of my life. I liked Oxford. The big idea behind English postgraduate education is to leave you alone; this suited me fine.

For a while it seemed that all of that stupid homework was paying off. A suburban kid from Baton Rouge, going to Yale and Oxford, moving up in the world.

But after grad school nothing turned out quite right. It’s hard to get a job in America with a British PhD. I shifted to London and supported myself with adjunct teaching, while working my dissertation into a book. At least, that was the plan. In fact, all I did was teach. Since I was paid by the hour I had to put together a lot of hours. Eventually I landed a nine-month maternity cover in Aberystwyth, five hours by train from London — a midsize Welsh town, the kind of place you might go to for a weekend break. Good hiking territory. Wet suit surfing in the bay. I wanted a permanent job, but the department just kept renewing my short-term contract. They had me teaching heavy loads, running admissions, sitting on committees, doing the stuff that nobody else wanted to do.

Geographical distance is a powerful thing. The kid who used to sit around with his buddies fighting dragons had come a long way — almost five thousand miles. The evidence was just outside my door. Row houses and cheap bakeries, charity shops and pharmacies on the high street. The annual rainfall. A lot of reasonable decisions had brought me here, and not just decisions but a fair amount of effort and even some good luck. My college friends, with a few exceptions, seemed to be in the same boat. Working harder than they wanted to, making less money, living somewhere they didn’t want to live.


Robert James was one of the exceptions. I ran into him at our ten-year reunion — outside Zapatas, a Mexican dive bar we used to go to for the cheap sangria. His friends were leaving while mine were going in, but they had to wait for a girl to come out of a bathroom, and I stood around with Robert for a while, catching up.

We’d been drinking since four in the afternoon, and the street lamp light gave me a headache. My jet lag was pretty intense, it left me open to strong impressions. All these people I hadn’t seen in years, these people who knew me, or knew what I used to be like. And here I was again, seeing them again. It was like a big chemical experiment, where you took these known quantities, these guys you used to live with and eat with and sit in class with, and poured them out into the world, to see what they turned into. Of course at the same time you were trying to work out what the chemical reaction had done to you.

“I hear you made a lot of money,” I said to Robert.

You wouldn’t know it by the way he dressed: North Face jersey, loafers, a pair of clean blue jeans belted high. But it didn’t matter anyway, with his looks. In college we called him the Greek God — he had the face of one of those statues. There was something impersonal about it. You could never tell what he was thinking, not that this meant he was particularly smart.

“I did okay.”

“So what do you do with yourself all day? Kick back?”

He began to explain himself very carefully. Lately he’d been working on a couple of political campaigns, mostly fund-raising — fund-giving, too, he said. There was a guy we both knew in college, a law student at the time, who lived in the dorms and used to play squash with us occasionally in the steam-tunnel squash courts. A big barrel-chested black guy named Braylon Carr, with a football background and postgraduate degrees from Cambridge and Stanford. Anyway, Robert had helped him run for mayor of Buffalo. These Rust Belt towns were having a hard time — American cities all over the place were dying out. But if Braylon could make a difference in Buffalo, it would turn him into a major Democratic player.

“I’ll let you in on something. He’s going to be the first black president of the United States.” For some reason this mattered a lot to Robert. “Wouldn’t that be a hell of a thing to be a part of?”

“It doesn’t sound like a full-time job.”

But he’d started a hedge fund, too — a hedge of hedges. Basically, he went around the world picking funds to invest in.

“Does that keep you busy?” I said.

“I just got back from two weeks in China.” He had to repeat himself, because of the noise inside, and leaned towards me with his hand on my elbow. “You get to a point,” he said, “after a few days, when you know the routine. You’ve got two pairs of shorts and socks, a spare shirt, another pair of pants. The hotel takes care of the washing — they fold it up nicely and hang it outside your door in the morning. You’ve got passport and tickets. And you think, I could just keep going. I could go on like this as long as I wanted to.”

“Somebody said you got married.”

But he didn’t seem to hear me; he was drunker than he looked. “I take two percent of the capital and twenty percent of the profit. Even if we lose money, I make money. It’s not very hard to make money. You just need to be able to work out what two percent is.”

“Is that right.”

We stood there in the street while people went out and in. Everybody we saw was thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three years old. There were bald guys with guts and desk-chair asses, wearing suits and looking like your parents’ friends when you were a kid. I recognized some of them, too — like those Escher pictures, where the real image hovers under the surface. If you screwed your eyes up right, you could see the guy you knew. At least I still had my hair, I weighed what I weighed in high school. But I also thought, something has happened to them that hasn’t happened to me.

“Maybe I should move to Buffalo,” I said.

“Tell me why.”

“Or Detroit or Cleveland. It doesn’t matter. Somewhere you can buy a house on eBay for a few hundred bucks.” He looked at me and I said, “We could all buy houses. You could probably buy up a neighborhood. I still have roommates.”

“I thought you were teaching somewhere.”

“That’s right. At some Podunk college in Wales. I don’t know how much you know about the academic rat race. There’s a window of time to get on the ladder, but if the window closes, they don’t kick you out, they keep you on. They make you teach so much you have no time to write, and unless you publish you can’t get a permanent job. So this two-tier system develops. I’m on the wrong tier.”

“Why don’t you come home?”

“I’d love to, but there aren’t any jobs. And I don’t have health insurance. That’s the trouble with Europe — the welfare state sucks you in. I tell you, this is not how I figured things would pan out. I don’t mean to embarrass you, but my plane ticket out here cost me more than I can afford. I didn’t come over to put up a front. I wanted to have some real conversation.”

“You haven’t changed much, Marny,” he said.

Marnier’s my last name, pronounced in the French fashion, which my college friends refused to do. So I got called Marny. Greg is my Christian name, but at Yale only my professors used it.

“That’s not how it seems to me. Or maybe I should have changed more. I don’t know.”

The girl came out of the bathroom and waved — I recognized her, short hard curly hair, freckles, she used to be a gymnast. Robert and I once drove out to the beach together. He borrowed his roommate’s car, there were four or five of us and she sat in the backseat. This was freshman year. She wanted to be a vet, I remembered trying to talk to her, and she stood in the street now calling, “Come on, Robert, I’m hungry.” The rest of their friends started drifting away, but one thing I always liked about Robert is that he never hurried anywhere for the sake of girls.

“Where are you staying?” he asked.

“One of the dorm rooms. I think I’m sharing with somebody.”

“Listen,” he said, “you’re drunk, you’re tired. Get some sleep.”

“I’m embarrassing you.”

“You’re not, but they’re playing my song. I’ll see you later.”

Robert likes to joke that this is where it all started, because of some half-drunk conversation. But that’s just one of his stories. In college he was the kind of guy who would ask you about some writer, some class assignment, okay, so what’s his deal, what’s his line, what do I need to know. As if you could break a book down into two or three usable ideas. He was famous for walking out of a three-hour philosophy exam after sixty minutes. He strolled to the front of the class, he laid down his paper, and he looked up at the rest of us. “Good luck, folks,” he said. I think he did fine, not great but fine. What I mean is, he made quick decisions, but he was very deliberate, too. And when I saw him that day he was already getting restless, he had backseat political ambitions, he had money to spend, he was looking for something new.