I’m the one who started it. I was depressed as hell and wanted to share my bad news. “Has anyone read Candide?” I said. I don’t even recall what the bad news was now but it must have had to do with a certain man who didn’t love me anymore. In those days I felt most of the time like someone had knocked me in the head with a brick, and even though I had stopped drinking, I had started again, and the way I saw it, a real brick in the head would have been okay because then I’d be dead or at least unconscious.
I had a job teaching a class in the adult-ed program of a fancy prestigious college. The class went one winter night a week, and while the school was fancy, the adult-ed program was not—classes were not held on the beautiful medieval campus, but shoved over into a hideous office building downtown in order for the working citizens of our land to have easier access to higher learning, though we all knew the truth: it was to keep the fake teachers and students from mingling with (and possibly infecting) the real ones. The hallways of the downtown building were lined with artful black-and-white photographs of the real campus so that we could all look at the place we’d been denied. The classrooms in the downtown building did not have windows. This was an architectural feat, maybe even a masterpiece, something in the league of M. C. Escher, because the outside of the building had windows running up and down three sides and while, yes, one side had no windows, it was not the side that held our classrooms. I sometimes stood at the foot of the building, looking up and marveling at how this had been accomplished.
Still, getting the job was my one obvious piece of luck that year. The pay wasn’t great, but it was decent and it beat the other adjunct work I was doing. I was teaching all over town and could barely pay the rent. I was drinking in the cheapest bars, driving home blind.
The people who took these adult-ed classes tended to be smart, overeducated for jobs that were no longer fulfilling or that had never satisfied in the first place—journalists, lawyers—and now, in their middle years, they recalled that they had once wanted something artistic for their lives but it had not worked out, and despite whatever trappings they had—spouses, houses, tykes—they found themselves confronting a deep, colorless meaninglessness each day. They thought that maybe realizing their early dreams would change all that. They wrote books six thousand pages long and made jokes about bringing them to class in a dump truck. Or they wrote nothing but had a great idea for a story that they recorded on their phones and had assistants transcribe. Or their spouses were working, and they themselves had quit their numbing jobs, were staying home to write, give it a go at last. Their writing—let’s be honest—was nothing to shout about. Not good, mostly unreadable. No control or sense of timing, no grasp of narrative beyond cliché. But often the language itself had personality, and a clear voice came through: sardonic, witty, self-deprecating, with a tarp of sad earnestness over it, all of which I liked, so I found it easy to read the pages they gave me and to encourage them.
In Voltaire’s Candide, there’s a certain passage where a huge crowd wants to board a boat, all vying for the same seat Candide—luckless man, but in this one instance he is lucky and in possession of some extra cash—has offered to pay for. The seat will go, he says, to the man or woman most bad off among them. One by one they choose their woes and tell their tales. That scene—communal, classroom-like, someone in charge judging their stories and making promises no one could keep—these students, with me as their leader, reminded me of that.
After the final class of my first course at the school, the students suggested we go for a drink.
I didn’t usually go for drinks with my students. I knew teachers who did, and I found it unprofessional and revolting, though that would not have stopped me. Neither would have the fact that I had sworn to quit drinking. But the school had put in place a policy, which applied even to the dubious adult ed. I’d had to sign a statement. Still, an end-of-term drink seemed like a nice idea.
We walked four blocks through the freezing cold to an upscale, unpopular joint in the nighttime-deadtime downtown. We sat in giant, stuffed chairs in a dark room, empty of anyone but us and the bartender. They all looked over at me, waiting. At last I said, “Has anyone read Candide?”
“Yes, yes,” they murmured. “Voltaire. Of course.” As I said, this was an educated crowd. They’d read it in college, they said. Or they’d read it when they were twelve and had found it confusing. Or they’d liked it and had read his other works since and found them less fun.
“Let’s play a game,” I said. “Let’s each tell the story of the worst thing that’s happened to us.”
“In our lives?”
I hesitated. I wanted to talk about the boyfriend who’d left me, and even in my traumatized state I had to admit it wasn’t the worst thing that had happened in my life. I’d had people die on me. I’d once had a fire burn up all my things. Besides, this boyfriend left me a lot. We were on the third or the fourth time now, depending on how you were counting. Those were the days that the same boyfriend left me over and over, and each time felt like a tragedy.
“Lately,” I said.
They looked hesitant.
“And whoever tells the worst story wins,” I said.
“What do they win?”
“Well, they get to be the winner.”
They looked disappointed. “But the winner of what?”
“Voltaire night,” I said.
As a matter of fact, Candide had solicited his crowd, had not wanted to sail alone, and I could understand that. He’d had it announced in town. Maybe he’d taken out an ad in a circular: Will pay passage for the most unfortunate man in the land. So many showed up an entire fleet of boats could not have taken them all away.
The students were into it, but nervous. The first told a silly story, something about a drawer that held important papers getting stuck and his having to saw it open with a chain saw. Another said she’d gained ten pounds. Another said her final grandparent had died and she was unnerved—what with only one generation between her and death. A second round of drinks and the stories grew more personal. One man divorced last month. He hadn’t wanted a divorce. He was in a new apartment in a strange neighborhood. He’d been married fourteen years. He felt so old. One man’s teenager had run away that year, and it had taken a week to find her, and when he did finally locate her and had gone to pick her up, the girl screamed, “I hate you!” while he stood in the driveway, stunned. Why did she hate him? What had he done? One woman had learned she had cancer. She’d had her first round of radiation last week—a curable kind, but still. The mood in the room grew somber, and we felt protective of one another, commiserative, full of solidarity. Then one guy said, “Well, I got a flat last week in the rain,” and we all shouted, “You lose!” and threw pretzels and straws at him.
I did tell the story of the boyfriend, not the long absurd version that my friends were all sick of, but the miniature version, the kind I’d tell on the bus, and I told it in a dramatic fashion: “The man I love no longer loves me and I can’t seem to get over him, no matter what I do or where I go.” The students all rose to my defense. They were indignant, outraged. The guy was obviously a fool. I deserved better. “I know, I know,” I said, shaking my head. Who can explain love? we all wondered, eating our peanut mix. Who can explain the recession of love? Love’s sneaky decline?
I don’t recall who won Voltaire night that first time, but I know we voted and had a winner who received extra rounds of commiseration and drinks and a couple of comradely hugs as we all parted at the door and hurried through the cold for separate trains or lots.
It was a grand night, our first Voltaire night.
The class went six weeks and restarted the next month like a new moon. Perhaps because I’d done well with the first class, or perhaps because no one in the office was paying any attention at all, I was given the course again and several students from the first class signed up. It was an open class, noncredit, at the service of anyone in the world who could show up on Tuesdays and pay the (exorbitant) fee. But the old students claimed an elevated status over the new ones anyway—not by their superior writing (they were all equally bad and no one had improved) but by talking about Voltaire night. The best night of the class, they agreed. One of the best nights of the past year, in fact, for them all. It had been so fun. And enriching. Too bad the new students had missed out.
Hey, the new students said, they wanted a chance at Voltaire night. It wasn’t fair that I had picked favorites and wouldn’t grant the new students this educational opportunity. So we planned a second Voltaire night, and the final night of the class, we trudged out into the cold.
It was March now, but the wind was still punishing in that evil Chicago way. I talked again about the cruel boyfriend who didn’t love me, who even after these months was still causing me pain. He had come back in the meantime but had left again, and again I got all the commiseration I could hope for, and Voltaire night was special all over again—even if we did stay out a bit late, due to the fact that the bar closed at one, and maybe we had too many drinks, but it was okay. We all waved good-bye at last and crept off into the night calling that we’d see one another next month.
It didn’t slip by me that the meaninglessness on their faces might gleam only when they came to class—those faces turned toward me, hoping for not success, but proof that they were at least worthy of some intangible (maybe nonexistent) thing, even if they never got it. But maybe at home they were happy. A few, of course, took the class merely as an extracurricular, nothing more—women, mostly. These had happy lives that brought fulfillment. They tended to take the class only for one session, wrote friendly, honest evaluations encouraging me to do such and such (what that thing was always differed: talk more, talk less, fewer or more handouts), and they’d wave good-bye and we’d never see them again. Some were like that, but not many.
Voltaire night took hold. It became an institution, part of class. Leading up to it, the students conferred. Where should it be held? Should food be involved? And the parameters—the worst thing in the past five years? since Christmas? as a kid? They’d settle in and tell their stories as if we were around a campfire, as if these were the stories of their lives: their disappointments and frustrations, what they’d strove for and hadn’t gotten, the promises made to them that had been broken, the people who were gone or who still were there but seemed changed somehow, not what they’d once been, or perhaps it was the students themselves who had changed. Blame the vicissitudes of life or, alternately, its flatness, the dullness of it, the sad fact of aging. This of course took a lot longer than our original three-minute summaries, so Voltaire night grew long. We’d all be drunk, having closed down several places, and the folks from the suburbs missed the very last train and had to curl on a bench at the station, like criminals down on their luck (which weren’t we all, in some way?), until the five-thirty a.m. shuttle. But it was worth it, we all said, for how else could everyone have gotten a turn? How else could everyone have told their story?
As for me, I’d arrive home at four in the morning and spend a few days cursing myself. The trouble I could get in for this. Unseemly. Voltaire night was out of control, a monster I had to rein in but didn’t know how to rein in. I didn’t want to rein it in. Voltaire night was the one night I looked forward to, all of that sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves. I would have liked to do it every night.
There was the Voltaire night that Max accidently smashed several glasses onto the floor and Stuart threw up on the sidewalk. There was the Voltaire night I somehow found myself separated from them all at two in the morning, smoking pot with strangers at a faraway club. How had I gotten there?
There were other things going on with me. Voltaire night was just a handful of nights out of that year, but the other nights weren’t so very different.
I had to change. In many ways I had to change.
One Voltaire night, a clear spring night, after a winter that had seemed to go on for years (and, in fact, this was my second year on the job), the students voted to tell the worst thing of their entire lives.
I don’t know why we hadn’t done that yet. Worst thing ever. It seems like it would be a fast place to go once you’re on the worst-thing roller coaster, but we hadn’t. Maybe we’d refrained because we knew once we’d done it, future Voltaire nights would be awkward. Once you’d told the worst, how could you complain about the past three months, which contained only the usual disillusionments, the familiar slow-burn panic that you were doing nothing with your life, had not lived up to your “potential,” or worse, you had and it had changed nothing, that you had not yet even learned how to love? But the students voted. The worst-ever Voltaire night. We went to a nice place for dinner and ordered several bottles of wine.
Among us was a new guy, had been with us only one session and had barely spoken in class. I hadn’t even noticed him much among the brash, flirty, loud men. He raised his glass. “I’ll go next.”
“All right, all right,” we said. The newcomers often went first, were fool enough to go when people were just settling in. The regulars knew to wait. The best spot was an hour or two in, when people were happy, when the deep-level drunk hadn’t set in yet, turning the night into a disco or a disorderly blur.
“The worst thing that ever happened to me,” he said, “began with an experiment. You ever see those ads asking for human subjects? A hundred bucks to take some drugs, fifty to do some puzzles?”
“Uh-huh,” we said, meeting eyes with one another. A human-subject-experiment story, here we go. Our stories would top that.
“I was living in Hyde Park, newly married. My wife was pregnant. Four months. We were overjoyed, but poor. I did freelance design back then, my wife was in sales, and no matter how much work I managed to scrape together, it wasn’t going to be enough. So I used to answer those ads for a few bucks. Cover an eye and identify colors. Recite words I was told to remember.”
“Uh-huh,” we said.
“Well, one day I came across an ad that said, ‘Twelve-week experiment, fifteen thousand dollars,’ and I thought, Wow, fifteen thousand dollars! I went down and signed up.”
I’m not sure I have the details right. I want to be clear about that. I’m not sure if it was fifteen thousand or ten or eleven, or if she was five months along or four. I’m pretty sure it was twelve weeks. What one hears at Voltaire night, stays at Voltaire night, and it is only now that I am violating this contract.