Intellectuals in Bubbatown
I was in no mood to go to a party.
I was teaching Junior High English in a violent, all-minority school. Earlier that day, a 16-year-old student (he had been held back twice) had taken a swing at me. I’d blocked his punch and wasn’t hurt, but it unsettled me. In addition, I had just read The Tragic Sense of Life by Miguel de Unamuno, a complex work that I loved but still don’t fully understand. De Unamuno’s humiliation and death during the Spanish Civil War had plummeted me into a full-scale depression. I suppose I thought that, if de Unamuno — the premier Spanish intellectual of his time, and the rector of the University of Salamanca — could be hounded to his death, what hope was there for anyone who loved books?
But the night was young and so were we. It was Houston, in the early 1980s, before the oil boom went bust. It was a time when dumb guys made huge amounts of money.You didn’t even have to be in the oil business. If you knew how put up dry wall, and could hire cheap Mexican labor to work for you, you could make a fortune.
Intellectuals, as usual, were poorly paid.
I was at a party with my then-girlfriend, Andrea, a graduate student at the University of Houston. We both wanted desperately wanted to be writers. I was drinking. Andrea was stoned.
Andrea knew our host from somewhere, and he welcomed us into his gated mansion. An amiable good ol’ boy who had made his fortune in plumbing, he handed me over to his trophy wife and disappeared with Andrea. His wife introduced me to a knot of her husband’s peers and disappeared.
The men were all alike: slack-jawed yet successful. They wore their good jeans, held up by hand-tooled leather belts with gaudy belt-buckles. They stood in ostrich or alligator-skin cowboy boots. They all sported gold Rolex watches, except for one fashion outlaw who apologized for wearing a platinum one. A few of them wore string ties with turquoise clasps. I was the only one wearing an ascot.
Their conversation was entirely about cars and pickup trucks. Talking about cars bores me like an auger.
Besides, I could easily imagine them as the right-wing Falangists who chased de Unamuno from the podium, shouting their slogan of “Long Live Death!”
I excused myself and went in search of Andrea.
And found her in the house, having sex with our host. They were easy to find. The bedroom door was open, and our host kept yelling “yee-haw!”
While Andrea and I did not have an exclusive relationship, I did ascribe to the notion that “you dance with the one what brung you.” But I was too depressed to fight. I found the patio bar and began some serious drinking. Sometimes having a nymphomaniac, bisexual girlfriend wasn’t as fun as it sounds.
I was still at the bar, a half-hour later, when our host found me. He grinned and slapped me on the back.
“Your gal is doin’ my wife back in house.”
“Nothing Andrea does surprises me any more.”
“Wisht I could join ‘em, but they said no. Well, I got the video camera goin’ — I’ll get to watch that later. Your gal done this before?”
I wasn’t going tell him that Andrea’s parties usually ended up with a half-dozen people in her bedroom. Instead, I said, “You know, this party is insufferably Anglo. There’s not a single person of color here.”
“Hell, you want to talk to some Mexicans, they’re working back in the kitchen. But I figger folks mostly like to stick to their own kind. Would you want to be the only white boy at a Mexican party?”
“I’ve been the only white boy at a party of Uruguayans. I liked it. It gave me the chance to practice my Spanish.” I didn’t tell him it was back East, not in Texas.
“Well, I’ll be. What’d they talk about?”
“Lot of things. Politics, mostly. Did you know that one-fifth of the adult population of Uruguay is in prison or in exile at the moment?”
“God bless America! Any of them Uruguay-icans do plumbing work? I’m always hirin’.”
“Not that I know of.”
“Well, I got t’ check on the party. Nice talkin’ with ya.” And he sauntered back to his posse.
I begged some coffee from the kitchen — the staff was Mexican — and sat alone in the darkened dining room. I asked myself why I was still with Andrea. We weren’t having much sex any more — at least, not with each other. I didn’t even really like her.
Gradually, I realized it was our desire to be writers that was our only commonality. She was in a writing seminar with the famous short-story writer Donald Barthelme at the University of Houston. I was too busy teaching and drinking to do much writing at all. But as long as I was with her, and she was studying under a writer who was routinely published in The New Yorker, I felt as if my own writing career was still progressing.
Then and there, I decided to break up with Andrea and stop drinking. (The former was easy. I’m still working on the latter, thirty years later.)
Just then Andrea reappeared. “I’m ready to go,” she said. “Have a nice time?”
“Yes,” I lied.
Oh, and I lied about the Uruguayan men at that party, too. They didn’t talk about politics, not unless I asked them.
Mostly they talked about cars.
Wayne A. “Tony” Conaway is a writer with only himself to blame. He deeply regrets not pursuing a career sterilizing bowling shoes. His reading for the podcast was recorded in front of a live audience on December 15th, 2010, at Michael’s Restaurant, King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.