They sat in the flickering darkness, watching the final credits. For two hours, Mark Dirac had shared part of the universe with Blanche, breathing in her scent, listening more to her small creaturely noises than to the Japanese movie, After Life. Two hours of bliss. Oh sure, he had worried a little about his body, about not mouth-breathing and not tongue-smacking, and not being overcome by the occasional hardening that he had learned to disperse by thinking about solving first-order differential equations. But unlike other dates, he hadn’t worried about what to say afterward. Blanche was a bona fide film buff and loved to talk film.
In third-year university, Mark had discovered the Foreign Film Club. For two hours every Thursday night, he could forget the pre-readings he was supposed to be doing, the overdue lab report, and the quiz that was looming next week. For two hours he could ignore his bargain-basement clothes, the patches of perma-acne that dotted his jaw and the cheapest-frame glasses that constantly slid down his greasy nose. He could forget about being small and dark and different.
He was transported to worlds he’d never imagined, like the Japanese cowboy delivering milk in Tampopo, or the plastic surgery grotesqueries in Brazil, or the Kalahari tribe puzzling over the heaven-sent Coke bottle in The Gods Must be Crazy. After the films he’d often heard one regular, a nerdy plain girl, with a mouth over-full of teeth, ask complete strangers what they thought of the film. Sure enough, one night she cornered him, introduced herself, and asked, “So, what did you think of that Kurosawa classic?” He blathered something—horribly banal, as he remembered it afterwards—but he added the magic words: “How about you? How was it for you?”
He'd guessed correctly; Blanche Dumoulin had untapped insights she was dying to share. As she spoke, her bright eyes held his, enchanting him, scarcely permitting his glance to stray to the idiosyncrasies of her mouth or her threadbare coat. He offered up more impressions—at first, with hesitation, but as she became more animated, with growing confidence.
After that, they regularly shared an arm-rest on Thursdays. But he tried not to feel serious about Blanche. He’d dated a girl in first year but nothing came of it and he assumed he was boring and awkward or maybe too defensive. He’d been burned in high school. But Blanche was different; she didn’t expect him to be cool or athletic or to expertly put the move on her.
Besides, they weren’t dating—they were just watching a film together. Sometimes having coffee afterward. Enjoying their amateur analysis. Sometimes straying to other topics.
* * *
Mark was one of a couple dozen black students on a campus with twenty thousand students. He didn’t care, he told Blanche; he was not defined by race and he wasn’t going to let race dictate his future. In fact, the university had gone to some length to show they were “diverse” as far as campus life was concerned.
“Oh yeah, I loved the orientation booklet. Every picture in it showed a minimum of three races,” Blanche said, placing ironic emphasis on “loved.”
Mark laughed. “Point is, they were trying.” It still surprised him when his white friends had the same skepticism about images of inclusivity that he did. It was weird to see racially diverse images all the time now. Where were those images when he was growing up?
“Yeah, but look at our professors in Arts & Science—mostly white, mostly male,” Blanche said.
“They say it reflects the pipeline,” he said, “I get that.”
Blanche wrinkled her nose. “They say that for women, too. We have to ‘pump up the pipeline.’”
Mark laughed at her exaggerated delivery.
“I try not to get too worked up about it,” he said. “Destroys the concentration.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I just want to be me.”
* * *
In mid-semester they screened the 1940 British movie Gaslight and Mark’s world began to change. In that movie, a couple moves into a house where the previous inhabitant (who owned some famous rubies) had been murdered by a burglar. The husband begins to secretly search the closed-off upper floors of the house for the rubies. Whenever he searches, his gas lamp causes the other lamps in the house to dim slightly. Whenever the wife comments on the flickering, he tells her she is imagining things.
“Brilliant,” Mark whispered as the credits played out. Pulling their jackets on, they joined the departing throng.
“You think so?”
“Oh yeah. I mean, the lights blinked, and the wife witnessed that again and again. But the husband made her doubt her own senses…and question her own sanity.” In a completely different context, it was a situation all too familiar to Mark. How much should I share?
“I’ve heard the term,” Blanche said. “‘Gaslighting’… but I didn’t really understand it until now.”
“I’ve never heard it,” Mark said, “but I’ve lived it.”
“Well, then, share the rubies.”
He laughed. “All in good time.”
* * *
Blanche exchanged greetings with a few other regulars while Mark walked beside her, lost in thought. He was seized with an idea for his podcast. Over the past five years, he’d recorded a few online musings under the handle Just Wanna Be Me. Lately the podcast was in a quiescent phase while Mark hit the books. But tonight, for the first time in months, he wanted to craft an episode: something to do with … gaslighting … and self-doubt. He recognized that feeling: that things weren’t right, like he couldn’t live freely but was always being watched, despite everyone’s assurance to the contrary. It had dogged him for years. And now, thanks to this film, he had a name to put to it.
He looked sideways at Blanche, who was now cleaning her glasses on her shirt-sleeve, and said, “Overall, what did you think?”
“She was way too submissive,” she said, opening a dialog about gender dynamics of the 1940s film couple.
Walking back to her residence while debating, Mark noticed a police cruiser drive by. Speak of the devil. He casually suggested to Blanche that they cut across a nearby park, but didn’t say why.
They arrived at the student residence, an Edwardian brick behemoth, and stepped inside. He longed to put his arms around her.
“Same time next week?”
“Mm, for sure.”
Should I kiss her? He leaned a little closer but she did not. Briefly he regretted discussing heavy topics instead of keeping it light. Jokes about campus food and boring profs. But dammit, no; they were ideas people.
* * *
A week later, cruiser 10-25 appeared again, right after Film Club. It had rained, and this time Blanche resisted the detour through the park, saying, “My shoes…. What kind of wilderness nut are you?” She laughed but was clearly averse to the route.
“I guess you’re right.” Mark looked ruefully at his vintage brogue Oxfords—his graduation pair that Mom had picked up for two bucks from the church bazaar. Blanche, queen of vintage style, nodded approvingly.
“I should tell you why I wanted to take a different route,” he said as they moved back to the sidewalk. “It might sound a little paranoid, so promise me you won’t judge.”
His heart began to race. “Cruiser 10-25 followed us last week. And guess what’s waiting over there across the street tonight.”
“Are you sure?” Blanche said. “Why follow us, of all people?” Her laugh sounded mildly exasperated, like she had lost a mitten.
Mark hid his disappointment. He wanted more than a girlfriend; he wanted an ally. “It’s me they’re keeping an eye on,” he said.
“You? Why you?” Her expression ricocheted between concern and puzzlement. “Seriously, what crime—”
“Have you ever heard of carding?”
“Yeah. They ask me what I’m up to and write it down on a little card,” he said.
“Yeah, like a little recipe card,” he said. “Sounds pretty harmless, I know. But it’s the implied suspicion. You know: gaslighting.” He tried to act nonchalant, because he didn’t want to come across like that movie wife who became a basket case.
“That’s so… odd,” she said.
“I know.” He said airily, “Likely my imagination.’
“No rubies here,” she said.
At the residence, Mark and Blanche shared a kiss. The parting kisses were becoming more fevered as their friendship deepened, but chastity prevailed. They were both scholarship students bent on escaping dirt-poor backgrounds. When Mark stepped back outside, cruiser 10-25, which had been a block away, was now right outside the main door of residence. Pretending not to see it, he strolled to the bus stop, where eleven other students waited, and made it home without incident.
That night he pushed aside his particle physics textbook and recorded “The Cops Are Gaslighting Me… You Might Be Next.” He had only nine subscribers—one of whom was maybe his mother—but it felt good to get it off his chest.
* * *
After Film Club the next week, Blanche was describing Eisenstein’s theory of montage when she noticed cruiser 10-25 pull up beside them. She stopped mid-sentence, spun around, and rapped on the window. Two officers were inside.
“Hey, this is getting real old real fast,” she said loudly.
“Excuse me?” said the officer.
“You guys followed us last week,” she said, “and now you’re following us this week. In my books, that’s harassment.”
“In your books,” said the officer.
“Har-ass-ment,” said the other officer.
Mark heard the subtle mockery in the inflections of their syllables. In this university town, the ordinary citizens had subtle ways to emphasize the students were there temporarily, scarcely being tolerated.
“Yeah. And I don’t appreciate it,” Blanche said. Her voice was harsh, not unlike the voice of Mark’s mom that time she’d laid down the law to Principal Wyatt.
“Is that so,” said the officer, eyeing Mark as if measuring a rival.
She was just getting warmed up. “Furthermore, I sit on the student council, and if I have to put forward a motion about police harassment, the whole campus will be up at arms,” Blanche said.
“‘Put forward.’ Didja hear that, Reggie?” the officer said to his colleague.
The harsh light of the streetlamp made Blanche look paper-white. Mark’s hands looked blacker than usual, like he’d been absorbed into the shadows. Omigod, the last thing he needed was a couple of hours in the klink the night before his mid-term. He touched Blanche’s elbow.
“This is part of our regular patrol. We’re just trying to keep all you students safe and protected. You think about that next time you call 911, okay now?” The officer rolled up the window and the cruiser pulled away.
“Welcome to Gaslighting 101,” Mark said to Blanche. He mimicked the husband in the film: “What do you mean, ‘the light dims’? You are imagining it, sweetheart. I just want to keep you safe.” His pretend-English accent was so dreadful Blanche laughed.
When they leaned in for the good-night kiss, they felt strangely thrilled by the evening’s events, and the kiss went on and on. She pulled away long enough to text her room-mate, telling her to high-tail it to Study Hall until midnight. Blanche then took Mark up to her room—despite his pro-forma protests—where they made urgent mad love.
* * *
At ten minutes to midnight, Mark left her residence, took the bus home, and threw himself in the shower. Afterwards, he sat cross-legged on his futon, rocking and staring at his trembling hands. His senses were overwhelmed by the encounter with Blanche. I’ve ruined a good thing. I’m gonna get hooked and she will run from the strangeness that is my life.
On his desk the differential equations textbook lay open on the page where he’d been plugging away at odd-numbered questions before heading out to Film Club. He grabbed the book and stared. The math symbols floated in a blur on a sea of white.
I can’t get sidetracked again. Everyone knew what happened to Tiger Woods… Bill Cosby… Wilt Chamberlain… Everyone would say yeah right, Mark Dirac was acting true to form.
With regard to dating, Mark had been around the block and up and down the alley. Puberty struck hard in Grade 10, the year he’d joined Glee Club, when two boys and twenty girls collaborated in the stage production of the Addams Family Musical. He went girl-crazy for months as the cast leapt and sang. Tight leotards, sweating bodies, pulsating rhythms. His stamina took him through hours of rehearsals for showstoppers like “When You're An Addams,” “Crazier Than You,” and “Death is Just Around the Corner.” Afterward, he and several Glee-tarians sneaked off to meet far from the watchful eyes of the teachers and dance coach. They “rehearsed” even more, making up raunchy lyrics like “Hornier Than You” and “Sex is Just Around the Corner.” His marks, however, shriveled.
His mom was furious, especially when he got the clap and she had to pay for rounds of antibiotics. “No drug plan, and God knows that pharmacist thinks I’m a fallen woman too!”
Worst of all was when he overheard the girls in Glee Club. His ears burned as the girls recounted the sordid details of the boys they’d been with in their “Taste the Rainbow” club, and they weren’t talking about color variety in a bag of Skittles, either.
Then graffiti appeared on his locker. “Small & dark,” someone had written, and Mark doubled over, sick with shame. He taped a poster over it; the poster was torn down the next day. He never knew if it was his build or his “equipment” the whole damn school was laughing over. “Small & dark” was not obscene and it was not hate speech, Principal Wyatt clarified, so he didn’t authorize a paint-over for weeks.
For the rest of high school, Mark had sworn off girls. He quit Glee Club and every other extra-curricular activity. He funneled his passion into mathematics and okay, maybe a few steamy videos. But math was the best. There were rules—and rules for the rules. And math helped explain physics, which would soon put men on Mars, very far away from Venus. Soon Mark was in love, in a totally different way, and he emerged dusty and victorious from the tumult of high school.
Tonight Mark stared at the differential equations until the symbols came back into focus. He moved the mic closer. He pictured Blanche there in his room, lounging on his futon, glasses off, hair undone, waiting for him to explain himself. Why he had insisted the lights be off. Why he had been brusque. Why he had started to cry.
First, there’s a little something else I need to get off my chest. It was long overdue but tonight he felt he had achieved some perspective on “Taste the Rainbow,” or at least enough distance that he wouldn’t sound angry. He switched on the mic and recorded the episode: “Am I Just Another Notch on Your Belt?”
* * *
Mark didn’t want to be a cad, although he was unclear on what exactly that was. He left a message the next day asking Blanche to call. She texted back, “Cramming. Homer. Same time Thursday?” With a film-club friend, Mark figured, maybe some things were better experienced in the dark together and then left to marinate for a week.
The next Thursday they met at the wicket and skipped the film. They went straight to grab a coffee and brioche at the Sleepless Goat. Amid the mismatched over-stuffed furniture Mark was struck with a sudden shyness. At first they were tongue-tied, which he took as a good sign, since it was opposite to Glee-tarian. They couldn’t commiserate about profs because they had zero classes in common: Blanche majored in Classics and his double-major was math and physics. Instead they recapped favorite scenes in Tampopo and Brazil and Gods Must Be Crazy and also Gaslight. Conversationally, they were treading water.
Then Blanche took a deep breath and said, “So, are the cops always tailing you?”
Cops. She usually says officers, he recalled. “Nah, it comes and goes,” he said. Too much weirdness was a turn-off. Although, come to think of it, she had led the charge on cruiser 10-25.
“The university is trying to be more inclusive,” he said, “but the town police are another matter.” He was sure they did racial profiling. And they certainly were not “color blind” as far as doing random checks. In the summer, when he drove his mother’s ho-hum sedan to work, Mark often looked up in his rear-view mirror and saw a cruiser. He varied his route every day yet still, a cruiser tailed him at least once a week. “I’ve put up with a lot. I kept thinking I was over-reacting.”
“Gaslighting,” she said.
“So you understand what happened the other night?” Mark said. “Why I wanted the other route?”
Blanche sipped her coffee. “Okay. So you weren’t trying to wreck my shoes,” she said. “My bed, however, was another matter.”
They smiled at each other a good long time.