A dominating presence. Six feet two, with big angles for the eye to bear. Shoulder and throat. This was the casing of a hard spirit, and it was natural for others to shy away.
Brains-wise, in terms of sheer horsepower, she was the most intelligent person I’d ever known. And she had trouble keeping it under wraps. It led to disaffection. Natural when you can see the gears of civilization operating, see how the mechanism of personhood is faltering society-wide. The gift of insight is crushing. I think it crushed Theresa, which added to her unstable energy and her tendency to spook people.
I met her at the beginning of law school, when she wasn’t quite this way yet. She still had hopes. Hopes for the expansiveness of the law, and its human roots. I think even then some part of her knew that such thinking was delusional, mere romanticizing. But she couldn’t help it. She needed a horizon to aspire to.
Already at that age she was coming from a place of high accomplishment. She’d been an M.D., otolaryngology, and she’d done unusual surgeries on the head and neck, correcting malfunctioning structures, sometimes literally giving people their voices back.
Imagine your surgeon being this big woman. You’d submit to her, I think. You’d trust her ability to impose order on the chaos of your body. She’d tell you how it was going to be and you’d think, “Jesus, finally. A force as deep and good as my own pathology is wicked. Thank God for Dr. Weaver!” But that was if you were already in a subordinate position, the vulnerable patient, looking for benediction. If you were (or imagined yourself) a peer, her imperious qualities rankled. She was polite, but there was no way around it, she looked down on you.
Not surprisingly, then, men were a central source of tension for her. In a competitive medical environment, their insecurities flared, and they griped about her. They manipulated the bureaucracy to block her advancement. Even the more secure characters, the guys who weren’t threatened by her, who took her genius in stride and admired it; even these men made assumptions about her. That she was a lesbian, or some kind of sexual brute. Not that they minded either of those things, but what business of theirs was her sexual existence at all? It was maddening. Even the best men saw women as sexual targets first, and everything else later. The best men could be forgiven, and were worth forgiving (a key point), but sometimes that extra step in the procedure was wearying. Why was it Theresa’s responsibility to wait through the process of sexual jockeying? I think it mostly made her tired.
In fact, she had a tired look most of the time. She tried to hide it behind retro glasses, and a wardrobe with colorful bohemian flourishes. Big scarves, and jangly, hanging earrings that actually only accentuated the length of her face. Painter’s overalls, with the bottoms rolled up above high heels that added to her height. That kind of thing.
Of course, I’m guilty of sexualizing her as well, though we didn’t quite have that kind of relationship. I’m trying to keep it out of my account of her, but to be fair, on some level: she wasn’t wholly unattractive. The tired eyes still shone, wounded brown, with gold flecks.
Well, there she was, huge, attentive, already out of debt and into the black from her medical practice. Ready for the rejuvenation that comes with a new discipline. She seemed to all of us to be a phenomenon. She was concertedly, but expertly, gregarious, going to all the student brown-bag informational lunches, joining the study clubs. She earned a nickname: Theresa “the Tower of Power” Weaver.
So what was the glitch? Whence this seeming moral exhaustion, this hurt look? She gave out big grins, and happy masculine smack-talk with male classmates like me, she baked for charity fundraisers, she told funny gross-out stories of days as a medical intern, but these all seemed a bit overworked to me, at odds with something truer that was nevertheless hard to place. What had she lived through?
The answer wasn’t so easy as a trauma or other impressive cataclysm in youth. Her parents were by every measure reasonable, consistent thinkers, neither disciplinarians, nor hippy-dippy libertines. From them Theresa got middle-of-the-road guidance, that mild kind of urging that imposes nothing and allows for wild development in every direction. Where conflict came in, it had to do with gender roles. The father was laissez-faire in this area, he was a chemistry professor, he was happy for his daughter to pick up a science-based world-view. The mother, though, fretted about an overly boyish streak. She was a wide reader, but was convinced nevertheless that a woman still needed to be unambiguously feminine in appearance and comportment. Theresa was already behind the eight-ball because of her size, she needed to girl it up, with flippy hair and eye makeup and lace underthings instead of sports gear. You can imagine the battles. How many mothers buy their teenagers racy lingerie? Theresa still shook her head over it years later telling me the stories after class.
Still, this was no more than the usual confusion of identity. It’s always a cobbled thing. What Theresa dealt with was a priori. Without natural origin. Even as a little kid she saw past the usual structures of life to the uncaused emptiness where meaning might’ve been. Or was the emptiness an illusion? Was unknowability itself an affirmative presence at the center of all life? She couldn’t tell, and thus mystery and nothingness vied for establishment in her heart.
She had such preoccupations!
Somehow, though, they didn’t render her a nerd. She had the wherewithal and fluency to pass for a typical teenager. With that height, and a surprising grace, she was a natural at basketball and volleyball. And with performance in sports came a caché that she traded on in order to hide the social liability that was her interest in metaphysics.
Then, too, her drift toward her father’s kind of work—her major in college being biochem—might be seen as a repudiation of her dreamier and more mystical side. An Enlightenment-style grab at the comforts of observability. Although by that time she’d encountered Hegel and Adorno, both of whom highlighted the modern tyranny and dogmatism of reason.
In any case, from chemistry to medicine, and in medicine a perfect vortex of ego, greed, inattention, rote thinking, cowardice, petty backbiting, tedium and outright malfeasance. She was alternately ignored and bullied. She was sabotaged. She was overworked. She stood eyeball to eyeball or sometimes (worse) nipple to eyeball with powerful men, and she spoke to them the only way she knew how: as their intellectual superior. This was a while before the concept of gender fluidity—and it wasn’t that in any case—but Theresa Weaver spoke like a man. More than that, she spoke like a Great Man.
More on the parents. I met them both on several occasions. Law school functions initially, then as Theresa and I became friends, on birthdays, holidays, etc. It may sound strange to say so, but they were exceedingly clean people. In a way that ran beyond habits, or even pathology, to a kind of holy and essential attribute.
The father’s name was Chapman, and he went by Chap. A mid-century prep-school name which fit his upbringing as a New Hampshire Yankee. He had a swept-granite look that partly accounted for this impression of cleanliness I always sensed. His skin always shaved and dry, his nose narrow and drawn to a sharp Yankee point at the end. His hair a dry gray. He smelled of lemon and verbena. Clean.
The mother’s name was Lauren and she was from Ohio, Columbus, where Chap moved to become a professor and where Theresa grew up. Lauren, like her big daughter, seemed to contain incalculable depths. Except that in Lauren they were more like reflections. Layers on layers of clean glass. She was a kind of society lady, not uncommon among faculty wives of a certain generation; her own Father had been a professor. But she was highly educated. And yet that education was old-fashioned: Latin, Greek, and French, a debutante’s schooling. Yet again, that very education gave her entry into heavy stuff. Stendhal, Hugo, Proust. And hot stuff, Rimbaud and Flaubert. But what’s a girl to do with Emma Bovary in her head in Columbus?
And so on, down and down, the light of a big reality pinging off the hard surfaces of her character.
I didn’t get all this from a few Christmas parties with her. I got a lot of it from Theresa, so it was interpreted already. Still, Theresa was a top observer of human behavior and its relation to internal states. She read everybody, including her own parents, including me.
What did the cleanliness of Theresa’s parents mean? It was a state of being inaccessible to Theresa herself. Despite being from it, she was not of it. She lived amidst a dense and stimulating clutter, books, journals, printed or clipped articles, notebooks, pens, and endless laptops. All her spices for cooking were out on her kitchen counter. She drank rum, sometimes from the bottle. She had a half-dozen house plants rioting on different desks and window ledges, open bags of potting soil beside them—Theresa was forever with dirt under her fingernails.
All this made her an alien in the slightly prim and tidy confines of Ohio. An alien in her own home growing up.
Alien. This word came up repeatedly between us as we got to know each other better through the years. It was a signal, I think, of her decline from the early days of enthusiasm for her legal studies. A signal of ruefulness and even despair. She had a habit of grinning hugely when she said it, big hoops swinging from her earlobes as she shook her head in resignation. Grinning hopelessly. The world, with its dogged, insistent surfaces was impossible for her. She needed marrow.
My role in Theresa’s life was a complicated one, and late. Late in her life.
A number of things accounted for our coming together. The first, it must be said, was physical. Like her, I was taller than almost anybody around—six feet five. In this way I relieved her. Relieved her of the burden of her most obvious unusualness. It always works that way. We’re drawn to corresponding anomalies. The one with poor hair but lovely cheekbones is drawn to the one with scarred skin but an athletic build. The one with a hooked nose but beautiful breasts is drawn to the bald one who nevertheless has his strong and well-shaped hands. Those physically without much blemish also face the pressure of embarrassment when they face the more crudely formed of us. They feel bad about their magical appearance in light of our shabbiness, and so they seek relief in a likewise perfect other.
Theresa, for her part, just needed a shoulder to lean on that wasn’t four inches below her own.
Oh, but the burdens are endless, Theresa, and multi-distributed. You’re not an alien. We all need a breather.
A second thing that brought us together was an affinity for literature, criticism, theory, humanities-type thinking. Not surprising for me, as this was my first professional discipline, I had come from the academy, I had an M.F.A. in creative writing, I’d published a fair bit of fiction in the days before the writing of white men fell justifiably out of favor. But Theresa had come from the biological sciences, where measurement was everything. She had profited from the West’s obsession with data. Whence came the interest in metaphor and narrative?
Well, it’s simple: she was a whole person. The dual influences of her parents were at work, so that all the human dimensions were present in her. It wasn’t as simple as her father’s strict empiricism and her mother’s more layered intuitions—Chap, after all, was also alert to worldly fluctuations, and had read his Alice Munro, his Rushdie, his Toni Morrison—but the breakdown of Theresa’s personality could more or less be read in those terms. As an M.D., she had conducted double-blind clinical trials. When she went home she naturally wanted a greater affective richness. She wanted what anthropologists call “thick description.”
Where did she find it? Where didn’t she find it?! I’ve never met anyone so wildly well-read. At any one time she had six books going, and none of it in any kind of system. She went from Sun Tzu to Emily Post, Dostoevsky to Henry Kissinger, from a book on the philosophy of animal cognition to a short story about the death of Schuman. Poetry, fiction, drama, she read screenplays, and Seamus Heaney and Louise Glück and Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner. She read all the 20th century intellectuals, Einstein and Martin Buber and Keynes and Tillie Olsen and Gertrude Stein and Viktor Frankl and Hannah Arendt and Derrida and Foucault and John Kenneth Galbraith and Joan Didion and Adrienne Rich and Wittgenstein and Edward Said. And on and on.
At its best all this mad searching was joyous, an intellectual revelry. At its worst, it was compulsive, desperate. If you felt the spark of life already, then the history of great thought might feel like a reason to live. If you felt nothing, then you haunted the tunnels of theory praying for salvation. But as Theresa said to me once, her nose in collection of Fanon essays, theory so rarely reaches beyond the myopia of its own self-justification. Theory, it seemed, was just one more way for the world to let her down.
The first time we kissed, I wasn’t surprised. My breath didn’t catch in my chest, my heart didn’t surge. She felt the same way. We fell into it, and it was quiet, a little resigned. I didn’t hold her. Still, I felt her long teeth with my tongue, and she bit my lower lip, grinning. There was humor and gratitude in it instead of excitement. And there was relief. It was such a comfort to touch each other in that close way.
It became something we did in either dull or valedictory moments. During tedious movies, or while waiting for popcorn to pop. Or, when she got the notice that she’d been elected editor of the Law Review.
And then the day we graduated. We passed the evening into the night sitting on the balcony of Theresa’s apartment, making out on and off for hours, sharing a bottle of her rum. We had an ice bucket and slices of lime. We had job offers.
Already, though, Theresa knew that wouldn’t be enough. What was a job to her? She’d had a career already, and it had dissolved in the fizz of human venality. Sitting with me that night, she must’ve seen both a past and a future of petty squabbling, of comprehensive and irredeemable dysfunction. She was quieter than usual.
At some point, in the silence, the rum working, I dozed, my head against the back of my patio chair. When I woke up, Theresa had gone back inside. I assumed she’d gone to bed. It wasn’t unusual for her to retire before me, and leave me to let myself out. I got my things and stopped at the bathroom on my way out.
There, on the bathroom floor, she lay with glassy eyes, and an empty pill bottle by her side.
My first thought was that I didn’t have a chance, she was a doctor and would know precisely how to dose herself in order to extinguish things.
My second instinct was simply to grab her up, which I started to do before realizing that I’d never be able to manage it, she was too big, even for someone my size, to handle alone. And anyway I was drunk, had planned to take a bus home, what would I have done with her? Her arms flopped as I lay her back down and fumbled for my phone.
I dialed 9-1-1 and answered the dispatcher’s questions. Then I sat down with her, pulled her torso into me and held her head.
Her mouth moved, and her blood still ran in her veins and was warm.
Sean Murray is a member of the U.S. Foreign Service, and has lived and worked in Lithuania, Canada, Ukraine and Russia. He currently lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his wife and their dog.