Nile’s advisor slid her fall course schedule across the desk. “Your graduation requirements account for most of your credits this semester, so you’ll only have space for one elective,” Professor Scythia said. “Any thoughts on what you might like to take?”
“Um.” Nile hesitated, wishing she didn’t find her advisor so… intimidating. “I was thinking something in, like, philosophy, or maybe religion?”
Professor Scythia’s eyes flicked to the gold cross Nile still wore around her neck, but she didn’t comment. Instead the professor sifted through the mountain of course catalogues heaped on her desk and passed one over. “Why don’t you take a look and see if anything catches your interest?”
Acutely conscious of the professor’s sharp blue eyes watching her every move—weighing her, she wondered nervously, and finding her wanting?—Nile scanned the listings for the philosophy department’s optional seminars. The titles sounded impressive and elaborate: “The Atomists’ Critique of Creationism,” “Holism in Stoic Psychology and Epistemology,” “Plato’s Philosopher Kings: The Good Life and the Noble Lie,” “Aquinas: His Medieval Critics and Fellow Scholastics,” “German Idealism and Kant on Philosophy of Religion,” “Philosophical Issues in the Cognitive Sciences.”
Towards the bottom of the list, a short title stood out: “GOD.” Curious, Nile skimmed the description: By drawing on sources from antiquity to the present day, from philosophy to poetry, from mysticism to neuroscience, from Eastern philosophers to their Western counterparts, this seminar explores what we talk about when we talk about God. [Thursdays, 2-5pm, Prof. Y. al-Kaysani & Prof. N. di Genova. Max. enrollment: 10 students.]
“I’m kind of intrigued by this one here that’s just called ‘God,’” she said tentatively.
Professor Scythia’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh? Why that one?”
“God is… kind of a contentious subject for me,” Nile admitted. “I grew up in a religious household, and after my dad was killed overseas, the church became even more important to my mom. But recently, I’ve been, well…” She felt her face heat up. This wasn’t a counseling session. Professor Scythia was her academic advisor, not her therapist. “I just thought I’d like to study it properly, that’s all.”
Professor Scythia was gazing at her intently, but to Nile’s considerable relief, she merely nodded. “Bear in mind it’s a small class, and there’s already a long waitlist to get in. Al-Kaysani and di Genova are both extremely popular instructors in their respective departments. They’ve never taught a joint course before, so it’s in high demand.”
“Oh,” said Nile. She wasn’t familiar with either professor; she had no idea what sort of classes were popular with other students. Slightly ashamed, she looked down at her hands, knotted together in her lap, and vowed to socialize more this year.
“Al-Kaysani and di Genova are more used to PhD candidates than undergraduates,” Professor Scythia continued, oblivious to the self-recriminating turn Nile’s thoughts had taken. “They’ll expect a lot from their students. You’ll need to attend class every week and do all the reading and assignments. It’s a tremendous amount of work for an elective.”
“I’m not afraid of hard work,” Nile said firmly. She’d always had a stubborn streak; the warning had only whetted her curiosity and made her more eager to take the class.
“All right, kid.” To Nile’s alarm, her formidable advisor smiled, revealing a mouthful of strong white teeth. There was something unnervingly wolfish about it. Nile took a deep breath and resisted the impulse to shove her chair back and flee the office before Professor Scythia ate her alive. “In that case, I’ll put in a good word for you with al-Kaysani and di Genova. They happen to be close friends of mine.”
When Nile arrived home, the first thing she did was download the “GOD” syllabus from the online course catalogue. While she waited for the pdf to load—her wifi was fucking slow, but she couldn’t afford to upgrade—she blasted Frank Ocean from her speaker, grateful that she lived alone and could play her music as loud as she liked. It was unusual for an undergraduate to live in her own apartment, but Nile wasn’t a typical undergraduate. She was a good five years older than most of her classmates, for one thing. After high school, she had enlisted in the marines and served two tours in Afghanistan. Then she took an honorable discharge and applied to college. She hadn’t expected to get into Yale. When she received her acceptance, she had stared at the email in shock, suddenly paralyzed with fear. She was too old, too different, too… everything to study art history at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, a fucking Ivy League—
Download finally completed, the pdf popped open on her computer screen:
Professor Yusuf al-Kaysani, Professor Nicolò di Genova
Thursdays, 2-5pm. Linsly-Chittenden Hall, Seminar Room 14.
Seminar Description: In this course of weekly classes we shall address questions of growing relevance to a large number of people around the world today. Our aim is to equip ourselves with the necessary intellectual tools for better understanding and to encourage a free debate devoid of all manner of bigotry and dogmatism. Students are expected to read, research, ruminate on, and respect opinions that they might not personally share.
This seminar does NOT promote any particular religion or adhere to any particular view. Whether you are Jewish, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian, Muslim, Jain, Mormon, Shinto, Rastafarian, Bahai, agnostic, atheist, New Age practitioner, or about to initiate your own cult, you will have an equal say.
Seminar Objectives :
- To promote empathy, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom in matters pertaining to the notion of God;
- To provide students with a wide array of answers to the most demanding questions of our times;
- To encourage students to think critically and carefully about a topic that is important not only in theology or philosophy, but also in art, literature, psychology, sociology, politics and international relations;
- To approach universal dilemmas without mechanical repetition, ignorance, fanaticism, or fear of offending others;
- In short, to confuse and be confused.
Seminar Materials : The reading lists will be tailored individually according to your determination, diligence, and academic performance. Readings might include but are certainly not limited to: Voltaire, Karl Marx, Hafez, John Donne, Baruch Spinoza, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Saint Jerome, Red Jacket, G.K. Chesterton, Rumi, Anna Comnena, Wang Wei, Lucretius, Farid ud-Din Attar, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Friedrich Nietzsche, Isaac Ben Yedaiah, John Milton, Augustine of Hippo, Charles Darwin, Niccolò Machiavelli, Søren Kierkegaard, Albert Einstein, Toni Morrison, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Pope Innocent IV, Walter Benjamin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Immanuel Kant, Han Yu, Alexis de Tocqueville, Ibn Khaldun, Leo Tolstoy, René Descartes, Saint Teresa of Ávila, Maimonides, Blaise Pascal, Theodor Herzl, Émile Zola, Hildegard von Bingen, David Hume, Ibn al-Arabi, Thomas More, Xunzi, Phillis Wheatley, Nichiren, Hrosvit of Gandersheim, Jorge Luis Borges, Michel de Montaigne, Meister Eckhart, Saadat Hasan Manto, Emanuel Swedenborg, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.
Seminar Rules : All ideas, provided they are supported by research, skillful presentation, and openness of mind, are welcome. Eating during class does not constitute a problem. In truth, food (within reason, don't go overboard) and beverages (non-alcoholic, we need our brains sober) are encouraged—not only because they lift the mood and help the intellect to focus, but also because it is hard to feel hostile towards someone you break bread with. Ergo, share your food with fellow classmates, especially with those who oppose your views.
Bullying, hate speech, harassment, or malicious conduct against other students will not be tolerated (nor will it be allowed against your professors). Taking offense is strongly discouraged. By agreeing to join this seminar, you are entering a tacit agreement to give primacy to freedom of speech over personal sensitivities. When you feel offended, which is human, remember the counsel of a wise man: ‘If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?’*
This seminar is for the seekers: those who are ‘willing to be a beginner every single morning.’** If all this seems like too much drudgery, bear in mind: ‘The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.’***
By the time she’d finished reading, Nile’s jaw had fallen open and her heart was beating a frantic tattoo against her ribs. She could only pray that Professor Scythia would remember to advocate on her behalf, because Nile had to take this seminar. She just had to.
The first week of the new term, early one afternoon, the sky placid as a village pond, Nile got ready for the first session of “GOD.” Only a few days earlier she had received an email from Professor Scythia, two terse, cryptic sentences that set her stomach fluttering with nerves:
Spoke to J & N, and you’re in. Enjoy your time with God, kid.
Since getting the email, between her other classes and her work-study job at the arts library, she’d had no chance to reflect on what she might be in for. Now, as she headed towards the seminar room with a notebook held tight to her chest, she was surprised by how anxious she felt.
On walking into the room, Nile glanced furtively at the other students, taking in their awkward smiles and the way they sat at polite distances from one another, relieved to see that she wasn’t the only one who looked nervous. Some of the students were immersed in their phones, while others were chatting in hushed voices; one boy, his head resting on his laptop, seemed to be asleep.
Nile took a chair by the window, exchanging nods with the person next to her, a girl in a headscarf. She gazed out at a spreading oak tree, its decaying leaves shimmering ruby and gold. She wondered suddenly if there was time to visit the bathroom but the dread of returning after the seminar had started kept her rooted to her seat. Outside the day had turned overcast, and even though it was still early in the afternoon, it felt like dusk.
Exactly on the hour, the door opened and two men strode in, one carrying a stack of files, the other a large box of crayons. Nile’s first thought was that neither of them looked like professors. They were considerably younger than any of her other teachers, early- to mid-thirties, perhaps, both of them quite tall with rangy, athletic builds. Her second thought was that the dark-haired one holding the box of crayons—Professor al-Kaysani, presumably—was the most handsome man she’d ever laid eyes on. He was wearing a navy corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches, and though his crisp white shirt was immaculately ironed, his tie was undone, as if he had been too bored or too hurried to knot it. A short beard framed a sensual mouth, and his hair—an ebullient profusion of dark curls—was wild and ruffled: he had either been walking into a stiff wind or had repeatedly run his fingers through it.
The other man, the white one—Professor di Genova?—had gone over to the desk to drop his files. Standing with his back to the class, he took an hourglass out of his pocket and promptly turned it over. Nile watched as particles of sand began to trickle from the upper bulb into the lower one, like tiny pilgrims on a holy journey.
Professor al-Kaysani, meanwhile, had bounded to the front of the classroom, where he stood before the whiteboard looking like he’d been lifted wholesale from the glossy pages of a fashion magazine, and exclaimed, with an energy that upended the lethargy in the classroom:
“Hello, everybody! Shalom aleichem! As-salamu alaykum! Peace be with you! Namaste! Jai jinendra! Sat nam! Sat sri akaal! I’m Professor Yusuf al-Kaysani, and I utter my greetings in no particular order of preference or precedence, in case you were wondering.” He spoke with just the faintest trace of an accent; Nile couldn’t place it.
“Aloha!” someone called back, and others chipped in with myriad greetings, a jumble of voices and laughter.
“Excellent!” Professor al-Kaysani said, rubbing his hands together. “I see you’re full of brash confidence. Always a promising sign—”
“Or a recipe for disaster,” a droll voice interrupted. Professor di Genova had finally moved away from the desk to stand beside Professor al-Kaysani, and Nile got her first proper look at him. He had a prominent nose, classical almost, that was finely poised between the ugly and the magnificent. His eyes were astonishing; they shone like burnished sea glass. The skin around them was shadowed, bruised-looking, like he hadn’t slept. Nile found the combination of his features disquieting. In comparison with al-Kaysani, his attire was downright shabby, and his clothes didn’t seem to fit him properly. His blazer was wrinkled, straining across the breadth of his shoulders; his jeans bagged at the knees. “We shall see which,” he added, a bit grimly. His accent was more pronounced than Professor al-Kaysani’s and as emphatically Italian as his name.
While di Genova folded his arms and regarded the assembled students with a kind of cool detachment, al-Kaysani began to speak again, his tone surging in waves of enthusiasm, like an explorer back from far-off lands now sharing his adventures among friends. He congratulated everyone for having the chutzpah to enroll in the seminar and added, with a wink, that he also expected them to have the stamina to go all the way to the end. From the ease and speed with which he spoke it was hard, if not impossible, for Nile to fathom when he was joking and when he was serious. Finally his rambling monologue came to an end, and he looked round at them and clucked his tongue.
“You’ve spread out your chairs as if you’re afraid of catching pneumonia,” he said. “So if I may trouble you, could you please stand up?”
Surprised, the students did as they were told.
“Very obedient,” di Genova observed. “The highest virtue in the eyes of the Lord, they say.”
Al-Kaysani frowned, his sunny demeanor clouding over briefly. Then the smile was back, as dazzling as ever. “Now could you please rearrange your chairs to make a circle? I’ve always found that to be the most suitable shape for talking about God.”
Different subjects required different seating arrangements, al-Kaysani went on. For art and literature, scattered and amorphous; for sociology, a neat triangle; for statistics, a rectangle; and for international relations, a parallelogram. But God had to be discussed in a circle, everyone on the circumference equidistant from the center, looking into one another’s eyes.
It took them a few minutes, with much chair scraping and shuffling around, to accomplish the task. When they finished, the shape they’d formed resembled more of a squeezed lemon than a proper circle. Professor al-Kaysani, though not fully pleased, thanked them for their efforts. When they were all seated again, he asked them to introduce themselves in a few sentences, mentioning their backgrounds and, in particular, why they were interested in God—
“When surely there are more entertaining things for you young people to study, no?” di Genova interjected wryly.
Nile hid a smile behind her hand. Young people? The man couldn’t have been older than thirty-three.
The first student to speak was the girl in the headscarf. She said her name was Dina but they could call her Dizzy, that she was Egyptian-American, and growing up after the tragedy of 9/11, she was extremely worried about the perception of Islam in the West. Dizzy went on to say that she was proud to be a young Muslim woman and she loved her faith with all her heart, but she was frustrated with the amount of prejudice she had to deal with almost every day. “People who don’t know anything about Islam make gross generalizations about my religion, my prophet, my faith, and,” she added quickly, “my headscarf.” She said she was here to engage in honest discussions about the nature of the Almighty, since they were all created by Him and created differently for a reason. “I respect diversity, but I also expect to be respected in return.”
“Is it my turn?” asked the girl beside Dizzy. She was strikingly attractive, her hair buzzed close to her scalp. “My name is Jay, and I’m from Minneapolis. I don’t have an issue with God, but I do have a problem with a He-God.” Jay explained that human beings had lost touch with nature and the earth as goddess. Throughout history, femininity had been suppressed. The price was paid in wars, bloodshed, and violence. She said she was into African and Caribbean syncretic religions, shamanism, Wicca, Tibetan Buddhism, and she urged everyone to stop thinking of God as a He and to start practicing saying She. “Also, I made a bet with my friend. She said Professor di Genova’s one of the toughest graders at the university and he eats undergrads for breakfast. I’m a straight-A student, and I’ve never failed in any class. So I took the challenge.”
Nile, and everybody else, whipped round to look at the professor in question. Di Genova’s lips twitched. “‘Truth is so rare a thing; it is delightful to tell it,’” he said.
Nile, her mouth half-covered by her hand, could not help mumbling to herself, “Emily Dickinson.”
“Let’s move on. Next!” Professor al-Kaysani called.
A brown-haired boy introduced himself as Stephen Merrick from London. His narrow face contorting, Stephen argued that Ernest Hemingway, who was right about everything, had nailed it when he said that all thinking people were atheists. Stephen himself was an atheist. “I don’t believe in any of this bullshit and that’s why I’m here. I want to engage in debates on science, evolution, and what you guys keep calling God.” Though he was a staunch capitalist, Stephen added, he did agree with Marx about religion being the poison of the people.
“That is fine, Stephen,” Professor di Genova cut in. “But when we quote others, particularly philosophers and poets for whom words are important, we must do so with precision. What Marx actually said was, ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’”
“Whatever, same thing,” Stephen rejoined, barely disguising his irritation at being interrupted on a topic he clearly felt passionate about.
Nile was the last to speak. She cleared her throat reluctantly. “Okay, my name is Nile…”
“And Professor di Genova was quoting Emily Dickinson earlier, well done,” Professor al-Kaysani said.
Nile blushed. She had no idea that either professor had heard her. “I’m from Chicago and, uh…” She’d learnt quickly, when she started at Yale, that leading with the marines tended to polarize her classmates and instructors. Some people thanked her for her service, which made her deeply uncomfortable; others took issue with it and demanded to know how she could live with herself after slaughtering innocent civilians across the Middle East. And now she’d lost her train of thought. She felt foolish for being unable to think of something substantive like the others had. “Um… I’m not… sure why I’m here.”
“That’s okay, Nile,” Professor al-Kaysani told her kindly; Nile blushed deeper still.
“It is admirable, to be able to admit to uncertainty,” said Professor di Genova. “And after listening to the rest of you harangue each other about religion, instead of God, which is our principal subject, perhaps Professor al-Kaysani and I ought to explain, in no uncertain terms, what this seminar will be about.” His eyes, so fathomless and strange, seemed to linger on each of them in turn. “We are not here to confer about Islam or Christianity or Judaism. We might touch upon these traditions, yes, but only insofar as our central topic requires it. You cannot let your personal beliefs get in the way.”
His tone had acquired an edge, a blade of steel. And his face, hitherto reserved, now became distinctly animated, and Nile realized with a shock that Professor di Genova was beautiful. He reminded her of the street cats she’d seen in Afghanistan, not the timid and bruised kind that gave humans a wide berth, but one of those independent felines that prowled along the highest bomb-cratered walls, surveying the ruins as if they were its own secret kingdom.
Professor al-Kaysani, Nile noticed, was also staring. His mouth was slightly open.
“When you become emotional about a subject, any subject, just remember, as Bertrand Russell noted, ‘The degree of one’s emotions varies inversely with one’s knowledge of the facts.’” The light in the room faded as the sun passed behind a large cloud. Di Genova’s eyes glinted. “We are all clear on this, yes?”
“Yes,” the students answered in an effervescent chorus.
Then, a few seconds later, Nile said softly, “No.”
Di Genova raised his eyebrows at her. “I beg your pardon, please?”
“Sorry, it’s just—… I don’t think there’s anything wrong about responding to emotions.” Nile gesticulated with both hands. “We’re human beings, aren’t we? That means we’re driven more by emotions than by reason. I mean, right? So why belittle emotions?” She glanced up at him, dreading the expression she might find, but di Genova’s face was calm, even supportive.
“That is good, Nile,” he said.
“Yeah, Nile, keep on challenging,” al-Kaysani added heartily.
Then Di Genova did scowl—not at Nile, but at his colleague.
It suddenly dawned upon Nile that the two professors disliked each other.
Introductions complete, Professor al-Kaysani retrieved the box of crayons and a sheaf of blank paper, which he asked Jay to hand out. “If someone from the Bronze Age appeared and asked you to describe God, how would you do it? Forget words—I want to you try and explain through images.”
“What?” Stephen said incredulously. “You want us to draw? Are we little kids?”
“I wish you were,” sighed di Genova. “You would probably have a greater imagination and a better grasp of complexity.”
Nile choked on a laugh. Stephen looked livid.
Dizzy put up her hand. “Islam forbids idols. We don’t depict God, we believe He is beyond our perception—as you know very well, Professor.” She was addressing al-Kaysani alone, her tone slightly wounded, but he didn’t seem fazed by whatever implicit accusation she was making.
“Fair enough, Dizzy. Draw what you just told me.”
For the next fifteen minutes they shifted and shuffled, sighed and complained, but, by and by, began producing an array of work. A picture of the universe—stars and galaxies and meteors. A cluster of clouds pierced by a bolt of lightning. An image of a white-skinned Jesus Christ with his arms wide open. A mosque with golden domes under the sun. Ganesha with his elephant head. A large-breasted goddess. A page deliberately left blank.
Nile, after a long hesitation, made a dot, which she then turned into a question mark.
“Time’s up,” Professor al-Kaysani said. He distributed another batch of papers. “Having sketched what God is, I’d like you to illustrate God is not.”
“What?” Stephen all but shouted.
Al-Kaysani arched his eyebrows. “Stop reacting, Stephen, and get to work.”
A demon with yellow snake eyes. An iron mask of horror. A smoking gun. A knife caked in blood. Fire. Destruction. Oddly, imagining what God was not proved harder than imagining what He was. Only Jay seemed to find the task easy: she simply drew a man.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” Professor al-Kaysani said. “Now could you please raise your two drawings and hold them side-by-side? Show them to everybody in the circle.”
They did, inspecting one another’s works.
“Now turn the images towards yourselves. Okay? Great! We’re about to examine a question raised by philosophers, scholars, and mystics throughout history: what is the relationship between the two pictures?”
“Huh?” This time Stephen was not alone.
“Does the first drawing—of what God is—embody or exclude the second drawing—of what God is not?” Professor al-Kaysani started pacing. “For instance, if God is omnipotent and omnipresent, all-powerful and all-benevolent, does that mean that He—or She—embodies evil too, or does it mean that evil is external to Him—or Her—an outside force that He/She needs to fight? In other words, what exactly is the relation between what-God-is and what-God-is-not? You have drawn two pictures. Tell us how they are connected. Write an essay. It can be any style so long as it is brave, bold, honest, and supported by academic research!”
No one said a word. While they were sketching, they had taken the exercise lightly, not much believing in it. Had they known they would be asked to write an essay on the connection between the two images they would have been more thoughtful. But it was too late now, Nile realized with a sinking sensation.
“Go back to philosophers, mystics, scholars of the past,” Professor di Genova said, speaking for the first time in a while. “Stay away from today. Stay away from your own mind.”
“Stay away from our own mind?” Stephen repeated.
“Yep, that’s your assignment for next week. Impress us!” al-Kaysani said cheerfully.
Di Genova turned away, grabbing his files and his hourglass, in which the last grain of sand had just slid into the bulb below. “Do your best, and perhaps Professor al-Kaysani will be pleased. But I warn you, I am not so easy to impress.”
And with that, he swept out of the classroom.
Nile was surprised that al-Kaysani’s glare didn’t singe two burning holes in di Genova’s retreating back.
“They’re both so hot, it’s stupid,” Dizzy moaned.
“Like, I have zero interest in sleeping with men, but even I can see how attractive they are,” Jay agreed. “Al-Kaysani is a straight-up stunner, ten out of ten. And the old Renaissance painters would’ve had a field day with di Genova—the sculptors, too, for that matter.”
“I fantasized about being married to al-Kaysani for, like, all of last year,” Dizzy said.
“You do know he’s queer, right?”
“Yeah, but he’s never specified like gay, bi, pan, so I’m allowed to dream.” Dizzy added, apparently for Nile’s benefit: “I got special permission to take his graduate seminar on early Islamic art last fall, and from day one, I just felt like we had this connection, you know? I go to his office hours almost every week. I feel really lucky to have found an actual Muslim mentor here—even though he’s not super devout or anything. Have you noticed his hands, by the way? They’re so elegant.”
“Oh, you’ve been fantasizing about his hands, huh?”
“I can’t help it, I have this recurring dream where we’re talking in his office, and suddenly he reaches out and takes both my hands in his—”
“I wonder what di Genova’s deal is. Do you think he’s married? Didn’t see a ring, but that doesn’t mean much…”
Nile kept quiet. She’d nearly declined when Dizzy and Jay invited her to hang out, but then she’d remembered her pledge to socialize more this year. Now she listened to them chatter and gossip, discomfited by the casualness with which they sized up al-Kaysani and di Genova—their looks, their sexualities, their relationship statuses—like they were tabloid celebrities instead of college professors. Nile was still disposed to relate to her teachers with the same formality she’d once extended to her superior officers in the marines. Most of her professors would balk at the comparison—the few times she’d slipped up and said sir and ma’am instead of professor, reactions had ranged from amused to disapproving—but she had yet to unclench her sphincter when it came to respectful conduct.
There was one thing, though, that bothered her:
“Doesn’t it seem like they kind of hate each other?” she interrupted.
“Who?” said Jay.
“Professor al-Kaysani and Professor di Genova,” Nile said.
“What are you talking about?” said Dizzy.
“You didn’t notice the way they kept glaring at each other? And contradicting each other? Al-Kaysani barely let di Genova get a word in edgewise, and when he did, di Genova took shots at him. I thought it was obvious,” Nile said, surprised that neither of them had picked up on the tension.
Jay shrugged. “They were probably just modeling the whole free speech and debate thing.”
“Remember how di Genova eviscerated Stephen over that Marx quote?” Dizzy said.
“Di Genova’s a stone-cold savage,” Jay said. “And Merrick deserved it. He’s a dick. I hope they kick him out. Or fuck him up. I’ve seen al-Kaysani at the gym; dude is jacked. He could kick Merrick’s ass six ways to Sunday in a nanosecond.”
Nile’s phone chimed with a new email notification. “Professor al-Kaysani’s asking everybody to sign up for a slot during his office hours,” she reported. “He says he wants to get to know each of us better… Weird, huh?”
“I don’t think it’s weird at all,” said Dizzy. “A seminar is very intimate, so it’s important to have a rapport.”
Jay concurred: “I think it’s cool, it means he’s treating us like grad students. And who wouldn’t want some one-on-one time with that man?”
When Nile sat down, Professor al-Kaysani offered her tea.
“Er, thanks,” she said.
“These fucking New Haven winters,” he complained with an expressive little shudder, and Nile hid a smile: it was early fall, and the weather was still balmy. She found Professor al-Kaysani even more dazzling up close, and there was something endearing about the handful of tiny freckles sprinkled across the bridge of his nose. Jay’s words from the other day echoed in her mind: who wouldn’t want some one-on-one time with that man?
“It smells nice in here,” she observed. “Were you burning incense?”
“Amber. Tuesdays are always amber. I burn different kinds on different days. Did you know that women in ancient Rome used to carry balls of amber with them at all times? Some say for the fragrance, others say for protection against witches…” He continued to chatter as he bustled around the small, cluttered office. Nile observed the leaning towers of books, handwritten notes, manuscripts, and engravings with awe. The walls were lined with bookcases, packed floor to ceiling, and every inch of the desk was covered with more books. The titles hinted at a clamoring babel of languages—in addition to English, Nile saw French, German, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, and others that she couldn’t identify. Red slips of paper poked out from between their pages, like miniature tongues sticking out in mock surprise. If ever there was a shrine dedicated to the printed word, Nile thought, this was it.
“So, Nile,” Professor al-Kaysani said, handing her a steaming mug of Earl Grey, “tell me about yourself.”
“Oh, well, I’m… old.” She cringed. “I mean, for an undergrad. I joined the marines right out of high school and did two tours in Afghanistan, so I came late to the whole college thing.”
She watched his face closely for any hint of judgment, but Professor al-Kaysani simply nodded. “I did notice that you carry yourself with a certain maturity, it sets you apart from the other students.”
“Like a sore thumb, right?”
“Not at all! I meant it as a compliment. You have a steadiness about you, a ballast, that I admire. Professor Scythia advocated very strongly on your behalf, and I don’t think she’s ever been wrong about a student.”
“Wait, seriously? I can’t even tell if she likes me,” said Nile, astonished.
“Andy—Professor Scythia—keeps her cards close. Believe me, I know how terrifying she can be. I was her student once, too.”
“Really?” Nile exclaimed.
“Yeah. Not here, though. At the Sorbonne, in Paris.”
“So you’re French?”
“Dutch, actually. Tunisian parents. But we’re here to talk about you.”
“Sorry,” she said hastily. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“You weren’t prying. Just skillfully deflecting.” He grinned. “How are you enjoying the class so far? Lively, isn’t it? Lots of strong opinions.”
“It’s a little intimidating,” she confessed.
“There are some loud voices in there, but loud doesn’t necessarily mean right. I hope it won’t stop you from speaking up.”
“Okay,” she said, wondering if the interview was over.
But Professor al-Kaysani merely settled back more comfortably in his chair. “This whole thing—it’s going to be an experiment for all of us,” he said.
“What do you mean?” she asked, intrigued.
“Er—maybe ‘experiment’ is the wrong word.” Al-Kaysani rubbed his beard, looking slightly shifty now. “Just, you know, joint teaching, shared lectures, etcetera, etcetera. We’re still working out the kinks and finding our rhythm. But if there’s anything I—or my esteemed colleague—can do to make the classroom environment more comfortable for you—”
“I’m not uncomfortable,” she insisted, knotting her hands together as she always did when she became nervous. “I’m just… I do what I can to keep up with the others, but I know there’s always gonna be a gap.”
“What sort of gap?”
“Like I don’t really belong.” She was embarrassed, but something about al-Kaysani invited confidence. Ten minutes alone with him, and she was already spilling her personal shit.
Professor al-Kaysani leaned forward, brows knitted. “You’re worried that the other students might think you’re not one of them? An imposter pretending to be like everyone else?”
“I am different! And everybody here is so smart.”
“I feel like I have to work a lot harder at it. The other kids seem to adapt so easily. For me it’s more complicated.”
“That’s because you have life experience, Nile. You’re not a kid, you’re an adult, and you’ve seen things most of them can’t imagine.”
“I was on active duty over there, Professor al-Kaysani. I wasn’t just seeing things, I was doing them, too.” Nile glanced away, cleared her throat. “I have pretty mixed feelings about… all of it, honestly.”
“And I’m not placing a value judgment, I’m just saying your sense of estrangement from your peers is valid and understandable.” The kindness of his smile almost brought her to tears. “But Nile, you deserve to be here as much as anybody else—and probably more than some, if I’m being perfectly candid. Yale doesn’t belong exclusively to the Stephen Merricks of the world.”
“Kinda feels like it does,” she admitted.
“We all feel like we don’t belong sometimes,” he told her. “Like maybe we’re too old, too foreign, too poor, too queer, too brown, too apostate… But fuck that—we are who we are. Don’t be afraid to take up space in the world, okay?”
Fortified by Professor al-Kaysani’s words of encouragement, Nile tried to speak more in class, even though it was the most unusual seminar she’d ever participated in. There was no fixed syllabus, consensus-building was strongly discouraged, and sometimes the assignments felt more like art projects than homework—not that Nile was complaining. And the two professors continued to snipe at each other. They’d nearly come to blows over Spinoza’s Ethics and Milton’s Lucifer. When things got particularly heated, they’d veer off into other languages whilst the students looked on in stupefaction. By this point everybody had picked up on the obvious animosity between them; its possible origin was a topic of great speculation.
“Interdepartmental rivalry?” suggested Dizzy.
“Oh, it’s gotta be more personal than that,” Jay said.
“What’s more personal than academia? Or maybe di Genova’s got a problem with al-Kaysani being queer?”
“Doubt it. He called the pope a coward for refusing to sanctify same sex-unions, remember?”
Though she did her best to stay above the gossip, Nile was just as curious as her friends. Most of her reading these days, assigned and otherwise, related to the “GOD” seminar. She caught herself daydreaming about how she would say something unexpected in class, something brilliant and bold that would stop both al-Kaysani and di Genova in their tracks. The age difference that separated her from her fellow students was practically the same number of years that separated her from the two professors, and she felt an explicable pull of kinship towards them.
She wanted, desperately, to be their friend.
Sometimes she bumped into al-Kaysani at the gym, or crossed paths with di Genova on an early morning run. Di Genova would grace her with a smile, a wave, and a breathless little “Hello, Nile” when he overtook her on the street; al-Kaysani would strike up a lengthy conversation by the bench press. He only ever referred to Professor di Genova as “my esteemed colleague,” his tone laced with derision. My esteemed colleague is one of those people who runs marathons for fun. I think it should be classified as a kind of insanity. Though the odds of al-Kaysani and di Genova becoming friends seemed slimmer with every passing week, Nile still indulged in fantasies where the three of them sat round a table, drinking wine and exchanging witty remarks.
In mid-October, the professors asked the students to bring in poems that resonated with them on the themes of God and religion. It was an assignment characteristic of the al-Kaysani–di Genova approach: deceptively simple, unexpectedly personal. Nobody wanted to share first, except Stephen, who had brought in Byron’s “Prometheus” and appeared to take great pleasure in reading aloud, with a kind of vicious triumph:
“Titan! to whose immortal eyes
The sufferings of mortality,
Seen in their sad reality,
Were not as things that gods despise;
What was thy pity’s recompense?
A silent suffering, and intense;
The rock, the vulture, and the chain…”
“A fine selection,” remarked Professor di Genova. “But for a more radical perspective—and a deeper inquest into the nature of divinity—you should have turned to Shelley. Byron was, after all, more bark than bite, while Shelley alone dared to assail Mount Olympus.”
Nile volunteered to go next. She had picked Maya Angelou’s “Savior,” in which the narrator spoke directly to God, asking that He visit her again and renew everyone’s faith in Him:
“Petulant priests, greedy
centurions, and one million
incensed gestures stand
between your love and me.
Your agape sacrifice
is reduced to colored glass,
vapid penance, and the
tedium of ritual.”
“Excellent!” praised Professor al-Kaysani, and Nile blushed with pleasure. “It’s not the English ‘agape’ Angelou is using, by the way, but the Greek ‘agápē,’ meaning selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love. It turns up frequently in the—”
“Christian New Testament, yes,” said Professor di Genova.
“What about your poems?” Jay asked, turning to the professors once all the students had presented. Nile admired her audacity. “Fair’s fair, you have to tell us what you’d pick, too.”
Al-Kaysani seemed delighted by the invitation, and proceeded to recite from memory, in joyous ringing tones:
“O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with color! The gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, world, I cannot get thee close enough!”
“‘God’s World,’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay. She wants to hold the earth to her and keep it as close as possible,” he explained, “and she wants God to understand her passion and hear her appreciation for all the things He has made. The mode is ecstatic. One cannot help but revel and rejoice alongside her.”
“Hmm,” said di Genova.
“You disagree?” Al-Kaysani pursed his lips.
“I would contend that the mood is more agonized than ecstatic,” Professor di Genova said.
“I said ‘mode,’ not ‘mood,’” Professor al-Kaysani retorted, and Nile exchanged glances with Jay and Dizzy. Di Genova’s English flagged sometimes, and al-Kaysani ribbed him mercilessly for his sporadic lapses and malapropisms, which Nile thought a little churlish. To be fair, though, di Genova gave as good as he got, mocking the illegible scrawl of al-Kaysani’s handwriting and ridiculing his habit of misplacing books and papers.
Di Genova waved a hand dismissively. “Regardless, you do not account for the change in the second stanza”—whereupon he, too, recited from memory:
“Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee let no bird call.”
“In these lines the narrator feels herself being pulled apart,” di Genova continued. “For the first time she is experiencing a passion, a love, which is so powerful that her body is unable to handle the amount of beauty and glory in the world. It is… excruciating for her. Unbearable. And so she implores God to put an end to it.”
Nile’s head, and the heads of her classmates, swiveled back and forth between the professors like they were following a tennis match.
“‘Put an end to it?’” al-Kaysani echoed, incredulously. “Wallahi, man, you must have some sickness eating away at you, because I can’t for the life of me fathom where you would unearth such a fucking miserable interpretation of—” and he switched abruptly to German. Di Genova’s riposte, a lengthy one, came in the same language, leaving Nile and many others looking on in utter bafflement. At first Dizzy tried to translate for them, but high-school German could not keep pace with the pitched debate unfolding between the two professors, and Dizzy soon gave up.
After several minutes of this, Nile cleared her throat.
Al-Kaysani broke off, mid-diatribe, and both professors looked at her. Al-Kaysani’s curls were in disarray from the number of times he had run agitated fingers through them, and di Genova had spots of color high on his cheekbones.
“Er,” Nile said. Then she focused on di Genova. “You never shared your poem, professor.”
“No, I didn’t,” di Genova agreed.
“Well, let’s have it then,” al-Kaysani said combatively, and Nile regretted intervening, because di Genova’s recitation would probably pitch them right back into the throes of their squabble.
Di Genova remained quiet for what seemed like a second too long; perhaps he was thinking along similar lines. Into the expectant silence, he finally said, “I did not learn these words in English, so you will forgive me if I alter them as I go. Every act of translation is, after all, like a lover’s betrayal.”
He spoke so softly that Nile had to lean forward in order to hear him. She noticed everyone else doing the same thing.
“I have learnt so much from God
that I can no longer call myself
a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew
The truth has shared so much of itself with me
that I can no longer call myself
a man, a woman, an angel or even a pure soul.”
As he uttered these lines, di Genova lifted his eyes and stared straight ahead over the students assembled in their lopsided circle. Although he was looking at no one in particular, in that instant Nile could not help but feel that his words were aimed at her. Or perhaps they each felt that way, for when Nile peeked at al-Kaysani to gauge his reaction, the other professor wore a slightly stunned expression.
“…Hafez,” al-Kaysani murmured at last.
“Yes.” Di Genova nodded.
And for once, no dispute followed.
Class ended early that afternoon.
Professor di Genova’s office was slightly more organized than Professor al-Kaysani’s, but no less crammed with books. When he ushered her inside, Nile was fascinated to see that he also had a record player, and a whole shelf dedicated to records. As she sat down in front of his desk, he raised the needle and lifted the record from the turntable before delicately replacing it in the paper sleeve. “CAN,” he said, noting her curiosity. “German experimental group from the 1970s. Do you like records, Nile?”
“I’ve never really listened to music that way,” she admitted.
“The quality of the music is far superior on vinyl. The sound is warmer, richer, deeper, I believe. Professor al-Kaysani accuses me of being a snob—” he smiled slightly, and Nile’s ears pricked up. “Yes, a snob who fetishizes vintage things. Perhaps he is right.”
Nile eyed his baggy sweater and shapeless khakis and thought that surely not even al-Kaysani could accuse him of being a hipster.
But then he sat down across from her, and his proximity made her feel abashed all over again. His eyes—green? blue? grey?—were level and unblinking; they induced a sense of vertigo when she stared too long into them. Up close, she could see tiny pinprick marks in his earlobes, and she wondered if he’d ever worn earrings. Hastily, she redirected her gaze to a patch of wall over his shoulder and tried to remember what she was doing there.
“You have come about your essay?” he prompted after a moment.
“Yeah, that’s right,” she fumbled. “It’s about my paper.”
“You are dismayed by the grade.”
Di Genova had given her a B, which stung after the A- Professor al-Kaysani had awarded her previous paper. But she wasn’t here to dispute it; Jay had already tried to negotiate a raise and come away fuming. He wouldn’t budge an inch! she'd exclaimed. He said it was under-researched and overly reliant on cliché.
“No—I mean, yes, a little. I guess I was hoping we could go through your feedback together, so I don’t make the same mistakes next time?”
“Of course,” he said.
She took out the paper, its margins crammed with his angular cursive, and passed it over.
“As I said in my notes, your choice of topic was very strong—the idea of an American creation myth, the place of God in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. But you see where I have marked? Here and here? This is where you leave holes in your argument…”
And, with infinite patience, he proceeded to walk her through the entire essay. He pointed out her propensity to transition thoughts mid-paragraph without resolving her ideas, and he explained how the argument might be strengthened at key junctures. Nile teared up a few times, when the march of her own shortcomings began to feel overwhelming and utterly insurmountable, but she dug her fingernails into her palms and refused to fall to pieces. If he noticed her tears, he was kind enough not to comment on them, and his tone remained gentle and encouraging.
“This, here—” di Genova tapped a paragraph towards the end of the paper. “This is the, ah—the—what is the word?” He raked a hand through his hair with a frustrated sigh. “Sorry, Nile, my English… it is tired today. Do you speak any other languages?”
“I took French in high school,” she said, and he brightened. “But I’ve forgotten most of it,” she hastened to add. “I picked up bits of Pashto and Dari and Arabic in Afghanistan, not enough to hold a conversation in.” She was embarrassed by her deficiency: di Genova, and al-Kaysani, too, spoke half a dozen languages. “I’m sorry.”
He waved away her apology. “The fault is entirely mine. Let me think… il punto cruciale, the—ah, yes, crux, that is the word I want. As I was saying, this paragraph here is the crux of your argument. You write: ‘The inscription on the Liberty Bell borrows from Leviticus 25 the instruction given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”’ Okay, yes, but what is the implication there?”
“That liberty, so-called, isn’t for everybody?”
“Precisely! ‘All inhabitants’ understood to be limited, in Philadelphia in 1776 as in Sinai in the thirteenth century BCE, to those whom God had chosen as His own—meaning no Moabites or Black or Indigenous people amongst them. That is your real thesis, is it not?”
“Then do not bury it just before the conclusion. Take your thesis and go for the, the, the jugular.”
Again, she nodded. Her heart was galloping, her synapses firing, her mind alight with new insight, and she felt a terrible impatience with herself that she’d achieved this breakthrough only after writing the damn paper.
“If you are amenable—or, I suppose it is more realistic to say, if you have the time—I would like to offer you the chance to do a rewrite,” Professor di Genova said.
“Really?” she exclaimed, overjoyed. “I mean, you’d let me do that?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Few college students are excited by the prospect of more work.”
“I wanna get it right this time.”
“Andy—Professor Scythia, I mean to say—was correct to commend you so highly,” di Genova said approvingly.
“She was my teacher too, you know,” he told her. “Some years ago, when I was at Bologna for my doctorate.”
“Quite real, yes. And she told us—Professor al-Kaysani and me—that we would be much remiss if we didn’t save space for you in our class.”
Nile blew out her cheeks and tried to remember how to breathe.
“The point is, your ideas are growing, it would be wrong of me to stop you now. You know the Queen song, ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’?”
Nile shook her head.
“He says he is a shooting star burning through the sky, a rocket ship on the way to Mars—it is the same with your writing, your ideas. No? You don’t know what I’m talking about?”
She shook her head again, trying not to smile at his sudden animation.
“I think I have the record here somewhere. I will play it for you.”
Professor di Genova was lecturing about Descartes.
“He was about your age, the great philosopher. He had big ambitions. Yours are grander, I daresay. But his were based on methodological and philosophical inquiry.”
“So are ours!” Stephen said hotly.
Di Genova rolled his beautiful eyes; the effect, Nile thought, was entirely devastating. “Together, we shall explore Descartes’s visions. He spent considerable time in the place of dreams and recorded them meticulously. Are we ready? Yes? Okay. In the first dream, the philosopher finds himself climbing up a steep mountain. He fears he is going to fall down. He knows he must try harder to reach his goal, but he thinks he cannot achieve anything without the help of a supreme power—God.”
Her pen poised above her notebook, Nile kept forgetting to write down the professor’s words. She was too compelled by the lilting rhythm of his accent and the expressive gestures of his hands. Also, his wardrobe seemed to have undergone something of an upgrade. A crisp button-down and a pair of well fitted slacks revealed a narrow waist and muscular thighs. “Glow-up like that, he must be getting laid,” Jay whispered, and Nile elbowed her.
Di Genova had brought two fragrant loaves of home-baked focaccia to class that day, along with some fancy olive oil for dipping, and Nile thought it one of the most delicious things she’d ever tasted in her life. Even al-Kaysani seemed impressed, devouring his slice in a few large bites while di Genova lectured.
“Far in the distance, at the top, the, ah, summit, of the mountain, Descartes sees a chapel: the House of God. The wind lifts him up with such force that he is carried the rest of the way and flung against the walls of the chapel,” Di Genova went on. “He rises and brushes himself off. He enters a—a—un cortile, I am forgetting, Yusuf, what is this word in English?”
“A courtyard,” al-Kaysani supplied.
“Thank you, yes, Descartes enters a courtyard where a man tries to give him a melon—a fruit from a foreign land. And then he wakes up.”
Trying not to draw attention to herself, Nile stood to get another slice of bread. Everybody had been going back for seconds or thirds; di Genova had told them to help themselves, he didn’t mind them moving around while he spoke. “Grab another for me as well, would you please, Nile?” al-Kaysani whispered conspiratorially, and she nodded.
"Descartes wakes up in pain, sweating,” di Genova continued. “He is frightened that this dream was caused by the devil. Where do evil thoughts come from—outside or within? He prays to God for protection. But what is God—an external source or a product of our mind? It is this question that leads him to the second dream when he manages to fall asleep again.”
When Nile handed al-Kaysani his slice of bread, he thanked her with a wink.
“Now a big storm rages around our philosopher—a tempest. Why do bad things occur in life? he asks. How can God let them happen if He is who He is? Descartes is confused. Alone. Resentful. This dream is dark, depressing.” Di Genova’s voice had gone soft. There was nothing theatrical about his delivery, but the quiet passion animating his words reminded Nile of a minister giving a homily, or perhaps a benediction.
A sharp pain lanced through her chest. Thoughts of ministers and churches invariably led to thoughts of her family. Nile remembered how, after her father had been killed, her mother had railed at God, trying to make sense of why He had forsaken them in taking away such a good husband and father. How can God let bad things happen if He is who He is? Nile’s throat ached. The sadness that descended on her was so acute that her eyes welled with tears. To defuse the flow of negative thoughts, she rushed to ask, “And what about the third dream, Professor?”
Di Genova looked at her, and so did al-Kaysani. Their expressions were uncannily similar: the same gentle compassion and mild concern radiated from di Genova’s sea-glass eyes and al-Kaysani’s rich dark ones. Nile ducked her head, avoiding both.
“The third dream is the most important one,” di Genova resumed after a moment. “Descartes sees a book on a table, a dictionary. Then he sees another book, a book of poems. He opens the latter at random and reads a poem by Ausonius.”
“Who’s that?” Dizzy asked.
“Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Roman poet, grammarian, rhetorician,” al-Kaysani explained. “The poem’s first line is—”
“What road shall I pursue in life?” di Genova interrupted, but it seemed to Nile that he was fighting a smile, rather than irritated with al-Kaysani for attempting to hijack his lecture. “A man appears and asks Descartes what he thinks about it. Descartes cannot answer. Disappointed, the man disappears. Descartes feels ashamed. He is full of doubt—like all intelligent people. Now, who would care to interpret these visions?” Hands braced on his slim hips, he regarded them keenly.
“Well, the melon part might have been an innuendo,” Jay suggested. “Did he want to fuck it, maybe? Descartes could’ve been in the closet, like everybody else back then.”
Di Genova sighed, al-Kaysani laughed.
“It’s not outside the realm of possibility,” said al-Kaysani. “If Portnoy masturbated with a cored apple, and Elio with a peach…”
The class devolved into giggles; di Genova was unimpressed. “Or else…?” he prompted.
“Descartes was supposed to choose between the two books, but he couldn’t do it,” Nile said vaguely, still far away in her thoughts. “Why did the man want him to choose in the first place?”
“And common sense makes a comeback, thank you Nile,” di Genova said. “If the dictionary represents science and knowledge, and the book of poetry symbolizes philosophy, love, wisdom—then no, one should not have to choose. That was the conclusion Descartes reached as well. Ultimately he would decide that God was telling him to bring them all together by means of reason in order to create a ‘marvellous science.’ So here is my challenge to all of you: can you create a marvellous science of your own to study God?”
“How do we do that?” asked Dizzy.
“Be polymaths,” al-Kaysani answered at once. “Knit together different disciplines, synthesize, don’t just focus on ‘religion.’ Go to mathematics, physics, music, painting, poetry, art, architecture…”
“…and approach God through unlikely channels,” di Genova concluded.
Nile looked back and forth between the two professors, perplexed at their newfound rapport. It seemed they were finishing one another’s sentences out of genuine enthusiasm rather than one-upmanship.
And di Genova had called al-Kaysani Yusuf.
After Professor di Genova’s hourglass had emptied itself and his lecture came to an end, he assigned them to write essays about Descartes’s Quest for Certitude and God and cautioned them to do their research: “Speculation without knowledge is self-indulgent, ah…”
“Bullshit,” al-Kaysani finished succinctly.
“Yes, indeed.” Di Genova’s lips twisted in amusement.
Nile was one of the last to leave the classroom, her motions sluggish as she packed up her bag. She was still in a kind of trance. It had been three weeks since she’d last spoken to her mother, she realized; she was long overdue for a call home. It was just that she’d been so busy, and her mom always asked if she was eating enough, sleeping enough, if she’d paid her credit card bill—
Professor al-Kaysani was hovering in the doorway, bundled up in his coat and hat and scarf, messenger bag slung over his shoulder.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she answered quickly.
“Did something in the lecture upset you?” he pressed.
“No, I…” Nile swallowed thickly. “I think maybe I’m a little homesick? Or I just miss my mom? I know that sounds dumb, because I’ve been away for so long, first with the marines and now here, but—”
“Not silly at all,” he said firmly. “I get homesick all the time—for places, for people. Just the other day, Booker and I—you know Professor Le Livre?”
Nile nodded. She’d had Professor Le Livre—sardonic, sharp-tongued, French—for comp-lit last fall. For all that he was something of a shambles in the classroom, she’d liked him a lot, but then during exams she’d visited him at office hours and the smell of drink was so heavy on his breath that she had to avert her face. She’d considered telling Professor Scythia, but in the end she didn’t, not wanting to get him in trouble. Anyway, he didn’t come back to teach in the spring, and she heard he’d taken a leave of absence. “He’s back this semester?” she asked hopefully.
“He is, yeah. Some weekends we sit around watching football—that’s soccer to you—and we fucking weep for how homesick we are in this godforsaken town. Families on the other side of the globe, can’t find the food we were raised on unless we make it ourselves—which is impossible, in my case, because I’m useless in the kitchen. Yesterday I had my mother on skype, she was trying to talk me through preparing lablabi, but I couldn’t even—”
“Andiamo, Joe! Siete pronti?” Professor di Genova was back, snowflakes dusting the shoulders of his wool coat. “Oh, Nile, I am sorry. Please forgive my intrusion.”
As he made to retreat, Nile and Professor al-Kaysani both spoke at once.
“No worries, I was leaving anyway,” Nile began, while Professor al-Kaysani said, “Nile and I were just talking about how homesick we are, Nicky.”
Joe? Nile thought. Nicky?
“Me too,” Professor di Genova said with a heavy sigh. “Terribly homesick for Europe. I have been too long out of my languages here, I feel like only half a person when I speak English.”
“You’re homesick for Europe…in general?” Nile asked. By this point in the semester, she knew that al-Kaysani’s parents had emigrated from Tunis, that he’d grown up in Amsterdam with two older sisters, that though he’d stopped keeping halal when he left home and fasted only on the first and last days of Ramadan, he still considered himself culturally Muslim, that he was queer, that he’d lived in London and Paris and Berlin, and that he’d shown art in all those cities and more. But di Genova never volunteered anything personal about himself—no origins, no family, no relationships. The only thing Nile had gleaned over several months of knowing him was that he liked listening to records. In his office that day he’d played the Queen song for her, ‘Don’t Stop Me Now.’ I think this is more about sex than academic persistence, he conceded midway through the song. But the point still stands, no? Now Nile struggled to complete her question. “Not, uh, your hometown, where you’re from in Italy?”
“I have no great attachment to the place of my birth,” di Genova said flatly, and Nile wondered if she’d overstepped.
“I was telling Nile about the lablabi,” al-Kaysani prompted.
“Oh the lablabi, yes. All I did was follow Signora al-Kaysani’s recipe, it was not so complicated,” said di Genova, smiling one of his almost-smiles.
“Wait, you made it for him?” Nile asked disbelievingly.
“Nicky saved the day,” al-Kaysani confirmed. “He descended on my kitchen like a redeeming angel, salvaged what he could, and started the rest over from scratch. What is it Hafez says? Find that flame, that existence, that wonderful man, who can burn beneath the water: no other kind of light will cook the food you need…” He trailed off, and Nile thought his cheeks looked a little pink. “Anyway, how mortifying for me, right? The Italian has to sweep in and teach me how to cook my own food.”
“Chickpeas, you know, they are no different on the other side of the Mediterranean.” Di Genova shrugged.
“Well, Nile, Nicolò made the food and then he let me take all the credit with my mother. Didn’t even ridicule me for it—well, not much, anyway.”
“Only for the harissa,” di Genova said solemnly, but his eyes were sparkling with amusement.
“Only for the harissa,” agreed al-Kaysani, adding something in Italian that made di Genova smile for real.
Nile tried to imagine them in the kitchen together and found that she could not. Professor al-Kaysani was beaming at Professor di Genova like he’d hung the fucking moon; Nile had never seen one person look at another like that, except in movies. It made her feel like she was intruding.
She made her excuses and left the classroom.
As she had for the past three Thanksgivings, Nile went down to New York to spend the holiday with her cousins. She’d only gotten to know these members of her extended family—the Brooklyn Freemans—since she’d started at Yale. Though it was a relief to escape the campus bubble, she always felt embarrassed by the admiration her relatives bestowed on her at every visit, as if by attending Yale she had crossed some invisible threshold that separated her from them, rendering her grand and mysterious in their eyes. Nile joining the marines had been par for the course, but Nile going to Yale—! They wanted to know why she’d brought them wine and flowers instead of more university paraphernalia from the spirit store. Nile cringed. That shit was tacky and overpriced; she avoided it for herself, not wanting to seem smug by broadcasting her affiliation to all and sundry. But her family disagreed. So before she left, she went online and spent another hundred dollars of hard-earned work-study money ordering mugs and t-shirts and keychains for everybody.
She caught the last train back to New Haven on Sunday night. The cars were packed with returning students and faculty, and she passed through car after car, hunting for an empty seat. So focused was she on the task at hand that she almost missed them, sitting together in the second-to-last compartment:
Professor al-Kaysani and Professor di Genova.
She did a comical double take, eyes going cartoon-wide as she took in the details. Al-Kaysani was asleep, his face hidden in di Genova’s shoulder, and di Genova had set his cheek atop the crown of al-Kaysani’s head. They were also holding hands, their interlaced fingers resting on di Genova’s thigh.
Holy fucking shit, Nile thought.
She would have retreated back the way she’d come, but there were people queued up in the aisle behind her, waiting for her to hustle along. She had no choice but to keep moving. As she approached the row in which the two professors sat, she hunched her shoulders and tried to look like somebody else.
But di Genova lifted his head anyway. Their eyes locked, and for a second Nile thought she saw something almost like fear flicker across his face. But then it vanished—perhaps she’d imagined it—and his expression returned to its customary aspect, composed and inscrutable.
“Hello, Nile,” he said in a voice pitched low so as not to wake al-Kaysani.
“Er, hi,” she mumbled.
“I hope you had a restful holiday,” he said in the same quiet voice. “Please respect our privacy, okay?”
“I will, I promise!” she exclaimed, and winced when al-Kaysani stirred sleepily against di Genova’s shoulder. “Sorry. But, um, yeah. Of course. Of course.”
Somebody cleared their throat impatiently behind her. She offered di Genova a hasty, awkward wave, and scurried away.
It made a certain kind of sense, Nile thought as she made her way to class the next Thursday. She’d thought of little else all week, dwelling obsessively on the clues and signs she might have missed along the way. There was the focaccia, and Professor di Genova’s new wardrobe. There was Joe and Nicky. And the fucking lablabi, di Genova going over to cook for al-Kaysani—… In retrospect, there had been a whole lot of signs.
The idea of the two of them together—together together—was intoxicating. Al-Kaysani and di Genova complemented each other, in their looks, in their demeanors, in the pitched ferocity of their intellects. Them, together—it reconciled something profound and metaphysical, Nile thought. Jointly, they seemed to possess the answers to all of her questions; their union offered a key to the riddles of the universe and a resolution to everything that was unsettled and confused in her own mind.
They needed to be together. For her sake, for everybody’s. Maybe even for God’s.
It was a dangerous way of thinking.
And it was none of her fucking business.
As she hurried down the hallway towards the seminar room, Stephen Merrick was approaching from the opposite direction. “Class is cancelled!” he announced. “Department secretary just emailed. No class today.”
“‘Unforeseen circumstances,’ whatever the hell that means.” Stephen shook his head. “Completely unprofessional, don’t you think? Can’t say I’m surprised, though, this whole seminar is a fucking waste of time—”
“I don’t think it’s a waste of time,” Nile interrupted. She checked her own email to confirm. Dear students, the “GOD” seminar taught by Professor al-Kaysani and Professor di Genova will not meet today due to unforeseen circumstances. “I hope everything’s okay,” she said anxiously.
“Well, I have a bio lab report and an econ test to study for, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s a godsend. Pun intended. I haven’t got time for the liberal-arts bullshit they’re serving up, it’s all useless anyway.” And with that, Stephen stomped off.
Nile flipped her middle finger at his retreating back. He really was such an asshole.
The last-minute cancellation nagged at her. Did it have something to do with what she’d glimpsed on the train? She hadn’t told a soul; she hadn’t breathed a word to Jay or Dizzy or anybody. Di Genova had looked so freaked out when he saw her—maybe one or both of them was in another relationship, and they were having an affair? Had the shit hit the fan? Or maybe di Genova wasn’t out? Please respect our privacy, he’d said.
She could only speculate so much. It was a busy time of year with the fall semester careening to an end, so she decided to make the most of her unexpected free time and drop by Professor Scythia’s office. She had the option of sitting an exam or writing a final paper for her Renaissance Art class, and she wanted to get Professor Scythia’s take on—
The door to her advisor’s office stood partially ajar. Nile was on the verge of knocking when an outburst of raised voices arrested her. She lowered her fist and took a step back.
She recognized Professor Scythia’s voice right away; a moment later she placed the other as Professor di Genova’s, though she’d never heard him speak so vehemently before. She couldn’t understand what they were saying, it was all in Italian, until Professor di Genova switched abruptly to English:
“Andy, I have always trusted you absolutely. All these years since I left the seminary, you have been my mentor and my friend; I became a teacher because of you. Now tell me the truth: what did you think would happen when you put us together like this?”
“I thought you’d learn to get along, Nicky. I thought you’d put whatever that petty bullshit was behind you and teach a damn good class while you were at it.” Professor Scythia sounded impatient. “Call it a thought experiment. And you proved me right: you turned the punishment into a reward. Booker owes me two hundred bucks. I fail to see the problem here.”
“Call it an—experiment?” Di Genova echoed disbelievingly. “You were—experimenting? On Yusuf and me? To see if our religious backgrounds could—what? Reconcile?”
Professor Scythia snorted. “Religious backgrounds? Get off your high horse, Nicky, we’re not reenacting the crusades here. No, I was tired of the squabbling, plain and simple—”
“It is never simple,” di Genova interrupted. “Never. And now you tell me you were experimenting on us, as though Yusuf and I were pair of fucking mice, scurrying and scrapping inside the walls of your mental laboratory—”
Nile flinched. She didn’t think she’d ever heard him curse before.
“Mice? Oh, please, you and Joe are both stubborn as mules—”
“And what it is you are testing, hmm? A new idea of God? Or you wish to convince us once and for all that there is no God, that Joe and I are wasting our time looking for divinity in art and literature and—”
“I’m not testing jack-shit, Nicky. You were the ones who turned an academic debate about the secular revival—of all fucking things—into some kind of existential feud; it’s none of my business where you and Joe go looking for God, honestly the subject is of very little interest to me.”
“Yes, you have made your indifference clear, but not all of us have that fucking luxury,” di Genova snapped. “I gave up everything when I left the seminary, my faith, my family. I have nothing to fall back on but what I have built for myself. You said it was easier to be out in this country, so I followed you to America, I took this job and began again, and now it all shatters to pieces around me. Because I have found the divine, okay? It is not in God or in the church or anywhere else I have searched for it, it is in him. Like the old poem, you know the one—
“If thou couldst empty all thyself of self
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf,
And say—‘This is not dead,’—
And fill thee with Himself instead.”
“—And I emptied myself, yes? There was none more empty than me. Except suddenly I am no longer empty, I am replete with him, with Yusuf. I am in love with him, Andy, and it is excruciating, it is tearing me apart, I didn’t think it was possible to feel anything like—”
Nile crept away. She’d overheard too much already.
Nile was almost late to the final meeting of the “GOD” seminar. She’d gotten her hair done that morning, hours and hours in the chair while the ill-tempered Senegalese braider put in her new box braids, yanking fiercely on each strand. Now her scalp was tender and sore; instead of making her feel fierce and invincible, the new hairstyle had her feeling pinched and irritable. Maybe she should’ve asked for twists instead…
With mere seconds to spare before the hour, she reached the classroom and collapsed into her chair by the window. She was relieved to see that Professor al-Kaysani hadn’t arrived yet. Dizzy and Jay had their heads together as usual, whispering; Jay caught her eye and nodded meaningfully at the front of the classroom, where Professor di Genova stood alone, shuffling papers. “Dude looks like shit,” Jay murmured.
Di Genova did look awful. The dark circles under his eyes were more pronounced than ever, and there was a new gauntness to his face, lending his already striking features the harsh solemnity of a monk’s. Nile felt guilty just looking at him. She was carrying so many secrets now, what she’d seen on the train, the conversation she’d overheard in Professor Scythia’s office, that she hardly dared open her mouth lest some piece of forbidden knowledge tumble out.
The classroom was hideously silent for the six long minutes it took for Professor al-Kaysani to arrive. Di Genova did not say anything, and neither did the students. Even Stephen Merrick, it seemed, had been cowed into silence by the tension gripping the room. When al-Kaysani finally did arrive, he entered quietly, without his usual tumble of energy. Even his hair seemed less garrulous today. He walked over to di Genova and said something in a pitch and a language that the students couldn’t decipher. Di Genova inclined his head slightly.
At last al-Kaysani turned to face them. “Well, everybody, since we’ve come to the end of our time together, it’s time to talk about death. The death of God, specifically.”
“Only took us all semester,” Stephen muttered.
“Up until maybe fifty years ago, western scholars seemed to accept that religion was on the wane.” Al-Kaysani fidgeted with his collar, his cuffs, then finally shoved his hands in his pockets and began to pace. Behind the desk, di Genova was unmoving as a statue. “By the mid twenty-first century, they predicted, religion would have vanished from the face of the earth. God, for all intents and purposes, was dead, and it was only a matter of time till everybody wised up to His demise. Of course, God has been killed and pronounced dead many, many times over the course of western history, the time and cause of death given variously…”
“Disemboweled by Machiavelli in sixteenth-century Florence,” di Genova enumerated, “assassinated by agents of the French Enlightenment in eighteenth-century Paris, lost at sea in 1835 while on a voyage with Charles Darwin to the Galápagos Islands, garroted by Nietzsche on a Swiss Alp in the autumn of 1882, incinerated amongst the ashes of death camps in Eastern Europe and the nuclear cloud ascending from Hiroshima in 1945.” His eyes were blazing so feverishly that Nile wondered if he was ill.
“Instead, religion made a spectacular comeback in the 1970s, and it seems like it’s here to stay for the time being,” al-Kaysani said. “But there is something different about it this time—would anybody like to take a guess at what that might be?”
“Islamic fundamentalism?” Stephen suggested.
“Christian evangelicalism?” Dizzy rapped back.
“Don’t look at me, I’m an atheist,” said Stephen.
“You’re both right, in a sense,” Professor al-Kaysani said; Dizzy looked outraged. “Whereas in previous centuries, philosophers grappled more with the idea of God than with religion, now it’s the other way around. Our debates are more about politics and the state of the world than the possibility of God. In fact, our fixation on religion has very little to do with God Himself—or Herself—at all.” He regarded them somberly. “By weakening our cognitive ability to put forth existential and epistemological questions about God and by severing our link with philosophers of times past, we are losing the divinity of our imagination.”
It was a lot to take in. Nile frowned, trying to untangle the threads of the argument. The divinity of our imagination, what did he mean by that?
“People are so certain of what they believe in,” di Genova said softly. “And certainty is to curiosity what the sun was to the wings of Icarus. With certainty comes arrogance, blindness; with blindness, darkness, and with darkness, more certainty. It is a vicious circle.”
“Certainty is the enemy. If you’ve learnt anything from this class, I hope it’s that.” Al-Kaysani went on to tell them that they were travelers, companions of the road, having yet to arrive at any particular destination and perhaps never to do so. Like Faust, they were striving, searching, and in a world of elusive complexity, only this was clear: diligence was better than idleness, spiritedness preferable to apathy. Questions mattered more than answers; curiosity was superior to certainty. “Remember our first class, when we asked you to draw representations of what God was and what God was not? Well, if I were to inform you today that behind this door God awaits—” al-Kaysani gestured at the closed door of the classroom “—and you can’t see Him, but you can hear His voice, what would you want Him—or Her—to tell you? Not ‘you’ as a generic representation of humankind, but you yourself, one and only.”
“That She loves me,” Jay said immediately. “That I’m one with nature and that I’m on the right path towards decolonizing my mind and my body.”
Several others repeated ideas about love in their own words.
“That He agrees with me—all this talk about Him is bullshit,” said Stephen.
“God can’t tell you that unless She exists, you’re contradicting yourself,” Jay pointed out.
Stephen sneered. “I’m just playing along with this silly game.”
When it was Dizzy’s turn, she said, “I’d like to hear from Allah that heaven is real… and that good people will be there and love and peace will prosper, inshallah.”
Di Genova turned to Nile then, so swiftly she didn’t have time to avert her gaze and found it impossible to tear her eyes away from his.
“And what about you, Nile?” he asked. “What would you like God to tell you?”
“I’d like Him to apologize,” Nile said. She had no idea where that had come from but made no attempt to retract her words.
“Apologize… for what?” al-Kaysani said.
Nile thought of her father, killed in action, and her mother, left to raise two small children alone on the South Side of Chicago. Then she thought about her time in Afghanistan, the war she’d fought because she wanted to honor her father and not because she agreed with what she was fighting for. “For all the injustice,” she replied at last.
Al-Kaysani frowned. “You mean the injustice done to you or to the world?”
“Both,” Nile said. “And I would ask Him to make it right again. Restore justice.”
Outside the window, it had begun to snow. A solitary dead leaf from the old oak tree twisted in the wind one last time and fell to the ground. Inside, the silence was almost palpable.
Into the stillness, di Genova finally murmured, “Justice… but according to what, or whom?”
“Some of the worst bigots in history committed the gravest injustices in the name of justice,” al-Kaysani said harshly. “Richard the Lionheart, Pope Urban II, Savonarola, Arnauld Amalric, Ferdinand and Isabella, Philip II, Suleiman the Magnificent, Oliver Cromwell, Increase Mather, Vlad the Impaler—the list goes on. They all thought they were carrying out God’s justice, too, remedying the injustices done to them and their people. So you see it’s quite frightening, the association of God with justice.”
All these months, she’d thought that the two professors liked and understood her, even back when they showed no sign of liking or understanding each other. They hadn’t questioned her age or her military service; they’d taken pains to draw her out and build up her confidence. Al-Kaysani had told her to take up space in the world; di Genova had encouraged her to be bold with her ideas. In return, she’d kept their secret. She hadn’t told anybody that they were in a relationship, or fucking, or whatever it was they were doing together; she hadn’t breathed a word of di Genova’s conversation with Professor Scythia, the one where he said he was in love with al-Kaysani, like it was the worst thing that had ever happened to him—
And now they were talking at her like she was some kind of bigot, some kind of fanatic—had al-Kaysani really just compared her with Vlad the fucking Impaler?—all because she thought God, if He even existed, ought to be sorry for snatching away her father?
Nile didn’t hear anything else that was said for the rest of class. Her head was pounding. Her new braids tugged painfully at her scalp. She couldn’t move or look at anyone for fear that her dreadful hurt would show.
“Nile—stay behind a moment, will you?”
Class, it seemed, was over. She hadn’t noticed. Someone had given her a slip of paper which outlined the instructions for the final essay; she hadn’t even glanced at it. Now the two professors were standing before her, shoulder to shoulder. Two pairs of eyes tunneling into her soul, al-Kaysani’s dark ones and di Genova’s light ones.
Al-Kaysani spoke first. “Nile, I’m sorry. I came down on you a little hard back there.”
She had too much pride to sniffle or rub her burning eyes, but it was a near thing.
Di Genova made a tsking noise.
“I came down on you too hard,” al-Kaysani amended. “It’s a sore subject for me, God and justice. You have to understand, when Nicolò and I first met—”
Di Genova cleared his throat.
“Of course you had no way of knowing—well, never mind, it’s irrelevant. Point is, I’m sorry for making an example of you. I meant only to push you to think a little deeper, like Rumi says—‘If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?’ But I went too far.” He offered her a crooked smile. “Forgive me, please, Nile?”
“Yeah, of course.” There was no way she could refuse him, not when he was looking at her like that. “And I’m sorry if I sounded—bigoted. I’m not out here trying to start some crusade or inquisition, you know. I was just thinking about my dad, and my mom. My family.” She took a deep breath, trying to steady the quaver in her voice. “Is it so bad, wanting an apology from God?”
“Not bad to want it, no—though I would advise against any expectation that it will ever come,” di Genova said gently.
“You’ve heard the adage ‘Know Thyself,’ yeah?” Al-Kaysani ran a hand through his hair; his curls seemed to be bouncing back to life a little. “Way back in ancient times, those words were carved into stone above the entrance to Apollo’s temple at Delphi. Whoever did that—they were onto something, I think. It makes sense that we should strive for self-knowledge before we start making demands of our gods, or pledging our fealty to them. We have to understand what we’re really asking for, and what we might be asked to give in return.”
“And sometimes, Nile, daring to know thyself also means daring to destroy thyself. Speaking personally, this was a painful thing for me to learn. And I am still learning.” Di Genova rested his hand on al-Kaysani’s arm. It was a deliberate gesture, Nile thought, almost as if he had taken al-Kaysani’s hand in his. “First we must pull ourselves apart, no? Then, with the pieces, we will assemble a new self.”
The two professors looked at each other. Once again, Nile had the sense that she was intruding. She began to gather her things.
“The final essay is due on the 16th, grades submitted before the winter holidays. After that, you won’t be our student anymore.” Al-Kaysani sounded happy when he said it, and Nile experienced another sharp upwelling of hurt. Jesus, she’d really fucked up, if they were that eager to be rid of her. But al-Kaysani went on: “Then we can really be friends, without any accusations of favoritism.”
“Sometimes it feels like we already are, or at least we should be—you know how it is, when you just know you’re meant to be friends with somebody?” He grinned, and Nile felt a tremendous lightness overtake her, as though a balloon were expanding in her chest.
“Yeah,” she said, a little breathlessly. “I’ve felt that way, too.”
Professor di Genova added, “It would have been unethical for us to give you special treatment because we liked you differently from the other students. But Joe speaks for both of us: yes, we should be friends now. When I first met you, I thought, this is a remarkable woman, she carries inside her the three passions of Bertrand Russell: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable compassion for the suffering of humankind.”
Nile pressed her palms to her burning cheeks. “I—I don’t know what to say. Thank you?”
Professor al-Kaysani—a tiny part of Nile’s brain was already starting to think of him as Joe—laughed. “Don’t thank him yet, Nile. We’ll flip a coin to see which of us grades your final paper, and Nicky can be frighteningly impartial, he hasn’t got any sort of finer feelings when it comes to these things. Believe me, I know.”
“I have no concerns about Nile’s final paper,” di Genova—Nicky?—said calmly. “Her last revision was superb.”
Armed with fresh boldness, Nile gestured between them. “So if we’re friends, can I ask now—what the hell is going on here? Are the two of you, like…” She waggled her eyebrows.
Joe smirked. “Nice try, but you’re still our student. Ask us again in the new year.”
“And perhaps by then we will know ourselves,” Nicky murmured.
“Yeah, I guess that’s fair.” Nile buttoned up her coat. She was brimming with flustered anticipation and uncertain what to do with it. In a few weeks, she could ask them anything, everything, and maybe they would tell her. Not because they knew all the answers, necessarily, but because they would be her friends. “I’ll see you around then?” she said, and Joe and Nicky both smiled.
“Your hair looks terrific, by the way!” Joe called after her as she left the classroom.
+ five months later
Joe stirred sleepily when the body beneath his shifted.
“No,” he mumbled. “No.”
“Joe, it’s almost nine. We have to finish getting the apartment ready for Nile’s graduation party.” There was laughter in Nicky’s voice. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten, when last night it was you who dragged me to bed, insisting we would finish up in the morning.”
Joe sneezed. He always sneezed when woken early, as if suffering from a mild allergy to the first light of day. Determined to resist, he tightened his arm around Nicky’s chest; with his free hand, he clutched the boney prow of Nicky’s hip to keep them plastered together. To unglue themselves, to disentangle all their warm naked limbs—no, the idea was too cruel to countenance.
Nicky shifted again. The movement rippled through his trapezius, and there was a slight twitch to the pectoral muscle beneath Joe’s hand. Joe had charted every inch of Nicky’s lanky frame with his fingers, his lips, his tongue. He knew that Nicky was ticklish at the crook of his arm and the back of his knee, that his nipples became almost unbearably sensitive when he was aroused, that he arched his body like a cat on a stretch when Joe sucked his cock. Nicolò, Nico, Nicky—to Joe he was everything, all and more. He could scarcely recall a time before.
Joe nuzzled into the nape of Nicky’s neck. The fine silky hair tickled his nose, prompting another sneeze—Nicky was letting his hair grow a bit, and Joe loved that, loved having more to sink his hands into when he—
“Did you really just sneeze into my hair?” Nicky demanded.
“No snot,” Joe said, without opening his eyes. “It was a dry sneeze. Mm. Your hair smells good.” He deposited a kiss at Nicky’s nape and began to nibble along the shell of his ear. When he came to the lobe, he put his lips around it and sucked, tongue teasing one of the little hoop earrings he’d coaxed Nicky into wearing again.
“Stop that.” Nicky made to twist away, but Joe simply rolled with him, and they tussled gently amongst the sheets. Joe felt the butterfly brush of Nicky’s kisses against his nose, his forehead, his eyelid, the corner of his mouth. Blindly he turned his head, seeking Nicky’s lips with his. He heard Nicky chuckle, and then they were kissing and Nicky’s mouth warm and smiling.
“Yusuf.” Nicky bumped their noses together. “Yusuf, my love, open your eyes.”
When he finally did, he wasn’t disappointed. His vision was filled with Nicky’s face, hovering a few inches above his own. Bello, he thought, and then repeated it aloud. When they were alone together, they spoke in a shifting cascade of languages: Italian, German, French, and English, a little Dutch, a little Arabic. Joe had yet to find an adequate description for Nicky’s eyes in any of them. “Così bello, Nicolò, amore mio. Nicolò, Nicolò…”
“Sono qui.” Nicky’s smile was tiny, private.
“That day you quoted Hafez in class, ‘I Have Learnt So Much from God’—that was the day I realized I was in love with you.” Joe had said this before; he’d told him many times.
“I already knew when I recited the poem.” Nicky had likewise told him so many times, but Joe never tired of hearing it. “That was why I only offered the first lines, because I was afraid you would see too deep into my heart if I said the rest.”
“Now…” Nicky leaned down until their lips were touching and murmured the words directly into Joe’s mouth. “Now you know my heart, because it belongs to you. And so I say with Hafez:
“I have learnt so much from God
that I can no longer call myself
a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew.
The truth has shared so much of itself with me
that I can no longer call myself
a man, a woman, an angel or even a pure soul.
Love has befriended me so completely
it has turned to ash and freed me
of every concept and image
my mind has ever known.”
He pushed himself up, palms braced against Joe’s chest, and they smiled at each other.
“When we fall in love, we turn the other person into our god,” Nicky said. “There’s something about love that resembles faith. It’s a kind of blind trust, no?”
“The sweetest euphoria,” Joe agreed. He stroked Nicky’s hair back from his face, tucked a lock of it behind his ear. “It’s the magic of connecting with someone beyond our limited, familiar selves.”
“Yes, but if we get carried away by love—or by faith—it turns into a… dogma. A fixation. The sweetness becomes sour, and we suffer at the hands of the gods we ourselves created.”
“That was my error when I went to the church, and I made the same mistake when we first met and had that idiotic fight about the secular revival…” Nicky grimaced, but Joe only laughed—the memory didn’t pain him anymore. “And I made it for a third time as we developed feelings for each other and I had no idea how to go about loving you.”
It was Joe’s turn to grimace, because it did hurt to remember the rupture just after Thanksgiving, when Nicky had tried to end things between them—
But Nicky touched his cheek and smiled. “Learning to love you now, as Hafez says, free from every concept and image my mind has ever known, is the greatest joy of my life.”
Joe’s eyes grew misty. “Ya hayati,” he croaked. He took Nicky’s face in his hands and kissed him. “I love you like the ocean. Replete with thee and me.”
He still couldn’t believe it sometimes, kissing Nicky. Kissing fast, hard, deep, frantic, long, slow. He rubbed his face against Nicky’s, letting his beard catch on Nicky’s morning scruff. He lived in a near-constant state of arousal these days, he felt like a teenager. Nicky was the most astonishing person he’d ever met. Last night Joe had stood in the shower, forearms braced against the tiled wall, as Nicky knelt behind him and took him apart with his tongue. Hot water coursed over his neck and shoulders and Nicky’s strong hands held him open while Nicky’s mouth did indescribable things. He’d lost his fucking mind, his rim fluttering and contracting helplessly around Nicky’s tongue. It opens and shuts like a sea anemone, Nicky had said, trying to trap me inside of you.
Then Nicky had fucked him right there, against the wall of the shower. Slowly, torturously, one hand gripping his hip hard enough to bruise, the other teasingly loose around his cock. Or maybe that was another night, and last night Joe had bent Nicky over the bathroom sink and had him like that, both of them still wet and dripping. But no, he thought, last night they’d been on the bed, and Joe had been on his hands and knees, or perhaps Nicky had, and something had made Nicky laugh so hard that he’d tumbled off the bed and Joe had caught him round the waist and hauled him back to safety. He couldn’t be certain, anymore, of what had happened when. Love turned time inside out. Every day, every hour, was full, even when he was asleep.
They kissed and kissed. Joe was delirious with it. He wanted Nicky inside him, all the time; he wanted to squeeze himself inside Nicky. It felt like they were inventing something, every time. There was no end to it, no end to the new things, and they’d been together half a year now. The shape of Nicky’s body was the simple answer to what he’d been missing all his life. He ran his hands down Nicky’s back and pressed his thumbs into the dimples at the base of his spine. Nicky rocked back in a way that was the exact synonym for Joe losing his breath.
He reached for Nicky’s cock at the exact moment that Nicky reached for his. They both laughed. Joe adored these moments of simultaneous touch, when he couldn’t tell who was who, what was what—Marcel Marceau, a mirror game, each miming the other, both leading and following, phenomenal confusion. Then Nicky broke out of the game, his hand swift and ruthless, working Joe’s cock with a speed and dexterity that had him thrashing wildly on the bed, balls already drawing up. “Nico,” he gasped, “slow down, I’m going to come.”
“Yes, that’s the idea.” Nicky’s eyes were laughing at him. “We have a party to put on, remember? Andy and Quynh will be here in an hour, and Booker has been texting me since seven. He wanted to know if he can bring the kids, and I told him yes, so that means I’ll need to adjust the spice levels in some of the—”
“Nicolò, fuck—” Writhing, he clutched at Nicky’s forearm, his shoulder, his hip.
“Come in my mouth,” Nicky ordered. He slid down the length of Joe’s body, and seconds after his lips closed round the head of his cock, Joe was coming, coming, coming into the welcoming heat of Nicky’s mouth. Then Nicky sat back on his heels and crooked his finger, motioning, and Joe sat up too. He put his mouth on Nicky’s and took what Nicky passed him, that essence of himself, and they passed it back and forth between them until it no longer existed and they didn’t know who had him anymore. Then he collapsed face-first into Nicky’s lap and sloppily sucked him to completion. When Nicky said fuck and Yusuf, it felt like a gift.
He rested there, in the cradle of Nicky’s thighs, nosing gently at his softening cock while they both caught their breath. “Come closer,” Nicky said at last, and Joe shifted up to recline on the pillows with him. He loved how languid and loose-limbed Nicky became after sex, how he’d tuck an arm behind his head and let his knees fall open and just let Joe look at him.
I love being naked with you, he’d told Nicky once. I want to spend the rest of my life naked in bed with you.
They kissed a little more after that, but Joe knew they were kissing on borrowed time. Any second now, Nicky would insist that they get up and continue putting the apartment in order for Nile’s party. They still had to shower—Joe would suggest they do it together, for the sake of efficiency—and there were glasses to be washed and napkins to be folded, and if Booker’s boys were coming, then Joe had to make sure all his art supplies were out of reach. And he couldn’t forget to put away the sketchbook lying on the coffee table, it was full of naked Nickys and it wouldn’t do for Nile’s family and friends to flip through it and—
“All right, my love.” He heaved an almighty sigh. “Time to get up.”
But Nicky surprised him: “Andy wants our final answer about teaching the ‘GOD’ seminar again next fall,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s such a good idea,” Nicky said.
“You doubt my ability to keep things professional?” Joe teased, and proceeded to undermine himself by tweaking Nicky’s nipple; Nicky gave him a withering glare.
“In all seriousness, it’s not that.”
“What, then? We nearly murdered each other putting that syllabus together. I have to say, I’m rather fond of it.”
“Oh, our syllabus is a work of art,” Nicky said. “I suppose… I just feel the class has served its purpose, no?”
“For better or for worse, we lived that class,” Joe mused.
“The stakes were very high, for both of us. Not the sort of thing that’s easily replicable, and maybe we’d just be going through the motions if we tried…” It was hard to put into words. Teaching the seminar with Nicky had been a heady experience, singular in its intensity, its volatility and vulnerability. Both of them flying blind in the cross-disciplinary no-man’s land that Andy had mandated for them, falling in love like the pair of clichés that they were. The memory of Nicky threatening to smash Rumi’s mirror over his head as they argued over the syllabus made him smile. “I agree,” he said. “We should find a new way to polish our mirrors.”
“I want to go back to Europe,” Nicky said.
It was so abrupt, so unexpected, that Joe simply stared at him, speechless.
“Andy and Quynh wouldn’t begrudge us striking off on our own—neither would Booker—and since Nile is looking into graduate programs in Rome and Amsterdam, I thought maybe—”
“Shit, Nicky, for a second there I thought you meant by yourself.” Joe exhaled shakily and began to laugh. “I swear, my heart fucking stopped—”
“Together—of course I meant together, always together, Yusuf. I would never go anywhere without you.” Nicky closed his eyes briefly, managing to appear irritated and fond all at once. “Didn’t I just say that loving you was the greatest joy of my life?”
“I suppose you did,” Joe beamed; he certainly never minded hearing it again. “Nicolò, we can go wherever the fuck you want, as long as we’re together. We could get a little farm in Tuscany and herd goats, we could open a hotel in the south of France and—”
“I assumed we’d look for teaching positions and continue our work, but I’m glad you’re thinking outside the box,” Nicky said drily.
“Our work…” He rested his chin on Nicky’s chest, peering up at him through his lashes. “I’ve learnt that you can study God anywhere, through everything and everyone in the universe, because God is not confined to any one place, to any church or mosque or temple. But I’ll let you in on a secret…”
“You’re going to say something unbearably romantic, aren’t you?” With an exasperated sigh, Nicky reached for his phone on the nightstand. “I feel like I should set a timer, or else we’re never going to leave this bed. Nile’s party, Joe…”
Joe caught his hands, trapping them between his own. “If you’re still in need of knowing where the abode of God is, there’s only one place to look, and that’s in the heart of a true lover.”
Joe expected him to roll his eyes, but he did not.
“Abide with me, then,” Nicky said, very seriously.
“Forever,” Joe promised, and he meant it. Because he had found the flame, the existence, the wonderful man who could burn beneath the water, and Hafez had been right about that, too: no other kind of light could cook the food he needed.