Welnot could see right through Alex's snooty, high-falutin academic techno-babble and self-satisfaction; all his prefixed-isms and suffixed terms and endless references to other books there's no way he finished. Right there in that room, he knew what was going on. He knew Alex was trying to pull one over on everyone, fool them all into believing he was some autodidactic savvy critical thinker—if only for one book club meeting—with smarty-pants points poached from E-Z-Cheat.com the whole evening, from Sarah's serving of the bean dip to Gertraud's quinoa salad (Leland: "I swear to Christ if I hear one more person tell me the 'ancient grain' is not really a grain...").
As Welnot remembered that evening, it took Alex about 10 minutes before he had everyone wet. When Alex got around to mentioning the concept of professional autonomy and Simone de Beauvoir in the same sentence like it was no epoch-making moment in the book club's history (it was). Lee and even Gertraud's faces lit up in surprise of Alex's acute handle on the book. Their faces were daubed with a fleshy apple redness at just how they had misjudged Alex for being a chauvinist meathead in boyish clothing (he was). At this moment though, Sarah seemed quite unmoved by Alex's discourse. The whole time Welnot sat there gripping the arm of the sofa uncomfortably like he was sitting on hot coals.
Off Welnot's radar, but definitely worth noting, was Will's comportment over the book club meeting. From the window-seat corner beside Leland, under the dreamcatcher looking mess of twigs and twine some roommate or some roommate's friend had hanging from the ceiling, Will was trying to contribute in that nothing-to-contribute sort of way. When you repeat the last bit of expounded dialogue before you suffix with a few positive affirmations like, "Ah, the observations of The Other, yes, yes, yes," scratching his chin in a ruminative manner, squinting hard as if he's looking deep into himself.
But the truth was, no one had gotten any further in the book than the part where Mrs. Ramsay parenthetically dies of causes unspecified, at that point feeling disregarded by the author and/or just too fed up with the free-flowing internal dialogues that seemed to double over themselves every few lines. It was too bad, too, because Will was a smart guy on his own without having to stand on the shoulder of someone else. But in the moment, they all felt inadequate, especially Welnot, who traded in the feelings of inadequacy for a strong need for justice against the plagiarist.
Then came Alex's mention of James Joyce. Welnot crushed his potato chips in his fist and bared his teeth, turning from red to a purple-blue. Trevor whispered, "Hey, you going to eat those?" Will and Leland beamed at the nonchalant namedrop. Welnot, not Alex, took the seminar course on Joyce, goddamnit. That was his fourth-year credit! Welnot's rage was about to boil over at any second. He couldn't hold it in any longer. He was on the brink of passing out from frustration. "How could people buy into this guy?" he thought. "What's so special about him, really? He's such a fraudulent little cum-rag."
And almost as if the pillars of the universe were being thrown from his shoulders, in a major act of disgust for Alex's scholarly stroking and all things of Alex that were strokeable, Welnot slammed his book down right into his thigh. His thigh.
The near-paused moment between the thigh-smack and the infinite ever-after that followed filled the entire room before it exploded in carbonic clouds from gasps and shrieks from the book club cronies as if they had just heard a gunshot.
His thigh of all places? Why not the table? It was blind rage. Not quite where he wanted to slam it. Everyone frozen. Sarah grabbed her own thigh, "Ooooof," she winced.
He didn't mean for it to be his thigh (or any thigh)—he just needed to slam something down to communicate his frustrations to the room in an unmistakably passive aggressive way. But now his thigh was palpitating through his slacks and he could feel scalding hot blood cells coursing through his veins and a dozen wide-open eyes eyeing him in total fear and dismay. He could sense the thigh thing got in the way of his point. He could feel that sand-sprinkling numbness falling over his leg as everyone kept staring.
Alex just stared at him from across the coffee table bewildered.
The new chapter of Half-heard is published in The Coast—newspaper version—every Thursday. One week later it is published here online. So it's easy to catch up online, but best to stay ahead in print.