It wasn't my favorite class, a survey of Chinese history with its endless dynasties of too similar names. We'd finally moved into modern times and were now stuck in the early 20th century. Dr. Lee was Korean, a delicate man with wire rimmed glasses. He taught all the Asian history courses, no doubt because of his ethnicity.
I counted up credits and found I could graduate faster in history than anything else so I was filling semesters with requirements. There were two tracks, unspoken but obvious. One was for potential Social Studies teachers and the other, filled with boys and seminars on war. I don't even know how I found myself in it, probably my advisor thought it would keep my options open though, for what, I had no idea.
There were only two bright spots in the whole business. The history of Brazil was filled with Brazilians aiming for an easy A. I read Jorge Amado, and imagined Bahia, with coconut custard and tropical drinks, far from the chill of the Northeast and the winter that had just begun and would never end. The other was a fatherly professor of American history who claimed the Singer sewing machine was the most perfect creation ever made. He lamented those transformed into decorator tables. I could relate. My aunt sewed all her clothing on one with its metal foot pedal that kept up a smooth rhythm.
The rest of the professors did what I'd been told never to do, which was to read from a paper. It was how they generally filled the fifty or eighty minute blocks. Dr. Lee was one of them. I got to the room right on time and settled in. It was November and I had the routine down, sitting towards the back, but not too far. I had a glimpse of the outdoors from the window at the top of the basement room. A fat guy came and sat near me, smiling. Once he followed me out of class telling me the desperately sad story of his mother going blind from her job as an x-ray technician. I managed to avoid him without being rude.
In the beginning there were about thirty of us, now down to ten. Some of the students no longer bothered with notes. They sat staring into space or an occasional beep of something electronic alerted us to their presence. I felt a little sorry for Dr. Lee, tiny in front of the room, facing us all.
He arrived right on time with his regulation black briefcase. He popped it open and sifted through sheaves of papers. What would it be today? It looked like he was making a decision. I hoped for the spice of the opium wars. He stood at the podium, reminding us of a test. Then he began to read from his notes. "1900, it was a reactionary movement. Meant to eliminate the expanding control of the foreigners. The Boxer Rebellion."
I shifted position, the chair digging into my back. My foot knocked over a half filled cup of machine coffee. I lost the thread of Dr. Lee as I watched the coffee spread and finally stop in a brown puddle several feet from my desk.
"In 1900." Dr. Lee paused. He started again. "In 1900." He stopped.
I snapped to alertness. Had we offended Dr. Lee? I once was in a class where the professor threw a girl out for no apparent reason.
Silence grew and expanded.
"I can't." He sat down.
More silence. Students shot each other looks. After what seemed like ages, one of the students in the front row tried to encourage either him or us, "We need to know what happens. 1900."
Dr. Lee was beyond jokes, knowing 1900 was irrelevant to us. Silence made it hard to breathe. He shook his head, all eyes on him. "I don't know what's happened." He sounded as surprised as all of us.
Another voice, "Go on, please."
"It's not just this." He dismissed the centuries of China. "It's everything."
My palms started to sweat. We were sophmores, not prepared.
"You need to take a break." Suddenly suggestions came from all parts of the room.
"You'll feel better tomorrow."
"Go out with your friends, have a beer."
"Are you married?" Dr. Lee shook his head. "You need to meet someone."
I put in my two cents worth. "Take a vacation. That'll help."
Silence again. Then he picked up his briefcase, nodded at us all, and left the room.
There was a buzz in the room. Then we got up and left without a word.
Tuesday Dr. Lee was no longer there. A graduate student took his place. He didn't come back in the spring semester either. Rumors were he'd gone to Korea. I needed to believe he'd gone home or that he was vacationing somewhere. If not, we had somehow failed him.