I remember thinking how happy I felt just talking to him, that I could talk to him for hours.
She recalled one intense conversation in particular as they stood outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How much were his choices circumscribed by his background, his childhood, his socio-economic situation, the color of his skin, the expectations that others had of him? Later, referring back to that discussion, he told Alex in a letter that he had used the word “choice” “as a convenient shorthand for the way my past resolves itself.
He felt no attachment to Columbia or to the first jobs he landed after graduation. He was conducting an intense debate with himself over his past, present, and future, an internal struggle that he shared with only a few close friends, including his girlfriends, Alex Mc Near and Genevieve Cook, who kept a lasting record, one in letters, the other in her journal.
But it would be a misreading to say that he was tamping down his ambitions during that period. It is exponentially easier to look back at a life than to live it forward.
By her account, the passion was as much about ideas and words as about their romance—what she later called “that dance of closeness through language.” Alex was interested in postmodern literary criticism, and her arguments brimmed with the deconstructionist ideas of Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher.
In one letter she told Obama that she was writing a paper in her modern-poetry class at Occidental about T. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” His reply wove its way through literature, politics, and personal philosophy: I haven’t read “The Waste Land” for a year, and I never did bother to check all the footnotes.