How to describe Theresa Kwang? I can barely recall her face. When I think of her — and I try not to — I remember only her voice: cheerful in the kitchen, earthshaking in outrage, soft and conspiratorial in my ear.
I had an awakening of sorts the summer before my junior year — before I ever met her. A drought summer, the fifth in a row; crops withered in the field like the Biblical end of times. The legislature failed to pass any kind of rationing bill but I felt a vague concern and so I tried to conserve. In my parents’ house, I took scrupulously short showers and dumped used dishwater on the roses. I was not happy to be home again, spending my days collating files in a hot office that smelled like armpit and my nights sprawled across the bed with my laptop sticking to my sweaty thighs. One night in particular I stepped too soon from the shower and stood naked in the dark by my bedroom window. The warm air struck chill on my wet skin. Suddenly I heard the popping sound of a rising sprinkler head, then the rhythmic fssht-ssht-ssht of my neighbors’ lawn sprinklers, irrigating their improbable sweep of green. A fountain’s worth of water. A waste. Sinking, I felt the certain futility of my scrimping three-minute showers. I could try to atone for my own guilt, but I would never compensate for anyone else’s; the heating of the planet and the annihilation of life were inevitable, irreversible. What can be done with such an intractable and wild grief? I went to bed.
But all people suffer a revelation occasionally, and then forget it; anyway some part of me rebelled against this nihilism, and so during junior year I sought out the campus environmental scene. There were clubs for environmental policy people and solar engineering people and fossil fuel divestment people and animal rights people (known to the rest as the Militant Vegans). Myself, I opposed lawn. The Administration watered a vast green surplus, rolling out in lush swells around their new office complex. I had some idea of tackling the lawn, taking it down.
I had little luck. It didn’t help that I was already in trouble with the Administration, in some vague spiritual way. As a freshman I had been found sitting peacefully on a campus roof at sunset, and I had been subjected to an Administrative Hearing and Judicial Process — a trial. By junior year I was behind on my fees and derelict in my tuition. This was the era of cost hikes; at my particular University, the number of bureaucrats had long since surpassed the number of professors. I didn’t see much reason to indebt myself further, and without my tuition the Administration didn’t see much reason to give me a degree. So I paid a little every month, and the Administration heckled me for the rest of it, and I paid a little more and thus protracted my agony.
“I had some idea of tackling the lawn, taking it down.”
In any case I was a listless student, studying history because why not, rarely motivated and on the outs with Admin, and thus regarded with some suspicion by the hyperengaged students who circulated petitions and organized protests and sent out memos and whatever else. I signed the petitions and made a brief showing at the protests and no more. But I kept coming, and eventually people recognized me, and at some point that fall I was invited to dinner in someone’s house for some eco-club or other. I don’t remember the dinner. I do remember cleaning up afterward with two other girls. One of them had paw prints tattooed on her palms and as I dried dishes beside her I kept staring at her hands, mesmerized by this seeming self-parody.
“So Danielle — what’s your thing?” she asked me.
“You know—your thing.” She soaped a dish with particular force. “Like, I’m vegan. And Jamie is vegan and runs the Environmental Justice Association.”
I shrugged. “Lawns.”
I mumbled some stuff about irrigation and waste, how greenness in drought seemed like vanity.
“So, are you … on a lawn committee, or something?”
“Cause, I mean, you can’t say lawns are your thing if you don’t do something about them.”
I didn’t respond. I don’t think I ever went to another meeting of the club, either, but not because of their scorn; like so much else at that time, it demanded more of me than I saw reason to give.
Spring broke early that year, pale and clean and fragile as eggshell, warm and sweet as a flower unfolding, a bloom of April heat in February. Instantly, plumes of yellow sorrel blossomed by every wayside, beneath the gray leafless trees and the drab buildings. Students in bikinis crowded the campus lawns to lie out in the sun. But for me, the warmth that rose from the soft moist soil presaged true heat to come, the whiplike heat of summer, cracked earth across the Valley. Thus the environmentalist’s paradox in a warming world: to enjoy such lovely weather, knowing it to be the death song of the swan.
Theresa had been studying abroad in the Middle East. When she came back to California in spring semester, there was an eager clamor in my peripheral circles; and so I found myself sitting cross-legged in her living room, eating stir fry. Her little apartment was small and low-ceilinged and smelled of sesame oil. The walls were covered in photographs. There were stacks of books on the floor, among which her roommates and friends dodged and danced. And somehow in this joyous chaos, in the wash of voices brighter and better-informed than mine, Theresa found her way beside me and smiled that gentle smile.
“How is it?”
“It’s — overwhelming.”
She laughed. “Yes.” For a while she sat beside me on the floor. Only when I remembered the bowl of stir fry growing cold in my hands did I realize that she had actually been asking about the food. But she accepted what I said without commenting on my confusion; and for this social mercy I loved her, faster and more fully than I can explain.
I met her again on the busy quad by the Administration building. My eyes were streaming and I wiped at them ineffectually. I felt someone at my elbow and twitched away, but it was Theresa, smiling that beatific smile and holding out a tissue.
“She had a beautiful laugh.”
I took it and muttered something about allergies.
She smiled and looked out at the quad. “Crowded, isn’t it.”
I nodded. The silence stretched on and I blew my nose uncomfortably.
“Why don’t we take a shortcut across the grass. Avoid all this.” She gestured to the chaos, the press of underclassmen, the rows of tables where members of business fraternities forcibly distributed flyers for career fairs.
She didn’t know — she couldn’t have known — that I had stood there mid-panic-attack with allergies as an excuse. Unable to face the crowds, unwilling to admit that I was crying in public — again, years after I thought I’d left this behind. In any case Theresa was there, solid and smiling. She walked me to Le Guin Hall then stood outside the door with me, chatting. I remember that something I said made her laugh. She had a beautiful laugh. Near us, a squirrel sat and watched, a dark-eyed omen.
Spring stretched and lengthened, became hot and taut and sickening. Soil dried; the flowers fainted, waterless, onto the sidewalks. Students complained incessantly about the consuming heat. As the temperature hovered around more than 100 degrees for one week, then two, GPAs began to drop — only so much a mind can do in that heat. There were rolling brownouts all around the Bay, Central Valley-style, because so many folks tried to run their air conditioners. The rich bought generators. The elderly began to die.
And somehow I started going to meetings in Theresa’s little upper-story apartment. Theresa would lie on the living room floor between the stacks of books, wilted, but her hands and face would be bright with word and gesture as she sketched plan, strategy, vision. We were coordinating a demonstration in front of the Administration complex. It would be a demonstration about many things — the energy and water wasted on University grounds, the Administration’s wrongful oil investments, the Administration’s indifference. Theresa was reaching out to all kinds of people on campus; Theresa was laying plans for change — of some sort. I maintained a private cynicism. Yet in odd moments — when she propped herself up on one elbow, writing fervently in a notepad, her lips quirked in concentration — I felt my heart rising in hope.
I must have spent hours in her company that spring, making notes and coordinating Facebook events and pinning magazine cutouts to her wall. People came and went around us. Jasper, preternaturally articulate, a Southern Californian who grew to hate car culture, who wanted the University fleet to meet a minimum standard of 25 miles per gallon, freeway. Grace, who had bits and bytes in her veins instead of blood, who built a webpage for our movement or whatever it was. Lana, a hiker and a hippie, who attempted to ply me with weed at our every meeting so I would “finally relax,” and though it was irritating I could feel her good will. There were others. Twelve of us, I think, who stayed, who made soup in Theresa’s kitchen late at night and then lingered till the curry smell dissipated and, drunk off lack of sleep, we would stumble home, almost delirious enough to believe we had a chance, that we would make a difference.
I was there one drowsy afternoon when Theresa called some minor little bureaucratic office, to let them know where we would be, and when, and why.
How do you protest something as wild and unconfined as a drought, a death? For some tragedies we are all to blame.
And so with signs to hold and food to share and a battered acoustic guitar, we settled onto the lawn before the Administration offices. Someone brought a few old umbrellas as shelter from the sun, and after we stood there for a while Theresa had the idea of spelling words in duct tape on the umbrellas, and we held them up, sunshade and symbol both. Later when others joined us they brought more umbrellas, with more slogans (“There Is No Planet B!” “End Apathy”) and the umbrella thing sort of took off. Maybe there was something in the incongruity of it, umbrellas beneath an achingly blue sky. But that morning it was just the twenty or so vegans and solar kids and so on, the people Theresa had wrangled together, singing and chanting and passing water bottles through the crowd.
“My own umbrella read ‘give us time.'”
She had found some lingering sorrel flowers somewhere, long stalks with a single yellow flower at the end: garden weeds. She wore them in a crown, golden and childish, as she stood there singing Woody Guthrie songs and looking over the crowd. Her eyes found mine and she smiled at me, just for me, and in me rose a feeling I cannot describe, a heart-wringing devotion I will never feel again.
The morning deepened; the day’s heat arrived. So did the students. A few from the Muslim Undergraduate Association, holding signs that read “Dump Conflict Oil.” A whole crowd from the University Liberals. A handful of Hiking Club folks in pungent tie-dye. Then a pair of University Republicans, who turned down the proffered weed but together held a banner proclaiming “The Truth Is Nonpartisan” with a big blue Planet Earth. And a delegation from the Black Student Group, carrying photos from Hurricane Katrina wreckage with the caption “Never Again.” By the late afternoon we had 200 people standing out on the lawn, and three guitars and a ukulele and an enormous Taiko drum, and dancing, and food set up on fold-out tables, and everywhere the umbrellas, people sharing their shade. Half-protest and half-celebration, a wake for the Earth.
My own umbrella read “give us time.”
Theresa welcomed every newcomer, beaming, ecstatic. Mostly she watched and smiled, watched the folks twirling their umbrella-signs, watched for anyone who looked like they might need some water and a moment in the shade. Stood beneath her yellow umbrella with the flowers in her hair, watching.
We figured it meant we’d made it, when the University police arrived; our demands had reached the Administration, the Establishment acknowledged us. A quiver of alertness ran through the crowd at the sound of boot heels on the ground. We, the rangy hippies and the pre-law crowd, the social justice kids and the vegans; together we had created a threat.
We were children. Precocious children, yes; educated children, children of the Internet age; but children nevertheless. It’s easy to look back and count the mistakes, to wish that things had gone differently, that we could have prevented the unthinkable, the unendurable, the inevitable. To think, we should have lowered our voices, should have moved Theresa to the back of the crowd.
For some reason the police wore full riot gear. I don’t know why; we hadn’t broken anything, not yet. But at the sight of the helmets and shields the crowd bunched closer together. Someone began a chant and then there was yelling. Perhaps a stone was thrown. Certainly the crowd became angry: in our era cops were not known to protect so much as to punish. I was jostled from all sides and I ducked my head for a moment, clinging desperately to myself in the chaos. I heard Theresa shout “Stay calm.” And then I heard the unreal clap of sound, and the silence—
The officer would later pull around himself the mantle of self-defense. Not threatened by her, specifically, but by the overall actions of the crowd. Reached for the pepper spray, grabbed the gun instead. But before the case ever reached the courts, before the outcry and the inquest and the commemorative legislation, before the whole thing calcified and passed into history — in that moment I fought forward through the shocked stillness of the crowd, to the front, the space that had cleared around her.
She had collapsed backward on the lawn, her arms thrown out to either side. Her face was beatifically calm. And in that moment the sprinklers began, rising with a fssht-ssht-ssht sound, unbearable and absurd. Water struck the police and the students. Like tears the drops fell on the branches of her crown.
Contact Lillian Holmes at [email protected].