There is one thing that puzzles me, Socrates says cutely. My chair tilts to one side. No it doesn’t. I hold on to keep from falling off.
It happens like this: a darkness splitting a darkness. A hole opens between my head and the computer screen, and I fall in. It only takes a few seconds. I look up, look around. Did anyone else in the lab notice? Did anyone else see that I fell in, pulled myself out with a desperate frantic jerk? No one noticed. Pale students type on, keeping to themselves. I sweat. I lurch backwards, stand up. The room spins. I close my eyes. The dark wheels. The floor pitches. My legs wobble and sway under me. I open my eyes, grab my knapsack and stagger out of the computer lab.
It gets dark early in Edinburgh, a city that is warmer than the Canadian city I came from but seems dark and cold, a winter place. I was writing an essay. Joyce. Beckett. Woolf. Those dour optimistic modernists. I was hungover. Hunched into the screen, I typed furiously. I believe in written words but am always angry at them, the way a teenager believes in and hates his father. I want to impress a certain professor who wrote his dissertation on Bob Dylan and seems like someone I might become despite his earring and his mannerisms. All of this in my mind; and other things. A girl in Israel. A song lyric stuck in my head, a crooned line more meaningful than it really is. Beckett. Malloy, Mallone. Woolf’s polite alter egos attend an interminable garden party. Bloom’s bacon breath.
I lurch through the main campus and the busy streets of the city with my head down and my arms in front of me, zombie style. I am afraid of falling, of running into things that used to be stationary but now move around. As I stumble through the interconnected parks aptly named the Links, the ground undulates as if I’m part of a waking dream. It’s cold but I sweat. Sweat drips off my forehead into the grass between my feet. Everything sways. I take a darting glance forward and my stomach heaves. I have seen enough: a few steps ahead of me.
With shaking hands I pull open the big wood door to the university residence, the home of fifty students—freshmen from Glasgow, from small Scottish towns, from mid-sized British industrial cities. Americans, Germans, a stocky Frenchman. I am the only Canadian. We live in single and double rooms surrounded by imposing Victorian five-storey walkups from which no one ever emerges. The residence was a mansion once. Tall, wide staircases spill into an imposing foyer lit with a miniature chandelier. I stagger in and watch my feet move up the staircase, carry me along the hallway. I drop my keys, fumble for them in the gloom, manage to work the lock and fall into my room. It is cold. It is always cold. I pull off my sweater and the wet wool traps my head. Then it comes again, the sudden horrible yawning hole opens. I tear at my clothes, try to escape. I fall in.
When it’s over, I lie naked in the cold, white room with the window that looks out over the street. I am breathing very hard. I am skinny and weak. Outside it begins to drizzle. It is nearly winter in Edinburgh. It will rain almost constantly for the next three months. I wipe my brow with a bare arm. I shiver. The small room presses in around me. I take a few faltering steps, fall into the narrow bed, pull the rough blankets over me, curl into a fetal position and close my eyes. It is five o’clock in the afternoon. I listen to the rain. I wait for the darkness to stop moving.
I stay in bed for days. We don’t have a cafeteria in the residence, just small kitchens that used to be closets, with fridges that are divided up and cupboards stacked with cracked, stained dishes. Someone knocks on my door. I don’t answer, the knocking stops. In the fading light of day, I stare up at the high ceiling and consider the grey-white peeling paint. When the room darkens, I don’t turn the light on. I get out of bed, feed a token into the gas range and sit on the wood floor in front of the fire. These ranges are the building’s only heat. We buy the tokens from the warden, a retired lady named Elsie who lives in the basement. Each token costs a pound and turns on the range for forty minutes.
I wake up sprawled on the floor. The fire is out. It is still night and I am out of tokens. Bibi, a vocal Christian exchange student with a wife and three kids back in Nigeria, must be microwaving a chicken. I have to get away from the stench of cheap poultry stewing in its own radiated juices.
I get dressed and go out. Just like that, I say to myself. You see? It’s easy. In this city, with few friends and much time, I have taken to walking compulsively, without paying attention, aware only of a vague sense of the foreign—black scarab taxicabs, butchers with old-fashioned signs peddling rashers and mince and haggis, pubs on every street.
I find a group of fellow residents in one of those pubs. Strangers to each other, we drink in a cluster, stay close to the residence. Cliques and couples are forming, but I don’t belong to any of them. I have one friend, my next-door neighbour, an Irishman named Liam. We have shared a few sprawling pub crawls. He studies maths. We drunkenly and haphazardly debate the question of whether things like numbers and words can be real. Or are they always abstractions, pointless shadows obscuring the real? Will studying make us smarter or stupider? At least, that is what I think we talk about. One night I cooked Liam a lamb stew. He feeds on pub food and the occasional supermarket frozen dinner—toad-in-the-hole or steak and kidney pie. My lamb stew was a revelation to him. He made me promise to teach him how to cook.
Liam hangs out with his own friends, not with the group. But I am here. Out of my room. The girls are plump, white, with crooked teeth. The boys are scrawny, smart, self-conscious, unfashionable. I push through the crowd to the bar. I order a pint and a whiskey. I breathe in the odour of stale beer and cigarette smoke, which isn’t that different from the taste of air trapped in the chapel of a synagogue. I visited the Edinburgh synagogue on Yom Kippur and broke fast with a middle-aged professional couple with two blond children ages eight and ten. We sat around a nicely appointed table and spoke in a hush. There are no other Jews in the residence. I never went back to the synagogue. I don’t know why I went in the first place. I promised my mother.
The pub is alive. The crowd closes around me as I wait for my drinks. This time I feel it coming: a tightening in my shoulders, a drop in my stomach. The hole opening, sucking me in. I dig my fingernails into my wet palms. I close my eyes, will it to go away. All right, mate? The bartender in front of me, waiting impatiently for payment. I hand him a wet fiver and drink the whiskey while he makes change. I want to go to my room. I take the pint back to my crowd. I am safe in my room. Am I? The hole is there, too. The world lies on its side. My crowd is talking, telling stories. I pretend to listen, try to listen. I drink fast, as fast as I can without attracting attention. Drink. Drink again. After several more pints, I take my turn telling a story. We are talking about hometowns. I describe my high school in suburban Maryland—cheerleaders and football players and field parties and make-out sessions in McDonald’s parking lots. It’s just like on TV, I say. Only weirder.
Now I am buying drinks and talking loudly. This is the cure. I am cured. Sure, why not? There is a girl, soft and round. I have bought her several drinks, looked into her eyes while I told my stories. She laughed with the others, her lips wet with drink. We go back to my cold room. I give her whiskey. I must keep drinking. The dark hole lingers above me, not gone at all. Maybe it is gone, though. She is English. Tells me about her French boyfriend. She met him on a trip to Paris, last summer. Only a few months ago, but to both of us the summer is like a dream. She says, He won’t find out. How can he find out? I make jokes in a French accent. Oh, what are ya on about? she giggles. I kiss her. We undress. I suggest a condom. It’s okay, she says, I’m on the pill. I put it in. Thrust a few times. Finish in her. I am cured, I think. It will be over now. Should I go? she asks. I don’t answer. Maybe I am pretending to be asleep. She dresses and leaves.
I am in love with a girl in Israel. Last night I lasted only a few minutes. But when I masturbate, it can go on for hours. I am revolting and weak. Or else it isn’t me at all. It is the world that is something to be endured and gotten over.
I force myself to gather my books and attend my morning class. I need to walk. I need a destination. When I arrive on campus, I cannot remember which class I am supposed to attend. I have to pull out my binder and consult the schedule. I am due in a philosophy lecture, my class on Plato’s dense masterpiece, Theaetetus. The professor is an Italian who was disappointed and perplexed when he discovered on the first day of lectures that not one of us spoke a single word of Greek, ancient or otherwise. Still, he persists in reading to us “from the Greek,” as he announces frequently. He follows these incomprehensible readings with his own unique translation. He considers the expensive translated edition that we all bought from the university bookstore vastly flawed. While he talks, I flip wildly through the pages of my thick annotated text trying to figure out which passage he is referring to. It gives me something to do. But even when I find the right page, Plato’s account of Socrates discussing the definition of knowledge with some guy named Theaetetus remains slippery, a fish flashing in the sun, jumping through my soft palms. At the professor’s request, I have already met with him several times to discuss my essays. I am used to getting okay, mediocre grades—Bs, not Ds. The Greek professor underlines vast swaths of my heartfelt commentary and adorns the margins with question marks. He tells me I need to learn to make my arguments in a precise fashion according to the strictures of philosophical logic. I tell him logic makes no sense. We have reached an impasse.
I try to ignore the unbearable itch in my legs, the need to walk, move, escape. There is one little thing that puzzles me, Socrates says cutely. The professor discusses the refutation of the assertion that knowledge is perception. From the Greek, he drones. As if singled out for a question, I break into a sweat. My legs itch and my stomach drops. The hole opens. My chair tilts to one side. No it doesn’t. I hold on to keep from falling off. This is how the interminable hour passes, my eyes closed, my head down, my thighs trembling and tense, my fists tight against the plastic edge of the seat.
If I do not attend classes, I will fail. I do not want to fail. I have never been a success at anything in particular, but I have never been a failure, either. My classes ground me, give me something to do. More than that: they suggest a truth. I am twenty-three, at a time in my life when truth seems elusive but necessary. What is knowledge? Socrates wants to know. But I’m more interested in truth. My favourite class is Introduction to Scottish Literature. The words that the professor reads out loud fill me with longing, a need that cannot be satisfied. Words create places, and places create words. Perhaps I can find words, create a place. What place? Already I am asking the wrong question. I need to start from the beginning. What is knowledge? What are words? If I don’t attend classes I will fail, and if I fail I will never find the words to invent my place—not a place, really, but my own personal epistemology, the answer to the age-old question Socrates never quite resolves. But I am failing. It is only possible to answer Socrates’ question through reference, metaphor, example. This, according to my professor and Plato, is no answer at all.
Class is over. The floor shifts at random angles, causing me to stumble as I move through the hall of the philosophy building. I must look drunk. I don’t drink during the day. I think that I will go to the pub and drink. I will take the cure. I will drink during the day. The cure will kill me. I will fail and die. Knowledge is what you know. Isn’t it?
I force my legs to enter another building: the student clinic. I’ve never been here before, walked past it often enough.
I need a doctor, I tell the lady at reception. I need to see a psychiatrist. I’m going crazy. I speak loudly, urgently. Everyone in the room stares at me. What do they see? I am skinny. My curly hair is long and greasy. My clothes are unkempt: flannel shirts and ripped jeans. It is the age of grunge—Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden; I am accidentally in style.
You have to see a regular doctor first, the receptionist coldly informs me. I take a seat. I dig my fingernails into my palms. I endure sidelong glances. They probably think I’m an American.
The regular doctor is a young Irishman who reminds me of my Dylan-loving Modernist professor. I think I will relate to him. I will make a joke and he will realize that underneath the joke is someone desperate and scared. He will help me.
I’m going crazy, I tell the doctor. I bet you don’t hear that every day. He looks at me impassively, unconcerned, not amused. Yes, well, he says noncommittally.
I tell him about dizziness, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, inability to sit still, moments that come out of nowhere and swallow me up. I tell him that after these dark ripping moments I am shaky and weak and unable to focus on anything but putting my feet in front of me, one after the other, and walking for hours with my head down. I have these moments three or four times a day.
Panic attacks, the doctor tells me. Very common in young students. I see them all the time. His Irish brogue is friendly but his tone is curt and annoyed. He sees them all the time. I wait for him to cure me.
Just don’t think about it and they’ll go away, he says. Okay, son?
I look down at my boots. They are scuffed, filthy with mud from the wet Links.
The doctor writes something in a file. He puts a hand on my shoulder and steers me out of the examination room.
Good luck, he says with finality.
I stop attending classes. I spend my days walking. The air is cool and the city is reserved, cold, posh. Princess Street, the castle, Arthur’s Seat looming around a wrong turn. At night I take the cure. When I am drunk, the hole disappears. I am loud, confident; my long curly greasy hair hides my face.
I drink with the group, with Liam, in the television common room, alone in my room, sitting on the floor with Samuel Beckett on my lap. The words are barely illuminated by the light of the gas fire.
One Monday night, Liam and I decide we will have a pint at every pub we pass as we walk toward the centre of the city. Pubs close at twelve and it’s already seven. If we are to make it even halfway, we’ll have to drink fast. At 11:30 we’re eight pints in and have landed at a dark dirty spot where a group of musicians play Gaelic folk for free drinks. The music repeats itself, swirls insistently. Liam tells me about his hometown in Ireland, Carrick-on-Suir in the county Tipperary. Everyone’s related, he says. I have three hundred cousins. There are two hundred pubs for five thousand people. He laughs. He is from somewhere. I am a Jew born in a small industrial city on the edge of the Canadian side of a great lake. We moved from that city when I was a month old. I got pneumonia during the move and spent my second month of life in the hospital. My parents were born in Poland. They lived through World War II in the USSR, a country their parents had the sense to flee as soon as the war was over. Now they live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I am sitting in Edinburgh, piss drunk with an Irishman. My girl is in Israel. I met her in Toronto at university. I let her go. I shrugged and told her: we’ll just break up, then. See what happens when we’re back. This is my side of the breakup, my comeuppance for all the years I staggered drunk into her little room on Lippincott Street and invaded her orderly solitude with my pizza breath and dirty fingers. I fucked her, then immediately fell asleep on her narrow mattress, my body crowding hers so that when we woke up in the morning, she was on the floor.
Do you ever think you might go crazy? I ask Liam.
Sure, he says. He smiles impishly. I wait for him to continue, but he drinks instead. Behind us, the fiddle plays and a lady heavy with makeup half dances, half sways.
How could you not, right? I say. I drink the remaining half of my pint in one gulp. Another? I say. Of course, Liam says.
I make one more attempt at going to class. I can’t ride the bus, I can’t brave the library stacks, I can’t use an elevator, I can’t go to a movie or watch television, I can’t remain still for longer than five minutes at a time unless I’ve got a drink in hand. I shop for groceries and find myself hyperventilating in the bright aisles of Sainsbury’s. Now I eat only when drunk, surviving on the occasional donar kebab or fish and chips with salt and sauce, whatever the group decides to snack on after the pubs close their doors.
The hole is getting bigger, encompassing more and more of my sober life. I will fall in and not be able to climb back out. That is what madness is. I don’t think I am going crazy. My thoughts race, but they are my own. What is happening to me? I imagine myself to be completely alone, suffering something incomprehensible to others. It never occurs to me in these days before the Internet and Prozac that there might be books and articles on the subject, pharmaceuticals manufactured by the millions. The Irish doctor was wrong, he doesn’t see what I have. Not all the time, or anytime. What I have is invisible, known only to me.
The hallway spins. I suffer two more small attacks on the way to class. I keep a hand on the wall, trailing my fingers. It seems to help. I drop into a desk, perspiring profusely, knowing that I will be unable to listen to the lecture. My goal is just to remain. It is my favourite class: Introduction to Scottish Literature. The professor is a renowned expert, a man in his fifties with an upper-class Edinburgh accent and a passion for the words of his countrymen that seems impossible to discount or diminish. Here is the real thing. Here is evidence that words, maybe only words, matter.
We read Lilith by George MacDonald. Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie. We read James Kelman and Alasdair Gray. All are imaginers of dreamscape Scotlands. They envision a country that is not a country, that never feels quite real. We are talking about Scotland and fantasy, a place whose authors are a remarkable bunch of daydreamers and skywatchers. I cannot imagine fantasy. I am mired in the here and now. Later I will think: if you know where you are from, if you know who you are, you are free to imagine how the past can be the future. Without that—a history married to a landscape married to a literature—you will always write about the present in the past tense, be stuck just trying to create something tangible out of dispossession.
As if on cue, the hole appears. It starts small. I blink, shake my head. It’s gone. I am pale and damp. I can smell my fear. The pen is slick in my hand. I jab it into the palm of my other hand. The pain keeps me from bolting. From falling. The hole gets bigger as the enormity of time remaining closes in on me. Three-quarters of a class. My whole life. The more I think I can’t make it, the more I feel the hole expanding, until it is a dark vortex floating just above my head. If I stop grinding the tip of my pen into my hand it will descend. If I stop thinking, you’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay, chanting a silent lying mantra, it will descend. If I look at the clock, at the professor, at the faces of my fellow students, it will descend. I close my eyes and concentrate on the spinning blackness, on the spiralling tip of the pen digging in.
Good God! the professor exclaims. I open my eyes, expecting everyone to be looking at me, at the stigmata on my hand. But they are looking behind me. In the aisle between desks, a girl lies thrashing on her back. She’s having a convulsion! the professor proclaims. Students rush to her. I hurry from the room. I trip down the stairs, push open the doors with my palms. I leave a smear of blood as I burst into the wet air.
My showers last longer and longer. Normally I masturbate in the hot water, just for something to do. But now there is something wrong with my penis. I hold it in my hand. It’s shrinking. The head is white.
In the antiseptic light of the bathroom, I examine it as closely as I can. The hole leaks just the tiniest bit of clear viscous fluid.
These symptoms have been developing for a few weeks. I’ve ignored them, telling myself that they would pass, that it’s the result of chafing, the exposed tip rubbing against a pair of loose boxer shorts, all those hours of walking. I’ve lost weight. My face is angular, gaunt in a way it’s never been before. I barely recognize myself.
I think: gonorrhea, syphilis. I dry off, go back to my room and lock the door. I wrap myself in the coarse blankets on my bed and drink from a bottle of whiskey. I need to talk to the girl in Israel. There is one phone in the residence, a communal pay phone that receives all incoming calls. In Israel, on kibbutz, there is also a single communal phone, for the volunteers. She sent me the number in a letter. She said that once a week she goes to the phone, that her family calls and I could call then, too. How much would such a call cost? How does one place such a call? I have money. My parents gave me money for the year. My job is to learn, my mother is fond of saying. The girl in Israel can tell me what to do, how to do it. Even if she is disgusted with me and never wants to see me again, she will be caring and compassionate. She will listen to my problems and advise me. But then she will put down the phone and be gone. I cannot tell her about my problems. I cannot tell her that the head of my penis is cold and white. I cannot tell her that she is the only girl I last with, that with everyone else I finish in minutes, in seconds.
It is better to kill myself, I think. I do not really think I will kill myself. But maybe I will. Or should.
The Irish doctor holds my member up with a tongue depressor so he can get a good look. He doesn’t seem to recall seeing me before. He asks about unprotected sex. I nod. I am day drunk, stopped in at the pub on the way. For liquid courage. It works. I feel cocky. That’s right, I want to say. Lots of it.
You can pull your pants back up, he says. We both take one last look. It is pathetic, a dead inchworm barely visible in an abundant patch of tangled sweaty pubic hair.
He sends me to reception with a note—I must go to the clinic in the hospital. He doesn’t comment on what may or may not be wrong with me. You’ll be all right, son, he says as I leave. This time he sounds more sincere, as if there’s something actually wrong with me.
It’s raining. I walk toward the hospital, a massive grey building surrounded by a long wall. I wonder if I should tell the English girl. We still speak to each other, socialize within the group, pretend that nothing happened between us. In a way it’s true. There are other girls. A lanky New Englander with blond hair and freckles. She is also part of the group, attracts a lot of attention from the freshmen British boys who have taken to wearing scarves and berets and talking about Sartre. But she often leaves them to approach me, keeps saying, You’re really funny. She’s asked me to have lunch with her on campus. She is nice, pretty. I can’t imagine what we would talk about during that lunch, alone over a pint at the pub, after I’ve stuck my shrunken worm in her and ejaculated.
At the hospital I stand by the main entrance, off to the side, getting wet in the rain. My appointment isn’t until next week. The building looks dark, cavernous, maze-like. I wonder if I will be able to go in there. I wait for the dark hole to appear, to suck me in. I’m getting what I deserve, I think. This is the sort of place where people like me end up. I wait, but nothing happens. Under the awning, patients puff away on cigarettes. They seem at peace.
Eventually night falls. It could be 5 p.m. or 2 a.m. It gets dark early and stays dark until what seems like long after morning. My dick is a little white charcoal in my pants. Gingerly I trudge to the International Students’ Centre, a basement lounge with a few copies of Le Monde and the Herald Tribune scattered around. I have met some people there, a Scot whose parents live in Rome, a German girl with sandy hair and a crooked smile. Some of the regulars at the centre have organized a party there tonight. Beer carted in, a sound system. It’s a place to go.
When I get there, things are already underway. I am drenched. People chatter and drink, the stereo booms. I take off my tattered trench coat, a thrift-store garment I dragged across the ocean, as useless in the rain and wind as it was in the snow and sleet, and drop it in a dark corner. I recognize a few of the regulars. They drink Budvar from oversized bottles, a Czech beer whose name appears in bastardized form on cans of thin, sudsy Budweiser. I tip a cold bottle to my lips and fill my mouth. The beer is rich, hoppy. Whatever happens, I think, I’ll probably live. The German girl approaches me. You’re all wet, she says coquettishly. No shit, I say. I buy her a beer from the makeshift bar. And another for myself. Perhaps her ancestors killed my ancestors. In Scottish Literature, things that happened a thousand years ago still matter. In the language of Plato, things are proven, words are numbers and Socrates drives the stake of logic right through the heart of the matter.
We drink as if we are very thirsty. The stereo plays “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The German girl grabs my hand and pulls me into a throng of dancers. In the near dark, the drunk crowd of foreigners jump against each other to the beat. They sing into my face. The pessimistic exuberance is infectious. I thrash my head to the beat. My long hair slaps my neck. Come . . . As you are . . . Who am I? I want to transform. I am still a boy. I am waiting for things to change, to begin. The crowd of dancers mosh into each other. I am losing parts of myself. The German girl stumbles, falls into me. I catch her, feel the hot skin under her shirt. Things begin. Are beginning.