Insane in the Membrane
Well fucking done, I say to myself as I leave my room, showered and spruced up. There’s something good about swearing sometimes. Really [expletive] good. I’d brought myself back. Rode with Valkyrie on the battlefield of my mind and spared mostly the good thoughts. It feels great.
As I descend in the lift to the lobby I make a final voice recording and put my phone away. I’d made enough already and just wanted to enjoy the evening. I end it with “Alright, bye”, and with that I’m transported to my childhood. In particular, how I used to love making recordings on old cassette tapes: diaries cum radio shows; my own commentary interspersed with songs I liked from the radio. I’d end them with “Alright bye; hope you liked it.”
I’d made the tapes between the ages of eight and ten “to listen to when I’m older”, which I did when I was 18. I was shocked at some parts, which I ended up deleting. The anger and resentment that I had for my father back then. pH1.0. He didn’t deserve it. As an adult I know that.
At the entrance to Yellow Door, the hotel restaurant, there’s a pretty hostess waiting behind one of those lectern thingamajigs. She takes a menu from it and hands it to me with the cutest of smiles, and says, “Good evening, Sir.”
We chat there for a few minutes. I forget her name almost as soon as she says it—distracted by her lovely eyes?—and if it’s Armenia or Albania she said she’s from. Somewhere near Greece. I make a mental note to consult GoogleMaps later.
At the end of our little interaction, tightening my throat a touch to produce my finest English accent, I say, “Would you mind awfully if I ask for your number? You’re very… (pausing purely for effect) beautiful.”
Carpe diem, and all that. Who knows what other man may tootle along in the meantime and take her… menu.
“Yes, ok. I like you,” she says. I like, really like, how you just said you like me. “I can talk to you. Unlike these square Canadians.”
I laugh at that. So it isn’t just me then.
Is this city growing on me? I wonder as she leads me to my table. I’m upbeat because I’ve just interacted with a pretty girl—I’m that fickle. It’s the 14% testosterone spike I mentioned earlier (apparently, your testosterone spikes 14% just by speaking to a beautiful woman).Yes, that’s better: not fickle, not a player, just a man. Plus I avoided a sanatorium today—I’m in a good mood.
As she walks away I of course check out her behind. It’s very nice. Pert. I’m not into those bulbous bums some men seem to like.
The lady at the table next to mine catches me staring. I grin and shrug my shoulders, just a millimetre, mind. I’m a man, and testosterone is still coursing through my veins.
Past this lady, and the man she’s dining with, is another table, and someone eating alone. He’s staring dourly at his plate of carrots and asparagus other indiscernibles, spinning his fork about some tagliatelle far more times than is necessary. I wonder if he too had been asked to move to Calgary.
Wow, what a cloud has lifted, I think picking up the thick white napkin, whipping out the neat folds with snappy panache, and laying it on my lap. Anything is possible now. Even… enjoying myself.
A waiter arrives, a handsome Italian looking chap, and asks if I know what I’d like to drink.
“A glass of red wine, please.”
I feel like celebrating. For bringing myself back. For being alive. For getting a pretty girl’s number.
“Any in particular?” he asks. He makes to hand me what looks very much like an iPad, and seeing my perplexed expression, says, “The drinks are all displayed on here, Sir”
Too gimmicky. Paper menus for me, please. From sustainably harvested forests, of course.
“Something smooth,” I say, tapping his iPad away, letting him keep it.
“We have a Chillean, its—”
“That will do,” I say clipping his speech, but smiling warmly to annul any perceived rudeness. Chilean. They’re usually good. I’d had a couple in London.
“Not $30 a glass is it?,” I ask warily as he makes to go. Celebration yes, but within limits.
“No, sir,” he says, turning back to me.
“Great, Chilean it is.” And for a moment I remember deep brown eyes, long brown hair, fulsome lips, and sweet Latino redolence.
I lean back and contemplate my week. The five days spent in Calgary appear before me like gladiators in ancient Rome’s colosseum: Monday to Thursday, four bodies lying in bloody pools; Friday; mauled but standing, victorious.
“How did it go, dear,” I imagine my mother asking, and my sincere response, banging sword on shield, “It was amazing!”
I picture her then reading the account I was planning write, the very one you’ve read snippets of on this website, getting 90% the way through it and wondering how on Earth that could be. But after my journey today, it all felt worth it.
I was just happy to be alive, I guess. And recognising there’s plenty to be grateful for. Including my mother. Especially my mother. However, she needed to be dealt with. That unhelpful part of her in my mind, at least.
The waiter appears before me as if beamed there by “transporter”, and pours me a splash of wine to taste. I go through the motions, save for swilling and spitting, and return my glass with a smile, not convinced I could tell if the wine was indeed corked or not.
“Dining alone?” he asks, topping up my glass. He’s slim, with neat, short hair and an easy smile.
“Yes,” I reply.
He starts collecting the cutlery opposite me.
“Leave the glass,” I say, reaching out and flicking it gently with my forefinger so it rings.
He collects the other items and teleports away.
I turn to look at my right shoulder. Sure enough, sitting upon it, there she is—kicking her legs like she’s riding a swing, and nattering away to herself in a shrill, high pitched voice. She looks surprised I notice her, even more so when I carefully lift her with my left-hand, varicose-veined legs dangling, and place her in the empty glass. I quickly cup it with my palm, and in one swift motion, turn the glass upside down. Just like I would a spider caught indoors. A highly venomous one. (You do catch, and not kill spiders, don’t you? Terribly bad luck if you don’t). She bangs furiously on the inside of the glass for a moment, then gives up, sits cross-legged, and sulks.
I notice the lady beside me staring. I tug my lips into a brief smile—a perfectly sane, compos mentis smile—and pick up the food menu, twitching my right cheek a few times, for comic, crazed effect. I notice from the corner of my quivering eye she doesn’t laugh.
The waiter appears and asks if I’m ready to order. I ask for a few minutes longer. I’m starving, but after what I’ve put myself through that day, I’m in no mood to rush.
“No, problem, Sir.”
I look up and thank him, and with that, feel a slight pang in my chest.
Fuck… what was that?! I think in alarm, watching his slim figure slink away. Attraction?!
Years before I would have been mortified at such a thing, fearing I was… da da daa: gay. At school the word was an insult. Luckily I went to state school where people were homophobic and restrained, unlike at public (that’s private in the UK) school where they were just as homophobic but somehow considered participating in homosexual behaviour ok. I’ve heard plenty of stories of boys pleasuring boys, and participating in the digestive biscuit game (no I won’t explain. My mother may read this. Not the version under the glass. The kind, caring and innocent version). I remember one friend telling me once how the public school educated friend he travelled with started pleasuring himself in the top bed of the bunk they were sharing one night. First he’d thought it was a low-intensity earthquake rocking the bed or the sound of one of those geckos liking itself. He was reasonably appalled of course, but the miscreant rebutted his protests as if he was being ridiculous and it was all quite normal. “How else can I get to sleep?” he’d said. Bizarre. Though one has to admire his lack of stigma and shame. He clearly wasn’t raised a Catholic, he’d certainly be blind by now. Thank god my parents were lefties and whilst all their friends sent their kids to such schools, they didn’t send me. (though threatened it on numerous occasions).
Anyway, we grow up and mellow with age (well, it’s either that or get bitter), and it becomes less about labels and more about being alive, recognising people carry both masculine and feminine energy, and attraction can be a funny old and fluid thing. I knew a few girls who act more like most men I know, and vice versa. I’m increasingly meeting couples in open relationships, into polyamory, bi-sexuality and so forth. It may only be a phase for them, or something for the few, but it sure is interesting. I suspect we all have a polyamorous prehistory in our genes. Just look at our closest primate cousins—they’re always at it with each other. Anyway, I can now accept that occasionally, very occasionally, I’m attracted, in some odd way, to people of the same sex (gosh, see the fear still lurking in my timid, faltering words). I’ve never acted on it just for the record (there we go again), and don’t intend to (ditto); I don’t like chest hair for one (unless it’s my own—especially as it’s taken me an age to actually get any) and the idea of being in close proximity to another penis revolts me. Maybe going to public school would have been a good thing. At least then I would have got it out of my system (if such a thing can happen with respect to this). One time in Brazil comes to mind...
One night in Rio, ten years earlier. I was in a nightclub and had hooked up with this pretty young Brazilian girl, a daughter of a local police officer and to be honest, a totally spoilt stuck-up bitch. What was I doing? Hoping for something, I guess. Or just enjoying being around her (skin-deep) beauty (that testosterone thing again). There was this moment where this guy and I spot each other through the crowd, and bam!—instant attraction. I avoid him, sticking with the girl who was growing increasingly tiresome, but we pass each other later at the entrance to the toilets. He’s gorgeous. Something about his face shape and eyes. Something about him. There was no way I would do anything, though. No way. Why? Afraid, I guess. Ruled by ideas. Yet it was the perfect opportunity; no one knew me there. The best friend I was travelling with—a Christian with rather traditional views wasn’t there: he was ill and had stayed at the hostel. Had I been ‘free’ and ‘open-minded’ (or simply ‘human natured’?) I would have. It was what the attraction wanted. But it barely entered my mind as a possibility. Was I scared I might like it? Or it might change me? Was I scared it might mean something, about who I was? You bet. I’ve always regretted not dropping the girl and speaking to him. Doing more than speak to him, even.
“Ready to order?” the waiter asks, gliding up to my table and breaking my reverie.
“Certainly am.” I make my order, and enjoy our brief interaction. I like how playful and charming I can be at times. Those times when I’m not being morbidly depressed, self-critical and self-absorbed.
I take another sip of my wine and smile. I feel rather invigorated. You certainly have the guidelines for how not to be happy, I think to myself—judging, comparing, that type of thing. Even if you don’t have the guidelines for how to be happy. That’s probably a good thing, though. ‘If you see the Buddha, shoot him’, as the saying goes.
I raise my glass and “cheers” my earlier resurrection, to new possibility, to a piece of modern art on the wall beside me that catches my eye in that moment, and… and to the image of her behind still lingering in mind.
What was her name? I wonder. Angina? No, surely not that. Adriana? Whatever her name, she was very cute, and the edge of the glass is now her lips. I want to have my wicked way with her. Tonight. If we were still hunter-gathers, living in the African savannah perhaps, with a still underdeveloped prefrontal cortex2, maybe she’d set a playful chase, let me catch her, and we’d tumble around in the scrub for a while, biting, kissing, grunting and clawing, then be on our way again, back to our respective tribes. Those Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travellers had a good thing going on, I reckon. No stories. No expectations. No guilt, shame or moral compass to entrap them. (No civilisation either, but I conveniently forget that. But then again, ‘civilisation’ as we currently know it is a rather savage existence in many respects. Ask any Orang Utan.)
I sip the smooth, velvety wine thinking of her. Of what ‘my chances’ might be. Guy thoughts.
I think of lying on a bed of long grass, looking up at the moon and stars, after I’d ravaged her (or she ravaged me, more likely). I wonder if she’d be up for it. A 2014 interaction, not a 10,000BC one. Of course she would; she’d given me her number. (A moment of delusion). That was no guarantee, though. (Rectified). She might be one of those cock-tease types. Or one that gives you their number, one digit incorrect, just so you stop pestering them.
My meal—trout, fresh vegetables—is delicious, and eaten slowly for once.
I don’t see Adriana (that was now her name, even if it wasn’t) as I leave the restaurant. She’d already told me she finished at midnight and “maybe we could do something”, so I text her to see if she’s like to.
Back in my room I tuck myself into bed and turn the light off. Still no reply. I set my alarm for a quarter to twelve—she’ll have replied by then. Or if she hasn’t, I can go down and wait in the lobby to catch her as she leaves work. Or… move on with my life.
I feel pretty groggy when my phone alarm interrupts my slumber, even with the running water, bird song and tibetan gongs it employs. I don’t wait long in the lobby; it feels a bit creepy. She’s obviously not up for meeting. It was a long shot anyway. I head to a bar instead.
The bar is dull, and so is the club I then go to. Still no reply. I decide she’s called Angina, after all. And is probably Albanian not Armenian. They have a much worse reputation. Pirates in the past, apparently. Raping and pillaging many of the countries around them. Someone in Iceland told me that. Apparently an Albanian pirate ship came and stole all their women one times hundreds of years ago. I never found anything about it on Google, and if it’s not on there, it can’t be true, can it?
Also, in London it was always Albanians pickpocketing on the night buses. Wasn’t it? Am I racist? Or just expressing an honest prejudice? I’m sure 20% of them are nice. I’m just glum again that’s all. (Still no reply. Moving to this soulless city). Projecting my glumness out onto the world. Sorry world. Sorry Albania.
It doesn't have to be for long, I remind myself, returning to my hotel. And it might surprise me.
Yeah, at least allow that possibility, Dom.
“The mountains, the mountains, the mountains,” I whisper to myself like I’m pumping a bailer on a leaking boat. They, and the winter sports I might find there, had become my panacea.
I slink back to my room. And Sleep.
I open the curtains a little. The sun had yet to make it above the man-made horizon but the sky was setting the scene nicely, painting from a rich palette of reds, oranges and pinks; precursors bleeding into a turquoise backdrop. This open stage awaiting the star of the show, reminds me that although its cold, Calgary gets plenty of sunshine. The most of any city in Canada. There we go, a positive thought to start the day… immediately bludgeoned by an image of myself in Barcelona that past summer, and the ‘perfect’ climate and lifestyle I thought I’d found there, and now missed. That, and thinking how I hate the cold. Still it would give me good opportunity to stay inside and write (back on a positive track) and writing was something I’d been wanting to do more of for a while now.
You’d think it was some onerous thing like homework or paying a bill, not booking a kite-surfing holiday in the sun. But things are rarely straight forward with me. First there was the stress of whether I needed to fly home for Christmas or not (sorted). Then, of exactly when to go, and for how long. How many days would be too few, too much? Did I want to spend Christmas in Mexico, and New Years? Or would Christmas in the snow with my new Calgarian friends be better? Yes, that will be nice, won’t it? I will have made friends out here by then, won’t I? Really it all revolves I suspect, around fearing making a choice that would leave me lonely, unhappy or regretful. Silly; the indecision itself feels pretty bad and none of those feelings would likely come to pass. Since all the variables in any human decision are incalculable, anxiety naturally arises. Arises that is, if you kid yourself you can predict the future and are not willing to embrace whatever comes your way. And so I umm and ahh for a good hour (that is, I waste an hour), playing with different dates, even getting to the last payment page a few times, before finally clicking ‘confirm’. There’s plenty of Facebook distraction time in there too. I’ll go for a week, and return just before Christmas to spend that and New Year in the mountains. Faire et se taire (‘Just do and shut up’)—I’d decided that would be my mantra a few months previously after I’d seen the quote somewhere. I must have forgotten.
When I return from breakfast, having once more enjoyed an egg-throne, a fireball is beaming through the gap I’d made between the curtains. I reach out a hand as if ordering the light photons to halt their march toward my retina, then splay my fingers and thumb wide, slowly manoeuvring my silhouetted hand so sunlight appears momentarily between each finger—a succession of micro dawns and dusks; as many I notice, as days I’ve spent in Calgary.
I find the composition between hand, curtains, roof tops, sky and sun pleasing, and with my free hand reach into my back pocket for my phone and take a picture. My own piece of hotel art, which I upload to Facebook there and then. The arm still shielding me from the intense morning sun begins to ache. I draw it in as I turn my back to the window, clench my hand, open it, wiggle my fingers about and address them: “Today I will use you… to transmute the poison of this week into empurpled prose. I SHALL WRITE!”
Empurpled prose as opposed to polished prose because I suspect it will be verbose, dreary, self-indulgent drivel, of interest only to myself and maybe, just maybe, my family and a few close (and patient) friends. But write, I must. I had plenty of half-finished pieces collecting electron dust on various computer hard drives, and knew it was important to finish a piece of writing. I’d read it in The Guardian a few weeks earlier in a piece entitled ‘Ten rules for writing fiction’. Several well known authors had contributed. One, Geoff Dyer, had also said “Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.” I think I loved the man.
As I draw the curtains fully open I notice a truck pulling up to the pavement in the street below, the one where the tramps seem to hang out. There’s plenty there already, and several now gather about the driver’s window. What’s going on there then? I wonder. Nothing is handed out through the window, food for example, or clothing. They just seem to be chatting. A mobile social worker? Or perhaps they really are gigolos. A bit early for that type of thing, isn’t it? Two of them walk round to the passenger side and hop in, and I realise they’re just unemployed folk waiting for cash in hand jobs, probably off to work on a building site or such like - something the receptionist confirms when I later ask.
Brook had said he’d meet me for lunch then drive me around to check out possible areas to live. That meant I had most of the day free. I spend the morning writing as I promised myself I would, sitting at my desk in a white towel, pacing the room now and then, using the notes on my phone as a framework—wandering (and wondering) naked as a cloud, provides inspiration I discover.
I have the idea to write a piece about my time in Calgary. It was only a week; it wouldn’t take that long to finish. But in truth I know it won’t be easy; I’ve only been writing for an hour and I’m already getting restless (more pacing, less sitting). But, and I’m paraphrasing one of the authors in that Guardian article here, “I will do whatever I have to, to finish it.”
Even if that means moving to Canada? the fiend baits.
A couple of hours before I’m due to meet my boss I decide to take a stroll and check out the local area. First I make a pitstop at the nearest Starbucks to refuel—typing takes more energy than I’d imagined.
“A Refresh?” the server inquires when I ask for a mint tea.
“Erm, that sounds good,” I say. I needed one.
“That’ll be $2.90 then, Sir.” And so I learn what they call a mint tea in Canada (well in Starbucks in Canada, at least).
Hot Refresh in hand, I head south (I’m finally starting to get my bearings, or the difference between a Street and an Avenue at least—one goes north-south, the other east-west, but I keep forgetting which) and actually find some nice streets with a little character. 4th Street for example, in an area called “Mission” (I ask someone). It seems to be a popular area with lots of bars and restaurants (it is: I ask someone else).
I pass a coffee shop called Perks, then back track to it’s entrance when the image of its food counter refuses to budge from mind, flagging me down like some weary hitcher on a quiet road. Deciding it’s time for my weekly coffee, I order a latte, specifically asking for a weak one. I also ask for a portion of what looks like risotto salad. The food behind the glass counter doesn’t actually look all that appealing, or healthy, up close. Pre-cooked pasta bakes and pies ready for microwaving, shiny (sugar-laden) pastries, and a giant cake a foot tall with suspiciously colourful icing, each slice costing $7.90!
It’s pretty busy in here but I manage to grab a spot at a table by the window at the back. I’m no coffee expert, rarely do I drink the stuff, but it definitely tastes strong to me. Horribly bitter. And the risotto? That turns out to be some horrid rice-shaped pasta thing. I don’t do pasta (yes, I’m one of those people that imagine they’re ‘gluten intolerant’). Like white bread, it riles my gut something awful.
I ask the blond girl at the table next to me if she knows the password for the WiFi. There isn’t one. She asks where I’m from and we go through all that. When I mention I’m flat hunting she says she might be able to help.
“I live around here, and some of my friends do too. They might be looking for roommates.” Roommates? I shared a room for two years in London when I was broke. Surprisingly, it was a fun experience. One of my best times in London, in fact. But that stage had passed. Roommates, she informs me, is what we refer to in the UK as flatmates. A bit like, I later discover, Canadians call flapjacks ‘pancakes’. Bizarre.
“Is this a good place to live?” I ask. I kind of know it is, I’d asked enough people on the street already, but the more ringing endorsements the better.
“Yeah, it’s great. I live just around the corner.”
We chat a little more but she seems a bit robotic and uptight, something getting in the way of genuine exchange. Though she says she might be able to help me find a room, she’s strangely reluctant to give me her email address.
“I’m not planning to stalk you,” I say in jest, a laugh masking my growing exasperation of these insipid interactions I’d been having in Calgary. I sigh, and tell myself the place, if I did move there, isn’t forever. In fact, I add it as a note on my phone: Remember, it's not forever.
After picking at my ‘risotto’ and drinking most of the bitter brew, I continue my stroll through the neighbourhood, walking north then left onto 17th Avenue, another road with plenty of bars and restaurants. It’s there I pass a girl chatting with her friend. Bright hazel eyes. Chestnut hair held in a pony tail. Cute, full cheeks with a subtle rosy glow. Grey bag over one shoulder. She doesn’t see me, but I certainly see her: she’s gorgeous. I kept walking, looking back once or twice immediately afterwards, considering whether to turn back and speak to her. But then it’s too late. It would look creepy now; like I’m some stalker.
I do eventually stop and turn around, even if it’s not to catch up with her. I see her passing a Starbucks on the corner, crossing the road and going into… the “High School”?! The one I’d passed a minute earlier. What does ‘High School’ mean out here? I scramble to think. Same college in the UK? Surely she’s older than 18? She looked it. Now I definitely feel creepy. Too young?, I question, turning and continuing in the direction I was heading before this nymphal distraction. Too young.
I remember being 18 and not getting with a 15 year old I’d met on this week-long residential I was on, and always regretting it. Of course, not much past 18 and 15 does become unacceptable. But back then, it would have been fine (in hindsight it was probably breaking the law I was most worried about: “getting into trouble”). If only I’d read Nabokov’s Lolita by that point. Or had some other cultural comparisons. Like knowing that in some countries girls got married at 13 (I’m not saying that’s right, of course, but it is a comparison; something outside the cultural and social values I was born into). No, all I had was the commendable but foolish notion of doing ‘right’ (plus my mother on my shoulder clasping her pitchfork).
Oh my, when I first saw this girl in the canteen queue… - this may sound bizarre, but there was this etherial glow about her head, this white light only I could see. A halo! It was sensual, it was saintly (and why not both together?), but most importantly it was a beacon, an invitation, a match… for me. I’d never seen anything like it, and alas, haven’t since. We spoke, several times over the week, and the attraction was clearly mutual. But nothing happened. I didn’t let it. Rather than live what was right for the moment, for me, for her, I told myself it wasn’t appropriate. I’ve always wondered what could have been had I acted on her otherworldly allure. But now it’s just a fantasy, of course. The ripest of fruits. Another thing to regret.
I spot an HSBC, a subsidiary of which I banked with in the UK, and decide to pop in and check out how that would all work in Canada. As I’m chatting to the bank manager I notice I’m keeping half an eye on the window, just in case the girl passes again. New Account Application Pack in hand, I stride back to the Starbucks by the High School, order another Refresh and text Brook my whereabouts. “I’ll be there in 20,” he texts right back.
As I wait I get out my phone, load Googlemaps, find Calgary, then zoom out looking for places I could travel to from here. There’s San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Portland—all just a drive, train or flight away (or combination thereof). And of course there’s the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. There’s no way I’m missing that if I’m this side of the pond. Yes, there’s definite positives to making the move, I decide.
I imagine it will be ‘just my luck’ if my boss arrives just as the girl reemerges from the High School, and I’m faced with the dilemma of making a total prat out of myself in front of him by ‘seizing the moment’ or feeling wound-up for days (weeks even!) for not doing so and ‘missing out’.
I’d recently watched a TED talk about a women diagnosed with schizophrenia. At first the voice in her head was neutral, impassive. She knew, rather wisely, it was a symptom of unexplored emotions. But when she told her friend about it, and that friend freaked and told her to see a Doctor, events unfolded that progressively made her feel like something was indeed terribly wrong. And the voice in her head, before a benign companion, became an aggressive and goading persecutor. It told her that if she proved herself worthy of it’s help, then it could change her life back to how it had been. It set tasks. Small things at first, like “pull out three strands of hair”. Then more daring feats, like “pour a glass of water over the lecturer” (which she did. Fair to say, her Head of Faculty wasn’t too impressed). Then self-harm. Anyway, here I was with a voice in my head (luckily just metaphorically speaking, for the most part) telling me that the harder the circumstance (e.g. your boss is present) the bigger the reward (e.g. maybe she’s ‘the one’—you just need the balls to discover it!). It’s quite mad. I’m quite mad. I wonder what the unexplored emotion is. And if I could only make peace with my ‘voice’ (as the lady eventually did) it would stop goading me.
“Hungry?” Brook asks me when he arrives.
“I know it’s a burger place, but lets just go across the road.”
“That’s fine.” I mean it; I’d checked it out earlier and knew it was good quality meat and they had gluten-free buns. My boss obviously knew I was fussy.
I’m glad he’s turned up on time. Sat there in Starbucks by the window facing you know where, waiting for you know who to appear, I was beginning to feel like a stalker, or worse a paedophile. It’s some fear of being a ‘pervert’ that growing up in a state school in the 90’s had given me. The girls were vicious, see. Spiced up on the ‘girl power’ of the time, if you made the slightest advance, and they weren’t interested, you’d be branded “a pervert”. When I went to Brazil and saw school children and college students interacting so healthily with one another in daily dance classes, I’d found myself wishing I’d had the same sort of schooling (not least because Brazilians are hot. And girls in the Midlands are, well…). Anyway, growing up in the UK, for me at least, girls were foreign and terrifying creatures. And when intimacy did occur, it was often crude and alcohol fuelled.
I made sure we sat at the back of the restaurant, well away from the window. I didn’t want to be looking out for the girl to appear, or be able to spot her even if I wasn’t. They’re out of gluten-free baps and offer me a ‘lettuce wrap burger’ instead. I’ve never tried one; why not. In reality it’s not an idea that works so well. Richly lubricated with ketchup and mayo, my gherkins, tomatoes and burger slip-slide all over the place, my fingers getting extremely messy in the process. Not that I really need to avoid wheat—I’ve no allergy to it: I was tested. But gluten-free is fashionable, isn’t it.
As promised, Brook gives me a tour around a few neighbourhoods after lunch. It’s the least he can do really, but I notice myself fawning gratitude. Some places actually seem ok. Things are looking up. Probably need to—I’ve hit rock bottom. We’re driving through Kensington, “a nice part of town” just north of the river and where we’d gone the first day when Brook and Mitch had their mystery meeting. I suggest he drops me at Prime Blend, the coffee shop where Madison spilt her coffee and, as I now remember, a Canadian girl I’d connected with on Couchsurfing worked.
Brook tells me of a nice route to walk back to my hotel—by the river, over a bridge, through a park and past some mall I should check out. He goes over it several times and I’m thinking, man, I’ve got it. He’s now loading a map on his phone to show me the route. I’m standing there, one hand on the passenger door ready and eager to push it closed, just sensing this hum of inauthenticity. This is a guy that barely replies to my emails, yet here he is trying to be overly helpful. It’s unctuous. It’s obvious. It’s what people do when they aren’t genuinely concerned but are trying to appear so. Or, are being genuine (in that moment) but only because of a guilt for not being bothered the rest of the time. Right?
“Is Magdalene in?” I ask the girl behind the counter. She hesitates, so I clarify, “is she working today?”
“I can’t disclose that information,” she replies, deadpan. I raise my eye brows and look confused. I am.
“Well you might be some crazy stalker,” she says.
Give me strength—they are so ro-bo-tic, I think (again).
“Yes, I might be,” I say, separating each word with a slight (and sinister?) pause, adding, “what does your instinct say?”
She ignores that and asks if she can take a message.
“No, thanks. But I will buy one of these delicious looking gluten-free seed cakes.” (Which I know from my previous visit are delicious indeed).
I walk a few blocks south, planning to take the route back Brook had suggested (omitting the visit to the shopping mall). I reach a set of traffic lights at a cross roads by the river. The road carries on over a bridge, then winds like an artery towards the mass of skyscrapers at the ischaemic heart of Calgary. I cross and head left along the pavement, parallel to the river. There’s a footbridge crossing it a few minutes’ walk ahead, and another perhaps ten minutes after that. It looks delightful in the afternoon sun, a gleaming bow arching gracefully over the river.
The river is pretty and the sound of water immediately soothing. I’ve been walking barely a minute beside her when I feel the need to stop. To pause and just stand there. To look, at the source of this subtle sound that so seems to be dissolving the hum of traffic, both beside me on the road, and in my head. A mellifluous catholicon, penetrating, cascading.
Between me and the water is a gentle incline formed from hundreds of boulders piled upon each other—a man-made barrier I decide to tackle. How can I deny her call? I jump, stride and step from one giant rock to the next, and find one by the waters’ edge with a relatively flat top upon which to crouch. My arms hang loose between my frog legs, one hand resting in the palm of the other. I’m comfortable on my perch. Save for stripping off and wading in (which wouldn’t be advisable in this icy-cold mountain-fed water), I’m yours…
She’s blue and green in parts, grey in others, frothing white here and there—depending on the flow, depth and sun’s reach. There’s turquoise too. I prefer to focus there. How can you not love that colour? I’d read that rivers in some parts of Canada are deeply coloured this way, caused by silt from melting glaciers high on the mountains. Here, many miles from those mountains, there’s just a hint of this former brilliance. Or maybe the colour had nothing to do with glaciers. Perhaps particulates from all those giant exhausts I’d seen were causing it. I like that explanation better. It brings a beauty to all the ugliness I’d perceived in the city. It’s nice when ‘bad’ is revealed in ‘good’, and vice versa. Life feels more balanced that way. Those purists and zealots always have a dark secret or two, don’t they. Some perverted predilection, a kinky fetish, perhaps: publicly suppressed, privately indulged.
Though the busy road is just beyond the rocky incline behind me, it might as well be many miles away now. I’m lost in the river, deaf to all but her sonorous chatter.
There’s a membrane, I realise, where the lapping sound hits. Somehow I’m in this world, this bubble, the membrane running through its centre: the river on one side, myself on the other. This surface of separation and supportive tension, indefinite but undeniable, is where we meet. Like resting my ear on the skin of a drum, and listening to the hidden world within.
I arrived here through sensation, not thought.
Light flashes from icy mountain tops, as darkness pours through valleys and canyons. A split second later and all is reversed. A coruscating landscape forged from ever-shifting tectonics. A second bears a million years, as mercurial mountain chains shift and morph. River, you delight me.
I sense an observer, other than myself. Someone painting the scene. I am the stretched canvass upon which their brush strokes mark vivid trails. The drum, upon which someone beats.
The week’s stress and unease dissipate, and in their place: a lightness of being. I’m surprised at such a sudden shift, and reminded how effortless it can be when you… pause.
I smile, as her rippling unpredictability breaks stagnant thoughts apart. There’s nothing to cling to here. I’m flotsam, floating on a current of ever-shifting swell. The river’s gentle murmurs conjure kinder thoughts. They brush past me like the affections of a purring cat, then depart. A welcome relief from the usual ones that pick and scratch and claw.
She whispers to me now. As she would anyone that had sat silently by her for a while, open and available. My ear rest against and cups the membrane. I close my eyes.
I’m the canvass, again. Then a drum. Or an invisible skin stretched upon one.
Vibrations beat through me.
I see a drummer holding the drum, the seat that holds him, and then the ground that supporting both. Deep within, a hidden molten core pushes out, out, out in a bid for freedom. I see it. But the weight of rock and ocean—of drummer men and silent painters—hold it in with their own creative will to exist. Where these opposing forces balance: that’s where I am. A membrane meeting point.
There exists a synthesis. Not only a drum, but a sound system that mimics it. Not only a painted canvas, but a digital representation. A circuit board where transformers and resistors switch, spark and fire imperceptibly. Pixels on a screen awaiting alteration. Real and unreal coexist and mingle. Ear nor eye can no longer discern the difference.
A childhood memory arises. I’m seven. We’re about to collect the puppy I’ve begged my parents for so long to let me have. A substitute for the little sister I’d always wanted. Someone opens the kennel door and three Golden Retriever puppies skip and cower about each other at the back, curious but afraid. I hear whines and whimpers, muted barks, and the skittish scratch of claws upon the concrete floor. One ventures forward more than the others, but only by a touch, and soon retreating. Again and again she comes forward, nudging some limit she will not cross, a fraction closer each time. That tantalising, ever-shifting point of equidistance between us—like stepping quickly up golden sand to avoid a breaking wave. That’s what the membrane feels like.
I choose the bravest puppy of course. I named her Tessa.
I open my eyes briefly to the sight of light being tossed from wave to wave. A detailed tapestry of unending alterations laid upon a deep and flowing unknown. I fill my lungs, close my eyes and slip beneath it. A minute later I feel a feminine presence and see the semblance of a face. Two glistening hands rise up, cupping a cerulean pool of river water. They separate just above my crown, and water washes over me. Droplets like diamonds placed upon a drum, rolling, tumbling, bouncing brilliance; droplets like pigment dripping from a paint brush. A thrill down my spine like water was indeed dripping there.
She cradles my checks, with such tenderness; touches my forehead, strokes the back of my neck—then back down to her belly to collect more water, and up again: three times. With each motion I feel baptised. Cleansed. Soothed. A thousand hair follicles press against my jeans. My shoes feel full with the pressure of my feet. My shirt rests upon my back. I am the point where skin meets cloth. All is surface tension, in my sanctuary from the city. The membrane sings and thrums.
Sat there on my hard rock, softness all around, I realise that my mind that week had not been chaotic as I’d imagined it had. No, my thinking had been highly ordered: negativity tabulated and systemised. The river was chaotic. Nature was chaotic. Chaos was to be embraced. Nothing for a searching mind to grasp to here.
But nothing’s free. Chaos has it’s own price, as soon I’d see.
A tree speaks of a gentle breeze, shimmering in the periphery of my vision. I remain fixed on the river though, where light chases shadow, and darkness hounds out light, and between the two I dance. Down here the air is still. The only leaves moving are those bobbing on the water’s surface. Here’s one… paddling with little legs? I wonder like a child, for it seems to be moving up stream. Or is it down stream? I can’t tell, because not only am I disorientated in this new city but in my stillness, and paradoxically, I move with everything else. No north or south, left or right. Perhaps away and toward, that is all. Longitudinal waves resounding in and out. The perspective of a singularity, yet everywhere at once. Tiny cyanobacteria drifting in the sway of a great ocean. One, then all. A billion motes. Connected by a single mind.
A cyclist rings their bell twice as they glide past behind me. A train approaches the bridge to my right a quarter of a mile away. I look up. I’m with the wheels—first the bikes, now the trains. They press and roll against the shiny tracks as do I: hard metal that once flowed molten like Earth’s core. I feel the pressure of the brakes as I lurch and come to rest in the centre of the bridge. I draw a breath, deciding to release it only when the train begins to move again (luckily there aren’t any major delays on the transit this day, and I don’t turn blue).
You’re not so bad.
You’re wonderful, in fact.
A snap. A cracking sound. Fortifications fracturing, and crumbling into a bottomless ravine.
I wish you’d give yourself a break.
A tear, burning.
I notice I have a twig in my hand I’m playing with and picking at. I’ve no idea when I picked it up, but the feel of it between thumb and forefinger is comforting. It’s slow disintegration, enjoyable.
Be kind to yourself.
No voice comes to counter this nice thought, as it usually does. To rebuild its barricades, or send in reinforcements. Instead, a silent embrace. An energetic armistice. Momentarily, at least.
Where to now? I ask myself several minutes later. Thoughts had begun to cloud my mind again, along with the worry I was no longer ‘present’. Plans, reminders and concerns.
Shh now, everything arises in the present moment, does it not?
Even those thoughts that take you to other times and places?
Remaining with the river meant letting thoughts flow away as soon as they arose (even if it meant forgetting to buy my sister-in-law a birthday card, check-in for my flight online, or cut my toenails). But remaining with the river also meant starving or freezing to death. I should move. She’d done her work; the real world beckoned.
Another piece of the stick falls and bounces off the hard rock at my feet.
But where to?
Does it matter?
I notice a piece of driftwood caught on the riverbank a few meters away, smooth and pale. It too has journeyed here…
I wonder if it feels stuck, or is happily resting (neither, of course, it’s just a stick); if I should throw it back into the river, or let it be. I should be on my way, that’s what. Then, or should I? Why not stay a little longer? Why cut it short?
Oh mind, I gently implore, whatever you do, don’t judge or overcomplicate. Do you think the river thinks which way to flow, or when?
Don’t worry, Dom—you’re not leaving, loosing or forgetting anything. It’s always there, this wellbeing of the river, and the membrane meeting point…
What, even in that excrescent skyline? That impenetrable glass and concrete past the park on the other side of the river? Or on the road just up there, in those big cars I find so abhorrent?
Arrive with feeling, not thought, remember?
And so I find my egress, physical and mental, peel myself away from the diaphanous divide, and leave the driftwood be.
I continue along the path beside the river till I reach the furthest foot bridge. Halfway across it I pass two girls taking photos, checking the results on the digital display, shifting position, and taking more. Photography students, perhaps.
I feel light. Almost dizzy. When I step into the park on the far side I feel the need to stop, balance precariously on my tip toes, reach for the sky with my fingertips and stretch. Then, to shake my body out with a good horse-lip sputter. I want to sing. I want to roar with laughter. But I want a soundproof room to do it in.
Why be shy? Who cares?
I do it seems. And I hate that. It feels like the bars on some cell I keep myself in.
Let rip—why not?
The inner voice seems different to the one minutes earlier by the river. More goading than compassionate. Or is it just trying to draw me out? Tough love? Oh, I don’t know. Fuck, how can I know what part of myself to listen to; to trust?!
I try a little shout, then a laugh, but it’s feeble. My voice isn’t deep and resonant, but pinched and lacking conviction.
I’ll look and sound quite mad.
Perhaps, but so what?
I imagine this little ‘hanging on’ and ‘holding back’ is the cause of never dreaming big or going for it (with what exactly, I’m not sure). A polite reserve that restricts my life.
Why care what others think?
Exactly. I don’t mean trample on other people's freedom in pursuit of your own. Or be unkind. But this playing small serves no one.
A mother who didn’t want to be embarrassed by her son ‘acting up’, I wonder. Or an amalgamation of all those at school who said put-downs and unkind words that I was stupid enough to listen to.
But why have I been unconsciously bowing my head in meekness to them ever since? Like, Sara Parry. Fourteen year old Sara Parry. Fuck. I’d wanted to direct and choreograph an end of year show. “You?” she’d scoffed. “What do you know about dance or theatre?” And just like that I'd given up on the idea. On any creative idea?! Fuck. I'm weak.
Other memories, other excuses, attempt to surface but...
NO! These are just stories. Excuses. I’m an adult now!
Whatever the cause, this last stronghold of self-consciousness… it bugs the hell out of me that it exists. It’s not there when you’re a child, is it. And to act on the stage, you have to let go of every last shred of it. You have to fully commit, believe entirely in the imaginary character and circumstances you’re playing, whilst the audience suspends it’s disbelief.
Can you do it now?
Now? On demand, in pubic, is another thing entirely. These passers-by aren’t a paying audience—why inflict them with my outburst of not-so-artistic expression?
All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players…
Are you mocking me?
Perhaps I'm just channelling Shakespeare all of a sudden.
I try saying, “yeah” several times. Louder at each attempt. “YEAH!”. I lift my arms and say it. I punch the air and say it. God, it feels good. But my physicality is unsure and awkward. My voice, tempered. My life is tempered—by some… fear.
If only I could break through it, everything in my life would change for the better…
If only you could break through it, everything in your life would change for the better…
You are mocking me aren’t you.
Suddenly I remember the lady with schizophrenia and her ‘voice’. Fuck.
Then I’m back, lost in self-absorption.
Am I compromising myself? The fullness of who I am, or could be? I wonder.
I’m not thinking about my job or dreams or anything like that. It’s purely about my expression (or lack of) in the park right now. That alone is symbolic of everything else in my life, or so I imagine. I want to run about like Tessa when she was a puppy and got excited, bounding round and round in circles, paws skating across the tiled kitchen floor, or tearing up grass in the garden. I want to feel that free. Free from judgement.
Who’s judgement, dear boy?
I look around to check: that I have some space: that not too many people are about. Perhaps if I do it quickly they won’t even know it’s me. ‘Howl, or not to howl’—that’s the only question (Shakespeare’s back).
So—be the mad guy walking through the park: so what? You don’t know these people.
I know, but…
A loud full yawn feels good. I do a few. My ears click and pop and equalise. I remember we used to do yawns like that in acting class to warm up. I start doing the other exercises I can remember. Deep Ahhhh’s, jaw lowered, resonating through the chest. Eeee’s, vibrating the tongue with a tight smile. Chewing my lips. Massaging my jaw. I even do it passing someone, pouting Oooo’s.
I have to get life back in me. I have to feel alive again. Shake myself free from the final remnants of the week’s negativity.
The sounds and movements feel so good.
Is this manic? I wonder, panic almost rising. No… I’m ok, I reassure myself. I shake my body out and jump a few times.
Movement! I think, like I’ve just found the missing particle that finally completes quantum theory, That's it! It’s important to allow it, inside: to unstick the stuck—and express it! Emotion. There’s ‘motion’ in there, see. Alive!
With all the toxic thoughts that had tumbled around my head all week, like a half-loaded washing machine thumping out of balance, I’d rattled and deadened myself. Now thoughts have more the feel of… a river! I remember her cleaning hands, feel them again about me now, fingers running through my hair.
A cyclist goes past yawning. I feel it in me and yawn right back. A big happy yawn. That’s what acting class taught me—to be open, receive what’s given and react.
“YES!” I shout, for no reason other than it feels good to do so.
I notice the cool, late afternoon air on my skin. I breathe deeply, and exhale. Then, it comes. A wetness to my eyes. The release of something. Something held onto for so long, let go and carried away by a turquoise river.
I’m crying. It’s ok. I’m lachrymose by nature. I like it. This time I’ve been expecting it. Working up to it, even. For there’s a sadness in me somewhere; deep, stale, familiar. I’m happy when I reach it with some light and air.
Do you cherish your sadness more than people?
The question sends a jolt through me. Do I? No…
Perhaps it’s the pain caused from closing off. From myself. From the world. Is that what I do? I wonder. Resist the ebb and flow of things. Or perhaps it’s simply the sadness we all feel, caused from thinking ourselves separate. Fresh from the womb, ‘I am’: a joy? A terror? It sets up a kind of violence in ourselves and in the world, does it not? This… sense of separation.
I smile through the tears, feel happy even. Something dead and unnecessary is leaving me. Tiny pick axes attack some inner mine face, and little wagons roll out from tear ducts brimful with rock and debris. There’s a new space within, and with it, new possibility.
I notice I’m moving my jaw abnormally. Similar to if I’d taken too much MDMA and am gurning. God, that looks awful, doesn’t it. But it seems to be what my body wants, so I follow.
I’m standing on the grass just beside the main path running through the park. People pass now and then but it doesn’t matter. I’m facing a tree that I’m utterly charmed by. I acknowledge the canopy thrusting skyward, but it’s her thick trunk corkscrewing into the earth that has my attention. My sight slowly slides down the helter-skelter spiral of her gnarly bark till it reaches the Earth. Yes, that’s where I need to be—I need to ground…
The tree is a meter or two away but I can feel it as if my fingertips were upon her, exploring. Delicious. Sensual, even. And indeed, it halts the mania a little…—yes Dom, you’re a little manic right now; I acknowledge it. It’s important to do so; how else can I correct course? I’ve swung too far: from the weeks dead depression to a giddy high. I need to redress the balance.
I close my eyes and take my own roots deep like the tree’s. I know what to do. I’ve been here before.
I have’t yet yelled out loudly, fully, as I want to. I must have tried four or five times. The mind, or some voice there, is taunting me as usual: you failed! Luckily a wiser part reminds me my work right now is to ground, not think. I focus on the tree again.
Just looking isn’t enough. A few failed attempts jumping for the lowest branch and my hands are raw. The pain is good, however; delicious even. Anything physical at this point is the right thing—to pull me from the clouds and return me to the corporeal safe house. Finally I'm hanging, shoulders clicking, spine popping. A good stretch, limbs momentarily relieved of gravity’s burden. People pass. I notice them but I’m not phased. Let them observe this monkey-brain, alive and attempting to ground—can’t they see that’s what I’m attempting here?! It feels good not to care what others think. Hanging in the park from a tree.
I dive into my palms and drink the rich, rough sensation of torn skin stinging, till, enough: I drop to the ground, bend over, touch my toes and sigh. It’s good to just flop. Seeing the world from between my legs makes a nice change. People look funny walking upside down and it reminds me of times I tried it as a child. I gradually roll my spine straight, vertebrae by vertebrae, and notice I feel… fantastic.
“Yes!” I say. I’m in my body again. I’m home. “I did it!”
I stand there a moment, palms facing up and held out to the side slightly, feeling blood circulating unimpeded throughout my body. I see myself a moment, my posture reminding me of a depiction of Jesus in an illustrated children’s Bible my mother read to me when I was a child. Fuck… No Jesus complex here, Dom! No, my mania isn’t that far gone. I shake myself out. I don’t have the long hair for it, anyway. And, if a group that gathered to preach in Brixton each Sunday were to be believed, I wasn’t black either. (Brixton: where I live—for another month, at least; should I make the move to Calgary).
I lower my jaw and force a yawning smile and my ears pop again. But this time they really pop. Like someone had switched from 'mono' to 'surround' on the reality TV remote. I realise I’d been slightly deaf from the planes cabin pressure all week, but never knew it. Enlightenment must be like that, I think. In that suddenly you know what you didn’t know you didn’t know. Not that I like the term ‘enlightenment'. It’s just another ego-trip, isn’t it—dressed up in spiritual robes? Something else for the ego to strive for and obtain before you’re alright. Am I alright? Hell, yeah. Fuck, why not just proclaim it? End this war with myself. Extinguish all those voices in my mind telling me otherwise. “I’M ALRIGHT!” I bellow. But only in my head.
It’s time to move on; to head home. I feel much better. The two girls I’d passed earlier on the bridge are just up ahead, taking pictures off the path by another tree. I try to engage them in conversation. Not just because they’re cute. Simply because we’re fellow beings on a strange rock spinning in space. Because of the improbability and novelty of that. Because of the miracle of this ‘life’ we’re sharing. Because of the unfathomable number of lifeforms that lived and died before us. Because of our shared ancestors in the primordial “soup” of the early seas.
They respond shyly and robotically. They’re obviously a little perturbed by the idea of speaking to a stranger in the park. Despite that disarming smile of mine? Shucks. Perhaps it’s still a manic smile. I don’t force it and move on tittering to myself. An hour earlier it would have been an excuse to get even more depressed about the place. Now there’s just this gentle easygoing voice saying, It’s ok, it’s ok, soothing with rare insouciance. They’re just afraid. Everyone’s just afraid, that’s all. Go easy.
I give up on the idea of trying to interact with anyone in the park. Besides, a passing cyclist reminds me I much prefer feeling—yes, feeling—the sound of air through wheel spokes. No knock backs and awkwardness that way. Just sound and light hitting the membrane.
There will be something for me in this city, I reassure myself leaving the park. I may just have to look hard. Or be patient. But there will be…
Perhaps easing off judging and identifying with everything along the way will help, I think.
Yes, that would be wise.
Ha! That voice again. The one that morphs between avuncular guardian, friend, teasing nemesis, and scolding mother. Well, at least I’m not alone…
I enter a small square with two tall office buildings on either side. I stop on the far side of it and turn to face the way I’ve come. It’s quiet; I spot just three other people. One of them, a man standing at the entrance to what looks like a hotel, is looking in my direction. Is he looking at me? I wonder. Not wearing my glasses it’s hard to tell. I decide that he is, even if only as a way to focus my fear; to consciously acknowledge the uncomfortable feelings of exposure at what I was about to do.
“What you look at disappears, what you resist persists,” I whisper to myself (some quote I’d read somewhere). So, I look right at him—at my fear—raise my arms like I’m performing a star jump and hold them there. A moment’s hesitation, then I shout as loud as I dare, “YEAHHH!”. I notice my arms flinch inwards as I do so—a flicker of unconscious self-consciousness—but I force them back out, declaring to the universe, to the world, to the three witnesses: “IT WAS ME!”, “I will be seen”; “I will own this echo reverberating about the square,” (…“I am someone.”?).
Are you really going about this the right way, Dom?
I bring my arms down slowly, ignoring the question. I feel an uneasy mix of elation and embarrassment, my lips quivering, palms clammy. I did it! Yes, for the most part, I’m pleased. No fake preparation, like pretending to look at my phone first then shouting as if reacting to reading some good news on there (as I’d done in the park a few times). No, I just stood there and delivered. But the perfectionist in me is already faulting my performance. You didn’t give it your all… You didn’t fully ‘let go’… you’re still afraid.
It probably wasn’t the perfect performance of unbridled self-expression—like that of a child (or a madman?)—but indeed, so what? So fucking what? I catch myself; this habit of self-berating, of chiding myself, and ask within, “See? See what I have to live with?!” A mind never satisfied because… because it fears…? What?! Because it keeps me from feeling…? What?! What god damn it?!
I can’t yet fill in the blanks. But as I think it then, exasperated, and as I write this interminable story now, I look for clues; a detective eager to solve a mystery. His job depending on it.
I sense myself being ‘up’ again. Like I’ve just scuppered all the good work in the park I did to ground myself. Though the high feels good, I instinctively know it’s not. It’s not sustainable, and it’s not healthy.
“Ground, ground,” I tell myself urgently. Down the trunk. Down into the cool, dark earth. Must ground. Words have a power, but I need something stronger. I’m in the city now: there’s no trees to monkey around on. What then? I think of the gym at my hotel and lock my sights on it. A physical workout would do me the world of good. I know it. I will it.
Walking posthaste in the direction I assume my hotel to be, I notice I’m touching my neck, patting my head and making strange noises. Because something doesn’t feel right. And something tells me these things will help. My mind is like a gyroscope spinning too slowly on a table top; wobbling erratically and shifting precariously close to the edge. I’m manic, but to those passing I probably sound like I’m shadow boxing. I don’t care; like Rocky “all I wanna do is go the distance”. To my hotel, that is. Is that too much to ask?
The huffing and panting is helping somewhat. What isn’t, is continually getting my phone out to punch in new ‘notes’. I seem to have metatronic scribe in me that’s determined to record every last detail of my experience (or my thought-stream accompanying it, at least). I think it’s partly a defence mechanism. That or Mark Twain is here in spirit, egging me on.
Remembering similar bouts of writing in the past, usually when I was depressed, I knew it helped me disassociate from and decipher my experiences. Everything becomes ‘a story’, albeit often one of asininity and tedium (my sincere apologies). Emotions, though raw, can be placed at a distance; taken less seriously.
But right now, greater disassociation is definitely not what I need. I feel some split in my mind I urgently need to seal.
Unfortunately, I do keep writing on my phone, and pay the price. I come to a point—and remember, like a snapshot, the corresponding grey lamp post with black litter bin I’m looking at as it occurs—where I don’t know if I can keep a handle on it anymore, and know, if I can’t, I’m for the asylum. Pure panic sets in.
It’s that serious. I’m losing my mind. The panic swells still further, threatening to wash me right away like the floods of Calgary’s previous summer. The spectre of my imminent internment, a ghoul now caterwauling through my mind. But that only makes matters worse, so I nip the image in the bud as best I can by telling myself that. Add to that, a good dose of heavy breathing. Panting. Rocky in his final round.
I know that being in the body is vital. No one teaches you this shit: you’ve just got to try things. Probably having a few bad trips in the past (and recovering myself from them) helps a lot (or hinders, depending on your viewpoint): I have a map of sorts. Focusing on breathing helps most of all. They always start off yoga classes talking about the breath, don’t they. I try some Uggji breathing (translated as “victorious”), achieved, if I remember correctly, by gently constricting the opening of the throat to create some resistance to the passage of air. To passersby I must no longer sound like Rocky, but Darth Vader. I don’t care: victory will be mine (evil hands-clasped-over-mouth voice).
I recall that remembering I’m at the very centre of my experience also helps. The axis mundi. Egoic perhaps, but useful. All perception looks out. I therefore have power to control it. However, I need a mind for this to work. To steer the ship away from event horizon. And mine right now is sinking, and but for heavy breathing, rudderless.
I am eager to keep recording my experience, and have the bright idea to use voice memos instead of written ‘notes’. I still have to really focus on my breathing, but it’s much better; one hand holding my cellphone close to my mouth, eyes free to look about. I come to another crossing and quieten my huffing and clicking sounds (my latest vocal strategy at this point) as I wait for the lights to change. I have to keep moving though: shifting my weight from foot to foot helps, but it’s not enough. I need the gym.
Noticing there aren’t actually any cars coming, and despite knowing J-walking could land me a hefty fine, I cross. No one else does. But they’re robots, remember, and this is an emergency. I briefly imagine the scenario of being stopped by a police officer and having to explain why exactly I was breaking the law, but it only serves to further my unease.
On the other side, still waiting for the lights to change, I pass a man with beady eyes, short gelled hair, wearing a smart checkered shirt and grey trousers. He’s carrying a clip board in one hand and checking his phone in the other. He looks crisp, ordered and serious. My god, I think, the mind—such a prison!
Seconds later I pass a girl with pink hair, baggy jeans, a tattoo on her neck, who’s smiling at whatever was streaming through her headphones—a total contrast to the man. Despite her rough look, I relate to her more in this moment of mania, marking her ‘better’ and ‘freer’: imagining she’s ‘happier’ than the man. (or at least, more aligned with the natural chaotic flow of things).
I notice a delightful display of flowers set in a large square container on the concrete paving. Ohhh, lovely red flowers, I say to myself, halting my march to the gym, pocketing my phone and going to sit beside them. Wouldn’t you? Stopping there to appreciate them in that moment feels like a natural response to being alive. So too does stroking the petals of the flower closest and cooing veneration. They’re just delightful. I am sure they appreciate the attention, though unlike most people, don’t need it to feel good about themselves.
“Come back, Sir,” I imagine saying to the man I’d passed, “Put down your clipboard and discover this oasis in your concrete city sprawl”. Perhaps I look crazy sitting here speaking to some flowers. I don’t care; I need to. To me, ignoring them would have been insanity. If I was crazy, I think, then madness—as society defines it—is a blessing of sorts. Bring it on…
I then picture myself, arms outstretched as I wait for my wrists to be handcuffed (you’ll be lucky, it’s a straight jacket for you, son), and my heart goes out to all those in the world incarcerated in mental asylums—just sensitive souls most of them, I imagine. Or people who’ve stepped outside prevailing social paradigm, and merely spook the ‘normal’ people.
Actually, don’t ‘bring it on’, I decide a second later, retracting my imagined outreached arms. I’ve no idea what I’m talking about, and I need to fix my mind. I mentally unshackle my wrists, undo the leather straps like Houdini, and quickly set off again.
Another wave of panic comes, tsunami strength. Can I fix this, or have I stepped too far this time? I wonder, worried. Very worried. I’m well aware I have just two choices at this point: get sectioned for a while, or bring myself back from the brink. I draw a deep breath, grab the panic in a bear hug, suffocating it, then stab it with a series of sharp and stealthy breaths for good measure—die, die, die! I can’t let it knock the next domino. Behind it is a neatly ordered line of other ones leading straight to the main entrance of Calgary’s mental hospital. Dominos eager for their chance to tumble and knock the next one. No, I won’t let that happen. I’m a Rocky-Vader hybrid. Rasping, hissing - anything that returns me to my body.
Remembering either you control your mind or it controls you, I plug the leaks in the vessels hull, and command myself, “You will get through this. The gym will help.” (I will win this fight. I will command this Universe.)
There’s about six blocks to go. I’m walking along part of the main shopping street in downtown. I pass a bar and wonder if a beer might help. Or a Big Mac. I rarely eat at Maccy D’s. It’s an abomination, but one that’s helped me a few times in the past. Either when I felt depressed and needed my emotions numbed by a nutritionless sugar and fat high, or when I felt terrible physically for some reason and needed something worse than the toxins already afflicting me to perk me up (a Chinese friend told me once that in their traditional medicine they sometimes fight poison with poison. Made perfect sense in this case). I keep walking. The gym was the better, healthier option. And if I did eat a Happy Meal or drink alcohol and it didn’t work I wouldn’t be able to go to the gym, not with my bloated belly—then what the hell would I do?!
Four blocks to go. Maybe it’s the coffee, I think, rocking from foot to foot as I wait at another set of lights. I remember Perks and how I’d been shaking an hour after drinking it. The bastards, I asked for weak one. Perhaps all this is just a caffeine rush and I’ve no reason to worry. I’m not used to drinking coffee. Perhaps it’ll soon wear off…
Nice try, but no; something’s not right. Must… get… to… gym.
Three blocks to go. Even recording my voice is too much now. I decide to put my phone away and concentrate on getting better. I adhere to that for the next two blocks, focusing instead on my breathing, and by some miracle, a minute later I feel kind of ok. Like something in my head had clicked back into place. There’s always a way back, I tell myself most relieved, smug even, which is a little ironic because I then realise I’m a little lost; my hotel isn’t where I thought it would be. I ask someone and they point the way. Another three blocks to go. Fuck.
Waiting to cross the last set of lights, my hotel now in view, I’m feeling pleasantly ecstatic, but in a balanced way. So much so that I get my phone out and start recording a new voice memo: I’m back. What a trip!
It does feel a little like a ‘trip’. Whether backpacking through some foreign land, or taking a heroic dose of psychedelics, I suspect both are inner journeys really. And if either are wild enough, you never feel the same person afterwards.
I’ve put my phone away again and am looking at the passing cars, then at two girls waiting to cross beside me. I notice I’m not observing in the same manner I was before. Through judgement that is. I see a big truck belching fumes, but it’s ok. That technological expression is just where we are at as a species, I think. I don’t find the girls attractive, but that’s ok too. I’m not making it all mean something. I’ve dropped the story of poor old me in the wrong place with the wrong people in a world that’s going to shit. I feel less… alienated, and more accepting. I feel less of an arsehole, even. (Miracles do happen).
As the lights change, however, a voice inside counters: if you just accepted everything we wouldn’t make any changes in the world. All the ills and suffering would go unchallenged.
A mental debate ensures, which foolishly I indulge.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP!” I finally say, and luckily screech to a cerebral halt.
I see clearly the game of divide and conquer I’d been drawn into, am always drawn into, and how ‘thinking’ had spun me out again. Damn, not out of the woods yet, then. That mental switch that had flicked to normal just minutes earlier, had just un-flicked. Double damn. A frightening fissure is there in my mind again, and like the crew aboard a spaceship that had ventured too close to a blackhole (or Blackpool, as spellcheck tried to correct) I felt it’s menacing vacuousness.
“Go to the gym and sweat, sweat, SWEAT!” I order myself, practically running past reception to get to my room. Taking the stairs, not the lift—fearing I might forever tumble into that world of mirrors in there.
In my room I’m finally able to let rip. Well, into a pillow, at least. But the moment for yowls and yawps has passed, and I’m just left feeling light headed and even less stable. I quickly get changed into my gym attire, as if scrambling away from the edge of some scree-fringed ravine. I decide to leave my phone (ultimately my journal) in my room: I need a proper break from it. From the constant observations and running commentary. From thinking my self-indulgent wittering bears any significance.
The gym is on the same floor as my room and just at end of the corridor. Cardio is what I need, and I need to go hard. Aside from a bench press and some dumbbells I give a cursory glance, there are three running machines and a stepper. I’m not so keen on running, unless it’s uphill (probably something symbolic in that), so I hop on the latter and thumb the ‘START’ button firmly, like a postal clerk to an almost-dry finger moistener, desperate not to have to lick another stamp and remembering that episode of Seinfeld where a character is poisoned after licking the flap of too many gummed envelopes.
“Ten minutes,” I spit through clenched teeth. That’s how long I set for the initial workout, and the minimum before I can retrieve my phone.
Look, I begin by telling myself, you took yourself there, to the metaphorical edge, so you can jolly well bring yourself back… ok?
I continue to coach, coax and encourage myself for the next few minutes. It feels good to speak to myself in a playful, supportive and kindly manner for once. This time it’s my own voice.
I start counting upwards from zero, thinking this might help. It does at first, when I’m focusing on the sound of each number rather than it’s significance. But at around 50 I have the fruit-loop idea that there may be a number that would act like a trigger, and if I said it, would turn me instantly insane. I get to 84 before I stop for fear of this happening.
I laugh. What else can I do? Cry?!
I find there are certain places I can look that are more settling than others. Like at the door. Or at a painting on the wall. The colours and contours of the oils are calming; a vivid snapshot of some landscape from one person’s perspective. Calming that is, until I start thinking about it. What is there to think about? Well, how it differs from the actual scene it depicts; how perception creates reality; and (god help me) what is real?
Can’t you just enjoy it for what it is: a piece of art? Hmm, I do tend to over-think.
Yes, stop! You meaning-making machine, you!
I return to my breathing, on pounding out steps, at looking at the door, but not counting.
“Hallelujah!” I bawl at the ten minute mark, jumping from the stepper and bounding a-chortle down the corridor. Not a second before ten minutes mind, however much I wanted to.
Take your time, I tell myself walking back to the gym from my room, trusty phone in hand. Don’t turn it on till you’re back inside. Drink a glass of water. Breath deeply three times. Exercise for another 20 minutes. I notice I’m creating all these little rules to give me structure. And seeing it’s importance in helping me recover my schism-scissored, schnitzel-fried, torn-a-sunder mind, I suddenly understand, and somewhat accept, people’s need for control (entrenched thought of the rigid, and usually conservative kind, being something that tends to rile me enormously. My own being exempt from disdain, of course.).
Everyone’s just a whisker from a walk in Willie Wonka land, I think. Perhaps part of them knows it. Yes, I now have a new respect for the inflexibility of some folk (I think of clipboard guy. My eldest brother. My father). Order serves a purpose.
The trouble is, too far into that grey camp of dogma and rationality, and things like playfulness or compassion are denied. Only things that can be counted or measured matter. And a little chaos, instead of being celebrated, is a threat.
I picture a rainforest. A great cathedral of shimmering, virgin forest. And I see one reason they’re razed to the ground. Yes, short-term gain (profit), of course. But people fear nature’s untamed chaos. The need to replace it with something ordered: neat rows of oil palms in the ground and profit figures on a spreadsheet.
Yes, a little bit of insanity is good, I think, passing the eighteen minute mark. The system needs a shake-up sometimes.
From images of Amazon, I’ve drifted my river. The one I’d sat by earlier. The spiralling eddies, the play of light and shadow, the determined flow.
The clip-board guy comes to mind, and the girl with pink hair. But now I’m seeing them as two sides of the same coin. One not being any ‘better’ than the other. Each containing a part of the other. Each needing the other to exist.
That’s better, Dom. A more balanced view. Less black and white.
“Equanimity,” I say aloud, a few times. For no other reason than it feels good to do so.
I’d been recording my thoughts (oh, precious thoughts) since I’d returned to the gym. I have to speak slowly, leaving lots of pauses because each time I speak I feel myself going high and spinning out—my good work to ground being undone. But it’s good to be expressing myself audibly, as opposed to scribbling things down, or prodding my little phone keypad, as was most often the case. Writing that way I can never keep up with my surging thoughts. They often bottleneck at the finger tip or pen nib, coagulating into frustration, streaming faster still just to rile me. Now I’m collecting and labelling voice memos like little sputum samples. Neatly contained globules of thought-bile to inspect at some later date. Yes, indeed: yuk. Self-indulgent yukkiness.
I open a new ‘memo’ now and try to regurgitate some of what I’d experienced in the first ten minutes when, oh horror, I didn’t have my phone. I’m enjoying the sound of my voice. Not in some proud puffed up way. But because it’s gentle, soft and reassuring. I wonder how many years I’d spoken harshly to myself, when this began, and why. But I’m not foolish enough in this moment to pursue the question. For now, it’s like being handed a crushed ice all-natural lemonade after being locked in the boot of a car as a cruel joke, and driven through some desert.
“Jesus, insanity is incredible!” I proclaim to the painting on the wall, feeling a rush of aliveness. 23 minutes in, 7 minutes to go. It is like coming out the other side of a bad trip—elated, invigorated and… hugely relieved I’m not dead or sectioned. Feeling like you’ve really… journeyed through something. Somehow true mental illness seems less of a possibility now. Like I’d given myself a shot of dead ‘insanity’ cells to build my resistance. I can’t tell if I’m truly out of the woo-woo woods yet, though.
25 minutes, 45 seconds. Not long now. The sweat feels pleasantly cool upon my skin, as it’s designed to do, I guess.
27mins, 10 seconds. One thing I know is I am a good guy.
I’m not sure where the thought arose from, but it feels novel.
27mins, 25 seconds. I have a character and type of intelligence which is my own.
A pause, emotion welling up.
27mins, 35 seconds. I’m glad of how I am.
Nothing more follows. Just a sonic boom of sorts, reverberating through me. Then an inner silence, and even that isn’t really there, so to speak. But within it—within this no-thing—something stirs. My feet pound out steps, more gently, and the machine hisses and rocks with my motion. I close my eyes…
I’m kneeling somewhere. It’s perfectly flat, and as dark and hard as black tourmaline crystal. Upon this ground I rest, there’s a grey grid-type pattern, thin lines stretching off at right-angles to one another, seemingly forever. A few meters away, lines curve smoothly down into what resembles a giant sinkhole. I edge closer, hands feeling for where the ‘ground’ looses it’s flatness and begins to arch away. There, at the lip, I stop. My eyes follow some of the lines on the far side as they plummet vertically down and disappear. It’s too dark to see far down the hole, but I sense it’s depth. I sense the nothingness that way.
Something stirs down there, mute and out of sight. I know it.
Staring into the void. I wait.
“I’m proud of who I am,” I whisper again.
Then... “I love you.”
Something sparks suddenly, and the grid lines pulse and brighten, green like phosphorescent water breaking on a shore. The grid takes form.
Suddenly I’m in the middle of a frozen lake. No, a river. Still kneeling.
I can’t see it, but I know the void is still there; beneath or within this new scene. Instinctively I stand and walk a few paces forward. There—above it now.
All is icy-white and still. Still, till those last few words I’d whispered ring out again like some oddly delayed echo. They strike my mind like a brass clapper to a church bell, and penetrate every nook and cranny of my mortal nave. Resounding.
Then, something plummets through me and strikes the ice. Celeritous cracks radiate out in all directions with creaking, popping sounds.
Was that the first time in my life I’ve said such a thing? I wonder.
28 minutes, 30 seconds. There’s a vortex in my solar plexus, building, churning, swirling. I know I’m about to fall into the icy water beneath my feet. Or that abyss I’d peered into in whatever striped-down reality I was in before.
Am I crying?
Something in the deep hears the echo of my words. Crystals fragment, the ice creaks. Something in that hidden void rushes upwards and speaks…
“I love you.”
An instant after, the ice gives way and I plunge into the river. I brace myself, gasping. But there’s no splash. No coldness. Instead I find myself floating, suspended in a turquoise-tinged fog, breathing comfortably, or not needing to. The soft light of day penetrates through the fractured ice from above. All is quiet again.
Then, before me, emerging from the haze, figures appear… faces I recognise. Friends. Then family members. Then past girlfriends. Women that were in my life a while, trying to touch and awaken something in me. I see it now. There’s one that lingers. Patricia. I’d met her in the cold meat section of a supermarket in London. I smiled remembering that. We were together two years on and off. Myself always initiating the ‘off’.
She’s looking at me now, with her big brown eyes. Undeniably it’s love that shines there. I’d always doubted it.
She’s looking at a boy who’s confused and afraid. Unwilling to open, but at once, so desperately wanting to.
She turns away from the boy, from me, her image fades.
My myopic mind is pretty quiet for the last minute of the workout. The exercise was the antibiotic I needed: I’m feeling better. When the display hits “30:00” it scrolls “3min cool down” and I say, “ok”. It’s nice to just roll with it; not resist for once; or stick to a plan.
The last ten seconds are like a count down to a rocket launch. I step off the machine in near zero-gravity; feeling light, legs numb and jelly-like. Free of thought. “Hallelujah Houston!” Free of thought.
Back in my room I collapse on my bed, letting the sheets soak up the last half-hour’s good work. A shower can wait. After the mental turmoil of the week—that day in particular—it’s exquisite to finally be still, and a relief to be in one piece. Like a struck tuning fork, I lay there shivering with delight.