When I returned to school I did not go back to my dorm. Rather, I walked slowly up the almost deserted paths of Brandeis to the top of the hill that dominates the campus. The buildings and trees seemed ghostly and derelict in the electric light. Its not that there
was no one about, but the palpable sense of emptiness suffused the campus. The paths were paved in a moist layer of dying leaves. All the pictures of the school show it in spring, when the trees are rich with foliage and the flowers and bushes are in full bloom. But that is only a tiny portion of the year that we spend here among the bare skeletons of the oaks and elms.
From the Castle that dominates Brandeis’ campus, all of Boston and its suburbs are spread out, the skyline twinkling on the horizon. I watched the glow of the iconic Citgo sign slowly cycling its way next to the Prudential building. Its neon brilliance seemed curiously out of place to me.
As a child, I always wanted visit the base of the sign, to see where it lived. For a long time, I thought that Citgo was the city’s real name. From my home and from the river, the red triangle seemed to hover over the cityscape, independent and above it. I still want to go it every night, launch myself from the top of the castle and soar over the woods and roads and homes. But that is for a different reason.
I stub out my cigarette – I only ever smoke at the top of the hill, leaning on the fire escape of the Castle. I don’t know why, although maybe its so the exercise makes me feel less guilty. Smoking down amongst the buildings and classes of campus it feels dirty. At the top of a stone tower at night it feels lonely and noble, like a sentry burning the night away in the red cherry cupped in his hands.
I stop in the library on the way home to look up Finland in the Encyclopedia. Actually the Wikipedia, because who bothers with paper books anymore? I find that “Finnish is one of the few European languages not of Indo-European origin.” I guess that means the Finn spoke a language nobody but Lapps and Nokia officials could understand. That’s an immensely depressing thought.
I also find that Finland is the world capital of cellphones, with 103% cell phone ownership. That 3% is puzzling. One has to wonder what would compel someone to own multiple phones that way. In my imagination, the only people who need them are the double agents in gangster films who call their Mafioso bosses on one phone and their police bosses on the other. I have a hard time imagining the Finnish mafia. What would they fight over? Snow? Reindeer? Maybe cell phones.
Also, Finland was invaded by Russia. Five times. That has to be enough to make anyone depressed. I try to imagine fighting a war in a frozen arctic landscape of ice and fir trees, but my imagine fails me. In my mind, wars are hot, brutal, and steamy, like Vietnam, or urban nightmares like World War II and Kosovo. The thought of waiting for frostbite and pneumonia to cripple your adversary is profoundly depressing.
Coming home from Starbuck’s I am dirty. Covered in sweat, shards of coffeebeans and splashes of chocolate and vanilla. I feel like a walking dishrag, studded with all the most disgusting things in the world. Lady Macbeth scrubbed at a black spot on her hands in vain – Starbuck’s partners have to rinse their whole bodies of blacks spots the same way every night.
Today, of course, was a thousand times worse – the feeling that blood was on my hands, on my shirt, on my face. We had never even touched the Finn’s body but the sensation was there. How could I help but feel guilty that a man had stared at himself in the mirror and then blown his brains out less than two yards away from me? The worst was, in the roaring noise of the Starbuck’s, we hadn’t even noticed until a customer had pointed out the door was locked for half an hour. I’m not sure why he locked the door. Was it a sense of privacy? Maybe he didn’t want anyone to walk in unprepared. He was a remarkably neat suicide.
I step into the shower and turn it up as high as it will go. The water feels like a scourge on my skin, and it is good. I can feel layers peeling away, scoured away by the blast. Unexpectedly, I am crying, the tears blurring instantly with the jet of water. I turn my face into the stream to clean away the tears, clean away my face, clean away everything until I am a soft, featureless creature.
With only a little warning, the water becomes icy, shocking me to the bone. Have you ever seen those videos of a seal lying peacefully on an ice floe when suddenly its whole world erupts and a killer whale lands on top of it? That is exactly how I felt. I flailed for the spigot and managed to slam it shut. For a while I stood there, dripping, and then I heave myself out and get ready to go back downtown.
to be continued...