This happened because I am unprofessional.
I never buy notebooks: I have a pile of empty, thirteen-quid Moleskines given to me by people have given me for ten birthdays now.
Last April I was sent to Veracruz, eastern Mexico, on a story. The content doesn’t matter: the story was spiked because being sent to Veracruz, eastern Mexico, on a story is like being sent to the Bermuda Triangle on a diving expedition.
What matters is the time of year: April, when the white, space-cancelling winter fogs are beginning to thin and vanish. The road from Mexico City swung in wide curves through colourless nothingness. I was thought-free all the way, lost in driver trance, but the day’s date itched at the back of my skull: April 15. A celebrity birthday, probably - or an ignored deadline.
I stayed in Córdoba. The day’s rain had the main square shining like a rink. Families strolled through the lead-colored Sunday evening light. From the bandstand came cheap, violin-led dance music strapped to a thudding beat, urgent bass that sounded like want. Unexpected uplift: shapes like candied fireworks traced the violin sounds through a thrilled hot darkness in my chest. I felt the indent of a memory just beyond reach: sickly, heavy as wet sugar, an overindulged feeling. I saw a red spindle of light turning in clouds of dry ice. I checked my inbox for why April 15 mattered. I remembered everything.
That all happened almost a year ago. The process begun that evening is nearly over now. At my elbow I can see the stack of pages grow thinner. I winnow the pile into a bin-bag. My friend Fernanda is building landscapes out of them. She wants them to look like a ruined city beside an ash beach. Every week I bring her more. Her cat nests in the excess shreds. She kicks the latest sackful.
“Daddy issues,” I tell her.
“Heavy,” she says.
April 15 is my father’s birthday. When I finally looked at my mother’s message, after checking in, I saw that she had written to remind me of this.
“An email would be the best birthday present he could ask for,” she had said.
I wouldn’t send one. I didn’t reply. Too late, anyway: it was already the day after back home.
After dinner with my fixer I went to bed.
I’m dating a medical student. Twenty. Too young, even by the half-your-age-plus-seven rule, and by other signs, too. The moon tattoo on her shoulder-blade, for example, is like innocence etched for good on her skin. Every time the medical student hoiks off her top I catch a cloud of her pH-neutral deodorant and it smells like youth, hope, chances not yet spurned.
The day after, I picked up the fixer in my jeep and drove out to meet our source in Tierra Blanca, a major stop-off on the northbound human and migrant trafficking routes. I’d been warned not to expect much. As we crossed the rail tracks towards the migrant shelter, he warned me again. I parked outside the low, squat shelter and its broken-glass-topped wall, gave the fixer my business card, and he went inside. I got out my new notebook and cracked the spine. Except its spine had been worked supple: I’d grabbed an old one instead. When I looked inside I knew the date by the wine-stains that had softened the pages and bled their ink. Summer 2011, the last time I had spoken to my father. Where the letters were legible they looked like a collapsed fire escape made of black metal. The leaked, run letters looked like broken piping: the sight of them filled my nose with the sulphur smell of old plumbing. The shock drained down through me, cold and slow.
The door opened again. My fixer emerged, shaking his head, looking rueful, and now my shock was at this sudden, straight flame of hate in me. Somehow this as his fault. I shut my eyes, breathed in hard through my nose, past the broken-pipe odor.
“I did say not to expect much,” the fixer said, defensive. “Perdón, eh.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know. Perdonado.”
I got a kill fee on the story and drove through mountains like broken teeth as far as Coatepec, where the fog is coldest and thickest. My hotel windows looked like blank pages. With my penknife I reefed out the first fifty-odd pages, up to the part where my father and I stopped talking. Then I began to read.
I hide at the medical student’s apartment a lot. My place is closer to the Centro, so the water comes out warmish from my taps and makes me think of pipes bundled and coiled in entrail-shapes deep in the body of the city. Further south, where the medical student lives, the water spits out white and cold and numbs the core of your teeth when you rinse your mouth. I shut my eyes over the sink, see mountain freshets, green university acres rolling away towards white sun and empty skies. I stand for ages in her shower, washing my hair again and again, watching the flocculent white suds swirl out of sight, and that is how I would like to go, too.
I did well in university. It was my way of making up for the uselessness of my degree: a four-year-long apology written in achievements. I wasn’t happy in university: the sense of privilege all around was like a constant pumice abrasion against me. I have the whole period edited down to as few memory frames as possible: how the cobblestones looked like mussel-shells in the swirling mud and rain; the toffee-colored tiles of the Arts Block; the windowless, striplit tutorial rooms. I started to drink heavily after my first big academic prize came through. Wine was the chosen fuel: I could get two bottles under and still be able to read and think. To hide the smell I ate an entire tablespoonful of peanut butter on its own before classes. I smoked rollies until the whorls of my fingertips went dun, loving the cruise-speed feeling of booze and nicotine in my blood. I wrote a bad novel at the time as a kind of psychological Kleenex. I recall keeping the bottles in my room, to piss in, when the world was too blurry to move through. When my family called to visit we would meet somewhere else off-campus.
This was how we fell apart.
I stayed at the medical student’s place all last weekend. I didn’t expect to, but her apartment is all neat lines, dim wattage, varnish-color sunlight through wood blinds, like the cover of a book, and I couldn’t leave. She didn’t care much, since all I really did was sit at her kitchen table with a stack of old pages reefed out of my diaries from the time I stopped talking to my father. I picked up old tatters, scried the mad ink tangles, tried to join them together.
“You’re writing,” said the medical student. “That’s so nice!” She was in her taekwondo gear. Her parents are rich. There is a gym room in her apartment.
The medical student represents Mexico in taekwondo. That’s not a niche interest: it’s like the third sport here, and they televise it. One of the medical student’s Facebook photos is her at a competition, her leg raised vertical towards the audience. There are cameras: a phosphor seethe of flashbulbs at the rim of the photo. She’s facing the other way, eyes aimed nonchalant out of the frame. Onwards, forwards, all that. She can do that.
“I love words,” she said. “But I can only do sentences - phrases, little joined-up chains of words sometimes. Nothing finished. The thought breaks. The light goes out. You know?”
During one visit, at a pub, where I slugged down two Carlsbergs before lunch arrived, I remember my father biting the edge of his finger trying to hide how he felt about how I looked one morning. I was ashen, having vomited into two different bins on my way to meet them. I was coming to the end of final year, and it looked like I was going to get another big academic prize. But I’d also missed all of the deadlines for the kind of university I should have been applying for. Even if my family had been able to afford them, the word burnout had started to hover in the air, with its sharp yellow smell like the noise of a lightbulb filament about to snap.
I talked vaguely and quickly about moving to Prague after graduating.
“To do what?”
“I think I want to do nothing for a while.” My voice has a plea in it.
“You can’t do nothing. We all have to earn a living. That’s how the world works.”
I order another pint when the waitress swoops in for my empty glass.
“It’s one o’clock, Tim.”
“I got up early. What are you drinking?”
Da indicates forlornly his failed tea, his acrid coffee. “Not impressed so far,” he says. “Perhaps some water!” The hope is bright in his voice. “They can’t mess up water, can they?”
“Spirochetes,” I say.
When my final grades came in they were very high. I did end up going to Prague, but not to live. I went with my father. It was like his pat on the back for getting through.
Only then did I run away.
Escape is a tactic in my family going back to when one of my uncles made a break for Spain at the age of 19. He isn’t Irish anymore. He’s ruddy and effusive and his English is deckle-edged with Spanish sounds: short vowels, percussive consonants, long ‘s’-runs that turn whole sentences into one breath.
After I ran away, to Barcelona, I took the train all the way cross-country to Extremadura to see him, through landscapes smooth as a seabed: worn-down Armorican foldings.
When I get there we drink for days. Kevin’s teenage years come blooming up.
“Your father helped me,” he said. “Helped me so much.”
He showed me a photo on his phone: himself in 1980. Skinny leather tie, feathered Hall & Oates hair. He looks up at the camera with a sceptical, pursed mouth and cagey eyes.
“Imagine trying to get away with that in your grandfather’s house,” Kevin tells me. “No hitting - just a lot of silences. I would come into the kitchen and he would stop talking. Really obvious stuff like this - addressing me through my sisters. ‘Tell your brother to do this, tell your brother not to do that’, this kind of thing. Someone told your dad this was getting to me. He had moved out by then, was married to your mother. He brought me for a drive one day. I don’t remember that we said much. At one point, out of nowhere, he said to me: ‘It’s OK to hate your father’. He turned in his seat like he was checking had I heard him. Then he dropped me home. I knew I could run away then.”
On the table lay a plate of that dark local ham. Blackfoot pigs fed on acorns. Calcium traces stay in the meat: white dents like comets.
Prague by night though the aeroplane window was an orange spill shaped like protozoa.
“This is how we look to God,” I slurred to my da, who frowned.
“Never heard of him,” he says.
“Do you want another sandwich?” I said to my da. “I can arrange that. Anything you want. It’s all on me. Pringles, Kinder Bueno, a fucking Choc-Ice, if it’s on the flight trolley it’ll be in your gob soon as kiss hands, my friend!”
Benzos only kind of work on me, I was discovering. My pulse was still a flutter. My lungs seemed to fill only half the way up.
Down, now, through clouds like fiery wool. My gut lurches
“The spirochetes in Prague are huge,” says my da. “It’s in Kafka. Probably.”
One night on the trip, coming from a bar, while Da’s sleeping, I bucket up dark red sick and think it’s blood. But then I see black threads: stomach lining, meaning the red isn’t blood but sugar. My liver is a dark bruise feeling mid-torso. I lean my head on the cold rim of the bowl. My hangover has already begun: a heat in the skull like fruit rotting. I have a licked-battery taste on my tongue.
I fell asleep on the medical student’s couch one of the nights I stayed there. I’d been watching Chinatown. When I woke the DVD player had stopped and gone back to the TV. A nature documentary was on. I watched a heron stoop and dabble in clear water. Once it brought up a moss chunk, which it shook and tossed aside. The water shaken free looked like drops of light.
My uncle showed me around his whole region. I wanted to inhale his words about how he had gotten there: I needed a manual for getting out and staying out. “Basically Vegas for the Romans,” he told me when we visited the wrecked amphitheater outside his town. The undersea look of ruined stone, the empty sockets where marble plating was tugged free and sold. Deep in the wreck, where gladiators waited for their bouts, the air was cold, heavy, and smelled vaguely of rivers.
We drive to a museum. Through the car window I could see grass the colour of oxides and sulphides - dry, dusty pigments.
The museum floor was plate glass over an old temple floor. I thought of coral. In the rows of coins I saw how the dynastic noses and chins swapped across generations. One explanatory text said how alcohol was used to clean some of them, a clear burn that seared away black dirt scabs, patina. Under alcohol everything shows through bare and stark. In the floor I watched the caught reflections of clouds crumble in over the hills.
Next room over held a statue of Aeneas. His son hadn’t made it through - his right arm ended in a broken stub - but his father remained, battened tight to his back. I can remember Aeneas’ stricken, noseless face and his heavy kilt made of small, ticket-stub-shaped chevrons of stone etched with gods’ faces. I couldn’t figure the caption out: “The statue is believed to have survived because of hidden structural imperfections in the ruin where it was located.” All the time held in the statue’s stone pores breathed out cold around me.
At some point my uncle suggested another drink. When we pulled in at a wine bar the clouds had darkened, swagging low and volcanic over the hills. While we drank I looked at the rib of black stone that arced across the hills. I thought of the skeletons of whales.
We drank to that point where ‘too much’ circles back to ‘just enough.’
“ ‘It’s OK to hate your father’,” I said to my uncle. “Big words.”
“Yes, but only mine,” he jokes. “Yours is OK.”
I remember that in Prague the TV blarted an endless static phrase at us from its white screen. Flicking the channels we found a quiet channel across which jerked thin bands of white.
“You can kind of make out a footballer through the snow,” said my da.
“Cut in slices, though.”
“Do you want to go back to the salt mines again, is it?”
I pictured the salt miners in the blue mica-glinting caverns, pictured their hands’ seams whitening with ingrained salt, pictured the salt coating their fingers until they were blue ingrained salt
“Nah, man,” I said. “They felt very literal.” My tongue is fat with benzos and my thoughts are treacly.
Da frowns and paws the air. “Me book.” I hand it to him. We read. Well, he reads. I take the words in, but thoughtlessly, as if they were so many bytes in data transfer. I hear my own brain make the light gritting noise of a hard drive. Soon I’m not even reading, instead just letting my eyes skate over the white gaps between words, like so many frozen lakes. Where my eyes catch on phrases, I find myself fraying them. The day greys. This grey daze. My grade A’s. After a while there are only analogies and riffs with no memory of their source, and there is the sound of my father’s breath slowing as he dozes, and my worry about when he will die.