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.