I did time in Norwich. East Anglia. England. My room had a closet for clothes and another closet for the bathroom. The city was ten minutes away from campus by bus, twenty if I ran it.
And I did run, most days. I was there taking classes, and after my modernist fiction seminar, my interwar British history lecture, my writing workshop, I’d strap on my Brooks and be off. My escape, I guess.
Everything was wet there. Green. Lush is the word that comes to mind. The grass was thin and the dirt was dark and grainy. There was a cathedral at the end of a two-mile stretch I used to run around. An honest-to-God stone monster of a church. I tried going inside on one of my runs but found all the doors — the ones I tried — locked.
In town, a keep. Castle, I mean. Set up like a museum. My parents flew over and I took them inside. For the life of me I can’t remember the tour.
I can remember the way the dorms had been built into a sweep-slope of green that cut around a pool or pond, and how I relished morning runs down along the high road that wound above this little valley.
I can also remember one of my six other flatmates having a few of us into his room to watch a Norwich City football match on a pirated internet server.
Another of my flatmates left the flat one afternoon lugging a pair of “American football” shoulder pads. He’d pulled his helmet’s facemask up through the yoke pads’ yoke and used the mask as a handle. There was a Super Bowl party in the student union at three in the morning or some damned time and he asked me why I wasn’t along for it — that is, why I wasn’t going?
“Not a football fan,” I said. “American football, I mean.”
And: “Tired. Early class in the a.m. Sorry.”
Really, the idea of spending four hours with strangers, extroverts — okay: jocks — seemed at that time an impossibility.
The night I arrived: that’s a story.
Off the plane in London; two-hour bus ride north. No food. Arrive at the university admissions office and get a ride from a harried, forty-ish guy with a haircut like a Roman patrician and a fast way of talking that suggests he feels for me the kind of concern one feels for a stranger who’s asking for directions. Nice enough guy, but preoccupied.
A Sunday. Nothing open. The campus centered around a concrete courtyard one descends into via wide concrete steps. The pub at the heart of the courtyard is the only thing open, so I go in, order a packet of crisps and a Stella and take my spoils to a high table, where I sit eating and drinking and answering pub trivia questions flashing across a huge flat screen television in my head.
All that goes into my belly all afternoon, after the meal on the plane, are these chips and this frothy pilsner.
The sports park — basically the campus rec center — is open, and in the dark on my way back to my flat, I see guys playing soccer. Pick-up games, it looks like. At the very least it’s a rec league.
Some background: in the six months or so prior to leaving, I lived at home and attempted to reconnect with my brothers through playing. Every chance I got. Even at varsity team open fields. Started to love the game, the connection it helped me establish, the way it made me look and feel. Had a ball in my car; took the ball out and juggled all the time. Late at night. After work (I served banquet functions at a country club).
I get a guy’s attention. He tells me it’s pay-to-play. I’ve never heard of this before. He tells me it means that for a few quid (hadn’t heard this slang term for Euros before, either), I can get in and maybe then find some guys in need of another player to even out teams.
I go back to my room, change (I brought my boots with me), and head back; I pay inside; I carry my gnarly old Puma ball (brought that, too; had to deflate it to fit it into my bag) out past a darkened field I’ll later learn is a track to the lighted pitch, where eventually I find a game with a group of guys I’ll wind up playing with more or less weekly over the course of my stay.
Postal workers. Man City fans. One fellow came through Arsenal’s academy and actually had a shot to play with the local pro side, the Norwich City Canaries. His boy has a tryout with Arsenal soon, he tells me.
The younger lads in the group, none of whom are this fellow’s son, see me as a weakling. I’m hesitant, half-blind to the game, though I’ve been playing regularly. My touch of the ball is heavy. Later I’ll figure a great deal of my trouble that first night had to do with jet lag.
Which isn’t to say I play utterly hopeless football. I find a goal, make a decent pass. The ball sings across the pitch, some kind of artificial turf that’s been sanded, I guess to accommodate the glide of a field hockey ball. The lights cast a low glow over the pitch, nothing glaring like you get at home, at a Friday-night football game or a night game at PNC or Comerica. It makes everything outside the game seem very distant, even to the point of seeming unreal.
That sense of insularity I experience that first night may have as much to do with the memory’s strength as does what comes later.
In the middle of that same night, I wake up sweating, my gut boiling. It comes up sudsy and green and it burns. Though I remember my mother telling me ages ago, “You’ve got to let it run its course,” I’m so thirsty I can’t help but gorge myself on water from the tap. After which, minutes later, I go through the whole vomiting thing all over again.
Four, five times through. All night.
About this, two things.
First thing: at one point I went into the kitchen. Might have been the next morning. It was a weekend, a Sunday. Some food lay out on the counters. Breads, crisps, that kind of stuff. I might have helped myself. My roommates weren’t even real to me then; it wasn’t stealing. I was hungry. I was alone. Sick.
I knew no one. Not a single person for miles and miles. Imagine that. Can you? No one.
Had I felt desperation like that before? Have I felt desperation like that since?
You’d maybe think I would have called home or tried like hell to get in contact with the guy who dropped me at my flat the day before. You might think I would have felt lost or aching or stupid or even afraid. But I didn’t feel those things. I certainly was not terrified. Philosophically, I knew what I was considering doing was stealing. But I didn’t care. My hunger, and this strange sense that no one would know and I’d never be made to own up to it, kept me insulated from guilt.
I can’t remember specifically what I took. I believe I kept it down, whatever it was.
I didn’t realize it then, but whoever’s food it was that I took — that person helped me. They didn’t know they were doing it.
Others helped, too. They did so knowingly. Many others did. I tried as best I could to show my gratitude. I’m sure I failed in this mostly. But I hope trying was sufficient.
A series of such kindnesses, all offered by relative strangers, sustained me.
A girl gave me an old mobile phone. A flatmate put me up at his home for a night after he and I ventured to London to catch a show. Another talked me through some of my personal doubts.
After I was sick all night my first night in country, the next morning the flat’s housekeeper — a woman who reminded me of Alice from The Brady Bunch — gave me the number of the campus clinic. Did she help me get to the clinic to pick up the antiemetic? No. She seemed reluctant, but not on account of her ambivalence. She didn’t know what to do. She worked very hard (I would come to know this over time) and was paid a pittance, and because of this she carried a strong class-consciousness. Maybe because she had a son herself, or maybe because she couldn’t just leave without doing something, she helped me find the number for the clinic. Somehow I got over there and got what I needed, and by evening time I was feeling much better. I might even have ventured to the pub again for dinner, though assuredly I didn’t do crisps this time — something substantial, like a sandwich.
Over the next six months when she came in to clean she talked to me occasionally about her work and the way she was treated by the university. If she came when I was still asleep or in the bathroom (always she knocked twice and said “Housekeeper!”), she went a cleaned another room and came back. If I was reading or writing, she cleaned quickly and spoke only to ask how I was getting on. I feel sorry of bad about that. I might have done more. But the barrier between us rose higher than I could climb at the time. She was nice. I thanked her, but not enough by far.
One last thing (though I could go on; let’s say one last thing for now):
In the workshop I took during that semester abroad, my fellow scribblers and I read David Foster Wallace’s story about the infant who gets doused with boiling water from a kettle and screams while his parents try to help him. We talked about the story’s omniscient narrator, the breathless sentence structure; when we came to the end of the piece it was decided that the infant died.
I read the ending differently. The way it looked to me, what happens to the infant isn’t death per se; what happens really seems to have to do with him cutting himself off from feeling pain. Rising above himself, is how Wallace describes it. Reads like an ascension of sorts, but I didn’t think it meant death. By separating his mind from his body he is able to rise above himself and the pain of being burned, but he also has to suffer a detached life, going through the motions because the trauma he experienced forced an irreversible split.
There’s something in this that really sums up my entire memory of my time alone while abroad.
In a way it’s like the infant really did die. But in another, truer way, what happened to the infant — that numbing, that dissociation — was much worse. He acts without thinking, goes through the motion. For the rest of his life he does this. Like he’s a husk of a person, empty inside. His entire life boils down to one terse clause at the end of a long Wallaceian sentence: there’s the world, there’s you, there’s your sense of self — and walls between each.