“When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many of the things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land; he must abandon the old ideals and the old gods…”
—Jack London, “In a Far Country”
Sleep is like an ex-lover, dark-haired and more alluring than ever, who leaves you brief phone messages, sends you elliptical love letters, but when you’re near her pretends you’ve never met—no, worse—fingers you as the madman who has stalked her from spring to fall. It’s as if you’ve been ordered to keep a distance from her of at least a continent. You resort to calling her in frantic bellows, in wails of desperation, from the other side of the world.
Your wife and your daughters and the woman with the rope-like ponytail of red hair who delivers your mail and the students who fill your fall classes dressed as if you’d promised to lecture on a beach—you look at them all in stunned amazement at their happiness, which you define as anything less unbearable than the abominable torment in your head and heart.
Your sanity is a shore you’re seeing from the hold of a ship speeding over gray water toward a black horizon.
Every afternoon, and every evening, and all day on days you don’t teach, you find yourself in your living room, prostrate on a Guatemalan rug, your fragile life raft.
Your brain is a spectacular confusion, like intersecting frequencies from the radio stations of a dozen countries. Beneath the static, you hum the insistent, melancholy notes of an SOS.
Your wife offers you her hand, pulls you to your feet, steers you to the door, the car, the hospital.
Because of the noise on the fourth floor, you cannot hear who’s on the phone. When, at last, you recognize your wife, you are interrupted by wails from the quiet room—Megan again—and by the nurse’s call of nighttime meds. You answer your wife’s questions like someone learning English, a “no” here, a “yes” there, and pauses like black holes, the words you might once have spoken swirling into oblivion.
The food is its own exotic cuisine, each meal, delivered on pale green trays, more spectacular than the last in blandness. On the other hand, you doubt you could distinguish caviar from cardboard, your taste buds having foresworn pleasure. Indeed, all of your senses have become ascetics, monks who pass their days in dark caves staring at cold walls.
I will never be who I was. I am the breathing dead.
In your anxiety, the group gathered around the gurney doesn’t appear to you foreign so much as fantastic: the nurse with pockmarks as profound as craters of the moon;
the administering doctor with the smile of a neighbor who waves hello to you every morning and keeps bodies in his basement; the anesthesiologist who speaks in the mellifluous yet menacing tones of a casino host indifferent to how fast you’re going broke. “You’ll feel a pinch and I want you to go to sleep.”
When you wake, you are sure you have lost everything, if you could only remember what it all was.
After your third electroshock, Leah, who is sixteen and dreams of slashing a saber across her wrists, hands you a novel and says, “I bet you’re ready now.” You’ve written two books, but in the past few months you haven’t been able to read anything more exacting than basketball scores. Yet after you settle with the book in a sunlit corner of the dayroom, you find yourself following sentences, paragraphs, and pages into the deep, familiar pleasures of a world so well imagined it’s real.
The next morning in the ward’s gray hallway, you rush up to Leah like an exuberant six-year-old or a middle-aged graduate of a literacy class: “I can read! I can read!”
After your sixth electroshock, Leah invites you to watch a movie. She jokes about the Big Screen, a computer monitor as small as her hand. There’s a rueful metaphor here about how you’ve been diminished, but you’re happy to be a Pigmy as long as your pain is proportional. The film is a love story. You sob at the happy ending, stunned to realize it might still be yours.
A week after your eighth, and final, electroshock you and Leah sit in the cafeteria, its long, narrow windows offering a view, behind unbreakable glass, of the George Washington Bridge, lighted for the coming holiday. “You’re going home,” she says. “It’s your time.” She clutches your hand, as if to assure you, as if to give you strength. Cars fly across the luminous bridge. Smiling, you count them like sheep in the prologue to a dream.
Your dream is only as modest, and as impossible, as seeing your front door open in welcome. But here you are, stepping inside.