photography by rheagan e. martin
fiction by eric martin
As I look back at that night, it keeps getting worse. At the time things were going so well for me that any setback seemed temporary, like a night of food poisoning. You expect to suffer for a few hours and get over it. You never think it’s going to become a disease.
It’s realizing that you really should have known from the start that makes the memory so painful. You should have known.
This was my second time in London. On my first visit I had stayed just a few days then gone on to Oxford for the summer. That was a long time ago but I remember the summer well.
The air was moist and hot. The grass was clipped to an immaculate, uniform inch. The people looked right past you on the street.
It was not a disappointing summer. My sense of hope was so immense (and even physical) it was like an armor. I could move in it but I couldn’t see very well. I certainly couldn’t see myself.
I stayed in the dorms at one of the older colleges on the campus and read Mark Twain at night, spent the days studying psychology and taking tours. The world in my mind was full of possibility. The real world was also full of possibility but the two worlds were not the same. One was personal.
It wasn’t until years later that the armor I wore that summer fell away. It had to be years because if it had happened sooner I would have died of embarrassment or despair.
I was prepared for neither.
Pictures from that summer show me with a grin, a confidence, a charm and an obvious craving. The charm was what saved me. Only one person gave up on me that summer, the rest smiled along as I pawed at this dream, stirred my own heart up to fever and invited everyone to watch.
I was going to teach the world and be taught and open up my mouth for the Great Utterance…I say this because the grin and the charm were working on me too.
She was from Florida, I remember, and she wasn’t fooled for long. She invited me to her dorm room with another friend to smoke some marijuana out of a makeshift bong. We did and it was fun. But she didn’t ask me again.
I think she looked at me and, stopping for a moment, didn’t hear the interesting things I was so charged up and desperate to say. She heard me knocking against the inside of my armor and she knew the one thing I had no hope of was seeing myself as I actually was.
That came later when I could afford to stop hoping so hard, when embarrassment came to roost for a while. When the door to desperation was opened.
I can see her look now – the still assessment. It was like a door opening for her too, only she was five years ahead of me.
The grin on my face looks so beautiful to me now that it’s like an evil thing. It’s just a mask in the picture, as I see it now, one that I’ve put away. As soon as I saw it for what it was, I put it away.
That is what I thought, anyway. That is why I believed, on this night in London, that I would simply bounce back. And that is why I was wrong.
At some point in your life you realize that you’ve changed. You’ve grown out of the views that used to fit you. Your former fantasies, you see, have led you astray.
Now you become aware of what everyone else could see the first time around – you see the mistakes you made, the bravado, the silly insistence that everyone love you, the hope for impossible things. And you stop making excuses for yourself. You stop defending the attitudes of your former self. You stake your claim in reality, you say.
You have grown out of all those changes and moved on.
But there are more to come.
There will always be more dream ships to be sunk and more delusions to be undone.
There are more attitudes to shed and more fantasies existing inside you that you will discover, with horror, most likely.
We approach reality like a snake approaches the raw air. By the time we shed our skin, another has grown in beneath it. The air is something to be protected against for the snake; maybe reality is the same for us.
There I was believing that my circumstances constituted a form of food sickness.
I was locked out of my flat. My flatmate, who was on a plane though I didn’t know it, was gone, and would soon make a short trip through an American hospital before going to the morgue. I didn’t know that either until a few weeks after it happened. Suicide.
I had worried about that but I hadn’t expected it because I could not expect such a thing.
The only facts I had were the ones right in front of me: a locked gate on the door and no key in my pocket. We were given only one key and I did not have it.
Never having been locked out in London before, I thought I’d make the most of it. Our neighborhood had the glitz and gloss of modernity but it was fairly lifeless at night. The grey stopped being cosmopolitan and became merely bland.
In the fading light of the evening I took to walking the streets, thinking in an hour or two I’d be able to get back inside and have a fight about the key situation.
The fight never actually happened but I went over it in my head as I walked, fleshing out both sides of the argument until I could feel the contours of it like a delicate little statue – the kind you’d find in a modern decor outlet, made to be set in your home on an end table or a pedestal.
The kind you want to smash to see what it will be like when the hollowness is exposed.
The store windows on the street went dark all at the same time, reflecting what light there was left in the evening. I avoided looking at myself. I would have seen the food poisoning at work, definitely, and maybe I would have even see the disease begin to set in.
As the night came on I could feel the hours shortening, contracting down to a quiet zero. They were squeezed by the matter-of-fact blitheness of my hope.
Once again I had turned to hope. This time I even thought back to that summer in Oxford and turned over the ideas of how I had grown up since. I had grown up because I could see how I stumbled straight into every room in Oxford with the grin and the charm turned all the way up. And I could shake my head at that boy in his mask and armor.
Removed from England entirely now, I see my night in London as the more awful of the two experiences. I hadn’t known I was fooling myself at Oxford. I had been acting under a kind of faith. But in London I felt buoyed by my distance from the ignorance of that kind of hope.
The flowers were stripped away from the stem that night in London but I kept thinking the plant was not a weed, it just needed more sunlight. The flowers would come back. I suppose the weed I am talking about is me and I believed I’d already been classified, botanized and assured: the flowers were a permanent fixture. They would just need a little time to grow back.
If I had stopped that night and talked to the people I saw on the street and if they had seen my face, maybe I could have stopped. Maybe I could have sat down and started the work of revising my thoughts on what kind of shit I was in. If I had known that there would be no key and no flatmate there the next morning and that I’d spend days trying to figure out why the place was empty and only my toothbrush and passport were still there, maybe I could have stopped the sickness from spreading.
But I walked on in my hope and enjoyed what was supposed to be an isolated moment. I actually reveled in the feeling of being forlorn in a foreign city, forced to spend the night alone. My legs felt great as I walked and my feet didn’t hurt. If I had stopped to look at my reflection in one of the storefront windows I probably would have seen a big grin staring back at me.