Excerpt from "The Point of Vanishing" by Howard Axelrod
From "The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude"
by Howard Axelrod (Beacon Press, 2015)
After the accident, perhaps on the advice of her doctor friends, Mom had suggested I see a therapist. Every month or so, she'd bring it up again on the phone, and I'd tell her there was no need, perhaps she should see a therapist, everything was fine. But fall of senior year, with everyone planning for the future, I wondered if she hadn't been on to something.
Preparations were being made. Futures were being plotted. It was only November, but you couldn't walk into Adams House and not feel it. Every meal had the diffuse buzz of Grand Central
Station—harried seniors checking for posted maps, for spinning placards, for the time on some enormous clock. Hardly a day passed that someone didn't interrupt a conversation about cute sophomore girls or Karl Marx to hurry off from breakfast in a blue suit, hair combed, a leather folder at his side. Representatives from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and McKinsey were on campus to recruit. Everyone was herding towards the future. Even the frighteningly studious kids who seemed to come from nowhere, who emerged from the Widener stacks maybe once a semester for hygiene purposes only, were suddenly passing through the dining hall in high heels and makeup, with new blouses and haircuts, their backpacks on over their new outfits, little corporate butterflies not quite emerged from the chrysalis.
My friends were staying relatively calm. Ray and Alexis grudgingly filled out med school applications despite respective fantasies of writing and filmmaking. Meanwhile, Andrew was training for the minor leagues of pro tennis, standing shirtless in front of our window at night, studying his reflection in the darkened glass as he mimed service returns. He'd practice his hip turn, practice it again. His image hovered in the leaves of the oak outside the window, as he hit imaginary ball after imaginary ball into the unknown.
We were all trying to do the same in our minds—imagining possible futures, trying to glimpse how we might look in one scenario or another. This was 1994. America looked to be entering a golden age, one even more golden because it was ready to include us—no more Cold War, democracy victorious, organizations like Teach For America and AmeriCorps popping up to address social issues, rock stars like Bruce Springsteen and U2 raising millions of dollars for AIDS and world hunger. The Internet existed but none of us had e-mail, and the dot-com boom, with its gold-rush euphoria that money was everywhere to be made, was still a few years away. To be twenty at Harvard was to inhabit a world that was shiny and bright and moral—a world that might still be corrected. To be called an idealist was still high praise.
And yet, I had no idea how to imagine myself as a part of that world. Not even with Ray and Alexis's ambivalence, which seemed a sign of character. Before the accident, my default future was law school with a grudge, with a slim book of poetry hidden in my backpack. But now that track no longer seemed possible. Not because my grades had slipped, or because anything had changed outwardly, but because I knew it would be a lie.
So one blustery November afternoon, I went to see my advisor, Professor Coles. I'd liked him from the very first day in lecture, when he'd shuffled onstage in a gray moth-eaten wool sweater, his gray bushy hair looking moth eaten as well. Initially, I'd thought he was a homeless man who'd wandered into Sanders
Theater in the midst of a delusion, his voice plaintive, filled with unease and conviction. But week after week, as though he'd rolled out of bed in the middle of the night and all 650 students were at his kitchen table, he talked about novels and about questions that gave him "pause." Intelligence, he seemed to be saying, was a fairly worthless faculty, even a shortcoming, unless it was employed in the service of leading a decent life.
His office was in Adams House, on the other side of the dining hall, in what had been FDR's dorm room. The bathroom still had a toilet with a pull chain and claw-foot tub, but Coles's updates were minor, as though he liked being partially an inhabitant of the past. Two small couches faced each other, with a
Hopper print on one wall, a print of Robert Kennedy walking a dirt road in Wyoming on the other. No photographs of Coles with "big shots," as he called them, though he knew, I'd later learn, nearly every writer he mentioned in lecture, and he himself had been on the cover of Time magazine, his photo above the impossibly researched caption "America's top psychiatrist."
I settled into his white canvas couch, nervous to give up my role as star student, and more nervous to try on the role of patient. Would he ask me to lie down? Should I tell him my dreams? It wasn't appropriate, coming to him this way, but my pride didn't know what else to try. Besides, it seemed it would be fairly easy to steer the conversation away from my thesis on Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and towards my own growing sense of invisibility, or heightened vision, or whatever it was. But, sinking into his couch, I didn't know how to start talking about the mornings on my bed, looking down onto Plympton Street and watching the rush up to class, how beneath my classmates moving like schools of fish, there seemed to be tides, sweeping them not just up to class but towards the future in particular directions, directions that didn't have to do with the moon or the tides but with societal forces that didn't make much sense. And I didn't know how to tell him that at night in the dining hall, the autumn air scraping at the high windows, I'd often find myself drifting on the background sound of conversation, as though the background had become part of the foreground, as though the far away had become near.
So I mentioned leaving the Office of Career Services Building that morning, where I'd been given biscotti and springwater, to find a homeless man on Mount Auburn Street wheeling
a rickety shopping cart of aluminum cans.
Coles nodded. I'd intended to tell him about the blue binders, the job listings, how all the career paths seemed invalid because they had to blind you from what was outside them, like a horse's blinkers, so you kept on trotting forwards. The lines of my life had dissolved, and I wasn't about to sign up for new ones that were just as impermanent, just as likely to waver given a true test. But I was also afraid my new vision was just a vision, a mirage, something likely to fade over time.
But having mentioned the man with the shopping cart, I felt the emotion all over again, hot, embarrassing tears springing to my eyes.
"What is it?" Coles said.
I shook my head.
Outside his office door, students were on their way to class.
Their footsteps clattered and faded down the tile corridor.
"What did you see?"
"His teeth," I said, my hand inadvertently rising to my own mouth. The man's face flashed in front of me. The horror of it. His mouth no longer a mouth. His teeth broken, bloodied. His pain broadcast for everyone to see, even if he didn't want to speak it.
"And just because I have a Harvard ID, I get free biscotti and springwater? I get binders full of jobs? I get the house in the suburbs?"
"What you're feeling," Coles said, "is a kind of moral disquiet."
It felt like a slap; he'd never talked to me with labels. "It's nice to give it a name, isn't it?" I said.
"And so to dismiss it?" he said testily.
I don't know what we said after that. I was still thinking about that man, about how it felt to be him, to walk the street with your mouth, your life, visibly broken. It disturbed me that I knew nothing about him, couldn't imagine his life at all, and yet something about him felt personally familiar.
I backpedaled, made peace, couldn't risk opening up any further. Coles had always listened like no one I'd ever met, listened in a way that allowed me to hear the part of myself I was afraid of—the part that didn't fit with my family, the part that didn't really seem to fit anywhere, except in the realm of the writers we discussed. I couldn't afford to lose that, especially now, couldn't afford to discover there was a part of me he couldn't hear, or, worse, heard but disapproved of.
Towards the end of our talk, Coles asked if I'd noticed the binders for travel fellowships. There was one called the Rockefeller, he said, designed for students who had reached a crossroads in their lives.
"What senior hasn't reached a crossroads?" I said.
"You'd be a strong candidate," he said. "A very strong candidate, indeed."
The house was an enormous alarm far above me. My heart was pounding, something forcing me back up to the surface, pushing me up, up, up, past the bright coral and the strange fish of my dreams: something was happening up there, something important. Someone had died, someone had been hit by a car, someone was in the hospital.
I reached out for the phone beside the futon. The ringing stopped. The numbers glowed green in the dark room. "Hello!"
"Howie. It's Matt. You OK?"
Matt was my brother. He lived with his wife in Newton. I was in
a house in Vermont.
"What is it?" I said. "What happened?"
"Nothing happened. Jesus. Don't tell me you were sleeping."
There was a permanent buzz on the line, like the droning of a giant mosquito. "Just a second." I put down the phone, lit the candle on the low windowsill above the mattress. It was snowing outside, no moonlight, sweeps of snow brushed up against the screen. My heart was still going double time, still marching towards disaster. I didn't want Matt to hear it in my voice. "What time is it?"
"I got twenty minutes before The West Wing starts. Just thought I'd check in. You do know what The West Wing is."
I was trying to do the math. The sun probably set around four, I'd eaten a bowl of Ramen noodles for dinner, and then lay down by the fire. As usual, pictures had started to appear in my mind, and I'd fallen into a kind of visualization game. A month or so earlier, it had just started happening. And because it kept me company, I kept doing it. Some nights, I'd move through my morning walk to school as a boy—picturing it house by house, the tree roots buckling the sidewalk, past the Zandittens, the Longs, the white house with the black shutters whose family I didn't know, the Sugarmans, the Gorfinkles, the Donowitzes, the Cohens, then the left turn at the bottom of the hill, the stone retaining walls of the houses built on a slope, the yards waisthigh, the plane trees with their peeling bark, loose sand still on the road after the winter snow had melted. Or I'd picture Bunk 7 from summer camp, going bed to bed, Josh Fields, Tom Carradine, Johnny Bent, Kevin Zolot, seeing how much I could recover of their blankets, their favorite t-shirts, their ways of talking, and then surprises would come: the job-wheel posted on the door, the Dopp kits arrayed on the bathroom shelves, the sharp smell of bleach, and those surprises would flare into something like short movies: the night of the sock war, a counselor slapping my hand as I reached for an ice cream sandwich, the first real conversation I had with Katherine Cohen outside Titus Hall, music from the Square Dance floating out over the soccer field. Lying on the wood floor, the firelight shimmering through the grate, I'd find myself laughing out loud or tears running from my eyes down into my ears. The stories would play on their own—some memories, some daydreams, as though I were watching my very own TV show. And then I'd come upstairs to bed.
I'd probably been asleep for a good two or three hours. "The West Wing?"
"Right," Matt said. I saw the words in yellow and realized I was remembering the cover of People magazine from the checkout line at the C&C.
"It's a TV show about the presidency," I said, my tone like a fortune teller reading a crystal ball. "With Martin Sheen. Very popular."
Matt's relief was audible. His brother's sense of reality was still intact. "So what's new?"
It seemed a strange question. "It's snowing. But that's not really new, I guess."
"Good, it's snowing. And?"
"Well, last night there was a full moon. The snow was blue and very bright. I could read by it." I decided not to mention the shadow of the branches on the snow, the way they looked like roots, as though the moonlight were letting me see underground. I decided not even to mention that normally I read by candlelight. I was doing a very good job sounding normal. "Good. And?"
And what? It felt like a quiz. When I talked to Mom and Dad, which happened about once a month, Mom seemed relieved simply to know I was still breathing on the other end of the line, that I still remembered Star Market and the Sterns and Filene's Basement. When I talked to Dad, he asked questions with an implied correct answer: You feeling pretty good? (Yes.) And you're getting some exercise? (Yes.) And you're eating OK? (Yes.) Had he asked me about my bowel movements, I would have been happy to oblige. He was leading the witness, which was fine by me—we avoided the topic of my "living arrangement" by basically avoiding everything. But Matt was trickier. His ill-concealed frustration with my answers betrayed the questions he really wanted to ask. What's wrong with you? Where's the guy I used to watch the Celtics with on the couch? What the fuck are you thinking? But because they were questions he didn't know how to ask, and had answers I didn't know how to give, he treated me like a substitute for myself, a stand-in until his real brother returned.
"So, I read this book. Thought you might like it," he said.
This was a suspicious advance. "Really?"
"It's called Into the Wild. Ever hear of it?"
"I've seen Into the Woods."
"It's a true story."
The phone mosquito hummed. My heart was hammering again. "What's it about?"
"A guy kind of like you. From the suburbs, athletic, went to Emory. Liked to read Tolstoy. But he hated society and went off to live in the Alaska woods."
"I don't hate society, Matt."
"No, of course you don't." I could see the look he was giving me across the miles—his mouth twisting, his eyes dark.
"So how does he get by?"
"He lives in an abandoned school bus."
"Did he have a woodstove inside?"
"I guess so. I don't know."
"And then what happens?" The mosquito flew closer. A conversation was threatening, one Matt apparently had meant to imply but not begin. I could see him chewing at his lip, working the white scimitar of a scar he'd gotten when he'd crashed Mom's Volvo in high school. It was where his words went when he didn't know how to say them.
"The kid starves to death. That's what happens. He thinks he knows what plants he can eat, but he doesn't."
"He poisoned himself."
"You mean on purpose?"
"Not on purpose. But he was ignorant. He didn't know what he was getting himself into."
"Did I mention I go to the market in town? That I eat frozen pizzas?"
"He went into the woods in April. He crossed this little stream to get to his school bus. But when he wanted to come back out, it was midsummer. The stream was a river. A raging river with all the snow that had melted."
"He couldn't ford it."
"No, he couldn't ford it. The way he'd gone in, it didn't lead back out."
I turned to look out the window. I'd been imagining a kid tromping around by an old school bus, dirty, happy, wild, but then he was standing on the bank, the stream gone muddy and violent. My stomach felt horrible. I had the feeling again of swimming up through my dreams too quickly. "There aren't any streams here," I said.
"Great. That's good to hear."
Part of me longed for him to say more, to explain more, but our man-to-man talk was clearly over. He'd already gone further than he wanted.
Years later, I'd learn that he'd been the one to push hardest while I was in the emergency room. He'd arrived in the rushhour traffic, soon after my parents. Towards midnight, while I was in the bathroom throwing up from the pain, the ER doctor had held out one last chance: if a fragment of my optic nerve still held, it could possibly be bolstered by steroids. My vision might be saved. The doctors reminded Matt and my parents of the range of injuries to my eye, they rehearsed the risk of side effects. "Please," Matt had said. "Try anything." The doctors reminded him of the very slim odds, of the possible complications. But Matt had kept on pleading: "Please, try anything. He's my brother. Try anything."
As he switched the conversation now to running into someone from Roxbury Latin, my mind began to see the snowdrifts along the open field, the way they were piled so high. They'd never melt into a river. But my mind went on picturing them— like there might be some other version of that Alaskan river, some other blockade I couldn't yet imagine. Maybe the road in to the house wouldn't lead back out. Maybe it wouldn't be that simple.
Then I could hear a door closing, and Matt's wife, Jami, in the background. "Listen, our show is about to start," he said. "You take care, brother."
I hung up and the glow from the phone's numbers went away. The wind kicked up and snow brushed at the window screen. I didn't blow out the candle for some time.
Excerpted from The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude by Howard Axelrod (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.