pirate feet have trod
the clean-thatched floors
of my soul,
and the canaries sing no more.
—Bukowski, “for they had things to say”
“Life has a way of turning us into human fireworks that can’t reach the sky.”
Where to begin? It was a trip meant to restore one’s faith in the human capacity for excitement and adventure, to feel alive, in the sense Zen Buddhists speak, in the “Here and Now,” to accept uncertainty, open to change like the shifting winds, ready for movement, on a whim, in any direction, however the moment dictates, to give oneself over to the element of chance in all its manifestations: anticipation, risk, opportunity, bald desperation. But this is getting ahead of things. It started off with much simpler, practical concerns.
It started with a flat.
It was early summer, and I was coming off my third year at university. Most semesters up till that point had always been something of a slog—the better part of four months spent trying to keep up a precarious balance of work, study, and occasional socializing only to see it all go out the window by the end when, deadlines fast-approaching, hitting all at once, there comes that mad rush to cough up work, meet the word counts, meanwhile holding onto the hope, the loose assertion playing on a loop in the back of the mind, that if only it can just be adequate then everything will be fine. Salvaged, if nothing else.
But this last one in particular had worn my emotional reserves down to nil, in serious need of a recharge. A number of factors contributed, but mostly I owed it to a Shakespeare class, and specifically a research paper on “Hamlet.” Meant only as simple undergrad paper containing the requisite 3,000 words, presented, as was the case, in smartly arranged half-page paragraphs that elucidated my main arguments—employing a prose style not too dense, but lucid, clear, declarative; secondary material properly cited, etc.—it soon spiralled into something much larger than that, something big, unwieldy, something altogether stranger. For weeks on end the only place I could be found, outside of class and coffee shops, was hunkered down in the campus library occupying either one of a roomful of three-sided wooden booths or off in a solitary corner seat, books stacked next to me like a tilting, precarious drink stand, until closing, reading through all the criticism and commentary I could get my hands on, decades and decades worth, pushing all the way back to the earliest part of the twentieth century, when Shakespeare criticism was just coming into vogue...
I traced the whole history of the play back to its “Ur-Hamlet” origins, immersed myself in the forever ongoing debate over original author credit. Was it the semi-famous in his day playwright Thomas Kyd, author of the earlier “Spanish Tragedy,” who was responsible? Shakespeare himself? And who was that exactly? Perhaps it was some other uncredited ghost writer, forever lost to history? On and on it goes. With never an end is all we know.
In the deep hours of the night I meditated on the loss of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, at the tender age of eleven, and what if any connection could be made between his death and the final play produced only a scant few years after his passing.
The semester dragged on.
When not engaged in an all-consuming process of literary investigation soaking up everything from random bits of background information to the hundreds of critical arguments and diverging stances taken (the poet, playwright, critic, and all round literary prude T.S. Eliot, for example, considered Hamlet, the four hundred year old play to this day regarded as the apex of world literature—irrevocably impacting the direction of all “important” writing to follow thereafter—a failure), when not doing all this, I was glued to a television set viewing every recent, and not so recent, adaptation and stage performance recorded for posterity. From the latest streamlined Hollywood versions to the 1948 Olivier gold standard to the endless copies of grainy VHS recordings culled from the shelves of the campus library’s electronics section, starring a century’s worth of the best and brightest from British theatre—I couldn’t get enough, it’s fair to say.
My “Norton Complete Shakespeare” had been marked up with all sorts of barely-decipherable annotations, mostly in the form of cryptic jottings scrawled down in the throes of a fevered ecstasy brought on, no doubt, by some minor insight or other, that—silly deluded me—I was convinced at the time cut to the core of the text. “Now I have this thing cracked, yes!”
And as for the many yellow hi-lited sections comprised mostly of but not limited to those beautiful, solemn Hamlet soliloquies—they became such a constant point of reference that, reading and rereading them on into language comprehending oblivion, before long and without consciously realizing it, I would fall into reciting sections to myself any time day or night: in the shower, while frying up eggs, waiting in line at the grocery, even dropping in allusions during random conversations—most if not all of which had nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare, Hamlet or any of the heady themes that cut through and subverted the horror and revenge conventions of the plot. Indeed, becoming more and more consumed with these themes of such great existential heft, I eventually brought out the big guns, seeking out the works of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Benjamin and other scholastic touchstones of modernity (and not all of them of German heritage), in an effort to better understand the dark notions I had began to unearth, insights into the human experience that seemed to only grow darker and darker as, paradoxically, more light was thrown on them.
Over the weeks, as my thesis grew and mutated and stretched out into the furthest reaches of what can be called “critical theorizing,” the netherworlds of philosophical argument and discourse, it became clear that what I was working on was more than any mere college essay, some assignment constituting a single mark that averaged against the rest of my course work would contribute to my overall GPA. No, it was beyond that. Way beyond that. The scope and breadth had expanded exponentially. Now it dealt with matters no less pertinent than that of life and death.
Months went by, and by the time finals rolled around and I came stumbling into the gymnasium one gray foggy morning, gaunt and bleary-eyed, to hand in my finished paper—what amounted to a piddling distillation of my total accumulated material—two weeks overdue, before sitting down to write my exam, I could no longer for the life of me accurately discern where Shakespeare’s play ended and my real life began—if indeed I even still had a life to speak of.
It’s hard to describe exactly what it was I was looking for in my obsessive research, what great illumination I hoped my relentless exploration of a four century’s old play—one that however archaic in form, is still considered eternally relevant in content—would ultimately achieve. Many a better man than I had, like sailors charting an unreachable course to the unknown land, fallen into the abyssal mazes of self that can be the peril for those identifying too strongly with a hero that for years has stood as a grim monument to the limits of human consciousness, a kind of forlorn archetype to our fated modern condition.
In the end, despite an academic diligence that spiralled into a dedication to subject bordering on the pathological, what I finally came away with, in the final analysis, was far short of profundity, and maybe comes closest to getting summed up in the Kerouac statement at the outset of “On the Road,” describing his state following the death of his father and first divorce that precedes the events of the book, about the “feeling that everything was dead.”
Indeed. It was unshakeable. A constant presence. There everywhere. Interrupting ever conversation. Undercutting every joke. It lurked behind every smile, every glance. Inescapable. Enough force to black out the sun on an otherwise perfect cloudless day. Sucking the fun out of an otherwise festive night out. It couldn’t be ignored and there was no comfort to be found, no person unaffected. Faces seemed unreal. Expressions, empty. Food lost its flavour. Music stripped of its sonic majesty and resonance. There was no way to get away from it.
And it wasn’t even anything new either, some great revelation brought down from on high. It was nothing; so banal, uninteresting. A futility, a yearning, an inkling, a lie. A fear, a phantom, a shadow, a form undefined. Whatever it was it had buried itself deep within. And was here to stay.
Everywhere I turned I was faced with the awful projection of my own insurmountable fallibility.
With the rigours of the semester now behind me I was happy to eschew all further responsibilities and lock myself up in my apartment indefinitely, away from an indifferent world incapable of reconciling our fundamental existential plight with the unfathomable mystery forever sealed up in the hidden depths of the human heart.
And I did. For a time. But then one day, I got a call, and crawled out of myself and answered it. It was a human voice, female.
“Hey! How goes on the west coast!”
“Oh. Same old. Same old.”
It was Marissa. I hadn’t heard from Marissa in months, probably since Christmas, and the sound of her voice was as good as an unwrapped present that forgotten under the tree.
Marissa and I had been friends for as long as I can remember and probably before then. She was coming off her first marriage and the experience had left her terribly raw. Even so, as much as I could gauge it over the phone, she seemed no less her vital self. The ceremony had taken place the previous fall after a short, very short, engagement. In the process she had left behind her studies and a young daughter to relocate some 250 miles north, to where he lived. Things were good for a time, but then the honeymoon period came to an abrupt end and with it, not longer after, the union itself. The details are numerous, complex and involving, and enough to fill several volumes of Carveresque tales of woebegone relationships, domestic entanglements and general misunderstandings between the sexes. Months of tiny squabbles over anything and everything, from money to lifestyle to personal philosophy, snowballed until one day, arriving home late in the day from work, she found her stuff, clothes and everything else, tossed out all over the front yard, the locks changed, and her ’84 Volvo, which had just had thousands of dollars in repairs and upgrades invested in it—along with other personal items, CDs, DVDs, and anything else of any value—sold off, with her new-but-now-soon-to-be-ex-husband pocketing the profits.
A new twist on an old standard.
“You might have married me for love, but I married you for money.” Those his last emphatic words, and just like that she was out of there, back at home getting things sorted.
“This whole experience, it’s forced me to revaluate my relationships, who I can trust.”
“Yeah, no kidding.”
“I mean, I always thought I was a good judge of people, knew where I stood…but now—now, I just don’t know.”
“Shit. That sucks. It’s like this instinctual need we have or something. To top each other, take advantage of each other. Including those closest to us. Especially those closest to us. People are fucked.”
“I guess. But I always try and see the best in people. And like with this thing with Chris, for the longest time, I mean as long as we were together, I wanted to believe it would work itself out. Otherwise it would be that I was wrong, I had put my faith in the wrong person. And if I can’t trust my own judgement, then what do I have to go on, you know?”
“Yeah. It’s like a double bind or something.”
“It’s…I don’t know. Never mind. I can’t think. I’ve had my brain on standby.”
“Oh yeah. How’s that working for ya?”
“Hard to tell. About the same.”
There was music playing in the background on her end, coming through the receiver, and to change the subject I asked her who it was.
“It’s just this song that was on this iPod I got. It was Chris’s brothers’. He got one of those new video ones, and gave me his old one for my birthday. He put a bunch of songs he knew I liked. I’ve been listening to this one on repeat all day.”
There was a pause as she listened for a minute, then came back on the line.
“Sorry, there’s this line near the end, it’s kind of cheesy but I just like the description. ‘You are the smell before rain / You are the blood in my veins.’”
It was after that, over the phone, that I made up mind to go back. Back east.
The spoils of solitude are meagre indeed. And once the glass has run dry, what is there left? Crawling along the swampy psychic bottoms with a thirst left unquenched it’s all you can do to call out for another draught.
It was time to once again drink from the mug of life, time to throw off the mental shackles and reacquire a taste for good, honest freedom.
In short, it was time to hit the road.
But it was a trip I had made once before and knew that to do it right I was going to need a traveling companion to bring along.
I first met Nick my second year of university. We were both taking an English class on British Modernism. Nick was a philosophy major of a decidedly analytic bent, and had his sights set on law school. But for now he was living the blissfully uncommitted college life of classes and study, bagging groceries, pub crawls, weekend jams and the rest of it. We hit it off discussing Camus and Dostoevsky over pitchers of Pil and games of pool at the campus pub. We had stuff in common. We both had fathers in the stock market game (however divergent the roads they each took to get there). Both our mothers were singers who sang in church choirs. At least mine did. I don’t know if Nick ever went to church. It never came up. Anyway, after that we wound up in a bunch of other lit classes together—which included the doomed Shakespeare class.
Nick had been caught up in his own existential conundrum, however more grounded in reality than mine. In the fall, as classes were resuming, his long-term girlfriend had left for Germany to live and study for a year. It was obviously a tough decision for her, leaving behind friends, family, loved ones, as it were, all in the name of discovering some of the world, other cultures, expanding horizons beyond hometown confines. She saw it as an important test of their relationship, and pledged to stay faithful, through it all, until she returned. Which he did. As far as I know. But by the spring, the strain had become too much, for both of them, and they broke it off, long distance. It was some time later he learned she had become enamoured with a certain strapping young German fellow, who also happened to have only one leg. Nick was bowled over. “How do I compete with that?”
So for those reasons and others he had been entertaining his own cross-country motorcycle dreams, and was totally game when I brought up the idea. A request was put in for time off work, and as soon as it was accepted we made plans for an early departure the day following.