BY MICHAEL WOODEL
A thick fog descends upon the South Carolinian Sandhills and melts the sodium globes above Greene Street to ghostly strips of cirrostratus, each broad enough to be seen a mile away. In the background, through the trees, beams of the waxing gibbous above complete a journey of a mere second and are shattered, reassembled, and shattered again in a shallow pool, a gushing fountain at its core.
The fountain is if nothing else a beacon of change; I have seen it frozen over in direct February sunshine, sporting a tiara of glistening icicles to greet the late Southern winter. I have gratefully beheld its music pounding against the pool after eight hours in front of a keyboard, permitting its morning mist to coax me back into consciousness. I pondered it closely alongside the flooding that Joaquin brought in October of 2015, when the shuttering of city waterworks laid the pool silent, a haunting but welcome show of solidarity with the rest of the state.
And then beyond the fountain, behind eight pillars jutting from the brick-and-concrete porch and coquettishly hidden from the inside by massive screens of brass disks the function of which would stump Gehry himself, stands proudly the art-deco thunder dome of the Thomas Cooper Library. Columbia’s shrine to the written word, it was named – as much else in the state has been – for a man of otherwise great wisdom, integrity even, who long ago held the Almighty’s dollar in greater regard than a certain sect of His people. Of course, Mr. Cooper at least afforded that his coffee-colored laborers were men, a fact of similar consolation to that Lewinsky usually donned a dress.
At the last renovation in 1976, T-Coop, as the library is affectionately known to Gamecock Nation, was home to a million and a half volumes situated on forty-five miles of shelving and scattered amongst seating for more than two thousand. The lights on all seven floors will burn without rest on this night, far from the most judicious use of taxpayer dimes with only one member of a 33,000-strong enrollment still inside. But I thank them for it anyway.
I thank them because it means I don’t have to sleep. When I lie back and start seeing centipedes and classmates I made cry and other colorful snapshots of growing up in a Podunk town on the shore of Lake Erie, I can escape. I can take a brisk stroll over the Pickens Street footbridge and find out, at long last, exactly how the hell Dave Cronenberg got the cancer gun from Videodrome to work. Or what Time had in store the week of March 15, 1985.
Growing up, I thought the Blasco Memorial Library in Erie, Pennsylvania, had every book in the world. Then I walked into T-Coop for the first time as an enrolled student. Immediately, Blasco became the back stockroom of a mini-mall Waldenbooks shortly after a break-in. On this night, on any night, T-Coop is sacred ground.
But for now, I’ll take a break from its devotional fruit. Tolstoy is rarely easy on the eyes.
Maybe some YouTube now. On the corner of the desk, my iPhone registers a home button tap and comes alive. A headshot of actress Daisy Ridley stares back, all fair skin and feathery brown hair, the irises pools of rich hazel fogging up the lens. Lips full, pale pink and turned up slightly at the edges, eyebrows trimmed and sloped just so, perhaps lending a tinge of anger – if not, sexiness.
In slim white numerals reaching across Daisy’s peaked hairline, my phone gives the time as 3:42 on Thursday morning. But then it could just as easily be Monday night. Could be later in the week, a fresh Friday night sheen of Jack and coitus caking each building from Barnwell Street down to the banks of the Congaree River. More likely than not, I’d still be huddled in Carrel #4197, a wooden cell in a dim corner of Level 1 – which is to say, the lowest of five underground stories. At the time of night I usually frequent T-Coop, I could sprawl naked on the mezzanine upstairs, outside the door to the Student Success Center, and not be found for hours. I’m hiding from people who simply are not around.
Or, instead of public indecency, I could be in bed. But then insomnia and depression go hand in hand, which is why I have become a rare find in any class that meets before 11 a.m. More often than not, my roommate goes to sleep with no inkling of my whereabouts, unaware that I’m tucked away in the carrel staring and nodding into the works of William Gibson. The Peripheral on this night to harmonize with Tolstoy, then perhaps Neuromancer for the fifth time when I’m done.
I’ve gotten back into Gibson’s novels over the past few months for his uncanny prowess at bringing the future to life. The neon, the guns, the Jacksonesque do-not-fuck-with-me gab, always ten steps behind sanity but right on top of the human condition. On paper, Gibson forged an international police force dedicated to fighting technological singularity in 1984, seven years before the world’s first Web browser was coded. He foresaw an early form of Google Glass in 1993, five years before Google itself came about. And now, in his most recent yarn, The Peripheral, Gibson envisions a slow-burning apocalypse which buries eighty percent of us by the turn of the century. Coastal cities, crops, hopes, dreams under water. The well-off are, of course, on dry land. Not exactly John Green stuff.
The Peripheral is far from the sort of fare most librarians would place in the hands of a nineteen-year-old on Prozac, but then I fit the molds of neither nineteen-year-olds nor Prozac users with lasting success. Besides, Gibson’s futures are innovative and imaginative, fun yet fatal. Between the lines of his visions lie quantum computers, space habitats, vast climate-controlled indoor cities. Meanwhile, in the real…
Think. What was the most groundbreaking innovation of 2015? Hoverboards. A Segway without handlebars. The future, semi-functional and ahead of schedule, for the sake of profit margin.
What do you have against hoverboards?
You just shoveled out four hundred dollars to keep your feet off the ground on your way to class. You could’ve fed someone for a month. Get the word out: walking’s free.
Who said that?
I lock into the flawless pools of hazel again.
It’s a quarter to four and that’s the fifth time you’ve checked your phone in twenty minutes. No one’s awake to text you. What are you doing here?
Always nice to know my Prozac is coming along without a hitch.
I can’t sleep, Dais. I need to read.
You have class in six hours. You need sleep. Go home.
I need to read. I can’t write. To write, I need to read, so I’m reading. I’ll sleep when I have a job.
You’re nineteen. If you aren’t published by the end of the year, you won’t starve.
Always nice to dream.
So then you do have dreams? You must have something keeping you up this late, otherwise you’re just letting yourself slowly expire.
Write for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Spend every day spinning the morning yarn, squeeze out a few books in my free time. Make a difference. Get people to turn off E! and think for a goddamn minute.
Pittsburgh. You were brought up in western Pennsylvania. You’ve said it yourself, there’s nothing for you there.
Sense of belonging. Comfort. Pirates season tickets, if I can learn how to glue a plot together.
I dropped out of Birkbeck to focus on acting when Star Wars was still years off. Does that sound comfortable to you?
You’re talented. Talent is universal. Didn’t Van Morrison say some nice things about brown-eyed girls?
Hardly. And determination is what, then, if not universal?
The fact that I haven’t walked into traffic yet.
Jesus, you must really hate yourself.
At night, yeah. I was a bully, professional, grades two to six. Taller and smarter than everyone else, so I decided I could hit people. Never fought, just slapped kids around. Bitch about how everyone wanted my help in math because I knew all the answers, then turn around and hit my friends when they interrupted me.
Charming. Any sort of comeuppance from that?
Once, a bit. I think it was fourth grade. We came in from recess in the snow, had lunch and when we lined up to go back to class I started crying. Some of the gear I wore outside was missing. I was going on about how someone stole my snowpants, and then they turned up under a cafeteria table. But I couldn’t be wrong, hell no. High honor roll five years in a row? I needed someone to blame. Came up behind a friend, Luke Hess, and palmed the back of his head. Luke had nothing to do with what happened, didn’t even know I’d lost my stuff. He looked me in the eyes, reared back and just belted me. Lowest knuckle on the pointer finger of his right hand stretched my solar plexus.
They had to call my brother downstairs so he could carry my sobbing ass to the principal’s office. It was forty yards down the hall and I couldn’t breathe.
If you could say anything to Luke about that day?
I’d thank him. Shake his hand. Though if he’d laid me out cold, I might’ve learned something.
How long did bullying last after that?
Not long. Parentals shipped me to the Catholic school down the street in seventh grade and I grew up a little. I was still smart, but by no one’s ruler tallest or toughest, so I kept my mouth shut. Walked into high school without a word, 5’5”. God evened up the score for good and gave me Crohn’s in ninth grade. Sick two days in three years and all of a sudden my intestines were in a knot. Still can’t drink because of it, five years later. No booze when you’re nineteen means hiding under a rock Friday afternoon to Monday morning. You worked in a bar, right?
Not an interview, but yes.
One day. I’ll bring a ring with me.
But you said something about insomnia and depression, as well.
That wasn’t for you.
I was still around.
The phone mic. Ballpark estimate, how much of my day is in a hard drive in Cupertino?
Well, if –
Shit. Don’t answer that.
Thought so. Depression?
Yeah. Slow diagnosis. Looking back, I think they could’ve nailed it down senior year of high school, but it didn’t really sting until after I graduated. My girlfriend and I split when we went off to separate colleges. She went an hour down the road for mortuary science, I went five states south for accounting. With a month left in my freshman year my parents moved us to Myrtle Beach, so at the end I went back to our town in Pennsylvania to visit friends. Spent a whole week and had a ball. Flew back to the adopted home, sat down to talk to my mom and started bawling. Was depressed for days. My dad would put playoff hockey on the TV every night and I’d stare at the wall below the screen for an hour, then go to bed.
I wasn’t home. My friends, hockey, everything was at home, and I was at the beach. Eating breakfast with my parents at the good apartment with the good view in the good neighborhood, I wasn’t home. I watched the tide coming in on Pawleys Island on a clear May evening, one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen, and decided that I wasn’t home. Home was Erie Insurance Arena, specifically, the cheap seats at Otters games I never sat in whilst shredding my larynx at opposing goaltenders. Or Sara’s at the foot of Presque Isle State Park, where my dad took me for ice cream every summer weekend as a kid. Frontier Park, where he taught me how to swing a bat.
Right. So, I wasn’t home. Then one Friday night, May 29th, my ex posted a shot of some roses on Facebook.
Not from you, I take it.
New boyfriend. Future Army Ranger. Kick my ass sitting down with an arm behind his back.
She was someone you wanted to forget?
Wanted to. Couldn’t. I was still in love with her. Everyone throws that around at eighteen, I know, it’s a phonetic fucking Frisbee, but I was serious. Couldn’t bring myself to tell her the whole time we were together. It wasn’t her fault. Her ex before me liked to get physical. She never trusted me as much as she could’ve.
You expected her to suffer, then. Proportional to how you figured you had. Prick.
Not at all. I found out a couple days before the roses and I was glad, initially. I’d told her to find someone who made her happier than I could, and she had. But I hadn’t. Decided I never would. Meanwhile, I was going work-bed-repeat and hated it, just put up with it so my parents could have happily ever after on the beach.
You know, your parents haven’t come up as much as I’d expected they would.
I’ll wait until my student loans are paid off to write about family.
So what happened in May, then? The ex?
So she told me about the boyfriend a couple days before the roses, and I lost it. I mean, like I said, I was glad when she told me, but after about a day of that, I was ready for a padded cell in Arkham. I saw them together on my bed at night, I heard her voice when I was at work, in my dreams, everything. And that Friday night, the roses. There were two bottles of Tylenol in my bathroom cabinet. Brought ‘em to bed with me and flipped the caps. One on each side of my lips. There were no tears. It was pure relief. Like I was floating. I hadn’t been high since they gave me morphine for the Crohn’s. Then the ol’ Pentecostal self-denial reflex kicked in, and I asked God to give me a reason not to go through with it.
Line was busy. Powerball was high that week.
I picked the bottles up off the nightstand again and realized they weren’t full enough to kill me. I’d lost weight, but I was still hovering around 185. I thought about walking to the beach and sleeping under the Atlantic instead.
But you didn’t.
No. I nodded off before I could decide. Showed my mom the bottles when I woke up. I’d told her and my dad about the three tries that came before it, so this time they didn’t take any chances.
And you got diagnosed, finally.
Yeah. My first night in a hospital bed in four years. I told myself I would sneak out of bed once the parentals were asleep, change into my street clothes, take the elevator to the top floor and put myself through the first window I saw.
But you still didn’t.
I sat staring at the door of my room for an hour trying to work up the courage. Never once thought about getting caught by security or where the hell they’d send me if I didn’t succeed. I thought about my dad holding down three jobs in the late ‘90s. Mom staying home for thirteen years to raise me and my brother. Thousands of hours of pure dedication. It got Mark somewhere. Could I waste all that on the pavement outside? I fell asleep again.
Would’ve hurt too much?
No. Not me. Mom. Dad. Hurt my brother too much. Friends. My little niece in Connecticut, her brother I still haven’t met. I burst into tears every time I see a picture of them. What the fuck do you say to a three-year-old when a relative stops showing up on Skype?
Dais grits her teeth at this.
But what is this, then?
This. The library at four in the morning.
So I get back to school in August. Emphasize in the mirror a thousand times a day, this year will be different. I can’t even fool myself. Sure enough, eight weeks in, I have straight A’s and I’m sleeping through half my classes. Prozac’s barely keeping me above water. I get it in me, just like freshman year, that I’ll pull the plug and go home to work while I sort things out. But there’s something different, aside from the pills.
Books. I started reading again. Gone Girl. 334. American Psycho. Less than Zero; Lolita; Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning. A couple of Bukowski collections. I read so much I forgot I was even depressed. Got into long-form journalism: The Big Short, A Season on the Brink, Homicide. And then I realized it when I read Friday Night Lights: my major was stable.
I turned 65 in middle school. Most of my life, all I’ve cared about is stability. I had good parents and a good upbringing, and I got addicted to that feeling of comfort. Coming up through adolescence, I was so fucking afraid of anything new that might get me in trouble. So girls, partying, that all went by the wayside. And once I got away from stability, leaving home, I clammed up. That’s where the depression came from. Now I always read stuff in The Player’s Tribune about guys coming from nothing – literally, nothing – and making it in the NFL and the NBA. You wonder, how? How do you get that far with no structure?
You’ve lost me.
Extraordinary men are not born from ordinary surroundings. You can’t just have desire, or even the work ethic and the desire. If you aren’t afraid of failure because failure won’t hurt, you’re done. If Dad can hand you a job and a car and a house if you flunk out, you will achieve nothing and love it. In my case, I had no fear because I had no concept of failing business classes. It wasn’t that the work was too easy, it was that there wasn’t enough. I had too much free time to think. And when I spend too much time in my own head, the pills in my cabinet look like Skittles. So I changed majors. When I switched to the journalism school, the guy who helped me register said I was the first kid he ever saw check out of the business program willingly. Every other kid he brought in got booted with a GPA lower than his blood alcohol content.
He lied. But go on, please.
I got into my first classes in the new school in January and realized, hey, these kids can write. I’m not the only one reading books here. Reading and writing do not set me apart the way they did in business. That’s my fear. So, I’m afraid of a peer’s experience making me look average? Fine. I’ll work when they’re sleeping. Extraordinary.
Tell me that when you need a ghostwriter.
Right. You’d stare and drool on your laptop. With the ring box halfway out of your pocket, I’m certain.
Nah. Quarter of the way. You gotta earn it.
For Katie, who knows why.
For Sam, who read every draft.
For Daisy, who presumably won’t sue.
January 27 – February 14, 2016
Columbia, South Carolina
Michael Woodel is a student at the University of South Carolina. Art is by Steven Tutino.