There's a black screen.
Colors slowly bleed in from the sides: an out-of-focus jumble of blues and greens and whites. The camera sharpens. It's a panoramic view, a wide countryside. The hills are damp with recent rain. Imagine the video camera slowly panning across acres of vibrant green farmland. Roll soundtrack: low horns and a rippling piano. An old farmhouse passes by the corner of your eye, a long stone wall. A fine mist hanging the air. It is bright but grey.
The camera stops and focuses on a group of white buildings. They poke out of the top of a low hill. They look a little out of place: very modern and angular, surrounded by the rustic countryside, miles of multi-colored farmland and thatched roofs. Zoom in, now, for a better picture of the buildings.
It's a university campus. There is a visible central path, running the length of the campus, like a spinal cord. The buildings close to one another, a compact design. We're at the south end of campus. A long row of windows face west. The camera continues to zoom in, closer, slowly, closer, until the upper two-thirds of the screen are filled by an open bottom-floor window. A shadowy figure can be seen through the curtain. The soundtrack fades back to silence. White letters appear on the screen:
LANCASTER, ENGLAND. FEBRUARY, 1990.
The camera pushes through the curtains. The room is small. There is a narrow bed up against the near wall, and a kind of combination desk/bookshelf/wardrobe on the other, with maybe three or four feet of space separating the two sides. The door is centered in the wall immediately opposite the window. There is a small sink and mirror next to the door, sandwiched in the tiny space between the end of the wardrobe and the inner wall.
It's not a sink you use for cooking. It's much too small for that. Some nights you come home late after drinking with the boys, and you're flopped onto your bed, staring at the spinning spinning spinning white ceiling, wishing it would stop moving. You know you're not going to be able to stumble all the way down to the hall to the common bathroom. The walls would probably be moving side to side anyway. You maybe shouldn't have had those last two or three shots, but the boys were buying, and you were drinking, and now it's a little too late for regrets.
The small sink in the corner is useful for brushing your teeth -- for checking your hair before you go out at night, and for quick showers if you've overslept -- but it's especially useful for emergency late-night vomiting.
In the middle of this small, non-descript room is a young man. He is sitting at the desk. He's leaned the chair back on two legs, so the back rests up against the bed. His eyes are closed, but the leg he's used to push off from the desk vibrates with nervous energy.
This is his room. This is his story.
I am wearing shorts and a damp sweat shirt. My shoes are kicked into some corner or another. I have just returned from a quick run. There was a narrow winding road that circled the entire campus, just under a mile. Because my window was on the bottom floor, it was a great path for squeezing in a run at any time of the day. Sometimes I'd double or even triple it. Headphones securely fastened, rain seeping into my arms and shoulders, sharp breaths cutting through the mist.
I'm in decent shape. I've been working at it pretty hard since I've been in England, coming up on six months now. I'm not sucking wind, not out of breath, but I'm still wiped. It doesn't make any sense. I'm sitting at my desk, leaning back onto two chair legs, trying to figure out what's wrong.
I'd been feeling down for at least a few days, but probably closer to a week. Nothing obvious, nothing specific, just a generally higher level of fatigue than I was used to. The way it gets late winter when you can kind of feel a cold coming on, scratchy throat, tired eyes and limbs. It wasn't anything that I was prepared to define as a full-on cold, but it was late February, and I certainly didn't have the best sleeping habits, so, I mean, it could have been anything. A warning shot, I suppose, my body telling me to either get some rest or deal with coughing and sneezing for a couple of weeks.
The run was an attempt to chase the oncoming sickness out of my system. Sometimes you can forget about everything outside of the run; there is nothing but the cool pavement and slow breathing. This was to be a show of strength. Look, body, I'm in charge here, okay, and so we're gonna go running tonight, even in the rain, and you're not gonna bitch or complain or get sick. Understand?
But I'm back from the run and I'm still tired and now I'm feeling even crappier than before. I take a look at my legs. Twist them around so I can see the backs. Then I look at my arms and hands. It's not good. I let the front legs of the chair fall to the ground; the momentum carries my arms over to my desk. I grab my journal from the edge.
Here is how it all begins:
I open my journal, flipping through the pages until I come to a blank page near the end. I scrounge around for a pen, then take a deep breath. My eyes are closed. I'm deliberating. Do I really want to write down these fears? To write them down will give them substance, might even make them come true. But not writing them down won't necessarily make them go away.
Sigh. This could go on all night. Eyes open, another deep breath, and then my pen scratches across the empty page.
19 Feb 1990My mind is racing. My heart. Now that I've written it down, now that I can hunch forward at my desk and read and re-read all of these things, there's so much more there than just being tired. I rest my elbows on the edge of the desk, rest my head in my hands.
A bruise on the outside of my right calf; a bruise that swells up around the ring finger knuckle on my right hand; a couple of bruises on the upper back part of both legs; a healthy bruise on my waist where Si Shaw pinched me (at least that one is explainable). A new bruise, strong, on my left foot. Small red spots on both feet that crawl a little ways up my shins. A sore on the inside of my mouth.
I don't know what is going on here, and I'm scared. Not scared enough to go to the doctor and say "oh, look, I've got a bunch of Mystery Bruises," but scared enough to write this down. I don't know. Maybe it's nothing. But my body is falling apart on me and I don't like it.
Shit. This is just for the record: as of 19 Feb 1990 I am frightened because things are happening to me that I can't explain away.
What if? I ask myself. What if it's this, what if it's that?
I try to think of diseases that would make you bruise easily. The only word that comes to mind is hemophilia. Weak blood or something. I'm not even sure. My legs are still tingling from the run. I rub my hands across the unblemished tops of my thighs. Inspiration comes quickly. I know what to do about the what ifs.
I could test myself, test whether or not I really have been bruising easily. Simple enough. I push myself back from the desk and stretch out my right leg, making sure to flex. I kind of point my toe. Calf and upper thigh both tighten. See, now, it makes absolute sense to me that I were to punch my thigh several times -- good, hard hits -- and it remains blemish-free, then clearly everything is okay. The journal entry becomes something to laugh about, something forgettable. Ha-ha, stupid paranoid Robert.
If a bruise does form, well, hell. I don't know. Not that it makes a difference. Mind over matter, right? I won't let my body bruise because I don't want it to.
I make a fist. A good one. I focus on a spot on the middle of my thigh, a couple of inches below my shorts. I pound it. Twice. Three times. I use all sides of my fist, pounding with the bottom, then with my knuckles. I crook my pointer finger out in order to make a tiny knob. Again and again, and one last time. It hurts.
My leg throbs red. I'm smiling as I stand up, thinking how clever I've been. This will be a good test. One day is the deadline. Twenty-four hours. I will give it one day to turn into a bruise.