I was sitting at the window of a crowded café when a stranger approached and said hello. In fact he was not a stranger at all, but a man I had known when I was young. His name was Henry, and I had once considered him my closest friend.
I let him stand there for a few minutes, waving his arms while he rambled on about the wonderful days of our youth. When he finally fell silent, I told him that I had no idea who he was. And when he bent down in front of me and reached out his hand, I shook my head and leaned away. “No,” I said, “I am not the man you think I am.” Red-faced and flustered, he asked forgiveness for his mistake and hurried out of the café.
I have spent all week reflecting on this incident, examining it from every angle of my memory, searching for some hidden detail that might explain my behavior. But no such detail has emerged, and the more I search for it, the less I trust my sanity. Now, as I sit at my desk in the middle of the night and put these words onto paper, I fear that I am falling into madness.
As young men, Henry and I talked about insanity as if it were an exotic island we might escape to if the requirements of society became too difficult to bear. We spoke fondly of that most eminent madman, Friedrich Nietzsche, and even went so far as to imitate his antics: I arrived uninvited at funerals and introduced myself as the deceased; Henry grew a preposterous mustache and referred to himself as “the Crucified.” We memorized long passages from Zarathustra and recited them to strangers on the street. It was all an act, of course—an act of two callow romantics in search of a purpose. It seemed harmless at the time, but now I see it as a symptom of something sinister, a warning that I would one day lose my mind.
To lose one’s mind—what a ridiculous idea! As if a mind is something that can simply be misplaced; as if a mind can wander off, as a child or a dog might; as if a mind is something one can wager in a game of cards. No, insanity consists not of losing one’s mind, but of possessing it at the expense of everything else. And that is exactly what I’ve done. My thoughts are all I have now—my thoughts and these words, these silly symbols I scratch onto paper, line after line, page after page, as if doing so might solve the problem of my peculiar existence.
But my friend deserves an apology, not a disquisition on my mental health. I hope he will believe that I am sorry—sorry for how I behaved at the café, sorry for walking away from our friendship so many years ago, sorry for not returning his letters or calls, sorry for not coming to the door when he visited. I retreated so deeply into my own existence that I forgot how to act among other people, even my closest friends. I became so proud of my solitude that I let it estrange me from the things I loved. Behold, then, the man that I’ve become: an irritable old hermit lost in thoughts of loneliness and despair, repentant for my past but still too stubborn to change my ways.
Perhaps my behavior at the café can be explained by an encounter last month with my cousin Anthony. He was at the arboretum, sitting in the grass with a small dog in his lap. I did not recognize him until he stood up and called out my name.
“I didn’t expect to see you again,” I said as he approached.
He smiled but did not reply.
“Do you live nearby?” I asked.
He responded with an uncertain gesture, a convulsion of sorts, part nod and part shrug. “I come here sometimes to escape the city,” he said. “It’s a peaceful place…”
His words scattered with a sigh. I wanted to look into his eyes, but he kept shifting them from one thing to the next, unduly distracted by our surroundings. His dog scratched at its ear with a muddy paw. In the distance a little boy screeched with delight as his father chased him around a picnic table. Anthony bent down to stroke the top of his dog’s head, and only when his face was hidden from mine was he able to speak again.
“I thought you moved away,” he said.
“No,” I replied. “And you? Have you been here all this time?”
He stood up suddenly and appeared to be on the verge of asking me an urgent question, but then he sighed again and his body went slack.
“I’ve never left,” he said. “My father moved away when my mother died, but I stayed.”
His father was a famous novelist. This had fascinated me as a child, and whenever I visited Anthony’s house I found reasons to linger outside of his father’s study in the hope that he’d invite me in. But he never emerged, and as I think of him now I am not sure if I ever saw him in person. (I remember a black-and-white photograph on the mantel in their living room—or was it on the back cover of one of his novels?—showing a bearded, narrow-eyed man with a broad forehead and a crooked nose.) Though it caused his wife and child considerable distress, he spent all day in his study, surrounded by books, talking to himself while inventing his imaginary worlds.
“Is your father still writing?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “but only for himself. He’s almost ninety now. He hasn’t published a book in fifteen years.”
“I always admired him.”
“He is a good writer, but not a good person. I imagine it must be difficult to be both.”
He gazed into the branches above our heads and rubbed his hand across the underside of his chin. Far behind him, the little boy laughed as his father pulled him into an ungainly embrace. Suddenly I wanted to be elsewhere. I could hardly bear the sight of my cousin, hunched as he was in his apologetic way, with his flushed cheeks and sparse hair and swollen torso. It seemed impossible that he had once been a boy, that he had ever been free from the past. But I suppose he must have thought the same of me. Standing before him in my sad way, I too must have looked as though I’d come into the world as an adult, as though I’d been born a middle-aged man, with bags beneath my eyes and stubble on my sallow chin.
We walked through the arboretum for a while, following the erratic path of his dog. Our attempts at conversation were halfhearted. He answered my questions reluctantly and asked me none in return. Eventually I had to invent an appointment I was late for, otherwise we might have walked in circles forever. As we said goodbye he became distracted again by our surroundings. His eyes alighted on various things—the chain around his dog’s neck, an abandoned backpack in the grass, a plastic bag in the branches of a tree—but never on my face.
I left the arboretum feeling sick with nostalgia, and when I saw Henry at the café a few weeks later, I still had not recovered. And so I denied him—not out of malice, but simply because I did not want to accept the disappointing legacy of our past. If we remained strangers, I thought, perhaps we could preserve our youth as a pleasant memory; perhaps we could pretend that our daydreams had never surrendered to reality. For I am ashamed of the man I’ve become and the life I’ve retired to—a life of vapid distractions and useless routines. The days go by, the weather changes, I pay my rent and read a book or two, but nothing of any consequence occurs. There is a moment each morning, around ten or eleven o’clock, after I’ve had my breakfast and my first cups of coffee, when the world seems to falter and pause, as if to catch its breath or change direction. Everything falls silent and still, and in this brief suspension of time I am able to glimpse the truth of our tragic condition. But it is only a moment, and soon it has passed. The world lurches forward again, and I am overwhelmed by a sudden influx of sensations. My abstract ideas of tragedy and truth are displaced by trivial details: the rattle of a teacup in the cupboard, a cobweb swaying in the corner, a spot of rust on the stovetop, a drop of water on the windowsill, a fragment of speech from a neighboring apartment. Life is a parade of meaningless perceptions. Why do we struggle so stubbornly to prove otherwise?