Will the vertigo again become acute? Will the stress of this, or some root cause that spurs it, end my life before it might otherwise end?
Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London
Lyell thought dinosaurs would return again, after epochs-long slumber. Saner heads thought Lyell a little mad, but understood “revolutions in the Earth” to be nonsense: Earth-cycles were rational, you see; they worked according to a preordained plan; it made all the sense in the world that lumbering lizards would step aside to make way for us because we were more perfect.
Like empires, species entered their dotage and declined. Or else, yes, God had a slow plan. History had a set course, an arrow. Anything but comets from the sky. Anything but luck.
Arroyos. A little shortgrass. Casinos appear and an overpass darkens our car. Inside the casa we find our friends and their friends distributed on chairs and sofas, watching a tattoo show: skulls, eyeballs, fantasy girls. The sound of it comes at me like a wall but that wall isn’t real—if I unclipped these hearing aids what seemed like heavy air would retreat back into the set, become quaint: a little chatter in a box.
“Want us to turn this down? Turn it up?”
“Subtitles, John? Let’s get subtitles for John.”
I listen to the conversation merge with the wall of words and music from the show, Competition butterflies itssocareerweatherpillow. I’m definitely freakintheroseoutofyourhair.
It’s fine. Life’s dull without mystery.
“Did one of you say dome?”
“Dumb. Look at that thing he’s making!”
I ask Mike where I should throw our stuff and he gets up to show me. Mike is a PhD student, a polymath. I can still keep up with such a person, mostly because neither of us is too concerned if we don’t understand what the other says.
“Due to your late arrival, you and Elisa did wind up with the smallest room,” Mike says. “But it’s got a bed. And a door! You have a door.”
I pretend Mike is a porter, handing him my bags. He pretends he is a porter and carries them into the small room. Stucco, skylight askew, the lines of its frame rounded to resemble adobe, like you could carve sharp corners but you hadn’t yet.
“There is a courtyard,” Mike said. It pleases him to show me around, so he takes me out back. The courtyard is pebbly, severe in the afternoon light, almost medieval—like lots of southwestern design—in its asceticism. I worry the kind of pleasure you’d find here is St. Augustine’s variety—where knotted rope is a sign of the devil’s work and only straight rope wards him off.
I say, “It’s like a monk’s cell.”
Mike pats my back. “The only way to go is up.”
As we move from the courtyard to the living room to the bar outside the St. Francis Hotel, we grow more excited about tomorrow’s trip. The balloons launch early—something to do with the early wind. Each of us takes turns trying to explain it. We’re staying in Santa Fe, so we’ll be driving an hour south. That’s a 4:30 a.m. wake-up.
“They’re not all balloon shaped. They’ve got houses, cats, like tigers—”
“I saw them on PBS when I was little.”
Everyone’s fine with sitting outside where I can hear. I’m so happy to hear their voices, I sit still as I can to listen.
“Is the idea you lie on your back when they take off, watch them all just appear?”
I make a joke: “You could do that, the rattlesnakes are probably still slow at 6 a.m”
I sip a Muscadet. Yes, my ears are bad, cottony and clicking from the trip, but such unsettling numbers of disabled people live in isolation, or can’t find work, or can’t get to work. Their rights are being rolled back. I know fate’s favored me relative to other sufferers for whom vertigo never abates: I can sit on this balcony, go to sleep next to Elisa, wake up, to be a part of something bigger than myself, even if it’s only a tourist fair.
I’m so happy to hear their voices, I sit still as I can to listen.
Mike’s looking at his phone. He starts to speak, drawing out the first vowel. “I— don’t wanna be a buzzkill but if we’re getting up at 4:30 . . . ”
The square’s not crowded. The ground has given up the day’s heat. On the walk to the house I trip over a sidewalk protrusion and realize, a moment after Elisa does, that there was no protrusion there. I saw a mirage. The ground isn’t steady.
“Are you okay?”
“Maybe yes, maybe no.”
She takes my arm as we fall behind the others.
“You only had one drink?”
“It’s not the drink.” It’s travel or it isn’t. It’s the spicy dinner we ate, or it’s something else. Back at the house, I lie down in the dark bedroom and the skylight unsettles itself to the right, to the right. I lie there without control of my eyes. Elisa gets ready for bed in the dark, lies down beside me.
I say, “This isn’t over yet. I can’t wake up at 4. I can’t . . . I’m going to be a wreck at the balloon fair. Oh Christ, we came all this way for this.”
Will these Vertigo episodes persist until they’re intractable—as happens to some sufferers? Will they leave me senseless and alone? Or, once my ears hear no more, will the dizziness stop for good then, too? Did I do anything to call this upon myself? Will total deafness come on me suddenly—waking up one morning with no sound in either ear—or will it steal over me by stages? Will the vertigo again become acute? Will the stress of this, or some root cause that spurs it, end my life before it might otherwise end? When will I hear my last strain of music? If harm befalls Elisa, will I be healthy enough to take care of her?
My therapist warns me against what she calls catastrophizing: “Sometimes your health may make something impossible,” she tells me. “This is unpredictable and it’s alarming, but that doesn’t mean that everything is impossible. It doesn’t mean you won’t have good days. It doesn’t mean you need to panic.”
She interrupts herself. “Do you know about the sympathetic nervous system? Do this—next time your heart is racing, do this.” She makes a temple of her fingers above her chest, both hands, lets them rise and fall against her chest like she’s miming the beat of her own heart. “Lub dub. Lub dub. Just like that, lub dub. One beat per second. That’s resting heart rate. If both your arms are as high as your chest—both elbows up, like this—your heart will slow down.”
“Because it’s all connected. It’s sympathetic.”
“I mean why me?”
She speaks slower, the way I speak to someone who’s upset. But we’re not upset.
“You know why this happened to you. It’s just bad luck.”
Accidents, coincidence. We’re careful with mirrors. We blow on the dice.
This is one of the reasons it’s surprising that even Darwin had trouble with Cuvier’s catastrophe theory. Darwin understood the role of luck at the species level: One kind of weasel didn’t become another kind of weasel because it was especially industrious or faithful, but because the environment changed and new skills were required to survive. Or because a few weasels wandered off from the pack and were forced into isolation. Or because the female of the species developed a kink.
I wonder if Darwin’s failure to embrace the catastrophe theory didn’t lend more respectability to the social-Darwinist argument from later years, “race science,” the ugly and perfectly American idea that the wealthiest own the largest part of virtue. Health becomes a virtue. Good looks become a virtue. If you flaunt it, you deserve to get it. Only haters hate. Justice is for the jealous.
Catastrophism puts paid to all this prosperity gospel: Species, it turns out, survive catastrophes for no foreordained reason. Likewise, I didn’t have to survive the crisis of my own life so far. I could have managed it better or worse, but the ways in which I did so would have been out of my hands. I believe this, even if I need to be reminded.
I sleep when the window high up quits moving. What seems a few seconds later, Elisa wakes me up without meaning to. She’s getting dressed, unzipping and zipping her suitcase quietly as she gropes for her clothes in the dark. The floorboards creek as she pads around the bed.
My hearing’s sharp in the wake of vertigo attacks. No one’s sure why. It’s always been like that. And so I hear Elisa’s voice at 5 a.m. without machines. I hear it the way I used to.
“It’s okay, sweetie. Just stay here and rest. We’ll be back in a few hours.”
I could come if I wanted, feel sick and exhausted at the fair, but part of living a good life is not heaving that strain onto others, not acting like I’m immortal. Letting them go.
Life has every mystery. This event I miss, the balloons in the air, the ecstatic moment, is merely one of millions of things I can’t access—the mind of a bat, the pattern of this small gust about to touch me. No one can visit all the cities—we take them on faith. We’ll never count the species that once survived on Earth.
I sleep without dreaming for hours.
I open my eyes. The room is white from the light cast by that one piece of glass in the ceiling. The clock says it’s nearly 12 p.m.
Amazingly, my ears are still good—not as good as when Elisa left the house, but the roar is so low it’s only nominally there. I can make out traffic sounds, the hum of pipes in the wall. I take up my headphones and my phone and make for that courtyard.
Late morning, late September. The air is hot in the dry way of an empty stove. Pebbles underfoot, iron sculptures half-made and half-found, a bit of bicycle. As I step outside something exits—a gecko?—I won’t know. I stare for a minute, waiting for it to return. Life is all around me, hiding. The ground beneath me is a library of which anyone can only read a part, a few shelves.
At the end of the K-T catastrophe, the asteroid that wiped out most of the life on Earth, a few animals managed to survive thanks to the pure luck of their habitat, their location on the globe, their source of food. Ten thousand years later—no time at all—and the Earth had recovered, albeit changed. The Earth was alive as it had ever been, but with new creatures, however subtly new. Indistinguishably new at first, they grew more strange with time.
I set headphones in place and re-sync them with the Bluetooth on my phone to play the track I’ve been saving for a moment like this: Anna Maria Friman, a Swedish soprano. The song is an Italian lauda, a Renaissance street song. This one, “Ave Vergene gaudente,” is devotional, probably to Mary (probably asking her to put in a word with Christ). I don’t speak Italian but I’m not interested in what the words mean so much as I am the sound of them, as Gavin Bryars set them and as Friman sends them up through the clear glass well of her voice.
There’s no shade. I don’t need shade—I’m pale as this page. I sit back in a wooden chair and send the volume up. I soak in the heat.
Ave. Vergene. The words, all vowel, liquid syllables falling over one another appear. The bells of my ears set them ringing through my body.
The silence behind her voice is beautiful: an echo at the ready, a vault or the sound of a vault. Like someone set a candle on the floor and the smoke rose and curled. You don’t see the wind without it—the wind’s too light to see.
Mike and Elisa and the rest will be back in an hour. They’ll tell me about the chaos of finding each other. (“We’re under the frog but the frog’s going due south!”) We’ll play two-handed poker, find a hidden door to the cellar. We’ll laugh at one another.
Alone for the moment, I tap the volume as high as it goes. I want to be enveloped. My eyes squint in pleasurable pain. Her voice gets sharp by going high. Every line opens with a thin loud vowel.
Desert heat, ancient music, I suffer a rush of awe.