I’m sitting in the Meadows while a western breeze blows the smell of sun-warmed earth and fresh cut grass. In the distance, the lawnmower is still whirring. A black lab with a tennis ball in his mouth pants and circles one of the trees shading me. Canned nitro coffee and oat milk is still on my tongue. It is the longest day of the year.
My horoscope said that this is a time for reflection, so I’ve been reflecting on the space between events—how it is filled by routine and domesticity. Before I raised my blind to let in the day that I’m now absorbing under this tree in the Meadows, I remembered my routine from September, October, when I woke up early in darkness and made coffee in my single cup French press and sat on the red couch for the four minutes it took to brew. I’d open my email accounts—personal, spam, and academic—read news headlines from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and check the pound to dollar exchange. I’d press my coffee, dash in some milk, and depending on my mood or how much I ate the night before, eat a bit of chocolate or a cup of muesli as I read or wrote. Outside the sky lightened from black to dark gray to blue gray and then white gray, and when the caffeine high wore off a couple of hours later, I’d change into shorts and a Dri-FIT shirt and run around these Meadows where I now write these words, down past the Medical School and along the Middle Walk, past students gathered outside the Sainsbury’s, to where the beech trees beckoned. I’d run a full lap, one point six miles, or a half lap with a few sets of pull-ups on the playground, keeping my eyes low, not resting on any child for long, though in such a civilized country I was no threat. Arthur’s Seat loomed in the distance, and I’d think about what to do after my shower, whether I’d die alone, what I would eat for dinner, whether this was happiness. I’d return home, shower, eat, have another cup of coffee, read and write, or on the days I had to go to my internship at the Talbot Rice Gallery, go there for four hours. Sometimes, on a really dreary day, I’d add up my time out of the house and see that it was only forty minutes, and resign myself to sitting inside, working on the red couch.
This morning, as I lay in bed waking on this, the longest day of the year—a break from routine in itself—and raising my blinds to let in the sun that has already been in the sky for hours—not because I woke up late, but because the sun rises at four-thirty in the morning at this latitude—memories of my earlier routine came to me in a reel, or rather as a single feeling of comfort and longing for what was not so far away but already gone. It was a feeling of banal transcendence. And so I emulated that routine to check my nostalgia. I got out of bed, made coffee, finished reading 2001: A Space Odyssey, ran around the Meadows. Did one set of push-ups on the grass, and another on the trunk of a tree that had fallen in a storm over the weekend. Peppermint-colored lichen rubbed off the bark and a red pinhead mite crawled nearby—what point did its bright color serve? I stretched my leg against the dead tree and remembered a hole in my sock I had noticed that morning, bigger than the mite but still too small for me to discard it. At first I thought it was a piece of almond skin; I’d been eating almonds over the weekend. But it was not almond skin, it was a small hole; the kind, I thought, that only exists on a well-made sock. An Italian sock, by the way, which I assumed to be of a
higher quality than my American ones; though my American dress socks, which I bought at the same time, less than a year ago, have no holes. I wondered whether the American dress socks were of a better quality than the Italian ones, whether I should be wearing dress socks to run in, if my running in them had contributed to the hole, or if I had worn the Italian socks more because I liked them better and caused them to deteriorate faster. I took a perverse satisfaction in wearing my sock to the point of disuse: a mix of dismay from knowing that soon the socks would be trash—nearly threadbare at the heel and ball, I’d probably throw them away before I returned to the United States—and pleasure when I thought of how this would lighten the load I was bringing home to my country—I have a twenty kilogram limit on my checked baggage—though two socks don’t weigh much. Having worn out these socks, which I’d bought just a year earlier, before I arrived in Edinburgh, was proof that I’d lived, that I’d used them till the end, and for some reason this made me feel like I was living well.
Do you hear me going on about these socks? As if there’s metaphysical meaning in my socks’ holes! Fuck’s sake!
But then, isn’t life just one beautiful sock wearing itself out?
Mars is headed into retrograde, so I am not beginning any new projects. I am reflecting, here, as I sit in the Meadows. This year I’ve been content not being close to many men. My male roommates were ten years my junior, more like little brothers, in a different stage of life, still coming to terms with who they are, still confused, not that I have it figured out, just maybe more than them; I’m older, after all. Other men I met I found uninteresting. Despite their various experiences, they were all white and of the same ilk; none could sit in a room and hold a conversation for more than twenty minutes without reverting to sports talk. Sports talk is for me a performance of masculinity: it’s easy, you’re with the team or against it.
Clyde Palmer VI doesn’t fall back on sports talk. Clyde is a half-English architect I know from college. He came to visit after seeing his family in Norwich last week. I’d not seen him for three years. This was a definite break from my routine. Now as I sit here in the Meadows, Clyde is back in New York, probably just home from the office. Back in his routine. It’s strange to resume routine after the kind of weekend we witnessed…
I met Clyde last Thursday behind the Scottish Museum, by the Darwin plaque. We walked around the city, commenting on the neoclassical architecture, ate some fish and chips and had a pint, and it was just like our college days. The plan was to visit Glasgow and then go on to the Isle of Arran, the island beyond the Firth of Clyde that’s supposed to best represent the features of Scotland in miniature. Micro-Scotland, if you will. We enjoyed Edinburgh for a few days and left on Saturday morning.
Clyde was searching for a souvenir for his girlfriend, Eliftheria, who had had to remain in New York to write her thesis. Whenever he traveled alone he liked to buy her a souvenir to allay his guilt of enjoying himself without her. Now, upon the eve of her graduation, Clyde wanted to buy her a charm bracelet, and we’d been to a few antique shops over the past few days before he decided that the best place to buy her gift was one of those chains on Princes Street. We woke up earlier to drop by on the way to the bus station and after he successfully purchased a silver bracelet with a book charm, we, in an almost-rush and as expert jaywalkers after having lived in New York for years, attempted to jaywalk Hanover Street when a bus
circled the statue of George IV and backed us onto the curb. The driver made a gun with his thumb and index finger, pointed at his temple and mouthed at us, “Fucking dead.” Clyde’s eyes were wide when they met mine and his pace quickened. We made the bus easily.
I’d only been to visit Glasgow for an evening before, on a return from the Highlands, and was unfamiliar with the city sights. Clyde was keen to see the work of the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Glasgow’s native son. The city was celebrating his hundred-fiftieth birthday with his mustachioed face bannered on downtown lamp posts. On the way to our hotel, Clyde and I stopped by Mackintosh’s Tea Room to see the art nouveau furniture and the Chinese Tea Room upstairs, with its bright blue pergola and disco-ball wall. We nearly joined the older ladies drinking tea but we had a lot to do; it was already past noon. We noted the chairs’ over-high wooden backs. “This is all reproduction,” Clyde said. “The original furniture and décor are in the Kelvingrove Gallery.”
A few blocks away was the Lighthouse, an 1895 brownstone tower which once housed the Glasgow Herald and was now a design studio, visitor center, and viewpoint. Clyde and I were talking about his upcoming move to Paris with Eliftheria, around the time I’d be starting my art history doctorate in Carolina. Eliftheria was the year below Clyde during their master’s at Columbia. As we stepped onto an escalator, I asked Clyde how his relationship with Eliftheria had bloomed. He faced me and brushed his blond hair off his high forehead. His gaze drifted above my head and then met mine. “It was the end of the night at a class party. I tried to kiss her after we danced together but she turned away. We had a mutual friend, and I started hanging out with him more after that. Maybe to move closer to her. One night we were all together with a bunch of other people and I asked if anyone wanted to see a film called The Saragossa Manuscript at BAM. She was the only one who wanted to go. So that next Friday we went. The movie was pretty long and boring—”
“Yeah, Napoleonic Wars, very quixotic, fantastic. Not really my bag. So after, when Eliftheria invited me to her friend’s birthday party at a bar, I was ready to go. It was much like any other birthday party at a bar in New York City, so at the end of the night, I asked if she wanted to come back to mine. She laughed and said no.”
The escalator had taken us to the third floor. Clyde paused before he went on, “I think I asked her outright because in the past I’d had opportunities like this pass me by and so I was eager not to let the same thing happen with her. But she agreed to a second date. After, we kissed. I knew better than to ask again.”
Again Clyde’s brow became heavy in thought, his blond hair fell over his forehead and he pushed it back. We circled around to the escalator that would take us to the fourth floor. I waited for him to continue, and when he did not, I asked what happened next.
“On our third date we slept together. Our next big step was Halloween. We were dating for six months or so when we were at this rave and she was taking ecstasy for the first time. So I was a little worried. Before she went on to the dance floor she said, Je t’aime. I didn’t know what to make of that, whether to take it seriously or not.”
The escalator deposited us onto the fourth floor.
“I was thinking about this for almost half an hour when she re-emerged from the dance floor and I said, I love you too. She laughed and asked, Have you been thinking about that the whole time?”
We had to take an elevator to the viewing gallery. “And to think,” I said as I pressed the up button, “that was almost three years ago.”
Clyde looked confused.
“Two,” he said.
I reminded him of when I left New York and he reluctantly acknowledged that he and Eliftheria had been together for more than three years.
“And now you are moving to Paris this autumn.”
“Yes,” Clyde said. “Eliftheria is fluent in French, and I’ve been taking classes.”
“You’ve never lived together before?”
An English couple approached, and in a very English way, I ceased my interrogation, afraid that they would hear my American accent and consider me loud and inconsiderate. The elevator doors dinged open.
From the viewing deck we took in the pyramids and steeples on the skyline. On the way down we stopped in the visitor center. Charles Rennie Mackintosh, despite being well-known during his life, fell out of fashion after the First War. At the time of his death at age sixty, he was commission-less. “What makes Mackie so famous anyway?” I asked Clyde. “And why did his reputation grow to such proportions when he died without a commission?”
“It’s a good question.” Clyde paused characteristically. “It mostly has to do with what happened after him, when modernism flourished and he was seen as an early adopter.”
I wondered what era we were in now, if there were any early adopters who might be famous in a hundred years, their faces bannered onto lamp posts in cities of the future.
People passed us in the light rain. I brought up how different Glasgow is from Edinburgh. “It’s more of a city here,” I said. “Grittier.”
“I’m still getting used to it.” Clyde checked his phone. “We don’t have much time to get to Kelvingrove. It’s a half hour walk.”
“Should we blow it off?”
“No, we should try to make it.”
We arrived with half an hour to see Dali’s St. John of the Cross—whose perspective he painted after hanging a Hollywood stunt artist from a gurney—the Scottish Identity exhibition, and Mackintosh’s original pergola from the Chinese Tea Room. Then we were ushered out. Too bad, really, but c’est la vie. Still, the Kelvingrove building is itself a masterpiece of Victorian architecture, with its mansard roofs and belvederes, turrets and cresting. We circled it and walked down to the River Kelvin.
“Look at those weeds!” I said. I pointed to a cluster that looked like magnified Queen Anne’s Lace.
“They’re Jurassic. I half-expect to see a dinosaur on these banks.”
“Yeah, like a large herbivore munching grass in the river. Hey, did you know that the river Kelvin flows to the river Clyde?”
We ascended University Hill, the highest point in the city. On University Avenue we walked onto the portico of the neoclassical Wellington Church, Church of Scotland. Alas, its sign proclaimed no minister.
“The golden stain of time,” Clyde said, as he touched its Corinthian columns. “That’s what Ruskin called this.” He rubbed the stone’s black patina.
“Ahh,” I said, seeing the layers of time.
Clyde crouched near the door’s threshold and touched where it was crumbling. “Hey there, big guy,” he said, in the same tone a vet would use with an old dog.
I thought this funny, how as an architect, he was immediately on more personal terms with buildings, whereas I appreciated them more with awe than familiarity.
“Ruskin was an interesting man,” Clyde said, standing. “A virgin well into his adult life. And he wrote against depicting pubic hair in paintings. As a judge in a Paris salon he awarded a prize to some artist instead of to Manet, I think it was, because of this. Legend has it that on his wedding night, before consummating his marriage, his wife took off her panties and he screamed.”
“Do you think that his life has detracted from his reputation?”
“To an extent.”
I considered to what extent a person’s life is inseparable from their work.
Clouds rolled in; the weather turned cool. We took selfies in front of a wide stone staircase that led to a block of three-story Georgian townhomes. “I like how angular these townhomes are,” Clyde said. “In France they’re very shhh,” and with his hands he made a loose billowy movement. “In England they’re very shh tsch shh tsch,” and he flattened his hands and then made as if to hold something. “But here they’re tsch tsch tsch tsch.” I knew exactly what he meant. Angular.
We entered a bar to watch the Portugal-Spain match.
It was the World Cup, after all.
We performed the requisite sports talk in anticipation of the match, proving our masculinity to the other bar patrons, all men. Clyde ordered me a Guinness and a Caledonian for himself. In the opening minutes Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps the best footballer in the world, had a penalty kick and lightly punted the ball in after the goalie dived to the wrong side. Minutes later, at Ronaldo’s second goal, Clyde jumped up and cheered. He was the only one standing. We are the only Americans in the bar, I intuited; it must be apparent to everyone. By Ronaldo’s third goal, we were satisfied to have witnessed a great game, an outstanding performance by one of the greatest footballers in history. We set out for our last stop for the
day, another Mackintosh building, his pièce de résistance, the Glasgow Art College.
We walked along a crescent street of tsch tsch Georgian townhomes. In the narrow windows, stacked between layers of sandstone, a couple watched TV, a lonely-looking man sat on a couch thumbing his phone, another made a drink under Corinthian columns with gold capitals. It was a street of prestige—the Art College was straight ahead.
“They’ve been renovating it since the fire in 2014,” Clyde said, pointing to the scaffolding.
“I heard about that.”
“It destroyed half the library. Thirty-two-million-pound renovation. That’s the new library,” Clyde pointed. On the opposite side of the street was a blob of aluminum and glass.
We continued to the undamaged east end of the original library, which looked like one of those tsch tsch Georgian townhouses had become a warehouse, with an elegant yet industrial brick facade. The sun had set an hour earlier, and the indigo sky now reflected in the three banks of windows, each some twenty feet high and ten feet broad.
“Those ornamental steel roses support the lower panes,” I said in awe. “I understand now why Mackintosh is so revered.”
“He added those art nouveau elements to suit this building’s purpose.”
“I’m so glad that this part of the library was preserved.”
“They controlled it before it reached this end.”
I meant it. If there was any doubt in my mind as to Mackintosh’s innovations, it was quashed as I stood in the presence of the Art School Library.
We circled the block, heard a loud bass beat from the college bar, and decided to enter. I called for a whisky in a turquoise bottle, Brawbruichladdie. We sat against the back wall on a black leather couch. A girl with multiple facial piercings and a shaved head with a pink ponytail joined her friends at a long table, who, dressed in oxfords and jumpers, greeted her warmly.
“What do you think of the people here?” Clyde asked.
We were two men sitting on a stage, facing each other on black leather couches. My eyes met Clyde’s. “Everyone seems pretty humble. In New York, art students think they’re too cool. Here you don’t have that. Everyone respects each other. Take that girl with the pink ponytail and the facial piercings. When she entered, no one blinked.”
“True,” he said. I was glad Clyde had asked me a question like this, a good whisky-drinking question based on appearances and generalities, which could lead us to discussion about this new, foreign place. “Everyone seems pretty happy here.”
“Maybe it’s how artists are treated in Scotland. It’s a very welcoming place for the arts.”
“I hope I assimilate well in Paris. I’d like to stay there a long time. Being around so much history inspires me, and I’ve been taking French classes, but it’s mainly the people I think of.”
“A lot of French people know English these days. Not like twenty years ago—now they prefer to speak English to save you from bastardizing their language.”
“Still, they have that reputation for being unfriendly and thinking they’re superior. Not like here.”
“True.” I smelled my whisky’s notes of caramel and honey, and with a little sip, chewed the hot liquid, rolling it on my tongue. Conscious that I was thinking I was too cool, I swallowed. I didn’t want to think I was so cool.
I stood to use the bathroom. I imagined living in Glasgow, meeting a Scottish love, being happy not thinking we were better than anyone else, visiting Clyde and Eliftheria in Paris, interrupting their happy European routine—
“Fire drill, everyone’s got to hurry up and get out, sorry mate.”
Clyde was waiting with my jacket. We moved into the night and a smell of burning wood. This was no drill.
“Everyone off to the side, please,” said a fireman. The other young people—if Clyde and I could be called young—some thirty of us, moved behind the cordon. “Everyone back up please,” said the fireman politely. For there being no water on the fire, he seemed very unconcerned. But we trusted his authority; they had this small blaze under control. What exactly was burning we couldn’t tell, but sparks danced overhead and orange light reflected off the blown aluminum of the new library opposite. There were gusts of heat, shocking in the cool Scottish summer. Young people in sweatpants were on their phones, “Oh my god, oh my god,” “I can’t believe it’s on fire again.” Their flip-flops clapped as they paced. Others swore how this wasn’t supposed to happen and stood, mouths agape, as they watched the blaze tower over the building that blocked our view. They’d been evacuated from their restful Saturday evenings.
“Come on,” I beckoned Clyde, “let’s walk around the street to see it.” When the east end of the library came into sight, which we had admired not twenty minutes before, it was a skeleton supporting an inferno. Firemen raced to attach hoses to pipes in the ground—faulty pipes—and urged the gathering crowd farther back.
Self-consciously magic-thinking, I wondered whether Clyde and I were responsible for this, whether by voicing my appreciation for the building I had conjured a spirit or ghost to—maybe the spirits destroyed the building after Clyde, an architect himself, appeared…Maybe he was to take up Mackintosh’s mantle...What were the gods trying to say?
To mitigate my shame at these self-important thoughts, or perhaps to diminish the importance of what was occurring before me, I took out my phone. I wanted to impress my friends on social media, to say I was there, so I snapped some pics, fulfilling my twenty-first century obligation to the simulacrum.
Then reality struck me: the entire library, Mackintosh’s masterpiece, was irrevocably destroyed. This hit me by surprise—its finality—and like Adam in Masaccio’s “Expulsion from Eden,” I covered my face and wept.
A fireman, probably embarrassed by my public emotional display, waited for me to cross the street. Then he yelled to his friend and rushed to attach the hose to a pipe in the sidewalk. I rejoined Clyde, who put an arm around my shoulder and rubbed my back as we watched the orange-hued smoke rise into the night sky. Two hose-streams fell on the conflagration, but at this point they appeared to abet the roaring fire. Sirens keened. More firemen urged us back, farther down Sauchiehall Street. We stood in a crowd on the corner until a local woman called out for everyone who didn’t live near here to leave.
“Come on,” I said to Clyde. “Let’s go.”
We walked in silence. I wanted to say something, but everything I wanted to say felt stupid. I clapped Clyde’s shoulder. “Pretty uncanny that we were the last people ever to see it.” Clyde remained silent.
“Maybe it’s because you’re an architect. Maybe Mackie’s ghost is telling you to carry on
Clyde shook his head.
“What does it all mean?!”
It was another few paces on the empty street before Clyde said, “I don’t know if it means anything.”
“Then why would it happen this way?” I cried.
I could only focus on the sidewalk cracks for the rest of our walk. It had to mean something, that we were the last ones to see it. It was as if the burning was a sacrifice—a gift of destruction, an exhortation to make something new in our lives. New beginnings? My return to America to pursue my doctorate in art history, Clyde’s move to France with Eliftheria for a career in architecture? Did it matter if it could so easily be burned to the ground? The answers—that it did not matter, that all art is vanity, even if it gives pleasure through symmetry and proportions, style and nuance, content and form, that my life is just as unimportant as a brick in a fire, that destructive forces can flare up as suddenly as a conflagration or wear me down through routine, cast me in time’s filthy patina—all of this depressed me, and we were silent until we reached our hotel.
Sitting on the couch in our room with glasses of Cardhu in hand, I felt slightly better. Clyde looked up the news on the internet. “The call came in to the fire station at eleven-twenty.” He looked at his photos. “I took these at eleven-oh-nine.”
“The only one I took was of it burning.” I looked into my whisky glass and drained it.
The mental exhaustion of so much new stimuli, the emotional exhaustion of weeping, the physical exhaustion of walking so many miles and waking up so early, the spiritual exhaustion of all that metaphysical vacillation—my unconscious mind will heal me, I thought.
“Good night, old friend,” I said. “I’m going to bed.”
I dreamed I stood before a field of water, a lake between low hills, near a mother and baby polar bear. The mother polar bear wandered off, leaving me alone with the cub, no more than three feet long, but already with sharp teeth. It approached me and bit my finger like a puppy, drawing blood.
Now, as I sit in the Meadows with this beautiful longest day of the year raging around me, I look up “meaning of polar bear dreams” on the internet.
Stamina. Worry. Spirit guide. A small polar bear means brutal passions out of control.
The day after the Art School Library burned, Clyde was already up when I woke. He peered at me from his bed, and read off his phone, “The building sustained severe structural damage. An expert architectural conservator said that it may have to be demolished.” Clyde faced me. “At least we won’t be in the city today. It’s a sad day for Glasgow.”
We took a train to the ferry at Brodick, where after some soup and sea air, I was more optimistic. Perhaps it’s the ancestral feeling that crossing salt water gives, the wind, the specter of a hilly island in the offing, the sun that stuck its fingers through the thick clouds and stroked our faces, or perhaps it was the simple movement—the best way to forget sadness?—which made me excited and eager to put the events of last night out of my mind.
Once we disembarked on Arran we then had to take an hour bus ride to the west of the island, to Machrie: home to the Standing Stones. We walked a sandy trail for a mile into the island’s interior, crossing lines of fairy trees, fields of gorse and tallgrass, to three monolithic basalt stones erected for ancient kings and queens. Each one weighed a few tons and was cut and hauled from the seashore thousands of years ago. When I considered this against how the night before an assemblage of stone a hundred and twenty years old had died, I told mysel