The Year I Was 25
I freaked out when I was 25 and moved to London. Things were not going so well for me there by Durban. I didn’t have a job or a plan or a functional relationship, and I thought I hated all my friends. If someone had asked me then where I saw myself in five years time, I would have lain down on the floor and wailed. I couldn’t read. Not “I did not retain basic literacy.” More that I couldn’t sit for more than five minutes with a novel before I got all breathless and squirmy with tension. Reading made me want to peel my skin off. I couldn’t read anything by anyone without comparing it to myself and my own non-efforts. It started with books written by women in their twenties. Then men. Then any woman of any age. Then all the men. And then all the dead people. So no books, then. It had never occurred to me, before, to berate myself that I didn’t have the kind of mind that could spit out Middlemarch or Lolita. But when I was 25, it was all I thought about. The monstrous egoism inherent in this did not occur to me at the time. I thought it made a lot of sense to hate myself because I was never going to write American Pastoral. What kind of a person thinks like that? The street name for this is “depression”. Instead, I went running a lot. I ate a lot of protein. I bought extremely expensive dresses that I didn’t wear, and fought constantly with my friends on gchat. I had no friends at all. I smoked like I was paid to do it, which meant that when I was running, I had to stop all the time and spit. I’d stop and spit, and one of my parents’ friends would drive past, or my Std. 3 teacher. They would give a cheery wave, and I’d imagine what they were not thinking. “There she is, Rosa Lyster, success story and friend to all. I’m sure that whatever she is doing with her life is fulfilling on every level. I bet she is three quarters through her definitely very good debut novel. There she is leaning over and gobbing in the road. She looks like she really enjoys running.” Of course I hated it like poison, running. Always out of breath, always bending my ankles, spitting rhythmically.
I hated it, but I needed to do it. I had this terrible excess of nervous energy that could only be dispersed with furious exercise. So: running. I’d run to my old high school and back, over and over, listening to songs I used to love. Volume as loud as it would go, and then ears ringing for hours afterwards. No one can think all the failure thoughts when the volume is that high. And running in Durban summer is distractingly horrible. It is so humid, it is so so humid, and we all complain about it tirelessly. We talk for hours about how it’s not actually the heat, it is the humidity, and everyone else is too sweaty to tell you to be quiet. I’d come back from runs on February evenings looking and feeling like I had been boiled. Steamed. It’s not even good for a person to sweat so much, or be so hot, especially when they are spitting out all their electrolytes. I should have been swimming, but I couldn’t do that, because you can’t listen to music under water. You can only listen to the hum and the fizz of your own anxiety. My swimming coach at school, the formidable Joyce, taught us the front crawl with one breath every three strokes. She taught us to kick with economy, and not to turn our heads too far to either side. Swimming training after school will remain the closest I ever got to meditating. Regular, even breaths and the drum of my feet in the water. I could swim for an hour and not think about a single thing. And then the year I was 25, I forgot how to do that. I couldn’t even do three strokes one breath — I kept repeating sides and crashing into the lane dividers. Swimming for exercise is solitary and isolating, and it felt like being tortured. I didn’t even like being under water for the time it took to swim from one end of our pool at home to the other. It’s not a very big pool.
All I did growing up was read and swim, read and swim. In order to do either, you need to be able to tolerate your own company. At 25 I lost the knack of being alone with myself for any length of time at all. I couldn’t read and I couldn’t swim, and I can see now that I was very weird to be around. It’s not really clear to me how I seized upon London as a solution. I didn’t have a job there, or anywhere to live, and of course I didn’t have any money. A lot of my friends were there though, very old and good friends who I hoped would feel contractually obliged to be nice to me still, even as an illiterate non-swimmer. I didn’t actually think about it very much at all, I just booked my ticket and stared forbiddingly at anyone who asked me what I thought I was doing.
I spent most of the flight walking up and down the aisle and doing half-remembered ballet exercises in the bit where the air hostesses hang out. I couldn’t sit in my seat because the guy next to me was writing a novel. He was going to London to see his parents, and then he had a residency at Bard. He told me all of this within five minutes of sitting down, and then he asked me what I did, and I said I was a yoga teacher. I said I wasn’t much of a reader. I forced myself to forget his name immediately, so that I would not have to follow the trajectory of his inevitable success for the rest of my life. When we landed, he passed me my hand luggage and smiled at me properly and sincerely. He wished me luck with all that yoga I was teaching. Obviously a nice man. I almost had to clamp my hands over my mouth to stop myself saying what I wanted: “I hope you fail. I hope your novel is a disaster. I hope you go home in disgrace.” The street name for this sort of behaviour is “monster”.
I arrived in London with only the terrible parts of my personality intact. I didn’t have any books with me, or my swimming things. My suitcase was only expensive dresses and jeans in impossibly tiny sizes. I was the thinnest I have ever been and you may rest assured that I was utterly thrilled about it. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t swim, I couldn’t even think about writing, but At Least I Was Jolly Thin. That I thought to inflict this version of myself on anyone at all is only evidence of what a state I was in.
My very dear friends in London, Mae and Dan, said I could have their living room as my bedroom for as long as I wanted. Mae offered this like it wasn’t any kind of a big deal, but even I could see that it was. First of all, they are married, and usually married people like to have some alone time. Second of all, they didn’t have any money. Third, Mae was three months pregnant. When I moved into their small, twisty flat just off the Camden high street, Mae had just emerged from the most radical and protracted period of morning sickness. Three months of just uninterruptedly throwing up. She said it was like having a hangover that never ever went away. Two days before I’d arrived, the hangover had lifted. Two days after I got there, it was spring. I kept telling myself that I should go running. I kept telling Mae what a good runner I was, so hardy and persistent. Mae, who has been my friend since birth, did not believe me. She could not see me as a runner — it did not fit with what she knew of me. We smoked our first cigarette together. We had puked in unison out the window of a club. I still have a cardigan that we shoplifted as a team. Mae knew me still for the gleeful little teen dirtbag I once was. Gleeful little dirtbags don’t go running — what would they wear? Wouldn’t they die? If pressed, she would concede that yes, I was a swimmer, or I had been. But she was incapable of buying the running thing. So I didn’t run. I think I was too embarrassed. Instead, we talked. The days got warmer, the daffodils wiggled their sweet little heads in the flower beds, and we lay on the floor in the living room and talked and talked. Not about anything important. Conspicuously not about what I was going to do next. We talked about people we knew. We talked a lot about why they irritated us. We told each other how great we were ten or fifteen times a day. We agreed that toast was the most pleasing food to have at every meal. We all three of us had just quit smoking (Mae because pregnant, Dan because keeping her company, me because no money) and so we ate a lot of sweeties. I chewed so much Tropical Burst gum my jaw ached all the time. We had popcorn for dinner, and I watched Mae and Dan argue about what to call the baby. Every single name sounded terrible, a curse visited on the unborn child.
Dan: “Why don’t you call it Mark? Why don’t you call it Gus? Why won’t you just admit that you want to call it Martin?”
Mae: “Why don’t YOU just admit that?”
Mae wanted them to call the baby Ziggy. Dan said that they would do so over his dead body. No child of his would have “Ziggy” on the actual birth certificate. He said it was fine for nicknames, but that was it. Mae said no. Whole days were eaten up this way. It got hotter. Mae suddenly looked convincingly pregnant, beach ball under the dress.
Dan: “Why don’t you just call it Bart?”
Mae: “I will if you call it Gary.”
I didn’t have anything close to a job. I couldn’t imagine where I would fit it into my day. There was too much lying on the floor to do. How, if I had a job, would I follow Mae to her job? She worked at the pub owned by a friend of ours, and I would sit for hours at one end of drinking fizzy water and fucking up the crossword. I still couldn’t read. It didn’t seem to matter that I didn’t have any money — popcorn for dinner is not expensive, and I had bought The Complete Book of Baby Names for 80p at Oxfam. My needs for the time being were met. It did keep getting hotter though. I woke up every morning covered in toast crumbs and sweating. They didn’t have a shower, just this tiny bath that was always slippery at the bottom from our conditioner. You’d get into the bath and slither hotly around for a while and then get out again, not very clean.
The flat was on Royal College Street, between Camden and Kentish Town. If you walked down towards Camden, you got Mae’s work and the locks. If you walked up, you got sad old Kentish town full of tottering alcoholics and thin, elderly ladies and mad people. The first week I was there, a mad guy at the tube station asked me for two pounds, and then spat all down my sleeve. After Kentish town, there was Highgate and Belsize Park and places like that. These were the bits of London that gave me despair — in every way the embodiment of the life I thought I wanted, and believed that I would never have. Highgate and Hampstead, full of rich lefty bohemians with perfect jobs at the London Review of Books, perfect back gardens with flagged paving stones and high walls, moss creeping up the pillars, dinner parties that started late, bedrooms with sash windows overlooking the graves of Karl Marx and Lizzie Siddal. I couldn’t even go up there. But Camden kept getting hotter. The daffodils were dying in their beds. There are not a lot of trees in Camden, and the parks are full of feral teens making out and yelling.
I woke up one morning and it was summer. The floor of the living room was covered in popcorn shards, and the bath was so slimy with conditioner that standing in it was dangerous. Mae was in the kitchen, making peanut butter sandwiches. She told me, without looking up, that we were going swimming. There was a costume for me in her bag, and apples, and money for the bus. I pictured how a public swimming pool would be on a day like this one. Not great. I raised a faint objection and she said that we were not going to any gross public swimming pool, we were going to the Heath. We are going swimming at the Women’s Pond, and do not argue with me, because it is hot and I am pregnant.
The Women’s Pond on Hampstead Heath is its own kind of miracle. You pay a pound to one of the kindly Australian lifeguards, you walk through birch trees and dappled sunshine, you feel like you came out of a book, and then there you are. It’s a proper pond, about the size of my old school pool. There’s a jetty, where the Australian lifeguards hang out and gaily blow their whistles at you. There are two lawns. It is just wall to wall topless women of every description. It is very much No Men Allowed. We found a place on one of the lawns, between an old lady with no top on drinking Babycham, and a girl about our age who looked a bit famous. No top on. She was reading Heidegger. These are just the facts. Everyone around us was reading, actually. They were reading the books that were big that summer (The Help and Freedom — everywhere I went somewhere was wielding a massive copy of Freedom in my face) and then they were reading the kinds of books that rich lefty bohemians are supposed to: Christopher Isherwood, J.G. Farrell, Joseph Roth, Susan Sontag. Some women, you could see, had given themselves a Summer Project: Middlemarch, finally. In Search of Lost Time. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina. Mae and I were reading Heat magazine.
We got all there is possible to get out of a copy of Heat (quite a lot), we ate our little sandwiches, our apples, drank all our water, and then Mae told me to go swim. Sometimes it is only upon reflection that you are able to recognise the turning points in your life. You need a few years’ distance before you can trace the patterns in things. Less frequently, you grasp the significance of something as it’s actually happening. That first swim at the Women’s Pond was one of those, where I saw as it was happening that it was going to be a thing in my life. First I stood on the jetty and looked at the water. Little midges skidding around on the surface, and dragonflies having sex. Women with their tops back on were doing measured, head-above-the-water laps. I thought about diving, and then worried about drowning. I stood on the jetty for ten minutes in Mae’s old swimming costume before I realised that I wasn’t thinking about anything for the first time in perhaps a year. I was just looking at the water and wanting to be in it. If this was a novel, the Rosa character would have dived into the water at this point. She would have dived in without a splash and surfaced at the other end of the pond, astonishing the Australian lifeguards out of their torpor. If this was a novel, the Rosa character would have become a Wild Swimming professional, and written a lucid and searing memoir about it. However. I did not dive into the water. I crept down the ladder of the jetty and gasped theatrically at the coldness of the water. This old lady rolled her eyes at me. I didn’t stay in for very long — just two laps of the pond. I flinched every time one of the sex dragonflies came near me. I got out and shivered, and then we went home. Every day though after that, we went back. If Mae didn’t feel like it, I went by myself. I swam and swam, and got not to even mind about the sex insects. Once I followed a family of ducks around the pond until they got scared of me. I bought goggles, but did not use them. All you could see under the water were frightening pond things, best left unobserved. I got really good at holding my breath. In between swims, I lay on the grass and flicked peremptorily through the entire Conde Nast stable. But there are only so many Vogues a person can read.
If this was in a novel, the Rosa character would give the exact date. Let’s say that it was the 15th of June. The Rosa character is lying on her towel on the second lawn, wedged between two lovely old ladies having a shouted conversation over her head. She looks down and sees that what she is reading is not the May issue of Tatler that she found under the soda. She looks down and realises that she is halfway through The House of Mirth. She flicks back and sees that she has read 100 pages, no problem. She has followed the story fine — she sees as well as anyone that Lily Bart is fucked.
I can’t remember the exact date. I don’t even know if it was June or July. But these are the facts. The year I was 25, I forgot how to read, and how to swim. And then I remembered again. I finished The House of Mirth on the bus the next day.