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The nothing that is.

My sophomore year of college I signed up for a comparative literature survey class that sampled the great works of the Western world from Goethe to Garcia Marquez. I was fairly new to literature--I'd hardly read at all in high school--but over the past year I'd decided it was the most important thing in the world to me, something to which I'd swiftly and happily pinned my identity. This decision arose partly out of genuine passion; Dylan Thomas's poetry had moved me the first time I'd read it, and Chaucer's Miller's Tale had made me laugh out loud. But I also liked the idea of myself as someone who was passionate about literature, and even more, the idea of other people recognizing me for such passion, which struck me as unique and distinguished, a mark of my sophisticated and mysterious nature.

All this was part of a larger transformation I'd undergone over the past year, moving to North Carolina, quickly abandoning the New Jersey accent I previously hadn't even been aware of, taking my first tentative steps toward independence. It had never occurred to me before that an identity was something I could construct for myself. It didn't occur to me now, either, at least not consciously, though as soon as I was gone from my parents' house I was aware that no one around me knew who I was, or who I'd been, and that, given a little effort, I could be whoever I claimed to be.

The comp lit course description caught my attention, and I carried it around in my pocket over winter break, as if to remind myself of the person I'd become. On it were big books I wanted to tell people I'd read--Faust, Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary--along with others I'd never heard of but whose titles intrigued me: Dead Souls, Death in Venice. Yes, death caught my attention. What better subject for a nineteen-year-old obsessed with transformation?

Above all, though, I was excited about Kafka, who was then to me nothing more than a name. I knew he'd written a story about a man who turned into a bug, but I hadn't read that story or any others. Still, the name meant something to me. I associated it with mystery and weirdness and cryptic knowledge, and if anyone had asked I would have claimed to be a fan. That I hadn't yet read him was simply a matter of patience. I was waiting for the right moment. I didn't want to rush it, when I had so much to read for classes, though I did find plenty of time to read other writers, spending long hours in the stacks of the library, poring over The Waste Land and The Cantos, neither of which I understood and both of which I pretended to love.

Around the same time that I signed up for the class, a friend introduced me to LSD. This, too, was something about which I'd feigned knowledge, though when I finally experienced it, I was surprised to discover how little my imagination held up to this new distorted reality. The acrobatics and contortions through which the drug exercised my mind alternately fascinated and terrified me. I spent hours staring at the wiggling lines of my fingerprints, or at a textured ceiling crawling with neon death's-heads, and felt confirmed in my belief--copped from watching David Lynch films--that the world was stranger than I knew, that the reality I took for granted was shaky and porous, a mask for other realities lurking just out of sight. I was primed for further transformation, though a part of me resisted it, fearing that I might not be able to transform myself back. Delaying reading Kafka may have been part of my strategy for keeping at least one foot in the world I knew.

On the first day of class, though, I was disappointed to find that Kafka wasn't on the schedule until early April. It was now only January, but in the bookstore I'd already sneaked a peek at the first page of "The Metamorphosis"--indeed, a man turned into a bug--and then forced myself to wait. Patience, I reminded myself, though for the next few months, every time I dropped acid, I found Kafka's phrase "uneasy dreams" at the forefront of my frantic thoughts.

The class was taught by a twenty-five-year-old master's student named Hugh, a small, sad-eyed young man with bad posture who had a habit of pulling on his earlobes when he spoke. It was obvious from the first meeting that he was new to teaching and had no idea what he was doing. In fact, it clearly pained him to be standing at the front of the room, stared at by thirty skeptical undergrads, and for the first half hour he didn't even glance up at us. His voice trembled as he read out the attendance sheet and went over the syllabus. He muttered something about grading, then about not believing in grades, and then said, "Don't tell anyone one I said that." He gained some traction when he read us a poem--Baudelaire's "Spleen," I think--but when no one responded to his attempts to provoke discussion, he let us go.

I knew we were in for a rough semester, but as excruciating as it was to watch Hugh struggle through the hour, I still found myself looking forward to his class--more so than he did, I imagine--and it wasn't only because of the material. I felt an immediate affinity for Hugh. For one thing, he was a fellow Jew, short and slight, with curly hair to his shoulders and soft, mournful lips. He, too, was from the Northeast--Rochester, maybe, or Buffalo--but he hadn't lost his accent at all, and every time he spoke I felt a pleasant nostalgia for a world I'd happily left behind.

Unlike me, however, who in moving to the South felt instantly freed from the constrictions, real or imagined, of my childhood, who was enrapt by the shining smiles and glistening hair and wild laughter of the North Carolina beauties languidly lounging all over campus (the first girl I slept with in college was the daughter of a Statesville preacher, who to my delight and exhilaration and utter terror, told me that if her daddy caught us in bed together he'd shoot me in the belly with his Winchester), Hugh was clearly uncomfortable in his new surroundings, or more accurately, disdainful of them. He cringed every time one of my classmates read lines of Faust with a drawl. He often had to ask one kid, who came from a little town up on the Blue Ridge, to repeat himself, as if he were speaking another language. "When Faust cowls the dog? What do you mean?" To him they were all hicks and rednecks and yokels, no matter how well they could write an essay, and he soon began calling on me more than anyone else. And though I didn't have very interesting things to say--"I thought it was cool when the dog turns into Mephistopheles"--he appreciated my participation, always responding enthusiastically, pulling on one of his earlobes: "Yes! Yes! It is cool!"

What we shared above all was a love of literature so inarticulate that it had no place in the classroom, and certainly not in a classroom full of skeptical sorority girls, one of whom thought to ask why in the world Faust would make a pact with the devil in the first place.

Hugh only looked at her blankly. I imagined we were thinking the same thing: Who wouldn't?

During the semester I'd occasionally run into Hugh outside of class, in the cafeteria, or up on Franklin Street, and he'd greet me with a weary, sarcastic smile, one eyebrow raised, as if we were sharing a private joke built on mutual suffering. He was usually with a group of scruffy international graduate students, all of whom smoked and muttered indistinguishably in heavy French and Italian accents. "I don't know how you can stand it down here," he'd say, jerking a thumb at a restaurant he'd just left. "Nothing but hillbilly food. Their lasagna tastes like grits."

Away from the podium and blackboard, Hugh was far more eloquent about the books he loved, telling me why he'd always found the end of Madame Bovary so sad, what made the opening of Dead Souls so funny. He was more relaxed, too, making fun of one of my classmates who didn't know the difference between there and their and wrote a paper about the potential for Faust's salvation if only he would accept Jesus into his heart. It was clear that Hugh wanted something from me: to recognize that he was more intelligent than he seemed in class, maybe, that he reserved his true wisdom for only those who deserved it.

I wanted something from him, too, though at the time I couldn't have said what. Approval, I suppose, acknowledgment that I was serious and curious and distinguished in my desire for understanding not just the world I could see around me but the one I could imagine only with the help of books and drugs. One night, my brain sizzling with acid, I ran into him outside the library, and though there was a swirling screen of color between us, I thought I managed to carry on a reasonably lucid conversation, saying something about how I'd seen Raskolnikov's spiritual awakening coming the moment he committed the murder. Then I said, "I can't wait for Kafka," and Hugh raised an eyebrow, smirked, and twirled his cigarette in front of me, its glowing end a racing comet in the pulsing universe around my eyes.

"I bet you can't," he said.

Around that time I got arrested for smoking pot outside a concert hall and sentenced to fifty hours of community service. Transformation was in full swing. I felt unhinged, not from reality, exactly, but from the kid I'd once been, the person my parents wanted me to be. It didn't matter whether I was a literature student or a criminal; either way, I'd stepped outside the boundaries of the familiar, and my dreams did, in fact, grow uneasy, filled with snake pits and snapping dogs and policemen waving guns, and occasionally with characters from the books I was reading: Emma Bovary choking on poison, writhing in pain, calling out to me for help. I began locking my bedroom door at night and hiding my drugs in the battery compartment of an alarm clock I didn't use. For my creative writing classes I composed paranoid, incomprehensible stories, rip-offs of David Lynch movies.

When April finally arrived, I was disappointed again to find that we were reading only a single Kafka story and that we would spend only two class periods discussing it. I devoured "The Metamorphosis" in one sitting, without taking in much more than its plot--which I felt I'd already known--and then started reading the rest of the collection, which included all the stories Kafka had published in his lifetime. "The Judgment." "A Country Doctor." "The Hunger Artist." I was in the middle of "In the Penal Colony" when Hugh's class started, and I skipped it, sitting on a low brick wall outside the foreign languages building, smoking half a pack of cigarettes, flipping pages.

I can't say that I understood the stories, or that I knew what made them significant, but I felt them in a way that made LSD and David Lynch movies seem like cheap thrills. Now I could go on for pages about Kafka's genius, his humor and strangeness, his evocation of old storytelling traditions, his modern sensibility, but plenty of other people have done so far more intelligently than I can. At the time, all that mattered was that I couldn't stop reading the stories, that they were showing me something I felt I'd been looking for, though I didn't know what it was or why it was important. I could have kept reading all day, but I finished the book just as Hugh's class let out.

"Shouldn't you at least stay home and pretend to be sick?" he said when he saw me on the wall. His voice was a rasp, the bridge of his nose creased. I couldn't believe how angry he looked. When I told him what I'd been doing, his expression softened, but only slightly. He ran a hand through his hair, oblivious to my classmates streaming around him, laughing and calling to each other in a language he couldn't understand. I could tell he was warring with himself, still furious at my abandonment on the one hand, admiring my passion on the other. He'd obviously been dying up there without me, and it disturbed me to know how much he needed me to salvage his class. "Read on your own time," he said, and hurried away.

The next class I did my best to help him limp through a discussion of the second half of "The Metamorphosis," saying how amazing it is that Gregor's sister transforms, too, at the end of the story. "Yes, it is amazing," Hugh said, in a sweat, glancing around the room, hoping for consensus.

One of the sorority girls raised her hand. "But what in God's name does it mean?" she asked, her lovely twang making Hugh wince.

He closed his eyes for a second, shook his head, and looked up slowly. "It doesn't mean anything. It means everything."

I agreed with him, or felt that I did, though I didn't really know what he was talking about. If I'd been braver, I would have said so out loud, but I only nodded discreetly. The sorority girl tossed her shining hair over her shoulder and said, "That doesn't make any sense." Hugh dismissed the class, twenty minutes early.

On the last day of the semester he read from prepared notes, summing up everything we'd covered, reviewing for the final exam. He hardly glanced up. He didn't leave time for questions. To finish, he read us another poem, Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man." He rushed through the first two-thirds of it. He couldn't wait to be finished. But then, maybe realizing how badly he was mistreating Stevens's lines and rhythm, he slowed down for the final stanza: "For the listener, who listens in the snow / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." He didn't try to grapple with its meaning. With those words he let us go off into the rest of our lives.

One of the essay questions on his exam asked us to compare Raskolnikov's and Gregor Samsa's roles as antiheroes. I'd written my last paper on exactly that premise and felt guilty regurgitating the argument I'd already made. But I was also pleased to know that Hugh and I thought so much alike, that despite our difference in age, we were something close to equals. He was at the front of the room grading those papers and at some point glanced up and caught my eye. It was clear that he'd gotten to mine and realized what had happened. I gave him an apologetic look. He shrugged and smiled. It means everything, he seemed to be saying. Or else it means nothing.

That summer I stayed in Chapel Hill to do my community service. Rather than work on a road cleanup crew, I chose to serve my time at the local animal shelter. For fifty hours I played with kittens and scooped dog shit and made friends with kids who'd been busted for shoplifting, drunken driving, buying beer with a fake ID, none of whom wanted to talk with me about literature. At night I read The Trial and The Castle and wrote more paranoid stories and took whatever psychedelic drugs I could get my hands on. One night I watched my roommate turn into a witch, her boyfriend into a cartoon dog. My lungs exploded with every breath. After coming down, I hardly left the apartment until school started again, spending my days reading Kafka's letters and trying to make sense of the sparse, erratic notes I'd taken in Hugh's class.

Over the next two years I'd run into Hugh every few months, and he always acted glad to see me, though also somewhat chagrined, his smile sheepish and tentative, as if I had something over him, a secret he didn't want me to share. He asked what I was reading and gave recommendations, offering far more sophisticated interpretations than he'd ever managed in class. He seemed genuinely interested in what I was writing and said I should give him a story to read sometime. In turn I asked his advice about master's programs, to which he always replied, "Don't waste your time." Graduate school was the place to kill off all pleasure in reading, he said. "Go travel. Work shitty jobs. Write stories. That's what I wish I'd done."

Eventually I did give him a story, about an ex-convict working in an animal shelter. It had what I mistook for a Kafkaesque flight of fancy: the ex-con can divine the future from the smell of dog shit. The next time I saw Hugh--which turned out to be the last time--he didn't mention the story at all, and I couldn't bring myself to ask about it. I didn't want to know if he'd forgotten to read it, or worse, if he'd read it and didn't think it was worth talking about. This was in a bar on Franklin Street, and he was with his scruffy international crowd, and he was drunk. When he saw me come in with friends, he slapped the seat beside him and raised two fingers to the bartender, who ignored him. "Scott, my man!" he called, slapping the seat again. "You're almost finished. I envy you."

When I sat, he asked what I was doing after graduation. I told him about my plan to go overseas, first to the U.K., where I had a six-month work permit, and then to the continent, where I'd travel for as long as my money held out. I hadn't given up on graduate school entirely; I planned to apply to writing programs in the fall, but I left that part out. "Fantastic," he said. "That's fantastic. I'll put you in touch with some friends. I know people. Spain. Italy. Well, shit. Valerie." He turned to a girl across the table, pretty except for her pinched nostrils and morose expression, who blew smoke up through the crisp bangs hanging over her eyes. "You'll be in Paris this summer, won't you? You can put my man up for a few weeks." She shrugged, blew more smoke through her bangs, turned away. "She'll show you around," he said. "The real Paris. No tourist bullshit. I wish I could go with you. We'd have a blast."

His drunkenness embarrassed me. Not because I wouldn't soon be drunk myself--later that night I'd pass out on my bathroom floor--and not because I thought he was too old for such behavior, though I did consider twenty-seven old then, an age at which I envisioned myself mature and accomplished, no longer flailing for direction. The problem, rather, was that this picture of him--sloppy smile, flushed cheeks, wandering eyes--didn't fit with the image of Hugh I wanted to take away with me as I left college and traveled and contemplated graduate school, the one that provided some sort of guidepost to my future. I didn't want to be him, exactly, but I wanted to believe that it was okay to love literature so much you couldn't speak about it in front of people who didn't love it as much as you did, that being inarticulate didn't mean you were stunted in some way, doomed to remain in a childish state of wonder for the rest of your life. Above all, I wanted to believe that the identity I'd chosen was a noble one, and one I was worthy of.

But maybe what really bothered me was that he hadn't read my story, or didn't think enough of it to mention it, and as he swayed and blathered and failed to catch the bartender's attention, I felt a certain contempt rising, and superiority, thinking that he was in fact stunted and childish, and that at twenty-seven I'd be far more confident than he was, more articulate, a better teacher.

"Oh man," he said, and slapped the table hard enough to slosh his friends' drinks. They grumbled, and Valerie swore at him in French. "You've got to go to Prague!" He said it as if no one had ever thought of such a thing before, as if it were the most original idea he'd ever had. I'd already planned to go to Prague; it was one of the highest priorities of my trip. I gave a shrug as dismissive as Valerie's. "You can go visit Kafka." He leaned away and scrutinized me, sizing me up. "You know," he said. "You look a bit like him. You've got a lot in common." Again I waited for him to mention my story, but instead he raised his fingers and called once more to the bartender. "A little help here? Cuervo shot for the soon-to-be graduate." Then he lowered his head, maybe embarrassed for himself, and now he looked more like the person he'd been in front of the classroom, shy and humble, trying but failing to maintain his dignity. "I wish I could go with you," he said again. "Get away from all these hillbillies."

Why didn't he? I asked, though now he was the last person I'd want with me. Wasn't he graduating, too?

"Not me," he said, without raising his eyes. "Signed on for another tour of duty. PhD, R.I.P."

I couldn't believe how much this infuriated me. All his disaffection was nothing more than a pose, his identity, like mine, suspect, built on shady motivations and insecurity. Whatever transformations he'd gone through earlier in life had ended with dull resignation, with a career that didn't suit him, with friends who turned away in disgust. I couldn't wait to get away from him.

"Lay a stone on Kafka's grave for me," he said, as I began to rise. "And hey, keep in touch." He made me wait while he borrowed a pen from Valerie and scrawled an address and phone number on a beer-stained coaster. "Let me know what you're reading."

I stuffed the coaster in my pocket and rejoined my friends.

Fifteen years have passed since then, and now I don't often question the life I've created for myself. Mostly I can't imagine any other. I glance around at my shelves crammed with books, at titles I still find thrilling, and have the feeling that I was born into a world of literature, that these stories--Chichikov gathering his souls, Emma Bovary writhing on her death bed, Aschenbach yearning after young Tadzio on the beach--have been with me since I first managed to puzzle out the shapes of all the letters in the alphabet. That it might have ever felt otherwise I can hardly believe.

I no longer think much, either, about whether other people might admire me for my literary tastes, and in fact, most of the time when someone asks what I've been reading, I shrug and say, "Oh, lots of stuff. Some old friends, some new." And I've gotten used to the smirks my own students exchange when I lose myself in a discussion of Kafka's humor, or Chekhov's minor characters, or Babel's intricate sentences, or the magical opening of Mrs. Dalloway, which sends shivers of excitement through me no matter how many times I read it. They roll their eyes and snicker, and I know what they're thinking: How can he care so much about words on a page?

Occasionally, though, I catch a certain expression on one of their faces, a fevered look of enchantment, sometimes even concern, and in that moment, however brief, the world feels less lonely. Most recently I glimpsed it on the face of a young woman who came to my office, crying after one of her classmates made a hurtful comment about a story she'd written. It wasn't the comment alone that made her cry, she said--she didn't really care what that asshole thought; after all, his own story was a rip-off of a bad action movie--but rather the difficulty of ever getting it right, of ever putting down on paper what you really felt, what you wanted other people to feel. Her hair was long and stringy, her teeth slightly jagged, her face puffy from crying. I regretted, not for the first time, forgetting to stock my office with tissues. "I just wish people could see what I'm trying to do," she said. "I wish reading my writing was like reading my mind."

After she gathered herself, wiping her eyes on her sleeves and giving me an embarrassed smile, we talked about Lolita, which had been the inspiration for her story, and especially for her slippery narrator's voice. She'd discovered the book a month ago and since then hadn't been able to think about anything else. She was mystified by it, alternately delighted and horrified at her delight, and now she was reading it for the third straight time. "I could study it for the rest of my life and not figure it out," she said, pushing hair out of her face. And that's when I caught the look, clear-eyed and determined and somewhat startled to find herself in the grip of something she didn't yet understand. You could, I thought, and judging by your expression, you probably will. "It's not like I could ever do what he does. I should probably just give up. It's a waste of time trying."

If I thought she believed herself, I might have suggested she pursue other interests. Instead I encouraged her, telling her not to be too hard on herself, to remember that writing is a difficult process and doesn't happen overnight. I pulled down other books from my shelves for her to borrow and said that above all she should try to enjoy the struggle, to recognize what a privilege it is to have writers like Nabokov as models, to have something so brilliant as Lolita toward which to strive. Then I offered a few suggestions for her story and sent her on her way. What I didn't tell her was that she was at the start of a long journey, that it would often be a solitary one, and that she should look around every once in a while to see who was beside her on the path. Instead I kept quiet, and she walked out of my office with her eyes set on her shoes.

If she had looked up, I might have told her the rest of this story:

A year after I ran into Hugh in the Franklin Street Bar, I was in Prague. Once again, I thought I'd known what to expect, and once again I was surprised to find how little my expectation matched reality. I'd read guidebooks and looked at pictures, I'd spent months in other European cities, but nothing compared to the alternating waves of strangeness and familiarity, an uncanny sensation of having been at once transported to another planet and having returned to a place I'd visited in dreams. Even the hordes of drunk American college students on the Charles Bridge didn't undermine the feeling of mournfulness and mystery with which I wandered the maze of alleyways and trudged up to the imposing castle and ducked into the synagogues of the Jewish Quarter. I was still primed for transformation, more so than ever, though I'd mostly given up drugs by then. I'd turned into a bug and back, and I wanted to stay in my human body. But I knew from watching David Lynch movies that the world was as bizarre sober as it had been through a swirling screen of color, and I was as ready for it to reveal its secrets as I'd ever been.

For most of a week I haunted the streets around the Old Town square, sat in dark basement pubs, listened to string quartets in ornate baroque chapels. I was aware of Kafka's presence, but once again I was holding off, savoring my anticipation. Finally, on my last day there, I rode the subway out to the new Jewish cemetery, in a quiet neighborhood away from the city center. The caretaker handed me a cardboard yamulka. He was an old man with enormous ears, and he, too, looked familiar, as if he'd stepped out of an old photograph I'd seen years ago in my grandparents' apartment. For some reason I greeted him in Hebrew, and he smiled broadly and tried to sell me a cemetery map. "Kafka," he said, pointing to a fuzzy spot on a washed-out photocopy. Then he pointed at me. "Kafka, yes?"

I gave him a couple of coins, and he handed me the paper. Then he gestured for me to head in the direction opposite the one the map seemed to suggest. "Go," he said, shooing me with both hands. "Kafka. Go."

The stone was fairly simple, polished gray marble, chest high, with a pyramidal top, Kafka's name followed by those of his parents. I don't know why I should have been so disappointed. What had I expected? A gravestone shaped like an insect, or the date of Franz's death inscribed in flesh, like the punishments in the penal colony? I suppose I wanted something that marked his uniqueness, that distinguished his from the rest of the stones, which might as well have been the stones of my relatives in the Jewish cemetery in Queens, so ordinary were they, so indifferent to their company. It seemed all wrong for the great writer--or for anyone--to be set to rest in a grid of graves as vast and listless as the bureaucratic offices in The Trial, noted only by a smudge on a badly photocopied map. I tried to place a pebble on his marker, but it rolled off the sloping top.

I rode back to the center of town, unexpectedly despondent, and if there was ever a moment when I might have stepped off the path I was heading down, when I might have sought out another identity, an easier one, one that would cause me less anguish, this might have been it. What futile business all this seemed to be, stories that so few people read or understood, words neglected between the closed covers of books, their brilliant authors left to rot in out-of-the-way cemeteries, visited only by the occasional disheveled pilgrim who tried but failed to put a stone on their grave. I felt myself turning away, putting a stop to the transformation just before it entered its final stage. But then, as an afterthought, I stopped at the Kafka Museum. An entire museum dedicated to the writer was a far more appropriate monument, I thought, one that made the world seem less cruel, though I guessed it was also one that would have bewildered Kafka, and maybe embarrassed him.

But the first thing I saw there floored me completely. Printed on a placard just inside the door was the date of Kafka's birth, which hadn't been on his gravestone. July 3, 1883. I was born on July 3, 1973. Kafka's ninetieth birthday. I read it, closed my eyes, opened them slowly, and read it again. Then I laughed out loud.

I wanted to share this with someone, but the only person I could imagine telling I had no way to contact. I'd lost the coaster with Hugh's address or thrown it away. I hadn't called him before I'd left Chapel Hill and hadn't looked up his friend Valerie in Paris. I'd tried to walk away from him as definitively as possible, hoping his influence wouldn't linger. But I knew he would understand how proud my discovery in the museum made me, and how absurd I felt taking pride in something I'd had nothing to do with. He would have understood that when it came to figuring out who I was, I'd take any help I could get. But I was left to stare at the date alone.

July 3. It meant nothing. It meant everything.
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Author:Nadelson, Scott
Publication:Prairie Schooner
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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