by Greg Stevens
A story of college life, philosophy, the cost of love, and mental illness.
Joshua had the look of a thing delicately made. At 17 years of age, his skin was pallid to the point of translucency, matching almost exactly the shade of his white hair. A slight upturn and fullness of the upper lip, and a similar upturn in his unusually small nose, combined with angled cheekbones and large eyes to give his face a slightly "pinched" quality. The end result was neither particularly attractive nor particularly unattractive, merely unusual. Or, when discussed in politer terms, "striking."
Elizabeth introduced him to me as her new love interest, or possibly her new gay friend. She was not yet sure which. She described him as intensely dedicated to his studies: a second-year musical composition major at a local musical conservatory that happened to be world-renowned. Intelligent, slightly shy and socially awkward: In other words he was, in every possible way, Elizabeth's "type."
Orchestrating a casual meeting with Joshua was difficult. At first I attributed this to the nature of his studies, and perhaps in part his personality. But over time I sensed another reason as well. Elizabeth expressed a kind of protectiveness with him, despite her articulated desire for us to meet. "You are both so intelligent! I'd love for you two to talk," she would say to me, "but not just yet..."
The first time I met him was purely by chance. He and Elizabeth were on their way out for the evening, and we exchanged brief words of greeting, no more. He had the manner of one who hungered for respect, and deserved respect for all of the things for which college students traditionally had none. But both of us expressed interest in getting together to talk, if only our schedules would allow it.
But before that was able to happen, Elizabeth came to me with a concern.
"I'm having some doubts about Joshua," she said. She hemmed and she hawed and circumnavigated the point for a while. Eventually she said, "He believes in absolute morality."
"Really?" I gasped, mustering all of the shock of a 19-year-old Philosophy Major. These are the concerns of liberal arts undergraduates at the universities of the North East. But my eyes narrowed slightly as I looked at her. There was more going on behind her words, things that she wasn't willing to say. "Well, now I really do want to talk to him."
An unusual fear flashed briefly behind Elizabeth's eyes. Did I imagine it? But she said only: "Yes... but don't push too hard." When I asked her to explain, she said, "You'll have to listen to him for yourself."
So it came to be that Joshua and I talked. It was the type of conversation that didn't require much prodding. I was one of those college students who spent the nights awake with friends, slouched on the decaying sofa in the second floor lounge of the fraternity house, arguing about mind, morality, and the nature of existence. Naturally, being college students, we knew that there was no true and correct answer to these questions; and so we basked regularly in the light of our own wisdom that illuminated the face of an ambiguous universe.
The conversation began innocuously enough. During the early parts of it I found myself paying closer attention to his manner and his face, than to the things he was saying. He was skittish and thin, although not unhealthy of mien. His hair was shorter in the back and long in the bangs, parted with a careful swoop to one side, as was fashionable for young men in the final years of the 20th century. His dress seemed more meticulous than necessary for a young man in college, and certainly was more pressed and proper than my own.
He did seem out of place, sitting on the beer-stained sofa, and I was reminded that he wasn't (strictly speaking) a student at the same school as me. He was a musician at the conservatoryâ€”an insular society of its own. This made him an outsider here, as well as in the world at large, even more than the fact of him being in his second year of college at the age of 17. Music majors... well, we all know what is said about them.
At any rate, I was thinking about all of this while we engaged in some introductory chit-chat about our backgrounds and world-views, each of us testing the other with terms and names to find out what he knew. Sure enough, he insisted that some things are "objectively right" while other things are "objectively wrong" and that it isn't up to the individual or society to decide. As my standard response I asked him how one can know, and who can claim privileged knowledge, when suddenly Joshua offers up,
"If you do something wrong, then They will know about it."
The sentence gave me a chill on the back of my neck. Something about the way I could hear the capitalization of the word "They" made me stop short.
"Who will know?"
His eyes, previously flitting about the room here and there, now focused directly into mine as he answered. "They, the ones who are watching us."
A shadow passed over me in that moment. Elizabeth had asked me not to be aggressive when talking to him, but it turned out that there was no need for her entreaty. Something in his tone, his manner, and his facial expression sent ice into the animal part of my brain. Without even thinking about what I was doing, I changed the subject. Moments later even my memory retreated from the event, and I could not call up the blackness that I had seen in his eyes, except much later by an act of deliberate will. I would look back on it and decide that it was an instinctive reaction to hearing the words of someone who had revealed a shard of insanity lodged in his soul.
At the time, however, it struck me as merely odd. "Something is amiss," I said to Elizabeth later, "Something is askew." I was quoting a line from a television show, but she didn't notice. I think she also was in retreat from the strangeness that she had detected in Joshua. And after all, why not? It was nothing concrete. A slight philosophical quirk. It was easy to dismiss as an eccentricity, especially in a boy who was already known to have so many.
Their dating life continued, still somewhat clandestine, with Elizabeth admitting that they spent more time cut off from the world than around other people. How unusual is that, though, for teenagers in love? They talked about music, they talked about politics, and I was assured that everything was fine.
Until the next conversation that I had with him. It was some months later, and he seemed to materialize from nowhere, looking as anomalous as ever in our fraternity house. This time there was something cartoonish about his appearance, although I could not quite place it. His eyes could have been drawn slightly wider than before, or his hair more spiky: like a surprised anime character appearing on some high-numbered television channel on Saturday morning. His Oxford shirt was unbuttoned to two places, which for him was itself almost a cause for alarm. But that was nothing to the words that came from his mouth.
"I met One today," was how his speech began, although I will not attempt to replicate it word-for-word here. There were many starts and stops, and many repetitions, but the gist of it was this: there are Those in this world who are as far above us as we are above the dead, he said. We are like shadows, or dead people, to these Others. They are the Ones who know everything you do, and know if you do wrong. They control everything, and we have no free will, because they are always watching. Watching and judging, and there is no way to hide from them. And he met One today, he said.
"We are like the walking dead, compared to them" is a sentence that Joshua repeated several times in his rant. Although he spoke continuously for almost ten minutes, I only dared interrupt him once to try to break him out of his soliloquy.
"Wait... if we don't have free will, how can we do anything that is wrong? How can they judge us, if they control us?"
My attempt to insert logic, however, went unanswered. He continued to explain to me hastily, as if he thought he might be stopped in mid-sentence at any moment by forces unknown, that we are like shadows on the wall of a cave, and They are the only true, living beings in the world. And They will punish us if we do wrong, and They always know. They always know.
Joshua's manifestation ended as suddenly as it had begun. It was not as if he had come to a conclusion or made a point; it merely seemed that he had been summoned elsewhere. He excused himself, and left me to my own confusion. The horror and fear that I felt was like nothing that I had experienced in my life before, and it defies any attempt to describe it.
It is one thing to talk about people being deluded, when all you really mean is that they disagree with you. It is another thing to read about people who are insane, and imagine fancifully how interesting their mental lives must be. But it is quite another thing to be confronted with the earnest conversation of a person who sincerely and absolutely, to the core of his soul, is living in a nightmare that you will never, ever be able to understand.
After a moment, I called Elizabeth.
Elizabeth had apparently had similar experiences over the last few weeks. We spent some time holding each other. More accurately, I spent time holding her. She had been gradually becoming more attached to Joshua, while he had always remained only a curiosity to me. So I held her, and my mind raced furiously considering what this might mean, and what we should do.
"He doesn't talk like that all the time," Elizabeth insisted. "Most of the time he's normal. Well, no, not normal. He's just... Joshua. But not like that. We have a lot of fun together..." Her voice trailed off. Elizabeth and I had been having a number of conversations like this, over a period of a week or so. They always ended in ambiguity.
"Do you think something is wrong? I mean, actually wrong?" I asked.
"He's so smart," Elizabeth evaded. Then after a pause: "I'm kind of scared to mention it, or even hint. I'm afraid of what his reaction might be."
"Afraid for you?" I asked, with real concern this time.
"No, no... It's just that, if he pushes me away, who will he have? I mean, if there is something wrong, I don't even know that anybody else would notice. So I have to be there for him, you understand? I mean, in case something is wrong..."
There was nothing to say to that.
Unfortunately, the next escalation was only a couple of weeks later. This time its entrance into my life came in the form of a telephone call from Elizabeth.
"I think he's going to... I mean, he's been talking about killing himself, and I think he might come to you asking some questions..."
"Come to me? Why?" I was truly alarmed. Not so much for Joshua, but more about the specific inclusion of myself in the entire matter. In most ways, I still thought of the whole Joshua Matter (as I thought of it) as being like a play that was going on around me. Only partially real.
"Well, he knows that you know things about drugs. He knows you can get them. I think he might come to you asking for advice, but you absolutely cannot help him."
Horrified, I stammered, "Well... no... of course not... I mean, I don't think I even could!"
"Promise me that you won't tell him anything that might help him. Please."
"Elizabeth, don't you think you should tell someone about all of this?"
"No, I've tried. I mean, I tried contacting the student hot-line here, and they said that unless I think there is an immediate danger to his life, they can't do anything."
"Well, what would they do if there were an immediate danger?"
"They would come and pick him up! Can you imagine how horrifying that would be for him? No, I can't do that. Not when he hasn't actually done anything. All he has done is talk. He's just... I mean, so far he's just asking questions. Talk to him. But don't help him."
Sure enough, Joshua materialized at my dorm room door once again. And he was blunt.
"You know about drugs, right?" he said by way of greeting, while still standing in the doorway.
"I know some things. About some drugs," I evaded. "Why?"
"How much... I mean, if someone, hypothetically, wanted to die, what would the best way to do that?"
"Joshua, I'm not going to talk to you about that."
"Don't worry! I'm not going to do it. I'm just curious."
"Elizabeth said something to you, didn't she?" his eyes narrowed. Then, suddenly he took on a pedantic tone. (Some slight manipulation, I wondered? Surely he's sensed in our conversations that I respond well to abstract dialogue.) "Think about it, if I really wanted to kill myself, would I be so open and blunt about it? Asking bluntly about it is the last thing I would do!"
"Unless you already planned saying exactly that, as an explanation, ahead of time," I said looking coldly back at him.
"Touche," he said, looking me in the eye. He looked away, "But anyway, I was just wondering. For example, Elizabeth told me you can get LSD. How much LSD would you have to..."
"You can't do it that way," I said firmly, "People don't physically O.D. on LSD." My anger was drawing me into the discussion, but another voice in my mind already was reprimanding me: don't get pulled into this!
"Well then how?" insisted Joshua. "What else do you do?"
"I don't do anything that you can O.D. on," I lied. "And I wouldn't tell you if I did."
"I don't need to get this information from you, you know," he sneered. "I could just take sleeping pills!"
I nodded. "Well, there you go, then."
"Do you know how many I would have to take?"
I almost laughed out loud, because it was so comical. So comical, and yet so not. All at once, I became angry. "Do you have any idea how rude you are being? How dare you?" He recoiled a bit from my raised voice, clearly not having anticipated this reaction. I continued, happy to have him off his guard and on the defensive.
"You are being unbelievably selfish!" I accused, raising my voice just enough that anyone on this floor of the house would be able to hear me through my open door. "Do you have any idea what affect this would have on the people around you? On Elizabeth? How dare you!"
For a moment I thought he would fire up, to match my anger in retort. But instead, he bowed his head, and spoke quietly, "You don't know. You don't know." And with those words, he left.
Two days later, a telephone call from Elizabeth: "You should see him! Something is very wrong. He's... he's shaved his head. When people ask him why, he says that he is in a prison camp, and that he doesn't own anything. He told me that he doesn't have the right to have hair! He keeps saying he doesn't have a right to own anything. He told me that if he lives in a prison camp, it's only appropriate the he look the part. I think he's getting thinner, too. I don't think he's eating. He used to only say these things to me, but now he's saying it when we are around other people, too. I'm really scared."
"Keep an eye on him," was my only helpless response. What else could I say?
It didn't take long. And it wasn't in the middle of the night. One always expects these things to happen in the middle of the night, but in this case it was actually mid-evening. Elizabeth had told all of the people that regularly came into contact with Joshua to keep an eye on him, and so he was discovered fairly quickly. Emergency services broke down the door to his room and left Elizabeth with a name of a hospital to visit later in the night. You would think that the small details of that moment would be burned into my brain: perhaps the look of the door, perhaps the expressions on our faces, or the outfit worn by the health workers. But no, that event is almost a complete blank to me now.
The image that was burned into my mind, so that I can see it clearly even now, more than two decades later, was the next time we saw Joshua. At the hospital.
The hospital room was large. Or maybe it only looked large. The walls were pale green and completely barren, free from window, picture, or any kind of decoration or device. The wall-to-wall fluorescent lights were embedded flat in the ceiling and cast a sickly, uniform glow that was just bright enough to seem painful, without actually being painful. The floor was empty, except for the chair in which Joshua was sitting, placed exactly in the center.
He looked frail. Sitting in hospital clothes that matched the walls, he almost disappeared. His stick-like arms and legs were folded up, knees and elbows touching as he slouched forward. He really did look like a prison camp victim. I could clearly make out the bones in his hand, the indentations on the sides of his forehead, the ridge of his spine on the back of his neck. His colors were all wrong. In the inhumanly artificial fluorescent lighting, his pale skin cast faint green and blue shadows on his features. His eyes were red and blood-shot, and his mouth hung open with an expression of utter bestiality. But the worst part was the ring of pitch black around his mouth and on his lips, dribbling down the front of his clothes, and smeared onto the sleeves of his shirt. They had fed him charcoal to neutralize the poison he had taken, and he had been throwing it up onto himself.
Elizabeth spoke to him. I could only stand there and watch, and listen to the whispers shared between them too softly for me to understand. Which was fine by me.
I will admit that after that I disengaged completely. I had absolutely no use for the sinister forces that I had seen manifesting themselves through Joshua. I had classes to take, games to play, parties to attend. It had touched my life only as a curiosity, and only because of Elizabeth.
She gave me an update a week later. I forget whether I asked or she offered, but I suspect that she offered it unprompted. Joshua has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, she told me. They forcibly medicated him, and had him institutionalized in a juvenile ward.
It took me a moment to process that, until I remembered: Joshua was 17. Lord, how horrifying. What utter and complete horror. Can you imagine being a young man so intelligent that you are in your second year of college at the age of 17? Then, imagine you are suffering from paranoid delusions that are so real that even in your extreme intelligence, you cannot talk yourself out of them? You believe that the world is controlling your movements and watching you all of the time, and that you are surrounded by shadow-people. Now imagine that you are locked in a mental hospital with children. You are assigned mandatory play time for a certain portion of the day.
Suddenly, all of Joshua's delusions had become true. He had no right to own anything. He was not free to do what he wanted. And he was being watched all of the time. According to the letters that occasionally came to Elizabethâ€”arriving often at first, but of course dwindling over timeâ€”he retained the razor-sharp intelligence that he had always had. Through the haze of the forced medication, he even observed: "The painful irony is that my punishment for believing things that were untrue, is that now those very things have been made true after all."