There was a time I believed in curses. Amid the pageantry, the masquerades, the gothic cathedrals, the midnight boat wanderings, the pints and decanters, the effigy burnings, and the intellectual pretension and false rigor of Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, Alice’s curse radiated through my mind, contaminating everything. Her hex, a curse poem given as a breakup present the day before I left for England, said that I would “take leaves into my mouth” and “never recover”—whether my love for her or my mental stability, I didn’t know. Suffice to say, in that curious snow globe world that is Oxford, I was obsessed with two things: the prospect of never recovering and leaves.
October, the beginning of Michaelmas term, was the perfect time to gather leaves. I strolled down the cobbled alleys, navigating the diminutive gateways and secret turnings with a friend, Cata, who always carried an umbrella rain or shine, using it as a walking stick when she wasn’t pointing with it to draw my attention to an interesting architectural or natural detail. I wore a satchel over my shoulder in which I’d collect different varieties of fallen leaves. Oxford is a wonderland of trees. Soon my study desk was overflowing with a hundred specimens—my most prized possession being a freak oak leaf sky blue around the midrib and forking veins.
At night, before Cata and I headed to the library, I’d perform a ritual. With my door locked, I’d choose a leaf from my desk and put it in my mouth. I’d let it rest on my tongue but I wouldn’t bite into its crispy anatomy. I’d swallow the residue of juices, woody and stale like old crackers. I’d then remove the leaf and re-introduce it to the messy pile of its fellows. Actively inserting and removing the leaf, of my own volition, helped, somehow, to counteract Alice’s hex. She had written the poem, to my mind, as both a goodbye and an act of psychological manipulation. Yet it was me who interpreted the cryptic lines in her poem to be instructions; I warped the text and read unintended meanings into it. Her poem became a palimpsest.
The thing that had first attracted me to Alice was the fact that we had both touched the same tree in western North Carolina. She was in a creative writing class with me, and after we became friends, she showed me a photograph of her with her arms stretched around—but far from encircling—the locally famous Poplar, the third largest in the United States. It was fitting, then, that her curse poem depicted a version of me dragging a tree trunk across a burning orchard.
At Oxford I was absolutely certain that if I didn’t perform my nightly leaf ritual I’d succumb to my worst interpretations of her curse and the dominos would fall: I’d lose my mind, fail my courses, be sent down from Oxford, and return home to live the rest of my short life in an asylum. I was so certain the curse would defeat me that I never fully unpacked my suitcases. My posters lay travel-crushed and rubber-banded; my meditation cushion never touched the floor.
My mind was so susceptible to Alice’s curse, I think, because I’d been abusing myself through literature for years without entirely knowing it or understanding it. In my early twenties, I took the literary canon so seriously that every word in, say, Thomas Hardy or Virginia Woolf, was sacred. If I briefly criticized these writers mentally, or thought that I could improve on one of their sentences, the shadowy gods of literature would exact punishment, lashing my brain with whips.
Reading W.B. Yeats—one of the “great men” that my don, Dr. Hemshaw, adored and insisted that I adore, too, despite Yeats’ depraved enthusiasm for eugenics, young girls, and an aristocratic State—primed me for the psychic vulnerability that allowed the curse to turn its screw. I wasn’t attracted to the cantankerous, war-thirsty later Yeats but the early magician Yeats. Although constitutionally a pragmatist, I yearned to experience Yeats’ green world, where spirits guarded aerial doors and faeries whispered into the ears of trout. Two years before I began my Masters at Oxford, while I was studying abroad there as an undergraduate with Dr. Hemshaw, I traveled to the lonely Cairngorm mountains of Scotland, and attempted—with a mind already weak and susceptible to hallucination—to cleave through the phenomenal world by an act of imaginative will, to access the secrets beneath the heather and hidden in the mountain tarns. As the sun set over the broken rubble of that landscape, my psychological wound parted its lips.
Although I had “succeeded”—that is, I had brown-nosed my way into Oxford—the weight of the past sat upon my head like a wig of iron. My heart raced and my limbs trembled; I had panic attacks almost daily. The authors I admired who had attended the university hovered over me, invisible in the rafters, making jokes about my stupidity and wagering over my fate.
Often I dreamed I sweated crystals, that they emerged from my forehead in white specks, growing larger until they formed facets and sharp peaks; in this fever dream I’d swipe those brittle stalagmites away, but they always reemerged. The year before I matriculated, I’d read Confessions of an English Opium Eater, by Thomas de Quincy, who roamed Worcester Street two hundred years ago. He must have felt similarly caged and cursed, as if someone or something was watching him and waiting for him to break, for his mind to splinter and his consciousness seep through cracks, during his battles with opium. One of his dreams inflected my own:
…now it was that upon the rocking waters of the ocean the human face began to appear: the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces, upturned to the heavens: faces, imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by thousands, by myriads.
Alice’s flaring cheekbones and ice-green eyes would float up to me like a balloon; her hair would fall over her eyes and her lips would part, revealing tiny coffee-stained teeth and long pink gums. But when I reached for her face it would recoil and float away. Then, suddenly, I was swept up in a wave of her faces, thousands of her faces, and would ride up the crest and sink into the valley.
While walking with Cata on a frosty morning in Christchurch Meadow, I realized that I had not, the night before, performed the ritual of the leaf. I had been at the pub and had neglected my senseless duty. My mouth became dry. The earth shuddered on its axis. I was a drunk man walking the line; I held on to my mind with all my might so it did not slip into the void. Cata commented on a cow. The word cow shot away like an arrow. She commented on the recent proliferation of foxgloves. A wall rose between the two halves of my brain, sealing off her red hair, freckled face, and waving umbrella. My legs moved mechanically. My mind was a field of static.
I’ll spare the visits to hospitals, the circular conversations—and often arguments—with doctors, the ever-changing and hypothetical diagnoses, and the panoply of prescription medications (later on, after I returned to the U.S., it became clear I was in the throes of obsessive compulsive disorder and borderline schizophrenia). However much I support socialized medicine and believe it to be an urgent matter of human rights, my experience with the British healthcare system was largely negative, faced as I was with patronizing dismissals and assumptions about Americans’ proneness to prescription abuse and addiction. I fought day and night, without any substantive professional help, against the irrational notion that Alice’s curse had, due to my neglect of the leaf ritual, broken through my defenses and taken root, eating away my sanity and condemning me to death. Within this maelstrom, I strove to write essays about Dorothy Wordsworth and cope with other irrational fears: the posh southern English accent (the fine-tuned elocution of dons that exposed me as an inarticulate hick), public speaking, and the ghosts of famous writers.
During my time of illness, and the rocky after years, I thought of Alice as my enemy. But Alice wasn’t my enemy; nor was her poem. It was the version of myself that construed them as enemies that was the true villain, who couldn’t order the world into stable proportions. After fighting many long wars with mental illness, it’s easier to move on and forgive the mistakes of youth.
Cata, best of all friends, was a scholar of the poet Catullus (whose precious napkins and clothes were always being stolen by mischievous Romans). Cata and I liked to play a game in which we’d steal things from each other’s rooms. In order to get an item back, we’d have to write a funny poem about it, just like Catullus did with his friends. If I could cut out the part of my memory which conceives Oxford as a theater of paranoia, each day with Cata would have been a holiday. I could have walked through the dark quadrangles calmly, unlike one harried and pursued, and could have been a better friend, which the solipsism of illness renders impossible. The pleasures of life: punting alongside swans, the smell of ancient books, showers of leaves on cobbled streets, the grainy touch of cream-colored Cotswold stone, Latin prayers and dinner canticles, espresso firing my veins, and the Bodleian’s monastic silence—all would pass through my mind gently as the River Cherwell. But as it is, my memory of that time is concealed in scar tissue. The stained glass is brown and black; the procession of images is half-missing, damaged by so much interference it can’t be recovered. In that sense, Alice’s curse proved true. The years 2009 and 2010 contain barely enough memories to fill a short essay, no matter how hard I’ve tried to recover them.