Not So Fast

By Mark Kamine

Gentrification on the block, showman in the White House, ethics gone. Coming of age in the 1980s.

I felt claustrophobic in the law-school classrooms. Contracts in particular gave me the willies. The subject confused me, with its implied rules rising in mysterious ways out of the solid ground of executed documents. I dreaded being called on. I sweated. My breath was short. I had to pee almost from the moment class started even though I peed before walking in. I felt trapped and off-kilter.

The two kids I became close to would move through the three-year program without a hitch, become lawyers, and venture out into the professional world. I would swallow enough air during class to come out bloated and farting. In the twenty or thirty minutes between classes, I would deflate. During the next class I’d sweat and hyperventilate and re-inflate. I did this through Contracts, Property, Torts and Civil Procedure. I couldn’t wait for the weekends, or winter break, or the summer, or some time that appeared to be ever receding. The PATH rides out to Newark and back to the city became unbearable. I couldn’t sit still. If the train stopped between stations – as it often did – all my classroom symptoms would flood me at accelerated speed. When the train moved the symptoms would flee. I could breathe again. This state of affairs came to a head over Thanksgiving break, which I was spending at my mother’s house while Liz stayed at hers to deal with the effects of telling her brother Jamie that someone had finally made a decent offer on their house and she and Jake had accepted it, thus forcing the sale. The Friday after the holiday, I had eaten dinner and settled into reading a personal injury case involving the cancer that asbestos had caused in the employees of the Johns Manville Corporation. I began to feel nauseous. I curled up on my bed. Moments later I went into a kind of convulsion, shivering, muscles contracting, unable to catch my breath. The arches of my feet spasmed painfully. Eventually I managed to uncurl my toes and flex them. After a searing pain jolted me upright I forced myself to unclench my stomach muscles. It went on and on. When the front door opened and my mother called up, I couldn’t answer. Eventually she appeared at my bedroom doorway.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“I don’t know. Call dad.” 

The next time I saw her she was saying, “He’s on his way. You want to go to the hospital? That’s where he says he’s taking you.” In spite of my shakiness, I knew what had transpired. My father had told her to take me to the hospital and she had refused. I knew she wouldn’t take me so I hadn’t asked. She did not deal well with pain and injury. I once came back from a pickup football game limping, knee swollen and chin split open. I asked her to look at the chin to see if it needed stitches. She said, “Oh my God,” and sat down. I drove myself over to the emergency room, pressing the gas and brake pedals by sitting sideways so my left foot could reach across, the right one of no use because of the knee.

As soon as I got in his car, he asked what was going on. “I can’t breathe. I keep feeling like I’m going to die.” He didn’t say anything else.

The young doctor who examined me said that I was having an anxiety attack and that he would give me something to make it go away. He attached a vial to a hypodermic needle and injected a clear liquid into my shoulder. “Liquid Valium,” he said. “I am giving you a prescription as well. You should see your GP and perhaps a psychiatrist. Let’s let your GP decide.”

He left me behind a curtain, seated on a plastic chair, as the miraculous potion took effect. All the bad feelings of the past hours and weeks dissolved in a warm pooling sleepiness. It reached to the tips of my nails and hair. I had felt more sharply ecstatic. I had never felt so at peace. I told my father, on the car ride home, exactly what the doctor had told me, word for word, without embarrassment. My father said, “A psychiatrist, huh?”

At home I called Liz to tell her about it.

“Well over here it’s not peaceful at all,” she said. “Jamie ran away when I told him we’re selling. He put some clothes in a backpack and said he’d never in a million years sign the papers, and that would be about how long it would take to find him, and then he left. Jake is drunk and all he wants to know is how much his share’s gonna be. Meanwhile the place is a mess and they don’t care.”

“I’ll help you clean up tomorrow,” I said.

“I thought you had a hundred cases to read,” she said.

“Pages. I’ll come over in the morning.”

“Fine.” I heard in the background Jake’s screeching guitar. Liz told me he was looking at the house-sale money as his chance to move down to the shore. She told me she thought he’d go through the cash in a couple years and be worse off because then he’d be paying rent somewhere. But she couldn’t help that. She had to eliminate the house as a crutch for Jamie, and in addition get rid of it before her brothers ruined it entirely. Along with the smoke-damaged wall from the pizza fire, there were holes in the walls from fistfights, holes in the carpet from cigarette burns. A piece of plywood covered what had once been the four-paned window of the front door, each pane of which Jamie had busted the last time he’d been released from Greystone. He’d heard music blasting from Jake’s room. Bell ringing and fist pounding had failed to bring his brother to the door, resulting in rage and destruction. Jake had been passed out, drunk or drugged.

Jake’s guitar lick brought some of this back to me, but soon I sunk back into the pillowy world of Valium. I still felt well cushioned the next morning and went over and helped Liz beat back the mess, scrubbing the kitchen and bathrooms and bringing a broken TV table and other trash to one of the dumpsters behind the strip mall. On the way back to the house, she said, “So you’re on meds.”

“Just valium when I need it,” I said. “They think I should see a psychiatrist.”

She gave me a look.

“What?” I said.

“You, now?”

“They’re not exactly putting me in Greystone if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Who’s worried?”

It was about how she reacted when her brother had an episode, inevitably leading to arrest and institutionalization. She’d get the call from her other brother or the police. She’d pack a small blue vinyl Pan Am bag, putting underwear, a skirt, and a couple of shirts inside, prepared to stay out in New Jersey for however long it took. She’d silently walk out the door, never much more than exasperation showing.

My anxieties had not been vanquished by the injection. Back at school, I was sweating and nervous even before the Contracts professor called my name. After I semi-satisfactorily answered his question, I looked at the woman next to me and saw she was staring at my leg, which was pumping up and down. I froze. My breath seemed overloud and noticeably rapid. I had to pee, again. I couldn’t stay another minute in the classroom. I couldn’t leave, either. It was my worst seating assignment, in the back of the amphitheater, at the center of the row. Leaving would require a long walk along the back of the room and then down five elongated steps, one for each seating level, and from there to one of the doors in front of the class and just to the side of where the professor stood, behind a lectern. I sat as long as I could – maybe a minute – before sliding my chair back, circling, and descending. I sensed my classmates watching me. The professor acknowledged my passing with a leisurely nod. I imagined his confusion and disappointment. I had the feeling he liked me and was now questioning his judgment.

In the men’s room, I peed, opened the bottle of Valium and swallowed one small pill, waiting a few minutes without feeling anything, worried that anything short of a shot of the stuff would not work. I felt all eyes on me as I climbed back to my perch. The professor instantly directed another question my way. The drug had begun its breath-deepening effect. I was sure that the almost unprecedented second question in one class period (there were 60 students to choose from) resulted directly from my absence. The case was about the breach of an implied term in a contract. As I fumbled through my answer, I couldn’t help thinking the professor was telling me that by leaving class I had broken the silent agreement between us that I give full attention to the matters under discussion for the allotted time. He soon turned the question over to someone else without asking for clarification or expansion but simply “a better solution.” I had to stop myself from apologizing to him when the class ended. In the lounge at lunch, I sat down next to my friends. They both looked me over. “What?” I said finally, because they’d stopped eating and were studying the way I slowly opened my foil-wrapped tuna sandwich and took two quick bites. The Valium had settled in and I was calm and hungry.

Harry Ehrich, an outspokenly leftist intellectual already set with a summer internship at a Bridgeport law clinic, said, “You tell us what.” He sounded not especially happy to be sitting with me.

I took another two bites, nodding, glancing from Harry to Gilbert LePomme, who while also watching me closely came across as perplexed rather than annoyed, and so I directed my response to him. “I think I have diabetes.”

Harry pointed and said, “Then the carbohydrates in that sandwich aren’t helping you.”

I looked at the sandwich, nodded. “Well, I’m not sure. This’ll be a good test.”

I took another bite and Gilbert laughed. He laughed at a lot of things I said. I felt he was on my side. But I wasn’t ready to tell him what was going on. I hadn’t fully admitted it to myself. I knew I was going through something but had no idea where it was heading. I dreaded school every day, dreaded the commute to and from school, wondered when I’d fall into another quivering fit. I hoped fervently it wouldn’t happen in public, on a train or in class, and hoped less fervently but still fiercely that it wouldn’t happen at all.

I went to my mother’s again the following weekend. She was spending most of her free time with a new boyfriend, her typical big spender. Liz, still staying at her old house anytime we were in Jersey, came over on Saturday evening and ate the pasta and meat sauce I’d made. It was the one thing I could reliably cook, if you didn’t count steamed broccoli, which I made as a side dish. I spent Sunday catching up on my schoolwork and after finishing up, one beer and about ten minutes into the 4 p.m. football game, felt my heartbeat in my throat and soon I was sweating, gasping, shivering and into another attack. I took a Valium. Ten minutes later, it was worse. I was lying on the floor. My mother was at the bridge club. I called my father.

“It’s happening again,” I said.

“Goddammit,” he said. “I’ll make a call and be over.”

This time he took me to Dr. Neiman. His home office was in a side wing of a large colonial house. He greeted us at the door in khakis and a golf shirt, and turned lights on as he walked us past the empty receptionist’s area to a consultation room. He had me sit on the examining table and took my pulse with a finger on my wrist. “Your father tells me this happened before.” While he listened to my chest, I relayed what had been going on. He left and came back with a syringe, already prepared, and stuck it in my arm. “It’s what they gave you at the hospital,” he told me. “I’m giving you a prescription for a stronger dosage of the pills.”

It went like that for the rest of the semester. I avoided the emergency room – learned to measure out the Valiums – and sat in class and then took final exams in a seesawing rhythm of fogged-out calm and sweaty panic. Sometimes the pill would lose effect half an hour before the exam ended. Sometimes I’d try to start off sharp, and given the difficulty of the questions and the necessary focus I’d work well for an hour before a hiccupping breath would remind me that a fit of anxiety could be on its way, which sufficed to kick one off. I answered at least one long essay question on each exam with heart racing, pen slippery in my sweaty hand, over-conscious of my lungs, my breath caught in my throat.

I managed fine during Christmas vacation. I’d get quivery on the subway, or if Liz and I had a meal out. Nothing extreme. I took a Valium when I started to feel something coming on.

“You seem better,” my mother told me, the only reference she made during the break to my problem.

I shrugged. I didn’t trust it. I’d ride the slow elevator in my building with the garbage bags from the garbage rooms, knowing the slightest lurch between floors could set me off. If the doors opened on someone waiting for a ride, I got spooked. Outside things seemed too bright. Objects had a life I was not used to and not fond of. The edges of buildings, the corners and cornices, seemed too sharply etched into the sky. The guys who walked into the subway car and started reciting the canned speech about being Vietnam vets seemed too like kin to me. An old high school friend named Bill O’Leary, who’d been commuting to a job in the toy building nearby and had decided to rent the studio down the hall from us, would catch me looking around nervously in the A&P or on the subway and called the look “squirrelly” and after that called me “The Squirrel.”

“You squirrel out lately?” he’d say when we got together.

I’d laugh. It was a relief to have my condition noticed and named. It didn’t help, though. The feeling came back in force as soon as the second semester started. I sat in an assigned seat toward the back of a classroom of 30 students in the hour and a half Constitutional Law seminar everyone had been looking forward to. The professor had a self-important air, as if to match the axiomatic importance of the document we studied. He had silver hair, wore tweed suits and bowties. I disliked him instantly. I thought he was onto me. Saw the occasional drop of sweat that ran down my temple. Saw my gasping breaths, my constant shifting. When he walked down the aisle and, again and again, stopped directly behind me to conduct his question-and-answer session, I was convinced he had noticed my twitching, increasingly frenzied need to get out of there. During the fourth Con Law class, in the second week, my heart started racing the moment he closed the classroom door. I shifted constantly. My ears buzzed. I tried to follow the case under discussion, The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The professor had taken up his usual position at my back. My eyes darted around, seeing everyone turned my way, some of them clearly looking from the professor down to me. I was having trouble swallowing. I thought there was something wrong with my esophagus. Or my heart. I thought I was going to fall out of my chair and die, with the professor behind me still talking about the case, sneeringly, as if I were the white guy suing for a place in medical school a black guy had been given, willing to deny it to him in spite of slavery and discrimination and the unbalanced educations we had separately received. I imagined Gilbert, seated next to me, seething with anger at me for trying to keep a brother out of a profession. And I was seething too. Why the hell did the professor have to stand right behind me? But I knew why. Because it was part of the Socratic method to torture students. I had had it. I got up and left. I took the time to grab my backpack and my pea coat. The professor stopped talking. I didn’t look at him. I imagined his smirk. Good riddance to his Bakke-loving ass, I imagined him thinking.

I went straight to my mother’s, walked into my old room, lay down on my bed. My mother was at work. The new boyfriend was at work. My sister was at college on Long Island. My whole body was shaking. Every once in a while I’d sit up and try to swallow. The cat was scratching at my door. I took a Valium and then, when nothing happened, another. Half an hour later I fell asleep. I woke up to the realization that I could not return to school. I felt calmer. I talked to Liz and got a message from my mother, now home, that Gilbert had called. I wondered what I should say to him. Or to my mother. Was I ready to make it official? To tell them I was quitting?

Gilbert had been an instant friend. We had gravitated together after our first class, Property, which began deep in the history of English Common Law with its unusual terms of art – the Writ of Right, fee tail and fee simple, allodial title – that struck me as punning and jokey, though no one walking down the hall seemed to agree except Gilbert, who at least smiled when I asked what it was about “colloidal oatmeal” that had anything to do with property. We started to talk to each other before and after class, and at some point Harry joined us. We ate lunch together and met on weekends to study. Gilbert told me about the pressure put on him by the other black students, who had convened a study group. “I’m sticking with you guys,” he said. “I mean I don’t know how much studying a group of 20 people is getting done.”

“Did you say Jew guys?” I asked him, because I knew he’d laugh.

A few weeks into the semester I met Gilbert’s girlfriend, a white girl, a senior at Tufts who came from a small town in western Massachusetts. In advance of her visit, Gilbert had told me about a scene at the girlfriend’s house the past summer, girlfriend in tears, mother scurrying out of the hallway, red-faced father blocking the door and explaining that he didn’t know Gilbert and was sure he was a “very smart boy” but there was no way he was condoning this relationship by welcoming “someone like Gilbert” anywhere near his household or his daughter.

“I can’t believe anyone not wanting you to go out with their daughter,” I said.

He touched his index finger to his face.

“Yeah, OK, I know how some people are. But Harvard? And with your family?”

His father had been ambassador to Nigeria under Carter and was now president of a university. His mother, an MD, had founded a clinics in and around Lagos for the treatment of malaria and the dispensing of common vaccines. She now had a medical management job at the United Nations. He and his sister were the most impressive people I had met. And they were black. I couldn’t imagine what it meant to have to deal with people like Gilbert’s girlfriend’s father. And to still be really good people, neither angry, nor snobbish, nor arrogant. And then there were their looks. Gilbert was tall, lithe and handsome. He sported long sideburns. A close-cropped Afro. He moved slowly and spoke softly.

His sister was something else entirely. I sometimes thought she was the reason I was his friend, even though I’d met him first. I imagined a lot of guys buddied up to him for the chance to get close to her. Her name was Lu, her full name Lumumba after the anti-colonialist African politician. She wore her hair in long tight braids, Rasta-style. She was tall like Gilbert, with a similar litheness, dark lovely eyes, round cheeks, a wide and ready smile, a dreamy way of speaking. She was the most stunning woman I had ever known, up close, and the rest of the male students and staff at the law school seemed to agree, judging by their glances, attentions and generally heightened energy in her presence. There was always a swarm of people around her, black guys, white guys. I never approached or talked to her unless she spoke to me first. She would stop by to tell Gilbert something. Harry always became intensely preoccupied when she was around. He had been at Yale with her and exhibited all the signs of having been through a fruitless crush, foremost the tactic of not looking at her. Gilbert adopted a genially condescending manner. She gave it right back. She was a few years older and acted it. “Oh, Gil,” she’d say, pronouncing his name, French-style, ‘Jzheel.’ She had worked for three years at a bank. She couldn’t believe the contortions her brother put himself through getting to and from school (two buses from his East Orange apartment). “Just move to the city like everyone else,” she told him. I never asked him about her. Once in a while he’d mention her and I’d remain outwardly indifferent. Gilbert was into funk and in particular all the George Clinton manifestations. Parliament. Funkadelic. Parliament Funkadelic. He liked Bitches Brew by Miles Davis. He liked Aerto.

“Sorry, Gil,” I told him (pronouncing his name with a hard G), “I’m a white boy from New Jersey. I like Bob Dylan.”

“Lu likes Dylan,” he said.

I nodded, as if I could take it or leave it. But it gave me hope. As if it mattered, quiet as I was in her presence.

In any case Gilbert’s company was what I sought out. I liked his easy humor, his empathy, his willingness to put the black/white thing into play as when the black law students’ caucus members walked toward us in the hall and he said to me out of the side of his mouth, “OK, I’m gonna act like I don’t know you.” With Harry as our straight man, our sternly egalitarian cohort, we formed a comfortable threesome, the only relief I had from law school’s disorienting effects.

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