During the winter of my second year at the Institute, I suffered from terrible insomnia brought on my anxiety over an impasse in my research. I looked back over my seven years of study dreading that I would soon have to count them wasted, and the nights were empty of distraction; in its darkest quiet my life stretched out before me clearly, from my happiest memories of childhood to my current solitude, and the landscape seemed fragmented, arid, abused. Even the sleeping pills that the doctor prescribed did nothing.
After a couple of weeks, my fatigue showed through even my phone calls home, and my mother, worried for me, announced a visit. She left me alone to work most days, cooking for me so that when I arrived home, bitten by the wind and dull-brained from hours poring through whatever pertinent printed materials the librarians could find in the special collections, I was met with garlic, basil, tomatoes, and citrus. Sometimes, as I nibbled at the pistachios that remained near the sofa from her meager lunch, we would talk over what I had found, or hoped to find, her predictable nods and murmurs designed to accustom me to the insignificance of failure and frustration; they could be a part of a daily routine.
But nights, when she slept on the sofa, and I was left to my own thoughts, unable to plunge into a state of dreaming, I could not distinguish the trivial and the imperative, the ominous and the irksome; as I neared the associative freedom of true sleep, something in my mind would gasp, and my thought would jerk upwards to consciousness, sometimes taking me, physically, with it.
My mother knew I was getting no better, so she stayed on, though her placid demeanor grew strained. “Have you tried to read?” She asked, helplessly; she had already asked and I had already answered the same, several times over. “Yes.” “But not that heavy stuff.” “But I like it. It’s soothing.” “How can it be soothing? How can it not remind you of everything that upsets you during the day?” I had been reading Gibbon, Tacitus, Juvenal, and Swift at night; and my mother was familiar with my pursed silence when I read the news in the mornings.
One weekend, a couple of weeks after her arrival, she proposed we get out, see the city. “But I already have, and I have more work to do.” “I know, but you always say that.” “Because I always do. I love having you here. I don’t want to bore you. It will get better. You don’t need to stay, though. It must be suffocating you.” “I thrive on small supplies of air most of the time, these days.” And so she insisted on staying but also on seeing “the city. You live right here, so you must be used to it, but I’d like to see it with you. I don’t much care about exploring it myself.” I agreed.
She never knew that I had discovered the book in a dream of the Cathedral. I didn’t either, at the time of her visit. Its presence in the city center did not stir a dead and buried memory, but instead cast a chilled shadow over memories easily available: of childhood, sitting on the couch, thumbing through a book of monuments, deciding which I would like most to live or possess. My mother remembered too, “and you used to have friends over, and either they never wanted to play along with you, so you would pout, or else they would ask, and you wouldn’t let them, so they would sulk.” It was one of the city’s most famous sights, no longer functioning as a Cathedral, having been deconsecrated and made a museum half a century before, but registering still all of the vastness of space and elegance of design that its architect could fathom a millennia and more ago. “Let’s visit the Cathedral today.” I agreed, maybe reluctant, or maybe just tired.
Broken, faded mosaics lined several of the walls, drawing to them, even in the off-season, small swarms of tourists. We wandered the nave, the upper gallery, saying little but staring, lingering here and there. I had visited only once before, my first weeks at the Institute, on an outing organized by the conveners of the program, but the Cathedral visit had followed a lunch where I had more to drink than I should have. I was tipsy, then felt unwell, and could stay for only a couple of minutes, after which I assured myself that architecture was beyond my powers of appreciation. I had waited outside for twenty minutes, throwing scraps of bread to pigeons.
This time, with my mother, I could at least summon up faith that it must have been magnificent once, when the Emperor would preside, when it was the strong heart of a dwindling, sinewy state. “Isn’t it magnificent?” My mother asked. Simplifying, I answered that it was. It pleased her to see me in new surroundings. The Institute, she remarked at dinner that night, in a restaurant downtown, over a half-bottle of wine, was perhaps not the healthiest place for me to be. I nodded, swallowing a dry crust.
Already over dinner I had dreaded the night’s insomnia, and my silence grew so severe by the time we arrived back at home that my mother, as she took off her coat, spoke, without looking at me: “I want for you to take a leave of absence.” When she turned, I was glaring, and I stormed into my room, saddened at my anger after all she had done, but angry still. She knocked on the door, but my light was out and I pretended to be asleep. She spoke anyway: “I know the work matters and I believe in it and I believe in you, but you are not who you were, you have lost yourself. That’s too high a price to pay for anything. I love you.” Then she went to sleep and I was too tired to cry, though I would have.
That night I remembered the dream. I was in a state of relaxed stupor, hazily recalling the visit to the Cathedral that afternoon when the picture in my mind went dark, and I was in—it seemed, even though I was awake, even though I was fully self-conscious, that I was really there—the Cathedral not as I had known it that day, but as I had known it those years before. It was dark, the voices rustled, I knew there to be people in the upper gallery watching me, and I processed down the aisle. But even as I processed, I remembered that I had done it all before, and I remembered when, remembering also, all of a sudden, the book that waited for me, and I grew desperate to remain, to make my way down the aisle, and with that desperation, waking but no longer of the world around me, the Cathedral grew more vivid, more real, so that I not only could hear the voices, but could smell the burning cedar incense, and could feel the soft movement of cool air up into the dome, and could touch the damp stone of the pillars. Before I could reach the altar, the light broke from beyond my window and I was drawn back to my bedroom.
The next day I was distracted and irritable. My mother assumed that it had been her remarks from the night before, and she apologized, telling me that she was still concerned, would stay with me for longer yet. We watched television that day, re-runs of an old show she and I liked; I was glad to make her happy, to spend time with her and let her know that I did not hold a grudge, but I was also glad that the flicker of familiarity on the screen could interrupt my mind as it went back, time and again, to the book that I knew must be on the altar.