Everything is sad and funny and nothing is anything else. Eamonn Marra’s debut novel, 2000ft Above Worry Level, sold out of copies at its launch at Unity Books on Thursday. Equal parts neurotic and numb, it is a series of stories about a young man who is trying so hard to be better.
Content warning: descriptions of self-harm
I read an article online about how people who read fiction are more empathetic than people who don’t, so I switched my major to English literature and got out five classic books from the library. I had gone vegan. I wasn’t using any fossil fuels. I was attending all my classes and tutorials. I was exercising regularly. I had a routine.
It was the Tuesday of the fourth week of the new semester. I got up early, ate a light breakfast of toast and peanut butter, did some stretches and ran to university. I didn’t have class until the afternoon, so I could sit in my usual spot on the library steps with a pile of books by my side for a few hours. I was aiming to read on average one book every two days. It was doable if I read for four or five hours a day. Whenever I saw a friend on their way into the library I would put my finger on the page I was reading and close my book over it. This was to let them know that I could chat if they wanted, but also that I would be going right back to reading after we stopped talking.
I had developed a rash all over the back of my left wrist from wiping the sweat off my forehead as I ran. I constantly found myself rubbing the rash with my right hand when I was reading. The rash was getting lumpy. I would touch all the lumps and then rub my fingers together to feel the oil from my skin between them. Every time I found a particularly big lump, I squeezed it until pus came out. I didn’t carry tissues, so I had to rub the pus back into my skin.
I’d switched to English lit from philosophy. Before that I’d studied sociology, and before that political science. In philosophy I had excelled at formal logic, where I had learned to translate ideas into equations in order to evaluate the validity of them.
One day in a study session, my philosophy friend and I were discussing how we applied formal logic to our day-to- day lives. If everyone studied formal logic, we would all think more rationally and make better decisions.
‘What better decisions are you making?’ he asked. ‘I recycle,’ I said.
‘I don’t drive,’ I said.
‘You don’t have a licence, and I drive you around all the time.’
So I stopped accepting rides from him, or from anyone else. The bus cost too much money, so I walked instead. The effort required to walk always seemed like more than the value I got from being somewhere else, so I stopped going out. If I wasn’t going to go out there was no point in showering. If I wasn’t going to shower there was no point in getting dressed. And if I wasn’t going to get dressed there was no point in getting out of bed. The more I thought about it, the more it became apparent that the most rational option was usually to do nothing.
I stopped showing up to my classes and was on the verge of completely flunking out. At that point the only way I could convince myself to leave the house was by promising myself a small bag of lollies from the pick’n’mix.
‘But aren’t you a vegetarian?’ my philosophy friend said when I showed up to a class with my pick’n’mix. To him this was an unbelievable flaw in logic. I was refusing to eat some animal products, but I was still eating lollies that had gelatine in them.
‘I know, but I need this,’ I said. It didn’t matter that I didn’t eat meat and that he did; all he cared about was logical consistency. The fact that I cared just made my argument worse, because it meant I was a hypocrite. So I dropped out of philosophy and went vegan.
After reading on the library steps for the morning, I had to decide what to have for lunch. The cheapest vegan meal on campus was three pakora for $3 from the Indian place, but it was only worth going on Mondays and Wednesdays. That was when the generous chef worked, and he made the pakora twice the usual size. A bowl of fries was $5 from the student pub. They were filling, but I had promised Mum when I went vegan that I wouldn’t eat chips every day, and I had already eaten chips that week. Sushi wouldn’t go half-price until 3pm. The vegan sandwiches at the café were $7 for some lettuce in white bread, the same price as the meat sandwiches and the egg sandwiches. Mum had asked me to please consider eating eggs. I wasn’t sure exactly what was wrong with eggs, as long as they were free range, but there were people who knew more about it than me who had chosen not to eat eggs. The supermarket was a ten-minute walk from campus, and I would be able to get a variety of vegan snacks for the same price as a meal. It was the best choice.
I wanted bananas. I knew I should buy fair-trade bananas, but the fair-trade bananas were twice the price of the unfair bananas and were sold in bunches with stickers that went all the way around, and I only wanted one or two bananas. I had enough money for the fair-trade bananas, but I was on a student budget, so I put two unfair bananas in my basket instead.
The semester before, I would have stopped at the pick’n’mix section next to get a small bag of lollies. The pick’n’mix was always an enjoyable experience. Picking one or two of each lolly, getting the right mix of sour lollies and sweet lollies, finding a good range of different gummy textures – some firm and some soft, some that you could bite right through and some that would get stuck in your teeth. But now I was vegan, so I walked past the pick’n’mix.
In the deli section, the only vegan things were expensive olives. It suddenly occurred to me that the pick’n’mix had more than just lollies. I had to find a new treat, and I did sort of like nuts and seeds. I went back to the pick’n’mix.
Nuts and seeds were not the same pick’n’mix experience as lollies. Each nut had a different code, so I couldn’t put them all in the same bag. I could pick but not mix. There were pre-mixed nuts, but they were the same price as cashews even though nearly half of them were peanuts. I ended up picking a small scoop of cashews, a small scoop of Brazil nuts, some almonds, some sun flower seeds, and some peanuts. Each in a separate plastic bag. That seemed like a waste. I’d have to remember to reuse the plastic bags next time I bought nuts. If I was going to use this much plastic, I couldn’t get the unfair bananas, so I went back to the fruit and veggie section and swapped them out for the smallest bunch of fair-trade bananas I could find.
I went to the drinks aisle. I could buy a Coke, which was technically vegan but which didn’t seem like the right choice. I was not sure about Golden Circle. I put a bottle of lightly flavoured sparkling water in my basket. I watched at the checkout as the prices of the bags of nuts added up. $3. $4.50. $6. $12. Too many almonds. $13. More than twice what I would pay for a meal on campus, and half my weekly grocery budget. I would have to ration the nuts over three lunches. The bananas were another $4, the sparkling water $1.50. I couldn’t fit the bananas in my bag, so I had to carry them around.
I resumed my position on the library steps and ate some nuts and a banana. I looked at the sparkling water and saw that it was manufactured by Coca-Cola. I ripped the label off and buried it at the bottom of my bag. I was meant to have read a book in time for a tutorial that afternoon, but it was 326 pages long and I was already behind on my goal to read a book every two days, so I kept reading The Bell Jar, which I was already halfway through.
Since going vegan I had found myself with a lot of energy. I couldn’t keep my body still. As I sat on the library steps I bounced my left leg up and down in a constant rhythm, and for each bounce I drummed three fingers down the side of my book, counting to eight and then recounting. I kept catching myself focussing too much on the rhythm and not enough on the words on the page. When I did focus on the words, I had to pause every few sentences to write down my thoughts, which kept interrupting. I wrote them in a notebook, which I kept hidden between the pages of the book so it looked like I was making notes in the margins. I wasn’t sure whether writing made me a better person or not. When I looked up from my writing I saw Rosie walking across the courtyard. I wasn’t supposed to talk to Rosie, because she’d broken the heart of a friend of mine recently, but she was heading towards me and there was not much I could do. I closed The Bell Jar over the notebook and my finger so it would look like I had been reading, but it was clear she had already seen me writing because she said, ‘What are you writing?’
‘Just notes and thoughts. They might turn into something, maybe a poem or maybe part of a story.’
‘I didn’t know you were a writer,’ Rosie said. ‘Can you read me something you’ve written?’
I read out the thing I had just written in my notebook. ‘A man picks at his tooth with his fingernail. He is trying to dig out a piece of nut in there. The man can feel the nut when he closes his mouth. It isn’t painful, it doesn’t even stop him chewing, but he can feel it. He digs deeper and deeper, lamenting the fact that he cut his fingernails earlier that day. Eventually he realises the nut is not in his top molar where he was picking, but in his bottom one. After this discovery it is easy for him to dig it out.’
‘What does it mean?’ Rosie asked.
‘It doesn’t mean just one single thing.’
‘Does it mean that sometimes we are looking in the wrong place for solutions to our problems?’
‘I don’t want to be the type of writer who talks about the meanings in his own work,’ I said, but I took note of Rosie’s explanation in case I was ever asked to explain it again.
‘Hmm,’ Rosie said. ‘Interesting.’
‘Do you want a banana?’ I asked. ‘I bought too many.’ I held the bunch out to her. There were still five left. ‘You can take two.’
She took one, and continued into the library. I tried to extract the piece of nut from my bottom molar. When I’d realised it was in there rather than in the top one, I had rushed to write down what was happening without actually trying to get it out. It turned out it was still much harder to remove than I had imagined.
I finished The Bell Jar ten minutes before my tutorial was due to start. As we were waiting outside the classroom to be let in, I read half the essay about ironic realism that we were going to be discussing alongside the book I had not read.
The tutor asked the class if we could come up with an example of ironic reality from the book I had not read.
A girl sitting near me brought up the most photographed barn in America. She said, ‘The barn both does and does not exist. You can only see the barn if you have never heard of the barn, but because it’s so well known no one can see it.’
‘It’s kind of like The Bell Jar,’ I said.
‘What do you mean by that?’ my tutor asked.
‘Well, I think The Bell Jar is underrated as a comedy,’ I said.
‘Why do you think The Bell Jar is a comedy?’
‘Because it’s funny,’ I said.
‘I don’t think it’s funny at all,’ said the girl from before.
‘That’s what I mean by it being underrated as a comedy,’ I said. ‘Everyone has heard that it’s so sad, so no one reads it as a comedy, which means no one thinks it’s funny. Our perception of The Bell Jar is based on how everyone talks about it. Just like the barn. That makes it ironic.’
‘I think we are getting off track,’ the tutor said.
I felt a small lump on the back of my hand ... I squeezed it, but nothing happened.
The class went back to talking about the ironic barn. I sat back in my chair and touched my arm. I had already squeezed most of the big bumps and they had scabbed over. I picked at the scabs. Some of them fell away easily and others started bleeding. I rubbed the blood into my skin. I felt a small lump on the back of my hand, smaller than the bumps. I squeezed it, but nothing happened. It felt deeper than the bumps. It felt more serious.
I was still squeezing the lump when everyone else got up to leave. I grabbed all my things from the desk and le the room as quickly as I could so my tutor couldn’t ask me to explain myself. Tonight I would read the book I hadn’t read, even if I had to stay up all night.
As I was leaving the campus, I ducked into the student medical centre and requested an appointment with my doctor. The receptionist asked if it was urgent and I paused for a long time. I still had a repeat left on my prescription, so I wouldn’t need new antidepressants for another month. Eventually she said she would mark it as urgent, and gave me an appointment for the next morning.
That night I managed to read three-quarters of the book I hadn’t read. Or, I looked at three-quarters of the words in the book in order, while rubbing a finger over the lump on the back of my hand. I did not get to sleep until 4am.
The next morning I got up early, had a light breakfast of peanut butter on toast, packed my bag with my pencil case, notebook, drink bottle, a change of clothes and my left over nuts, did some stretches, put on my running playlist and set off on my run to uni. I carried my backpack over one shoulder to stop my back sweat from soaking into it, switching shoulders every five minutes as they got sore.
Halfway to uni there was a river. As I approached the bridge I had to put my iPod in my pocket, because I always got the urge to throw it over the railing. I had never actually done it, but today the urge was stronger than it had ever been before. I pushed my iPod deeper into my pocket with my thumb, which made my headphones tug on my ears, so I had to crouch my body down as I ran. This only increased the urge to throw my iPod into the river. I took my thumb out of my pocket and sprinted until I was well clear of the bridge.
A bus drove past and I did a quick jump away from the road to counter my urge to jump in front of it. I knew I was never going to jump in front of a bus, but I still had to protect myself. The urges were no longer frightening, but they were becoming more frequent. I always ran along the main roads, where all the trucks and buses went. I could have followed the river around the loop and through the park instead and then cut through a small patch of native bush to arrive at the uni gates. It would have made a much nicer journey, but it would take an extra ten minutes. It made more sense to take the most direct route.
When I arrived at uni I made my way to the disabled toilet on the fourth floor of the science block. It was close to the entrance of the university, and I had never seen it occupied. Before I went in I checked the floor to make sure there were no people in wheelchairs or with crutches as they might need the toilet more than me. I didn’t want to take their space, but the disabled toilets were the only ones with paper towels in the cubicles.
I stripped naked and wet several paper towels in the sink. I wiped my body down with the wet paper towels, then put a little bit of pump soap under my armpits and crotch and anywhere else that seemed particularly sweaty. I wiped the soap off my body with more wet paper towels, then dried off with fresh paper towels. I repeated the process two or three times until I had stopped sweating. Then I sprayed on deodorant, changed into my clean clothes and put my dirty ones in a plastic bag, which I reused every day, and shoved it deep into the bottom of my bag before heading to the medical centre.
‘Is everything okay?’ my doctor asked.
‘I’ve gone vegan,’ I said.
‘Do you think you’re getting a balanced diet?’ she asked.
‘I think so,’ I said. ‘I’ve done a lot of reading about it.’
‘It’s not really my area of expertise,’ she said. ‘I could find some pamphlets if you want.’
‘No, it’s okay. I’m eating lots of beans. I’m trying really hard to be better,’ I said.
‘That’s good to hear,’ she said. ‘You seem to be in good spirits.’
We sat for a moment in silence.
‘Was there anything else?’ she asked.
‘I’m worried about this lump on my hand,’ I said. I showed her my arm. Most of the rash had scabbed over. I hadn’t realised how severe it looked till now.
‘No, not that stuff. That’s just a rash,’ I said. ‘This one.’ I pointed at the white lump on the back of my hand.
She looked at it for a long time. ‘This looks like a wart,’ she said eventually. ‘Have you had warts before?’
‘No. Never,’ I said. ‘What should I do about it?’
‘We could burn it off,’ she said, ‘but I’m reluctant to do that yet. Not until it becomes an issue.’
‘Is it bothering you?’
‘I guess it’s not an issue,’ I said.
‘It’s good you came in, just to check,’ she said. She printed out another prescription for my antidepressants even though I didn’t need one yet, and then she stood up, so I stood up too and then I left.
I went back to my spot on the library steps to nish the book for class. The girl from my tutorial walked up the steps and smiled at me. I put my finger in the book and closed it over the top of it and smiled back at her. She walked into the library and I went back to reading. When I finished the book I added it to the reading log I was keeping at the back of my notebook. I went into the library and read a summary of the book on the internet. I ate a bowl of chips for lunch.
I arrived at my lecture early. I always arrived at lectures early. I sat at the seat closest to the door, which meant every student who wanted to sit in the back row had to squeeze past me. I should have moved to the centre, but I wanted to be able to leave if I needed to. I had to sit at the back because I didn’t like people looking at me. I brought the newly read book to the lecture, but the lecturer moved on to another book I hadn’t read yet. I looked at my hand. I tried to cover the wart with my other hand, but then I could feel it.
The problem with the wart wasn’t that it was painful, or itchy, or even that it looked bad, but that I could always feel it was there.
I scraped the wart with a broken piece of ruler that I had in my pencil case. The skin around the wart went white, but the wart didn’t change. After a few seconds the skin turned pink again and the wart looked white in comparison. I did this a few times, trying to work out if the wart was changing colour itself or if it was just the skin around it.
The wart wasn’t doing any harm, but it also wasn’t doing any good. I knew it was not one of the main things I should be worried about, but it was still there, sitting on my hand, making everything a little bit worse.
I poked at the wart with a pencil.
I looked up and the lecturer was talking about the argument that we were not only living in an era of postmodernism, but in an era of postmodernity. That after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nothing could be the same. Personally, though, he tended to disagree.
The problem with the wart wasn’t that it was painful, or itchy, or even that it looked bad, but that I could always feel it was there. I sharpened the pencil, putting the shavings into my pencil case, then I poked at the wart again. It didn’t react. I pushed the pencil hard into the wart. Any other part of my skin would have been pierced by the pencil, but the skin of the wart was thick. The pencil lead broke.
I took a compass out of my pencil case. The compass had been in there since high school, and all it had done since then was poke me whenever I picked up my pencil case. The tip of the compass broke the skin of the wart with only a little bit of pressure. I used the compass to push the wart around and around in small circles. The wart grew redder. I took the compass out of the wart and a speck of blood seeped out. I rubbed the blood into my skin. I put the compass back into the hole and pushed it further in until the whole tip of the compass was inside my hand. I tried to scoop the wart out. My skin tore and I made a sound. I covered the wart with my other hand and looked at the person next to me. He was looking at the lecturer.
The lecturer was reading a passage from the new book I had not read, emphasising the word ‘before’, which came at the beginning of each sentence. I looked at my book and tried finding the section he was reading from, but the page numbers were different because I bought my copy online. The blood was starting to pool on my hand.
I licked my hand clean and sucked the blood away from the wart. I looked at it and there was a white lump sitting amongst the blood. I pushed the compass into the skin next to the white lump. New blood came out of the new puncture. I dragged the compass around the lump, ripping up all the skin. I made another sound. I looked up.
The lecturer had stopped talking and was looking at me. The person next to me was looking at me. Most of the people in the class had turned around and were looking at me. I grabbed my book and pencil case and bag and ran out of the lecture theatre.
I held my pencil case to the hole in my hand as I ran back to the disabled bathroom on the fourth floor of the science block. I dropped everything onto the floor and rinsed my hand in the sink. My pencil case was covered in blood and that blood was smeared all over the floor. I tried to wipe it up but as I cleaned I dripped more blood. I looked at the wart. It was still a white lump in the middle of a bloody wound. I tried squeezing it, but I had cut my fingernails the day before and I couldn’t get a grip on it. I put my mouth around the wound and sucked all the blood away. I looked at the wart again, and then I positioned my teeth around it and bit down hard. I pulled my hand away from my mouth and the wart came out at the root, leaving a deep hole in the back of my hand. I sat on the toilet and watched the hole fill with blood.
I tried to clean up the blood on the floor as best I could, but all I did was smear it around. I took a few pens out of my pencil case before throwing it into the bin. I had made the pencil case when I was twelve years old in sewing class and had kept it all through high school. It was covered in the names of all the bands I’d loved as a fourteen-year-old in Vivid, and the names of all the bands I’d loved as a sixteen-year-old in Twink. I left the science block as quietly as I could, apologising in my head to the cleaners who would have to deal with the mess I had made. I wandered around the quieter parts of campus holding a paper towel to the back of my hand, hoping I wouldn’t see anyone from my lecture. Eventually I decided it would be a good idea to go back to the medical centre.
The receptionist quickly ushered me into a side room and a nurse came and cleaned up my wound and put a bandage on it.
‘What have you done here?’ she said over and over.
‘It isn’t a big deal,’ I tried saying, but I couldn’t because I was crying.
‘Wait here. I need to go and get someone,’ she said. ‘I need to go and get your doctor.’
So I waited. I took the new book out of my bag and started reading. My next class was in a couple of days and I was going to catch up in time.
2000ft Above Worry Level is published by Victoria University Press