The Q train was nearly empty. It was early on a Friday morning, but I was going against the rush hour current, leaving Manhattan, and so had the car practically to myself. But an overabundance of choice perhaps awakens the herd instinct, because as I stepped up to an unoccupied corner bench another passenger came close at my heels, apparently intending to share it with me. I had time to note that he was of below-average height and carried a bag on a strap over one shoulder. His waterproof jacket was unzipped, hanging wide open in spite of the freezing weather, which the train heaters seemed powerless to counteract.
Before the bench, both of us paused. Then both began to examine the seat for stains or other signs of gross contamination. For we found that we had walked into a cloud of putrid odor, sweet and suffocating, and had no wish to come in contact with its source.
The bench, a glossy plastic bracket, looked clean.
But a few moments later my neighbor was up again, striding away, evidently less able to contend with objectionable smells than with the cold. I, for my part, stayed put. I suppose my thought was that putting up with a little stench now and again was no more than what a New York subway rider should expect. Plus I didn’t have far to go. By then, moreover, I thought I’d discovered the smell’s source, and this added to my reluctance to relocate.
I had noticed the man before, sitting on the bench opposite, but hadn’t immediately recognized him for what he was. He appeared at first glance like another portly, middle-aged gentleman riding the train on a Friday morning. There was his beard—thick, shovel-wide and gray—but it looked well groomed and gave him more of a distinguished than a derelict air. He was not badly dressed. That is, he was not in rags or wearing those numerous mismatched layers that are a sure mark of homelessness. He looked all of a piece. In sweats and a capacious sweatshirt stretched over his good friar’s belly. Perfectly white, new basketball sneakers were on his feet. A large athletic bag, like a giant black bread loaf, sat next to him on the bench. His ruddy face bespoke good health and even sagacity. He could have been Karl Marx headed to the gymnasium for some morning calisthenics.
Yet there was the smell. I can’t say how I first knew it was coming from him. It may have even been something in the manner of my erstwhile neighbor’s departure that suggested it to me. A kind of forced casualness and rigidity of gait by which one strives to avoid giving offense. And then, a man’s inner condition rarely fails to find outward expression. And so it didn’t take one long to see that the bearded man was not quite alright. When he started muttering to himself, I knew the score.
So he is mad then, I thought, looking away. Another loony inhabitant of this great city.
Having surmised that it was from him the odor was emanating, I too had the impulse to change seats. And it was also that same realization that stopped me. I would not so conspicuously move away from a man with all of his wits, whatever reek—tobacco, breath, body odor, or perfume—he may be giving off, and I didn’t think that another’s weakness of mind justified the suspension of courtesy. In any case, the longer I stayed there, the less aware I was of the smell. Chalk up another victory for human adaptability.
Putting my bag on my knees, I started to go over my notes. I didn’t feel as well prepared for that morning’s presentation as I’d have liked to. I believed De Silva, the social studies department head, liked me, but he wanted to be sure he knew what he was getting into. I would too if I were him. Actually, I’d been surprised that he agreed to take me on in the first place. But my diploma must have had its effect, and they were short of teachers.
Glancing up for a moment, I saw that Mad Marx had extracted a comb from somewhere and begun to run it in a sort of religious ecstasy through his huge gray beard and side-locks (the top of his head was completely bald and of the same smoothness and sanguine hue as his cheeks). Eyes closed, he emitted long low quiet grunts of satisfaction. Small particles that may have been dust or dandruff or crumbs rained down upon his belly and thighs. When he opened his eyes, he brushed them off with one fleshy hand.
He was not so far gone then as to have forgotten all vanity, or the simple pleasures of grooming. The disease still in its early stages, I thought. Or maybe a less virulent strain. And might madness have become a disease actually endemic to Western civilization, like diabetes? Studies showed people from Eastern cultures exposed to the Western lifestyle began to develop the same ailments, to turn obese and diabetic, and why shouldn’t insanity operate the same way. Hadn’t I myself seen it happen? There was Bogdan, thanks more or less directly to whose crackup I was on the train that morning.
Maybe I wasn’t quite ready to state categorically that it was his time in the West that drove Bogdan nuts. No doubt he was variously predisposed before he ever set foot in the States and in our university. But I had a feeling that he might not have ended as he did if he’d stayed in Bulgaria.
Thinking back, even the college town, where I’d spent nearly five years and Bogdan less than three, had something about it that seemed to conduce to disorders of the mind. It was a quiet hamlet surrounded by forest and farmland, with long winters and far more churches than could have been filled up on any given Sunday. A high percentage of the population suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder due to lack of sunshine and in downtown there was a high business turnover rate. This might have had to do with the fact that many of the potential customers were actual nutcases. There was an insane asylum not far from the town center, and some of the ambulatory, presumably non-violent patients could be seen shambling down the sidewalks in slippers and ill-fitting clothes, or standing on street corners and staring silently at nothing, or, unwashed and unabashed, singing loudly and out of tune in the town square. As you went further from the university the neighborhoods grew seedier, and this together with the asylum inmates may have accounted for the emergency vehicle sirens that could be heard blaring somewhere in town at almost any time of the day or night.
It was not the harshest environment, but one that could wear you down over time. And Bogdan had certainly looked fragile enough to be affected by it. However, it seemed for a while like a tough sort of fragility. There was good reason to think him capable of handling whatever came his way. He was tremendously smart, he did for fun the kind of statistical analyses that I only saw in nightmares, and by the time I’d met him he had spent several years doing real field research in some of the roughest spots in the Balkans. A PhD in upstate New York should by all rights have been a cakewalk. At times, when he shared his frustrations with me, I’d even ask him why he thought he needed it. And aside from his diet he showed few signs of distress until the actual breakdown. Which made it seem all the more sudden and inexplicable when it came. Though of course in retrospect the progression appeared easy enough to reconstruct.
We had been accepted into the PhD program the same year, and met at the orientation mixer. Very slight, not much taller than five foot, Bogdan was fair-skinned and wore a neat chin beard. It was impossible to tell how old he was. One could as easily take him to be sixteen as thirty-five. When he told me he was thirty-one, I had to take his word for it. The fact that he was Bulgarian, too, I had to take on faith, as I didn’t know much about the country or its people. Later, when we’d become more friendly, Bogdan told me that he had some Turkish ancestry, and would be considered—by those who cared about such things—a member of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority.
At the mixer, he had stood alone, holding his plastic cup without drinking and showing little interest in socializing. I had brought Maggie with me, and she was the one who first noticed him that time. Bogdan was sufficiently handsome to stand out in a crowd, though his good looks were boyish, androgynous—essentially sexless—and I believe Maggie took an interest in him less out of physical attraction and more from a maternal, protective instinct that usually came over her when confronted with the innocent or helpless. This same instinct was also, quite possibly, partly why she chose to stay with me.
So it was Maggie who brought us together, introducing herself and me to Bogdan at the mixer and conversing with him at length about Bulgaria in her desire to dispel his (presumed on her part) feeling of isolation, and Maggie too who was there to witness Bodgan’s unraveling. However, she was not always present in the interim, since she was working in New York City and only came up to visit me once a month, and so could not observe Bogdan’s gradual, barely perceptible deterioration. That fell to me.
The thing I remarked fairly quickly was that he seemed to eat nothing at all while consuming inordinate quantities of coffee. At the campus coffee shop, it was comical to see his tiny hand wrapped about a giant to-go cup filled to the brim with the dark liquid. He took no milk or sugar, but could chug a half-dozen twenty-ounce jugs of the pure black stuff in the course of a day. He explained to me that while coffee was not Bulgaria’s national drink, as it were, he developed a taste for it when doing a master’s in Italy. It was there, too, that he met his unofficial academic advisor, a professor of some sort to whom he invariably referred as Uncle Doug. This Uncle Doug, an American academic who did much of his work abroad, was a mysterious figure that for some reason acquired in my mind a sinister character. Probably the avuncular moniker in combination with tales of sexual tourism and Bogdan’s appearance, in the absence of more concrete information about the man, led my imagination to jump to unsavory conclusions.
It was with Uncle Doug’s encouragement and his recommendation that Bogdan applied to the education PhD, and he would also provide Bogdan with consultations on his dissertation proposal. Had he actually been a faculty member, and on Bogdan’s thesis committee, things might have worked out better than they did. But he was by necessity an absentee mentor, and unable to provide the wheel-grease with the faculty that Bogdan badly needed. Because he couldn’t seem to understand what they wanted from him, nor persuade them to see things his way.
Bogdan himself would never actually complain, but would make jokes and anecdotes out of the various absurdities that he came up against. He had something of a knack for figurative expression, especially when he got emotional, and surprised me more than once with his verbal inventiveness. There was one instructor whom he took to calling Pharisee, on account of his frequent and indiscriminate use of the phrase “temple of learning.”
After hearing out his artfully phrased grievances a few times, I asked Bogdan why he was bothering with the PhD at all. He told me his background was in medical policy, and that he’d dealt among other things with severe vitamin deficiency in Eastern European children. Having run several moderately effective treatment programs in the Balkans, he had realized that he was treating symptoms, so to speak, without going to the root of the disease. Which was why, ironically as it would seem, he decided against going to medical school. “A doctor,” he’d said to me, “is like a lifeguard. He will try to save you if you are drowning. But he will not teach you to swim. It is an important job, but unless more people become better swimmers you’ll just keep having to rescue them until you run out of lifeguards.”
Seeing what he was getting at, I asked if he planned to specialize in disease prevention education, but he wouldn’t give me a straight answer. Smiling and shaking his head, he said he wasn’t sure himself what he was specializing in, but that all his ideas would be in his thesis, which, god willing, he’d someday actually write. On days when he was less reticent, he would direct me to the writings of John Locke, which I took to be the source of the philosophical underpinning of his work. But not having a great deal of free time, I figured I’d wait for the thesis, or for when he was in a more divulging mood.
As to why Bogdan chose me for his (partial) confidant in these matters, it was probably because he picked up on some of my own disaffection and skepticism when it came to a lot of what our department was selling. Or at least on my willingness to admit to it instead of putting on a happy face or a cloak of pure academic dedication. My concerns were not always the same as his, and I had the advantage of being familiar with the American education system, but I understood—or thought I did—him well enough to make for a sympathetic listener. Bogdan told me that he was used to the bald-faced venality of Eastern European academia, and had learned to how deal with it. But here he was confronted by something different. I gathered that he could not get used to the format of the classes, in which quantity of verbal participation seemed (to his mind) to matter more than what was actually said. The assignments felt to him, after his work solving real world crises, at best incomprehensible and at worst a downright waste of time. Even the papers most of the professors presented, despite their lofty-sounding, scientifically worded titles, he saw as largely derivative and pointless. It was as if they were deliberately trying to avoid producing anything of actual impact. Meanwhile most of his classmates to all appearances felt this to be in the order of things. At their get-togethers they would discuss with great seriousness projects that struck Bogdan as utterly removed from what people outside the university truly needed.
I admit I was guilty of pursuing such a project myself. However, by the time I began to grow convinced of this, in my third year of the program, I believed I was too far along to switch topics. My advisor told me as much too. I could tell he didn’t want to go through the headache of supervising a whole new thesis from scratch. In any case, I had enough to think about without worrying if my little Bulgarian friend was going soft in the head.
It seems to me now that Bogdan really began to go downhill around the time he failed his A exam. Believing that he had his adviser’s blessing, he had worked for months on his proposal, only to have the thesis committee reject it with some cursory, euphemistic criticism. This may have been the fatal blow that broke through whatever armor had until then protected him. Thereafter he was much more obviously on the path of self-destruction.
The subway had emerged from below ground. Pouring into the car, natural light drowned and softened the yellow train lights. Beyond the windows lay the city skyline, looking very much like a movie backdrop. For a moment I was not even sure it was Manhattan. Was it supposed to be visible from this angle?
Across from me, Mad Marx was talking softly to himself, still amused it seemed by the PA announcement we heard at the last station. The New York City Police Department had been encouraging us to report suspicious packages or activities seen in the subway. The message caused my neighbor to begin giggling merrily and tugging at his beard. Perhaps he was enjoying the announcement’s various unintended associations. Or maybe he had found comical the announcer’s bluff, manly, dependable voice. Whatever the reason for his levity, I felt once more that he was more lucid than not, and that he may in fact have had access to uncommon truths. I even allowed myself to speculate that this knowledge, which can in some cases be as corrosive and debilitating as an illness, was what precipitated his fall. As I believed it had Bogdan’s.
Again, in hindsight it’s easy to attribute significance to things that at the time seemed innocent. For example, after the rejection of his proposal, there began to surface in Bogdan’s stories elements of the supernatural. Several times he told me of witnessing what could only be described as black magic performed by so-called witches in some of the villages he’d worked in. He told of how, in a dispute between two neighboring groups or clans, the witch men of one had caused members of the other to go mad and slaughter their own. He claimed to have seen this happen with his own eyes. There were other things too, of a less gruesome nature, like miraculous healing and extreme longevity.
I didn’t quite know how to take all this. Bogdan seemed too serious and experienced a student of science to make such statements lightly, or to have simply fabricated them. And he insisted that he had been present when the things he spoke of took place. So I did as we sometimes do in such situations, and left the question open. Accepting that our knowledge of the workings of the universe was basically as trivial as the length of our existence in it, I supposed it possible that such things happened without actually believing it.
At about that time I noticed that Bogdan had added alcohol to his diet of black coffee. When I met him, he would often have it on his breath. He had joked—or boasted—before about how his grandfather introduced him to beer and wine when he was six, and to rakia, the traditional Bulgarian liquor, when he was ten, and that alcohol had no more effect on him than caffeine did. Nevertheless, when I saw him, his eyes shone strangely and his speaking ability was frequently impaired. To my mild expressions of concern, Bogdan would reply that he had anyhow no desire to live past sixty. Evidently old age held no attractions for him. By way of explanation he again referred to his grandfather, who drank and smoked his whole life and died at well past ninety, not due to any age-related ailment, but because, as Bogdan explained it, he had lost all of his friends and no longer wanted to live. The grandfather had also claimed to be able to trace his descent to the Khazar rulers who’d long dominated the Slavic tribes, as well as to Asparukh, the Bulgarian warrior king whom some scholars equated with Genghis Khan. “So maybe I am a Mongol and a Jew in addition to everything else,” Bogdan would laugh.
The grandfather’s death, I understood, had deeply affected him. He told me he did not want to end up like the grandfather had—alone, decrepit and without interest in life. What about family, I wanted to know. Might that not provide good reason to live on past the arbitrary mark of six decades? In reply, Bogdan just made a face. Marriage was a sore topic with him. He had an older brother living in Florida with a wife and three kids, and he’d been catching flak from the brother and their parents for years on account of his unsettled, bachelor lifestyle. I eventually came to understand, though he never came out and said so, that marriage and everything that went with it was simply foreign to him, outside of what he perceived to be his life’s scope and trajectory.
That’s not to say he was indifferent to the opposite sex. I am quite certain, for instance, that he was fascinated with Maggie. Which was more than forgivable. Maggie got a rise out of most men. There was about her an air of warm and engulfing sensuality that was wonderfully at ease with itself. And she liked Bogdan and made a point of engaging him in conversation whenever he was around. I think he came to see her as a kind of prototypical woman, a paragon of sorts, and sought her advice on matters that one might have assumed to be outside her realm of expertise. Sometimes I caught him gazing at her with what I thought was a kind of confused and timid longing. And it is likely no coincidence that he chose my apartment as the site of his final meltdown, at a time when he knew Maggie would be there too.
By then he had moved into my building, from his apartment closer to the university, for reasons that he never quite explained or I never quite understood. He had joined a Bulgarian club and had had visits from friends studying elsewhere in the US, but the visits were rare and brief, and the club proved of little use socially. It had about a dozen members, but they were mostly undergrads who’d spent years in the States and often barely spoke Bulgarian, and shared interests that Bodgan could not relate to. So I put his move to loneliness, though we didn’t necessarily see a whole lot more of each other while living in the same building. I did, however, get some hints of how bad his drinking had gotten. When the two of us went into the liquor store across the street, the owner, a pudgy talkative gent with pale, sagging cheeks and long-uncut fingernails, treated Bogdan like he was his best customer, making a joke out of asking for his ID. Bogdan, meanwhile, skipped the Bulgarian wine, which I’d expected him to buy, and went straight for the whiskey (the store didn’t carry rakia). Two days later, when I stopped by his place, I saw the bottle in his kitchen. It was three quarters empty.
There were other problems as well that should have set off alarms, but that I kept finding ways to explain away. At one point, Bogdan told me he couldn’t sleep because of the noise coming from the adjacent apartment. Noises, actually. Behind the wall of his bedroom, someone – some woman – seemed to be weeping, wailing, moaning whenever he tried to go to bed. He thought that she might be in trouble and that these sounds of grief and pain were her way of asking for his help. He also gave me to understand that some of the noises were sexual in nature, and these seemed to disturb him most of all. Once, I’d come up with him to hear it for myself, but that time the woman stayed silent. Bogdan believed she knew he wasn’t alone. One day he went so far as to mention to her – for the apartment was in fact inhabited by a young woman – the nightly caterwauling, and was deeply perplexed and embarrassed when she flatly denied engaging in any noise-making activities.
For my part, I tried to persuade him that whatever he heard was a private affair, that we couldn’t hope to solve every personal problem we came across, and that for the time being he could sleep on the couch in the living room. This seemed to work for a while, and he was able to return to his proposal, which he was struggling to redact. He was assisted in this by Uncle Doug, but it was still slow going. On top of which, his advisor apparently remained less than thrilled with his thesis topic. Nonetheless, Bogdan pressed on, still consuming nothing but coffee and whiskey, as far as I could tell, and getting more outlandish in his conversation. Once, he gave me an earnest lecture about the Turks settling areas of the Middle East that I hadn’t thought the Ottoman Empire ever extended to (though admittedly I wasn’t an expert on the history of the region). He talked more about his grandfather and his royal lineage, and the black magic of Southeastern Europe. More than once he seemed to hint that he’d been let in on some of the secrets of magic healing he had described to me before.
At the same time he was growing more anxious about the A exam. He didn’t believe the committee would let him pass. They had it in for him, he said. I could see that what he really wasn’t able to cope with was the idea of the essential work—as he believed it to be—that he was trying to do being impeded. He talked of quitting, of going back to Bulgaria and reassembling his old field research team. I told him honestly that this might not be the worst outcome, since it still wasn’t clear how much of a practical advantage having the PhD would give him. But I also reassured him that the committee had no interest in seeing him fail. He was fretting needlessly, I said, and would do well to focus his energies on finishing his write-up. Bogdan listened, nodding his head obediently, a giant coffee cup squeezed in his miniature pale hand, but just a few weeks before the exam he again told me he was on the verge of quitting. He had been contacted by one of his brother’s friends, a businessman from Sofia, with an offer to join his pharmaceutical company. He was promised a senior position and excellent pay.
“I think I may go,” Bogdan said, slurring his words slightly. “What am I killing myself for? For whom? If I didn’t know that Boyko is mafia, I’d leave tomorrow.”
I didn’t see him for nearly a month after that, and didn’t know what he’d decided, though I assumed he hadn’t left since I would have likely heard about it if he had.
Then one day he called and asked me to meet him in the downtown coffee shop where we’d been in the habit of getting together since his move. I went, and found him looking extra pale but peaceful. I noted with surprise that he was drinking his coffee out of a twelve ounce cup. The A exam was a few days away, but he said he was done with the proposal and felt good about his prospects. I asked him about the job in Sofia. Smiling tiredly, he said, “Working for Boyko, I would not know any peace. I could never forget what he was. Anyway, I know now why I am here, why I must finish my work.”
I welcomed the news, and we raised our drinks to our future doctoral titles. Bogdan still wouldn’t tell me what his thesis was on, saying he didn’t want to jinx it, which was fine by me so long as he himself knew what he was doing. I had to cut our chat short, as I was expecting Maggie and had still to finish a paper I owed my advisor, but I left feeling relieved and happy that he’d pulled through.
I saw him only four times after that. Twice in the mental health wing of the local hospital, once as he was getting ready to fly to Florida with his brother, and once that very same night, when he’d burst into my apartment talking gibberish and afraid for his life.
That evening Maggie had come over from New York. Walking through the door, she informed me that my buzzer wasn’t working. She tried to call, she said, but I hadn’t answered, and so finally she had to call Bogdan and ask him to let her in. It was late, and she’d felt awkward doing it, but the only other alternative was to stand out in the cold with her bags waiting for someone to go in or out, which at that hour might not have happened for a while.
Bogdan made his appearance some time later, as we were going to bed. He was all ajibber, as I remember thinking then. He was talking but he wasn’t making a lot of sense. He’d done something terrible, he insisted. Something very bad. It was hard to conceive of little Bogdan doing anything especially harmful, and we tried to get him to calm down and explain what happened. But he was strangely agitated, he wouldn’t look either of us in the eye, and kept moving about the room and repeating his vague self-incriminations. We were finally able to determine that his neighbors had been making noise again – apparently there was more than one of them this time – and that he had responded in some inappropriate manner. There had been a quarrel, it seemed, between a man and a woman, though perhaps there were others involved as well. They were screaming at each other, then fighting physically, and at last Bogdan couldn’t take it and started pleading with them through the wall to stop. He told them they should be kind to one another, that we were all imperfect, vulnerable creatures that only wanted to be loved. And when the loud squabbling turned into equally loud lovemaking, he was so unhinged that he joined his own voice to their cries of pleasure. It was this final act that he evidently felt was his transgression. Now he was afraid they were angry, that they called the police, that they had recorded him, that their friends were on the way and would do terrible things to him. We tried to calm him, but were only able to distract him briefly from his terror. In a moment he would again remember that he was on the run, a fugitive.
Then suddenly he wanted to call the police. For his own protection. I knew getting them involved wasn’t the best idea: I believed that Bogdan might have done something silly, like holler through the wall at his neighbors, but his own fears of retribution I felt certain were mostly imaginary. At the same time, I guiltily acknowledged that it might have been easier to have professionals deal with the situation. For Bogdan was clearly not himself. His gaze would not rest or focus on anything. He seemed unable to take in the reality outside himself and existed at that moment entirely in his own head.
Maggie had by then gotten out of bed and turned on the lights. She offered Bogdan water, but he was too distracted to notice. Wearing her pajamas, she sat down on the floor across from where he’d squatted against the closet door, clasping his cell phone, and tried to talk him out of his state. He would listen to her, but to her reassurances that there was no one after him, that the hallway beyond the door was empty, he’d just shake his head and repeat stubbornly that they were coming. “I don’t want you guys to get hurt,” he said. “I will get you in trouble. There is many of them. Very many. They are coming to get me because of what I’ve done.”
His blank fearful gaze swept about the room without seeing anything and settled back on the cell phone in his hand. “Maybe I should call the police,” he said again. He looked at me as if for approval, and I thought for a moment his eyes cleared and it was as if he was testing me in some way. I still didn’t think there was a need to get the cops in on it, but I was getting tired and thought that after all Bogdan was not a child to be pacified, and that if he wanted to call the police I had no business stopping him. Then he couldn’t think of the number to call, and I had to tell him what it was and finally to actually press the keys on his phone. It felt like a betrayal in some way, like I was handing him over to the executioner, especially since he appeared terrified and already seemed to regret his decision, but I didn’t know what else I was supposed to do.
When the cops came, there were two of them. They were both young, probably in their early twenties. One was large, with a pallid, meaty face and shaved head, and folds of fat at the back of the neck. The other, smaller one did most of the talking. He had clear, earnest dark eyes and long girlish lashes. He was baby-faced but professional, speaking courteously to Bogdan, using neutral language you knew came from his progressive police training.
Bogdan had stood up when they came in. He looked pitifully small between them, standing motionless and mostly silent, with his ageless saint’s or loony’s face and little beard, staring at the ground as the young trooper asked him questions. It occurred to me that in his present state he might have associated the two officers with the authorities of his native country, which were known to give the Turkish community a hard time. And I wondered if this whole paranoid episode was not partially due to the fact that Bulgarian Turks, like other ethnic and religious minorities elsewhere, had an uneasy relationship with the society in which they dwelled. Suffering from periodic persecution and ineradicable bigotry.
The cops, meanwhile, assured Bogdan patiently that when they came inside the building no angry mob was lying in wait for him. At his urging, they went out into the hallway and again confirmed that it was empty. When it became clear that there was no actual threat of any sort, the one in charge asked to speak to me outside.
“Is there anything at all to what he’s saying?” he asked me.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “He’s just been under a lot of stress. Working too hard, drinking too much coffee. Not getting enough sleep.”
“Well, it’s good to see that he’s got neighbors willing to take him in,” the cop said approvingly. Flattered, I was wondering if this was part of his training as well: praising the work of ordinary citizens who made his job easier.
Going back inside, the cop offered to drive Bogdan to a mental health facility, making it clear that this was completely voluntary. At first Bogdan refused, looking scared, which was when the baby-faced cop’s hulking partner suddenly came awake and tried to coax him into going. It was odd and somehow disturbing to observe him making a terrific effort not to seem intimidating as he explained why having Bogdan go with them would be best for everyone.
I could tell Bogdan was still frightened at the idea, and I myself was averse to it, but for some reason I began gently persuading him to take them up on the offer. Maggie was looking at me with surprise and disapproval, and I felt a rising disgust with myself, but I couldn’t stop. Bogdan’s eyes were jumping from my face to the cops and back, and whenever he turned to me I again felt like his gaze was entirely lucid. It seemed like he wanted to ask me something but knew it wouldn’t do any good and had to be satisfied with his own internal reckoning. I even thought that he looked strangely exultant, and had the peculiar idea that his unwillingness to go with the cops was partly a put-on.
In any case, he eventually went. Though not before Maggie had reluctantly joined me in endorsing the trip. She must have realized we couldn’t handle this on our own. When she spoke to him, Bogdan seemed to forget his fear. He listened dreamily and then nodded and mumbled what may have been consent, and let himself be guided out of the apartment. But on the way to the car he changed his mind and tried to leave, stalking off uncertainly in a random direction, and had to be talked into returning and climbing into the cruiser. I walked out with him, and saw his small moon-like face looking out from the car’s back window. Except for the smudge of beard, he could have been a boy being taken for a ride-along.
The next day I got in touch with his brother, who struck me as not fully appreciating the severity of Bogdan’s condition and being eager to have me take on the responsibility of caring for him until some other solution could be worked out.
That weekend Maggie and I visited Bogdan in the hospital. We had to be buzzed in through two steel doors with wire-mesh in the small windows. Inside, the place was not too different from a college dorm. There was a lounge and a TV where a nice-looking but oddly blank-faced young girl sat watching Discovery Channel. We spoke with Bogdan sitting with the door open in a room that resembled a small classroom or office. There was a table in the middle of it that took up most of the floor space. I found myself playing with a few stray color beads that must have been left over on the table from the arts and crafts hour.
Bogdan seemed more or less normal and even cheerful, though he said they’d put him on medication that made him feel constantly hungry and a little foggy. He asked me to bring him some of his clothes and to look after his papers.
About a week later his brother arrived from Florida and helped him move most of his stuff to storage, before taking him back to live with his family during a six month treatment period. The school administration having granted him a leave of absence, Bogdan told me he intended to return within a year’s time to complete his studies, and I did my best to pretend to believe him.
In the subway car, a new odor, strong and familiar, reached my nostrils. Checking on Marx, I saw that he had unscrewed a jar of Vaseline, and the peculiar, clean-greasy smell of that substance had burst forth and overpowered even his own intense aroma. He was muttering to himself with an expression that said what he was about was tedious work but there was nothing for it. I guessed his handsome beard was in for some more grooming. Instead, Marx pulled up the band of his sweats, and plunged a Vaselined hand into his groin, there initiating unknown manipulations.
I looked away.
So much, I thought, for the remains of sanity.
The train was slowing as it approached a station. I stood and turned toward the door. I wouldn’t be offending my neighbor: this was my stop.
Out on the platform, the train accelerating behind me with an electrical whine as I headed for the stairs, I had the thought that it was not Marx but the rest of us who were mad if we expected him to forgo one of his last remaining pleasures out of consideration for social niceties. It was absurd to insist that he keep such activities private. How could he? He had been stripped of his privacy when he started living on the street (and subway). Now his whole life was public, and he wasn’t to blame if witnessing it made others squirm.
I was still holding my notes, and I put them back in the bag before going up the stairs. Maggie, wanting to encourage me, had said I didn’t need them. Yet she’d made sure they were next to my keys and wallet on the dresser in the morning. She knew I often tended to forget what was most important. And she had more than one reason to want to see me do well that morning. Because it was she who’d first read it. Bogdan’s proposal. After we learned that he would not be coming back.
During his time in Florida, Bogdan had sent me messages in which he talked of his return plans. But after his twelve-month exile was up, he went silent, at last sending a cryptic, formal email saying that he was back in Bulgaria and “exploring new career options.” He had left some of his papers with me, the ones he didn’t want to go into storage, and in the email he stated that I was free to dispose of them as I saw fit. I’d nearly forgotten about them by then and didn’t mind leaving them where they were, but Maggie suggested we go through them, if only to see if we could free up some closet space. And since I kept dragging my feet, she took charge of the review. Much of what she found was in Bulgarian, and hand-written and barely legible in any case, but in one of the boxes she discovered copies of Bogdan’s second write-up, presumably made in anticipation of the A exam. His original proposal was there too, the one first rejected by the committee. There was on the cover page a single sentence in red, with which the committee chairman had rebuffed him.
Remembering Bogdan’s secrecy regarding the thing, I thought it would be a violation of privacy to read it without his permission. I shared my reservations with Maggie, but she pointed out that Bogdan had intended to have me read his thesis once he finished it and that anyhow manuscripts were not written simply to be buried in a closet. The compromise we reached was that she would read the text, and then tell me if it was worth my time or if I could safely skip it and so not abuse Bogdan’s trust. I heard nothing more about it for several weeks, and assumed the proposal was a dud, which, given Bogdan’s state of mind when he wrote it, wasn’t all that surprising. But then one night Maggie came into the bedroom where I was working and dropped a sheaf of papers on the desk. It was Bogdan’s first write-up. “Read this one,” she said. “It’s the same as the other one, only it doesn’t try to sound smart and there’re some articles missing.”
So I read it. And at first I didn’t get what he was talking about. Maybe it was his Eastern-style sentences. Winding and difficult to follow. Then I thought I saw what he was aiming at, but still I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it, as they say. I kept looking for some flaw in his argument. Kept expecting the whole thing to fall apart before my eyes. I went back and reread John Locke, whom I’d not looked at since college. On the Conduct of the Understanding was quite good. But it was Some Thoughts Concerning Education that really knocked me down. Afterward I read Bogdan’s hundred pages again. Then for about three weeks I didn’t sleep, rewriting my thesis to incorporate in it his main idea. My advisor raised an eyebrow when he read what I brought him, but didn’t argue. He must have seen in my wan, sleepless face an unreasonable determination to stick to my chosen course.
Couched in the language of my well-received research topic, Bogdan’s notions didn’t strike my thesis committee as too alien, though it did take me an extra semester to graduate, and longer to find someone willing to give me a job where I could try to put into practice the concepts advanced in my dissertation. As I said, the fact that someone hired me at all was still a little strange to me. I fully expected to get the same response from prospective employers as Bogdan had gotten from his thesis committee chair. A comfortably overweight professor of child development whose latest research was on the effects of chocolate on cognitive performance, the man had scrawled, “I fail to see the practical use of this,” on the proposal’s cover.
Making my way toward the station exit, careful not to slip on the grimy wet floor, I passed two police officers, bulky in their winter getups and utility belts. I was conscious of my backpack, which, according to another often-played announcement, might have been subject to random search. The cops paid no attention to me, however. They were busy discussing car leases and home appliances.
Remembering Bogdan’s comment about doctors, I reflected that the same basic failing applied to the police. They’d try to save you, but wouldn’t help you learn how to save yourself. Much less show you how to save others. Bogdan, though, managed to solve that problem. Only, he hadn’t been able to deliver his solution to the world. That was left up to others.
The outdoor light and frigid winter air were on my face as I began to ascend above ground. I was repeating to myself Bogdan’s one-line thesis, with which I intended to open my presentation.
Teach them, he had written, to do no harm.