Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 5.3]

As I sat on a train the next day on the way to Edinburgh, I looked out the window and saw lush green fields for miles in all directions, dotted with plump white and black sheep. Someone came around with coffee and chocolate, which set off explosions of sweetness in my mouth. I could visualize my taste buds dancing and splashing around with glee. I saw a castle off in the distance and lost touch with my body again. Time stopped and I couldn’t remember where I was. I couldn’t remember who I was, where I’d come from, what day it was, or where I was going. This euphoric feeling lasted several minutes while I took slow, deep breaths. The last four days felt like a month.

I wondered if it was because there was nothing on this trip to remind me of my current life, no visual stimuli to trigger any common thoughts or associations. So far, I’d spent every minute processing new information that maybe I’d lost track of my past and future. I was living fully in the present for the first time in my entire life, which is why it must have felt so strange. Maybe I’d actually disconnected with my ego or something. Maybe this was like losing yourself in meditation? In any case, I didn’t want the experience to end. Life seemed more exciting than I’d ever imagined, and I felt like I actually had a chance to live it—really be alive in it—for the first time. I felt light as a feather.

Edinburgh was wonderfully creepy. The Castle loomed over the city, and the architecture, with its many spires, was medieval. I expected to see Dracula come walking around the corner any minute.

After checking into my hostel around noon, I explored the city on foot. I wandered in and out of secondhand shops where I purchased a long, maroon velvet skirt and a long-sleeved, black lace top. I heard bagpipes off in the distance and passed several signs advertising haunted ghost tours at midnight. I passed by a fruit stand and bought four enormous, bright red strawberries, which were all that would fit in the pint-sized box. I looked for a park or open area where I could sit and enjoy them.

Instead, I came upon an ancient cemetery. The flat, oval tombstones had slept there for so long they were fully covered in a thick layer of yellowish-greenish moss. Although I’d just been walking on a bustling and noisy street, dead silence greeted me once I was through the cemetery’s gate. I crept deeper and deeper inside until I saw a stone bench.

I sat and had another look at my freakishly huge and bright red strawberries. I was almost afraid to eat them, kind of like I’d be afraid to step on a really huge bug. But I closed my eyes and bit. Juice gushed out. They tasted sweeter than the sweetest candy. When I opened my eyes, the whole cemetery looked like it was swaying slowly, breathing. I froze, trying to make the feeling last. Then a sense of utter peace settled over me as I felt the presence of someone—my Grandma Shultz. In my mind, I saw her being born, playing as a child, growing up, getting married, happily digging in her strawberry garden, cooking, dancing, getting sick, and then lying in her coffin.

I felt her strength and joy for life and grasped the tragedy of her dying so young. I never imagined having a large family of my own; my path seemed so different. Yet I found such grace in what she had accomplished and what she had given to all of us. She was an integral part of so many of our lives. I would love to have been able to have an adult conversation with her. I never had a chance to tell her how special she was. I wished I could have thanked her for the love she showed me and for her letting me see little glimpses of who she was and how she really felt inside. And I had a feeling it would have been good for her to hear it. Not only was she the purest and most giving person I could think of, she was the bravest. I could almost feel her joyful energy beside me, holding my hand, comforting me and saying she understood me and was thrilled I was finding happiness. I slowly finished my strawberries and walked back to the hostel.

******

One of my bunkmates in Edinburgh was a Canadian girl named Lori who was also traveling alone. She assumed I was a fellow Canadian and was surprised to hear I was American. When I asked her why, she apologetically said, “Well, honestly, you seem too nice, and too well-spoken, to be an American. Sorry, but that’s the truth. You’re also not dressed like an American; you’re wearing all black. I’ve been traveling for three months and every American I’ve met has been pretty loud and obnoxious, and they’ve all been dressed in jeans, sweatshirts, and hiking boots.”

Lori and I paired up for the next four days. We visited the castle, drank pints at eerie pubs, took ghost tours, and picnicked under Edinburgh’s partially finished Parthenon. Friday night we decided to hit the town. She agreed to check out a Goth club with me, and then we’d hit a techno club she’d heard about.

The Goth club here had a very different vibe from the one back home. The music was harder and mostly “industrial.” These Goths didn’t dance so much as they jogged forward and backwards and occasionally judo-kicked a leg in the air. We noticed an entrance to another room in the basement. As we walked down the stairway, I heard moaning that was guttural and primal…and coming from a man.

Along one wall in the basement were some cages with straps and whips hanging from the bars. In one cage, two girls dressed like dominatrices were playfully whipping each other. In another cage, a hairy man, who appeared to be about fifty, with a beefy build and full beard was handcuffed to the wall. He had on a long, red-haired wig and thick, almost costumey makeup. He was wearing a red silk dress with fishnets and red high heels. No part of him was feminine; he looked downright grandfatherly—and he was the one moaning.

I assumed he must be getting whipped by someone. But from a different angle, I could see he was alone and standing on his tiptoes rubbing his butt up and down on a whip. Each time he made contact with the whip, he moaned—clearly in a world of his own. His face expressed all the emotion it would if someone was really standing in front of him whipping him. At times, he even appeared to be having a conversation with someone. No one in the room was paying attention to him, but he knew he was not alone. His eyes were wide and darted around, looking for attention. Once he thought someone was watching, he put on his “show.”

I felt like weeping and vomiting at the same time. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Part of me was cynical and unforgiving. My instinct said this man was clearly “wired” wrong. The beard told me he must have been living “normally” during the day… probably with a corporate day job, a wife, and even grandkids. I imagined him telling his wife he was going to a pub with “his mates” that night to play darts and then slipping off to the public locker where he kept his other wardrobe. I envisioned him sitting in an easy chair with grandkids on his knee, listening to them chatter on, while his mind slipped off to his homoerotic fantasies.

I thought about his poor wife and what types of diseases he had exposed her to. Did he ever think of her when he was here in the basement? Hell, had he ever thought of her when he was making love to her? And how could he possibly behave normally with his coworkers while having to suppress such bizarre fetishes? Surely his locked-up demons were always trying to burst to the surface and must rear their ugly heads in ways that made him seem socially “off.” Was he one of those people you labeled an “odd duck?” How many of the odd ducks I’d known over the years would I find at a place like this? Had he molested children?

Then, I saw his sad profile again and felt an extreme pang of guilt for judging him. I knew nothing about this person and had no right. Maybe he was a nice old man, just completely trapped in his own personal hell. I mean, no one was even willing to whip him for Christ’s sake; he had to do it himself and pretend someone was there with him. I was going to cry.

Maybe he was happy, I told myself. But how could he be? Mustn’t he be tortured inside and out? Most people would think this was wrong, wrong, wrong, like a part of me did. But how did he get this way? Was it all his conscious choice? Surely he had once tried to behave in life according to everyone’s expectations of him, to act like a man should. But what if he had been abused? Odds were he probably wasn’t adored by two loving parents. Maybe he grew up out of touch with his own emotional life, never having people truly love him for who he was, probably never having therapy or an outlet for his desires. Maybe his parents made him feel that sex was dirty, and the repression rewired his brain. The point was: who in the hell had the right to judge this guy? I was purely speculating with very little evidence.

Clearly the scores of Goth people ignoring him, passively condoning him and his behavior at this club, were above judging him. Weren’t people who worked too hard or drank too much at the expense of their families—either for power or to drown out past feelings of failure—warped in their own right? What about those parents who unconsciously shoved their issues on their own children, making them doubt their worth and ability to be loved? How many parents really nurtured their children’s inner lives? Couldn’t they possibly have a worse effect on the world than this old man hidden in an Edinburgh club basement? Several of the most prestigious lawyers and teachers in my hometown had cheated on their wives. And, how screwed up is it that people revere corrupt presidents who hold the power to harm nations, yet they often feel disgust at private people whose power is extremely limited if even exercised at all?

At midnight, Lori and I hightailed it to a techno club where John Digweed was DJing. As I watched Lori with her hands in the air, jumping along to the beat, I could feel her elation. She was beaming. We both let go for the next four hours and let the DJ have all the control. A part of me was envious of Lori’s freedom and wished I could continue traveling with her for the next several months. Another part was relieved to arrive back in sunny Florida two days later, with no regrets.

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