When I was young, I had a skin condition called eczema. It’s a common ailment and the symptoms are simple, dry skin and itchiness, but in Texas the heat had me scratching until my skin bled. My father was an orthopedic surgeon and his prescription was simple: stop scratching. “If you don’t scratch,” he’d say, “you won’t bleed.”
His logic was pretty sound. I’d no practical defense for my scratching—it was a self-destructive act that went against my own biology—and yet I was compelled to itch, to sacrifice my health and wellbeing for the ecstasy of a moment.
It got so bad that my father, late one summer, had to bandage my arms before I went to bed. We used the gauze and fabric you’d find in hospitals, coated with triple antibiotic ointment and wrapped in layers. I’d wake in the morning with bandages askew, my skin underneath pink and raw from the raking.
Most of the people I meet at Strathclyde are transplants. The international community is strong and everyday I speak with people from various corners of the world.
One night I was chatting to a girl from Argentina. She studied architecture, but was previously an actress for a telenovela series. Her name was Mariana, and when she spoke I immediately knew how stunning she would’ve been on screen.
Mariana told me about the places she had lived in the past. She had called Madrid, Florence and Vienna home. Money wasn’t an issue for her—this became clear the moment I walked into her flat—and she spoke of architecture as a curiosity. So I asked her the question I received countless times after moving to Scotland: “Why Glasgow?”
She smiled and thought for a moment. “For the change of scenery,” she said.
Mariana was thirty years old. Her show in Argentina had been cut, and while she was just as vivacious as any of the twenty-year old girls running around Strathclyde, I knew that this explanation was incomplete. But it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because I knew that she was being honest. Because somehow, and on some level, I understood.
This past summer I went snorkeling in the Caribbean with my stepbrother. Aaron wasn’t a swimmer and he didn’t play a wind instrument growing up, but we’d dive down to inspect colonies of coral and one was so mesmerizing—its fluorescent reds and blues, translucent crustaceans swaying on skeletal carbon—that he outlasted me.
I came up with spotted vision and throbbed pulse, but Aaron was still underwater. I waited, counted the seconds and glanced down with a knot in my gut. He came up sputtering for breath right then, milliseconds from blacking out. I called his name and he looked up smiling. I’d never seen eyes so blue.
Every Wednesday I go for a pint with my flatmates to drown out the pressures of postgraduate life. We’re all expats and tonight we’re talking about self-injury and the phenomenon of ‘home.’
“The problem,” says Jason, “is that when I’m in Scotland, I miss home; but when I go home, I miss Scotland.”
Jason studies a master’s in engineering and, before Strathclyde, he spent a year cleaning dishes at a restaurant in the city centre.
“I mean, nobody loves Glasgow for the wet and the wind,” he says. “But it’s easy to fall in love with a place. You can fall in love with any place if you live there for long enough.”
“Speak for yourself,” says Carsten. “I’ve lived in Glasgow long enough to not love it.”
“Okay,” says Jason. “Sure. But it’s possible to love another place; to have two homes. What I can’t decide is whether or not it’s smart. Like having an affair. You fall in love with two women at the same time, then you’re screwed.”
Carsten and I burst out laughing, mostly at Jason’s ability to twist a conversation to the subject of women, but what he says lingers in the space around us. I think about mid-life crises and the beauty of sadness, the imperfect dancing in the beautiful dance* and of Daisy saying, “I loved you, too," as if loving Gatsby were the same thing as loving a place; as if unpacking her life from a carryon bag was what exposed her to the complexity of choice.
“Why do it?”
That was the question I received most on my roadtrip around the States. “Why drop everything to travel?” Most often, I’d reply with a deflection. “Why not?” I’d say. “When, if not now?”
In Seattle, I told everyone that I was desperate for rain. In Arizona it was to explore the parks. For the yuppies of Chicago it was to say I’m ‘traveling’ instead of ‘unemployed.’ But if anybody asked me twice—if anyone ever pushed for a meaningful response to why I uprooted my life, why I made my degree extraneous and eroded long-term relationships all for the sake of movement—I’d come up short. Because how else do you describe an itch except to say that it itches?
My eczema has faded, now. It’s a thing that people can outgrow, like allergies, just not by any mental forte or sprouted self-discipline. The symptoms are less because the source is less. Because when the urge to scratch comes there is no resisting its haunting combination of ecstasy and hurt, the edifying pain with the emptiness, the itch that can—despite days, sometimes years, of loneliness—remind us of what it means to feel.