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Thing From Your Memory

Thing From Your Memory

Thing From Your Memory 1920 1284 Holden Wright

The day I lost my mind, I stepped into my clip-in biking shoes, and sailed through the morning like a rock through a window, determined to bike to work despite the cold. From there, my memory of the morning came to me from my husband, Joey, who heard it from the ambulance staff who heard it from first-hand witnesses, a hit-and-run that might have left my brains smeared along the crosswalk if not for my helmet.

When I came to I didn’t recognize Joey sitting next to the bed. “Oh God, Oliver,” he said, and kissed me.

“Don’t kiss me,” I told him. “I’m married.” Tears made wet parentheses down his cheeks.

“Like hell you are,” he said, and kissed me again, and only then did I understand it was my husband pressing his lips to mine, crying.

When the doctor came in, he told me, “You’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury. Watch for symptoms like headaches, loss of consciousness-”

“I get the drill,” I said, squeezing Joey’s hand. “My husband’s a doctor.” A small lie. When our daughter Tabitha moved out for college, Joey quit his job as a real estate broker and started at the local med school. Now he brought his laptop to the dinner table and complained of being the oldest student by over a decade.

The doctor set me up with a prescription and a schedule for cognitive therapy. I told Joey, “You have a real patient now. You’ll get some hands-on experience.”

“Don’t doubt that for a second,” he said, and I stared up at his face, looking for something I could recognize in it.

At home, I re-learned Joey’s face, his body. He was all new: the insistency of his kiss, the urgency in his touch. When we made love, I closed my eyes and tried to remember what he looked like. When I opened them, the man above me was always different than I’d imagined.

When Tabitha came to visit, I re-introduced myself to her. “Pop?” she said. “Pop, you know me. Tabitha? Your daughter?” She tapped my temple, as if to awaken my memory of her.

“Yes,” I said. “Sorry.”

The rest of the night she turned her smile on me like a spotlight every chance she got, and I felt like I’d been caught with dirty fingernails. They gave each other looks that made me uneasy. This is my family, I told myself, but I couldn’t see it.

Joey drove me to a neurologist the next day. I had prosopagnosia, face blindness. “Is it treatable?” I asked.

Dr. Everett shook her head. “Here’s what you do,” she said. “You memorize people by their mannerisms. Anything that helps: voices, clothing. I have a patient who recognizes hands. You have to experiment until something clicks.”

I practiced on Joey. When we first met, I called him “champagne eyes,” because of the way they glittered. I looked for that amber sparkle now, and instead noticed how his irises trembled in their slick whites, like bowls of Jell-O. I made a list of identifiers: the heavy eyebrows angled like chevrons above his eyes, a ruddy splotch across his cheeks when he got excited, the twitch on one side of his lip when he frowned, three vaguely horizontal lines plowed into his forehead.

When Tabitha visited, I memorized her too, but her speech made it easy—she had an incurable lisp. After dinner Joey played the piano while Tabitha sang classical songs in French and Italian.

“Sing for us, Pop,” she said. “What was that lullaby you used to sing me when I wouldn’t sleep?”

I shook my head. I couldn’t sing. “Long Black Veil,” I told her.

“Morbid lullaby,” said Joey. “Death and infidelity. Why did you ever sing that to her?”

I shrugged. “My father sang it to me. Tradition.”

“How did it go again?” she coaxed.

I tried a smile. “Oh, I don’t remember. Anyway, you don’t want me to sing.”

“You remember,” she said. “That accident didn’t rattle your brain that much, did it?” She plopped on the couch next to me. “Hey, what if I gave you lessons? I could teach you to sing.”

“How about a story?” I asked.

She laughed through her nose. “Fine for now,” she said. “But next time I’m over, you’ll sing for me. Deal?”

“Deal.” I told them the story of my great-great-grandfather Anders who had his left knee blown out in a hunting accident. He dragged himself the two miles back home, where his wife, Mathilde performed a crude amputation, using a saw to hack through the femur and fishing out shards of bone with her bloody fingers. When the operation was complete, the wound cauterized and no longer bleeding, she told her husband, “We won’t make the winter without venison.”

“God, that’s terrible,” said Oliver. “How do you know that?”

“I’ve started doing family history,” I said. Since the accident, I’d spent days at home, clicking through the internet. I saw an ad for a family tree site and found myself swimming in history. Site members could upload old family pictures, stories, memories. I’d never heard of Grandpa Anders before then, but now I felt a strange affinity for him.

There was more. My great-great grandfather Anders learned woodwork; he made himself a wooden leg with a hinge at the knee. The family got along on the furniture Anders built and sold. At some point he must have replaced the kitchen table, but I liked to think of the time before, when his family ate dinner on the blood-stained wood and pretended nothing was wrong.

When I started dating Joey sixteen years ago, I found I was really dating Joey and his daughter, Tabitha; they were a package deal. She took to me like a cat, nuzzling my knees with her curly hair and falling asleep in my lap. She called Joey Dad, so she called me Pop. Back then I thought her lisp was cute.

Now she was poised to graduate from Western Montana Community College with an Associates in music and meant to transfer to a University. Western Montana loved her; she was their only soprano who could navigate the “Rejoice, Greatly” solo in their yearly production of Handel’s Messiah. Listening to it, you almost forget she can’t quite say “Rejoice.” We’d had her in speech therapy until she had something of a breakdown in eighth grade and Joey said “Her mental health is priority. Nobody gives a fuck if she can say ‘sarsaparilla.’”

On the second Thursday of the month, we unboxed our Cozy Cottage dessert-of-the-month subscription, ingredients for a vegan lavender creme brulee paired with a lemon zest tea. We could divvy up the tasks without saying anything, that’s how many times we’d done this.

Joey opened a can of coconut milk. “Tabitha’s teacher is getting her ready for Julliard,” he said.

“Really? Why there?”

“Because it’s Julliard,” he said. “Because she’s the best soprano they’ve ever had at Western Montana.”

“You know, that’s really not saying much.” I dumped cashew butter and brown sugar into a pot and turned up the heat.

“You don’t think she can make it.” This was an accusation. “You don’t believe in our little girl.”

“I’m not saying that. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I just don’t want her to get her hopes up. Julliard’s very exclusive.”

He pointed the whisk at me. “How many people do you know who can sing like our Tabitha?”

“Joey,” I said, “She has a lisp. I don’t think Julliard wants a thoprano with a lithp.”

Joey’s lip twitched. “How dare you,” he said. “Those horrible kids in her school used to mock her just like that. That really isn’t funny.” He stirred the coconut milk into the pot.

“I’m not laughing,” I said.

“I think she’s good enough to go pro. And so does her teacher.”

“She’s good, I know, but—”

“What about Andrea Bocelli?” Joey whisked furiously. “He’s blind! That didn’t stop him.”

“You can’t hear blindness.”

“Yeah, but if you could. If you could somehow tell he was blind just by his voice, would you not listen to him? Of course not!”

“Babe, Tabitha’s not Andrea Bocelli.”

“Exactly. That’s exactly what I’m saying. No one’s ever seen anything like her before. It’ll be new. ‘Singer overcomes speech impediment to become opera star.’ She could be on America’s Got Talent.”

“I thought she was going to Julliard?”

“I just mean ‘for instance.’ It’s the kind of thing you see on TV.”

I fetched the twin ramekins out of the box, ready to fill. “I still don’t think it’s a good idea,” I said.

“Well, it’s not your decision to make. And anyway, where do you get off telling a girl she can be anything she wants when she grows up, and then telling her not to try for Julliard? That I don’t get.”

I shrugged. “All parents tell their kids that. I wasn’t thinking of Julliard at the time.”

“So, think about it. Julliard is definitely happening.” He dipped a finger in the creamy mixture, brought it to his lips. “Oh my god, honey try this custard, it’s unbelievable!”

He was right. The custard was fantastic.

I learned a new routine of pills twice a day, long naps, hunching over jigsaw puzzles, weekly meetings with a cognitive therapist. I organized every room in the house. I found a pack of glow-in-the-dark condoms in Joey’s sock drawer and waited for him to surprise me with them. When I couldn’t stand the boredom, I clicked through family history online.

Great-great Grandfather Anders came west with the Mormon pioneers. In 1864, men from California came through their Utah settlement carrying rumors of Montana gold. The rush started in Bannack and quickly spread as far as Helena some 150 miles away. Anders took his family north, likely hoping to stake enough gold to keep them financially afloat.

Thieves and murderers crept along every corner of the infamous “Bozeman trail,” but the Anders’ faced tragedy before they reached it. Trekking through what is now Yellowstone National Park, their a seven-year-old son slipped into an acidic hot spring and died. Online, I found a story about a tourist who fell into a Yellowstone hot spring and dissolved in five minutes. I found an image of Yellowstone pools, candy-colored gems topped with spun sugar steam.

We had tacos for dinner. Joey winked at me from under his chevrons.

“Let’s fuck,” he said, his skin soft and warm under the dining room light, a red splotch mottling his cheeks. Already he was leaning over the tortilla chips and shredded lettuce, halfway onto the table.

“Just let me clean up dinner,” I said.

“No” he said. “As it is.” We shed our clothing.

Taco shells crunched against my back as Joey climbed over me. He spread salsa across my thighs, and I licked sour cream from his navel. We were tacky with grease, smeared with guacamole, a feast for each other. Our bodies knocked over the glasses, kicked at the dinner plates, making room for ourselves.

When I closed my eyes, I could see the neon colored hot spring that swallowed my great uncle. Long, scab-colored veins reached out from the lip of the pool, like a wound that would not heal, unholy, exquisite. I tried to imagine my body unspooling in that warmth, fingers and ears melting away, skin detaching from itself. Unimaginable heat. When we had finished, Joey twined his arms around my neck, and I idly sucked nacho cheese from his hair. He was good to me. He was good.

“You ever wonder what dissolving feels like?” I asked Joey that night in bed.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about sometimes, Ollie. You know that?” Joey tossed a lazy arm over me, claiming my body.

I rolled into his cuddle and changed the subject. “You know, I can’t work,” I told him. “I mean, it might be a long time.”

“That’s okay,” he said. His lips brushed lightly against my ear, nearly convincing me.

“But how are we going to get you through med school?”

“We have a bit saved up,” he said. “Most people start med school with nothing, less than nothing, with a bunch of debt.” He sat up, no longer cuddling. “You know, my cousin Kelly put herself through med school, no support from family, and she had a baby at the time.”

“Well,” I said, “If Kelly can do it.”

“We could sell your Camry.”

“And I’m supposed to bike around?”

“You’re not even cleared to drive yet.”

“I will be.”

“Fine. We sell my car,” Joey said. “I’ll take the city bus or something.”

“Or I could drive you to school,” I say.

“Go to sleep now. We’ll figure it out.”

We sold Joey’s car. He took the bus. My Camry sat in the driveway collecting bird shit.

Things were lonely at home. I planned to meet a friend at a cafe down the street but panicked on arrival. The patron’s faces hovered above their tables, anonymous as moons, and I shuffled home rather than guess which was hers.

I looked for the glow-in-the-dark condoms again, but they were gone; I worried they were never meant for me.

The bus made Joey late for dinner. “It takes two hours to get here?” I asked him over cold curry.

He shrugged. “Should I put a complaint in with the driver?”

“You came right home?”

“I came right home.”

The next afternoon I went to pick him up, parked near his building and waited. Joey emerged talking to another man, another student, I guess. The two laughed, their faces close together, hands nearly colliding as they walked across the parking lot and into a Dunkin Donuts. I drove home and let him take the bus.

Joey said I spent too much time at home, so one evening he took me to “The Wurst,” a German restaurant on 5th that advertised great sausage. He said it would be good for me, but after days of isolation, the downtown crowds made me nervous. I was terrified of running into someone I should recognize.

The restaurant’s crude tables looked straight out of a medieval pub, each lined with long, wooden benches rather than individual seats. A maypole decked with plastic flowers leaned against one corner. In another squatted a huge tree stump studded with nails.

“Table for two,” I told the lederhosen-clad bartender.

“It’s all open seating here,” he said. “Just pop a squat anywhere.” Joey and I sat side-by-side across from a young couple and their squirming toddler.

“Don’t sit next to me,” Joey said. “This is supposed to be a date. What, you don’t want to look at me?”

“I don’t want to sit next to a stranger,” I said. I scanned the menu, “There’s nothing vegetarian here.”

“Have the fish fry,” said Joey, “It’s the special today. Lucky you.”

“I said vegetarian.”

“I thought you ate fish?”

“I haven’t had fish in years.” Four college boys carrying beers and a hammer swaggered over to the stump.

“That’s because I don’t like it,” he said. “We never make fish because I can’t stand the smell.” He squinted at the menu.

“I already looked, Joey, there’s nothing vegetarian.” I nodded at the corner where one of the boys held a nail to the top of the stump, while another gently tapped a hammer against it. “What the hell are they doing?”

“It’s some drinking game,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s German, I think. Anyway, fries are vegetarian. And they’re supposed to be good here.”

“I’m supposed to have fries for dinner?” There were four nails now, one for each boy, each hammered in just enough to stay upright.

“There’s other appetizers. You could have a soft pretzel with beer cheese, sauerkraut balls.”

“I want a salad.”

“They don’t have salad. I don’t see salad anywhere on this menu.” The boys passed the hammer around. Each took a whack at one of the nails. “Just try the fish fry. You’ll like it. The fries are good.”

“Everything on this menu is fried or soaking in grease. I want something green. Garden fresh.” Everywhere strange faces swam in my view, incohesive collections of eyes and mouths and noses. Now all the boys in the corner attacked one nail, smashing it into the stump, and taking swigs of beer. The ping, ping, ping of it thwacked against my brain. “Anyway, who the fuck told you the fries were so good?”

“Jesus, Oliver. We can go. If you’re not having fun, we can go.”

I looked back at my menu. “Is it Wednesday?” I asked.

“Yeah, why?”

I pointed. “Free beers Wednesday. They open a keg and everybody gets a free cup.” I stood. “You want one?”

“What am I going to do with free beer?” Joey asked. “I got class at 7:30 in the morning.”

“One beer, Joey?”

“Ollie, beer is like chips. We can’t ever have just one. Let’s save it for the weekend, okay?”

“Suit yourself,” I told him. “I want a beer.”

The bartender in lederhosen filled my cup halfway before the keg ran out. He handed it back to me. “Lucky you. Whoever finishes the keg gets free drinks for the night.”

“Yeah,” I said, “Lucky.”

I ate the fish fry and drank until Joey’s face was three wavering lines over a giant, twitching frown, and I had crawled deep inside myself, to a loud and savage place. The fish was soggy, and the fries, it turns out, were terrible.

After that, Joey stopped suggesting I go out. I tried making meals interesting, navigating complicated recipes until I fell asleep while a pot of borscht boiled over on the stove. From then on, I made simple things: breakfast for dinner, pasta with pesto, or else ordered takeout.

We played games to help Joey study for his next test. Stripped to my briefs, I read an anatomic term, and Joey kissed me there, an erotic, textbook Twister. I sprawled out on the bed with a muscular system handout.

“Flexor capri radius.”

Joey leaned down to kiss my forearm. “How was your cognitive therapy appointment?” he asked.

“What appointment?” I said. “Levator scapulae,”

“It’s Thursday. You have cognitive therapy Thursdays.” He kissed my lower neck, sweet and soft.

“Is it Thursday?”

“Yeah.” His chevrons leaned into each other, concerned.

“Vastus medialis.”

“You didn’t go?”

“How am I supposed to go to my appointment if I can’t drive?”

“Geez, Ollie, take a Lyft, or—”

“Vastus medialis.” His lips touched my lower thigh. “You know my great-great-grandfather lost his leg right there. He got shot.”

“You told me.”

“Did I tell you about the acid pools?”

“Yeah. ‘I guess in my family, change and loss go hand in hand,’ is what you told me. What’s that even mean? You remember saying that?”

“Sure, I just forgot,” I said. “Anyway, try deltoid.”

He didn’t. “How was your lunch with Steffanie?”

“It was fine,” I told him. “I’m giving you an easy one here: deltoid.”

“Ollie, she told me you never showed up.”

“Cheap shot,” I said. “Why ask a question you already have the answer to?” I felt my face contorting into something grotesque. “And what about the glow-in-the-dark condoms, huh? Who did you use them on?”

His face crumpled. “They didn’t work, Ollie. We tried them together and they didn’t glow, remember?”

“Don’t you gaslight me,” I told him. “I saw you with that guy on campus. I drove up and saw you. You got coffee after class.”

“Babe, I don’t know what you’re talking about. What guy? What did he look like?”

I choked out a laugh. “Now that’s cruel,” I said.

“I didn’t mean—”

I licked his shoulder, front to back. I lined his shoulder blade with sloppy, open-mouthed kisses until he shut up. “There,” I said. “That’s your deltoid.”

“I don’t even recognize you anymore,” he told me.

“Hon, I’m supposed to be the one who can’t recognize people.” Joey’s cheeks flushed, his Jell-O eyes squinted, his lips twitched like a bucking horse.

“I’m leaving for Salt Lake City tomorrow,” he said. “Early. I have that big test there, remember? I’ll be gone a few days, but I’ll call every day, okay? Several times a day. You’re starting to scare me is what I’m saying.”

“What am I supposed to say to that?”

Joey shook his head. “Just answer the phone when I call,” he said.

After Joey left, I called a liquor store and had them deliver two cases of wine. Then I silenced my phone and forgot about it. By the time Tabitha stopped by Sunday night, I’d run through nearly all the wine.

“Did your dad put you up to this?” I asked.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “I’m here for your singing lesson. I warned you I’d make you sing for me. But let’s eat first. You want to order a pizza or something?”

“I can’t,” I told her. “I don’t know where my phone is.”

We scoured the fridge for leftovers, yanking Tupperware out and peeling their lids back. A lot of it ended up in the trash. “I’m sorry,” I told her. “You didn’t come over to help clean the fridge.”

“Well, you clearly need the help. I mean what do you do here all day?” Tabitha winked at me.

“Do you know how your family got here?” I said. “To Montana?”

“Dad got sick of New York,” she said. Her “sick” sounds like “thick.”

“I guess I meant my family. My great-great-grandfather.” She shook her head. “They were trying to get to Bannock or Helena, you know, for the Montana gold rush. The ox that pulled their cart keeled over and died in Bozeman, and they didn’t have the money for a new one. They just stayed.” I laughed. It was funny to me. “It worked out like that.”

We warmed fried rice and lasagna and chicken nuggets in the microwave and ate them off paper plates. “So,” I asked, “How are you feeling about Julliard?”

“Jesus,” she lisped. “What a question.”

“You nervous?”

She bit a chicken nugget in half. “Of course I am. You think that should stop me?”

I said, “You want me to sing that song for you?” She nodded. “Let’s start that lesson, then.”

Tabitha stood me up. “Engage your whole body,” she said, pushing my shoulders gently down and back. “Plant your feet.” Her hand rested on my stomach. “And breathe from here,” she said. “Deep. Your stomach should go in and out. Try it.” I tried it. “Good,” she said. “Don’t stop.” Tabitha’s body was very near mine now, her arms moving along my skin in a strange embrace.

“What do I sing?” I asked. My mind blanked. I couldn’t think of the song.

“Anything,” she said. “Sing from your heart. Sing from your memory.” My breath came shallow and shaky. I was really trying. “You’re overthinking,” she said. “Try closing your eyes.”

I closed my eyes, and there were the Yellowstone pools, cerulean depths ringed by scarlet and yellow, steaming, iridescent. And like the steam, I was rising, carried upwards until the landscape below was indistinct, just patches of color. Upwards still, until I saw the whole earth in miniature. I could hold it in my hand, could crush it.

Tabitha’s hand pressed into my stomach, moving as my diaphragm moved. Her other hand hung onto my shoulder, her face against mine. I could feel her warm breath on my ear. “Now sing!” she whispered.

And I did.

Header photograph © Mane Hovhannisyan.

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