My Memory Is Gone, but at Least I Forgot You
Signs and Visions
What my head was like in 1991 was a rollercoaster. Thoughts went chunk, chunk, chunk, slow, then they shot down fast and flew around in a loop. At the end of each day I was dizzy. Reading became impossible for me, not just books but things like street signs, too. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what.
Back then I lived with my boyfriend in the second-story apartment of a sagging Victorian. It came furnished with stained library chairs and an iron patio set covered in a layer of greasy dust which we had no interest in cleaning off. I had a job in the back of that donut place on 4th Avenue. All day fruit flies divebombed the deep fryer. I guess that’s what Freud would call a Death Drive. My boyfriend was always telling me about things like the Death Drive and I was always forgetting them, so I was perpetually surprised by what he said. My surprise made him very happy. That was the only way we were a perfect couple, except for our sexual chemistry.
At night my boyfriend and I screwed copiously. He was sexually excited by the burn marks freckling my arms from deep fryer backsplash and my long hair, which he liked to wrap in a knot around his fist, pulling me to one side. But he did make me come, which I guess proves he was good at something. When the sex was over he read Marcuse and made remarks about the revolution, watery after-semen soaking the front of his boxer shorts. He always put his underwear back on afterward, claiming that it was more natural for people to wear clothes. “How?” I asked him, but I don’t remember his justification. He had taken a couple of sociology classes at the local college and had theories about nature and society. He spent a lot of “thinking time” in bed, staring at the planetary rings of a large water spot next to the light fixture. “There are twenty obvious solutions to the national debt, but no one listens to me,” he said. He also had some creative ideas about peace in the Middle East and collective living. He wanted to start a commune, but he was in the wrong decade and couldn’t build anything with his hands.
While my boyfriend was thinking, I smoked weed. When I smoked I could dismiss the surges in my brain as a side effect of being high. I’d pack and light a bowl in my lucky pipe, then stand on a chair in the bathroom and blow skunky smoke out the porthole window. From there I had a God’s eye view of the vacant lot behind our apartment. A spotlight shone on it day and night, but that didn’t deter people or raccoons from doing their business. They all rummaged the garbage; the people also used smokeable drugs, mostly meth. No one ever interfered with the happenings in the lot, and I guess that’s how we all liked it. In those days I wasn’t aware that things could be intervened in or changed. For example, the light from the vacant lot shone into our bedroom all night and made it hard to sleep, especially with my brain going all kinds of chunk-chunk and whooosh. But it never occurred to me or my boyfriend to buy curtains, or even tack up a sheet. Just like it never occurred to me that I could quit my donut job, or leave my boyfriend. There’s something miraculous to this kind of helplessness. It gives you a constant sense of doomed grace. Back then all I had to do to experience miracles was allow for the possibility that I would suffer uncontrollably. As I learned later, even when you think you’re in control you suffer. But then suffering doesn’t feel miraculous at all.
Soon my boyfriend realized there was something wrong with me. I began forgetting the names of animals and colors. I experienced a cool mist pouring from the cracks in the floorboards. When I looked down into the deep fryer, joyful faces shifted in the dark oil.
“What’s happening?” my boyfriend said once. “Why are you making that noise?”
“You’re like a cat,” he said. “Yowling.”
I hadn’t known I’d been making a sound. I’d thought the screeching was inside my head.
“Don’t you want to screw?” I flapped my legs open so my boyfriend could see up my skirt.
“Don’t try to distract me,” he said, but then of course we had sex. Though he meant well, he had failings.
I was at work when the ambulance came to get me. The faces in the oil had been telling celestial jokes. Then I fell asleep. I woke up a long time later in the hospital with a male nurse standing over me and repeating my name. The nurse said I’d had an aneurysm, something with lesions. They’d carved my head like a pumpkin, pulled the top right off to go in after the clot. They took out all kinds of flotsam while they were in there: short term memory, gobs of my childhood. I lost the peripheral vision in the right side of both my eyes. They left behind some pointless things, like Sigmund Freud.
After that I had to work just to do ordinary things other people never think about. I didn’t even remember how to tie my shoes. Every word I read or spoke was a knot I had to loosen.
A neighbor brought me flowers. My boyfriend visited and ate the pudding cup from my lunch. His car had broken down, so he was riding a bike. “Cars are slavery,” he told me. “Now I’m a free man.” He’d been reading Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and they’d inspired him to keep a similar journal “where the prison is metaphorical.” I didn’t show him my own notebook, which contained pages of shaky transcriptions of mysterious words I’d once known. That was in the rehabilitation center. The nurse told me I was lucky to have this rare condition because the state paid for my treatment. “Most people get dumped out on the street,” she said. I saw an image of myself as a tumbleweed blowing around the pavement while my boyfriend lectured me on the plight of the worker.
Once the physical therapist was quizzing me about simple numbers while I tried to walk backward. I kept telling her I didn’t know any answers. “Reach,” she said, “You have to want it.” That’s also what I told my boyfriend, just before we broke up: “You have to want it.” “Want what?” he said. He was still wafting up toward the ceiling, powered by his thoughts. With all the brain power I had left I could barely crawl. He was predictably depressed by my shaved pumpkin head and hospital vibe. I was too tired to open my legs. So between us there was nothing left to like. “You have to want it.” What did I want? I picked my direction and ran. The direction I ran in was away from him. I want to say it was upward, but I’m not sure there’s such a thing. With parts of my brain missing it was hard to tell direction. Sometimes I forgot whether my eyes were open or closed. But maybe there’s not much difference anyway.