“Into the Current is a tornado of a quarter-life-crisis novel: a fast-paced, funny, philosophical, international, unforgettable romp through sex, death, regret, and all the other small-and-large moments that make up a life cleverly remembered.”
— TODD BABIAK, author of Come Barbarians
Daniel Solomon is not having a good day. Somewhere in the stratosphere between Bangkok and Tokyo, the jetliner on which he’s travelling breaks apart, ejecting Daniel and his fellow passengers into the sky.
If only that were the worst of it.
Strapped into his seat thousands of feet above the merciless Earth, time suddenly stops, the wreckage of the plane freezes in place, and Daniel discovers what it means to have your life flash before your eyes. Transporting himself into the past and re-experiencing his memories in real time — but helpless to change the present — he plunges into the detritus of his all-but-concluded life.
In this daring and often hilarious novel, Jared Young defies the laws of physics and the conventions of narrative to explore the twists and turns of great sex and bad decisions, chance and grand design, and how the moments that define us aren’t always the ones we expect.
For the women I am so lucky to have in my life.
We possess nothing certainly except the past.
— Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Time is our element, not a mistaken invader.
— John Updike, Rabbit Redux
As long as you can blame me, none of what happened is your fault, is it?
— Rick Flag, Suicide Squad #23, written by John Ostrander & Kim Yale
Hello, my love.
I suppose I really ought to explain.
Hours ago (years, maybe; seconds, possibly) I was napping happily in the twenty-third row of a Siam Airways jetliner shooting through the stratosphere between Bangkok and Tokyo.
The plane was all in one piece, at this point, and everyone inside was calmly doing what people usually do during long cross-continent flights: the fortyish Thai fellow in the seat beside me was asleep, head thrown back as if in villainous laughter, snoring in clicks and pops; the Japanese mother and son sitting in front of me were snoozing, too, cocked heads interlocked, just a tangle of fine black hair visible between the seats; across the aisle the Scandinavian girl in yoga pants was sitting all statuesque, eyes pressed shut, ears plugged by earphones, listening to music on her mobile phone and politely eluding the American dude sitting beside her, who, after spending the entire taxi and takeoff attempting small talk (attempting it poorly, too: all first-person pronouns), eventually got the hint and passed the next hours paging angrily through his ragged paperback copy of The Beach and ordering round after round of tomato juice from the tiny Filipino flight attendant, Ireneo, who earlier in the flight had offered me a cup of ice to press against my still-swollen black eye, and who, as I dozed, was somewhere up ahead pouring drinks and distributing cellophane-wrapped sugar cookies.
And me, yes, right in the middle of it all, napping happily, my sweater bunched up behind my head, my collection of Suicide Squad comics stacked neatly on the tray table, my aching brain soothed by the lullaby drone of jet engines sucking, igniting, exhaling.
All was well.
All was calm.
And then —
The plane quivered and swayed and dipped and settled.
My ears popped, and from the hundred other passengers in the cabin there came a harmony of gasps, moans, whimpers, wails, and hissing inhalations. But there was a pleasant dissonance to that single note, like the wheeze of a warming-up orchestra, and because I’m an experienced flyer, not prone to panic over some minor spasm of turbulence, I ignored it all, kept my eyes closed, kept sweetly dreaming.
A soft single note rang throughout the cabin: the seat belt light coming on.
But there was another note, too. Far off, faint, but slowly rising, definitely there, definitely the sound of — what? Something familiar, something mundane, something that was completely out of place here at ten thousand feet. Maybe a teakettle gathering its breath and getting ready to scream?
And then, like a gaggle of waterfowl frightened by a gunshot, the stack of comics on my tray table exploded into flight. Paper wings flapped madly in my face; stapled spines karate-chopped the bridge of my nose. My hands swatted spastically in front of my face, and through the kinetoscopic blink of my fingers I saw my comics dart away (in a V-shape, I swear!) into the bright blue crack in the fuselage above my head.
That’s not totally accurate.
You see, my love, as the plane went through its silent pre-explosion paroxysms, I wasn’t really “napping happily.” Neither napping, nor happy. My eyes were closed, my arms were folded, but I was only feigning sleep. The truth is (sorry, this is going to be awkward for you to hear) I was in the midst of a grand sexual daydream about a girl I knew back in high school.
Her name was Erin Seeley. She was a biathlete with a svelte boy’s body padded in the proper girlish places. She had the jaundiced complexion and acute features of a figure from a Victorian faerie painting, and I loved her the way that teenage boys love teenage girls: with desperate stupidity, with pathetic hope. How stunned I was by the very potential of her! She sang, she played guitar. She headlined every high school talent show with acoustic covers of Smashing Pumpkins songs. She was smart, too: in English class she made reference to books that no one had ever heard of, that many of us suspected she had fabricated altogether (Love in the Time of Cholera? It sounds so fake). Mysterious, also: she was always absent from school to attend Olympic time trials and fundraising dinners with famous amateur athletes. She won every essay contest sponsored by the local clubs and community associations. She was flown across the country to hold private audience with minor politicians and activist celebrities. Yes, Erin Seeley lived a portentous sort of life, and every girl I’ve met since has suffered in comparison.
The point is, in the teenage caste system, at the age of fifteen, I looked up at Erin Seeley from my disadvantageous position as the new kid in town, recently arrived under dubious circumstances, physically underdeveloped, poorly dressed, socially clumsy, an academic underachiever and hierarchical nobody, and, as I admired her from a distance, she became totemic to me, and remained such, and remains such, even here, even now, almost a decade since I last laid eyes on her. To be with a girl like Erin Seeley is to be cured of your meaninglessness, absolved of your crimes, proven worthy; a perfect girl, in wanting you, can make you perfect, too. And so, when I am feeling ill, or bored, or depressed, or must otherwise pass time in a half-conscious meditative state (while jogging, while commuting to work, while searching for sleep on a long pan-oceanic flight), my thoughts often drift to her.
I’ll imagine running into her at random. At a party, in a restaurant, on the street — doesn’t matter. We’ll chat and laugh and reminisce about those long-ago high school days. I am no longer a doughy-faced teenage wallflower, and she senses the change in me. A current of attraction arcs and crackles between us. So we sneak away from the party/restaurant/wherever and share a tender kiss; later, at her apartment, she drapes newspaper on the floor and cuts my hair and afterwards strips off her shirt to shake out the bristles (we’re already this comfortable with each other); after that, while I’m above her, thrusting, she urges me to go “faster!” and pulls the discarded T-shirt over her face like an executioner’s mask (she’s into this sort of debauchery, I happily discover); months later, we rent a small studio apartment in Paris and make love on cloudy afternoons in that casual, half-drunk, European way (beautifully lit in gauzy yellows, scored by a solo piccolo); months after that, in New York City, drunk and dizzy from the bass beat of a dance club, we conduct Romanesque experiments with third and fourth and fifth parties (in this fantasy world, I’ve been doing a lot of abdominal crunches, a lot of shoulder presses, drinking a lot of protein shakes). We spend the following years travelling the world together, Erin and I, from the slums of Mumbai to the sidewalk cafés of Buenos Aires, and our cross-continent plane trips have become so prosaic, so tedious, that to pass the time we cuddle beneath the coarse airline blanket, and she uses her tiny fist to coax from me quiet orgasms while around us the other passengers doze —
— but, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s not just about sex. Didn’t you see those connective plot devices, that clever symbolism, that, uh…catharsis? There’s a narrative logic to these fantasies, I swear!
Okay, sure — maybe I linger in the most salacious moments. And sure, yes, all that stuff about haircuts and Mumbai slums and gauzy Parisian afternoons is thrown in to make my filthy imaginings seem less filthy (boys will do that, you know: give boring context to their illicit urges to make them seem well-intentioned). I will, however, defend my lechery in this particular case, because my fantasy of Erin Seeley was no functionless act of perversion. There was purpose in my perversion. As I sat there in my narrow seat, eyes closed, listening to the phlegmatic growl of the engines, I was in excruciating physical pain. Each little jitter of turbulence electrified my skeleton. Every shallow half-breath expanded my lungs against quills of hot pain growing from my ribs. Every infinitesimal movement abraded a sensitive cluster of nerves, pebbles of broken glass grinding in sockets, nettles twisting and turning in bone marrow.
Two days before I boarded the plane, I was in a street fight beneath the Phrom Phong Skytrain station in downtown Bangkok. A vicious brawl. A real knock-down, drag-out type of thing. Lead pipes, brass knuckles, stilettos, switchblades. I barely escaped with my life —
Ah, hell, I’ve completely lost the capacity to lie, up here.
It wasn’t really a fight.
Fight implies some degree of mutual participation. What happened two days ago was really more of a beating. The truth is, I was mercilessly beaten beneath the Phrom Phong Skytrain station, and I conjured that well-used daydream of Erin to distract myself from the lingering physical agony. Like I said, a functional act of perversion. What better salve for my broken hand than to sweep it lovingly over the swells and declines I remember so well from my long-ago classroom observations. What better way to drown out the caterwauling of my swelled brain than with the sound of Erin’s arrhythmic breaths building to climax —
But why am I telling you all this? You, in particular? If anyone should be spared the specifics of my lecherous delusions, it’s you, my love. So I’ll skip over what Erin was doing when the Suicide Squad comics exploded into my face (hint: it involves the flexibility she learned as an amateur athlete) and will instead point out that the memories of her from which I built that soothing bit of pornography were the very last memories I remembered in the traditional, fragmented, fleeting, blurry-movie-screen manner —
What was I — ?
I was telling you about the crack in the fuselage.
It was, oh, about three feet long, six inches wide. Big enough to frighten to life all the napkins and newspapers and magazines and jackets and hats and plastic wrappers and plastic cups and mobile phones and laptops loose in the cabin, send them all spinning in accelerating arcs, clattering against the walls and seats and overhead bins, which unlatched and puked out a torrent of purses and coats and bubble-wrapped folk art from Chatuchak Market. Teakwood portraits of Buddha cartwheeled over our heads. Elephant carvings rattled against our skulls. Colourful silk scarves swam like eels around our ankles. Ice-cold air blew in our faces. Tendrils of fog spread across the ceiling.
And, then — oh, poor Ireneo.
The intruding atmosphere sucked her up. She fell against the cabin ceiling as if gravity had switched its polarity. Her body sealed the breach, and for a moment she just hung there, limbs flailing, hands reaching. The roar dimmed, the soothing white noise of normal pan-Pacific air travel resumed. I had the strange sensation of being suspended myself, as if I were looking down on her, and thought to myself: maybe this is it? Maybe we’ll pass the rest of the five-hour flight watching her scramble like a pinned beetle against the vaulted ceiling? My eyes met hers and I saw that she was not yet in a panic, not yet in pain, rather calmly considering this strange new circumstance of physics.
But then her mouth tightened. Her eyebrows lifted. Not an expression of surprise, no. Her hair was yanked back and then her purple Siam Airways blouse stretched and strained. Plastic buttons, subject to the gravity her contortions were enabling, clattered to the floor. Her name tag landed near my foot: Ireneo Funes, Siam Airways. There rose the slurping sound of milkshake dregs sucked through a straw, and behind it an urgent, rising whistle —
With a riflecrack, Ireneo disappeared.
The ribbon of sky, now a bellowing blue mouth, had swallowed her whole.
The plane tilted, my face was thrown against the porthole window, and I watched the right-side wing, propelled by a flaming nacelle trailing black smoke, make a break for Okinawa. Now wingless (the other coward abandoned us, too) the plane began to plummet. I was stomach-punched, lifted in my seat, hips pinched by the twisted seat belt. Looking down the length of the cabin, I could see that the immutable machine that had carried us with such confidence into the sky had adopted a disturbing aspect of liquidity; the fuselage wrinkled in oncoming waves, a reflection of itself in rippling water. The secret of all solid stuff, that it’s just a bunch of tiny particles rubbing together, was revealed in the bending and bowing and oscillation of once-straight lines, and, unable to bear the embarrassment of it, panels in the floor and wall began to flee, bolts popped like bullets, a whole volley of them fired up through the ceiling and pierced some vital structural vein that split the cabin on a lengthwise hinge as if it were a cadaver cracked open for autopsy. Flamelets of black hair flickered madly above the seats.
Next to me, the fortyish Thai fellow was still gape-mouthed, now shrieking, but the sound of his shriek was the roaring nothing-sound of jet engines in the throes of death. The Scandinavian girl across the aisle was still statuesque, still snubbing her seatmate, but her eyes were open, her hands were clutched to the armrests, her mobile phone was jouncing over her head like the hand of an eager, answer-bearing student, tethered still to her ears by the little plastic buds, but then one popped loose, then the other, and the whole thing helicoptered away. Beside her, the American dude jerked in his chair. Everyone jerked in their chairs. I jerked in my chair, and the wild wobble and yaw of the plane scrambled my senses: I saw the screech of shearing metal, heard the stink of jet fuel, smelled the vivid blue hues of sky. My innards took it poorly, too: the saliva in my mouth evaporated instantly, leaving my tongue a husk, my throat a bundle of straw.
We fell and fell and fell and I floated weightless, two inches above my seat, tethered by my sturdy seat belt. The terrible speed contracted my stomach into a hard little muscle the size of a quarter and, like a collapsing star, drew towards it all my other organs — the whole heavy mass, the whole wet mush of kidney and liver and lung, pressed against my anus from the inside; it felt like being turned inside out.
What does one think in a moment like this? To be honest, few thoughts of mortality or transience crossed my mind. No euphoria, no dread. No thoughts of family and friends. No deductive analysis of the previous week’s events and how they seemed (especially now) a conspiracy to get me aboard this stupid, doomed plane. Even as it’s happening, you can’t quite believe it’s happening; it looks so much less real than it looks in movies; a plane can’t really be made of this fragile, crumbly stuff. A small part of me was certain that this was nothing more than a weird waking nightmare, a fever dream, a hallucination induced by all those painkillers I swallowed in the departures lounge bathroom before boarding, and that if I could just blink my eyes at the right speed, in the right sequence of short and long dashes, I’d awaken to find myself still sitting in the Sala Daeng Police Station, or still splayed on the sidewalk beneath the Phrom Phong Skytrain station, or still at Bumrungrad Hospital, uncomfortably folded up in the armchair next to Carrie’s bed, or maybe still standing at the Cambodian border, staring down that cycloptic scam-artist —
— and then another deafening pop, a tremendous whiplash shock, like we’d struck some solid barrier. My head ping-ponged between the tray table and headrest. Stars burst, fires worked. I blinked open my prickly eyes to see, where the front of the plane had been, a serene view of planet earth’s horizon.
The plane had broken in half.
The crack was no longer a crack, it was a vista, a panorama.
The plane was no longer a plane, it was a hollowed-out missile hurtling earthward, wilting flowerlike.
Far ahead of me, a row of seats blasted into the atmosphere. Three chairs and the passengers sitting in them, detached, ejected, flung aside, plunging, gone.
One row closer, another three-seat section peeled free, another trio of passengers lifted into the sky, hands reaching high like rollercoaster aficionados cresting the first big drop, faint shrieks truncated.
My instinct was to escape, so I reached for the buckle of my seat belt, made to flip it open, but noticed then that my Thai companion was gone, his seat belt unbuckled, straps unstrapped and whipping around, so instead of opening the buckle I slipped my fingers beneath the belt and held on, as they say, for dear life.
The metal tracks that ran the length of the cabin, upon which the seats were mounted, curled up from the floor in elegant swoops and spirals and beckoned like tentacles.
Across the aisle, the stoic Scandinavian and her American pursuer were gone. Where they once sat, an empty square of floor.
In front of me, above the headrests, sneakered stick-legs kicked at the sky. The Japanese boy wasn’t wearing his seat belt, and his mother, with her immense motherly strength, was holding him there, playing tug-of-war with the heavens, and just when it seemed that she’d locked her grip, that she was going to save him, FTANG!, they were both gone, just like that, and all that lay before me was horrible height and blinding brightness, until —
An invisible hand plucked me from the chaos.
The three seats in my row exploded from their steel moorings and I was shockingly immersed in white nothingness, somersaulting, spinning, twirling, hurtling, clutching the armrests, a kaleidoscopic collage of blues and browns and greens, the ocean below, above, below, bright sky to my left, the ocean, the ocean, the ocean, the sky, the ocean, the seat belt straps on either side whipping and snapping as if desperate, like me, to gain purchase on the edge of any precipice, then more ocean, more sky, and, looming beneath my feet, the wingless shaft of the jumbo jet cracked open like an egg, leaking strands of mechanical yolk.
Something soft struck me in the face (a woman’s purse, these lonely months of contemplation have revealed), something hard rattled against my arm (a fist-sized curve of plastic that was once part of the plane’s interior wall), and then a split-second glimpse of a curious thing: one of my Suicide Squad comics, still wrapped in its protective polybag, tucked between the armrest of my seat and the cushion, pinched there and held tight through all the spinning, twirling, etc. — but as soon as I noticed it, fingers of wind shook it loose and it darted away to catch up with the rest of the flock, and that’s when, suddenly —
Everything slowed down.
The downdrafts pushing me earthward were curtly extinguished. The somersaulting became a gentle glide. The smudge of green/blue/brown coalesced to form this serene topographic view.
And then it all stopped.
The plane, the flames, the smoke, the clouds, the wind, the waves, the rotation of the earth, the nuclear boil of the sun, the slow spin of the galaxy, the expansion of the universe — it all just stopped, and, as it was minutes earlier, while I was dreaming of Erin Seeley’s busy fist, the world and everything in it was peaceful.
Yes, everything has stopped, everything is frozen in place, and I’ve been left stranded up here in the sky.
But that, my love, isn’t even the weird part.
Not even close.
GOOSE LANE EDITIONS
A NOVEL BY
DRAG THE SUNLIT SEA
My Throne faces northeast, ten thousand feet or so above the ocean. Below me, spread flat over most of the eastern horizon, is the Japanese archipelago and, somewhere on Kyushu’s coastal shoulder, my erstwhile destination: Fukuoka Airport. On the western horizon there is an illusion of breadth that I suppose is the eastern shore of China. To the northwest, the ripped-paper edge of South Korea. I can see just a small section of it, though, because there is cloud cover in that direction. If the clouds were moving, they’d perhaps float past and offer me a clear view of the entire peninsula, but, of course, the clouds aren’t moving. They are, like everything else, stationary. Stuck, paused. Way down beneath me, fishing trawlers and cargo ships sit among the parallel perforations in the ocean’s surface like little musical notes on an infinite staff. And up here, all around me, hung like ornaments in the sky, are the remains of the plane. All that formerly vital stuff: jagged fragments of iron-lined eggshell that were once pieces of the fuselage; balled-up wads of used tissue that were once the papery marrow that insulated it. Hanging near the detached left wing (suspended upright like a shark’s fin) is a murder of sheared-away turboprop blades, raised and crossed like the swords of warring samurai. Past that, a darting school of flat aluminum panels. Turbines and hydraulics and curled strips of shredded tire and bundles of wire and copulating oxygen-mask octopi and cloud-like accumulations of personal effects (to the southwest, a flock of newspapers and magazines; to the southeast, a pack of shoes migrating towards Australia; migrating, but, you know, not actually moving — a dioramic suggestion of migration).
And besides all that inorganic dross, the passengers, too.
There are no faces close enough for me to see, but a few hundred feet below me, to the west, a human body in a skydiver’s spread-eagle pose is silhouetted against the ocean, and, a few hundred feet above me, in the same direction, another human shape, this one tucked in a cannonball — a man, woman, child? White, Thai? I don’t know (but I do know that they’re barefoot; their pink soles are pointed right at me). For a while, I called out to these folks. I thought perhaps they were still conscious, like I am, but there has so far been no response. They don’t move; they don’t make noise. I can only assume that they’re frozen in place like everything else. Just inanimate things, now. Just more wreckage.
I am alone. There is just me, Daniel Solomon.
Let me state, for the record, that I was/am, at the moment of Time’s cessation, twenty-three years old, 5 feet 8.5 inches tall, which is precisely the median height for my age, and 147 pounds, which is within the range of my optimal weight according to the body mass index (optimal, in this case, a synonym for normal, common, standard, regular, etc.).
What other details shall I record for you, my love?
I’m pasty without being pale, pink without being tan. I show off a few protruding ribs, but not enough to look gaunt. I’m not skinny, not fat. My body is a generic textbook illustration of the human body. If I were to commit a crime, the police artist’s sketch would be a stick-figure, or the symbol from a men’s room door, or Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (minus the magnificent hair). And this face! My nose, my mouth — how can I describe them? They are simply a nose and mouth, too plain to deserve any exotic qualifiers like Roman, piggish, hawkish, hooked, humped, oft-broken, pouty, pursed, pinched. I have eyes that waver, depending on the light, between brown and dull green. I have dun-coloured hair that is neither long nor short, rather inscrutably mid-length, betrothed to no popular fashion, cut that way (probably on purpose) by the person who put me on this plane.
My surname, Solomon (the name of a king!) might imply that I carry within me the whole rich history of the Jewish faith. But Solomon, in my case, is derivative of Solovski, the Slavic name carried across the ocean by my Russian forebears and immediately abandoned in favour of something they thought would be more advantageous in the WASPy new world. Ha! If only I were Jewish — then at least there would be some hefty historical block to fill the empty slot where, in others, an identity is found.
I do feel sort of kingly, though, perched up here, looking out across this interrupted commonwealth. Among all these commoners, I am special. Time exists, now, only for me. Or maybe within me. Under normal circumstances, Time passes and iron rusts, bread moulds, water evaporates — atoms, at their own selfish whims, intermingle, transfer energy, ruin everything. But up here, where Time has taken a vacation, a barrier has been erected between these particles; they can’t speak to each other, they can’t touch each other, they can’t fall out of their rank and file. Without Time to prod them along, these atoms can’t scatter. The universal process of decay has somehow been suspended.
But somehow I am breathing. My heart is beating. I can shift myself from one sitting position to another. I can unbuckle my seat belt, stand up in my chair, stretch. I can speak aloud, like I’m doing right now, and send waves of vibrating particles through the air. I can form deep thoughts about matters of quantum reality (I think, therefore I am), and each of these events occurs as part of a sequence, divided by a measurable instance of Time.
But how to measure those immeasurable stretches? After moving to Thailand, where the changes in season were invisible, I found myself unable to account for the passing of months; no fall, no winter, no spring, just an endless summer marked by torrential or slightly-less-than-torrential periods of rainfall. Twice I lived through those climatic changes and still couldn’t make sense of it: I thought July was February! Being up here is like that: time is somehow still passing for me, but not for everyone/everything else, so there is no variation to distinguish one nanosecond from the hundred billion others. The sun is just sitting there. We’re not moving around it anymore. The blissful disintegration of the plane might have occurred seconds ago, or weeks, or maybe decades.
But, like I said, this breaking of Time’s Arrow isn’t the weird part. It’s just context for the real weirdness. My physical predicament is preposterous, sure, but it could very well be the result of some heretofore undiscovered principle of quantum mechanics, and could then be explained by some miles-long formula filled with numbers and letters and Greek characters and square roots and parentheses within parentheses within parentheses. But the other thing that has happened to me —
— there’s no noun or verb that can accurately describe it.
I suppose I’ll just have to show you.
Are you ready?
“Iz dvukh zol vybi — vbyi, vbyi…uhhh, vbyirayut men’sheye,” my grandmother says. I’m sitting beside her bed, in her wheelchair, gripping the grey rubber rims on each wheel and pacing back and forth in short thrusts and retreats.
The clock on the wall reads 2:02 p.m.
“It’s a famous old Russian saying,” she continues. “Which means that when all the choices are bad, you, uhhh…you choose the one that is…”
I’m watching her knobby finger turn circles, conducting an invisible orchestra, searching for the elusive final notes of the cadenza. My grandmother’s remaining vitality, learned during her laborious farmhand childhood and effortlessly maintained into her seventh decade, is now concentrated in the circling finger struggling to reel in the second half of that fleeing phrase.
“You know — the one that…hurts the least.”
Her finger curls into a fist, her lips go flat, she shakes her head. Oh, hell, I give up, is the sum of these gestures.
She lives, now, in the Sunnyside Adventist Care Home, a one-storey tan-brick building crouched low, abashed, behind the fast food restaurants and car dealerships of Regina’s commercial outskirts. Eight months of tenure have earned her the least cramped and least sad of all the sad, cramped rooms; at the very end of the easternmost L, with a window facing west onto the parking lot of a convenience store, where in summer teens too young for nightclubs park with their high beams blazing, shedding plastic wrappers, tossing empty cans, spilling quaking bass from their expensive car stereos; another window looks north onto the square patch of dirt-choked grass referred to (satirically, I think) as the garden, where the same teenagers go to piss and smoke weed out of sight.
My grandmother was a gardener, once upon a time; her fingernails were always clipped short and tamped with dark dirt. Dirt and sometimes paint. She was, in secret, a painter. But her only hobbies, now, are sleep and stillness. She was once a champion chatter, too, able to clinch a telephone receiver between her shoulder and cheek while she rolled perogies and scrubbed linens in the sink, but she speaks now, when she speaks at all, mostly in non sequiturs, mostly to the ceiling tiles. She’s just not herself, my mother had warned me, but the literality of that diagnosis didn’t strike me until I saw her. The same way a growing infant can seem an entirely new organism after a few months, the elderly can lose, in that same span, an inverse measure of essence and heft. Barely a hundred pounds is left of her, yet she is sunk deep into the soft mattress as if she weighs a thousand. Her face, once a finely sculpted and symmetrical whole of bone and cartilage and flesh, is now a loose heap: nose and brow and cheeks and chin wadded together, a likeness built from chewed chewing gum and putty and translucent gauze. A death mask. Yes, it really does appear as if she has been torn down and rebuilt from scratch like that; haphazardly, lazily.
She says, “Budet kuzovok…you know, like a seed?”
“Sure, yeah —” I begin, but a yawn blocks my throat. I’m exhausted, right now. Marti called again last night, and no matter how cold and curt my answers, she kept asking questions, kept tolerating my intolerance. It was almost three in the morning before I finally got her to hang up, and, once again, her parting words were some nonsense about how she’d forgiven me, which, frankly, justified all the coldness and curtness I’d earlier hurled her way and should have given me reason to sleep peacefully. But I didn’t. I slept in fits and starts. And now I can’t stop yawning in my poor grandmother’s face.
She looks around. “I had a cup of tea sitting here — where did it go? It was right there. In a green cup. It was a green cup of tea, with…above, it was like the sky. You know? It was like water, with the waves and the…you know.”
I roll myself backwards and scan the room.
“I don’t see a cup, Grandma.”
She tries to lift her head. “Did she take it? I know she takes my things. Go and look in her drawer, see if my tea is in there. It’s in there, I can see the lines. See it? It’s making that same shape as tea makes.”
I roll myself to the small bureau on the far wall, extract each drawer and stick my nose inside and tell her: “No, nothing in here.”
“She probably drank it, the goddamn bitch.”
Wow, she really delivered that one, didn’t she? Her mouth seems familiar with profanity. A false familiarity created by the three minor strokes that have razed the nerve cells in her aging brain? Or is this simply a lifting of the veil — has she always been a secret swearer that same way she’d been a secret painter?
Who knows. She certainly doesn’t. She has forgotten her whole human self, right down to the very foundational grains of genetic knowledge passed down through umpteen steppe-dwelling generations. Dementia the mortar, her skull the pestle, and in the grinding pressure an entire lifetime of memories has been reduced to dust. The doctors boast about her robust health (with these sturdy joints and meaty heart she could live to ninety, they say) but it’s no comfort to hear that her physical form marches on without the rest of her. She possesses a body but no recollection of where it has been, what it has done. Her consciousness is now at the whim of synaptic breakers switched on and off by clotted blood blowing recklessly through the narrow vessels in her brain. I can see it happening: her eyes turn smoky, parboiled; the whites dim, the pupils darken.
“My cup of tea — what did you do to it? Did you steal it?”
Right now, my mother might stroke her mother’s parchment hand and say something soothing like “don’t worry, it’s okay, no one stole your tea,” but such calming corrective statements are not second nature to me as they are, after months of vigil, to my mom. Instead, when my grandmother goes off on her tangents, I just nod in agreement and laugh as if she’s joking.
“It’s dark, now,” she says.
“What?” I say.
“Come on, let’s go, we’re leaving.” Her eyes go wide. “Yes, right now, hurry!”
“It’s okay. He’s drunk, he’s asleep. He won’t hear a thing.”
I nod. I laugh.
Are you picking up on this, my love?
Oh, come on, it’s so obvious!
The verbatim dialogue?
The impossible detail?
“Pacing back and forth in short thrusts and retreats…Watching her knobby finger turn circles…The clock on the wall reads 2:02 p.m.” You think I’m picking out these bits from memory? Dumb, half-blurry fraudster memory?
No, my love, I’m looking right at it.
Don’t you find it the least bit suspicious that I’m describing it all in the present tense?
The extraordinary thing about this particular memory is that it’s not a memory. It’s not playing out, as memories do, on some candescent movie screen in the darkness of my conscious mind. No, I am there! I am physically there, right there, sitting next to my grandmother!
Right here, sitting next to my grandmother!
I’ve torn through the caul of consciousness, reversed some irreversible law of space-time, and am right now strapped into my long-lost twenty-one-year-old body! I’m wearing myself like a suit of armour, each of my five senses slipped into immaculately tailored apertures. Eyes, ears, tongue, nose…each is wearing this earlier iteration of itself! I’m not “remembering” my grandmother. I’m here with her!
I can see, as if my twenty-one-year-old corneas are contact lenses worn over my present pair, every tiny detail of her face, each individual hatch-mark wrinkle in her sunken cheeks, in the bunched-up skin beneath her chin.
I can see, pinned to the wall above her bed, the collage of family photos my mother has hung: myself, my mother, my grandmother, her parents, her younger sister, Masha.
I can see, on the bedside table, the little porcelain figurine, a baby horse curled up and catnapping on a plinth of polished grass, that belonged to my grandmother when she was young, which she gave to me when I was a kid, and which I have now returned to her in hopes of beautifying her desolate room.
I can taste the sweet residue, dark and sticky and bitter, of the Coke I chugged a minute (or two years) ago.
I can hear, behind me, the buzz and tick of a trapped bumblebee throwing itself against the closed window, and above it, the soft hiss of the ventilator and a susurrus of voices conferring in the hallway.
I can smell my grandmother’s elderly skin, eighty-six years of dust and ointment and food accumulated and absorbed and in these last hours expelled, as if the human body, in its final days, exhales its aggregate experience from each microscopic pore.
No, I’m not remembering this. The verb remember, in describing this peculiar phenomenon, isn’t accurate. No verb is accurate. No noun, either. This is no metaphysical reconstruction of my grandmother’s room at Sunnyside in May of 2003, this is my grandmother’s room at Sunnyside, this is May 2003.
I am here!
I have travelled through time (two years, two hundred sixty-seven days, four hours, and twenty-three minutes into the past) and space (four thousand miles in a general northeasterly direction), and am sitting next to my grandmother as she tells me:
“I’m grabbing your hand, and, oh, hell, stop, leave that behind — yes, that, you don’t need that, Masha, come with me.”
When I try to move my hands, they remain motionless. My consciousness has travelled back here, my senses have stowed away (illegally, incomprehensibly), but my Free Will has been left behind. My muscles obey only the invisible commands programmed in the long-ago moment:
I shift in the wheelchair seat to alleviate the numbness in my left buttock.
I tap my heel against the folded-out footpad.
I pull at the waist of my jeans, hike them up to cover the band of bare skin exposed by the slipping elastic waist of my boxer shorts.
The sound of my grandmother’s failing voice, abraded by age, is as crystal clear as the phlegmatic growl of grinding-apart glass and steel and plastic just minutes ago inside the plane.
“It’s such an easy thing to do. Look how easy it is. You just — there we go, like this.”
I nod: pulling tendons in my neck, twin twinges in each shoulder, a ghostly tick in the base of my skull; quondam hydraulic processes mindlessly performed but not my own — they belonged to me, once, but not anymore.
I laugh: an echo flung forward three years without dissipating.
For some strange reason I am thinking of:
The hot tropical sun.
The sound of the ocean.
My grandmother says:
“Oh, it’s so hot! Even from far away. We’re so far away and it’s still so hot! Can you feel how hot it is? I can feel it on my skin.”
Oh, here it comes, my nostrils draw air, my lips peel apart, my chest compresses and presses up from my throat a column of air that is carved by my tongue and teeth into the sound of myself saying:
“ARE YOU TOO HOT, GRANDMA!? DO YOU WANT ME TO TAKE OFF THE BLANKET!?”
Good God! Did you hear that? My voice, here, isn’t merely a wave of pressure trapped inside my cochlea, I’m not hearing it as an external stimulus; it occurs as a deafening roar inside my head, even louder than the naked bawling of the jet engines; it’s the loudest sound I’ve ever heard; it’s vibrating in my eardrums, but travelling in the wrong direction, out of my head, out through my ears.
“I say to you, he’s asleep, he’s drunk, I promise — he won’t feel a thing.”
“I THINK YOU’RE JUST HAVING A BAD DREAM.”
“Yes, you’re right. Don’t look, Masha. This is just a bad dream. You’ll wake up soon, and it will all be over.”
She stops herself. One of those breakers in her brain just switched on. See? In her eyes? The smoke has blown clear, the dimness has turned silver. Her pupils are hollow again, permeable. She looks at me and smiles and, with a surprising display of agility, reaches over and picks up the little porcelain horse. Just that minor bit of movement (the lifting of her shoulder, the turning of her neck, the clamping mechanism of her fingers) seems supernaturally athletic. I’m stunned by it.
I feel a peaceful clarity. Like drawing in a cold draft of spring air, like the normalizing sigh after a bout of deep laughter. A skipped beat.
“Oh, hello,” she says.
Her voice sounds just like her real voice.
With a beatific grin, she adds: “It was on purpose, you know. And I’m only sorry that I’m not sorry.”
But just as quickly as this gracefulness possesses her, it absconds, and she sinks back into the mattress (even deeper, now). Her eyes go up to the ceiling, still searching for the secret cipher hidden in the perforated panels. Her head rocks from side to side, she’s politely saying no, she’s listening to some great old song with a quick snare in the backbeat. Her pale tongue drags itself from one cracked corner of her mouth to the other.
And then she’s gone.
Dead, I mean.
That porcelain bauble is still in her hand, though; the little foal’s painted-on eyes peek through her knuckles. My eyes focus on it, then flit away, then whiz around the room, ocular muscles twitching with epileptic speed, barely a fraction of a second focused on one thing before moving on to another. I’m getting dizzy. Not me, there. Me, here, inside me-there. It’s the typical wandering attention of the conscious mind, but, for me, as a passenger inside myself, it’s chaos. It’s just like (or will be just like, or was just like) the frightening wobble of turbulence that announced the cracking open and shredding apart and plunging away of the jet. I’ve learned to bear it, though, the same way you learn to bear water in your nose while you’re swimming.
Some memories (like this one, for example) feel clearer than others; the glove into which my senses fit is sometimes thin like gossamer, other times thick as an oven mitt. But lucidity isn’t dependent on my age. We can go right back to the very beginning. Watch this:
Here I am, wrapped in a blanket, cradled in the crook of an arm. My focus gropes and grasps but can’t quite find the right depth. The world is a grey haze, a foggy maritime afternoon; mountainous shapes merge and separate in the distance; my ears are filled to overflowing with a booming clatter, crashing waves, far-off thunder. One mountain looms close, a cliff-face of crags and creases and ridges and white grassy plains above. The wind carries acrid bursts of garlic and sage and the earthy chemical smoke of instant coffee. This is my great-grandfather, my grandmother’s father. The Russian. He came across the Atlantic on an Estonian cargo ship shortly after the clock of history was reset to welcome the new century. Even with my week-old nose I can smell him: the thin mountain air of Verdansk, goat manure and lea flowers and the grease he stroked on wagon axles when he was ten and just learning to shoulder the immensity of his present and future life. His enormous, distorted, planet-like visage fills my narrow field of vision, and while I recognize him behind these baby-goggles, and recognize the elements of his human face (a mouth, a nose, eyes, bushy eyebrows), I am terrified. The ticklish broil of tears rises in my sinuses. My little lips jitter. Let’s get out of here. Let’s go somewhere a little more pleasant, like, say —
Kyle Sutendra’s house party in the twelfth grade, where I’m sitting at the top of the stairs, making out with Marti Barrett.
Kissing! Transcendent! How easy to forget what a charge two poking tongues can generate! She was sitting here on the top step, waiting to use the bathroom, but clearly waiting for me, and when I sat down beside her there was nothing to say, our eyes met for only a millisecond before our wide-open mouths, with a clockwise quarter-turn, locked together, and now we have released our tongues to do that strange disco dance where they’re seeking simultaneously to collide and elude (so glad I chewed that curled worm of toothpaste, swallowed that capful of mouthwash, drank all that coppery tap water out of my cupped hands and rinsed the vomit from my mouth).
Her tongue is so soft, so sharp. Knifelike it runs across the edge of mine like it’s a sharpening stone, then curls back, touches the roof of my mouth, the back of my front teeth. Mine follows, clumsy, eager, a half-step behind. But no ceasing this epic, furious kiss. No coming up for air. Ever.
I could stay here forever, you know. But there is so much more to share with you, so much more to explain.
I told you it was weird.
I also told you that no verb or noun is accurate in describing this phenomenon, and for a long time (or perhaps just a short time) I believed that to be true. But I was wrong. There is a term to describe this flashing-by of life’s major and minor movements. A common saying, a popular idiom:
Your life flashes before your eyes.
It’s more than just a turn of phrase, though. You read about it all the time: climbers who fall off cliffs, soldiers staring down the barrel of an enemy rifle, motorists who turn away from oncoming traffic at the very last second — they all tell stories of Time slowing down, lost memories coming vibrantly to life in front of their eyes, visits from sweet old grandmas and childhood pets and teenage crushes.
So it seems, trapped ten thousand feet above the surface of the frozen-solid world, that my life is flashing before my eyes — but not quite in the manner one might expect from those euphoric accounts of near-death experiences.
Most significantly, I am in control. I can manipulate my movement in and out of my memories. I can choose when and where to go, how long to stay. I can skip forward and back between events and sensations like tracks on playlist. The entire archive of my past experience is accessible; this nameless talent denies me nothing. I can go anywhere within myself, but when I do, as you saw, I give up physical control to my past self and must follow along as he (me) bumbles his (my) way through life. An observer, but nothing more.
Sure, some moments, in reliving them, feel backwards and wrong. Doorways appear on opposite walls, seasons switch from fall to spring, one person is swapped with another. Deeper searches have revealed that certain dramas occur out of sequence and can’t possibly be linked by the causes and effects I have so meticulously diagrammed in my head. Grand moments that have served throughout my lifetime as self-explicatory anecdotes play out as alternate-universe adaptations — the memories of a complete stranger. And there are skits and sketches that seem not to exist in this archive, and must, therefore, have never happened. But that’s to be expected, isn’t it? It’s common knowledge that we’re all unreliable narrators.
Outside of this magical recollection, I have little influence over the corporeal. What can I do, here in the “real world”? I can push the button on the armrest and recline my chair; I can lift my legs and sit sideways with my feet hanging over the arm of the seat; I can lift the flap of fabric behind my head and listen to the crackle of ripping Velcro (and do, sometimes, for hours: a real, brand-new sound!). I can spit into the ocean. I can weep. And yet I haven’t felt the urge to urinate or defecate. Which, I suppose, makes sense, since I’m not eating or drinking. But it raises an interesting question: how come I’m not hungry or thirsty? I seemingly have no need for sustenance other than the recycled vitamins and nutrients I pick up second-hand in the past (I think often of food and have revisited some great feasts). Yet I have tried holding my breath, to the familiar effect of becoming light-headed and hot-faced until finally I gulp down a painful rhombus of oxygen. Seventy-nine seconds is so far my record, which doesn’t suggest any magical new lung capacity or chemical restructuring of the atmosphere. I need air but not food. Funny, huh?
While my circulation and respiration continue as normal, other physical systems lag behind. My left hip, where I fell against the pavement: still a gorgeous nebula of yellow and green and grey. This welt on my forehead is still raised like a Braille character. My knuckles are still gouged, the scraped-out pits filled with crusty caulking. My old wounds aren’t healing! The same pattern of blots and blemishes like imperishable watermarks beneath the surface of my skin. A few months (weeks?) ago I picked at one of the half-formed scabs on my elbow and a flake of it came off. A tiny red dot of blood appeared. I wiped it away, but it blossomed again. For days I observed it, wiping it away and watching it regenerate, until it occurred to me that the protective fibrous stuff wasn’t growing back! The flaky scab I had nonchalantly flicked into oblivion was one-of-a-kind! I might be very, very, very, very slowly bleeding to death!
You’re hurt, too, I know. You have your own wounds to nurse: a separation, a tear, a sprain, a compression. Would it make you feel better, maybe distract you a bit from your own injuries, to see how I got mine? I’d really rather not re-experience the whole painful occasion — but if it would help you better understand why we can’t be together right now, I’d be willing to go back a few days and drop into my body right after it percussed the Sukhumvit sidewalk, causing this much-celebrated hip-bruise and canonical elbow-scrape.
Okay, let’s go.
Oh no, fuck, I’m not ready, I came in too early —
Here comes the ground —
This is, this is —
— this, I think, is a close-up view of the sidewalk.
Stars! You really do see them.
More punches and kicks to my forehead and neck and ears while I’m on the ground, fluttering my hands in poor impression of defence, and then — oh, right, these guys! I forgot about these guys, these three beefy Brits pulling the blond guy away from me. But, even as they do, fat forearms looped through his armpits and around his neck, he strains towards me, exhaling furiously, spitting through his clenched teeth.