I had a strange phonecall this evening... a woman's name ID'd on the screen... a writer I remember meeting some years back when we were both editing on our laptops in an air-conditioned Starbucks during a sweltering August heatwave. She'd smiled at me, we had several non-smoking cigarette breaks on the sidewalk outside where we'd briefly thaw out in afternoon heat. We exchanged numbers... she was working on a difficult historic novel which had required years of research and period reading.. a sort of Name of the Rose mystery. Unlike me, she had some family money-- sold a pricey Carnegie Hill coop and downscaled to the upper west side with plenty of cash support. She was beautiful in a pale, fragile book-worthy way. Well spoken and intelligent-- but soft and womanly. We were both brimming with our projects and ripe with future. Ensconced in a literary neighborhood, we'd trade rumors about at least one of our elder urban mentors as he shuffled by with rolled newspapers or muttering to himself beneath a wide-brimmed disguise.
I remembered all of this, as one does, in a flash-- this is how our brains work-- we get a cue, and we unravel the relevant 'bank' with all its stored observations and details: a profile, like our own personal Facebook page we create for each of our friends-- facts, details, family names, images of moments we have shared or imagined from conversations and communications. I used to pride myself on something of a 'phonographic' memory; I recall sounds-- associated music, accents and voices... and images... the setting, geographic details-- how I stared at a painting on the wall while someone unburdened themselves of a sad story... the way the old window sashes crossed while my mother read aloud the March Hare or the Lilliputians.
It felt especially pertinent-- this associative process-- because less than a minute into today's phone call, I realized this woman had dialed a number she found on a random scrap of paper... had no idea who I was, confessed to having a terrible memory... commended me on mine... did not recognize my name, insisted after a bit that she'd met me at a meeting and we'd gone to a bar (not a chance), etc. I asked her where she lived... she mentioned the number 104 and couldn't seem to move on from there. You're on the west side, yes, I suggested...? and she replied, Not very far west, I think. By the end of the brief interrogation-- she began repeating questions... her focus was disintegrating. I began to inquire, hoping to steer her into some familiar space, as I used to corral my mother in her dementia into some small fenced-in area in which she could function. Her book-- she'd tried to write and failed... I eventually hit a wall-- had to somehow disengage; she took my number (!) and asked if we could get together... having me carefully spell my last name. I will be very surprised to hear from her, or perhaps she will call again tomorrow, looking somehow for some mental foothold.
On the street I felt a little distraught; after all, we are about the same age and I'd recently watched my own mother take the slow fade from bright and bitchy to a milky soup of confused and unrelated word-strings. So I took time to listen to one of the chattier housekeepers who was often out walking her pair of lazy retrievers. She'd raised 3 children whose mother had just died of a terrible cancer; the kids were acting out and the father was already dating. The dogs were not healthy... one was worse than the other; the housekeeper's accent was slightly Caribbean. Where were they going for the summer? I memorized her braids, her part-- the way her left eye was brighter than the right-- her lovely teeth... Stories... I needed stories. I stopped to listen along my 10-block way. I spoke, I watched... I heard sirens... followed firetrucks and ambulances until they disappeared... noticed baristas and customers inside shops. They nourish me. I need them.
Back home after a long evening, I retrieve my 'eye-photos'... I recall things, thoughts I've had... plots I've woven around simple facts and remarks.... nothing remarkable today-- a few confessions and bad date-stories, a friend's itinerary... some phone calls... music... my Latin Hip-Hop class where thankfully I am able to reproduce the chain of steps that constitute a routine... I know whose voice the singer reminds me of, what melody has been stolen... I've written lyrics in my head, forgotten most of them... but still I am able to retrieve, to unpack a few folders. Of course, at my age my mental knives could use sharpening--- but they function... for today, anyway. It is like unpacking a small basket of groceries you have gathered for a modest meal. It is there-- your substitutions, your little economies-- your process that will become something you will make.
It has been a dark year for me and for many of my beloved friends. I have had hardships and losses-- disappointments, cancellations, betrayals. I have been hungry and tottered on the edge of envy. But to speak to someone-- a complex map of neurons and synapses-- of brain power and creativity-- a talented, delicate writer-- and find her stumbling in a pool of her own confusion-- was more than upsetting. Maybe the worst nightmare of all is the one in which you can't find your way home because you can't find you. To lose all my orts and scraps of ideas--- to see them as indecipherable, as odd word-bits, not pieces of a puzzle only you can assemble... well, for me that is terrifying. Not poverty, not failing at love--- even the sorrow of death-- but the concept of living death, of wandering without consolation or direction.
Months ago I asked some auction house about an old drawing which touched me-- its condition... 'Light signs of wear' was their email assessment -- but they'd typo'd and exchanged the g and n. Light sings of wear, I read.. and my heart opened-- the charred, fragile, disintegrating version I've been carrying-- with its slow uneven beating and its careful mourning hesitations... well, I felt its light and its tiny soul shaping into some lyrical epiphany for me. Like an Amen... one of those tight banks of imagery unfurled into something like a miniature parade, a tiny joy. I will carry this forward for now,
in the name of the writer, Abigail, who has quite lost her place in line. I will continue.