On the Nature of Memory

1. Border Crossing

Retrospection is a rear-view mirror vision--personal time flowing away inside a tidy frame, slowing and receding to a vanishing point, the crux of self-identity. Periodically we glance into this lifescape if only to assure ourselves of the comforting linearity of motion; after all, memory should contain nothing unexpected (by definition)--the domain of well-worn handles and grating mannerisms. And yet, at certain moments, anomalies appear--apparitions in the mirror, ghosts that populate our carefully edited personal mythology--sharply delineating self and self-vision.

This fragmenting of oneself--a process somehow akin to "passive" self-asphyxiation in which one attempts to stop breathing altogether, only to discover on the threshold that the will is not nearly so well-defined--occurred to me last night. (The scene: Champlain, N.Y. We stop to get rid of all fruits before reaching the Canadian border (in spite of the location, we had somehow managed to procure a mango)...)

          The radio has emigrated.
          Pulling off the road before
          The border station, we begin
          The ritual: mango, Swiss Army knife;
          Like an intern, with conviction you skin
          The wayward fruit.
          Opaque, acrid juices flow
          Between your naked
          Fingers, through your
          Threadbare skirt, leaving
          Stained cloth windows to your pale skin.
          Diligently, I lick each finger 
          Nagging wounds I must make better.

          Ahead, I see only open fields.
          Then for a terrible moment I taste
          The iron tang of my own blood
          Curled about my tongue.
* * *

Think of marriage as a contract. Pragmatic words from your mother, the lawyer. But contracts can be breached, broken, burned to grey flaky fragments, just as painful photographs are easily set aflame at the flick of a bitter match. And yet, memory persists in that mirror frame, flickering celluloid projections, sometimes skipping, sometimes stuck on the same image--an inescapable contract, continuously renewable.

2. Moment Passed to Reveal...

A desert, a table, an egg in a white porcelain egg holder. Crack it open with the dull side of a butter knife. It's all soft inside. You've killed it.

Cut to open sea. No clouds. Sun high in the sky. A raw egg (shell-less) is floating on the surface, the white stretching and shrinking with the crests and troughs of the waves. It is free. The yolk is strangely iridescent in the fierce light.

Close-up of snake (small, green one). It opens its jaws to full-maximum to accommodate a whole chicken egg. An incongruous lump begins to travel down the length of the snake's body. (Question: Was it raw or boiled?)

3. Liebe

One of the earliest memories I have is of riding in the back seat of the rickety Austin-Healey with a very sick, immobile Liebe on the way to the university lab. The scene exists as a snap-shot in my mind, with no before or after, a frozen moment of oppressive sadness, just shades of gray, the road leading off through the windshield into a vast void lined by skeletal trees. I doubt if the image of the outside is correct I don't think there's any place in Tokyo (especially between our house and the university) where there were no houses to be seen from the road. I had been told at the time that Liebe was being taken to the veterinary school so she could be cured of her sickness. In reality she was being put to sleep at the agricultural animal science lab where my father worked. Liebe was terminally ill (from cancer, I think). My father would sometimes bring home sausage produced by the same department made from animals (mostly pigs and sheep, he said) that had outgrown their scientific usefulness. He claims now that these were of the highest quality (not being made for commercial purposes), which I won't dispute. I used to poke them through with a chopstick and hold them over the glowing mesh of the kerosene heater. They would start to sweat oily drops, then black blisters would form on the skin--that was the best part to eat.

Liebe was just one in a long line of pet dogs that our family kept and which kept dying before their full respective lifespans. Most of them were before my time; Liebe is the first one that I have any recollection of, and that only as a snap-shot. There is a family folklore about Ben who was buried beneath a sapling Himalayan fir in front of the house, a tree that in my childhood was the tallest tree in the neighborhood. Supposedly the nutrients from Ben's decomposing corpse nurtured the tree to such heights. I think he was run over by a car, but I'm not sure. When I was growing up there was Peter, who was a white, cowardly poodle that emitted sticky diarrhea all over his curly ass whenever he ate watermelon rinds. Once he streaked vigorously into the kitchen to get his food (which was usually a disgusting concoction of boiled stale bread with bits of scrap meat, milk, and sugar thrown in--I don't know who came up with that recipe, but I hated the smell of it cooking), missed making the sharp turn on the slick floor, and slammed with all the MV that he had built up into the glass jar of umeshu (Japanese-plum wine) that was brewing. The jar exploded, sloshing its potent-reeking contents of olive-green plums and shouchuu all over the floor, the dog shocked into a frenzy, running around insanely until finally going into guilty hiding mode with his head stuck behind the couch--legs, torso, and silly tail in full view. Peter eventually ran away or was dognapped, as was his tiny successor, Koro. After my father's disastrously fatal experiments with goldfish and tropical fish as pets, my sister had the brilliant idea of getting a cat, Leo, who, as it turned out, stayed with us until we abandoned him to move to America.


                              A girl,
                        naked AS the sun,
                lies by the SEA, dreaming.
                           A SAGE, crouching,
                       plays GAMES with the sand,
              tracing moist IMAGES with a remembering
                  finger.  MIRAGES rage in the distance.

5. Purgatory, Nevada

What struck him as he drove into the parking lot was the utter silence of the place. Neons pulsed, incandescents glowed blood-red, yet the festive brew of honky-tonk laughter and raucous melody associated with these carnival lights was conspicuously absent like a film stripped of its soundtrack. People were strangely absent, too, as if the cars themselves had come to congregate here in the middle of the desert to mutely worship the stars, the cauldrons of their genesis.

With a bittersweet resolve he made his way over resounding gravel to a chain-link gate equipped with an invisible doorman. A push on a button produced a distant ring somewhere inside, and a second later a surprisingly bellicose buzz from the gate signaled that it was ready to be entered.

Once inside the building, he was directed to sit down on a threadbare sofa by a short, violet woman of undiscernable age. His face flushed from the accusing heat; clearly, the thermostat was set to point out the self-consciousness of wearing clothes. He sank deeper into the sofa.

Suddenly, a dozen women trooped into the room clad only in leotards of various hue. Tall, short, thin, plump, brunette, blonde, bleach-blonde, straw-blonde--his eyes refused to focus on any individual. Despite their disparate shapes and colors, they formed a collective whole--twenty-four naked legs and too much make-up--a multi-smiled mythical creature that was even now spewing out the sounds of female names through each pair of brilliantly painted lips...Cathy...Katrina...Dina...as he struggled desperately to overcome the sudden bone-weariness that was paralyzing his senses.

A pregnant stillness: they were expecting. They were expecting him to choose. Forcing thought and motion to take place, he vaguely waved at a small, wide-eyed woman who seemed to have on the least make-up, and who appeared to be the youngest as well. A moment of confusion ensued as she ascertained her selection with raised eyebrows and index finger cocked to the suicide position. The ceremony completed, the unchosens filed quietly back to their quarters, each one clutching a gift of disappointment and relief, a microcosm of every rejection they had ever known.

Hi. My name is Ada. Come on this way.

He followed the woman down narrow, branching corridors. It became apparent that the building was a patchwork of mobile homes connected at right angles to each other. When they finally cul-de-saced into her room, he was momentarily swirled into a vortex of dislocation: the room was so perfectly normal! A half-written letter lying belly-up on the crisply made double bed, perched atop a windowsill a framed Polaroid shot of an infant, and that double camouflage alienating form from function--Venetian blinds and curtain. Somewhere, a clock ticked. He found himself seated on the edge of the bed with the woman who was going through a spiel with a kind of put-on coquetry that was simultaneously alluring and numbing. Combined with the relentless heat and the melancholy scent of cheap cosmetics, her words became a lavender coercion evoking within him that translucent overlapping of memory and dreams: dreams of memory, memories of dreams...

High noon, height of summer. The forest is vibrating with the dense chorus of cicadas, individual pitches fading in and out like a reedy, minimalist composition. He is weaving his way softly through the shafts of sunlight, a pale, thin child of perhaps seven or eight carrying a bamboo pole twice his height with a gauzy net attached at the top. Intently he scans the upper parts of tree trunks for one of these sonorous creatures that would mute itself at a mere breath of danger and become a common knot on the bark. He would have to be a ghostly stalker, casting no shadow, stirring no air. Holding his breath, he tries to stop thinking.

It is then that he notices an unusually high and transparent voice cascading from a nearby tree. Like a soprano sustaining the penultimate note in a demanding aria, this cicada is singing with a sharp timbre that is tempered only by a slowly evolving tremolo. Enchanted by the harsh purity of its song, he decides to pursue this diva.

It is not difficult to locate the singer. Entranced, perhaps, by its own music, it is even easier to net. Quickly he brings down his prize and carefully retrieves it with his thumb and forefinger, bathing it in a shower of sunlight. Completely at the mercy of this alien captor, it does not struggle.

At this point, a chilly mist of awareness begins to drift out from the depths of the subconscious, leaving damp touches of apprehension upon his consciousness: something has happened... As he turns his cicada in the bright light, the answer comes in an echo of nothingness: the forest has fallen perfectly silent. Dizzied by the enormity of his deed, he perceives in the resonant void a flash of greater guilt not yet consummated, a premonition, a deja vu in reverse, a memory of a future not yet envisioned...

* * *

Ada was waiting. Having said her piece, she was waiting for his whim and wish. Gazing at her absently attentive face, he realized with a twinge of dark revelation the real reason why he chose her; for dispersed in the figure of this strange woman was the ghostly image of another, familiar and precious, but one that must be set free, must not be allowed to trespass upon this silence, this empty silence that is his purgatory.

6. An Epilogue

Coming home from work I find her sitting with her back against the door of my second-floor apartment. She is absorbed in the ritual of snipping off her split ends with a large pair of sewing scissors, an activity that's like a mantra for her, a systematic exorcism of accumulated doubts and ambiguous memories, SNIP, SNIP. The roots of her long, helical locks are showing the true dark of her hair--peroxide acquiescing to the passage of time, paint peeling, bird of paradise molting, memory dispersing, a fool believing in renewal, SNIP. Think hard, now. Dirty bare feet, black miniskirt, sky-blue halter top, pale, opaque skin that never tans. It cannot possibly have been seven years... She looks up. Smiles. Oh, hi. I don't smile. Hi. Sweatdrops streaming down from my armpits. What are you doing here. Etc., etc.

Cut to the inside of my apartment.

Drink? I open my refrigerator. On the top rack a head of lettuce is oozing brown goo onto the white bars on which beads are forming. She helps herself to some water from the faucet. Strange how such obvious dissolution can take place so quietly, so inconspicuously: lettuce heads almost never explode by themselves. It's weird, too, how one assigns values of good and evil to construction and destruction, repectively. After all, isn't it just the balance of energy and entropy--that, and the system's distance away from equilibrium and proximity to bifurcation points and all that? Maybe if I can perturb that lettuce far away from equilibrium it would spontaneously reconstruct itself. I grab the dripping organic object from the refrigerator and, with a terrific howl and tortured body contortions, I slam-dunk it into the seven-foot-high Nerf basketball hoop. Not quite. Much too large to fit through the loop, the rotting lettuce head boings off the flexible rim and lands bwut on the tiled kitchen floor, splattering dark juice, disseminating an odor like a narrow alley behind a cheap Chinese restaurant. Damn, it didn't work. The whole time she's looking at me with those high, arched eyebrows, slowly sipping the lukewarm, cloudy tap water, fingering those endless split ends.

It turns out she needs a place to stay for the night. Seems circumstance has conspired with itself to converge upon her various obstacles to prevent her from reaching Sanctuary, DO NOT PASS GO. Not an implausible story, coming from her: plane delayed, missed connection, destination now socked in by fog, remaining flights canceled, didn't want to stay in a hotel, you know how I am about sleeping alone in strange places, didn't know anyone here, checked the phone book to see if you still lived here, tomorrow I'll take the first flight out. Please. Pretty please?

She stands at the side of the window shifting her weight back and forth, her face moving in and out of the static sunbeam, the vertical shadow's edge rippling back and forth across her cheek, eye, nose, eye, cheek, bright/dark/bright, yes/no/yes, her big brown eyes playing peek-a-boo, unblinking, wide open. I stare back, my weight resting lightly against the edge of the dining table. Shit, you're the last person I wanted to see. She looks away, out the window. Across the courtyard, from a half-open window, an obese, hairy arm thrusts out a kettle and tilts it to water a potted dead plant. Finishing its task, the arm-and-kettle abruptly vanishes into the dark rectangle. She replies (still looking away): I should go if you can't stand me.

Should. Should?

Memory is a funny thing. A friend tried to explain it to me once. Memory is storage of information. Storage of information requires energy. Memory can also be converted back into energy, just like mass can be turned into energy. Problem is, you can't retrieve the same memory once it's been turned to energy--it's lost forever; you can only create different memories. Did I get that right? Maybe I'm just losing more and more brain cells.

In the movies they often employ a common reference point as a segue to a flashback sequence--the camera zooms in on a pair of juvenile hands holding a small bunch of white lilies (the HERE-AND-NOW: at the dying heroine's bedside), pans back to reveal an idyllic adorable-little-girl-in-green-pasture-with-babbling-brook scene of her childhood. Involuntary recall rarely works like that; static images do not possess such conjurative powers--rather, it is a dynamic sequence of perceptions (a certain sense of hollowing out as an azure scent billows past your face, a losing of a game followed immediately by a tug, a repetition, a warmth in three corners, then the idea of the number nine) that creates a direct, uncontrollable access to a past not remembered for a very long time. As I watch her swaying, windowed profile, I wish for the right incantatory sequence to happen, to be there, if only for a moment, where we used to be. But it is only memory of the ordinary, effort-laden kind that comes to me, the picture drawing close to her side profile, the focus blurring out towards the brightness...

Dawn illuminates her sleeping profile through the window, head against the glass, her breath periodically forming vapor trails across the dim sky. After driving all night they find themselves traveling more-or-less north toward the border; somewhere along the way, in the anonymous nocturnal landscape, they have lost track of the exact road they are taking. It doesn't matter as long as they are headed north; for some reason it seems very important to cross the border as soon as possible. As the sun rises, the eastern glow fades, cool watercolors spreading through empty longitudes. Yellow divider stripes stretch and pass, then reverse, shrink, in mirrored retrospect. High-voltage power lines cast rhythmic shadows catenary scores: Ode to Gravity. In the blue solitude they fly--wheat, asphalt, shadow, light.

* * *

She's picking out the magazines from the heap of the Sunday NYTs that are sort of piled up in the corner with the standing lamp. How come all the watches in the ads point to 10:10? Fidgety, I go into my room to spin up an Ornette Coleman disc. Eventually. Focus on Sanity. Harmolodic free jazz broken shadows. I see you're still into cacophony, she remarks. I lie down on the lifeless shag carpet and close my eyes.

Exhumations and post-mortems are grim ordeals and best avoided--a dead relationship is a dead elation, R.I.P., (sh...), but sometimes it's hard to leave that scab alone: you've got to pick at and play with it until, aahh, it dislodges suddenly and a pool of familiar pain wells up. All the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking. Possession is illusory to begin with and yet we keep feeding each other these deceptions as though the mutual swallowing forms an eternal ring, ever shrinking, two serpents devouring each other, converging to a point of nonexistence, receding into the distance of the frame. Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances. And the longest distances are measured not in light-years but in units of entropy...

Hey, you awake? Listen. I have to tell you something.

* * *

She had a fever that night, and I let her sleep in bed with me, holding her closely from behind, gently pressing my palms against the pain in her abdomen. Once I made love to a married woman and the entire time I could feel her ring against my skin, a gold chill sliding up and down my back, occasionally knocking against my hip, metal on bone, a strange resonance of guilt and need. That was after my divorce from this shivering woman; we always went to bed with our rings off. She has one on now and I'm tempted to ask whether she and her husband leave them on in bed. But I don't ask. She has told me enough. Now only I know, and when she leaves in the morning she will never be back, her husband will never know, and the father of the now-aborted mistake will never know, she will recover quickly from the operation, must have caught a bug on the trip; Don't worry, hon, memories disintegrate, myths emerge, trust and linearity restored, success, complacency enough to fear for the world, a crisis, resurgence, children (even), little stigmata of regret, hope, boredom, separation, an implosion of spark petals, recollections of vague ecstasy, a long rainy season, absolute despair, the greying, the wrinkling, distant hunger, decelerating, strange language and music, rotting and bedpans, a sweet breath, the end, and yet I stroke, stroke
your hair
only because
your hair feels fine
like sunshine
on a remembered


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Copyright 1989, John Nagamichi Cho