By Natasha Rogers
I remember when I wrote the letter volunteering for this. A woman takes my hand and carefully leads me down some stairs. Her arm is barely grazing my shoulders as we descend, “There you go, good, one more step,” she says. I can’t see anything; I’m blindfolded.
It’s voluntary, but I probably should have told Steve my plans. Oh well, it’s “certified and safe,” and he probably won’t even notice I’m gone. I’m the one who wrote to them, asking to take part in this procedure, or formulation.
I’m here because, weeks ago, I pushed myself from a cold tile floor empty and drained. I wanted more. Tears and snot were the only visible drainage, but I knew the invisible hope had exited my body, too, as I laid on that restroom floor. Three co-workers wiggled the door knob, but I just laid there by the only toilet at the office. I remember crying out those tears, snot, and hope. There had been a dark, short hair clinging to the yellow caulk at the nape of the toilet. The bathroom floor. Gross. I can’t believe I did that. Now it grosses me out, but I didn’t care then. Eventually, I got up and wrote the letter.
“Let’s take this off. Sorry to blindfold you, we’ve had some, well, we’ve had some people who really love what we do. It’s best if you don’t know where to find us. Welcome, Emma. I’m Grace Memry.” I stretch my eyes before I see Grace. She’s wearing a white dress that hangs on her body consciously. I instinctively pull my stomach muscles in. There’s no way she’s had any children; I haven’t either. Her black hair is pulled tight into a high bun that stretches her eyes into almonds. I snuck out of that outwardly clean, but unclean restroom and sent my volunteer request to P.O. Box 222, Provo, UT. I don’t want to leave my husband.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, Grace. Kat, my friend at work, has been telling me to come for months. She says I could use it.”
“Well, let’s get started. You’ve read the letters we sent, but I would like to restate a few things: we are neurobiologists. Our current field of study is in memories. You have volunteered to replay an inconsequential memory in your mind, we call this a formulation. We will be formulating your consciousness to replay a memory in your mind through music.”
Right. “Yeah. The music part is interesting. I had a hard time finding a memory where I heard a song for the first time.” I say.
“It’s easier to formulate to music, actually the only way we’ve found.” Grace says uncomfortably.
I guess the mind is the true machine, considering there isn’t any machinery. There isn’t even a table, or a place to sit. I was expecting a laboratory.
The inconsequential memory I carelessly selected, the only memory in recollection of hearing a song for the first time, is Mondo Bongo by The Mescaleros; I was sitting passenger side in Steve’s 4-runner. It was summer. Mmm, summer. (I can’t even remember what it feels like to go outside without it being painful. Darn winter.) The windows were down. We were driving on the back roads with nowhere to be except with each other. Strange, I still remember that small, frivolous moment.
There’s another woman who hasn’t introduced herself yet. Grace keeps looking at the woman and raising her tailored eyebrows as if she’s reading a teleprompter, though the woman has said nothing. Naturally, I keep looking at the nameless woman for reassurance as well, but every time I do, I feel like I have to blink. This woman seems to have just crawled off the mattress on the floor. She’s wearing a white t-shirt, which is a couple sizes too large, and white leggings. Her mouse hair waves around her face and she continually rubs the leaking mascara from under her eyes with her long, wispy fingers. I’m nervous.
“Will I know I’m me inside of me? Or will I just re-do that experience and come back?” I ask. They probably covered this in the letters, but I don’t remember. I don’t think I have enough information. I should have told Steve what I’m doing.
“Every formulation is different.” Grace replies calmly, looking at the woman, “It is usually an inlay of consciousness over your past mind. Remember to keep your minds separate. Your formulation will be able to feel you, but your memory will be oblivious to the formulation. It’s all in your mind.” Says Grace.
I do know this, I read the letters.
Grace looks me directly in the eyes. She’s probably as old as I am, mid-forties, but she doesn’t have any wrinkles. She puts her hand on my shoulder and smiles without showing her teeth; she must feel my blood pumping because she says, “Remember, it’s all in your mind. There aren’t any risks involved here.”
“Right.” I say. But I feel anxious anyway. I never do stuff like this. Well, I do free stuff, but not secret science stuff. I volunteered for this formulation because who doesn’t want to replay memories? The happy ones. Seriously. To be young again. Carefree. To love. That is definitely worth the background check, the secrecy, even the blindfolding, which is probably why I’m so nervous. It’s weird to communicate through paper, sending letters to different P.O. boxes and finding letters on my windshield. I’m finding it difficult to trust these women who don’t appear to trust me, but Kat said it was amazing, and it got me off the bathroom floor.
“Ready?” Grace says.
I nod, looking straight into her eyes. She’s really good at eye contact. Her eyes are oceans with storms and waves. I watch those waves as long as I can. Grace never turns away so I decide to trust her enough. I nod again.
The crazy haired one tapes a couple wires to the sides of my head that are connected to her phone. I should ask her what her name is. I watch her type “Mondo Bongo” into a blank line on her phone.
“Do I need to sit or something? What should I do?” I ask.
“Shh.” Crazy Hair shooshes distractedly. She gracefully touches the song with her thin thumb.
The lost but familiar acoustic tango gently enters through the speakers all around the basement. I have an urge to laugh hysterically. I’m grateful there aren’t any mirrors down here. I hold my bottom lip between my teeth to cage the laugh. I look around the clean room, realizing that I do not believe this will work.
That thought calms me. The first measures of percussion and guitar saunters into the room, as Joe Strummer’s voice drifts in, ♫Something’s there…♫ The walls are white burlap. There are floor to ceiling white canvas curtains covering the dark windows; the light is coming from recessed lighting on the ceiling. The floor is cold, white wood. I walked down stairs – that’s why I’m assuming we are in a basement. There is one white sheet covering a mattress on the floor. They asked me to wear white. I notice the speakers, white, mounted in every corner. This song. Is that an accordion? Why did I choose this memory? ♫La la la la…♫
The white walls cross dissolve to a picture filled with color. Warmth surprises me as if I have stepped through the heavy doors of a sterile building into a summery noon day – but I haven’t moved at all. The glowing turquoise sky illuminates the living greenness of the trees and grasses all around me. Green, blue, indigo and gold zip by, into a colorful rainbow. The wind washes my body with the pure scent of summer. I want to look, to study the color but my gaze involuntarily saunters within the car. It’s like a virtual reality of something forgotten in my mind, and it’s being serenaded with bongos and banjos.
My tan legs are in shorts. Oh! Steve. Skinny, long haired Steve. ♫Latina Caribo, Mondo bongo…♫ The song is the only thing that connects me to the present. I am looking at his profile as he drives my memory down a back lane in a colorful Utah summer. His brown arms are skinny; he hasn’t started lifting weights yet. His hand slips into mine. That pinching in my heart. Oh my. I’m smiling, present and past. He looks at me with azure eyes that match the intensity of the sky. Everything is glowing. ♫That flower looks good in your hair. ♫ Steve’s mouth moves as he sings and then turns to smile at me. He’s something different. The strolling tango mixes with the wind to strike my eardrums and vibrate through my formulation. It’s is all I can hear, and I start to forget that these senses are all in my head, in the past. He’s so handsome. I don’t remember life being so vibrant. My gaze is casually ripped from him and directed to the colors out the window, reminding me: I’m not in control, I’m a formulation. I, not my formulation, stretch my hand into the wind and feel as it crashes into me, tumbles up my arm and includes my long hair as it rolls around the car and into Steve’s face. We both laugh as we try to reign in my hair but all that I hear is music enveloping the memory, the percussion, the violin, ♫Nobody said it was fair…♫ The song ends.
Temple white. Silence. I’m standing again. Old again. Cold again.
I recognize Grace and the disheveled woman staring at me. The room seems massive. I feel like a stranger back in this body. I’m wearing a long-sleeved dress that reaches the floor, my palms and my neck. I pulled it from the back of my closet for today, it’s the only white outfit I own.
“Oh my.” I whisper, “it worked. I was in his car.” The charming guitar and bongos used to be the most important part of this memory, but now they seem inconsequential.
Grace smiles at me. Her teeth are so straight. “Were you able to hear, feel or see your thoughts? Not your formulation, but you?” She holds a pencil to a clipboard.
Um. I don’t think I did. “I…well. I don’t know what was me and what was…me.”
“Senses. Were your senses stimulated?” The other woman asks impatiently.
“I felt the wind. The heat from the sun. My legs. His hand. It was…crazy.”
“It is not crazy. It is just a memory. You were conscious.” The woman says.
“Are you ready to formulate again?” Grace asks narrowing her eyes at her partner.
“Thank you.” Is all I can think to say.
Again, the room livens up with the Spanish tango as the white cross dissolves to color. The summer day of my memory seeps into this room, it is reality. I am only limited by the movements I made twenty years before. I ride my memory. ♫That flower looks good in your hair. ♫
And just like that I’m back in the sterile temple, back to today. Six minutes is not long enough.
“Is your formulation able to move your body?” The woman asks after a few formulations.
“No. I’m just there, or I mean the formulation is just there, experiencing what I experienced. I look and move; the formulation just witnesses it.”
“Hm. Do it again.” The woman says pushing her fingers under and out from her eyes.
All I want to do is formulate again. The music dances in.
Color, Steve, wind, music fades to silent whiteness.
“Do it again. Tell your arm to move.” Says the woman in white leggings.
I nod. The excited motion almost pulls the white phone out of Crazy Hair’s hand. She grunts as the phone jumps out of her hands a couple times before she catches it safely to her chest. “Sorry,” I say as I take a step closer to loosen the slack of the wires between us. She takes a step back, not looking at me. That’s what I do to Steve. I don’t want to remember the bathroom floor.
“Try to move your arm. A finger. Anything.” She says again. Anticipation rallies my heart into a race. I want to be there again. Again, the mellow, flowing tune of Mondo Bongo fills the sterile, white room. I wait.
♫La la la…♫ Color. Steve. Wind. ♫That flower looks good in your hair♫ he sings with a smile. Has he changed? I look out the window, I look at the hands and remember I’m supposed to try to move something. I think the word, move. My formulation is just an observer. The comfortably tangled fingers stay relaxed on the console. His thumb brushes my, or her, finger. That touch. She looks back out the window. ♫Mondo Bongo…♫ I think of the arm and think, move! All I can see is the grasses and trees flying by the window. I can’t see the arms but I don’t think they move; I don’t feel them move. I feel claustrophobic. ♫The CIA was on the phone…♫ The head turns back to look at Steve. Young summer Steve. His blue eyes. Move! I think again as the eyes move down to look at the entwined hands too quickly. Nothing happens. I am just a thought; I have no body. Please Move! I’m starting to realize she’s not me. She is relaxed as her arm rides the wind and whips her hair all over the car. She never looks at anything long enough. ♫Nobody said it was fair. ♫ The song is over.
The color is gone. My insides seem to match whatever I see. “Again.” I say out loud, with my body, my voice. The woman looks at me, and for the first time she smiles as the room fills with beats of percussion. ♫There’s something there! ♫
“Again.” I say.
♫La la la…♫ Everything looks so green. Looking at Steve this time, my formulation feels something on top of the warm happiness of the girl sitting in the passenger side, something sticky. Current memories are trying to drain the color of this one. I don’t want to move my arm anymore; I just want to sit here in the sun. ♫That flower looks good in your hair. ♫ The wind rushes around my warm body. Are his eyes still that blue? Hand out the window. Hair in his face. ♫Nobody said it was fair…♫
As I look around the white room, after three hours of six-minute song intervals, the colorful world in the 4-runner feels more real. I don’t seem to be alive without that haunting tango serenading my lack of body control. Every time I formulate, I see, hear, smell, feel something I hadn’t before. What a tragedy to live each moment only once; we miss so much. We forget even more. Maybe that other me did witness the man on a roof, sharing a drink with a blonde-haired woman or the baby cow stuck in the fence and his mother helping him. Or Steve’s thumb rubbing my index finger through the whole song. Or the way a bird swooped around our car for, what appeared to be, pure pleasure and mischief. Maybe I witnessed a million other things and drank in life during that six-minute drive, but I don’t remember any of it. Did I notice his blue shirt that he wore? The one we print screened together, his was a picture of me. Or that his hair was growing past his ears? I didn’t remember any of that, it is all new to me. I lived that moment thirty times and I still want to live it again. I’m afraid I’ve missed something.
I haven’t been able to move or adjust anything about that moment, much to the chagrin of my female companions. Life is bland in comparison to the music, but these women are tireless.
I’m curious if all memories would be so vibrant, or just this one. I try to think of a more recent memory, a colorful one, but they are all gray, drab, sad. Steve’s eyes seem gray now. All I can procure is silent dinners, crying on a bathroom floor, and negative pregnancy tests. Ah, to be in the glowing memory again.
“Beady, I think we should give her a break.” Grace says. Oh, that’s her name, Beady.
“Do you need a break?” Beady says. She bites the side of her bottom lip as she looks at me out of the tops of her eyes. Testing me.
“No. Thanks, though, Grace.” I say.
Beady pokes the screen on her phone. I close my eyes, prepared for what’s coming.
♫La la la…♫ Blue sky. Green dashing by the window. Purple wild flowers flying by on the side of the road. Those azure eyes. ♫Latina caribo…♫ He wraps his fingers through mine. Why don’t you do this anymore? I whisper in my mind. ♫Mondo bongo…♫ He looks at me and smiles, a real smile. Why don’t I make you happy anymore? I try to move her lips. My view changes to the window. I try my hardest to turn the head back to look at the young, future husband Steve. Why don’t we have colorful memories anymore?! I desperately think out the window. She puts her hand out for the wind to scoop up and throw around. Steve! I scream silently as I try to turn this blasted head to look at him.
Suddenly my view changes and my breath catches. Now I’m driving the car. ♫La la la…♫ My hand is hanging on the steering wheel. The color, the sound, the feel is foreign to my mind. ♫That flower looks good in your hair. ♫ The lips move as the head turns. My whole consciousness erupts with something as I see me. I’m so beautiful from here. I can’t breathe. Whole, comfortable, connected. These thoughts are not my own. My formulation can’t breathe. Her. His thoughts and feelings struggle to translate into my mind. If my formulation can’t breathe, is my body still breathing? My cognizance can’t seem to find my lungs. Always, eyes. I’m overwhelmed with him. Steve’s breathing. I can’t. I think his memory is suffocating me. ♫Nobody said it was fair…♫
Silence. And then a rushing crack as I heave, filling my lungs with sterile air. All I see is black for a moment. Slowly white creeps into my eyes. I see the floor as I intake air and choke as if I have been drowning. I feel the chill of the floor on my palms and the restriction of my modest dress up against my neck and squeezing my middle. I’m bent over like a dog, drooling. I rip the wires from my head. I drink the air thirstily. Grace. Grace has her arms around me and is helping me to sit on the ground.
“What happened? Are you okay? There you go. My goodness! No one has ever reacted like that. Are you okay?” Grace says.
Beady is sitting on her mattress directly in front of me. She looks amused. Grace is still stammering, “Beady! Beady! Did you know this could happen?”
“It’s interesting.” Beady says, “What exactly happened?”
“I think, I think…” heavens, that phrase has a whole new meaning, I breath for a minute before I continue, “I think that, somehow, I experienced someone else’s memory. Like I felt his thoughts and…I couldn’t breathe.”
“How could she feel him? Isn’t memory just perspective? Was it really him, or just her portrayal of him? Beady! How could this happen?” Maybe Grace thinks I’m going to sue them. I just want to go home.
“I thought this was an inconsequential memory.” Beady accuses, completely ignoring Grace.
Are any memories inconsequential? I guess if I remember a moment, it is consequential. “I thought that it was. It’s just a memory of my husband, before we got married. We were just driving in his car, listening to music. It is inconsequential. Well, it was.” I say.
“Do it again.” Beady says, her eyes hungry.
“No.” I say. I don’t want to do that ever again. I want to go home. I want Steve. Tears puncture my eyes as I get to my feet.
On my way home I decide that, somehow, it was him. A piece of him, maybe, that I had subconsciously perceived. I drop my head against the bus window. Grace and Beady let me just walk out the door. Their odd white temple lab is in the basement of an old house near UVU; just a couple blocks from a bus stop. I kept expecting them to stop me, but they didn’t. Don’t worry, I won’t be back.
I can’t see anything past the window except the occasional light dash by. The world outside is dark and cold. The bus hisses and jolts along, it’s so quiet in here. I keep forgetting I can move my own body. Changing focus to my reflection on the black window, I pull my head away, leaving a circle of condensation. I look at my own face trying to see what Steve saw all those years ago. All I see is me. But I remember that moment, that one inconsequential moment of my life, that I miraculously replayed thirty times.
Are all simple moments capable of being that colorful?
I look around the bus, attempting to see this moment. There is a Dorito bag smooshed into the crack of the seat next to me. As the bus slows for my stop, I crinkle the bag out of the crack and sway down the aisle dropping it in the trash can strapped to the front panel with bungee cords. Descending the bus steps, I turn around, seeing my bus driver for the first time. He’s combed and gelled his white hair neatly to the side, but missed some dry fluff above his ears. His wrinkled skin hangs from his cheeks and points to his eyes. Those tired, dark eyes liven as he raises his unruly, gray eyebrows.
“Is everything ok, ma’am?” he asks in an accented voice.
Usually tears hurt. Usually, my eyes burn while my throat closes and my nose pinches in defense against betraying tears, but as I look at the bus driver sitting on his ragged seat, tears slip from my eyes like silk. I see this man in this moment; I almost walked past him.
“Yes, thank you. What’s your name?”
After a short conversation with Gilbert, I quietly unlock my front door. My house is dark but I can find the couch. When I do, I kneel on the floor for a moment while my eyes start to find the light and shapes in the room. The momentum of my epiphany begins dissolving as I watch Steve sleep. Being choked by his past adoring thoughts seems more enticing than facing this current heavy reality. Quickly, before I won’t, I whisper, “I still love you.”
Steve rubs his face, convulses and shouts when his eyes open to my face by his. I almost laugh but urgently say again, “I still love you.”
Steve sighs and puts his face in his hands. He mumbles tiredly, not because he woke up, but because he’s tired, “Oh, Emma…I love you, too.”
“I know, Steve.” He lifts his head and those blue eyes meet mine. I remember what mine look like through his. “I just forgot.”