Parker & Otis (Formerly, Fowler's)
There is a woman in New York City who forgets who she is. Her forgetfulness lasts for days and even weeks at a time. The first time she disappeared, they found her floating in the Upper Bay, where she was almost pulled under by the Staten Island Ferry, her body a dark window where before there were weak columns of light filtering down through the harbor waters, her shadow a cloud passing over the floor of the bay. If the Statue of Liberty could look down at her floating figure, she might have wondered, what kind of freedom is this?
I too have wandered around my city in an almost-fugue state, so immersed in memory I forget who I am today, swallowing up the past like a drunk knocking back cold gin. In this alleyway is the broken glass from a view I was once in love with. On those railroad tracks, too much red wine and God’s voice singing to me through the train whistle. On this rooftop, a collection of arms I could throw myself into. Up those stairs, a man who wore time on his wrist like a bomb ready to go off.
This cafe was a gourmet grocery where I stocked shelves, reading from labels the names of European cities I swore I would visit, but never did.
This restaurant was a laundromat where I paid for soap with quarters and wrote shaky poems in notebooks on top of the driers.
This hotel an open field where I took apart a necklace given to me by a lover, dropping ruby stones into the earth like seeds.
The girl’s mother insisted her forgetful daughter did not believe she was someone else so much as she had ceased to believe she was anyone at all. A kind of erasure, the mother said, a complete oblivion of the self. Psychologists told the mother that such selflessness is impossible — it would be a journey into nothingness, a sort of suicide, an obliteration. You cannot exist, they say, without a self. The self is what allows us to make sense of the “you are here” arrow on a map; it is the longing that pours out of us into the waiting vessel of the other; it is the costume we wear over the blank slate of our soul.
But what do they know?
Isn’t freedom from the self the entire point of eastern religion? Isn’t escape the root of all fiction? At the end of things, aren’t we all hardwired for utter alone-ness? Or are those things different from each other: freedom, escape, and solitude?
I don’t have answers. I have a collection of footsteps that carry me from one place to another, memories I gather like pennies, each stamped with a different year. Last night, my child stumbled from his bed and into mine, awakened by a crash outside his window. “Maybe the moon fell,” he said. I told him this was impossible but doubted this truth even as I said it. Is anything impossible? If something can rise, can’t it also fall? And where was the moon anyways, he wanted to know, if not in the sky?
There is a bridge in this city that will peel the top of a truck clean off. A sensor has been installed. There are flashing lights, height guidelines printed on a signs that start several hundred feet back, but still, every year, the overpass opens trucks like cans of sardines, the drivers swearing and crying and hoping they don’t lose their jobs. I have seen it happen myself from the roof of the coffee shop where I used to work. We grinned the way only twenty-somethings can grin, cigarettes hanging out of our mouths. But even then, I wondered: could it be that easy to peel back the layers of yourself, everything that makes you, you escaping through a hatch in your head that was opened so abruptly, you only notice the warning signs when it’s too late?
The girl who disappeared was found. Then she was lost and found again, this time in an alleyway behind an Apple store. Now, she is lost but not found. The girl who forgets herself is missing. She’s slipped out of one self into another, shedding the old life like a skin. Or, she has gone the way we all go, giving in to time, the final fuck you. There are boards where people discuss her disappearance and speculate on her amnesia. There are articles with her name in the title describing the psychological history of the fugue state. I don’t wonder what happened to her so much as I wonder what it feels like to disappear, to dissolve into a city that knows you, to become fabric but not garment, to be visible, but not seen.
It is the season now when children leave with their coats on and come home with no coats at all, having shed them on the playground under the almost-spring sun. I ready myself to dig through the musty pile of fleece and wool in search of my child’s jacket, piles of scarves smelling like peanut-butter-and-jelly gone bad, lice lurking inside every toboggan cap. But when I enter the hallway where the lost-and-found lives, I discover, instead, that the children’s clothes have been washed and hung to dry on child-sized hangers from a rack outside the lunchroom. The little sweaters and coats are so innocent on their hangers, so sorry to be have been lost and so ready to be found, that I am ashamed of my dread. For a minute, it seems like I’ve been standing in this spot forever, just waiting for each tiny coat to be reclaimed. But then my child is charging past me into the next moment. He has found his coat. He slings it over his shoulder and we walk home in the winter sunshine.