There has been silence in the car for much of the hour-long drive. You have been mostly present but what is there to say. Honey, I'm sorry that I wrapped the car around a tree and for the last few weeks I've been a vegetable doesn't seem to cut it.
You're on a crowded street corner in Lagos, Nigeria waiting for a bus that is hours late. The humidity is thick, the air rank, sweat oozes from your every pore. Horns blare and twenty-year-old Peugeots belch smoke as they jockey for position in the snarled traffic. Your muscles ache and your eyes burn, you need sleep. The crowd is getting agitated, aggressive even, and you feel out of place. Who are you kidding, you are out of place - 5000 miles from home. You wonder why you left your wife and kids to come here. Teetering, almost unable to stand but with no room to fall, you are beckoned by your host. You enter the one room terminal and are shown a small room in the back. There is a cot, you are told to lie down. The mattress is stained and frayed but you relish the opportunity for rest. Once relaxed, you feel pressure in your bladder. You spot a small door and hope it's not a closet. It's possibly the filthiest toilet you’ve ever seen and there's something swimming in the toilet bowl. You release your urine which only serves to aggravate the creature. You attempt to flush - it's broken. Your intestines rumble and you pray that you won't have to sit down, not on that toilet. You lie on the cot staring at the broken ceiling fan, trying not to exhale since that generates heat. What if the bus never comes? Then -
You're twelve years old and on deck in a little league game. It is late in the game and your team is losing by one run. There are two guys on base and one out. You could be the hero or maybe not. You look at your cleats, still clean, and hope that the kid at bat, Leonard Schultz, a kid you've never liked, a kid who called you a pussy just last week, gets a hit so that the pressure will be off. He doesn't, strikes out on a called third strike. He glares at the ump and then at you. "Come on Jerk-off, do something for once." You trudge to the plate, shuffling your feet and watching the dust rise from the dry July earth. As you take your stance, you feel an itch in your groin, it's unbearable, you look at the ump and step out of the box. Major leaguers grab their crotch all the time, why can't you? But you know you can't, yet there's this itch, and maybe it's more, some strange feelings down there. "Let's go" says the ump and you wince, trying to will away ...
Suddenly you're back. A thirty-eight-year-old man sitting at his kitchen table with a half-eaten turkey sandwich on rye and glass of cranberry juice in front of him. It's quiet and you wonder where the kids are before remembering that it's a school day, but you're home, you don't go to work anymore, you can't even drive. You hear a voice. Grace, on the phone, talking loudly. You take a slow drink, listening.
We saw another one yesterday ... a neurologist, yes that's it, the third one. We had to drive to Ann Arbor, he was a specialist, a big shot. ...
You immediately pity your wife. She's talking to your parents, both of them. They always each get on a line, interrupting each other, neither of them hearing well. You know you should be the one having this conversation, but you can't. You take a bite and keep listening.
Never. Never, seen anything like it in person or in the literature. .... Literature, yes, you know scientific papers and journals. It must be neurological and it must be from the crash but he can't explain it. ... They ran all kinds of tests and scans but ... No, he's not any better. ... Not any worse either, it just continues. One minute he's here and then the next he's gone, somewhere in his past. ... I know he's always been a day dreamer but this is different. He's gone, truly gone to a past reality. ... Is he what? ... No, the scan showed, he's not asleep, it's not a sleep disorder. ... Next steps? We really don't ....
It's getting hard for you to follow the conversation. You're tired. Tired all the time. Exhausted more like it. The doctors have agreed, your brain is beyond its capacity, functioning like a car radio permanently on scan, hitting each station for only a few seconds. But maybe there's hope. Here you are in the true present, listening to your poor wife, talking. Maybe these stopovers are getting longer. You want to be happy about this thought but the sandwich is dry, very dry, and you need to lie down. Your head slumps to the table ...
It is eleventh grade English class and your teacher, Ms. Withers, scares you. She has bright red hair, pasty skin, a sharp aquiline nose, and a look which silences even Randy Graves, the Stanford bound football team captain. But it is not Ms. Withers' look which scares you, it's her voice. At once shrill and room filling. Standing erect in front of the class, commanding attention, she is reading Beowulf, a tale whose words confuse but whose brutality is clear. The veins pulse in her neck as she bellows: Grendel's mother, monstrous hell-bride, brooded on her wrongs. You shudder as if the monster were right in front of you. Even in the moment, you know that you will never forget Grendel's mother, she will be with you ...
Three in the morning and you're standing in front of the living room bay window rocking your four-month-old daughter who in her short existence has refused to acknowledge the circadian rhythms of her parents. You're anxious about having the mental capacity to run a meeting at work in five hours, but you know that, if anything, your wife is more exhausted than you, and you dare not wake her. You try sitting - at least that counts as rest, right - but your daughter starts to wail as soon as your rear hits the couch. Then, inexplicably your daughter begins to speak ...
My Dad crashed his car into a tree last week. .. Yeah, a tree. ... I don't know, the weather was bad and he wasn't paying attention I guess, but listen, that's not the important part, listen, his brain has gone crazy. At any moment he goes back into his past and it's like he's living it for the first time ... I'm serious. It's like he gets to relive parts of his life. ... That's it. It's true, I wanna make a movie about it, it would be awesome ...
It's Claire, your twelve-year-old wannabe director daughter, talking to a friend on the phone. She loves your condition, always waiting patiently for you to come back so she can ask you where you've been and write it down in her teal notebook where she keeps all her movie ideas. Your ten-year-old son, Walter, on the other hand, is not so intrigued. A few days ago, the two of you went out to throw a football around. It was going well until the station changed and his perfectly thrown spiral hit you squarely in the nose. Grace rushed out and stopped the game even though the stinging pain brought you back. She said you'd had enough head trauma. You followed her dutifully back into the house like a dog who's been scolded for digging up the backyard. You hope that was a memory you won't have to relive. You have to admit you're beginning to get down, not that you were ever very good at it, but now you can't even try to throw a ball around with your kid. Will this ever -
You've circled the building twice and found only locked doors. You started overheating the moment you left your air-conditioned car and now your neck itches. You're convinced your tie is giving you a rash. You graduated college more than a month ago with a degree in accounting and a high GPA and the economy is good, but you still don't have a job. For six months now you've been in contact with this small rural Vermont school district about becoming their accountant. It's not the greatest job but it's ten minutes from Killington and skiing has become your passion. The responses have been slow but positive and today is finally the date for your formal interview. Why is the building locked? Finally, you spot a custodian leaving the dumpster area. Your shirt sticks to your back as you try to catch him before he enters some sort of basement stairwell. Breathless and in full sweat, you manage to ask him what's wrong. It turns out the building is closed for asbestos removal. What the -
You’re both silent, having arrived at that awkward point in a dinner date between ordering and the food arriving. With no menus to peruse, you wonder what you have to say to this woman and why you let yourself be talked into asking her out. Just starting with the physical, it's a mismatch. She's short with a taut athletic body, dark hair shaped into a bob, and smile bearing perfect teeth. You're tall, gangly, and prematurely balding with teeth that an orthodontist would love. You do have skiing in common but it's July. As an accountant, you hardly have a wealth of funny work stories to draw on so after your fourth sip of iced tea you ask her -
You hear your wife brushing her teeth as you undress for bed. Increasingly you are embarrassed about your condition and you wish you had used the bathroom so that you could just crawl into bed and feign sleep. The bathroom light goes off, and naked, you glance toward the door. The red teddy catches your eye immediately. Her body hasn't changed in the fifteen years you've been together and it never fails to turn you on. You feel a stirring in your groin and your face is hot as she approaches your side of the bed. I see you're ready. Here's something we haven't tried. Maybe this will be the cure. Just lie back. She starts kissing you, your lips, your neck, your chest, everything. You feel the soft warmth of her breasts through the flimsy lingerie as she slides down your body. You lie there intoxicated. How long has it been since? You feel like a teenager -
Your breath is short, very short, and your chest is tight. You might be having a major asthma attack but you are so stoned it's hard to assess. You know you have to leave the barn but where to? It's the middle of the night, your friends are passed out, you're much too high to drive, and even if you could, you couldn't go home at this hour. You told your parents you were spending the night at Greg's. But coming to this barn, why? Oww, fuck, fuck me. Looking for your jacket, you've slammed your foot into some piece of equipment. Dude, dude chill some semi-conscious stoner replies. Outside, the frigid air assaults your lungs. Your hands shake as you put the key in the door. Heat, heat. The car shakes violently as you turn the key without depressing the clutch pedal. Fifteen minutes later you are almost warm but now you worry about the battery. You will have to be in here at least four hours. You shut the car off and crawl into the cramped back seat. Soon you are freezing and your neck aches. Despite the parka, you wonder if it's possible to die of exposure out here. You are having trouble thinking straight. What was in those brownies? How are you going to make it out of here -
There has been silence in the car for much of the hour-long drive. You have been mostly present but what is there to say. Honey, I'm sorry that I wrapped the car around a tree and for the last few weeks I've been a vegetable doesn't seem to cut it. You are relieved when the exit for the university appears and more relieved for the presence of the overnight bag on the back seat. You will spend the next three days at the medical school hospital under the care of the specialist whose name you've forgotten in the haze of the omnipresent past.
Where were you?
Where did you go?
High school graduation, I was ... wait I should be asking you that question. I've been here what two full days now and I haven't seen you. All those tests, scans ... well?
I'm sorry, there have been some other issues I've had to attend to, but my staff is excellent, they've kept me informed. I did stop by yesterday but ...
Let's get on with it, I could leave at any time you know. What have you found?
Physically your brain is as textbook as could be. Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.
But how could that be? You're not saying I'm crazy or making this up, are you?
I'm not. I just don't have a neurological explanation, not yet anyway.
What's next? A shrink?
I wanted to talk to you about a psychiatric visit. But first I wanted to ask you a few questions about your memories, your trips.
Please Doctor, please don't ask me to recount them, it's exhausting enough having them.
No details. I'm just interested in the qualities of your trips. Are they spread throughout your life? Are they all real memories? Are they good memories?
They're spread out and they all really happened. And good? No, they're not all good, in fact most aren't. But they're vivid. They're interesting. I'm an accountant- it's what you think, I like it, but it's not the most interesting profession. I have a beautiful wife and two great kids, and we live in the suburbs. Saturday soccer games, PTA meetings, summers at the community pool, you get the picture. I haven't really traveled, well there was Club Med for our tenth, and that crazy trip to Africa but that's it. My life, it's dull, but good dull - I want it that way. I want it back …
It's a been ten days and three psychiatrist visits since your stay at the hospital. No change. That's not true. You're more exhausted, more disconnected. Your wife runs the household without complaint but the strain is palpable. Walter is sweet but treats you as if you were contagious; how can you blame him, half the time you're gone. Only your daughter is enthusiastic. Please Dad, tell me where you were. I need to tape you, it will be crucial in my screenplay, please. You try to oblige but it's tiring, so tiring. How did this all happen you wonder. You were just driving along and then ...
You've got it. A way out. A way to use your recurring memories to change the past, to fool your brain. As crazy as it seems, it could really work, you know it. Now you just have to wait. But how long? Yes, how long? Reality, if there is such thing at this point, comes raining down on you. It could be a lifetime waiting for -
Although the ambulance has long since gone and it's a December night, no one has left. You are all milling outside the dorm's semicircular driveway entrance, some dressed, others in various forms of nighttime attire. A few of the girls are still crying, and a girl you haven't seen before is squatting and rubbing John's shoulders as he sits on the curb, his head in his hands. It's the end of the first semester of freshman year and you and John have gotten close in these first months. You are three doors apart and lab mates in physics. Sure, you both gave his roommate a lot of shit, but the guy ran masking tape down the room's center and had posters of kittens on his side for God's sake. Attempted suicide? How could he? Poor John, he looks wrecked. And finals are just a week away. You want to get out of the cold but you can't leave your friend there even if you have no idea what to say to him. You shiver and -
Something you recognize as sleet has begun to fall through the evening gloom. You ease off the accelerator and switch on the wipers. There was an accident on your usual road home and you're on a less familiar alternate route. You feel the strain of the day and of the tax season in your shoulders. Ten more minutes and you'll be home. The precipitation intensifies and you squint, grabbing the wheel tighter. A familiar jingle fills the car. Your cell phone - a text message. You smile, it must be your daughter. She has been texting you constantly. Each time with another idea for a movie. The one you received before you left the office concerned a woman police officer who discovers that she can read suspects' minds but is afraid to tell anyone. You reflexively reach for the phone but your hand stops abruptly. You give the hand a glare as if it has betrayed you. You look up, tap the brakes, and ease into a left banking turn. As you move through the curve, your peripheral vision catches the outline of a strangely familiar tree by the roadside. A bit startled, you take a quick glance at it in the rearview mirror. The phone stays untouched and you continue home.
Thank you for meeting me.
I didn't want to go back to the hospital.
I understand. Can I buy you a beer?
Brown ale. Why were you so eager to meet me?
I've spent hours thinking about your case and I went over those scans again and again to make sure we hadn't missed anything. And now that you're -
Cured? Doctor, it's been six months, I think we can say it. Unless you think I made the whole thing up.
I don't. Please, it's Derek.
You sure? Sure you believe me?
I do. You told me you're an accountant, you like dull. You wouldn't have an imagination to come up with something like that.
That's a good one. But true. I'm back to dull and happy.
I'm happy to hear it. But, how ... ?
How did it stop?
I'm guessing you don't know.
Doctor, I mean, Derek, I do.
Let's have a drink first.
To your health.
Did you study much physics?
A few classes as prereqs for med school.
Einstein demonstrated that time works in both directions just like our conception of moving forward or backward in physical space.
But you have to achieve the speed of light for that to happen.
True, but maybe not in the mind. I used my memories to my advantage and got my brain to change the past. Go back in time in essence.
I'm confused. You mean back to the accident?
It's simple, one of my mind scans took me back to the accident scene. Once there, I changed the memory. Now my mind has eliminated the condition since the past has been changed.
Are you saying that in the present you went back to the past and used the past to change the present?
Something like that. I went back there and reprogrammed my brain. No more accident, no more memory shuffle.
I think I understand. That's fantastic, the research possibilities are astonishing. I don't suppose you'd be up for more tests, would you?
Okay. One more question. Are you back to your old self?
Yup. I just never drive past that tree.
Francois Bereaud is a husband, dad, full time math professor, mentor in the San Diego Congolese refugee community, mountain biker, and mediocre hockey player. His stories and essays have been published online and in print. His work has earned Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations. The Counter Pharma-Terrorist & The Rebound Queen is his published chapbook and the realization of a dream. You can find links to his writing at francoisbereaud.com. He tweets stuff @FBereaud.