The Beginning, Examined
About memory, science will call a rational person to be mistrustful. To be wary of the seduction of it, to note the certain difference between an experience and the story of that experience stored in one’s mind.
Indeed, our memories tell us stories. Convincing ones, so compelling in their narratives one fails to recognize the foreign, even perverse, idea that nearly the entirety of one’s life is so unremarkable, so utterly plain, one casts it aside, can’t use it, has to make up stories to fill in the blanks.
Changes, significant moments, endings. These are the only things we get to keep and even these, precarious.
The psychological present lasts three seconds. A life lived in three second increments, the rest blurry, unreliable, made up.
Three seconds. The simple, the every day, are gone in a flash, lost forever, and yet these are the moments that comprise our lives. These are the moments strung together into the novel, the one we’ve all written, so that when they ask us – and they will ask us – we have something coherent to say. This is true even during, perhaps especially during, a trauma. It’s why people can’t remember car accidents. The car steady through the intersection, the next moment crunched into a pretzel with no witnesses to what occurred in between.
And so if I want to tell you a story, I ask myself, am I speaking about something that’s true? And I suppose I am speaking here about the fiction my mind takes as truth.
I look for clues, facts. The evidence unbetrayed by a biased mind. What was it like in the beginning? Those first two months.
I lived with a woman called Eunice.
Eunice was a fertile woman who had born five children, three of whom were still living, the others gone for reasons that were difficult to tease out. She had given these five children to a husband involved in politics in South Africa, for that was where she originated, and, for reasons equally vague but to do with those politics, they’d fled from there a handful of decades past and built a small home on a hill in eastern Botswana. At the foot of that hill, a school was eventually built, a college where the country teaches its teachers, and to their small home on their quarter acre plot they added structures over the years. After her husband died those structures became, according to Eunice, the reasons she had something to eat. She rented them to young girls, 18, 19, all of whom trotted down the hill in the mornings to attend the teacher’s college. She was the kind of woman who, the more you got to know her, the younger she became, was so hard-wired by now for the life she’d been born into that she was transcendent, seemed not to know that 78 was too old to unload a pick-up bed full of firewood and so she would, carrying one log at a time with the arm not assigned to her cain, hobble back and forth between the truck and the storage shed.
Serowe, where she and her husband had spotted their hill, was a village, albeit a big one, and she warned of “town life,” where, it was inferred, a girl could get herself into trouble. Trouble was warded off here by a curfew of sunset, and so she and I and the remaining ghostly son with whom I had a mutual avoidance contract, had our evenings together. The renters kept firmly to themselves, the only hints of their existence a single lit bulb in a window, the odd swoosh of old water tossed into bushes.
She took her meals during the day, I’d find evidence of them all over the house. Plates capped by other plates cradling leftover beans and wheat, rarely meat, for it was expensive and Eunice had little in the way of money. What little she did have seemed to be kept, at all times, either under the cushion of a chair in the living room or in her bra.
Eunice was satisfied with the foods to which she had become accustomed. Once, when her granddaughter came to visit, we took her in the antique pick-up to the market in the morning and she loaded a garbage bag full with greens, spending the rest of the day sprawled with her short legs stuck straight out in a V in front of her on a straw mat in the sun. She picked through them, chopping off the roots and, by way of washing, throwing the remnants into a bucket of water. The next day she cut the whole of it up into tiny pieces, which she boiled in salt, then laid inside of shallow baskets to dry in the sun. She sat posted in a chair, guarding the goods from chickens, and watched as a heavy wind blew by, which took half of the vegetables with it and, in her old croak of a voice, she said, defeated, “my morogo…” and this is still how I hear the Setswana word for vegetables in my head. In that ancient wheeze.
We were able to salvage most of it, which she kept stored in glass jars in a closet next to a foot-crank sewing machine and and she would reconstitute it with water and salt and packets of MSG, and it was this that I would find on her squirreled-away plates, with the beans and the wheat. I would offer her tea in the evenings, making it for myself more to pass the time than for an affinity for bush tea, and she would take a cup from me and pour into it four or five spoonfulls of sugar and it was three weeks before she looked down one night when I got up from my chair and said “tea?” and let a smile spread over her face and, still looking down, confessed that she does not like tea.
These evenings and nights I would pull on the flimsy handle that opened her front door, the same one that came clear off into my hand six weeks in, and find her either spread on her regular perch – a short couch formed to her round shape and laden with old woman paraphernalia – a crochet needle stuck into an amorphous square of yarn, reading glasses, folded fabrics for keeping her warm – or sitting on the floor with her feet stuck out in front of her like a child. Sometimes she was awake, but more often she was in the midst of one of her daily naps, either on her couch or on the floor, the small television encased in wood paneling with a turn dial, almost always blaring, Eunice undisturbed, mostly deaf.
I remember wanting to stare at her. Sometimes the scarf or bandana or beanie that covered her head at all other moments would have been dislodged by sleep and her features would seem entirely changed under her bald head. Her face pudgy but misleading, for she was vulnerable and old if you took her as a whole and even more so with her exposed scalp, but if you looked only at her face, its lack of lines, its enduring creaminess failed to suggest her 78 years. I would think to myself that I loved her in a way, loved her because each morning she got up before I did and when I shuffled into her kitchen from across the quarter acre at 6am, there was water boiling for me there, for the bucket bath I would take. Loved her because she was not inclined toward the farce of affections that seemed to have overtaken so many of the other “mothers.” When we met she did not squeal and lift me from the ground and throw the family cloth around my shoulders, not merely because her right leg would have prevented such theatrics, but because, I would come to know, Eunice would have thought it undignified and, instead, she shook my hand lightly and guided me toward her truck without saying much, content to let a relationship between us grow or not, in time.
That night, and in truth, many of the days that followed are lost to me now. As in a car crash. I recall our meeting, the gentle shake, and then I’m transported somewhere to a day weeks later, one of any anonymous, homogenous days, the endlessness of our training sessions, six days a week, eight, nine hours in an artificially lit room with 60 strangers, days draped in the pulsing tensions of ego, sexuality, insecurity, isolation and unease. I look for facts.
Mine was a separate structure on Eunice’s hill-top plot of land, a concrete house with a small porch attached and burglar bars sloppily welded to the front and only door. The whole of the house was a farce, a movie set. There were sinks and faucets out of which no water ran, a fridge that was not only not plugged in, the cord had been hacked into a splay of wire. The bathtub (a bathtub!) revealed itself not to be attached to, but merely shoved flush with the wall and the first time I stood in it splintery pieces cracked off into the water I’d poured, and so for those two months I bathed in a six inch tall round, red bucket.
I know I did not write these months. I did make some notes.
A close friend gave me a brown leather-bound notebook two nights before I left and branded into the front of that notebook are the words, “I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” These words are mostly faded now, but I can still read them and I open the book to the beginning.