Written by Emily Kiernan
The first one found me a month after I got out of the hospital. I was walking back from the gas station down the street from my house when I heard someone coming up behind me, running in thin-soled shoes that slapped hard against the concrete. It was almost dark and no one else was around. It had been a hot day, and the three blocks I’d walked to the gas station tired me so I could feel the sweat pooling in the creases of my arms. I couldn’t run. A thin feeling worked its way through my exhaustion—fear, I realized slowly—but when I stopped and faced him he was bent over, hands on his knees, breathing in gulps of air, thin and elegant and weak. His clothes didn’t fit him right, all too long and too roomy, like they belonged to an overweight and awkward teenage girl. His hair fell in front of his eyes. He said my name and stood beside me, panting.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what happened, but I’m sorry.”
He looked young—a sweet neurotic’s face. Much too young, really; I don’t know what I could have been thinking. He was excited; his hands shook. I wanted to ask him what I had done to him, but I had not yet learned the kinds of questions I am allowed, the sort of intrusions that are forgiven me, so I didn’t say anything. I don’t speak well anymore: between my thoughts and my words there is a dangerous gulf where my language becomes indirect and aphasic. When I need to say something well, I usually write it down, but I didn’t have a pen the evening my first abandoned lover caught up to me.
“I’m sure you had your reasons,” he said to my silence, “but this has been really difficult for me.” He couldn’t go on then. He kept glancing away, and I realized that he was about to cry. I noticed he was shorter than me; I usually only date tall men. He reached out to touch my arm, but I pulled away because I hate being touched by strangers. His look was so shocked and empty that I knew I could get away. I turned and went and didn’t dare turn my head to see him watching me.
That was cruelty, I know, but I can’t express how used up I was then—how tired. I’ve tried to do better. I’ve had plenty of opportunities. What I would tell him, if I saw him today, is that I was born at the age of thirty-two with a Ph.D. in comparative religion. It happened in May, almost five years ago now, when a small blood clot that had been forming in the muscle of my calf unhooked itself from the wall of its blood vessel and went traveling. There’s no way to know where all it went—it’s long gone now—but it was probably floating around for some time, looping up and down the veins of my legs, floating through my arms and in and out of my fingers, casting its brown, ugly shadow against the back wall of my eyes. Most clots don’t go far; like unambitious children they mature close to home. I was an unusual case, and I take some pride in this. My clot, like myself, had ambitions; somewhere along the line it slipped past the borders and the barriers and made for the holy lands of heart and brain. I imagine it passed through my heart more than once, though I never noticed its presence there, or if I did, I never complained of it to anyone. The snag-up came in my left frontal lobe: I don’t know if it was the first time the clot had made it so far north, or if it was a return visit, but this time something caught. I like to think it was my expensive education that was the problem—what had once been wide, empty boulevards of thought had become urbanized ghettos of idea. I’d developed my mind so finely that the steel wires of nerve and tissue which held me together had grown tangled, and the synapses had grown close and leered at one another across a living stream of streets and alleys, my blood—a barking, honking, ungentrified mess.
Apparently, I had a weak vessel wall near the spot where the clot lodged itself, and the backup of blood caused the vessel to burst and hemorrhage. “That wall was going to give sometime, Maggie,” my doctors have told me on many occasions. “You’re lucky this happened when you were young and healthy. You’re lucky for that clot.” They believe in a strange variety of luck known only to neurologists, but after a fashion they are right. If we make exception for the astoundingly bad luck of having a major stroke at thirty two, if we omit the partial destruction of an excellent mind that held significant sentimental and vocational value, if we take all that as a starting point, then I have had rather remarkable luck. I am, after all, basically sound.
My brain, after the stroke, contained one broken spot, behind the clot, and one starved spot, ahead of it. This is a fitting description of the kind of damage I have suffered: I cannot feel my right arm—that’s a broken spot—and the vision in my right eye is badly and strangely distorted—that’s a starved spot. I have a lisp now—starved spot—and I cannot memorize written instructions, broken spot. Basically, though, I walk and talk, and the ways in which I am strange or uncomprehending are not immediately and publically noticeable. I have found enough people willing to understand and forgive my difficulties to feel understood, cared for, and happy. I got married two years ago, and was relieved to find that love is much how I remembered it.
In my memory, too, there are these broken and hungry places. Many memories are, as far as I can tell, unaffected. Others I remember clearly enough, but in a way I can no longer express, except to say it is through a kind of synethesia. There are whole years that I can hum, but not describe. The two years right before the stroke though, that must have been right where the dam broke: that’s all gone. I remember (perfectly, despite the champagne) the night of my best friend Jessie’s 30th birthday party. I hosted, which means I mixed the drinks, and we made a fire on the Delaware beach where we’d been vacationing together since sophomore year of college. When the rest of us went swimming, my boyfriend Chris stole all the fireworks we’d bought to take home with us to Pennsylvania and threw them on the fire. He hid in the bushes and watched us come screaming out of the water, mostly drunk as hell and thinking it was the end of the world.
I woke up in the hospital and the doctors stood over me saying, “Maggie, do you understand what I’m saying?” and when I finally did they told me that a blood clot from my leg had lodged in my frontal lobe and caused a weak vessel to burst and hemorrhage and that I’d collapsed while walking my dog and had almost died and the dog had run into traffic and had died and that Chris had been dead for almost a year from a motorcycle accident. I cried most for myself and second most for my dog, because I’d had him for eight years and only remembered dating Chris for two months though I know now that we were together fourteen, and lived together for his last six. But it wasn’t quite like that either—it wasn’t like I went to sleep on the beach and woke up in the hospital thinking “where’d everybody go?” Really, I couldn’t think well in the hospital at all.
Those two years were, I am sure, the two years to miss. The friends who knew me with Chris can’t understand this. They get upset, try to tell me how happy I was, how good he was, and they hate that he left no hole in me that calamity couldn’t fill. What they can’t see is that the love and loss conundrum is one I cannot contemplate unless I am able to compare life with to life without. As I see it, I’ve been saved. I don’t know much about Chris, but I know enough about loss not to wish for it. Perhaps this is callousness—I have been callused—but I’m told that I cared for Chris deeply when he was alive, and that I took his death hard, as hard as anyone could need to prove my love. Harder than that. Now that Providence or Biology has stepped in to clean away all my love and suffering, I don’t think any more tributes can be asked of me.
Two years after the stroke I met the man I would marry, and even then there was no pang, no jealous ghost rising up from my battered psyche. I met Richard in church, where we were both imposters. He sat stationed in the front pew beside his elderly mother, every Sunday until her death, and still there after, he says, for me, as I wept and prayed over the part of myself that had gone numb, excoriating the place where my faith had been, hoping to shock it awake. He let me go on thinking he was a true believer, as long as that was attractive to me, but in time we were revealed to one another. We spoke our vows in my back yard, to a justice of the peace and a few witnesses who I thought would be able to watch the ceremony without a twinge of regret— to share fully in my forgetful and stainless joy.
My husband met me twice before I met him—we shared some chatter over fellowship cookies and tea, discussed the sermon, and noted the warmer weather. He says he didn’t really notice me then. He says I became much more beautiful, after. Once I was alone and once, he tells me, I was with a man I cannot now identify.
“Was it Chris?” I say. I’ve shown him pictures, though they upset me—the inscrutable look on my own face as I pose beside him. On the back of one Chris wrote “Magdalena and me at the Christmas party.” My full name is Margaret, so this bothers me too.
“No,” Richard says, “this was later. This was an older man. He didn’t act like your boyfriend.”
I let it go; it isn’t the only mystery.
My friends don’t like to tell me much about that final year before the stroke, the year of my mourning. They get embarrassed and quiet. They have reasons, I suppose—a multitude. They do not want to tell me something I will have to tell Richard; they know my penchant for confession. Other losses in my life have been followed by proportionate periods of promiscuity, drinking, and other self-induced numbnesses, so I can only assume that a particularly large loss would end in a particularly irresponsible spree. My education gave me a wide sampling of religious responses to suffering, and I knew mine worked just as well.
With my friends unwilling to talk, the best indication of my state of mind before the stroke comes from the people who stop me in the street, come up to me in bars, or flag me down while I’m driving, and ask me where I disappeared to. They are always men, and they always come at me with a look of anticipation, like something is really about to get explained. Clearly, they are the people I should have called back. I have been surprised by their variety, and by their numbers. When these encounters became regular, I started to experiment. I had a system for a while: I’d tell the blondes the truth and lie to the brunettes. I tried a lot of different stories—I’d been called to the side of my dying mother in Poland, I’d been arrested for tax-evasion, I’d fallen in love with someone else, I’d tried to kill myself. The brunettes often asked me out again, but the blondes never did. Now I just lay my ring-hand on the table, and the blondes and brunettes nod alike, as if this explained everything. They have never approached me when I am with my husband; I hope that they will not.
I haven’t met any forgotten lovers for a year or two now. I don’t know if I’ve gotten to the end of them, or if they’ve just stopped approaching me. I’m pregnant; that might be scaring them off. This wasn’t something I’d planned, but it’s alright. I had to stop taking birth control pills after the stroke; the doctors said they could have caused the clot. I’d always been suspicious of them—intuition, I suppose. I’ve never been afraid of drugs, but something about the pill always made me nervous, and I never liked to be on it unless I was dating someone seriously and didn’t want to use condoms anymore. I was surprised to learn I was on it when I had the stroke. Neither I nor any of my friends know who it might have been for. I suppose it’s better that I don’t meet him now, with the ring and the baby, but I can’t help but wonder. I suppose I could have met him already, but I don’t think so; I like to believe he would distinguish himself somehow. I’ve made mistakes in life, but I’ve always fallen in love with good men.
If I meet him, I’d like it to be like this. I would like it to be seven months from today. I would like the baby to be with me, but too young to hold onto the memory when it’s over. I’d like to look pretty. I don’t have any specific idea of where we’ll be, though it should be somewhere where we won’t have to always look into each other’s faces. When I imagine the scene to myself, I imagine us in a car. It would be nice to have something to keep my hands busy, a destination to force our separation, stick shifts and seatbelts in the way, easy to blame for the awkwardness of the inevitable hug.
I haven’t any idea what he’d look like, though I flatter myself that he’d be attractive, with the sort of stern, sensitive face I’ve always liked. I don’t care what we’ll say, except that I will try to tell the truth, and he will not be angry. I do not know him well enough to also hope he won’t be sad. I’d like it if he seemed familiar, and not because my sunken brain was spitting up some sodden reminiscences, but because he reminded me of someone dear and concrete—my father, or my brother, or my best friend from highschool. I would like to look at him and know that it was I who loved him, and that I do not now.
I’ll come home at night and Richard will be sleeping. When I’ve put our child to bed, I will go to him and lie next to him and tell him that I have loved and been loved, and that all love is only loyalty except for mine, which is forgetting, and which is perfect, and which is whole. For him I have been made innocent and new; I would have chosen another, I might have chosen a hundred others, but I have been washed clean.
Emily Kiernan recently completed my MFA in creative writing at CalArts and has interned with the literary journal Black Clock and the small press Les Figues. Her work has been featured in Pank, The Collagist, We Still Like, Amor Fati, The Writing Disorder, and other journals. Emily was recently named a finalist for the Orlando Prize in short fiction.