Porous Memory

The shape and taste on my lips, a poem by Sally Wiener GrottaI sit at a blank screen, knowing it’s time to write. That’s what Daniel would tell me to do with the jumble of emotion, pain, emptiness that has consumed me.

Some years ago, I saw a man attack another with a broken bottle. We were in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, a normally high decibel neighborhood, with sidewalk traffic as dense as the streets. Families with scampering children and couples arguing or holding hands and business folk, tourists, conventioneers, and yes, the always present hungry homeless folded in on themselves. Crowds of people walking too fast, or strolling and reading window menus, or juggling large grocery packages festooned with pictographic Chinese words. And somewhere behind the neon signs and fatty aromas, a verve of hidden life, mysterious, almost alien, yet so very familiar.

However, that wasn’t the Chinatown we saw that night. The hour was so late that the tiny corner restaurant we chose was an island of unresolved energies on a nearly darkened street. (Or at least as dark as any street in Chinatown gets.) I saw no pedestrians through the large plate glass windows during our entire meal. Just the incessant rain and the puddling reflections of a sleeping city. While we waited for our check, Daniel went into the men’s room. That’s when it happened. A sudden, vicious eruption of fists and blood, of glass gouging and slashing, unintelligible screams and flung furniture.

It was over almost as quickly as it had started. Through it all, I sat at our table, several feet away from the action, the unwilling audience with a front seat view of something out of a gangster movie. By the time Daniel came back to our table, the attacker had been thrown (literally) out onto the sidewalk. The front of the room was a shambles, but all was calm. You could almost believe that none of it had happened if the victim hadn’t been huddled in a corner, the towel that was pressed against his head quickly turning bright red.

On our way home, I asked Daniel what I was to do with the helplessness, terror and confusion, the acidic churning, a stranglehold that I couldn’t shake off. “You’ll write,” he said.

Daniel was correct, of course. I stayed up all night, composing the first draft of what eventually became my short story The Broken Bottle, which was published years later in The North Atlantic Review (and which is available as a short story ebook). The Broken Bottle isn’t the story of what happened that night, but a fictional tale I created, inspired by the strange, terrifying experience.

So, I hear Daniel now, saying, “You’ll write.” He would tell me to take the horror of his death, the black hole that has formed inside me, to let it germinate and put on paper (or screen) whatever it generates within me. After all, that’s what I do. I write. I shape and sculpt words to give voice to my uncertainties and questions, to try to make sense of our senseless world.

But without you, Daniel, my muse and instigator, my sounding board and editor, my best friend and partner?

Daniel was so integral to my creative process that it’s difficult for me to imagine doing anything of the kind without him, without our daily brainstorming and banter, the loving encouragement and unstinting critiques, the syntheses of new ideas that made the two of us something much greater than the sum of two individuals.

Even writing a minor piece like this, gives me pause, because I need his input, his responses to build on, to spur me to reach deeper within, to demand more of myself, draft after draft. Looking at what I’ve typed so far, I know it isn’t quite right, that it’s only a beginning, a germ of an idea. If Daniel read what I’ve written above, he’d see the words “some years ago” and “the hour was so late,” and he’d tell me to be specific, give the reader anchors in time and place. But Daniel was the quantifier, not me. I have no idea when the Chinatown incident occurred. Perhaps, it was around the year 2000, but I’m just guessing. And the time of day? Well, I feel like it was midnight, because of the bleakness, the sense of isolation, however I really don’t know. Only Daniel would remember those kinds of details. Besides, the facts of the incident are now drowned out by the story I wove around them.

For me, memory is a porous, amorphous thing. I am often perplexed by the ability of some authors to write memoirs, to state definitively this happened, then that, and this person said this or that. How is it possible that they can be so sure that is exactly the way it happened, precisely what each person said, how they reacted? I don’t have the confidence, the certainty they claim to have, to say that my memories are factually accurate.

Shortly before he died, I interviewed George Plimpton, the editor of The Paris Review who was famous for his participatory journalism. I had just read his book Paper Lion about when he joined the Detroit Lion’s preseason, training with them as a backup quarterback, though he was a complete amateur at the game. (What we journalists will do to get a great story!) In the book, he recounts entire on-field conversations with the coach and others. But we’re talking about scrimmage pep talks, back and forth teasing among fellow players, and sideline instructions just before being sent out to play. He couldn’t possible have had the wherewithal right then and there to take notes or make a recording of what was being said. I asked him how he was able to remember those conversations. Plimpton’s response was that after a training session he would go directly to his room and write everything down. But some of the dialog in the book were long paragraphs of quotes. Wouldn’t he have been waylaid between the field and his room, by the everyday necessities and social niceties of the post-game locker room, stopping to shower and dress and participate in the usual antics and chatter? How could he possibly hold those on-field dialogues in his mind, keeping them whole and accurate through all that?

I don’t believe Plimpton wrote verbatim what was said. Yet he captured the truth, at least as he had heard it and experienced it. And that made for great storytelling which the others on the field would recognize as something they too experienced.

I was trained as a journalist by a very strict taskmaster — Daniel — who had years of war correspondence and investigative journalism under his belt before we met. He (and I) would no more invent or paraphrase a quote than falsify any of the other facts of an article. In the glory days of glossy magazines, when we had copy editors and fact checkers, we had to show at least two sources for any fact before an editor (or at least a good editor) would allow it to be kept in the final published piece. For some of Daniel’s more serious, hard-hitting articles, he often also had teams of attorneys double-checking what he wrote.

A fact, in those terms, is a verifiable, often quantifiable statement of what is or was. But facts don’t necessarily encompass the truth. That’s one of the reasons I have been focusing on writing fiction in recent years. I was tired of writing other people’s facts, and wanted/needed to try to explore my own truths, or more specifically, my questioning of perceived truths.

The problem is that I now ache to write about Daniel, about the man who was/is the other half of me, my heart and reason. I don’t want to fictionalize Daniel. He’s already slipping away from me. I can barely hear his voice. I can’t smell him on my clothes or feel his flesh against mine. I need to keep him as real and vital as he ever was, to write the truths anchored in facts.

How do I write my memories of my life with Daniel when I can’t even remember how many times he was in the hospital this past year? I have no notes or recordings with verbatim quotes or detailed descriptions of rooms, facial expressions, times of day, and so forth. In other words, I don’t have the facts to support the wondrously non-fiction life we led.

Yet, I must write. I will write. And if I fail to keep my facts perfectly accurate, I will strive for the underlying truth that rests within the story. Daniel, you deserve no less than my best. I just wish you were here to help pull that best out of me.

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