Patrick J. Tumblety

I Am Now As I Have Ever Been

I’m reading a book that I’ve read before. Though the pages have yellowed, the touch of the paper feels the same as it did when mom handed it to me. The words are familiar but they’re not, like remembering the meaning of a song even though the lyrics escape me. It’s my favorite novel: The Future of Dinosaurs. I bring the book up to my face and breathe it in. It still has the smell of a new book. It should have the smell of age and mildew of decades being in this dank basement. The smell makes me involuntarily smile as it takes me back to the moment in my childhood when I finished reading the last page. I pull the book away from my face and the yellow pages are gone. A ray of sunshine falls across the text and heats my hands. I look up and see a window to the back yard of my old house. I’m no longer in my basement. How did I get here? I don’t want to be here. A woman’s scream filters through the screened windows from the outside. I close my eyes and wish to be somewhere else.

In my hands the book has been replaced by what feels like polished wood. My fingertips slide across the object, but I don’t know what it is. I open my eyes and the sight forces them closed. The smell of lilacs fills my nose and falls down into my lungs. I know where I am and I know she’s in there. My heart is beating in my chest and I feel as though I’m going to pass out. I don’t know how I got here, I just want out, now. Now. I wrap my arms around myself and try to block out the world. I can feel the crowd behind me staring at the back of my head as though they are really there. Am I here? I squeeze my eyes more and concentrate on the darkness.

My body has changed shape. I can’t seem to open my eyes, but I can feel that I’m smaller. I lift my hand and it moves slowly, like I’m floating in water, and it makes contact with a soft wall. I press against it and I’m now horrified. I’m inside my mother’s womb.

My father called it a disorder. I have an uncanny sense-memory. I remember everything so vividly that my senses are feeling past events as though they were really happening again. Each moment is a bombardment of sensations instead of a chronology of events; the memory of my first kiss tingles my lips as though it were my first one; the summer wind blows across my skin as I step off the bus to summer-camp; the cold seeps through my nose as I build a snowman with my Grandfather. I can remember every laugh and every cry.

These feelings are so strong right now that I wonder if maybe I am no longer just remembering. I’m actually here? A muffled voice echoes from outside of my small tomb. It’s mom’s voice. I can hear her faraway lullabies, small and soft and caring. I’m cut off from the world, still in darkness. I’m just swimming in liquid. I haven’t been born yet.

My body swims down the liquid and the bottom of my feet scrape across concrete. Above me, mom is still singing but I feel different now. My body is fuller, stronger. I open my eyes and push my feet against the concrete and it hurls me up through the water. I break the surface and feel the heat of the sun beat down on me. I fall back into the water and tread it. My mother is there and it reminds me that at this point in time I’m fifteen and my life is half over. She’s cutting her lilacs with her knitted sun-hat and silver sheers. A wind blows toward me and I smell the lilacs she had been tending to since I was born, in the garden that the family will continue to tend to in her memory. I breathe in deep, taking in the smell of one of my few good memories. I exhale and I’m kissing Amy.

All of the air in my lungs evacuates because she is squeezing me incredibly tightly. Our lips touch and I freeze. I hear the school bus approach and the other middle school children ascend the stairs. A smile spreads across my face, even though I know this is a bittersweet memory – The me that was then was too scared and happy to have a rational thought. He feels dizzy and wants to hide as though he isn’t worthy of her kiss. He will still feel that way making love to her a decade later, on their honeymoon. He closes his eyes and absorbs the moment like the body absorbs water and stores it. He will remember that kiss so vividly that years later, when he kisses her goodbye, he feels like it’s still their first kiss. She will leave him with nothing but a broken heart, and yet he will still remember as though it were that day at the bus stop, and the shattered pieces of his heart will shatter again. –  I feel like dying. In the past I told her “Have a good day,” and climbed the stairs of the bus. Now, I can feel the fabric of her shirt and her body under the weight of my arms. This isn’t just a memory anymore because I feel in control of my arms. “Why am I here?” I say to her. Her eyes tell me that she doesn’t understand my reaction, “What is that suppose to mean?” She says, hurt. That isn’t what we said before. This is not how it happened. This is happening now… and somehow I’m remembering that it also happened then.

“Why am I here?” The words leave my mouth again and my father is sitting across from me. The white lights that surround us sting my eyes. I know when and where this is. The doctor will come out into the hallway, interrupting my father’s shaky answer. The doctor will tell us that my mother is dead. I don’t want to relive this moment. I stand involuntarily because it’s what I remember doing before, but the feeling has changed. I feel more awake now. I am more aware of my surroundings, like I just entered a more-vivid dream than the ones where I am floating. I look at my father and he looks at me. “I love you,” is what I said to him after the doctor speaks. Now that I am more awake and in control, all I say is, “Dinosaurs.”

The book is yellow in my hands. This is the present time, or at least, this is the moment that I perceive as the present. I can’t trust time anymore because I’m beginning to exist in every time. Like this book; People re-read stories so they can recall the first time they had read through the pages; the scent of the book, the place where they finished it, how the black and white text added color to their world. I never needed to reread it. I am always reading this book. I can always hold that memory with me as strong as when I first felt it. The boxes stacked high and cluttered around me are from those different times. One box is marked children’s books, another is marked for college papers. My life is measured in stacks of small cubes. These artifacts are the only evidence of my linear existence. These were packed when Amy died. A voice calls my name from up upstairs. Impossibly, it’s Amy’s voice.

I turn around and she’s standing in front of me. She’s paler then she was in High School. Her eyes look heavy with sleeplessness. She’s waiting for me to say goodbye to Dad and take her home. Instead of escorting her out of the old age home where I put my father, I turn around to him. Dad is hunched over and sitting in a wheelchair. He will pass away the next day. A year later Amy will be killed, which will lead me to now, looking through my basement at all the memories of my life before I kill myself. I lean down to look my father in the eyes. I ask him a question; “When the doctor came to tell us mom died, what did I say to you?” His eyes search for an answer. I ask again and it pains me to have to force his mind to remember. I envy his new ailment that causes him to forget. If he doesn’t remember, he doesn’t have to feel what it was like to lose the woman he loves, over and over again. Dad escaped his curse. I can’t wait that long to develop Alzheimer’s. The pain of memory needs to end now. Hopefully, with my father’s answer I can stop the pain. Come on, Dad, what did I say to you? Please remember. He looks back into my eyes and there is a light of recognition in them. He says, quizzically, “Dinosaurs?”

I feel the soft pages of the book slide across my thumb. The sound of the paper shuffling soothes me still. The pages are yellowed, but only slightly, from sitting on a shelf for so long. I lift the book up to my nose and take it in. I have shuffled my life back several chapters. If I can, I will change the way this story has been written. I drop the book down and run out of the back door. Amy is standing there, again, lifting the garbage pale that I was supposed to put out on the curb for her that day. I run toward her and push her to the other side of the street. My world becomes black but I don’t feel like I’ve gone to another time. I open my eyes to bright but blurry yellow sun and I hear Amy screaming. The car must have hit me because my body is numb and blood is now filling up my right eye and I can’t move to rub it away. Silhouettes come into view and block the hazy sun above me on this beautiful day. My wife’s hands brush through my hair and the water from her eyes fall down onto my face. She pleads with God to keep me alive and asks me to stay with her. When this first happened I had kissed my wife’s lips only seconds before she passed away. Now she kisses mine. Her hair smells like lilacs. The smell carries into the darkness that has replaced the sun.

I can smell and feel the petals of lilacs on my face that have been laid around me, like my family did when they buried Mom and Amy. If I were able to reach out my hand I’m certain that I would feel polished wood. This is not a memory I have had before. This is new and happening now. Through the darkness I hear Amy’s voice as she cries. I feel myself slipping into nothingness and I’m afraid to die. I’ve never felt that way before this moment. I’m really scared. I concentrate all my attention on my Amy’s voice and it calms the panic and fear to know that she is alive. Though her voice is muffled and distant, I know that there, beyond this tomb, she’s alive. I feel calmer now, knowing that my last thought is of her life and not her death. I never thought that would ever happen. I feel at peace now, in the dark.

I’m swimming in darkness, cut off from the world. Somewhere in the distance my mother is singing. I’m about to be born.

“I Am Now as I Have Ever Been” is an experiment in time, not only in the subject of the story, but also in the telling of it. Each block of narrative is secluded inside its own space, the way memories can be distinguished in the mind.

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