This is a memory: a white-washed picture frame around a needlework bouquet of roses. It hangs on a wood-paneled wall in the only direct sunlight in the room, a thin sliver of bright coming down the stairs and slicing in half the wall, the roses, the pull-out couch’s thin, raw-springed mattress.
I am holding myself very still, on my back, thinking about needlework. I think about Midwestern farm-kitsch, about the musty smell of old cardboard rising off the boxes stacked here beside the couch in his grandmother’s basement. He moves over me, inside me, making wet sounds—this blanked out space of a person I’ve almost entirely erased.
I still have a few of my thousands of memories of him. His dirty dishes left on the coffee table, the way his jaw tightens when I ask him a question, the way he threatens to break up with me even though, he says, he doesn’t know where I’d go if I wasn’t staying here with him in his grandmother’s basement. I let him fuck me because he’s right. I don’t know where I’d go either.
I hold myself very still. He grunts and sighs. His movement moves my body and I think about doing laundry so there are clean rags, so that when my body recovers enough from this that I can stand, I can dust the picture frame, the needlework roses. This is what security looks like: the way he moves hurts my injuries but he never takes that long. The dust on the picture frame bothers me. I’m supposed to keep the basement clean—I clean because I don’t pay rent here—and I worry that in my fog of pain I’m not doing a good enough job.
Five years later, this is not yet a memory: I crouch down and pick up a three-legged sea star out of the wet rocks at the high tide line. Its pale orange exoskeleton is rough against the pads of my fingers, the sand wet with the kind of thick, grimy water you only get on the Gulf coast. The irregular, broken-off stubs of two of its legs show signs of re-growing, the budding of recovered flesh slowly reforming into something new. When so much is broken, the re-growth must form an entirely new creature, I think. I wonder what it remembers, if it can still feel the missing leg-tips like ghosts attached to it forever.
I feel it in that moment, not a ghost but whatever makes a ghost before it dies: the sea star as vast as the ocean beside me in its small perfect broken shape. For a long time I don’t feel anything else. I cradle the sea star in my scarred, crooked fingers and it makes me as vast as itself, as perfect.
Then I set it down again and keep walking, settling the memory of the sea star in the socket in my mind that used to hold needlework roses. The sea star pushes out the picture frame and unbalances the rest of the memory, dulls the bright stab of sunlight to something a little more bearable. That feeling of peace, that huge, cool depth, echoes through my ears like I’m underwater, like I can hear the crabs scuttling along the bottom of the Gulf. Even hours later, when I limp back to my car, I walk with a joyful swagger only half caused by the way my cane catches in the sand.
Padre Island Seashore is a good place to camp. There are plenty of people who stay out here, even in the winter—if you can call this winter, this balmy south Texas January. I’ve stayed worse places. Rest stops, gas stations and Walmart parking lots are full of people who want you to hurry along, who measure your stay in hours not days. Same with municipal parks. State parks are sometimes alright, but more often you have to pay steep fees to stay there, sometimes $25 a night.
High-density residential areas aren’t bad, but relative anonymity is balanced out by sidewalks and the high-strung apartment-bound dogs that people walk along them at six a.m. And even if the parking isn’t metered and you’re careful to park in different spots from night to night, eventually people corner you and ask what you’re doing there.
Rural neighborhoods are the worst. People spread out in houses on wide acres shouldn’t care, but they’ll call the cops on you if you park there for even a minute. Half the time I can play Nice White Lady and get the cops’ sympathy. But then there’s the other half.
No, national parks are the place to be. And Padre Island Seashore is a good one; pay twenty bucks for the annual pass and they’ll let you camp on the beach for free for two weeks. Then you leave for two days and come back for another two weeks on the same pass. And so on. In some national forests, you can camp without breaks, for free, but here not only are there toilets, there are free showers. Cold water, but clean is clean.
Today the cascading water reminds me of something: I was in east Texas, near Nacogdoches, in Angelina National Forest. This was maybe two years ago, and I was spending a couple of weeks in the woods. One night a thunderstorm rolled in fast, hot like a swollen belly, the sky crackling. Long red-brown pine needles caked the forest floor, inches deep and so dry. I had the seats down in the back of my car so I could sleep flat, and I swung my head around so I was looking up at the sky through the back window even though I was parked on a slant and the front end of the car was higher. I lay there, all the blood waving inside me like a jostled coffee cup, and watched the storm break the sky open, wondering if I was going to burn alive in the middle of falling water. Half wishing I would, just for the thrill of the fire.
After my shower, I re-park my car on the sand up away from the high tide line and then pull out my worn little notebook. “Lightning in Angelina” is written in the middle of the second-to-last page; it’s relatively recent. Many of my notes are like that, good memories. Even more of them, I no longer understand. I keep those on purpose, I re-read them. Not every day, just sometimes. Just when I start wondering if I could live differently.
“Endlessly talking, red and blue lights harsh on his face.”
“He held my hand while they picked the fragments of glass out of my thigh.”
“The bathroom with the cornflower tiles on the wall behind the toilet.”
“The IV with the kink in the line.”
I don’t know what they mean. I don’t want to.
I settle down in the passenger seat of my car, flip on the solar LED lamp attached to the dash as the sky darkens into night, and make myself a peanut butter sandwich with the fixings tucked into the crate in the footwell. Then I dust sand off the spine of my newest paperback from the fifty cent bin and get lost in the complicated betrayals that plague this band of Scottish highlanders.
The next morning I wake up as the sun rises. Already there are a scattering of other people awake and out on the beach, retirees mostly. They like Padre Island for the same reasons I do, even if for them ‘cheap’ means they park here in their fifty thousand dollar RV, not a 2008 Toyota Yaris with tinted windows so no one can see me sleeping in the back. One gray-haired man walks with his pant legs rolled up as a fluffy white dog gallops through the surf nearby. A woman sits in front of her RV a dozen meters down the beach in a folding chair, sweatshirt hood up to block the wind, drinking coffee.
I do wish I had hot water. I’ve thought about getting something, maybe a tiny kettle I can run off my car battery. But I’ve been wary about anything that drains my battery ever since—ever since I can remember.
I drag on my own sweatshirt, hunch my way into the front seat and resign myself to air temperature instant coffee shaken into the water in an old plastic water bottle, like I do every morning. Looking out the window, I realize that the memory I’d been thinking of setting loose today—the heaviness of July air in St. Louis when the AC in my car went out, the hunger-nausea in my belly, the way I sat paralyzed in the hospital parking lot for an hour wondering if I could sleep there beside the hospital safely or if they would call the police on me—isn’t right for the day. The beach is littered with blue blotches. I could squint and still not see them well, but I know what they are: man o’ war, freshly washed up onto the sand.
I drink my coffee and think, letting the echoing from the sea star memory yesterday strengthen my bones. Man o’ war are special. As the sun rises, my certainty grows: it’s a sign. I’m here, in the right place, in the right time to rid myself of a major thread in the mess of my old pains.
I leave the car as the sun leaves the horizon, sinking a little into the sand as I walk down into the water. Ankle deep, I turn southwest, into the Mexico-end curve of the coast, and start wandering. The waves suck at my feet, and I go very slowly.
This coastline isn’t as impressive as the cliffs of Oregon or the white sand beaches of South Carolina. Dull brown sand, not a tree in sight, ugly sponge-scrub bushes that hug the dunes, sand flies buzzing in the air above them. But nothing can make the ocean ugly, not even the trash tangled in the brown, rotting seaweed that washed up with the man o’ war.
And the man o’ war are magnificent. Blue so bright it looks like plastic, root-vegetable shape with long tentacles trailing off the thickest end, rippling crest the sun shines through. As they die and deflate, they lose their beauty, but it’s early and they’re still damp and glowing in the sunlight. They look like aliens. The first time I ever saw one, I didn’t think it was real, but I loved it.
After half an hour of poking along, I find what I didn’t know I was looking for: a pair of man o’ war, tipped up against each other, tentacles tangled. When the waves set them here, they grasped at each other. I squat down beside them, toes inches away from being stung. From this angle, I can see down the beach through the nearest man o’ war’s glassy sail.
I fill my lungs with the humid smell of decomposing seaweed and salt.
I breathe easy these days. It wasn’t always like that.
I draw the memory down into my fingers: I’m flat on my back, holding myself carefully motionless under the bright lights that are shining down on me. Masked figures bend over my body below my ribcage, moving over me. I can’t feel exactly what they’re doing to me, because they’ve used a local anesthetic, but when they cut deep enough the sharpness of it lightnings through me.
Worse, whenever they cut away a piece of tissue, at the end of the cut, there are wet noises and tugging, pulling the flesh tight so the scalpel can slice cleanly. That tug panics me. I start to shake and can’t stop, can’t breathe because my chest won’t work right. They’re taking me apart.
I don’t know how they can perform surgery on my stomach when my chest is heaving like this, my limbs trembling.
Somehow I hold myself very still on the table. I don’t bolt. I don’t pass out, either, though I get lightheaded and dizzy from the way I can’t get my breath. A long time passes, and somewhere in the middle of it, one of the nurses turns to me and says, absently, “It hits some people this way. Mostly it’s the toughest old men who cry during surgery, isn’t that funny?”
I breathe in the salt air.
Squatting slowly, I examine the man o’ war as close as I can get my face to them. In a way, they’re like the physical embodiment of a laugh: I’m in love with their impossibly blue-purple glossiness, their asymmetry, their shape like nothing else I’ve ever seen, the clutch of their tentacles: holding on and holding on. The world is so big; it contains such strange things; it contains so much love.
The man o’ war are a better memory, of course. I pull it into me, letting it crowd out the other thing: the sound, the sense of desolation. The echo of a laugh falls away the way wet sand dries on your skin and then is brushed off: leaving the faintest of after-sensations but nevertheless completely gone. The memory of the man o’ war, in my mind and also still in front of me on the sand, lifts me up like sunshine in my blood.
I go along the beach a little while longer, trading a brief flash of a silent waiting room—doubled over, pain-sweat itching between my shoulder blades—for a purple-cream seashell half worn away by the waves into the shape of a minnow. I exchange the constant beep of a monitor for the wing-flick of a gull that screams as it flies away from me. For mouse tracks on the sand underneath the dune grass, the persistent, rhythmic twang of old mattress springs.
Too many exchanges in too short a time: my mind rebels, leaving an aftertaste in my peripheral nervous system, a creeping malaise. I lie down on the soft sand, hiking up my t-shirt and edging down my track pants so my soft, scarred belly is naked to the sunlight. Sometimes when I lie flat the scars pull; sometimes the stress on the sliced nerves makes them tingle and spark with pain. But the sun’s warmth makes up for that. I plop my forearm over my eyes and let myself drift, neither awake nor asleep.
Sometimes living like this is terrifying: whenever I see a police car my heart jerks nervously, whenever I park somewhere I’ve never been before I can barely sleep because I can’t settle off high alert. Having nothing between me and the world but a car window and whatever basic decency a citizen might scrape up for someone like me—it rattles my head.
But other times being homeless is everything I’ve ever wanted, and this is one of those days. The sun is crayon yellow in a watercolor sky, high white clouds blurring softly into the blue. The old man with the dog is fishing, far enough down the beach that I couldn’t hear him over the white noise of the waves even if he shouted, and other than that, it’s just me and the sea birds, in love with each other, in love with ourselves.
A week later, I return from two days parked on the side of the road near an intersection with four apartment complexes on adjoining blocks. Nobody gave my car a single suspicious eyeball, and I had a chance to spend time in the public library. Of course I can’t check out books without an address, but I got online and checked my bank balance to make sure my disability benefits, all $350 a month, haven’t been mysteriously stopped. They turn off the direct deposit sometimes, if they try to deliver me mail and can’t, but this month everything is ticking along, and I have money for gas and food.
I’m lucky. Plenty of street people have to panhandle, but I never picked up a habit, and I eat light.
The next morning I wake up early so I get out and sit on the hood of my car to watch the sunrise. Something about the way the birds wake before the sun does, the way they start talking to each other, sends shivers of happiness through my muscles. Even on nights when I can’t sleep because of the pain, my heart lifts a little when I hear how interested the birds are in every single new day. And then the soft pearl of the sky as the light begins.
Today is a good one for birds. They’re migrating, of course, though I’m honestly not sure if they’re going north or south. It’s late January—it seems like it could be either. I don’t know. All I know is that a congregation of many different kinds of wings surrounds me. Little shorebirds with stilt-legs, gulls with wide nasty beaks and attitudes to match, a few bulky brown pelicans. They settle down in the fresh tide, picking through the seaweed and shallows as the water recedes.
Even this far south, the air is cold this early, and my muscles are tight. My mind aches, too, memories all tangled up, stuck to themselves and other things, sticky adhesions like a wound healing wrong, stitches only half dissolved. Blank spaces in the middle of everything, connections reduced to feeling, not knowing: this is the price I pay for living only in the present moment. Shapes cut out of my brain and replaced with the stunning loft of redwood trees in Six Rivers National Forest out in California. I can see the arc of the memories, where they used to be, but those spaces are filled with the softness of moss and ferns in the middle of a dense, dark wood.
This is a memory: I’m standing in front of a desk covered with papers, leaning heavily on my cane as a man speaks sternly to me about the consequences of pretending to be injured when I’m actually fine and need to go back to work.
This is a memory: the man whose grandmother lets me stay in her basement snaps a question at me, irritated. He wants money—my disability benefits, I think. He was working part-time, but lost his job, or quit. I’m not sure; I haven’t asked. He wants to know if I’m planning on contributing anything at all worthwhile to this household or if I’m deadweight. I don’t know, I say, very quietly, no breath to speak with, and he slams his way out of the room, disgusted with me.
This is a memory: a medical exam room is instantly recognizable by the posters on the wall urging flu vaccination, hand washing. I’m frozen on a pneumatic exam table covered in paper sheeting. There’s a distinctive smell to these rooms, like they all use the same brand of antiseptic cleaner, and it terrifies me.
I close my eyes, then open them and lurch off the hood of the car, aiming myself down the beach where the sand is wet enough to be solid. Holding myself still only makes the memories stronger, so I move even though it hurts. I stumble over wet sand—I’m not walking very straight, my hips are all wrong—I fall on my ass. My hand lands very near the shallow waves. When I lift it up, water seeps into the handprint like a mirror. It’s enough. Grateful, I let the smell of antiseptic slide away from me into the salt damp.
I sit on the beach until the sun is high and I’m sweating, t-shirt sticking to my back. Memories wash in and out of my mind like waves, and I let them. Down the beach, four or five gulls squabble over something they’ve found in the piles of brown seaweed. The wind is coming in off the water, a steady rush of noise that smooths me out like my mother running a brush through my hair.
That isn’t a memory; I read it in a book, but I like the idea of it.
I rest for the remainder of the day, getting up to eat soup from a can when I remember, in the middle of the afternoon, that I haven’t eaten. My milk-crate storage bin is full of soup cans, bought when I was in town. I won’t eat them all for weeks, but I can’t handle not having food with me. It makes me feel crazy, precarious. The cans take up space in my car but I just have to know that I have enough food around me even when hunger gets lost in all the other pains in my body and I lose track of eating. I’m not proud of this, this animalistic need that makes me feel homeless in a way sleeping in my car doesn’t, but it’s not a memory; I can’t send it away from me.
I creak the next morning, making coffee slowly and indecisively, poking around my car trying to decide if I want to go to the laundromat. I don’t need to, but I consider doing it anyway. I’m avoiding the memories crowding in on me: I’m holding myself very still. My lungs stutter so I can’t breathe. There is a very bright light in the corner of my eye.
I step onto the sand, feeling like a loose tooth about to come free.
I’m holding myself very still.
A dog runs up and down the beach, barking at the gulls as they fly away from him. Further along, a giant motorhome wallows in dry sand as the driver pulls out, leaving early. The bright light in the corner of my eye is only the rising sun. I rub my palms along my hip bones, pressing where it hurts to remind myself that this is my body. I am here, now, in the warming sunlight, smelling the salt-fish tide.
I just want to be done with this whole tangled mess. I’ve been working away at the knot of it, the helplessness, the despair. But it blurs together. I can only exchange one scrap of memory at a time, one detail for one detail. Now I don’t know: is there one arc of memory, or two? Much has been cleanly excised, and some of what I haven’t replaced is almost funny: the ER nurse scolding me viciously for not peeing in a cup for tests she needs to run, me in a ball on the floor too tight with pain to straighten even enough to sit on the toilet. Her primary-color scrubs signal allegiance to some football team I can’t identify, and she stands so close the matching shoes fill my vision. Matching shoes! Like a clown!
Don’t make me leave, I’m saying. He sneers. Why would I keep you around if you’re not going to put out? It seems like a fair question. Not fair to him to try to keep this relationship going under false pretenses.
No, that’s a memory. This is real: I hobble down the beach—my knee is bad today, I slept wrong. The birds are flocking this morning, hundreds more than I’ve ever seen, making a tremendous noise. The little brown stilt-walkers are my favorite. They dance with the waves, always moving in and out to keep the water just up to their knobby knees, the white foam painted pink by the sunrise.
The salt air smells like that one brand of antiseptic, smells like old cardboard, but I stop and watch the birds. The early morning cool plus the wind coming off the water make me grateful for my sweatshirt. I sit on the slope of a minor sand dune and breathe. There’s something, some seaweed smell, that layers under the particular regional smells that make beaches different. There’s always something that smells the same. It’s comforting, that the Gulf holds some similarity with the swampy beaches of South Carolina, the salt deserts of California. The wet Oregon coast, too, rocky and cold, has that same smell, that ocean miasma rising up from the deepness.
That makes me think of the redwoods, the way it felt to camp there the summer I drifted down the West Coast. I have a lot of memories of them now, stewing in the mess in my brain. The straightness of their trunks, the way they take up space in every dimension, unafraid to have mass.
I wonder, sometimes, where my memories go when I release them. If they fill up the redwoods, festering inside their trunks in some mirror-process to the gentle blossom of new memory in me. I don’t think they could. Maybe a tree could take on a memory, but how could a sunset, how could a particular turn of a half-wild rabbit’s head, the flicker and crash of lightning in the east Texas sky? No. I think the world composts my old pains, turns poison into fertilizer, into fundamental elements that grow something entirely new.
The birds flee a large wave and then instantly return to the surf. I begin to pick gingerly at the lump of memory that I’ve been chipping pieces off of for years. It’s much smaller now, but more prone to splintering. In the past I’ve been too abrupt with it, cracked it and let it bleed. This time I’m determined to treat it more delicately.
It’s slow going. By the time the sun is a quarter of the way up the sky, I’m sweating, and I have to take a break to find some shade. I stake a sheet between my car door and some sticks of driftwood, settle in the patch of shade with a box of crackers and get back to work.
The tendrils of memory are fragile, like little white roots crawling through the cracks of the bricks of the better memories I’ve built up around it. I pull gently on each one without snapping it off, rolling it up and pressing it into the main body of the memory. Tiny shivers of guilt, wavers of confusion, layers of contradictory facts that will shatter into sharp shards if I put pressure on the wrong edge.
Sometimes I slip, and the memory takes hold of me: I’m on my back, holding myself very still as someone moves inside my body. It hurts in a sick, tugging way that is unique to pains deep inside, where the nervous system is different. I tremble, and try to hide how scared I am.
I put my hand on the sand beside me, outside the patch of shade. It’s hot, almost painful, after hours in the Texas sun. The sting of it grounds me in the present and I keep on.
Finally, I hold the mass of it. It’s heavy, sticky, constantly trying to send out new shoots to re-attach itself to me. But I herd it together, balancing it.
I no longer know if this is one memory, or many. It doesn’t matter. I’ve gone through it, out the other side, and kept going, to the Gulf coast, to the ocean. To the man o’ war, in all their alien beauty. To the gritty brown sand and the small orange sea stars and the gulls flying low over the dunes.
Outside my mind, the sun is setting. Red and coral-orange soak the sky, the clouds like sponges absorbing the color. The waves coat the sand with a thin layer of water that reflects the colors of the sky for a moment and then sinks down into the sand. Over and over: orange to wet-brown, orange to wet-brown.
Two sandhill cranes stalk through the waves toward me. The red feathers of their crests rise off their heads into the sun-red air. Long, narrow beaks plunge into the shallow waves. I’m sitting so still that they don’t notice me, coming as close as the water comes to my feet: maybe two yards away.
I watch as one catches a crab. The other tilts his head, reptilian eyes coveting the tiny struggling thing. The crab must be mostly shell, small as it is. The crane gulps it down and the other makes a low noise, complaining.
I breathe in the salt air. When I exhale, my mind expands beyond myself. For the space of that breath, I am as big as the ocean. I extend into the atmosphere, into the heavy cumulonimbus clouds that hang in the sky and above them, through the breaks that the sunlight streams through. We—the rays of light, the cold clouds, the water, the cranes with their naked legs and gray wings—move on the same wave, expanding and contracting, like the pulse of blood through a heart, like the pump of blood out through an open wound.
When I contract again, the memory I was carrying doesn’t return with me. This moment, these two sandhill cranes teaching me the complaint of all living things, rests comfortably in the hollow I’ve made for it, already growing thin, tender roots into the matter that surrounds it. I feel so light I could rise upward on the road made by the sunset streaming through the damp air. The crane memory isn’t quite enough to take me up, but I’ve never been so close to the true soul of the world, so close to the love and forgetfulness that rests at the center of all things.