All Good Science Fiction Begins This Way




The following is a feature article from the LARB Quarterly Journal: Winter 2016 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books or order a copy at amazon.com.

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We don’t want to conquer space at all.
We want to expand earth endlessly.
We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror.

—Solaris, Stanislaw Lem

THREE DAYS before the wedding, when I was riding my bike to pick up my wedding dress, a car door opened in front of me. The thing I most recall about the accident is not the moment of impact but just after. How I imagine my brain — coiled and white — pitching forward in fluid. How I sit up and hold my head as if to stop my brain from hitting the cranium. How when I break my eyes open, there is a man in glasses next to me pulling me to my feet. He is the same man who flung his car door in front of me causing me to crash, so I brush his hands away and say, I am fine, I am going to ride away now. I straddle my seat and push my feet on the pedals but the wheels do not move. The man lurches up to me. He avoids my eyes. He pins the front wheel between his knees. He yanks the crooked handlebar back into place.

Next, I am a reveler, walking along the city sidewalk, trailing my bike behind me as people in business suits and winter hats brush past me inflamed with purpose. Then I stand still at the corner, mesmerized by the street signs — Madison, Halsted — because not only do I not recognize the names, it suddenly dawns on me: I have no idea where I came from or where I was going, what city I am in, what my name is, and I do not even know the year.

Somewhere, somehow, this strikes me as funny. Nay, hilarious. Am I laughing out loud? I half-reach to stop someone to ask them the year, and if they don’t freak out maybe the city, but I pull back in a giggle, knowing this is life imitating, life imitating

And it is at this crucial moment when the man who flung his door at me passes me whistling in his coat and hat, walking a small white poodle. Then a sentence pops into my head, the way words sometimes do, of their own volition, just pop into your mind: All good science fiction begins this way.

It’s a story where … It’s on the tip of my tongue. But it’s hard to focus because I am raging with electricity. I am air packed together in sheer consciousness. I close my eyes. I give in to the current. I exult in the corner. There is the noise of traffic, the bustling of people. I am euphoria standing in place.

When I open my eyes, how much time has passed? All appears to be the same: people waiting, then crossing at the red light. Cars going, cars idling. I am so, I feel so, there is nothing to do but wait for this wave of devotion to pass. Devotion to what? I close my eyes. I am so, I feel so.

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How long did you lose your memory for? people ask when I tell this story, but the answer is never straightforward. My memory loss looks like a barren rocky island shaped by an ocean that is no longer there. The horizon, once blue never-ending water, is a canyon. I trace the steep cliffs, the striations in the rocks, the slope down to the sea floor. The metronome of the beating ocean is gone. Without it, time is slow and viscous. After the accident, I immediately decide my ocean will return, so I keep my memory loss a secret. But I am also aware that I am hiding a dark desire even from myself: I never ever want to be taken away from that barren place. I like the scarcity of the black rocks, the clean feeling, the eeriness — I have so many questions I want to ask of the still-wet deserted ocean floor.

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When I open my eyes, how much time has passed? I am standing on the corner of Madison and Halsted. The crowd, the cars, the red light. Everything is bright and pure and unmitigated. I feel so powerful I try to stand still, because it’s the only way I know I will not explode or drift off into space like a combustive celestial body. Everything is possible, every conceivable future, when you are without a past.

But for someone as powerful as I feel, standing still is boring. I look down Halsted Street as it stretches to the horizon with small shops and condos, and I calculate possibilities, companions, adventures. I can marry someone rich, I think, looking down Madison at the tall, luxurious skyscrapers. I can become a sailor. This is better, but how do I get to shore? I am standing on my toes, ready to walk, not a sailor but what? A banker, I think, yes, a bank teller in a pretty suit depositing people’s checks into. Then everything stops suddenly.

I see a woman through a glass storefront, and at lightning speed I understand that the glance I just gave her — noncommittal, arrogant — I gave to myself. I am looking at myself in the reflection of the darkened window. My hair is black and in disarray and I am holding my bike next to me like a steed. People walk around me, staring beyond me like I’m not even there, like a miracle is not just unfolding before all of our eyes — because it feels miraculous, the seeing of myself for the first time. I watch with astonishment as my own eyes (harried, unbelieving, flown open) communicate back to me every inch and ebb of how I am feeling.

I come up close to the window. I am beautiful. I examine my face — the thick eyebrows, the brown skin, the wide nose. What heritage is written on that face — South American, Middle Eastern, Caribbean? I have no idea. I run my finger on my brow, caress my own cheek, play with my hair. God, my eyebrows are so thick.

It occurs to me there might be marks on my body or clues on my clothes (an African bracelet, maybe, a pin with a flag), but there are none. How did I know my gender all this time? I realize I have opened a door I might not be able to close. Now I have to decide: do I call the ocean back to me or do I continue my life as a barren island?

I stand in front of the window hesitating before my reflection, weighing the awfulness of not knowing myself versus the lightness of being a blank slate. What more science fiction than this? I watch the cycle of the red light. Go, Slow, Stop.

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Islands can often seem like a floating slice of land, but beneath the water surface, tall escarpments take root and run aground. Most oceanic islands are volcanic. All across the Pacific, volcanoes rise out of the seafloor. They spew out ash and cinders and iridescent lava that solidifies into layer after layer of growing domes. During the making of an island, great explosions of water and sand shoot out into the air. Lava pours out and cools almost immediately. Serene white plumes of sulfur and steam braid into the sky, and the volcano breaks the surface of the water. Oceanic islands are born of fire.

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A woman on the phone who identifies herself as my sister informs me I am getting married in three days. Because I have no sense of time in the wake of the accident, I keep time to the metronome of others. I dance to the punctuations of what I think is expected of me. When the man she tells me is my fiancé strips that first night and lies naked in bed, I understand I must do the same.

I don’t care how far I have to go to keep my amnesia a secret. I love its strange vibration, and I don’t want anyone to fix it. I am at every moment soaring. I don’t care that I am lost to my past since I am absolutely found to myself. An island in the ocean, the ocean gone away.

I drop my clothes. I get in bed. My fiancé presses his chest up to my back. He drapes his arm over my stomach. Then his body relaxes.

You don’t want sex? I ask.

No, I want to hold you.

My fiancé has to wake me up every hour to make sure my brain is not swelling. He is supposed to ask me simple questions, like What is one plus one? That’s the doctor’s example in the emergency room as he checks a box on a form. At night, in bed, I feel like a game-show contestant. I know I have to study my answers, but it’s hard to stay afloat, one plus one is two, his name is Jeremiah, my name is Ingrid, the city is Chicago, the year is 2007. No, 2008. No, 2007. I fall asleep so easily I don’t even notice I have fallen asleep.

My shoulder shakes. I hear Jeremiah’s voice: What is your name? It is dark in my apartment or are we in my apartment? If I answer correctly I can go back to sleep again. Ingrid, I say. Something is wrong, but I can’t remember what. Sleep is white fuzz. It wants me so badly. But I have to stay awake. I fight the marshmallow of nothingness, but soon I am consumed in it.

Jeremiah is shaking me again, Where are you from? Nobody told me this question would be on the test. Leave me alone, I huff. I’m sleepy. Just tell me where you’re from, he insists. Suddenly I remember what’s troubling me. It’s the million-dollar question: Who am I sleeping next to? I feel unsafe. I’m from Colombia, I answer. I remind myself I am pretending I haven’t lost my memory. I snuggle my back to him — his body strange and unfamiliar.

An island in the ocean, the ocean gone away.

I dream that Jeremiah is my brother, even though I seem to know I don’t have a brother in real life. Maybe I give him that identity because I’m not sure who he is. Or maybe, as a psychoanalyst explains years later, I invent this sibling relationship so that in my moment of trauma I can experience a more innocent facet of love. But it doesn’t work out that way. Instead I dream I am naked in his bed. Do I dream he is confronting me, that he himself is telling me we are related in this way? It feels like only a second has passed and Jeremiah is shaking me again, Tell me what my name is.

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In the years that follow, this will happen again: 12 times that first year, eight the second, and now on random occasions that seem like aftershocks.

Late at night when I am in that space between dreaming and waking, I believe that Jeremiah is my brother. I sit up and cling to the bedsheet and move away because I am naked and he is too. I cover my face. I try to perceive whether there is semen. I try hard to remember an instance of a condom, a pill, a sponge.

Sometimes there is semen. Sometimes there is no semen.

I cringe at what our mother will think.

Then I realize I cannot bring her to mind.

That’s when a thought comes gurgling as if through water —

I’ve done this before.

Even the gestures, I realize, are replicas of other nights.

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Oceanic islands are an assembly of igneous rock — red rhyolite, black basalt, pale and porous pumice. Then the ocean brings life: mussels, shellfish, and coral. Shells and dead corals wash ashore and are ground down into sand. Birds come to rest their wings and leave seeds behind in their droppings. Shrubs and ferns sprout up.

And if the ocean were to retreat?

You would be able to look down the cliff of the great volcanic cone. You would be able to climb down the crisp, hardened mounds, and see the black wrinkles on the rock face. You could reconstruct the story of how and where the lava erupted, how it traveled, how the island formed. You could come close to the central vent where all the lava came from.

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I stand in front of the window at Madison and Halsted hesitating before my reflection, weighing the awfulness of not knowing myself versus the lightness of being a blank slate. I try to break into the fortress of my mind by staring into my iris. It occurs to me I could be an illegal immigrant. I have to avoid the authorities. I search up and down the street for cops. I could be one of the millions undocumented, working for low wages, desperate, prone to predation. Prone to predation? I ask myself. Even then this strikes me as an odd sentence construction.

I take a breath. I pull on the bag strap that’s been digging into my shoulder and consider the purse, white and worn, with little printed stars. I can look in my bag and find out who I am. I pull my bike to the intersection, satisfied with this decision. I cross the street. I’ll just see what my name is, then I’ll put the bag in a trash can. I stop by a chain-link fence and sit down, pulling everything out and spreading it before me on the pavement.

A journal, a wallet, keys, a novel, a cell phone. I open the wallet and take out an Illinois ID card. I am staring at myself again. I look so carefree. I am wearing blue eye shadow and thick liner. I read my name over and over again without its becoming familiar. This desire for familiarity is unexpected. If only I can see how others see me, then I will know who I am. I open the journal. I fan the pages before my eyes, but I don’t recognize the handwriting. I am patient and serene. Then, like turning a corner, I am terrified. I am choking. Am I having a panic attack? I do not care that I’m a public spectacle. I am screaming. Am I having a breakdown? Out of the corner of my eye I see people are crossing the streets on all intersections to avoid me.

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MEDICAL INSTRUCTIONS

Post-concussion syndrome often follows a mild head injury. Dizziness, mild nausea, mild headache, trouble concentrating, and a general sense of “not being right” may persist for a week or two.

Jeremiah is reading, but I am thinking about the previous night in the emergency room. In the little curtained-off space the doctor shines a light into my eyes. He takes an x-ray of my brain. He avoids the word amnesia, but everything he asks seems a dance around the word: Are you having trouble remembering anything? Is anything strange? I tango in response. No, everything is normal. I turn to Jeremiah. Right? Jeremiah nods. He looks distressed. I am sure I would feel sympathy for him if I remembered him, but I don’t. The doctor studies my every move and word. I smile, glance at his pen poised over my paperwork, and stare directly into his eyes.

While vigorous exercise may worsen the headache, mild physical activity often is helpful. Sitting and thinking about your symptoms will worsen them.

Jeremiah lays some pills for me on a little tray. It’s two days to the wedding and in order to buy myself time so I can study my mind, I have to play the part of his fiancée. I stretch my back like a cat, and as he’s smiling, I ask him to write me a to-do list so I can keep track of what wedding tasks are left.

But I have to get to work. He looks at his watch. Anyway, everything’s done. We don’t need a list.

But I feel like we’re forgetting something — can’t you humor me?

I learn that we have planned two wedding ceremonies: one for his conservative parents in October, and one for my liberal parents come May. There isn’t much to prepare for the October ceremony. Jeremiah tells me we will get married with six people present, dinner out, dancing, a night away. It’s specifically pared down so that we can have a wild, hippie wedding later on. My only responsibility before Saturday is to pick up the wedding dress. I tell him I will go today, but once alone I don’t move. There’s a weird bamboo bookshelf, used orange furniture, silky ribbons hanging by the windows, and the kitchen is jam-packed with utensils and spoons and pots piled on shelves piled on other shelves. There are so many plants I feel like I am in a jungle, and there are three cats constantly mewing at me, batting at my heels wherever I go. I don’t recognize anything.

My mother and father call me on my cell phone. They speak to me in Spanish. I am surprised I understand, but more so at the sound of their voices — how familiar they are, how much like a door left open just a crack.

Me estás escuchando, Ingrid Carolina? My mother is calling to beg me not to wear the black dress to my wedding.

The black dress. I marvel at the fact that even though I cannot recall my family or my fiancé, I can still picture the dress. It’s a silk Vera Wang with a plunging neckline, an empire waist, and a long train. The bodice and the shoulders are my favorite parts — the folds of black silk covering the breasts, the rosettes gathering at the waist, the silk ruffling and curling just barely at the shoulder. This is the dress my mother is arguing will trigger events to make me a young widow. You and your feminist concepts. Listen to me — no seas terca.

Am I stubborn? I wonder. Is losing your memory like being widowed? I was on my way to pick up the dress when the accident happened. I push the thought away. I have been quiet for one second too many. I can’t remember what kind of rapport I have with my mother, but I plow ahead. No, I am sure. I am wearing the black dress.

The idea of telling my mother what’s happened doesn’t occur to me. And all the seconds I am quiet, withholding information, I am aware that I am not doing it out of shame, but because I don’t want her to have the satisfaction of being right.

It’s just a dress, I add. Stop trying to jinx it with superstition.

I hang up. I go to the dining table, itching with excitement, eager to poke at my mind to see how many layers I can peel back. Does the mind have a center? If it does, I want to arrive there. I sit down. Who are you now that everything has been stripped bare? But my mind is quiet. What are you now that you have no identity? But my mind is solid and aloof and quite remote to myself.

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When you are blind with desire, you do not care about consequences. Curiosity can be a violent force hurling you to new shores, but at what price? I wonder now about Pliny the Elder, who after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius got on a ship — not to help with the evacuation but to selfishly observe the violent spectacle. His deckhands advised him to turn back, but he was firm: “Fortune favors the bold.” He disembarked amidst a rain of cinders and pumice a few miles from the volcano only to die some hours later, probably from the toxic fumes. Pliny. His fate was irrepressibly tied to volcanoes. He wrote of the birth and death of islands, like the one that emerged in his lifetime in the Aegean Sea. During the celebration of the eighth centennial of the founding of Rome, between five and nine in the evening, during a total moon eclipse, a mile-wide piece of burning land surfaced. The Greeks named the island Thia, the Godly. Poseidon, god of the oceans, was believed to be behind such creations. It must have been a spectacular sight, but not a surprising one: this location had been producing and dissolving islands for centuries. The geographer Strabo wrote of Thia’s sister island Hiera: “flames rose out of the waves for four days, so that the whole sea boiled and blazed, and they gradually threw up an island.”

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How long have I been screaming? I am not sure, but my voice is hoarse. I look at the contents of my purse, wondering how I will walk away. Then I see an Asian man approaching. He is striking to me because he is old, has a bad foot, and leans on a cane. When he stops before me, I see his cane is a tree branch covered in lacquer. I witness his effort as he bends down. I see the way his mottled, wrinkled hands with knobby fingers roam around his pocket and then he’s extending a 20-dollar bill to me.

I don’t take it, so he lifts my journal. Is he trying to buy my writing? Buy my story? But he only places the bill on the pavement and my journal on top as a paperweight. His hands, long-fingered and with knots at the joints, come together at his chest and he bows — two, three times — like I am a goddess. A goddess of what? He rises slowly and walks backward a few steps, still facing me, like time itself is going back and back. He turns. He crosses the street. He is gone.

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At the emergency room I sit in a curtained-off space and wait for the doctor to return. The doctor has left my curtain open so I see the man whose singing I have been hearing all along. He is wearing a flowery white hospital robe with a slit in the back and nothing else except black ankle socks. He is about 40, gliding along the hall, singing. Then he comes close and recites his poetry to me. I watch his body sway, the way his feet come up just a bit off the tile as he raps out words that I drink and drink. And just as I am becoming aware that I love this right now, that I love this man right now, he breaks off his recitation. “You’re a writer,” and I am so taken aback by his statement, I worry that my memory is lapsing again. “Did I tell you that?”

“No, man, I just know.”

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If I have coffee I can be awake enough to think of more questions to ask myself. I crawl to the kitchen. I stand before the espresso machine. It has silver accents and bulky knobs. I try to decode the curious hieroglyphs, cup with waves, mushroom cloud, smaller cup. I drink water and sleep. Each time I nap and wake up I remember more things, except they are small — the image of a steaming cup of soup in my hands, the silhouette of somebody in a bar throwing their head back in laughter. I am by the hour more flesh and blood. I decide I have to figure out how to pick up the dress, then I can study my mind, but I’ve only advanced a few steps when I see my journals on the bookshelf and realize I am marrying a man I cannot remember and what I need to do is get more backstory. I pull down all the journals and read the oldest one, looking for clues. Is Jeremiah the right man to marry? Am I the marrying type? Why am I getting married?

I know journals are supposed to be a bear-all account, but the writing is vague. One page reads, “I have gone to bed with an empty heart for three nights in a row. I feel that air fails me.” The rest of the page is blank.

Another page: “Cramping a blanket, nails digging.”

There are strange lists:

Memories of What the Sky Looks Like from the Backseat of a Moving Car

Ways in Which Pets Have Died

And there are pages filled with overheard conversations.

In the whole book, I only find one entry that could be about my fiancé: 

My head against his chest. The resonating heart, the echoing voice, and the muscles tensing up periodically as he flips a page of Hemingway. Hemingway settling into the carpeted floor and his crumpled sheets. I twirl my fingers in the waist of his shirt. The words transcend my brain in images.

I lower the journal and wait for the memory that is lapping up. I see a small room, a gray carpet, a too-small bed, the small black hole of his belly button. I don’t want the ocean to return. I feel the heft of those few details like manifest weight on my shoulders. I leave the journals as they are. I can’t keep reading. My eyes are already closing before I can get to the bedroom.

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If the earth were to speak, volcanoes would be the mouthpiece. The things that erupt from volcanoes come from the earth’s center, but because of the volatility and pressure, scientists can only theorize about what dwells there. They believe mostly iron, because it’s the heaviest mineral, and it’s what would sift down to the center. We know that beneath the crust of the earth there’s a layer of magma. Beneath that, it is believed there is a sea of swirling iron encircling a solid ball of iron that is so hot and pressurized, it is rotating slowly.

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I realize I can find my family by looking in my phone for the last name I found on my ID, but when I pick up the cell phone I remember a face and then a name. I see the high golden forehead, the green-blue eyes. His name is Jeremiah and he is someone I care about, but I don’t know who. Who is Jeremiah? I search around the half-remembered image of his face. He’s the only person I can call for help, but I don’t call him. I don’t know what our relationship is, and I need to know so I can act my part well. I call the last person I spoke to — GEOFF S. Who is he? I don’t know. But maybe he can clarify who Jeremiah is. I don’t know how I will ask this question without giving myself away, but I am already dialing, checking the name on my phone screen, and the clicking sound of someone answering comes on and I am speaking. Hi Geoff, how are you? To my own ears I sound put together.

INGRID? What’s wrong? Where are you? Are you okay? Where are you?

I don’t remember what I say, only that I am crying again. I hold my head and try to control my breathing as Geoff lists the details of my life­ — that I have a sister, that my sister is his fiancée, that I am in Chicago, that Jeremiah is my fiancé, that I’ve been dating Jeremiah for five years, that I need to get to a hospital, that everything will be okay.

It’s the adrenaline, I say. It’s making it hard to think straight.

Geoff says he understands. He doesn’t seem suspicious and makes me swear I will call Jeremiah, but after we hang up I am freaking out. How will I mask this? How will I cover it up? I hold my breath. I swallow everything down. I am dialing Jeremiah now, I am planning what to say, Hi, Jeremiah, how are you? I had a little accident, could you come help? By Jeremiah’s hysterical response I realize I am not actually speaking out loud, just crying and blubbering two phrases — “I fell” and “I don’t remember” — while he asks me two questions: “What happened? Where are you?”

Eventually I walk to the corner and read the street signs, but when we hang up I graduate to a new level of panic. I try to speed-read through the journal I found, but I can’t. I cannot deal with not having control, and the panic I feel grows in a converse relationship to my loss of control. The words blur and come together in my vision.

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In the wake of the accident, I spend a lot of time lying down, staring at my mind. It’s entertaining being such a void. I don’t think about anything. My mind is a quiet island. My mind will not answer any of my questions. It buzzes instead with an uncanny beauty. The landscape is desolate, and white seagulls every now and then dive down. I am swooped along onto plateau after plateau of the unnameable.

Jeremiah calls on my cell phone. I have to work late. Did you pick up your dress? I tell him I will. Then we hang up.

I daydream about my options: I could walk. I could take a bus. But the dress is expensive. What if someone tries to steal it? There’s no way I am biking again. I can only call a taxi. But which service is the best? The receipt for the dress is in my purse: The Dress Doctor, Since 1982. As soon as I see it, I recall the face of the seamstress. Actually what I remember is her hair. It’s silver and short and beautifully curled. I remember how she asked, Why ever did you choose black? I remember the luxury of the fitting room, the elegant feeling of going in and stepping onto the cream-colored platform in my underwear, suddenly flanked by three images of myself. Tall curtains rose up behind me, royal red and velvet, heavy with long golden cords. I remember hearing the woman in the adjacent stall detailing the changes she wanted made.

I don’t have enough memories yet, so I make a parallel to the emergency room — how the space at the hospital was also not a room but a curtained-off space. The curtains at the emergency room were blue (or maybe white) and thin. I listened in on the people around me there as well. Behind me, someone whispered in what sounded like German, far off there was laughter, and farther still one person was shrieking.

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It’s a new morning and when I decide to move around, to eat something, to wash dishes, to feed the mewing cats, a feeling comes over me. It’s like a terrible omen. I tense up in place, waiting. Then a high-pitched terror with no words attached breaks the surface. I hang onto a wall. It feels like I am about to lose my mind. I try to breathe. I want to know what is happening to me, but when I move to untangle the emotion, the high-pitched terror subsumes. Like forgetting a name or forgetting a face, the texture and the shape of the terrible thing just disappears. That’s the first appearance of it, the high-pitched terror, but it comes and goes every other hour. I don’t think I will be able to pick up the dress, but I have no choice. I am quick and quiet. I hold on to my temples in the taxi, ask him to wait, then I hug the dress all the way home. It is late when I return, but I hang the dress on a padded hanger. It’s so pretty. See? I run my fingers through the fine black silk. My mother is crazy. There’s nothing supernatural about this dress. I lift the train. I fluff it. I let it fall. I kick all my clothes off and put it on. I prance around in my apartment. I water the plants, I sashay to the windows. I let the train slide on the floor even though I know it’s dirty and the cats may attack.

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The best thing to do when the high-pitched terror breaks the surface is to breathe. To just space out for a while, go into that sheltered space where I can wait out any storm. Not exactly step out of myself, more like watch myself as a specimen. Watch suffering as an alien affliction. Stand in awe of the terrible: What more science fiction than this?

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Volcanoes erupt because eventually the core of the earth has to shed off its heat. Its hot currents upset through the liquid iron and boil into magma, and then rivers of lava break through the crust and run aglow. One more thing about the island that emerged in Pliny the Elder’s time:

It sank back into the earth’s crust, and now in its stead, there are two new islands, the Kameni islands. Yet buried within them are the others — Thia, the Godly, Hiera, the Holy, and an even more ancient, nameless island that some believe to be Atlantis. Islands fold in islands, histories into myths.

When the naturalist Edward Forbes visited the Kameni Islands in 1841, the inhabitants told him something was always happening below the surface. “Subterranean noises are not unfrequently heard, especially during calms and south winds, when, they say, the water of parts of the bay becomes the colour of sulphur.”

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When Jeremiah arrives he throws his bicycle on the ground and I hurl myself in his arms so he cannot see me cry. He is stroking my hair. Shh, shh, it’s all going to be okay. We are standing in the middle of the street, and the world is whirling around us. I am lost to the world, but my head finds a nook just under his shoulder. It is a perfect nook. The feeling of my head fitting into this nook makes me still and breathless and I realize that my body remembers him. It’s because of that feeling that I get in a taxi with him and hold his hand and look out the window, waiting for my ocean to return. On my wedding day I am a bruised bride with enough partial memory to act the part well. My brain is still sloshing and slow, black silk hiding the bruises on my body and trailing behind me on the floor.

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It turns out that deep within the folds of the brain — at the center of my mind — there lies an expanse of wrinkled tissue called the Island of Reil, after the German physician Johann Reil. Colloquially known as the insula, the Island of Reil is where emotional life is believed to reside. It reads the state of the body and houses conscious and unconscious desires, giving a feeling or impression of what is real, true, and important.

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Waking up into the amnesia of the accident, it is always the gestures (the sitting up, the closing of my eyes, the light holding of the forehead) that trigger the feeling of theater. I am an actor in a play I wrote for myself in a dream.

Then right on cue, after scrambling to remember whether we’ve used protection, it’s the question — Who is our shared mother? — that makes the real memories rush back. I remember the accident, the not-recognizing my apartment. And then in a series of superimposed images, across the eight years of my marriage to Jeremiah, I see myself sitting up in bed night after night after night after night remembering myself sitting up in bed night after night after night after night.

Each time the realization that I keep performing the same scene from an invented memory crushes me anew.

I look down at Jeremiah, whom just moments ago I regarded in panic and disgust, and consider how soft he is in sleep. I burrow close. I think of the barren island of my mind. What more science fiction than this? 

¤

Ingrid Rojas Contreras is the 2014 recipient of the Mary Tanenbaum Literary Award in Nonfiction.



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