Contest #106 winner 🏆

I Was Always Good at Taboo

Submitted into Contest #106 in response to: Write a story about a character who takes nothing for granted.... view prompt

98 comments

Drama Contemporary Sad

CW: Strong language


I forgot the word lightbulb today. I was trying to tell Michael how the laundry room went dark. I think we need a new… do we have any of those...those things that make…


It was like a dark spot in my brain. The word had been redacted from my vocabulary. I tried to listen for it, to hear the word in my voice. All I got was static, like the old televisions used to have. 


Would you change that thing in the ceiling?


We used to play this game with the kids when they were young—Taboo—where every card had a forbidden word you had to help your teammates guess, without using that word or any of the obvious associations. For example, carrot: you can’t say vegetable or rabbit or orange. I was always pretty good at this game.


“You want me to change the lightbulb?” Michael asked. I didn’t like the way he looked at me, like I was a stranger as unfamiliar as that word felt in my ears. Lightbulb


“Yes, that’s it. Thank you.”


“Trish, are you okay?” He put down his phone and kept looking at me.


“I’m fine. It’s a brain fart. I might need another cup of…” I pictured it—the hot, black liquid, bitterness playfully nipping my tongue. I rescued the word from the swirling abyss: “coffee.”


He got up and went to the coffee pot, pouring the rest of our carafe into my favorite flowered mug on the counter near the sink. He brought it to the table, three-quarters full. 


“I could have…” I protested as I picked up the mug and moved to the refrigerator to top it off with milk.


Michael sat down and didn’t pick up his phone. He kept on watching me as I put the plastic cap back on the milk and returned it to the fridge. 


“What? I’m fine. Just find us a new...lightbulb.” I tested the word out. It felt familiar, but heavy in my mouth, like speaking a rusty second language—like visiting France twelve years after French class. 


“This has been happening more lately,” he said slowly, looking at his hands folded on the table. I remember the way he wouldn't look at me, that shyness. I remember it made me mad.


“What do you mean?”


“Polka dot. Pump. Mango.” He rattled off a litany of words that caused my head to tingle. I didn’t realize he’d been keeping a list. I didn’t remember how long the list was.


I let my cup clunk down on the table. “That’s menopause for you. You try dealing with it.”


“I don’t see this happening to anyone else,” he said.


“You don’t see anyone else before their two or three cups.” The sinking feeling in my stomach kept me from putting my cup to my lips. I kept my hands around it, grasping the warmth.


“I think you should bring it up to your doctor,” he said. He looked up from his hands and his eyes were serious. This was not his usual ribbing.


I promised him sure, next check up. Maybe there’s a hormone replacement therapy that can help. It’s annoying, occasionally awkward. It would be nice to feel sharper, but I can talk around it when it happens. I was always good at Taboo.


Now I look at the lamp on my desk. I stare under the shade into its brightness. My eyes take in the glow, the shadow of my pen it casts across the desk. It’s all familiar—I’ve seen it a hundred times. 


Lightbulb, I say out loud, but the word leaves me feeling dark. I’ll call the doctor tomorrow.


***


I am losing some words and gaining others. Temporal lobe. Tau cells. Aphasia. The last few months have been a whirlwind of evaluations and tests and scans. MRI, PET. Cold metal tubes in white rooms. (Incidentally how I’m feeling: cold metal and white).


It all adds up to a big lightbulb moment for my care team: my brain is dying. Shrinking, anyway, starting with the frontal and temporal lobes. Primary Progressive Aphasia. A mouthful for someone who is losing words.


There are other words that float around in my mind alongside my diagnosis. Like fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck. Fuck-shit-piss-hot-damn! I wish I had better words.


This losing my words is only going to get worse. I don’t know when. I might have a decade before my ability to communicate breaks down completely, before I can’t match names to faces.


“We’ll keep an eye on it,” my primary care doc told me, far too casually, when he delivered the news.


“That’s it?” I asked. His office walls were full of posters—the skeletal system, the eardrum, the digestive tract. The brain. I had always assumed my body would break down before my mind. I grabbed onto the thin paper covering the table beneath my legs and listened to it crinkle under my fingertips—more static, like the feeling that popped in my head when I tried to fill in the blank spaces. Please pass me the…


“We need to gauge your trajectory,” he said. 


Trajectory. A funny word, like I was some kind of ball thrown in the air. No, I was free falling and I clung to that fucking tissue paper.


I couldn’t look at Michael. I could feel him next to me, but I didn’t want to see his reaction. Because then I might land.


“There’s speech and language therapy, ways we can retrain your brain to cope in the short term,” the doctor said. “But there’s no cure.”


So much for hormone therapy. Fuck.


“Don’t you have any of those research things?” I floundered. “Experimental stuff?”


I heard Michael’s voice. “Yes, a clinical trial, maybe?”


I don’t know if I’ve ever loved him more than at that moment, picking up on my Taboo talk, interpreting it into medical parlance. I loved him and I hated him. I envied him and I pitied him. I reached blindly for his hand and felt the roughness of it envelop mine. We both kept our eyes on the doctor.


“I’ll see if I can qualify you for anything, but it would only delay the progression of symptoms.”


I will take a delay. I will give all I have for an extra hundred lumens to stave off the darkness ahead.


I try to imagine my life without words. Will I maintain ideas, locked inside of me, shared with an aggravated wave of my hand, a foot stomp, a sad smile? Or will life be reduced to sensations? The difference between music and noise.


How long can I continue to process my days through writing? How long can I make a living with words? What will be my last word?


Fuck! I’ve always hated that word. It turns something beautiful into something ugly. Suddenly it seems the only appropriate word. Fuck! (Let that not be the last word in my journal).


***


Words I want to remember:


(Maybe it will help if I write them down?)


Harmony. A combination of simultaneous sounds. Plus I like the vowels. If I can hear it all together, hear the words through the static…structure, progression, tranquility. This word has so much going on inside of it.


Voracious. It sounds fierce, active. That’s my approach. I have been consuming words ever since I found out. Like they’re going out of style (they are). Medical articles, literature. Maybe by filling up on them… I mean, you always want to start a drive on a full tank. 


Tulips. Michael brings me tulips in spring. Purple, orange, bright. “As long as it brings our two lips together…” he says. I want to remember the good things—how fun words can be, how we play. Let the abyss have those other words: snoring, jealous, fight. Leave me tulips.


***


Joan Didion used to skip over the words that slowed her ideas down. She described it in one of her books: she could outline a sentence and leave some blanks that she’d come back and fill in once the tidal wave of inspiration ebbed. I could learn from that—just keep going. 


Only, that ability faded for her with age. She eventually had to start writing like a mortal. Was it the breakdown of the body or the mind? Where do you draw the line between them? Where do I? Does it matter? Life has other ________.


Anyway, A Year of Magical Thinking may be the last book I read. It’s hard, with the blank spots. It’s hard to concentrate. Or maybe I will try something more...happy.


***


Words to Remember:


Taboo. The things we don’t talk about, the words we choke on. Sometimes I feel myself spit them out. Word vomit. I’m not myself then. I don’t say those kinds of things. They warned me about this. The frontal lobe is responsible for _______. (Impulses? Inhibitions!) Mine are all unraveling.


Can I talk about me, apart from my body? Am I any more than the ___ of my parts? Is that an expression?


But also, the game. I was always good at Taboo. Talking around those words. Adapting.


***


Poetry burns away unnecessary words. It refines ideas to their ____. Essence? Not quite what I’m looking for but it will do. Silver and gold… What’s that called, that process? Or wheat and _____ (the byproduct, the necessary versus the excess…)


How long can I hold on to poetry? Longer? Here’s one for today.


Bread that crackles in my teeth:

Static.

Not the gummy bread, floppy,

Limp like old lettuce—

Bread with body. Charred, scarred.

I feel it crumble.

It’s called _____.



***


“Plant feathers”

(My voice halts):

“Those things that

Sing in trees.”


Michael says it,

His voice weaving

An incantation

In a dead language.


***


Words to Remember:


Bathroom. I speak it every day, to hear over the static. Remember bathroom. Remember bathroom. Because once I forget…


***


There’s light, but I forgot the other. The bad one. Maybe a mercy, but we fear what we can’t see.


***


This is hard. 

Not fun.

Thinking.

Hands.

Pen (blue).

Parentheses.

Random?

Static.

Fuck.

Work.


***


Sometimes I just scream, when the words disappear.


***


Why? When it hurts?

To remember.

The way berries last longer 

in cold.

Him. Them. Me.

Remember.



August 13, 2021 15:03

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98 comments

Josh Wenger
20:53 Aug 20, 2021

I am 41 and this has begun. This story is a kick in the gut because I know it will only grow worse with time. I can write. I do not lose words on the screen thanks to online dictionaries and my beloved thesaurus. I utilize spelling and grammar software to get my thoughts out just the way I wish I could speak them aloud. However, once the computer is off and those crutches are removed, I am left stumbling and at a loss for simple vocabulary words I grew up speaking as a child. Words that should be there without a thought, are gone, not fo...

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A.Dot Ram
21:46 Aug 20, 2021

Thanks for sharing your experience, and I'm sorry for any fears this dredged up. The need to communicate and to be understood is such a deep human drive. I hope it is satisfied for you for a long time.

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B.H. Williams
02:33 Aug 19, 2021

"Lightbulb, I say out loud, but the word leaves me feeling dark." I absolutely loved this line. I thought the symbolism of the lightbulb in the story was quite brilliant.

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A.Dot Ram
04:28 Aug 19, 2021

I'm glad you picked up on that. I do think the character is aware of the irony of it in the beginning.

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Mary Sheehan
16:23 Aug 18, 2021

Have you ever seen the movie Still Alice? This story reminded me of that movie. You told it beautifully.

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Jennifer S
12:12 Aug 22, 2021

Very good! I have ADHD, and one of the worst things about it is the ridiculously bad memory I have. Before diagnosis, I actually felt really worried that I had something really wrong with me. I didn't even know a bad memory was a symptom of ADHD! Many people with this talk about how having a bad memory affects them, so although this isn't about ADHD, it really resonated with me. I can be talking to someone and suddenly forget the word I want to use, or want to tell someone about something interesting I heard but struggle to recall it. I'm ...

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Brandi S.
03:40 Aug 22, 2021

My father recently suffered a stroke. I watch his eyes as he struggles to find the words he wants. It starts as confusion, becomes frustration, and finally fear. Your words could easily be his journal, if he kept one. Thank you for this story.

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Lisa Thompson
01:49 Aug 22, 2021

This is the very first entry I have read and I was soo intrigued because I was just saying this last week. I have been reading for years and sometimes it would take me forever because I would write the word out, page number and what paragraph it was in. I always had an extensive vocabulary of words, always having my thesaurus by my side while reading, yet I been getting stumped on little words... everyday words. I am 44, n I believe it has something to do with where I am living, as I had experienced what I thought was food poisoning?? ...

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Sylvia Luna
14:43 Aug 21, 2021

This story prompted my daughter and I to discuss our favorite words. I'm a writer, she's a voracious reader, words are important to us. When I asked my daughter, do you have favorite word, she didn't even need to think about it, she said, "alchemy". Thank you for an enjoyable evening, talking about words and their importance in our lives. A well-deserved win!

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A.Dot Ram
16:27 Aug 21, 2021

I love this! Thanks for sharing. I'm really thrilled the story had this effect.

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Robin Owens
14:42 Aug 21, 2021

Such a beautiful exploration of words in general. It was heavy and goosebump-inducing. It was also nostalgic for me because I loved playing Taboo growing up (and still do). I loved how it turned into poetry at the end (though the whole thing was poetic).

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A.Dot Ram
19:12 Aug 21, 2021

No surprise, but I also enjoyed Taboo. The poetry and meta refection on words was really interesting to explore as a writer.

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Amanda Lieser
22:47 Aug 20, 2021

Wow! I loved this piece so much because it was such an incredible homage to words themselves which we as writers love and hate at the same time. I thought you had excellent characterization and as a reader I felt myself going insane as your character did. This piece was such a beautiful way to capture the way we take for granted our understanding of language and the consequences of that. Thank you for writing this piece and congratulations on winning!

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Sarah Kreiger
19:07 Aug 20, 2021

As writers I think this is our biggest fear, not being able to think of the words that we want to put on paper. Hard for everyone really, but definitely for people who rely on the vast amount of words in our brain to come out on paper. I don't know what I would do if this were me. I could deal with pain, but losing my mind would be so much harder for me. Thank you for this story, making me feel and think like a good story does. Well deserved win!

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17:18 Aug 20, 2021

A sensitive and empathetic story. Impressive in the form you use to describe this breakdown of memory: as the word loss persists the lines become shorter, the words more disparate. The struggle to remember even the simplest words is terrifying, especially to those of us who are writers. Have you read John Bailey's book about the novelist, Iris Murdoch, who suffered from dementia late in life? It contains a sentence I shall never forget. On one of her more lucid days she said, 'I think I used to do something with words.' Heartbreaking. Your s...

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A.Dot Ram
18:57 Aug 20, 2021

Thanks, I haven't read the Iris Murdoch book, but it's horrifying to think of wandering that far away from myself.

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Brenda Wilkins
16:01 Aug 20, 2021

Wow! I believe this is an unspoken fear that many people, myself included, have wrestled with many times. We hope that by not saying it out loud it will never come to pass. But you dared to put into words what no one else could. I thank you for that for I now know that I am not alone. Your form is as powerful as your words in invoking passion and yes, fear, in your reader. Keep up the good work. Congratulations, you truly deserve it!

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A.Dot Ram
16:21 Aug 20, 2021

You're right. This really does tap into a fear, not just for writers, but perhaps especially so for us. Thank you for your kind words.

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Allison M
15:15 Aug 20, 2021

Oh, this is heartbreaking and beautiful. It reminds me of an elderly lady I know who has forgotten how to say most things but remembers to spell out "L-O-V-E I love you" over and over to whoever will listen. What a wonderful and devastating read.

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A.Dot Ram
15:46 Aug 20, 2021

Oh, how sad, but beautiful that that's the thing she's forced herself to remember. That's her core.

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Deidra Lovegren
14:55 Aug 20, 2021

Perfection. I have a brother-in-law with early onset dementia and a mother with Alzheimer's. You capture the existential despair and palpable fear so well. The absurdism and the beauty, the bittersweetness of it all.

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A.Dot Ram
15:44 Aug 20, 2021

Thank you. I'm glad this captures it convincingly. I took a lot of empathetic liberty with the process and response. I'm sorry you've had to experience it more directly.

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Francis Daisy
02:01 Aug 20, 2021

Slowly falling apart, one word at a time...this was beautifully written. The anger and frustration could be felt in the lines of text, as well as in the spaces between... so powerful.

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15:20 Aug 16, 2021

Beautiful, sad story. The progression (regression) of the character is shown quite well. I was also reminded of "Flowers of Algernon," and of "Still Alice."

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A.Dot Ram
19:37 Aug 18, 2021

Thank you. I have not read "Still Alice," but the title sounds familiar. I'll have to check it out.

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16:10 Aug 22, 2021

You can also watch the movie based on the book. It came out a few years ago. Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her portrayal of the protagonist. Congratulations on the win, btw! Well deserved.

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Rayhan Hidayat
15:27 Aug 14, 2021

Forgetting the word “bathroom” is what made my toes curl in horror. In any case, this is probably a writer’s worst nightmare, and you pulled no punches in capturing it. The structure reminded me of Flowers for Algernon. Excellent writing as always😙

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A.Dot Ram
15:38 Aug 14, 2021

Oh, bathroom. That one was such a horrifying realization I had to leave it to readers' imaginations. Good point about Flowers for Algernon! I really see the parallels, though I wasn't thinking about it when I wrote. I was only thinking epistolary found journal account.

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H L Mc Quaid
09:44 Aug 14, 2021

Really powerful, shining a light on brain degradation. And giving a sense of what it might be like to lose an essential part of ourselves. An especially terrifying prospect for writers, to imagine losing what we value so highly, our palette of words diminishing until we're painting stories in greyscale. Great stuff.

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A.Dot Ram
15:41 Aug 14, 2021

"Painting stories in grayscale" 😀 That's a great description. Thanks.

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H L Mc Quaid
14:48 Aug 20, 2021

Congrats on the win! :)

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Valerie June
01:46 Aug 24, 2021

Wow. I'm shook, but in a good way. Thank you for writing such a powerful piece.

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22:00 Aug 23, 2021

Oof. Stunning work, as always.

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