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

109 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

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

109 comments

Karen McDermott
11:09 Aug 19, 2021

From critique circle, and feeling like I've hit jackpot with this. What a wonderful story. The way it disintegrates towards the end. Brilliant.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Cathryn V
06:28 Aug 18, 2021

wow, this is so poignant and written from the voice of experience. Frightening, tragic

Reply

A.Dot Ram
19:40 Aug 18, 2021

Thank you. Fortunately it is not written from actual experience (beyond something my mom said about menopause), but I did a bit of research and used a lot of imagination. Creative empathy.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
A. Neptune
07:16 Aug 17, 2021

Sad but very beautiful!

Reply

A.Dot Ram
19:37 Aug 18, 2021

Thanks. It's an unthinkably sad situation. But then I tried to think about it...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
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."

Reply

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.

Reply

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.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Shea West
17:48 Aug 14, 2021

I've often wondered what happens in the mind of someone who starts to lose their memory and such. I had a great uncle that lived with us as a kid that had early onset dementia. He was mean, and would shout profanities at my dad all night long. For some reason he was sweet on me, and he saved his niceness on me. Do they notice it? Do they fight it? Do they tell someone? How fast does it happen? The format in which you wrote this alludes to how the brain starts to lose things, with the short staccato of information. I'm always humbly impress...

Reply

A.Dot Ram
19:44 Aug 18, 2021

I'm sorry about your family's experience with your uncle. My dad's aunt had Alzheimers, and though I didn't witness her degeneration firsthand, it kind of haunts me, since I'd always looked up to her. She was in community theater, and would learn lots of lines, until she couldn't do it. I think the person suffering is not always aware of it. Research says it's usually a family member who gets them to seek medical attention. So many people want to downplay anything that's wrong ("it's just menopause, I'm fine...).

Reply

Shea West
19:51 Aug 18, 2021

Your great aunt sounded like a cool ass person!

Reply

A.Dot Ram
19:56 Aug 18, 2021

Totally. Her name was Gladys. I don't think I've had a character Gladys yet, but it's inevitable.

Reply

Shea West
20:20 Aug 18, 2021

That's a dope old lady name....I anticipate to see what she's up to in your stories!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
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😙

Reply

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.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
David G.
20:07 Aug 13, 2021

Stunning. What are some other words? Transcendent, perhaps? The progression of the memory loss is clear and simple and elegantly done. The way it captures the love between husband and wife, even as she loses the words to describe it, is beautiful. You’re extremely talented, Anne. I’m always inspired. One typo here: “I turns something beautiful into something ugly.”

Reply

A.Dot Ram
22:21 Aug 13, 2021

You've made my day by picking up on the things in the story I wanted to emphasize (I'm never quite sure how others will read it) and putting it so nicely.

Reply

David G.
13:46 Aug 20, 2021

Congratulations! I think you may have officially mastered this weekly contest.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
17:01 Aug 13, 2021

Wonderful story, Anne. It got me hooked from the beginning paragraphs, and I am glad I kept on reading. It was interesting, creative, and original. I've never heard of this thing Trish has. But it's really cool to read about it. My favorite parts were all those blanks you put in place of the words she couldn't think of. Happy writing, Anne! -Bella Jade

Reply

A.Dot Ram
17:04 Aug 13, 2021

It's a real thing, and as a writer, it sounds horrible. I did a Google search for neurological conditions that might make someone question reality, or something like that, and here's what captured my imagination. Thanks for your comment.

Reply

17:15 Aug 13, 2021

It does sound horrible. Imagine if you had that condition while you were trying to write! You're welcome!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
A.Dot Ram
03:15 Sep 30, 2021

Thank you to everyone who's commented on this story, especially to those of you who have shared your own experience as caregivers and even patients. For anyone interested in learning more, I just found this article, and I admire the research and humility that went into crafting this new book featuring Aphasia. https://lithub.com/saying-a-few-words-about-my-novel-at-the-aphasia-self-help-group/

Reply

Show 0 replies
Valerie June
01:46 Aug 24, 2021

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

Reply

Show 0 replies
22:00 Aug 23, 2021

Oof. Stunning work, as always.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Eric Holdorf
13:14 Aug 23, 2021

Wonderfully told story. There are some great lines, great details, and the structure of the story was perfectly done. After having spent a week with my in-laws, it reinforces that we have only marginal control on how the mind ages. Well done.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Zilla Babbitt
13:17 Aug 22, 2021

Anne, this is awesome. Congrats on four wins!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Andrea Magee
15:04 Aug 21, 2021

Excellant. Congratulations on the win!

Reply

A.Dot Ram
19:07 Aug 21, 2021

Thanks!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Imogen Bird
11:45 Aug 21, 2021

Heartbreaking, but so well crafted to portray the desperation in the deterioration. Congrats again on your win, so well deserved!

Reply

A.Dot Ram
19:13 Aug 21, 2021

Thank you. Yours was also very sad, but in a more hopeful way. The couple in the parking lot...😢

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Michelle Gregory
23:02 Aug 20, 2021

Such a powerful and sad story, told beautifully. Congratulations.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Susy G
14:25 Aug 20, 2021

Wow, wow, wow, this is outstanding. I couldn't fault it even if I wanted to. Congratulations!

Reply

Show 0 replies
K. Antonio
23:34 Aug 13, 2021

What I loved about the story is how we as readers know there's something wrong right from the beginning. Those first 3 paragraphs allude to enough that we know what's the premise but we also have no idea what's going to happen. I had to read to know, and that was great. You gave a us a problem, no solution and basically made us no promises. I really enjoyed the interpretation of the prompt. The narrative was great and easy. How you described memory loss *chef kiss*. The title, the comparison to the game of Taboo, this was inspiring.

Reply

A.Dot Ram
19:54 Aug 18, 2021

Thank you for those kind words. I've really believed lately in defining the conflict very early on in a story, to get readers invested quickly--to let them know why they're reading, and what they might find out if they keep reading. Maybe it has to do with a comment a reader made on a story earlier this year where it took too long, or maybe because I've been impatient myself lately--I don't want to tax anyone's patience. Also, I really am pretty good at Taboo. Most of my characters react to circumstances the way I would, plus or minus 25% of...

Reply

K. Antonio
13:31 Aug 20, 2021

Win number 4!! Congrats!! You're definitely not making catching up to your number of wins and shortlists easy. 🤣🤣 I still feel the same way about this piece, and I'm jealous I didn't write it. The writing and the premise was wonderful, so I'm happy to this piece getting recognition!

Reply

A.Dot Ram
14:25 Aug 20, 2021

Thank you. You'll inevitably catch up, but you're right--I'm trying to make it hard.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Jody S
23:59 Apr 29, 2023

This is beautiful and ironic and sad! My favorite section is:. 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. As a writer we always want to start on a full tank! My tank was dry for 20 years so this story hit me in a different way! Way belated congratulations on the win! Well earned!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Roger Scypion
23:42 Feb 12, 2023

Fantastic! You grasped me by the collar and shook me awake all the way down to your last word. I'm educated and better for knowing what this story had to offer.

Reply

Show 0 replies