The pain of thought tortured many. He flung himself down in a rickety chair in his dusty apartment, feeling the ghost of thoughts come on like tidal waves—relentless pursuit with a water baton raised until he succumbed and prepared himself for the unceremonious thump of impact, the blow that’d knock him out cold; that was what recalling one’s hurtful memory felt like. He was trying to recall what it had felt like.
His exhalation caught in the thorax, never arriving in the realm of existence.
Just as he thought he was going to give out and be demoted to his previous mundane self, before all this had happened, a thought danced in his mind—there would be no return to any semblance of normalcy once one had a taste of the transcendental; he knew, he confessed to himself, feeling a draft of air journeying through the lungs, then trachea, energy being restored where it had previously been dislodged or stolen or held prison. It’s better to slap oneself with truth then to wallow in the comfort of self-delusion.
A month ago, after this particular ordinary middle-aged man came home from an exhausting night, he sprawled on the couch, lost in thoughts about the torment of the night. Strange circumstances crept through his mind as the content of the night was suddenly lost to him, tossed by a pair of mysterious wilful hands into the abyss, and so strikingly sudden and absolute in its unmovable reality he found his power to be, his reaction was nothing besides a frail cry, after which he tipped over into slumber right there on the couch. It was only when the afternoon sun blazed across his eyes, the other day, was he hit by the full-blown recognition of what had happened—he had erased his memories. Specifically, a cluster of memories that had scarred his long-barren heart, proving the incident associated to be too hard to take. And indeed, he felt lighter, giddy, almost. There he was, hair sticking up in places and stubble accumulating, he had, by the graces of magical entities and ancient deities, gained the power to erase pain.
That night, his overly empathetic neighbor visited with a home-baked lemon pie, which she immediately stepped in and put down onto the dining table after she was greeted by her pallid and somber neighbor. A couple of glasses of wine in, he told her everything. He feared, at first, she would think he was going insane, but as her wide-eyed, stunned expression gave way to more an understanding one, he thought he gained an ally in this craziness.
“That’s awful. You know, you never told me where you were going…But I recall you getting agitated over minor things the past week. It must’ve been something terrible.” Her mouth twisted, brows knitted in genuine concern, what was on her mind, though, was not mere worry.
“Yes, although I’ve forced it out of my brain, I somehow feel it in my heart.” His eyes swept past the photos on the shelves, with his father’s strained smile in the family and his graduation photo, palm snaking its way up from the abdomen to the heart, as if finding its way back; and the ensuing two pats on the heart, felt like a wound.
“I’m so sorry to hear.” Her slender fingers brushed his shoulder, “I might have an idea to cheer you up.”
“What?” He retracted his gaze.
A glint in her eye. “See if this is only a power you can use on yourself. You can try to erase my memory. Well, one, if I focus on it hard enough.”
After much back and forth haggling, flirting, but possibly it was the wine that made him chuckle and nod. Why not, she’d promised to focus on a trivial, soon-to-be-forgotten memory—her going to the CD store last week to buy some records.
It worked; she had no recollection of said shopping experience, nor the items she bought, sitting right there in her apartment—as she ran back to check and afterwards rapping on his door to announce, you only change the memories, not the facts, the world turns just the same, or something to that effect in her alcohol-slurred speech.
And he got more scared. But then the alcohol really started to kick in and she, his very own manic pixie dream girl also in her middle age, widowed, and indeed lovely, suggested making a living out of this strange super power that must’ve slipped right from the pocket of some absentminded angel and fallen into his lap.
“People choose, if they really do come to you, people must’ve thought it through; it’ll never be your fault, and think about how much you can help those people! Those miserable lives altered by your mere thought! And excuse my bluntness, you’ve been between jobs for what, now? Two months? And it’s probably time to get something going on the road.” Her bird-like hands wrapped around his, “This is amazing, you need to grab it, before it disappears.”
She didn’t know he worried about its sticking, not its disappearing.
As he sat in his apartment now—alone and expectant for a client—he was once again attacked by a terrible thought: what if this thing grew and split like cells according to the irrefutable rule of nature, then another power developed inside of me? He closed his eyes—how else, then, would I feel in my heartbeat a messed-up rhythm? This intermittent march, bringing to his mind’s eye the unsure, at times stalling footsteps of the client whom he was supposed to meet any minute now.
Maybe now he could direct his sensory inner workings with whomever he focused his thoughts about; maybe he’d been pulled deeper into this mess, this pool of poured cement gradually setting with his face—his brain, his mind—submerged inside. Nonsense, he was dismissing his own radial thinking as the door rang.
He blew out air, and the tight lump in his chest loosened ever so slightly to grant him a window of time in greeting this client.
A tall woman in her early thirties was standing there, fidgety, a high forehead seemed to be the primary feature catching attention as eyes fall on her long, smooth face, the mousy hair was done up, with strands spilling out here and there, she had on a midi dress with complicated patterns his eyesight were not relenting enough for him to make out.
She hesitated, brown inquisitive eyes darting around his apartment, then said, “Should I come in?”
“Yes, yes, please.” He made way. “How rude of me.” He was starting to gather threads right then and there, her signal was strong so he was hoping for a quick and easy erasure, then receive the small sum of money that each of his clients, joyous with the troubled memory lifted off their shoulder, insist he take. It’s during those moments of feeling he had been the reason for people’s relief and contentment could he overlook the terror that came with this power.
“Would you like some tea?”
“Sure, why not.”
The kettle was thumped down onto the stovetop; the woman gave a start and he apologetically nodded in her direction, gesturing towards the plump couch.
“How may I call you?” His demeanor took on a gentler, mellowed-down quality in a stranger’s presence.
“And…” He repeated what he’d said over the past month in this kind of moment, “How may I help you today?”
Instead of an answer’s arrival, he saw Clara’s gaze was fixed on the overturned picture frames on the opposite shelves, all except one, his graduation photo, by himself, had on the cap with boyish bangs spilling out across his forehead.
He brought over the set of teaware. A sudden idea seized him, and he was sure it was engendered by the way Clara didn’t ask about the photos. “Do you want to prepare the tea together?” He asked, sitting down.
“I’m not sure…”
“Ah,” Faint smile blossomed on his wrinkled face, “this is a traditional tea practice, where the tea is poured over and over onto the clay; with repeated brewing, the fragrance of the tea is infused with years and years of aroma trapped within the clay.” A pause. “You can share with me your story as we pour the water and the tea together.”
“First we cleanse the cups. Here, I’ll show you how.”
So there she was, pouring tea nervously over the delicate equipment, a month after the man discovered his power right on this couch, attributed to his neighbor’s strong social network, so naturally all of her friends at the baker’s store and the grocer knew about it, with some dismissive, some believing.
“I taught my nephew to hate my sister.” She said, hand hung in midair, and the clear, yellowish liquid flowed out, unleashing white tendrils. The steam obscured the tiny space between them.
He simply nodded, and let the ceremony consume them; it could do that, as he had learnt as a boy, him inching closer to his taciturn, distant father on the couch of his childhood home, and his father hadn’t leant or turned away or become quiet and rigid. He ruminated often, even as a boy, about his father’s behavior and temperament, as if this big man were a scarred squirrel who didn’t know what to do with its infants. “The tea, seeps into the clay over time, stronger flavor that way.” His father explained. And he, dared not, even, to nod along, afraid the slightest of response would jolt his father out from enchantment by the steam—he simply sat there and absorbed every word like a ravenous dog, delivered softly from his father’s lips.
Stabs of pain shot out from his core, where his heart resided, as he recalled this, one of the few memories he’d held so dear like feathers, like a bunny, like a clay teapot.
“I have always resented my sister,” Clara whispered as she too was reliving her memories inside the cloud of mist, “But maybe not as deeply as I thought.”
Clara’s sister, Naomi asked her, on a Tuesday afternoon, to come over and watch Kyle because there had been an emergency run-through and her presence was mandated — Naomi was a designer at a bridal company. As urgent as it was, Naomi could only think to phone people she knew and who lived not far away. All the same, Clara was reluctant and surprised to receive the call, her sister’s voice growing anxious on the phone, just like sandpaper that is desperately trying to smooth over rough patches, reassuring her, it’s only for a few hours, and Clara’s heart was suddenly filled with stale memories of petty quarrels, accusation towards their parents’ favoritism, their competitive streak in everything—the likes, at which Clara’s eyes rolled and hand waved.
So as she finally gave in—as was her usual reaction in quarrels, confrontation and bargaining with Naomi—Clara was stricken with latent bitterness when she arrived at the place and greeted six-year-old Kyle, just off from school and drawing on the legal pad.
He was drawing his mother as he thought her to be, a pretty woman whose smile broke like sunrays. That enraged Clara, who saw in her big sister of five years a backstabbing, black-mouthing, manipulative bully well into their adulthood, someone so far a departure from the angel that was practically depicted on the yellow pages. Then, as was understandable in one who’d been blinded by resentment, Clara contaminated that angelic image in Kyle’s mind with poisonous words; she told him about the time Naomi had poured breakfast milk over her dress, then leered at her over the counter, just so Clara would be scolded and would have to do the dishes; she told him about the way Naomi had ignored her during school lunches even though she’d seen her sitting only a few benches away; she told him about how Naomi had stolen her project ideas; but most importantly, she told Kyle, all innocent eyes swirling with traces of green and blue, his gaze on the rapidly moving lips of Clara, belting out one last secret: Naomi didn’t want Kyle at first. And though it was true, it wasn’t Clara’s place to tell it, least of all in such a malicious way. Afterwards, he grew even quieter, put down the color pencils, and went to his room to play with legos.
Left alone in front of the drawing, Clara was confronted with a deep, foreign sense of guilt, directed towards Kyle and her hateful sister. For a moment, as she stared at the drawing, she experienced a sudden and horrible dislodging of memory, in which she was prompted to think about Naomi’s maturity over the years, and how she herself had been projecting Naomi in such a light her big sister didn’t even have a chance at redemption. But hate, accumulated over years, possessed the power to trump all other trivial slivers of emotions, so, Clara wished to erase that spark of sympathy for Naomi, and with that, the memory of that afternoon.
After a while into her recount, though, the man found himself losing track of what Clara was feeling and instead, focused on what Kyle must be feeling.
“Don’t you think, if anything, Kyle also needs to be here today?” He gently pushed.
There was only silence amidst the thickening steam. In a minute, the heat distributing evenly, leaves swirling inside the cups, the tea would be ready; and inside this minute, the two’s breathing slowed down.
Then, his brain shifted in a manner alien to him with the thin smoke evaporating; he felt something started to displace him, his tether to this moment evaporating along with the fading whiteness.
He saw his father, through the mist that day on the wooden couch of his childhood, making out his father hard-edged outline, and a faint smile; he saw his father, drunkenly stumbled into the foyer, an anomaly, after that he learnt his mom ran off with a man who knew how to make her laugh; he saw his father, putting on a suit as if he was the one receiving the certificate, tying a necktie in the mirror, brows knitted tight; he saw his father, insisting on living in the old house and refusing to venture into the city, as suggested by him, twenty-two, ambitious and who’ve secured a job position in an architectural firm, his father said that day, spine pulled straight yet still shorter than him, “You’re all grown up, you don’t need me anymore;” he saw his father, on the hospital bed, with tubes in his body, breathing raggedly, and when his eyes opened, it’s as though he’d been greeted by an astrological rare event for which he’d been waiting his whole life; he saw his father, inside the coffin, snug, small, traces of the quiet giant of his childhood crushed in the cruel hands of time, he thought, as he looked at his serene face, always mysterious, always stern and harboring secrets, and he cried all those tears that he’d been too afraid to cry in front of his father, and he’d hoped his father, in some other dimension, hadn’t heard him.
“I remember…” Shakily, the words slipped out of him. That night, he had erased the memory of lowering his father’s coffin into the ground, he had erased the pain of lost chances at connecting with him, the lost time in which the two, timid, had never known each other. And in all those years, his vicious heart that was shut up by years of silene, study and knowledge and books, had wrought upon him a kind of hatred towards his father and the void between them, quite undetectable yet lethal—that which was nowhere to be found in the valves of his heart, after he’d lost him in his memory, which was the cruelest and most absolute form of loss.
As Clara waited in the shared silence, her resolve in erasing her own feelings of sadness and guilt towards Naomi was shaken, and as she lifted the tea cup and sipped, her toxic and obsessive thoughts were afloat in the tea’s bitterness and the tinge of sourness—they were carried downwards, whereas previous they had been lodged in her throat, eager to somersault into existence.
And the man, opposite her, whose profile was no longer shrouded by the mist, professed, “Sorry, Miss Clara, I can’t do it.”
“I don’t think I can do it, too,” She aimed a faint smile at him, rejuvenated by the hot tea that warmed her core, “I think I need to go and do some explaining. Untie some knots.”
He nodded. They stood, shook hands, and he was left alone by a client for the very last time. Because with Clara’s stepping out the door, hate and hope mixed within her, the pain and hurt and revelation keeping her head level and her hands shaky and her legs determined, the man’s power went out through the same door and never came back.