The memoir is clipping along slower than pitch dripping. I’m finally close to figuring out what to include in the final manuscript. (For those of you stalking my writing to see if you’re there, in the end, you’ll probably discover you’re not.) However, I’m much clearer on what will not be included. There are scenes, like the one below, that I’m fond of, but that don’t belong at all. One-off scenes like this one don’t lend themselves to the narrative, so they have to be abandoned. And, in this case specifically, it seems no one remembers Roger Gillespie but me. Was he even real? Was any of it? If you’re a memoirist, maybe you can relate to this tension.
Roger, if you do exist (and I believe you do), I hope you’re well.
I sat at Roger Gillespie’s patio table picking glass out of my face as I waited for him to come outside. When he came out, we made nervous conversation. I chain smoked cigarettes the whole time, no matter the fact I was recovering from a pneumothorax. Each time I put a cigarette out, I would use the soiled filter to clean a section of the enormous and filthy leaded glass ashtray to gleaming.
“Do you have a trashcan?” I interrupted Roger, looking up.
“Yeah, over there.” He pointed.
I got up, dumped the ashtray, returned to my seat, and lit up another cigarette. I had half the ashtray clean and I felt an overwhelming compulsion to clean the other half. It didn’t even occur to me that I could ask for a wet washcloth or a paper towel. It wouldn’t have been half as satisfying anyway.
At 17, I wasn’t even legally old enough to smoke. But after the accident, after everything, I didn’t feel beholden to most of the rules. Those were for people who were meant to be kept safe. It was too late for me. Besides, who was around to tell me no?
It was because of the accident that I was at Roger’s house. I hardly knew him, but we were both about to be seniors in high school. I think I’d had some classes with him my junior year. Or maybe I’d already graduated high school at this point and he was on his way to college. Was I still on my walker? Honestly, I can’t remember. This whole period of time in my life – the first few years after the accident – is a pastiche of soundbites and movie-like vignettes, all jumbled together and out of order. There’s no cohesive whole.
What I’m sure of is that I knew Roger from high school. I’d already been in the accident. A few weeks before this conversation, Roger’s mom and sister had been killed in a highway traffic accident, just like my foster mom. Or like the drunk man and his drunk passenger who’d hit us head on while we were on family vacation. I’m not sure Roger and I had much in common beyond this.
Somebody, probably a well-meaning adult, coordinated a meeting between us in some half-thought-out attempt to bring healing to both of us. Or for us to find connection. Or, shit, I don’t know – because nobody knows what to say to anybody after an apocalypse, and maybe they thought I could be an interpreter. Or maybe that Roger could.
He was a handsome boy. Blonde. Tall. Athletic. Smart. From a good family. He was kind, inasmuch as I was able to understand kind – kind people were the ones who were anything but scary. I was trying to decide if I should fuck him, but I couldn’t read his face.
“You doing okay?” I asked, looking at him. I couldn’t look at him long, though, so I returned to the endless scrubbing of the ashtray. I was making progress. Cutting through the accumulation of years of built up ash and tar. I didn’t consider who’d been the smoker. Was I sitting there cleaning away some remnant of Roger’s mother right in front of him? It only now occurs to me to wonder. No, matter. He hardly seemed to notice what I was doing.
In fact, Roger’s whole affect was disturbingly even, yet detached.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” he replied.
And then, what? I think maybe he told me about the accident. I think he talked about how his dad was handling the situation. I don’t remember.
What I do remember – and clearly – was his disposition. Or, more specifically, the way I felt about how I thought he was feeling. In the weeks following my own apocalypse, I was anything but even keeled. I would fly into fits of rage or sobbing at the slightest provocation. Once, a friend teased me about how often I looked at my watch, one of the first signs of the compulsions that helped me cope, and I responded by taking the watch off, grabbing a nearby hammer, smashing the watch to pieces, and then screaming, “There? Are you fucking happy?”
But Roger was calm. I wasn’t trying to upset him, but I felt eager to see a sign of distress. I found him fascinating, and myself increasingly uncomfortable.
I couldn’t sit or maintain my focus for long. I was constantly in a state of agitation. Another side effect from the head injury. After a while, and probably before it was appropriate, I announced I was leaving. I couldn’t be there anymore, in that place, trying to make meaning out of Roger’s meaningless loss. Or mine. When I left, the ashtray was gleaming clean.
What brought 17 (or was it 18?) year old me to that backyard – me, so out of place, as I was everywhere in this world? How did I end up there? Do I go back to the accident? Farther? To the daughter I put up for adoption when I was 16? To arriving in Roswell the fall I was 15, after a decade and a half of warfare? Or, maybe I go all the way back to the beginning, as I did in my mind over and over for years – decades – as I tried to untangle how I ended up anywhere. Or where, in fact, anywhere actually was.