In the same way that you can recognize how the cartilage cockles in your own ears, or the specifics in the grooves of your own fingerprints, and the way your tongue is so familiar with the roof of your own mouth, it is that vivid. It is so vivid because it refuses to leave you, in the way that a birthmark will not pale even after your skin is raw and burning and smelling like cucumber melon from soap that stings. It will not dull. It will not mute. This memory stays, abiding and absorbing you, even now, as you watch your wife quaff her coffee, making that babbling sound in the hollow of her throat.
As you sit in your kitchen, finding yourself in that surreal disposition, you begin to feel the familiar onset of the panic attacks that have become so frequent they have begun to identify you. You, the neighbor who sits in his car for 30 minutes at a time, breathing heavy with a more than dead expression on your face. You, the man who has been caught in the office bathrooms hyperventilating more than once. You, always exhausted because several nights a week you exchange sleep for hours spent gripping cotton sheets, and keeping your wife awake so that she consumes cups and cups of coffee the following morning.
Staring at the back of your hands you begin thinking that all you are is perception; and all that anything is, is perception. How much you wish you were the type of person who believed in God and not that life is a glitch in so much unknown, and the only thing you can really feel, that is tangible, is a memory from when you were 5 years old. Your wife asks about your job without taking her eyes off the newspaper, scrolling black print, looking for something indefinite. And you feel sad because she is so unaware of how unreal all of this is.
You run your hand through your hair and touch the back of your neck, squeezing the muscles insulating your spine, hiding under skin, which in your opinion is much too thin to be the only defense against all the elements in the world that could decapitate you. The anxiety, now hot in your gut, holds your breath. Surrendering yourself to the apprehension that is your life, you close your eyes and clench the only part of you that is real.
And now, you’re back to being 5 years old. You and your younger brother David are tired in a way that children never are. You’re staring out the side window of the house you grew up in, watching the cars pass, and thinking of how they look like animals that are hungry and impatient. Your mother has locked herself in her room and refuses to react to your knocking, or David’s crying, or the mounting volume from the television you keep turning up, in hopes that she’ll scream at you to turn that shit off.
You watch the cars and wonder where your father has gone. Thinking of his suitcase, the corners worn smooth, being filled this morning when you were supposed to be sleeping but instead were kept awake by the roar of your mother, and the crash of something glass against their bedroom wall. You tell David, now sleeping on the couch, not to worry because you’re keeping an eye out for your father to return home.
And then there’s the knock, which is hard and brief. You turn your eyes toward the hall that leads to your mother’s bedroom door, and wait for footsteps that never come. So, you walk to the front entry and turn the knob with both hands and open it to a man in a suit and briefcase. You look up at him, but the white sun eclipses his face, so you can never make out the features in his semblance. Instead you look at his knuckles that wrap the briefcase and think to yourself how dry they are.
He calls you Sonny and asks if your father or your mother is home. Because he is a grown up, you nod yes, still staring at his ashy knuckles, then turn and run to your mother’s bedroom door. You yell that someone is here, someone has come and he needs you, your plea restricted by the limits of your 5 year old vocabulary. You knock the wood with your small fist, and wait.
You can hear her curse, and you can hear the bottles, and a sigh from your mother that settles in your ears, similar to how cough syrup settles in your stomach. The metal knob moves, and finally she emerges in a blush silk bathrobe, like a pale rose phoenix, looking down at you with a lamentation that looks so furious it could break your spine. And you want to say you’re sorry but before your tongue can flick out the words her hand strikes the side of your face. Your eyes feel caustic, hot. The corners of your mouth crook. Your throat feels like a pregnant knot. And suddenly you are eating the air.
Your mother is very pretty. You know this, even now, at the age of 5. You know because of the way people seem to hang suspended around her, as if she is the only thing that is grounded. She wraps the robe tighter to her waist and tells you to be quiet. Trying to re-pin her hair, she licks her fingers and rubs them under her eyes, refining black mascara. Takes a swallow of vodka and pushes it back and forth between her cheeks, her face sour when it goes down. She sways out of the bedroom, leaving you burning with ache in the hallway, as you do your best to stay quiet.
It’s a while before you venture back into the living room, where you can hear the man with dry knuckles and your mother, drinking coffee, and him trying to give his sale’s pitch but is continuously being distracted by the way she crosses and uncrosses her legs, and laughs, and how she touches her clavicle when amused. His voice is hearty and he swallows his coffee copiously. Everyone is nervous around your mother.
And it’s an even longer while before you watch them both get up and head toward the hallway. She turns on the television as they pass by it. You see his dry-knuckled hand lift and squeeze your mother’s side. You hear her voice coast down the hall in a placid whisper something cryptic, and adult, and sharp in your ears. You wait in the living room with David, who is still sleeping. You wait, scrunching your toes in the shag carpet. You wait, held in the noise of black and white cartoons, trying to find a distraction from your mother’s bedroom. But you can’t.
You stand in front of your mother’s bedroom door, with a wonder that is solely reserved for 5 year old boys. And you hear her short gasps interrupting drawn out moans, and a wheezing from her mattress. You hear the man with dry knuckle’s deep voice, groaning. You hear him hurting her. You see your small fists pound the door and you feel a scream erupt from your gut. And you cry to her, because you know you’re too weak to save her. You reach the metal knob and turn it with your delicate fingers. The door, unlocked, pushes through, and this is the last moment you were anything but perception.
Your wife’s hands are clutching your face and she’s screaming at you to focus. Your arms are numb from the lack of carbon dioxide in your blood. Your fingers are red, gripping the table. With her tone stern, she asks in a clamor what it is you need.
“Lotion.” Is the only thing that comes to mind.