0) The beginning of all this, maybe. This woman who insists I could have loved anybody. We saw the Atlantic from Normandy. We saw the Pacific from San Francisco. This is not “my love is like an ocean.” We’d been through that already.
I know—and on looking, knew—that I’d never seen the ocean’s shapes from these angles. But I was well aware that their immensity and depths would swallow anyone up without remorse. After she left me, I felt like I was skimming the bottom of the Pacific with rotting whales and polar bear bones.
I rose out of it, but was infused with the way these things decayed. I made my own home brew with this decomposition as its base. I drank cases and cases.
I floated in the Atlantic, but from the coast of South Carolina.
Now as I float, I understand why she left, but when I dry off, my dryness causes me to forget.
I have a picture in my mind, but I don’t know if the smiles we had on our faces were real. And if anything exists in 0–9, it must be true.
1) I’m standing on a street in Amsterdam, leaning against the canal wall, staring at row houses. I can’t discern which building was Otto Frank’s store.
“Which one is the annex?” I ask my best friend. “They all look the same.”
“No,” she says, “they don’t.” She crosses her arms. I look again.
One house has a triangular roof. Another nine windows. The last concrete steps that lead up to its entrance. The sun is setting now.
“The dusk sets over them all the same,” I say.
We stand for a minute that turns into two. I’m looking into the canal and see the building’s reflections. I’m not looking close enough. I feel I have committed a crime. This not knowing.
Looking back on this image, I realize that it comes from a postcard I bought in the gift shop. I used the postcard as a bookmark on and off for a year until I set it down in a coffee shop or the university’s library. Perhaps I left it on a patch of grass under the tree I sat beneath in the commons.
The image on the postcard was easy enough to find online. The answer to my question was easy enough to find, too. A blogger had taken the time to highlight the store in blue, the horrible blue of a highlighter. That blue revoked the sun. It revoked the water in the canal. It revoked the black and white photographs of the movie stars that Anne had hung while in hiding.
2) I’ve read two memoirs in my life, one being Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. In Europe, they call it If This Is a Man, and it is a man. Man is a pretty pitiful thing to be.
I’ve read Survival in Auschwitz, but not If This Is a Man. I won’t be able to read it until I can read Italian. I can guess why it’s altered. American books need heroes, and since Levi survived, he was good enough to be named one.
Our publishers wanted to tattoo the name Auschwitz on the cover. A title with Auschwitz in it is far more interesting than some philosophical meandering. We want the details that make us grimace, but also titillate us. So in the way that Americans do, the publishers pushed aside Levi’s title. This is not for us, this philosophy.
But don’t you think he earned the right to name the book what he wanted?
3) The second memoir I’ve read is Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, in which she writes, “This record lays a claim to being historical—that is, much of it can be checked. If there is more fiction in it than I know, I should like to be set right.” McCarthy is one of the few who took the time to acknowledge that there is fiction in nonfiction. She invites correction. She wants her fiction set straight.
What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction? The nonfiction writer chooses subject matter from the real world. Its defenders say that the story being told does not originate from invention, but from people who once lived and are living. These people are not characters.
But what if I take the written words, the things I have recorded, and place them in a tiger’s mouth? It is subject matter from the real world. The words that the tiger speaks are not fictional. I have them recorded on a Dictaphone.
4) Nonfiction from found autobiographical moments (note: not created).
Tara, my ex, experienced suicide at the age of twelve. Her boyfriend Steven tied a sheet around the metal bar in his closet and hung himself, leaving his little brother Robbie and his mother, now half-crazed, behind. One Christmas, long after Steven died, Robbie gave Tara an ice cream scoop with a polar bear handle.
At the age of sixteen, Robbie went quarry diving. He and his friends made it through the first jump. One of them said, “Let’s go one more time.” Of course, we know what one more time means. We’ve seen this before. Robbie broke his neck. Robbie drowned.
My uncle went to a park and shot himself in the head. However, he pinned a piece of notebook paper with his name and phone
number on it so that the police would immediately know who he was. But what is interesting about a man shooting himself? Stories like this have been suffocating me since my uncle’s death. Here’s the proof of the suffocation.
Three weeks ago, a classmate of mine sealed herself in her car. She took sheets and jammed them in places where air might find its way inside. When I heard she was dead, I thought of her at the end of a rope, a bloated face, her glasses fallen off. But she lit a small gas grill and suffocated as the carbon monoxide gathered in her car. A friend told me what my classmate looked like when she found her lying dead in the backseat of her car. She’d made a small bed and was lying on her back. My friend said she looked like herself, but her face was a bit purple.
5) Fiction that is nonfiction.
See all of the above.
Also known as realism: Madame Bovary, etc.
Also known as This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen in English or Farewell to Maria in Polish, written by Tadeusz Borowski. The stories in the text were inspired by the author’s concentration-camp experience, “inspired” meaning “historical subject matter chosen from the real world.”
6) Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
7) Primo. Weisel, on the day of Levi’s death, informed his audience that Levi died forty years earlier in Auschwitz. If Weisel is correct, Primo Levi’s writings are the act of a living corpse. I could write this six different ways, but why bother with oxymora?
Primo threw himself down the stairs (according to the coroner and three of his biographers). He fell (according to one good friend and an Oxford sociologist). Why two possibilities? Memory, survivor’s guilt, aging mother-in-law, no suicide note, discussions of feeling dizzy, plans for the future. He was a chemist, his friend said. It would have been a hell of a lot easier for him to poison himself. “You stupid fucking bastards, it would have been easier.”
8) I will map out the last year.
→ → Further, my mother’s mother had a stroke right at Christmas. A few weeks later, my mom wrote me a note with two cards in it, one for my father’s mother and one for hers. On Grandma Carolyn’s write a note telling her how you are, how the weather is. Tell her to have a Happy Birthday. On the one for my mom just write hi and your name. I’m not sure she’s with it.
I did what she asked and turned back to her note. This note with a bit of commentary could make a good short-short.
I can’t write that story though. We are used to hearing that our loved ones have forgotten. There has to be a metaphorical way to fictionalize it, but I would rather meditate on what has happened. She does not remember me → I remember her → When I think about calling, I remember that she has forgotten me.
What is this gap between her erased memory and mine that is intact? “It just happens when you get old,” my wife said. “People get dementia, get Alzheimer’s.”
You can call it these things. You can provide the scientific explanation. But what is the name of that space between choosing to forget and a seizure choosing for us?
9) Now the question is: Does it mean more if Primo Levi committed suicide? Do his books mean more, that is? Or if he accidentally fell down the stairs, does the fall stem from the weight of memory? Did he choose to forget and only know one way to do it? Or did he want to remember and accidentally fall down the stairs? It’s more moving, more tragic, if Levi made the choice. No, it’s more moving if we listen to Wiesel: Levi died forty years ago at Auschwitz.
Elie Weisel (Night)…living. Bruno Schulz (The Street of Crocodiles)…killed in the Warsaw Ghetto. Robert Desnos (État de veille)…killed in Theresienstadt. Tadeusz Borowski (This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen)…suicide after the war. Primo Levi (Survival In Auschwitz/Se questo è un uomo)…suicide? Accidental? Suicide—