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By Mark Gabriel Dee
The old people in the new building smelled like wet plaster. They were neither dry nor wet, though complaints of constipation and incontinence were frequent.
"Mr. Benedict," Amor said, "you need to take your prescription. How do you expect to get better slacking off? You're always talking about hard work and this and that. C'mon, sir."
"Bah," Mr. Benedict said, spitting at her. "Bah, whatever, [mumble, mumble, poor excuses]."
Despite her prestige interning as a "hospice care administrator" for her tito Rodel, Amor grasped nothing, except where Ms. Andy last put the remote control, or how Mr. Benedict tainted the mashed potatoes with his unwashed hands—he forgot to wipe—or what Ms. Phillips intended to do on the weekend for the umpteenth time. Ms. Philips forgot everything she told anybody, so a party on Wednesday, a party on Thursday, a party on Friday; Ms. Phillips partied every weekday and she told Amor every day.
And whenever the seniors forgot, Amor experienced a stunning cognizance, a transference, nether electricity, gripping, dazzling, stupefying: all the seniors thought she was slow and that was why she worked a sinecure, why she delayed her response to when the party was or where the remote control lay.
But Amor not only collected the minutiae; she relived the day Ms. Phillips was married.
She relived Mr. Benedict's combat tour in Vietnam. She hiked the Himalayas and danced in Nepalese villages. How many songs had she memorized already in the Alps? The lyrics to tunes few but scholars might've heard, dying languages in the Amazon, teary poems of love to drowned children off Isabela, Basilan in Mindanao.
Amor had never been to Zamboanga, where her parents hailed from in the Philippines, though she learned "todo que tiene sila," everything they had, from an invalid Zamboangueño who'd died. Amor knelt before the Santo Niño de Cebu, praying, demanding a better life; she fished for tilapia in garbage mounds leaking putrid discharge; she touched a boyfriend brightened with Asian flush, while they cowered during whirlwind terrorist attacks besieging their city; they were thinking suicide during the attacks; they were thinking to escape to America or Spain, where they could pick up English and Spanish easily and kiss easily.
Amor swore she had PTSD after every transference, but no symptoms ever manifested. She lived memories as movies, a gift from Diyos, as Tito had put it.
If anything, though, Amor resented the old people for making her feel bad.
"I'm guilty of theft," she'd tell Rodel, "I'm stealing from them somehow. These--" she lacked a name for what haunted her, as they weren't dreams, they weren't made up "--are theirs and I don't want them. I don't want to live other people's lives. I want my own. Sometimes I'll suddenly wake up and find myself yelled at to 'stay alive'. But that's hard when I'm living other peoples' deaths."
"Americans pride their children on being unique. You really are. Enjoy that fact. God will one day reward you in person for being His good stewardess."
"If God created man in His image, then I don't want to meet Him."
"Shh. Enough. Don't be dramatic. When you're older, you'll understand."
"I've been older at least five times," Amor would say. But the discussions were too circular to yield consensus, so they'd end their squabbles amicably over a dessert mom had packed, halo-halo, pitsi pitsi, flan, and they ate fast for the desserts spoiled fast.
Caching memories affected Amor most at night; she didn't dream anymore but instead had entire reels devoted to scenes past. March 21st, 1975: Ms. Phillips gave birth. Amor lay prone on a gurney with a baby worming its way out of her uterus. Amor cried, then the baby cried and she named him Joseph because--
The memory burst into hot fragments, shattered black disintegrating to white and red. Amor would wake an endless season of nights. She claimed insomnia to her friends when asked why she looked tired, why she was tired, oh no, just a little missed sleep, just a missed opportunity to catch rest, an end.
"Ma'am," Amor said, "you need to please calm down. This behavior isn't appropriate."
"I don't want your dirty, brown nigger hands on me. Get off, get to! We should've blown you up in the World Wars."
Amor made fists but they never pummeled anything. She was told to pound her anger out into the dough the staff set out in the kitchens. She was told to punch walls but not the paper thin residents whose thoughts Amor stole.
"They're just paper cuts," Rodel said. "Their insults are nothing to the real damage you'd do to them. If you think about that, you'll maintain a modicum of respect for them. Their fragility warrants respect. They're kids in big suits."
"Did you know she was part of the KKK? She helped them in Indiana, she supported their moral missions as an auxiliary member."
"I'm telling you now, God picked you to understand people better. Do so."
"I don't understand. People are good and then they're awful."
"Treat her nicely. She's on the edge now. She'll fall off on her own."
Amor wanted to push her, stomp on those miserable fingers. Fitting that she had Alzheimer's, such a terrible past, but how unfitting for Amor to have to relive a lynch mob or kiss fellow Klansmen. She'd never resisted the memory flow until ma'am incited rebellion: Amor dashed in front of the KKK rallies, lifting her skirt up to ruin propriety; she'd scream to free blacks unfairly tried to hang; but history precluded her sympathies from deleting the controversy. Whenever Amor rebelled, she'd be forced to reenact the scene according to the recording till its completion.
So she cheered when they hung Anetta Moris of Youngstown, Virginia, adding to the violent distaste arising from the crowd, crowds, many she partook in, standing on the perimeter of the angry nexuses, sometimes bending to pick stones meant for skin, excoriation, and she would say to her friends, "I'll hurt him, he deserves it."
"Is it going to be this way forever?" Amor asked Rodel one day. They were chewing gum and chewing ice. Amor liked ice. The crunch was predictable. "I don't want to be alive if I'm going experience this forever," she said.
"Your mother wouldn't appreciate you being dead. Please, Amor, make nice with God."
"I can try but never be happy."
Those too were words ma'am repeated in her later stages. "I can try," she'd say, "but never be happy. Not with you manhandling me." A frown, a pout, and she'd usher attendants closer, whisper nonsense about Amor's perceived abuse.
"She's the one who was a Klansmen," Amor said. "She did horrible things! And she's angry at me?"
But nobody, or rather, Ma’am’s family didn't care about the past. What happened then stayed encapsulated by void space, blackness, a continuum of actions and consequences normally...forgotten.
"I learned in class once that the past and the future and the present actually happen at the same time," Amor said. "We only perceive the present because we can't handle the extraneous information. I'm an honors student, I'd know, though someone like her would blame it on my being Asian. I bet she hasn't changed, and being old isn't an excuse for nastiness."
Tito Rodel sighed. Ma'am's family threatened to sue for malpractice that day. "Keep working," he said, "you've three months left."
The last month had Amor serving an old Spanish woman, kastila according to the Filipinos running the practice. The woman made fun of Amor. What a stupid name Amor is, how wretched the beautiful language of Spanish had become, Amor to name a person.
"Chavacano?" the Spaniard said. "You speak what?"
"It's a creole. It's spoken by—"
"I don't care by whom. It's not Spanish. Don't make efforts to speak to me in that again."
Amor had attempted niceties for the patients, comforts of home. Cooking German food to the Germans, speaking un peu in French to the resident Swiss. She knew Chavacano, her parents' tongue, and with its similarity to Spanish, she thought it an accommodating gesture to re-color the gap between their cultures, pinks and soft blues, pretty taupe this time, not red from when they'd first landed on Philippine shores, or deep-sea blue when they'd tossed bodies over the starboard.
Amor doused herself in red though, in blue though. Before the kastila even hooked her horns through Amor's throat, she casted kerosene and drew an arrow.
"Address me as doña," the Spaniard said. "That's the only Spanish you're allowed to employ."
Doña Santa Maria had lived in the Philippines, Luzon, in Vigan. She hated her "work" as an heiress, despised the tropical heat which the locals were accustomed to. She wanted to travel to Spain or America, where the civilized prided themselves on their modernity and where the "normal people" forgot about Third World plights.
"They are not my countrymen," Amor repeated as doña. "The Filipinos are as savage as the indios anywhere else. They're constantly sticky from the humidity—and the humidity—I can't tolerate them or this humidity. We're always wet. It always rains. The damned typhoons never forsake us. Forsake them!"
"She has dementia, Amor," Tito Rodel said during a dry afternoon. "Be happy you've experienced a wet season. I would enjoy rain."
"I don't want to know people's secrets anymore. You have to factor someone's bad past self even if they're good now, and that's ruining everything for me. Maybe they'd all be more tolerable if I knew less."
"Think of God, Amor, His love for you. That's why your mother named you so."
"That's stupid. We believe in Him because of people like doña."
"You are American. You can change your name, refuse to believe, do what you want. Go ahead. You can."
"Will that stop the memories? Not believing?"
"Do it and see."
"Okay. I don't believe."
But the memories stirred. Amor spent nights thereafter, shaken, awake, clutching her bed rails and breasts, wanting to own the heart within but unable to command its pulse: concordant dysphoria. Her parents thought her attention seeking, so she cried before Tito Rodel, straining her vocal cords to break them, snap them; she tired of hearing herself, of hearing her own youth. She wanted to be old. She could die sooner if she was old.
Then the memory of Benedict's tour in Afghanistan broke her. It coalesced during the coldest week of summer, the week before her internship ended, a pre-September torment spun out of disfigured men and women, bomb blasts, cataclysmic strikes dropped from a B-1 Lancer, boots lifting off a Chinook helicopter, and the scream underscoring their privation: her solemnity.
Amor woke that night, sweatier than on the hottest day of the year. She used two towels to sop up her mess.
"This was different. It wasn't the old Benedict I saw. It was his son. The Benedict in the hospital was in Vietnam, but I saw his son as an adult. Where is his son?"
"I could look him up. But there's no promising I can find him."
"Tell me how old he is."
"Sixteen," Mr. Benedict said the next day. "My son is sixteen."
"And you are?"
"You are a nosy child. Go away."
"He has PTSD and advanced dementia," Rodel said the day after. "He's not a reliable source."
"Am I? I'm about to start senior year, and it's never been this bad. I've never picked up so much."
"Maybe this will go away when you go back to school."
"There's no changing this," she told Tito Rodel, "there's no stopping the flow. A pretty resume isn't worth practically dying every night."
"The dreams will go away with time. Patience, subrina."
"Dreams? These are memories. They happened. They've been forgotten, but I know they've happened. I'm on track for Princeton, I make good grades and a study hard and have never cheated in my life. And these are dreams now? I'm lying to you? I'm not honest?"
"Well," Rodel said, "even Jesus wept."
Amor prayed more than she'd ever on the final day of summer. Her knees burned from being pressed against the pinewood flooring of her home. Her forehead ached from the chant: Please, God, accept my forgiveness, for the sins I've done, for the hurt I've caused; I come to you asking forgiveness, offering repentance for my transgressions...
The prayer ended.
And Amor reeled back unto the ground. She clasped her breasts; she rubbed her knees; she yanked her hair till they almost came loose at the root.
A concoction of Phillips and Benedict and Ma'am and Doña struck Amor, a simultaneous exposition of lives past, spoiled fruits who'd lost their sweetness, their ardor, their romance for life. Amor wept alone in the swirling kingdom. She wept for the loss and the tenderness gone.
And Amor woke from her reverie.
She was alone.
"Amor! You did a great job this summer," Rodel said when he called. School began tomorrow, yesterday, and Amor contemplated the eternal desk days to punctuate her senior year. This is how it would begin: she would enter the double doors normally, open her locker normally, speak to other kids normally...
"Amor? Amor? Donde ya tu?"
"Sorry, po. I'm here. Just thinking."
"Yesterday and tomorrow. What I'm going to do. What I'm going to eat. I haven't had breakfast yet."
"Don't eat your mom's flan, okay? That's not a meal."
They talked until Amor tired and hung up. She prepared herself for school, away from the forgotten dying, in her house, an antique colonial home. Tito Rodel said that Doña had passed away the night before. She rejected her death as a fable; Doña still lived even if nobody could believe Amor.
In the writer's words: "I am a recluse based in San Antonio, Texas. Non-literary interests include running, volleyball and technology."
#Imagination #Nostalgia #Otherworldly #PTSD #Elderly #OldPeople #Memory #KKK #Forgetting #PastPresent #Fiction