Under the overpass
“It’s a shame, I’ve never seen any two people better friends than you two were”, her mother used to say. Karry tried to ignore her but the words stung. “Things change” is all she could muster up, trying to sound indifferent.
With that she packed her bags and headed to the library. She had only been home for a week but already felt like a broken cog in somebody else’s wheel. Karry surprised her parents when she arrived home from Paris that summer. She didn’t tell them about the engagement she broke off, or that she wanted a new life, or that she wasn’t sure how long she would be staying. Her brothers and sister breezed through the house in brief stopovers like old-fashioned family doctors with their carry-on luggage and busy visitation schedules: “heart good, mom?” “Blood pressure okay, dad?” Then they were gone and it was just Karry and her parents again.
Karry tried to busy herself by taking long walks to the library. She sat at a desk timing the number of hours she told herself she would dedicate to researching a new career. She tried to take herself seriously but her mind wandered.
It was true what her mother had said, how long had it been since she really knew her brother? When they were young, Karry and James spent every day together. Despite the eight-year age difference Karry wasn’t ashamed to admit that James was her best friend when kids teased her at school. From the time he was a baby, she was eager to show James the world, to know what he dreamed, to explain to him what she had figured out. It was like tugging a doll around by the hand everywhere she went, except the doll was alive. Or like being a mother without any real responsibility.
But James was now living his own life in college and Karry walked alone through the town they grew up in. It had been months since they talked on the phone, and years since they talked really.
Each morning Karry crossed the street from the townhome complex where her parents lived and walked toward Brookline Blvd. She walked the way she remembered walking, kicking up dirt with the cool drag of feet that could kickflip a skateboard better than any boy her age. When she crossed all four lanes of traffic, the swagger in her legs straightened out; she placed one foot in front of the other with a purpose she couldn’t decipher.
Alongside the car-congested road, a footpath took Karry down and up like a rollercoaster under a small 20ft overpass. The descent was gradual, hardly noticeable; it eased the unsuspecting walker into its wormhole. Then the gravel started to crack bearing dirt and tree roots trying to force their existence above ground. By the time the victim noticed and looked back, they’d come too far to turn around. The buzzing of conspiring insects replaced the once-dominant sound of cars. At the end of the descent, pine needles graced the entrance to the underpass – a Welcome mat. Bushes stood firmly on either side like guardians of invisible doors.
Some days Karry took off her shoes and walked barefoot through the dirt, letting the flaky grime slip between her toes. The feeling reminded her of trips to the beach with James. As soon as she got her driver’s license, Karry took every opportunity to take James out of grade school. She wrote excuses like “sick dog” and “broken stereo” in the log at the principal’s office, knowing nobody would ever read it. The secretary would call James to the office and off they’d go, speeding along Highway 17 blaring truth out the window.
“Hey, how about some tacos?” Karry would ask as she pulled in to a Jack in the Box.
Their full bellies sank into the sand in meditation before jumping on longboards and testing their nerves down the steep hills of Capitola.
“I bet we could just climb over these gates,” Karry motioned to James as she started to climb. “They always gate the best skateboarding hills and I bet the rich people living here don’t even appreciate them. Hard on my knees, they complain.”
When their calves got tired from pushing, they built sand castles guarded by a Great Wall of China. The castle, unceremonious and plane, was always an afterthought – the wall should be guarding something after all. Usually it was just a mound of sand that they pretended was a city. The real prize was the strength of the defenses and the tunnels that served as the city’s water supply and irrigation. James beamed with pride when his trenches withstood the unexpected, “Tsunami!” yell from Karry as she dumped a bucket of water on the creation.
“Can I take out the skim board?” James would ask.
“Sure, just make sure to wax the bottom.” Karry would say, mistaking snowboards with water-sport boards.
The sand scorched the soles of their feet as they pretended to be major league baseball players in training. “Strike!” James would call out, forgetting that Karry was the competing team. Hobbling on the outer edges of her feet, Karry was the first to surrender to the burning sand, making an excuse to check on the castle or their belongings on the bath towels they had laid out. Nobody ever tried to take their things – what was there to take? – or disturb their unsculptured mound whose secret sense was as impenetrable as the wall surrounding it. But once the tide touched the city’s trenches, something told them it was time to go.
Beyond that sand wall, the mood abruptly stiffened. James sat in the passenger seat, spine straight, legs hovering above the car mat but not daring to swing. His blond mushroom cut accentuated his large head and serious young-man eyebrows; all he was missing was a soldier’s helmet. Karry didn’t look at James either; they didn’t talk. She sponged the steering wheel with her hands as she drove, veering for the eye of the storm in her head.
Clips of books she never quite finished mixed with her own thoughts until she couldn’t tell them apart: being alive always seems to be the price you pay for something… I slept and dreamt that life was beauty; I awoke and found that life was duty… to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in it … the only antidote to suffering is physical pain. And James was the perfect subject for this uncontrolled experiment.
Karry started training James to be a professional tennis player when he was two. Every day she fed him tennis balls from her racket and critiqued his technique. She made him run for every wayward ball and in-between strokes she yelled at him if his feet weren’t dancing in place. “My body is in chills!” James cried out to no avail. She drove him further until she broke his will or he just let go. These were Karry’s favorite moments: seeing James as nothing more than an unthinking, unfeeling, ball of energy.
They sat on the tennis court bench afterwards in an exhausted euphoria, Karry from the all-consuming devotion she poured into James, James from the continual motion of churning Karry’s expectations into inertia. Or maybe it was just the relief of having survived another day.
As the ground leveled off, Karry looked up at the overpass. It was an unreasonably sturdy structure. Only 20 feet long and 15 feet high but already it had an arch like a steel bridge, supported by plates and rods that made running “M’s” – “M’s” that grew, then shrank, then grew again to give the underbelly its shape. Each element that the years added to the overpass (dirt, ivy, even erosion) seemed to add to its strength like one more soviet star on a war tank. Bolts the size of Karry’s clenched fist held it together. More than once she tried to unscrew them to see if she really did have superhuman powers, but there was no use, it was indestructible. Yet for all its strength, nothing ever crossed the overpass: no cars, no people, no bikes. As if the structure was just an observer, a harborer of secrets, the silent judge-jury-and-executioner of this microcosm.
For a moment Karry considered life there as a bum, but in the end decided that it would be too hard to comb her hair. She jumped and swung on the running “M’s” – that hideous letter that looked so much better upside down, sideways, or on a brown bag of chocolates.
James never cared for “M&M’s”. He was a strange boy that didn’t like the taste of chocolate and cried the first time Karry made him drink champagne, like he was afraid it would change him. Karry’s siblings teased her that she was brainwashing James into healthy eating with her slave-driver methods. Eventually though, he must have felt that change was inevitable and developed a taste for beer. When James visited Karry in Seattle, Karry bought a six-pack that they drank in the attic of a cramped graduate student house. She introduced James to her schoolmate, Niki, and the three of them listed to music, laughed, and drank until the night had heard too many childhood stories.
“We’re heading to bed. I call the floor, James, it’s better for my back anyways,” Karry tried to excuse both of them.
“No that’s okay, I’ll get it. I want to stay up here a little longer with Nik anyways,” James challenged her confidently.
“Your call,” Karry shrugged.
The next morning Karry skipped class to play tennis with James; she was surprised that their matches were almost competitive. Karry still won, but she no longer had to give anything away to make the game more interesting.
Coming up from under the overpass, the path took on a sharp incline. Vines twisted around a rusted fence until the ground returned to asphalt. Some days Karry struggled up the hill with slow heavy steps, pretending she was Sisyphus pushing a giant rock up the mountain. Other days she sprinted up before her fingers turned to leaves, like Bernini’s Daphne running away from Apollo. Halfway up, her heart started to beat faster, growing impatient.
After her Masters in Seattle, she knew she was running out of ways to set the snooze button on her life. Karry took a job and only saw James in the summer. He was a sophomore in high school and it was only natural that between her work and James’ growing life, they couldn’t spend as much time together. But as James grew older, he also grew quieter. In his silence Karry felt the widening of a crack, like a frigid glacier was slowly moving its way between them. He was still receptive to everything she had to say, but Karry couldn’t avoid the growing feeling that he knew something, something he would never tell her.
James started winning sets in their tennis matches. Karry’s pull-him-by-the-arm rag doll had transformed into a six foot four giant with the agility of a hummingbird. The following summer, he would only give Karry a few games. Like the slow breaking of a code, the lock finally fell on the ground. What could it have felt like? Karry wondered. Was it disappointing, the simplicity of it? And if it was her code that James had cracked, why didn’t she know what it was? Now it was Karry dying to know, but James didn’t have the same urge to teach her.
Karry rejoined the main road. On the outside, the cars still flew by at inconsiderate speeds, blind to the living things all around them. The library was still holding its breath, as if time hadn’t moved while Karry was gone in never-ever-land. She quickened her pace and scrunched her forehead. There was no point in reliving the process of growing apart. Why try to figure out what had changed? Did it matter what James had figured out?
But Karry couldn’t help but wonder who James was now. What did he think about?
The library’s doors sensed her presence from three feet away. She stood on her tip-toes to reach the top shelf, fumbling the books with her finger until they rocked into her hand. “The Human Brain”, “Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory”, “The Mind’s Eye”. A person can’t get bored of studying the brain, she reasoned. We know what every part of it looks like, but do we know what it actually does? And if it’s made of these cells that spike, why can’t we feel them spike but instead perceive some image, voice, sensation, memory?
Karry was particularly interested in memory. It was nothing like the modern day computer, she discovered. Memory wasn’t encoded as some piece of data with a pointer but rather stored in the sequence of active cells – scratch that, not stored, it was the sequence itself. Karry imagined a man playing on piano keys, the secret sequence of notes opening a hidden bookshelf vault. But instead of the bookshelf opening, the vault was suddenly visible in the keys like an eye that looks through a dollhouse window to discover the life therein.
From the library back through the underpass then home again. The days were suspended in a kind of warm fog, somewhere between liquid drops of knowledge and the gaseous diffusion of thought. But the more Karry learned about memory, the less her own made sense.
Once more under the overpass, Karry clenched the steel rods until her knuckles grew yellow. Looking up she saw her college dorm room window from the third-story rail she almost fell from her freshman year. She wasn’t really ready to jump but this desperate plea for attention was her last hold over Rob, her first love. She was beside herself, out of her mind when he suggested that they stop dating. She didn’t recognize herself in anything she did. The madness of love pumped her blood into her throat and tear ducts, not letting her sleep or eat. She grabbed the rail first with both hands then let go of one, “if you really don’t care for me, then I don’t care for myself either”, her estranged voice pleaded to Rob in the distance.
Looking down at her toes on the edge of the landing, heels floating in the air, she was surprised at how large they looked. “Of course I still care for you” Rob comforted her, noticeably annoyed by his lack of choice in the matter.
Karry curled her arms into her body and let Rob wrap her up completely, shivering and breathing in his smell. It was then and not on the cold rail that she wished she would die before the moment ended. Rob’s voice was soaked with pity but she would rather act the pathetic fool a hundred times than lose him.
As soon as he put her to bed and fled, the feverish anguish was upon her again. Ten unanswered calls to his cell phone later, Karry rushed to Rob’s frat house. The house, in a state of perpetual party, thumped to the sound of hormones making mistakes. As if still drunk, Karry felt herself grinding up against another girl; her fingers brushed the imaginary line where slippery flesh met short skirt while her eyes watched Rob intently for the subtlest sign of jealousy. Why were her hands so blistered? Why was she dancing with a girl?
“Stop trying to turn everything into sense”, a voice in her mind scolded her. She let it take her back to the college bed, the window she looked out of praying that the sun would rise already. The 5am walk to the cafeteria, unable to swallow the spoon of cereal. The long bike ride out of town, the ecstasy of having outrun the mind for a split second before it caught up again. The walks through the campus with every thought beginning and ending with “maybe I’ll see her today, maybe we’ll pass each other”. A friend saying that he saw her with another guy. The drunk text message after two months of holding on to dignity by a thread. Her friends laughing in the corner during a beer pong marathon. The countless hookups with hip tattoos and belly rings. Then finally the lunch as friends a year later and the terrifying realization that the heart had been asleep all this time that the mind was trying to move on. The fall backwards into pain, as fresh as the first time.
Back at the library, the book pages were starting to stick in Karry’s mind. She could recite them now: memory for places and episodes is stored in a structure called the hippocampus. Memory for faces in the fusiform gyrus. Memory for procedures is formed in the striatum. Memory for general knowledge and concepts is distributed across the neocortex. But all of these factoids missed the mark splendidly. When Karry was overcome by memories, it was something more than a collection of places and faces. At every moment we are remembering who we are, she thought. It’s what gives us our sense of self. Memory, the I in “I am hungry”, must be more than the sum of these parts. When will these books tell me about that, she wondered impatiently.
With the California summer at its peak the sun stretched out and made the days long, as if it too needed a vacation. Karry dug out one of her old tennis hats and made her way once more to the library. Her quads, once strong and bulky from so many hours of hitting the court pavement, were now long and stringy as she descended under the overpass. She marveled at how much control she had over those legs, she could ask them to do almost anything and they would obey, or maybe they were the ones asking her. In harmony with her flesh, Karry tilted her head back and closed her eyes; she smiled to the sun. The next breath took her back to the tennis court preparing to return a serve.
In that second before the serve was delivered, Karry always turned her critical eyes inward: who am I today? The self-defeating Karry would let a million thoughts rush in all at once, paralyzing her body. “I bet she aces me” or “I know you’ll miss this”, she would think to herself. If she was scared, the thought was, “maybe she’ll double fault”. The insecure desire to be the best spoke through trickery, “maybe I’ll just call this serve out regardless”. And after the thought was delivered (before the serve ever got to her) Kerry would feel a backlash from its nakedness. She felt like a coward, like a cheat, and would play the rest of the point knowing this. If the point was long the feeling was a perpetual punishment at the end of which she had to face her mind again.
The match was in its third hour; a crowd had gathered on the stands. Her opponent, Janan, had one of those deceptive serves that Karry could never read. But in that moment, Karry wished, no prayed, that the serve would go in, and that it would be a tough one. The thought came from an unfamiliar place, like her mind was on its way out wishing her farewell. With it her feet lifted and her body sprang into action. Stretching, sliding, grunting. Her spirit’s only desire now was to repeat this sequence eternally. And when Karry’s mind returned, she reveled in the competition of the match. Salty drops that could have been sweat or tears covered every inch of her skin.
During the changeover, Karry looked over at Janan; their exhausted bodies thanked each other. As if reading her mind, Jonan turned toward her and said, “But I’ll still burn you”, with a smirk.
The next time Karry looked over at Janan’s bench, a young man had taken her place. She didn’t recognize the man whose gargantuan arms spread like tree limbs and lay their full weight on the back of the bench. The man’s shoulder blades squeezed toward each other until the heart in his chest pushed up on his ribcage and made his shirt beat to its rhythm. He looked up with closed eyes at the sun and smiled.
When he got up, his feet danced to the baseline ready to return serve. Karry tossed the ball and threw her body at it. The serve popped off the strings of the racket harder than she had ever served but came back even faster. She sprinted to the corner extending her legs into a split to return the shot. Point after point the ball came back pinching lines and corners of the court. Her lungs couldn’t take another breath, her legs couldn’t run for another shot, but both refused to surrender, breathing something that wasn’t oxygen. When the ball from the other side hit the net for the last time, her knees gave way and she let out an earth-shaking “come-onnn!”
The deep roar shook her spine like rolling thunderstorms falling in a game of dominos. Its resonating shock wave made her heart tremble with fear – fear of what was possible, fear of this uncontrollable thing that had leveled the city of the mind. In disbelief, she took off her headband and shook out her short fro-like hair. She hovered three inches above her opponent as they slapped hands with locked elbows and exchanged the obligatory “Nice match, man”.
The library mechanically said hello as it did each morning. The books with their perfect permanence began to annoy Karry: how could they contain all that certainty and knowledge and yet be powerless against changing me? she wondered. She felt unmoved and made somewhat more rigid by her journey to understanding memory. Had she understood anything at all?
Karry thought of the people who had lost their memories to Alzheimer’s or dementia. They were grouped like already dead things into two types: the angry and the docile. The angry ones still thought that they were in control of their lives and turned vile when moment-to-moment the world stopped making sense. The docile ones submitted to the confusion of a life in constant discontinuity. Karry didn’t need to wait for Alzheimer’s to know that she would welcome a non-linear life as either illusion or truth.
The routine was becoming nauseating. Karry stepped out of her parents’ house and headed towards the library. She didn’t usually like to be plugged into her electronic device that vibrated air molecules at her while she walked, but she needed something to change. A fiction podcast was playing about a college-aged boy searching to uncover the secret his dead father had left behind. The story had reached its climax and suddenly Karry stopped in her tracks. She was a stillness waiting under the overpass for the next moment that had no choice but to arrive.
And there they were, waiting for her, the words: “as if he had left something behind”. She heard them before they were spoken.
Her eyes widened until the muscles hit their limit, then grew some more. Her sights fell on a red drop on the ground, and there it was again staring at her from within. Like someone playing a possessed person, Karry gasped for air and tried to cry, but only heaves and half screams came out.
James was five, Karry fourteen. They rode ten miles to a Baskin Robbins. James had only learned how to ride a bike that week. “It’s good for your tennis conditioning” Karry promised him. “And you have to work for all rewards”.
The way back took them under the overpass. James stopped before the Sisyphean hill, and looked back at Karry. “Go ahead. Be brave. There’s nothing to it.” Karry reassured him.
But James kept looking at her as if that wasn’t what he had in mind. Then suddenly, he pointed his bike down and was gone.
“Your brakes! Use your brakes!” she called down after him.
James crashed full force into the side of the underpass arch. His helmet spared his head but his arm was a beautiful dripping structure of deep blood red mixed with gray concrete mixed with brown dirt mixed with bone white.
Karry now stood on the spot, her eyes wide open. Flexed, heaving breaths that didn’t come. She rushed James home, then to the hospital where they tried to fix her many mistakes. She could smell his skin, muscle, flesh, cement, steel, all of it starting to crack.
And in the widening gap were tennis courts and dinners. Fingers that ran across piano keys too fast. Fighting t-cells fueled by cranberry juice. Drives across cow fields into the early hours of delirium. An arm in bed wrapping love up in pajama pants. City streets bearing the load of legs in their twenty-fifth hour of exploration. Tumbling knowledge bouncing and sticking to intuition. A crockpot-infused kitchen. Lecture halls and white-board knowledge that was always unsatisfactory. His eyes demanded clarity. And memory was there, looking through their radiating calm.