The diagnosis is perfect, even if it is not the sort of information you expect to hear from a resident physician in an emergency room.
“Ms. Renaud, the results of your MRI, EEG, and CT scan indicate no brain abnormalities. Your symptom of sudden memory loss with no neurological pathology suggests you are suffering from transient global amnesia. I have reached this conclusion because of your history of migraines and that you seem to be having difficulty recalling events of the recent past.” The handsome Dr. Kahn studies my stricken face and gently puts a hand on my shoulder. “It is a good sign that you still know your name and can follow directions. This type of amnesia can happen after strenuous physical activity, head trauma, or distress, even sex. Good news, though; the condition is rare and it should be short-lived; usually lasts about twenty-four hours. Go home and rest and see your GP in a few days. I will forward my notes to your doctor.”
I sit dazed and distressed on a gurney between flimsy, sheeted partitions. I feel like a character on TV who has just received a predictable soap-opera diagnosis. Willy, the man I just had sex with, is holding my hand. My phone keeps vibrating with texts from somebody called Lee.
“Annie, it’s your boyfriend; he’s very persistent,” says Willy.
My boyfriend’s name is Lee? I remember that Willy, a dentist by profession, is one of my massage therapy clients with sciatica. Why did I do it? I know it is not ethical to be intimate with a client. The E.R. nurse tells me to get dressed; they need the space for all the late-summer, heat-related emergencies tonight.
Willy brings me back to his apartment. I try to recall our short but intense encounter. There are wine glasses on the coffee table and a large, rumpled bed in the next room. After brief, anticipatory excitement I remember clothes flying and a throw-down on the bed. Both of us were laughing and gasping when I experienced an intense climax. Giddy, with my head thrown back like a child on a swing, until I shot upright on the bed and asked Willy: “How did we get here?” He thought I was joking, but my continued confusion alarmed him enough to take me to the hospital. It is now six in the morning, and Willy is making coffee and getting ready for work at his dental clinic. I remember our massage sessions where he confided that he was divorced with two teenage sons. His ex-wife is living in their center-hall colonial by the bay.
“Annie, let me drive you back to your apartment. Do you have clients this morning?”
I check my phone. Yes, there is somebody called Cheryl—I recall chronic knee swelling—and another appointment at noon with someone named Jared Eisenberg. Looking at my hands, I flex and wiggle my fingers. Yes, the action is pleasurable; my hands are strong and I sense I can heal with them. Willy swings by my massage studio, jarring my memory of the location, and then drops me at my apartment
“Can I see you again, or is this Lee someone special?”
“Yes, no, I’m not sure.” I know I sound ridiculous. “Yes, I do want to see you again. Call me in a few days.”
Inside my apartment I shower and change into work clothes: black leggings, a black tank top, and clogs. I walk around the corner to the studio. The building is located in the suburban business district of the town between a bakery and Ye Olde Pub. I see my name in glossy, black letters on a sign affixed to a whitewashed façade: The Retreat, Anne Renaud, Licensed Massage Therapist.
I look around the office waiting area and find it to be comfortable and familiar, like a favorite, forgotten sweater found in the back of a closet. Wicker chairs and plants are adjacent to a wood counter with a cash register and leather appointment book. A glass vessel filled with pebbles houses a curving and multi-stemmed bamboo plant. There is a small bathroom and a room with a massage table. Bottles of oils, lotions, and branches of dried lavender are arranged on a wall shelf. I pick up a sprig of lavender, close my eyes, and inhale. A temple bell rings as the shop door opens. I peek out of the treatment room and see a tall, fair-haired man wearing glasses and khaki trousers. He sees me, rushes into the room, and hugs me.
“Where in hell have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you since yesterday. You weren’t at home or in your studio, and you didn’t answer my texts. Annie, are you OK?”
Pulling away from him, I recognize the scent of lime and cloves. This man knows me and cares for me, but right now I feel indifference.
“A friend of mine took me to the hospital emergency room, where I was told I have amnesia. We were out to dinner, and after a few glasses of wine, I became disoriented and frightened.” I give a brief synopsis of my diagnosis, being shrewd enough to make careful omissions in describing what really happened.
“My God, Annie, I told you to take care of those migraines; there’s medication you could be taking. My mother is worried sick about you.”
This man has a mother I know. An image of a genteel, gray-haired lady in a Victorian house comes to mind, but it is not a pleasant memory.
“What’s your name?” I ask. “You seem familiar; how do we know one another?”
“You’re kidding, right? We have been dating for six years. I’m Lee Owens, I own Owens Insurance Agency, two blocks away from here on Front Street. We met at my cousin’s wedding. Annie, you look pale, maybe you should lie down.”
Lee strokes my hair; I force myself to relax into his shoulder when suddenly the temple bell on the shop door rings again. A broad woman with curly, red hair enters. She is dressed in an ankle-length, Indian gauze peasant dress and sandals. Cheryl, my first appointment, throws her arms around my neck, bangle bracelets jangling against my right ear.
“So sorry to be late again, Annie. My left knee is still swollen and sore. I’ll go right in and get undressed.”
Lee and I look at one another, realizing the inscrutableness and absurdity of the situation. There is nothing more to say; we both have appointments.
“Annie, don’t leave this office. I have important meetings this afternoon, but I will be back to see you at four o’clock.” He brushes his lips against mine, slamming the door behind him as he goes.
Cheryl is lying face down on the massage table under a sheet. I adjust her headrest and pillow, then kick off my clogs and pour oil onto her shoulders and neck. With long, smooth stokes I knead and manipulate the layers of muscle under her skin. Cheryl chatters on about her boyfriend, whom she plans to marry in September. She shows me her engagement ring: a simple silver band with a pale-blue cabochon chalcedony set in the middle. I am amazed; she has known her fiancé for only six months. My hands move down her back to her legs, only uncovering the part of the body I am treating. When Cheryl turns over she asks me to pay special attention to her knee. Cheryl’s body is fleshy and strong; my hands rub the swollen knee in circular motions. I feel her discomfort through my fingertips. My mind empties as I focus on her area of pain; I begin to feel clarity of purpose. The knee is arthritic so I apply some pressure, then release; pressure, then release.
“Yes, Annie, that’s good, it feels better already.” I continue working the afflicted area and Cheryl relaxes. Like a magician I meld truth with perception. More memories return. Yes, Lee is my boyfriend; we have been together for a long time. It is unspoken, but understood, that there will be no commitment until his mother dies. His mother has never liked me nor I her. Once I worked as an English teacher; I remember being laid off from my job and studying massage therapy to make a living. This is a profession Lee’s mother probably thinks is too bohemian and sensual. My work is strenuous; I move around the table gracefully, in bare feet. After massaging Cheryl’s abdomen, arms, and neck, I place a flat, warmed stone on her stomach and cover her with a sheet. My mind is racing. In my purse is a journal with notes and bits of poetry that I write in my spare time. I think about a bird I saw once in the courtyard behind my apartment, an oriole. I want to write a poem about it. When Cheryl’s session is over, I tell her to rest a minute before getting up.
In the waiting area I listen to my phone messages and discover that Jared Eisenberg, a new client, has cancelled his noon appointment. Closing my studio for the day, I race back home to write poetry. My apartment, on the second floor, looks out toward a perennial garden that the landlord allowed me to plant in a sunny corner. Cheryl and her chalcedony ring come to mind as tiny, gray birds splash in the birdbath in the center of a bed of late-blooming summer flowers. Black-eyed Susan and coneflowers are displaying their last seasonal cycle of beauty. In the kitchen I boil a good farmers’ market egg, then place it in a tag-sale china cup scattered with violets. After toasting some day-old French bread, I add butter, then salt the egg. With my pepper mill I grind out a few coarse, black grains. The glistening yolk is a beautiful golden-orange color. For some reason this egg is more delicious than any I’ve eaten before. I go to my desk and write and rewrite until the sound of strident banging breaks my concentration. Lee is at the door.
“Annie, I told you I would be back at four. I panicked when I saw the empty studio. Are you feeling all right?”
“Yes, my memory is coming back. I’ve been working on a poem. I think I may enter it into the Cold Spring Harbor Library Poetry contest.”
“That’s wonderful, honey; it’s good to have a hobby. Tell me about this amnesia.”
I am wary, but repeat what the doctor said about strenuous physical activity, head trauma, my history of migraines, of course omitting the sex thing. At this moment it is too difficult to tell Lee about Willy.
“It just doesn’t make sense. You do look better than this morning and sound lucid. Maybe we should make you an appointment with a specialist.”
“They gave me a bunch of tests and brain scans at the hospital and didn’t find anything.”
“Yes, Annie, but you were in a small, Long Island hospital. I think I should take you into the City.”
“Nope, I feel better. I knew what to do at my massage therapy session this morning, and I have been thinking about my life. Things from the past are clearer and wrong to me. Now everything seems so right, like my poem. Let me read it to you.”
Surely, no one plans to feel despair,
To be weakened with pain in one fleeting minute.
But it happened to me one day, when I heard her good news.
I had hidden the tiny wound so deep inside me that I was sure
It had healed.
But I was wrong.
Feeling shame for coveting another’s happiness
I let the sadness take me drifting down a cold shifting river.
All I wanted was to have good news.
I pressed my face to the window and saw him for the first time.
An oriole, a self-possessed little being on his private mission
Flying alone among magnolia boughs.
Vivid colors of black and white and crimson broke through my isolation.
Orioles don’t live in these parts.
I have not seen one since, but someday I will.
I pause, thinking about some changes that I will make, but all in all, the poem expresses my current state of heightened awareness. Lee sits in a kitchen chair, looking perplexed about what to say or do next.
“Uh, it’s very interesting, Annie. Is this good news you mention something symbolic? I don’t read much poetry.”
“I wasn’t thinking about symbolism. I remember seeing an oriole in my flower garden early this summer, and today my client had good news to share about her upcoming marriage. I felt envious of how easy it all seemed for Cheryl. I don’t know. The ideas just came together in a poem.”
“Do you want to get married, is that what it is? You know I want to; we’re both turning thirty-nine this year. Mother is thinking about selling her big house and moving into a senior citizen development. We could talk about it on Sunday after church services.”
I am looking down into the fold of my arm, thinking that at the age of thirty-nine, my skin looks a little slack and would benefit from massaged-in jojoba oil. Lee is staring at me, waiting for an explanation.
“Lee, the poem is not about wanting to get married. It’s about longing; longing for something more. I don’t for one moment believe in God. So it’s hypocritical of me to attend church services or spend another gorgeous summer afternoon inside your mother’s house, eating fried chicken and deviled eggs. I would rather work in my garden, write a new poem, take a walk, or whatever! It’s total idiocy to do things for people to make them think well of you. Your mother is not for one second taken in by the pretense that I care about her.”
“Really, Annie, that is no way to talk about someone who thinks so highly of you.” Lee is standing now and moves closer to me to look into my eyes. “By the way, who was the friend who took you to the emergency room?”
“My friend’s name is Willy, I treat him for sciatica,” I say in a quiet voice.
“You had dinner with a client and ended up with amnesia! Do you realize how surreal it all sounds? If you’re so unhappy with me, you didn’t have to make up this outlandish lie about amnesia.”
“Lee, I am not making anything up. Dr. Khan said I had temporary amnesia. Willy is an interesting man. I’ve always wanted to write poetry but could never finish anything. Yes, I guess I am unhappy, but I’m not blaming you for it. Amnesia has helped me remember what I should have known all along!” I am breathless and shaking.
“OK, I get it, Annie. You don’t seem to be yourself today. I’ll leave now; call me when you want to talk again.”
* * *
The next day is Sunday. I don’t hear from Lee or Willy. I have the day to myself, so I walk around town, pick up the newspaper and a deli sandwich, go to the park, and find a bench. I observe people walking dogs, skateboarders, kids eating ice cream, and a homeless man collecting bottles and cans from the trashcans. The homeless man notices that I am watching him and starts swearing at me with a vociferous stream of venomous words. His eyes are dark like mine but are disturbing in their glassy emptiness. Looking down, I pick up my things and walk out of the park. I decide to write a poem about this man. Sitting at my desk by the window that overlooks the garden, I begin.
He was walking down my quiet street wearing a silly hat.
I only meant to glance at him but instead I stared.
He swore at me perhaps thinking,
Like a camera, I was stealing away his soul.
I turned away relieved in knowing I was safe from him, but not really.
Some days I wonder how terrible it is to be alone and uncared for,
And how there should be laws against this crime.
The truth is I know why this troubles me so.
In one passionate instant, a stone sits poised in my hand.
A mirror cracked, my image shattered.
The shards of glass splintered, exposing an empty wall.
The vagabond man is me.
Stopping for a minute, I am not sure if these are the precise words to recall the feelings I had when I locked eyes with the homeless man. I look out the window and notice my garden is in need of a good weeding, and some of the rose bushes require deadheading, but the late-summer day lilies are vibrant and plentiful.