Originally published on I, Science Magazine (Winter issue 2016)
I had always thought about misery as something you find under the sea. A small, unattainable pebble. It would take years of swimming in the deepest water to find it. In order to unearth such a misery, you need to look for it – I used to tell myself. It isn’t something that just comes along. I was convinced I had to stay away, avoid it: I could recognise the smell of misery in people, objects, temptations. And I would distance myself from them. Despite all the ways in which life had tried to sell misery in golden packages, I had kept myself away from those little pebbles my whole life. That morning I was preparing my coffee, as I did every morning. The day smelled of white, the sky seemed an opaque glass, the English countryside was frosted, there outside the window. We were waiting for my mother to come for Sunday brunch. Annie was getting ready in the toilet, as she did every morning. Where’s the green tablecloth? I put it in the laundry! The toaster announced that the bread was ready. Shall I cook some eggs? Yes! Annie, hurry up: my mum is coming and today I haven’t told you the story yet. Yes, yes. I still remember it, though. I know and you know that we cannot miss a day. She came out with her toothbrush in her mouth, brushing with compulsive fury. She looked nervous. After all, one day doesn’t matter! The milk has a bad smell. It does matter, Annie. It’s out of date, I said. I’m going to buy it then, she answered. Her gaze was unfocused and eerie. I can go instead. No, don’t worry. Sure? You know it’s a losing battle. Fair enough.
She was wearing a pearl necklace. She was austere, with her long neck and pronounced jaw. She wore pearls on important occasions: when she discussed her doctoral dissertation, when we married, when she quit smoking. Pearls were a signal. I ignored them. She came up and hugged me. But that was not just a hug – ah, I had to understand! She was squeezing me, asking me to hug her back properly. She was disseminating signals that I was trying to dodge like the letters on the floor in the entrance. I hugged her, I stroked her head. Hug me tighter, don’t let me go! Don’t let me go, she said. What could be clearer? Yes, honey, I’m here, I replied. She got irritated. I’ll walk there. It will take too long, the breakfast is ready, my mom is coming. At least take the bike. You know it’s a losing battle, Arthur. Why doesn’t it seem to get into your head? She said that with a high pitch in her voice. How couldn’t I get it? I heard her take the car keys before heading out the door. Brava, see you soon! I couldn’t help it: my mind was searching for causes and effects everywhere. I’m sorry, she said. I’m sorry. With that tone. Ah, I should’ve known! I started to read the culture section of the newspaper, hastily sipping black coffee: a philosopher talked about time. I laughed and turned the page. I got to the end. No one had arrived yet. Still, I didn’t have any reasons to worry. It had been a very long time since life could offer me any surprises. I trusted my wife. We told each other everything, and we did so honestly. I narrated our past, she spoke of our future. We liked to repeating ourselves with some irony that, despite the calamity that had distorted our existences, we would live a normal life. We could benefit from it. In the past, in the present, in the future. Through time, which for us had no boundaries. I put down the newspaper, glanced at the clock. It was late. Too late. My mother hadn’t arrived yet. Annie had been hiding meaning in her movements. I jumped off the chair, down the stairs, on the bike. I cycled wildly. I had a kind of premonition. For years I had no longer trusted my intuitions. I used to ask Annie directly. And today she had not said anything in particular, but I hadn’t paid attention. The Earth shook inside me. The small pebble of misery was not far away under the sea of panic. I saw it clearly sitting and waiting in my stomach. I hadn’t seen it, engulfed as it was in deepest darkness. But it was coming up, uncontrollable. Coming up more and more as I cycled. As I approached the scene. Coming up when I saw our car parked in the middle of the street, turned at an odd angle. When I heard the yelling, hitting me like a strong, cold wind of dread and despair. Coming up whilst I ran to find my wife sitting on the floor with my mother in her arms. My mum cradled like a child, bleeding on the pearl necklace. Annie was screaming, rattling. She was ugly. I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry. I lay on the ground and vomited my misery. You’re a murderer, I retched. It was an accident, shouted some passers-by. I couldn’t help it and you know it, she screamed. Murderer, I repeated. It was an accident, they called out again. How could I explain? How could I explain my anger to the normal people?
Many years before, Annie had told me about her change. At first I thought she was joking. As soon as something becomes present I live it, but immediately it passes, and when it becomes past it is already forgotten. I felt both curious and amused. I can’t understand how you can have this conversation if you don’t remember what I just said. It’s simple: I remember what I’m going to say! she replied. I thought she was joking, I couldn’t understand. Teasing, I asked her to make predictions. A thought came to my mind that we could make money out of it, her. She got very serious. None could know. Ever. They would think she was crazy and never leave her alone. I don’t know the future of everyone. I know my own, and of the people who gravitate around me. It’s like memories. You don’t remember the past of other people. You remember what you’ve experienced or learned first-hand. How would you react if some random person came to you asking to tell him about his past? Same here. I’m not an oracle. Maybe you’ve gone crazy, I used to repeat to her. At the beginning. And then I got worried that she really was mad.
Slowly she started to prove her reliability. I’m just projected in a different way, she used to repeat. I was trying to take her seriously, I would ask her every moment to tell me what the next would look like. In my head there is everything I will do immediately. It isn’t present in my mind together. I don’t know how to explain this to you. It’s not that when you think about your past you can see all of it. You can remember some things, the things you’re affected by. You remember the most significant events quite clearly, and then other parts are hazy. Sometimes your memories are more detailed and bright, but so much of it is murky and opaque. Then, memories to which you hadn’t paid attention for a long while appear – and suddenly they have meaning, a narrative is given to your present. Same here, she would insist, there are things that I always remember about my future, but then once in a while something else comes out. And what about the past? She said she could guess it from her future, exactly as I could guess my future through the knowledge of my past. It was as if, gradually, the plausibility of this other world was opening up in my eyes. I was curious. So, you know about your death. Do you know about your birth? No. Same here. Do you know about your first years of life? Not that much. Same here. It’s too fuzzy to know anything about my final days. She used to repeat that there was not that much of a difference. It made some sense to me, but not enough. I wanted to know more. It took me years of questioning and indefinite answers to finally be able to figure out what it could be like to be her. Can you change your future, if you don’t like it? I remember that suddenly gave her dark circles. Arthur, I can do nothing to change the future. I just stick to my memories – they give meaning to my actions as well as your past gives meaning to yours. Can you change your past? It feels like you choose your present. But you’re conditioned by your past, and your past can’t change. The asymmetry is an illusion, it’s an interpretation that pushes us forward. There is nothing to build. Past and future are parts of the same whole. Everything is there, only to be lived and interpreted.
“I just wanted to protect you!” a scream brought me back “There was no need to hurt you, no need to ruin your life!” I was exhausted. I had been there for Annie and we swore we would be honest, I repeated to myself. But lying on the ground was my wife, who had known for all those years that she was going to crash the car into my mother. In my view, when you already know that you are going to do something horrible and you don’t try to change it, you are guilty. You are a murderer. I despised Annie, I hated her. I could have hurt her. Instead I stood up, and left both of them there in the road.
Five years is a lot of time. I’ve no idea of how she might look now. Psychiatry Department, says the facade. I’ve thought a lot about my misery, in the past years. Encasing it, there’s a soft shell of narcissistic pain. I’ve slowly started to realise I had assumed too many things about my blameless behaviour. I’ve thought of the story that I used to tell Annie about her past. It didn’t refer to her most painful failures, nor to any betrayal, or to her bad depression. It didn’t tell of her dad’s alcoholism, to her sister’s selfishness. It narrated about a courageous woman, a passionate love, a happy childhood. In the end I had betrayed her as much as she had betrayed me. The truth was ugly and no one could do anything about it. But I had betrayed her twice. There hadn’t been any honest narration, from either side. Then I had blamed Annie, and left her alone. “Arthur, we know it’s a losing battle” she would say. My life was just an unfortunate losing battle. The misery was inflexibly rooted inside me.