The Five Hundred Year Old Brain, by Michael Romano
Today I found a five hundred year old brain, a five-hundred-year-old brain. It told me so, or at least that´s what I tell myself. I don´t know how I found it; or rather, what I mean is: I know what I was doing, where I was, when it was (when I was?), but I couldn´t tell you how it was that I found it; it´s not like I was trying; I couldn´t teach a class in the art of finding a brain, or any art for that matter. Is this another case where how and why yield the same non-answer?
I was on my way to the sea, to the mouth of a river open so wide it looks like the sea: vast, gray, but calmer than the sea, less turbulent, like a rainstorm inside a half-open mouth. I was in a nature preserve. I had spent the morning on the doorstep of a girl I´d fucked and then lost the number to, that precious piece of graph paper, unstained by any data before hers. I rang the bell a bunch of times, since one more ring, when no one´s listening, is innocent enough. It isn´t enough. Is anyone looking? Then I imagined she was there the whole time, hiding, avoiding me, hearing every ring, waiting for the distance between them to be infinite, that is, to disappear. I rang again. Did she not enjoy it? The sex, I mean. I´ll try again in a few hours, and in the meantime go to the nature preserve. I walked down the cobblestone street, past the big, old, empty building a man was pissing against, under vacant arcades behind a distant woman, over a footbridge a man was rowing under, through a sliver of public park where an exhilarating fleamarket was going on (and where I picked up some nice shorts, which I decided to wear instead, throwing my heavy pants literally to the dogs, and then waiting till they were done so I could clear out my pockets finally), along the fringe of a filthy bog (This is it? This is what “preserve” has come to mean?), to the beginning of a network of sandy trails through a dry marshland (the real preserve, aptly named), all the way to the sea, the mouth. A few hundred yards down the trail I stopped and pondered turning around; something about being alone on such a beautiful day, among such happy couples and groups and crowds, depressed me; maybe she´ll be home now, and wants to see me, and we can come back together. When my eyes refocused I noticed that I was staring down this strange pathway branching off the main trail into a dark and toothy bramble, a sort of cave made of branches and bushes. Some passers-by stared at me, doubtless wondering what I was doing, so still and alone. Is he going in there? I looked at my phone as though that might let me off the hook, reminded that I still needed to set the time right. In fact, I´m going to go do that right now, before I forget again. I can´t find it. When they´d passed me and the coast was clear, I forged my way into the bramble where, in the damp, dusky darkness, I found the five hundred year old brain I mentioned earlier. I took it and got right back on the main trail. That´s enough adventure for me for one day, I exhaled.
I no longer entertained the prospect of turning back, as though the brain were company enough. And it was. It distracted me, fascinated me, as I fondled and sniffed it, hardly observing the preserve. I was unsure how to preserve it against the powerful sun. Will you dry up, brain? Are you a stone plucked from a stream, beautiful and desirable in your place , but increasingly humdrum in the drying light of day? Shall I put you right back where I found you? Yes, but not until today is done. Even though, technically, today is never done (it is always today), I think I knew what she meant.
We had reached the sea; we had reached the mouth…looked like the sea. Looks like the sea. There were people everywhere, their brains hidden, protected, contemporary, unlike mine (mine?); lying on grassy banks and knolls (knolls?), or perched among the seaside stones, mindless of (or at least indifferent to) the trash and wrack, seashells like cloven wombs, shellfish expelled, or did they flee, abandoned in the unaccommodating sea, lorn in the inhospitable anti-preserve of the wild, I said. You see, brain, you see? We sat in the shadow of a tree and started reading. Coincidentally, the heroine in the book (who, we find out in the first line, will be killed) is by the sea, writing a letter to her lover (killer, narrator), saying that, these days, she seems to be living in the present only for the sake of the future, a future present when she will remember the current one, this future past, this fetal memory, and even though she doesn´t know how this moment feels right now, she knows it will make her sad when its ghost returns down the road. Geez, I know exactly what she means, I told brain, as we looked up at the kids bathing their horse and leaping into the water off its back, and the enormous, dark barge sliding slowly, ineluctably, through the constellation of dainty sailboats. What you understand is meaningless. I don´t know what you mean, brain.
I bathed her in the sea-like mouth.
Back on the trail, there were two arrows pointed in opposite directions that both said “Civilization”; then there was a third arrow, unhinged, disoriented (forevermore? since forever?), that said “Contemporary Art Museum.” It must be that thing in the bog, that sort of…spaceship thing, said brain. I´ve been there before. The only reason I´d go back would be to see that hot guard. She was much older than me, is much older than me, but I´m attracted to older women, I mean, attractive older women. They´re more vulnerable? But stronger. I couldn´t say anything to her because she was talking to someone else the whole time, another guard… Yes, I remember her better than the art. Let´s go see if she´s still “on display,” joked brain.
I bought two tickets and we went in. There were three video installations on the first floor, each to its own dark room with a black curtain door; I don´t like that kind of thing, so I just stuck the five hundred year old brain through the curtains and held her there till she trembled (though, granted, that may´ve just been me). On the second floor there were a bunch of election poll machines and PTA members under a sign that said “Is it art.” The third floor was, of all things, a nature preserve, while the fourth floor called into question such staple notions as artist, ownership, quality, exhibition (even basic visibility), and finished product. On the fifth floor was the guard. Again she was talking to another guard – a young man, about my age, and more handsome, in brain´s opinion – and I felt a pang of jealousy, jealousy over what isn´t, and never was, and never will be mine? Suddenly a phone started ringing on a plastic chair in the corner (Oh, I like that one, said brain). The young handsome guard dashed across the room, answered the phone (Is this what guards have turned into?), and walked casually toward the stairs, his loud voice fading. Now´s your chance. I went up to her and asked if she wanted to have dinner with me (notice I didn´t say “us”). As she answered, I imagined her mouth in other contexts. When I asked about her origins, we started talking about Zoroastrianism, the cult of the earth, corpse as gift, burial as giving back. I wrote her number on a piece of graph paper. Then I tore out the graph paper, put it on the ground, put brain on top, and hid behind an explanation to watch people´s reactions.
Outside it was night and starting to rain. Brain and I walked up the avenue, toward the subway, though we didn´t know where the subway was. I was talking about lost loves, memories you create with someone else, only to be stranded in them, now that Someone Else is a stranger…Will that be true of us? asked brain, as a tiny spider traversed her folds. On the corner of the busy intersection a woman walked by, poodle in tow. Judging by her face, she seemed to be in her fifties, but everything else seemed much younger, at least from under her clothes. Here we go again, said brain. Yes, I answered; you stay here. I followed her down the street. She was walking her poodle in lazy, lilting zigzags, picking it up from time to time to cross a street or pass a crowd; I was able to catch her within a few blocks, when she paused for her dog to lick something. I approached. As I opened my mouth, she immediately retreated, wide-eyed and tense, yelling sorry, sorry, I can´t hear, I have hearing problems. I was embarrassed, scared I looked like what I actually was – what I actually am – but no one else was there. I said I just wanted to know where the subway was. She pointed that way, whence I´d come. Besides, I said, I know you´re lying; I just saw you talking perfectly normally to that guy back there. She seemed more relaxed for some reason, irrationally reassured. She said you´re right and started to explain, but I just said goodnight and headed back toward brain. She apologized behind me. When I turned around, her lilting zigzag, her slow diminution, had resumed, and I felt a strange but familiar mix of sadness, shame, lust, and an obsession I knew was ephemeral but not till after. Where´s brain? I gazed across the street and saw a midget ringing the doorbell of a theater and peering in through the glass. She was far away but still attainable, retrievable. Suddenly a man opened the door, kissed the midget hello, and welcomed him in. I tried to imagine what it all meant. I walked quickly after her. Listen, I said. I´m sorry I bothered you back there. No, it was she who was sorry; she´s just so used to strange men accosting her, and she thought I was another one. Well, I was; I actually wanted to ask you out; the subway question was a guise; I´d already asked someone else (the same man that she´d been speaking to, in fact). She seemed oddly flattered, charmed, I guess, by my dubious overture. I told her where I was from and she said she had been there twenty-five years ago, when she was young, so much younger. I imagined her. She asked if I wanted to stand under her umbrella and I said no, that´s okay, even though I did want to. I wanted to kiss her. She told me she would like to see me but her mom was sick and she didn´t think she could see me until she was better or…She lives with her mom, takes care of her. I imagined her apartment full of her dying mom. I imagined having sex with her as her mom died in the next room. She wrote her email address in the book I was reading. We kissed each other on the cheek and started disappearing. I wondered if the midget and the man (but the midget is a man!) were still in there.
Brain was gone, as I´d foreseen. I wasn´t alarmed or concerned; it was bound to end anyway. It was starting to rain harder. Instead of carrying on, I decided to retrace my steps, “for old-times´ sake,” past the busy intersection, past the luminous spaceship, along the shore of the mouth, up the winding path…I went back into the bushy bramble, no longer darker than its surroundings, now that it was night, like the mouth of someone drowned. I half-expected brain to be there, so only half of me was wrong (all of me half-wrong?). I lay my head on the rock where I´d found her and looked for the sky, wondering if today´s efforts would pay off…and if so, how?…and if not, why?