Blessed Are The Forgetful
“I, myself, alone, have more memories than all mankind since the world began,” he said to me. And also: “my dreams are like other people’s waking hours.” And again toward dawn:
“My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap.”
—Jorge Luis Borges
(“Funes the Memorious”)
Two friends sit on stone steps that slope towards the water not far from the chatter of La Rambla. Today is more quiet than usual, the sky is a slow churn of grays and it’s late morning in early November. The seagulls chirp, bellow and argue over who gets to sit on which light post while some hang suspended in the ocean breeze. These two young men, Matteo, 32, and Arturo, 28, have known each other just under two years, giving them time enough to know they enjoy one another’s company but not quite long enough for the deeper reveals of their respective circumstances to have reared up and blessed them with the burden of an authentic mutual perspective. That has started to change today, as they sip on their coffees. They each roll a cigarette, light them behind cupped hands and pull slowly on them while watching the seabirds and the wobbling boats parked in the harbor. It’s an intoxicating mélange; the tobacco, the caffeine, the sea air and the disparate honking of car horns behind them that ricochets off the roundabout and its towering monument to Columbus. This spot has become a de facto meetup place for the two; they gather here, on occasion with others, and venture into the maze of twisting streets that ruck and wrinkle under the brick-red roofs of this centuries-old metropolis, though today it’s just the two of them.
“Do you have any memories that you are happy to have?” Arturo asks, cigarette and coffee in the same hand tilting up towards his face.
“Yeah, sure ….” Matteo replies.
“Does it hurt?” Arturo jests but only peripherally; he is genuinely curious as to whether Matteo’s gift is anything but.
“Yeah … sometimes it hurts. Sometimes all I’d like to do is forget. I feel like when people have the capacity to filter memory or have that occur naturally they are blessed with a lightness, for lack of a better way of describing it.” Matteo unpacks.
Arturo takes a long, determined pull from his shoddily rolled cigarette and he spits out the small fragments of tobacco leaves left on his lips as the smoke streams out from his nose and mouth. It occurs to him, in some low-resolution way, that Matteo’s gift might carry with it a weight or a burden. That others being “blessed with a lightness” indicated that he wore something heavy on his shoulders.
Matteo’s talent is one that bestows upon him the ability to remember. Everything. Or perhaps it’s better described as a complication, one in which the bearer never forgets a thing, even when they’d like to.
He has a condition that is described as a "highly superior autobiographical memory.” It’s known in some circles by other names, but the geekiest word for it is “hyperthymesia.” Matteo prefers the first descriptor; the latter, more scientific-sounding one carries with it an air of sickness or handicap, and he doesn’t feel sick, just unusual, maybe even unique. It is exceedingly rare, though not entirely unheard of. To some it’s an odd blessing and an exploitable resource, and to others it’s more akin to a curse. For Matteo it’s something in between: It exists on a spectrum of sorts, depending on what it is that is being recalled. Perhaps he hasn’t made up his mind just yet as to what it means for him.
Historically he’s remained cautiously agnostic about his unusual plight. Arturo thought, until recently, that his friend was just really smart, and though Matteo is a bright bulb naturally, his uncommon condition brings with it the perceived inflation of its bearer’s intellect, a side effect that Matteo has never particularly minded. After all who wouldn’t want to appear more brainy than they actually are? Names, dates, events in time and the particulars of those occasions come to him effortlessly, though he’s never worn it on his lapel. Matteo is more the quiet type, but after recently explaining his experiential lay of the land to Arturo he anticipates getting asked a lot more questions about the whos, wheres, whats and whens than ever before.
“Like, what about it hurts?” Arturo gently prods.
Matteo looks down at his feet on the steps, and his mind drifts directly to a crack that splintered along the hip of the stucco on his mother’s balcony and how she sat out there every morning and afternoon, reading, talking on the phone and/or pointing out neighborhood cats. A knot in his interior tightens subtly as he remembers noticing the crack every time he visited but never once spoke aloud his observation. He can see into the crack now, detail by excruciating detail, from the stucco exterior into the aged concrete and the rotted rebar inside. The pulling screech of a skateboard wheel sliding across a curb shakes him back into the present, and he isn’t certain how long it’s been since being asked the question, but he can read the room and decides that a more recent, less moribund recalling might fit this occasion a bit better. He glances into his coffee, swirls it a moment and muses.
“Well, a good example concerns a girl I encountered right over there like two months ago.” He motions towards a side street lined with deflowered jacaranda trees about two hundred meters away. “Actually, it’ll be exactly two months on the 11th. It’s a memory that I kind of cherish but also wrestle with in some ways.”
“What happened? Did a hot girl mug you?” Arturo, the comedian.
Matteo smiles a knowing half tilt smirk and sips his coffee, “Not quite that, but you’re close, man,” he chuckles. “No, I was just walking to the coffee spot and probably the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen randomly bumped into me. She apologized and dodged my eyes, but something felt a little off, so I sort of stood in front of her to get her to stop for a moment. I instinctively touched my back pocket and realized that my wallet wasn’t where it was supposed to be.” Matteo lets out another small laugh. “I saw she had her hand already in the front pocket of her overalls so I gently but assuredly grabbed her wrist and … there it was! My fucking wallet. She almost got me, man! The hottest chick I’d ever seen tried and almost succeeded in picking my pocket. I was still gently holding her arm and she gave no fight, she just looked at me with her head sort of tilted down and smiled in a way that no one could ever forget. It was this complicated mix of mischief and defeat, flirtation and competition. I’d never seen anything like it. I was a goner, man. She didn’t try to run or explain away her behavior, she just handed me my wallet back with a heavy push into my hand all the while holding eye contact. I smiled back at her in a kind of reassurance that I didn’t take it personally, and then (and you’re gonna want to fuckin' slap me for this) I opened my wallet and handed her all the cash I had—”
Arturo, with dead eyes: “You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kidding me—”
Matteo laughs, “No, not kidding, but hold your shit, it was like seven euro.”
“Yeah, but it’s the principle! Fuck, man!”
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, she blushed and pushed my hand back at me. She didn’t take the money. She had this sportsman-like attitude, almost like she was an honorable loser. It was really endearing! We talked for like five minutes and were having an interesting interaction but before I could get her number or even her goddamned name, a handful of her girlfriends swept up on her like shore break. She smiled at me the way she did when she got caught, winked and just like that she was off.” Matteo makes a swooping motion with his arm and quietly smiles at the kinder echo of this recollection. Her departing wink clings longer in his mind’s eye and fades slowly as Arturo asks,
“What about that memory is hard to process … like, what about it hurts, beyond the fact that you’re a fuckin’ shithead to let someone almost take you like that?” Arturo, the Romantic.
“I just can’t shake the way she looked at me, man, ya know? She was so beautiful and so unusual in the way that she reacted to me; she’s the kind of person I’d want to take a deeper dive with, I think, but I haven’t seen her since, and God knows I’ve been looking. She had this vibe like she was a local but we know everybody around here, so it’s like she disappeared into thin air. I guess that makes her a good pickpocket, huh?”
“I guess, yeah … I almost have this idea in my head now like she was a ghost and she’s haunting you!” Arturo makes a shriveled, ghostly face and sticks his tongue out as he leans in toward Matteo. Laughing. “Sorry. So … what did she look like?” He can’t help himself.
“Well, she had kinked-out, long red hair that was sort of flopped over to one side, and her eyes were this really intense greenish-blue. She was petite but something about her had this stature, like she was taller than her actual height. She was wearing overalls that were cut into shorts with one shoulder unhooked over one of those goofball bootleg tourist shirts with the Gaudí Cathedral printed on the front, and her shoes were these worn-out black Converse high tops with hand-drawn scribbles on the tips. Oh, and the laces were different colors on each foot.”
“Sexy, bro …” Arturo scowls playfully in disagreement of what he considers “hot.”
“I guess the reason it clings more than other memories is that so many of my memories are like a fuckin’ trash heap. Ya know? All this meaningless information is like clutter in an old house, like I’m a hoarder or something collecting all these things that don’t add up to anything meaningful in my life, but mostly just weigh me down. This memory fills me up and kind of tickles me. She fascinated me, ya know? She was moving in slow motion in a sped-up dream sequence, and so it hurts that I can’t find her or even know her name so that I might talk to her again. Have you ever had that feeling when meeting someone? Where it’s weirdly familiar and deeply novel all at once? You know when you get that flutter in your belly and it feels like every cell in your body turns instantly into a giant magnet?” Crickets.
“Jeez man, sounds like you’re in love! With a pickpocket! Haha!!” Arturo, the supportive ear.
Matteo smiles and looks down at his coffee again, then to his nicely rolled but neglected cigarette, which by now has an ash hanging from it that is half an inch long and no longer lit. He taps it and watches the dry ash float like a tiny leaf from the top of the step down onto the street. He relights his cigarette and takes one last pull … the leaves crackle when touched by the fire.
Exhaling, “I think she saw or felt something too. There was some kind of unspoken acknowledgment there. I don’t know if she was just being patient with her escape, but it felt like she wanted to talk to me. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe I’m a fuckin’ idiot, I don’t know.” Matteo tilts his head downward, smiles and clears his throat.
“Well you’re definitely an idiot! Remember that! Who fuckin’ gives his money to a thief?” Arturo elbows Matteo, laughs and accidentally knocks his cup, and the last remnants of his coffee fall from his hand onto the ground with a cloop! sound. It mixes with the previously fallen dry ash and it makes a paste of sorts that is a mere dash of pepper in the complex chemical soup that is the heavily trafficked concrete in this part of the old city. Unbothered, Matteo stands, swoops up his cup and tosses it into the bin nearby. “Should we go feed the cats?” He asks Arturo.
“I can’t right now man, I gotta go help my brother. I’ll see you tonight though, at 9. You remember how to get to Valetta’s?” Arturo pauses. “Shit, of course you do, haha. Can I make fun of you yet, for this ‘I can’t forget anything’ thing? Or am I being a dick?”
“Well, you’re a bit of a dick, but only a tiny one, so yeah, have at it.” Matteo quips. “I’ll see you at 9, dude.” Arturo hops up from the long step, they embrace and go their separate ways.
“Blessed are the forgetful; for they get over their stupidities, too.”
Instinctively, Matteo drifts toward the street with the jacaranda trees. As he approaches he notices how they haven’t held any of their flowers this fall, save for the sporadic, unshakable florets, holding on stubbornly as if their progeny wouldn’t be returning in the spring to come. Two months ago when the event transpired, they had still held onto most of their purple fluff, turning that small side street into an arboreal ultraviolet corridor. The flowers that had started to fall on that September day littered the old stones in the street, making the scene look like the world’s biggest piñata had been freshly vanquished and the spoils of war were soft, amethyst tinted candies. He recalls looking at his feet a few times while speaking to this young woman and how the older fallen flowers were mixing with that day’s sacrifices and the scooping sound of his shoe as it drew half circles on the cobbled stones and corralled buds nearby as if he were making her a lilac bouquet on the ground. He then wishes he’d used that time to ask her name.
Was she a tourist? How could he have not seen her since that day? It’s not like she was common looking, anything but! Matteo remembers from an article he’d seen last year that red hair was the rarest natural hair color in humans. Of course he’d seen a redhead before, but this person’s hair was like an explosion. Something unmissable, almost violent about it and the way it met her eyes. “What a terrible pickpocket,” he thinks to himself and chuckles quietly. “Maybe she got caught by the wrong person and got in trouble? God, maybe she had to move away”—the thought sends an ache rising through his chest. The notion of this person not being in the city any longer leaves him deflated and feeling hopeless. He had returned to this spot and the surrounding area many times a week since in hopes of running into her again. He’d even purposefully hung his wallet out of his back pocket like a lure to see if he could summon her little thieving energy through sheer temptation, but to no avail. Under any other circumstance he’d have remembered the faces and clothing of every girl that swarmed her and aided her egress that day, but his eyes stayed fixed on her, and the five or so young women that spun her away on that early autumn afternoon were just giggling blurs in this memory. Purple, unfocused flowers falling behind dense ringlets of red locks.
His memory wasn’t only a garbage heap. On occasion it was a delightful, Technicolor movie playing on a loop behind his eyes. He didn’t mind it when recollecting these moments of her, beyond the small stabs of a kind of heartache that was new to him. After all, isn’t it foolish to lament a love that never existed? Who loves a nameless crook? Perhaps this more thorny side of the experience was the feeling he couldn’t shake that he may have missed out on something wonderful.
“The mystery is not solved on page one ….”
Matteo hovers here awhile, as he does relatively often. He gets himself a new coffee and a side of the café’s leftovers in a take-away container, then sits at one of the tables outside and takes notice of the sky and decides the sun would likely not make an appearance today. He doesn’t mind, though: The overcast days in this part of the city kept the throngs of people away, and it feels more like his own personal urban paradise. He has a few things to do, but nothing needs his immediate attentions. So he decides to just keep wandering this morning.
His thoughts drift back to the shirt she wore under her overalls and how it was one of those bad tourist items you’d buy on La Rambla for 10 euro. It was faded and worn and had a screen print of Gaudí’s abeyant masterstroke on it. It was one of those shirts the uninitiated would wear proudly, in attempt to "do as the Romans do,” but that a local might wear ironically. It was on his mind today as he walked and drew near to the strange, unfinished, Gothic wonder of Barcelona with its multiple phalluses jutting skyward into the gloomy expanse. He notices a kiosk that sells similar versions of the shirt and other tourist memorabilia including tiny versions of the basilica and other famous attractions in Barcelona, and he wonders if she’d gotten the shirt at a place like that or perhaps more likely at a second-hand shop. As he continues to walk, a light drizzle flecks at his skin, and he deems it appropriate for his mood today, but it also reminds him of the cats who occupy the construction grounds around the cathedral’s perimeter and how they probably didn’t appreciate the drizzle as much as he did. He’ll keep to his newly found ritual of feeding them on his walks. He likes the attention from these feral creatures, who remind him of his mother and how she would let strays from around their neighborhood come and partake of the remains of the day. It is another memory in his cerebral rummage sale that he doesn’t despise — the memory, that is, of his mother and her relationship to the local feline population.
“Cats are visitors here from another dimension” she would jest with fingers twirling and animated, wild eyes, “and if they congregate near you, you’re a human portal between two worlds.”
“Spoken like a true crazy cat lady, Mom.” Matteo would say to her and they would laugh among the chorus of meows, both in full awareness that they were the weirdos in town. That same bizarre song shakes him from this memory as he nears the cluttered aggregation of scaffolding and concrete, only slightly obscuring the unfinished jumble of stalagmites that is Gaudí’s contribution to this mostly architecturally morose world. By now the feline gangs that live amid the steel and piles of material recognize him, and they prance toward him out from their respective hovels. The return of their prince! Not unlike the guy in the park we all see who feeds the pigeons and seems unbothered by their swarming presence, Matteo is becoming the local cat guy; he even gave them all names, and you know well he remembers who each of them are. He spoons out little portions of the leftovers from the café he’d gathered earlier and greets each one; other locals take notice as they usually do.
Matteo pays particular attention to one of the cats there at Casa de la Gaudí who has only one eye. He calls her Graeae, named after the Greek mythological trio of sisters, witches who all share one eye and one tooth. She, his tiny wildcat friend is orange and eggshell colored but has little white boots that somehow stay clean and crisp even though she lives at a construction site. Her one good eye, obviously, has been enough to see how to keep her modest mittens clean. It gives her an endearing wince that makes it look like she is forever winking as she looks up at him from the ground. He likes to imagine her as a diminutive Greek oracle whose favor he’s gained through familiarity and yesterday’s tuna salad. The few tourists present today snap photos as the cats press in, but Matteo doesn’t mind; he isn’t the focal point here, and being a peripheral subject in random family vacation photos seems almost comical to him.
As he concludes this communion of sorts, he reaches for his back pocket to grab his phone and see if he has any messages, and to his surprise and relative dismay there is no device to be found. He digs his other pockets to see if it has landed in a new place but finds only lint and loose tobacco.
“Did I fucking lose my phone?” he asks himself with a hint of internalized irony. After all, he isn’t the type to misplace anything, let alone the thing that we are all collectively addicted to. He has grown accustomed to being the one among friends and family who knows where they had “lost” their keys and the shelf on which their wallet was left. His "highly superior autobiographical memory" does occasionally act like a low-level super power, so misplacing his phone is a little like Aquaman choking on a glass of water. He does a quick lap around his perimeter but finds nothing. He even asks the one-eyed, white-booted mouser if she knows where his phone is. She does a little circle, pees and covers it with her pristine, pearly white paws. It is time to retrace his footsteps and see if he might find it in a place he’d been earlier this morning. “Antio sas, Graeae!” he proclaims with knees bent toward the winking cat, “Ask your sisters if they can see an iPhone with a cracked screen and get back to me, yes?” She hisses with teeth, disappointed at his early exit, then meows lovingly and slow-blinks at him. He will make his way back toward the sea steps and stop at the café as well.
“Even though our lives wander, our memories remain in one place.”
For about 10 minutes the sun threatens to come out as Matteo walks and observes his surroundings, paying particular attention to the floor where his phone could likely have fallen. He realizes as he walks that most of his time spent traversing these old Catalonian thoroughfares that his attentions are more often horizontal than vertical. Taking in people, voices, songs that competed for his attentions from shop to shop, buskers, merchants on the street sides, the strange animals they were selling, the stray dogs, the way that chunks of concrete would buckle as the older trees exerted their dominance from below and how the younger kids would take advantage of the broken and bent sidewalks like a free-for-all skatepark that only the most skilled or foolish of them would attempt. The sun gets shy again now and withers behind the thick marine layer as Matteo draws closer to the harbor at the end of the long walkway. He turns onto the side street and steps up onto the sidewalk nearing the café. Matteo pokes his head into the café he’d frequented earlier, which was now starting to clear out as they prep for siesta and he sees the owner, Lucas.
“Hey man,” Lucas says, “did you lose your phone?”
“Yes! That’s why I’m back. Did you find it?” Answers Matteo, relieved.
“I didn’t, but someone turned it in.” Lucas digs into a small basket behind the counter and retrieves the device in question. “Here.”
Matteo thanks him and takes his phone, which is wrapped in a napkin. He unfolds the soft paper and inspects his device to make sure it is indeed his and that there isn’t anything gross or creepy clinging to it, beyond what was normally gross and creepy clinging to it, then he turns the napkin over and realizes there is handwriting on it. Curious.
“A really cute girl with red hair handed it to me about an hour and a half ago … she asked if I knew a guy named Matteo and to tell him that someone had tried to steal his phone.” Lucas adds with a slight query in his tone.
Matteo is silent.
His ever-flowing anamnesis makes him deeply introspective on a good day. On another day he could be described as obsessive. His friends call him “heady,” endearingly. His thoughts being so often consumed by an endless chatter from the past has made his ability to be present a relatively tall order. But for a moment, his normally bustling brain draws a blank. It almost feels pleasant. Meditative. His heartbeat accelerates, then skips a pulse or two and throws him squarely back into his body. He looks back down at the note on the napkin and it reads, “Second time’s a charm! Text me, Cat Man. Xoxo.” Her number is beneath the note. Had she picked his pocket earlier today at the café and he didn’t even notice? She had picked his pocket earlier in the day and he didn’t even notice.
“Jeez man, sounds like you’re in love! With a pickpocket!” He hears Arturo’s statement echo in his head, and he lets out an audible “huh” accompanied with a very genuine smile. He instinctively touches his back pocket to make sure she hasn’t actually lifted his wallet this time, but thankfully it is there where it’s supposed to be. He smiles even bigger. Warmth runs through his chest, and his face is flush with blood.
“Thank you, Lucas! I’ll see you later, man.” Matteo wanders out of the shop. He looks up at the overcast sky and sees how the marine layer is low enough now that the fingertips of clouds are lazily spinning past the tops of the barren jacaranda trees that line the street. He walks toward the sea steps where he’d started his morning a couple hours before and decides it’s a good time to roll a smoke and consider the weight of this new unfolding. His spot is empty as if reserved for he and Arturo. He notices then how much of the area is smudged and discolored in a hard-won patina and littered with white stains from the trash-eating noisemakers from on high but that he and Arturo’s spot never seems to get hit. He sits down facing the water, observing the sounds in the harbor. He pulls his tobacco and his papers from his coat pocket, teases out enough leaves to call it a cigarette and spins it between his fingers. He licks the wax on the side of the paper to seal the deal, then shakes his creation to pack the leaves and dry it before placing it in his mouth. As he lights his cigarette he hears the sounds of cars making their way through the roundabout and the echos of laughter from some street kids sitting beneath the oversized effigy of one of history’s biggest egomaniacs. The seagulls evidently don’t have any pressing events that day, either, beyond the retrieval of discarded treasures from trash bins and their relentless cackling. As he inhales and exhales the smoke, Matteo once again takes in all of the sounds and the reliability of this scene; the head rush that follows his first couple of pulls is the perfect accompaniment to this urban symphony as it intersects with the noises of the harbor. He loves his city today. He smiles alongside a deep breath and decides it isn’t too soon to text the person who was almost certainly the same girl who’d occupied his thoughts over the last couple of months. He’s proud of himself for playing it cool enough to wait even this long before texting her. Matteo, with restraint.
He thumbs the message, “It’s me, Cat Man. Masked vigilante on the hunt for thieves who thrive on the contents of unwitting victims pockets. Hi.” He rereads his message … pauses … fuck it … send.
“Ping,” from a distance, amid the low volume anthrophony. Matteo hears but takes no notice; a teardrop in a torrent.
He takes another pull from his cigarette, crosses his legs and exhales. A larger, more domineering seabird mews proudly from a light post above him with a thrust in its neck and head that makes it appear as if it is choking, and for a moment he forgets about his phone and his thoughts drift towards his mother and how he’s thankful his last memories of her are mostly enriched and full of smiles.
“The queer ones usually tell a better story,” his mother would say. “If they come to you, the travelers, the one-eyed survivors, the strays … give those weary wanderers the extra water out of the tuna can. It’s a good thing to be remembered by the rarest birds, to be something’s hero … if even for a moment.”
“Ping,” his phone sings and buzzes in his lap. His stomach flutters and his face feels hot in the cooling November air. He turns his phone over.
A new text reads, “Look to your left, Cat Man. It’s me, Robin. ;)”