1

SUCKER-PUNCHING MEMORIES

It turns out the Leteo procedure isn’t bullshit.

The first time I saw a poster on the subway promoting the institute that could make you forget things, I thought it was a marketing campaign for some new science fiction movie. And when I saw the headline “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow!” on the cover of a newspaper, I mistook it as something boring, like the cure for some new flu—I didn’t think they were talking about memories. It rained that weekend, so I hung out with my friends at the Laundromat, chilling in front of the security guard’s old TV. Every single news station was interviewing different representatives of the Leteo Institute to find out more about the “revolutionary science of memory alteration and suppression.”

I called bullshit at the end of each one.

Except now we know the procedure is 100 percent real and 0 percent bullshit because one of our own has gone through it.

That’s what Brendan, my sort of best friend, tells me at least. I know him as much for his honesty as I know Baby Freddy’s mother for her dedication to confirming the gossip that comes her way. (Rumor has it she’s learning basic French because her neighbor down the hall may be having an affair with the married superintendent, and the language barrier is a bit of a block. But, yeah, that’s gossip too.)

“So Leteo is legit?” I sit down by the sandbox no one plays in because of ringworm.

Brendan paces back and forth, dribbling our friend Deon’s basketball between his legs. “That’s why Kyle and his family bounced,” he says. “Fresh start.”

I don’t even have to ask what he forgot. Kyle’s identical twin brother, Kenneth, was gunned down last December for sleeping with this guy Jordan’s younger sister. Kyle was the one who actually slept with her, though. I know grief just fine, but I can’t imagine living day by day with that—knowing the brother I shared a face and secret language with was ripped out of my life when the bullets were meant for me.

“Well, good luck to him, right?”

“Yeah, sure,” Brendan says.

The usual suspects are outside today. Skinny-Dave and Fat-Dave—who are unrelated, just both named Dave—come out of our local bodega, Good Food’s Store, where I’ve been working part-time for the past couple of months. They’re throwing back quarter juices and potato chips. Baby Freddy glides on by with his new steel orange bike, and I remember when we used to give him shit years ago for still needing training wheels—but the joke is on me since my father never got a chance to teach me to ride at all. Me-Crazy is sitting on the ground, having a conversation with the wall; and everyone else, the adults mainly, are preparing for this weekend’s community event of the year.

Family Day.

This will be the first time we’re celebrating Family Day without Kenneth and Kyle, or Brendan’s parents, or my dad. It’s not like Dad and I were gonna have father–son wheelbarrow races or father–son basketball games; besides, Dad always paired up with my brother, Eric. But father–son anything would’ve been better than this. I can’t imagine it’s any easier for Brendan, even though his parents are both alive. It might be worse, since they’re just out of reach in boxy jail cells for separate crimes: his mother for armed robbery, his father for assaulting a police officer after he was caught dealing meth. Now he lives with his grandfather who is thugging it out at eighty-eight.

“Everyone’s going to expect smiles from us,” I say.

“Everyone can go suck it,” Brendan replies. He pockets his hands, and I bet there’s weed in there; dealing pot has been his way of growing up faster, even though it’s pretty much what landed his dad in prison eight months ago. He checks his watch, struggling to read what the hands are saying. “I have to go meet someone.” He doesn’t even wait for me to respond before he walks off.

He’s a guy of few words, which is why he’s only my sort of best friend. A real best friend would use a lot of words to make you feel somewhat good about your life when you’re thinking about ending it. Like I tried to. Instead, he distanced himself from me because he felt as if he had a duty to hang with the other black kids—which I thought and still think is bullshit.

I miss the time when we took full advantage of summer nights, ignoring curfew so we could lie down on the black mat of the jungle gym and talk about girls and futures too big for us—which always seemed like it might be okay, as long we were stuck here with each other. Now we come outside because of routine, not brotherhood.

It’s just one more thing I have to pretend I’m okay with.

 

HOME IS A ONE-BEDROOM apartment for the four of us. I mean, three of us. Three.

I share the living room with Eric, who should be home any minute now from his shift at the used video game store on Third Avenue. He’ll power on one of his two gaming consoles, chat with his online friends through a headset, and play until his team bows out around 4 a.m. I bet Mom will try and get him to apply to some colleges. I don’t plan on sticking around for the argument.

There are stacks of unread comics on my side of the room. I bought a lot of them for cheap, like between seventy-five cents and two dollars at my favorite comic shop, without any real intention to read them from start to finish. I just like having a collection to show off whenever one of my more well-off friends comes over. I subscribed to one series, The Dark Alternates, when everyone got into it at school last year, but so far I’ve only gotten around to flipping through them to see if the artists have done anything interesting.

Whenever I really get into a book, I draw my favorite scenes inside them: in World War Z, I drew the Battle of Yonkers where zombies dominated; in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, I drew the moment we meet the Headless Horseman because that was when I suddenly cared about an otherwise so-so ghost story; and, in Scorpius Hawthorne and the Convict of Abbadon—the third book in my favorite fantasy series about a demonic boy wizard—I drew the monstrous Abbadon being split into two from Scorpius’s Sever Charm.

I haven’t been drawing very much lately.

The shower always takes a few minutes to heat up so I turn it on and go check on my mom. I knock on her bedroom door, and she doesn’t answer. The TV is on, though. When your only living parent isn’t responding, you can’t help but think of that time when your father was found dead in the bathtub—and the possibility that beyond your home’s only bedroom door life as an orphan awaits you. So I go inside.

She’s just waking up from her second nap of the day to an episode of Law & Order. “You okay, Mom?”

“I’m fine, my son.” She rarely calls me Aaron or “my baby” anymore, and while I was never a fan of the latter, especially whenever my friends were around, at least it showed that there was life inside of her. Now she’s just wiped.

Beside her is a half-eaten slice of pizza she asked me to get her from Yolanda’s Pizzeria, the empty cup of coffee I brought her back from Joey’s, and a couple of Leteo pamphlets she picked up on her own. She’s always believed in the procedure, but that means nothing to me since she also believes in Santeria. She puts on her glasses, which conveniently hide the sunken lines around her eyes from her crazy work hours. She’s a social worker at Washington Hospital five days a week, and spends four evenings handling meat at the supermarket for extra cash to keep this tiny roof over our heads.

“You didn’t like the pizza? I can get you something else.”

Mom ignores this. She gets out of bed, tugging at the collar of her sister’s hand-me-down shirt she recently lost enough weight to fit into because of her “Poverty Diet,” and hugs me harder than she has since Dad died. “I wish there was something else we could’ve done.”

“Uh . . .” I hug her back, never knowing what to say when she cries about what Dad did and what I tried to do. I just look at the Leteo pamphlets again. There is something else we could’ve done for him—we just never would’ve been able to afford it. “I should probably shower before the water gets cold again. Sorry.”

She lets me go. “It’s okay, my son.”

I pretend everything is okay as I rush to the bathroom where steam has fogged up the mirror. I quickly undress. But I stop before stepping in because the tub—finally clean after lots of bleach—remains the spot where he took his life. His memories sucker punch my brother and me at every turn: the pen marks on the wall where he measured our height; the king-sized bed where he would flip us while watching the news; the stove where he cooked empanadas for our birthdays. We can’t exactly just escape these things by moving into a different, bigger apartment. No, we’re stuck here in this place where we have to shake mouse shit out of our shoes and inspect our glasses of soda before drinking in case roaches dived in while our backs were turned.

Our hot water doesn’t run hot for very long so I jump in before I miss my chance.

I rest my head against the wall, the water sliding through my hair and down my back, and I think about all the memories I would want Leteo to bury. They all have to do with living in a post-Dad world. I flip over my wrist and stare at my scar. I can’t believe I was once that guy who carved a smile into his wrist because he couldn’t find happiness, that guy who thought he would find it in death. No matter what drove my dad to kill himself—his tough upbringing in a home with eight older brothers, or his job at the infamous post office up the block, or any one of a million reasons—I have to push ahead with the people who don’t take the easy way out, who love me enough to stay alive even when life sucks.

I trace the smiling scar, left to right and right to left, happy to have it as a reminder not to be such a dumbass again.

 

 

2

A TRADE DATE

(NOT A DATE WHERE YOU TRADE YOUR DATE)

Last April, Genevieve asked me out while we were hanging out at Fort Wille Park. My friends all thought this was an epic case of gender role-reversal, but my friends can also sometimes be close-minded idiots. It’s important for me to remember this—the asking-out part—because it means Genevieve saw something in me, the life of someone she wanted to lose herself in, and not someone whose life she wanted to see thrown away.

Trying to commit you-know-what two months ago was not only selfish, but also embarrassing. When you survive, you’re treated like a child whose hand has to be held when crossing the street. Even worse, everyone suspects you were either begging for attention or just too stupid to get the job done properly.

I walk the ten blocks downtown to the apartment where Genevieve lives with her dad. Her dad doesn’t really pay her a whole lot of attention, but at least he’s alive to ignore her. I buzz the intercom and am desperately wishing I could’ve ridden a bike here. My armpits stink and my back is sweaty, and the shower I just took is now completely pointless.

“Aaron!” Genevieve calls, sticking her head out from her window on the second floor, sun rays glowing against her face. “I’ll be down in a sec, I gotta wash up first.” She shows me her hands, wet with yellow and black paint, and winks before ducking back in. I’d like to think she was drawing a cartoonish happy face, but her hyper-imagination is more likely to draw something magical, like a yellow-bellied hippogriff with pearl-black eyes lost in a mirrored forest with nothing but a golden star to guide it home. Or something.

She comes down a couple minutes later, still in the ratty white shirt she wears to paint. She smiles before hugging me, and it’s not one of those half smiles I’ve grown used to. There’s nothing worse than seeing her sad and defeated. Her body is tense, and when she finally relaxes, the pale green tote bag I got her for her birthday last year slips down her shoulder. She’s drawn a lot on the tote; sometimes there are tiny cities, other times it’s an imagining of a song lyric she loved.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hi,” she says back, tiptoeing to kiss me. Her green eyes are watery. They remind me of a rain forest painting she gave up on a few months ago.

“What’s wrong? My armpits stink, right?”

“Totally, but that’s not it. Painting is stressing me out like whoa. You’re rescuing me just in time.” She punches me in the shoulder, the aggressive way she chooses to flirt.

“What were you painting?”

“A Japanese swallow angelfish walking out of the ocean.”

“Huh. I was expecting something cooler. More magical with hippogriffs.”

“I don’t like being predictable, dumb-idiot.” She’s been calling me that since our first kiss a couple days after we started dating. I’m pretty sure it’s because I might’ve accidentally bumped heads with her twice like the biggest amateur in the history of inexperienced kissers. “You in the mood to go see a movie?”

“How about a Trade Date instead?”

A Trade Date is not a date where you trade your date for someone else. A Trade Date—Genevieve made it up—is when I choose a spot to go to that will interest her, and she does the same for me. And it’s called a Trade Date, obviously, because we’re trading favorite pastimes with each other, and not each other.

“I could settle on that, I suppose.”

We play Rock, Paper, Scissors. Loser has to choose first and my scissors cut the hell out of her paper. I could’ve just volunteered to go first because I already know where I want to take her, but I’m not 100 percent sure yet of the words I want to say, and I could use the extra time to make sure I get them right. She brings me to my favorite comic bookstore on 144th St.

“I guess you’re done being unpredictable,” I say.

 

comic book asylum

We’ve Got Issues

The front door is painted to resemble an old phone booth, like the kind Clark Kent dashes into when he needs to change into Superman. While his monogamous relationship with that particular phone booth outside the Daily Planet never made much sense to me, I’m as close to super as I’ve felt in a while. I haven’t been here in months.

Comic Book Asylum is geek heaven. The cashier in the Captain America shirt is restocking seven-dollar pens shaped like Thor’s hammer. Pricey busts of Wolverine and the Hulk and Iron Man gloriously line a shelf modeled after the fireplace in Wayne Manor. I’m surprised some forty-year-old virgin isn’t having a seizure over the Marvel and DC clashing going on here. There’s even a closet full of classic capes you can either buy or rent for an in-store photo shoot. But my favorite spot is the clearance cart with the dollar comics, since, well, they’re carrying dollar comics and that’s a hard price to beat.

They even have action figures Eric and I would’ve played with when we were younger, like a combo pack of Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus. Or a set of the Fantastic Four, though we would’ve probably lost the Invisible Woman—Get it?—since my favorite was the Human Torch and his was Mister Fantastic. I even had a soft spot for the bad guys, like Green Goblin and Magneto, because Eric always preferred the heroes and that made it more fun.

Genevieve continues to choose this place on Trade Dates because she knows it makes me happiest, although the community pool where I took swimming lessons used to be a close second before I almost drowned. (Long story.) She wanders off and looks through their posters, and I cut straight for the clearance cart. I rifle through the comics for something badass that might inspire me to work on my own comic some more. I left off on a suspenseful panel of Sun Warden—my hero, whose origin story involves him swallowing an alien sun as a child to guard it. Right now he only has enough time to save one person from falling off a celestial tower into a dragon’s mouth, and he’s torn between his girlfriend and best friend. There’s no doubt Superman would save Lois Lane, but I wonder if Batman would save Robin over his girlfriend of the week. (The Dark Knight gets around, man.)

Some guys are talking about the latest Avengers movie, so I quickly choose two comics and rush over to the counter so I won’t have to Hulk out if they spoil anything. I never got to see the movie when it came out in December because nobody wanted to go. We were all in a funk over Kenneth.

“Hey, Stanley.”

“Aaron! Long time no see.”

“Yeah, I had a bit of an episode going on.”

“Sounds mysterious. Leaping over tall buildings with a mask on, maybe?”

I take a second to answer. “Family stuff.”

I hand him my gift card and he swipes it for the two-dollar charge. He swipes one more time before telling me, “Zero balance, dude.”

“No, I have a few dollars left.”

“I’m afraid you’re poorer than Bruce Wayne with a frozen bank account,” he says. He should be ashamed of himself—not because that’s a rude thing to say to a customer, but because he’s been recycling that same weak joke for months now. No shit I would be poorer than Bruce Wayne on his poorest day.

“Do you want me to put them on hold for you?”

“Uh, you know, it’s cool. Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

Genevieve comes over. “Everything okay, babe?”

“Yeah, yeah. You ready to bounce?” My face warms up and I’m getting teary, not because I won’t go home with these comics—I’m not eight years old—but because I’m just really fucking embarrassed in front of my girlfriend.

She doesn’t even look at me when she reaches into her tote bag and pulls out a few bucks, which somehow makes me feel even worse. “How much is it?”

“Gen, it’s fine, I don’t need these.”

She buys them anyway, hands me the bag, and starts talking to me about an idea for a painting, one where starving vultures chase shadows of the dead down this road, unaware the corpses are above their heads. I think it’s a cool enough idea. And as much as I want to thank her for the comics, her changing the subject so I didn’t have to feel shitty about myself was probably a better move.

 

“Remember that time Kyle got the Leteo procedure?”

Remember That Time is a dumb game we play where we “remember” things that have happened very recently or are going down now. I’m getting the game running to distract her while we walk through Fort Wille Park on 147th Street, close to the post office where my dad worked, near a gas station where Brendan and I used to buy candy cigarettes whenever we felt stressed. (We occasionally joke about how dumb and childish that was.)

“How can anyone know for sure if no one’s seen him?” Genevieve is holding my hand as she hops onto a bench, walking along the back with the worst balance ever. I’m positive she’s going to crack her head open one of these days and I’ll be begging Leteo to make me forget witnessing it. “A lie could’ve snuck its way into Freddy’s mom’s rumor mill. Also: saying he forgot Kenneth is a little extreme since Leteo suppresses memories. They don’t erase them.” She’s never believed in the procedure either, and she once believed in the power of horoscopes and tarot cards.

“I think it counts as forgetting if you never remember it again.”

“Good counter.”

Genevieve finally loses her balance and I catch her, but not in that heroic way where I could carry her away into the sunset, or even in a funny way where she lands perfectly horizontal on top of me and we kiss. It’s more like her body twists and I catch her under her arms but her legs drop and skid back, and now her face is facing my dick, and it’s awkward because she’s never seen it. I help her up and we’re both apologizing; me for no reason, and her for almost falling nose-first into my crotch.

Well, there’s always next time.

“So . . .” She pulls her dark hair away from her face.

“What would your battle plan be if zombies came at us right now?”

This time I change the subject so she doesn’t have to feel embarrassed. I hold her hand and lead her through the park. She shares her half-assed strategies about climbing apple trees and waiting them out. Spoken like a true dumb-idiot.

Genevieve’s mother used to bring her here as a child, when it was more kid friendly with seesaws and monkey bars. She stopped coming here as much after her mother died in a plane crash a couple years ago on her way to visit family in the Dominican Republic. Whenever we have Trade Dates, I usually take her to other places, like the flea market or the skating rink on half-off Wednesdays, but today we’re going to remember that time she asked me out.

We get to the sprayground—one of those fountains where water sprays up from the ground in timed bursts. All ten hoses are now clogged with filthy leaves, cigarettes, and other trash.

“It’s been a while,” Genevieve says.

“I thought it’d be cool if I asked you out here,” I say.

“I don’t remember us ever breaking up.”

“Is that really necessary?” I ask.

“You can’t ask me out if we’re already dating. That’s like killing a dead person.”

“Good point. Break up with me.”

“I need a reason.”

“Fine. Um, you’re a bitch and your paintings suck.”

“Broken up.”

“Awesome,” I say with the biggest smile. “I’m sorry for calling you a bitch and telling you your paintings suck just now and for trying to you-know-what myself. I’m sorry you had to live through that and I’m sorry I was such a dumb-idiot to think I didn’t have any reason to be happy because it’s pretty damn clear you’re my happiness.”

Genevieve crosses her arms. There are still spots of paint on her elbow she missed when washing up. “I was your happiness until I broke up with you. Ask me out again.”

“Is that really necessary?”

She punches me.

“Okay. Genevieve, will you be my girlfriend?”

Genevieve shrugs. “Why not? I need something to do this summer.”

We find shade under a tree, kicking off our shoes as we lie down with our feet in the grass. She tells me for the millionth time I never had anything to apologize for, that she didn’t hate me for grieving and suffering. And I get that, but I needed this fresh start for us, even if we were just joking around. Not everyone can afford to go to Leteo to have life undone and I wouldn’t if I could. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to re-create big life moments like today without the memories to remember.

“So . . .” Genevieve is tracing my palm lines like she’s about to tell me my future, and she kind of is. “My father is going upstate with his girlfriend on Wednesday for an art show.”

“Good for him, I guess.”

“He’s going to be gone until Friday.”

“Good for you.”

Only then do I see where this is going. A sexy lightbulb moment flashes, and when it does, I get up and jump so high I think I might’ve left an Aaron-shaped hole in the clouds. But when I come back down, I remember something very crucial: Fuck, I have no idea how to have sex.

 

 

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