NEW FICTION: ERASING THE MAP by Marissa Lingen

Paul Raven @ 02-02-2009

We’ve published a lot of wild and gonzo stuff at Futurismic in recent months, but we wouldn’t want you to make the mistake that’s all we like. And here’s an example: “Erasing the Map” by Marissa Lingen, which is subtle, quietly assertive, and handled perfectly.

Its thesis: If you could have traumatic memories surgically removed, would you take the risk of losing some of the memories you treasure? Read first, then make your mind up and tell us in the comments!

“Erasing the Map”

by Marissa Lingen

There was this one time, in college. I was arguing politics with this girl. Young Republican type. She had the blonde bob and the baby blue sweater, the whole works. I’d even seen her wear penny loafers. I liked her anyway. We were arguing about gun control, and I said there was absolutely no feeling in the world worse than killing another person.

I think if it had been another circumstance, another time, she would have responded by reaming me out about all the things she could think of that were worse. But it was a party. Maybe she thought I was cute. So instead, she batted those contact-lens-blue eyes at me and said, “And how many people have you killed?”

I said, “Just the one.”

It was the wrong answer, I knew, and the flirting look went off like a switch. But it was the only answer I could give. After she stared at me for a minute, I said, “It was an accident. I was ten years old.” She still didn’t say anything, so I said, “His name was Anthony, and he was my best friend.”

I have these fantasies where this conversation goes differently, you know? Not with Little Miss Reagan-Bush, but with somebody. Anybody. Just once.

Do I get to make these conversations go away, too, or just the time I shot Tony? Oh. That’s good.

What did it smell like? You mean when I shot him? Gunpowder, of course. Blood. Sweat. Kind of coppery. And… grass, old cut grass decaying on the blades of his dad’s mower. And motor oil and gasoline.

I never learned to drive. You think after this, I could learn to drive?

#

Lori popped the disc out of the machine and filed it back in order. Neil’s session had rattled her; she had to take a swallow of coffee and compose herself for a moment after watching. She wasn’t sure how she’d handle him. She’d never had a patient who was trying to flee from something he’d done, not something done to him or in front of him.

Anita, her other patient, was a lot more typical. She’d been raped in college. She wanted to forget. She was an excellent candidate for the procedure: the memories had been established fairly late in her life, compared to the exponential brain development of early childhood. Her rapist was not someone she’d spent much time with, so the cross-connections would not be as extensive as in some of their nastier cases. Lori had been selected as Anita’s patient counselor because the clinic had had several similar patients and found that they reacted to a fellow woman of color better than to white and/or male counselors.

Her assignment to Neil, and Neil’s to Anita as a counseling partner, had been random, and Lori had hoped until that day that one of the other counselors would step up and express an interest in Neil’s case. But no, it was all up to her.

She sighed and called them into her office, where there were comfortable chairs and glasses of water or lemonade. Anita was a slender woman whose black hair was escaping from its bun in charming tendrils. Neil was the sort of tall, thin man who habitually hunched his shoulders, making him look much younger than his file said he was. His fair skin made the dark circles under his dark eyes more striking. Lori looked at them each carefully and took a deep breath, smiling as reassuringly as she could manage.

“All of us who are patient counselors these days have had the procedure ourselves,” said Lori. “We are trained but not as medical professionals. We don’t have veto power over you getting this procedure, the way the neurologists, psychologists, and general physicians do. We just provide another point of view, one we hope you find interesting and beneficial. I’ll start by telling you some of my experiences, and I can answer any questions you have. We’ll see where the discussion takes us from there.”

Anita frowned. “Do I have to talk to him about what I want to forget?”

“No,” said Lori. “You don’t even have to talk to me about it, although I have to review your interview tapes. That was in the release you signed.”

“I remember,” said Anita, though she didn’t look pleased.

“You’re not required to say anything here. You can just listen. Is that okay?”

Anita nodded grudgingly.

“Neil?”

He looked startled that someone was asking his opinion. “Yes, that’s fine.”

“Okay. Well. I don’t remember anything about my mother from after I was nine,” said Lori. She looked from Anita to Neil, wishing she could tell what they were thinking. “She decided she didn’t want to have anything to do with me after I went to live with my dad when I was fourteen. We had a big fight, and she called me all sorts of horrible names and attacked me. I ran to my best friend’s house.

“I can tell you this because I have read it written down in my own handwriting. I even have a few memories of referring to it. But I don’t know what it was like. I have don’t remember what her living room looked like, or what she was wearing, or what my best friend’s mom made for me to eat while we got calmed down, before I called my dad and my stepmom.

“I tried calling and making up with her several times. I know that because I wrote it down, too. When she finally agreed that I could come see her, she killed herself. Where I would find her. In the living room.”

“I can’t remember that. But I also can’t remember whether she took me to the swimming pool when I was ten. I don’t know what she bought me for my eleventh birthday. I don’t know why I wanted to live with Dad instead of Mom — I’ve always gotten along well with my Dad, but how do you choose one parent over another? Did we get on each other’s nerves? Was it about who lived closer to school? Was my stepmom a better cook? I used to know. But now I don’t.”

They both stared at her.

“I wanted to forget the attack, and the suicide. I did forget those things. But memories aren’t stored tidily, with April 12, 2025, in the next box to April 13, 2025.”

“All the brochures have told us that,” said Anita.

“I know they have, and I’m glad you’ve read them,” said Lori. “But I’m here to tell you what it actually means, to experience it. They say that you might have related memory loss. I’m telling you that, for me, related memory loss means everything related to my mom for five years before the stuff I was trying to forget.”

“Are you saying you regret the procedure?” asked Neil, frowning.

Lori sighed. “I ask myself that every time I see new patients. No, more often than that. I might ask myself every day. I really don’t know, to be honest with you. There are certainly many things that are easier in my life because of the procedure, but there are also holes. I know there are holes. And not just the ones I want. Also — I don’t really know how it’s affected me. I don’t think I’m the same person, exactly. You may find you have personality changes.”

“I want personality changes,” said Anita fiercely.

“Me, too,” said Neil.

#

He was touching me, and I didn’t want him to, and I said no, and he hit me until I couldn’t say anything.

There, I told you.

What do you mean, what did his breath smell like? It smelled like evil, okay? How am I supposed to know what evil smells like? I just told you what happened: he beat me until I couldn’t say no, and then he raped me.

What kind of a pervert are you? I don’t remember what it looked like! I try not to remember any of it! That’s what you people are here for!

[Subject exited interviewing room before interview could be completed.]

#

Lori was putting a cantaloupe in her cart when she heard someone calling her name. “Lori? Lori Washington? I can’t believe it!”

Lori smiled vaguely. “Hi!” The other woman was about her own age, plump and well-dressed, her black hair cropped close to her head.

“You don’t recognize me? It’s Addison Cook!”

“Oh my God, Addison!” said Lori. There was a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Addison was a name she remembered, all right: she had written it down. Addison was the friend who took her in when her mother attacked her.

Even adjusting for the decades between the women in the grocery store and the desperate girl on the doorstep, Lori could not make herself remember. “What have you been doing with yourself these days?”

“Pediatrician, husband, two kids,” said Addison. She cocked her head. “You still don’t really recognize me, do you?”

“I remember you,” said Lori, not entirely truthfully.

“I would think so, under the circumstances! But let’s not talk about that — what are you doing now?”

“I’m a patient counselor for a memory removal clinic,” said Lori.

Addison went still. “I see.”

“Helps people with a lot of tough times.”

“I expect so,” but Lori’s old friend’s tone was no more than polite, and she made her excuses to part company shortly thereafter.

“She was my best friend,” she told her patients later that week. “She was there for me like no one else in the world. And I didn’t remember her, and she knew it.”

“But you wrote her down,” said Neil. “When she said her name, you knew who she was.”

“Yes.”

“And you could greet her in the supermarket without having to remember the blood from — from what your mother did.”

“Yes,” said Lori. “That’s very true. I don’t remember the blood.”

“She was upset, wasn’t she?” said Anita softly.

“A little. I think so. Yes. I told her I worked here, and I don’t think she approved.” Lori straightened her shoulders, looking from Anita to Neil. “You’re going to have to get used to a certain social stigma for this procedure.”

“I know about social stigma,” said Neil. Lori winced.

#

I can’t believe they’re making me do this again. I already told you what happened! He beat me, he raped me, end of story!

Who did I tell? My roommate, Trish. She said I should go to the campus police. Then she said I should at least go to Health Services. What did it smell like? It smelled like Health Services! God, haven’t you ever been in a doctor’s office? It smelled like a box of Band-Aids and that goop they put on their hands when they’re in too much of a hurry to wash up and they don’t want to give you AIDS from the last patient.

I know they can’t give you AIDS. I don’t know why I said AIDS.

It sounded like…an office, I guess. People bustling around. And the doctor who examined me sounded like my uncle, and I hated him so much.

No, not my uncle. I love my uncle.

I haven’t talked to him much since it happened, though.

#

When Lori went out to the waiting room to get Anita and Neil, a clean-cut blond man was standing at the front desk glaring at the secretary, Julius. He immediately turned to Lori when the door opened.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. “Maybe you can help me? Are you one of the doctors?”

“No, I’m a patient counselor,” said Lori. “If you want to make an appointment, Julius can set up a procedure consultation with –”

“I want my wife’s — my ex-wife’s memories.” He did not sound rude, just determined. “My name’s Mike Janek. Her name would have been Elena Cavila. I don’t know if you worked with her…?”

Lori sighed. “You don’t know much about neuropsychology, do you?”

“No, ma’am. I’m in insurance.”

“Medical?”

“Home insurance, ma’am.” He opened his mouth and shut it again, and Lori wondered, uncharitably, whether he was biting his tongue on an offer to get her a good deal.

“Well, think of it this way, Mr. Janek: if someone’s home burns to the ground, it doesn’t make sense to go in and ask for their paperwork, right? That’s where your ex-wife is right now. Even if we knew how to implant memories reliably into other people’s heads — and we don’t — your ex-wife’s memories are not sitting around waiting for that sort of thing. They’re gone. We didn’t remove them, we destroyed them.”

“But –”

“She paid us to destroy them,” said Lori gently. “I’m sorry. I know this must be hard for you. But there is just nothing we can do to help.”

For a moment, she was afraid the polite demeanor was about to give way to violence, but he merely sighed, thanked her, and walked out, his posture dejected. Julius shook his head. “Thanks. He wasn’t about to believe me.”

“Sorry about that,” said Lori to Julius, and then turned to make sure it extended to Anita and Neil. “Let’s go in.”

When they were settled in her office, she said, “That’s something you’re going to have to deal with, if you decide to go through with the procedure. Some people will be hostile — but many of them will just not understand what’s going on. Scientific literacy is better than it was twenty years ago, but there are still a lot of supposedly educated people who haven’t the foggiest notion how the brain works.”

“They don’t have to understand it, they just have to accept it,” said Anita.

Lori raised an eyebrow. “In fact, they don’t have to accept it. You can lose friendships over this. People have lost jobs, or entire career paths. There are no laws prohibiting discrimination based on memory removal procedure use. Even if there were, it wouldn’t cover the neighbor who suddenly doesn’t want to chat over the fence any more, or the cousin who never returns your calls.”

“But you can find out whether your friends and family will be like that beforehand,” said Neil.

“To a certain extent, maybe,” said Lori.

“You can tell who’ll stand by you,” said Anita softly. “You get a feel for that sort of thing.”

“But where did you get that? With what information did you learn who to trust?” asked Lori.

#

My parents thought that if we moved, it would be an admission that I’d done something wrong. They thought it would be like saying we were ashamed. We were ashamed. You are supposed to be ashamed if you kill someone. But they didn’t want to admit it.

At school they called me Killer. At first you could hear the fear in their voices. Then they saw what a wuss I really was. I was so glad to get out of there to college. I thought college would be different. But I was still me at college.

My mom kept telling me that it wasn’t my fault. Do I have to keep that part? I hated that almost as much as the — the shooting itself. How often she repeated that it wasn’t my fault. If she’d really thought that, she wouldn’t have said it so much.

#

The last appointments before they decided whether they were going to go through with the procedure were one-on-one. Neil came first, looking as though he hadn’t slept in a month.

“You’re not sure I deserve this,” he said without preamble.

Lori reared back, alarmed. “I never said anything like that. I never even meant to imply anything like that.”

“No, I know. But a lot of people think — maybe you don’t, I guess….”

“Go on.”

“A lot of people think that even though it was an accident, I should have to keep living with it forever. They think I should always be that kid.”

“And what do you think, Neil?” she asked.

“I’ve played it over and over in my head, trying to figure out if there was any way I could have subconsciously really meant to do it. I can’t. But I can’t stop replaying it anyway.” His jaw firmed. “I have to make it stop.”

“And if you forget something else along the way?”

“I may forget everything else along the way,” he said. “I know that. I may end up emotionally about eight years old, and very confused about dealing with adults. But all the good stuff in my life got tainted by this. I always know, everywhere I go, that I killed another person. Me. I didn’t mean to, but I did it.”

“You’ll still know it after the procedure,” said Lori.

“I know. But I won’t remember. I won’t feel it. I’ll try to make do with that.”

She said, “In the end, this is your choice.” She could see in his face that he believed her as few other patients had.

Anita was there a little early, so Lori didn’t get the break she’d wanted between them. With a little sigh, she beckoned for Anita to follow her in.

“Well, so here we are,” said Lori. “The microneurologists have finished the mapping needed for your procedure.”

“Good.”

“Look, I can’t forbid you from doing this –”

“Then don’t.”

“But I have to emphasize how much I hope you consider it carefully. The side effects can be quite –”

“It was a central event of my life,” said Anita haughtily. “I don’t expect you to understand. I just expect you to do your job.”

“My job isn’t to rubber-stamp your procedure. It’s to advise you on it. I need to make sure you understand some of the possible negative consequences I’ve suffered.”

“You’re not like me!” snapped Anita. “You lost part of your mom. I get that. I’m not talking about my mom. I’m talking about my rapist. With whom I went on, like, two dates!”

“It’s not just your rapist,” said Lori, keeping soft, neutral tone. “That’s just the thing. We have no way of predicting what else eradicating that memory will get rid of.” She leaned forward. “Sometimes our memories give us a sort of map. We know where we are because we remember how we got here. For me, parts of that map are gone. And so there are times when I’m lost. If you do this –”

“When I do this,” Anita corrected.

Lori didn’t argue the point. “I’m just saying, it’s hard to predict which pieces make up the whole. It’s hard to know how to navigate through life with the information we’re given. Some of it is bad information. Sometimes we’ll be like that old saying about the cat that won’t sit on the cold stove. But we still have to learn not to burn ourselves along the way.”

Anita closed her eyes. “I know you don’t want me to do this.”

“No,” said Lori. “That’s not what I want at all. I want you to think about doing this. I want you to be informed when you do this. Which is different.”

“Have you ever been betrayed?” said Anita, opening her eyes.

Lori met her gaze deliberately. “Not that I remember.”

#

Anthony’s parents tried to be nice about the whole thing. They really were. They came over to say they forgave me. They said they knew it was an accident. They said they knew I was grieving, too.

But they never looked at me the whole time. They couldn’t look at me. My mom brought them iced tea in pebbled glasses, and she stood and wrung her hands the whole time, and they didn’t drink their iced tea.

No, I’ve never liked iced tea. But I didn’t when I was a kid, either. Probably I won’t after the procedure, either. I’m ready. I’m confident. It’s the first time I’ve been confident in twenty years.

#

I can’t believe I went through all this and I’m not doing it. It’s like they cut me open and didn’t take out my appendix, so I have this stupid gut wound, and I could still explode at any time. It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. I can’t believe it. I feel so stupid.

But I don’t know what I’d lose. Whether I wouldn’t care about Trish any more. Whether I’d forget something I really need, like why I’m scared and what I can do about it.

And some things you can’t change back.

###

Marissa Lingen Marissa Lingen lives on land atop the oldest bedrock in the US.  She used to study physics but has been recovering for several years. Current obsessions include hockey, Finnish mythology, and Woody Guthrie music. You can peer into her mind on LiveJournal.

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5 Responses to “NEW FICTION: ERASING THE MAP by Marissa Lingen”

  1. JustinP says:

    Smart and elegant – proper armhair-raising stuff. 🙂

  2. Lise A says:

    Wonderful – nice philosophical question.

  3. Listener says:

    I liked it up until the end. Anita sounded petulant and childlike — not that it wasn’t in character, but it just didn’t feel right.

    For me the strongest part was that Lori kept trying to explain the side effects and people said they understood, but they really didn’t grok. Anita, in the end, gave into fear. Neil didn’t really care. But you have to have it done to really grok it. In real life, plenty of people say “I understand” when they just want you to stop talking and get on with it. I think that was captured perfectly.

  4. JustinP says:
  5. Nancy Jane Moore says:

    Here’s a NY Times report on serious research on the exact kind of procedure the story is built on. And, judging by the reporter’s gee whiz approach to the story, the important considerations that Marissa Lingen’s story is built on are getting the usual short shrift.