Pablo knocked at the door with a nervous twitch, fully prepared for the police to jump out of the adjacent apartment door and arrest him for his illicit act. Or what he was about to do. Or was it what he was about to buy? The laws on memory erasure drugs were as clear as waking up from a bender, and no less painful.
He pulled at his coat and rubbed the sweat off. Were his shoes, suede and leather Nikes, too out of place for the neighborhood? His coworker told him to dress down if he went through with going the building in the south end of town, past all the dive bars and all night bail bondsman shops. The hookers working the corner didn’t even take two looks at him as he walked by and buzzed the brownstone door.
A lazy feminine voice answered, “Forget your wallet?”
“Yeah, the brown one,” he recalled the coded answer, “with the baby pictures.”
He climbed the stairs, patting his wallet, free of baby photos, but full of cash on a disposable credit card.
He was about to knock again, but soft footsteps approached the door, and a chain rattled. A sliver of a face appeared through the ajar door, revealing a deep blue eye outlined with heavy eyeliner and a broad forehead that lead to black and bleach blonde streaks.
“I called about the lost wallet,” Pablo said, his Portuguese accent more pronounced with his rising blood pressure.
“Come in, come in,” she said, opening the door wider. She wore grey yoga pants and her breasts hung braless against the white tank top. “I’m Marie.”
Pablo exhaled, and committed himself to cross the threshold. A skyline picture of London, a generic poster of flowers hung in the sparsely decorated studio apartment. A strand of Christmas lights dangled around a doorway, unlit, and faint traces of teriyaki floated about.
“Take a seat. Pablo, right?” she said, disappearing below the unlit Christmas lights.
Still no cops. Were they hiding in the bathroom? He sat down on a deep orange leather recliner.
“Yes,” he paused and eyed the coffee table covered in a trio of celebrity magazines. He pulled out his wallet and removed the disposable credit card and placed atop the eyes of a young starlets face. That little blue piece of plastic was his ticket to forgetting. “Thank you for agreeing to meet me.”
She returned trailing a miniature cart about as tall and thin as she was. Pablo had seen these in emergency rooms that administered drugs in specific measurements.
“You’re welcome. I consider this my volunteering, helping people through rough patches,” she said pulling out a blood pressure cuff. She bent over and the scratchy peeling of velcro ripped through the room. “Mind if I roll your sleeve up—or better—could you take your coat off?”
Pablo nodded and removed his coat, placing it on his lap. She wrapped the cuff around his arm and pumped it full of air. Her eyes glanced between the gauge and the blue card on the table. The cuff deflated and she said, “Let me get you a glass of water to ease your nerves.”
Marie hung up the cuff and palmed the card in one motion before walking to the kitchen. A faucet sounded and Pablo refolded his coat and repositioned himself in the chair. She returned, arm outstretched with a glass of water. He half smiled a thank you and accepted the glass.
“Pablo, for this to work, you need to calm down. It’s understandable, you’re not the first, but to achieve the… results you want, you’ll need to relax.” She rubbed his shoulder and smiled. “Take a few breaths and visualize a peaceful setting. An image or place that calms you.”
He was here to forget those places that brought him peace, all the places he and Jamal visited together hand in hand. He gulped more water, and pictured a generic beach of smooth sand and a sunset painting the tides red and purple. Jamal hated beaches, and Pablo could not envision him there.
Marie worked at the cart. “This works in three parts, Pablo. Well four, but the first part is set up, where I place two prickly diodes on your temples and poke you to get the IV line going. Next, I’ll inject saline as a test to make sure your blood is circulating. That’ll make your mouth taste funny, but the next two parts—where I administer the Cerebrexum—the drug is a shot and a chaser. The shot will make you feel warm in your chest and then buzz your brain a little bit, and the chaser will knock you out.”
“Knock me out? Like sleep?” he asked, his eyes now open.
“Kind of. It’ll induce a deep REM state for about ten minutes, and then you’ll wake up,” she said, putting on gloves. She pulled out a sterile wipe and searched Pablo’s right arm for an obvious vein.
“Have you done this?”
“Before? You’re at least the twentieth person I’ve given Cerebrex—.”
“I mean, have you taken the drug?” he asked, tilting his head, searching her face.
“I have,” she stared back, resolute.
“Did it work?”
“Yes.” She poked the needle in the vein above his forearm. “I don’t recall having a father.”
He frowned, unable to hide his melancholy, but it sounded promising.
She shrugged as if this wasn’t the first time she had delivered the line. “The thing about Cerebrexum is, yeah, you forget, but you forget why you have things missing. Kind of like something at the tip of your tongue except it’s a shadow out of your mind you can’t recognize.” She swished her lips and tapped the machine, looking back at Pablo as she affixed the diodes to his head, “I have the line in. Are you ready? Are you sure you want to forget?”
He nodded, his eyes beginning to water at the thought of losing Jamal forever. The man he loved was dead, but Pablo’s memories of him caused him so much hurt already—a botched suicide and a constant fog induced by all those memories that rolled in at any sensation that was Jamal.
Marie patted his knee, “All right. Saline first.”
She pushed a button on the machine. Pablo’s arm grew cold as the saline flowed through his vein, and he could smell, taste something bitter and tangy in his mouth. The machine beeped, and he rolled his head. OK was lit in green letters.
“Here comes the first part of the drug, and this is the important part, picture what you want to forget.”
Pablo let the tears roll, and his arm now felt warm. His chest swelled inside as if a fire was lit in his heart. “Jamal,” he said, realizing it’d be the last time he’d say his name.
The fire dissolved but his head felt warm and pulsed as if he’d drank too much coffee.
Marie said in a whisper, “Think of Jamal.”
Pablo met Jamal at a New Year’s party their mutual friend Katelynn was throwing. Jamal, in a fit of irony wore a gold polyester shirt with his trademark black jeans, while Pablo wove through the crowd wearing glasses in the shape of the year they were celebrating. They ate oysters and drank cheap wine at a grimy bar by the harbor that reeked of fish and fried oil for their first date. Jamal’s lips still tasted of the vinegar sauce when they kissed for the first time as they stopped strolling down the wharf with seagulls drifting overhead. Pablo’s bed was a mess the first time they made love, and Jamal always teased him about making the bed, even on the morning Jamal died and breathed his last breath, surrendering to leukemia. They vacationed in Japan, staying in the country side eating rice balls and pickled vegetables with an elderly couple who took in travelers on holiday. In Chicago, they argued in a blizzard why it was a good idea to visit then. They cried together at the death of Pablo’s mother, holding hands in the front pew, in front of a priest and Jesus hanging from the cross. Coltrane played while they drove the English countryside in a rented Rolls Royce for Jamal’s fortieth birthday. Pablo stood silent, by Jamal’s side as he told all of their friends in their apartment that his leukemia wasn’t responding to treatment. Pablo fell to the ground as Jamal’s casket was lowered under a bright blue sky.
“Here’s the second half—.”
Euphoria surged through his arm and bloomed in his mind. He smiled wide, embracing Jamal in all his warmth, and fell asleep.
Pablo awoke to Marie checking his wrist. His ears rang, and his head felt like it had hit a brick wall. His mouth was dry and chalky, and the wires no longer threaded from his body. He remembered why he came here, to Marie, to forget something, but he wasn’t sure what.
“Welcome back,” she said, softly. “How are you feeling?”
He groaned, rubbing his face.
“Figures. Drink water for the next day or so, and eat a few good meals,” she said, handing him a bottle of water. “You remember your way home?”
“Yes, I live in the financial district. Can I hail a cab this time a night?” he asked, cracking open the water. He proceeded to drink half of it.
“I’ll call you one.” She stopped after standing up and held a hand on his shoulder. “Do you remember Jamal?”
He looked up and winced at pounding in his head, “Who’s Jamal?”