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Past Sense

It begins with something sharp, a smell forced up my nose and down my throat. A vision flashes, just a snap of memory, so vivid I feel its edges: I am back in St. Louis, running my pre-adolescent fingers through freshly cut grass; in Mesa, walking among succulents and mangy coyotes in clay-sided storm drains; in Philadelphia, lighting a Camel Filtered with matches as I wait for the bus in the breath-freezing air.

For a moment, I can time-travel. The person next to me—friend, colleague, stranger—might be able to see me, but I am not there. I am five hundred or two thousand miles away: watching Lambchop on my parents’ scratchy Fairfax sofa that smells like hand-me-down furniture, studying Amarillo tumbleweeds in the high school parking lot as I try not to choke on the smell of cow shit that punctuates the air. In my favorite, and most infrequent hallucinations, I am back in a Kaunienen sauna, skin broiling in wooden humidity as I wait, just one more minute, before running outside naked to roll in the snow.

The memory dissolves like a Listerine strip, leaving me disoriented. The taste of abandoned homes clouds the back of my mouth.

“What’s it like moving around so much?” someone asks me at a bar or a college party or in a classroom. Cologne reflected off his—their—cheekbones, a musk that is always the same.

I have never known how to answer this question. How do I explain hallucinations without sounding schizophrenic? How do I tell him—them—that it’s like being lost?

I take a drag of a cigarette, exhale a cloud. “Moving means never really knowing where I am,” I say, and change the subject.

“Hey Amber,” I call up a café’s oaken stairs that smell like dust and unground espresso—the way all cafés smell. “Amber!”

Ashlie emerges, thick black eyebrows pursed together in a frown. “You mean Ashlie?” She asks, irritated.

She thinks I mean San José Amber, our ditzy strawberry-blonde coworker whose ample cleavage erupts over a low-cut crop-top. San José Amber almost got fired for improperly cutting apple strudel, for ruining coffee drinks, for texting instead of prepping the panini meat. Her job was saved when another employee was killed by a drunk driver. The store couldn’t afford to lose both of them. I didn’t mean this Amber. I meant San Diego Amber, a different coworker at a different café in a different California city, who, in my memories, shares Ashlie’s black hair, pumpkin hips, and general fuck-off demeanor.

But Ashlie does not want to hear that she is not the original, that the reason I felt immediately comfortable around her was because I’d met another version of her before. “Shit, sorry Ashlie,” I say, an easy apology to replace the difficulty of unwanted explanation. It took me two months to stop calling Ashlie Amber, to erase the files of previous friends and make way for their new resemblances. Most of the time, erased friends stayed in the past where they belonged.

“I’m starting a new business venture with Dom,” Jon, an old buddy from college says, two states and six years later. He’s looking worse for wear, a steady diet of heroin, alcohol, and cigarettes written in bruised circles under his eyes.

I used to fuck him? I question silently, churning my memories for images of the devilish smile and nonchalant six-pack—the guy who cut me off because he worried I was getting too attached. He dropped out of school that semester. I hadn’t seen or thought about him until he showed up in San José.

I squint my eyes, as if I can reboot deleted images. “Who?”

He cocks his heavily-angled jaw at me, cigarette dangling haphazardly from the side of his mouth. “Dominic, you remember, sophomore year, short guy with the big pick-up truck—we used to go on beer runs?” He laughs. “Except you only drank wine coolers.”

I run through the Dominics I remember: from high school in Philly, short with coarse black hair and a penchant for dead baby jokes; from the café in San José, short with fine, almost blonde hair and a baby face to match. But San Diego Dominic?

I close my eyes, trying to force the shimmer of memory. I see the shiny white Ford pickup, the two thirty racks of Coors Light in the back, me leaning out the window to smoke a Camel Crush, Jon in the passenger’s seat. But I can only make out a hairstyle driving: close cropped, steel-wool brown, the kind that would get curly if it was allowed to grow long.

I open my eyes. “Wasn’t he in the military, or something?” I ask, pretending I can see the face.

Jon shakes his head. “Wow, Kym,” he says, not bothering to mask his disappointment. “It would hurt his feelings to know that you didn’t remember him. He had a pretty big crush on you back in the day. Wow.”

You mean, back when we were fucking. I smile at Jon’s inability to see the hypocrisy in the larger picture. Some things don’t change.

Most things don’t change. The people I befriended at USD resemble the people I know now as an adult in San José; the friends I had in elementary school in St. Louis were interchangeable with those who lived in Mesa or even in Finland, except that the Finns knew more languages and the kids in St. Louis had more money.

When I left a state, I imagined I left it and its populace for good. I didn’t take pictures, not necessarily because I was trying to hide anything, but because it never occurred to me until it was too late, until I was already in the process of erasure. As far as I was concerned, the only evidence of relationships or actions remained in those memories that blurred with each mile I put between my past and myself.

But sometimes the people from past lives showed up where I least expected them. Sometimes the people I knew in high school in Philadelphia were among the fifty other recent college grads I ended up living with in Boston during a yearlong tutoring residency.

“Holy shit! Dylan!” I said, hugging the same football shoulders I sat behind in Honor’s Spanish four moves and six years ago. “Remember me?” I asked, immediately wishing I had re-phrased the question.

I was out of my element. Philadelphia Kym, the one with a penchant for blowing coke in bathroom stalls and dropping acid or x on the weekend, hadn’t existed since I left eleventh grade. When I move, I shed personalities like a snake, picking up one with less baggage as I cross the next state’s lines. I have never worried about my reputation, or the consequences of my actions because I could always leave. Where my peers were fettered with their pasts, I was free.

And yet there was someone from my past to remind me that the world was not as infinite as I thought, that my actions in high school could influence relationships with future coworkers, that I could never fully live without regrets.

Dylan’s blue eyes narrowed under a mop of ginger waves. He smiled, uneasily showing still-crooked teeth. “Yeah, I remember.”

It took self-control not to ask: how much? But I’ve learned I fare better with statements than I do with questions.

“What place was your favorite?” asks someone with thickly batting eyelashes. It’s the ubiquitous female question; girls want to know how their hometowns stack up against the rest of America, the rest of the world, as if I possessed the authority to rank these places.

I answer the opposite, evading the pouting mouth’s desire for geographic fidelity. “I hated Boston; it snowed from October to May and the people kind of suck. Amarillo was pretty awful, too. I mean, it was the panhandle of Texas and smelled like cow shit when the wind blew from the South, which was about half of the time.”

This is a rehearsed answer and varies little in diction or intonation. It comes out of my mouth before hers has stopped moving, a question I can anticipate, like the non-gendered: “Why do you move around so much?”

I sigh at this point of the conversation, controlling myself against the defensive retaliation I feel building at the base of my neck: why don’t you?

Instead, I breathe deeply to get out the short version. “My dad works for Boeing selling airplanes to different militaries, so we moved whenever he got a promotion.”

I move on.

A longer version: a whirlwind of chaotic, half-nonsense narratives against the backdrop of a middle class family, whose stay-at-home Catholic matriarch had to raise six feral children.

The real answer: I don’t know.

I never questioned my parents’ choice to buy houses the way other families leased cars. Even as a child, I knew that moving was our narrative. I never decorated the rooms I lived in because they were not my rooms, as the houses I lived in were not my homes. Every house felt like a prolonged rest stop, a motel on our way to somewhere else.

When I moved to San José, my roommate was disgusted at the institutional whiteness of the fake stucco inside our new apartment. I barely noticed.

“It looks like a prison in here,” she said, wrinkling her freckled nose. I nodded as though I understood. “I can’t believe they won’t let us paint even one of the walls.”

I shrugged my shoulders when she turned away.

I accompanied her to Cost Plus and Ikea to look for curtains and furniture for our barren living room. “What about this color?” She asked, caressing thin linen the hue of Mesa sage after the yearly rain.

“Sure. It looks nice,” I replied in the same tone I used to imply empathy after she told me that her parents had sold her childhood home.

“Jesus Christ, Kym! You have to have some kind of opinion,” she chastised after the color of our future futon elicited the same response.

Normal people decorate their rooms, I thought. We spent a hundred dollars on Salvador Dali posters to accompany the new charcoal futon. Our Wall of Dali, or Wall-I, I laughed to myself, hanging up my most expensive décor project to date.

Now, my partner gifts silk-screen printings from his father’s photography studio to hang in my apartment. Instead of waiting for me to put them up, Ernest brings a nail and hammer to accompany his presents. “Here,” I say, arbitrarily pointing at empty wall space, smashing his portraits of Shakespeare and mountain sunsets up against robot cartoons.

He smiles, teeth delightfully crooked, having long since understood my aesthetics to be as erratic as my moods. It’s as difficult for me to be consistent as it is for me to control spaces I know aren’t mine in the first place.

“What do you need for your birthday?” My mom asks over the phone.

I anxiously look around my room. Clothes spill out of drawers onto the floor, assortments of climbing shoes, ballet flats, and motorcycle boots collect in corners, papers and essays amass dust on wire bookshelves and in cardboard boxes, pennies sit on my windowsill, two quarters and a nickel stick to my bedside table. But the mess does not bother me; it comforts me, it seems a natural extension of my own contradictions.

Rather, it is the thought of moving all of this nonsense that infuriates me, that makes me tear through my belongings every month for a sweatshirt I can sell to a thrift store or useless jewelry I can pawn. The thought of not being able to grab a few boxes, pack a few suitcases, and go leaves me trembling over roots I didn’t know I was planting.

“I don’t need anything, Mom,” I say, forcing my voice to relay humor in place of anxiety. “I have too much shit as it is.” I think of my motorcycle, and how I’ll need a U-Haul to move it along with my car, and I press my calloused fingers against the bridge of my nose to lessen the thrumming of my brain.

She laughs. “Look, I know you love this minimalist lifestyle. But really, having more than one pair of sneakers isn’t the end of the world.”

“Why would I need sneakers? I don’t run,” I reply, rummaging through my shoe corners for any pairs I haven’t worn within the past month.

“You know what I mean,” she says, more amused at my obtuse response than irritated. “It wouldn’t kill you to have some nice things.”

My mother never forbade me from decorating; in fact, I’m fairly certain she viewed my residential apathy as more worrisome than anything else. She would spend weeks planning the artistic layout of each room, waiting until my father returned from a three-day or two-week business trip to painstakingly organize, level, and hang each family portrait or school photo or incongruous art installation.

In each house, she set up her collection of Arabia glass sculptures, finding new whitewashed niches and oak mantles to accentuate their Finnish blue. After an icon painting class in Finland, she began collecting richly colored, gold-sheathed wood squares of her patron saint or the Virgin Mary. In each new house, my mother had to find a new space of worship for these holy relics, spending hours praying over the perfect burgundy wall or wooden fireplace to appropriately accentuate their sanctity.

Two or three years later, she would pack them away, folding them in brown recycled paper and bubble wrap, gently placing them in boxes caustically marked, FRAGILE; THIS WAY UP, in black Sharpie on five sides. She does not trust hired movers to understand the delicacy of her past.

My eldest brother, Chris, shares my mother’s accumulated identity. Each piece of art on the walls of his neat SOMA apartment reflects his affinities: a wooden plaque of St. Christopher coiled in bronze snakes, a Carnival mask and a Real Madrid fútbol scarf from his semester abroad. For my brother, every decoration is a narrative, a root snaking its way deep into the earth, something he can hold onto if he slips and falls.

Chris files friends the way I file smells: he travels to Chicago and Frankfurt to hang out with college buddies and old exchange students. Even my closest friends fade into memory, shades of people I once knew or will meet again, each new acquaintance an amalgamation of the past.

In spite of our differences, we both must face the inevitable question: “Where are you from?” We have learned not to dread this question, simply by answering in half-truths.

“Long Beach,” Chris answers without pause—his birthplace, where he lived for no more than two years.

“Nowhere,” I say with a flatness that makes people stare. Or, “Zimbabwe,” I lie, not caring if I get caught. The lie isn’t even mine; it’s a lie I stole from my older sister, Jeanette.

“Oh god, I hated it when drunk frat guys would try to hit on me at parties,” Jeanette declared over mojitos at a bar in Austin. “It always starts the same: where are you from, as though that question is the end-all be-all of identifiers. It’s like, first off, I don’t even want to talk to you, and second, I know you don’t actually give a shit about my life story; you just want to get into my pants. Not going to happen.” She paused, pale thin fingers swirling the black straw in her cylindrical glass. “So I tell them Zimbabwe.”

She shrugged flippantly and hunkered down into the cool fizz of minted seltzer and spiced rum. “At least now that I’m an adult I’m no longer subjected to the Zoo Animal Syndrome of being the new kid in school.”

In grade school, I reveled in the stares that being ‘the new kid’ elicited. The fourth child of six kids, I basked in attention, too young to differentiate between curiosity and genuine interest. My experiences were too myopic to realize that I was being asked the same questions, that I was giving the same answers. Instead, I was entertained by how original I appeared to my peers. They didn’t realize that I had appropriated words like rad and actually from Jeanette or that my other older brother, Russ, was behind my penchant for dark clothes and piercings.

“Say the word, ‘room,’” friends in middle school asked me, exaggerating the vowels in the middle.

“Roooom,” I tried not to laugh at their earnestness.

“Good. Now say, ‘I went to my room.”’

I smiled, truncating words in my own personal joke. “I went to my rum,” I said, and watched their hands fly up in exasperation. I didn’t understand why my pronunciation was the subject of so much attention, just as I didn’t understand where “my accent” came from in the first place. But it made people pay attention to me; it made me special so I allowed friends to try to teach me the right way to speak.

The novelty began to wear off in high school, after a boyfriend’s younger sister noticed, her eyes round as globes: “You’re not from around here, are you?” Then in Amarillo and Boston, even in San Diego, the observation shifted: “You don’t belong here,” they would say in drawls or nasal tones or valley-girl inflections. I shrugged, not bothering to ask them where I did belong.

This sense of belonging—the desire for some sort of geological foundation—is why Chris’ answer, “Long Beach,” is both true and untrue. It shows more about his character than he would like to admit.

I remember when I visited Chris in Chicago shortly after I graduated from college. He woke me up at 8am to go watch fútbol in a wood-covered bar. The yeasty smell of beer made last night’s rum turn in my stomach as I choked down cheese-covered tortilla chips, miserable, a headache thrumming in the back of my skull. Why the fuck are we here? I thought, shrinking back into the booth as the bar erupted with: “GOOOOOOOAAAAALLLLLLL!”

I looked at Chris, his angular face shining with equal parts excitement and perspiration. He hugged a few friends, clapped some strangers on their backs, jumped up and down with a topaz pint raised above his head. He belonged in this dank, musty bar lit exclusively by television screens. He belonged in this city of industrial metal and congruous, flattened skies.

But he didn’t stay: he left the home he made in Chicago for Cleveland, a place that was never home. Two years later, he moved to San Francisco, a city he resents for not being Chicago. He works on a California visa; his heart beats, chokingly, awaiting his return to his chosen home.

I, too, am waiting. The night before my partner left to attend grad school at UC-Irvine, we lay in my too-small double bed, silent after weeks of conversation. We had been talking about everything—our childhoods, people we hated, embarrassing adolescent sexual experiences—anything to make up for the void we knew was coming. My vocal chords are stretched almost to breaking; I press my face against his armpit’s black coils. His eyes are glazed, staring my ceiling into abstraction. I close my eyes, breathing in the smell of black soap on warm skin and Old Spice deodorant.

Picture-smells flood my brain: birch trees and snowfall and exposed wooden beams, reflective lakes and worn stone buildings, the wind over warmed deserts. Too many to catalogue, too quick to understand, the hallucination is over as quickly as it began.

But it sears a word, etched in light, in the back of my throat.



Kym Cunningham will receive her MFA from San Jose State University with emphases in creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the lead Nonfiction Editor of Reed Magazine, the oldest literary magazine West of the Mississippi. She received the Ida Fay Sachs Ludwig Memorial Scholarship and the Academy of American Poets Prize for outstanding achievement in her writing. Her writing has been published in Drunk Monkeys and Reed.

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