Goldfish Memory

by Nancy Boutin
My husband and I sit together on a love seat in a strange waiting room.  Empty vinyl chairs, grouped in twos and threes, line the windowless walls. Behind a sliding glass partition, a middle-aged black woman ignores us, her rainbow-colored scrub top stretched tight across enormous breasts.   “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” as performed by the Montavoni Strings, leaks out of speakers set flush in the acoustic tile ceiling, but no one listens, least of all the Angels and Betas in a 50-gallon tank near the door.

The tank is as wide as I can spread my arms and sits on a wrought iron stand.  Covering the bottom, yellow and green rocks hide the tubes and hardware, while the motor hums.  Bubbles make tiny popping noises when they reach the water’s surface.  A sucker fish, its mouth suckered to the front glass, doesn’t seem to notice.

Rod holds my hand while he reads a flying magazine.  I glance at his lap, but words scintillate on the page, refusing to hold still so I can make them out.  My head throbs and I feel the first wave of nausea.  I look away.  I don’t know how we got here, or how long we’ve been waiting, or why, but I sense it’s important.

“Honey?” I ask.  “Where are we?”

He squeezes my hand and answers me in the same voice he uses with our little girls.  “Remember?  We’re in Bill Newsom’s office.”

I don’t remember.  “Why?”

“He wanted to see you before the CT scan.”

“Ahhhh.”  I nod and wish I hadn’t.  An electric shock shoots down my spinal cord, lighting each nerve root as it exits the neural foramina in my vertebrae.  Now everything makes sense.  I must have a brain tumor.

As many patients as I have shared with Bill, the glios, the astros, the lymphomas, I’ve never seen his waiting room.  I wouldn’t have pegged him for a fish guy.  Maybe cancer patients like the aquarium; so calming, so soothing, without all the jumping words in the magazines on the table.

But fish creep me out.  They swim around and around in the same 50 gallons until they die and don’t seem to mind.  Rod says it’s because they have a memory of 0.6 seconds.  Every castle a goldfish encounters in his travels is a grand new discovery.

I, on the other hand, remember everything.  I can see the oxygen tent over my hospital bed before my first birthday.  I know the name of every teacher I ever had and which period I took their classes.  I know the date of my first kiss, the evening I met my husband, the first time we made love.  I can tell you what we each wore that night and what he cooked for dinner.  My memory has always been an important part of who I am and what I do.  I’m not disciplined enough to keep a day-timer or an address book.  I’ve never had to.

I lean my head against the wall, avoiding the sore spot on my right occiput.  I wait for the throbbing to stop.  When I open my eyes, I’m sitting with my husband in a strange waiting room.  I don’t know how we got here, or how long we’ve been waiting, or why, but I sense it’s important.


© 2008, Nancy Boutin