“The Marivaudian being is, according to Poulet, a pastless futureless man, born anew at every instant. The instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what is important is the instant, not the line. The Marivaudian being has in a sense no history. Nothing follows from what has gone before. He is constantly surprised. He cannot predict his own reaction to events. He is constantly being overtaken by events. A condition of breathlessness and dazzlement surrounds him. In consequence he exists in a certain freshness which seems, if I may so, very desirable.”
—Donald Barthelme, “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning”
I’ve been watching and avoiding a man who lives in the present. We go to the same café, each of us alone. He resembles a distinguished physicist, the kind invited to appear on television when a scientific worldview is needed. So I was intent on listening to him when he stood up to greet his friend, also in his golden years.
The friend asked him how he had been doing.
“Oh, I don’t know, I misplaced my laptop. I can’t remember where I put it.”
“Did you ask someone for help?”
“I think so. But you know I can’t remember anything. And so I bought an iPad, but I lost that, too.”
“Yes, I lost my car the other day.”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t remember anything?”
“I see. I don’t, either.”
What united these two seemed to be kindness and an ability to chat ad infinitum about everything they couldn’t remember. They mentioned the failure of their memories more times than seemed possible.
“Has your family visited?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember. How about you?”
“Yeah. Hard to say. That’s not something I remember.”
It was kind of like a first date. They would get to the subject of movies only to realize neither could say anything specific. “I think I saw that one. But, you know, I don’t really remember anything.”
“Yes, I know. I don’t remember anything either. But I think it won an Academy Award.”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember. Let me check.” The friend reached for his phone. “No, it was only a Golden Globe.”
And for an hour I listened.
One of the worst ideas to emerge since yoga and Buddhism came in vogue is how you ought to live in the present. Celebs hurried to the cause, which should have been fair warning for the rest of us to sprint in the other direction. Happiness exists only in the moment, we’re told, in mindfulness, in attaining complete presence.
Here was one such presence.
Sometimes our schedules coincide. This pastless man orders the same cup of coffee every time, carrying an Economist or a book of history from the library. How he decided on a title was something that interested the Walter Benjamin in me. With time I started to imagine that someone chose for him.
Often he falls asleep.
One day a salesman sharing my table lit up when the man walked in. “Hey hey,” the salesman said, immediately.
I felt ashamed for having never said anything to the man, despite having sat across from him dozens of times. But perhaps it isn’t rude if he has no memory of it.
The salesmen extended his hand. “I wanted to say hi. But I’m sorry, I forgot your name. I’m Brian.”
Of all the things to say, bringing up forgetting like that. It couldn’t have been more perfect. The effect was electrifying. Perhaps the salesman has a sadistic streak, and often introduces himself this way to my subject, living out his version of Groundhog Day.
The man with no memory paused, adding to the suspense.
“You know, I’m so sorry, but you might remember I don’t remember anything.”
And he didn’t say his name. He only met the guy’s hand.
“How have you been?” the salesman continued.
“Not bad,” the man said. I wondered how he decided what to say to that question. “I lost three iPads and two computers this year. I can’t find anything. It’s terrible. I can’t remember what happened. I put things down and then I lose them.”
Their conversation stalled there, on these missing computers he’s always bringing up. The man went back to his coffee and the moldy tome on Churchill’s wife. Why does he read, given that he’s only going to forget it? It must satisfy some present moment in him, or it’s a way to pass the time. The memoryless man started to fiddle with his iPhone. He leaned over to the salesman: “I don’t mean to bother you, but I wonder if I can use this to get on those WWW places.”
“Of course, yes, that’s what it’s for.”
“Great, but I forget how. Can you help me? How can I get my e-mail?”
The salesman examined the man’s iPhone. “Well, you’ll need your password.”
A look of doom passed over him, as if to say, Wow, I have to remember that, too. The burden of it all, trying to keep up. He had no idea what the password was, and he didn’t remember that he’d gone through this same conversation with someone else an hour earlier. He put away his phone, stared out the window, yawned. Sipped his coffee. Eventually he picked the phone up again and shuffled through the various app windows, not opening any. He’d mastered the act of swiping, at least.
He has an umbrella. There’s a drought on in LA. Someone takes great care of him, I assume. Hats off to you. Appearing bored, he opened his book, where there was a bookmark reminding him where he left off. Clever. You could put it in another spot and he wouldn’t notice. You could change the book, for that matter.
Leaning forward, he mumbled to himself as he read, but I couldn’t make out his lips. He stared at the page as if he were reading. I know what reading looks like, and I’d bet my house he wasn’t really reading. He’d stop, cover his mouth as if deep in thought, look around the café, and then scan the same paragraph again, this professorial man. He moved the bookmark out of the way as if he were going to continue on to the opposite page, but he didn’t.
Over the months, I’ve continued to study him. With time there came the new laptop with passwords scribbled on a sticker by the trackpad. The last time I saw him, with my phone still on the table, he looked up at me with great horror. Please, don’t forget that, his whole face said.
Bernard Radfar is the author of Mecca Pimp: A Novel of Love and Human Trafficking and Insincerely Yours: Letters from a Prankster. Two of his screenplays are currently in development. Follow him on Twitter.