“Amnesia” by John Thompson
Joey opened the Philadelphia Daily News to the horoscopes for February 15, 1981and read Libra, his own, and instantly forgot what it said. Then he read Scorpio. Maggie, who he hadn’t seen, or even talked with in over a year, was a Scorpio and he liked to keep in touch. Scorpio: Family is especially important now. Stay close to home and snuggle by the fire with that special someone.
“Fuck someone special.” Joey picked up his beer and moved on to the funnies. Nothing struck him as particularly funny there either, so he skimmed the classifieds, but his heart wasn’t in it. Joey’s unemployment claim was filled out, and he’d even dug up a stamp. The only thing left was to drop it in the mailbox at the corner. Work for the day was pretty much done. Another day, another dollar.
At the tail end of the sports section, an adult entertainment ad caught his attention. TROCADERO: Live in person EMMA BISHOP. The hottest woman in the Adult films. ONE NIGHT STAND—SAT. ONLY. He reread the ad and felt nauseous. The photo looked a little like his Emma, but people change a lot in ten years. Besides these women didn’t use their real names. Joey finally decided he was being ridiculous and threw the paper down and gulped some beer. Still, the thought haunted him. If she ever did something like that Emma wouldn’t hide. She was honest to a fault. Emma had probably gone on to become a nurse as originally planned and probably has a good life, a great life, compared to his. Still, he picked up the paper again. It did look like his Emma, but the picture was small and grainy, with the focus more on cleavage than facial features. This was just a freak coincidence. That’s all. He’d bet his Emma was married and living in a big white house, with tall columns on the front porch just like Tara of Gone with the Wind.
Emma had loved that movie, and back in 1969, Joey had loved taking her. He fixated on the eyes of the exotic dancer in the photo. They could be her eyes. Gone with the Wind had shown at the Yeadon theatre for two weeks every year. They’d seen Rhett Butler say, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” four times. Joey had secretly and silently cheered. Emma would cry and drop her head on his shoulder. He’d put his arms around her so she knew that Joey gave a damn.
The last time, when they were about to graduate and life would have to change, but they couldn’t know for sure exactly how, Emma had said, “Maybe we’ll end up like them and never see each other again.” She cried inconsolably and as he held her tight to comfort her, he’d felt the same desperation. How could what they had together ever end; yet, he didn’t know how it could not?
The movie ended and while everyone else left as the credits rolled, he and Emma sat alone in the cathedralesque cavern of the theatre, spotlighted by the huge ornate chandelier above them, unable to move, not wanting this moment to end. Finally, Joey wiped her tears with his sleeve and said, “Let’s promise each other something. Five years from now, no matter what, even if for some reason we’re not together, on Valentine’s Day, we meet right here in these seats. Okay?”
“Promise,” she had said, squeezing his hand.
Now, more than ten years had passed, and Joey wondered if Emma had ever shown up. He hadn’t, but he couldn’t remember why, or even where he was that year. Probably living upstate with Maggie; he wasn’t sure. Some day he’d have to construct a time line, the kind they used to make in junior high, so he could figure out the who, what and where’s of his life. At twenty-eight, he wasn’t even going attempt the why’s. He’d loved Emma, as much as he was capable then, and she loved him. It wasn’t enough. Then he loved Maggie; hell, he still loved Maggie, and she had loved him, and who knew, she probably still did. It wasn’t enough for them either. Maybe that’s why Emma had cried so much at that movie. Rhett and Scarlet had loved each other. It just isn’t enough.
Emma had said the baby would have been a boy. By now, their son would have been nine and Joey often wondered if the responsibility of fatherhood would have settled him some. He liked to think so, but if he was honest with himself, he couldn’t be sure. But maybe he wouldn’t drink so much. Maybe he wouldn’t be living in a dump like this, and just maybe, he wouldn’t always be thinking maybe. He ripped the ad from the Daily News, stuffed it into the cellophane of his cigarette pack, and headed out the door with his unemployment claim.
From the orange glow piercing his closed eyelids, Joey deduced it was daytime. His mouth was dry and his head hurt. He opened his eyes, only to close them again when he saw cream-colored wallpaper with a delicate rose bud pattern. Not his wall, or any wall he remembered. Then he noticed there was a warm breath on the back of his neck, an arm around his waist, breasts pressed against his back and a crotch spooned to his ass.
He focused on the rose patterned wallpaper, trying to jar his memory, but nothing came back to him but an Oscar Wilde quip. “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has to go.” Joey would go. He lifted the woman’s arm gently so he could slide away without waking her. Their clothes were strewn from the doorway to the bed. Blankets draped off the bed, lying mostly on the floor and the mattress sat askew on the box spring. They must have had one hell of a time; he only wished he could remember. An elaborate gothic lettered embroidery had been knocked cock-eyed where it hung on the wall over the bed, but his mind, as well as his vision, was too foggy to read the words.
Nothing came back to him. No matter what had transpired last night, this blond, apparently not naturally so, with plump breasts, a wide turned up nose and long graceful fingers spreading across the sheet, as if in search of his missing torso, was a total stranger. He stood up carefully, trying not to rock the bed, as he watched her chest expand and contract slowly. He wouldn’t know what to say, and more importantly, didn’t know what he’d already said. She shifted, exposing an inviting rear end, and blood rushed to his only organ eager for work on mornings-after like this. It was tempting to climb back into bed and wake her by entering her gently. From the circumstantial evidence in the room of the previous night’s activity, it wouldn’t be an entirely inappropriate introduction.
If only he could remember something, he might fight the urge to gather his clothes and get out before she woke. In hopes of orienting himself, Joey peered out the window and saw a stand of trees and beyond that a rolling cornfield. Corn? He’d started the night in the city. Where was his car? Did he drive? Did she? There were just too many questions. Beside her bedside, on the nightstand, was a small pitcher of water and two glasses; it was just what he needed. He tiptoed around the bed, quietly poured a glass, and he drank it all right down. In an attempt to discourage his hard-on, Joey forced himself not to look, not to notice the way her breasts fell to the side and her rear rose from the mattress, or the way her back muscles, shoulder blades and the valley of her spine reminded him of a Rodin sculpture and he poured another glass of reviving water. When he tilted his head back to gulp the water, he felt her touch.
“Well, look what I found,” she said before kissing the head of his erection. Then she looked up at Joey with shockingly green eyes; he would have thought he’d have remembered those eyes. They were Maggie’s eyes. “Good morning,” she said. “To the both of you.” She kissed his erection again, and then reached for the glass and drank his water, finishing it, but not with Joey’s desperation, before smiling up at him and putting her mouth back on his cock.
She sat up and repositioned herself, getting comfortable, and he could feel her hardened nipples rub against his thighs. He stroked her hair while her head bobbed slowly. She stopped and pulled away, looking up teasingly and his legs felt like they might buckle. Then she mercifully put her mouth back on him. God, he wished he could remember her name.
He faced the embroidery they’d knocked crooked. Joey tilted his head to read. God Grant Me The Serenity To Accept The Things I Cannot Change. She flickered her tongue and he looked down and she made eye contact with those green hungry eyes before swallowing him whole. This scenario was not difficult to accept and since he couldn’t see how to change it, or why he ever would, he let this play out. The Courage To Change The Things I Can, he read, as her mouth moved faster. He was too excited, too fast. His muscles contracted and she slowed and looked up again, in control, and enjoying being in control. When she started again, she obviously wanted him to come. He tried desperately not to. Holding back, resisting, even pulling away to extract himself, but she grabbed his ass, keeping him in place and her head bobbed faster. Then Joey read, And The Wisdom To Know The Difference. He stopped resisting, accepted the inevitable, relaxed, and let go with a gushing orgasm.
She stayed engaged until he was drained and then fell back down. He woozily joined her, and they lay on the bed crossways, holding each other as if they’d been together forever. Joey pulled her tight and while she nestled her head in his chest, he surveyed the room for clues to her identity.
Other than last night’s clothes, the room was neat and softly feminine. Nothing jarred his recognition. After a short awkward silence, he thought he should say something and pointed to the embroidery. “I like that saying.”
She reached up over his head to straighten it and in doing so put her left breast inches from his face. He suckled the nipple for a second. “The Serenity Prayer,” she said, leaning her breast into him more.
“Well, sounds like a nice philosophy, I suppose,” he said, wondering if she might be some born again who broke ranks for the night to cavort with the devil.
“I made that for my husband…ex, whatever,” she said, as if still not used to the concept. “It’s a big prayer with AA people.” Joey failed to hide his surprise. “You know,” she said picking up on his confusion. “Alcoholics Anonymous. I told you last night my husband used to go to AA.”
“Oh sure,” he said. “That’s right.” He rolled her other nipple subtly between his thumb and forefinger, partly because it was there and it felt right to make it swell to match the left one, but symmetry was not the only goal. He needed to distract her before she could bring up something else he should have already known. “I have to use the bathroom,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
He jumped from bed, and then didn’t know what to do. Were there other people in the house or apartment or whatever it was? Should he get dressed to leave the bedroom? Should he already know? He spotted a towel on the back of a chair, wrapped it around his waist, hesitated, and when she didn’t stop him, he opened the door and stepped out.
Joey was in a living room. The bathroom was on the other side, adjacent to another, smaller bedroom. It was a small two-bedroom apartment and on his way to the bathroom he was pleased to see shelves overflowing with books. “Literate and gives good head,” he mumbled under his breath.
“What?” she called out from the bed.
“I was just looking at all the books and commenting that I think I’ve found the perfect woman.” Just as he spoke Joey stubbed his toe and a toy dump truck rolled toward the kitchen. “Well almost perfect,” he muttered softly.
The bathroom sparkled cleanliness and he did his best to aim true, but was still a bit unsteady. Once focused he used the sound of his steady stream as cover and leaned over to open the medicine cabinet to check if anything had her name on it. The patient’s name on the first container was Sharon Russell and the prescription was for Valium. It couldn’t hurt at this point, he figured, so he opened it and swallowed two. He checked the rest of the selection and found nothing interesting, except some of them were for Sean Russell, probably the operator of the dump truck.
“I’m putting coffee on,” she said, from right outside. Startled, he flushed and closed the medicine cabinet door, but held out his hand to determine how much he was shaking from a simple fright. He’d lay off whisky, he decided, and stick to beer. He could handle beer. As he opened the bathroom door she was already bouncing naked on her way back from the kitchen. “How about a quick shower while the coffee brews?”
The pulsating hot water striking his back soothed his frazzled nerves. She squat slightly and lathered her crotch, unashamed. With flattened wet hair, her ears stuck out more than he would have expected. Most women would have tried to keep him from seeing that. Her demeanor was comforting. “Hey Sharon,” he said, proudly showing he knew her name. “Turn around and let me wash your back.”
She smiled, turned, and handed a green washcloth over her shoulder. Taking it with his left, he massaged her neck with his right hand. Her head fell forward and the shower water ran down from her shoulders onto her back making the rolling hills and valleys of muscle glisten. It was as if he’d never seen the back of a woman before. He could have cried it was so beautiful. She arched forward stretching, her muscles undulating like a wave. He lifted her wet hair and kissed the back of her neck, felt her deep shiver and then her relaxation as he kissed her again. He slowly worked his way down the valley between the shoulder blades, never letting his tongue leave her skin. He kissed along the bumps of her spine to the base of her back and felt her release her will as his hands settled on her hips. He bent a little further and bit her right cheek hard enough to smart, but not hard enough to really hurt.
“Ouch!” She straightened up. “You bastard.”
He leaned in and bit the other cheek to balance things out. She turned and pulled him up so they could kiss. To him, with his amnesia of the previous night, it was a first kiss. He felt comfortable at once on her lips. Some women seemed perfect until you kissed them and it was ruined. They can’t kiss and you can’t teach them. Others, no matter their faults, are perfect when they kiss. They kissed again, standing so both their heads were in the stream of the shower. His excitement grew and she found it, soaping him to a slippery attention. She seemed to understand that feeling good was all that counted on a morning like this, the only thing. Good sex was like a good drink or a drug; it took away the pain for a while. “Let’s go back to bed,” he said, not sure if he had the balance, just yet, for a shakedown in the shower.
Later in the morning, after scrubbing clean any remnant of egg yolk with the last of the toast, he pushed the empty plate away. “Great lover, perfect eggs and your read, where have you been all my life?” Sex, food and Valiums had helped with the hangover, but their conversation had turned awkward. He didn’t want to slip up and reveal his memory’s black hole that had swallowed his time with her up to now. Without the focus of sex or food to fill the void, there was only dead air time.
Sharon poured them both more coffee and sat down. “So,” she said, zeroing in with those piercing green eyes. “Are you going?” Joey tilted his head. Another mystery was in the making. “Tonight,” she added. “To the Trocadero?” Her expression changed, ever so slightly, her eyes doubting, as if she sensed his confusion and was beginning to gather Joey wasn’t connecting the way he should. Her eyes and that look, he’d seen it before. That was the look on his Maggie’s face toward the end. “Are you going to see if it’s your old girlfriend?”
Joey broke her gaze and stared into his coffee. The ad for adult film star Emma Bishop’s appearance came flashing back, which was disturbing enough, but he’d also told this woman, this Sharon. “I don’t know,” he said, twirling his coffee.”
“You might as well,” she said, as if one forgotten night and a morning romp gave her some say. “If you don’t, you’ll always wonder. It will always be just more unfinished business.” His grip on his mug tightened and he envisioned squeezing so hard it would shatter and burst hot coffee drops and cutting shards all over both of them. He’d told this stranger details he wouldn’t have told his closest confidant, if he’d still had one. He hadn’t had that since Maggie and he wouldn’t have talked about this with her. “Like I said last night,” Sharon said in a manner that he supposed was meant to be comforting, but was excruciating, “I’ll go with you if you want. My ex doesn’t drop Sean off till Sunday night.”
“I don’t think so,” he said, looking out the window in a way that would have signaled to anyone but a moron to shut up.
“I can’t figure out what’s bothering you the most,” she said. “Do you feel bad for your old sweetheart, or do you feel bad for you?”
“What the fuck do you mean?” he said, fighting an urge to strike out with something cruel to end this torture. Instead, before she could answer, he snapped, “I don’t know. Both probably, but I don’t want to talk about it. Ya know what I mean?”
“Okay,” she said, looking into her own coffee, swirling the spoon deliberately.
In an attempt to change both the subject and his tone, he said, “So, how old is your son?”
Sharon’s head snapped up and refocused her glare, eyes ablaze, and he realized the strategy had backfired. “Sean’s nine and we talked all about this. He’s the same age as your son would have been if, you know, your precious Emma hadn’t had an abortion.” He couldn’t be sure if he detected a slight smirk and had the fleeting thought that if she were a man he’d throw a right hand and knock that smirk all the way to the wall. I must be out of my fucking mind, he concluded. Why else would he have been talking to this woman? Sharon’s phone rang, and it was as if the bell had been rung in a prizefight at the Horizon on Broad Street. Each combatant could retreat to his own corner. Joey slumped back in his chair.
Sharon bypassed the nearest phone, went to the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed to answer the call. Above her head was the Serenity Prayer, which she straightened again while she talked. The window next to her was filled with the golden texture of drying corn stalks that invoked in Joey a vision of the giant Mexican sombrero that hang on the wall above Emma’s bed just where the Serenity Prayer hung here. He hadn’t thought of that sombrero in years. Should have married Emma? He should have at least been there with her, and not let her father whisk her away, alone, to a butcher. Emma’s voice, static and weak over an out of state connection still resonated. “Joey, it’s been three days and I’m still bleeding. I was all by myself. I…I couldn’t even get it to flush. I just want to die. I don’t think I can see you again…if you’re interested… we would have had a son,” Emma had said before hanging up.
Sharon’s voice grew shrill and though Joey couldn’t make out the words, he assumed she was angry with her ex. Joey decided he would get dressed and get out, before she asked anymore goddamn questions. Whoever this Sharon Russell was, he didn’t want to talk to her, and he didn’t owe her anything. He jumped up, and moved toward his clothes, but on his second step his right foot came down on the dump truck. Joey’s feet flew out from under him; his head met the linoleum with a thud. The dump truck rolled through the living room, on into the bathroom, and backed up to the toilet.
He lay flat on his back, dazed, naked and humiliated. Sharon sat so he could use her lap as a cushion and held him, her breasts falling from her robe over his face. Neither said a word. He saw she was crying and wondered if the tears were for him or for herself.
The Trocadero’s marquee was bordered with bright white bulbs, a few here and there burned out, enough to signify better days. He was as nervous as his sixteen-year-old-self outside of Emma’s house mustering the nerve for their first date. And just like then he took a deep breath and went to the door. Instead of her father, this time a muscled, pony-tailed doorman who collected the six bucks price of admission challenged him. The Trocadero lobby was a lot like the Yeadon Theater, from a grander era. It showed remnants of its vaudeville prime, ornate plasterwork and fine lighting fixtures, but the building had seen better days. A loud cheer and whistles made him hesitate. If his Emma was in there, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. Yet, when the men cheered again, Joey stepped through the archway.
On a long runway, flanked by bars on both outer walls, an amply endowed Latina gyrated to loud disco music. She squeezed her breasts together and kissed her nipples to the delight of the crowd. Relieved it was not Emma, Joey headed to the bar on the left. He ordered a Jim Beam on the rocks and found out from the bartender, whom Joey figured from his looks was either a member of the Warlocks or the Pagans that Emma Bishop’s show started after the warm up act, a local talent called Double D. Delores. The crowd roared and Joey turned to see that Delores’ bottom had come off. He watched a sailor roll a bill and stick it in his mouth like a cigarette. This got Delores’ attention and she danced over to swing her breasts in the sailor’s face before taking his money. The sailor immediately produced another bill and then to Joey’s surprise, Delores squatted in front of the sailor who buried his head in her crotch and acted like a kid attacking a sundae at the Dairy Queen. Soon men lined the runway with rolled up bills sticking out of their mouths. Joey raised his glass to the bartender and said, “My mother used to warm me not put money in my mouth cause `God knows where it’s been.’”
Without missing a beat, the bartender said, “Now you know why.”
Another head, one belonging to a three-piece suit, disappear between Delores’ legs. After she stood and moved down the runway, the man dug into his pocket for another bill, rolled it up, stuck it into his mouth and craned his neck foreword. Joey was reminded of birds dancing an elaborate mating ritual. “That guy, Marty Stouffer, from Wild Kingdom ought to film this for PBS,” said Joey, but the bartender wasn’t listening. At about the same time the song ended, Delores ran out of places to hold money.
During the lull, before Emma Bishop’s show, Joey got another refill and tried to find out from the bartender if he knew anything about her. “Blond, big tits and she’s making a killing,” said the bartender. “What the fuck else do you need to know?”
“I mean do you know where she’s from or anything like that?” The bartender shrugged like he was bored with the question and wiped the bar. His forearm was muscular and covered with prison tattoos. “Well, do you know if that’s her real name?”
“Look buddy, these girls don’t send out resumes, they’re sitting on them.” He turned and left Joey to get a fresh beer for the three-piece suit.
A few minutes later a barker announced the next act, the one they’d all been waiting for, he’d said. Adult film star extraordinaire Emma Bishop. The crowd roared and Joey reluctantly looked toward the stage, afraid it would be his Emma and afraid it wouldn’t be.
She was adorned in an elegantly flowing evening gown that Scarlet O’Hara would have been proud to wear descending Tara’s stairs in Gone with the Wind. Emma coyly hid her face with a heart shaped fan. Unlike Scarlet, her hair was long and blond, like his Emma’s. The men whistled and called out rudely, but shut up when the opening guitar riff of Dire Stait’s “Fade to Black” filled the room and Emma began a slow trance-like seduction. Then their heads swayed in time with her. From the first note, Emma had every man in the room under her control. As the song ended, Emma dropped the fan from her face and blew a kiss to the crowd. She hadn’t removed a stitch of clothing, yet the men roared. Joey hadn’t seen her face clearly, but it must be her. It had to be his Emma.
Emma now moved to the faster, pounding beat of The Fabulous Thunderbird’s “Amnesia.” They all did. She strutted up the runway, leaving the gown and cheering men in her wake. Joey left the bar to elbow his way closer to the edge of the stage. By now Emma wore white lace panties with a slit up the crotch and matching bra. She still hid her face demurely behind the paper fan. He didn’t want her to see him, not with these other leering men, but he fought his way right to the front anyway.
She moved closer and another loud cheer went up as she discarded the bra. Men were two and three deep on each side of the runway hooting and waving. Some already had rolled bills stuck in their filthy mouths; Joey wanted to kill them. Emma was only ten feet away when she stopped and bent down to let a man stick a bill in the band of her panties. Still hiding her face behind the fan, she squatted and the creep buried his head in the slot of her panties. Emma moved the fan from her face and held it modestly over his head as if to assure his privacy. She threw her head back ecstatically, but Joey knew it was an only an act. Emma gave the fool a few seconds, and just as the song changed to the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” she returned the fan to her face, stood, and danced away to the song’s beat.
Joey took a deep breath to fight a sudden queasiness. Emma faced the other side of the runway now and he saw the faces of the men on that side, some with bills in their lips, some hollering, all of them somehow violating his Emma. She squatted for one crazed man after another. Joey wanted to turn away, but he couldn’t.
It had been a long time and the body of this Emma certainly looked the way he remembered, but until he looked into her eyes, he couldn’t be positive. When she approached his side of the runway, he wanted to flee, but his legs were paralyzed. He rolled a ten and held it to his mouth. Emma came and opened her legs to him. When he was too slow to react, she peered above the oriental fan. Her eyes confused Joey. They weren’t clear and bright like they used to be. When he still hadn’t acted she guided Joey’s hand with the bill to the edge of her panty where he deposited it. Then she pulled the fan from her face to cover the back of his head and Joey realized what had been obvious all along. This wasn’t his Emma. This Emma Bishop waited for him to take his turn between her legs, but Joey just stared into the stranger’s eyes. He couldn’t help wondering if this Emma Bishop had sat in the movies years ago with her own sweetheart, thinking of a beautiful life ahead.
“It’s all right, honey,” she said, her expression quizzical. “You paid for it. Kiss it.” When he still didn’t move, her look turned worried.
“I did give a damn,” he whispered. “I really did.”
“I bet you did, honey.” This Emma Bishop snatched another ten from his hand and stood, nodding to the bartender as if to say keep an eye on this one, but there was no need. Joey was already fighting his way through the crowd toward the exit, feeling more the fool than ever.
John Thompson’s stories have appeared in Bayou, Breakwater Review,The Stone Hobo, Raven Chronicles, Northeast Corridor, Piedmont Literary Review, the anthologies Working Hard for the Money: America’s Working Poor and Best of the Bellevue Literary Review. His stories have been read at InterAct Theatre’s Writing Aloud, and earned Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXXI. Stories will appear in Marathon Literary Review and Used Furniture Review. “Amnesia” is part of a collection to be titled The Real McCoy.