SOMETHING ELSE IN MIND
Tengo’s first memory dated from the time he was one and a half. His mother had taken off her blouse and dropped the shoulder straps of her white slip to let a man who was not his father suck on her breasts. The infant in the crib nearby was probably Tengo himself. He was observing the scene as a third person. Or could the infant have been his twin? No, not likely. It was one-and-a-half-year-old Tengo. He knew this intuitively. The infant was asleep, its eyes closed, its little breaths deep and regular. The vivid ten-second scene was seared into the wall of his consciousness, his earliest memory in life. Nothing came before or after it. It stood out alone, like the steeple of a town visited by a flood, thrusting up above the muddy water.
Tengo made a point of asking people how old they were at the time of their first memory. For most people it was four or five. Three at the very earliest. A child had to be at least three to begin observing a surrounding scene with a degree of rationality. In the stage before that, everything registered as incomprehensible chaos. The world was a mushy bowl of loose gruel, lacking framework or handholds. It flowed past our open windows without forming memories in the brain.
Surely a one-and-a-half-year-old infant was unable to grasp what it meant for a man who was not his father to be sucking his mother’s breasts. That much was clear. So if this memory of Tengo’s was genuine, the scene must have been seared into his retinas as a pure image free of judgment—the way a camera records objects on film, mechanically, as a blend of light and shadow. And as his consciousness matured, the fixed image held in reserve would have been analyzed bit by bit, and meaning applied to it. But is such a thing even possible? Was the infant brain capable of preserving images like that?
Or was this simply a false memory of Tengo’s? Was it just something that his mind had later decided—for whatever purpose or plan—to make up on its own? Tengo had given plenty of thought to the possibility that this memory might be a fabrication, but he had arrived at the conclusion that it probably was not. It was too vivid and too deeply compelling to be fake. The light, the smells, the beating of his heart: these felt overwhelmingly real, not like imitations. And besides, it explained many things—both logically and emotionally—to assume that the scene was real.
This vivid ten-second image would come to him without warning and without consideration of either time or place. He could be riding on the
subway or writing formulas on the blackboard or having a meal or (as now) sitting and talking to someone across a table, and it would envelop him like a soundless tsunami. By the time he noticed, it would be directly in front of him, and his arms and legs would be paralyzed. The flow of time stopped. The air grew thin, and he had trouble breathing. He lost all connection with the people and things around him. The tsunami’s liquid wall swallowed him whole. And though it felt to him as if the world were being closed off in darkness, he experienced no loss of awareness. It was just a sense of having been switched to a new track. Parts of his mind were, if anything, sharpened by the change. He felt no terror, but he could not keep his eyes open. His eyelids were clamped shut. Sounds grew distant, and the familiar image was projected onto the screen of his consciousness again and again. Sweat gushed from every part of his body and the armpits of his undershirt grew damp. He trembled all over, and his heartbeat grew faster and louder.