The IV-Therapy Coffee Shop
of the 21st Century
by Jhon Sánchez
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
For Justin Sight and Michael Carbonaro, two magicians who make you believe there is more to life and death.
Ricardo waved his old, bony hand, dismissing the IV containing a dose of body preservation. “Do you see this crooked finger?” Ricardo asked a young waiter. “It’s called arthritis, and I like it.”
A gust of cold wind entered through the partly open glass door as if it were pushing a new patron into the coffee shop. Marinella, his girlfriend, shook her head and looked apologetically at the troubled waiter who returned Ricardo’s IV to the kitchen.
“You need to get a hot coffee and settle in for the show. You’ll feel happier. I’m sure,” she said.
Besides Marinella, who was preparing for her dose, Ricardo was the only customer who had both arms free. He could never eat or have coffee with that needle in his arm. One month without a dose, he thought. This way, his body would slowly age and die without leaving any trace of this present life.
Marinella said, “The Body Preservation Society’s new commercial is going to air any minute.” She nodded to the closest of the four antique TV sets from the 2010s.
To Ricardo, the monitor oddly resembled a square mirror that imprisoned moving images. Framed in a black plastic, it sported the silver letters of its brand. Under the glare of a lamp from the counter, he imagined the viewing machine’s insides, its wires of red, blue and black, veining out like snakes from Medusa’s head. He found the quaint construction faintly repellent. But he tried to concentrate on the commercial:
A woman in a long black coat is walking on a sunny beach. She watches as an old couple celebrates an anniversary of their marriage while three young men with surfboards run towards the water. “It’s cold, always cold for me,” the woman says to the camera.
Then she sees a carnival that moves past her even as she tries to speak to them. Everybody ignores her. “Maybe I thought it was fun,” she laments, continuing to walk with her heavy coat. “Maybe I thought I was rebellious.”
As she walks into the distance, a masculine voice begins a narration: “Loneliness is cold. Past lives are love. Remember, if you don’t take your daily dose today, you may not remember that love when you’re reborn tomorrow.”
It’s nighttime now, and the woman is still walking. Once more, the narrator chimes in, “Never forget.”
“So?” Marinella asked with a glint in her eyes.
It’s all bullshit, Ricardo wanted to say but refrained, “Well... you know what I think about...” He looked away from the TV set. The already wrinkled skin around his eyes crumpled further when he squinted to observe the IV bag of a pregnant woman at the table next to them. The liquid was flowing down drop by drop, eliminating the pain or even any potential discomfort resulting from her pregnancy, keeping her body incorruptible, saving her memories from this life.
“You’re a painter, not one of those mentally unstable braggarts who refuses to take the dose.” Marinella turned around and examined the pregnant woman. “What marvelous scenes you’d be able to paint once we have access to the memories of fetuses.” A smile formed, showing some wrinkles around her high cheekbones.
Ricardo thought how ridiculous it was to spend a nine-month vacation after death in a woman’s belly, how absurd it was to have collections of bodies like fur coats hanging from the closet, how silly it was to wait for past memories to be decoded from a mummified brain, how stupid it was to wish for a body that would be a little bit stronger, or more handsome than it was in your present life. Reincarnation is a damned foolish catastrophe, he thought as he curled his lower lip.
“Please stop,” begged Marinella with a dazed look.
“Don’t act like my mother.”
She clenched her jaw. “You’re putting both of our futures at risk.”
Of course, he knew the alleged risks, but what he didn’t know was how many times he had grimaced listening to his friends in their sanctimonious voices: “The computer guys cannot read the imprints of your memory if your body is a mess,” or “You’re going to come back without memory at all,” or “If you have an accident, you will feel pain so unbearable that you have to kill yourself,” or “Not taking the dose exposes you to illness and makes you weaker.”
Many times since he had given up his dose, Marinella had tried to sway him back with compromises: “Don’t be grouchy. I would leave you to grow up on your own in the next life. I’d barely even visit, if that’s what you really want.” He had imagined himself as a baby, and Marinella tracing the triangular shape of his eyebrows, his particular expression that always made him look quizzical and curious
No, he didn’t want that. He wanted to be reborn tabula rasa and, until that time, he wanted his bushy gray eyebrows to germinate like wild rice reeds. He wanted his growing ears and nose, his flabby neck, his sunken chest and failing heart that would stop like a clock with a used-up battery.
In that way, he was different from one of those teenagers who refused to take the dose. He had seen one of them on the news, yelling while being taken away in a straitjacket, “Those memories deformed the true person who is in myself.”
The number of teenagers who refused to take the dose continued to grow, and the government had called it a disease similar to anorexia and present in the youth because the brain couldn’t process all the memories from previous lives.
He imagined reincarnating without the memory of this life. He could be a truck driver, a farmer or even a clerk in the Brainprint Bureau, helping to identify newborns’ previous lives. That would be hilarious. Born without memory but helping the others to retrace their past lives.
No, he would be a painter again, most likely, not necessarily a famous one. An amateur would be fine. They say that vocations like that have a tendency to come back. In any case, he was sure that in his new life he would look for the missing things, for the affection of the dead. Every image would be fresh.
At least he would forget about his brother, who had killed himself five years before the government started the intravenous therapy. Johnny died without even knowing that he didn’t have to suffer pain or that his body could be preserved like an icy doll stuffed with memories, he thought.
As the waiter was preparing Marinella’s dose, she asked, “If your brother were here, don’t you think that he would try to convince you to take the therapy, and you would do exactly the same for him?” She swallowed. “That’s real love, the desire to reencounter, to not let a relationship end if it doesn’t have to. If only I could have saved Dad’s...” Her eyes turned dull as when she held one of the dolls that her father gave her. Each doll was uniquely made by Marinella’s father, an artisan dollmaker, who had always told her that his dolls preserved the eternity of childhood.
Ricardo thought of the slurry on the streets. It was gray and glassy, so far from the pure white tenders of the snow. Maybe memory after reincarnation turns into something so disgusting.
“I still have all the dolls that my father made for me, every single one.” With her fingers, she brushed a stray hair from Ricardo’s forehead. “Only I care for them. You know why? Because they help me to keep my father’s memory alive.” With her thumb Marinella caressed the triangular lines of Ricardo’s eyebrows and relaxed his peculiar frown.
“Don’t you think the therapy does the same? For how long did we eat greens, avoid smoking, and exercise just to live one more minute? We did it to have our loved ones around. Now, we can have them for eternity as long as they take their doses.” She rubbed her hand on his cheek. Her skin was still soft, but her hand had a splash of freckles resembling sprinkles of mud that the IV therapy couldn’t erase.
Even with the therapy she still shows age a little. If only she could understand its beauty, he thought, pining for more cracks and wrinkles to appear. “I’m not one of your dolls.” He moved away from her.
She looked at her limp hand and sighed. “It’s all about your brother,” she suggested, long believing this was why Ricardo had been refusing to take his dose.
It was true that all his paintings were about that: in the black coffee, in the sunlight, in the noontime shadow, in the tambourine along to Spanish songs, all self-portraits of himself looking for Johnny. His throat closed up, clogging up the current of saliva. All this business of reincarnation, all this business of having to take body preservation therapy has converted everything into butchery. Nobody understands any longer the yearning for the dead, the missing one, the fleeting moment. And all my paintings about the dead ain’t worth nothing.
“Never mind. Let’s just try to enjoy the day,” Marinella said. “Look at this, we’re sitting in a perfect reproduction of a 21st-century coffee shop.” These were the same words she had used earlier to bring him out of his studio on a snowy Saturday morning.
The rustic, wooden tables were arranged across the open room, giving the sensation of authenticity. Even the chandelier had only four illuminated lights, as if the bulbs were lit with electricity. How fake, he thought. He didn’t want this kind of memory, somehow overly theatrical, a mocking form of imperfection.
“They even serve real brewed coffee,” she said as she tapped the wooden table twice, “not that synthetic stuff.”
Ricardo caressed the table; it was made of the same type of rough wood in which his father had been buried, and the face of his father lying in the casket came to mind. He recalled his mother leaning against him as his brother, Johnny, approached and, with a trembling chin, said, “If I’d already been a doctor, I would have saved Dad’s life.”
Back then, Johnny was only in his first year of medical school, studying the frontiers of memory collection. He didn’t have a clue that science would find that the hippocampus and the amygdala in the brain work like a depository of memories, a layered portrait that dictates personal identity. It was this neuroprint that was traceable in a newborn, a marker capable of being matched with one from a previous life.
Ricardo looked around the coffee shop, asking himself in what body his mother would be. The Chinese woman? He wished now that the waiter would be his father, and a toddler on the lap of the tall blonde woman could be his little brother. This was something he would have never considered before. He found it silly, brooding on this wish, knowing that it would be impossible to recover his brother’s memories since death had destroyed the neuroprint. The idea for a painting came to mind: a trace of fingerprints leading to a brain where a judge’s gavel struck a face, the ghostly face of his brother.
What always came to mind was that Johnny deserved at least an apology for that day his classmates took a basketball from his hands and tossed him to the floor while Ricardo, witnessing the abuse of his brother, didn’t even move. That event was the inspiration for one of his paintings where Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, took the shape of a fire woman, sprawled on the floor of a basketball court. Lethe, the goddess of forgetfulness, was made of water and swelled up like a giant wave defending the hoop. Mnemosyne looked with sadness at a mid-air basketball whose trajectory seemed destined for failure.
He had called it, “The Bliss of Mnemosyne,” but everybody had questioned that title, saying that Mnemosyne had lost the match despite Ricardo’s explanation that Mnemosyne’s reason for existence was the mere wish to remember. “The struggle between memory and forgetfulness makes the game, not the scoring,” he had insisted.
Following an exhibit, he had burned the painting to ashes and made a vow to live only to wish. Since then, he had been in and out of therapy, but Marinella had always cajoled him to begin taking his doses again. He was sure that her enthusiasm for this coffee shop was another of her attempts that had consistently failed since his decision a month ago. Not this time. I want Marinella at least to wish for my presence and learn to live without me.
Marinella said, “I know you’re grouchy, but I really don’t care. I’m not going to let it mess with my sanity, especially now when I’m excited for the show.” She folded a newspaper showing a scientific article describing how stress and pain affect self-identity. “We’re very close to developing a substance that alleviates the stress caused by memories of traumatic breakups.” She read aloud the last line of the article: “In the meantime, allow yourself to meet this person, gather some photographs of your previous lives together, and ask for forgiveness. Remember, at least we have a second opportunity after death.”
Copyright © 2018 by Jhon Sánchez