The Zeb of Total Continuity

The shadow of a man
Photo by Janosch Lino on Unsplash

The espresso machine spits and hisses and a woman at a nearby table lops off a guffaw and your chair creaks with your weight like a ship at sea. Somewhere, a boss scolds an employee, and out of a deep dark past rises Zeb. He is seated across from you with a mild air of apology. His face is just as you remember: the solid, almost square profile, pale visage except for his large red lips. Exactly the same, but with a beard added. Could all separating man from boy really be this rough crop, grown and shucked without effort? He tucks his hands between his legs — a posture of humility. You don’t yet believe what he is telling you.

“Those were the years we grew up,” you say. “That’s when we became who we are.”

Zeb wrinkles his brow. Here, he shows the years since high school, and he suddenly looks his age. You realize he is bending his mind toward the missing time. You realize this is a task, an expression, that he’s gotten in the habit of.

“I should add,” he says, “that I might be oversimplifying. Some things have stayed with me. I remember we were friends. But I don’t remember if we were good friends, or how we knew each other. Only your face, and your name.”

What is a face and a name, burned captionless into memory? Religions had been started over less.

“Incredible,” you say, half to yourself. Here is Zeb, sitting in your coffeeshop, right under the ugly cat painting and next to the shelf of Wicca books. Zeb, dredged up from the past like a dead body out of a lake. Zeb, clean of memory, if he is to be believed.

“It is incredible,” Zeb says, “over 40,000 seizures over the course of five years. Every single goddamn day. Then, one day, it’s like they never happened. Doctors are flabbergasted. And I’m fine, I swear. Just the memory thing.”

“And you’ve been going around, asking whoever you can to fill in the blanks?”

“You are the first I was able to get a hold of.”

“Right,” you say. “So you remembered my face and my name, and you said ‘what the hell’ and sent me a message. So, now what?”

He fidgets, wringing his hands, tensing his legs. You watch him to make sure these things haven’t changed. “Maybe you can help me,” he says. “Tell me what I was like. Tell me what kind of person I was in high school. Maybe you can help me remember?”

You consider this. “You’d trust me with that?” you say. “You know, I could say just about anything, right? I could say you were captain of the football team or one of the cheerleaders. Are you just gonna believe me?”

He shoots you a grin. “Well, I have some guesses. More likely running back than pom poms.” He sits up straight in his chair, puffs his chest perhaps unconsciously. He is still broad. “But you’re underestimating me. Even just the way you’re talking to me, the way you’re playing games, being coy. That tells me something. I’m getting better at listening to that sort of thing.”

“What does it tell you?” you say.

“That we were friends. That we had a particular type of relationship.”

“What type of relationship is that?”

He nudges a napkin across the table. “I can’t tip all my cards. You have the power here, after all.”

It’s true. Yet you can’t help but speak to him as if he is a Zeb of total continuity. You imagine a second Zeb seated between the two of you, beardless, squinting at you in a particular way of his. A Zeb with an odor and physicality, but one the other Zeb would not recognize.

“So where should I start?” you say.

“What I really want,” he replies, “are some names. Some events. What did I do? And who with?”

“Well, I can try, but just a disclaimer: I don’t even remember a lot of what happened to me in high school.”

“Tell me one thing, then,” Zeb says, “First thing that comes to mind.”

“One thing?” You hesitate. “Well, I’m assuming you remember Senorita Martez?”

“Mmm, no, I don’t think so.”

“The gorgeous young Spanish teacher?”

“Not ringing any bells.”

You drop your jaw in exaggeration. “You don’t remember losing your virginity to her? Staying late after school for some extra ‘tutoring?’”

A flush creeps over him, but he laughs when he catches your eye. “You’re joking. Some would say it’s a bit dickish to do that sort of thing.”

“You’re not some. You’re Zeb.”

“That’s what you think,” he says with a chuckle. He shifts in his chair.

“I guess I didn’t sleep with any hot Spanish teacher,” he says. “Sorry, Zeb of the past.”

You expect him to say more, but there is an awkward pause. He examines his knuckles.

“So you don’t remember… that sort of thing?”

His flush deepens. “Yes and no. Again, I remember, you know, it, but not a lot of specifics.”

“Let me put it this way,” you say, “have you slept with anyone since the seizures stopped?”

“Yes, I have.”

“And what was that like?”

He sips his coffee, which had gone untouched. “See, even the fact that you’d ask about my sex life, that tells me something.”

“Now you’re the one being coy.”

“For me, it’s self-preservation.”

“But what if I told you that you’re the kind of guy who would tell me the gory details? What if I said we had a long history of complete transparency?”

“Did we?”

During this exchange, the two of you have drawn closer across the table. You consider him from this perspective. He’s wearing a collared shirt and slacks. In your peripheral, a loafer noses the leg of his chair. His beard is well groomed, and on his wrist is a watch with a leather band, the second hand gliding around the perimeter. On his chin is an old scar, a smooth, silver crescent. So faint that you had to know it was there to see it.

“And these people you’ve been with recently, they are… women, yes?”

Confusion flashes on his flat face, but it quickly softens into laughter. “There are some things I don’t think I’d believe about myself. I have some rough parameters.”

You thumb the edge of the table, considering this word, parameters. What were the parameters for this conversation? You consider both Zebs, flanking you like gargoyles. What was it each of them desired?

“Maybe it’s not news to you, but I remember that you dropped out, senior year.”

He sighs. “It’s not.”

“Any clue as to why?”

He shakes his head.

“Most people would say selling drugs,” you say.

“Do you believe that?”

“No.”

He chews his lip. There’s a pause. “Why?”

You shrug. “It’s just a rumor. And I know better.”

“I wasn’t cool enough, then,” he says, some bravado back in his voice.

“Not that, not exactly.” Then you say something you’ll regret later. “You know, of all the people to be sitting across from me, saying what you’re saying, I would have never thought it’d be you.”

“Why is that?”

“I-” you start, but falter. The other Zeb, the younger one, is giving you a sad look, shaking his head. And what were you going to say? That you didn’t think Zeb would inflict this erasure on you? Or that the forgetting seemed too herculean a task. What’s strange is that, as you look at Zeb, the real one asking the questions, it now seems like he’s the one asking you to hold your tongue. His dress, his posture, his self-evident intactness: an edict that you bring no threat into the new Kingdom of Zeb. Stir your coffee, and be a stranger.

You speak again. “Honestly, Zeb, I didn’t know you all that well in high school. We were in the same friend group, but only for a year or two, and then you sort of did your own thing. I wish I could be more help.”

He nods. “That’s too bad. Seems to me like maybe we would’ve gotten along. Been good friends.”

“That’s true. No reason we can’t be friends now, though.” But as you say it, you hear the lie in your voice.

The two of you are silent a moment. He drinks his coffee. You drink yours.

Before you can stop the thought, it slips out. “How about your dad? He can’t help with this?”

Zeb darkens. “You knew him, then?”

“We met a few times.”

“I’m sorry to say he died a few years back. Cancer.”

You picture the man in awful clarity. Did he waste away? It was hard to imagine it. “I’m sorry,” you say, “that’s a shame.”

“Yeah, a shame.”

When the two of you get up to leave, Zeb turns away from you to put on his coat. In a moment of instinct, you lean across the table to smell him. Past the coffee scent, you pick up sandalwood, smoke. Underneath that, a faint, sweet musk, like the undergrowth of a forest. Within, memories nest like small, burrowing creatures. The peeling faux-leather inside a mini-van. A gray, corduroy futon. Heat lightning in summer, high above an open field, like someone else’s war. You remember facts — the date the Magna Carta was signed, the identification of certain constellations. You remember, not events exactly, but structures of thought. The ordering of joy and fear and mania. You remember yourself as a youth, the body you used to inhabit, the greasy sheen of your skin. The cadence of a joke you might tell. Your untampered capacity to love.

His smell speaks so directly of these things, and with such conviction, that it stuns you he’s unaware of it. A story that’s long since ended. A story that ought not be told again. And yet one he carries around with him, whether he knows it or not.

Zeb stiffens, and he turns. You expect him to remember. At each and every moment, you beg that he remember. Instead, he’s laughing.

“Senorita Martez. You know, maybe I do remember her. Did she wear tight skirts, right above the knee?”

“When she bent over, you could see her thong.”

“Oh man! You shouldn’t have told me you were kidding.” He leans in and slaps you lightly on the shoulder, and this contact jolts something all the length of you. The slight brush of his fingers draws another strange impulse: to reach out and touch his beard, which wasn’t there before, which in fact hides the face you remember. This feeling arcs like a basketball, stationary for a moment at the peak of its intensity, then dribbles away. Zeb turns to leave.

Out in the cold air, you take one last look at him. Who knows what medical anomaly will bring you together next? You study his features, committing them to memory as you’ve learned to do. Square head. Full lips. Beard. Sturdy build, perhaps closer to stocky these days. In the light, his scar is more visible.

“Ever think it might be a blessing?” you say.

He frowns. “No, not really.”

“Some people might even be jealous.”

There’s a wind, and he pulls his collar tight. “Those people don’t know what 40,000 seizures means. They don’t know the smell of a hospital like the smell of their mother. They don’t know how painful it is to forget.”

“It’s also painful to remember,” you say.

“I’ll take your word for it, then.”

He checks his phone, reads a text. Maybe his next lead — one more disembodied face and name pointing toward his past. You try to think of something to say. You don’t want him to leave quite yet. “The mind finds ways to heal itself.”

“At least in my case, yes.”

All the dull midmorning sounds — ambling cars, breeze through the pines, a bell sounding in some nearby store — seem to be dissolving whatever glue had held the two of you, if only briefly. After a pause, he nods at you, and you say goodbye. You feel a soft hand on your shoulder — the other, beardless Zeb — gentle as the wind. He murmurs something in your ear, but it’s in a language that you’ve forgotten, and you no longer remember how to respond. And, unanswered, the second Zeb leaves you, too.

You do not see him again. But neither do you manage to forget.

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