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The Memory Addict

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He says he might be done. He wants to go back to fiction, which he says always feels like an adventure. (His first book was the novel Sellevision, which he wrote in seven days.) “I’ll always write about myself. I just don’t know if I’ll always publish what I write.”

I ask what this novel might be about.

“I should write about the son of a Connecticut senator who writes about a dysfunctional childhood living with a psychiatrist,” he says. “It would be very postmodern.”

Five days after our last meeting, I send Burroughs an e-mail thanking him for his time and warning that I might have some follow-up questions. He responds, quickly, to say that he enjoyed it, then adds, apparently as an afterthought: “what’s that little white dot on your front left tooth? a filling?” I’m impressed: The bottom half of that tooth is fake, a mutual gift from my older brother and the concrete edge of our apartment complex’s swimming pool when I was 8. One little spot stands out. I haven’t noticed or thought about it in years. I write back and tell him so. As I wait for a response, I start to wonder about his motives. Was he actually curious, or was this just some kind of guerrilla-marketing campaign to tout his astounding powers of observation and recall? Again, he writes back quickly, recommending that I see his dentist: “of course, it’s not like you have some glaring tooth problem. it’s a tiny thing. most people wouldn’t even notice. just like most people might notice your glasses? but not that they say Nautica along the temple.” I take off my glasses: It’s true. This is also impressive, but a little flagrantly calculated for my taste. I begin to doubt his powers altogether. For all I know, he’s just memorized a couple of trivial details in order to unleash them on me at exactly this kind of strategic moment.

Now that he’s being brazen, I decide to test him: What else does he remember?

He responds with a detailed 1,200-word recap of our time together: exact phrases we spoke at specific intersections and the cars that passed as we said them; which hand I’d used to straighten my notes at the table; the names of my children; the design of my watch face and wedding ring (“either white gold or platinum … two ridges, or channels—one on top, one on the bottom”). Having been there myself, and having just relived the entire experience via five hours of recorded conversation, I find his account (although he gets a word or two wrong) very persuasive.

He even remembers a story I told him about fainting from dehydration in a grocery store in the middle of Queens. He admits that, as I was telling it, he was doubting some of its details, wondering if I’d allowed myself to embellish the story over the years, eventually even revising my memory to match the more dramatic version. And he was right: I had.


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