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Who Is Su


Su and Jim in 1986, when she was pregnant with Benjamin.   

As the family and the dogs raced around the tiny kitchen, I asked Su how long she’d been living here. “Three years,” all three answered. I asked Su about Patrick, who, at 27, is one year younger than Benjamin and five years older than Kassidy (Jim was in D.C. for work). Su held out two empty tuna-fish cans for the dogs to lick up. She began saying that Patrick lives in Maryland, to which Benjamin interjected, “Yeah, but he’ll be moving this fall.” Barely taking a breath, he continued—that Patrick was a gymnastics coach, that he himself had moved here from Los Angeles, that he was currently attending community college and planning to enroll at either Williams or Amherst, that both schools had recovered losses sustained in the financial crisis, with digressions on Ponzi schemes, Thai peanut sauce, coffee brewing, and so forth. Using a paring knife, Su sliced celery and carrots in her hands with incredible speed, and Apollo the cat lapped up the tuna-fish liquid she had reserved. “Stop talking,” Su eventually told Benjamin lightheartedly. The Mecks took their sandwiches and left, leaving me alone in the kitchen to assemble mine.

I found them at a large oak dining table in the living room, which also featured a wall of overflowing bookshelves, a desk and some armchairs, as well as a navy couch and a massive, beautiful old card catalogue Jim had given her. It was a hot, humid summer afternoon. The house, a rental with unreliable air-conditioning, was smaller than their homes back in Maryland, Su told me; the overflow of furniture was still in storage. On the walls hung several family portraits, only some of which Su could recall having been taken: photographs of her with a husband she had no memory of marrying, two sons she had no memory of carrying, and a daughter she regards as her fraternal twin.

“For the first time in my life,” she told me, “I don’t have anything to do.” She’d published her book, I Forgot to Remember, and just graduated from Smith. Now all she knew for certain was that she wanted to stay in Northampton, the first place she’d lived that she’d felt some agency about. Going to Smith had been the hardest and most rewarding thing she’d ever done. Her English professor her first semester had encouraged her to speak once in every class, and so she would write in her notebook ahead of time the single question she’d force herself to utter. She often embarrassed herself with the massive blanks in her knowledge, such as in an African-­American literature class, where she expressed disbelief about particularly barbarous representations of racism. But she was determined to fit in and excel. She found herself befriending the so-called traditional students, the 18-to-22-year-olds.

There was a type of classmate she’d felt particularly intimidated by. “At Smith, they’re called ‘That Girls,’ ” she told me. “They’d all gone to private schools, they were beautiful, fancy, like their dad owned half the planet.” One girl, Courtney, and her “two posse mates” established themselves as “the rulers of the class.” Su successfully avoided them her freshman year, but then, two years later, she walked into another class. There sat Courtney.

“You were almost going to drop the class when you saw her,” Kassidy recalled.

For one assignment, they were required to attend a reading.

“I can help, because me and Dad came with you,” Benjamin offered.

“No,” said Kassidy. “Let her finish.”

“But Mom doesn’t know this,” Benjamin said.

“It was this weird poetry and music thing,” Su said.

“Can I explain it?” Benjamin asked.

“Yes,” Su said, “go ahead.”

Benjamin described a performance-art piece in which a couple tries to imagine the thoughts inside a computer.

“It was terrible,” Su said.

She feared it would provoke in her what she calls “lightning strikes”: seizurelike vestiges of her injury that she still suffers at times of stress or overstimulation, rendering her mute and blank, often crumpled on the ground. During the discussion afterward, Courtney declared that the piece had “changed her life,” and the class at large seemed to agree. “I see you’re making a face,” the professor told Su. “Would you care to share your opinion with us?”

“I think it sucked,” Su recalled saying. “I said it didn’t make any sense.” To Su’s surprise, the girl next to her said she agreed.

“Then it was the floodgates,” said Benjamin. As Courtney and Su stood their ground, the majority of the class eventually turned to Su’s side. Su was clearly very proud of this. She said: “So it was like, Yay for me! I did it!

Music is a rare through line between her former and current selves: Shortly after her accident, she’d sat down at a piano and played Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” (a feat she does not remember and never replicated), and when she started playing her drum set a few years ago, she steadily regained the skills she was told she used to have. Her senior recital took the form of a rock concert, and at the table, she cued up a recording on her MacBook. She hit play on the first of about a dozen songs she’d played drums on: the Beatles’ “Come Together”—bump-bump-badada-bump. After her recital, Su’s mother approached her, struggling not to cry, saying it was the first time she’d seen sparks of the daughter she’d raised.


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