That Our Mind Hinders Itself

Whoever shall presuppose a packthread equally strong throughout, it is utterly impossible it should break; for, where will you have the breaking to begin?
MONTAIGNE, “THAT OUR MIND HINDERS ITSELF”

The anatomical model of a neuron looks like Malou Airaudo in a pale pink slip, her shock of hair cresting back and forth as she agonizes during a performance of Café Müller, in which the stage is densely littered with black chairs that she impacts with her body as she moves about like a somnambulist. This is before the man in the black suit emerges, trying frantically to predict her trajectories in order to keep her from slamming into the chairs. I’m daydreaming about this when the end-of-period bell rings, so I quickly scribble axon in the blank space next to the threadlike part of the neuron that transmits electrical information to and from the soma.

It was fall, eleventh grade, and usually I’d have a sinking feeling walking through the science wing, away from the biology lab where I’d just barely finished another of Ms. G’s pop quizzes. But on that day I remember feeling unmoored, like whatever tethered me to the world had been snipped and I’d floated far enough away to lose any visual marker to orient my tumbling. That morning, studying, I’d remembered the structure of the neuron because the diagram reminded me of the beginning of Almodóvar’s Hable con Ella, when two men watch a performance of Café Müller and one of them weeps. The memory of this scene had for some reason evoked an image of my grandmother Estela lying next to her oldest son Victor after she’d been sent home from the hospital where a brain tumor that had grown back was removed for the second and final time.

By the eleventh grade Estela had already passed away, and I hardly ever thought of her, because she stayed in Mexico when my parents and I immigrated to the United States in the late ’80s. But the image of her buzzed head covered in a white mesh that held a surgical dressing in place, both eyes blackened and her face so swollen it looked as though she wore a mask, started to present itself more frequently those autumn days. I was twelve years old when she had her first surgery, and my mom and I went to Fortín a few weeks before it was scheduled so that she could spend some time with me, should the worst happen. I didn’t realize this until the eleventh grade when those images of her kept creeping in: that she’d probably held an image of me, repeating our last words in her mind for as long as she could, while strangers in masks rolled her into the operating room; that I had been part of an unspoken ritual of departure, a final goodbye. But she didn’t die then.

Remembering her that fall compelled me to look for things that she had touched. My parents kept a box of objects from their lives in Mexico, and among them were a pair of blue baby gloves she’d knit for me with impossibly small fingers so that I wouldn’t scratch my face. Reading through old papers, I pieced together her thwarted attempts to come to the United States. I remember coming to the realization that although I’d never been able to feel much for her, she’d lived wounded by both of her sons’ departures, and by all of the joy my absence denied her….

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