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Details of memory

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One Summer in the '80s, in Washington, D.C., my sister and her boyfriend moved into my apartment after theirs had been irreparably damaged in a flood. We had no furniture, only a piano and seven futons. The futons accomodated a variety of my most confused and down-at-the-heels acquaintances.

There was my friend James, who couldn't decide if he was a man or a woman and so had split himself in half to see which option afforded him the most satisfaction. One side of his head was shaved, the other had hair past his shoulders. He wore long black dresses and army boots, mascara but no lipstick. James came accompanied by Spike, a 6-foot-long asthmatic python.

In the front room was my friend Trish, who, while taking her junior year abroad in Poland, had married a dissident named Marek, whom she had brought home with her. She spent most of her time ministering to the stateless, traumatized Marek--nurturing that seemed to consist mainly of inducing him to eat fresh fruits and vegetables.

Outside in the streets, crack was beginning its terrible reign, punk rock was singing its swan song and Reaganomics was widening the gulf between the rich and the poor. Inside the apartment, we had taken up the singing of hymns. Being Jews, we didn't know many, but my sister and I collected hymnals and sang the songs in a torturously slow and sincere way. Our favorite was an abolitionist hymn:

Men on earth who claim that we/Come from fathers brave and free/If there breathe on earth a slave/Are we truly free and brave?/If we do not feel the chain/When it works a brother's pain/Are we not base slaves indeed/Slaves unworthy to be freed?

Today, at home in Raleigh with the days growing longer, I think of that hymn. And then I am distracted from the hymn's truth by the odd details of memory. The unrelieved cacophony in my overcrowded apartment. The peculiarities of the inhabitants. The wheezing of my poor piano, drenched with the humidity of five summers in Washington, tiredly thumping the melody to that hymn. And our voices drifting out over the street.

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