Sasha waited for her Memory Coordinator on one of the deeply feng shui Memory Clinic couches. She surveyed the dim lighting. The earth tones. Potted cacti bloomed, suspended in small tasteful wooden crates hung from the ceiling. The front desk was bamboo color. Even the telephone ring was gentle, a light buzzing sound. The office was filled with the sound of water from countless tiny fountains placed around the room.
So Sasha, like most people, felt comfortable in the office, and she felt comfortable meeting with her personal qualified Memory Coordinator. It really was relaxing. And when clients followed the Memory Coordinators into their screened off offices, they did so with a growing sense of warmth and peace. The tap water was spiked with mild sedatives and muscle relaxers, nothing too intense, but still. Enough to help the Memory Coordinators unearth their clients’ ruined memories. The extraction was complicated, involving both technology and the emotional sensitivity of coordinators. Part deep breathing exercises, part sedation, part mild electrical pulses, memory extraction was one answer to a heartbreak of 21st century life; due to pollution or plastics or fluorescent lighting, most suffered a range of cognitive disorders beginning with memory loss and moving through a painful spectrum of impairment (loss of language [both written and oral comprehension], greatly diminished sensitivity to touch or smell or taste or sound or sight, and even up to and including total personality obliteration).
Sasha closed her eyes, listening to the dripping of the fountains, wondering how close she was sitting to one of them. Wondering if it was at all like the fountains she might have played in as a child. Her Memory Coordinator, Jack (‘call me Jackie,’ he’d said the first time she met him nearly a year ago, but she found she couldn’t quite), was practicing his breathing exercises.
“So,” Jack said. “What’s on the table for today, hm? Did you want me to talk about your fifth birthday party some more, or are you tired of that one?” Jack leaned forward, shifting his weight toward her. He had curly black hair and eyes like a child; his eyes were blossoming flowers, open, beckoning. This particular characteristic might have had something to do with his choice of profession.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” Sasha said. She opened her eyes, tried to focus on the color of the wall. It was so neutral as to be nameless, a kind of beige-white-tan-brown, maybe the color of sand? She didn’t know what word to apply to the color. She licked her lips. “Tell me about that.”
You were surrounded by friends and family members. It was the last time your mother made your cake from scratch. Do you remember what it tasted like? Strawberries. She lined the entire top of the cake with fresh, red strawberries, and when you saw it, you couldn’t think of anything except how badly you wanted to eat it. But your idea of its sweetness, of the creaminess of the cake, and the strawberriness of the icing was more pleasurable than the actual cake. The cake itself, unfortunately, was rather dry and dense, but you didn’t tell your mother that. You said, “This is the best cake ever ever, mom!” And you felt you made her so happy. You knew you were being nice and you held it against her a little bit. The thing is, you were a child and she an adult, so she knew that when, every year after that, you asked for a store-bought cake “because it was a special occasion” that her efforts had been found wanting.
Sasha sighed. Was that how it had happened? She couldn’t remember. How could she know for sure he was remembering her past for her and not just putting her on? She ran her tongue over her teeth. At least she’d insisted on an accredited clinic. She was pretty sure that meant Jack had had to get a license and pass a series of difficult exams.
“Remember to practice your breathing,” Jack said.
“Do you want me to continue?”
“Can we talk about something else? My mother just died and so these like ambivalent memories seem out of place.” She let her voice trail off.
“Oh,” Jack said. He looked at her with concern. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, no, I’m fine. I’m seeing my therapist later. I just thought, maybe like a nice memory of her? One I can take notes on share at the funeral?”
“Okay, sure thing.” He leaned even more forward, seemingly about to topple out of the leather backed chair. “Do you want some water though, or maybe a glass of wine? You need to relax. You’re too tense for this.” He took a deep breath. “You’re not going to be able to concentrate at all. Much less take notes.” He handed her a cup. “Go get a drink.”
“Thanks,” she said, grateful that she hadn’t had to ask. Even though she’d known him for a year, she didn’t feel particularly close to Jack. Maybe it was because what he did was kind of a violation and she knew that on a subconscious level, or maybe she didn’t like his southern accent, or maybe it was just his unending sympathy and goodness; he seemed more like a character in a book than an actual person. But she trusted him, anyway, mostly, even when she found herself nearly hating him. She walked into the main office and poured red wine into her paper cup. Being around him made her feel like kind of an asshole.
Her mother had died suddenly. There was no protracted waiting or suffering or even time to come to terms with the inevitable.
Sasha had received the call from her brother on Saturday morning. Two days ago. At that time, she hadn’t spoken to her mother in three weeks. They’d had a falling out over her mother’s boyfriend. And then her mother was dead. Sasha took a long sip of her wine. She’d been pretty close to her mother, and this was difficult for her now. She couldn’t remember why or how they had been close, or what her relationship with her mother had been like.
And she couldn’t remember her childhood at all. That’s why she’d started coming to the Memory Clinic in the first place. A lot of people came to places like this. She had to come on weekdays; the weekends were always booked, full of frustrated people with heads empty of memory. Most people couldn’t remember their childhoods. Or why they were the way they were. Her husband gave her shit about coming, but he could barely remember his own little brothers’ names. She realized her cup was empty, so she refilled it. She walked back into Jack’s office.
Sasha sank into the comfortable chair and allowed her eyes to close. “Tell me about a time my mother and I had a really close like bonding moment,” she said. She took another sip of wine. “When we were having fun together or whatever.” She practiced her breathing. She tried to figure out if she was sad. She hadn’t cried yet. Her mother was already fading from memory, already going greyish at the edges. Had she had long legs and brown eyes, or was that a famous actress?
Jack smiled but she didn’t see. “How about the time you and your mother went to the zoo alone together?”
“Alone together?” She wondered if the not-crying-yet made her some kind of monster.
“You know what I mean, right? You were rarely alone with her when you went out together, your brother was there or friends from the neighborhood. Your brother was supposed to come, but he had the chicken pox and so he had to stay home. Do you want to hear this memory, Sasha?”
She didn’t say anything, and he began.
Your brother had the chicken pox, he was really sick—your mother left him with your grandparents for the day. You were lucky because you hadn’t gotten the chicken pox yet. You would get them the next day, but this day you were still well. Your mom packed a bag lunch for you both and drove off to the zoo.
It was a beautiful day and a beautiful zoo. You liked to study the animals’ faces and make up stories about them. “Those two are in love,” you said to your mother about the gorillas. “And those ones are having an argument,” you said, pointing at a pair of flamingoes. “The boy flamingo took the girl flamingo’s last piece of pizza.” Your mother laughed and you continued walking together through the zoo.
As you and your mother came upon the monkeys, you turned to her and asked “Why do they keep the animals in cages?”
She shook a cigarette out and lit it. “So we can come here and see them,” she said.
“But I want to pet the monkeys,” you said. You didn’t understand why the animals had to be kept from you, and you had a feeling it was specifically from you they were being kept.
Your mother laughed. “Do you want to get a sno cone?” And of course you did, you were six and sno cones were the most delicious thing ever. “Actually,” your mother said as you sucked on the ice, “I think it’s rather cruel to keep them caged like this. Is that what you mean, Sasha? Do you feel bad for the animals?”
You looked up at her through hair that was always getting in your eyes because she wouldn’t let you cut it, ever, and began to cry. You hadn’t thought of that. Of cruelty. Of the animals being kept here against their will. Your mother realized at once her mistake and picked you up, even though you were six and weighed almost 40 pounds.
“Let’s let all the animals out, okay?” You said through tears.
She put you down on the ground and said, “Part of being a big girl is knowing things like this. They’re safer in there than they would be in the wild,” she gestured to the cages. “These animals are happy.”
You found yourself not quite believing her. The animals looked disgruntled. Sad. There was something lost in their eyes you hadn’t noticed before. “Are you sure?” You wanted to believe her anyway.
“Yes, look,” she said. “They’re happy.” And she walked you over to a bench and sat you down. In front of you was a pool of ducks and geese and swans. They clamored in the water, honking and screeching and diving down and then splashing back to the surface. “They’re having fun.” She handed you a piece of bread. “Rip this up and give them some. I think those two are best friends and they’ll want to share,” she said, pointing at a couple of mallards. “What do you suppose their names are?”
But when you threw the bread and all the birds converged upon you, you became frightened, and you knew your mother would not be able to protect you. That night you had a dream you and your mother were locked together in the alligators’ tank. When the alligators came at you, mouths open to devour, in the dream your mother threw you up and into a hot air balloon, and you floated away, except there was an alligator hiding in there with you, and he popped the balloon with his teeth, and you came crashing down to the earth just in time to see an alligator bite your mother in half.
Sasha’s hand shook as she brought the wine to her lips. “I wanted a happy memory,” she said.
Jack frowned. “Well, that’s what all your memories from childhood are like though. Mostly complicated. People forget- it’s hard to be a kid. But this was an important memory – it really shaped you and your relationship with your mother. That alligator dream was a reoccurring one. I wonder if you still have it? Kids go through some tough experiences. Maybe that’s why you’ve forgotten about them?”
“Oh, me and everybody else with our traumatic childhoods? Jesus.” She drained her wine. “Let’s just leave the psychotherapy to the psychotherapists, please. I’m seeing mine later today, remember?”
“Okay, sorry. Do you want one more?” Jack reclined in his chair. He did the breathing. He raised his clear, flowering eyes to her.
“Yes. But really a happy one for this, okay? I’m taking notes. For the funeral,” she said. She practiced the breathing. She thought Jack was maybe annoyed with her, and this hurt her feelings more than she would’ve predicted.
You’re a newborn and your mother is lifting you into the light. Your room is yellow and sweet smelling. Your mother presses you against her chest and you can feel her heartbeat. It is exactly the sound you want. You coo and rub your cheek against her chest. She sings something to you, a low murmur, and you feel her voice vibrating. She says something incomprehensible, smiling. You attempt to smile back, kicking your legs
You’re a few months older and you wake up while she is rocking you back and forth and back and forth. You are warm and her hands are gentle on your back, rubbing in small circles.
Another time she’s got you in your stroller and you begin crying. You are uncomfortable. The strap is too tight. There isn’t enough light. You want your mother. She stops walking and bends down to you. She undoes the strap and lifts you out. She holds you tight against her body. You feel and hear her heartbeat and feel instantly better, safer. She rocks you a bit back and forth and back and forth. You reach your hands for her face, resting your little fingers on her nose. She smiles at you and kisses you.
“This is great, Jack,” Sasha said, “But how can I use this? What am I supposed to say about this? How can I be all like ‘I was a baby and shit and she was a great mom?’ Huh? They’re going to think she was awful. Like all I can come up with for happy memories is when I was an infant?”
Jack leaned forward. “No one remembers their childhood, Sasha. They’d understand. Anyway, you said you wanted happy. I was trying to be kind.”
Sasha drew in a sharp breath. “Are you saying the only time I was ever completely happy or whatever was when I was an infant?” She stared at him, hard, willing him to feel as stupid as she did. Tears pricked her eyes; she felt relieved to be angry, to finally be crying. She wanted him to apologize. To feel abashed. She wanted him to reach to her and brush her hair behind her ears like her mother may or may not have done when she was a kid. This was a stupid thing she was doing coming here. Obviously he had the memories wrong. Obviously he wasn’t doing the breathing right or whatever.
Improperly following protocol. “Jack?”
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying,” he said.
-refers from Jimmy Pitts photograph Sun Chair