THE REMINDERS by VAL EMMICH
Dad forgot me.
I’m waiting with my guitar on the hard steps and there’s an ant by my sneaker. She’s just a tiny thing, but I’d rather be that, a tiny thing that no one notices, than a real girl who everyone sees but isn’t worth remembering.
Miss Caroline is waiting with me. The man in the car is ready to take her home, but she can’t leave until I do. “I’ll try your father again.”
She only has to press her phone once because she’s already called Dad and left him a message. After a quiet minute she pulls the phone away from her ear and makes her voice e xtra- sweet. “Don’t worry, Joan. I’m sure he’ll be here soon.”
She’s acting so nice, which only embarrasses me more. The one good part about this whole thing is that today was my last Young Performers class and as soon as Dad picks me up, I’ll never have to face Miss Caroline again.
“What time is it?” I say.
“Almost five,” Miss Caroline says.
Class ended at 4:30. Dad and I are usually in the car by 4:40. “I’m sorry.”
“Forget about it, Joan.”
But I can’t forget about it. That’s the whole problem. I can’t forget anything.
This isn’t just about Dad not coming to pick me up today. It’s about Dad and me seeing a red bird in a tree in 2011 and then me asking him if he remembers the other red bird we saw two years before that on Wednesday, April 29, 2009. He has to think about it for a while and then he says, “Yes,” but the way he says it, I know he doesn’t remember the other red bird at all and I don’t feel as close to him as I want to feel.
And it’s about Mom saying, “It never fails,” and me doing a quick count of all the times she’s said “It never fails” in the past six months ( twenty- seven). Then I ask Mom to guess what the number is and I give her a hint that the number is less than fifty but more than ten, but instead of playing my game, Mom says, “What do you want from me, Joan?” and walks away.
And it’s about people telling stories about things that have happened to all of us and them making faces when I mention how they got a certain part of the story wrong. Then Dad has to explain to me that for most people, memories are like fairy tales, which means they’re simpler and funnier and happier and more exciting than how life really is. I don’t understand how people can pretend something happened differently than it actually did, but Dad says they don’t even realize they’re pretending.
Miss Caroline walks down the steps to speak to the man in the car. They talk quietly and then the man turns off his engine, which is good for the environment, and leans his seat all the way back like Grandpa does when it’s nap time.
Miss Caroline comes up the steps and says, “What are you drawing?”
I shut my journal. “Nothing.” I don’t mind if my future husband shows everyone my drawings after I die, like Yoko did for John, but right now my drawings are private.
John Lennon is Dad’s favorite musician and mine too. Dad wanted my first name to be Lennon but Mom vetoed that, which is something a wife can do, says Mom. So Dad put Lennon in the middle and that makes me Joan Lennon Sully. The middle is a good spot for important names.
John Lennon’s middle name was Winston, after Winston Churchill, who is a person that everyone remembers.
People have all kinds of reasons for why they don’t remember. They blame it on their batteries dying, or their ears not hearing right, or just being too busy, or too old, or too tired. But really it’s because they don’t have enough room inside their boxes.
When I was turning five, Mom bought me a box for all my art. She was fed up with me leaving my drawings and projects around the house. She told me to choose which pieces were most important because there wasn’t enough room in the box to keep everything. That’s how it is with people’s brains. There’s only enough room for the most important memories and the rest gets thrown away. When I’m the thing that gets thrown away, because I’m not important enough, it’s hard not to get the blues like John Lennon on The White Album when he sings, I’m lonely and I wanna die. Especially when I would never throw anyone else away, because my brain never runs out of room. I just want it to be fair.
I wish I could always be important and never forgotten like John Lennon and Winston Churchill, but I know I can’t. I learned a few years ago that I’m not safe in anyone’s box, not even my own grandmother’s.
Saturday, February 13, 2010: Grandma’s new home.
“Grandma, it’s me, Joan.”
She looks confused. “I’m Joan.”
“I know, Grandma. I’m Joan too. I got my name from you.”
Dad pulls me aside. “She’s just tired, honey.”
“She doesn’t remember me.”
“Yes, she does. Of course she does. She just . . .”
“Grandma. It’s me.”
She tries. She really tries. But I’m not there.
Grandma Joan had to throw me out of her brainbox so she could have enough room for the lyrics to all her favorite songs. She remembered those until the day she died (Saturday, October 8, 2011).
I’ve tried to help people remember by leaving them notes and giving them hints. I even paid attention to the news when it said blueberries make brains stronger and I asked Mom to buy a huge carton and I made my family eat them all, but it was just a waste of time. If Grandma Joan was able to forget me, that means anyone can. Even Dad.
“What time is it now?” I ask, strumming my guitar.
“Five after five.”
A car is coming fast, but it passes by. I play a minor chord because I’m not in the mood for a happy sound.
Miss Caroline looks up at the clouds in the sunny sky and says, “It’s been so long since we’ve had rain.”
“Actually, it rained on June twentieth, which was a Thursday, and that was less than three weeks ago.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes, it is.”
She seems impressed. “Did you always have such an amazing memory?”
“No,” I say. “I got it when I fell on my head in Home Depot.”
Miss Caroline laughs, but I’m telling the truth. My friend Wyatt knows all about comic books and the Internet and he told me that falling on my head in Home Depot is what gave me my highly superior autobiographical memory and falling on my head again in Home Depot would make me lose it. That’s why I haven’t gone back to that store after all these years.
I was only two when it happened (I’m ten now). Dad stood me up in the back of the orange shopping cart and he wasn’t watching me and I leaned over the edge and fell. My head slammed onto the concrete and Dad yelled out, not like he yells at other drivers but like he yells when he doesn’t use an oven mitt and his hand touches the top of the toaster. He lifted me off the concrete and rushed me out of the store.
But I don’t tell any of this to Miss Caroline because she’s too busy looking at her clipboard. Her finger is sliding down the page to where it says emergency contact.
“Who’s Jack Sully?” she says.
She pushes her lips out like she’s being forced to kiss an ugly man.
“I can walk home,” I say. “I don’t live far away.”
“I can’t let you do that, Joan.”
She calls Grandpa and leaves him a message. She’s already called Mom. “Has this ever happened before, where you can’t get in touch with anyone?” Miss Caroline asks.
“No,” I say and it’s true. Sometimes people can’t believe that I can go through all my memories so quickly, but it’s not like trying to find the one pen that works in Mom’s junk drawer. It’s more like turning on a light, and the switch is always right under my finger.
“Here’s what we’ll do,” Miss Caroline says. “At five twenty, we’ll call everyone one more time. If we still can’t get in touch with them, we’ll see if we can get some help.”
“What kind of help?”
“Maybe someone can drop by your house.”
“Who? Your friend?”
“No,” Miss Caroline says. “But let’s not jump the gun just yet.”
I wonder who she’s talking about and why she wants to keep the person a secret and then I think about the words emergency and help and gun and I know who Miss Caroline wants to call. I keep my eyes on the street because I’m worried that if I look over at Miss Caroline a tear might accidentally slip out.
I can probably make a run for it because I pretty much know my way around Jersey City, but even if I did make it home I don’t have house keys. I look around for that tiny ant but she’s gone. I hope she made it back to her family.
I hear a rumble like light thunder and I look up to the sky, but the sun is still shining. The rumble gets louder and closer and it’s coming from an engine. The engine is inside a big white van that appears up the street. It honks its horn and stops right in front of us. Sully & Sons is written on its side and I’m expecting Grandpa to step out of it, but it’s Dad. He tells us there was an accident on the turnpike and his phone died. “I’m really sorry,” Dad says. “Thank you so much for staying with her.”
“It’s totally fine,” Miss Caroline says, but it’s not even a little bit fine. What was Dad doing on the turnpike anyway? He was supposed to be home, working in his studio.
Dad helps me into the passenger seat and belts me up. There are no seats in the back of the van, which is why Dad is letting me sit up front. It makes me think of when I sat in the front of Dad’s old van four summers ago and watched him fill it up with all his drum equipment. I asked him if I could go with him to Boston and he said, “Maybe when you’re older.” I’m older now but he sold his van last year and he doesn’t really play shows anymore.
“Why are you driving Grandpa’s van?”
“I was helping him out today.” The way Dad says it, it’s like he isn’t too sure about the words he wants to use. Songwriters like Dad and me are very careful with our words.
The back of the van is full of tools, which makes me think of Home Depot, which makes me think of the one way I can lose my gift or condition or disease or whatever you want to call it. If I can’t get other people to remember better, maybe I can force myself to remember worse. “I don’t want to go home,” I say.
“Okay,” Dad says, trying to be cheery. “Where would you like to go?”
Maybe it’s finally time to go back to Home Depot. I could climb to a high spot and dive down so my head would hit the concrete. It would hurt a lot, but only for a little while. Afterward I’d finally know what everyone means when they say I don’t recall and I’d always have an excuse for why I didn’t do something I said I was going to do, like pick my daughter up on time from Young Performers class.
But I don’t really want to go to Home Depot. I just want to feel better. Maybe I’d be okay if it were just small forgetting, like when people miss my h alf- birthday or they don’t remember to put suntan lotion on the tops of my ears or they forget that my least favorite saying is Forget about it. But it hurts too bad when the thing people keep forgetting is me.
We’re at a red light and Dad is trying to get my attention by waving his hand in front of my face. Instead of looking at him, I grab the newspaper that’s lying on the floor of the van and pretend to read it.
“I saved that for you,” Dad says.
The newspaper is folded back to show a certain page. “What’s my name, Dad?”
“What are you talking about?”
“My name. What is it?”
He answers very slowly. “Your name is Joan.”
“Sure, you say that today. But who knows about tomorrow.”
Dad breathes out like he’s really tired. “Joan, I’m sorry I was late. I don’t know what else you want me to say.”
I look down in my lap and spot something in the newspaper that Dad saved for me. There are tons of little boxes on the page and inside one of the boxes are five words in big capital letters:
THE NEXT GREAT SONGWRITER CONTEST
I read all the information in the box and I start to get a b rand- new idea.
“Tell me where I’m going, Joan. I need an answer.”
Grandma forgot a lot of things at the end, including me, but not music. Just like Dad will sometimes forget to buy almond milk at the store even when it’s on his shopping list, but he will always hum along to every single note of the guitar solo in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” even if he hasn’t heard the song in years. The best part about music is that it keeps playing. When Dad forgets about someone like Michael Jackson for a while, he’ll hear one of his songs and all of a sudden he’ll remember how much he likes him. That’s because songs are like reminders.
“I can’t drive around in circles, Joan.”
“Go home, Dad.”
“I thought you didn’t want to.”
“I changed my mind.”
Dad mumbles something as he spins the wheel and the big white van spins with it. My head is spinning too, like the top of a helicopter, and I’m lifting over all the bad feelings, because I might have just found a way to make sure that Dad and Mom and Grandpa and Miss Caroline and everyone else in the world never forget me.
There’s this idea of the phantom limb. A man who’s lost his arm still feels the arm and behaves as if the arm is intact. What I have, then, is a phantom love.
We lived together for four years. Two years in Sydney’s West Hollywood apartment and two years here, in our house in Los Feliz. He died one month ago and ever since, I’ve lived alone. But I don’t feel alone. Everywhere I turn are reminders, some t hree- dimensional, others invisible, all of them speaking and taking up space.
For instance, this chair I’m in now has plenty to say. We found it at the Rose Bowl. It’s a n ineteenth- century antique, English, with lion’s-paw feet and a floral design. Syd had an eye for this type of stuff, could discern the prize from the junk.
I remember when we first brought it home. I can hear myself now, complaining about how uncomfortable the chair is. I hear Sydney laughing, explaining that it’s not supposed to be comfortable. It’s a visual piece, he’s telling me. Please, Mr. Winters, if you must sit, sit on the couch. And yet he himself would sit in the chair. He loved this chair.
But I can’t say I love it, not anymore. Not when the voice I hear isn’t even Sydney’s but some distant and muted approximation of the way he sounded.
I stand up and drag the heavy chair through the house, through the kitchen, and into the backyard. I lay the chair on its side, raise my boot over the top leg, and stomp down. The broken limb dangles from chewy fibers, the amputation not complete until I’ve twisted a dozen times and yanked the thing off. I detach the other three legs in the same fashion.
I uncover the fire pit and form a tepee with the legs. The rusted lighter near the grill still has juice, but its blue flame won’t stick to the antique logs. I could quit now. Or I could go get some kindling.
In the straw box under our bed, I find notes, photos, envelopes. We really were sentimental saps, the pair of us. We kept everything: the crude portraits we drew of each other while giddy on molly; my shoelace headband from our first hike in Griffith Park (my hair was long when we started dating); the paper airplane I made with Swissair on one wing, Take Me with You on the other; and, from one of our marathon dinners in the canyon, a matchbook.
While I’m here, I strip the bed. His scent lingers, real or phantom, I don’t know. I toss the linens on top of the memory box and carry the whole lot through the bends of our bungalow.
I dump it all in the pit and wave the lighter again. A crackle as the flame takes and spreads. I watch the mass heat up and grow, feeling a sense of accomplishment.
It takes many trips, but I rid the house of all reminders:
The rug where I found his body.
Forest painting from nobody artist.
Linen curtains, chosen by Syd, hung by me.
Wireless speakers from one of his clients.
New Age guides to success and enlightenment.
Issues of Food & Wine, Forbes, Esquire that had been neatly stacked on Danish modern coffee table.
Danish modern coffee table.
Earbuds, mine, but we shared them once in the theater before previews began; we each took an ear and enjoyed h alf- stereo Passion Pit.
Pictures in frames, both laptops, clothes, favorite tea mug, ski poles, Ping- Pong balls, unused parenting books, mail, postcards, birthday cards, business cards, sympathy cards, it’s-t he- holiday- look-at-o ur- children cards.
All these items lie scattered on the overgrown grass, waiting their turn in the fire. There won’t be room until the pile melts down. At the moment, nothing much is happening.
I grab Sydney’s tennis racket, jab at the heap. I poke and prod, breaking up the cluster, letting air squeeze into the gaps. Something sizzles, and the rubble finally ignites.
Even this, staring into the fire, is a memory. We were out here with our cocktails, resting our feet on the low brick wall. We had just bought the house and out of this new feeling of adulthood came a list of plans: more traveling, rings, even talk of a baby.
A spark leaps from the pit into the cuff of my pants. Syd bought them for me during one of our last shopping runs. I untie my boots, slide the chinos down, and sail them across the western sky. They land atop the summit like a fallen flag.
In the kitchen, I fix myself a cocktail. Gin, Campari, sweet red vermouth: a Negroni, Syd’s drink of the moment. The fridge is empty, so I do without the orange rind. Reaching into the freezer for ice, I notice the bracelet on my wrist. It’s an ugly thing made of cheap leather. We purchased two ofthem — one for each of us — w hile on vacation in Mexico. Only this one remains.
I reach for the metal clasp, start to undo the circle, but stop myself. Nose pressed to the leather, eyes shut, I inhale, and there it is, the past, awakened. A flash of us in Mexico, Sydney’s gringo tan. I don’t visualize it as much as experience it a second time, the sensation of it, just for a few seconds. But it’s long enough. I decide to spare the bracelet for now.
I rinse a dirty fork and plunge it into the c herry- red mixture. While I’m stirring, I see it through the back window, what I’ve done. It’s glorious and way out of hand. Illuminating the night, a zigzagging fury spitting orange danger everywhere.
I run outside, giggling. Maybe terror or elation or madness, all of the above, but I’m laughing. I raise my glass in front of the blaze. “ Good- bye,” I say.
“I love you,” I say.
And then: “I’m sorry.”
Around me, the night buzzes. Voices through the fence, a figure in a neighbor’s window. Hot wind blows against my neck. I turn back to the fire, now spilling from the pit and climbing the post that supports the porch awning. I step away, finish the last of my drink, and watch all our memories rise in smoke and vanish in the night.
In Stores Everywhere May 30, 2017