The bubble casing around each of our homes—ones that had once been so soft and flexible that we could hear it shifting and buffeting in the wind—had turned rigid—and lightly furred. (No one could say where the fur came from. Something fungal only mimicking fur?)
I remember how, when we got word that it was okay to emerge, my parents opened the front door. My mother was holding an aluminum baseball bat, my father had a shovel. The three of us were in our hazmat suits. (Mine had grown a little taut. I was eleven years old and had gotten taller and rounder.) Our breaths were trapped in our masks.
How long had we been indoors? Time was hard to figure. It had been well over two years. But had it been three?
“Stand back,” my father said to me.
“Shallow mask breaths!” my mother added.
(Now, so many years later, when I’m nervous, I’ll go into a private space, cup my hands over my mouth and do shallow mask breaths. It eases me.)
My parents started bashing the casing. It was tough at first but then it began to give. As it shattered, the breeze kicked in—light, air, maybe the possibility of rain on skin.
We’d been shedding memories throughout our confinement—our favorite old furry wound-down mecha-pets, tube rides, diction lessons, holographic love notes, our grandparents becoming inanimate…
We lost entire childhoods and adulthoods. Long-married couples didn’t know how they’d met. And mothers (like mine) stared at their children wondering how they’d been born. And children (like me) just having to assume their parents were their parents.
Even our interiors had become strangely foreign in confinement. “Who would buy that ugly sofa?” my father said. “Who would live with this much clutter?” my mother said.
One time, I found my parents sitting on the edge of their bed.
“Take a look at this,” my dad said to me, showing me a small holographic memory—my parents as teenagers, sitting on the hood of a car—my father gives my mother a quick cheek-kiss.
“Why would someone seal it up in a locked box?” my mother asked, holding the box. It looked like something made in a tech class—a small thumb-print lock on it, a velvety interior.
I was just a kid. I didn’t have as many memories to lose. But I missed the feeling of a past. It’s hard to explain. I was nostalgic for something I couldn’t name. What came before? It was like a color I once knew and I could kind of describe—happyish, anxious?—but I couldn’t say what color it was.
People stepped out onto front yards, scalded from the pesticide fogs. The light was bright to us. We blinked. The sun was a little warm. We tilted our heads to the sky. Some men took off their shirts and rounded their backs.
We knew our names. We knew that we should know our neighbors’ names. But we didn’t. It was awkward. Everyone thought they alone had been afflicted with the erasures until we started to figure it out—my father walked over to our neighbor who was shirtless, his belly pinking with sun. “I’m sorry I don’t remember your name. My family… we…” Having to say it aloud was harder than my father expected. His eyes went wide with fear and exhaustion and now this rusty kind of hope.
“Us too.” The neighbor pointed to his wife who’d cut her own bangs so short that her face was mostly made up of a blank forehead. “Do you think we’ve known each other a long time?”
“Maybe,” my mother said. She smiled tightly. Did she have a feeling that she’d once disliked the neighbors? Feelings existed, but without memories to back them up, they felt untrustworthy. I noticed a weird bruise on the back of the woman’s knee, the fleshy part, and I wondered if her lockdown with her husband had gotten violent. Back when we had access to news, there was reporting of an uptick of abuse.
My parents and the neighbors introduced themselves with the facts they remembered—names, ages, former occupations—my parents had worked in education and the neighbors had been in the service industry. The four of them named the towns where they grew up—Voorhees, Vero Beach, Spencer, Weymouth. These facts remained but had no tug of memory. They were detached and distilled—like something preserved under a glass microscope slide and magnified.
I was raised here. But what had that been like? The concept itself felt airy and diffused with light.
A few days after we emerged, we began to remember—but the memories, when they returned, weren’t given back to the people they belonged to. They’d been scattered among us. Memories had lifted and flitted and then, usually in small clumps, landed in someone new.
I remembered a wedding in a field, guests under a white tent. I wore a long loose dress and sang a love song, a little off-key, at the reception. Of course it wasn’t me—not me at all. But it felt irrefutably mine.
My mother had memories of a son. She gripped the edges of the kitchen sink. “Did I have another child? Did I? A boy?”
“No,” my father said. “We’d know that, as a fact. We’d know.”
One day I found my father in the attic. (During the confinement we’d learned to use every space in the house.) He was looking at some of our family holograms and had paused on one of me when I was around seven, wearing a backpack. “Look at you!” he said. “This must be a first day of school picture, right?”
“I hate that shirt,” I said. “Are those tomatoes printed on it? A tomato shirt?”
He double tapped the airy pixelated image. “No,” he said. “They’re apples.”
“Are you trying to remember everything?”
“I guess so.”
“What memories did you get?” I asked him.
He set the holo-display to rotate, flipping through thumbnails. “Not mine,” he said. “Who would ever do something like that...” He was agitated.
“Do what? What thing?”
“Nothing,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.” He went silent like someone had flipped a switch inside of him.
The holographic tools came in handy. People wanted to return the memories lodged in their heads to the people they belonged to. Some started to create mini-holograms of what was in their heads. Some were beautifully rendered. Others were rough sketches. Most had text or voice-over narration that offered some context.
I had a small cheap rendering set. My mother borrowed it and started recreating memories at the dining room table. “This looks so stupid. Why am I so terrible at this?”
She handed me the carving tool. “Do something,” she said. “I’m useless.”
“Okay,” I said. She’d created a little boy but he was lumpy and his face was a blur and pixilated. “What does this kid really look like?”
She started describing his nose (snubbed), his ears (flat to his head), his underbite… and I set to work.
Within a few months, an abandoned warehouse had been converted to a communal memory swap.
My mother put the holograms of Rossy into a box and took me to the warehouse with her. It was a big airy space. There were others also holding boxes and bags, each lightly glowing with hologram memories they’d brought with them and set up on the rows and rows of industrial-strength shelving units. Each shelf was filled with small glowing visual clips and some stills.
You had a dog named Otto [an elderly dog with pointy ears and a gray muzzle].
You were in a parade playing a trumpet [marching band uniforms, a drumline].
I think you watched someone die, maybe of a seizure, maybe your grandfather in winter—there was snow out the window [a bed, a narrow old man, convulsing under a pale sheet].
If this sounds like it might belong to you…
And they’d give an address.
But how could we remember what we couldn’t remember?
It wasn’t clear. People described the recognition different ways.
Like an itch in the back of my head
It was this voice, almost. A whisper saying—this is yours.
It’s as if I knew the opening chords to a song but I didn’t know I knew it until I heard it but then I could sing the rest.
My mother put her memory of Rossy on a shelf in the warehouse. He was smiling widely after losing a bottom front tooth at a birthday party. I’d worked hard on those teeth. The loop was of him smiling and then pulling on his lower lip to show the spot where the tooth used to be, beaming with pride. The voice-over explaining some details was in my mother’s voice of course, and the clip ended with our contact information.
My mother left it there, took my hand, and pulled me along the shelves, looking for memories of her own.
My eyes flitting past headings: MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN, OLD MAN, MALE TEEN, FEMALE BANKER MID-20s.
I found a few that read: LITTLE GIRL.
Small images of various girls:
Putting on slippers.
Jumping in puddles—blue boots with whales on them.
Getting stitches on an elbow…
Nothing felt like an itch in my head or a whisper or a song. I checked my elbows. None of them felt like they belonged to me. I was still haunted by the life of the woman who got married in the field, who’d grown up in a tenement house and joined some kind of commune. “My woman ate this layered sweet cake thing. It tastes like honey,” I told my mother in the warehouse.
“Baklava,” my mother said. “Maybe she’s Greek.”
“Why can’t I put up a memory?” I asked my mother.
“I’ve explained this.” She had. She wanted to be the guinea pig. “Let grownups go through it first. See if it causes any… problems.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Shh. Just let me read these, okay?”
Somewhere deep in the cavernous space, someone had found their past and was crying.
During the day, I would carve the holograms of memories I wanted to get rid of, the ones my mother would never let me put in the warehouse. I felt compelled to work on them. (I still have “Woman Singing at her own Wedding.” She opens her mouth and it’s my little girl voice that sings the words…)
At night, my dreams were mine—and hers. Memory and dreams share the subconscious.
In one dream, she floated on a lake and someone threw a car engine. It hit her chest and plunged her to the silty lakebed, pinning her there.
In another, she was flirting with a man in a strange mask, a beak and tall plumage.
I learned to wake myself up. So I could have my own dreams, I tried to remind myself of some detail of my life—like how I’d hidden notes all over the house, under the flooring where it had started to peel up in the kitchen corners or written directly onto the attic beams … notes to the next person who might live in the house. I imagined that person to be a child like me.
Dear Stranger, I was here.
Dear Stranger, I was here when our pasts disappeared.
Dear Stranger, I was here when our pasts came back but to all the wrong people.
Dear Stranger, I should warn you…
But I wasn’t sure what to write next.
A week or two later, a woman named Lymna knocked on our front door. I was the one who answered. It was afternoon. My parents had taken down the rest of the casing but shards still glinted in the yard. She was in her fifties, a little breathless. She still had callouses on her face from wearing one of the heavy duty respirators round the clock; many did. She hadn’t cut her own hair but had let it grow wild down her back.
Her arrival wasn’t unexpected. Strangers showed up at each other’s houses to collect their memories. They’d sit on sofas or at kitchen tables. They’d make coffee or get drunk.
“I’m here for Rossy,” Lymna said, introducing herself. “I think someone here knows him?”
My father had started having migraines and so he was lying down in my parents’ darkened bedroom in the back of the house. I ran to my mother who was in the kitchen. “Someone’s here for Rossy!”
My mother was stunned. “Really?” She rushed past me toward the door.
The two women sat on lawn chairs in the backyard. My mother let me linger nearby. There were still tiny shards in the dirt. I was collecting them into a pile.
My mother didn’t start with Rossy. She said, “You grew up in a pale pink house.”
“Yes,” Lymna said, “I can see the little street now. We had a goose statue.”
“And your father was … unhappy? He hunted. He might have had a hunting accident…”
“He died that way?” It was a question, but then Lymna’s eyes filled with tears. She covered her mouth, nodding.
They progressed slowly. Her sister married a pediatrician, her brother was gay and left home at seventeen, her mother had pet conspiracy theories. Soon, they had a system. My mother would start and Lymna would see it in her head. “Got it, yes. It’s all there. My entire sister. All of her. Our fights, the things she stole from me … This one time when… ”
And they’d move onto the next and the next.
These exchanges exhausted both of them. My mother would often cry after Lymna left. One night, I saw her roaming the back yard, walking in a large circle like a pony used to giving rides at a birthday party. I opened the window and called to her because I was afraid. I wanted to hear her voice. “Are you coming in soon?”
She looked up at me as if I were a miracle. She couldn’t speak. She sank to her knees into the dirt of our bald yard.
I turned away and climbed into bed. I thought about the childhood lodged within me—and I wondered what that childhood would say to me. And I heard: Get out while you can. You cannot trust these assholes. I put my head under the pillow and decided that wasn’t my childhood. That childhood belonged to the woman who sang at her own wedding and joined a commune and ate baklava.
I was helping my mother situate planters in the yard, bulbs lightly covered in soil. We were trying to repopulate with healthy spores and these were supposed to be quite good. The woman who lived next door—the one with the blank forehead—stepped out of her house. She called out to us as she walked over. “I got mine back,” she said. She stood right on the edge of her yard.
“Your past?” my mother said.
“You haven’t, have you?” the neighbor said. Her voice was tentative.
“What kind of memories did you get?” I asked. I’d been kneeling just behind my mother, and the neighbor must not have noticed me before. She seemed startled to find me there, like she was going to say something important—something adults only say to other adults. She blushed brightly. “I didn’t mean to…” She scratched her broad forehead. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry about everything you’ve been through. Both of you.”
“What?” my mother said. “I don’t understand.”
The woman smiled at me—a sad crimped smile—and walked quickly back to her house.
My mother and I stood in the yard like two people who’d been pranked but didn’t get the joke. “Why would she say that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” my mother said. “I don’t know anything about her.”
My father looked ragged. He barely spoke, barely ate. My mother found a stash of pain medication—hoarded from what injury, surgery? No one remembered. She doled the pills out to him. He spent long periods of time in his compression suit. It blew up and tightened, cuffing his arms and legs, his torso and head. I would hear them talking in the bedroom, softly because they didn’t want me to hear. “Every time I close my eyes, it’s there,” I heard him tell my mother. “Every time.”
“You should try to turn him in. To the cops.”
“I don’t even have her face, not clearly. I don’t have a time or a date. I wish I could put up a notice, like everyone else. I wish I could pretend to know other memories of his and lure him in. But this is the only one. I guess it blocks out all the others.”
It was quiet, only the ticking of the compression suit modulating its hold.
“Are yours going away?” my father asked. “As you give them back to her?”
“Yes. But it’s strange.” My mother was a thoughtful woman. She took her time trying to explain things. “It’s … empty. I’m hollow. I miss them. I still know the memories, but I don’t feel them. And I haven’t found mine. I haven’t found … us.”
“I can’t wait until this is gone—killing that girl.”
“Don’t say it like that. It wasn’t you.”
“But in the moment of the memory, I’m in the pool. My whole body is there with her. I hold her under. If it’s your memory, it’s you.”
“No,” my mother said. “You know I only had one child. Rossy isn’t mine.”
“Is he dead?”
My mother was silent. I was listening on the other side of the door so I couldn’t see her. Did she shake her head or nod or shrug?
As my mother became hollow, she grew hungry, desperate for her own memories. She would take me to the warehouse, her eyes darting across the headings, searching for a moments that fit her—or my father. She would pull me along, her hand gripping mine tightly, and then freeze, reading furiously, and then pull me along again.
Once I came across a notice at my eye-level—LITTLE GIRL—and one of its memories struck me: Rose-scented chapstick, you put it on your lips and then ate the whole tube of it [chubby hands, fiddling with a chapstick tube found in a junk drawer].
“Did I eat chapstick?” I asked my mother.
She grabbed my shoulders and yanked me away from the notice. She held my face, sharply. “You don’t need to read these,” my mother said. “You hear me?”
I was suddenly overwhelmed by the energy of the warehouse, the neediness, the urgency, like a form of starvation. The people there were frenetic but also dying—like the instinct to physically fight before losing consciousness. Their need had a violent edge to it. Their breaths were shallow or heaving. They shoved each other along the rows.
At the end of each visit, my mother was exhausted. She went home and, no matter the time of day, she slept for hours—dark curtains drawn tight.
My father scanned his memory of the murder for details. He tried to widen the gaze of it. Eventually, he said, “It was summer and I feel like I know the year. I can sense it within the memory. I’m getting closer.”
As connectivity returned, he logged into police records, newspaper reporting. He scanned archives for murders, disappearances. He couldn’t really see the face of the woman in the pool; it was dark. She was underwater, blurred. But, still, he looked at photographs of missing persons from that era, hoping to find someone who fit the loose idea of her.
He found nothing.
Lymna kept visiting regularly. She seemed to be growing manic. When the memories came back, especially after the base of memories had been set, new memories were a rush, like getting high. She’d sit bolt upright or move around the lawn—staggering and laughing, overcome with both grief and joy. Sometimes she would press her wrists to the sides of her head as if trying to keep it from falling apart.
One rainy afternoon, my mother sat with Lymna at the dining room table. She folded over, bowing beneath some heavy weight. “My head is too full,” she muttered. “Stop.” My mother had been explaining the time when Lymna fell in love.
“Do you want water?” my mother asked. “Get her water!” she shouted at me.
I filled a glass from the tap and set it beside Lymna’s elbow.
“I haven’t gotten rid of my other memories. The ones that belong to this refugee,” she whispered. “He has seen difficult things. He has had such … so much… There are two subconsciouses—his and mine. The well is too deep. Too murky and cold. There are too many monsters.”
“Have you tried to find him?”
“Yes, but why would he come to claim this past? Who would want it?”
“Lymna,” my mother whispered.
“Yes?” She lifted her head and stared at my mother who reached across the table and took her hand. They were close in way that hadn’t ever existed before. This way of being known—the depth of it—was unfathomable.
“I have memories of Rossy. And then the memories stop.”
Lymna’s back stiffened. She whipped her hand away from my mother’s. She was being filled with memory upon memory. Her eyes held a steady fearful gaze. Her expression flashed between joy and sorrow, longing and laughter. She stood up and backed away so that she was against the wall. “My God.”
“What happened?” my mother said. “What happened to him?”
Lymna started to cry. She slid along the wall but then gathered herself. She rushed to the front door where she’d left her pocketbook and a light spring coat. “He’s gone,” she was saying, collecting her things. “He’s gone. My Rossy… He’s gone.”
Months passed. Summer settled in, dusky and humid, a gummy heat that made me feel stupid and trapped. The government started a campaign: Your New Life Awaits! It was their way of acknowledging that our old lives might be gone forever.
My father talked about being eaten alive by another man’s guilt. “If it’s in your memory,” he said, “it burrows into your body. There’s no getting rid of it.”
My mother kept searching for her memories—or his. Either really. She thought memories might save them.
Because I didn’t remember my old self, I decided to steal an old self. When my mother dragged me along the notices taped to the abandoned storefronts, I memorized as many as I could. And then I tried to live them.
If I couldn’t get my past back, I thought that maybe I could jam in as many presents as possible to fill myself back up.
I found a pond and tromped around in it, pretending I was an enemy soldier.
I roamed the neighborhood looking for stray cats.
I searched the sky for very specific animal shapes.
I made friends with a boy down the street and tried to talk him into kissing me. He didn’t want to.
Every day I tried to do things on the notices. I tried to live as many lives as I could. I grew tired, my small muscles ached and burned.
Then, one day at the storefront of notices, my mother reached out and ripped a notice from the glass. She pressed the paper to her stomach—like she could eat it that way, by pulling it in directly. Still gripping my hand, she marched away.
Once home, she spread the notice out on the roll-top desk. Her hands flat, pressing it down on either side of the sheet. Elbows straight, her shoulder blades popped up at her back as she sunk in.
“What’s it say?” I asked.
She wouldn’t tell me. “Don’t mention this to your father. It might be nothing. Promise?”
That night, she left the house. I kept watch at my window, but sometime after midnight, I fell asleep.
In the early morning hours, I woke up to find my mother sitting on the edge of my bed. She was fully dressed. I was startled to see her eyes searching mine in the near darkness. I knew this was what she looked like when she felt wrecked. I knew this from way back, when I was a very little kid. It was something I’d always known but was now just recalling. The skin beneath her eyes was lavender, her eyelids puffed. I’d seen it before when she’d stayed up late and cried herself to sleep.
And I knew, before she spoke to me, that her voice would be hoarse from screaming.
I remembered what was lost—my mother and father had hated each other, cheated on each other, made each other pay, over and over again. I knew not knowing how I knew—an itch in the back of my head.
“I packed your bag,” she whispered. “We have to go.”
“Go? Go where?”
“I was the woman,” my mother whispered. “The drowned woman … but I lived.”
The old woman who had given my mother’s memories back to her was sitting in her car, engine-clipped, just down the street. My mother and I carried our bags, shoved them in the backseat, not bothering with the trunk. I sat beside them, buckled in. My mother introduced me to the woman. Her name was Mila. She had brown skin and fine white hair, pinned tightly into a bun. She was weary but also relieved. Had she struggled to find my mother? Had she been having the same memory as my father—but as my mother, being strangled in a swimming pool at night? “I have so much about you, so many moments,” she said, smiling, “in my head.”
I had questions but none of us spoke. The car was big and felt almost buoyant at times, as if it could lift off the road. I watched the trees, ticking past them along the highway. I finally got tired and dozed.
When I woke up, the sky had lightened. My mother and Mila had changed places. The car smelled of fresh coffee. Mila offered me a doughnut. “Your favorite,” she said, handing me white-powered and jelly-filled one.
I didn’t remember it was my favorite until I bit down—the light puff of powder, its dustiness on my lips, the sweetness of the jelly on my tongue.
Mila eventually got us to a train and the train took us to a station where we transferred to a bus. At the depot, my mother’s sister was waiting for us. She was tan and skittish with bleached hair, someone I’d only met as a baby.
We lived with her for a year and a half in a small fourth-floor apartment. I remember mostly the lavender candles and oniony potato pancakes for dinner.
We never saw Mila again.
I remember everything in my life with acute clarity. I don’t just live. I’m memorizing a life, second by second. I take notes. Many of us do; we’re a generation of note-takers, hoarders of memory, obsessives taking account. We track details. We learned the hard way that a small detail—a pigeon repeating on wallpaper—can unlock a stretch of existence. I can still, to this day, describe every inch of my aunt’s apartment, the street, the roads leading away from it—the people in each house, their winter hats, their limps, their gestures, their braced postures and clamped hands and hardened faces.
I missed my father, yes, and for years, I didn’t believe my mother, consciously. I would hush her if she talked about being the drowned woman. But I never really fought to go back to him. I knew, in truth. I knew. Things made sense in retrospect. I’d assumed the neighbor’s bruise on the fleshy back of her knee was a sign of abuse because I knew these things. In all likelihood, it was just a collection of varicose veins. And how she felt so sorry for us after she’d gotten her own memories back, that fit, too. The image of my parents as teenagers was sealed up and locked in box maybe because it was dangerous—it was proof that they’d been happy. When things turned, one of them hid it away.
The most damning thing of all—my father never came looking for us. He let us go. Maybe he knew, deep down, and he didn’t want to return to the person he was.
Since then, there’s been a good bit of research on memories that worked like my father’s. Things lodged so deep that, when the other memories fell away or flitted off, these memories endured—rooted but foreign to them.
I became a devout archivist, a memory historian, a keeper. I almost never think of the future. And so it surprises me when I find myself in my own, one I could never have imagined for myself.
The motel in this region is quiet and relatively clean. Our team’s makeshift office was once a dog groomer. I can still smell the dogs—their musky fear and chemically flea dip. On the first few days, there’s usually a line for walk-ins.
But I tend to be the one to visit the infirmed and housebound. I drive the rental car alone with devices—a case that holds a hologram design kit, recording and storage. I keep mace in my pocketbook, just in case. I always volunteer for the posts in rural places, the ones with small defunct towns, and lonesome roads.
Today, I stand on a porch, knock and wait for someone to come to the door, someone with a past that’s not theirs, that they want to donate back to the pool of databases. Or someone who is wrecked by a memory or two. I can tell the difference sometimes from the first moment. The illness, it eats away at a body—a winnowing. The desperation. They know, on some level. They know that it’s their own past—something horrible done to someone as my father did or something horrible done to them, ones they can’t acknowledge as their own.
It’s my job to recreate what they see in their heads. I sit in their homes with them while they tell me what they remember and I carve them with texture and color and light and pixels, people moving through settings that feel somewhat real. The holograms sometimes dance or run or scream.
It’s not my job to tell the people what I think—you were the child who hid in the woods, hiding candy bars in knotholes; you were the one who shot that dog in the head out of vengeance. I hold the memories, I collect and carry them.
This is what I’ve learned—the memories belong to all of us, always, no matter how far-flung. They’re ours, a collection of who we are and who we don’t want to be. Our bodies are flimsy but our memories press in around us all the time, sturdy solid pressure as in a lake. Life is a drowning or a learning to swim.
What I feel standing on the porch, holding my case, waiting for someone to come to the door, is that I am the little girl whose mother dragged her along the glowing warehouse shelves and who loves white-powdered, jelly-filled donuts, whose father almost killed her mother. I am also the one who ate rose-scented chapstick and had a dog named Otto. And I had a son named Rossy, and I am Rossy and I got married in a field. And I also tried to drown my young wife and I am the child of that man, writing notes to Dear Stranger, Dear Stranger, Dear Stranger—and I am also the stranger.