Maybe the accident, or the malfunction, or whatever you want to call it was my fault. Maybe I pushed the wrong button. Maybe I had forgotten to turn my cell phone off or something. For all I knew, maybe the machine magically developed a mind of its own. I didn't remember. I just knew I was in a whitewashed room with fluorescent lights shining down on me. In front of me was a total stranger sitting in a black chair, staring at me, some kind of metal disc hanging over his head. And I bolted.
Someone chased me down and grabbed my shoulder as I wandered onto the polished white floor of the lobby. People in ergonomically designed chairs looked up from their phones and tablets at the commotion. He said, more for their ears than for mine, that I needed to go back to sign some paperwork. Couldn’t have them catching on that something had happened,
“Eva,” he said, guiding me into a back office, “do you know where you are?”
“Not a damn clue,” I said, “looks like some kind of doctor’s office. A nice one. You put me under anesthesia? Pretty sure I got my wisdom teeth out back in high school, so that can’t be why I’m here,”
“No, you were not getting your wisdom teeth out. In fact, you weren't really the patient here at all."
"Wait, do I work here? Am I a doctor? Think I'd remember going to medical school."
"You're not a doctor. You're an operator. Now tell me, do you recognize me?" He asked,
"Am I supposed to?" His eyes widened. Rather than answer my question, he posed another one of his,
"Where were you planning on going?” What the hell gave him the right to ask questions? I was the one who had woken up in a place I didn’t recognize,
“Home,” I said,
“You say you’re going home. Do you know where that is?” He asked,
“Umm…Somerville?” He sighed, picking up a tablet from a nearby table,
“That,” he said, “is where you lived three years ago. Your current address is in Back Bay,”
“You’re fucking with me,” I said, “I’ve never lived in that neighborhood and I could probably never afford to,” I said. He folded his arms,
“Don’t believe me? Take out your driver’s license.” I unzipped my purse and opened my wallet,
“I live on Newbury Street? Holy shit!” I exclaimed, “This 'operator' job must pay well.” He muttered some obscenities and ran a hand through his blond hair,
“Yes, they do pay us well,” he said, sitting down in a chair across from me, “My name is Mark. I've been your supervisor for the last three years, ever since you started working here.” I leaned back into the soft black leather,
“Three years?” I asked, "Doing what?"
“Selective memory wiping services,” he said. Selective. Selective implying choice. Implying control,
"Did I sign up for this? Do I get an employee discount?" He turned his attention back to his tablet and began typing onto it,
“In a sense. You may not remember now,” he began, “but when you accepted this job offer, you signed a waiver absolving us of liability for any accidents. This is generally a safe procedure, for both customers and operators alike. But there are no guarantees, and you acknowledged and accepted the possibility that equipment malfunctions do happen,” he turned the screen in my direction to show me. This was evidently the important part. Whatever had happened to me, the company wasn’t liable,
“So what do I do now?” I asked,
“We’re going to perform an assessment,” he said, “see how much of your memory has been damaged. And you’ll be under supervision for the next couple of weeks.”
“Supervision?” I asked, “Are you going to keep me here?”
“No, no,” he said, “you’ll be able to go back home. You’ll just need to come to one of our other offices every week or so. Just like a regular doctor’s appointment.” Yeah, just like a regular doctor’s appointment.
He led me into what looked like an exam room to take their stupid fucking test. All the way in the back of the building, hidden out of sight. Mark apparently knew where to take me and exactly what to do once he was clear on what had happened. Maybe this wasn't the first time.
After the test, a form appeared on the screen of the tablet. A resignation letter, filled out and ready to go. Confidentiality, non-disparagement, and some "monetary compensation that did not constitute and admission of liability". I just had to sign my name. And I did. I wanted to get out of that place and if they were going to give me some money for it, all the better. When it was done I was handed a box with what I was told were my personal belongings. The whole thing was rather unceremonious after what was supposedly a three-year employment relationship. But it's hard to feel sentimental when you don't remember anything.
My boyfriend was still my emergency contact, so they called him to come get me. The conversation went on a bit longer than what you'd expect from just asking to pick somebody up. While I waited, I took another look at my license. Newbury Street. I’d gone shopping in that area a few times, but never guessed I would live there one day. But something else caught my attention.
I’d been so fixated on my new address, I didn’t realize my last name was different. Sometime during the three years I’d lost, my boyfriend had become my husband.
He showed up at the office with my wedding ring (no jewelry allowed while operating the machinery, but again, didn’t remember). I insisted I could still navigate the T, but he got us a cab instead. That was probably a good decision, because I broke down crying in the backseat. It was obvious then, the magnitude of what had been taken from me. The cab driver, bless him, just kept driving.
At some point during the ride, the urge struck me to throw my ring out the window. It was like I hadn’t earned it, as if the events that led to that ring being placed on my finger hadn’t been real. But it was a short ride and I didn’t get the chance before the cab pulled up in front of a row of brick buildings. The place where we lived. The place I didn’t remember moving to.
Our living room had hardwood floors and sunlight coming in from floor-to-ceiling windows. The couches were wine-colored with curved backs and armrests. Every lamp, both those on the tables and those that hung from a ceiling, was a white orb. The kitchen appliances were stainless steel, the countertops made of granite. It looked more like a display from a catalogue or a furniture store than a home, something meant to be looked at but not touched. It occurred to me that I may have had a hand in picking out the furniture. But lovely as it was, it couldn’t be home,
“How long have we,”
“About a year and a half,” he interrupted. He kissed my forehead and led me by the hand to one of those uncomfortable-looking couches,
“Got married?” He said, “Yes, we did. This is the third time you’ve asked,”
“Always thought if I woke up married and didn’t remember, it would be in Vegas,” I joked. He laughed bitterly,
“Would you like to see some pictures?” He took out his phone. I nodded tentatively. He handed me the phone, allowing me to go through the album at my own pace. There was me in front of a mirror while a woman curled my hair with an iron. Me in a strapless white dress standing on a cobblestone path, looking away from the camera, at something beyond the lens’ view. My sister in a turquoise dress, flanked by bridesmaids in different shades of the same color. I recognized some, cousins, high school friends, college friends. But others were unfamiliar to me. Had they been friends from work? Had I met them somewhere else during those three years? I could check my social media accounts. Did I have the same passwords? Could I reset them? Did I still have the same email address I’d had three years before? Or were those lost forever, too? I kept scrolling. All the people in these photos, friends, relatives, I would have to explain to them what had happened,
“My sister,” I blurted,
“I need to talk to her,” he sighed,
“That might not be the best idea right now,” he said,
“Why not?” I demanded, “Is she okay? Did something happen to her that I don’t remember?”
“She’s fine,” he said, “but the company doesn’t want people to know that something went awry with their procedure.”
“Screw what they want!” I yelled, “I didn’t want to lose my memory of getting married and who knows what else!” He grabbed my arm,
“Eva, you signed a contract,” he warned. So they must have filled him in on that when they called,
“Well I don’t fucking care!”
“This must be a new development,” I said, “because I don’t remember you being so fucking spineless. What the hell happened to you over the last three years?”
“Hey,” he whispered, pulling me into a hug, “you’ll be able to talk to your sister soon, okay. We just need to catch you up a bit on what’s been happening. Three years is a lot of time to lose.”
“You’re telling me,” I muttered, “you want me to catch up? Let’s get started.”
The office where my follow-up appointments were was next to a computer repair shop in Allston. The carpet was a faded red and the chairs were had those grayish-blue cushions with wooden arms like the kind you see in school libraries. Nowhere near as sleek and modern as the place where the damage had been done. There was no one else in the waiting room save me, my husband, and the receptionist. I didn't recognize the place and according to their records, I had never worked at that particular location.
The operator was a tad annoyed to find out I’d been “catching up” over the previous week. Evidently she’d expected me to go about my life like a total amnesiac to make it easier for them to figure out what went wrong. Somehow, I knew they would muddle through.
I had to fight back a shudder when the disc was lowered over my head. For a minute the panic and the confusion of having no idea where I was, of that stranger staring at me, all came back. I'd lost three years, but that moment I could recall vividly. I tried to steady my breathing. And then I asked the question,
“Do you think you can fix this?” The operator, this one a short, round-faced woman with thick glasses and with red hair that clearly came from a bottle, looked up at me as though she’d never heard anything so absurd in her life,
“That’s not our interest right now,” she said,
“It’s my interest,” I said, “if you’re not going to fix it, then why am I here?”
“So that we can figure out what went wrong,” she explained, turning around to type something on a nearby computer, “we’re continuously refining the procedure, and while we may not be able to reverse your particular,”
“Stop right the fuck there,” I got up, careful to dodge the shining white contraption above my head, “I don’t have a reason to stay here another damn second if you’re not going to try and fix me,”
“Eva, calm down,” my husband said,
“Why are you siding with her?” I demanded, “Doesn’t it bother you that I don’t remember our wedding day? That a whole chunk of not just my life, but our life together, is gone, and I’m not the same person I was last month?”
“It does bother me,” he said, “but taking it out on her won’t solve anything. She’s just doing her job.” He motioned to the operator and I turned around to look at her. She had slowly backed away from me and was pressed up against the wall. Just doing her job. From what I was told, I had just been doing my job for three years and that hadn't protected me.
Could I punch her? I had never punched anyone (as far as I could remember. I could have joined an underground street fighting ring in those missing three years for all I knew). Maybe if I hit her head hard enough she’d lose some memories, too. Fuck, maybe I wouldn't have to. Maybe that machine would screw her up one day just as badly as it had screwed me up,
“Do I need to escort you off the premises?” She asked. Like that was a threat. Like I’d actually wanted to be there,
“I’ll escort my own damn self you miserable shitbag,” I responded, grabbing my husband by the arm, “let’s go.”
I never went back for another appointment after that. I spent a lot of time in a home that was a home only in name. My husband told me I didn’t need a new job just yet, that we could manage on just his income. Evidently he’d been moving up in the world, too. But I got sick of being home.
We had stopped the “catching up” for the time being. I’d looked at every photo on his phone and mine, combed through social media accounts, asked him for stories. It wasn’t enough. More often than not it ended with me throwing things as the magnitude of what I’d lost hit me yet again. Even when we weren’t talking about the stuff I’d missed, I still wanted to throw things. Three years vanished. An apartment I didn’t remember signing the lease for, a wedding ring I didn’t remember putting on, and so many other things that I might never learn about because I couldn’t tell people what happened.
Eventually I took to just wandering the city. On one of my long walks I passed MGH and wondered what would happen if I went to the emergency room and told them what had happened. I walked the on the bridge over the Charles River into Cambridge. Some grad student at Harvard or MIT would probably have a fucking field day with my head. Maybe I could just walk through the door of some lab, someone’s dissertation wrapped up in a bow (or really, a winter coat). Would that be allowed? My erstwhile employer seemed to have more or less forgotten me once I stopped going to their office in Allston. Blowing the lid off their secret might have jeopardized that. Somewhere in Kendall Square I stopped and laughed. Better off forgotten. Hilarious. Truly hilarious.
Cambridge Street had none of the sleek, modern concrete and glass structures that characterized the area around MIT. Instead, there were small houses converted into apartments, restaurants and dry cleaners and salons in buildings of brick or painted wood. It was eclectic and quirky, colorful, and uneven. I had loved it. I still loved it. I passed one of my favorite coffee shops. Paper covered the windows, a sign hung on the door thanking the customers “for eleven fantastic years”. Businesses opened and closed all the time. Free markets and competition and creative destruction and all that. But I teared up a bit. It occurred to me that I maybe lamented the news when I first heard it, but didn’t remember. How many losses, both large and small, would I have to experience a second time?
I walked down an alley toward McGrath Highway, heading into Somerville. Passing my old bus stop, memories came back with painful clarity. They weren’t lost memories returned, but from before. All those mornings waiting, some warm with an iced tea in hand, others frigid with my fingers going numb even in gloves. Finding a seat some days but not others, looking through the bus window at the luxury condos under construction and longing for something more. Well there I fucking was, living in damn Back Bay and still moping around in Somerville.
It was almost six o’clock. I had been out for four hours. My husband would probably be home from work. But I didn’t want to go home. Or rather, I already was home. I had wandered out to my old neighborhood.
Since I’d stopped working, I hadn’t been too great at keeping track of what day of the week it was. Not that it really mattered, the streets were still busy. People ran after-work errands at convenience stores and pharmacies or caught up with friends at cafés. Some stopped to pick up pizzas because they’d promised the kids or were too tired to cook, others searched through local shops to get a head start on holiday shopping. My old local grocery store was still there. I ducked inside to get out of the cold (and for no other reason, I told myself). Somewhere in the soft drink aisle, which I could have sworn was the condiment aisle at one point, someone shouted,
“Eva!” I hesitated before turning around. What if it was someone else I’d forgotten? I didn’t recognize the voice at first. But when I did finally look, the face was familiar. Short brown hair, gray eyes, and even those same purple highlights,
“Lauren, how’ve you been?” I asked. Better to steer the conversation to her than to make it about me,
“Great, great,” she said, “it’s been forever! How’s Dev?”
“Dev is fine,” I said. Probably a bit worried about me at that moment, but he could deal,
“And your fancy new place? Well, guess it’s not so new anymore,”
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” I interrupted, surveying the contents of her shopping cart, “what’s for dinner tonight?”
“Oh, just some pasta. I’m exhausted.” She said it had “been forever”, so it wouldn’t seem to out of the ordinary to start asking more questions,
“You still at the building on Cedar?”
“Yep! They raised the rent again, of course.” She paused briefly to move her cart out of the way of a rather irate fellow shopper, “We can’t all get as lucky as you.” As lucky as me,
“It really has been too long,” I choked out, “maybe I could pick up a bottle of wine and we could head back to your place?”
“Sure,” she said, “if you’ve got nothing doing.” I really had nothing doing,
“Thanks,” I muttered.
The building on Cedar Street still had the same yellow paint and red shutters. Some of the names on the metal mailboxes by the door had changed, and the front doorknob had been replaced, but it was so much like what I remembered I had to resist the urge to cry. Inside, the walls were the same speckled white plaster and the carpet the same drab gray. It was beautiful, so much more beautiful than that stupid place on Newbury.
Lauren lived on the first floor. But when she went to her apartment, I turned towards the narrow wooden staircase,
“Oh yeah,” she said, “some girls moved in after you and Dev left. PhD students I think? One of them tried to explain to me what she was studying and it just went right over my head,” I was walking up the stairs before Lauren could finish her sentence, the sound of the stairs creaking beneath my boots drowned out her voice. My palms left a trail of sweat on the polished wooden banister.
When I got to unit 2C, all my nerves had been replaced with this sense of urgency. It didn’t matter who these people were or what they thought of me. I just had to get in. So I knocked, probably louder than was necessary. A girl with a black pixie cut in sweatpants and a gray sweatshirt answered the door,
“Can I help you?” She asked,
“You can,” I said, “I want to go in.”
“I want to go in. This was my home.” Behind her, I could see the windowsill where Dev and I kept our houseplants, now occupied by paperback books and odd trinkets,
“Ummm…well, it clearly isn’t anymore.” I heard footsteps on the stairs behind me,
“Eva what’s going on?” Lauren asked,
“You know her?” The girl in the door asked,
“Yeah,” Lauren explained, “she lived here before you,” I turned to face Lauren,
“I want to go in,”
“Eva you can’t just show up at people’s doors and ask to go into their apartments,” so taking three years of someone’s life away was fine, but this apparently went too far,
“Why not?” I wailed, “Why can’t I have this? With everything that’s gone wrong why can’t I have this one damn thing?” The girl with the pixie cut closed the door,
“Is everything okay?” Lauren asked, “We should call Dev. Maybe we can do dinner another time.”
“No!” I pleaded, “I want to stay. I want to go back.”
“What do you mean?” Lauren asked, “Back home? Then we can have Dev come get you,” I pulled her into a hug and pressed my face against her red winter coat. The fabric was still cold,
“I just want to go back.”
“Eva, I don’t understand what you mean.” Of course she didn’t. She didn’t and she never would and she never could. And even if she did understand, she couldn’t help me. I wanted to take that bus into the city like I did on my old commute. I wanted to open the door to apartment 2C and find all my stuff and Dev’s exactly as we left it. I wanted to remember. I wanted the world to make sense again. I wanted to go back, but I never could.