Her arms were laden with books, a large purse wedged between her hip and elbow. The sun drummed on the concrete pavement, her footsteps pounding, her heart thumping, the bright light pulsing like a heartbeat. Nothing bore a hint of recognition.
She circled the parking lot, looking for that yellow car, what was it, a Plymouth Valiant, the one Poochie's mother gave them when they got married, the one with the plastic flower on the antenna. Then all at once her eyes moved upward. She glanced at the building and blinked. In seconds, the words South Miami Library jiggered her memory. Oy. They had traded in that Valiant ages ago. In the 1970's. When they lived on Long Island, no less.
Then she remembered the keys. She laid the books on the ground and fished inside her purse. Walking up and down the rows of cars, she clicked, clicked, clicked. Finally, headlights flashed, a horn honked. It was a Camry, gold with beige interior. Yes, that was her car. She opened the door and turned on the ignition. For the next half hour, she stared blankly at the windshield, her arms locked on the steering wheel, her back rigid. She swallowed her panic, her chest thrashing so wildly she watched the front of her blouse billow in, billow out. Somewhere there must be clues, hints, a trail of dropped crumbs for her to follow.
She opened the purse once more. The person on the driver's license matched the person looking into the rearview mirror. Her name was Harriet Sussman. Her address was 4051 Cartegena Street, Coral Gables. And there on a sheet of paper, in handwriting that seemed vaguely familiar, were further instructions. Press your thumb on the button of your phone. Press the square that says Google Maps. Listen to the voice, Harriet. Read the instructions. Follow the voice.
Ten minutes later she pulled into her driveway. The fog inside her mind was lifting. She ran her finger over the photos on her mantelpiece and let the memories seep in. Beth's first birthday—how she slaved over the cake, agonized over the decorations and the picture perfect dress. Their trip to Jamaica—Beth building sandcastles, Poochie so trim and tanned. Beth's high school and college graduations—a pair of heels peeking from underneath a gown, a tassel swaying with each step. It was a life demarcated by four-by-six rectangles. A life defined by frozen faces and camera-ready smiles.
At first, the episodes were minor glitches. People on the street who seemed to know her looked like strangers. Words sometimes slipped beyond her reach.
Then they happened more frequently. She found herself improvising scripts. Instead of groping for names, she blurted compliments. "My, my, that dress is flattering. Wherever did you buy it?" She filled in awkward pauses with rehearsed lines. "The weather's been rather strange this year. Don't you think the weather's been strange?"
The more her disease consumed her life, the more she became an actor in it. Once she had majored in English. Even dreamt about becoming a teacher or a college professor. Then Beth came along. Funny how becoming a parent recalibrates everything, how it shifts and shimmies your hopes and ambitions.
Ah! There's the rub!
When the problem could no longer be ignored, she made an appointment with a neurologist, took tests. The results didn't surprise her. Harriet's mother had lived in a nursing home for the last twenty years of her life. But Harriet was only sixty years old. She had hoped for more time.
Poochie, as usual, suspected nothing. Despite the two-hour naps Harriet took each afternoon, the long silences while they sat on the couch watching TV, he just went about his business. His nose in the newspaper. His thumb on the remote control. Like a babe in the womb. Nothing.
"Would you mind making me a cup of tea, Har?"
"Don't forget to iron my new shirt. The blue one, not the yellow."
After years of saving and scrimping, Poochie had finally retired. While each day on Harriet's calendar was filled with purpose—shopping, cooking, volunteering—her husband skulked from room to room. She blinked the lights every morning at nine o'clock to get him out of bed, swept him out of the house with the broom.
"You're not the first man to retire," she'd remind him. "Plan a trip! Go fishing! Take up golf!"
He was as helpless as a child. For the length of their marriage, Harriet had sewed his buttons and warmed up his food. Stuck in another century, computers were beyond his grasp. He'd gaze at the digital readings on their microwave and their top-of-the-line washing machine with its neon numbers with both awe and disdain.
"Do they try to make things complicated? Is there a committee that gets together and purposefully tries to complicate our lives?"
If only her husband knew how complicated his life would soon become.
Harriet had no illusions about what the future would bring. A series of new snapshots played in her head. An empty refrigerator. A pile of dirty dishes in a sink. A load of laundry incubating mildew. Like most caretakers, she wasn't concerned about herself. But who in the world would tend to Poochie once she was gone?
She walked into her bedroom. On the top of her closet were boxes and boxes of mementos. A lifetime of report cards, drawings with stick figures, birthday cards signed with a child's shaky hand. One by one she dumped the contents on her bed and fingered the brittle edges. She pulled and tugged the drawers inside her brain, culling random bits of information. A naked infant lying on the doctor's scale. A toddler taking her first step. Surrounded by her papers, blanketed by memories, Harriet was finally able to fall asleep.
She had no idea how much time passed. She opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling, waiting for her brain to focus. As usual, her thoughts looped back to Beth. Thirty-three years old and another endless source of worry. While Harriet savored each and every day, her daughter was throwing her life down the disposal and turning on the grinder. Beth. Someone who always saw the glass not only emptied but shattered. Who looked for happiness in all the wrong places. Changing jobs, changing apartments, changing cities. Always hoping a new configuration would shake things up and change her luck. Beth.
Posted next to the phone was the list of emergency numbers. Beth's was the area code in Boca Raton. When she heard her daughter's pre-recorded voice, she sighed. Harriet spoke quickly.
"Beth. Can you free yourself for dinner Sunday night? I'll make vegetarian. Gluten-free. Milk-free. Whatever you like." Who could keep track? Each visit a different diet. Each visit different foods. "It's important, Beth. I need to speak to you. Call me." Click.
Three days later, the three of them sat down to dinner. Platters filled with steamed tofu and grilled vegetables covered the table. Beth sported a new hairstyle. It looked like someone had taken a machete to her head, then dipped it in a vat of bleach. Each visit a different color, a different cut.
In her most chipper voice, Harriet began the conversation. "This certainly looks healthy. They say that one should eat every color of the rainbow. Red. Green. Purple. I've think we've got them all right here."
Beth looked up at the ceiling. When she spoke, she used the tone reserved for deaf people or idiots or elderly parents who test your patience and your time.
"I told you I was on the Paleo Diet, Mom. Remember? I told you last week." She speared a slab of eggplant. "No grains, no beans, no tofu. Remember?"
"Did cave men eat ice cream?" asked Poochie. "I don't think I could survive without ice cream."
Harriet sighed. "If my head wasn't screwed on, I'd lose it." Then she took a deep breath and proceeded to unload a rehearsed speech. "In fact, I went to the neurologist and had some tests."
Poochie lay down his fork. "Harriet? You went to the neurologist? You never told me. I spent three days test-driving one Winnebago after another while you're at the neurologist?"
"Winnebago?" said Beth.
"No one should panic." Harriet straightened the creases in the paper napkin on her lap. "Nothing's an emergency. This... this disease often takes years to progress."
"Years?" said Poochie.
"And we have that special insurance," said Harriet.
"You bought insurance?" said Beth.
"We pay the premiums every month. Money in. Money out."
Her husband, she knew, was angry. Angry and scared. His ears were red, his knuckles white.
"It won't be like your mother, Harriet," said Poochie. "They have medications now."
He tucked in his chin and patted his stomach, swallowing hard. Harriet pictured a volcano of digestive juices working their way up.
"There's a new therapy out there every week, Harriet. Exercises. Pills."
She looked to her right and her left. Her husband and her daughter. Like a wishbone, she was split in two. "My only consolation," reaching over, she patted Beth's hand, "is that you don't have to worry."
One generation after another, the defective gene had wrought havoc. Harriet's grandmother. Her mother. But Beth had been mercifully spared. She was three days old when the adoption agency placed her in their hands. So much of them was imprinted in her personality. Poochie's sweet tooth. Harriet's love of books.
But so much was unaccounted for. Harriet stared at the grooves rutting her daughter's forehead, the tracks radiating from her pursed lips. She searched for a sign, for the slightest clue. Nowhere in her child's DNA was her husband's hangdog loyalty. Harriet was a problem solver by nature. Beth, on the other hand, seemed drawn to difficulty, seduced by the siren call of heartache. Trouble never chased her. Instead, she ran after it, arms out, flailing.
"I also went to the doctor this week," said Beth.
The blood drained from both of her parents' faces.
"Maybe this isn't good timing," said Beth. "Maybe I should wait for a better time."
Harriet's hands grabbed the table. "What is it, sweetheart?"
"It's just that... whenever they ask about my family history, I have to leave the answers blank. Maybe I won't inherit Alzheimer's, but what about cancer? What about heart disease? The list is endless."
Sharper than a serpent's tongue, thought Harriet. Only her daughter could take a conversation about senility and turn it upside down and sideways.
"I want to find out who my birth parents are," said Beth. "There are lawyers, agencies. In fact I've started the process."
Poochie pushed back his chair and rose from the table. The redness, Harriet noticed, had migrated. His face and neck were the colors of the peppers sitting on her plate. "Why do you want to open up that can of worms? God Almighty. Jesus fucking Christ."
Harriet felt her synapses implode. Something very important was shutting down inside her. Little bolts of lightning raced across her eyeballs. The room was suddenly dark. "The process? What... process?"
"There are lawyers, investigators. They find names, addresses, phone numbers."
Harriet looked at the tall man risen from his seat. He was a shadow now. A silhouette. Whatever was his name. When he spoke, the words reverberated like thunder. Boom. Boom. Boom.
"And what if they don't want to be found, Missy? Did you ever think of that? What if your so-called birth parents don't want to be found?"
"There's a piece missing," said Beth.
Harriet stared at her daughter. All at once, her voice had morphed into a little girl's. A five-year-old with pigtails and a skinned knee was fidgeting in her seat, sticking her index finger up her nose.
"Somewhere out there a person has my eyes, my hair, my speech. Just because you like me," said Beth, "doesn't mean you're like me."
"I can tell you one thing," said Poochie. "Your mother devoted her whole life to you. I slaved for forty years to put bread on this table. If you think you can do better, be my guest." He walked up to Harriet, planted a kiss on her forehead then left the room.
Three months later, Beth's efforts paid off. Her birth father, she had learned, was no longer living. But her birth mother was alive and well, living the good life in Chappaqua. After several lengthy phone conversations, Beth was flying up to meet her. She asked Harriet to help her pack.
Once more Harriet sat in her Camry and willed it to move. She had followed the instructions on the sheet of paper in her purse and googled directions on her phone. But she completely forgot how to turn on the car. It was keyless. There was a button to push, but why wasn't the button working? She grabbed the fob out of her purse and starting pressing her thumb on it as if the fob had all the answers. Why wasn't it all working? She pushed and pressed, pushed and pressed, her hands shaking, her chin bobbing. Tears covered her cheeks. Then finally she remembered the pedal. You have to push the pedal for the button to work.
Going forty miles an hour on the expressway, her hands gripping the steering wheel, her head peering over the dashboard, Harriet made it to Boca Raton. She walked to the elevator slowly, absorbing the landmarks along the way. Turn left at the fake plant. Right at the mailbox. Remember, it's the third floor, not the second or the fourth. She knocked on the door and waited. When her daughter finally greeted her, Harriet was both relieved and terrified. She whispered a prayer of thanks to God for landing her on the right doorstep. Then she fortified herself against the Sturm und Drang that was her child.
Beth's apartment looked like it had been ransacked by thieves. Every item of clothing that she owned was strewn on her bed.
"I can't decide. Margaux says her children are driving in. They live in the city and they're coming from Manhattan just to meet me."
Margaux. After all these years, Harriet had never known her name. "You always wanted brothers and sisters. I'm so happy for you, Beth. I really am."
On the dresser were three bottles of hair dye. Each one a different shade of brown. "I'm aiming for sophisticated," said Beth. "I'm thinking Audrey Hepburn. Or Katherine Hepburn. You know. Classy."
Harriet fingered each of the bottles. The labels seemed written in Chinese. "They'll love you because of who you are," said Harriet. "That's what families do."
Then she reached again into the bottomless pit that was her purse and pulled out a small black velvet box. "Here. I've been waiting for the right time. These were my grandmother's, then my mother's. I want you to have them."
When she opened the box, a pair of diamond earrings glinted in the light. Harriet walked over to the window and held up the box to the sun, twisting her wrist, watching the diamonds throw rainbows onto the wall. "They're lovely, don't you think?"
Swaddled in blouses and skirts, Beth started crying. "I am doing the right thing, right, Mom? Going to New York? Right?"
Harriet walked over to her daughter and gently nudged the earrings in place. Then she held Beth's chin. "Just because we love you," said Harriet, "doesn't mean we can't share you."
The sun was setting by the time Harriet was ready to leave. She remembered to press L on the elevator panel. She remembered the mailbox and the plant. She remembered to press her foot on the pedal before hitting the start button.
But the roads were more crowded now, the cars zooming by, people in a hurry to beat rush hour traffic. The voice on her phone was saying merge right, merge right, your expressway entrance is on your right, but horns were honking outside and warning lights were flashing inside and no matter what Harriet did she couldn't figure out a way to change lanes. Instead of driving faster, she drove slower, almost at a stop, the cars honk, honk, honking, the voice droning, the buzzing in her brain as loud as a chainsaw. She drove under the overpass, the voice telling her to make a U-turn, you have to make a U-turn, so Harriet yanked on the steering wheel and never saw the pole of the street lamp that wedged itself inside her hood.
She woke up at the hospital with Poochie at her side.
"You would have been fine except for the airbags. Goddamned airbags nearly killed you."
Everything seemed coated in cotton. Her head felt stuffed with yards of batting, her eyes blurry. When she looked down at her chest, the skin beneath her hospital gown bloomed with purple blotches. The room was filled with people. Some were in doctors' scrubs. Others were in police uniforms. A set of scans were tacked up to the wall, the lights flicked on behind them.
A nice looking young man in a suit was taking her pulse. "Mrs. Sussman, I believe you suffered a mini stroke, what we call a TIA. Looking at your brain scans, we're pretty sure this wasn't your first."
She tried to smile but half of her mouth wasn't working.
Poochie managed a grin. "This is a good thing, right? You put her on medication and she gets better, right?"
"It's a little more complicated than that, I'm afraid." Then he wrestled Poochie's arm and led him into the hallway.
They never bothered fixing the car. The social workers gave them some names to call. Support groups. Alzheimer's associations. By the time Beth returned from New York, most of the physical symptoms had resolved. Harriet was able to talk with a slightly discernible lisp. The hand that had stiffened into a claw had slowly relaxed.
But her mind had regressed even further. It was easier, Harriet was learning, to float with the waves. Like tides, her memories moved in and out, some days better than others. When she gazed at the photos on her mantelpiece, the faces and the names were harder to grasp. A very essential part of Harriet was disappearing with little left to anchor her to shore.
Even Beth noticed the difference. As soon as her trip was over, she visited her parents armed with gifts and news.
"Margaux has all these connections. She wants to help me, of course. Remember how I always wanted to open a clothing boutique? I was always good at fashion. Why ever are you so quiet, Mother? Are you listening? You don't look like you're listening."
They were in the living room. Poochie was sitting in his Barcalounger, pretending to read the newspaper. Harriet sat on the couch with a crocheted throw on her lap hiding her hand. Speechless, they had been waiting for their daughter to finish.
"I'm listening, Beth." Since her stint in the hospital, Harriet's face looked like a pair of Greek masks, happy and sad at the same time. No matter how often she propped up her left cheek, it sagged. Everything sagged. Sagged and drooped. She was eternally tired.
"Mother, your eyes are closed. Do you know your eyes are closed?"
Poochie laid down the paper. "For the last hour, all we've been doing is listening. We know everything about that family including their net worth and their real estate investments. They're richer than we are. They're better looking than we are. They're perfect in every possible way. Now if you would excuse me, I'd like to go into the bathroom and barf up my dinner."
Harriet's eyelids fluttered. Somewhere, down a long, long tunnel, her daughter was talking. Her mouth seemed to open on its own. "I believe you mentioned a sibling, sweetheart. A Sibley or Cindy or Susie."
"Susie, that's one of my half-siblings, had been looking for a roommate. So everything is all set up."
Harriet let the wave consume her. She was buoyant now, the surf carrying her, riding the crest like an arced fish. "Are you telling us that you're moving, Beth? Are you moving to New York?"
"My job sucks. My apartment sucks. What exactly am I leaving behind?"
The two of them had weathered many highs and lows in their marriage. Throughout it all they emerged unscathed, connected and committed for the long haul. Like buying an insurance policy, they had made an investment. Time. Energy. Patience. And all along there was an unspoken understanding, an assumption that after years of sacrifice they would be rewarded. Retirement. Travel. Grandchildren. All the perks of growing old. A bargain is a bargain.
But sometimes stories end in unexpected ways. Pacts are broken. Promises are unfulfilled. It was just a matter of time before Harriet no longer recognized her family. She'd run her finger over the pictures on her mantel and remember the feeling of being loved. She'd spread her mementos on her bed and recall the laughter of a child, the pain of a bruised knee. Like an infant returned to the womb, she embraced the waters. Alone. Accepting. Adrift.
Title image "Now I Remember" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2016.