You don’t have a first memory anymore. Not from the beginning of your life, at least. For some reason this fact bothers me greatly, as if everything that happened between your first memory and the day you lost them all is dependent on the existence of the first. I know this isn’t true, but I fret over your memories all the same.
My earliest memories are of you, Mom, and Tom. Tom is my biological father, the father I knew didn’t want me but sometimes tried to. I knew this from such a young age that I cannot think of a time I didn’t know it. It has always existed, this fact, molded into me in subtle ways from before I was old enough to comprehend it.
I have very few memories of Tom, but the ones I do have feel connected to you, as if I’m comparing and contrasting the two of you even at such a young age.
This is my earliest memory: I am sitting on top of an old metal rocking horse. Mom and Tom are arguing in the kitchen of the apartment Mom and I live in. The lights are off, save for the overhead fluorescent in the kitchen, its dim yellow hue illuminating the apartment. I can’t remember what they’re arguing about, but I can see them through the cutout in the wall over the sink. Are you there, too, and I have forgotten? The edges of the memory are blurred with age. I must be around two or three years old. I’m chewing on a square of purple Bubble Yum. I keep putting more and more pieces in my mouth as that first tang of sweetness fades, until there are too many and it’s hard to chew.
The fighting intensifies in the kitchen. Someone slams a cabinet door closed. I chew in time with the shouting, rocking myself forward and back as fast as I can. Suddenly the horse jerks as my toe hits the ground and I lurch forward, my chest hitting the back of the horse’s head.
The gum slips down my throat. It stops halfway down my esophagus, too large to move. I’m not scared that I’m choking. What terrifies me are Mom’s words racing through my head: Don’t swallow it, she’d told me as she handed me the package of gum. It’s for chewing only. If you swallow it, it’ll stay in your stomach for seven years.
I’m going to have purple gum in my stomach for seven years. How long is seven years? I swallow, hard, and feel the lump creep slowly downward. I wonder to myself, as Mom and Tom yell at each other, whether I will ever be hungry again, or if I’ll live off this one lump of gum for eternity. Will there be room for more than just the gum in my stomach?
As the voices from the kitchen fill the apartment, I open the package, unwrap a small rectangle from the sugary wrapper, and pop a piece of purple sweetness into my mouth. I chew, careful this time to sit in one place.
That was the first time I remember choking, and this is the second.
You, me, and Mom are sitting at our long rectangular table eating dinner. You and Mom are at the heads of the table and I’m in the middle, sitting on the wooden bench. My feet don’t yet touch the floor. The kitchen lights are on, bathing the space with warm light. We are eating away in comfortable silence. Steak. I’m sure there’s more to it, but the steak is emblazoned in my memory because it’s what I’m chewing when it slips down my throat and lodges itself in my windpipe. Unlike the pliable gum, the steak is hard and painful and unmoving. I let out a little gasp, and you leap to your feet. Before I’ve registered what’s happening you’ve heimliched the piece of meat right out of my mouth onto the plate.
In my memory I don’t finish dinner. You and Mom relent and let me bundle up and go outside because something special is happening. It’s snowing.
I race in circles in the chilly night air, tilting my head toward the sky as I try to catch the flurries on my tongue. I call for you and Mom to look—Look! It’s snow! You open the blinds so that you and Mom can watch me through the sliding doors. I can still see your faces smiling at me through the glass.