It’s cold here now, and where you are too. The air shivers and frost coats the kale sprouting from a pot in my backyard. Another year has begun, and when we talk, you are happy.
This time last year, you had trouble remembering my name. Each time I called I reintroduced myself, and you said, “Oh, yes, Ashley. Yes.” Your voice was soft with disuse. Now you sound just as I remember you, as if the stroke never happened. You are moving on, while the rest of us remember.
I picked up a book recently without realizing the subject matter, only that it was published by an editor whose opinion I value. In the opening pages, the main character, an older man, has a stroke and wakes with no memories of his previous life. I almost put it down. I did, in fact, put the book down in my lap and stared at it for a long while, wondering if I wanted to keep reading. But the writing was very good, and having lived this with you, I was curious how the author had portrayed this journey.
At one point the man says that his memory is like a faucet. There are days when the trickle of knowledge is swift, bursting through some invisible barrier like water from a broken dam. And there are days when it’s slow, just a drop or two. I thought this was very apt. Some days you remember we had two dogs and lived in California and a whole host of factual information. Other days you ask me if I’m married and have children and you speak my name slowly, coaxing only abstract impressions forward through an unseen veil.
I want to ask you things while there is still time. Yet lately, you want to do all the talking. When I call (or you call me!), our conversations consist mostly of me listening to you rush through your words so quickly I have trouble discerning them. It’s as if you’ve been storing it up for a winter day, and now that day is here and out it rushes, before the tap freezes up. I let you talk without interruption, partially because I like to hear you so excited and partially because I must be an incredibly active listener to ferret out what you’re trying to convey. The conversation concludes without my saying much at all. You end up slightly winded, your words fumbling as your brain grows tired. I tell you I love you and you say, “Oh, I love you too, dear. Take care, take care.”
I’ve been struggling with what to tell you next in these stories we’re sharing. Do I tell you about how we left California and never returned? How much everything changed after we left? About how the I-Ching warned us not to and we did it anyway, defying it for the first and only time that I can remember? I think I’m struggling because I’ve liked revisiting California in my mind. Because I’m not yet ready to be done with the sunshine and warmth. The rhythm that our lives took on when we settled into our second home there, on a cul-de-sac not far from my middle school.
I could tell you about how your younger brother, F, and his wife, R, took us to Disneyland once, giving you and Mom a very rare day to yourselves. C and J were young; I was in eighth grade. I felt like I was five again. We spent the whole day going from ride to ride, eating whatever we wanted. It was so utterly indulgent, the spectacle of it all. J and I rode Space Mountain together, and I can still remember the feeling of his little body pressed against mine as the ride roared through the darkness. We were both hovering on the edge of sheer terror and delight, screaming and laughing in the same breath. I think at one point J yelped to me that we were going to float away, right into those neon lights swirling in the air around us. It was heady and fantastical.
I could tell you of the time you took C, J and me to a park. We never went to parks; we went to the beach or the pool a family friend had in his neighborhood and gave us the key to. I remember that it was beautiful outside, and that the park was filled with trees so tall I could barely see the tops when I craned back my head. There was a long brick wall that ran around the circumference, and in a moment of daring, I climbed atop it and pretended I was a tightrope walker. One foot in front of the other, arms out wide. You called to me that I should get down, as if you were giving me a suggestion. “You keep doing that,” you called out, “and you’re gonna fall.” You didn’t order me to get down; you just conveyed what would happen if I didn’t. So I kept going. And I fell. I nursed my skinned knee all the way back to the house, but it was your “I told you so” that bothered me the most.
I could tell you of the time you slept on the bottom bunk instead of C, who must have been sick and sleeping with Mom (I can’t remember, and my childhood diary omits this detail). The bunk beds C and I shared had cardboard under the mattresses, a fact I never once questioned until my husband, B, pointed it out when we were in high school. He couldn’t believe C, J and I had spent our entire lives sleeping on mattresses supported by single sheets of cardboard resting on a center wooden slat. C and I shrugged. What else would beds be made of? Besides, the cardboard had its advantages. We liked to lie together on the bottom bunk and rest our feet on it, to test how high we could raise the mattress above by straightening our knees and pressing upward with all our might.
Over the years, the cardboard became soft, and it crinkled when I moved. The night you slept with me was so warm I couldn’t get comfortable. I kept flopping from side to side, not thinking anything about the mattress and the cardboard until you shrieked, “Jeez Louise, Ash! Stay still already.”
A few hours later, you woke to find me standing atop my chest-of-drawers, turning all my dolls backward on the shelves on the walls. I hated to have them stare at me at night, unblinking eyes piercing through the darkness. The dolls found me in my dreams, and always in horrible, violent ways. Cutting and stabbing and chasing me. So whenever I woke from one of these dreams, I climbed down the bunk bed and turned the dolls to face the other way. C never woke whenever I did this, but you did, that night.
You told Mom sometime later that I’d been sleepwalking, which she filled out on my paperwork for a weeklong sleep-away camp I attended that year. The camp counselor announced unceremoniously (and exceptionally loudly, in my opinion) in front of the entire population of girls in my class that I could not sleep on the top bunk because my parents had marked on my forms that I was a habitual sleepwalker. Every eye in that bungalow turned on me in the same moment. I stood with my bare feet on the chilly cement floor as my mind rushed back to my bedroom and the night you’d found me perched atop the furniture, and the entire sequence of events played out in my mind: me flopping on the mattress, you yelling for me be still, me climbing down from the top bunk to rid myself of those horrendous eyes, your report to Mom and the fateful conclusion that your eldest daughter must spend her nights reorganizing her dolls while the rest of the world slumbered.
What could be worse? Being branded a sleepwalker and publicly denied access to the top bunk, or admitting in front of a room full of popular girls whose friendship I desired more than a lifetime’s supply of mint chocolate chip ice cream that I, Ashley of Two Last Names, was afraid of dolls with beady glass eyes?
I spent the rest of middle school with a reputation as a habitual sleepwalker, all because of the night you and I shared a room together.
Now, all these years later, I laugh at this story. I think of the dolls and the sound of the cardboard groaning and your voice as you called up to me from below. How ironic it was that I should be known at school as the girl who couldn’t sleep on the top bunk only to go home at night and climb up the wooden slats to my little perch above the world.
I didn’t want to leave California, Dad, and neither did you. You threw your pennies and read your I-Ching passage, and we all knew what you thought of the plan. Moving east wasn’t what you wanted to do, but you did it, when the time came. The art shows were drying up, slowly but surely. Life was shifting, as it always does when we’re too busy looking the other way.
This move happened differently than before. We rented out half the space in an 18-wheeler truck and had it delivered to the house, where it clogged up the entire driveway and stuck out into the cul-de-sac more than was polite. It took us days to jigsaw puzzle our belongings into it. We packed it ourselves, with the occasional help of a neighbor. Finally we got everything in, right up to the line we weren’t allowed to cross. Another family had rented out the other half of the truck. Their stuff would be delivered before ours; they weren’t moving as far away as we were.
Mom and her brother, F, arranged for our plane tickets, which I think F bought for us if I remember correctly. He had offered Mom a job working at his business in Columbia, SC, and that’s why we were leaving San Diego as far as I understood it. The need for a steady paycheck had finally won out. We sold our van, the one without back seats, to a Hispanic man. When I asked you what he was going to do without back seats, you told me you didn’t know and it didn’t really matter. It wasn’t our van anymore.
On the day it was determined that I should withdraw from school, you dropped me off at the office a little while after classes had started. I can’t remember why it was determined that I would check myself out of school or why you or Mom didn’t need to be there with me. But whatever the reason, this was the mission I’d been deposited at my school one morning to fulfill. I would’ve been in PE at that time normally. I was fourteen years old, closing in on fifteen. I was in the ninth grade, my first year of high school. It was the end of October. We’d lived in San Diego for a little over two years this time around, give or take. Just long enough to get settled again.
The receptionist at the front office gave me a form and told me I’d have to walk around to all my classes and have my teachers sign it. I pressed it to my chest and asked if there was any other way, could they sign it some other time? Walking into every one of my classrooms during hours in which I was clearly not supposed to be present in that class was just about the most horrendous thing I could imagine. But the receptionist told me that this was what had to happen. So I did it.
It happened the same way each time. I pulled open the door and every eye looked up in unison, the teacher’s voice hanging mid-sentence, her thought interrupted by my sudden, unexplained, appearance. Some of the classes were occupied by older students, though it made little difference. Everyone watched with rapt, torturous attention as I hurried, head down, cheeks red as the scorching surface of the sun, past their desks to where the teacher stood. The room fell achingly silent as I handed her the single sheet of paper and explained in the quietest voice I could muster that my family was moving and could she please sign this paper so that the school could release my records when I re-enrolled somewhere else? I felt sure that my classmates were listening and heard every word, and even surer that they were not the least bit surprised. A good portion of my previous middle school in LA thought I was currently living in Oregon. Half of these students knew me from our first round of life in San Diego, half from the present. I was the girl who came and went. Now I was going again.
Humiliation complete, I left, bursting into the still morning air and gasping down breath after breath before walking to the next classroom to do it all again. All the time I wondered if this was how these things were normally done. If you and Mom were busy doing this at C and J’s elementary school too. If we were all simultaneously withdrawing ourselves from the lives we’d built since returning from LA.
I went to my art class last. By then I’d learned, after seven previous classrooms, that it was marginally easier to do this when I knew the classroom would be filled with students in my own grade level. At least I knew the kids who’d be staring at me. But this class was a year older, sophomores. Not upperclassmen, but older and wiser than my freshman self. A quiet art classroom is not a normal occurrence, in my experience, but when I opened that door and stepped into the room, an instantaneous hush fell over the entire place. I did what I’d come to do, head bowed so low my chin cut into my chest, and headed for the door.
That’s when I heard it. A little giggle, embarrassed almost. I looked up. One of my hands held the paper I’d just completed, setting me free from schooling in the state of California, and the other gripped the doorknob. Two boys were laughing, watching me. I recognized one of them immediately. He was our neighbor from our first house in San Diego, a boy a year older than me. He and I had spent summers riding our bikes in never-ending circles around the cul-de-sac because I wasn’t allowed to bike up and down the main street. We walked to the 7Eleven for red Slurpees and watched Blue Angels fighter jets do drills through the hot summer sky. I hadn’t seen him in ages. As our eyes met, he blushed and slapped the chest of the boy next to him.
“This guy,” he said. “This guy thinks you’re pretty.”
My eyes slid over to the boy he’d slapped. I’d never seen him before. He had kind eyes though, and brown hair, and wore a letter jacket. That’s all I could tell from the half-second glance I allowed myself before the heat of everyone’s gazes tore through me. An entire classroom now waited to see what I’d say to such a public pronouncement from a boy I clearly didn’t know.
And as I looked at this boy, I felt a kind of sadness wash through me, like I was saying goodbye to a future I’d never get to experience. Perhaps this would have never happened. Perhaps this boy and I wouldn’t have ever met if I’d never been in this room on this morning, un-enrolling myself from a school I’d grown fond of. But perhaps it would have. As our eyes met over the heads of the other students, I saw what might have been: the proms and the dances, the football games and trips to Dog Run beach together. To first dates I didn’t feel quite ready to go on, but was curious about nonetheless. To having a boy acknowledge me for the first time in my life, only to have to say goodbye to him in the same breath in which we’d met. Perhaps all of this, and perhaps none too.
I blinked and clasped the door, pushed it open, and smiled at him. And as I walked down the hall, I heard the whoops and hollers of the boys (“She smiled! She smiled!”) and I wondered if he would try to find out who I was, only to learn that I was already gone.
Signatures procured, I went back to the office and dialed home. I leaned against the counter as I waited for you to answer so I could tell you I was done dismantling the pieces of my life I’d so diligently assembled over the past few years. My old Spanish teacher walked past, did a double take when he saw me, and stopped to inquire why I was standing in the office at such an hour. Was I okay?
I explained that I was withdrawing myself from school because my family was moving, to which he nodded a few times, with genuine understanding in his eyes, and said “Good luck” as he shook my hand. I watched him walk away, confused about this. Did we need luck? Is that why we were moving again, to somewhere so far away and that I couldn’t picture? Maybe that’s what we were always searching for and why we couldn’t find it. Maybe luck only finds you when you stop chasing it, and we were forever, forever chasing.
You picked me up at the front of the school right where you’d dropped me off, and we left together, just as we’d arrived. A few days later, we left California for good. All told, we lived there for six years. It was the longest I ever lived in a single state in my entire childhood. In fact, it would take me until I was 29 to break that record.
California seems like ages ago now, distanced by time and space. It was a tough life. We didn’t have a lot. We lived show to show, week to week, painting sale to painting sale. We hit our heads and cried and fought and screamed so loud it’s a wonder we didn’t wake the neighbors (or maybe we did). We sold your work to Rodney Dangerfield and the VP of Disney and some people who had something to do with a movie called Total Recall that I was too young to care about. We danced in the living room when the Hollywood Studio Gallery bought some of your paintings and put them on set designs for shows like Murder, She Wrote and Brotherly Love and Sister, Sister. I took you to school with me and you showed slides of your work to my class, and I watched you flip through the projections one at a time as you droned on in your prized professorial voice about art history facts too archaic for my classmates to care, and still I burst with pride because, look, look at how smart my dad is! Look at what he does with his hands and his eyes and his mind! He makes these beautiful things, and then we sell them, and that alone is how we live in this world. Through your talent and Mom’s tenacity, we survived for years in this place that was bathed in perpetual sunshine. It didn’t matter how many times we picked up and left or who dismantled what. When it came down to it, we did it all together, as a family. We were forever chasing something we couldn’t find—luck, recognition, prosperity, adventure, love—and now it was time to chase it somewhere new.
So now, I’m left wondering how to encapsulate a place that I know I’ve built up inside my head over the years. I’ve opened the tap and let it sometimes trickle and sometimes flow, and I worry that somewhere in there I’ve forgotten things. I worry that there are so many Perhapses that I’ve left out, so many moments you deserve to know and that my forgetfulness is denying you. I can only promise that if I have done this, I’ll come back to them again. We can visit this place together as often as we like, and we can think about the good things and the interesting things and all the Perhapses that Might Have Been. We’ll give new meaning to old memories, and new meaning to old words. We’ll open the tap and let the past flow forth. And when it slows to just a trickle, we’ll let it be, knowing that soon there will be new goodness flowing forth, new Perhapses to discover, and more memories to share anew.