The most interesting thing about me is that I’m famous for manslaughter, which in the end, was called something else, something less gory than slaughter, though I don’t recall the exact word the judge settled on. What the judge did say is that I have to tell you this story, for the sake of the company. I have to say (and it is true) that The Memory of You (TM) is in no way responsible for what happened that year. It was a tragedy and no one can be responsible for fate.
Where can I begin? I could go all the way back to my childhood and tell you how I became the woman standing before you today. I believe there are moments, usually when we’re still slobbering babies, that wire us and make us who we will always be. Like for me, I saw my dad kiss my mom softly on the forehead as he said something I couldn’t yet understand but knew was a far deeper ocean of gratitude than the puddle of courtesy associated with the words thank you. Pretty nice, right? You’d think that would have led to a nice person with a nice life but it led to my life which has been…hectic. I ended up emotionally tipsy, dizzy from searching for a heavenly, perfect love. I ended up a Crap Person. But my husband used to tell me I wasn’t so bad, that I was doing my best just like everyone else. And I’d tell him and I’ll tell you that constantly obsessing over being Not Crap can turn a person into Ultra Crap. It turns you into the kind of terrible that’s like a shard of glass in your eye. It’s a loud pain but you see right through it.
You might not believe me that I remember one quick kiss from my infancy but the incredible technology of The Memory of You (TM) proved it. I was sitting there with the headset on and I could see it all over again, clearer than ever. Later they showed me the digital graph of my brain written in a tech language I don’t speak and they pointed out a spot that was a formative memory. It was my dad kissing my mom, a little glowing pink pixel tucked away in the tangled jungle of my brain and there were thousands of viney paths sprouting from it.
That was the day I first went to their office. I arrived in an oversized green t-shirt that said “Lady’s Island Paradise” and which hadn’t been washed in 183 days. I knew how many days it had been unwashed because it had been 182 days since my husband died and it was his shirt from his hometown that I still haven’t been to. I had worn that shirt every day and eaten Mac and cheese and Oreos covered in peanut butter, with an occasional side of porkchop covered in peanut butter (for protein). I wish I was the kind of griever who forgets to eat but I’m the kind that binges and boozes and makes awkward jokes about her dead husband not being the dream diet she thought he would be. So I arrived, fat and short, a chubby orb of chuckling sadness with their ad in my hands. It said they were “looking for volunteers willing to share time and information for the advancement of science/the pursuit of happiness.” I told em, I’m your girl! Do what you want with my head! You can have it!
As you know, they now offer a series of packages from the classic “Unwidowed” to the newly released “Baby is Back” but they were a startup then still mucking around the mind. Sorry, I mean they were “in the initial phases of their promising development”—so when they put the headset on and took away my drink, I didn’t know exactly what was in store.
They told me to think of the one I loved. I tried. But his long face with the dark eyelashes we had always talked about passing down to our-not-yet (would-never-be) daughter, was too much to bear. Without my permission, my mind went to Christof, who I met traveling when I was young, and Tommy, the unemployed college boyfriend, and other romantic flings and my parents and my sister and the children I would never have.
They showed me a graph after every session and after every session they said, oh boy you are perfect! but in their own nerdy way, something like, “the mapping of your neurological topography is unique and showing potential for discovery.” Either way, you can imagine how I felt. I felt it was nice someone had noticed my topography. So I kept coming back, despite the splashes of memory being somewhat painful. But good pain? Like you’d been drunk on peanut butter and whiskey for half a year and finally someone had noticed and slapped you across the face.
I went every day for over two months. The folks at the office became my best friends. After a session, they would take me out for drinks and I’d cry about my dead husband and my dead parents and my sister, mother of three, who couldn’t bear my self pity anymore, and they would pat me on the back and say, there there.
Every time I tried to think of my husband during a session I would either think of someone else or I would accidentally remember the bad times. Like when I caught him going through a decade of old messages between me and anyone I might have slept with so he would know exactly who to hate and how much. Or the day he died, before he got in his car, how he’d done our thing to say goodbye, which was to kiss the air in the direction of the other, and how I didn’t do it back because I was mad that he’d done the dishes in silence and that this silence was a wall I could never scale because he didn’t actually love me. I was mad that he rather listen to the chant of water from the faucet and the dishes turning in his hands like prayer beads and the hum of his own solitude over me.
Can we pause for a second? I like to pause at this point so that maybe, somewhere in the blank space, in the silence, if I’m thinking that I’m sorry and you are thinking it with me, something magical will happen and I’ll be forgiven. What is forgiveness if not magic.
After the eighth week they told me it was time. I was like, time for what? And they were like, for you to be reunited with him. And I was like, who? And they were like, your husband. And I was like, what the heck? I thought it was a joke.
They took me to a conference room with a blue and pink banner that spelled CONGRATS, an ice cream Oreo cake, and a towering man with blonde hair standing strangely erect as if someone had strapped him to a plank of wood. The team was all smiles and they were like, it’s him.
It was not him at all. But I couldn’t be rude and tell them the truth. Can you imagine, your friends save you from suicide and make you a husband from scratch and then you’re just like, no thanks? So we had cake and I tried to fall in love. I thanked the team for this amazing chance to spend my life with The One.
But this guy was not my husband, nor was he one. He was many. He had Christof’s blonde hair and blue eyes and Danish accent. He was greasy and smelled of sour BO and referred to his guitar as his girlfriend like Tommy. He was an expert at jealousy like my husband. He had the eyelashes. And he was stupid tall. Almost 7 foot. There were other things I would notice later. That he told me to “quiet down” in public like Jake. That he was an avid collector of restaurant coasters like my second girlfriend Natasha. That he hated dishes. Doing them. Seeing them. Using them.
I asked my friends down at the office as casually as possible what the process had been to construct him. They answered in their mumbo-jumbo-jargon but I’ll translate for you: they’d focused on the memories that were romantic and deeply ingrained as the basis for his personality, looks, and habits. What they didn’t realize was that I am a massive, messy knot of romance. You know when you try to untangle a knot and you end up jumbling it even more? Maybe that’s what happened to me.
I named him Alex and he followed me around like a handsome puppy. He was quick to anger and forever aroused yet simultaneously distant, but we managed. I hid away all the dishes and we watched TV together while I swatted his hand away from the button on my jeans.
We were eating pizza and watching Apocalypse Now when a glitch occurred. Glitches were nothing new. There was the time he tried to speak Danish but it was gibberish or when he panicked because he couldn’t play guitar so he shouted at me to BE QUIET for 22 straight minutes while I watched an episode of How I Met Your Mother or the time he choked on a full deck of coasters he’d attempted to consume. This glitch started during the scene when the helicopters are attacking a village of Vietnamese civilians to the song “The Ride of the Valkyries.” You know the song. It’s a classical one that builds and builds and even though it’s by some European dude, it somehow has a real yee-haw vibe to it.
Alex turned to me, Honey, why did we do that?
I said, America has done many awful things.
He said again, No, why did WE do that?
Sometimes people are cruel.
Why did we?
We just did. There are people with anger like a sickness.
We did. We did. We.
He was banging on his chest as he said it. He pounded his heart then mine. He punched so hard he knocked the wind out of me. While I tried to gather the air back into my lungs, he went and locked himself in our bedroom.
I waited. I figured the glitch would pass and we’d finish the movie. After an hour, I knocked softly, asked if he was okay.
Through the door he sobbed, you don’t know who I am.
Sure I do, I said.
You lied about me. About the dishes. About all of it.
I didn’t understand what he thought I had lied about. I still can’t work it out. Before I could finish my attempt at a comforting response, he burst through the door, I caught a glimpse of my husband’s journal splayed open that he’d apparently been studying, and he ran out of our house. I grabbed the only thing I had to stop a giant man in a violent crisis of self: the confiscated box full of dishes.
He hulked and stumbled down the sidewalk like a villain drunk on too many monologues. I chased after him, occasionally telling him it was all fine while throwing spoons in his direction. Then the boy crossed his path.
Alex was a good man, or a good…whatever he was, but he was also me. I knew what he was capable of. What we were capable of. Then I heard Alex hum the tune to a song I would sing to my big sister when I felt left out, when she was prettier than me, faster, smarter, lovelier, funnier. Nobody likes me everybody hates me think I’ll go eat worms. Alex, this monstrous creation of memories was heaving this nursery rhyme as if it was something caught in his throat. I didn’t know till then that my sister would be a part of him but it seems that in my big messy knot of romance, the lines of love went in all directions.
I’d only met the boy once before, back when my husband was still my husband. I had waved more enthusiastically than I should have as I walked past, and he’d waved back in a polite manner. Children have an innate sense for virtue, real virtue, so I’d stopped, put down my groceries, stuck my tongue out, and flipped my curled fingers upside down over my eyes in that way that suddenly makes a person look like a crazed, masked bandit. He didn’t do it back. He was supposed to do it back. I had waited until I felt too stupid to wait anymore and then I’d picked up my groceries and gone home.
The boy and Alex and I were lined up on the sidewalk. Three lonely dominoes. The boy stood next to his bicycle. Alex steaming, humming, facing the boy. Me behind Alex with the box. The boy looked at me and saw fear, fear for him or for myself or maybe some cocktail of fear and desperation that I had always carried with me. The boy threw down his bicycle to block our path and grabbed a stone from a flowerbed. He cocked his arm back and I’ve never seen anyone more certain of anything in my life. He was fastened to the axle of the moment, ready to move. I hadn’t realized it before but that’s what I never was and had always wanted to be. A good and certain person.
It hit Alex dead between the eyes. Alex growled and lunged forward.
I remember when my husband bought the knife. It said on the package that it was a Santoku, which we agreed felt funny in the mouth when you said it—a hiss meets the jab of the k but as a whole is reminiscent of a kiss—so we looked it up and found out that it means “three virtues.” We’d giggled over that while cutting tomatoes. I remember the giggling but not exactly what the joke had been or what we had added the tomatoes to. I remember that we had laughed and exchanged a look, a glance, a moment that was almost enough for me, almost enough, and then gone.
Within sight of our kitchen window, a shriek of pain. Alex’s bulging eyes and a howl stretching so cinematically it was as if he had just learned how to perform the act of anguish that day. The first stab into Alex felt like hitting a wall. The next one I got him in the stomach. A little softer. Then you can feel the organs making way for the knife, stepping aside miraculously like the parting of the Red Sea. Then again. Then you have the hang of it. Like slicing the pink flesh of salmon. Living salmon. Flailing. Begging for you to stop. Telling you he’d loved you. He had loved you. He had.
Excuse me. I’ve “taken off again” as my parole officer says. I have a bad habit of exaggeration. What I mean to say is that I saved Noah. That’s the boy’s name. I learned that after the incident, blood still on my hands, Noah crying in confusion, forever changed. And Noah saved me. If it weren’t for Noah, if it weren’t for Alex, and especially if it weren’t for The Memory of You(TM), I wouldn’t be standing here today. I’m a new person. Untangled. And if it weren’t for all this, I wouldn’t be here with my daughter, Grace. My perfect glitch-free Grace. Heaven is possible after all.
And what I mean to say, what I am court ordered to say, is that people can change. Look at me. Do I seem happy to you? I am. I am sure of it. Are you happy? Are you sure of it? Have you ever been? Do you remember it? Can we remember it? Can we suffer a little less? And why not? You could be happy just like us.