Sahalie is an Oregon native currently residing in Columbus, OH. She received her BFA in Writing from Emerson College and is a current MFA in Fiction candidate at Ohio State University. She has work in or upcoming from Hobart After Dark, No Contact, The Offing, and Writer's Digest. She blogs about living with chronic illness.
She’s waiting tables at a good-eats restaurant by the Kanorado exit to I-70 when she first begins to remember. There is no shining moment of clarity, nothing drug up from her past. But suddenly Marissa no longer has to write down orders. A few days later she takes two eight-top tables at once and pulls off better tips than she’s ever seen. She tugs the notepad from her apron at the end of the week, blank and fat, and wonders if she’s simply been working here too long.
“Always said you were a smart one,” says the cook, noticing her staring at the pages. “Smart and pretty.” He wipes a greasy forearm across his face and gives her a wink.
Marissa gets home that night around 3 a.m. and finds her boyfriend Matthew snoring with the news on. She makes too much noise getting into bed and he half wakes up, grabs at the blankets again.
“Baby,” she says, “I think there’s something wrong with me.”
“Whyzat,” he mumbles, turning to face her with his eyes still closed.
“I keep remembering things,” she says.
“What, like from when you were a kid?”
“No, like from right now.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Never mind,” she says. “Go back to sleep.” She reaches out and strokes his hair, pulling grease from the roots. In the two years they’d been together, there are plenty of things she hasn’t told him, either not to worry him or because she doesn’t want to worry herself. It’s a habit she doesn’t know how to break, this relentless self-sufficiency. Maybe it’s because she assumes that he will leave eventually, pull his truck onto the highway she stares at every day, and then she will not have time to be shattered.
When she wakes up, the day before is vivid in her mind down to the minute. She drives to work distracted. She expects a revelation, something she must have buried beneath the peeling split-level house of her childhood. The plains of Kansas had been filled with the potential for horror – children’s legs mangled by tractors, grown men drowning in grain silos. But Marissa had, at least until now, escaped unscathed. The cancers that had taken her parents, lung and breast barely two years apart, may yet sit in her cells, but that was for later worrying. Now, she pulls into the staff parking at the diner and breathes. The early shift has forgotten to take out the trash again.
She begins to remember customer orders from a month before. One man comes in with a different woman every Friday, telling the same jokes over and over. It never used to bother her, but now she winces at the slightest change in inflection each time the tired routine is repeated.
“God,” he says to his dates once Marissa brings them their dessert and coffee, “it’s just so easy to talk to you.” He spits a little on his t’s, tiny droplets landing on the white plates. The girls giggle and blush, eat slices of pie in tiny bites. It feels like a play she never wanted to attend.
Customers begin to request her, feeling special because she knows their names. She wants to tell them that she knows the coloration of every rat she sees in the alley behind her apartment as well, but she doesn’t. Her head is filling with people – their voices, their tastes in sweets. They emerge, unwanted, on constant recall.
After a week (nine days, precisely), Marissa realizes that her new capacity for memory is not going away. It amazes her how fast she has been lulled into this new specificity of thought. She finds herself more deliberate with her actions, more careful with her words. A bad cup of coffee in the morning can ruin her day, the memory of the burnt beans staying strong on her tongue. She feels more delicate and more powerful. For the first time in a long life of fearing solitude, she looks for ways to be alone with her thoughts.
“Where’d ya learn to do that,” asks a truck driver as she serves him his custom order of pancakes, each one a different kind.
“Tibetan monks,” she says. Next week, it’s powdered pigs’ feet, lucky horseshoes, a poultice made from coffee dregs. When she is out of clever answers, she decides it’s time to leave the diner.
“I’m gonna quit the restaurant,” she tells Matthew later that night. She’d gotten home early enough to catch him awake and they had fucked for the first time in three weeks and one day, exactly. She could remember down to the minute if she wanted to. They lie there naked with the light still on and she uses her finger to trace his bicep, wrapped with the tattoo of a snake.
“And do what, Mar?” he asks.
“I don’t know yet,” she says. “Something without people.”
“I thought you liked the people at your job,” he says.
“I like them once,” she tells him. “You meet someone once, you can be anyone, they can be anyone. Once they start remembering you, you gotta be the same thing, over and over again.”
She quits the restaurant. She is twenty-eight with no savings and no degree, so she takes a new job as a night janitor at a factory two exits down. She fills her nights with quiet moments, maps and floor plans etched into her brain, and practices managing the memories by building a fortress in her mind. She models it after a castle she saw in a storybook as a child, all turrets and spiral staircases, and by the end of each shift her thoughts are clear again. She never forgets to clean a room.
When the sun comes up she studies. She kisses Matthew goodnight as she leaves and good morning when she returns, and when he goes to work she opens a book. She reads one a day, sometimes two. The closest public library is two towns over and soon she has gone through their history section, their cookbooks, their mysteries. She learns about the Spanish-American war, crudites, how to kill a man with an ice pick. She reviews all of it in her head as she sweeps, back and forth, page by page.
When she exhausts the library, Marissa begins to plan her escape from Kanorado. She tests for her GED, passes easily and sells the full test and answers online for a fair sum of money. She uses the money to buy a new computer, one that is fast and bright and makes her heart drop with the price tag, but she tells herself that it will be worth it. She has never left Kansas and does not want to dive into the world blind. She begins to read news from the UK, Russia, Egypt. Slowly at first, and then faster, learning how to manage the vast amounts of information stored in her memory palace, her elegantly structured gray matter. She realizes that she has stopped dreaming.
She stops eating meat. Matthew objects to this, saying that it’s too expensive to buy so much produce and it’s hard enough to afford groceries in this town. But she can’t unsee the slaughterhouse footage that has drilled its way into her brain, so she tries cooking more in their tiny apartment, setting off the fire alarm to bake black bean burgers that fall apart in their hands. She tries to make this up to him by learning about the things he loves – the cars he dreams of driving, the guns he likes to shoot – but that only seems to irritate him. Now that she is no longer afraid to be alone, she is starting to realize that perhaps he is just a body to sleep next to at night. The realization depresses her, as do the memories that spring up of times he has been hurtful or brutish or scared. When they are together, they drink. It feels like a way of bridging the gap that has formed between them as each day passes. More often, it widens it. She can’t help but talk about the things she is learning and it makes him feel small.
“You think you’re so smart,” he spits at her. “You don’t know anything about the world.” Afterwards, he tries to apologize by getting another tattoo, one with her name in looping letters across his forearm so he will never be able to forget her.
He is wrong, of course. She knows plenty about the world. But she is absorbing more of a hurting world than she knows how to process, and when she insists on giving money they don’t have to a girl’s school across the world whose student’s faces she can’t shake, he tells her to leave and she doesn’t try to argue.
Marissa packs her computer and some clothes and hops a bus out of town, trying very hard not to feel free.
On the bus, she considers her options. There are so many now that they spread out in front of her in a glittering kaleidoscope of lives she could potentially lead. She tries to remember what her goals had been back before the diner, before her parents got sick and before Matthew was the only constant in her life. She had once wanted to be a marine biologist, despite not knowing how to swim. She watches the map in her head as the bus rolls forward into the night.
She gets off the bus in Kansas City because she thinks it sounds glamorous. The signs along the highway call it “the Paris of the Plains.” She thinks about waitressing again but doesn’t want to let go of her sense of momentum–she has become an object in motion. She spends a while driving a cab instead, learning every alleyway of the city and asking all her passengers for details of where they’re from and what they do so she can file them away in her stash of possibilities.
“There’s a bar in Belgium,” one passenger tells her, “behind a museum, where you have to know the password to get in.” She asks for the password and drops him off at the back entrance to the bar where there is no line and he tips her twenty-five percent.
Marissa keeps driving the cab until she pays off the cost of the license and then bounces around between menial jobs, making just enough on paper to afford a bedroom in a shared apartment downtown. She looks for gigs where she can avoid interacting with more than a few people at once. She mans front desks and works temp jobs in sparse offices. She is smart, even charming, but has no qualifications and no references and never stays anywhere for long. In her spare time, she auditions for game shows, trivia contests, anything to offload the facts that she can’t stop consuming. Sometimes she wins gift cards, sometimes just money off a bar tab, but she is always thrilled to drink for free. The alcohol calms her some, shakes her thoughts out of the linear pattern they get stuck in as she reconstructs timelines of her life, unwanted, from scratch.
She wins big in a few of the game shows and uses the money to fly to Los Angeles to audition for an all-comers tournament. In the fall, she gets on a plane for the first time in her life to memorize the topography of the country from above.
Los Angeles is hot and full of more cars than she has ever seen. They glitter in the sun and seem from the air to ride the heat waves instead of the roads. Marissa gets a drink in the airport before calling a cab to the hotel so she doesn’t have to focus on crisscross of the highways she saw during the plane’s descent, looping over each other like buildings constructed from empty space. For the first time since leaving Kanorado, she is genuinely nervous. But she knows from Bukowski and Chandler that she is not the first person to be nervous and alone in Los Angeles, so she waits until the night is cooler and leaves her hotel to wander streets that stretch out longer than any normal city block. She passes Starbucks and Whole Foods and more gas stations she than has ever seen. She has the sensation of walking and walking and getting nowhere at all.
She finds a bar with a neon palm tree outside and decides it’s a good enough oasis for anyone. It is dark inside and marvelously cool. She sits at the bar with her feet dangling over the edge of the tall stool and orders a dark n’ stormy.
“Mood not matching the weather?” the bartender asks as he pours dark rum into a tall glass.
“Is it depressing to live somewhere that’s gorgeous all the time?” she asks. She watches him mix the ginger beer and cut the lime, thinking that maybe bartender should be her next gig, now that she has watched people make almost every cocktail under the sun.
“If you ask me, it just makes people realize they can be sad sacks anywhere,” he says, and hands her the drink. She drains it, picks another cocktail off the menu at random, and watches him make it. She tells herself she is learning.
She shows up to the audition the next morning hungover and out of focus. She still does well, of course, and the producers tell her to expect a call before thrusting her back out into the overbright streets. She expects she may have won a spot in the finals but can’t be sure with the way her head is pounding. Marissa orders a Bloody Mary on the flight back to Missouri, hoping to sleep but unable to stop running over the quiz questions in her head.
Back home she looks in the mirror and sees that her face has gone puffy. There are broken blood vessels in her nose bursting under the freckles. She is badly sunburned and knows for a fact that her pants are tighter. She decides to quit drinking. She tries going to AA, where she learns that drinking to forget (or stop remembering) is not as original an idea as she once thought. It’s good for her, but she longs to quit because she can only handle hearing so many sad stories being told over and over again. She gets sick of her own story too, the one she stands up and tells that is not true or false, just partial.
“I didn’t go to college. My parents got sick and there was no more money and all I had was my job and the first guy who was nice to me.” She tried to make it sound like she drank because she was lonely and stupid, a small-town girl with a small-town life. It made her feel oily inside, slick and suspicious. Her weather-beaten neighbors bared their souls and she lied back to them until she couldn't anymore.
She cuts down on her drinking for a while but doesn’t stop, because it is the only way she can sleep these days.
It’s back at bar trivia in her own neighborhood that she meets Henry. She’s not even playing – she's been banned for winning too much. Instead she sips beer and watches the other teams whisper to each other over sticky tables. She notices a man in the corner who is playing fifth wheel to his group and she likes the tightness of his jaw. When he stands up to hand in their scoresheet, he sways a bit on bowed knees.
The first time she speaks to him, he is wearing tan pants and a dark blue shirt. His buttons are one off and his collar is slightly askew. She’ll ask him to wear the same clothing on the first day of their honeymoon, just so she can relive that first night, one of the only memories she purposely draws on again and again. When he shakes her hand, she draws away first, but then orders him a drink without asking what his favorite is, because she has been watching him and she already knows.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
“You’ve never heard of it,” she says, and wonders how long she can keep them both blank slates, unformed and full of potential energy.
The two of them team up covertly. She teaches him sign language so she can flash clues at him from across the bar. At breaks he comes over as if he doesn’t know her, buys her a drink and flirts shamelessly as if they aren’t already going home together. It is just the right amount of secrecy to make things exciting. They get caught eventually by a waitress who knows the signals and he is banned from trivia too, and that’s when he proposes, down on one knee outside the bar on a Tuesday night. When she says yes, she has already mapped the exact position of the stars that brought them there.
She has nobody to invite to the wedding, so Henry gets both sides of the aisle for his family, but she doesn’t mind. She thinks about inviting her boss from the diner but knows he won’t come, that they were hardly friends anyway. Instead, she sends an invitation and a check for tattoo removal to her ex-boyfriend. Henry's parents are unfailingly sweet to her and his father walks her down the aisle instead of her own, his arm feeling strange but steady in hers. For their honeymoon, she asks to go to Belgium, where she surprises him with an old password to a place she has never been.
It surprises him because she has not told him her secret. At first, she thought she was just waiting for the right time. Once they become official, once they get engaged, when they were finally married – surely then, she would tell him. But she doesn’t, and now, lying naked in their hotel room in east Brussels with his soft snores in her ear, she realizes she never will. To do it now feels like a betrayal. Would he want to know that every minute he had spent with her was trapped in amber? The best and the worst of him recorded forever in her brain? She was too scared to find out. She was afraid that once he knew she would only ever see him in the clearest of lights he would run for his life. People live with themselves by forgetting. She could bear the burden of memory for them both.
The next morning, he emerges from the shower wet and glistening and she is glad, in a way she rarely is, that she will remember every drop of water on his skin.
She and Henry have a child. The pain of the birth is incredible. She wakes up sweating sometimes just remembering the rip of her belly and the color of her own pulsing viscera. The nurses assure her that she will forget it by the time she wants to have another one, but she won’t, and she knows deep down that she cannot go through it again.
She sends her husband back to work after their daughter is born. She likes staying home alone with her and memorizing every time the baby reaches her tiny arms up towards the ceiling or tries to stand on bowed knees that are so like Henry’s. Her child forces her to live strictly and alertly in the moment, reacting to every want and need as it comes with no time for reflection and no pattern to assume. For the first time since her night shifts, she feels quiet.
But there is more happening. She is beginning to feel tired constantly. She enrolls the child in daycare and drops her off only to return home and sleep for hours at a time. She has not dreamed in years now, but loses herself in the simple darkness, no longer having to recall the hours of night that she has spent up with her daughter, watching the sun slowly creep its way onto the horizon. The world seems too vast these days, too full. She begins to try and shut it out, but information is everywhere – television screens in waiting rooms, news reports in between radio DJ sets. The phone Henry got her for her birthday is constantly flashing at her, but he gets angry when she doesn’t answer his calls. She tries stuffing the phone between the couch cushions, but she can still feel it vibrate underneath her while she tries to nap to the sound of golf on the television.
When he gets home with their screaming child whom she has neglected to pick up at daycare and sees that nothing has been done – the dishes dry and crusting in the sink, laundry not even having made it into the machine – they fight again. Unlike him, she can’t forget every word he says in anger, or anything she spits back as she tries to push him away from her secret. At night, even as he tries to apologize with his hands, holding her as she lies awake, she replays in her mind his reddened face and squirms away.
At his urging, she finally goes to a doctor. She tells the doctor about the constant sleeping and fabricates a headache so that they will eventually look deep into her brain, where she has always suspected that something has shifted out of place. But there is nothing, nothing except an abnormally large proportion of her brain devoted to memory.
“Have you ever been a cab driver?” the doctor asks her. She says yes, in a past life. He nods. “We see this in cabbies,” he says. “Adaptive hippocampus. Fascinating stuff.” He sends her home with a prescription for Percocet.
She stopped drinking for good when she was pregnant and has missed it terribly, but the pills are better. Formerly reliant on inertia, a body at rest, now she floats, strung out and weightless. There is nothing to pull her backwards or forwards or even back down to earth. After she leaves their daughter in a dirty diaper all day, Henry tells her he doesn’t trust her anymore. She tries to care, digs down deep for any feeling at all, but only comes up with facts: the average child uses over 2,700 diapers in their first year of life. A diaper takes 500 years to decompose in a landfill. The methane released from landfills is twenty-five times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Once her life becomes a series of facts, they are far easier to face.
Fact #1: Her husband has left. He has taken their daughter to his mother’s house and told her to get a lawyer.
Fact #2: She has not done this.
Fact #3: The house is in both of their names, and she is legally able to sit in its emptiness for as long as she wants. She is allowed to sleep on the couch, to leave her pills uncapped around the room, to eat boxed cereal and unplug the phone.
Fact #4: The skull does not expand with age. She suspects that the part of her brain for memory has swollen so large with facts that the other parts of her have been crowded out – amygdala, hypothalamus, pituitary. Cerebellum, thalamus, penial. The names rocket around the empty spaces in her head, names the brain come up with for itself, a model of self-sufficiency.
Fact #5: She has always managed to get by on what she has.
Marissa sits alone on her couch, the cushions worn flat beneath her. She closes her eyes and pulls up memory after memory. She watches them in her mind like the world’s longest home movie. Outside, the night is falling around her, black as the inside of her closed eyes. She is alone, but she is not afraid, because nobody will ever really be able to leave her now.