Guilt by Disassociation
The voice chirped behind me, the giant flower draped across my back turning away as I slowly rotated toward my addresser. His keen smile and bright blue eyes shone at me with excitement and the familiarity of his tiny face warmed in my fuzzy work-addled brain.
“Hi! How are you doing?” I queried, buying precious moments as I searched my memory for his name.
“Good.” It eluded me, my rampant disregard for the past apparent in the cobwebbed depths in which it hid. My heart began to pump faster, my smile starting to slip.
“Were you up skiing?” I searched for a time, a place, an organization from which this tot might have appeared prior. Was he from one of the elementary schools I had so recently subbed at? Had he been at camp with me? Could he be a neighbor? Was he a former student from a previous year, perhaps an Eldorable grown just enough to appear a distant relative of his former self? I glanced about, my eyes flicking back and forth in search of some clue.
“Yeah,” chimed his sister, her sharp grin blithely cutting through my memory with an identical murky origin.
It wore on me, overwhelming me. My brain exploded, synapses firing randomly, facts dredging themselves to the surface with no apparent distinction: giraffes have a black tongue; Pete and Pete weren’t really related; the capital of Burkina Faso is Ouagadougou; scotch tape was so-called due to epithets slung by manufacturing employees in detroit automobile factories.
“Where were you skiing?” I filled in, trying to maintain my paltry verbal guise. “Were you up on the big mountain?”
His smile never faltered. He stood there beaming at me, happy to see me, the man who couldn’t remember him no matter how he tried. I swooned beneath the undeserved joy and recognition, wishing I were simply a forgotten mote in their minute memory.
“We were over on EZ,” they each said, the unison more an uneven chorus.
Her face flashed in my head, her brilliant eyes so familiar. Him I recognized, but her I knew. And yet, their names weren’t there. Their association to me remained clouded beneath a long day and a weary soul. There, as I realized there was no escape, no recourse, I faltered.
If only I had peppered my speech with sobriquets. Nicknames like sugar, honey and doll were far too effeminate and derisive when uttered by male. Diminutives like buddy, little dude, holmes, partner and pal simply seem forced and contemptuous when I try them. I trapped myself by learning their names, priding myself on knowing them all, and being able to remember them and recognize them for extended periods. Perhaps for just the day they skied with me, or perhaps for the week or month at camp, each of them became central to my purpose, each of them important.
It amazing what one remembers and forgets.
I received a phone call over the Thanksgiving holiday from friends back home. We reminisced, retelling jokes and stories, offering up echoes over a distance both spacial and temporal. Each of us brought a piece of a puzzle we once completed, but now, no matter how we tried, there were pieces missing.
I retold a joke I swear I had heard a thousand time, one created by another member of our group sitting right there, and yet he had no recollection of it. Three of us confirmed a story our friend wrote, but the best he could do was acknowledge it sounded like him. They told me of a song I wrote, one about a tertiary character from my boarding school days, and I could barely envision the subject let alone tie that to the memory of the song. We laughed and cajoled and enjoyed all of it over again, our past reborn anew in an unexpected glory.
When I hung up, all I could do was smirk and shake my head. I was left envious and wanting, wishing I were there, dreaming I could have the carefree enjoyment of the moment all over again.
The moment hung, stretching out, waiting for something more. For just a second, I saw her eyes narrow, suspicion sneaking in, and I faltered.
With only the most base of apology, I gave up. “I’m sorry. What was your name again?” I asked.
“Michael,” he told me, his pleasure unwavering.
“Michael and your sister…” My finger swung toward his companion, the pained grimace on my face waiting for the relief of memory.
“Ashton,” she told me. Her eyes were both full of shock and accusation. He may have been too young to understand my mental betrayal, but she knew.
“Hi,” interrupted their mother. “It seems my kids remember you. Did you work at the Y?”
Her question relieved the burden for the moment. Parents are often minor side notes, bookends to my day. They throw their children into my care and vanish, our interactions restricted to trading notes and stories in the brief aftermath. I turned to her, avoiding the accusatory gaze of my smaller friends and began to note my recent activities hoping she might clarify from which portion of my life I knew the pair.
It was for naught. Even with the conversation, I received not the barest inkling. I felt utterly clueless.
I offered a conciliatory smile as they made their exit, but Ashton’s disappointment burned into me, branding me for my failure.
I pride myself on my honesty, offering truth when questioned and trusting that understanding the real world is the best possible preparation. One truth out there: People forget. I hope I never teach that lesson in that way again.