Her memory was gone.
It came to Katharine like a soft shock, like a blow inside the head. She was in the yellow bedroom at her daughter’s house in Maine, standing at the bureau, getting ready for lunch. She’d just finished doing her hair, smoothing it back to her modest bun, tucking in the small combs to hold it in place. The combs were hardly necessary now, her long, fine hair—still mostly black—had turned wispy and weightless, and no longer needed restraint. But vanity, like beauty, is partly habit, and Katharine still put the combs carefully into her thinning hair, though now they slipped easily out, then vanished, beneath the furniture, against the patterns of the rugs.
Hair done, combs briefly and precariously in place, Katharine looked around for her scarf. It was an old soft cotton one, a blue paisley square. She’d worn it once at a birthday party, and now, for a moment, in her daughter’s guest room with its faded yellow walls, the sunlight slanting onto the worn wooden floors, the idea of the scarf and the party seemed confusingly to merge. She had a sudden sense of the party blooming around her—a blur of voices, laughter, a fireplace—a sense of pleasure at being with these people, whoever they were. Green demitasse cups, those tiny tinkling spoons, a tall brass lamp by the fireplace—or was that somewhere else?
She tried to remember herself further into it, but could not. She could not mentally arrive at the event. She stood at the bureau, her mind groping. Everything else about the party—whom it was for, when it had happened, where—had vanished. The small, hard, bright facts, like nails that should connect it to the rest of her life, were missing. The place where her memory had been was gone, blurrily erased, like a window grayed by mist. Beyond it was unknown space.
Other things, besides that party, were vanishing—the names and places she depended on, the familiar links that made up her past. This was happening gradually, as though pieces of her mind were breaking off and floating away, like ice in a river. She couldn’t stop it, she didn’t want to think about it.
But now, standing at the bureau, this realization rose up around her, closing in on her like a high breaking wave. She felt as though she were being held helpless and still, while the rest of her awareness slid past her, increasingly fast. Who were you if you had no past? If you existed nowhere but in this room, right now? If your life were being swept away from you?
Katharine stood still, disoriented by the thought. She held on to the bureau with both hands, bracing herself, as though this were a fast current she might be able to resist. She looked down at the hands be-fore her: they did not seem to be hers. They were mottled and swollen, slow with arthritis, the knuckles thick. She’d always had graceful hands, pale, with long narrow fingers. Hadn’t she?
She stood without moving in her daughter’s yellow guest room, grip-ping the bureau and looking down at her things as though they might keep her steady: the blue cotton scarf, which was right in front of her; the spray bottle of lavender cologne—the scent reminding her of her mother—missing its cap; a round silver pin etched with leaves—a birthday present, years ago, but from whom? One of the children, she thought: it still held a strong charge of affection. She saw all these things in front of her, whole, present, while that thought ranged greedily through her mind—radical, bewildering, calamitous—her memory was gone.
Julia, in the kitchen, was making lunch, moving quickly, her movements hurried, slightly inept: having her parents in the house put her on high alert, her pulse thrumming. When they were here, there was not enough of her. She should be everywhere, all the time—in the bed-room, helping her mother find a lost comb; in the cellar, looking for a tool for her father; out on the porch, quickly sweeping it before lunch; in the kitchen, fixing meals.
Julia wanted her parents here—she loved them—but their presence altered her gravity. She had to struggle to stay upright. As she swung open the door of the refrigerator, leaning into its chilly radiance, taking out the wrapped packet of ham, the mayonnaise, she could feel the beat of anxiety, the hurrying of her pulse. Down the hall, in the yellow room, were her parents, breathing, speaking, about to need something.
What she felt when her parents were here was something large and unsayable, confusing, nearly unbearable. Affection, anxiety, resentment— although she was an adult, with her own children, nearly grown, and she should long ago have moved beyond this confusion. But her parents’ presence still unsettled her. When they were here, the house seemed small and ill equipped, the doors put on backward, the light switches unconnected, a troubling dreamscape where nothing was right.
Deliberately, Julia slowed herself down. She drew a long breath. Relax. Deliberately she took down the blue-and-white-striped plates, set them down on the counter. You can’t do everything, she told herself sensibly. (Why did good advice come in platitudes?) Her parents enjoyed it here. The visit itself, that was what she was giving them. Julia liked having them here, liked offering them all this, the summer day, the house, with its faintly spicy, cedary smell. The early-morning twittering of finches in the lilacs. The sun on the tall ferns that crowded the back porch. The long pink grass of the meadow, rippling down to the cove. These
were the things her parents were here for. And herself. Her parents were here to see her. They loved her.
She drew another long, calming breath, releasing the clutch of anx-iety. She picked up the jar of mayonnaise. Twisting the top, she felt its hidden threads turn smoothly beneath her hands, unlocking the grip of metal on glass, and felt sudden pleasure at the way things worked, at the way one neat circular motion did exactly what it should. A ripple of admiration for the whole mechanized world of gears, cogs, ratchets, levers, pulleys—the physical systems that made things work. It was bril-liant, the way people—men, really, engineers were mostly men, despite feminism—had established such ingenious control over the world of objects.
What she wanted was to make her parents happy. It didn’t matter when they had lunch, or if the porch had been swept. She unwrapped the damp translucent packet of meat. (There was something indecent about sliced ham, about the look of it, that pink succulence, its clinging moistness.)
Julia sliced a tomato, opening its juicy scarlet core, then lapping the slices in a neat circle on a plate. She opened the jar of mustard, for her mother and herself. Her father’s sandwich would not have mustard or lettuce. The list of things her father did not like was legion: Edward viewed the world as a student project offered up to him for correction.
Edward’s presence flooded through the house, powerful, demand-ing, judgmental. At any moment he might appear in the doorway, offer-ing criticism, finding fault. The day before, while Julia was fixing dinner, Edward had arrived in the kitchen with a peremptory request for a flashlight to check beneath the sink in his bathroom.
“Water’s dripping onto the floor,” he announced. “I want to see what’s going on.”
“It’s probably only condensation on the pipes,” said Julia, her heart sinking. “Not a leak.” Surely she’d know if there were a leak? Surely this wasn’t a leak?
“I’d like to have a look at it,” he told her, as though she hadn’t spoken. “Could I have a flashlight?”He’d stood in the doorway, waiting, while Julia stopped chopping carrots to root through the kitchen drawer. She found a flashlight, but it was dead, and there seemed to be only one new battery—a mystery, since they came in pairs.
“Sorry,” she said, irritated at herself. Her father turned without a word and went back down the hall.
It was a fact that the house was shabby, and that many aspects of it were primitive or provisional. Julia and her ex-husband Wendell—both underpaid university professors—had always had less money than her parents, and now that she was single again, Julia had even less than be-fore. Her father, who’d been a brilliant and successful neurosurgeon, had offered her no financial help during the divorce, believing that beds should be made and then lain in. He’d always seemed to take a stern relish in reminding her of her impecuniousness, pointing out the flaws in her house, her life, and the way she ran them. Now that she was poorer it seemed to Julia that he did this more often, as though being poor were merely an oversight on her part, and, if offered enough con-vincing evidence from him, she would change her mind and decide to be rich.
It was the constant threat of her father’s appearance, his criticisms and demands, that made Julia feel harried. (“Rattled,” her mother would say. “Nettled.” She used those old-fashioned expressions. No one nowa-days would know what a nettle felt like, the faint silvery irritation made by the leaves against your bare leg.)
She must relax, Julia told herself. Though why was he so rude about her house? And so casually rude, as though finding fault were his right. As though he had some special entitlement to criticism.
She drew another deep breath and laid out the slices of bread on the counter in rows, like bread solitaire. She spread the mayonnaise, smooth-ing it creamily out to the edges. The tangible world: she admired the rich surface of the mayonnaise. Opaque, succulent. How would you paint it, she wondered, and get both the glitter and opacity? Who used that heavy, creamy brushstroke? Chase? Sargent? It all looked like a painting already.
Her father was eighty-eight, her mother eighty-six. Julia loved them, and they were getting old. She didn’t think of them as actually old, but as getting old. They were nearing that country, their bodies were less present in the world, they were losing height and weight and bulk. Her parents were being diminished. She could feel them moving away, withdrawing, sweeping out like the tide toward the distant horizon.
Her father appeared now in the doorway.
How is it, she thought, that when we see someone, all the disembod-ied thoughts and emotions of that person coalesce in that figure, that presence? How does the body carry that dense weight of being?
Her father’s body held him, his character within it. If the body was lost, all his thoughts and feelings, his opinions, his irascibility, his surgical skills would be lost, swept into deep space. He would be intact then only in memory—a system so flawed and arbitrary, so unreliable, so wanting. The thought made her panicky. She looked at her father and was struck by her deep knowledge of him, by the way their lives were wrapped around each other’s, the many times she’d seen him walk into a room. How she’d longed, she supposed, for his approval.
Her father was now shockingly small, nearly her own height. In her childhood, when she’d first learned him, her father had been immense, massive-chested, towering over her like a cliff. His head was in the up-per regions of the air; she’d had to call up to his great height, her own voice tossed and tiny. Even when she’d grown up, her father had been tall. At her wedding, walking down the long aisle of the church, her father remote and distant beside her, in his dark suit, she’d felt his looming, powerful presence.
But now her father’s eyes were nearly level with hers, and his move-ments slow. Now his forehead rose to the top of his head, and fine white hair ringed his bare pate like a tonsure. His hair was too fine and weightless to lie down, and it stood up wildly, as though blown by a small personal wind. His nose had become bulbous; on his pouched yellowy cheeks were faint brown stains. His small piercing eyes were faded blue, and deep disapproving lines were etched from nose to mouth.
He wore old khaki pants, ponderous white running shoes, and a stained blue windbreaker, zipped up to his chin. He wore the jacket every day, indoors and out, as though it were the only thing he owned.
This was not the way he’d used to dress. Julia remembered him leaving for the hospital each morning wearing elegant suits, dull silk ties, soft leather shoes. Now he looked like a poor person, homeless. Which was what age did to you, it stripped you of what you’d had, of your presence in the world. The sight of him like this, shuffling, heavy-footed, in his stained windbreaker, made Julia feel helpless with tenderness.
Her father frowned at her. “Do you have an atlas?” he demanded. “I want to look up where we are.”
At once Julia forgot her tenderness, her anxiety. He had restored himself to despot. His manner—autocratic, imperious—never ceased to exasperate her.
“We do have an atlas,” Julia said. “I’ll get it for you.”
She strode into the living room, bare heels thudding confidently on the floor. Crouching by the bottom shelf, where the big books lay flat, she ran her fingers briskly and uselessly down the spines: the atlas, she could see at once, was gone.
She looked further, her gaze ranging back and forth across the shelves, lunch unfinished on the counter, her father standing ponder-ously behind her, judgment gathering in the silence. The atlas had its own place on the bottom shelf, everyone knew it. Why, right now, her father’s frown embedding itself on his forehead, was the atlas elsewhere? More evidence of her inability to run a household. Where could it possibly be, that big ungainly volume?
Julia sat back on her heels. “It’s not here, Daddy. Sorry.” She made her voice brisk and offhand.
“It’s not there?”
“Someone’s taken it and not put it back.” She stood and headed for the kitchen, head high.
“I wanted to see just where we are on the coast.” Her father shook his head. “You don’t have an atlas.”
“I do have an atlas,” Julia corrected him. “Someone’s taken it.”
There was a pause.Edward said, “I don’t see how you can say you have an atlas if you don’t have it.”
“I do have an atlas,” Julia repeated. “I just can’t find it right now.”
Edward shook his head. “I’d call that not having one,” he said, almost to himself. “Do you have a map of the region? A local map? I want to see where we are on the coast.”
“We’re Down East,” Julia said. “That’s what you say up here. You don’t say north or south, you say Down East. Because of the schooners, and the prevailing winds.”
“I know that,” Edward said. “I know about being Down East. What I want to know is where. I want to look at a map and see exactly where we are on the coast.”
“There might be a map in the car,” Julia said, though right now she doubted it, “but I’m in the middle of making lunch. Can it wait until afterward?”
What her father made her feel was incompetent: the missing atlas, the absent husband, the shabby house. Don’t say anything more, she silently commanded.
She peeled off a translucent slice of ham and laid it carefully onto the bread. Her father waited for a moment, but she did not look up. Frustrated, he turned away. She heard him heading slowly down the hall, the floor creaking beneath his steps.
At once she was ashamed.
Why did this happen? Why did she snap at her father like an adolescent? Why did he unsettle her? She was an adult. She had two wonderful sons, an ex-husband, and a possible new boyfriend; she taught at a distinguished university, she was a working artist, she showed her work regularly at a good gallery. She should be far beyond the reach of her father. But her father, though he himself was diminishing, still cast a long shadow over her life. . . .
Copyright © 2008 by Roxana Robinson. All rights reserved.
ROXANA ROBINSON is the author of three earlier novels, three collections of short stories, and the biography Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, More, and Vogue, among other publications.