It began slowly. She had always had trouble remembering people’s names, for instance, that was nothing new. She would be at a party, be introduced to five or six people, and then instantly, like a stage magician’s trick, the names that had been there only a second ago would vanish. She had become good at little deceptions to overcome this disability. Although, really, she thought of it as a moral failing. But no matter what she did, no matter how hard she tried, using little strategies she had read about, comparing people to animals, making up odd rhymes, it was useless. She would be introduced to someone, hear the name, and as she heard it, almost on that instant, the name was gone, sliding swiftly and completely out of her memory.
It was something she used to joke about with her friends. Sometimes she even forgot their names, people she had known for years. She had a reputation for it, people smiling fondly and shaking their heads at her.
“That’s Cyl for you, she’d forget her head if it wasn’t attached,” her friend Joanne had said several weeks ago, and everyone had laughed when Cyl had to admit she hadn’t brought the desert for their evening get-together, at which each person had brought one carefully chosen course.
“It’s right on the counter,” she said. “I put it out, a lemon chiffon cake, and then I was in such a hurry I dashed out, and it’s still there. Or maybe not. Adam may be enjoying a rare treat.”
But she was lying, of course. Adam, her dog, couldn’t have been lolling on the floor, lemon icing smeared all over his paws and muzzle because there was no cake. And she was going out tonight only because Tanya had phoned her early that evening to talk to her about some trivial thing, and then said as she was hanging up, “I suppose this was silly, I don’t know why I just didn’t wait till I see you at Addie’s an hour from now.”
“Yes, of course,” Cyl had said, pretending that she remembered, although for the life of her she couldn’t remember anything about what the occasion was or why they were going to Addie’s. She didn’t know what to wear, and she tried to dress craftily, wearing something that could seem casual if that was what was required, or more formal if that was what was expected.
She came across a dress in a pretty print that still had the store tags attached, and that she had no recollection of buying. But when she put it on, she found it fit perfectly and suited her pale skin, and the blue cornflowers in the print matched her eyes exactly. It could have been chosen for just this occasion, a mysterious evening when she didn’t know what was called for.
What am I going to do, she thought as she left the house, what is expected of me, and how will I fail this time? But even the thought of failure, usually so sharp and menacing, a knife held to her throat for so long, seemed dulled and clouded, as if she could not quite grasp the concept.
Not long now, she thought, and a ripple of fear, almost like an impatient caress from a lover, shot though her. Soon she couldn’t hide it any longer. The hollowing out, the growing vacuum that was like a pregnancy inside her and more visible every day. The memories would fall away from her like leaves in autumn, and soon she would be bare, elemental, only a shape of what had been. She would have gone somewhere else, leaving everything behind. She had carried too much before and now there would be nothing to weigh her down.
She smiled and squared her shoulders. Someone had once told her that. Stand straight. She did, and with no thought of bravery or courage, stepped out into the abyss.
Joyce Lautens O’Brien is a Canadian who used to live in New York and now lives in Connecticut. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Yemassee, Connecticut River Review, Riverbabble, Pure Slush, Quantum Poetry, Foundling Review and Metazen.
© 2011, Joyce Lautens O’Brien