First let me try and explain: it’s like falling into deep, deep water. A sudden plunge that knocks your breath away, and once you go under, you forget which way is up. One minute I’m in line at the bank, or crossing the street, or pushing my cart through the Sav-Mart. Then something trips me and my memory opens up and I tumble in. Maybe I see a barrette in someone’s hair and suddenly I’m six years old, at the Gimbels perfume counter. Eight greasy fingerprints on the plate glass front. Eleven atomizers on a tray, piano music tinkling through the store stereo. A poppy seed stuck in the saleslady’s front teeth. She turns her head towards Leather Goods and two wisps fly loose from her tortoise-shell clip and my mother slips a bottle of Chanel No. 5 into her pocket and a snail of sweat creeps down my back and she pulls me away by the hand. I live it again, every little thing, and when I come back to the present the teller is shouting Miss? Miss? through the hole in the plexiglass, cars are honking, a quart of ice cream is melting to soup in my hands. On my back the same wet snail-trail. In my nostrils, Chanel No. 5.
You’d think this memory would’ve made me a straight-A student, a Jeopardy Champion. You might call it a gift. I wouldn’t. In school, when I opened my locker or sharpened my pencil or sat down with a quiz, I’d suddenly fall into some other day, some other moment. Ten minutes later I’d still be standing there, lock in hand as the late bell rang, or my pencil would be ground down to a nub, or the teacher, gently and sadly, would say, “Brianna, time’s up.” Even now, behind the wheel, I get lost in a memory and find myself parked at the Dairy Queen by the train station, or the hospital where Caitlin was born, or on Route 6 halfway to Chatham, and Caitlin, if she’s in the car, says, “Mom, you have the worst sense of direction.” But I can’t help it. Once I heard a story on the radio about a woman like me. She had scientists baffled. “Hyperthymesia,” they called it: highly superior autobiographical memory. They thought there might be forty or fifty people in the world like us, people whose pasts keep opening up and swallowing us down. I went to a doctor once, myself. I thought he would look at me and just know. But he took my blood pressure and told me to take a vitamin and said I was just fine, and I never told him. I never told anyone.
That’s how I ended up cleaning rooms at the Meadowlark. It’s just one of those little motels that dot every roadway up and down the Cape, nothing fancy, and the pay isn’t much. My mother sighs every time my job comes up. She’s spent all her life cleaning too: thirty-five years across town at Channel 17, dusting the archive rooms, vacuuming the studio and wiping down the desk after the eleven o’clock news. All those years she kept picking the wrong men: they didn’t hit her or try to touch me, but they drank or ran around or slipped bills from her purse or sat in their underwear watching Maury all day. Uncle Tommy, Uncle Jimmy, Uncle Tony, Uncle Robbie: all of them big men with names like little boys, who stayed for a while and made my mother cry and then drifted out of our lives, some on cue, some on their own. She’d wanted more for me, a husband and a house and a job where I had to wear pantyhose. Instead it’s just me and Caitlin, just enough money for rent and food and a movie once a month. But I work at the Meadowlark because there, my memory doesn’t matter. If the sheets are changed ten minutes later, no one cares at all.
So this is what happened last week.