Each memory holds a bit of truth, but all prove false.
The screech of brakes broke her thoughts.
The doors clacked open, and Claire stepped aside as figures burst forth into the rich heat of the underground platform. Seeing neither child nor senior, she stepped into the train. There were two seats left, thinly filmed with the muck of the morning rush. She chose the one less yellow.
The bodies filled the train like balls of dough. She remembered patting and shaping sweet bits of dough with her grandmother before strategically placing each one into a cake pan. They would meld together as they baked. The bodies in the steel oven became one anxious monster, for a moment.
Claire closed her eyes, laid her hands palms up on her thighs to recall the touch of dough, soft and sticky. Her grandmother’s charm bracelet would collect bits as she worked.
The train lurched to a stop, and the thick stench of baking bodies returned to her. A woman sitting across clutched her purse, blood slipping from her knuckles, and stared at her with wide red eyes. Beside the woman sat a man in a suit, leg crossed over thigh, a newspaper in hand as he feigned sophistication. The smell of beer engulfed her as another man reached to grab the rail above her.
She remembered her grandfather, a man by classic definition. Stern and burley, he walked with a pride that emanated from his chest. His laughter was rare but potent, and boomed forth from those pride-filled lungs with a shaking force. She could still feel it rolling under her skin.
Her grandfather gave her grandmother the charm bracelet as a birthday present many years ago, and a charm for each birthday after. She never took it off after he died. The cluttered charms jingled like Christmas bells as her grandmother kneaded the dough. Their song lingered in Claire’s ears until the conductor’s inaudible announcement cut through her memory.
The large belly of the drunk before her, peaking from his shirt, jiggled with the trembling train as his body swayed with the turns. The graceful violence of his figure’s submission soothed her. He muttered secrets to the custard air as they went.
She tried to return to the memory of her grandparents, to feel the dough, to hear her grandfather’s laugh or the jingle of charms, but her chest tightened and her mind clouded as she struggled to recall what had happened to the bracelet.
Her grandmother passed when she was ten. Relatives, distant and close, raided the house for memories. Claire found the bracelet in her grandmother’s mahogany jewelry box and kept it safe for herself, but was too afraid to wear it. Instead, she tucked it away someplace safe. With that soothing her mind, she was free to forget entirely where that safe place was.
As she baked in with the bodies, she dug through her memory and found the same four images.
She remembered returning from the funeral, and placing the bracelet into a sock and into her underwear drawer, hidden away from her little sister. She could still feel its weight in her hand as she tucked it away.
She remembered returning from the funeral, and placing the bracelet into a sock for safety, and back into the zipper pocket of her purse. It was a pendant of protection. She could feel the hard lumpy shape of it as she patted the pocket to be sure it was there throughout the day. She used that purse only for special occasions as a child, and left it to collect dust in her mother’s house in her adulthood.
She remembered returning from the funeral, and placing the bracelet into a sock to keep it from tangling with the necklaces in her jewelry box. She remembered the slow flat song of the underwound box as she opened it, and how the distorted melody had fit the occasion.
She remembered bringing the bracelet with her to the city when she moved out of her mother’s house. She found it hidden in a sock under a pair of blue striped underpants, and stuffed it in her pocket. She knew the transition would be difficult, and she wanted her grandmother beside her. Once she arrived in her new home, she placed the bracelet in an old cookie tin in her wicker chest for safekeeping.
She delved deeper into each memory, but found that the more she struggled to find the faults, the more real they felt.
Claire spent most of her time in the past, reacquainting herself with each half-forgotten sensory detail. She hardly ate because she found that low blood sugar allowed for clearer reflections as it freed her mind by weakening its cage. She saw memories as islands on an inky sea, and hopped from one to the other, exploring each crevice and corner as though it were new. Like wiping weather from a window, each image grew bright and crisp as she practiced.
Claire felt the waxy surface of linoleum as she sat down before her grandmother’s oven to watch the bread rise. Its sweet toasted breath caressed her face. She walked her doll along the printed grain, each plastic foot sticking for a moment, pip pap, pip pap. Her grandmother handed her a mug of cocoa. Dehydrated marshmallows melted on her tongue as she sipped.
Claire called it time traveling, and although she hated herself (as those prone to reflection often do), she traveled to save herself. To her a person was nothing but a composition of memories shaped by their interpretation. Claire had watched pieces of her grandmother fall to dust as her mind was eaten by disease. Not until the art of her was long lost was its plinth carried to the grave. Claire did not like the idea of being deconstructed in such a way. She maintained her identity as one would their home. When others challenged her recollection, she held firm. Her method was perfect.
The inconsistency of the bracelet troubled her.
The Tuesday of the week before would have been her grandmother’s birthday. While walking home, Claire remembered the bracelet, the sock, the drawer, the white purse, the dying melody of her jewelry box, and bringing it with her to tuck away in the old cookie tin.
Once in her apartment, she opened the chest, tore out fabrics and yarn and thread for projects she never finished, and found the tin buried beneath. Inside were beads of broken bracelets, necklace chains knotted beyond hope, earrings with no backings, but no charm bracelet. She placed the box aside, and probed the bottom of the obviously empty chest. She phoned her mother who remembered a rhinestone bracelet, a silver bracelet, but the charm bracelet escaped her. Claire’s memory was crisp, and her method perfect, but that weekend she visited her mother to search for evidence of the bracelet’s existence.
It had been six months since Claire had last stepped onto the oak porch of her mother’s house and knocked.
She had returned several times in her mind over that time. She knew the arrangement of the furniture, the rough plush sofa cushions, the stains on the warped wooden floor, and the distinct musk of home.
The door creaked open in its familiar way to reveal her mother in curlers. She hugged Claire cautiously with wet nails, and led her into the living room.
Everything was different. A throw rug hid the stains in the wood; the sofa, masked by a duvet, was moved from the wall to before the fire; even the smell was tainted by a pumpkin pie candle flickering on the radio stand. She fought back the desperate urge to snuff it out.
Claire thought how her home would have remained, as it was, safe in her mind, if she had never returned. She breathed in the pie-infused air, and felt as a guest in her mother’s home.
Claire’s room had morphed into an office in her absence. Her old underwear drawer of adolescent secrets held bills and documents of ambiguous significance. Nothing was moved, her mother assured, the drawer had been empty. She opened her closet and found old wrapping paper stacked against the walls, flattened shipping boxes lining the floor, and folders and binders of more papers scattered throughout. There was no small white purse. Her mother assured her that this too was not moved. Claire had sold it in a garage sale when she was eight. Claire found her jewelry box behind a shoebox of old photographs in the bottom corner. A few morbid notes whimpered as she opened it. Inside was a macaroni bracelet, loose change, paint-chipped mardi gras beads, and a pink band bearing her name in glittering bubble letters on a square of silver painted plastic, but no charm bracelet.
It was only a twenty-minute drive to the graveyard from her mother’s house. Claire liked graveyards. They felt ancient and certain. She plucked a dandelion from beside the entrance gate and wound her way through the graves. She read the names and dates as she went, and thought how the memories of people can never be so certain as their stones.
The idea lingered as she approached the praying angel that marked her grandmother’s grave. Her sister was the youngest in the family, and was too young at the time of her grandmother’s death to recall anything other than vague shapes and the narrations of photographs. How many years would it take to wash away her memory? Stories linger for a time, but her grandmother was no one special. Neither funny nor clever, she was a lovely woman, a loving woman, but nothing legendary. She did as she felt she had to, and then she died. Claire cradled the dandelion in her palm as its buttery light jaundiced her hand, then placed it in the angel’s lap.
As she weaved her way back through the stones, she read again the names and years. They were all too old for memory. The evidence of their existence was lost or dissociated from them like the bracelet lost to space, and hidden in a web of disfigured memory. But if she did not care for a tangible truth, did it matter if the memories were false? She could pick an image despite its validity. Without uncertainty, the memory could solidify in her mind. She could mold herself by constructing her own past. Claire looked around at the stone speckled yard of forgotten strangers. She could make herself remember them. When the contours of her grandmother’s face melt away, won’t it be sufficient to know the name and share a story twisted by time? What difference would there be in constructing fictions to chiseled names? She could meet them, talk with them, and laugh with them. She could hate them and love them or not give a damn about them, and every new imagined experience would contribute to her composition. To tamper with one’s memory is to tamper with one’s self. She smiled at the idea. It wouldn’t be very difficult, her homage to the lost. Memories do not need evidence, only repetition.
She chose to remember her mother’s house as it was, when it was home, and added the throw rug, the duvet-covered couch, and the scent of cinnamon pumpkins to the image. Making the strange familiar in her mind would require time, but soon she could go home without feeling as an invader.
She chose to remember tucking the bracelet into a sock, the charms catching in the fibers. She buried it in the back of her underwear drawer, and knew it was safe from her little sister. She imagined how later her mother would throw the undergarments away unaware of the treasure hidden within.
The subway doors clacked open, and Claire squeezed her way through the melding bodies.