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Faux Pas

By Ray Gardener All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Scifi

Faux Pas

The trouble with getting married, Jack thought, is that you can never marry someone on a completely brand-new basis.

It was an interesting concept, he thought, trying vainly to get margarine all the way to the edge of his toast. Somehow all of my good ideas came to me at breakfast. He settled for poorly-buttered bread and made his way to his dining table, sitting down slowly to avoid straining his knees. The morning light was rudely diminished by clouds, which had made themselves a permanent fixture in the west coast winter. Jack knew it wasn't the clouds' fault, since they could not be purposeful creatures, but it was all to easy to blame them as if they were consciously malevolent. He watched them for a moment, wondering if it was raining, and then continued eating.

He thought of how, when one went to a store, all the goods were shrink-wrapped in nice, form-fitting plastic, boxed, bagged, wrapped, or otherwise packaged. Even the fruits and vegetables in the produce section reeked of freshness, as if they had materialized in their present form onto the shelves. If a pineapple could talk, he thought, it would say, I have no history; my life begins by interacting with you.

But people were not like that; they could never be like that. The longer one delayed getting married, the likelier it was one would marry an older person, and therefore the likelier that both bride and groom would have long, colorful pasts that they had not shared. It was like buying a used car, with various dents and scratches that had been there so long that they were now an integral part of the whole. A better analogy might be that of moving into a house. You could make it your own, but it took time. There would always be that initial feeling of strangeness, of not belonging, of not fitting in. If you were lucky, at some distant later point people would say, You know, Jack, that house is really you.

He didn't know why he was thinking of marriage. In the mornings, his thoughts seemed to come and go at their leisure. But it wasn't a bad topic either; sooner or later he had to think about loving someone. Personally, he hoped it would be sooner, although he was not in any particular hurry.

He thought about Joan, who had lived off and on with various boyfriends but couldn't settle down with any of them. When he had asked, she had explained that the "fit wasn't right", and he would always shrug his sholders and say Well, when you know it's right, you'll know, and she would always agree, and then they would go back to doing their own things. He wondered now if Joan's problem was that she didn't feel comfortable in any of those houses; maybe the gap in personalities was too great. Or maybe she was one of those people who were fussier than most, not about looks or health or money, but about wavelength.

He had had moments like that himself. There had been women, some of them very nice, but for reasons he wasn't sure of, he had always backed off. When he thought about it now, he could see his reasoning for what it was, laid out flat and wide like a blueprint. He couldn't just enjoy the moment, or date someone for the simple pleasure of enjoying someone's company; there had to be a compelling reason. The chemistry had to be powerful. That certain undefinable rightness about the other person had never materialized, and without it, he was powerless to continue, like a knight without his sword.

The phone rang. Too tired to swear, Jack put down the toast, got up, and went to answer on the third ring.

"Hello."

"Jack? It's Ron. You up yet?"

Ron was what Jack called his drinking buddy. The only time they seemed to spend together was at bars. They had first met somewhere else, but that place was foggy, distant, and, Jack realized, unimportant. It was what people regularly did that mattered.

"Yeah, I'm up."

"What'cha doing?"

Jack wondered where Ron found the energy to be interested. He himself couldn't remember the last time he had asked someone that question.

"Nothing. Eating toast and thinking."

"Ah. So you have an intellectual side. Heavy thoughts, I'll wager."
Jack tried not to laugh. "Sort of. I was thinking about marriage."

Now it was Ron's turn to laugh, and he let it rip. Jack had to hold the phone slightly away from his ear. He could picture tears streaming down Ron's face from all the effort he was making.

"Marriage? For God's sake, man, what on Earth for?"

What for, really? Jack never did anything in that direction.

"I don't know. I guess there wasn't anything better to think about."

Ron made a royally unsatisfied hmphh sound. "Only very few people I know are happily married. Very few. The vast majority have affairs, or break up some other way, and then stress themselves out over property, kids, child support, alimony. Decent guys, and their exes take half. Half, man. Count yourself lucky."

"Yeah, I guess I am."

"Damn right. You ever do get married, at least do yourself a favor and have the woman sign some prenup where she can't take half your booty."

"Sure." Jack lied. "That makes it romantic."

"Romantic?" Ron made another unflattering sound close to a sheesh. "Romantic is reserved for what happens before the wedding. The first meeting, the first kiss, the first time you hold hands and walk on the beach, the first, uh, you know. It can't get any better than that, so what comes after has gotta be downhill."

"Gee, you sound so sure. And without ever having done it yourself."

"Oh hell. I'm bound to sooner or later. But I'm not gonna go into it all doe-eyed and slap-happy, with these humungously big expectations. She's gonna be utterly perfect, or no deal."

Suddenly Jack realized that what Ron had just said, he could relate to. Maybe he didn't phrase it in Ron's, uh, shall we say, direct way, but it was the same thing. There were more variables in Jack's version, more subtleties, but still, it was the same reason. He agreed with a simple "Uh-huh".

"Exactly. Anyway... I'm gonna be at the Gold Lion tonight, if you're going out."

Jack was quietly relieved that the conversation was over. Before hanging up he said "Okay. Maybe I'll see you there."

His toast was now cold but he finished it anyway. As he did so, his earlier train of thought came back to him. It would certainly be interesting, he thought, if you could meet someone with no prior experience, but who wasn't a newborn baby. Someone who could talk and hold a meaningful conversation, but without any extra mental baggage, especially other relationships. And how wonderful, he mused, if that included relationships with mothers! Then he wouldn't have to worry about having a mother-in-law!

Fantasy, surely.

But would it help, even if it were possible? Surely such a person would be boring, lacking in depth, too much of an unsullied virgin, too naive, too trusting. That would be true, he realized, but still... there was something deeply alluring about a person with no history. How many times had he met someone divorced, or someone who had ended a bad relationship, only to suffer having them make endless comparisons between now and their past, or to realize that the poor woman was "broken" and couldn't get over it, couldn't trust herself to love again? He remembered how, at those times, his fists would clench and he would tell himself, God, I'd give anything to be able to rid her of the past.

It was then, of course, that the idea of memory removal occurred to him.

----

When he got to the Remov office, Jack was no longer sure why he had thought visiting it was such a good idea. But it would have been silly to leave empty-handed, so he milled about, waiting for the consultant to become available.

After a minute, the slightly younger man he had been waiting for came over and offered his hand.

"Hi. I'm Jen Ternax. How can I help you?"

Jack didn't know if this was the salesman's standard scripted greeting or if he was being sincere. Right off the bat, this Mr. Ternax seemed more talented than most, if indeed he was trying to improvise his sincerity. Like most people, Jack had a morbid fear and loathing (well, just loathing, really) of all things commercial. It seemed entirely proper to be distrustful of someone who could take the most ordinary corporate biztalk and make it sound warm. Despite himself, he lowered his own speech to the same level of informality.

"Hi. I was just curious about something."

Ternax didn't seem disappointed. Maybe lots of people only asked questions. "Sure. Memory removal is still pretty new. Plenty to wonder about."

Jack discovered, to his annoyance, that it wasn't altogether easy to ask what he wanted. But if leaving empty-handed seemed silly before, it was doubly stupid now, now that he had engaged a store representative in actual talk.

"Well, I was wondering if anyone had removed memories about... about, uh, people in their lives."

Well, that was a stupid way to put it¸ he thought savagely. He stood there, embarassed, hoping someone as smart as Mr. Ternax could figure it out anyway. The last thing he felt like doing was trying to explain further.

"Memories of other people?" A slight, almost impercetible look of bemusement swept the consultant's face. "Sure, it's pretty common. But that covers a lot of territory, too. I get the impression you meant something more specific."

"Uh, yeah." Jack admitted, somewhat relieved. "For example, let's say I was recently divorced, and wanted to forget everything about my ex-wife."

"Oh." Mr. Ternax said, now understanding completely, and at the same time rifling his mental filing cabinet to see if anything of the kind had happened. "I don't think that's ever happened yet. I guess you'd think it would, since those kind of memories are so common. But, uh, no... I can't recall a customer ever doing that."

Jack was surprised and also not surprised. Both ways made sense, it seemed, but only intuitively. He thought, he was hoping, in fact, that there would have been a precedent.

"Has anyone ever mentioned doing it? Talked about it?"

Ternax allowed himself a chuckle, and grinned almost like a little schoolboy. "Oh, sure -- all the time. The running joke is that if they would only go forward and act on it, me and the other guys could retire."

Jack was even more astonished. "They -- they talk about it, but don't do anything?"

"Nope. They all chicken out. And I don't mean that in a bad way, of course. They're not cowards, they're just thinking it would be nice to forget certain things, and then realize that it would be even nicer not to. Sometimes they have to talk about it before realizing how they really feel."

"Ah. And how do they really feel?"

Ternax shrugged. "Beats me. When they reach that point, it all becomes moot. They back away from the machine and say "Never mind." and move to something else. I'd ask, of course, but somehow I always feel like it would be a big faux pas or something. Personally, I subscribe to the Pizza Theory."

"The Pizza Theory?"

Ternax rocked on his heels. "Relationships are like pizza. Even when they're bad, they're good."

Jack shook his head. He had expected something different from Mr. Ternax somehow, not this carefree soul who blithely dispensed the services of a powerful neural technology and didn't know his customer's inner feelings with great precision. But what little he did know, seemed to make sense.

"But it could be done?" he asked.

Ternax stopped rocking. "Certainly. It's not a standard item, like a well-defined point memory of a particular thing at a particular time, but it can be done. The person has to remember many events, recall them well, and remove them. A divorce case could take a while, depending on how long the marriage was. I wouldn't be surprised if a person had to take half a day, or even all day."
Not that you'd mind, of course, Jack thought, starting to turn for the exit. "I see. Well, I appreciate your help."

"My pleasure." Ternax said, again in that perfectly sincere voice. If the consultant was disappointed at not making a sale right on the spot, he sure hid it damn well. There was something about salespeople that made Jack want them to be disappointed, as if they deserved it. Maybe it was petty of him, but he just didn't want them to ever be happy. But if a man subscribed to Pizza Theory, maybe it wasn't possible to disappoint him.

----

Jack caught up with Ron at the Golden Lion later that night.

"You missed happy hour." Ron said, ordering both of them a strange drink.

"Yeah. I was checking something out."

Ron laughed. "Something, or someone?"

"Something. I went down to that new Remov franchise a few blocks down, and --"

He stopped, realizing that maybe it wasn't a suitable topic of casual talk. Ron was nice and all, but not really the sort of person who could think along the same lines as Jack. If he continued, Ron was bound to say something like "Why bother? Just hang out with someone who hasn't had their heart broken yet."

Ron tried to wait but couldn't. "And what?"

"Oh, nothing. I just wanted to see the place, that's all."

It was best to leave it at that. Jack wanted to know why the people who though about removing their relationship memories never did, and he just knew that Ron wouldn't be able to illuminate things further. If anything, Ron would make crude jokes about the whole thing, and he'd be no better off. And deeper down, there was a nagging sense of insecurity about revealing the truth. If he ever managed to go through with it, and Ron knew, then things could get awkward later. How hard is it for people who erase their memories to bump into friends who bring up a past that they no longer remember? Who not only not remember it, but are one hundred percent certain it didn't even happen? And the harder the person who knew the truth tried to convice the person who had forgotten, the more that person would appear to be mean, as someone trying to raise an unpleasant subject. What was that phrase Mr. Ternax had used? Faux pas.

They talked about something else, and it held for half an hour, and then, strangely, Ron returned back to the subject of Remov, and what Jack had been doing there. Just as Jack was about to make excuses to go to the washroom, a providential interruption occurred.

"Joan!" he exclaimed. Was it really her?

"Jack!" she said equally as loud, stepping over. Her brown hair was cut short, as always, making her look neither pretty nor plain. She wasn't a supermodel, certainly, but no man would be embarassed to be with her in public, either. Jack himself had always thought her attractive. He hoped she felt the same way about him.

"It's good to see you."

She looked at his drink, wondering for a moment what it was, and then asked him if would buy her one.

"Sure, of course. I'd buy you a whole river, if I could."

She laughed, touched by his silliness. But it was the kind of thing no one else ever told her, the kind of thing she missed whenever she chose someone else. Why she didn't love Jack, she didn't know. Or maybe she did, and that was why it was so hard to be with him -- she had a feeling that if they lived together, or did anything serious together, that something would go wrong and then their wonderful love, such as it was, would be broken and gone forever, and that would be unbearable.

Ron managed to find someone else to talk with, insatiable flirt that he was, so Jack had Joan all to himself, and they talked easily through the night.

"You didn't come here with anyone?" he asked.

She shook her head, the small bangs of hair flapping about. "Nope."

"What about Steve?"

She giggled, almost threatening to spill her drink. "Forget Steve. He didn't make me laugh anywhere near the way you do."

"I thought you liked him."

She tried to look thoughtful. "I did. I really did, at one point. But it's funny how it's so hard to remember what it was you liked about someone after the magic is gone. I'm worried that, maybe I was only kidding myself, that there had never been a good reason at all, and that I just go with people without ever thinking it through, or feeling anything proper."

"You said he had a nice butt."

Now she did laugh. "I did? Oh, yeah... I did! Yeah, now I remember. It's funny, though... I never would have remembered a thing like that. It just never seemed important."

"Maybe it was just an infatuation, then. People have done a lot more for far less."

"Maybe." she agreed, looking into his eyes just then. He returned the favor, and suddenly, without thinking about it, she leaned forward and kissed him. He was surprised, but fortunately, not too surprised to stop her. It had been a long time since they'd been intimate, and he was, simply enough, enjoying himself. Eventually they pulled away, and she looked flustered.

But to hell with it, she thought. She knew the alcohol was making her loose, but what was so bad about that? And Jack was everything she liked about men, she admitted. Everyone else was perfectly willing to question her, find fault in her, break up with her, risk making her feel bad -- but not Jack. What she thought of as his lack of character was, actually, something else, and damned if it didn't take all this time to start figuring out. She looked at him again, and found it great to be in his arms, to be held by him. The feeling was wonderful, somehow, as if it was the first time.

Gosh, I'm going to turn all mushy, right here in public. "I love you." she said.

Jack tried hard to keep his eyes from going wide. Three simple words, but — the strings they could pull on. How long had he been waiting to hear them? So long, that he wasn't sure.

He so desperately wanted to say I love you, too that when he did speak, he was more astonished than anyone else when he heard his voice. It was as if someone else had spoken, with his body, and he was merely watching through his eyes, unable to stop it.

"Will you marry me?" he asked.

She hadn’t been expecting it either. She bit her lower lip for a moment, trying to gain her thoughts, but it was hopeless and after holding her breath for several seconds, just let out a long sigh.

"I... I can't."

He would have been crushed if he had consciously proposed. How he had was still a great mystery; he ultimately reasoned that, deep down, he had a great need to have her in his life, and the simpler, more instinctive beast inside him just got tired of pussyfooting around, and pushed his higher brain aside. The sort of thing Ron, for example, never had trouble with. Still, he was disappointed. If there was a simpler beast inside him, it had to be despondant, and maybe that was what he was feeling.

"It's alright." he said. "Maybe someday... well."

She didn't say anything, except to look away and mumble a distant "Yeah" in semi-agreement, and all of a sudden Jack did feel upset. Maybe it was the booze, but like her, he didn't care that much either. If she had said "I don't know" that would have been something. But "I can't" sounded worse, like something premeditated, deliberately planned. Obviously, she had some reason, something that stood in the way, and if she wouldn't deal with it, then...

"To hell with it. It's never going to happen. I'm just dreaming, like always. Right?"

She looked hurt. "Jack, I never... I didn't mean this to happen. I do love you, but..."

"But what?" he demanded. He was amazed how impatient he was getting, but he couldn't help himself. Maybe Ron and his jokes about biological clocks were true.

She straightened up on her barstool, composing herself. "I married someone a long, long time ago. It didn't even last a year, but I was so... hurt... when it ended, and even before, when it became obvious that he didn't love me. I just..." she trailed off, the words she wanted to use being tossed away for their inappropriateness. "I don't know. I'm just so afraid." Now didn't seem like a good time to start getting into long explanations.

Married before? Her? Sheesh, just when you think you know somebody, he thought. Well, I guess that explains a lot. He turned to lean both elbows on the bar, took a gulp of his strange drink and considered leaving. Whatever the evening had left, its magic had worn thin. It was a shame, that was for sure, that someone like Joan, whom he'd known all his life, a person he held in such high esteem, was like all those others. Those others, who had given their fragile hearts to someone, only to have them cruelly dashed, twisted. If he had met her first, how different everything would have been. But because it had been someone else, because some stupid little twist of fate intervened, he had to endure this. He sat there, smoldering, his fists bunching up. God, —

"I'd give anything to rid myself of the past." she said.

He whirled to face her. "What?"

"The past." she repeated. "I'd give anything to let go of it. We'd have so much fun, then."

He brightened a bit. "Well, you know..."

----

Jen Ternax easily remembered Jack. He didn't think he had ever met Joan before. She wasn't unique looking enough, he finally decided. But for an unmarried couple, he felt that they went really well together. He liked that Jack had had the presence of mind to come in the morning, because Joan was going to need a fair bit of time.

"Well," he was telling Jack, "if she'll do it, then... as far as I know, she'll have the distinction of being the first person to forget a former spouse. Or a former love, married or not."

"I guess someone had to be." Jack said casually. He was a little tired, after the extensive consulation in Mr. Ternax's office earlier. People (well, new customers, anyway) didn't just waltz up to a memory removal machine, sit down, and fire away. If they did, people like Ternax wouldn't have been necessary.

What people needed, on their first time, was knowledgeable guidance. The dangers were obvious — what would happen if you removed the wrong memories? What safety features were there? Would the memories come back later on, as if they'd only be repressed? And on and on. It didn't matter that there was a ton of existing reference material available; at the crucial moment, when you were actually in the store, you needed a fellow human being to see you through it. And as Jen didn't explain, to prevent you from changing your mind, which most people tended to do if he was not there. When he was there, it was surprising how many people he could keep from changing their minds. The whole consultation thing was a nice diversion, but a necessary one, he thought.

Joan was all ready, but as she finished sitting down in the seat of the machine, hesitation built up. She wondered if she was really doing the right thing. She called out to Jack, and Jen knew, just from the tone of her voice, that it was time for the reaffirmation. 

Always the same, he thought. They can never just go quietly.

If he'd been honest, Jen would have admitted to a slight dread himself. He'd honestly never seen anyone actually go as far as to sit in the machine, their hands mere inches from the button that would make them forget a former love. It didn't matter how awful the love had turned, how much it had turned into the vilest hatred; the closest anyone came was — what? — three feet before they changed their mind? And to a point of such conviction that he had learned not to bother talking them out of it? Why was this lady so different? He had a funny feeling that any second now, she was going to bolt upright, make some embarassed excuse, say how sorry she and Jack were for having wasted his time, and awkwardly do a fast walk out of the store. It wouldn't have surprised him in the least.

But all that was not visible on his face as he knelt down next to her. "It'll be alright." he said, as truthfully as he could manage. The reality was, he didn't have a clue. What was it that every previous customer knew but didn't say? What? What?!

Well, he thought glumly, actually swallowing, we're finally going to find out.

As Joan let the neural scanner fit over her, Jen also realized that there might not be any danger at all. There was every bit the possibility that, like the vast majority of completed removals, she would be fine and even happier. Just because no one had had the guts to do it did not mean that there was an inherent danger. Indeed, because no one had done it, there was no evidence either way. And if she didn't do it here, in his store, she'd do it somewhere else, and someone else would get the commission. He wondered if Jack had told her about the other customers, and chided himself for having mentioned them. But the man hadn't mentioned them during the consultation. But either way, she's certainly brave, he thought.

Because she was new, the scanner needed a few minutes to build a first-time trace map of her brain and all its neural connections. An actual quantum-level description would have been impossible, Jen knew, but thanks to the Chadwick field equations and compression routines, the data conveniently fit in the machine surrounding her. Somehow, he never tired of seeing it operate (even though, in all honesty, there wasn't much to see).

Joan found the machine to be as every bit as friendly as Jen had said it would be. There was certainly a lot of safety present; a small TV screen showed her a demonstration of what the process was like, and she saw that, even after selecting a memory, it wouldn't be erased until it was played back for her and she was absolutely sure, by pressing the button three times, that it could go. She only hoped that her memories were not stored elsewhere for someone's later amusement. The potential for invasion of privacy was downright awful.

She knew that she would have to use the button a lot, because forgetting her first (and only) marriage would require erasing lots of memories. She had asked Jen how she was supposed to be able to remember them all, and he simply explained that all she had to do was to try to remember any of them. If there weren't any, it meant that she had erased them all. If she missed a few (it happened sometimes) she could always come back and finish the job.

The scanner told her that it was finished! Memory removal could begin! A twinge of excitement went through her, and she gripped the armrests with the zest of novelty. She wondered what it would feel like, when the machine did the actual erasing. Would there be a sensation, like something going in and pulling a piece of her out? Or would she even know it had occurred? Would it be more like suddenly waking from a dream, where it becomes harder and harder to remember, until, hard as you try, it just isn't there anymore?

Jack stood faithfully by while she started recalling her marriage to (ugh) Fel Grant. Her first thought was of their last time together, him wearing clothes she found repulsive, explaining how he wanted to go to some stupid conference instead of being with her. She had asked him why he had to go, and instead of explaining, he had laughed, as if she were some child. Not an innocent laugh but a contemptous, humilitating snicker of selfishness. It had been the point when everything turned, when whatever love had still remained with them had left. Just when she needed him, to have put her down like that... it still hurt to think about it. She pressed the button, and the images, oddly discontinuous but somehow coherent, changing between sharp and slightly blurred, replayed themselves before her. Is this what you want to forget? the great machine asked her. With only a slight hesitation, she pressed the button again three times.

If the machine was doing something, she couldn't tell by listening. There was no extra hum or clicking sounds, no strange small lights suddenly winking on or flashing anywhere. It was running as always, nice and quiet. She knew that she had asked to erase a memory, and that it was the memory of her ex-husband explaining something about going to a conference, but the actual memory itself... she couldn't picture it. It was like knowing the name of a song, and knowing that it was a good song, but not being able to remember the actual music. There would be vague fragments, hopelessly elusive snatches of lyrics and melody, but nothing big enough to establish certainty. Just a feeling of loss, that yes, I once knew that song, but I don't anymore. I have forgotten it. She tried to recall his image, the image of the clothes he must have been wearing, but it wouldn't come. It was supposed to come, but it didn't. She tried again, harder, straining so much that her hands clenched on the armrest, the palms growing slipperly with sweat.

"Take it easy." Mr. Ternax was telling her. "We talked about this back in my office. There's always an instinctive reflex to try to remember, but it helps if you just let it go. As the procedure continues, you'll also start forgetting the related things, like the descriptors."

The descriptors. That was what they called a description of a memory, like the fact that she knew that the memory she had just erased had something to do with Fel wearing bad clothes and going to a conference. They were the prominent datums (another word they used) her mind used to index the memory. She wouldn't forget the meaning or spelling of the word "conference", of course, but the connection between that word and the erased memory would deteriorate, now that the memory was gone. It was like demolishing a house, he had said. The surrounding streets and yard are still there, suggesting that a house once stood there. Eventually those items get arranged differently, and then, it's as if the house never was.

But it would happen faster if she relaxed, and tried not to remember the house.

She agreed, nodding. And sure enough, just being distracted by Jen had an effect. What was it about the memory she remembered? Something about bad... no, something else. A meeting? A get-together? That sounded right, but she wasn't sure. And as she let her recollections drift, her uncertainty increased, and eventually she wondered why she was just sitting there, when there was a whole bunch of other marriage memories to erase.

The second one was a little easier. It was a truly horrible recollection of Fel only in sweatpants, his hairy little pot belly sticking out over his waistline while he chose that moment to start smoking again. It had been a time when he had grown bored with her, and had stopped taking care of himself, as if he was deliberately trying to push her away. He didn’t care what she thought, and that was what hurt so much. Again, she was tempted (but only slightly) to hold onto the memory, but she relaxed, and in a few moments it was gone like the first one. She didn't feel good or bad about it, because there wasn't anything to feel good or bad about. She knew she had erased something, but it rapidly became less and less clear what it had been. She felt a pang of regret, sometimes, but then she would remember something else from those awful times, and be so revolted, or humiliated, that her anger would take over and down the button would go again.

It took the rest of the day, but eventually it was done. Exhausted but happy, she climbed out of the machine and shook hands with Jen. She seemed to be none the worse for wear, and for that he was glad. Jack had similar thoughts, but on top of that he seemed to have an air of vindication about him, like some settling of accounts had occurred. They retrieved their coats from his office, and as they left, Jen simply stood sipping his coffee and thinking Well, that's that. Somehow, I guess I expected more. But then again, no news is good news.

-----

They went to Jack's place to have dinner, and he cooked a nice veal cutlet dish. He wondered how she felt, if all the memories were really gone, or just partially gone, like faded photos. If her ex-husband showed up, would she still recognize him? Or would it be as if he'd never existed? Did she think that some other set of events had occurred instead of her marriage? How would she account for a gap in time spanning several months?

Or did it matter? Can anyone recall what they were doing on a specific day, or even within a set of months, when they happened years ago? Surely he could not. As an exercise, he tried remembering where he had been twelve years ago and what he had been doing. He knew that, generally, he had been living with a male friend, sharing an apartment somewhere up north, but else from that... it was hard to say. For every small event he could recall, there had to be dozens, hundreds, that he could not. He couldn't remember what brand of detergent he had used to do the laundry back then, even though he knew he must've done the laundry many, many times. What type of car did he drive back then? He thought he knew, but then realized that he wasn't sure. Even something as big as that, I can't be certain. All I know for sure is that I had a car back then. That's about it. I think it was a four-door. Maybe. It could have been a coupe.

"How do you feel?" he asked.

She broke her potatoes by pressing her fork into them. "Okay. In a way, it's like a great weight off my shoulders. I feel brand new."

Brand new. Interesting choice of words.

"Really?" He didn't know why he asked that; he didn't want to test her.

"It's amazing, actually," she said, chewing, looking for her glass. 

"I can't remember my marriage. I know that it happened, I'm aware of it as a factual event, but it's like a... hollow statement, or a face-value statement."

"Like being born."

"Yeah. Like being born. Everyone tells you it happened, and you know that everyone starts life being born, so you just assume that you did too. You know you were a baby once, but you just can't recall anything about it. The further back you go, the vaguer and cloudier everything gets, until... there's nothing. There's no discrete starting point, just a fading away of detail."

-----

They were walking in the park the next week when it happened.
Joan was saying something, then stopped in mid-sentence. Jack turned his head to see what she was looking at, and it was a man standing near the lake. The man was talking to a friend, but eventually he turned to see them, and for a moment it looked as if he recognized Joan, but then he resumed talking to his friend and moved along.

"Do you know him?" Jack asked.

She nodded, looking a little pale. "That's Fel Grant, my ex-husband. A little older, but still the same hair."

"You're sure it was him? Maybe it's just someone who looks like him."

She shook her head. "No, it was him."

"Wait a minute. How can you even tell? How do you remember what he looks like?"

She didn't say anything. She just kept holding his hand in hers, trying to continue walking. Jack waited, and waited some more, and eventually his patience ran out, but even though she sensed it she would not explain.

"How do you remember? You spent a whole day erasing all memory of him. You couldn't stand the thought of the guy. Now he shows up, by chance, and you recognize him instantly? How is that possible?"

She tried not to cry, but it was unavoidable. "Oh, Jack..."

Something was occurring to him, but it was dark and awful and he did not want it to occur to him just now. He could guess, and he could guess very accurately, but it would be so much better if she would just tell him, even if it was something a forced confession. He didn't want to confront her, not if what he was thinking was true.

She wiped her eyes, but couldn't face him. "I didn't... erase everything. I didn't forget. When the last memory came, I knew, I just somehow knew it was the last one, and I..."

She breathed hard, the strain showing. Fresh tears flowed anew. "Oh Jack, I couldn't. I couldn't do it."

He looked down, crestfallen. But it wasn't a betrayal, he knew; she had gone further than he had ever hoped, much more than he had the right to ask. She had been there, emptying the attic of her mind, coming across old photos and throwing them away, until she had come to the last one, and only then, suddenly realizing that, as bad as they might have been, it had been a part of her, a very important part. And so she had kept it, had held on to it. With all the others gone, how much more important was that last memory.

And she cried, a great racking sob, so terrible her grief suddenly became. And he understood, with only one memory left, how awful not to be able to remember the rest. All of them gone; irretreivably gone. In that vast pile of bad memories, which goods ones had she also given up? What about all the times when her marriage hadn't been bad? But they were gone now, lost. She knew that he had been her first love, and that somehow it had not worked out, but she did not know why. And it was so important to know. She had to remember, but she couldn't. She couldn't!
My God, Jack thought, what have we done? He held her, listening to her cry, and soon he knew that there was only one thing they could do.

They returned to Remov and had the last memory erased. She almost didn't do it, but she knew that if she held onto it, she risked her sanity. There couldn't be any recollection, not even the faintest. If Fel Grant or someone who resembled him walked by, or appeared on TV or whatever, she had to be able to treat him as just another stranger. She had to be able to walk down the street and honestly think I've never been married. People sometimes say that I was, but they must be mistaken. Surely I would have remembered such a thing.

-----

They lived together for a short time afterwards, but never married.

I was wrong, Jack thought, as Joan eventually left to get her own place closer to town.

I thought it would be possible to make a person new again, and fall in love with her as if she were new, without the baggage of the past interfering. But I was wrong. What everyone else intuitively knew, I had to go and learn the hard way.

Joan had certain attitudes about life, attitudes which were formed by her experience, including her marriage. She still had them, but she did not know why she had them. And because of that, she questioned them, letting them drift like unanchored buoys. I watched her change, slowly, but inevitably, as she replaced those attitudes with different ones. And in the process, she become someone else. Her sense of humor, her charm, her quirkiness, the way I could make her easily laugh... all changed. Not greatly, no, but... enough.

The caginess she used to have, the wariness I found fun to challenge; it's gone. In their place, there's a more adventuresome person, a more daring, carefree spirit. The things that used to matter don't anymore, and vice versa. None of those things make her better or worse, just different. She works out at the gym more, and makes fun of people who don't. She doesn't explain her emotions or other things as much as she used to, in that fine detail she's capable of. She still could, but she's not interested in talking that way anymore. And I miss that.

For a time, I thought I could find something to love in the new Joan. But it was hard, because it wasn't really her anymore. Not the Joan I knew, anyway.

A person is... what they remember. The Joan I always liked, the Joan I fell in love with and wanted to marry, was the Joan that had suffered. But... she's gone.

And the truly scary thing is, is that she still exists.

But only as a memory.

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