This is How You Forget
by Michael B. Tager
Frank snarled at the shabby wooden door to Bill and Carmen’s apartment. The invite for Carmen’s twenty-third birthday was a typo-filled message, “Cramen” the worst offender. Although the invite promised “cornucopias of canal pleasures” it reminded him of failure.
He didn’t wait for an answer after he knocked. He walked inside and stared at the pile of jackets and umbrellas hanging off the coat rack, overflow piled on a single folding chair.
There was a brief jolt of pain when he tore off his gloves and flexed his fingers in the heated apartment. He was so low on the totem pole at work he couldn’t afford to turn on the heat in his walkup. He aspired to be one of those fat men who carried their weight with pride and fine clothes. Until then, he’d enjoy friends’ heated apartments where the smell of thyme and coriander overrode the kitty litter shoved under cracked linoleum sinks in bathrooms.
Music and competing, exuberant shouts trickled down the narrow hallway feeding the tiny foyer. Squinting, he saw a tangle of legs circling a futon.
They’d redecorated the foyer. There were framed pictures of Bill-and-Carmen in Paris, Rome, Detroit. A mirror hung next to a coat rack. Snow melted in Frank’s receding red hair; the sight of it prompted mixed emotions. He’d be happy to no longer worry about ginger jokes, but bald at thirty?
He rubbed away a smear of dirt under his cheekbone. He still had lines of exhaustion under his eyes.
“I said, I’m here everyone.” A few muffled shouts responded. He took off his scarf and coat, hung them up, and headed towards the party. Before he took a second step, however, he heard a knock—the same knock his grandfather used when he used to call on Frank to play pinochle. He finished the knock from the other side and mumbled, “Two bits.”
“Can you get that, Frank?” a high-pitched voice called after the doorbell buzzed. He couldn’t decide which hurt his teeth more, the dentist drill Carmen pretended was an acceptable speaking voice or the buzz of the doorbell. He answered the door.
“Hi.” A girl stood there, the top of her head even with his shoulders. She wore a grey dress that hugged her figure under a puffy black jacket. Brown hair cut asymmetrically at her chin framed a heart-shaped face. Freckles dusted her cheeks. She was thin, pretty, but Frank had seen a thousand thin, pretty girls.
Still, when he looked at her, waves crashed in his ear, like listening to a conch shell. He blinked spots away and realized he stared at her smoothing her skirt.
“I know you.” He was sure, somehow.
She cocked her head, bird-like. “Do you?” Her voice was soft, deep.
“I do.” A pause. “I think.” He scratched his head, thought. After a moment, she shuffled her feet and looked over his shoulder. His breath built and he gasped, “I’m friends with Bill!”
“I know Carmen.” Her movements were economical: long strides, deliberate hand gestures. She took off her big jacket and hung it on the peg next to his. “We’re interns together.”
“She’s Bill’s girlfriend. I went to high school with him.”
“Neat.” She brushed her hair, flicked away beads of snow. A ring glittered on one hand. “You know, you do look kind of familiar.” She gave him a little smile. It was enough. Frank beamed. “College, maybe? I went to Penn. You?”
“Oh.” She paused, glanced at the hallway to the dining room. She seemed undecided.
“What about summers? Go anywhere? We went to the beach. Florida.”
“No. Lakes upstate. Summer camps.”
He grasped at anything. “I went to Manedoken.” He laughed. “You probably didn’t.”
“Why not?” She sucked air through her teeth, and Frank wanted to disappear.
“Oh.” She looked at the ceiling, bounced on her feet. She wore black flats. “Maybe we should get to the party,” she said, nodding her head down the hall.
Frank caught her elbow and her eyes widened. It reminded him of driving his old Plymouth late one night. He had three beers in his belly, but felt strong, clear. He sang along with the radio—a country song he wouldn’t admit to liking—until the deer ran out. It stood there, stared at him, big liquid eyes reproving. He shattered his car and collarbone when he crashed into it.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Eva.” She gently pulled her arm back, nodded her head. She walked first, her skirt swooshing at her knees. Frank noticed a flower tattoo on her ankle. He wondered if he was sick; if he’d been drugged by magic. He followed her into the living room.
The apartment was dense with overstuffed, shabby furniture salvaged from yard sales. Unmatched art hung from the red walls: Surrealism, Modern, Renaissance. Persian and Oriental rugs lay everywhere, covering the scuffed wooden floor. There were a lot of people in a small space, everyone knocking sweaty elbows or butt cheeks. Most of the women wore light sweaters around their waists or slung over shoulders. People—some friends—sat on every conceivable space, even the ancient metal radiator along the bay windows.
Carmen—short, impish—waved from the pillowed window, and Eva threaded her way through the crowd to her. Frank watched her go, until Bill bellowed from the middle of the futon, one hand buried in a bag of chips. Frank had no idea how he stayed so skinny. If he behaved that way, he’d be a butterball. Many of the partners in Frank’s firm were round little bastards, products of long hours and fried food. But they had private planes and houses named Old Graceful and The Manor. They had special tailors. He liked his face, and he liked seeing his penis when he stood naked (he’d heard one partner say, “I haven’t seen it since ’79. Belly’s too big!”).
“C’mere man,” Bill said, dragging him into the kitchen. Fluorescent light flickered and cast shadows of their bodies. “There are so many women here. Carmen invited all the single ones she knew. All for you.” He spread his hands, grinned so wide and honest, it made Frank smile back.
There were dozens of women there. They might even be pretty, but his eyes slid away.
“What about her?” he asked, nodding toward Eva. She and Carmen squatted in a deep window, laughing. Frank saw every detail of her face; couldn’t rip his eyes away.
Bill squinted. “All these women and you’re asking about the one I don’t know?”
Bill put on a smile. “No. I just don’t know her. She’s probably Pam’s friend.”
The next hour rushed by. He was introduced to a few women, and Bill gushed. “Frank saved my life” and “Frank’s great with puppies.”
Frank stood, unable or unwilling to speak. He wasn’t sure. “I’m Delores. I’m Margot. Hattie.” The last wore heavy a sheer black top, cropped so Frank could have seen her navel if he looked. He didn’t. After Hattie (who seemed bemused at Frank’s barely-there attempt at conversation), Bill took him aside.
“How could you not talk to her? She had a corset on. A corset.” A sigh and Bill abandoned him in disgust. Frank wandered.
There were a few of Frank’s friends there besides the hosts, and he said words to them, of course, but he kept Eva in his sights. When she tried pigs-in-blankets from the gingham-covered hors d’oeuvres table, he got a beer from the cooler beside it. She flitted about the party, sipped white wine out of a McDonald’s cup, finally stopped by the bricked-in fireplace in the corner. Frank summoned his courage and stepped to her; their eyes locked for a second. She remembers me. I know it. He’d never been a fan of brown eyes before, but hers were something different. Liquid fire. He laughed—he didn’t normally think poetic.
“Something funny?” she asked. The party had temporarily left them alone, next to a stuffed owl on the mantel, Bill off in the kitchen, Twizzlers dangling from his lips.
“Pardon?” He was lost, woozy.
“You laughed just now. Something funny?”
“No,” Frank said. “Just thinking about your eyes.” His breath caught, winced. In his hand, he saw a mostly-empty Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboy. He tried to remember how many he’d had, but other than Eva, the night was a blur. “I mean, I wasn’t thinking about your eyes. Exactly.”
She tittered. “That’s funny, huh?” she asked. He forced a laugh and regretted using his mouth for words. Eva smiled. “You do look familiar, but I don’t know why.”
“Want to figure it out with me?” Beer made him bold. “We could leave, get a cup of coffee?” Frank heard the thud-thud of his heart. He hadn’t felt it so vividly in years.
She looked down, flames lighting her cheeks and her eyes twinkling. “Sorry,” she held up her left hand, twiddled her fingers. Light caught the small diamond, reflected it into Frank’s eyes. “I really would otherwise.” Eva slipped away and rejoined the party.
After another half hour, Frank made his excuses and left. Carmen said she understood; Bill glanced at Frank, squinted, looked like he wanted to say something. On his way out, Frank touched Eva’s coat. He allowed himself to thrust his nose into the fabric. He smelled cherry blossoms.
Since her divorce, Eva had learned to Take your time, you’ll get there. It wasn’t much of a motto, but it was hers. She’d dabbled in trendy religions—notably when dating someone new—but nothing stuck. Now she kept life simple, unhurried and clean. It worked.
Still, her motto disappeared in Munich when the red-haired man walked by while she gathered herself, pulling a little rolling suitcase. She gasped. She knew him.
He passed her and was headed for an idling train before she reacted. A blue-suited conductor with a bushy black moustache chain-smoked in the doorway. Hopping off the train steps, she made sure her bag’s straps were secure and ran forward, threading the needle of the crowd as best she could.
Eva bounced off a bony blonde girl and mumbled an apology. The girl growled, “Dumme schlampe.” Eva managed a hand flap, not breaking her stride. Let them think Americans were rude; she kept her eyes on the red-haired man straight ahead.
Sounds of a train horn, shouting and a baby’s screech echoed through the station and off the cracked, stained marble floor. There’s got to be a more dignified way to do this, she thought as she lowered her head and bulled through the crowd. Still-brown curls fell in front of her brown eyes in curtains, and she saw beads of light showering the floor through a glass ceiling.
She reached him as he produced a ticket. Eva touched his shoulder. “Don’t I know you?”
The fabric of his suit was soft like velvet. She resisted the urge to stroke it. Her own clothes were modest, made for travel: a black short-sleeved shirt, jeans, brown leather ankle boots. Her work clothes, intended for a silly conference in Vienna, were stowed away.
He turned and she hunted his face for the familiarity that quickened her breath. He had fleshy features, a thick neck and high cheekbones swallowed by a thin layer of fat. The ring of red hair above his ears tinged with grey; the top of his head bald and freckled. His ice-blue eyes stared, curious, behind gold-rimmed frames, and her breath came quick and hard.
She ignored the frustrated conductor’s sputters and tried to pinpoint the familiar feeling that reminded her of garlic and thyme and cinnamon, of the taste of boxed Chardonnay for some reason, of patchouli and the Grateful Dead… She shook her head. It would come.
The man murmured to the conductor, “Excuse me.” He smiled with full lips. “I’m sorry. What did you say?” Behind him, on the train, the conductor shook his head.
“We’ve met, right?” she shifted her weight from her heels. Blood pounded in her ears, through her belly and face. Electricity crackled in her fingernails. She hadn’t felt anything like this since well before her marriage, since before meeting the man who became her ex-husband.
“I’m not sure. Maybe?” His voice was deep, tickled her ear and made her think of snatches of songs. Scarlet Begonias.
A second conductor with chevrons on his pressed blue jacket appeared. He babbled something in a pidgin she didn’t care to listen to. She wasn’t sure which station they were in—they all looked the same to her—though she’d known two minutes before.
Another train came in, horns blaring, drowning out thought in an ocean of noise. She smelled fried batter and savory kielbasa from nearby vendors. The barks of the conductor troubled her. Time stretched, dilated, condensed, contracted. Eva opened her mouth, bit her lip. The man opened his mouth, his ice-blue eyes puzzled. When he spoke, his voice cracked; it sparked memories of pimples and the heavy aroma of skunk.
“They’re asking for my ticket.”
“Do you remember me?” she asked him. His face was a mask she wanted to chisel at. “I remember you.”
He parted his lips, his brow furrowed; Eva could see his mind reaching. He tilted his head, birdlike, stuck out his hand. She grasped it, transferred electricity into cool palms. He jumped, laughed, wiped his hands on pinstripes. “I have to go,” he said.
He backed away and handed his ticket to the conductor, who ripped it. She jumped and watched the man … His name is Frank! … give her a sad little wave and disappear into the train. She saw him in the window as the train rolled by, looking at her, his eyebrow raised, his mouth open. He seemed about to yell something through the glass, but the train rolled by.
She found her way to her platform and handed her own ticket to an expressionless conductor. She was headed somewhere—she could check if she cared—but all she could think of was the crushing in her chest, like a vise squeezed her heart. She touched her breastbone. Nothing helped.
Bill yawned. They’d been dropped off an hour ago and the band hadn’t started yet. He was pretty sure his mother would show up precisely at midnight, like she threatened. She wouldn’t listen, would make them leave, talk about their curfew even if the band was still on. She claimed there was a law about anyone under seventeen being out past midnight. Doubtful.
The lawn of the amphitheater was packed with people, mostly college kids, many in loose, patterned clothes. Like they raided their parent’s attic. Frank and he weren’t poseurs. They wore real clothes: boots, backwards hat. Unlike that girl with Frank.
Bill had seen her as they walked through the gates, pointed her out while Frank showed off his new Zippo. They were excited to smoke pot (Bill had bought a small baggie from his brother and stuffed it in his sock) around all these weird hippies. Like the skinny girl with pink pants eating a hot dog. She had a nice face maybe, but she was skinny and flat. Sixteen, tops.
“Look at that one,” Bill had said, pointing. She saw him point, stopped and lifted an eyebrow. Frank flicked the lighter, their eyes met and Bill’s stomach dropped.
“Hi,” she said. Frank waved. “Cool lighter?”
“Is that a question?” Bill asked.
She walked right past him. “May I?” She held out her hand.
Frank had just handed it over, his face a stare, like he’d been clubbed. The girl didn’t look at the lighter in her hand. Bill’s heart sank. This was supposed to be our night. Everyone in school listened to the radio, but they’d discovered the Dead all on their own.
Frank spoke first. “I’m Francis.” He held the girl’s hand for several seconds longer than was strictly necessary. Just up and down, up and down went their hands. They had silly grins on their faces, loopy and wide with their eyes open, cheeks blushed. It just went on and on and it felt like Bill wasn’t even there. Francis? What’s that about? You hate that name.
“Bill,” he thrust his hand between them. Her hands were soft, warm.
“I’m … Lynn.” She turned to smile at Frank and her voice faded out in the middle.
“Nice to meet you, Lynn.” It wasn’t nice at all. He let go and wiped her off on his pants.
They laughed. “No, not Lynn. Evelyn. Or Eva, pick one.”
Bill shrugged. “I’m not going to remember any of that.”
The two of them talked for a long, long time. Bill heard fragments.
“You from around here?”
“What’s your favorite …?”
They’d sat on the grass alone, talking and staring like the other was made of cupcakes. Finally, the show started and the lights flickered and everyone lit joints. Bill pulled theirs from his sock and nudged Frank. His hand was batted at by a barely-there Frank; the baggie fell to the grass.
“You sure we haven’t met?” Frank asked.
“Absolutely. I’d remember,” the girl said.
Fine. Be that way. Bill wandered away, toward a group of guys not much older than them. He lingered around their outskirts for a while, edged forward while they passed stuff around. One with long dark hair shot him a look and Bill held up his baggie. “I don’t have anything to smoke this with.” They all smiled, welcomed him in.
The first drag hurt his lungs. The longhaired guy pounded his back, told him to breathe slowly. He got the hang of it and started to feel pretty ok. He looked back at Frank and Eva, having a hard time being mad. “They look cute, right?” he asked the longhaired guy.
The dude laughed. “You’re just stoned.” They watched the show, kept on passing around a little pipe. When his pot was gone, the longhaired dude handed Bill a little chocolate. “It’s good shit. You know what I mean, right?” The guy winked.
The rest of the concert was better. Guitar chords became purple. The drums were dolphins, splashing through trees. The next time he looked at Frank and whatever-her-name-was, his paradigm shifted: their temples touched. They hadn’t moved. Let them do their thing. She gave Frank her number and he promised to call; it was beautiful.
On the ride home, Frank asleep in the back of Bill’s mom’s van, Bill knew he couldn’t allow him to call her, much as it might hurt. It might be beautiful, love at first sight, but what were the odds it was meant to be? He scrunched his nose, turned and saw the girl’s number scrawled on the ticket stub in Frank’s outstretched hand. Bill plucked the ticket, careful not to disturb Frank’s sleep. Then, he folded the ticket once, twice and held it to his eye. This will be part of me now. I will be love, he thought as he lowered it onto his tongue and swallowed.
Michael B. Tager’s work has appeared in Timber, Baltimore Fishbowl, Theaker’s Quarterly, Atticus Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, The Light Ekphrastic and more. He is the Managing Editor of Writers and Words, a monthly Baltimore reading series. You can read more of his work at www.michaelbtager.com.