Whoever erased my memory has done a damn good job. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, I don't miss it at all.
“My name is Tansy Thatcher and I have a good life,” I whisper to myself. I am thirty-seven. I’m head of marketing at an architecture consultancy. I have a cordial but distant relationship with my co-workers—the kind that leads to just enough collaboration to get things done, but not enough to get lost in aimless oversharing. I'm okay with this. I live with my husband Josh and cat Sprüngly in a cozy two-bedroom house in a neighborhood where people smile at each other when they cross paths walking dogs in the evening—where people tend drought-tolerant gardens of lavender, rosemary, and lantana, and where they build little neighborhood lending libraries that are always well stocked. Inside of my cozy two-bedroom post-war bungalow, purple mercury glass votives line a built-in shelf lined with books I can mostly remember reading.
That should be enough.
These are the things I recite to myself—a mantra I've developed over a collection of nights where wispy clouds drift just-so over a waning crescent moon and, for some reason, my throat grows so tight I feel like I'm breathing through a straw.
On those nights, which come just every few months, I do not rush home from my evening walk. Instead I focus on Sprüngly, a gray shadow lurking in the bushes as fallen leaves bend almost silently under his paws. I place my hand inside of Josh’s where it feels small and protected and warm, and I silently recite the things that make me happy: my husband with big, warm hands that can almost stretch from one of my hips to the other; the cat that follows us for walks around the block, but only at night, darting into a bush or lingering under a car in a cramped driveway; succulent gardens; finished books with spines slightly creased and pages ruffled like the white fur on Sprüngly’s chest when he crossed paths with a dog.
I don’t look up at the tiny sliver of moon, twisted in a self-satisfied smile as its light ebbs away. But as black spiderweb clouds drift over it, I sense the change in the light, and it gives me goosebumps. I count my blessings and walk home and brew a cup of chamomile tea that always tastes bitter, no matter how much honey I add. It tastes bitter, but I never consider anything else, and I don’t really stop to think how strange that is.
These nights, which really only happen a few times in a year, were my first clue that something was amiss. They're why, on the morning of the new moon, I often look at myself in the mirror for a few seconds longer than usual as the shower water heats up. It’s why one day I noticed the creases at the inside edges of my eyebrows—two faint lines wandering up into my smooth forehead, where wisps of brown hair fluttered. This new growth hadn’t fallen into the regiment of the longer, more subdued hair that laid smooth in a bun or ponytail.
That morning, I remember focusing all of my energy on those little creases, until I felt my eyebrows knit together, and I watched two crescent-shaped wrinkles etch deep ravines above the bridge of my nose. The expression didn’t feel familiar. It was a look of consternation or concentration, or could it be anguish? It felt out of synch with my general contentment, but there it was—a well-worn path.
“Hey, Dove, are you in the shower?” Josh’s voice dispelled my reverie. I felt my forehead relax.
“I was just getting in,” I called over the water’s hiss. I looked away from the mirror, toward the glass door, blurry with steam.
“Mind if I join you?” Josh poked his head through the door and his smile scattered the clouds. His smile always scatters the clouds.
I wasn’t thinking about any of it this morning—New Year’s morning—as I sat in my favorite recliner with a book in one hand and a half-full mimosa next to me on the side table, making the best of left-over midnight champagne. I was not thinking about the way that every once in a while, for just a second, things didn’t add up. I believe I was thinking about cleaning up the piles of streamers that still wound around the living room rug. In that moment, though, my feet were curled up in the recliner’s burgundy velour, and my attention was on the paperback mystery.
That’s where I was when my phone buzzed and I slid open the screen expecting some Happy New Year greeting from my mom or an old friend. Instead I found a text message from a number without a name. It was a local 323 number. I tapped on it with an unfocused curiosity, letting my eyes linger on the final words of the paragraph I was reading before dragging them over to the screen.
I was surprised to see a photo—a trail, maybe somewhere in the Hollywood Hills from the look of the yellow winter chaparral. The gray bubble beneath it was just as odd: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood... It was Frost, not Whitman.”
It read like a friend picking up a discussion from an hour ago, though of course that wasn’t the case. I recognized the line, but I couldn’t ever remember claiming it was written by Walt Whitman, and I didn’t recognize the number. But my hands were starting to sweat.
I zoomed in on the photo and noted that the dirt trail split in two: one side wound gently around the hill, hemmed by a wood beam fence and bathed in a soft golden sunlight. The trail that branched off from the bottom corner of the image cut a scar into the shady hillside until it disappeared into the sage scrub.
I took a deep breath. This was probably a wrong number. I ignored my heartbeat and went back to my novel, but found I had to read each sentence three times before I could understand it.
Sprüngly jumped onto the side table and stuck his nose into my champagne flute. “Sprüngles, no,” I chided and picked up the purple-stemmed glass to take another sip before the cat could topple it.
“Come here, guy. Give mom a break.” Josh walked up behind the table and scooped him up like he was a kitten, cradling him playfully before Sprüngly squiggled and landed with a light thud on the wood floor.
I hadn’t heard Josh coming down the hallway. I think I laughed as the cat darted away. Then I found I could concentrate when I looked down at my book again.
“Good one?” Josh asked as he stretched out on the sofa next to my chair, freshly shaven and put back together from our late night.
“Uh, yeah.” I murmured as I flipped a page.
“Is this a sit-around day, or are we going out?”
“I’m ok sitting around,” I said.
The world was almost back to normal when my phone buzzed again. I felt my stomach sink with a sense of dread, but I told myself it was nothing as I slid open the phone.
“Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. Do you ever wonder, Tansy? Do you ever doubt?”
I felt dizzy as I shut off the screen. I felt that almost-familiar breathing through a straw feeling. Josh, Sprüngly, hummingbird trumpet… I began a silent recitation, closing my eyes and feeling a tightness above the bridge of my nose.
I heard the upholstery squeak beneath Josh’s shifting weight. “Everything ok, Dovey?”
“Yeah, it’s weird,” I said, rubbing that space between my eyebrows. “I’m getting these wrong number texts.” A wrong number who knows my name, I didn’t say.
“Hm. Someone’s too hung over,” Josh mused, looking back down at his own phone.
“Probably,” I agreed. I should ignore this, I told myself, but my thumb was already traveling across the smooth glass. “Who is this?” The blue contrail of my swipe lingered for a second across the keyboard.
The reply came quickly, before the light had faded away. “You could remember if you wanted to.”
A beat, maybe thirty rapid heartbeats, and then, “Look in the book you don’t read. It’s your choice.”
I looked at Josh. “You know, on second thought, let’s go out for a walk.”
I left my phone on the side table and grabbed a hoodie. Josh obliged.
“Am I forgetting anything?” I asked after the crisp January sun greeted us outside.
“Did you lock the door?” Josh asked.
“Did you want your phone?”
“No.” My voice was clipped with vehemence and I registered the surprise in Josh’s brown eyes. “No,” I said more slowly, breathing out my word. “I mean big picture. Is there anything... like, now you can—you know those commercials for erasing things?” I’m tripping over the words as we navigate the uneven sidewalk, undulating with seasons of contracting heat and cold and years of minor earthquakes. “You don’t think…?”
I stopped walking and watched him closely. I needed to see his reaction.
“Nah, you?” he said, a grin spreading over his round face. It stayed open like a full moon. “You wouldn’t let a construction crew into your head. You like control too much.”
I squinted, looking for any hesitancy, any sign of surprise. A suspicious blink? But his eyes held mine, and his hand wrapped around mine.
“Is it the wrong number? Come on, it’s nothing. You want to go up the street for some coffee?”
I decided he didn’t know. If I had done anything, he didn’t know about it, or else he’d been complicit in forgetting. I grabbed onto his pinky finger. “Yeah, that sounds good.”
As far as I knew, Josh and I had been together for nine years. We met on a job site, got married in a renovated chapel we’d seen featured in Architectural Digest, all maple pews and soaring white ceilings, light pouring in from invisible windows nestled within the ceiling. And the time before that...hadn’t seemed to matter for a long time. We lived in a cozy post-war bungalow in a nice neighborhood with our cat. We had no kids, no scandals, no skeletons. Just shadows that only I could see.
I know what book I don’t read. I knew it in my bones as soon as I saw the text, and that’s what made it most chilling. Josh is sleeping already and I stand here and stare into the bookshelf in the dimmed light of our living room, counting my blessings. There they are, lined up neatly by genre, by size.
In the middle of the shelf, Tristram Shandy stares back at me accusingly, its two inches of glossy spine stubbornly uncreased. I acquired it in college for a class I ended up dropping—a class that overwhelmed me before it started. I think I’ve kept the book around because I want to prove I can read it. I haven’t yet, in fifteen years.
I reach out cautiously, half expecting it to poison me, and hook an index finger over the spine. I can hear the bottoms of the pages lifting from the glossy white paint, which relinquishes its years-long contact with a soft sigh as I pull the book toward me.
As I let my thumb ruffle the textblock, I smell the glue and feel the soft breeze of six-hundred-and-some fluttering pages. They are thin and tight, their edges not yet engorged by the dirt and oils of my fingertips.
The book falls open to page 121 where, tucked into the spine like a bookmark, is a thin envelope. I don’t know what catches me more off guard, the envelope or my markings on page 120. I can’t bring myself to touch the envelope, except to see that it’s sealed and unmarked. My hands tremble as I flip through the surrounding pages. Past 121, the book is pristine, but as I flip backward I see annotations—passages underlined in black or blue ink, here and there words written in the margins or in the space where a paragraph ends. It’s my handwriting, the kind of tight, ten-point print I leave in books, hesitant to mar the serenity of a page. Little words and phrases of my own punctuate Laurence Sterne’s lines: time issues, Hobbes, like Quixote (the phrase “misguided saint-errant” is circled in a halo of black ink), and chillingly, words live on after death.
The sweat from my hands leaves spots on the pages, but I am shivering. I don’t remember reading this book, or leaving these notes.
On page sixty-five, the top four lines are illuminated in yellow, the only instance of highlighting I’ve seen: "Writers of my stamp have one principle in common with painters—where an exact copying makes our pictures less striking, we choose the less evil; deeming it even more pardonable to trespass against truth, than beauty."
I know in my bones that somewhere in here is the truth, and I know that I have chosen to accentuate the beauty in my life at its expense. I have made that choice once, and the ache in my throat tells me that, thanks to today’s text, the choice is mine to make again.
I could stay up all night reading this book. I could pry open the envelope. What would I find? The truth, written plain and simple? A picture? Directions to another location? And what am I hiding from myself? I imagine a person, a love too painful to recall. I imagine a piece of myself, something I always meant to do before I gave up and locked it away in a 250-year-old, 600-page book sitting in plain view in my own house.
I close the book and take a deep breath. “My name is Tansy Thatcher and I have a good life,” I whisper to myself in a hoarse voice that doesn’t totally sound like mine.
I still believe it with all my heart. Would the truth spoil that? Would it come between Josh and me? Something he’s done or I’ve done?
I collapse into the recliner and Sprüngly jumps in my lap. I run my hand down his broad back and he leans into my touch, dragging his body until my hand slides off the tip of his tale. Then he jumps off and disappears again into the shadows, satiated.
My mind explores dark corners. What if we had a child? What if I had an affair? What if I’m Josh’s virtual wife in a virtual world and he’s controlling what I remember? I've gotten silly. I decide that I just shouldn’t think anymore tonight.
I listen to my feet creek down the hall. That seems real. In the bedroom, real Josh is snoring softly, one leg on top of the duvet. I feel in the dark for my flannel pants and crawl into the empty space in bed. His leg is warm against my cold toes. He rolls over and drapes a heavy arm over my chest. As I snuggle into it, I feel the space between my eyebrows relax. I may even be able to sleep. In this moment, at least, I’m not thinking about the envelope or the book. I am rendering this moment in all of its exquisite beauty. I am taking a mental picture, in case tomorrow I destroy it.