Above the sink, in the twin brown cupboards, a set of ceramic dishes lay in a nest of dust and spiderwebs. When was the last time he had needed to dig out more than the one plate he used every day? Eat, wash, dry, repeat. Morning, noon, night. 6, 12, 6. How long ago did he stay up with a flashlight and a book? How long ago did he sleep in until noon? Under the twin brown cupboards, under the relentless fountain of water, he rubbed his hands together.
He returned the soap bar to its bed. He rinsed off his hands. He shut the water off. He shuffled across the small kitchen to the oven, where a dingy grey towel lay draped over the silver handle. He bent slightly, too tall for these common appliances. Was there ever a time when he had needed a stool, when his little bones had ached with growth? Or was he simply born a giant, with giant hands and giant, bulbous fingers? He replaced the towel. He turned, stopped, and an aching, longing feeling turned over in his chest, slithered down his lungs to his stomach. What had I just been doing?
A voice like a stone, like a peach pit, like a diamond thrust into a shivering current. He turned, as fast as his legs would let him, and saw a young man lingering in the doorway to the hall. He stood, his feet seeming to float hesitantly above the hardwood floor, eyes wide and narrow at the same time, like a dog unsure of whether it’s done something wrong.
“Who are you?”
The young man’s eyes narrowed, looked down at the ground. His feet fell from where they had been hovering, and he lost the embodiment of anything other than human. The man in the kitchen had the dizzying feeling that he had gone through this scene several times before: in his bedroom, on the couch, in the yard, at the dining table. The young man looked up again, and his eyes shone with a wetness that hurt in the old man’s chest. Was it that long ago when he learned what empathy was?
The old man stammered over his next sentences, struggling with the weight of the younger man’s presence. “I-I’m sorry. Have we met?” He felt his eyebrows knit together like vines across a window.
“It’s okay,” the man said. “My name is Henri.”
A spark of recognition flared in the old man’s throat. “My son’s name is Henri!” he exclaimed, a smile cracking his face in two. “My son’s name is Henri,” he said, softer this time, for he’d noticed the young man’s expression fall. “I’m sorry, have I upset you?” he asked, moving around the counter to place a hand on the man’s shoulder.
“No,” the man said. “My name is Henri, too.” He smiled up at the older man. Was there ever a time when he was as tall as his father? “We made plans to meet someone today. Do you remember?”
The old man’s hand stiffened on Henri’s shoulder. His face collapsed in a symphony of loneliness. “I’m so sorry. I don’t. I can’t seem to remember.”
“That’s okay,” Henri said, reaching for the man’s other hand, limp at his side. His fingers roamed the wrinkles and veins up to his knuckles. “Are you ready to go?”
The older man shook his head. “I need to wash my hands. I’ve just been digging in the garden.” He poked the fingernail of his forefinger under the fingernail of his thumb and when he came away with no dirt, his face contorted in a maze of confusion. He studied his fingernails until the young man pulled both hands down from in front of his face.
“Go wash your hands, I’ll be here.”
The old man turned. He shuffled across the tiled kitchen floor. He turned the water on. He grabbed the bar of soap from its bed. He turned it over on his palms, rubbed, pressed, kneaded his skin like bread. He replaced the soap, rinsed his hands, and turned the water off. He stood back and took the dingy towel from where it lay, still damp. Had he just washed dishes? He looked up at the twin cabinets where he found solace in remembering the stack of unused ceramic dishes, nestled together like puppies under the shadow of their mother’s belly.
“Are you ready to go?”
A voice like a stone.
The man turned around, thrilled to find Henri standing there. Goofy, small Henri with ears too big for his head. “Yes, let’s go,” the old man exclaimed. Henri started, his eyes widening.
“Y-you…” he trailed off, his smile shyly blossoming. “I’ll drive.” And in the following five minutes, Henri had a conversation with his father. In the sixth minute, the old man seemed to wake from a dream to find himself in the passenger seat of a foreign car with a young man who sat straight up at the steering wheel, a grin plastered across his face. The young man turned, his mouth opening to say something, but the words lost their grip in his throat when he saw the perplexed expression on the old man’s face.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Henri, your son.”
A voice like a peach pit.
“We’re meeting someone today. I’m driving you to the park. She’s supposed to be waiting for you there. Remember?” The old man sat in silence, watching Henri, watching the steering wheel, watching the dials on the car radio reflect light. He turned and stared out the window, watching the trees flash past, watching a woman pushing a stroller, watching a squirrel yell back at a dog. Was there ever a time when he knew what he was supposed to know? When he remembered what he was supposed to remember?
The car cruised to a gentle stop beside the curb. Both men stepped out, placed their feet on the warm concrete. The younger man walked quickly around to the other side of the car and offered an arm to help the older man. They stepped over the curb together, shuffled through dewey grass, across a sidewalk, and waded through a sea of clovers to where two women were waiting by a picnic table. The younger one sat with her hands folded over the wood, her neck and spine bent like a drooping flower. The older one sat in a wheelchair just a foot away from the table, her arms bent so her fingertips lightly touched the tread of the wheels. She looked out across the park to a large pond full of ducks. Her hair flew out in wisps by the side of her face.
“Is this who we’re meeting?” the old man asked as they got closer.
Henri said nothing, only moving along the grass closer and closer to the two women, his lips pressed together as a deep pit of desperate hopefulness grew in his stomach.
The younger woman turned as they approached. Her eyes roamed first over the younger man, and then over the old man. She squeezed herself out from the table and made her way to the woman in the wheelchair.
Henri stopped, his arm around his father’s. The old man took a step ahead, their tie stretching, pulling, threatening to break. He turned back to look questioningly at his son. “Is everything alright?”
“Yes,” Henri said, trying to remember to be prepared for disappointment. Traces of things doctors had said to him float up from his memory. Things like It’s not your fault. Try to be patient with them. It’ll be difficult. Words like burden and tragic. Scenes playing over and over again, as if he’d been tossed suddenly into a track that went round and round in a circle and every time he thought he’d jumped off the rails, found a different path, his father asks who he is.
Try to be patient with them.
It’ll be difficult.
He took a few steps forward until they’d stopped in front of the old woman. Henri let go of his father’s arm. He stepped back and slouched onto the park bench. He buried his face in his hands and tried to forget the confused, lost expressions on his parent’s faces.
“This is Hilde,” the younger woman said to the old man. “Hilde, this is Mikkel.” She waited, lingering between them, her eyes trained on the shoes of the old man, as if waiting for something to happen. Mikkel looked first at the young woman, confused as to what she was waiting for, and then at the young man on the bench, confused as to what he was upset about, and then at the woman in the wheelchair, confused as to why they were being introduced.
His gaze broke at her face.
Skin like daisies falling apart in warm tea. Eyes a milky white. Hair wavy and long, curled tight into a bun.
“Hilde is your wife,” the younger woman said to the ground, her voice barely a mumble. A feeling like a hot piece of food going down the wrong way. Mikkel looked at the man on the bench and he felt tears in his eyes. He looked at the old woman in front of him and he wondered what it would be like to know what to think, what to do, how to act, who you know.
Skin like sunlight through a window. Eyes like jade under water. Hair like golden grass rippling over hills. White sheets by the ocean and vineyards in spring. Kittens on the back porch. A thunderstorm in summer. She never stopped smiling.
Memories that nobody but they know. Kisses stolen under fireworks and in locked cars. Sneaking out under dead stars, fading light posts. Memories they both kept safe until the end. Was there ever a time he was anything more than his memories?
It’ll be scary. You’ll forget your friends, your family. You’ll forget your name, how to walk, how to talk. Eventually, you’ll forget how to breath.
How many times has he apologized?
“I-I’m sorry,” he said, looking around. “Were we just talking?” He glanced apologetically down at the old woman sitting in her wheelchair. “What was your name?”
There was a pause, a flatness in the air. “I don’t remember,” she said, and he could see in her milky white eyes that her heart was breaking just as much as his.
And down the road, just a few miles from the park, twin cupboards rested above a sink. Inside them, not a set of old ceramic dishes, but a museum of glass jars filled to the brim with flashcards - names and pictures and places. Filled with things the old man forgot he needed to remember, knit together by years of spiderwebs.