memories

Memory Palace
by Ashley P. Taylor

Note: All names have been changed.

“What’s your necklace?” people often ask me, along with where I’m from and do I have any siblings. It so happens that the gold pendant is where I’m from: Mount Desert Island, Maine (specifically, Bar Harbor). My mom and I each have an island pendant. We got them some time before we moved away, to Kentucky, but I only started wearing mine once I’d left. That was half a lifetime ago now. But there’s a more recent story about the necklace. It’s not the simplest thing to describe. Or maybe it is. The time is June, 2016.

I.

Back in New York Tuesday after the long weekend, I immediately miss Boston and MarlyJo. The feeling of being cared for.

Fighting sleepiness and idleness, I unpack. I put the green necklace back on my dresser, near the jewelry box, the music box, Janet’s cup. Janet, my childhood babysitter from the island, gave me the child’s teacup and saucer when we moved away. The cup was a gift from her mother, who died when Janet was young. It’s so fragile, thin blue china.

The dresser mirror is streaked. MarlyJo—“MJ”—would clean it. I would, too, but I don’t have paper towels. Better to use reusable cloths, anyway. Or newsprint, since paper towels leave little hairs, MJ said on Friday when we were washing windows together; that’s what her dad taught her.

I save the bubble wrap and the sturdy yellow Strand bag I used to transport two small bottles of NYC bourbon—hostess gifts—in the front pocket of my backpack. I like the idea of bringing the traditional liquor of Kentucky, where my parents live, made in my current home. I’d hoped to get rid of the bag, but no, it remains reusable as ever.

I plop my book-club book on the corner chair. Why do I always dislike the books I read on the way back to New York? I need to finish it. The book-club meeting tonight is the reason I took the early bus back, made my cousin Pru get up early to hug me goodbye.

Cleaning out my pockets, I pull out a penny—like Janet, nearly a century old—and put it away in a small round box, which I also keep on the dresser, my little shrine to the past. Along with other lucky coppers, the round box contains flat and polished stones of unusual colors—orange, green. The box and stones were a going-away present from my Bar Harbor friends. We had our usual picnic the night of my send-off: soft cheese, sweet Carr’s biscuits, and a pickle from Butterfield’s, the boutique grocer; bread and a tub of chocolate frosting from the regular grocery store. Such small acts of independence thrilled us. Picnic assembled, we walked down to the Town Pier and ate on the rocky beach, attention shifting between each other, the food, and the waves. We went in up to our knees, freezing our feet and calves, then straddled the cannons in the nearby park, surveying the water, the few uninhabited islands off the coast, the faraway shore.

Crap, the island necklace. I have to get that thing out of the little zippered pocket of my backpack and back around my neck. But it’s not there, just the white earbuds, tangled up in themselves. Did I pull it out with the earbuds when I Skyped my mom? I feel down in the backpack pocket where I keep my laptop. No. Just grit, tampons, pens.

The island is my real home, my original home, my symbolic home, and the pendant links me to it. To neglect the necklace…

But it’s too early to worry. Maybe it’s glinting there in the rumpled sheets of the bed at Pru’s, where I spent three of my five nights in Boston. “Would you please check the bed for my island pendant?” I write my cousin in the faux-calm context of a “home safely” email. Then I go to book club.

Wednesday, I wake up to a message from Pru: no necklace.

I try and fail to keep my worries at bay as I settle down to write. Will I replace the necklace, buy a new one from the jeweler on the island? He won’t make them forever.

I message MJ.

“Oh no! That necklace is so special!” she replies. “I will definitely keep an eye out for it, but I haven’t seen it yet L And I miss you too!”

II.

Last Thursday, when I arrived in Boston, MJ et al. were waiting for me at the bus station. MJ’s friend Julia, who was staying with MJ and her partner Nick that summer, drove the four of us to a restaurant where Julia had some kind of discount.

Julia and Nick were chatting. I looked across the table at MJ, feeling as if I should say something to the effect of, “I’m so glad to see you, friend. I’m glad I get to spend the night at your new house!” Instead I smiled, and MJ smiled back, lips sealed. We’re friends from college and then after college, when we both moved to Boston. She doesn’t like her name, two names stuck together, but I love it.

“When I try to forget something,” Julia was saying, “I imagine myself putting the memory in a bottle and then throwing it away.”

“That’s exactly what a psychologist would tell you to do. And you came up with it on your own,” Nick replied. “That’s pretty good!”

“I used to do it with good memories, too. I’d imagine putting the memory into a bottle, corking it, and putting it away, like in a pantry.”

“You had a memory palace,” Nick said.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a mnemonic. You imagine your memories laid out in a physical structure.”

“Oh,” Julia said, giggling. “I have a memory palace! Nice.”

All four of us went to the same college, but MJ is the personal link among us. MJ and Julia were roommates. I knew Julia then, too, but not well.

Julia turned toward me. “What’s your necklace?”

As I answered, I hooked the pendant with my right index finger, pulled it out from my sternum, and began to finger it, rubbing the thumb of my right hand inside its rough concave back and swirling my index and middle fingers around its polished rounded front, tracing the coastline’s tiny teeth. I’ve seen people wear pendants of Africa, an entire continent. The island pendant is shaped sort of like two Africas, mirror images squished together, with a narrow space between.

“Acadia is so beautiful,” Julia said, referring to the island’s national park. I knew that she, MJ, and Nick had gone camping there for 4th of July the previous year. I have a bad habit of feeling annoyed when friends go to Bar Harbor without telling me.

“When did you move to…Tennessee?” Julia asked.

“Kentucky,” I corrected her. “When I was in 10th grade, so in the year 2000. Sixteen years ago.”

“Yeah. So wait, why did you move again?” Julia asked.

“My dad grew up there,” I explained. Landlocked Kentucky is his island, in a way, and he finally made it back. Mom and I still miss Maine. Actually, I miss everywhere.

*

“This is the bathroom,” MJ said in a voice suited to stating the obvious as she showed me the upstairs of their new place. Toilet, shower, sink. On the counter, a woven basket held various squeeze bottles.

“I used to have a basket like that,” I said. “I mentioned it in the novel.” (MJ was reading my manuscript.) The recollected basket had sat on my dresser. “Is that it?”

“Yeah, that’s from you. We have a couple things from you, actually.”

I had thought of the basket as something that only existed in my memory and my writing. I’d forgotten that when I left Boston for journalism school in New York, I’d given it to my closest friend.

It had happened a few times actually: memories resurfacing as objects. Nick spoke of memory palaces. Maybe mine was a real place. The basement?

“And this is the attic, where you’ll sleep.” The attic door—vertical pieces of wood held side-by-side by a diagonal one on the back—was narrow and had an iron latch. Behind it were steps up to a loft, where a mattress and pillows had been laid out.

“I really like this house,” I said. “The wood, the doors. We have doors like that at home.” MJ knew that by ‘home’ I meant Kentucky, where I, a single woman, exist as a ‘we.’ “You should come visit,” I added.

“We should,” MJ said, in her sweet voice, mouth open to reveal her top teeth, her overbite. She had a slightly doughy face, roughened by acne, and a scar right under her chin, as if a dangerous cut had healed, then raised the surface of the skin. I had never asked MJ about it—it had never seemed more important than whatever we were already talking about—and so didn’t know the story. My throat has a little scar, too.

“So you redid these floors?”

“Parts of them,” MJ said. This was what a contractor had advised them to do, she explained: sand and refinish patches as necessary. “Because to redo the whole thing, they’d have to sand off like half-an-inch of the floor!” MJ laughed in disapproval. “And the character would be lost.” As it was, the floor had black wrinkles like worm tracks, polyurethaned scratches.

House tour complete, we headed back down the stairs, which split the lower level in two: kitchen and dining room on one side; living room on the other.

“I brought you something,” I said, and bent over my backpack. From the yellow Strand bag, I extracted one of the two bubble-wrapped bottles. Freed from packaging, it displayed a liquid similar in color and quality to the floors.

“Ooh, thank you,” MJ said. “Shall we have some now?”

I followed MJ into the kitchen. She took down a clear glass from a hook, where a row of such glasses hung by their handles along the sloping tiled surface that was the stairs’ underside. She poured bourbon into a shot glass, then into the larger cup.

“Shall we use ice?” MJ asked.

“I’d like some ice,” Nick said.

I opened the freezer and grabbed a silicone tray. I considered emptying the tray into the freezer’s empty plastic ice tub, wondered if it was clean.

“Uh, that’s probably dirty,” MJ said.

The ice was brain-shaped and roundish—“Brain Freeze,” it was called—and I hesitated to pop it out of the mold, worried it would roll away. MJ did it for me. I was really just following her around, but she didn’t mind.

“That’s Nick’s; he wanted half a shot,” MarlyJo said. I delivered the drink: two steps up to the stairwell and two steps down into the living room.

“And this is for you,” MarlyJo said, handing me a glass.

*

Friday night, I sat up in bed at Pru’s condo, thinking about my day with MJ and Nick, typing away in that strange intermediate between diary and composition.

This morning, using one of her carefully kept sharp knives, [MJ] cut up a pear and a nectarine and some cherries to have on yogurt with granola, imported from Vermont and stored in a large Mason jar. We ate the yogurt from the pottery bowls MJ had bought when she lived in Coolidge Corner, near Trader Joe’s, in the studio apartment with a fireplace, where next her bed was a lamp made out of the champagne bottle whose contents her parents had drunk the night she was conceived. I wonder where that lamp is now that MarlyJo shares a bed with another man with whom she hopes to conceive.

My sentences bulged with collected detail.

Just the word “what?” or “what, hun?” is enough to illustrate her voice. Before pronouncing the vowel she hesitates so that the word sounds like, “Mmmwhat?” The humming at the start of the word gives it sweetness.

I tried again with my description of the morning.

“What do you want…” for breakfast, MJ started to ask. “For breakfast, we have yogurt and granola, and fruit, and cereal. And we have one egg, so…” I imagined how to politely decline their one egg. “…we could have not very eggy pancakes.” She gave her smile of embarrassment or dissatisfaction. The smile that takes up time and is part of the conversation and seems almost as if it should be included in quotation marks, the way David Foster Wallace quoted ellipses. “Oh, and toast.”

I didn’t write it down (then), but after breakfast, we’d run errands: post office, grocery. I’d bought s’mores ingredients for the housewarming party MJ and Nick were planning for Saturday. Then we washed windows (Before housewarming comes housecleaning.). With soapy water, MarlyJo cleaned the window frames, the holes in the walls, and I did the edges of the windows themselves. We both Windexed the glass and wiped it down with newsprint as MJ’s dad had long ago instructed her to do.

When I looked up from the computer screen, my eyes wandered toward the open door of the closet, where my cousin stored a vacuum cleaner and empty boxes, including one for a light blue “charisma lamp,” as the yellowing box proclaimed it. To me this appellation was ironic and, therefore, funny. The lamp pictured on the box was shaped like a vase and had a smooth, reflective surface—no charisma whatsoever. The lamp’s style was typical of Pru’s condo: often blue; otherwise nondescript. But unlike her lamp, Pru makes no claims to charisma.

The condo has book-lined walls, a library of CDs and records, and a TV on which you can watch just about anything. When I visit, my cousin and I often drink bourbon and watch TV together, which I like. Pru has a Ph.D. in English and is a Shakespeare buff. She’s knowledgeable about most things, in fact, including art history; she told me what “pre-Raphaelite” means, for example (it’s not as self-explanatory as it sounds).

Yet this aesthetic appreciation doesn’t seem to affect Pru’s personal style, which is plain, vanilla. Blueberry? So many older, well-educated, and financially stable people express their sophistication through a certain “tasteful” style. My cousin, who is all of the above, could wear draping kimonos and big jewelry, put a hand-turned bowl at the center of her dining table. But if Pru did that in order to be like other people? No, my cousin is happy with plain things and does not pretend otherwise. There are some anomalies, however: a wooden painted penguin standing between the couch and the easy chair and, near the door to Pru’s room, a pair of plastic flamingos, wading in the carpet.

Pru and I were going to see a dance performance the next day, Saturday afternoon. The show, in which friends were performing, was actually my reason for visiting Boston. I always stay with Pru, and I hadn’t planned to spend so much time with MJ and Nick; it just worked out that way. I’d spent Thursday night with them because Pru had had plans. Then, last-minute, MJ told me about the housewarming party Saturday night. Since it was a trek back to Pru’s, I would crash at MJ and Nick’s afterward. I hoped Pru wouldn’t feel neglected: a self-important consideration, but there you have it.

And in my mind, I did neglect Pru: My thoughts returned to MJ and her house, so full old things, or not necessarily old but treasured. MJ and Nick had gotten a lot of really nice wooden furniture for little or no money—gifts, the street, a discount furniture shop only open Saturday afternoons. Pru’s condo was full of old things, too, but for some reason, I wasn’t curious about them. It’s one thing to say to your friend “I like your lamp; where did you get it?” and another to inquire of your extremely generous hostess, a generation older than you, about the origins of an object you privately chuckle at. Actually, I am curious about that penguin.

*

I threw a marshmallow skewer into the bonfire. It glowed, then curled up on itself, seeming to melt. For the housewarming party, I was wearing an outfit, a word I can barely write without scare quotes, it makes me so self-conscious to choose clothes that carefully: fluttery culottes and a semi-transparent green t-shirt. Instead of the island necklace, I had on a green one, a garland of little inchworm-colored beads with an oblong black pendant in the middle. Across the fire, Annie, another college friend of MJ’s, was talking about her fear of losing expensive objects. “My dad always makes fun of me for buying cheap sunglasses, but I just lose them!” she said.

“I know. I hate losing things. But I try to think of it as practice,” Nick replied. “‘This is an opportunity for me to practice letting go of things.’ It’s hard to do.”

When the fire was out and the guests who weren’t sleeping over had left, Nick gave Annie a tour of the upstairs. He was showing her the master bedroom when I, taking this chance for a second look around, stepped through the doorway. On the dresser before me, next to stacks of jewelry boxes, was a bottle converted into a lamp. Veuve Clicquot, the orange label said.

“The conception lamp!” I exclaimed.

“‘Conception lamp.’ Hah,” MJ said. “See, I love that you know that.” Friends of a decade, we knew things about each other that other people did not. MJ knew about my scar, my medical issues, had visited me in the hospital. Did I also know these things about MJ because I latched onto information about people I liked, used knowledge as a stand-in for closeness?

That night I would sleep downstairs. Getting ready, I kept forgetting things I needed to bring up to the bathroom—pajamas, pads. And where were the keys to Pru’s? Ah, in the little zippered pocket at the top of my backpack. When I pulled them out for reassurance, I spotted my island pendant, intertwined with my earbuds’ white wires. Fuck, I mean, shit, crap, dammit. It would have been so easy to pull out the earbuds and drop the necklace. That’s why I normally didn’t take it off. Silly outfit. But I hadn’t lost it, I reminded myself, and lay down on the living room couch.

In the window stood a clear bottle, wide at the bottom with a thin neck, filled with crumpled pages. I wondered what it meant, and to whom.

*

“Oh, I have so many emails to answer,” Nick complained the next morning. We sat drinking coffee around the dining table. “Like from my mom. Look at this.”

“I got an email from your mom too,” MJ said. “A few days ago.”

“The reply doesn’t have to be long,” Nick said. “Just ‘hey, thanks for writing. Hope you’re doing well.’ Or that’s what I tell myself.”

“I know. But I want to write a nice message. Instead I write nothing.”

“I need to get a birthday card for Janet—my friend from Bar Harbor,” I chimed in. MJ knew who Janet was, but the others didn’t. Janet was about to turn ninety-two. “That’s why I was looking at cards at the post office. But I can’t find anything I like. I should make one, I guess.”

“My mom has a funny attitude about that,” Nick said. “She paints these lovely little watercolors, postcard size. So I asked her, ‘Mom, why don’t you send these to people? They’d love it!’ And she said, ‘If I sent someone a piece of my art with my story written on the back, I’d be burdening them with this object they couldn’t throw away.’ So instead she sends a Hallmark card because she thinks it will be easier for people to let go of.”

“Huh. That’s funny, because I save those things, too,” I said, “the Hallmark card with ‘love, Janet’ on it; anything with ‘love, Janet’ on it.”

“Exactly,” MJ said. “And what Nick’s mom doesn’t know is that we have every card she ever sent. We’ve moved them with us from apartment to apartment.”

“Janet has a lot of knickknacks in her living room, propped up along the top of the couch—a pillow embroidered with a saying, a teddy bear in a t-shirt. If you ask where she got them, she’ll say, ‘Oh, somebody gave it to me.’ I think she feels obligated to put them on display in case the person comes over. But she wouldn’t buy those things herself. Maybe they do sort of burden her,” I said.

“But the thing is,” I continued, “when someone you care about gives you something, the identity of the object almost stops mattering. It’s no longer a teddy bear; it’s ‘the teddy bear MJ gave me,’ or whatever.”

“I think you’re right,” MJ said. “Objects can come to represent people. That’s why we can’t get rid of them. Or I can’t, anyway.”

“Speaking of things on display,” I said, “what is the significance of that bottle filled with paper?”

“Oh, a friend gave it to me,” Nick said. “She filled it with the pages of a book—I actually don’t remember which one.”

III.

Seeking escape from both manuscript and lost necklace Wednesday morning, I go running. I watch for the green walk signal, cross below the overpass. Even when the walk light is green, cars will turn toward you. The key is to just keep running forward. They won’t hit you if you make it clear where you’re going. You have to believe it, be confident, run faster toward the blinking light. I’m going around a small park, running along the cracked sidewalk just outside the iron fence.

My mom lost her own island pendant a few years ago. It fell off her neck at a café and was gone. For her birthday that year, I ordered a replacement. It’s the kind of thing you feel guilty buying for yourself. Not having the necklace is punishment for losing it, or that’s how it feels. Rather than fondle the necklace, I touch the tracheostomy scar on my neck, barely visible yet tangibly there.

On the park’s far side, men sleep on benches. We cross paths for seconds.

Eventually, I’ll inherit my mother’s necklace. This is not a consolation, but it is another reason not to go online and buy myself a new one. The inherited necklace would be the one I bought for Mom, then…strange.

I’ll also inherit the letters I’ve written to my parents, I think, running toward the corner to turn left and homeward. Mom keeps them downstairs, in the desk near the phone and the laundry room. You think of letters as thoughts sent away, past, but like the basket, like so many memories, they also reappear, materialize. Embodied memories are not always welcome; physical palaces can unsettle mental ones. This thought of my letters returning, for example, makes me want to cease correspondence, stop amassing envelopes to my future orphaned self.

Street crossings and fatigue relieve me of attention on the run back.

Home, I look again in the backpack pocket. Caught and hanging, its concave gold shape the size of a thumb, its chain wilted, is the necklace. It has been there all along. Though I neglected it, I have somehow escaped the consequences. Or my punishment was brief, anyway: a simulation of loss. Sweaty without the moving air of running to fan me, I sit to email my cousin the news. And I message MJ.

“I’m so glad you have it,” MJ replies.

When I get out of the shower, there’s an email from Pru: “I’m really glad you hadn’t lost it! Obviously it means a lot to you. I’ll stop looking for it.”

Only then do I cry.

 

Ashley P. Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer of journalism, essays, and fiction. Her essays have appeared in LUMINA Online Journal, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Rail, Entropy, and Catapult and have been listed as notable in Best American Essays 2016 and 2017. Her short fiction has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Joyland.

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