The Art of Forgetting
Jan’s name was a girl’s and didn’t match the heft of his body. His hair was short black squiggles and his skin the color of roasted chicken. He was full of contradictions, like, in spite of his name he was very much a man, with rippled shoulders and an Adam’s apple that protruded from his throat. He said he was a direct descendant of Norse fighters and shared his name with his father and his father’s fathers, back to the beginning of time. My family was filled with Michaels and Jeffreys employed as accountants and bank clerks and managers who talked about the weather and government. Though my name was a direct rebuke: Mia, like a cat’s meow. I was destined for a life of glamour, filled with weekend jaunts to the islands and twelve-hundred-dollar evening gowns I’d donate to the Salvation Army after one wearing. But somehow my roots conspired against me, they burrowed in.
I met Jan when he was presenting at a school meeting. I hadn’t seen my son, Danny, in months though I still kept up with meetings and teacher conferences. Frank wouldn’t let me near Danny. He didn’t see the ways I protected him.
I was at the meeting to protest the annual fundraiser. I’ve always thought sending a phalanx of school kids out into neighborhoods, armed with chocolates and ten-dollar candles, was the wrong way to go about raising money. I was protesting placing other children in Danny’s position. The other mothers avoided me, even Mrs. Sewell, who was always so nice, bringing baskets of baked goods, sat two seats away. They were worse than me, acting as if our bad luck might spread like a contagion. If they talked to me it was in hushed voices, asking, Is he going to be OK? Will they do some type of reconstruction? Surely insurance must cover it… only we didn’t have insurance. Frank had just switched jobs, and each of the companies found a loophole, and when I called it was a game of circles. I stopped calling, stopped picking up the phone, stopped answering their questions.
Jan had come to give a product demonstration. Most of the debate was about candy bar sales versus Christmas gifts, the impersonal type that your great aunt gives you, that you’ll never use but you’d feel too guilty to throw away. Jan stood in front of the cafeteria while mothers took turns at the mic, he in khakis with his pale blue polo shirt, the first button undone, holding a cardboard box from which he later unpacked the “gift purchases.” There was a mug contoured like Ms. Claus’ face, fruit-scented bath soaps shaped like slices of lime, orange, and lemon, and icicle ornaments, which I bought last year and threw into the fireplace just to watch them shatter.
I approached Jan afterward as he repacked the box, while the other mothers hovered around the punch bowl like it’d been spiked. I told him, “You should think twice about working for a company that puts kids in dangerous situations.”
“Last year a child practically had his face bitten off while selling your products.”
He put down the candle-making kit and looked me in the eye, “That’s too bad, Ma’am. That sounds like a one-of-a-kind situation.”
I lied and told him that I was Danny’s teacher. I didn’t want him to think I was a crazy mother. And I told him what happened last year: the week in the children’s hospital burn unit because they had to do a skin graft, how he had to take drugs even now for the pain, how he still couldn’t walk outside alone without getting dry heaves.
“Accidents happen,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, and continued to pack the box. “That dog could’ve bit him another time. Say, what if he kicked a ball in the yard? Or if he decided to explore?” He looked at me with sorry eyes.
“Placing children in harm’s way is wrong.” I was angry. I wasn’t just any mother. Danny knew the dog was a biter. “We’re putting them in strange yards with sharp teeth. Sending them to neighbors with wandering hands. We don’t need a repeat.”
I held my hands on my hips and Jan just looked at me with his sweet smile, like he knew he would only offend me if he said anything. Truth was, I was happy to have someone talk to me like I was normal.
We were eventually the last two people in the auditorium, besides the custodian stacking the chairs. That’s when Jan asked me about the walrus eggs. I asked him to repeat.
“Walrus eggs,” he said again, taking pains to annunciate each syllable. “You heard me, I misplaced them.”
I looked at him questioningly.
“They’re part of the kit—white zipper pouches with a baby walrus inside.” He glanced over the scattered chairs. “Someone must have pocketed them.”
“Figures you’d sell something like that,” I said. “Inane ideas stick in kids’ heads like lard, you know. Imagine, an entire generation of Piedmont grads telling their kids how walruses lay eggs.”
Must have been all that talk about eggs and children, or the way Jan so patiently listened, but I couldn’t stop going on about the insane ways those mothers bring up their kids. I told him how Janice Knoll lets her boy stay the night at his girlfriend’s house even though they’re only thirteen, and how Natalie Porter secretly breast-fed her youngest till he went to kindergarten. As I talked, Jan was just packing and packing; you wouldn’t believe how many gadgets fit in one of those boxes when they’re packed just right. We exited under the fitness week banners. I rambled as he nodded his head.
“They’re like a pack of wolves.”
Jan stopped by his car and opened the trunk. He leaned over real far, and when the bottom of his shirt moved up I could see the way his back narrowed, straight and flat with a ridge in the middle. “You’ve got the straightest back I’ve ever seen,” I said, because I’d run out of things to talk about. All the talking had run down my anger and I couldn’t take my eyes off his skin.
He turned around and placed his finger on the bridge of my nose, “Well, you’ve got a pretty pony nose, just like my ex.” This didn’t seem as good as the way it sounded, rolling off his tongue. He pulled a bottle of bourbon from the back of his trunk, took a sip, and offered it to me. I took a sip too, but knew if this got back to Frank I wouldn’t hear the end of it. “I shouldn’t be drinking in the school parking lot. Someone might see.” I suggested we go around back.
He finished packing the car and we walked to the playground, his hand bumping my thigh the whole way. We climbed to the monkey bars and sat side by side, drinking from the bottle. Jan’s body was a dark outline next to mine.
“Do you live around here?” he asked.
“For quite a while,” I responded. That was the truth.
“Well, do you have a family?”
I said no but that didn’t feel quite right so I tried again. “I almost married once, about ten years ago. Young, dumb love, you know? I gave back the ring two days before the wedding. I wanted to do better things with my life. ” I couldn’t tell him how Frank and I separated, how we’ve never really known if we’re falling in love or out of it, that there’s never been a comfortable place where we can rest.
“You’re still here.”
“I planned on leaving, but my work was here. And you know how one year bleeds into another.”
Jan started crossing the monkey bars below, with his legs bent so his feet wouldn’t drag. He paused and let go. “I could do that for all of recess when I was a kid.”
Something with getting older makes us more tired and slow. He was sweaty and panting softly when he came back.
“You finished the bottle?”
I nodded but he didn’t see me in the dark. I felt fluid and fast. Something had shifted.
“My, Mia, you can hold your own.”
“You didn’t leave much.” I had built a tolerance with all of the nights alone. The days were even longer. Frank had given me an allowance to cover my rent and basic expenses, so I hadn’t looked for work.
“I’ve been thinking about that boy. I can’t believe his neighbors didn’t keep their dog locked up.”
“ They claimed they didn’t think about it.”
“Well then, I’m surprised his mother didn’t go with him.”
I sat quiet. “Yeah, me too.”
I went home with Jan that night. He didn’t have kids or a girlfriend, just an empty house with pale blue siding and two bedrooms, one empty. The light by the side door was the only one on when we pulled up the drive, and the house looked lonely with the flat yard and no trees. Boxes from his job were stacked in the living room by the TV and in the kitchen. On the mantle were pictures of Jan with smoother skin and a wide grin, his arm around a blonde woman whose face bore an uncanny resemblance to mine, except her hair was lighter and went past her shoulders.
“Who’s that?” I asked. He didn’t answer. Jan went to the kitchen and turned on another light. I heard him moving things, like he was shifting boxes and opening doors. He returned with two glasses of wine and a white ball that he placed on the sofa. The material on the outside was matted like Danny’s hospital gown. I unzipped it, thinking I’d find a stuffed walrus, but it held a pipe and Jan’s pot.
Jan and I joined lives like we had been two parts searching for the other. We weren’t in love and I was okay with that. He only mentioned the girl in the photo once and how she had left him, and I was relieved to stop thinking about the ways I’d failed Danny. It was as if Jan had been preparing for me. He didn’t like talking about “before.” He thought we should act like this is how it always was. I found comfort in this though sometimes I had nightmares of Danny, standing on the porch, bloody and missing part of his body. One night I dreamed his arm had been torn off. I woke up shaking. Jan had to nestle his chest against my back until I calmed down.
At the beginning, I’d get in my car in the morning and take a right out of the driveway as if I were driving off to school. I carried a bag of books and papers and drove to the park where I’d watch kids running and play-fighting. I spent hours watching the turtles swim gracelessly and petting the caged red-eyed rabbit. Danny had always wanted a pet rabbit.
Jan quit his job the second week we were together. That day he was lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling when I got home. A sweaty beer was surrounded by bottles before him.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Never been better.” He sat up and pulled me to his lap. “I quit A-Plus today. ” And then he took my hand. “I didn’t want to make my living doing something you’re opposed to.”
“That’s the sweetest thing,” I said. I took it as a token of admiration, that he quit his sales job on my behalf. I’d been pulling enough wool over his eyes that I didn’t care if his words were false so long as the sentiment was true. Frank still sent checks to my post office box most months. I figured it’d be enough to support us till Jan got back on his feet. “My paycheck won’t cover much but we can probably get by for a while.”
“Don’t worry.” He gripped my knee. “I just thought I’d celebrate a little this afternoon, you know? Celebrate us. Get yourself a drink.”
I’d made a rule not to drink before the sun went down but took a beer from the fridge anyway. When I came back, Jan told me he had been scheming. “That’s what sets people apart,” he said, “knowing what you want and having a plan.”
Jan thought we could make money on eBay, and so we started selling belt buckles, vintage lamps, and tobacco pipes—anything we could find in large quantities at Goodwill and flea markets, anything, too, that was unique, like the china doll I found in a pile at the Potter’s House with its own kimono and stand. She had eyes that shut when you laid her down and a hole between her legs. If we came across something good, we’d buy up the entire lot. The office supplies and small electronics like calculators and battery chargers sold quickly, but it wasn’t enough to make ends meet, even with Frank’s checks. And so I started posting photos of appliances and knick-knacks from around the house too.
Jan never asked much about me. I was sometimes perplexed by his lack of interest in the before, who I’d slept with, what my dreams had been. When I stopped pretending to go to school, I told Jan I’d been laid off and he never said a word. He didn’t ask where my money came from. Maybe he thought we made more than we did off of eBay, but I doubt it. Jan wasn’t a fool. He just didn’t ask a lot of questions. In the mornings he’d make rounds of thrift shops and network with his sales connections. He’d either come home with a trunk full of stuff or nothing at all. I’d start putting orders together early in the morning, boxing things up, bubble-wrapping the breakables, making shopping lists of packing materials, and posting photos online. In the afternoon, Jan would pile the packed boxes in the car and haul them to the post office.
More and more Jan came home with less and less. Our inventory went to nothing, and we didn’t have the money to buy new things at all. Around this time Jan’s friend Walt started doing the rounds with him, and I began to wonder if they ever went further than the gravel pits to smoke up. Walt had spent some time working on film sets, assisting with lighting on some big-time productions, like the one about Truman Capote where two goons kill an entire family and he writes a book about it. Walt kept trying to talk Jan into making a film. He said he had connections. Though I suspected he’d never have came back if he had done so well in LA.
Shutting Danny completely out of my mind allowed me to start thinking good thoughts about him again. Frank’s checks sometimes arrived with letters from Danny and drawings. I started imagining how I could show Danny our new home, but I never worked out how I’d tell Jan. I took the most recent photo of Danny and me at the amusement park and placed it next to the one of Jan and his ex laughing hideously. My arm is around Danny with a man in a bird costume flanking his other side. Danny looked anxious as I hugged him to my chest. He wouldn’t go on any of the rides that day and so I’d filled him with funnel cake and airy swabs of cotton candy that turned his chin blue.
When Jan came home that night, his car was empty again. He didn’t notice the way I’d scoured the kitchen but asked about the kid in the picture. “That’s Danny. The one I told you about.” I’d mentioned Danny many times but I’d never told Jan he was my son.
“He doesn’t look so bad.”
“It was his other cheek.”
“I just thought he’d look messed up. ”
It’s true I turned his head for photos, and always walked on the outside so no one would stare. But kids can be cruel. Frank used to corner me when Danny wasn’t in the room and tell me I had better start acting right.
“Doesn’t make it any better, does it?” I shot back. Danny was my territory. The soft blonde hair that smelled like sand, the way his lips curled into a frown when he concentrated—they weren’t for Jan’s eyes or judgement. I began to regret putting the photo out.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m just surprised, with the way you made him out to be.”
The morning we started selling the kitchen appliances, I cleaned out the cupboard. There were cookbooks, mint green teacups and matching saucers, plastic forks, and a tattered box that held diamond earrings. The earrings looked antique. The diamonds were set in a circle. I had laid everything out on the floor by the time Jan got home, but when he saw the earrings, he snatched them up and put them in his pocket. I never saw them again.
We sold the kitchen set, the set of pans Jan’s parents had given him, and the toaster oven. By this point we were eating off two plates we’d bought from the Salvation Army and reusing plastic utensils. We ate boiled ham and potatoes for dinner, or heated canned pasta. We were sleeping on an inflatable mattress that we had to hand pump every night or our pointy parts would touch the floor. I wondered if I was making a mistake. I was thinking about applying for a job at the supermarket. I sometimes worried Frank’s checks wouldn’t come, but somehow they always did.
Until they didn’t. We had just sold Jan’s queen-sized bed for four-hundred fifty dollars, which at least was enough to cover the next month’s bills. He and Walt spent most of their days collaborating on a script. As far as I could tell, Jan was only a seller before Walt came along, and never would’ve dreamed of making a film. But when I reflected, I realized I barely knew what Jan wanted, only that he had wanted his ex to come back so badly he wouldn’t part with any of her possessions. I had found slips and party dresses tucked into the bottom drawer of his bureau and coats hanging in the storage closet. I never mentioned it. Let the past lie—we knew how to bury it, didn’t we? He never asked about Danny again, even when I put up more pictures. Jan and I had grown together in present tense, not burdening each other with past regrets, loving each other for who we were right then. And that in itself was beautiful. At least for a time.
I told Jan I’d run out of money one morning before Walt came. The living room looked barren with the TV set against one wall and the lawn chairs against the other. The TV antenna was stitched together by an aluminum foil contraption Jan had built. Jan’s body slouched in one of the chairs, watching the TV and scooping cereal into his mouth.
“We’re out of cash.” I was desperate. “I was thinking, those earrings I found in the cupboard a while back—how much do you think we could get for them?”
“Those aren’t for selling. ”
“Well, if you’re saving them for me, I’d rather we sold them. I can’t be wearing fancy earrings while sitting in lawn chairs.”
“I’m saving them for me.”
“Did they belong to your grandmother or something?” This was one of the few times I’d pried.
“ They’re not for sale, and that’s all.”
“I’m not blind. This is pitiful. I don’t like all of these secrets between us.”
“ Yeah, well what about the pictures of your student you plastered everywhere? I respect your privacy, and I’d like you to keep respecting mine.”
“I think we could try to share more. ”
“Well, why don’t you start with telling me about your money? Your Swiss bank account ran out?”
For all my talk about sharing, I didn’t want to go there. I reached out for him, but he shoved my hand away.
“Just look at that.” I watched him throw his empty bowl into the sink, milk splashing over the side.
I left the room, and then it was silent. We never had a blow-up before. I laid down on the bed and rolled into the sagging middle.
I wouldn’t talk to him for days, even when I passed him in the hall, and I made him sleep on the floor. He never sold the earrings or any of his ex’s things, but he moved them somewhere else. I didn’t ask where. I knew I couldn’t go back to before, even if I wanted. Frank wouldn’t have me, and he was right about me and Danny. I hoped Danny knew that I would’ve come back if it had been good for him. I even sent a letter telling him I was sorry. It was returned. Jan didn’t see it or pretended not to. He was better at averting his eyes than I was.
We eventually picked up where we’d left off without talking about anything except making a new beginning. It was easier that way. The next week we packed the car with our few belongings, filled the gas tank, and asked Walt to rent out the house. We figured we could make it to Mexico on our credit cards, and once we were there we wouldn’t have to worry about banks tracking us down. Walt promised to look over the place and wire us money on the first of every month. I thought starting anew might do us some good. We would set up camp by the ocean where we could live off the land.
Jan and I would ride the promise of the future.