By noon, the sky turns white with the threat of snow, and my mind is still a blank. I cannot find my way into my second novel, and there’s no excuse for it. Since my twins left for college in September, I’ve turned down every invitation, and my long marriage runs under its own steam. I have nothing but time. Time and silence. But the silence only spooks me. It was easier to write under the threat of interruption, back when one of the boys would tap me on the shoulder for a juice box or a band-aid or a lift to a friend’s. It was, I imagine, the way a dissident writer must feel, ever alert for the knock on the door. But I am no Vaclav Havel, because I longed for a solitary prison cell. What victimless crime will buy me six months to a year inside? This is what I would sometimes think as I drove the boys to school. May your wishes be granted, the Chinese say when they really want to mess with you.
I leave my desk, get into my car, and head to Food Emporium. The methodical stroll up and down the aisles sometimes works on me like the fingering of prayer beads. Two aisles into my meditation, I spot a woman I haven’t spoken to in years. I consider turning my cart around, but she spots me. My hello is a croak. Twelve-thirty, and it’s the first time I’ve spoken today. There’s some kind of shame in that. We chat about Christmas, but I’m only half listening. I’m thinking: what the hell is her name? Then I hear her say that both her parents have died within the last five years. Has it been that long since we last spoke, or have I forgotten this detail?
When she asks after my husband, I say, “Great. Busy.” To keep the script rolling, I ask about hers. No surprise, Colin is busy too. He’s a state trooper, and, as she points out, New Jersey is bursting with bad people. I picture the state, roughly shaped like a human appendix, inflamed and infected. Maybe I need to live abroad like Gertrude Stein. But, I’m so isolated now that I might as well be an ex-pat. All the people I used to hide from are leaving town now that their children are grown. Soon it will be possible to mutter dialogue in the produce aisle without bumping into anyone I know. This should make me happy, but it doesn’t. After my neighbors moved last summer, I couldn’t look at their house without getting a lump in my throat. Our only connection was through our boys, but it feels like a part of my past got erased.
I remind myself that Colin’s wife is also a part of my past, and I tune back in. She is saying that she has just come from visiting her brother at New Horizons, the assisted living facility. It’s hard, she says. She will never get used to it. I nod and look sympathetic, but I’m thinking that I must be a monster for not remembering dead parents and a handicapped brother. I look at her closely. Her curly dark hair is uncombed and she has a pimple on her left cheek. She hasn’t taken a cart or basket, but instead clutches Ajax, paper towels, and a sack of pears to her chest as though she had only meant to run in and out.
Before we part, she says how nice it’s been talk to me. I turn down the next aisle feeling guilty. Tony jokes that I should hang a therapist’s shingle outside our house. My silence encourages people to talk about themselves, he says. When I belonged to the local cycling group, one of the regulars would peel off the peloton to tell me about his troubled son and his depressed wife. Between the helmet and the wind, I heard little. My sympathetic noises must have encouraged him though, because he sought me out on every ride.
I move down the cleaning supply aisle with Colin’s wife’s name hovering on the edge of my consciousness. A writer with a bad memory is like a surgeon with palsy. Her husband’s name is no problem, even though I met them at the same time about twenty years ago. Colin is Tony’s childhood friend. It comes to me that she’s a nurse; they met when he was in the hospital, recovering from a motorcycle accident. I have an image of Colin in traction, his homely face half hidden by plaster, while she administers to him in a starched white uniform and cap. But this must be from a movie, because the accident happened before I knew either of them and nurses have worn scrubs since the seventies. Why can I remember the way she met her husband but not her name? I’m sure I once thought their story was romantic, but now it seems corny, a soap opera plot. The way I met Tony – at a small dinner party – is more original. My date was ten years older than me, a transcendental meditator who kept to an early bedtime and ate from a limited menu. I’m sure he was too busy worrying about his digestion to notice that I’d fallen for someone else. In those days, Tony had the dark good looks of a Venetian gondolier, and he was dressed like one, too. I turn into the pasta aisle, remembering his ridiculous striped boat neck shirt and black jeans. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have looked twice at a man dressed up that way.
At the end of the pasta aisle, Colin’s wife is standing on tiptoe, reaching for the upper shelf. I make a U-turn, muttering to myself, looking over my shoulder, pretending that I’ve forgotten something. I’ve wasted too much time here already. The cereal aisle looks different coming after the cleaning product aisle. The boxes are as garish as hothouse flowers. Suddenly, I am remembering the pool party Colin threw at his father’s house. Tony was dressed like an American in Levis and a tee. The gondolier getup was his former girlfriend’s doing. I remembered that it cheered me to hear this; it meant he was malleable, unlike the meditator. But Tony’s extroversion was a flaw I had to get used to. At Colin’s party, all his friends were drinking and smoking pot, and a few girls had taken off their tops in the pool and were waving them like flags. I had what I now recognize as a panic attack. My hands were clammy, my lungs collapsed, and I had an urge to run. I moved away from the crowd and bumped into Colin’s father who was stretched out near a flowerbed on a lounge chair, sucking on a cherry-scented cigar.
“Watch your step,” he said, and then, “The hollyhocks aren’t doing so well. The lady next store recommended fish heads. But fish and flowers? I can’t see that. What do you think?” I could only manage a nod. Perhaps mistaking my social anxiety for an interest in gardening, he offered to show me the roses, which were doing just fine without the fish. I remember how soothing it was to follow him through the gardens, listening to him recite the flower names in the dark like a poem.
The house and gardens belong to Colin and his wife now. Colin’s father moved to his summer house in the Finger Lakes not long after his son’s wedding. The things I manage to remember baffle me. Somehow I find myself in the florist section amid buckets of tulips, sunflowers, and unopened roses. I rarely buy grocery-store flowers, but I want them now. I choose a lavender bunch that look like hollyhocks, but the label on the cellophane says delphiniums. I make my way to the checkout and begin to unload my cart. I place the flowers onto the conveyor belt, wondering how Colin’s wife felt about inheriting her father-in-law’s gardens. Was it a burden, like tending to someone else’s memories?
I look up. She’s behind me, smiling. Why here? Her few items qualify her for express. My face heats up. Ashamed that I have not managed to hide my annoyance, I search for a way to make it up to her. I’d offer to let her ahead of me, but the cashier is ringing me up. I’d ask about her children, but I can’t remember if she has a son or a daughter, and I can’t say ‘how are the kids’ because I don’t remember if she’s got more than one. In the silence, I hear the cash register keys clacking, as though it’s adding up my failures.
“I was remembering your father-in-law’s garden--” I say, and then stop, realizing that he might be dead. I met him only a handful of times, but feel as though his death would be too hard for me to take.
“He’s doesn’t garden anymore,” she says, and pauses. “Actually, he’s got Alzheimer’s. These days, he mostly sleeps. He’s in a nursing home up in Watkins Glen.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” I imagine him, a little stooped, but still tall, pointing to the flowers with the burning end of a cigar, mixing up their names with household appliances. Daffodils become toasters. Roses are can openers. Hollyhocks are percolators.
“We’re looking for a place around here,” she says. “So he can get out a little and maybe spend some time at our house.”
I’d like to recite the flower names to him, I think, the way he once did for me. And if Colin’s wife hasn’t kept up his gardens, I’ll show him mine. Then I remember that last summer I let the tiger lilies choke out the red poppies and that other flower, the purple perennial I can never remember the name of. I told myself that I preferred a wild, natural garden, but I’d spent the whole summer writing. To make this plan work, I’d have to attack the beds with every tool in my shed, and then I’d have to look up all the flower names I’ve forgotten or never knew. When would I find the time? I have a book to write. I look at my watch. The day is getting away from me again.
I pay the cashier and turn back to Colin’s wife. She has her wallet out, waiting. I wish I could remember her name.
“I’ll get out of your way.” I move my cart a few inches and watch her count out bills. We’ve come to the natural end, but I’m reluctant to go. I wonder if it’ll be another five years before I see her again. Why should that matter when I haven’t given her, or Colin, or Colin’s father a thought in all that time?
“Say hello to Colin,” I say. “And Colin’s father, though I doubt he’ll remember me.”
“He might,” she says. “The older memories are the last to go.”
After a flurry of good-byes, I’m in motion again. The automatic doors open like the jaws of Jonah’s whale, and I’m expelled into the brisk winter air. Snow flurries drift down from the white sky. They melt as soon as they land.
At home, I unwrap the delphiniums from the cellophane. They spill across the countertop, and I take a moment to admire them. Then I shove the flowers into a too small vase and carry them to my desk. As I wait for the computer to boot, I stare again at the little purple buttercup faces. Before long, I am seeing the face of a young woman. It is night, and she trails an old man through a narrow opening in a privet hedge into a luminescent moon garden, fragrant with flowering tobacco and jasmine. The old man turns and calls to the woman. Julie. Her name is Julie! I turn back to the computer and write until the sun drops from the sky. I write until I lose my view of my dormant gardens. I write until I can see only my own reflection in the darkened pane.