Often I find myself standing in a room, dazed, staring around with no idea why I’ve come there, what I’ve come for. I know that if I go back to where I came from and to doing what I was doing I will suddenly remember what I needed and why I came to this room. But try as I may, I cannot remember while I am in the room. When I tell my friends of these events they all, all of them, no matter how old or how young, say that they do this very thing, that they find themselves lost in a familiar space, dumb-founded by a failure of memory that has left them stranded as completely as a mutineer on a desert island. I do not find their stories reassuring.
I test my memory continually, run a sort of internal diagnostic check, asking myself to supply bits of data, small facts, names and dates, all of those trivial pursuits that make up our lives. And increasingly I find it easy to stump myself. I feel the requested information stir in the dim recesses of my brain, but when it attempts to come into expression it locks. My mind is as tongue-tied as I was as a tiny baby before the doctors clipped the webby membrane under my tongue and freed me to speak. And my friends and associates tell me that this, too, happens to them. At the lunch table at work, I will often ask a question only to see everyone around me seize up as tight as frozen gears, their faces twisted in hopeless concentration.
I do remember some things easily: moments of acute and perpetual embarrassment, social gaffes by a much younger self that still make me squirm and blush, moments of terrible and permanent loss, moments when the road was or was not taken to my permanent chagrin. These come easily. And I also remember easily other things that do not really matter, the number of pages in the book I’m currently reading, the phone number of my childhood home, or the pairings in the basketball tournament for the upcoming weekend. And I remember some things that do really matter.
I remember, for example, how the breeze on one bright spring afternoon ruffled the blond hair of Constance Everby. And how the light danced and shivered through her hair, and through the pale leaves on the trees and the blossoms on the plum tree under which we stood. And how her eyes caught the light and transformed it as she looked away from the wonders of the day and directly at me.
She had just gotten her new spring cut. Gone were the long curling tresses that had shielded the delicate nape of her neck from wintry gusts, and now she looked as young and fresh and new as spring itself. We were standing alone under the plum tree, the shadows of its blossoms a tremulous carpet spread around us, alone and together. Our friends had wandered down to the stream that wound its slow way through the pasture land below the summer cabin we were using for a weekend party, taking a break from the pressures of senior year and the stacks of note cards and annotated thesis pages that cluttered our desks and our lives.
I was, as you can probably tell, terribly in love with Constance Everby. And until that afternoon, that moment, she had been just a friend, perhaps even less than that, a friend of my friends. We were often together but very seldom alone together. She laughed at my jokes along with everyone else, or listened patiently as I explained yet again my theories about the latest assassination or disappearance. I am sure that I never even crossed her mind when we weren’t together with the crowd. Until that afternoon.
She was wearing a short pale dress that fluttered in the spring breeze, and she walked toward me with extraordinary care across the grassy yard around the cabin, placing her bare feet carefully one before the other in the grass, but all the time looking directly at me with a look on her face that I had never seen there before. She moved with the dangerous grace of a cat easing across the grass toward an oblivious rabbit or chipmunk. And the power of her beauty, her trembling short hair, her legs moving under the lapping of her skirt like water, caught me and held me as I awaited the explosion of her pounce.
But it never came. We talked, quietly, intimately, and then, responding to the calls of our friends from the stream’s bank, she placed her hand gently through the loop of my arm and urged me to escort her to them. Echoing the Van Halen song that had just been pounding out of the window of the cabin a few minutes before, my heart pounding as hard as its beat, I said to her, “Why can’t this be love?” She looked closely at me for a moment, then rising on tiptoe kissed me, a long, lingering, delicate, powerful kiss that I have never forgotten, through all that has happened, to this day.
I remember almost nothing else of that afternoon. I do remember that Constance left school suddenly a few days later, stricken by an illness severe enough to force her withdrawal even in the last semester of her senior year, severe enough that she could not even (or so her parents said) respond to the long distance phone calls and letters that marked my desperate attempts to reach her. And then she simply disappeared from my life the way people sometimes do, even people with whom you are hopelessly in love.
I worried about her. I even mourned her for a time. I developed a wounded romantic air. I sulked and pitied myself, and then eventually, as we always do, I told myself that I had forgotten Constance Everby, and I went on about my life.
I have speculated long and hard about why that single afternoon remains so ready to recall in my memory while other far more important events in my life have faded away. I have, for example, only flickering memories of my wedding day, and, when I am required to supply the information for legal forms or other inquiries, I can never remember the year of our divorce. I do manage to remember the boys’ birthdays almost every year, but the whole time of my marriage and their childhood is basically only a set of random snapshots of a day at the beach or an evening reading Goodnight, Moon to them or an afternoon soaking them in tomato juice and scrubbing them in the tub after an odorous encounter with a neighborhood skunk. My friends, too, report that large swatches of their lives have been blanked out of their memories, that they, too, are startled when they find an old letter or newspaper clipping that refers to something they did but which they no longer remember in any way. They all report how alien to and distant from themselves they feel when these discoveries occur, as though their own lives were just subject matter they had crammed for a test years ago and hadn’t really thought of or used since.
I reached no conclusions about the possible meaning of these apparently universal vagaries of memory until the evening of our 20th college reunion a year ago. I was standing near one of the bars set up around the quadrangle with a group of my old classmates, who were comparing their thickening middles and thinning heads, when Constance Everby walked by, peering before her as though she were looking for someone or something in particular, honey-haired and as beautiful and graceful as I remembered her, apparently not having aged a day or a moment or even a second since I had seen her last. A wave of terror and desire swept over me, and I could not move, could not utter a sound. But one of my old roommates had no such compunction, and he called out in a loud voice, “Constance, Constance, over here, over here.”
She turned, her face lit up with recognition and delight, and spreading her arms wide and shouting “Bobby!” she rushed into his eager, clumsy embrace. She then offered her hand to each of us in turn, speaking our names aloud, but just before she spoke mine I saw her eyes flick down just for a second to the name tag I wore glued to my lapel. Everything went by in a dizzying blur as I heard her receiving compliments and answering questions about her health— yes, she was fine as long as she kept on her medication, and no, there were no side effects, although she could never have children. And I heard her making knowledgeable comments about children and wives and promotions, just as though she had kept in close touch with everyone for the last two decades, everyone but me.
Finally my time did come, a chance to talk to her before we were all herded off to the formal dinner with its predictable menu and pleas for funds.
“Constance,” I said, “do you remember that afternoon at the cabin a few days before you had to leave school when we talked under the pear tree?”
“The thesis break party?” she asked. “Oh, yes, I remember.”
“You wore a short pink dress and your hair had just been cut,” I said, trying to hold her attention, to lure her into shared recollection.
“No,” she said, “no, I know that my hair was still long because when I went into the hospital, they cut it short there. And I was in jeans that day, too. Man, do I remember those ragged jeans; how did I ever stand wearing them every day?”
“No,” I said, “that must be some other time you’re thinking of. Don’t you remember? We stood and talked under the peach tree. You were barefooted, and Van Halen’s “Why Can’t This Be Love” was on the radio.”
She laughed at me then and put her hand on my sleeve. “Dear,” she said, “that song wasn’t even released until 1986. And I know I wasn’t in bare feet. I was always so afraid of pinworms at the cabin that I never took my shoes off, not even when we waded in the stream.”
I must have looked so baffled and so worried that she added, giving my arm a couple of firm pats, “Don’t be nervous. Memory’s a funny thing, but I never forget a thing, not a single thing. Trust me, it wasn’t the way you remember it. Not at all.” She gave my arm a parting squeeze and turned eagerly back to Bob.
We went in to dinner, but I left soon after, left the whole reunion without saying good-bye to anyone, and drove home over night. It was during that drive down the interstate that the truth came to me, a revelation as bitter as wormwood, as stunning and more terrifying, to my mind, than the one given to St. John the Divine on the island of Patmos. For I suddenly knew exactly how the world will end.
Mine was no millennial vision replete with multiwinged warriors and precise dates, but rather one of those sudden moments of insight when the answer to a problem comes completely clear, so clear in fact that you realize you knew everything about it all along but had just never put it together in the right way before. The world, I realized, will not end as the poets have suggested in fire or in ice, with a bang or a whimper. It will rather wear away like the honed edge of a knife or like a vivid memory that begins slowly to fade and erode from disuse until it finally disappears altogether. I do not know why this will happen, only that it will. Is the world getting just too hard to remember, or are we just getting too overburdened to care? I do not know, but that awful night I did see this simple truth: that when the last thing in the world is finally forgotten, when all memory is drained and empty, then the world might as well no longer exist, time will cease to matter, and the world will reach its end at last.
Memories leave us stranded now in the upstairs bedroom, but soon we will no longer even remember how to get there much less why we came there. The world will become a confused hodgepodge of social blunders and tragic misunderstandings. He will insist that she whispered “I love you” in his ear, and she will only shake her head in mute denial. She will swear that he is the father of her child, and he will say that he’s never seen her before in his life. Treaties will be unknowingly broken, and laws unwittingly ignored. Justice will become a mockery, and history will be a sad joke.
Minds will struggle to fill the growing void, will try to replace lost memories with imagined substitutes. She will tell of her life as a nun, while he knows that he picked her up once in a seedy bar. He will speak to her of a spring day, a pear tree, and a lingering lass, and she will remember only pinworms and torn jeans and the moment illness struck her down. As imagined stories replace real ones, all of them will become unsatisfactory, and people will even cease trying to remember them. Even the greatest and truest stories will lose all detail like thumb-worn coins until only shiny, meaningless blanks remain.
Two boys will one day ask their father to tell them once again the best story he ever told them.
“A sailor,” the father will say, “was mending a sail by the sea. A god was walking on the shore. The god beckoned, and the sailor left his chore and followed him. Then one day the sailor saw the god arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. The sailor wept.”
“You forgot the chicken,” one of his sons will say.
The father will feel a sudden emptiness in his mind that will show on his face.
“Yes,” the other boy will say, “the rooster crowed three times.” “If you say so,” the father will say, no longer entirely sure just who these strange boys are.
I do not know what will be the final things to be remembered. Perhaps some of the lines of a sonnet painfully learned by rote in school, or the words of a sacred chant, or perhaps just images stripped of all language: a sunset burning down into a salty gulf, three monkeys tightly holding their eyes and ears and mouth, light and shadow caressing freshly cut hair, a pink dress rippling over slowly moving bare legs. Or a sound, a bell’s chime, the desperate cry of a tiny animal in the night, a song pulsing from a radio into sunny open air. Or perhaps it will be a touch, a mother’s hand, a Brillo pad, expressive lips in a kiss that never ends. Or a silence.
Maybe the end of the world has been taking place for years, even for centuries, wiping away remembered details like tears. Or perhaps it has only just begun. Yet I am entirely sure of one thing: when my own memory has been almost completely erased and only a single thing remains, that one last thing will be the name of Constance Everby. And, trying not to forget, I will begin to scratch it in the dust with my finger: the crescent moon of desire, the full moon of satisfaction, the jagged letter with which nothing begins.