Terrors of memory slumber in the attic
“I can’t go up there, Helen.”
My wife looked at me over the white rims of her glasses. The gold flecks in the temples glinted in the late morning sun streaming through the window of our spare room. “I don’t have time to handle everything myself, Gib. Most of it is yours, anyway.” She resumed sorting through the pile of papers, tossing most of what she found into a box for shredding and recycling. “I don’t know why you kept any of it.”
“You do so.”
The attic was my version of this room, a dumping ground, only here cast-offs had been stashed in case they were wanted later: boxes of photos, piles of fabric Helen had never used, stacks of old magazines, cartons of tax returns and legal documents. Above the ceiling, leftovers of a different sort slumbered, memories I dared not revisit. I hadn’t been up there in eighteen years.
“Then you’re better off rid of it. Be quick and don’t rummage. You’ll be done in fifteen minutes, half an hour tops.”
“You could hire someone to do it.”
She thumped a thick folder into the recycling box then brought me a box of trash bags. Pressing it into my hands, she kissed me on the cheek. “Sometimes we need to prove ourselves to ourselves. Go. Fifteen minutes, Gib, that’s all it will take.”
Terror slept in that attic, a spaghetti bowl of entangled memories. At fifty-three, I had squirreled away as many as any man of similar age but with a difference. Mine threatened to engulf me. That’s why I never revisited them, why I had cut myself off from the world. Unable to socialize or hold down a job, I hid in our isolated home in the northwest Illinois hills while Helen became my fortress, not only supporting me but securing my isolation. Forcing me to confront the past felt like a betrayal, but I went through with it. She had done so much for me. Maybe I owed her this.
Trembling, I opened the hatch, unfolded the ladder, and climbed into the cramped, unfinished space. With an early summer noon approaching, the air smelled of warm wood and cobwebs. Shapes lurked in the dim: old boxes shut for years, a few bags stuffed with the unused and mercifully unremembered, a makeshift rack on which hung clothing both worn and pristine. Be quick, Helen had said. Don’t rummage. I was and did not. The sealed bags went first, grabbed by the drawstrings and tossed without ceremony down the ladder to the floor below. Then I opened a fresh trash bag and addressed the clothing that hung in the open.
All of it had to go. Shirts, pants, coats. I took each by the hangar and stuffed it into the trash bag, barely looking, touching as little as possible. Where sight triggered memories, touch could seal my fate. So many memories were woven into each sleeve, spilled onto each cuff, stuck like dog hairs to each collar. I worked as quickly as caution allowed, coming last to my old black wool coat.
It proved too powerful. Lifting it by the hangar, careful not to brush my fingers against its smooth fabric, I found myself pulled into its blackness anyway, and in the blackness gray shadows swirled. Laughter tickled my ears. The scent of pine needles filled the air.
“Stop shaking it and open it!” my mother laughed. Her eyes sparkled. I shook the gift one more time to tease her. Beside her, my father laughed, too. My younger brother and sister sat cross-legged on the floor, itching for me to get it over with so they could tear into their next presents. By the picture window, the Christmas tree shimmered and sparkled.
My girlfriend Krystal, seated on the couch next to me, said, “I’ll do it for you if you don’t hurry up!” She tugged at a corner of the wrapping paper.
“Oh no you don’t, this is mine!” I tore into the brilliant gold and silver paper, then opened the box within. My breath caught in my throat as I tugged the black wool coat from the box. It was the most elegant coat I’d ever seen.
“Put it on,” Krystal insisted, and I obliged. It fit perfectly. As I turned to give the gathering the full effect, she added, “You look like a movie star!” Everyone agreed.
She loved that coat as much as I, more even, and everywhere we went that winter and the following winter, too, I wore it for her. She hung on my arm and whispered in my ear that we were the perfect couple, that everyone admired us. I didn’t know about that. I just knew I wanted to be with her forever and hoped the coat would last that long, too. It felt like a part of us.
In January of that second winter, we traveled across the state to Chicago for a rock concert. As luck would have it, an arctic blast assaulted the city that same weekend, but we didn’t care. Full of bravado as we approached the venue, I unbuttoned my coat, pulled Krystal in, and wrapped us in it. She laughed as the wind bit into our cheeks. “Glad we came?” I asked.
She snuggled against me, the delicate scent of her floral perfume teasing my senses. “I’m always glad to be with you, but you should have ordered better weather.”
“I tried. The weather bureau wouldn’t listen.”
“Usually you’re more persuasive, Gibson.” She kissed me, slipped her hand into my coat pocket, and pulled out our tickets. “Shall we?” She handed them to me.
Releasing her, I rebuttoned my coat and took the tickets. When I looked at them to check the seat numbers, I discovered everything wrong. The date, the location, the event name, nothing matched up. “What the hell? Krystal, did you — “
She was gone. The cold was gone. Chicago itself was gone.
Wrapped in the warmth of the attic, coat in one hand and tickets in the other, I read the print again. Madison, Wisconsin. Two weeks from now.
Breathing hard, I shoved the tickets back into the coat’s pocket, balled up the garment, and stuffed it into the trash bag. I yanked the red plastic drawstrings and tied them in a double knot. After throwing the bag down the hatch, I sat on a carton, shaking uncontrollably, and buried my face in my hands. I could still smell Krystal’s perfume. It had been her favorite, especially in summer. She wore it every day during our August road trip that year, so as it wafted toward me on the hot air, I knew without looking that she’d emerged from our motel room in her red and yellow bikini to join me by the outdoor swimming pool. I waited, reclining on the lounge, pretending not to notice, until she slipped into my lap and draped her arms around my neck.
“Look who finally showed up,” I teased.
She kissed me. “Should I go back inside?”
“Absolutely not.” Taking her in my arms, I tucked her in beside me. Her skin, soft and tanned, still felt cool from the room’s air conditioning.
She didn’t resist but joked, “Don’t get too frisky. People are watching.”
“Yeah? Like who?” The lounge creaked as I shifted and rolled her beneath me.
She fought just a little but yielded in the end. “Like the whole universe.”
No, they weren’t. We were the only ones there. Even the parking lot was deserted that afternoon. I took her face in my hands, kissed her, and nearly told her so, but then she wasn’t in my hands anymore.
Sitting on the attic floor next to the open carton, I found its innards spilled across the floor — postcards, letters, travel brochures, receipts. In my trembling fingers, I held a piece of motel stationary. On it a single word had been written.
I could still smell her perfume lingering on its fibers.
Tears stung my eyes. I wiped them away on my sleeve and crunched up the paper. Then I gathered up the spilled litter and the box it came from and stuffed it all in a new trash bag. Somehow, her final note wouldn’t be discarded. Each time I shoved more of the past into the bag, that note stuck to my hand and returned to me, refusing burial. I knew I shouldn’t, but in the end I had no choice. I uncrunched it and read it again.
Helen clumped up the ladder. “How’s it going, Gib?” She could tell the moment I looked into her eyes. Swallowing, she turned away and started back down.
Her footfalls paused.
“I’m going to Madison.”
“In two weeks.”
The silence was so deep she might have vanished.
After that, I rushed through the rest of it. I saved nothing, touched as little as possible, almost didn’t breathe. Once the refuse of my life had been bagged and hauled out to the garage to await trash day, I found Helen in the kitchen picking at a tuna sandwich and staring out the window. I sat beside her. The bread, mayo, and tuna were still on the table, so I made myself a sandwich, too, although I wasn’t hungry.
“I’m sorry,” Helen told the window.
“Me, too. I shouldn’t have saved any of it.”
“I shouldn’t have made you do that.”
We were lying naked on the bed, Leiah and I, her pale skin glowing in the dim light. I stroked her cheek and shrugged. “You didn’t make me.”
“Then why did you?”
I didn’t know. I loved Krystal. We were happy. I wanted to be with her forever. Yet here I was in the sack with another woman. Utterly stupid and senseless. “I guess lust got the better of me.”
“She’ll find out, you know. Women always find out.”
Leiah pushed me away. I watched her rise and dress. “She will. I know. I’ve done this before.”
“Seduced guys like you. Attached guys. I hate myself afterward, every time.”
“Then why do it?”
“Envy. Your girlfriend — what’s her name?”
“Krystal. Lucky, lucky Krystal. I met her the other day. God, I hate her, the way she gushes about you. It feels good to pull a women like her down a peg or two. Gives a worthless girl like me a sense of power.” Finished dressing, she retrieved her purse from the chair and went to the door. “At the time, anyway. The guilt comes later, and the jealousy always returns. If it’s any consolation, you were good.”
It wasn’t, and ultimately Leiah was right. Somehow, Krystal found out. She never explained how. She only left that one word.
“You don’t know?” Helen had my hands folded in hers. “Then maybe you shouldn’t go.”
I looked into her soft brown eyes, brushed her dark hair back behind her ear, and sighed. “I have to. Entanglement.”
She peered into my eyes, sympathetic, searching. “Do I come with you?”
I could foresee nothing, but I could guess. “No. But you’ll be there anyway.”
Unsure what to expect, I waited on the sidewalk in the cool evening while concertgoers filed in, talking and laughing. Nearly an hour passed. My tickets were long gone to the landfill with the rest of my cast-offs, so I wasn’t going inside. Not that I cared to. I only wanted to finish this and get home before something else dragged me into the past.
I had about given up when I caught the familiar scent of her perfume.
I turned and there she was, eyes wide with surprise.
Krystal had aged so gracefully I almost thought I’d slipped through time again, but no. Her hair had lightened a touch, the skin about her eyes had stretched a tad tighter. Yet she was still beautiful. I wondered if I looked as good to her. Probably not. The years had taken a toll on me, emotionally and physically.
“What are you doing here?” She came close and offered me her hands which I took in mine. Her touch was still light, her smile still infectious.
“It’s good to see you again.”
“Well . . . yes! Yes, it is, but . . . oh, this is strange!”
For a few moments, our eyes alone carried on the conversation. I felt her life pass before me and mine before her. I knew her joys and pains, and I knew why she was here. “Your son Jared is in the band.”
Without releasing my hands, she stepped back in surprise. “You know him?”
“I know you.” I pulled her close again, closer than before. She allowed it.
“Gibson, I . . . why are you here?”
Because, I thought, you asked me to come. “Why do you think?”
“All these years.” She looked away, sad but not angry. “I was thinking about you the other day. I haven’t in ages. I was at the table with my morning coffee, staring off into space, and there you were. I wished I could see you again.” Krystal looked up. Tears glistened in her eyes. “And here you are.”
“Here I am.”
She stroked my face then looked confused. “You’re married now. Helen, right? How could I know that?”
I pushed a strand of hair out of her face. People moved by us without paying us any heed. “I wish I hadn’t hurt you.” It wasn’t an apology, but it was all I could muster. Could apology even mean anything after all this time?
“Don’t cling to the past, Gibson.”
“It clings to me. Entanglement.”
I didn’t expect her to understand. Who could, unless they experienced it as I did? Yet she looked thoughtful as she regarded me. “Do you know what became of her? Leiah?”
I did. Threads of her life had imposed themselves on me for some years before they vanished into the mist. I didn’t wish to burden Krystal with it, though. It wasn’t a pretty tale. I shook my head.
“I’ve got to go.” She kissed me on the cheek and tugged her hands from mine. “Will we see each other again?”
I shrugged. “I can’t foretell the future.”
We didn’t say goodbye. Maybe that was a sign. She walked away and after one backward glance slipped into the theater. Alone again, I shuffled to the parking lot where I’d left my car. Strange. She had called, I had obliged, but nothing of value had passed between us.
Don’t say that, I could sense her think. Every encounter becomes part of us, changes us, entangles us.
Undeniably so. The good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, it all creates our now and points toward the future.
Sometimes, Helen had said, we need to prove ourselves to ourselves. Maybe I had done that, maybe not, but it was time to stop dreading, time to stop hiding. If I could. For the moment, I was exhausted. I just wanted to get home to Helen.
Maybe together we could figure this thing out.