"I do not bring forgiveness with me, nor forgetfulness. The only ones who can forgive are dead; the living have no right to forget." —Chaim Herzog
"Your heart is my piñata." —Chuck Palahniuk
You apply for a job and you don’t really think about anything but the paycheck. About whether it will afford you to go out on Fridays and Saturdays with your friends. You don’t really consider the moral implications of taking a job at a place that specializes in erasing memories. You don’t even think about it, because thinking about it, thinking about the ramifications of it, makes your brain hurt in a way you don’t like. If you want that kind of a headache, you can go out drinking and wait to wake up the next morning.
In the meantime, you go to work. You watch these people who are so sad, so filled with pain, so willing to find a quick fix for their problems that they’re eager to pay for brain damage. What kind of person would volunteer to put themselves through something like that? At the end of the day you laugh at them because that’s all you can bring yourself to do.
It isn’t until a week or two or three after you’ve started that you realize that the essence of your day, the most beautiful part of your day, the most admirable part of your day, is the time you spend with Howard. He’s an amazing man, and he really is doing all these people a service. He really is. In comparison to the people you know outside work, he’s a beacon of intelligence. Smart, funny, compassionate—you saw all that in him at first, of course. Why can’t more people be like him?
That you will fall is inevitable; you’ve already started. You have standards, you have ethics, but hearts aren’t as easy to control as you like to think and besides, he’s a beautiful man. How can you possibly help yourself? You can’t, you realize too late, and hand him the key to your heart. Or the stick to the piñata so that Howard—kind, sweet, compassionate Howard—can be the one to open you up.
"Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for." —Epicurus
He’s married, and that’s a boundary you swore you would never cross. You steal moments. Moments when everyone else is gone, moments when the door to his office is closed. You create moments. Moments after-hours when both of you should be gone, after you’ve signed out then doubled back to the office under cover of darkness and locked doors. He’s done the same, apologetic and humble but his hands are warm and his voice is soft and you find yourself filled with a reckless jealousy for his wife, for his children, for the life you know you can never have. You swore nothing like this would ever happen, but it will and you have no regrets. None.
You understand now why you took this job. It wasn’t out of a love of answering telephones, but for this man, you would answer anything. You would do it just to see him smile, just to hear him speak a kind word. He gives you things. Little considerations, mementos, small nothings, smiles. For as long as you’ve lived, you’ve wanted this flavor of discreet kindness turned your way. You’ve wanted your moment in the sun and now you’re going to have it. You’ll see to that.
If only it didn’t have to take place behind closed doors, you would be the happiest girl in the world.
"For every beauty there is an eye somewhere to see it. For every truth there is an ear somewhere to hear it. For every love there is a heart somewhere to receive it." —Ivan Panin
Your world view slowly shifts. You no longer find the people seeking solace from Howard’s expertise to be the laughable fools they once seemed. His compassion spreads until it engulfs you like flames, like its very own ocean. What he does here—what you help him do on a daily basis—is one of the biggest kindnesses anyone could possibly offer. Where first you saw a pathetic old lady mourning the loss of a fucking cat, you now see a tormented soul who’s lost her best friend and can no longer bear the pain of that absence. When people walk through the door, you start to listen to their laments. You become privy to their stories; Howard brings you in on some of them. The depth of human emotion astounds you.
The first time you call him Howard instead of Dr. Mierzwiak is the moment just before your first kiss. It’s late and both of you should be getting home, but you can’t bring yourself to leave. Tomorrow’s schedule has been parsed and confirmed, and Patrick and Stan are out for an appointment: a man whose wife left him after twenty-seven years of marriage. His memories filled boxes and boxes, and you wonder how people can be cavalier enough to want to erase others. You wonder it as you thrill to the touch of Howard’s hand on your back. Before he can move, his name escapes your lips and you turn toward him, all your focus on his mouth. You find the way it twists when he smiles fascinating and before you’re fully aware of what you’re doing, you press your lips to his. They part, inviting him in, and the way he whispers your name and returns that kiss is sweeter than anything you’ve ever known.
Before you can stop it, your legs are wrapped around his body and your hearts pound against each others’ chests, and you don’t have a single regret. You want more. You want so much more.
Men and Women
"When a man has once loved a woman he will do anything for her except continue to love her." —Oscar Wilde
When a thing is too good to be true, it makes you want to hold onto it for all it’s worth. You love Howard with a passion so unexpected that it takes you by storm. It rattles your very existence. He’s your first thought in the morning and you fall asleep with the taste of him on your lips at night and vow that this beautiful thing between you will remain secret, although you wish it didn’t have to. In your fantasies, you are Mrs. Howard Mierzwiak. There is and never has been a Hollis Mierzwiak to worry about, and there are no children but the ones that spring from your very loins. Your fantasy world is rich, dedicated to pleasure and empathy, dedicated to helping people move past the things that immobilize them. Together, you and Howard serve to free people from the pain of their past, and you do it seamlessly. Lacuna belongs to the two of you. With Howard’s scientific expertise and your ability to make anyone and everyone feel comfortable, wanted, and loved, the two of you are changing the world.
You never mean for Hollis to find out. The last thing you ever wanted was to hurt Howard or to cause him any sort of pain. By extension, that means you never wanted to hurt his wife, no matter how many times you wished she was simply out of the picture. You might be young and fanciful but you’re not stupid.
Still, you can’t meet her eyes any longer. The only saving grace is that so far as you know, what she saw was little more than a kiss, his hand on your chest—you wouldn’t have been able to stand it if she’d seen more. Your explanations are ridiculous, hurried, hushed, and your apologies empty. You tell her you don’t know what you were doing. You tell her that it was all your fault and none of Howard’s. You tell her you forced yourself on him. You tell her, as if you’re sisters in secret solidarity, that he is irresistible and she must know that already. She doesn’t smile.
The worst thing is that Howard changes. You can feel it, touch it, taste it, and smell it. Where he used to find excuses to stay late, he now leaves the office early. Where he once couldn’t let an hour pass without calling you into his office, even if only to give you a smile in private, he now tells you it might be wiser to take a day or week off. It used to be that he couldn’t run the place without you, and now he tells you, even if not in so many words, that you’re expendable.
This breaks your heart.
"I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love." —Mother Teresa
Every minute of the week away from Howard is torture. Your rational mind tells you that you ought to be angry with him for banishing you like an unnecessary thing, but you can’t find it in yourself to muster the anger. There must be something you can do, find some way to repair what’s broken.
The problem is that you love Howard with a depth of emotion you didn’t know you had. You find yourself dissolving into tears at the sight of a teabag, because you can’t stop remembering the devotion in his eyes the last time he brought you a steaming hot cup of the stuff. The friends you used to have gave up on you months ago, and you both do and don’t envy them their carefree twenty-something endless round of parties and bars and fuck buddies. How could they possibly understand your feelings for your mentor, for the love of your life, for the man who means everything to you?
Existence is lonely. Stan calls to check up on you at night and you wonder if he’s really as bored erasing memories as he sounds. He invites you over to the client’s house, but you say no. Instead, you stay home and savor your memories as if each one has its own unique taste. You feel that the memories are all you have. They’re all that you’ll ever have. Howard and the love you shared with him are slipping away, slipping between your fingers like grains of sand, and no matter how much you grasp at them, they’re elusive. You wish you were dead. Anything but this desolation.
"There is only one cause of unhappiness: the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them." —Anthony de Mello
What good are memories when you can’t have the thing your heart burns for?
By the end of this week of grieving and mourning, you’re decided: if the only way you can have one more round of Howard's complete attention is to agree to undergo the procedure, that’s what you’ll do. Once the memories are erased, they can no longer hurt. If you’re going to heal, you need a fresh start. Throw the past and all its broken promises away: isn’t that the point?
"Memory is deceptive because it is colored by today's events." —Albert Einstein
It will never do to admit fear, especially fear of this particular unknown. Although Hollis has never been present at any of your official client-practitioner visits with Howard, her presence has been felt. An unspoken judge, hovering there, making unheard spiteful comments about the things you’ve chosen to divest yourself of, all in the name of keeping the peace. You want to do the procedure. The pain of not doing it—of coming into this office every day, knowing what you’ve done, knowing you’ve caused both joy and pain to this innocent sweet man and in turn to yourself—is ultimately unbearable. It’s a tool, a quick fix, and instead of dwelling on everything, instead of feeling the acute and relentless pain, there will be… nothing. Nothing at all. A rock isn’t blind. It just doesn’t see.
When you were little you learned that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. It’s a simple enough axiom, and a good one to live by. It ought to be the motto at Lacuna.
You implore Howard to be the one to do the procedure. You don’t trust Stan and Patrick around your unconscious body, in your home, with all your precious belongings. Maybe it’s less a question of trust than it is of boundaries. Howard is the only one who’s broached them and you’d like to keep it that way. He promises he’ll be there by your side until the procedure’s finished, and that when you wake up you won’t remember any of it. The brain is simply a map, he explains, and memories are the routes and lines drawn into it. Once they’re erased, those sections of the map will revert to an unexplored state, as if they’ve never been traversed. It’s simple, like taking an eraser to a page.
You want to argue that no eraser works completely. When you were little you learned that even the softest pencil leaves an indent on the paper, but calm as always, Howard explains that the indentations left by memories are softer than whispers and every bit as fleeting. Trust him, he says, and you do because you always have. Even though it’s a breach of protocol, he’s with you when you take the pill, the last thing you see before a deep and irreversible sleep overtakes you. It’s good. You know that if you let this happen with him in your sights, part of you will have to remember how wonderful he is and how wonderful he’s been.
There’s little time for regrets. Images stream past, one, two, ten, twenty at a time, so quickly that you lose track. If you could take the time to marvel at the workings of the brain you would, but you’re just a girl in her twenties who answers the phone at a clinic and sets appointments. The mechanics of the procedure have always been beyond the realm of your understanding.
You sleep like the dead, but only if the dead have extremely active imaginations. Bit by bit, Howard slips away. The morning dawns clear and sunny, and you wake with a massive headache. It’s probably just your sinuses. They’ve always been a weakness. A cup of coffee should fix them readily enough.
"Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders." —Friedrich Nietzsche
Quotations have always been one of your favorite things. Your copy of Bartlett’s is filled with Post-It notes and bookmarks. When you were a child, you thought the best thing in the world would be to open that big beautiful book and see a quote attributed to you. Really, though, you’re just a receptionist. What are they going to put in there for you? Thank you for calling, have a nice day?
It’s not a bad job, though. You like it. One of the guys there, Stan, has a thing for you. He’s funny, but you’re not sure you have the same feelings for him. He’s nice, he’s attentive, he’s even kind of cute if you look at him sideways, but there’s something a little off about him. Secretly, you’ve always had a thing for older men, like Dr. Mierzwiak with his kindly demeanor and beautiful smile. Too bad for Stan that he’s not older enough.
A couple weeks later, Stan calls you at night. He’s working, the client’s sound asleep, don’t you want to come over and see what the whole thing’s about? No one will ever know except for Patrick, but he won’t tell, and by the way, they’re starving, could you bring something from that all-night diner? He promises he’ll make it worth your while. You’re tired of being alone, tired of that feeling of trepidation you have whenever you try to go to sleep, so you say fuck it and head over. On the way you stop and pick up some burgers and fries and three milkshakes: one chocolate, one vanilla, and one coffee. The three of you can fight over them or share them. You don’t care which.
Once you let yourself in, you start to see what all the fuss is about. Stan’s hard at work, poring over readouts on a monitor. His dedication to the cause strikes you as funny for no good reason, but the way he smiles when he sees you is genuine. Patrick steals the vanilla shake right away, barely stops reading his comic book as he devours the burger and fries, but Stan sets things up for you like you’re having a regulation picnic.
He’s got the best pot in New York, you discover. It’s the kind that makes food taste ten times better. It’s also the kind that helps melt away your inhibitions. You find yourself poking at the client, but the guy is dead to the world. That phrase strikes you as funny, and you repeat it to Stan. He laughs and reaches for your hand. Suddenly shy, you ask him if there’s any booze around. With another laugh, he tells you he thought you’d never ask.
You don’t feel right taking this client’s bottle of Grey Goose, but Stan assures you the client won’t mind. A few glasses later it’s you not doing the minding when Stan’s fingers find the zipper on your jeans. Why the fuck not? It isn’t like you’re seeing anybody else, and it’s not like you have in recent memory. Besides, it feels good and you are all about feeling good. Mary the party girl, let's have another beer, another toke, get fucked up enough to forget we did, that's you.
Stan’s late-night phone calls become regular things. You’d say you’re starting to feel like one of the boys, with benefits. Life is pretty good… until the night the procedure goes wrong. The night you convince Stan to call Howard in to fix things.
"One cannot be deeply responsive to the world without being saddened very often." —Erich Fromm
Mrs. Mierzwiak’s words, heavy with resignation, wash over you like their very own ocean of ice-cold water. You don’t understand what she’s telling you. All you know is that you're too stoned. You fucked up and said Pope Alexander instead of Alexander Pope, and one thing led to another and you didn’t mean to hurt Stan but you couldn’t help yourself around Howard. He’s so adorable, and you’ve had the biggest secret crush on him since you started working at Lacuna, but you know he’s married and that’s one line you’ve never wanted to cross. Tonight, you can’t help yourself any more than you can absorb the words coming out of Hollis’s mouth. You’ve had him? You can have him?
You had the procedure? You? You had the procedure voluntarily? Howard says, quietly as always, that the two of you can discuss it in the morning and Stan offers you a ride home, but you wave both of them off. If it wasn’t for Howard's wife you would be sure they’re both pulling your leg, but her words have the ring of truth. Because they do, you work your way back to the office.
It doesn’t take long to find the file folder with your name on it. It doesn’t take you long to listen to your voice echoing out into the fluorescent hush of the empty office, filled with this full and uncontainable passion for Howard. Howie, you call him with comfortable yet pain-filled familiarity, as you remind him how wonderful things were, and as you break down and tell him you can't do this. It's too hard. You listen to the whole recording, and it’s not until the voices come to a halt and the tape clicks to the off position that the tears begin to fall. Through them, you listen to the tape again, and a third and a fourth time, until you’re cried out. Until the worst of the high has vanished, until you feel like yourself again. At the same time you realize you might never be able to feel like yourself again. You might not even know what that means any more. You do know you’ve been robbed of something ridiculously precious. You also know that you went to the scene of the crime voluntarily and for that, you can’t forgive yourself.
You were never that kind of fool before... or were you? You can't even be sure that this was the first time you had the procedure done, and that's a thought that gnaws at the edges of all your rational thoughts until you can't stand it any more. Only one thing is certain: you’ll never be that kind of fool again.
"Morality is not really the doctrine of how to make ourselves happy but of how we are to be worthy of happiness." —Immanuel Kant
Adults are, like, this mess of sadness and phobias, you tell yourself, even as the words ring out with familiarity. Things that are meant to be simple and easy are often the most complicated, and you can’t be sure what you remember and what you don’t any more. The tape you listened to rings in your ears, and for the first time you realize exactly what goes on at Lacuna: you’re thieves, all of you, and you can no longer use the excuse that it’s just a job or that you’re providing a wanted service. Every last bit of it is wrong.
There’s only one thing to do. Methodically, you pack the files and tapes and contact information and methodically, you move them into your car. As soon as you get home, you’ll begin the very intentional and time-consuming task of returning these memories along with a letter of explanation, polite and professional, to each and every person whose name and address you have. It’s the least you can do.
You feel badly for Stan. He’s been sweet but whatever the two of you shared is over and you both know it. You feel less badly for Patrick—he’s just too weird. You won’t even think about Howard now. Whatever he does next is his problem, not yours.
For the first time in recent memory, you’re doing the right thing. The problem is that you don’t trust your memories. You’ll never be able to trust them again.
What an unhappy understanding that is.