It was a hot and muggy afternoon in the basement and I wished I brought more than the one bottle of cold beer down with me. I surveyed the stacks of unlabeled boxes on the numerous shelves along both sides of the cramped room with dismay. It was going to be a much more daunting task than I originally anticipated, but the thought of how surprised and delighted Lizzie would be when she found I had transferred the many years of photos we had onto DVDs would make the effort well worth it. It was a project she had talked about doing herself for years, but never quite found the time.
Lizzie had gone to see Megan in New York for Parents' Week at NYU, leaving me to myself for the next seven days. I couldn't go, due to a very important account presentation I was working on.
"The deal is supposed to be closing next week," I told Lizzie. "It should go smoothly, and it means a great deal of money to the company . . . to us as well."
"I'm sure we would be very comfortable in our lives either way," Lizzie replied.
"And I'm sure Megan will be fine without me. I know as long as you are there, she won't even notice that her old man isn't."
"That's not true, Daniel!"
"You know Megan loves you more than me." I winked and then she smiled and blew me a kiss.
"She loves you just fine, trust me," Lizzie said.
“And what about you,” I started, with a wolfish grin. “Will you miss me?”
“You better hope so,” Lizzie said with her own devilish smile. “And you better hope your daughter doesn’t take me to any fraternity parties. They probably haven’t changed that much since we were in college.”
Even though I knew Lizzie was having fun, her comment did make me think twice about staying at home. “Maybe I should go with you after all . . . what do you think?”
“Stay home and earn the bacon, my hero. You know my menu is off limits to anyone but you.”
I grinned to myself and got back to the project at hand.
I started stacking boxes against the one clear wall in the room. I found old clothes in the first, which I figured I could donate to goodwill and piled them into one stack. Another couple of boxes contained a lot of Megan's old toys, and nostalgia washed over me as I went through them. How quickly time passed, I thought. My little girl was now all grown up and attending college on the other side of the country.
I laughed at all the "As seen on TV" exercise equipment Lizzie and I had purchased through the years, but used only a handful of times before something newer and better grabbed our attention. Eventually we tallied up all the money we spent on those "gimmicks," as we called them, and figured it was better if we just joined a gym.
I came across my extensive collection of vinyl records and singles and wondered if I should keep them or take them to a dealer. Maybe I could donate them to the church or library. Or maybe I could make some quick cash if I auctioned them off on eBay. I decided to keep them instead. I finally pulled out the box with the photos; our wedding album nestled atop two other albums. It really was such a beautiful wedding and Lizzie had never looked more stunning. The first vacation we had taken was the honeymoon cruise to Alaska; then two years later to Orlando, where we did the whole Disneyworld and Universal Studios thing. Nothing really fancy by any means, but we had some really good times. Since then, there had been no other big trips, just little weekend getaways, as work began to take over our lives.
The next box took me back even further than Megan's childhood. Withered paperbacks and dusty trophies mingled with concert T-shirts and wall posters from my teen years. Resting at the bottom of the box, I found my old high school letterman's jacket, and though it still seemed to be in great shape, it smelled like it should after having been in the box for over two decades.
Underneath the jacket I found my senior yearbook. I couldn't remember the last time I had seen it, but then I couldn't remember the last time I had seen any of my old things. I wondered if my jacket would still fit after all these years, so I set the yearbook down and tried it on. It was a very snug fit. I smiled and shook my head. I certainly was not in the same physical shape as I was back then. I was glad Lizzie wasn't there to see me. She would have made some comment about us not even using the gym membership as regularly as we should be.
As I struggled to remove the ill-fitted jacket, I knocked the yearbook off the box, scattering envelopes across the floor. I wondered what they were and tossed the jacket casually back into the box. I picked up the envelopes and sat down.
Each one had the name "Danny" handwritten across the front, and I instantly remembered who they were from: Jules.
Jules had been my high school sweetheart. We had completely adored each other, and had no desire to see anyone else. I read the first card and the letter that was inside, and remembered how much we had cared for each other.
Happy memories flooded back to me.
I remembered a romantic picnic at the park when we had fed the ducks pieces of our sandwiches, and drive-in movies on Friday nights when more often than not we fell asleep in each other’s arms. Sometimes we would climb outside my bedroom window and watch the sunset together. The summer before senior year, we had gone to the state fair and I had won a huge stuffed lion for her in the ring toss booth. I remembered the senior prom when we had realized we… we… what?
Suddenly I drew a complete blank. I knew we talked about something, but for the life of me, I had no idea what it was, though I had a strong feeling it was very important. I shook my head and smiled to myself. Guess I was getting old if I couldn’t remember that. I hoped this wasn’t going to be a recurring problem.
I read the rest of the cards and still hadn’t a clue what they meant, and then I began to wonder what happened to us. Did we break up? Had we gone our separate ways after our relationship fizzled and died out? Wasn’t that something I should remember? I then found it quite odd that I couldn’t remember anything we did together after the prom. I sat down on a crate and took a swallow of beer. I vaguely remembered the couple of weeks between prom and graduation, but nothing of Jules. Why was that? Where had she gone? Obviously we separated and just didn’t see each other after the prom. But something seemed out of sorts. Something in the back of my mind was protesting that thought.
I stood up and laughed. What was the big deal? Why was this bothering me so much? Why was this now such a huge deal to me? A chill ran down my spine and I suddenly felt agitated, restless, and claustrophobic. I had to get out and get some fresh air.
Halfway up the stairs, I stumbled and scraped my knee against the wall, causing pain to shoot up my leg. I cursed and made it upstairs and outside into the back yard, and relished a lungful of fresh air. But even that did not soothe the butterflies now taking over my stomach. What was wrong with me? I no longer had any interest in working on the photo project. I needed to get out and drive, maybe that would help clear my head.
I went back inside the house and grabbed a jacket off the rack by the front door, went outside to the car, got in and started driving. I drove for a couple of hours, trying to remember things and then I realized I couldn’t recall any events from the summer between high school and UCLA. It was as if my memory had been wiped clean, but how could that happen? It seemed the harder I tried to think, the more frustrated I became. I headed back toward home. I was upset and also somewhat frightened. I felt helpless, almost violated, as if part of my life had been ripped away from me.
As I neared my driveway, I realized I wasn't ready to go home. I needed a drink and remembered there was a small tavern a few blocks from the house. I hadn't ever really been the bar type, even in college. I mostly preferred the comfort and safety of my own home when I drank. But this time I figured it was a chance I would take, a distraction I needed. If I got too drunk, I could always just lock the car up and take a cab home. I had a clean record and I intended to keep it that way.
There were plenty of parking spots in the lot, which was a good. I disliked huge bar crowds and just wanted to have a few drinks without being bothered by a lot of unruly drunks. I went inside and sat at the counter at the end of the bar away from the door.
There were only four or five people I could see in the place, plus the bartender; a couple was playing pool and three were engaged at the dart board. No one was sitting at the bar.
"What'll you have?" the bartender asked, after I had made myself comfortable.
"Whiskey and Coke. And make it a double, would you?"
"Any particular brand?"
"The one closest to you," I said.
The first drink went down easily enough, and I enjoyed the warmth as it spread down my throat, throughout my stomach into the rest of my body. I ordered a second drink, this time a single. As I sipped the bittersweet concoction, my muscles began to let loose the tension that built up inside me.
I stared at the television set above the bar for a while and tried to get interested in the soccer game on the screen. I tried to clear my head, to think about nothing, but my mind kept going back to the void in my past. I don't know how long I was staring at the television, but I was startled by a voice beside me.
"My friend, you look about as distraught as I feel."
I hadn't noticed someone had sat down beside me. I turned my head to look at the man. His brown hair was unkempt and his glasses slightly smudged, his face unshaven and eyes bloodshot. It looked like he hadn't slept in days.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you." He drained his drink in a quick swallow, put the glass on the counter and gestured to the bartender for a refill.
"No, that's okay, I'm fine," I said. "Are you okay? I don't mean to sound rude or anything, but you don't look so good." I didn't really want to start a conversation with a stranger while I was in my own funk, but maybe talking to someone else about their problems would take my mind off of my own.
"I've been better, yes. I have definitely had better days, better months even, you know," he answered. He put his hand out. "Mathew, Mathew Stevens."
"I'm Daniel," I said and shook his hand.
Mathew seemed friendly enough, though his voice had an edge to it, like he was trying to keep his composure. I somehow got the feeling he really needed to talk to someone.
"Nice to meet you."
"What are you drinking, Daniel?" he asked, and then signaled the bartender before I could answer. "Get him another of what he's drinking."
"No, that's okay," I said. "That's not really necessary . . ."
"Nonsense," Mathew said. "I've been here for a couple of hours, and you are the first person who has given me the time of day. Except for the bartender, but he gets paid to do that."
"I guess some people are just less sociable than others. Others come to bars just to drown their troubles away."
"Is that what you're doing? I know I am."
"Well, yeah, I guess I pretty much fall into that category," I said. "So, uh . . .”
"What's my story?" Mathew asked and then answered before I could acknowledge my interest. "My partner, whom I work with . . . I mean, worked with, he was in a bad car accident. They just took him off of life support."
"I'm sorry to hear that. That's terrible." Suddenly my problems didn't seem so big. "Were you close? I mean, friends as well as partners? What do you do?"
“I’m a psychotherapist and researcher. We shared a practice . . ." He took off his glasses and wiped his face with a napkin. The bartender came by with our fresh drinks. Mathew thanked him with a five dollar tip. He looked at me again. "Can I tell you something?"
"Sure, why not," I said, after all, he had just bought me a drink.
"We were working on a project, well, it was more his, and I think we were on the verge of something good, and now . . . well, I am embarrassed that maybe I'm not as distraught as I should be about his death. Maybe I'm more worried about the future of our research. That just doesn't seem right, does it?"
I was at a loss for words; almost uncomfortable about whether I should agree or not, but the way he was looking at me was like he was asking for permission to feel that way.
"Maybe you just need some time sort things out, you know? Put things in the right perspective."
Mathew sipped his drink and then looked at himself in the mirror behind the bar. I saw his reflection as he stared intently at himself, and then his eyebrows rose, and he smiled and shrugged his shoulders slightly, as if maybe something I said had made some sense.
"Maybe so, maybe so," he said softly. "That sounds exactly like something I might have said to one of my patients. Bravo, my friend. Unfortunately the project, I'm afraid, is beyond the help of one person." Mathew took another sip, put his glass down and turned and faced me. "But anyway, what about you Daniel, what is troubling you? You have given me some very encouraging words, I feel obliged to return the favor."
Mathew sounded so sincere that I found it easy to unload my problems on him, and he listened with such attention that I felt I was actually his patient and he was my therapist.
Over the next half hour I told him about my life and family and then ultimately about what had brought me to the bar. He nodded every now and then and after looking at the cards and the letters inside, he set them back down on the counter in front of me. He then he looked at me point blank with utter seriousness.
"So . . . Daniel. What exactly is it that you are looking for?"
"What do you mean?"
"You are searching for something. You want something, am I correct?"
This guy was good. It was as if he had read the thoughts I had earlier, back in the basement storage room and knew what I had been thinking.
"What do I want? Well," I paused and thought for a moment. Then the words tumbled out without hesitation. “There’s a whole piece of my memory missing, a chunk of my life. I have no clue where it went or what happened during that time, but I know it was important and I can’t think of any reason for it to be gone. I have a gut feeling something is not right, that it’s not just forgetting something. It’s more like my memory has been erased . . . and it’s not of my own doing. I want it back! I want to know what happened!” I said, then stopped talking and finished my drink. I was rambling.
"You know, Daniel, maybe there is help for my project after all," Mathew said, and all at once his eyes were starting to open wider, and his mood changed. "Maybe we can help each other."
"I don't understand. How can anything I said help your project? Of course, what would I know . . . I’m sure I didn’t make a lot of sense and I know I’m just feeling sorry for myself more than anything else." I was feeling a little better, though; perhaps hearing myself talk out loud made things sound a lot less ominous than my mind was making them out to be.
"Oh, but Daniel, that's where you are wrong. I believe that from what you’ve told me, along with your reactions, that there may very well be something amiss. You shouldn't take your feelings lightly. There is resolution that needs to be brought into your life, and from my experience, if you do not get this, you may have problems moving forward.”
I really didn’t understand what the hell he was talking about, and my blank stare must have told him just that.
"Forgive my obvious shop-talk. I will try to put things in a different way. Let me ask you, Daniel. Are you happy with how things are, satisfied with the way your life has turned out?"
“Happy? Well, sure, as happy as I can be. I guess things have been good for me, for my family,” I said. “And satisfied? Well, that’s a good question. Is anybody really satisfied? Sure there are still things I want to do with my life that I haven’t gotten around to yet. But I am not unhappy, not really. But what if something that I can’t remember has a bearing on where I am now? I don’t know, it’s just really weird, and I’m having a hard time figuring out how to explain it to you, or even to myself exactly what I mean.”
I was frustrated and thankfully had to excuse myself briefly to use the bathroom.
I splashed cold water on my face and looked at myself in the mirror, mentally asking exactly what I was doing here. Here I was talking to a complete stranger about personal details of my life. Was I that drunk? What was it about the missing past that was making me so driven to find out the details I couldn’t remember? What made it so important to me? I racked my brain, trying to see if there was some glimmer, some hint of an explanation, but there was nothing.
I suddenly felt self-conscious and wiped the moisture from my cheeks and left before someone came in and wondered why I was staring at myself in the mirror so intently.
When I returned a fresh drink waited for me. Mathew's whole composure had changed to one of barely concealed excitement. He looked like he had something extremely urgent to say, so I let him go ahead.
“Daniel, I believe I can help you find the answer you are looking for.”
"I don't understand."
I listened as Mathew began to explain the project he and his partner had been working on. Using techniques similar to hypnotherapy, they planned to help memory loss and trauma patients recover clouded past events. When Mathew began to get more technical, I shook my head with exasperation. I held up my hands to stop him.
“It’s complicated to explain everything. Alex, my partner was a lot better at putting things into layman’s terms than I ever could, but I will tell you that basically, I would put you in a deep sleep and through the use of specialized nutrients and specific chemical compounds, help your subconscious break through whatever block your mind has placed on your memory and allow you to access the missing events. If successful, you would regain and retain that memory upon awakening."
"I'm sorry, but this is all too heavy for my brain to handle right now." I was tired, and though our lengthy conversation seemed to hold the alcohol at bay, its hazy influence began to weigh down my mind. "Have you done tests? Have you tried this thing out?"
"We performed preliminary tests on Alex, and he felt very positive. He said we were ready to perform the full procedure, but . . . well . . . " Mathew stopped.
"I understand. He was taken out of the picture. So now why me? “I asked.
"Why you, indeed," Mathew said.
"You really don't know me, and yet you've confided in me with some pretty heavy stuff."
"I am a good judge of people, after all, that's part of my job. You seem like you could genuinely use my help, and frankly, I really could use yours. I can't exactly advertise in the classifieds, can I?
"I guess not."
"Please think about it, after you've gotten some sleep. I'm sure you will understand the benefits of what I am offering you, Daniel. And I'm sure you will still have questions. God knows I would if I were you. I can answer them all once we get under way, I assure you.” Mathew got up from his stool and pulled a card out of his shirt pocket. "My cell number. Please call me. Tomorrow."
I took the card from him and studied it before slipping it into my jacket pocket.
"I've got a lot to think about," I said.
"Not really," he replied. "I will hear from you tomorrow then." Mathew turned and walked to the door, opened it and was gone.
I pushed my drink away, not really caring that it was still almost full. I was done drinking for the night. I needed a cab; there was no question about that. I had the bartender make the arrangements for my ride and was told my car would be fine overnight. I gave him a nice tip for his troubles, picked up Jules’ cards and walked outside, relishing the cool night breeze.
I pulled Mathew's card out and looked at it again. Was he a kook or was he on the level? At that point I really didn't care.
The alcohol had numbed my senses and dulled the burning emotions I'd left the house with. All I wanted now was to get in my bed and let sleep overtake me. I would deal with Mathew's proposal in the morning.
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