The pills are called RememberYou, and that’s what they do—help you remember who you are. That’s what the doctor says, after Eunha calls the number that Mark’s sister, Carly, gives her, after she drives to the nondescript office. They are still in clinical trials, and there are limited referrals available, but Carly knows someone who knows someone and has gotten Eunha in.
They had begun studying memory hoping to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, the doctor explains. But instead, they found other results. A small part of the brain—tiny, microscopic—that, in some people, seems to shut down when triggered by a certain life event. The loss of a job. The loss of a spouse. The loss of a parent. The loss of a child.
The doctor says this last example and grimaces, but Eunha isn’t sure if he is grimacing because he thinks it is the worst, the most horrible, or because he has looked at her chart and has realized that this—the worst, the most horrible—is why she is there.
“You’ll be just like you were before,” Carly said, when she first brought up the study, at their house one night for dinner weeks before. Eunha had made japchae, Mark’s favorite, the only thing he would eat the summer they met in Seoul. Carly kept trying to convince Eunha all the way through dinner, through dessert, a key lime pie Eunha had bought at the fancy bakery a few blocks away. Mark didn’t say much.
“She shouldn’t have driven home,” Eunha said later, as they were undressing for bed. Again, Mark said little, just stood behind her rubbing her shoulders. “It’s raining too hard.”
Mark looked out the window. Drops pattered against the glass.
“I think she’ll be all right,” he said, finally. Eunha shrugged his hands off. “Hey, okay,” he said. “I’m sorry.” There was a long silence. “Have you thought at all about that study she mentioned? The pill?”
“I’m not doing it,” she said, pulling on her flannel pajamas. They were festooned with images of skiing rubber ducks, the kind you put in the bath. The ducks were wearing little ski caps, little ski goggles. Whose job was it to come up with these skiing rubber ducks? “I’m not going to be someone’s sadness guinea pig.”
She turned to face him. They stared at each other for a long moment until finally, looking down at the rug, he said, his voice just above a whisper, “It’s been almost two years, Eun.”
And that’s why she agreed. For her sweet and doting husband, who had lost a son too. Not for the doctors, not for Mark’s pushy sister, and certainly not for herself. She isn’t coping well, that’s what they say, the words coming out as if coping came with a capital “C.” She Coped well for the first few weeks; they had been impressed. But now it has been almost two years and she is still acting like it is the first few weeks, and so she is no longer Coping well. That’s what her psychiatrist, Dr. Frizell, has no doubt told the people at this study; that’s what no doubt has helped her get in.
The doctor hands her a sheaf of blue pills from the pocket of his lab coat, lined up in a five-pill-by-seven-pill rectangle and encased in aluminum and plastic. They look almost exactly like birth control pills, except these are blue instead of pink and there are slightly more of them per packet. After Jackson was born, Mark—ever accommodating, ever practical—had gotten his tubes tied. Once they had decided to have Jackson, nine years ago, there had been no more birth control pills for her, ever. But now, somehow, the daily pills are back.
“We’ll have our first check-in in thirty days,” the doctor says. Now that he is finished describing the procedure, he seems in a hurry to be done with her. Thirty days seems like a long time to wait for a check-in, but the trial was approved, after all, so it must be okay. He tells her to call him if she has any concerns. “Do you have any last questions?” She does. She does have a question.
“I…” she begins. She looks down and away from his face, toward the corner of the room, his desk, a photo above his desk of him with a smiling family. “I don’t want to forget,” she says.
“Of course not,” the doctor says. “It’s not called ForgetYou, now is it? It’s to help you remember what it’s like to be you again. All it will help you do is remember.”
She nods, her eyes still locked on the photo across the room. A smiling girl. A smiling boy.
The first few days of the pills, she doesn’t feel any different. And she still doesn’t feel any different after Mark asks her a thousand times if she feels any different, after Carly calls and then calls back and then calls back. They are just excited for her, they say. They just want to have her back, feeling good!
She goes to work as always, a guidance counselor at the local high school. She took six months off after the accident, while she was supposedly learning how to Cope, but it is better to be at work. Dr. Frizell suggested that maybe it wasn’t the best place for her, helping all these children—well, teenagers, but really they are still like children—figure out what to do with their infinite futures, all the futures that Jackson will never have. But school, her office, where everything is in order—it’s the only place that she feels better. Since coming back, she has been doing her job better than ever; she never leaves school without finishing every scrap of paperwork, filling out every college recommendation form, replying to every email. Even the principal notices and comments on it, awkwardly, in the same way that everything is awkward now, everything that makes reference to a life before-the-accident, to a life after-the-accident.
Home is harder. Home, where Jackson’s bedroom still stands, perfectly intact, sealed off from the world. Eunha goes into his bedroom every morning and sits, just sits, on the bed for ten minutes, twenty minutes, sometimes longer. Mark never goes in, not anymore. He had, very timidly, suggested that they think about selling the house—not leaving town, but at least moving. That was a year ago, and still she went into Jackson’s bedroom every morning and sat, and eventually Mark dropped it, his idea that they should leave Jackson and all his things behind. His shirts, his toys, his blanket, his slippers, some of which still smell like him, if she really, really inhales, if she really, really focuses.
The fourth day of the pills, she goes into Jackson’s room, as always. But when she comes out and goes down to the kitchen for breakfast, Mark looks surprised, and then suddenly, almost ecstatically, pleased.
“Just five minutes today,” he says before he can stop himself. “I’ll make us some pancakes.” He embraces her tightly, his mouth still redolent of fusty morning breath.
The sixth day, she takes her pill at four o’clock, the time she gets home from school. She is supposed to take it at the same time every day, and she decides that four o’clock is the most predictable; it is a quiet time, with Mark still at work. She chases it with a good gulp of water, and this time, almost immediately, she feels something happening. A lightness in her head, a wooziness. Like the world is shimmering all around her. Vibrating. And then, all of a sudden, the world seems to tilt from sepia into color, like Dorothy opening the door to Oz, a portal from the dreariness of everyday life into a life of beauty and wonder.
That night, when they can’t find The Wizard of Oz streaming, Mark drives to the one store in town that still rents movies. While Dorothy falls helplessly asleep in a field of poisoned poppies, glistening pink, she tells him about watching it with her parents, how she would make them watch it every week, week after week, in their small apartment, practicing her English by repeating Dorothy’s lines, word for word. She’d memorized every scene, could play it in her head in its entirety, and even now, she can recite the dialogue along with the Technicolor characters as Mark watches, a smile spreading on his face.
The ninth day, upon waking, she curls into Mark’s armpit and then, to both of their surprise, she slides on top of his supine form, for the first time, really, since it happened. They had clutched at each other a few times in the aftermath, but not like this. Afterward, Mark goes downstairs to make pancakes again while she dresses. As she passes by Jackson’s closed door, she pauses. She doesn’t feel the usual unstoppable urge to open it, to climb into his bed, to lie there with the ghost of her baby boy. Downstairs, Mark has turned on the radio, a peppy song promising love and happiness. Downstairs, Mark is making coffee.
She opens the door softly. She can hear Mark whistling downstairs, the sound of butter sizzling on the griddle. But when she closes the door, the hiss of life drops away. Everything is as it always is: a spray of dinosaur toys scattered on the floor, an errant sock balled in the corner, two tiny slippers lined up side by side next to the bed. She sits where she always sits, fitting her body into the same depression she has been forming in the mattress. She picks up Mr. Wiggles, the stuffed platypus that Carly gave Jackson for his fourth birthday. It is not one of the things that has any residual scent, she knows that, but still, she leans her head down to it, pressing her nose to the toy’s matted fur.
And then she feels that same lightness in her head, sees that same shimmer. The world has flipped upside down, or is she turned inside out? That’s what it feels like, as though her insides are sensitive to every little thing. Porous. Her nose is still pressed to Mr. Wiggles. There had been no scent before, there had never been any scent. But this time, she can smell the thick sugar of the birthday cake and the hot fat of the pepperoni pizza and the bright wet of the fresh-cut grass. If earlier the world had gone from sepia to color, now it is pure Technicolor, the most Oz-like of all. The birthday party is all around her: the fizzing cup of Coke in her hand, the bowls of dry-fried chicken and bulgogi she made that morning, and there, just across the table, is Jackson, in his yellow-striped shirt and plaid shorts, chocolate all over his face, squealing with glee as he opens his presents, as he pulls out the stuffed platypus, as he names it, then and there, Mr. Wiggles, as he gives his aunt Carly a big, chocolatey hug to say thank you. There are other people at the party, too: the other children, hopped up on sugar; Mark, with his big new camera in front of his face; Carly, laughing about the chocolate hand-prints on her backside. But all that matters is Jackson, Jackson who is there, and so real, so very real, right there, but Eunha is on the other side of the table from him, passing out cake to the other children, and he is so, so real, but just out of her reach.
“Pancakes are ready!” Mark’s voice comes barreling up the stairs. She watches Jackson dissolve, the memory breaking apart into pieces. She tries to hold it together, but it is already out of her grasp. When she opens her eyes, she is back in the bedroom. She can feel prickles on her skin. The not-quite-pain of pins and needles, but running up and down her body.
When Eunha comes down a minute later, she can see from Mark’s face that he knows she’s been in Jackson’s room.
“Everything okay?” he says. He is trying so hard not to look disappointed.
“Everything’s great,” she says, leaning in to give him a peck on the cheek.
“You’re making such good progress,” Mark says on the morning of the fifteenth day, after she tells him about her latest memory, of meeting him on their first date outside the language school in Seoul. The magenta shirt he was wearing, the japchae he always ordered, the feeling, she was sure of it even then, that she would soon be leaving South Korea for America, that her life would soon be changing completely.
She remembers other things, too, big events and small, coming back to her in no discernible order. Her graduation from university. Making dumplings with her grandmother. A day at the beach with her parents. The memories are so real; she can feel the swinging tassel of the graduation cap, smell the sulfurous tang of the cabbage, taste the salt water that had crept into her mouth. It’s not like the haze of remembering, calling up these moments in her mind; it is like she is standing there, bodily, experiencing these events again, for the first time. She is young again, a child again. Full of hope and wonder again.
But these are not the memories she looks forward to.
The afternoon is really her time to remember. In the morning, Mark is downstairs, waiting, making pancakes, always making pancakes these days, even though all the pancakes in the world will never bring Jackson back. In the afternoon, the house is empty. Mark thinks she only goes into Jackson’s room in the mornings. But now, in the quiet afternoons, she takes her little blue pill and she goes to Jackson’s room and closes the door and lies down on the bed and waits for the memories to come. The pill is always at its strongest right after she takes it. The memories so clear, so true.
On the seventeenth day, she has an idea.
She is almost scared to think it, but once it enters her mind, she can’t stop wondering. She knows it is impossible. She knows the past is past. Irrevocable. But it feels so close. Like the memory of Jackson at his birthday party, only an inch or two away.
So far, she has been letting the memories come as they will. But when she lies down on the afternoon of the seventeenth day, she has a memory in mind. Mark has tucked all the photo albums in the far back of the closet, but she burrows in and finds the photo she needs, one of Jackson holding up his right arm, wrapped in a cast. He is smiling a gap-toothed smile—that was the era when he was always losing teeth, another bicuspid under his pillow. Amazing, how children’s teeth regenerate, how this moment of seeming decay was actually a moment of total renewal. Still, that smile belied the pain, the trip to the emergency room, her son’s arm wildly askew. Jackson had always been quick to bounce back.
She stares at the photo and stares at it before she takes her pill, and then she stares at it and stares at it before she lies down. Usually, as she sinks into the mattress, she feels herself loosen and fall, but this time she feels the muscles in her body tense. The lightness, the shimmer. She closes her eyes. A few other memories flit through, random ones: a game of mini-golf with Mark, their honeymoon trip to Italy. She is in them, but she is not in them. She is able to hold a part of herself outside of them, waiting.
But then she gets the memory she wants.
She is in the kitchen. A pan is on the stove. She feels the heat of the cast-iron through her potholder. She smells the familiar smell of the pan heating up, the layers of past meals coming back to life. Jackson is on the swing in the backyard—Mark just hung it from the tree that morning—and she can see him through the bay window. She adds a pat of butter to the pan, listens to its satisfying sizzle. She told him not to swing too high before he ran out, but now he is rising higher and higher. Too high. She did not know it was too high then, when it happened the first time, but now, in the memory, she knows it is too high. The butter is melting and in a second it will burn. It is time to add the sandwiches to the pan. But the part of her she has held outside the memory knows she has to go, she has to go now, go now and stop him. She is reaching for the pan, ready to swirl the butter, to add the sandwiches, her body still moving of its own accord. She feels herself straining against her own body, its programmed rhythm. It feels like pulling a rubber band tauter and tauter, trying to find the point right before it will snap.
All she has to do is put the pan down. Put the pan down, she tells her body. Put the pan down, she tells her arms, her wrists, her hands. Each movement is wrenching, inching the pan closer to the stove. Time seems to slow as she wrests control away from the past.
Outside, a thudding crash. A wail. And then she is back in the memory, living it, running out the back door just like it really happened, leaving the butter to smoke and blacken. There is Jackson, his arm folded under his small, fragile body.
The memory dissolves, crumbling, and she is in Jackson’s room again, alone on the bed. She is covered in sweat. She is shivering. She looks at the photo curled next to her, Jackson with his arm in the cast. He feels closer than he did before.
She knows there is a way to make things right.
If she can only remember things well enough, clearly enough.
She is so close.
Each day, Eunha gets further than the day before. She puts the pan back on the stove. She takes a few halting steps toward the door. But still, each memory ends with the same thudding crash.
On the twenty-fourth day, after a week of trying, she picks up the photo of Jackson with his arm in a cast and lies on the bed, and she lets the lightness and the shimmer take her over. She is standing by the bay window. She is watching Jackson, swinging higher and higher.
The butter is melting and in a second it will burn. It is time to add the sandwiches to the pan. She feels the rubber band of her body pull and strain. She puts the pan back on the stove. She steps toward the door, faster this time, the movements coming more easily. She gets her hand on the doorknob. She has never made it this far. She feels the doorknob twisting in her hand, the wash of cool air. She feels the dust of the porch slats on the soles of the feet, and then the soft give of the wet grass. She opens her mouth, but the words won’t come out, not right away. She feels them catch in her throat. This is the last step. This is all she has left to do. She feels her body tighten as she pulls the words out one by one, calling to Jackson to stop—swinging—now—get—down—now.
Her heart is beating fast, from the exertion and the fear. Fear that she still has not made it in time, fear that he still will fall. But he stops pumping his little legs, and little by little, the swing’s arc diminishes until she catches him, tangling them both up in the swing’s chains. Both of his arms are intact, and he is safe.
He is safe!
And not only is he safe, but he is in her arms, her son, and she is hugging him to her. She can smell his potato-chip smell and feel his small body’s extraordinary heat.
“Eunha!” Someone’s voice is calling her.
“Eunha!” It’s Mark’s voice, but Mark isn’t here, shouldn’t be here, in the yard. She feels hands on her shoulders, shaking her. She is holding Jackson, and she does not want to let go. But the hands keep shaking her shoulders. The voice keeps shouting her name. Jackson is looking at her with his chubby smile and she can feel him in her arms and then all of a sudden she can’t feel him anymore, he is dissolving away, and she’s back in his bedroom, lying on his bed, with Mark’s anxious face peering over her. There are flowers on the floor, a dropped bouquet.
When Mark sees her open her eyes, he sputters with relief. He asks her if she’s okay. She says she’s okay. He puts his hand on her neck, ostensibly to check her pulse. Since when does Mark know how to check a pulse? She looks up at him and wonders why he’s here, in Jackson’s room. He never comes here. He doesn’t belong.
He asks her about the pills, about whether it’s always like this, and she says no, no, she must have just fallen asleep, it wasn’t the pills, it’s been a long day, a long year, they are finally giving her some relief. She cannot tell if he is convinced.
As they are talking, her eyes stray to the photo in her hand. Jackson, smiling, with his chubby little cheeks like a plump chipmunk. His arm, broken. But how could his arm be broken? He didn’t fall. She feels an immense pressure on her head, a throb from deep within her skull.
“Everything okay?” Mark asks, for the hundredth time. Now he is talking about drawing her a bath, making spaghetti. It has been a long year, Mark says.
“Everything’s fine,” she says, still staring at the photo.
The next day, she goes to see Dr. Frizell, an older man with a belly and a bushy gray beard. She has been seeing him for a year, after the first three psychiatrists made no progress moving her from her intractable position; no progress helping her Cope.
“How are you feeling today?” he asks, after they sit down in his office. He always starts the session this way, and she always responds the same: shruggingly. She hates to disappoint him, but she also hates to lie. And so, every week, she says she feels okay, by which she means things are no better than before.
“I feel great,” she says this time, the words feeling strange in her mouth. Dr. Frizell lifts an eyebrow ever so slightly before he catches it and returns to his poker face.
“Good,” he says. “So the RememberYou is working?” He never takes notes while they talk, but sometimes he will refer back to a document on his computer, things she has said in session, that he must scribble down madly after she leaves. Their meetings are supposed to be confidential, but she knows, too, that Mark calls him every week, that Dr. Frizell keeps Mark updated on her supposed progress or lack thereof. She has thought this all over in the car on the way over. She knows what she needs to say.
“I think so,” she says. She tells him about The Wizard of Oz, about the pancakes, about her and Mark having… relations. She is genuinely bashful about this last one, but she knows Dr. Frizell would want to know, knows that he would approve, that this means she is starting to Cope better.
“Tell me more of your memories,” he says. She tells him about the beach, about the dumplings, about her high school graduation. She does not tell him about the birthday party, about the grilled cheese.
“This is good progress,” Dr. Frizell says. “It’s important that we get to a place where you can see that what happened was in no way your fault. It was the other driver. The other driver was the one who didn’t stop.”
Dr. Frizell waits for her to say something. She says nothing.
“You can’t change what happened, Eunha,” he says, gently. “I know you wish you could, but unfortunately you can’t. We have to get to a place where you can accept that.”
Dr. Frizell waits for her to say something.
She doesn’t have to accept anything, she wants to say.
When she gets home that night, Mark doesn’t hear her come in. He is on the phone, his voice agitated.
“I’m not sure,” she can hear him say, from where she hovers by the front door, motionless. “It’s just that she’s acting very strange.” There is a pause while the other person speaks.
“I know that, Carly,” Mark says. His voice sounds exasperated, like he is interrupting. “I mean strange in a different way. Crazed. I think she might be—I think she might be seeing things. Something with these pills, I think. Maybe the dosage is too high, or, I don’t know.” He pauses again.
“I came home early,” he responds. “I wanted to surprise her. She’s been doing so well this week, Carly, you should have seen it. I brought her flowers. I was going to—I was thinking that maybe we could try again. It’s not too late, you know. My procedure is reversible. We’re old, but not that old…”
The other voice interrupts. Eunha concentrates on not moving, not making a sound, but it is hard. It’s especially hard when Mark is saying these crazy things. Try again? Try again at what? At replacing Jackson, their only son, their only child?
“Her check-up is in two days,” Mark says. “I’m going to go with her. I think they need to take her off the drug.”
Her check-up is the morning after next, thirty-six hours away.
She has one day left.
acOn the twenty-sixth day, she leaves school as soon as she is done meeting with her last student. She doesn’t stay to fill out any of her usual endless paperwork, to reply to any emails. She has to get home, to Jackson.
She drives in a hurry, though she still takes care at every intersection. Mark is worried about her; he will come home early again; she doesn’t have much time. She goes straight to the bathroom, pulling the sheaf of pills from the medicine cabinet, pushing the ten remaining pills through their thin aluminum backing until they rest like a handful of tiny robin’s eggs in her palm. Why did they give her this many pills to start out with? An oversight. Her gain. She drinks them down in one swallow.
In his room, she lies down on the bed, her hands clutching the sweater she had been wearing that day. She has been too afraid to try this memory before, but now she has nothing to lose.
The lightness in her head, the shimmer. She closes her eyes. And then there she is, there they are. At home on the same rainy evening, the sky already clouding and dark, Mark working late. She is doing paperwork while dinner cooks. A roast chicken. She can smell the sweet tang of the caramelizing onions, hear the spatter and pop of the skin crisping up. Jackson sits across from her at the kitchen table, drawing. She looks at him for a long, slow moment. It is almost time for her to start trying to fix things, but for this one moment, she can sit and look. He is bent over his paper, intent. He is drawing the planets. She can see the ring around Saturn. He has made the planet purple, the ring a bright, acid green. His tongue is sticking out of the corner of his mouth, just a little bit. His hands are covered with ink, blotches every color of the rainbow. Usually she would tell him to wash his hands, but the part of her that she has held outside the memory knows that is not important, and the part of her that is inside the memory is too distracted.
She has forgotten the report that she needs to finish for the school board meeting the next morning. She sighs.
“What’s the matter, Mom?” Jackson says, looking up. His sweet face is filled with worry.
“Nothing, sweetheart,” she says. “I just forgot something at work.”
The part of Eunha that sits outside the memory begins to feel her body tighten. This is her chance. All she needs to do is stop them from getting in the car. If she stops them from getting in the car, everything will be all right.
In the memory, she looks out the window. It has not started raining yet. She looks around the kitchen, so bright and warm. Couldn’t she get up early and finish the report in the morning? But then she thinks of the way the principal speaks to her, always a little bit too slow, a little bit too loud, like he isn’t quite sure that she fully understands his English. She should just go get the report now. The chicken still needs another hour in the oven.
The Eunha who sits outside the memory fights it, but still she hears the words coming out of her mouth: “Want to go for a ride to the school?” Jackson loves going to the school, getting to pretend he’s a teenager. The school is only ten minutes away.
They stand up. They put on their rain jackets. They get their umbrellas. They leave a note for Mark on a yellow Post-it: “Gone to school, be right back!” Each step of the way, Eunha is fighting herself, this past version of herself. She feels the rubber band of her body tauten and strain, but this time isn’t like the swing. Stay in the house, put the umbrella down. She can’t make her body obey.
The car is in the driveway, and as Jackson skips to the passenger door, the rain begins to fall. Heavy, large drops that explode on contact like tiny water balloons. Turn back around, Eunha tells herself. But they get in the car. They buckle their seatbelts, fastening with an audible click. She turns the headlights on; it is shockingly dark for six o’clock. The wipers swish across the windshield. She begins to back the car out of the driveway; she brakes; she puts the car in drive. Still, it is not too late.
The school is only two miles away. She has driven this route hundreds of times, thousands of times. She has stopped at this stop sign hundreds of times, thousands of times. It’s a four-way stop. She looks to the left. She looks to the right. There is a car coming on the right, but she has the right-of-way. Why doesn’t she linger and wait, make sure it stops? She always makes sure the other cars stop. Keep your foot on the brake, she tells herself, just one second longer. She only needs one more second.
But still, the car inches forward. There is too much happening. The rain pounding the windshield, the radio blaring. Jackson is telling her about the new constellation he had learned about in school that day, Ursa Minor, the Little Dipper. And even though she knows she should be focusing, she should be pressing on the brake, she finds herself turning to smile at him, hears her voice saying, Maybe you will become an astronomer one day.
They are edging forward, but they should not be edging forward. She knows they should not be edging forward. They should be sitting still, at the stop, waiting for the headlights on their right to pass them by. This is it, this is her last chance, she can step on the brakes now, press hard and fix everything, but then there is Mark’s voice, too, screaming her name, even though he shouldn’t be there, he isn’t there, she does not see anyone else at the intersection, only her and Jackson and the headlights on their right. And she is pressing on the gas even though she should not be pressing on the gas, and the headlights are getting closer, they are getting bigger, the headlights that should be stopping, the headlights that do not see them, even though she stopped at the sign, she stopped, she stopped.
But still the lights are not stopping, and their car is not stopping, and all around her she hears the beating of the windshield wipers against the glass, the tidal roar of car wheels cutting across wet road, a rasping intake of breath, and this is it, this is her last chance, and she is trying to reach her arm out, she is trying to pull Jackson toward her, but her arm is pinned to her side and it will not move, he is so close but her arm will not move, and still there is Mark’s voice, Mark screaming her name, but all she can see is the glare of the headlights, growing brighter and brighter, closer and closer, encompassing everything in their yellow sheen, right behind Jackson’s sweet head, like a halo all around him, the light, blinding her, coming at them so fast.
Rumpus original art by Trisha Previte.