As Kim gently rolled the jar of jam from the palm of her right hand to the palm of her left one, she remembered that this used to be John’s favorite brand of spread. She still remembered things like that although she couldn’t often recall how she got to a particular place or why she went there. For example, she didn’t really have a clear idea about how she got to the grocery store that she was standing in at the moment. She didn’t even know whether she drove the car here or if somebody dropped her off. She didn’t know if someone was coming to pick her up or waiting in the car outside for her.
There was a time when such a situation would have caused her great consternation. But she got tired of putting herself through the anxiousness of trying to procure information that would only give rise to more questions. Even though she didn’t always remember particular instances, she knew she had been through this before just like she could tell that she had ribs without having to feel them with her fingers. She had decided she would not rile herself up over trying find logical explanations to circumstances, if she didn’t spontaneously feel some disquietude. Ever since she realized that the rational side of her mind was not to be trusted anymore, she let herself be guided by her feelings instead. Like muscles, the pathways of the chemicals that controlled her emotions probably had a memory of their own, she had concluded. If she didn’t feel any alarm about the not knowing, she didn’t bother much about not having the information.
If there was no one in the parking lot by the time she finished her shopping, and she still couldn’t find the car keys in her purse, then she would give herself the permission to panic. But it probably wouldn’t come to that. She would remember what she was supposed to do when it was time to do it. She was sure that she always did.
It was a while since she had thought about her life with John. They’d been together since high school. They went to college together and got married the minute they got jobs. Then, ten years just flew by and there was nothing more to do together except have a baby. So, they had Jack.
At first, she couldn’t wait for Jack to start talking. He seemed to find the most mundane things around him so interesting! She felt like he would have a lot to say. She had heard that there’s a moment in every mother’s life when the full profundity and the sentimental magnitude of being connected to her offspring dawns upon her. The moment when she would become a parent in the true sense of the word. It hadn’t happened to her till then. Thus far, motherhood had seemed like a haze of hues blending into each other to form a beige colored smog which smelled alternatively of spat up milk and stale pasta. She had hoped that when he could finally assign words to the thoughts in his head, then she would really start feeling the attachment to Jack that she had been waiting for. When he finally comprehended the words that she said to him, he could begin to get to know her.
Kim had thought that once his ability to form words kicked in, she and Jack would talk all day. It would be like when she made an exciting new friend back when she was at school. She’d have someone to relate the tales of her youth to, remodeled with the light of wisdom that age and experience had bestowed upon her. John had already heard all of it from several different points of view and although he still feigned polite interest when she spoke about things like that, she knew that all he was really thinking was whether she was still going to make dinner that night, or if she was going to end up emotionally exhausted, so that he’d have to cook. He was there for most of it anyway and it was irritating when sometimes he stymied the flow of her narration to correct a detail in her story, saying that he remembered it differently.
Every time John disagreed with her, they fought. Every time he wanted to talk about their marriage, she would change the subject, afraid that he would be critical of how she was doing as a wife and a mother. She had been wary of looking at herself through his eyes. She hadn’t wanted to listen to anything that wasn’t either a word of encouragement, wordless sounds of acknowledgment or something that implied vigorous agreement. Every month she had gotten more and more tired of conversations that had begun to sound like each of them were simply thinking aloud to no one at particular.
When he had reached the age when children usually start talking, Jack had still been as quiet as ever. The pediatrician had asked her to spend more time talking to and playing with her son. But between work and trying to raise Jack on a healthy diet in a clean house, there was never a moment of calm when she could sit down and try to communicate with him, without snapping at him and making him upset. Then, there was the whole other situation if she did upset him. She’d try in vain to distract him with toys and cartoon channels, until he couldn’t help fall asleep having spent all his energy in crying.
By the time Jack had learnt to talk, she had lost her enthusiasm to engage in a dialogue. Maybe she had simply forgotten how to. As a result, Jack’s attempt at speech mainly consisted of him saying words aloud rather than him trying to interact with her. He hardly ever approached her unless he needed her help with something. Before she knew it, Jack was in high school and all they had ever spoken at length about was homework.
At the turn of the aisle, Kim found stacked boxes of chocolates that were suitably packaged for gifting on Valentine’s Day.
“Poor Jack!”, she sighed.
She had found a box of heart-shaped candies, tossed into the trash bin in his room the other day. She was just there to pick up his clothes to put in the laundry, but the sight of that box made her curious about what it was doing there. There was a browser window opened to a college website occupying half the screen of Jack’s computer and an open IM window on one side of it. She quickly went through the lines of the messages before Jack came out of the bathroom. Jack was telling his friend Jim how he had an entire romantic outing all planned out for Valentine’s Day before Kelly had unexpectedly decided to break it off with him. Jim didn’t seem to think too much of it. He quickly assured Jack that there were other fish in the sea and moved on to fretting about how it was a pain to fill out college applications.
Kim supposed that Jack must be sad about his break up. Not that he showed any sign of what was going through his mind, around her. Had it not been for her unpremeditated snooping, she would have never known that he wasn’t dating Kelly anymore. It was a shame. Kelly was good for him. Before he started seeing her, Jim was the only person he ever socialized with. Kelly dragged him out to meet up with other kids in the neighborhood.
She felt guilty. She never taught him how to be around other people. She never even considered that was something a parent actively teaches her child until he was in middle school and had only ever had the one friend that he made in the second grade.
Maybe it would be different if John was around. She couldn’t remember why he wasn’t. In fact, she couldn’t picture any moment in which John and Jack were in the same frame after Jack had turned six months old! She couldn’t even think of any place that John could possibly be at right at that moment! She stopped cradling the jar of jam for a moment and concentrated hard.
“It’s okay! This is ridiculous! I know where John is. Of course, I do. It’ll come to me in a moment. I have to let my mind relax and it’ll come to me by the time I’m out of here,” she muttered under her breath.
There was a TV hanging from the corner of the ceiling, diagonally above the store clerk at the check-out counter. A news channel was playing the video of a woman going around with a picture of her son, asking young women at a college campus if they would like to date him. Kim felt like she had a vague idea about what was going on — like the woman on the TV had been a friend who told her about her plan to go to the college campus and she had encouraged her to do it. She tried to get a good look at her face but the video was really grainy.
“Can I help you, Ma’am?”, asked the clerk.
Kim discovered that she was standing in the check out corridor with a jar of jam in her hands, staring at the TV. She didn’t want to buy it. She didn’t like jam and she didn’t know if Jack did. She had always only put peanut butter in his sandwiches and he had never refused it. She handed the jar over to the clerk silently and proceeded to the parking lot.
It had somehow gotten dark outside by the time Kim was in the parking lot. She couldn’t recall what time of the day it was when she went into the store. There were no familiar cars in sight looking to pick her up. She hated the feeling of the pit forming in her stomach.
What had she forgotten? What was it that she was doing there in the parking lot? A foggy image of a woman going around with the photo of her son, asking girls out on behalf of him at a college campus swirled around in her brain.
That’s right! Jack had an entire romantic date planned for Valentine’s Day but he had no one to spend it with! A sense of urgency came over her. He will leave for college soon. She never got around to telling him those stories of her youth like she had planned to. She never had that moment of parenting enlightenment when she was supposed to feel the depth of her bond with him. The last seventeen years of her life were a repetitive series of project deadlines, annual medical check-ups, filling out school forms and packing lunches.
Kim felt her insides tighten and her throat constrict. She opened her purse and started rummaging through the contents, unsure of what she was looking for. Everything that she could see, hear or smell was disintegrating like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. A dense mist had started to descend upon the parking lot, making it difficult to discern the shapes of things around her. She started walking as fast as she could. It seemed like she was wading through a river of jelly. She heard her own voice saying things but there was a loud ringing in her ears drowning out the beginnings and the ends of the words she formed. She tried to speak louder and louder until she felt her voice crack. She tried to trace the movements of her tongue to make out what she was saying, but it was like trying to read a letter inside a dream — the alphabets were there but the words were still unreadable.
Out of nowhere, there was a barrage of faces. There were young women parading past her. All of them had annoyed or perplexed expressions. She caught some of the words coming out of their mouths.
“Oh My God!”
“Is this like a cult now?”
“Should we call someone?”
It seemed like the voices were echoing off the walls of a tunnel.
She found that she was holding a photograph of Jack in her hand. Jack seemed to be in an unusually exuberant mood in the picture. He was leaning sideways, a big grin on his face, his head almost touching the shoulder of an elderly woman. She couldn’t place this woman. She looked like she was from her side of the family. She had no recollection of the moment when this photograph was taken. She wondered who took it!
Then, she saw him. One moment Jack was standing at the far end of the tunnel and the next, his face was right up close. The hair around his ears was grey, his forehead looked much larger than she remembered. There were lines around his eyes and an extra fold of skin below his chin.
All of her clothes felt wet. She felt exhausted. Jack put one arm around her waist and they got into a car together. Before Jack had started the car engine, Kim had fallen fast asleep.
Orange curtains — that was the first thing Kim’s mind registered when she opened her eyes. She remembered that orange was John’s favorite color. The room was somewhat familiar. She knew that she was upstairs. There were sounds of muffled commotion coming from downstairs but it didn’t worry her. She could not remember whose house it was yet, but it would come to her. She was sure that it always came to her in the end.
She had always been a little forgetful. Lately, her mind had started to take a bit longer to get there, even if it always did in the end. Age had weakened her memory but endowed her with equanimity. She felt contentment — as if she had managed to meet a deadline ahead of time even if she didn’t remember the details of the task.
As soon as she opened the door of her room to get to the bathroom, she was confronted with the sound of a full-fledged argument in progress downstairs.
“Oh my God, Dad! You don’t even understand what this is doing to me! How am I supposed to concentrate on the SATs prep-tests if I have to babysit Grammy all the time?” screamed the voice of an adolescent man.
“Dale! Stop talking like that about her! Look, I know. Your mother and I have discussed this. Grammy is going to a nice nursing home. We got the brochure and everything. It’s just a few more days,” she heard Jack say.
“Why can’t she go this week? Everyday I’m scared for her! She’s ruined my life! Her brain’s just going to get more and more scrambled … you remember what happened when we went on the tour of that college last week, don’t you? I can’t imagine what my friends would say if they knew it was Grammy in that viral video!”
“For God’s sake keep your voice down!”
“Why? She doesn’t have a clue what’s going on!”
“She may be lucid right now…and that’s not even the point! I taught you better than to speak about your grandmother with such disrespect!”
“And what about me, huh? Whenever Mom and you have to go out, I get stuck with her. At least ask Jen to come over to look after her when you’re not home so that if I fall asleep studying, I don’t have to wake up to a call from the police informing me that my grandmother has been showing photos of me to girls at the grocery store parking lot, asking them to be my ‘Valentine’!”
“It doesn’t work that way! Jen’s a nurse, not a sitter! Look, I’m sorry that happened. I don’t know what gave her that idea. But it could have been so much worse! I mean, she walked that far, she crossed streets on her own! Aren’t you glad we got informed before she got into an accident?”
There were a few moments of silence before Kim heard Jack speak again.
“Do you remember what tomorrow is?”
“It’s the anniversary of Grandpa’s death.”
“Right. So, I just want us to spend tomorrow together as a family. Then, there’s the weekend — so we’ll be home and on Monday we will take Grammy to the nursing home, okay?”
Kim’s ears throbbed with the pounding of her heart. She tried to run down the stairs to get to Jack and demand to know what was going on. She missed a step and felt her stomach lurch ominously while her bottom skidded over the stairs. Everything went dark.
3There was a slice of cake on a plate on the table Kim was sitting at. It was a white cake with fuchsia icing. She wondered who put it there. She remembered that John hated most desserts except peach cobbler. They had planned to plant peach trees in the garden. She couldn’t remember if they did. She was sitting in what resembled a school cafeteria, except that it was better decorated and filled with aged people. The cafeteria had a friendly vibe. She felt like she trusted the place even though she had no recollection of getting there. She accepted the situation with a calm resignation.
There was a TV in front of them. It was playing a show about funny videos. The host of the TV show said that they were going to show video clips from last year that made the biggest splash on the news. They cut to two videos of a woman imploring the girls, first at a college campus and then at the parking lot of a shopping complex, to date her son, running after them with his photo. The host could be heard announcing that it was the highlight of Valentine’s week last year.
“She’s not breaking any laws! Let the Mama get on with her matchmaking! It’s Valentine’s week for God’s sake!” joked the host when the clips showed the police arriving on the scene.
“Poor Jack!” thought Kim, “With Kelly breaking up with him just before Valentine’s Day, he must be feeling lonely!”
If only there was something that she could do to help him.
She wondered where her purse was. She had a photo of Jack in there. Maybe the nice old ladies having cake around her have granddaughters of Jack’s age. She should show his photo around.
“Do you need something, Kim?” a man in floral print scrubs and a kind face asked her, as she stood up from her seat.
“Yes! Do you know where my purse is?” she inquired.