Forgetting to Remember
The ice of the water hits Alice’s skin and she jumps, yanking the knob of the shower to warm. The coldness of the water takes her back to a time she had been trying to forget.
She remembered the time they had gone swimming in the lake. The heat hung in the air like cotton, and when they jumped in the water it felt like heaven. Will splashed her until she laughed too hard and started to choke, and then he swept his hands under her knees and lifted her up until she could breathe again.
The first time he caught her attention she was in church, and he was sitting a few rows away with his family. He turned and caught her glance, and winked with a lopsided grin that sparked heat into her cheeks. She had seen him before at school but not taken much notice. Now she found herself paying more attention to his sharp cheekbones and gray-blue eyes than the service, and he snuck glances in her direction every time he thought she wasn’t looking.
They talked for the first time that same day. Will handed her a plate of food at the potluck after church, and they sat in the shade and shared an easy conversation like two kids on the first day of kindergarten. He told her about his older brother, going to college on a football scholarship, and they bonded over their shared reverence for their AP English teacher. She was surprised to discover that he cooked the lasagna that served as her go-to dish at every church potluck.
On the night of their first date Will smelled like mint and confidence, and he gave her bright yellow flowers he had picked from his neighbor’s lawn. At first their conversation was frivolous—the newest season of The Office--but then they suddenly delved into school shootings and what they would do if that ever happened to them. They argued over the best plan and then suddenly laughed, breaking out of the serious topic. Their conversation flowed more smoothly than water over ice.
Their first kiss happened on their third date, a hike in the evening after the heat had receded. They were talking, and suddenly Will grabbed her hand and pulled her to him. It was the first time she had noticed nervousness in his blue eyes, and her mind screeched to a halt as he leaned in. He tasted like sweat and cinnamon, and she smiled through the kiss.
Alice was nervous the first time she brought Will along on an outing with her friends. She wanted them to like him as much as she did, to see past his sharp cheekbones and eyes to his warm interior. He was a perfect gentleman, politely shaking everyone’s hands and asking about their classes. Alice beamed with love and pride until she noticed that Will’s eyes followed the lines of other girls’ skirts. She elbowed him in the ribs, and he turned his attention back to her, his eyes burning sheepishly.
Later a fight erupted between her and her father after he insisted Will was bad news. He knew Will’s family, and he said that the temper on his father was hotter than oil hitting a metal pan. “You don’t even know him! He’s nothing like his father!” Alice yelled, running up the stairs and slamming her bedroom door like a 12-year-old. Her father’s yell turned to painful coughing, and suddenly guilt washed over her.
She remembered the time they lay in the grass and stared at the stars. The wet grass tickled her skin, and Will waved long, wispy fronds in her face to make her laugh. Then she admitted to him how scared she was that her father’s cancer would come back, and Will told her about his plans to open the best Italian restaurant in Wichita. Maybe it was just the effects of the heat peppering the air, but she felt like she could be a part of his future.
That feeling faded during the time they went out to dinner and she asked him to choose the restaurant for once. He shrugged and responded with a line that seemed to be his new motto: “Doesn’t matter.” Something about this rubbed her the wrong way, and so she picked her favorite Greek restaurant for the second week in a row. Will’s brow wrinkled into a frown. “We just had that. Jesus, Alice, pick something else.” She glared at him and said nothing, and they both felt as if a crack was starting to open between them.
The next time they simply ordered a pizza, and Will, in a better mood, had feigned indignation over the restaurant’s boast that they used “real cheese.” “Real cheese?!” he bellowed like an auctioneer. “Oh no, this will not do. I must have my cheese manufactured as a fake, processed product.” He had written so in the “additional requests” section of the order, much to the chagrin of the confused delivery boy, who handed them their pizza along with a packet of spreadable cheese goo. They both laughed so hard they forgot how to breathe.
Then there was the time she forgot his birthday. She lay awake in bed the night before, feeling like she was neglecting something, but then sleep had pulled the nagging thought from her brain. She finally remembered the next morning when Facebook alerted her. “Dammit!” She missed first period to buy him a gift, but it was still obvious. Her apologies and insistence on stress from school hadn’t erased the hurt in his eyes, and he was quiet for the rest of the day.
Their first anniversary was one of her favorite memories. Will packed a picnic basket with his famous turkey-pesto sandwiches and some champagne he snuck out of his parents’ cabinet. They kissed in the park, the willow trees hovering around them like lace. He gave her a small silver bracelet that tinkled when she moved her wrist, and she gave him the three words that had scared her for so long.
One day when autumn had turned to winter they went bowling with Will’s friends. His hands were cold after scraping the frost off the car windshield. Alice braced herself for how he would act around his friends; it was a common occurrence now. He practically ignored her, and when he did remember to include her in the conversation, he made jokes at her expense, winking in her direction as if that exonerated him of blame.
She couldn’t remember when exactly Will stopped holding her hand, exchanging it for his phone or the pocket of his jeans. She suddenly questioned who it was sitting beside her—surely not the same boy who had picked those yellow flowers on their first date. If they were puzzle pieces, then someone had clipped the corner of one and tried to force them back together.
She remembered the time she sat in her bed, silently smoldering over Will’s increasing indifference. Just then her phone buzzed with his number, but she angrily ignored it. He called again a little later, and she knocked her phone onto the floor. Hey, it’s me, his voicemail said. Just wondering if you wanted to take a hike this afternoon. I think if we keep to the high trails it won’t be too cold. Let me know. Alice didn’t call him back until late that night, and then pretended she had been busy with her friends all day. The annoyance in both of their voices was clear.
A few weeks later they went out to dinner, and no matter what words she used she couldn’t think of anything to say. Her ravioli stuck to her tongue like glue, and Will was busy texting. The blue-gray of his eyes, which she once found so calming, now mocked her. When had they ever seemed warm? They were more like glaciers—untouchable. And how stupidly sharp his cheekbones were, like ice picks chiseling into his skin.
Their biggest fight arrived like a hurricane, and all the notes of annoyance and hurt feelings finally built to a crescendo and burst from their mouths. He yelled about her moodiness, her inability to change, that he was so tired of always having to do everything she wanted. She retorted that he was always so damn distant, indifferent, and didn’t even care about her feelings anymore. They screamed like it was a competition, and he slammed the door so hard she could feel the vibration in her bones.
The next time she saw him it made her more anxious than happy, and that’s when she knew.
Her worst memory was the day she broke up with him. She felt like she was made of glass, like every word she said was cracking her skin. When it happened his eyes were hollow, but he nodded stoically, like he knew this was coming. They both knew.
She remembered the days following their break-up. But then again, she didn’t. All she could bring up in her mind was the feeling of water as it threatened to drown her.
One morning her best friend brought over movies and caramel ice cream in an effort to cheer her up. She urged Alice into talking things over, and Alice admitted, “I just can’t forget him. Everything I see is tied to a memory of something we did.”
“You’re not supposed to forget him,” her friend reassured her. “First loves are not meant to be forgotten. They’re like the first time you jump into a pool—scary, but they teach you how to swim.”
The day finally arrived when she came up for air. A few of her friends came over to watch a movie, and she forgot to remember how Will used to wrap his arm around her when they sat on the couch.
She deleted his number from her phone. Her thumb hovered over his name and twitched, as if even her smallest extremity was pulled to him. Or maybe it was simply pulled to erase him. Either way, the water in her throat felt like it was finally receding.
She remembered the last time she saw him at school. They passed each other in the hallway, and although she usually kept her head down when they passed, that time she looked him in eye, and he offered her a small smile. She smiled back, and that felt okay.
Today, when Alice gets out of the shower, her fingers and toes pruny, she sits at the window and watches the sunrise. She thinks of Will again, but then she takes a deep breath and allows him to leave her lungs. He will always be there, on her skin and in her thoughts, but she doesn’t need him to breathe.