YOU WON’T REMEMBER
by M. Goerig
One day, you’ll wonder if you were even here. The moment will come back to you in snatches—that abandoned pair of shoes, ominous like a bleached-out goat skull in the desert; the line of heavens meeting earth, as viewed from the bottom; the vista from the top looking down, just before you all hurl yourselves into the bowl. It’s something you can never again duplicate. You wouldn’t even know where to begin, nor would it ever occur to you to try. But the three travelers standing one dune over? It will occur to them. The photo that one of them just snapped will live on for many years to come, and you’ll never know it existed in the first place. You’ll go home again and resume your ongoing soccer match with the computer; you’ll hop on your bike to ride down the street to your best friend’s house seventy gazillion times, and you’ll start school again and see that girl two rows in front of you and wonder how her hair smells, but these three strangers—they’ll still be staring at the image of you, frozen in a run, for a long time yet. Shaggy hair pressed against your head, mouth wide open, one arm forward, one arm back, legs kicking up poofs of sand: that’s you, and these strangers will study you and they’ll talk about you and they’ll try to figure out why they can’t look away.
Pull back and study the entire scene for a moment. Sand is everywhere, rising and falling and undulating all over the place. It is a character in the cast: from a distance, smooth and solid; up close, pocked and wavy and pliant—an impossibly massive mound of desert that’s been poured from a god-sized bucket onto this straw-yellow, moss-green valley floor. Footprints peter away and blend into others, the owners long gone, and at first push in their wake, these impressions become defeating, humbling. Tiny, black specks on distant peaks prove that this land can be traversed but it might take all day.
The sky, well, it’s a huge canvas of clouds: gray and white and silver and yes, even blue. Blue clouds. It’s a blue you can hardly believe, though, and to describe it you’d have to invent things you’ve never seen before: a piece of candy, cool and crystallized, crumbling and dissolving on your tongue with its floral sweetness and something else, something like anise that you can’t quite put your finger on; or a tail, long and shimmering, almost certainly that of a mermaid, the scales surfacing in the first rays of the day, glistening, remaining poised for the flash of a second, before submerging again, back to those mythical depths. Those are the colors of the blue clouds.
Then on cue, the sun ducks from view, casting a great shadow over everything, turning it all a dirty gray. Moments later when it peeks back out from hiding, the ground is again the white, flapping promise of sheets hung to dry.
Don’t look back. Look forward; look to the side but don’t look back. Over there, that slope in particular is a torso as viewed from the side, right where the shoulder blades end and the two great latissimus dorsi continue their downward plunge—not that you know the name of those muscles. You don’t think of the human anatomy when you look in that direction. Have you even started to think about the human anatomy—ever at all? You’re twelve; it’s hard to know what you’re thinking about.
“Oh, this kid again. Love him.”
“Me, too. I wonder where he is now.”
The travelers are contemplating you again. They never seem to tire of it. The first time was over dinner that same night after they saw you. They didn’t drive long from the park. Just across the valley and over the mountains they went, finding two rooms in a rustic lodge. Then they walked across the road to a small place with a counter bar, where they sat on stools, the only customers in that tiny town. They ordered meatball sandwiches and bottles of microbrew, and the light overhead created a glare on the camera’s display screen, so they couldn’t quite see at that moment what a fantastic image they had. It will, in fact, be their favorite one from the entire, long trip they’ll take together. They will see so many places, so many things, so many people, yet you will be the best—you, poised at the lip of the precipice; you, just before the plunge; you, a few strokes of color on a wash of gold; you, unaware you’re being watched.
“He’s not in his body yet; you know what I mean?”
“Yeah. It’s splendid how he occupies it.”
“ ‘Splendid.’ Listen to you.”
“Well, it is! Look at him. He can’t feel a thing. He’s just going for it.”
And you are. Your clothes fit you perfectly. Don’t get used to that. There will come a time when you’ll be conscious of the cotton pull against your butt, into your belly, across your chest. You’ll realize in a crushing instant that there is extra flesh behind your knees; you’ll feel those folds hanging just a little behind the joint. It’ll happen on a day when you’re just standing there doing nothing after an entire day of sitting there doing nothing—sitting in traffic, sitting at your desk, sitting at lunch, sitting in front of the evening news.
“He’s got on white shorts, too. Pretty ballsy.”
That’s the male traveler talking to his female companions. Of the three wanderers, he’s the most jealous of you and so his tone is reverent. He’s trying hard to remember himself at your age but he cannot, and so he’s unsure of everything except the fact that he was never as cool as you. He doesn’t know, of course, that just this morning, you fought hard for your right to eat a cinnamon roll for breakfast and that you lost, and that it started the day off all wrong, so that you didn’t even want to come here. You sulked in the backseat and you stared out the window and you watched a dust storm racing towards your family’s car, wishing all the while that it would swallow everyone whole, your dad in particular. Oh, and last week, it was football: you were in a real funk about it, because you’ve been wanting to join the team this fall but you dare not even ask; you already know the answer will be no. The answer is always no. Adults, they don’t remember what it feels like to possess so much raw strength—coursing through your veins, throbbing from your tissue, snapping from your tendons. You don’t even know yet that you have hip bones, because they quietly do their work. Swish, swish, swish. There’s no creaking, no cracking, no grinding; there is only your hand in front of your face and the knowledge of what you must do with that hand, except no one will let you and you don’t have the voice to explain this. You are strewn into pieces of something that have not quite figured out how to work together. If you hesitate, it’s because you don’t know better and so you’re yelling underwater—or at least that’s what it feels like. No one hears you; they just hear the animal noises you’re making: the sarcasm you haven’t figured out how to wield; the forethought you haven’t put into use; the limits you haven’t learned to set.
That’s not where you are in this freeze-frame, however. You’ve bounced back; you are the essence of yourself: nothing but you, racing forward, rushing down. That is what has captivated the attention of these three people. If you knew they were still looking at you, you’d think it was creepy but it’s not; it’s one more thing that adults do which you don’t yet understand. A lot will happen before you do understand it. That girl two rows in front of you in school? First, she’ll send you soaring. Your mom will ask what happened to your appetite. Your teachers will snap their fingers in front of your glazed, staring eyes, five pages behind the rest of the class. Your friends will punch you in the shoulder and say “Earth to dodo brain,” or whatever your name is. You’ll smile more than you ever have in your life and it will partly be due to this odd sensation in your gut—a feeling you can only describe as that moment when a roller coaster pitches over the first hill. Even your dad’s jokes will make you laugh sometimes, and when your brother does his usual spiteful shit and your mom makes him apologize, you’ll just shrug and say, “It’s okay. I know he didn’t mean it.”
All the while, running through your head so quickly you won’t even be fully aware of it will be a reel of snapshots of her: laughing with friends across the lunch table; piling her hair atop her head at the beginning of seventh period social studies, when the room always gets inexplicably hot and stuffy; stooping for a drink of water from the fountain; picking up a book that’s just flown out of her locker at break; dribbling the basketball in PE—shooting, missing, shrugging. When you see flowers growing beside the sidewalk on your way home, you’ll have a sudden urge to pick them, though you won’t know what you want to do with them. When your best friend down the street asks if you want to go to the movies this weekend, you’ll feel a surge of impatience with him and you’ll say that only babies go to the movies. This will confuse you both.
Come Friday morning, you will arrive at school having barely slept. Your eyes will feel dry in the sockets; your mouth will have a skunky taste but you will be bolstered by the resolve to finally ask her out. You won’t have told anyone you’re going to do this; no one even knows you like her and so there you are, all alone, heaving open one of the heavy steel double doors, traipsing into the bright, fluorescent corridor filled with milling, chatting bodies. You’ll blink; you’ll look around; you’ll see her. What happens next does not matter as much as what happened in getting you to that point—the conclusions you reached without consulting anyone else; the decisions you made all on your own; the knowledge, whether you knew what to call it or not, that you had listened to your heart and no one else.
And yet, what happens next is actually very important. The girl likes someone else; she doesn’t like you. Already, the seed has been planted that that’s what you get for listening to your heart: a big fat nothing. As expected, you will not be allowed to play football, either. Then there will be the parties to which you don’t get invited, the zits that blemish your smooth cheeks, the grades you don’t make, the colleges that don’t accept you, the interviews you don’t get, the trips that don’t live up to the brochures, and all the other girls who like boys who aren’t you. Every one of those disappointments will make you pull in a little. That left leg which you’re throwing forward so confidently? It will straighten out and draw back about a fraction of a millimeter each time until eventually it becomes an inch, two inches, three inches inward. The wild bend of your elbows? Well, just look at your dad behind you and you can see what will happen: one arm will drop and flail a little, thinking it’s helpful while actually being totally useless; the other will squeeze against your ribs—prissy, scared. And that unabashed gape of your mouth? Forget it. You’ll make that face a few more times at most and then a bug will fly into your throat and you’ll adopt the dropped chin-jut of your brother—neck like a brake cord; teeth like a shield; lips sneered in cool conveyance of the fact that this fun is temporary, a mere show.
Whose idea was it anyhow, racing to the bottom of the dune at top speed? It was your dad’s idea. Don’t forget that in your arrogant youth. And your mom: see how she’s just going along with it? The funny twist of her waist; the awkward square-dance posture of her arms; her exaggerated high step—those are all methods to slow herself down before she’s even gotten started. She doesn’t want to do this thing but she is; she’s doing it. Don’t forget that, either.
“He looks like a good dad.” One of the girl travelers is speaking. She’s squinting at your dad in his baggy, knee-length shorts and his wrap-around sunglasses. “Don’t you think he looks like a good dad?”
The other girl nods but she’s looking at your mom—your mom, the trooper; your mom, the good sport; your mom, in her hip newsboy cap; your mom, of two boys. “My mom would never do that.”
“Your mom’s like eighty-five.”
“I mean back in the day. Growing up. She’d still be in the parking lot, sitting in the car, maybe smoking.”
She’ll bring it up again when they’re much farther down the road—somewhere in the South and sitting at a shiny bar in a port city, the wispy fog of fall pressing itself against the black windows behind them; a nightcap, amber brown and sugar thick, loosely clasped in each of their hands; the photo of you again placed in front of them, its presence a compulsive habit by that point. She won’t be speaking to her two companions; none of them will be speaking, in fact, because they’ll be exhausted from all the driving that day and they’ll also be getting a little tired of each other, and they might also be a tiny bit drunk, as well. She’ll be staring at the four of you all together on that dune—her gaze hard, almost angry. Then she’ll swallow and say: “I hope he knows how lucky he is. I hope he’s not a spoiled little fuck.”
The other two companions will smile faintly but they won’t say anything, because they won’t be in the mood to talk about you right now; they won’t be in the mood to talk at all. No one seems to appreciate silence these days; everyone seems to need to fill every space with words—captions and feelings and jokes and memories. Some moments should just be allowed to wash over you, however, and that moment in the bar will be one of them. She’ll seem to agree, because she won’t say any more; she’ll be caught up in the image again. She’ll look at the two by-standers to your left in the background, also appearing to be watching you. She’ll then move her gaze across the entire sweep of the landscape around you—the backs and the bellies and the buttocks, an orgy of body parts at rest, cradling you, supporting you, allowing you. Above it all, that sky: roiling clouds, bulges of rain, silver strokes of sun.
But her gaze will always come back to you. As the rule of thirds goes, you’re straddling the intersection of the first vertical line and the bottom horizontal one, and the light, it’s glinting from your rear calf all the way up to your shoulder—an aura across your back.
She’ll forget the group’s unspoken vow of silence then and blurt: “Look at how he’s stomping his own shadow.”
The two friends will be intrigued enough to straighten in their seats and lean in to look more closely—not that it’s a hard thing to see. In fact, it’s the first thing someone else might have noticed.
“You’re right. I’ve never noticed that before but he’s stomping his own shadow.”
“Or chasing it.”
This will make them study the image harder.
“Chasing it. Yeah, he’s chasing his own shadow.”
All four of you are stomping and chasing your own shadows, actually, but it’s your shadow that these three comrades want to see you pursue, because it’s your shadow of which you must be wary. It’s not your friend, this shadow of yours, though you’re not wrong to think that it is—always with you, never straying, never talking back, patiently following you most of the time. But it’s taller than you and it’s thinner than you and it doesn’t have to do so many of the things that you have to do: make decisions, make mistakes, face consequences, feel pain, cause pain, apologize. One day your shadow will make you angry. You’ll whirl on it and yell at it as if it’s a lost dog: “Go home!” But it won’t leave; it will merely face you at that point—taunting, judging, challenging.
The day in the dunes is different, though. Then the shadow is under your feet and you’re driving it away, even though you don’t know that. You never will. You’ll never consciously remember this detail from this moment. You’ll remember the sand; you’ll remember the sky; you’ll remember your mom and your dad and your brother, and you’ll remember beating them all to the bottom of the hill, but you will not remember the most important part of that moment. It’s documented in the photograph, however, and maybe that’s enough—the fact that it happened at all. Not only that it happened but that it’s still alive, preserved like a hair on a pillow from a person long gone. Frozen in time, it’s proof of you. You: at the top. You: on the starting line. You: uninhibited, unencumbered, unfazed. You: in perfect form.
In the sixth grade, M. Goerig won first place for a short story she wrote. One might say she’s been wandering the world ever since, looking for that elusive muse. Work has also been published in Airplane Reading, Fugue, and Snapping Twig.
Image credit: amanda tipton on Flickr