WHEN MY MEMORIES BECAME HIS MEMORIES
by Vivé Griffith
My not-yet-stepdaughter sprawled on the couch, laptop open. Annabella was twelve, her long hair parted straight down the middle. That evening I stayed with her for the first time while her father went to a work event. It seemed more normal than I’d imagined, just another evening at home. I read a magazine while she did homework.
Then someone was in the backyard.
It took determination to get there. A chain link fence surrounded the property, and one side of the house was blocked with a garage. Through a single gate hidden in a cluster of bushes, someone had found the way in.
I leapt up and discovered a woman stalking about, dressed in a sports bra and running shorts. I was alone with my boyfriend’s daughter. I was responsible for her safety. But this was a woman who looked like she was out for a jog, with no place to hide a weapon. She climbed the cement steps to the door and peered in the window. When she saw me, she startled, then backed away. I opened the door.
“Oh god, I’m sorry. I didn’t think anyone lived here.” She was visibly embarrassed, unsure where to put her hands.
Her name was Merri Gale and she was considering buying a house in the neighborhood. She thought this house was still on the market, still vacant. So she’d jogged over and let herself into the yard.
“We’ve been here a few months,” I said, making of my boyfriend and his daughter a we that included me. “Do you want to come in?”
She followed me. When I went to introduce Annabella, she startled again.
“I know you,” she said, studying her closely. “Yes! I worked with your mom.”
She looked from Annabella to me and back. She threaded together a story she’d tell at the office the next day. But she didn’t say so. Instead she shrugged.
“What are the chances?”
Merri Gale has lived around the corner a dozen years now, and I’ve told this story many times. But tonight it comes up and something is new. Annabella’s dad, who is now my husband, insists he was there.
“You weren’t,” I tell him. “It was just me and Annabella.”
Chris doesn’t bat an eye. “But I saw her through the window.”
I’m not sure when my memories became his memories, his memories mine. So often we fill in the details for each other: where we stayed in Portland, the name of the Thai restaurant with the great lettuce wraps, what year we put the cat down.
I’d been single a long time when we met, living alone in a series of small apartments, working jobs long enough to earn the money for a long trip with a backpack. I considered myself independent, well suited for going it solo. What struck me most about cohabitation in those early months was how we went days eating the exact same food.
We drank Costa Rican coffee, both of us adding sugar and a good dollop of cream, out of identical mugs. We ate oatmeal with raisins, setting the same bowls down on the yellow Formica table. Some weekend mornings one of us said, “Pasta breakfast!” and we boiled penne and tossed it with butter and pecorino. For dinner, chicken curry. My rice on the side, his underneath.
“Hey, do you want some chocolate?” I’d ask in late afternoon, and break him off a few squares, taking a few myself.
Our clothes smelled of the same detergent, our hair of the same shampoo. At night we lay beside each other. The room grew stuffy from each of us exhaling our heat. How could I continue to be one person when my biology was so mingled with another?
We can’t stop arguing. “I know you weren’t there,” I say, “because it was the first time Annabella and I were alone in the house.”
We are making dinner, moving in a familiar dance. I’m chopping vegetables. He’s putting cups in the dishwasher. He taps my hip and I scoot aside to let him grab a spatula from the drawer.
“I stood right there on the den steps and she was looking through the glass,” he says.
“No, she looked through the door. She couldn’t have reached those windows. It’s too high from the yard.”
We are exasperated. I expect him to back down, but he doesn’t.
“It’s like Jackie O.” I remind him of a favorite This American Life story where Robert Krulwich recounts the time he and his wife saw Jacqueline Onassis on the street waving. Krulwich’s wife thinks she is waving at her, and waves back, waving bigger as Onassis waves bigger. Then she realizes Onassis is hailing a cab.
Krulwich’s wife tells the story differently. For one thing, Robert wasn’t there. He had claimed her memory as his own, as Chris has claimed mine.
He remains unswayed.
“What was she wearing?” I ask.
“How am I supposed to remember?”
“Oh, you’d remember.”
I text Annabella, who now goes by B and lives in Los Angeles.
“Do you remember when Merri Gale peeked in the back door?”
“Who was there?”
“Hm… Me…And you?”
I don’t report her hesitancy to Chris. “She says it was the two of us,” I tell him. I return to the texts.
“But not Daddy?”
“I don’t think so.”
“She says you weren’t there.” I build my case.
Then she goes further: “Because he probably would’ve known what was up, but I recall being really confused.”
I read this verbatim. “You see?”
Then I ask if she remembers what Merri Gale wore.
“Jogging clothes and some kind of visor.”
“Exactly!” I type. “He would remember that, and he doesn’t.”
She sends laughing emojis and returns to her life halfway across the country. I return to the dinner we are making and will eat together off matching plates.
“If you don’t remember an attractive woman barely dressed in running clothes, you definitely weren’t there,” I announce.
Chris comes from generations of storytellers, people for whom narrative is the family glue. The stories repeat, like this one:
In 1951 Chris’s father was crossing a Manhattan subway station near the Polo Grounds on his way to take a midterm at NYU. He was the first in his family to go to college, made possible by the GI bill. He’d survived months on the front line at the Battle of Anzio during World War II, then eighteen months in a Staten Island hospital recovering from tuberculosis.
He was rushing through the station when he heard his brother’s voice.
Dick and a few friends pushed toward him. They were headed to the stadium to watch the New York Giants play the Brooklyn Dodgers in the playoffs, a game the entire city was tuned in for.
“C’mon, Connie, come with us. We’ll getcha in.”
Connie said no. He had a test. In the future he’d forget what class the test was for, but his brother Dick remembered the game for the rest of his life. Bobby Thomson hit the pennant-winning home run, the “shot heard ‘round the world,” into the stands just below him.
“It was right there,” Dick always said, his voice resonant into his 80s. “Bobby Thomson hit it right there.”
He could still see the people scrambling to grab that ball a few rows away.
I didn’t grow up hearing this story, and I only heard Uncle Dick tell it once before he died. Maybe it morphed over time. Was Connie really taking a midterm? Was it really an accident that they ran into each other? It doesn’t matter. It’s a great story. I’ve told it at dinner tables, to old friends, at a reception for Don DeLillo, whose Underworld opens at this game.
I’ve appropriated this bit of lore, shaped this memory into my own. But in this case, I know I wasn’t there. And Chris knows he wasn’t either.
After I moved in, I’d pause in the street at For Rent signs. Usually a garage apartment drew me, a tiny place tucked behind a house with stairs to its own front door. I didn’t really think of leaving. I just believed I could only be totally myself in a space that was totally mine.
Yet here I am in a life where our shoes are kicked off next to each other under the Formica table, our bank accounts and vacation schedules synched. Even so, we’re together less than we used to be. I teach a few nights a week, leaving him to eat alone and sink into Netflix. He heads out to open mics and takes Sunday afternoon voice lessons.
A month ago he moved into another bedroom, the one still painted the deep purple B chose as a girl. He wasn’t sleeping much, and his not sleeping meant I didn’t sleep, and we were both stressed. So each night we lie in bed and thank each other for the day’s little sweetnesses, a ritual we’ve held through our entire relationship.
“Thank you for making eggs this morning,” he’ll say. And me, “Thank you for checking in after my meeting.”
Then he shuffles across the house. Some nights I rise to use the bathroom and hear him playing the guitar quietly. My room is still as I slide back into bed.
I worry: Does this mean we’re growing apart? Will we still be close if we don’t wake beside each other? What part of marriage is about proximity?
We make other concessions to aging. Neither of us can drink coffee anymore and our house doesn’t fill with that seductive scent. I brew myself green tea. He makes his potion, blackstrap molasses and coconut oil. When I gave up gluten six years ago he stopped buying English muffins, and it’s been ages since we shared a pasta breakfast.
And yet we are connected in more significant ways. We’ve raised a kid together, spoken at memorial services for each other’s fathers. We’ve sat beside hospital beds while we each had major surgery then helped each other bathe in the weak early days of recovery. Our lives, and indeed our memories, are intertwined.
One afternoon Chris wanders into a furniture store and there’s Merri Gale, selling mid-century modern pieces restored for upscale pricing. Like us, she’s older now, her hair cut shorter. She probably doesn’t take jogs wearing only sports bras.
He asks: “You remember that time you came into our backyard to look at the house?”
“Yeah.” She laughs, still a little embarrassed.
“Do you remember who was there? Was it me or Vivé or both of us?”
Merri Gale pauses and then replies: “It was just Annabella. She was there alone.”
Vivé Griffith is an Austin-based writer, educator, and student advocate. Her poetry and essays have appeared in The Sun, Oxford American, Hippocampus, and Gettysburg Review, and her op-eds in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Texas Tribune. She teaches storytelling to activists, poetry to adult students returning to the classroom, and creative nonfiction at Austin Community College. Find her at www.vivegriffith.com