It’s been a year since you walked out of the neurological rehab center. Three total since you started with nothing but your name. The memories you’ve regained have only led to the realization of what you lost. Simone. The absence you can only see by the empty outline she’s left in all your other recovered memories.
The Slice Club lounge has squat, square chairs upholstered in leather that seems to empathize with your anxiety by growing damp and chill under your weight. You unstick your hand from the chair’s tacky arm and choose the sweating, pink-frothed drink from a silver tray held by a man dressed in formal wear. He sets the chaser, a glimmering blue-green shot glass, on the table beside you without a word.
Slice Club isn’t on the official treatment plan. Their menu isn’t normal fare. You had to reserve your seat in advance. The concoctions, elixirs, potions, and fogs they produce are replications of a time long past. A time before the bombs and shelling. A time of innocence and plenty. Well, maybe not innocence. Your watery memory crashes against that falsity. Perhaps a better word than innocence would be privilege. A time when the unthinkable happened to other people.
You don’t believe you were the kind of man who would have tried pink drinks before. Even now, it seems terribly joyous. Frivolous. There’s no umbrella, no fruit, but you imagine them anyway and smile. As you take a test sip, you notice the ice cubes are hollow in the center.
The memory it brings strikes your tongue like a metal chime. It isn’t a bell, though. It’s money. You guzzle the drink, suddenly parched. The ice shifts in the space you’ve emptied.
A jingling of loose change in your trouser pocket. Nerves. A woman with her back to you, and you desperate for her to turn around. The sound, you hope, a lure. An annoyance. You baited Simone with an annoyance, and it worked.
She glances over her shoulder to find the source, and you apologize.
“Oh, sorry. I’m nervous.”
The smile. That one you’ll never see again. Not because of the war. Not because it is lost but because you only get to see her smile for the first time once. Every smile after that is an echo.
“That’s okay. First flight? Or just don’t like airplanes?”
She laughs. “You’ll have to empty out all that change, you know. And take off your shoes.” Her eyes twinkle.
You forget to listen to her advice because you are watching her lips move. She notices and laughs again. You want to make her laugh more. Forever. You want to see all the things that mouth can do.
And, with a last swallow, the memory is gone. You have it now, though. You have it, and no one will take it from you again.
You eye the shot glass eagerly. The elixir glimmers blue and purple now. A bruise without blood behind it. You consider the surface tension as your hand tremor challenges the physics when you pick it up. Physics wins. The scent of the elixir is as much a part of the experience as the taste, so you huff out your own stale air before lightly breathing in the citrusy aroma. Pine needles.
As you open yourself to the delicate scent and take a sip, a memory fills in. Flashes of laughter, silver and green, and a crisp dryness. As the elixir empties into your mouth and throat, the memory solidifies.
Simone stands on tiptoe to hang a gold ornament on a fir tree. Christmas! How could you have forgotten her favorite holiday? She is laughing at something witty you said. You can’t remember the words, only the feeling of triumph at her reaction to it. It fills you with warmth, and you remember consciously trying to fix the moment in your mind: her brown hair lit by the glittering white lights, her eyes crinkled at the edges and damp with merriment, the way she tosses her head back in joy. You were always trying to hold onto her, as if somehow you knew what was coming. And yet, she is the memory hardest to recover.
The shot glass is empty, but you are not full. You look around the lounge to see who might be watching and then realize you don’t care. You lick the glass clean with a desperation. The vestiges coat your tongue, and the memory stretches just another moment more.
“Promise me,” she says through her mirth. “Promise me you’ll never leave.”
You wrap your arms around her with a playful sway and then pull back to look deep into her gray eyes. “I will never leave you. I love…”
The memory slips. The focus dies. You have learned to quietly sob so you don’t disturb the others. It’s a skill many people have now.
You get yourself back under control. The shot glass is heavy in your hand. It feels like a weapon. You wish you could throw it. Hard. A shattering would be a release. But, you’ve already had a shattering, haven’t you? You get up with an exhale, remnants of pine on your breath, and make your way to the bar.
The bartender doesn’t get up from his perch on the stool. You know there was a time when this would have annoyed you, but now everyone is a little gentler to each other.
He asks, “What can I get you?”
You carefully set the oh-so-empty, clearly licked-clean glass on the polished bar. The man looks at that glass and when his eyes meet yours, you see he understands. Neither of you speaks for a moment. Both of you try to hold your grief out of sight. Neither of you succeed.
“I’d like a different one, please. Something summery?”
The bartender nods. “I can do that. It’ll be a fog, is that okay?”
You haven’t tried a fog before, but some of the treatments at the rehab were inhaled. Can’t be much different, you think.
“Sure. How much?” You fumble at your wallet, but the bartender shakes his head and holds up a hand. You see his gold ring, and you feel the absence of yours. Did you lose it or was there never a ring? You squeeze your hand into a fist and at the same time curl the toes of your left foot inside your shoe until they both go hot with pressure. They taught you that in rehab. Grounding exercises, they called it. Don’t forget where you are now while you try to remember where you used to be.
“I’ll start a tab. Makes it easier all around.”
You nod a thanks before returning to your seat. The leather sighs around you.
While you wait, you pretend not to watch the other clients. There’s a woman by the tinted windows who stares into her elixir. Not touching it. It’s full to the brim with a red shimmer. She appears frozen. Her blouse is loose on her frame as if it’s outgrown her. Three tables toward the door from the frozen woman, two men have just seated themselves. The chairs move silently across the thick rug. The tallest of the two has skin with large pores, like an orange peel. The other man has his back to you, but you notice the nervous tapping of his foot under the table. After the waiter takes their orders, they lean toward each other and clasp hands across the white tablecloth.
“Sir?” The silver tray is back, but this time the proffered item is a slender glass canister attached to a face mask. It’s eerily similar to ones worn during the war. You take it with some trepidation.
“Do you need instructions for the fog, sir?”
“I don’t think so. It’s…it’s the same as…right?” You leave gaps, but the man knows by their shape what you haven’t said.
“Yes. The same.” There’s nothing more either of you wants to say on the matter. You avoid making eye contact. Keeping your head down, you thank him, and he bows away.
The fog is invisible. The toxins were invisible. Simone is invisible. You know she’s there somewhere, though. You just have to keep looking. You are frozen like the woman at the window. Maybe you shouldn’t try to do this alone. This isn’t the first time you’ve had this thought. You remember the well-wishers you endured during your recovery. The way everyone kept saying what a success you were. How can you be a success when the most important memories are still gone?
Your anger hardens into resolve. You clench your jaw, and then slip the elastic band over your head, fitting the soft plastic over your mouth and nose. You hyperventilate with remembered panic. The fog was a bad choice, you realize. But just as you are about to wrench the damn thing off, the fog takes hold.
Your hands are sweaty in hers. You are both panting and hot from running. Thirst. This isn’t quite what you meant by summery, you think, and then you aren’t thinking, only remembering. Her cheek is cut and bleeding, and you are both crying. The area teems with shocked people, a bottleneck of families trying to cross the river.
“You have to. It’s the only way.” You grip her hands more tightly and rest your forehead against hers a moment before kissing it and pulling away. She tastes of ash and salt. “I want you safe.”
She shakes her head fiercely, the word no starting to form on her chapped lips. You interrupt this coming denial.
“Yes. Listen to me, Simone. When this is over, we’ll find each other. Let’s promise to meet somewhere.”
She shakes her head again, but says, “Everything will be gone. Changed. But, if…if you can, I’ll be waiting where we had our first date. The little café that served us those tiny coffees. Harvey’s, yes? Please be careful. Please.”
She’s crying earnestly now, and you can’t bear to witness it. You slip your hands free of hers and start running back toward the eclipse of shelling. Back toward your duty. You turn and jog backwards for a few steps. One last look at Simone before you turn and forget her forever.
“Harvey’s!” you yell. Your shout echoes against the bombed-out buildings and is lost in the crowd of women and children.
You’re standing and moving before you are fully out of the fog. You’ve pulled the mask from your face. The broken elastic dangles. The fog left a sticky film on your skin, and you scrub at it with your free hand. The other people, staff and clientele, stare at you. Paled faces. The man with the tapping foot knocked over his chair when he stood to run at your shout.
You don’t remember shouting, but you did. The memory of it scratches at your throat. You gather your wits. Grounding. You apologize to the room. Everyone quietly goes back to their own resurrections. The bartender is standing now. He runs your tab. He doesn’t tell you he’s cut you off for the day, but he has, and you both know it.
You’re embarrassed but determined. As you shake out your money and a large tip, you ask, “Do you happen to know of a place called Harvey’s?”