[Image: “Heavenbound II, by Patsy McArthur]
There’s something about swimming that makes her feel both big and small. She dives headfirst into the water, giving herself to it, and revels in the certainty of her body’s movement as she glides from one side of the pool to the other. Afterward, she lies on her back and smells chlorine and dirt, water drying on warm asphalt. She watches the clouds and sees pictures in their shapes, but every week it’s the same thing: as soon as she thinks she sees something, the clouds stretch left or right, up or down, north or south or east or west, and whatever image she saw is gone. This always upsets her—that even the clouds won’t stay still—and she doesn’t know why she bothers looking at all.
She can’t imagine being able to do anything when her mother dies. The total, crippling weight of that loss. Her day-to-day is heavy enough, and she feels that any and all life will be crushed out of her, an old pillow losing the little fluff that remains, when the cancer becomes terminal. She tells this to her therapist, Dr. Park.
“Your mother is still alive,” he says. “When you’re with her, you must force yourself to remain present.” Presence—his ultimate ideal, the everything solution. Hannah tries to be present, but it’s become impossible to be around her mother. Every time they’re together, she finds herself funeral-planning in her head. If her mother sings a song on the radio, she pauses and makes a mental note to add it to the funeral playlist. She’s started taking pictures when they’re together, a lot of pictures, but cannot say for sure whether she means for them to be keepsakes, or for the service slideshow. “If you choose to remain present,” Dr. Park continues, “memory can serve as an unflinching comfort for the rest of your life.”
She wishes she could believe this. She wants to say: “Memory is not a comfort for me. It is never enough. I walk with my eyes open and pay attention to things. You speak as if I have a time machine at my disposal, but this is not how my memory works. My memory is fragmented, rewritten, filtered, vague. A locked door in my hippocampus that I’m tirelessly knocking on. My memory is longing.”
But she’s told him this before, and his response indicated that she was being unproductive in her thinking. She nods and says, “I know.”
September twenty-fourth means it’s been two years in Seattle. She’s waited for the feeling to subside, but her identity still feels disproportionately split by the move. It’s not so much that she misses Tacoma. She misses her mother, yes, and her high school friends, sort of—but what bothers her is how little the eighteen years in her hometown seem to inform the life she has now. She tries not to think about it.
It’s a sleepy gray evening, and Owen suggests that they do dinner at the house. He’s stopped calling it “his place,” and started calling it “the house,” because she is moving in next month. The move feels a little sudden, but she’s ready. She’s a mature twenty, and this move will make her a real, full-fledged adult. She watches Owen cook while wind weaves through the evergreens outside, as rain patters against the kitchen window. Staring toward the window, she sees a tree branch swaying in rhythm with the record that’s playing in the living room. Past the trees, she sees the grayed outline of Seattle. She thinks of her mother, alone at home, and of how far away she is from her. She thinks of her mother’s life in Tacoma: the only one she’s known, one of effort and work and bills and bad lovers. And she thinks of the time she asked her if she could go anywhere in the world where she would want to go. “Maine,” her mother said, but she didn’t know why, couldn’t explain her reasoning at all when Hannah asked.
Owen turns the music down and tells her that dinner is ready.
The drive to Tacoma is just short enough to make her feel that she should visit on the weekends. Her mother’s house is a tiny, blue first-story apartment, and Hannah uses her key to enter the front door. Inside, her mother is scrolling through Facebook at the kitchen table, a cigarette in her free hand.
“You shouldn’t be smoking,” Hannah tells her. She always says this, and it always feels futile. Cigarettes feel like a part of her mother, a sixth finger. She’ll never quit.
Her mother says, “I know,” but takes another drag and blows smoke toward the cracked kitchen window. The two of them sit, and an hour of small talk passes. Linda—should she know this name? Has her mother mentioned Linda enough that the basic details of her life should be committed to memory?—has apparently moved to Texas. The news means nothing to Hannah, and she feels guilty for this.
It’s been this way since she moved from home: the closer she gets to building her own life, the further she feels from her mother’s. She observes her mother’s face, which looks older than the last time she saw her. Her cough, too, sounds deeper, but it’s impossible to tell whether this is actually true. They eat lunch in silence, and though the visit as a whole feels sourly underwhelming, Hannah takes a photograph before her mother retires for a nap.
Later that day she’s with Owen at Medina Park, lolling around a man-made lake at dusk, the sky’s soft, amber glow reflected against the water. There are ducks—nestling together, swimming in lines—and she watches Owen watching the ducks. The yellow in the corner of his blue eyes intensifies as he stands motionless, the ducks and the lake and the sunset settling into him, a cessation of all other things; a beautiful, simple, passing moment. Watching him makes her cry. Silently, to herself. The chance scenic perfection, Owen’s immersion in it—she is struck with a cumbersome happiness so much like sadness that she doesn’t know what to make of it.
Her living-room-turned-bedroom feels like a sort of safe haven. She looks around at the tapestries hanging as walls, potted plants silhouetted in the windowsill, the spiderwebs drooping from the corners of the ceiling. The tapestries are always falling down, and she never minds needing to tack them back up, likes watching them sway with the wind from her unit-cooler. When she first moved here, she thought she would hate the space. Not having a door, feeling self-conscious that her roommates would see her changing through the cracks of her makeshift walls. Now the room feels like a part of her, and she’s afraid of leaving it. There’s a romance to this room, an eager-electric-energy, a television-college-house sort of atmosphere that lends a feeling of safety and security and time. It feels like home. She stares at the various pintacked tapestries wishing to remember the room so well that, at any given time, she can will a replicated mental image.
She tells herself that she’s being dramatic. This is just a room. Owen’s room—their room—has cool, baby-blue walls, light hardwood floors, a view of Georgetown. She will adapt and find new things to love. But what if the heaviness that she feels when she thinks about her mother, or when Owen’s making dinner, or when they’re at the park staring at ducks, gets worse and worse and worse, and she spirals further and further and further, and somehow ruins things? She hasn’t talked about this heaviness with Owen, doesn’t think she can. It happens too often when they’re together, more and more as the move inches closer. She tries to imagine the conversation:
“I feel a desperate, crushing weight—and often.”
“Your depression, yes.”
“Different. More frequent and fleeting.”
“Oftentimes during the better parts of my day, more still when we’re together. Your sweetness actually seems to trigger it, sometimes.”
She has that dream again. The Maine shoreline, a soft breeze, the sky exploding with warm color. Her mother is on the sand by the water, and she watches her picking up shells, studying them, massaging them between her fingers before placing them back on the sand. Waves bob. Her mother is wearing a floral dress, and her long, gray hair is down, swaying as she walks. There is no one else on the beach. Her mother calls her over to the shore, and when Hannah gets there, is gone. Alone, she stands for some time with warm water up to her ankles. She thinks: Yes, good. She thinks: Thank God. That was a nice thing to see; I’m glad Mom left with that. The beach is dark now, and she stares ahead at the water. She wakes at two a.m., unable to go back to sleep.
Game night at Max and Caroline’s. A weekly tradition that’s become more bi-weekly than weekly. She follows Owen toward the tall, white patio gate that guests need to be buzzed into. Max and Caroline always play this off by poking fun at the gate’s extravagance, ironically calling their house “The Castle.” The two of them are a year above her in school, and they introduced her to Owen, to her roommates, to the manager who got her hired at Palermo’s. These are people she can count on, her best friends. She has settled into a life. It’s not that she doubts this life; or if she does doubt this life, it’s not that she wants to veer away from it. It’s that she got here so quickly, before she noticed that she was heading anywhere at all. Walking up the steps to the gate, she feels like she is watching herself from the outside, living in a movie that she forgot she’s a part of. The gate buzzes opens, and Hannah is greeted with two hugs. The couples gather into a semi-circle in the den, and Caroline offers her a drink.
“A daiquiri? Sidecar? Mojito?”
She’s never cared for cocktails, and despite the fact that Caroline makes them every time she’s over, never remembers the names of what she’s been served in the past.
“A mojito sounds great.”
“A double?” Caroline winks as she asks this.
Max is always concerned about whether everyone is drinking enough, and he has a rule that games don’t start until everyone is on their second drink. Tonight they’re playing Cards Against Humanity, and though she’s tired from a night of bad sleep, being able to participate in games feels like a necessary counter to the lowness that she’s been feeling. The group falls into a conversation about various HBO shows, and watching all of their eyebrow raising, the hurried gesticulation, the smiles and nods and high-pitched voices, Hannah fights the thought that they watch these shows so they can participate in conversations like this one. When she finishes her first drink, Caroline grabs and refills her glass. Hannah gulps the second mojito quickly, and right as they are about to begin the game, feels suddenly sick. “Excuse me,” she says.
In the bathroom, she stares for some time in the mirror. She isn’t drunk, at least not terribly so, but she does feel ill. Her face is very red. She splashes cold water on herself, smearing her makeup, and then sits for a moment on the toilet, hoping to calm down. Eventually, Owen knocks.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
“I think I drank too much,” Hannah says.
Owen tries opening the locked door.
“I’ll be right out,” she says. “But I think it’s best if I Uber home.”
After an hour of tossing and turning in bed, she opens her laptop and goes to the Southwest Airlines website. She fills in the travel information on top of the page. Depart: Seattle, WA. Arrive: Portland, ME. Adults: two. She fiddles with the departure dates until she finds the cheapest option. She clicks: “purchase.”
She skips class and speeds from the I-5 to the 705 before exiting on Bellevue. When she arrives at the house, she finds her mother curled up in blankets, reading a Stephen King novel on the couch.
“Two visits in one week,” her mother says. “I’m getting spoiled.”
She tries to laugh. “I guess you are.”
After getting up and moving to the kitchen, her mother opens the freezer to get ice for two drinks. Hannah tells her not to always play hostess; that she isn’t only coming by for a sandwich or glass of tea. Her mother waves her off. She wouldn’t serve Hannah if she didn’t want to.
“Mom,” Hannah says, walking toward her mother and pulling the confirmation email up on her phone. “I bought us something—tickets to Maine this spring. Portland, Maine. March thirteenth through the twenty-seventh.”
There’s a short silence.
“Oh,” her mother says, loosening ice out of the ice cube tray. “That’s sweet of you, but I can’t.”
“I already bought the tickets,” she says. “I’ve been looking at hotels, and—”
“I’m sure there’s some sort of refund policy.”
Her bottom lip slides over her front lip in disappointment. “Maine,” Hannah says, like her mother didn’t hear her the first time. “You’ve always wanted to go to Maine.”
“Can you imagine me getting on an airplane? Skipping doctor’s appointments for a vacation?” Her mother pours two glasses of tea and moves to the kitchen table. “It isn’t feasible.”
The two of them sit, and Hannah pinches the underside of her thigh so hard that she’s sure it will leave a mark. Her mother lights a cigarette.
“I’ll try to refund the tickets,” Hannah finally says.
“It was a sweet thought, but I don’t need to do any more traveling. I’ve seen plenty enough.”
Hannah’s heard this all before—about the trip to Montana for a high school friend’s funeral, the weekend trips to Portland with her ex-boyfriend, AJ, the week spent at her cousin’s vacation home in Arlington, New Jersey. An amount of travel, she always thinks, fit more for a year than a lifetime.
“Why Maine?” Hannah asks suddenly. “I’ve asked before, and you said you didn’t know.”
Her mother smiles. “I still don’t know, actually. I think I read about it once, in a King novel. Yes, that’s it. I read about it, and he described it all so beautifully that I thought, I want to go there.”
“I don’t want to push,” Hannah says. “But we can go there.”
Her mother lifts herself from the table and walks her empty glass to the sink. “Get your refund,” she yells over the faucet. “Or take Owen to Maine. But stop worrying about me.”
It’s dark when she gets back to the house, the whole day gone. She’s relieved to remember that her roommates are out of town, and after putting on her pajama pants, steps outside for a cigarette. She does this sometimes—caves and smokes—but only one cigarette a night, at the end of the day. She assumes she’ll stop when she moves next month, but maybe she won’t.
Dirty silver moonlight is falling against the pool; a small family of raccoons scurry in the bushes near the fence. For a second she feels like she’s in on a tiny cosmic secret, smoking and watching the moon and the raccoons, the only person awake in this enclosed space. She thinks about her mother and Owen, the bedroom that she’ll be leaving soon, ducks and clouds and days spent in places she’s left, with people she no longer knows. She thinks of a distant Maine that her mother will never see. She thinks: life is loss. This thought is both disturbing and comforting, and she doesn’t know what to make of the feeling it brings. A part of her feels like she should respond to Owen, at least to let him know what she did with her day. But she doesn’t. Nothing is getting solved tonight, everything can wait until morning. The rain has stopped, and though the air is cool and moist, she decides to swim. She takes off her clothes and walks into the water.
After three laps, she pauses to catch her breath. Standing in the moonlight, she inspects the lines on her palms, the tiny hairs on the back of her fingers, the nails that could use a clipping. She knows so little about this body, and when she tries to imagine it twenty, thirty years from now, she cannot. She wonders: will I look like my mother does? And she wonders: when will my knees weaken? She thrusts herself back into the water and swims as if she’s racing a marathon, plunges forward like she’s chasing a distant, vital sense of being. Will this body suffer from cancer? Will she ache, tumor pressing on nerves and bone? She swims back and forth in the dark water, kicking her legs and tossing one arm in front of the other.
Josh Olivier is a fiction writer and active touring musician in his band, No Better. When he isn’t losing money for these pursuits, he can be found working sales and spending entirely too much time contemplating the nature of memory. He really is trying his best. *A previous version of this story appeared in the DIY journal, Tilde Literary Journal.