(This short story appeared in Reed Magazine, Volume 60, 2007.)
There was a day called yesterday, but Honey Stein did not remember what she had done with it.
With reading glasses hanging on a slim, gold-link chain, she shuffled across her tiny Upper East Side apartment in satin slippers and an ivory robe, toward the only company she was keeping, the stories in the New York Post.
Had she gone out? Or stayed in? Oh, if only she weren’t alone with it all.
When she opened her door onto the hall she shared with three other apartments, a fearful feeling mounted, and her chest went into a spasm, as though the sight of that bit of square footage beyond her door were a glimpse into the unending blackness of the universe beyond the stars. Her body shook, and she felt dizzy. Was this it? Was she dying?
Wait. She leaned against the doorjamb and took a deep breath. Then another. She had learned how to stop it. She kept breathing slowly until it passed. But this was happening more often. Was it a sign of something? No, it was better not to look too closely, in case, like sunlight on a plant, attention might cause the disease to bloom. Her memory-minders would get her back on track.
Next to the calendar posted on her refrigerator, a red marking pen hung from a magnet. Honey drew a thick, diagonal line through the box for the previous day. She double checked, then triple checked, the Post’s front-page dateline against the calendar. “Friday, October fifteenth, nineteen ninety-five,” she said aloud. Her daughter’s name was jotted in the box for the day. With a whimper and a gasp, she uttered, “Isabel.”
Honey went right to the dining alcove, with its spray of silk daffodils (for there must be a permanent spot of yellow in every room), and sat down at her ebony heartwood table in front of a system of her own invention. From inside slot 15 of her expandable, accordion-style folder, numbered one to 31, she pulled out an oversized postcard, an invitation to Todd Gavin’s SoHo Art Gallery, Mercer Street, for an opening of works by Iz Stein.
Iz? When did she do that to her name? Honey huffed. What more ruin could she possibly bring upon herself? Despite the insult, nervous excitement fluttered in her chest. But of course she couldn’t go in her condition. The trip all the way down to SoHo was a major expedition. It was almost another country. She shuddered to think of herself in a part of town where the streets were not numbered.
A little tower of pale blue note cards rose nearly six inches above the table. Shortly after hearing the diagnosis, she had had them printed. They looked like daybook filler pages, with the times of day running down the left side in half-hour increments. After copying the date from the newspaper onto the top of the card, she filled in her activities for the day.
Honey remembered hearing, August…August something. She should have been shocked, but the horrific news had the curious effect of allaying her fears, mainly because it gave her a real illness to attach to the things that disturbed her. Then, too, “diagnosis by elimination” robbed the disease of the drama it deserved, in fact, sounded less than mundane, like the leftovers of yesterday’s salad.
Honey picked a card off the top and, laying it down, snapped one corner between her thumb and index finger. The crisp sound of something to do vied with her morning unease.
But she had not seen Isabel in . . . how many years? Honestly, she never understood why Isabel had stopped talking to her. Her own behavior had been beyond reproach. So, whatever Isabel thought it was, it didn’t justify the royal cold shoulder.
She recalled Isabel claiming that her therapist had advised her to “take a breather.” Now really. Even though she would’ve been the first to agree that Isabel needed help (she had never married and back then was still knocking about, her life marching on and not so merrily), it was beyond her why a professional would even suggest such a thing, egg on a grown woman to act like a teenager.
Weeks of silence had piled up into months, then years, until Honey was simply confused. Well, if Isabel wanted to live like a stranger in the same city, let her be stubborn and silly.
Meanwhile, Honey had lived alone in her bafflement, scaling back her world a little more with each passing year, often shut in for the slow rollover of humdrum hours. Today it was her memory-minder system that held her world together, its scheduling card that gave her day its structure. And now she looked back and forth from the blank card before her to the art show announcement.
No, she should not be at Isabel’s beck and call. Isabel should come to her. Since Isabel was the one who broke it off, it was up to her to take the first step. Isabel didn’t have to grovel. But a printed invitation? For God’s sake. She might have sent out a hundred of these.
Still, on the day the invitation had arrived, her hand had started up its trembling. She had wept, and her tears released the terror of the slow but irreversible descent that awaited her, that had already taken hold of her and so continually replenished the terror, which woke her in the night, bolt upright and screaming. Tears also brought unimaginable relief. Isabel was coming back. She barely allowed herself to think that she might not be left to face the future alone. Her brain flashed a picture. She would confide her diagnosis, here, in the apartment, a cozy tête-à-tête on the sofa, and tell her daughter the whole story.
She would start back in the spring when she had experienced an odd feeling, as though an abyss had opened up inside her that was swallowing her thoughts. If she had forgotten entirely what it was she meant to say, people were polite, but their faces betrayed concern. Sometimes only one word hung beyond reach. Then people were quick to fill in. But it was more than an ordinary lapse, because no matter how long and hard she searched, the word would never return. Other words would. For instance, cradling an armload of tulips, she could say, “the tall glass thing for holding flowers.” Certainly she recognized “vase” as soon as June, the florist, supplied it. And she could repeat it. But she knew that the word vase was no longer inside her. It was as though, as a child, she had failed to print her vocabulary words in indelible ink upon the slate of her brain, and now some invisible eraser was rubbing them out.
She would also tell Isabel about the time she showed up at the hairdresser’s. They might even laugh at it together. Even though Boyle’s client had gotten snippy, he’d turned off his hair dryer, taken her to an empty station, and, pointing with his brush at her image in the mirror, whispered, “See your new hairdo, Mrs. Stein? We did it just this morning.” And she had to admit her blond pageboy was a little shorter at the nape and a little swingier around the jawline.
Finally, she told Dr. Snyder these things. So then he made her get tested.
In the bare-walled room, just big enough for a table for two, her mind had wrestled with holding onto a single thought or image, when she was supposed to keep together three or five, until the owl of a woman, friendly enough but tightly absorbed in her flash cards and clipboard, pushed her perfectly round, tortoiseshell glasses to the top of her head like a headband, as though this was the simple secret to holding one’s brains intact. With coolly studied sympathy, she announced, “slow in processing with moderately impaired short-term memory.”
The worst part was: Honey had no one to tell.
It was important not to come across desperate to Isabel, though desperate was what she felt while waiting for Dr. Snyder’s diagnosis through the end of July, a month punctuated by fits of choking. Once, with the toes of her white patent leather slingbacks on the edge of the curb, she had gotten stuck at her own corner, Lexington and 74th, because crossing the street suddenly seemed impossible. Streams of people, with bruising tote bags and briefcases, threatened to knock her over, barely parted around her, and finally left her standing, a tiny island in fear of oblivion. Her throat tightened against the urge to scream. In-rushing air slammed blunt up against the panic.
What if she were to forget who she was?
The question paralyzed her, as though it were posed in the form of a thousand lights, blinking at her from a gigantic billboard. And although she wanted to dismiss it and cross the street (she was going for the cold borscht at Saul’s), a vague disturbance, not associated with the disease but one that had always lived within her, congealed into a chilling shape. No, she need not think such a thing. But somehow, the decision not to think things was slipping, and one particular thought surfaced.
In all her 67 years, she never had known who she was.
The dread had continued to rumble and threaten, and now, as she toyed with how she might break the news to Isabel, she could feel it rising from the deep, and it scared her. Her throat constricted, and her heart beat too rapidly. She rose and paced her apartment, feeling like she needed to get out of her skin, immediately. Through kitchenette, living room, bedroom, and back, twice. She told herself she was not dying and then that she was, so around the apartment again, three times, four. Then, on the fifth pass, at the table, she stopped, put her sweaty hands on the back of the chair, and breathed deeply until she was sure the panic was subsiding.
But of course she would go.
So what if her daughter was the one at fault. Isabel was still hers, no matter how long it had been since her only child had cut things off, nor whatever she now chose to call herself.
Honey sat down. She used a napkin to blot her palms. In the 2:00 p.m. slot, she wrote in capital letters: ISABEL’S ART SHOW. There. It was settled. And who knew? Maybe Isabel would actually make up to her before . . . before . . .
She filled in the rest of the card and fixed it with a red enamel, heart-shaped magnet onto the refrigerator door. If she forgot the card when she went out, the front door would remind her. On it, a pushpin fixed a note in bold letters, which read: “DO YOU HAVE YOUR SCHEDULE?”
Honey set about making her breakfast. While waiting for the toaster to pop, she wondered. A reunion. With a daughter, against all better judgment, apparently an artist of sorts. Whatever do you wear?
Maybe the brown cashmere skirt with the slightly daring side slit.
Now, she wouldn’t tell Isabel right off. She’d wait until after the big to-do. But soon, she hoped. Because a daughter does have a duty. And, after all, it was Isabel who had broken the ice. Plus, as a mother, it was her inalienable right, wasn’t it? Even though lately it had been feeling as though years of unforgivable fate meant to rob her of it.
Honey took a sip of tea from her favorite cup, printed in white script on a periwinkle background with the phrase, “Every cloud has a silver lining.” And sighed her way to some assurance.
Now SoHo. That was a look. A kind of anything goes, she instinctively knew without ever having been there. A tunic and boots? Yes. She could throw it together before noon.
Provided that things held up.