Summer 2007 Volume One Issue
Remembering Sara - Mari Ness
For her 40th birthday, I bought her a memory. The sweet kind, the kind that included a perfect, slightly wistful date with a romantic dark-haired man who had offered her a single pink rose, and asked her to nibble tiramisu from the same spoon. I added a ride in a horse-drawn carriage -- it seemed romantic and didn't cost much extra -- and one long kiss that almost seemed as if it were going too far, but then didn't. A sex memory cost considerably more: a good sex memory was extremely pricey, and I was damned if I was going to spend that much on her.
"You don't get me," she said, after the memory was implanted. "You never did."
I was a bit hurt. "Because I wasn't as good as that date?"
"Because I now remember perfection." She let her hands drift over the perfect, glimmering countertop in the kitchen. "And I never, ever wanted perfection." Her eyes looked up at me, glimmering with small perfect tears. "You don't get me," she repeated.
"The rose was overkill, I guess."
"You don't get me," she said for the third time.
I guess I didn't.
We'd gotten married some time ago -- five, six years? It was difficult to remember now, and the memory plants that I'd added two years ago didn't help matters any. She kept accusing me of not remembering our wedding, and I guess she was right. I never did remember things well, before or after memory plants. So I bought a new wedding memory for both of us. It would have worked, I guessed, except that we forgot to corroborate all the details with our guests, so that when we'd run into a wedding guest, they'd talk about something that we couldn't remember, and vice versa. It happens a lot even without plants, I'm told, but just knowing you have the plants makes you uncomfortable.
"I wish I remembered our real wedding."
"What we remember is real," I told her. "It's not unreal just because it's a plant."
"That's the very definition of unreality."
Only it wasn't. Plants had helped people remember and do all kinds of things. When I'd wanted to try being a chemist, for instance, I'd gotten a plant for several chemistry classes, and I had it -- the memory of the classes and how to do everything we'd learned in them, even the memories of cutting classes from time to time and not studying as much as I should have. (Unflawed, studious memories cost extra, and I didn't have the extra.) As it turned out, I was a lousy chemist, but what did that matter? I had the memories.
"Because if you'd really wanted to be a chemist and had any interest at it you would have gotten the memories on your own. For real," said Sara.
"And wasted all that time?"
"What else did you do in college?"
That was it: I wasn't sure. Depending on the memory, I had attended either Syracuse, or UCLA, Ferrum College, or the University of Minnesota; I had played basketball (unlikely, when I thought about it; I was about 5 foot 6 inches, and no plant could change the fact that no college team would have picked me); swum varsity; been part of several fraternities; ignored all fraternities and spent time alone in my room composing terrible dark poetry in the hopes of getting my then girlfriend to come back; played in a rock band; cut classes; attended every class; spent a lot of time at movies that I had difficulty remembering.
"In fact," said Sara. "You really don't remember who you are."
But I did. I remembered damn well. I was a traveler, and a bad poet, and a worse singer, and a heavy drinker, and a computer technician when computers still needed technicians, before they learned how to fix themselves. I loved movies, the old ones and the 3-D ones and the new total immersion ones. I'd adjusted easily to losing my job when the computers no longer needed me -
"No you didn't," said Sara.
"Yes I did."
"You didn't," said Sara. "On our first date, you told me about how lost you had become and how you'd finally started purchasing a couple of memories to gain new skills and be able to find something."
"No I didn't."
"You did," said Sara. "I remember."
"Then you purchased that memory."
She shook her head. "No," she said firmly. "I don't just remember it." She sighed a little. "We met in cyberspace, remember? I don't just remember our first date. I logged it." She headed over to her computer screen and touched a few things on it; it had the feel of a staged moment. "Here. The log. You can read it all. Everything I said and everything you said."
"That's almost romantic. Or creepy."
I shook my head. "I'd rather stick with my memories," I said, firmly, and walked out of the room.
It was less difficult to remember when things had gone wrong -- exactly one year ago. Sara had thought she was pregnant, and found out she wasn't. I came home to find her staring at a blank wall, drinking.
"I thought that wasn't good for the baby," I said.
"There's no baby," she told me, still watching the wall.
"God," I said, rushing up to her. "Sara. Sara. Are --"
"There never was a baby," she said.
I put my hand on her shoulder. She flinched away.
"Not a single trace of hormones. Not a single wisp of a baby. Absolutely nothing. Just my memory of you and me looking at a positive pregnancy test."
I could have said something here, but what do you say at this point? I waited.
"Did you give me that memory?" she asked.
"Shit, Sara. Do you think I'd do something like that?"
"Yes," she said, thoughtfully. "Yes. If you thought I wanted a baby enough, you would. You'd give me the memory just so I'd have something. Especially if you found out I couldn't have a baby and you wanted to spare me the pain."
"The doctors told me it's not uncommon for infertile couples to try that sort of thing, although it always makes matters worse in the end."
"I didn't fucking do it, ok?"
"I didn't say you did," she said. "I just asked." She paused. "Of course, if you'd been really clever, you would have asked that they remove your memory of asking them to change mine."
"Ok. Now you're sounding paranoid."
"Maybe," she agreed. "Maybe not."
We didn't speak for a week after that. I was furious. I'd never given her a single memory without her permission, and that she'd think, even for a moment, that I'd torture her with a memory like that -- I didn't even think they had plants like that. Plants were just for good and useful things, right? Memories of dates and travel and school and -
"Dude," said Rick, when I was talking to him about it. "You've got it all wrong. Sure, the plants market that sort of memory. But the real business -- the money making business -- is in changing the past. In giving you whatever you always wanted but never had. God, if you'd really been smart, you would have gone all the way -- let Sara remember the pregnancy and giving birth and all of it."
"I didn't fucking do it," I repeated. Rick looked skeptical. "And anyway, what the hell would I have done once Sara realized that we didn't have the child around?"
Rick shrugged. "Kid gets sent to grandparents, to boarding school -- spends a lot of time with friends, you name it. You'd be surprised how easy it is to fix that up -- gets expensive, of course, because if she's any kind of mother at all, she'll need daily updates. Unless you can convince her that a memory of giving the kid up for adoption is real, but most women won't, unless the memory is real young -- I mean, set when they're young or something."
"But I hadn't even met Sara then -" and then I paused. Who knows? Maybe I had. "Maybe," I said, taking a long sip of beer, "maybe Sara and I actually met when we were much much younger, and she gave birth to our child but gave him up so she could go to college, and that's why we clicked so well together when we met -- it would be an incredibly customized memory and would cost a fortune, but I bet I could get some of it from my parents if I told them that Sara's sanity depended on it."
"Don't even go there," advised Rick. "Next thing you know, you'll be in constant debt trying to keep up the memories. It ain't worth the pain. I'll tell you the memory you should get, which will take you mind off things for a bit, just as you're reliving the memory, you know. And you can get it from this guy I know who sells it at a discount."
Rick was right in a sense. The plant was for an orgy, a good one, two guys, two girls. As far as I knew it was my first sex plant, and I told the guy so. He grinned.
"Everybody's got to do it at least once," he said. "'Course, it's not the real thing, but these days, with AIDS and all, who can do the real thing anyway? At least this way you've got the memory."
I hung on to the memory for awhile, thinking about it, while Sara's haunted eyes tortured me.
Believe it or not, I hadn't bought a memory since, not until this birthday, for either one of us. I had my own confusing memories to deal with, and I couldn't have dragged Sara to the planters if I'd tried. I had a suspicion that she had a gun someplace around the house -- that was a memory I couldn't see myself purchasing -- and I had no doubt that if she did have a gun, and it was in the house, she would use it on me. Sara could be like that.
I could have searched the house, of course, but it wasn't a memory I wanted to verify, and in any case, I felt sure that Sara kept the gun on her.
During the day, we separated, Sara to a job which involved, as I remembered, something to do with the graphic arts, me to my job which involved watching a beach, or more specifically the people on it. That was another reason why I hadn't bought any more memories; since the computer technician job had ended (and when had that been, and how?) I hadn't really had any money. I had come close to buying a memory of being rich, but had been advised against it by the planters. Memories of wealth, they said, were best given only to the old and near dying. The middle-aged and not near dying --
"I'm young," I said. "And I could die at any time."
They shook their heads. "You only remember that you're young," they corrected. "It's a common misapprehension. Don't worry about it." They went on to explain. The near-dying would not have time to change their spending habits and wipe out their income and credit, but memories of wealth consistently damaged the lives of the poor and the middle class and the middle age. "You remember that you were wealthy once, so you spend money as if you're still wealthy. It means creditor harassment and jail and more creditor harassment and eventually even we won't help you, because you won't have enough money to pay us to plant new memories."
I'd made money as a computer technician, not a lot, but some, and I'd saved up a bit. When I'd met Sara, she'd had some money saved away too, so it didn't seem to matter much if I spent my days on the beach, lost in my memories and my memory plants, watching others drift through their memories, even if the pay was terrible.
"It must be even more terrible to watch people just drifting away in memory plants," said Sara.
"They seem happy enough," I told her. "And it's not just that, either. A lot of times people swim and build sandcastles and play volleyball or whatever. Almost as if they actually want to make memories of their own, crazy as that is when plants can be so much better."
Sara hadn't answered that comment. Come to think of it, maybe the problems had started more than a year back. Not that I could really remember.
During the day, as I said, we separated. In the evenings, we returned to home, quietly, meeting in our shared space before heading to our vid screens -- she had hers and I had mine, and we also had one that we'd shared once, but now hadn't been turned on for over a year. Pity: it was a huge plasma screen, top of the line. We'd bought it together, I remember. Or I think I remember.
I tried to talk to Sara about things when we encountered each other in our shared space: the news of the day, or politics, or the latest information about the transformed Vitamin E supplements that supposedly let you live another 50 years, at least, collecting more memories along the way. She rarely answered. I tried a different tack, finding out what might be going on her life, trying to ask questions about her life. Problem was, I had difficulty remembering what Sara did, at times. I knew it involved art, and I knew it was somehow more meaningful than what I did. Although what I did could save lives.
"Have you ever had to save a life?"
"No," I admitted. Our beach was pretty quiet, and pretty much everybody followed the rules. We'd never had any real incidents. Not even a shark.
She didn't say anything else, but at least she'd asked a question. I took that as a good sign. But over the next few weeks we passed each other silently. I thought about buying a plant to cover up the silences, to pretend that we'd done some talking during this period, to pretend that she still loved me. But then, I reasoned, I'd be even more bewildered by the silence afterwards. At least this way, I remembered that she wasn't talking to me.
I just wished I knew why.
I can't now remember why Sara agreed to marry me -- it's not in my own memories or the memory plants. All I remember is that we were dating, and then we were married. It seemed natural like that. The dating had been very very good --
"You never really did take me to Paris. We bought that plant, remember?"
But we'd agreed that we both wanted the memory of Paris, of a perfect five days in Paris unhindered by plane problems or hotel plumbing or any of those sorts of things. The planters had advised us to throw in a few flaws, to romanticize things, and also give us something to talk of later with ourselves and friends -- "Remember that awful waiter we had? Just terrible. He poured wine into Sarah's lap -"
Because as always, sex cost extra, we remembered sleeping in Paris, and then having wild and marvelous sex afterwards from the memory of it.
Friends approved, of our dating and marriage and the planted memories of Paris. "You two are so perfect for each other," they crooned. "And Sara, he's got art class plants just for you, so he can talk to you about your art! It's so romantic!" Everyone agreed that the real Paris wasn't much, really, just a very expensive place where people sat around and complained about prices and looked at art that looked better on a home viewscreen anyway.
"When we've got the money, we'll go to Paris for real," Sara said.
"Or purchase even longer memories."
"Well, spending that money on a real trip to Paris would count as purchasing a memory anyway."
"But with jet-lag!" I protested.
Yeah, I don't know why she married me. But that conversation -- I remember it. It was a joke. A total joke. On my part. Of course I knew that real memories of Paris would be better, more real. But the way I looked at it, if you couldn't have Paris, why deprive yourself of its memory?
I didn't want Sara's 40th birthday to end with a bad memory of a memory plant. I got on the screen and vid people to come on over, live if they could. Six people showed up, and one more by screen. Two of them had just had plants of exotic travels to Mali and the Ivory Coast done, which gave us lots to talk about, and another one who had just learned that the Guggenheim would be displaying one of his sculptures. The travelers were particularly excited. "You have no idea how fabulous Timbuktu really is!" one said, glowing, the rings on her hands flashing lights everywhere. I blinked. "Of course, I wouldn't really go there, what with all the dangers and disease and so on -- you know, people have actually been robbed and murdered there? But the memory -- oh, it was so wonderful." She sighed and flashed more lights at us. "Of course, it did mean that I missed the real shopping bargains, but Pier One Imports had a very good sale, and once I'd seen the real things in Timbuktu, I knew just what to buy."
"And of course, after the price of paying for the Mali plants, we needed a sale," said her girlfriend, giggling. "Plus Pier One had all of those wonderful little candles."
"So," said another friend, trying to move the conversation away from shopping. "Guggenheim, huh? Major honor. Of course, the real question is -" and he stopped to look around the table for emphasis, "did you really get your sculpture in the Guggenheim or did you just buy the memory that says you did?" Polite laughter around the table.
"If I could afford that memory, I'd have an honest job," quipped back the artist. More polite laughter.
"The costs of most plants these days are just outrageous," said the Mali traveler. "You would not believe the price I was quoted for a plant of a sculpture class. Unbelievable. And all this without even knowing if the class would do me any good. I mean, how do we know if I have talent or not?"
"We know," said someone else.
"Judging by your tongue, you've got plenty of talents," said the girlfriend, with a smirk.
An immediate chorus of voices leapt in to keep that conversation from going where it was clearly going. It took awhile for one voice to spring out.
"They actually wanted to charge me the equivalent of my mortgage for the memory of a love affair in Rome," complained someone else. "Can you believe it? I explained that I needed the memory to write my novel -- you can't write things until you've lived them you know -- and that I'd never had the money to live things. They told me that they'd had to raise thecost of emotional memories like that. I mean, really. I was only asking for the memory of a brief affair -- one of those totally sexual things that you get with hot Italian men." She spread out her arms. "So here I am, computer in front of me, ready to write -- and nothing to write about, really."
"Maybe you can get another love affair memory," suggested someone. "Not set in Rome -- it'll be cheaper that way. I know someone who got a great fling in North Carolina -- he said it was tremendously life transforming and totally changed his attitudes towards women. Of course he dumped his girlfriend three days later, but maybe that was what he meant."
"But seriously," said Sara, outstretching her arms. "What will it mean if art just becomes something that we buy through memory?"
We all turned and looked at her.
"We buy art now," said the Guggenheim artist. "It's how I buy memories, when I can, rare though those occasions are."
"But if you bought a memory of displaying your art at the Guggenheim --"
The Guggenheim artist started to look a little insulted; it wasn't the first time, after all, that we'd suggested that maybe his triumph wasn't real. "I didn't," he growled. "The sculpture's really going to be there. Go check your screens if you don't believe me."
"But if you did," continued Sara. "Let's just say that you did. Then what incentive would you have to actually try to put something in the Guggenheim? What incentive does the Guggenheim have for displaying new things?"
"Does the Guggenheim need an incentive?" protested someone.
"If you remember doing it," said someone else, "then you remember how to get your sculpture in the Guggenheim. And then you know how and the self-confidence to get your sculpture in, because, after all, you've already done it. Or at least you think you have. So you know what e-mails to write and people to call and your sculpture's there."
"If the Guggenheim even wants it," objected the Mali traveler.
"Time for dessert," I announced, eager to end this conversation.
"And in any case," said the Mali traveler. "'You all just have to purchase memories of Mali the very first chance you get. It's the best thing I've ever done."
"How about it, Sara?" I asked, trying to interject a teasing note in my voice.
"Absolutely," agreed many people around the table. "What a fabulous birthday present."
Sara smiled. "Maybe," she said.
I headed into the kitchen to find the cake. Laughter burst out behind me. It was going well, I thought. Quite well. I placed candles on the cake, lit them, and brought the cake out.
"So, triumphs all around then," said the girlfriend. "Our memories, the Guggenheim thing, which I guess most of us will be purchasing memories of --"
"It's not that expensive to get to New York," protested the Guggenheim artist.
"And Julie having a baby, a real one, not a memory plant," she added.
I placed the cake down in front of Sara. The candles flickered. She looked at me, and then at the people around the table, bent down, and blew out the candles. Four candles, one for each decade.
"Happy Birthday!" chorused everyone.
"Lots to celebrate," said the Mali traveler.
"Absolutely," giggled the girlfriend.
"You've left out one of the major things," said Sara, smiling as she picked up a knife from the table.
"What?" chorused everyone.
"Eric and I," said Sara, smiling as she sliced the rich chocolate cake, "are getting a divorce."
Silence around the table. Our friends looked at each other uncertainly. Sara cut the cake and began handing out slices; everyone took a slice, and looked at the cake dubiously, wondering, undoubtedly, if eating cake right now was the polite thing to do.
"We are?" I asked, after the silence had stretched out too long.
"Yes," she said, still smiling. "See, I just remembered."
I went to the planters shortly afterwards. They looked dubious when I walked in.
"Sir, we don't mean to offend --"
"I know, I know," I told them. "You can cut off my credit for all plants after this, I swear. And attach my wages and everything. I won't protest. I just need one more memory. Just one."
"It's a 30 minute memory, tops. No sex, no knowledge. Customized, though. I know that's extra. That's ok."
"I just want -- need -- this one last plant," and to my horror, I realized my eyes were watering, no crying, and that I was bawling out in front of these guys, these complete strangers. "I want to remember, to know, to remember --" I could hardly remember which word I should be using. "I want to remember coming in here and paying you guys to give me memory plants of my wife. Of Sara. Of having a wife. I want to remember paying for that."
They looked at each other, and looked at me.
"I'll get the cash for it if I have to," I said. "It's very simple. I need this."
It wasn't that simple, of course. It never is, with the planters. They want to talk to you and find out if this memory will cause psychological damage or if it will hurt a real person or cause credit problems -- "Many people wish to forget a spouse in the mistaken belief that forgetting a spouse means that they are no longer responsible for that spouse's death," I was told. It's why the vacation plants are so much easier to deal with. They never harm anyone and they're rapidly approved. I told them Sara had no debts. They may have called her; I don't know. I don't remember them calling her, but, memory plants can mess up your real memories sometime.
I got called in to speak to a therapist. "You will in this method be actively remembering that your wife, Sara Mitchell, never really existed, and that you created a memory of a wife and created memories for five years out of loneliness and desperation."
"I lost my job and ended up sitting on a freaking beach pretending to watch kids before they drowned," I agreed. "Of course I wanted something different. So I decided to buy memories of a wife. I agree to this."
"Of course," she said, taking notes. "Of course. And you are agreeing to override any previous legal statements made by you concerning any previous memory plants regarding Sara Mitchell."
"Of course," I agreed.
"There will be a contract."
"You should contact an attorney."
"I already have one," I said. "From the divorce."
"Oh," she said, and tapped a few things on her screen.
One of the local art galleries has a woman that resembles my false wife, Sara, a little. Not entirely: this woman is considerably heavier, and older than the Sara I remember. She's more focused on her work, less social. When I walk by she rarely looks up. Sometimes I fantasize that she is Sara, that the wife I created was real, that this woman in the gallery is her, and that she remembers me, is avoiding my gaze because she does not want to remember. I look through my home searching for divorce papers, looking to see if she was real, looking for her possessions. I have found things here and there left by women, but nothing that seems specific to Sara for me. Some things I remember associating with other women. The sweater, for example.Surely the sweater was left by the woman who had not really visited Mali. She had said something about picking it up in a local mall. But then that would mean that the woman who had not really visited Mali had come to my house, had celebrated Sara's birthday
Only Sara wasn't really real. I had created her, and told myself that she was real, and then uncreated her, and told myself that she was not real.
I had slept with the woman who had not really visited Mali. At least, I was pretty sure I had. That's why she had left her sweater there; she'd had to leave in a hurry.
Yes. That memory is clearer now.
The woman at the gallery does not look at me as I pass, does not appear to remember me or avoid me or think of me much. I wonder, sometimes, if she remembers or does not remember her own spouse, if she has chosen to create a memory of a love affair to draw attention away from her own failures, if she has children, or not, if the art she creates is drawn from the memories of her loves.
If she looked at me, I might ask. Or not.
I'm not sure it's a conversation I want to remember.