“The Memory Box” by Sabina Kariat
This is the full version of “The Memory Box” by Sabina Kariat ’18, published in an excerpted version in Fall 2016 issue!
After their fiftieth anniversary, it is the custom for couples with such longevity to move into their very own memory-box.
They did, with the help of their daughter and in-law. Sweaty handprints on cardboard boxes, the labored pilgrimage of a couch up the front steps and packing up of a lifetime of possessions: knick-knacks, dolls, colorful printed silks, and decaying photographs. It seemed strange, that a lifetime could amount to so little.
After saris were folded in the drawers, spices were stocked in the pantry, and a shrine was displayed in the hallway closet, the exhausted daughter pushed the curly hair out of her face and climbed into the turquoise Honda. “Good luck,” she called through the window, “Call me if you have any problems.” Alone again, the old woman walked to the front door of the memory-box, knowing what was necessary to begin the final stage of their lives. She brushed an overgrown ivy plant off the wooden doorframe to reveal, in place of a doorbell, the switch controlling their memory-box. She removed her necklace, a thin gold chain hung with multiple pendants and spare safety pins. She had been wearing it since it was given to her on the day of her child-marriage. After wrapping the necklace tightly around the switch, her soft wrinkled finger pressed it to the on-position, and it glowed gently blue.
Life moved on, in the way typical to the residents of a memory-box. At first, the wife was constantly dizzy and unsettled, wary of touching the objects inside. When she was cooking, her hand would brush the old wooden ladle or the silver cooking pot, and a scene would flood her mind, complete with colors, scents, and even touch: the lingering sensation of her skin against her husband’s or her palm on the back of her first child’s neck, the painful jolt of her first contraction, the cotton fibers of a dress she wore as a little girl. Every object invited a memory, and household tasks were submerged under waking dreams; the couple moved through their box as if sleepwalking , their limbs dragging heavily against the rich currents of sensory information.
After fighting against it for a while, struggling to stay afloat and awake, she surrendered herself to this dazed, dreamlike state. The social routine she had kept before the memory-box, a schedule populated by religious functions and hosting dinners, was now punctuated by an obsessive reorganization of possessions. Her hands flitting from an object to an object— she would drown in the memory for a moment, surface, and scrawl notes onto paper labels. She began to differentiate the objects—this dish towel harbored the memory of her first airplane ride, this lamp with the beige shade housed the image of her first sari, that wooden doll on the mantel contained the sensation of a tiny brush painting moist red henna up her arms on the night before her wedding.
With an absolute focus, she boxed objects, shuffled them, compartmentalized them. Some were shunted into the front window, displayed for the neighborhood to see, while others were laboriously carried down the rickety stairs to occupy a musty corner of the basement. The nature of the objects was surprising; she was shocked to find that the birth of her first child, the memory of shooting pains, growing bloodstains, clumps of flesh, and then the tiny red face opening its toothless mouth, was localized within a single, rotting fragment of a newspaper. Meanwhile, a petty memory, like her last trip to the grocery store, could be found in a porcelain vase.
While the old woman scoured and shuffled and cleaned, the man wilted quietly on the living room couch. He held books with long, complex titles: “The Hypothetical Decolonization of the Indian Subcontinent,” or “Implementations of Ancient Eastern Mathematics under the Guise of Western Innovation,” but his eyes blurred on the pages, and the deep brown irises were webbed with milky blue cataracts. His weekly visits to the senior center to play bridge, and win, slowly diminished.
Their box was spotless; the hallways heavy with intermingling clouds of incense and Febreze, the kitchen counter glittering, the strange series of objects on the mantle positioned as precisely as army-men. The daughter, when visiting, noticed that it wasn’t nearly as cluttered as before, and that their count of possessions seemed to have shrunk. She sat in an armchair across from her father and propelled questions toward him.
“Nana, how has the bridge been? Have you been to the doctor lately? What have you been reading?”
They fell on unhearing ears, as he blinked blankly at her and mumbled vaguely before directing his attention back to the tennis match on the TV .
She confronted the old woman.
“I’m a little worried about Dad. He seems out of it. And he’s going to be all alone next week when you go on your trip to visit Vani.”
“He’s fine! Just tired from the move. Did you do something to your hair? It looked better the last time I saw you.”
The old woman packed a suitcase of clothes, facing an onslaught of memory every time she picked up the items: a silk sari, a button-down shirt, a heavily crafted, conservative bra. Her head aching from the weight of so many dreams, she rolled the old suitcase down the hallway.
“Murty, I cooked food for every day and put it in the plastic dubbas in the fridge. I think I took care of everything, but call me if you need anything else. Or call Saila— she will come over.”
The old man grunted and resumed his trance on the couch.
“I will see you in a week,” she said, tying the pink laces of her fluorescent sneakers (which clashed oddly with her sari) before exiting the memory-box.
Tennis players swayed drunkenly on the television screen, the rhythmic echo of the tennis ball becoming a hypnotic pulse. The old man was jolted from his reverie by a shrill ringing. The phone vibrated chaotically, and he rose creakily to pick it up.
“Hello,” he mumbled gruffly.
“Nana, it’s Saila. How are you?”
“Everything going smoothly?”
“Yes, yes, everything is fine.”
“Okay, be sure to call me if you need anything. And remember to take out the trash tonight. Tomorrow’s trash day.”
“Okay, I will do.”
“Okay, Dad. Good night.”
There was a moment of pregnant silence before she hung up, as if she had more to say but swallowed the words. The old man shuffled into the kitchen, scratching his curly gray hair with one hand. He swung the almost-empty trash bag over his shoulder and made his way outside. As he closed the door and hobbled down the driveway, his silhouette was momentarily illuminated by the blue light of the memory-box. He found the dumpster full to bursting, the lid of the black trash bin gaping open over a pile of plastic bags. Reaching to push it down, his hand brushed the corner of an object that had pierced through the stretchy plastic.
The squeak of rapid windshield wipers, the confused murmuring of your wife in the passenger seat. Hands clenching firm on the wheel, firm on the wheel, fingers turning white, clouds of panicked breath fogging the windows. Your daughter sits in silence as his voice rises almost to a yell, then descends to muttering. His words catch on the bumps on the road, they splatter on the windshield frantically like rain, they spin like the wheels of the car, flinging water in their wake. Fast, nonsensical words, and he rocks back and forth, your oldest son, talking to invisible voices in the back seat of your car. You turn the radio up, up, to drown it out, and the music rises steadily with the fog on the window, blurring the outlines of shapes but obscuring nothing.
The old man jerked backward in fright, breathing heavily. Unable to stop himself, his hands reached for the thin plastic, his hard yellow nails tearing the bag at the seams. Objects tumbled out, a blue woolen sock, old kitchen timer, a crumpled necktie, a snow-globe from Yosemite. Sinking heavily to a kneel, he reached for them.
Your daughter’s face locked in a grimace.
I won’t wear it.” You try to ignore her voice and focus on the television screen. “I won’t wear it. And I won’t go to the party.”
“Yes, you will. What do you want the guests to think, huh?”
“You do realize he’s been gone for two months right? My brother’s been missing for two months! And you’re throwing a party?”
“It’s a religious function. Not a party. Stop talking about this. You’re going and you’re wearing this!”
Your wife’s voice becomes louder, more high pitched. Your daughter slams a door. You turn up the volume.
With each object the old man brushed, another memory punctured his skull, pricked his skin, pulsed behind his eyes, washed his insides with black ink. He felt cold, cold in the brisk night air, cold with an irregular pulse that struggled birdlike in his wrists, cold and painfully awake.
Your son’s blank, unresponsive face, much older now, beard graying at the edges. He has to take pills in the morning, and they make him quiet. Struggling with the sliding glass door, he finds refuge in the backyard and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. The smoke trickles skyward, and he watches it emotionlessly.
The old man stumbled into the memory-box, clutching an object, a crumpled, well-read dictionary. He picked up the remote and turned off the TV.
The next day the daughter fiddled with a key in the lock of her parents’ memory-box. She opened the door to find the hallway strewn with trash, debris, crumpled newspapers, dented objects, and some precious possessions. The fabric of a sari contorted in the middle of the kitchen, the wooden statue of a cat perching lopsidedly in the sink, an old bicycle wedged into the pantry. Amidst the flood of objects were scattered unwashed plates, banana peels, torn plastic bags settling into heaps of dust. On the couch the old man sat, his eyes glinting vividly behind glasses. His back was straight and his eyes pored attentively over the pages of his book. When his daughter walked in, he met her gaze and smiled.
“Mom, you can’t just throw away memories!” the daughter yelled into the phone, “You can’t do that. You don’t have a right!”
“That is my house. My memory-box. My memories.”
“They’re his memories too. You can’t just throw them away like that.”
“I was cleaning. I was cleaning them up. What does it look like?”
“What does it look like when all the bad memories are strewn around in plain sight? Where anyone can find them! What does it look like to people?”
“Guests! Visitors! Everyone!”
“What about us? What about Dad? Couldn’t you tell that it was draining him? He was becoming less of himself by the day. You can’t just throw out the pieces of yourself, parts of him, parts of the past that you’re ashamed of.”
“I made the home look good,” the old woman asserted. “No matter what was happening, I always made things look good. Good and clean.”
The old woman returned home on a Saturday night, walked up the long driveway, the wheels of her suitcase squeaking. Loose strands of her silver hair caught flecks of blue light. She closed her eyes and sighed, bracing herself for images unearthed, forgotten histories, sad and happy times. Her soft, wrinkled hand grasped the doorknob, and she opened the door to the memory-box.