Carolyn got the message the same day they spotted a great white shark off Chatham Harbor. After the family returned from the beach, Carolyn decided to post the hazy cell phone photo on Facebook. Unlike her teenage daughter, Carolyn didn’t regularly broadcast her daily moments over cyberspace, but this certainly warranted sharing. I’m absolutely awestruck by the shark sighting today. Jaws! And then she saw his message.
Hi there, Carolyn. It’s nice to see your face again. You look great. How’s life?
She stared at the unfamiliar photo. Eric Simon? She clicked on his profile. Not much available. Single, lives in Chicago, software designer. She scanned his 86 friends but didn’t recognize anyone. Could he have the wrong Carolyn Dobbs? She wrote back:
Sorry, but I’m having trouble placing you.
Caroline heard the screen door creak open and slam shut. Jasmine pranced into the kitchen. “Facebook again, Mom?” her daughter mocked. “Really, don’t you have something better to do?”
“Very funny, dear.”
Jasmine opened the fridge. Carolyn noticed that her daughter’s skimpy shorts had "sweet" written across the bottom. This once-shy little girl had turned into a teenage exhibitionist.
“Your shoulders look burned. Didn’t you use the sunscreen I gave you?” Carolyn asked, closing her laptop.
Jasmine poured herself a glass of lemonade. “Mom, seriously. Give it a rest, okay?”
“But it was full beach sun—"
“Yeah, Mom, I know, and the sand reflects the rays. You’ve told me, like, a hundred times before. Remember?”
Carolyn took a deep breath. It was hard to remember that her baby girl was 19. She smiled. “Well, it’s nice to know you’ve been listening.”
Jasmine flashed her dimpled grin. “I remember everything, even the stuff I wished I’d forget.” She sipped her lemonade. “Let's see, ‘Chew slowly, stay hydrated, fish is brain food, don’t swim alone, be aware of your surroundings.’”
Carolyn raised her eyebrows while Jasmine continued to recite a litany of momisms. “I could go on, but…” She put her glass in the sink. “Gotta go.”
“Go where?” Carolyn asked, surprised. “Don’t you want dinner?”
“I’m meeting up with Alyssa at Pirate’s Cove. I think I told you. And Jared Miller will be there. He’s visiting his parents in Orleans for the weekend. I’m so psyched to see him.”
Carolyn stood up beside the kitchen table. “Oh. Well, I was planning on making steamed mussels and linguine,” she said hopefully.
“Yum. Sorry I’ll miss it, but this is the only time I can see Jared.”
“Do I know him?” Carolyn asked.
Jasmine’s blue eyes widened. “Mom, he was in the theater group. Remember? Fiddler on the Roof, 10th grade?”
Carolyn shook her head. “I’m drawing a blank.”
“You know, the cute guy with curly blond hair? Tall, skinny?”
Carolyn waved her hand. “Well, anyway…please don’t stay out late. I don’t like you driving around the Cape at night.”
Jasmine slung a straw bag over her bare shoulder. “Fine.”
Carolyn watched her daughter flip-flop out the front door. Then the silence of the kitchen wrapped around Carolyn, pressing on her heart. Not so long ago she would have welcomed this silence with open arms, a break from the clamor of three energetic kids and a full-grown Irish setter. She and Mark had been renting the beach house for two weeks every summer since she was pregnant with Danny, their third child. Her last. Fifteen years. Ouch. Where did those days go? The early morning nature hikes, making sand castles, collecting horseshoe crabs, catching fireflies.
Now the kids didn’t get up before noon. They brought their iPods to the beach. They weren’t interested in hunting for sea glass anymore. They spent the evenings inside huddled around the laptop, texting their friends or watching DVDS, instead of roasting marshmallows and looking for Orion’s Belt. And now Jasmine wanted to go out with friends rather than enjoy a family dinner on their beautiful deck overlooking the woods where she used to make fairy houses.
Carolyn took the bucket of mussels from the fridge and transferred them to a bowl of fresh water. Why couldn’t she remember Jared…what was his name? Oh, God. Short-term memory loss too. She peeled some shallots and chopped them. And Eric Simon, who was he? Maybe someone she once worked with? She put down the knife and poured herself a glass of Chardonnay, then sat back down and opened the laptop. This new Facebook craze was pulling her in too. Just one peek and I’ll call it a day, she told herself.
Boston University, 1981. Junior year. Here’s a pic of me back then. This should jog your memory. Eric
Carolyn stared at the photo, waiting for her brain to register his face. Handsome guy, but…nothing. Well, it was 27 years ago, after all.
You do look familiar, Eric. Where did we meet? Did you live in Shelton Hall? Forgive my bad memory.
Later, in the evening, sitting on the back porch watching the sky turn pink then orange, she told her husband about Eric Simon. “Does that name ring a bell?” she asked.
Pete leaned back in the rocking chair. “Nope.” He took a swig of beer. “That’s why I never started with Facebook in the first place. Don’t want to be hunted down.”
Carolyn swatted a mosquito. “You're not curious what happened to your old friends?”
Pete shrugged. "Not really. I mean, so you find out your college roommate is a dentist living in Buffalo with a wife and three kids. Okay, that’s nice. Now what?”
“Gee, Mr. Practical.”
“So you think you went out with this guy?” Pete asked.
“Oh, now you’re curious?”
“You’re the one who doesn’t remember.”
Carolyn pulled her knees up on the deck chair. “No, I don’t think I went out with him. And if I did, well, I certainly don’t remember.” She eyed her husband. “And please, no comments about my memory.”
Pete grinned. “Aren’t the old memories supposed to be the last to go?”
The next morning the beach house was filled with the smell of blueberry pancakes. Jasmine had gotten up early to make breakfast for the family. That’s one nice thing about having an older teen, Carolyn thought, as she poured a cup of coffee. They surprise you every once in a while.
“Okay, guys, let’s plan the day before it gets away,” Pete announced, opening the Cape Cod guidebook.
Carolyn smiled, hearing his old phrase again.
“I say let’s go back and see the sharks,” Todd suggested, his mouth half-filled with pancake.
“As long as you’re not thinking about going in the water,” Carolyn said.
“Live a little, Mom,” Todd said, raising his glass of milk. “Hey, how often do you get the chance to swim near a great white? A summer to remember!”
“I hope your brother is kidding,” Carolyn said to Jasmine and Danny.
“He’s just trying to encourage your inner adventurer, Mom,” Jasmine said, dishing up another batch of pancakes.
Carolyn could see where this conversation was headed—another attempt to get her to do something she deemed unsafe, like going white-water rafting or riding on Pete’s motorcycle.
“I vote for kayaking,” Danny announced. “You okay with that, Mom?”
Carolyn sipped her coffee. “How about biking up to Truro?”
Pete put his arm around Carolyn. “Go easy on your mom, guys. She’s having her own little adventure on Facebook. A blast from the past.”
This caught her kids’ attention, so Carolyn fed their curiosity with the details thus far.
“Maybe your relationship was so traumatic you blocked it out,” Jasmine suggested.
“Or he’s just a sad single guy looking up old girlfriends,” Todd added.
“Or a spammer,” Jasmine said.
“More likely, Mom just doesn’t remember him,” their father added, patting Carolyn’s arm. “That happens.”
Todd grunted. “Yeah, middle-age brain, huh?”
“I’m going to figure it out,” Carolyn said. “You’ll see.”
The nursing home reported that Carolyn’s mother was having a great week. She was eating, engaging with the other residents, and enjoyed a musical performance. Hearing this positive news helped assuage the guilt Carolyn felt over leaving her mother back in Boston. Just last summer she had joined them at the Cape house. That was when Carolyn first realized something was seriously wrong. Then, after Christmas, she convinced her mother to move to Pine Hill rehab. With each subsequent visit, Carolyn noted a decline in her mother’s memory. She confused Jasmine with her other daughter. She thought Pete was the doctor. When her mother demanded that Carolyn bring her father to visit, she broke down until an aide had to intervene. Was it possible that the pain of losing a husband of 43 years, the love of her life, had hastened the onset of her mother’s dementia?
This was on her mind as Carolyn browsed the Wellfleet library for a few beach books, something to transport her out of worry. She remembered how much her mother had loved to read. Carolyn sat down at the computer table, then logged onto Facebook. Her heart began to pound as she read the message.
Wow, it’s a little depressing that I remember things so well, and the woman who I thought I knew well doesn’t remember me? No, I didn’t live in the dorm. I commuted from Newton. You were majoring in English. I was in business management. I also transferred to Stonybrook shortly after you stopped seeing me. Our relationship lasted six weeks.
Carolyn’s eyes widened. Six weeks? Well, no wonder I don’t remember you! She continued reading.
You had recently broken up with someone. On our first date I took you to an Abbott and Costello movie and I had to tell you who they were. I remember your intoxicating smile. I liked that you sometimes wore your long hair in braids. You told me that you grew up in Ohio and moved to a different town when you were 12, which you hated.
Carolyn blinked, as if to bring these words into focus. She wondered if this could be some kind of joke. What she read next took her breath away.
You told me that when you were 14, your devout Catholic grandfather was hospitalized with kidney failure and just before he died you visited him and he grabbed your hand and told you that there was no God. And you never told anyone.
The air in the room shifted. Carolyn realized then that she had indeed known Eric Simon, except she still had no recollection of him.
Throughout the rest of the day, Carolyn replayed Eric Simon’s message, fully expecting that aha! moment to arrive and bring back, in full color, their faded six-week relationship. She was certain she had never told anyone else what had happened just before her grandfather left this world. To do so would have been a betrayal to him, as well as a source of painful shock to her religious mother. Instead, Carolyn had tucked her grandfather’s confession inside her heart. Who did this guy think he was, popping into her life after all these years with such a dramatic entry? And why now?
“Now, don’t read a lot into this,” Pete assured her after she expressed fear about her memory. “You told me you went out with a boatload of guys. I wouldn’t expect you to remember all of them.”
A warm breeze stirred the bedroom curtains, wafting over Carolyn's body as she lay close to Pete. He smelled of the salty sea.
“But look how much he remembered,” she said. "The details!”
“That just means you obviously left a much bigger impression on him than he did on you. And come on, six weeks?”
Carolyn sighed. “I can’t believe that there’s a man out there carrying a secret of mine—one that I haven’t, as far as I know, told anyone else since. Not even you. What did this guy do to warrant such trust?”
Pete ran his finger down her bare arm. “I think you were a lot less discriminating back then. It’s different today. Look at Jasmine—she’s an open book.”
It was true; they were always reminding their daughter to be more guarded about parading her personal life online.
“I think you value privacy more as you get older,” Pete said.
Carolyn was grateful for her husband’s wisdom, but a corner of her heart remained unconvinced. Her memory was bad, and lately her mind seemed foggy, like she was thinking through a scrim. “Tell me about it,” her friends commiserated. “Once I hit 40, I had to write everything down.” But it was more than forgetting to buy milk—it was buying another jar of salsa on every trip to the grocery store, forgetting that you had five jars in the cupboard at home. It was chunks of information emptied from your brain. It was renting movies you forgot you’d seen. It was about forgetting your ATM password, the one you'd had for the past 10 years. And now a man you can’t remember remembers you too well.
That night, Carolyn dreamed she was enjoying an ocean swim when a shark suddenly bit her leg, pulling her under. She struggled, grasping toward the water’s surface, until she woke with a start, her damp nightgown clinging to her chest. The sound of Pete’s deep breathing comforted her. She slid her hand over to his. Their before-sleep conversation lingered in the darkness. I want to remember. She let her mind flip backward, imagining her 20-year-old self walking down Commonwealth Ave. She conjured Eric Simon’ face, then swam deeper and deeper into the ocean of memory, looking for that murky place where she had divulged the story of her grandfather. But she couldn’t find her way.
The next morning, as she walked along the seashore trying to clear her mind, Carolyn remembered her father teaching her to swim in the ocean. He told her how to keep the undertow from dragging you down. “Don’t fight it,” he warned, demonstrating how to escape the dangerous current by swimming parallel to the beach. The clarity of this memory was comforting, and she carried it with her as she circled back to the beach house. Carolyn spotted her kids on the deck: Danny and Todd huddled over their cereal bowls; Jasmine, still in her plaid pajama pants, texting furiously.
“Good morning!” she called to them.
What would they remember about her? It seemed that before the Internet age, Carolyn mused, we left behind real pieces of ourselves with the people we knew. They carried our memories in their hearts and wallets. Now her daughter’s digital pieces were scattered all over cyberspace, available for past friends, new friends and strangers to pick up and put together. For this generation, Carolyn thought, there will be no forgetting.
She walked in the house and picked up the phone. One the ninth ring her mother picked up. “Hi, Mom. It’s me, Carolyn.” She paused. “Your daughter.”
“I know who you are! Don’t you think I’d recognize your voice?”
Carolyn’s heart felt like butterfly wings. “Well, sure, I’m at the Cape house. I just called to say I miss you.”
“And I miss you too, dear. You’re the only one who calls me. Everyone’s doing that email thing. I like the telephone. I can still hear, after all.”
Outside the kitchen window the sky suddenly brightened, casting rays of Cape light into the house, making everything come into sharp focus. Carolyn felt a ray of light ripple through her mind. “I know just what you mean, Mom.”
Hours later, when Carolyn finally got through to Eric Simon, she could practically see his smiling face over the phone. He apologized for his abrupt Facebook message. “I felt kind of desperate,” he admitted. “No one wants to be forgotten.” He paused. “So…do you remember me now?”
Carolyn closed her eyes. It was all she needed—to hear the sound of Eric’s tender voice, to ride that wave of sensation carrying her right back to their beginning.