I tell Eric I’m reorganizing the closet in the spare bedroom, which has the desired effect of getting rid of him. As soon as he’s gone to his “office,” the alcove downstairs where he keeps his computer, I start tearing through photo albums. I’m not looking for memories. I already have those. I recognize faces in the pictures, remember where and when most of them were taken. Prom, Senior Skip Day, the first years of college, before we stopped printing out snapshots. A few from our courthouse wedding. But those memories feel as though they belong to someone else. What I’m searching for is some emotional connection to the life I find myself living. But even with my entire history laid out in front of me, I’m unable to feel that it’s mine.
I have the bed covered with memorabilia, photos and old birthday cards and handouts from college we kept for some reason, when Eric opens the door. I jump, my hands twitching with the compulsion to push everything into a single pile to hide what I’ve been doing.
“I see you’ve made a lot of progress,” he says dryly.
I laugh, the sound high-pitched and unnatural. “I got side-tracked.”
“Little trip down memory lane, eh?” He advances into the room. “Rind anything interesting?”
I could ask him if I’ve fallen and hit my head in the last few days. I could ask him if he, too, remembers another life in which we never got together.
My stomach flares with adrenaline as he bends to inspect the loose photos I’ve separated into stacks. In one pile I’ve placed pictures of the version of me that married Eric; the other contains photos that could be from the life where I sound up in Chicago. The latter are mostly from the first three years of high school: me clowning around with my three best friends; me in my homecoming dress with the princess sash over my shoulder, curls trailing from my updo. On top of the pile lies a snapshot of me and Dave Kowalczyk, my boyfriend the first half of junior year. In it, Dave looks at me, a swoop of dark blond hair falling into his eyes, while I grin into the camera. Picking up the photo, Eric lets out a heh as if he’s recalled something mildly amusing.
“Dave Kowalczyk,” Eric says, contempt in every syllable. “Did I ever tell you what he said after you guys broke up?”
“You talked to him?”
“No.” The word comes out on a snort, meaning in it I can’t decipher. Scorn mixed with… longing? Jealousy? Dave was a lot more popular than Eric in high school. He had a band. They were awful, of course, but him being a musician–another creative person in a place where those were in short supply–gave him cachet that sixteen-year-old me found irresistible. “I was walking behind him and his drummer in the hall and hew as talking about you. How you’d dumped him, though he didn’t admit that. And he said, ‘It doesn’t matter. Plenty of other girls in this school would be happy to suck my sick.'”
I laugh a little. Dave had cried when I broke up with him. Kept texting me for weeks until I told him I’d speak to my brother if he didn’t stop, not that Nick would actually have done anything, and Jeff had moved out by then.
But of course Dave wouldn’t let anyone see that pain and vulnerability. He’d lash out, in whatever small way he dared. Or maybe he’d never really felt that much for me, and what Eric had heard was nothing more than hurt pride. “That’s just how guys talk, or at least they did back then.”
Eric shakes his head. “I’d never have talked about you like that. He wasn’t good enough for you.” He glances at the photo fo me and Dave once more, his nostrils flared with distaste, and tosses it into the trash can next to the bed.
“Hey!” I retrieve it and lay it back on the pile.
“You really want to keep that?” There’s a note in Eric’s voice I don’t like.
“He was a part of my life. Just because it didn’t work out doesn’t mean I want to forget about him.”
Eric looks at me like I’m speaking a language he doesn’t understand. “But why dwell on things? Why not start over, move on?”
“I’m not dwelling. I’m–” I can’t find the words to explain. “Every experience teaches you something.” Eric tilts his head, still skeptical. “It’s not like I’m planning to go find him. I definitely got an upgrade with you.” I reach out and rest my fingertips on his wrist, just for a second. I keep being unsettled by how normal it feels to touch him.
But it works. His face lights up. He sits next to me on the bed and flips through the photos, placing Dave’s on the bottom.
“Wow, I haven’t looked at these in years. Remember this?” He holds up a picture of the two of us, standing in front of his dorm at MSU with our arms around each other’s shoulders, looking impossibly young.
“My mom took that.” The memory pierces me: move-in day, freshman year. The August heat heavy as a wet blanket. I swallow, feeling cold. I could ask him whether he feels guilty that I gave up my scholarship. I broke up with Dave because he wouldn’t stop complaining when I chose to paint instead of hanging out with him, but my relationship with Eric was what really killed the artists in me. I just didn’t see it at the time.
“Our first apartment,” Eric says, flipping through more photos. Most of these don’t have people in them, just bare rooms. They must be the move-in pictures my parents took to verify the initial condition of the apartment. I had no idea why we printed them out, or why I’ve kept them for so long. He stops on the last one, the only one with me in it. I look sweaty and irritated, my hair in a messy topknot, and I”m holding out my hand in a warding gesture. My mouth is open. What are you doing? I might be saying, or Don’t take my picture! As I stare at my younger self, something else surfaces in me, more impression than actual memory: Eric and me in a face-off across that same apartment living room, now crowded with our furniture and books and the art I’d hung on the walls, the accoutrements of our life together. A life that was collapsing because he’d done something unforgivable.
I can’t remember what it was. All I can remember is him taking a step toward me, his hand extended, Please, Kelly, please, and the fury that rose inside me, the crash of the vase I picked up and threw at the wall behind him. It was a squat blown-glass thing I’d bought at a student art fair. Now it sits, unbroken, on the nightstand of this very guest room.
Suddenly the room feels too small; or it feels too small to be in with him.
(c) Sarah Zachrich Jeng, Berkley, 2021. Shared with permission from the publisher.
Two lives. The one you wanted. The one that wanted you.
On her twenty-ninth birthday, Chicago artist Kelly steps through a door at a gallery opening and emerges in her Michigan hometown. Suddenly her life is unrecognizable: She’s got twelve years of the wrong memories in her head and she’s married to Eric, a man she barely knew in high school.
Racing to get back to her old life, Kelly’s search leads only to more questions. In this life, she loves Eric and wants to trust him, but everything she discovers about him–including a connection to a mysterious tech startup–tells her she shouldn’t. And strange things keep happening. The tattoos she had when she was an artist briefly reappear on her skin, she remembers fights with Eric that he says never happened, and her relationships with loved ones both new and familiar seem to change without warning.
But the closer Kelly gets to putting the pieces together, the more her reality seems to shift. And if she can’t figure out what happened on her birthday, the next change could cost her everything…
About Sarah Zachrich Jeng
Sarah Zachrich Jeng grew up in Michigan and always had a flair for the morbid and mysterious (for her dad’s thirty-fifth birthday, she wrote a story entitled “The Man Who Died at 35”). She had a brief career as an aspiring rock star before she came to her senses and went back to school to become a web developer. Sarah lives in Florida with her family and an extremely hyper rescue dog.