Claire Miye Stanford
The day you begin to forget starts like any other day. You wake. You shower. You undertake the minutiae of your morning routine, doing the things you have been trained to do to make yourself presentable to the world: blow drying your hair, putting your contacts in, puzzling over the contents of your closet. You lock the door and walk two blocks and buy a coffee and hold down the hem of your skirt as you descend the subway steps.
And then you’re halfway down the platform and standing in front of a poster for a new reality television show and realizing you have no memory of how you came to be on the subway platform this morning. No memory of picking out the skirt you are wearing; no memory of whether you locked the door behind you, of who the barista was at the coffee shop, of the approximately 500/750/1,000 steps you took to get from your apartment door to this spot on the subway platform, looking at this poster for a reality show.
But that’s not so unusual, you think. People go on autopilot all the time.
You are a systems analyst. No, that’s not right. Day trader? Not right, either. You are something appropriate for a 31-year-old woman, with an above-average education earning an above-average income. This version of you lives in Manhattan, but you could also live in Chicago, Boston, Geneva, Madrid. This version of you went to Wellesley, but you could have gone to Wesleyan, Swarthmore, Middlebury, Amherst. This version of you works in marketing. No, sales. No, advertising.
Yes, this version of you works in advertising.
A week later, you are sitting at your all-white desk in your all-white cubicle in a cluster of all-white cubicles in a room with all-white walls. The office for your advertising agency looks like a prototype for the latest Apple product, or an advertisement for the latest Apple product. Your advertising agency does not work for Apple, nor did they come up with Apple’s all-white ads, but they wish they did, wish they had.
Sitting in your all-white cubicle in the all-white cluster, etc. etc., this version of you uses your all-white mouse and all-white keyboard to try to log in to your checking account, which you have called up on the screen of your all-white computer. The screen keeps refreshing to the login page, prompting you in red type to try a different username or a different password, either or both of which are not correct.
You have two credit cards and three different bank accounts—savings, checking, and joint, with your fiancé—all of which share some combination of four usernames and three passwords: XXXXX, XXXXXXX, and XXXXX. You also have a Netflix account you share with your fiancé, a Hulu Plus account only you use, an e-profile for your health insurance, an Amazon account, a shopping cart on Gilt, accounts for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. etc., all with their own slightly permutated usernames and passwords.
Finally, the system tells you that you have exceeded the allotted number of login attempts and it is blocking your computer for the next 30 minutes.
Your latest project is creating a campaign for a major brand’s new line of eco-cleaning products. No, a laundry detergent for men, complete with a manly scent. No, a new line of body wash for women that diminishes the appearance of cellulite, clinically tested. Yes, the clinically tested cellulite body wash.
The ad will show a woman in the shower, will feature a thick, luxurious-seeming lather, will zoom in on skin cells getting tighter, will end with a smiling, put-together woman in a form-fitting pencil skirt kissing her attractive husband goodbye as she goes off to work, feeling confident with her newly smoothed skin. Now she can go to work! Now she can wear a form-fitting pencil skirt! Now, and only now, she can kiss her attractive husband!
You are sitting at your desk, making a rough outline of the storyboard for the ad, sketching out the boxes in sequence, box after box after box, when your vision goes pixelated and the boxes begin to blend together—the now-perfect woman, the always-and-already-perfect husband, the shower, the lather, the pencil skirt—loosed from their careful order, much like the feeling of staring at a word for so long that the letters begin to swim, their arrangement losing all meaning.
The username you have requested is already in use.
Day after day, you stand on the subway platform in front of the poster for the reality show, waiting for your train. One morning, you realize the first poster for the reality show has been covered up by a second poster for a different reality show. You don’t know how long this second poster has been up, how many days you have looked right at it, right through it.
You board the train, the crush of bodies pushing you forward. Then, halfway to your station there is a longer-than-usual pause, the train stopped in the dark tunnel for a full fifteen minutes. You stand with your arm wrapped around the pole, surrounded by all the other people in their business-casual to business-business attire, the women in their form-fitting pencil skirts, all of you waiting to get to your offices, to plug in your usernames and passwords, to fill in the day’s little white boxes.
When you get to the office, you tell your coworker who sits in the all-white cubicle next to yours about the longer-than-usual pause.
You know what that means, don’t you? he asks.
You tell him you do not know what that means as you attempt to log in on your all-white computer.
It means someone jumped, he says.
You doubt this is true, but you do not discount it entirely.
Invalid password, the computer says.
What is your father’s middle name?
How would you describe your relationship with your father?
After enough days/weeks/months of failed login attempts, you decide to eschew security warnings and click the little white box next to the text that says, Remember Me. It strikes you as odd, this language, that the computer will remember you when you cannot remember it. Remember me, you click, remember me, like an entreaty, a plea.
Password Strength: Very weak, weak, medium, strong, very strong.
You have just purchased a brand new all-white device, one your work said you needed, one your work might have paid for or you might have paid for yourself. You are lying on your couch, a sharp-edged modern couch that looks good but is not so comfortable to lie on, configuring your brand new all-white device. The television is on in the background, the noise washing over you, a reality show, the disembodied heads bobbling on screen, all talking about the other disembodied bobbling heads.
You start pressing the nonexistent buttons on the screen—those simulacra of real buttons—and the simulacra buttons bring up new screens with little white boxes that need to be filled in with usernames and passwords that your computer now remembers but because this is a brand new etc. etc. the usernames and passwords need to be entered all over again.
An hour later, when you have almost finished reinstalling all the programs you already have installed on your other all-white device, the show ends. Another episode starts right away, without even a commercial break, and you watch for a full ten minutes before you realize that this episode is the same episode as the one you have just watched, being rerun immediately.
Another series of little white boxes loads on your screen. This time, at the bottom, there is a string of letters and numbers, their figures blurred and twisted so they are difficult to make out. You are supposed to retype them in a little white box.
r3Tz6s, you think it says.
Below the figures, the screen asks, Are you human?
If you can type in the figures correctly, it will know you are human.
You type the figures in the box and press enter.
The screen goes blank for a split second, and then the login page reloads.
Try again, it says.
Who have you hurt the most in your life?
Who has hurt you the most?
At some point—a week after the memory gaps begin, two weeks, two months—you go to the park. This version of you does not usually go to the park. It’s possible that the version of you who lives in Chicago or Boston does go to the park, but that also seems unlikely.
This version of you does not want to go to the park, but your fiancé says it’s a beautiful day and the two of you should go to the park. And so you agree, because that is what you understand you have to do sometimes in functional adult relationships, agree to do things you don’t really want to do.
It is a hot day in July, and most of the city seems to be out at the park, barely clothed, enjoying the sun. It looks like a scene from an ad for sunscreen, or potato chips, or some other summer-appropriate commercial item. Your fiancé heads to a nice patch of grass, an appropriate distance away from any neighboring parties, and you spread out your blanket. Behind you, two parents play with their toddler. A father and his son kick a soccer ball back and forth nearby, the thonk-thonk of feet on the leather-swaddled ball echoing like a distant metronome.
You open a picnic basket that you did not know you owned and pull out a pair of sandwiches and a bottle of wine, which your fiancé has carefully packed in a little neoprene travel case, like a scuba suit for the wine bottle. In the background the toddler is screaming and the parents are shushing and the soccer metronome is going thonk-thonk thonk-thonk.
It is nice here, you think. Nice to be somewhere where the only thing there is to do is sit on the grass and feel the sun on your face.
Heads! the father yells.
What do you need to be happy?
What do you need to feel safe?
There is water on your face. Once-cold water that is now lukewarm. You can tell it had been cold, though, once; it is still on the colder side of lukewarm.
Someone is saying your name. Someone is shaking you, gently, but still shaking. You open your eyes. Your fiancé is crouched beside you, holding a bottle of water. An unfamiliar man is standing next to him, holding the hand of a boy with a soccer ball.
I’m fine, you say immediately. You are fine, but you have not taken any time to assess your condition yet, only blurting out the words. I’m fine, I’m fine, thank you, thank you, I’m fine, no problem. These are the words you are supposed to say, and so you say them.
Do you really feel fine?
When you get back to your apartment, your fiancé says he will make dinner; you should lie down on the couch and relax. It’s a nice idea, but still you feel compelled to check your email, your email that remembers you now. There are only three new emails in your inbox. They are all junk mail, though they are not spam. They are the kind of junk you have voluntarily signed up for, about deals on flights and expensive watches made moderately less expensive.
Is this the life you want to be living?
You are back on the subway platform, standing in front of yet another poster for yet another reality show. You are checking the time on your phone, you are looking down the subway tunnel for the hint of life. And then you see the light beginning to bounce off the walls, and you feel the slight breeze, and you hold down your skirt with the hand that isn’t holding your coffee.
You find yourself thinking, as you watch the light approaching, as you feel the wind increasing, what would it be like to step off into nothing? The nothing of the blank login boxes; the nothing of your bare, antiseptic office; the nothing of the so-called negative space in your super-modern furniture; the nothing of your inflated paycheck; the nothing of the ads you pour all your time and thought and energy into; the nothing of an hour spent watching televised supposed reality, that looks so unlike your own reality, and yet you fear that your own reality is coming to resemble that televised false reality more and more.
In a different kind of story, with a different version of you, the day in the park – the cartoon knock on the head that so often seems to set things right – might have led to a small shift or, perhaps, even a giant epiphany: a jolt back into the common plane of existence. But for this version of you, in this story, nothing has changed except that your neck is sunburned and you have an egg-sized lump on your forehead.
In a different kind of story, with a different version of you, you might feel the bodies pressing against you, waiting for the train, the physical embodiment of so many passwords and usernames, infinite white boxes always asking to be filled with little bits of your being, voracious, and you might take the opportunity to escape all that, to leap, Anna Karenina-like, onto the tracks, to rejoin the nothing and the negative space.
You might, but you do not. There is no big epiphany, no grand gesture. Instead, in this story, with this version of you, you feel the crush of bodies moving you forward, carrying you with them, and you realize that the train is here, the doors are open. In this story, with this version of you, you take a step and the floor is solid beneath you. In this story, with this version of you, you do not step off into nothing. You go to your all-white office, and you fill in the little white boxes, and you return to your sharp-edged modern home to spend the evening with more screens and their artificial light.
You do all these things you have been trained to do, and you wait, for the boxes to stop swimming, for the heads to stop bobbling.
You wait to feel the warmth of the sun, its radiance on your face, a feeling that does not require a password, not yet.
Claire Miye Stanford’s fiction and essays have appeared in Booth, Word Riot, Necessary Fiction, Bluestem, Paper Darts, Grist, The Millions, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota and is based in Minneapolis. She tweets occasionally at @clairemiye