The Way We Forget by Sara Dobie Bauer
October: this used to be my favorite month in Ohio. There’s an orange, glowing Jack-o-Lantern across the street from the funeral home. In the darkness, it frowns at me; I wonder if this is someone’s idea of a joke.
I shouldn’t be out here. I should be inside, consoling my mother—my role since I passed my “dark years,” when I wore black hair and Kurt Cobain tees. Now, I am solid. I am fine.
I smile at the Jack-o-Lantern, but on my face, the smile feels tight.
The door to the funeral home opens behind me. The lingering smell of burning leaves is replaced by the smell of Polo Sport. God, does Ethan still wear that stuff, after all these years?
“Yes.” I answer my question.
“What?” he says.
He stands next to me and sighs. It’s warm enough that steam does not escape his mouth but cold enough to make me hug myself and stomp.
“Are you cold?”
“Hmm?” I ask.
I’m staring down the pumpkin across the street, seeing who will blink first, when Ethan puts his suit jacket over my back. I’m doused in cologne. Might as well fill a bathtub and hold me under.
“Are you doing okay?” he says. “You seem to be doing okay.”
In movies, women ask men to have sex at times like this. They say something like “I need to feel something other than pain.” I wonder if that’s why Ethan is out here now.
I look at him, although I saw him earlier, in my parents’ front yard—my mother’s front yard? The older we get, the more I look like my Italian grandma: softer around the edges, graying hair, and too much makeup. Ethan gets better looking. When we were children, he was chubby. Then, as a teen, he shot up to six feet; kids called him “Frankenstein.” Now, at thirty-one, he’s all cheekbones and long limbs and blue eyes.
“What?” My fingers play with the expensive silk fabric on the inside of his suit.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” I look back at the Jack-o-Lantern, and I laugh when I see the candle’s gone out.
Over the sound of dead leaves in a breeze, Ethan rifles through his pants pocket. “Want a smoke?”
My family doesn’t know I smoke. In high school, I kept a bottle of Victoria’s Secret perfume in my purse. Gum, too, and antibacterial gel. Now, I have a flask hidden in the back of my skirt. Now, I take a cigarette from Ethan.
I ask, “Am I allowed to be a mess?”
“No one would fault you for it.” He lights my cigarette. Then, he lights his own.
Cigarettes taste like dessert in October. The scent of burning nicotine mixed with that of bonfires, burning leaves, is akin to adding cinnamon to hot chocolate milk. But I pull too hard, and my head spins. I grab onto his arm to keep my balance.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Haven’t had one of these in a while.”
“Remember our first one? By the river?” He’s holding my arm. He’s smiling.
I want to ask when he grew out of my league. Instead, I say, “You stole a pack of Newports from your mom.”
“Haven’t been able to stomach a menthol cigarette since.”
Ethan was my first kiss, that day by the river. We were buzzed on smoke, and he said, “Can I kiss you?” He was ugly then. His head was too big for his body, but I said yes because Ethan was my friend. I remember his tongue tasted like smoke and the strawberry candies his mom kept in a bowl on their back porch. He held my hand after, and his palm was sticky.
“You live in Phoenix?”
I lift my hand from his arm. “Yes.”
He inhales, exhales. “Do you like it?” He has the same voice he did at sixteen.
“Last week, I was thinking how nice it would be to come back to Ohio for Halloween,” I say. I take off his jacket and give it back to him, but he just folds it over his arm, watches me.
His hand lands on my lower back and pulls the flask from where it hides, between my skirt and skin. He extends the black leather container to me. I take a sip: whiskey.
I got the call a couple days ago, 11 PM, my time—Phoenix time. My mom never calls past eight. She said, “He’s gone,” as if Dad was a bowl of popcorn or candy after too many Trick-or-Treaters.
Ethan clears his throat, so I give the flask to him. He takes a long gulp and sighs again. People have been doing that a lot this week, as if breath is a replacement for words.
“He looked healthy,” Ethan says.
“Imagine his surprise.”
“I’m sorry. That was a stupid thing to say.”
“What would be a smart thing?” I ask. I turn on my high heels to face him. I look at this stranger who used to be a friend. I wonder how many women he’s kissed since me.
Ethan shakes his head. “I suppose everything sounds trite.”
“Do you remember your dad?”
“No,” he says. His discarded cigarette glows orange on the pavement. “I was only five.”
“I know.” I pause. “I was there.” I look at the Jack-o-Lantern across the street—its darkened, gaping wounds. “How long before we start to forget, do you think? The way people smell. How their skin feels.”
He watches a car go by, filled with kids. I hear Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and hope they’re going to a haunted house where they can scream at people pretending to be dead.
Ethan says, “We remember the things we choose to remember.”
I still smell his Polo Sport cologne, mixed with smoke and the whiskey on my breath, and I remember when he drove us all to the last football game of our senior year.
“You won’t forget him,” he says.
Makes me wonder. I can keep a bottle of Dad’s cologne. I can keep some of his Michigan Wolverine sweatshirts. I can drink Molson Canadian every night like Dad. But a person is a person; a memory is a memory, and memories have a knack for confusion.
So I wonder and put my hand on the back of Ethan’s neck and kiss him. He tastes like smoke and my mother’s neighbor’s strawberry pie; he doesn’t feel the way I remember.
© Sara Dobie Bauer, 2015
Sara Dobie Bauer is a writer and prison volunteer in Phoenix, Arizona, with an honor’s degree in creative writing from Ohio University. She is a book nerd and sex-pert at SheKnows.com, and her short fiction has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Stoneslide Corrective, Blank Fiction, and Solarcide. Her short story, “Don’t Ball the Boss,” was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize. Read more about Sara at http://saradobie.wordpress.com.
The Way We Forget was read by Hannah Seusy on 1st April 2015 for Kiss & Breakup