“I don’t want to eat that,” I said, pushing away the plate. I didn’t even know what it was that I didn’t want, but it stank. As if someone had served me something rotten.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know you no longer liked shellfish.”
Only then did I look: I’d pushed away a plate of mussels. My mouth began to water.
“I’ll take a little then.”
It was strange to suddenly notice things. At times I’d been feeling like I was falling asleep. I knew there was a disorder where people would fall asleep out of nowhere—narcolepsy—but I could tell that wasn’t what was happening to me. After taking a bite, I noticed a cut and a bruise on my right forearm: I’d fought with something, against someone. I peered at the wound.
“Does it hurt?”
“Not really. When did I get this?”
Nothing was clear to me. The only thing I remembered was that a couple days before, I’d called the speaking clock. I’d dialed 95, and instead of the usual voice telling me the time, I’d heard a woman’s voice declaring, “Ai difensori della libertà: you were a slave then, and you’re a slave now.”
I’d written these words down on a slip of paper as if I’d expected to hear them instead of the time. I’d been puzzled, but obviously not too much. Over the mussels, I remembered that a few years back, I’d daydreamed often about becoming a different person. I’d longed for something to stick my finger in, like a socket—it would carry the shock of electricity—and I’d proceed through life transformed. Better, naturally. I reflected as well on the fact that, even though I lacked any qualities that would warrant a strong sense of self, I possessed a superiority complex all the same: like I knew everything and could only continue to improve. The man I was dining with noticed my mind was elsewhere.
“Is everything all right?”
I didn’t know what to say.
It turned out I was an excellent liar. I felt like someone had thrown me into a scene, as I didn’t recognize the man I was eating with. I recalled things that had nothing to do with him. Maybe I was supposed to be scared?
“Are you remembering something?” the man asked.
“Don’t worry, the doctor said your memory will return little by little.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. I speculated.
“I lose my memory every five minutes?”
“It’s like you’re resetting. The doctor said it’ll take at least a year for your memory to be completely restored.”
Parts of it were irrevocably lost, I told myself. How could I possibly collect all the pieces that made me a good liar who loved mussels?
“I bought you a diary for moments like these. As soon as you remember something, you can write it down.”
He thrust a little black notebook into my hand. I took it and flipped through it. There were all kinds of notes inside, from the most basic things like my favorite color or food—it seemed these changed constantly—to illegible scribbling. The memory of the strange phone call was underlined in red marker. It appeared to be something important.
“What sort of call was this?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We agreed that I wouldn’t look at your notes to respect your privacy.”
“Who are you exactly?”
The man’s face twitched. He hadn’t taken my question well.
“Abby, it’s me, John. Your husband.”
My name, therefore, was Abby. I assumed my husband really was my husband, even though I had no evidence. And then I noticed something odd—we weren’t speaking English.
“How is it possible that our names are Abby and John when we don’t speak English?”
As soon as I said this, John, my husband, grabbed me by the shoulders and started to shake me, as if trying to hear whether something inside me had spoiled, or broken. He returned to the beginning, starting our dialogue from before:
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know you no longer liked shellfish.”
I pretended I didn’t know we were repeating the conversation.
“I’ll take a little then.”
When we arrived at the moment when I had mentioned that we weren’t speaking English, I went silent. I remembered that I’d learned Swahili, that I spoke French and German fluently. Was I a spy? I also knew Russian, Arabic, and Spanish. It was obvious that languages came easily to me. Who is this man? I kept asking myself. Who is Abby?
“I should make a phone call,” I said abruptly.
“Why?” the man asked.
Someone rang a neighbor’s doorbell. I flinched.
“It could help me remember a number. Maybe using the phone will help.”
Turning my back to John, I dialed the speaking clock.
“The current time is exactly 21 hours, 4 minutes, and 295 seconds.”
295 seconds? Last time I’d checked, a minute was much shorter. Maybe this was some kind of sign. I dialed 95 again.
“The current time is exactly 21 hours, 5 minutes, and 15 seconds.”
“Did you remember anything?” John asked.
“Unfortunately not. I’d like to be alone for a little while.”
“I understand,” he said. “I’ll be in the living room. Whenever you’re ready, come join me.”
I stood there for a few minutes. John, if that really was his name, sat in the adjacent room, in front of the television. I gazed at myself in the mirror above the phone—I looked well, but I hardly felt that way. I jotted down “295” in my notes and went to sit next to my husband. He observed me with interest. Did he want me to say something?
“Do you want me to say something?”
“No, no. Just sit. I don’t want to rush you.”
“I don’t understand how I lost my memory. What happened?”
“You were hit by a car,” John said.
Surely I hadn’t been in an accident. There wasn’t a scratch on the rest of my body; only my arm hurt. He’d looked me straight in the eye and lied to me. I felt as though it wasn’t the first time. I’d been in deep shit all along. This, at least, was clear.
“What was the car like?”
“What do you mean, what was the car like?”
“What type of car was it?”
He was good; he didn’t even blink. Psychopath.
“Were you the one driving?”
Saying I wanted to go to bed, I left to lie down. He followed me. He was well-built, good-looking; we fucked, but I felt nothing. I’d never loved this man. I fell asleep thinking about it. I hoped everything would make sense in the morning, but it didn’t. I woke up late, with a headache. My arm had stopped hurting.
He made mussels for lunch again. I pretended I didn’t know I’d had them the day before. I pushed the plate away and we started from the beginning:
“I don’t want to eat that.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know you no longer liked shellfish.”
“I’ll take a little then.”
While I was eating, I watched him. I assumed he was there to monitor me. I couldn’t remember why I was dangerous.
“How long have I been home?”
“Two weeks already? I don’t remember a thing.”
I knew he’d been reading my diary, because he wouldn’t let me make a phone call.
“You’ll upset yourself,” he said. “You won’t remember anything.”
I didn’t give up so easily.
“Why don’t you go in the living room?” I said. “I’ll clean up.”
John left, and I collected the dishes. I tapped the edge of a plate with a fork to make it sound like I was carrying them into the kitchen. Then I dialed the speaking clock. The voice announced, “The current time is exactly 14 hours, 11 minutes, and 005 seconds.”
I knew I couldn’t write down any more numbers because John would see. Yesterday, 295; today, 005. Tomorrow? I went to bed dissatisfied. John didn’t disturb me, but I sensed he wanted to. I turned my back to him and pretended to be asleep.
The next day was December 6, and he said we were going to celebrate his birthday. But we spent the whole day just like any other. The date was most likely important for some other reason. Though, admittedly, a birthday was no small matter. I couldn’t even remember when mine was, after all. While John was in the other room, I persisted in making my phone call. I dialed the speaking clock, but didn’t hear anything unusual. I dialed 295005 to see if it had any significance.
“Hello?” I heard from the other end.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hey, it’s you! You’re back!”
I hung up. The woman obviously hadn’t known what she was talking about. Back from where? Had I gone somewhere?
Mildly unnerved by the unfamiliar woman’s voice, I picked up my diary and just then noticed how strange my handwriting was. The words sometimes looked like they’d been scrawled by a child. They’d been written by an unsure hand, as if the hand was just learning how to write.
I showered reluctantly and nearly slipped in the bathtub. Everything felt difficult. When I saw that I would indeed fall if I wasn’t careful, I crouched under the spout, getting my head wet. I began to wash myself, and when I got to my feet I felt bumps under my toes, like they’d been made by tiny, tingling needles. I wasn’t a drug addict, so it had to be something else. I couldn’t ask John; I needed to call that woman. The thought that I could call only her kept me up all night. I watched John, unable to recognize him.
In the morning, while John was still sleeping, I called 295005.
“Do you remember?” asked the woman’s voice.
“Unfortunately not,” I replied sheepishly. “Who am I speaking to?”
“Are you okay?”
“What is my name?” I asked.
“What is my name?” I repeated.
At that moment, John entered the room.
“What are you doing? Who are you talking to?” he asked.
“Wrong number,” I lied. “The ringing woke me.”
“No one’s ever called this number.”
“Some woman wanted to talk to her son. I told her she misdialed.”
“Where was she calling from? Did she tell you?”
John was visibly nervous.
“No,” I said.
“Okay. Let’s have breakfast.”
I couldn’t even manage a bite. John regarded me strangely.
“Are you sure that’s all the woman said?” he asked.
“Forget it,” he said, continuing to eat.
After some time, John said he needed to go to the store. I nodded, not listening to his reason. I looked at the clock.
I didn’t know what I was supposed to do while he was gone. Masturbate? Escape? I wasn’t sure what I should be prioritizing. I went to John’s study and tried to open the locked drawers of his desk. I searched everywhere for the key: under the bed, in the dresser, in the kitchen. I accidentally discovered a safe behind a painting. I didn’t know the combination. I made a few attempts, but nothing worked. While I was setting the painting back in place, I heard John entering the apartment.
“That was fast,” I said.
“I promised I wouldn’t be long.”
“When can I go to the store?” I asked.
“When the doctor says you can,” he replied.
While John explained that it would be easy for me to get lost in the street because I didn’t know who I was, he unpacked the groceries. An apple fell to the floor, and when he bent down to pick it up, a chain with a small key slipped out from under his collar. I immediately thought of the desk drawers.
“I like your necklace,” I said. “Can I have it?”
John eyed me suspiciously.
“I like it. Is it a gift from me?”
He placed the chain back underneath his shirt.
“It was a gift from my parents,” he added.
“Do I like jewelry?” I asked.
John didn’t respond. He disappeared into the other room. I waited impatiently for night to fall so I could get ahold of the necklace. It was all I thought about the entire day.
When John finally fell asleep that night, I slowly removed his necklace. I went to his desk and unlocked both drawers. I planned to inspect them the next day.
I didn’t want to ask John too many questions about myself, lest he suspect something. I kept pretending to be lost, like I was perpetually forgetting where I was and what I was doing. John prepared mussels again and pushed them under my nose. I didn’t know why he did that.
“I need to go to the store,” he said while we were sitting at the table. “I won’t be long.”
I calculated that I had less than ten minutes. The store was clearly nearby. As soon as John closed the door behind him, I went to the study. He hadn’t checked the drawers; they were still unlocked. In the first one I found utility bills, empty envelopes. In the second, there were documents I didn’t examine carefully, along with a charger—for a cell phone or other device, I assumed.
“Shit!” I said, glancing at the clock.
Just then I heard John unlocking the door.
“Shit!” I repeated.
“You don’t look well,” John said when he laid eyes on me. “Is everything all right?”
“I’m all right, everything’s all right,” I lied.
I was livid. I wanted to kill John. I didn’t know what was stopping me.
After that, John locked both drawers. He disconnected the phone, saying the bills were too high. My anxiety grew to the point where I felt I’d explode if something didn’t change.
John always went out for ten minutes, never longer. While he was away, I tried to open the safe. I used his birthday and the numbers I’d heard over the phone, but nothing worked. I asked him to buy me bobby pins—I wanted to pick the locks on his drawers—but he refused. He said he preferred my hair loose.
“It’s more feminine,” he said.
It seemed we spent the whole day at the dining room table, in the kitchen, or in front of the television. John had a routine we were both obligated to follow.
“Mussels again?” I cried.
“What’s wrong with mussels?” he asked.
“Nothing. I’ll take a little.”
I didn’t want to take any risks, so I laid off the drawers for a few nights. It was always awkward to touch John’s neck and unbutton his pajamas to get to the key. But then I couldn’t stand it anymore: I slipped off the necklace again and opened the drawers.
I didn’t wait for my ten minutes but immediately spread the contents of the second drawer on the carpet. As if shuffling a pack of cards, I sifted through the papers and randomly pulled a few of them out. I returned the rest, locked the drawers, and went back
to bed. I hid the documents in my pillowcase. In the morning, I went to the bathroom and studied them for a long time.
First I read an agreement between John and a bank. He’d taken out a huge loan the year before. It
didn’t say for what. Another document had a watermark, but nothing was written on it. The others were also blank.
No luck, I thought.
“Are you finished?” John asked.
He rattled the doorknob.
“Just a minute,” I said.
I shoved the papers into my pants and went out.
At breakfast we chatted about food, and I took the opportunity to mention money. I said that perhaps I should get a job.
“We don’t have money for the phone, isn’t that sad?”
“You can’t work, that’s not right,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“You need to get well first.”
It seemed to him I’d never be well; I’d never be able to work or go outside. Watching him over the meal, my thoughts returned to violence. The problem was I didn’t really know who or where I was. I couldn’t harm him until I found out.
He’s lying about us not having money, I thought. We eat like kings.
And truly, the refrigerator was full of delicacies. John was constantly devouring enormous amounts of food. Compared to his, my appetite was negligible. I ate only the mussels he gave me. Here and there I sampled something sweet, but food gave me no pleasure. I ate only because John ate.
“How do you stay in shape when you eat so much?” I asked him.
“I exercise regularly.”
I’d never seen him exercise. He didn’t work on his abs; he didn’t go to the gym. It was impossible that in the ten minutes he was gone from the apartment, he went shopping and lifted weights too. I watched how voraciously he consumed all the food on the table and drank tea as if his life depended on it. I wanted to tell him to stop being such a pig, but I didn’t want to hear his reply. I didn’t want to hear his voice.
It was time to watch TV, then time to eat again. After dinner, more TV, and finally bed. In the middle of the night, John began to talk in his sleep. What I heard was helpful.
It was mostly nonsense, but periodically he uttered the combination to his safe, like he was making an effort not to forget it. He repeated it so many times that I memorized it with ease. I didn’t hurry to the safe right away; I needed daylight. John soon began to snore. I fell asleep after counting about three hundred sheep.
The combination was very simple, almost stupidly so. After breakfast, during his ten minutes, I succeeded in opening the safe and exploring its contents. There was no money or weapons—just one USB stick, a sheet of paper, and a photo of me. I turned it over to see what was on the back. There I read: Serial number: 295-005, Model: Abby. I stared in disbelief. On the paper were printed instructions. I realized the charger I’d seen in the drawer wasn’t for a phone, but for me. I took the USB, shoved it in my pocket, and closed the safe. John entered the apartment, elated.
“I just paid the last loan installment,” he said.
I hit him on the head, hard. He fell to his knees.
While he was moaning in pain, I ran out the open door. I remembered that Ai difensori della libertà was in San Marino. I set off for there.
Walking quickly, I noticed a few drops of John’s blood on my boots. I bent down, and saw my reflection in their shine.
295005 is an excellent name, I thought, wiping off the blood. It’s sonorous and easy to remember.
I tossed the USB on the ground and stomped on it. I resolved that no one would push anything into me anymore.
Excerpted from Mars: Stories (forthcoming, March 2019, Feminist Press at CUNY)