Getting Over Women

By the time Jacob neared his 40s, GPS navigation had become accurate enough that he could use his cell phone to track down his memories, and that was how he ended up in the second largest island in the eastern Mediterranean.

“But you’ve never been to Crete before, you said,” a woman reminded him from behind her shiny, sweaty forehead and sunglasses, “so how are you retracing memories here?” Jacob ran into her and her sunburnt boyfriend hiking in a gorge in the mountains. She pushed a lock of hair behind an arm of her sunglasses.

“You’re right – sometimes I get the wrong memories.” Jacob had to shield his eyes from the fireball sun that barreled along the gorge, silhouetting the two hikers. “I’ve always liked deceptive technology.”

“Sarah, we should go,” said the boyfriend. “The guide here says we still have four k to go before the peak, and the sun’ll set soon.”

“Good luck,” Sarah said to Jacob.

“See you,” said the boyfriend.

“Have a good evening,” said Jacob.

The two strode past him towards the rising night in the east. Jacob walked over to the one wall of the gorge that glowed orange and felt the smooth heat of sunset with one hand.

“How the heck do you get the wrong memories?” murmured the boyfriend to Sarah over the receding crunching of their footsteps on the small rocks.

Jacob checked the GPS on his cellphone. When it first pointed him to Crete he imagined it was being unhelpful, even malicious, again. Since he had been on the island though, he thought that maybe the GPS did know what it was doing. It had led him to an old tree on a cliff above the water. It was white and gnarled, almost cancerous, and seemed dead but for some tufts of dark green sprouting from its crackling fingers. That was a true memory: the same tree was rooted in his childhood backyard in the U.S., and he used to climb it and take naps in its many-armed embrace. Sometimes, when he woke up, the shy dryad that lived in the tree would be watching him, and smiling.

At that point his phone was pointing him towards Nikolaos, a city on the coast at the foot of the mountains. Years after selling his personal collections (journals, address books, planners, correspondence) to the archive at the University of Texas at Austin, it became difficult for him to make sense of his life. Now that his memories belonged to a university – in an archive open to the public – he didn’t feel it was appropriate to barge in and ask for them back, even for a moment, please, just to look at them. The marvel of modern technology, he thought, was that he didn’t have to construct his life from his memories, because his GPS would figure it out. Like a peasant who needs no memories to know what his life is – he lives in this village, wakes up, goes to the fields – Jacob felt liberated, which was why his wife left him.

At the end of the gorge the view opened up, and along the expanse of beige and white mountains even the smallest rocks and shrubs cast long shadows. The sky was a pale, creamy orange, and the red sun began to land in the small white clouds that dotted the rim of the horizon. He could see peaks over the water from whence sirens once lured ships onto the rocks. Jacob’s cell phone informed him that he was nearing a fort where Daskalogiannis, a Cretan who famously rebelled against Ottoman rule, was skinned alive and executed in June, 1771.

He took a path back to the road where he had left his rented scooter, and followed his phone’s directions into Nikolaos. Night rose quickly, and by the time he had parked his vehicle near the harbor the sky was a uniform purple. The dim facades of the buildings on the waterfront were outmatched by the bright, vertical lines of light wavering in the water in alternating colors: white, orange, white, pink, yellow, white, yellow. Small yachts swayed gently.

The GPS led him away from the harbor along streets with cobblestone the color of bones, and it finally stopped him in front of an apartment building squeezed in between an art gallery and a nightclub. It was two windows wide and three stories tall, white with troughs of flowers hanging from some windows. Passersby filtered into the club next-door, and when the door was opened slow, thick beats spilled out onto the sidewalk. Jacob looked up at the apartment but all six windows were dark and empty, and its green door was silent. He opened the door and peered into the vestibule, wondering if he should try ringing each of the three apartments. The light was off in the vestibule and it was cold. He could still hear the music coming from the adjacent club. Perhaps the GPS was off target, and that was where he was supposed to be. He closed the door.

The nightclub’s name was above its entrance: “The Hive” in black letters backed by a yellow honeycomb. That building too was several stories tall, hulking and pulsing. Jacob put his phone in his pocket and stepped away from the apartment building. When he opened the door to The Hive he saw its dim interior with walls covered in red velvet; the music and heat reached out and pulled at him. He entered like Jonas into a fish.

People stood in the hallway at the entrance, holding drinks; some danced slowly to the heavy, minimalist music. A few turned to look and smile at Jacob, who smiled uncertainly back. They seemed vaguely familiar, like guests his ex-wife invited to a cocktail party thrown in his living room whose names he should know. The hallway split into two corridors which each split further, lined by open archways to small hexagonal rooms. As he walked deeper into the club along the padded carpet, he saw that each room, lined with cushioned black benches, had different lighting and its own music that matched and added to the beat in the hallway.

As he passed one room a face caught his eye. He looked in and saw in the nearly black blue lighting the face of a woman he had been neighbors with in the house he owned a decade ago. She looked young. He put his hand on the jamb in the entryway. She didn’t see him, but he could hear over the throbbing music rolling out of the portal the conversation she was having with a man he couldn’t place.

“No, it’s not easy, but you just need a stroke of luck,” she said. She took a bite out of a piece of baklava she held in a plate.

“You’re right,” replied the man sitting next to her.

“Like my neighbor, he just had his first book published two months ago.” She wiped some crumbs from the side of her mouth and continued. “It was really pretty good – it’s about Israel, and the Palestinian Problem, but through the eyes of this guy, a Jew, who had to fight against Jewish paramilitaries after World War II.”

The book he wrote 12 years ago wasn’t about the “Palestinian Problem,” thought Jacob. It was inspired by his own grandfather. Most of the book is about him after World War II, lying in orchards and falling in love.

“Huh,” murmured the man.

“Yeah, and later in the book he goes back to Israel when he’s 80 and sees how things are,” continued the woman.

Jacob put one foot on the threshold. The book’s protagonist returns to see his granddaughter who moves there. If Jacob wanted to write about the “Palestinian Problem” he would have written a pamphlet.

“Anyway, I’m sure you’ll find a publisher eventually,” concluded the woman.

Jacob shook his head and decided to move on. He pulled out his phone but its screen was blank. It could have been broken, or out of batteries, but probably it was being unruly. In the room across the hall were two women he had met in a restaurant in Laos during a break when he was in college. They were twins, from Belgium, and both exactly resembled Natalie Portman, but with different hairstyles. In the room they were drinking bright mixed drinks and laughing with a third girl. They looked like they did when he met them 20 years ago, when he could only speak to them for about five minutes before he had to leave to catch a train. Then, they both had held their drinks in their hands on the table and looked him in the eye, smiling and laughing, laughing just like they were now in The Hive. He opened his mouth to speak, to say hello. Holding his breath he paused, words pushing against the back of his throat.

He passed another couple rooms and avoided looking into them, looking for a bar or a bartender so that he could get a gin and tonic. Suddenly a smell hit his memory. Brandy and cherries, chocolate. A woman was standing in the hallway, leaning against the wall eating something dark from a small plate with a fork. Her face was turned away from him and shadowed by her hair, but she was talking with a man and touching him on the arm sometimes. Black Forest cake. His ex-wife made it all of the time. It was her recipe and her Black Forest cake, the chocolate and brandy and cherry blood red spilling out from the black chocolate. Jacob’s skin tingled: the woman must have been her, the shape of her body and her hair. The music, its beats growing repetitive in the murky, numbing light, prevented him from hearing her voice. He wanted to grab her on the shoulders, roughly turn her around to face him and knock the plate from her hands. He began to raise his arms but then she laughed. She laughed at the man and it was her laugh, its tintinnabulation and the indrawn breath at the end.

Gritting his teeth he walked past her without looking at her face. Finally, at the end, several corridors joined at a bar – a few people with their backs to him on stools, and his college roommate manning the bar and grinning at a patron. Jacob walked up to the bar and was about to ask for his drink, but stopped before the bartender recognized him. Hidden in the beats and swooning bass of the music he caught snippets of a tune that he knew. Tiny sharp notes, separate from the music, glittered through the air and wavered into his ears. His fingers knew the tune, could see the black and white keys and how to move along them. The image of his mother landed in his mind’s eye. She had been gone since he was seven. The tune kept drifting out of hearing and suddenly he felt desperate: he wanted to take it and hold it in its hands, wring it out, and consume it.

He stepped away from the bar back into the corridors, checking every room, the tune dabbling on the edge of earshot. In one room he saw his third grade teacher who taught him what poetry was. In a corridor he bumped into his first girlfriend and she looked him straight in the eyes before he hurried on. Finally he found the room, a room with dim white light and only that simple tune, cutting through the hallway music. He could picture his mother, sitting on the piano bench next to him, teaching him that song.

At the join of two walls on the far side of the small room a naked woman sat on her feet on the velvet bench. Her chin was turned up a little and her thin eyebrows arched up to the high bridge of her nose. She held a lyre in her hands, draped in her long, wet brown hair, and slowly plucked out the tune, each note plucking at his insides. In a fine, clear voice she hummed along with the tune. Jacob took one step into the room and the woman looked up at him without pausing her music. Inside the room, with his hands on the edge of the threshold, all sound had stopped but hers. He stood for a moment and finally she ceased playing, putting her lyre down beside her and staring at him with no expression on her face. Jacob curled his toes and his knuckles clenched the wall. He wished he could plug his ears from the silence, but it was invincible. After taking a deep breath and pressing closed his eyelids he pushed himself away and back into the corridor. The beats first entered his body, then his ears, and without looking back into the room he turned away. Eyes down at his feet, Jacob walked along the hallways back to the entrance, not stopping even when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He pushed open the door and escaped from the red light into the chill gray outside.

In the street the cool air pulled at the sweat on his face. The quiet throb of the music leaking out of the club seemed like a memory, and Jacob imagined the city street to be silent. He looked next door at the apartment again. The window at the top and to the right was lit by the flickering glow of a television screen. A woman sat inside on the window ledge with her back to the street. Jacob stared for a long time.

“Do you know her?” asked a man with a Greek accent and pomade in his black hair. He wore tight jeans and a loose, white dress shirt.

“When I graduated college I was seeing this girl Catherine,” returned Jacob, without looking at him. “That’s her. We dated for three years.”

“What happened to her?”

“She’s changed a lot.”