A forty year old man is walking nervously to the polished counter and there is wrapped lock of hair in his trembling hand. He had fished those long trails of chestnut hair, many years ago, from the bottom of the shower drain. He remembered how he often tried to unclog the shower drains with all those stubbornly clinging hairs, tinged grey with the foam of the shower. Now he finds himself coveting every piece: the thin lock of hair is wrapped in a ziplock bag, meticulously sealed and rolled with an emerald ribbon. He washed it and conditioned it last night. He admires the particular curl, its subtle sheen.
He is looking at the woman at the desk, and she is smiling comfortingly – he wonders if she pities him. She is dressed in a bleach white smock and there is a badge pinned smartly to her left hand side. There is a smiling yellow face and a speech bubble protruding from the toothy grin: We are here to help! It is all artfully done – quietly euphemistic, jarringly neutral. He carefully empties the ziplock bag onto a metallic tray on the desk and watches the woman’s slender fingers re-arrange the lock of hair on the tray, eyes darting towards the computer screen as it blips into life. Her fingers flit across the touch screen for a few minutes and he is watching her in breathless silence. He is studying her every move, his hands gripping the edge of the counter, snowflake white. The seconds that slip by make him wonder, briefly in panic, what-the-fuck-am-I-doing-here, should-I-just-leave. I am weak, weak, weak – but he is inexplicably rooted to the spot before he can turn away from the counter. Numbers dance on the touch screen and cranes his neck to see it, almost desperately. The woman finally looks up, signalling his quiet resignation towards it all: let it be, he thinks. He wants this – yes he does. Her voice is forgivingly even:
“Good morning. Welcome to Reviva. How long would you like the simulation for?”
“2 hours, please.” His voice is strangely croaked.
“Very well. I will lower the helmet down and you can select your preferred location and memories.”
A pane in the ceiling, a painfully sterilized white, opens as a small helmet is lowered down to him through a mechanic arm. Numerous wires protrude from the top of the helmet and there is a smart twirling Reviva brand stamped to the side. It promises everything to him. He quickly places it on his head: his eyes are covered by a black screen and a sudden, startling smooth female voice echoes through the helmet like a soft breath: Good morning, sir. Thank you for coming to Reviva. We are calibrating the memories of your sample. A slight pause. Calibrated and loaded. Please select a preferred location.
A number of scenes appear on the screen. He recognises the restaurant where they went on their first date. She wore a red dress and it blushed her skin a magenta pink. It fades as the second location appears: he sees the mountain top they used to hike on during the weekends, in all its balmy sun-soaked earth. Then: the park where he saw her for the first time, sketching the ducks on the pond as they squabbled for stale bread. In a flash, it changes to the supermarket they went to after the first day they slept together: they argued over skimmed and full-fat milk. Finally – his room. He remembered how they both sat on his bed and found themselves staring at each other in the lukewarm dark, without a word. The slits of moonlight cut through the curtains like glass, and he remembers how, that night, his hand slid down her back, moonlit one second and in the darkness the next.
“The bedroom, please.” There is a terrible yearning in his voice.
Very well. Loading significant events. Please select the appropriate memories.
A list appears on the screen, each one with a ticket check box next to it. It is in chronological order, starting from Meeting Event, to First Date, from second, to third, to fourth date, to the times where they were no longer considered counting dates, but all measured in each absorbing, fleeting moments they spent time together. There is an item highlighted in red: First serious argument. He unchecks the box with a flick of his hand. And the second: Argument with threats to leave. That too, he erases. Argument culminating in a- he can’t bear to read it. He asks for all the reds in the list to be de-selected from the list – divorce, separation, new partner, car accident all disappeared from the screen. He was left with the moment in time where he was only 23, where he honestly believed – as he would do, as a student – that he was in love and all he wanted to do was spend the rest of his life with her. He stares at the list and wonders if such a thing should be manufactured. He haphazardly considers apologizing to the counter woman and leaving the building in blind panic. Yet, he finds himself mindfully confirming the selection, as the voice rings: Thank you for your selection. Please remove the equipment.
He slowly removes the helmet and it feels like a thousand heavy seconds as the helmet is raised back into the enclosed platform in the ceiling. He wonders if he should have changed the environment, the memories; a part of him was afraid it wouldn’t be perfect. The woman at the desk motions towards him and he feels limp as she hands him a glossy key card.
“You are in vault #40492. The bill will be collected upon exit. Thank you for shopping at Reviva. The simulation will appear in 5 minutes and simulation will end at 1PM. Thank you. “
The vault opens and the bedroom – as it was in his early twenties – is exactly how he remembered it to be: clothes strewn along the sides, files of university work propped on the table, the photograph of him and his sister balanced on his desk. There is a guitar case leaning at the foot of his bed and his socks are placed on top of the radiator to dry. It is darkening and the curtains are the same intruding canary yellow as it was many years ago, but now tinged deeply orange in the sunset. He sits on his bed and he is impatiently waiting as the clock on the desk ticks by with every unforgiving second.
His mind is chaotic. He recalls what it was like when he was with her those years ago in this exact room. He wonders if he can be as tender, what he could possibly feel. He wonders whether it would work, even. He is afraid she will emerge deformed from the process, or something else terribly wrong – but he calms himself down. Memories, in all their intricacies, blended into the body of a woman with the same skin and flesh – how far it would be from reality, sweetened by the gentle nuances of time and nostalgia. She would be the softened version of herself, the blurred and smoothed image of her in his mind. He can barely remember her anger and her spitting words. He only remembers her beauty.
The door at the back of the room gradually opens and he can make out the shape of a woman’s body as it steps away from the door. He recognizes her dress immediately: she is wearing the flowery dress with its chiffon layers, the same dress he used to run his hands through. She is now stepping towards him; the orange of the sunset dyes her skin into a peach glow and the brightness of the light unveils her face like silk on flesh.
He cannot think. She is there in, in warmth and blood, and there is something surreal about this. He can see the mole she had on her chin, the shoulder-length of curl of her hair. The way she moved in all her exact mannerisms – her arms swinging, slightly – and the cheeky, unreadable smile on her face. He sits motionless on the bed as she stands before him, and he is paralyzed in the rush of ache – god, the yearning and the tired stretches of time, years and years of longing with every penny saved until this moment of heaven on earth – of dreaming the day he would see her again after the angry separation and the accident. He last saw her alive in the hospital, merely a body covered with wires weaving back and forth from her arms, her face. She stands before him in this untainted version of herself. He stares and admires and loves and absorbs this flesh reincarnate of her. He can’t remember anything more beautiful. There is a vibration in his voice and he raises his arm weakly scrape his fingertips along her soft inner wrists.
“I’ve missed you. Fucking hell, I’ve missed you. So much.”
He sees her in the crevices of his memory. She walks closer towards him and wraps her arms around him. He can smell her scent in her hair and he can do nothing but hold her back, the rush of emotion pouring back like angry waterfall. His lips are pressed against the flesh of her arms and he just can’t understand how real they are, the softness of her flesh, the tiny freckles lined across her elbows. I have aged, he thinks to himself, but just for today, I want to pretend.
“How – how have you been doing?” He asks her as he holds her hands tightly, “I can’t wait to talk to you about everything.”
She is laughing at his reaction now, the way he knew she would.
“I saw you barely a day ago, silly! You’re so melodramatic. I’m fine – though yesterday, Professor Hugh gave me far too much reading to do. I don’t want to read-” she grins, almost mockingly, “when I can spend time with you.”
“Listen-” his palms fully enclose hers, settling her down next to him on the bed, “I know this isn’t going to help, but I have to say this. You won’t understand this, but – just, listen.”
“What’s going on? You look like you’re about to announce that you’re pregnant.”
He pauses, regaining his breath and control over his shuddering body, “Just – ten years down the line you’re going to be in a car crash, okay?” She looks sceptical now, but he continues on: “It will be my fault. I’m going to be in the car with you, and you will have swerved into a truck. You’ll do that because I will have told you that I have missed you for years. You will tell me you’re with someone else and there’s nothing I can do. There will be a throb in your throat and I’ll reach forward to touch it, just like that-“ his finger lightly touches along the hollow of her neck to the sides, trailing gently until it rested on a weak, pulsing beat – “and your eyes won’t be on the road. You’ll crash.”
She is staring at him, wide-eyed – and then bursts into laughter, “I didn’t know you were clairvoyant-” she is cut short by his pleading look.
“I’m sorry. I’ve wanted to say this to you for a long time-”
“Fine. Apology accepted, if that’s what you want.” She leans into him and her hand is on his shoulder. He wonders if it is all futile, in this moment of quiet realization. This was never her, was it? What the fuck am I doing?
His hand on her pulse is now searching the rest of her face, the contours of her chin, the spans of her eyelashes. She is a lifelike doll, saying all the same words she would say – in his mind – in the way she would pronounce them, perfectly in time to the words in his mind. He is deflated and leans forward to her lips in their eternal moue, but is suddenly stopped by her firm, locked hand on his chest.
“I’m sorry. You will have to purchase an additional Reviva Physical package to gain access to intimate gestures.” It was said in an oddly robotic way; it seemed out of place as it escaped the lips of the woman before him. Her eyes were glassier at this point, transfixed on him.
He looks jolted and confused: “Excuse me?”
“You are currently subscribed to Reviva Basic. The terms and conditions can be recited-”
“No, no. It’s – it’s alright.”
He is mute as he stares at her body with the sadness and the longing of a young man. He wonders about the memory he has of her – the ones not polished and buffed by time and tenderness, but glimpses of the way she would act after a particularly tiring day, her lipstick protruding away from the edges of her lips. He savours her tiring, irritated words brushed away like a cobweb on her sleeve, the way she would leave the milk on the table after she used it. He would have to tell her to put it back in the fridge and she would yell back I-will-do-it-later-for-god’s-sake, encapsulating those exasperating mornings together. He recalls way she would kick him in his sleep and how she left the shower floor wet every morning. And her hair, the way it would form a soft nest in the drain and he would moodily remind her to clean it up. She never did.
“What’s wrong?” she is still close to him, watching him intensely.
“Nothing. I was just thinking why you were always messy when you showered. I never could figure that out.”
“I don’t know what you mean, either.”
She would only know what he knew, because her memories would have been formed entirely from his, in all their gaps and unanswered questions. He decides that he only wants to sit near her, his hand resting on her lap, the chiffon layers running through his fingers. All he wanted to do was to spend time with her. When she sat in the half-darkness, she seemed the most real to him – in all her unsaid words, in a physical form not tainted by the carbon-copy of her words in his memory. He remembers how she would be an impetuous, spontaneous woman in her early twenties. As she sat before him, it struck him how she seemed like a pretty pull-toy with the string attached to her back, saying each sentence over and over again like an over-used motto: entirely, perfectly predictable. He knew the words to her poetry before she would write it.
He says, sleepily: “Sit here with me for the next few hours, okay? That’s all.” He leans against the wall and she is climbing over to sit near him, tucked under his arm. He can feel her breath against his wrist and the prickle of her flyaway hair on his shoulder. Time moves like a sliding leaf on the surface of the water, with each meandering moment meeting the next in perfect synchronisation. He can see the light outside gradually deepening until he can only identify her silhouette against the window. He knows she is not going to sleep – she blinks casually but otherwise remains entirely still, a warm mannequin. His eyes close and open again, each moment of closure lengthening as he grips her body with his arm, determined to enjoy every breathing moment with her. He eventually allows sleep to wash over his mind like a tender rinse, and murmurs to her in half-fatigue: “Good night. I’ve so missed you.”
And she replies, with a delicate hitch in her breath: “You know I miss you too.”
He wakes up on the floor of vault #40492 and the edges of the room are harshly sharp. There are a number of metallic chairs and tables scattered around the room, obligingly impartial, utterly antiseptic. It is the same bleached white as the main counter and there is a screen raised above his head with the bright marquee blinkering: Simulation Ended. Please Return the Card Key to the Front Reception. Thank you for experiencing Reviva.
The vault of the door slides open and his ears throb as the world’s noise had turns up threefold. A sudden burst of fresh air enters his lungs. He sees the streaming front reception and it is noticeably busier than it was earlier. There are numerous men and women queuing up, some chattering animatedly to one another, others with babies and children, a few looking pensive. He drops the card key in the return slot, recovers the lock of hair and – just as he is about to pay for the bill and exit the building – he briefly examines each of them, with their own stories, their own aching desires to make memory into flesh. The lonely, ragged man carrying a tail of blonde hair, licking his lips in anticipation. The stubborn child with traces of cat hair in his cupped hand. A woman who lost her sister to cancer. He turns away from them, ungluing himself from the world of lost opportunity, of humans hopelessly grasping what had already slipped through their fingers a long time ago. Time moves and it leaves us all behind. It leaves us choking in the midst of the storm, the bile that rises in our throat when we realize the loss is there – but the memory retains like hot coals searing your skin. We will feign it as best we can. It is a tantalizing opportunity to trick your mind for a few brief hours, the compulsion to unroll time and run our fingers back to a world of difference. We want to believe that mistakes can be washed away with a few well-placed bills. Loss, they said to themselves, is stifling. They need a reprieve.
He leaves the building into all its pure, undiluted white. He allows it to disappear behind him without a second glance back. The walk back to the office is languid, and he remembers the curves of her shoulders, the shape of her limbs, leaning against his. Holding her felt like two puzzle pieces joining together in perfect harmony. He can think of nothing else.
His co-workers lazily greet him as he makes his way back to his cubicle. A part of him is ready for the return to normalcy. His tea mug is now cold on his desk and he makes his way to the rickety tea machine at the back of the office. There is a deft numbness to his actions, but he is absolutely nonchalant. He sees his friend, who jovially slaps him on the shoulder while giving him a secretive wink. “How did the Reviva experience go, eh? Most people go for one thing.”
“Actually, I didn’t go. Went for a long fag break instead.”
He sips his tea delicately, and contemplates his answer. His other hand grips the lock of hair in his pocket with a new-found ferocity.
And he quietly concedes to the weeping child within him.
2 hours, free-writing.