a paper orchestra

It was the greatest magic trick I’ve ever seen. I witnessed it at wedding reception, before dinner was served. A magician came to each table and performed a few card tricks, taking time to make small talk with everyone.

“I’d like your help with a card trick, but first, your name…”

“Amy.”

“Amy. I had an aunt named Amy. She took “aim” at “me” with a beautiful blouse that had flowers, just like yours.” 

As someone who writes a lot of dialogue, I wanted to correct him. “Those aren’t words someone might actually say.” But I ignored the temptation to set him straight, the same way I ignored the floral pattern on Amy’s blouse, which looked like a wreath on a winning racehorse.

“Amy, please show your card to the person sitting next to you,” he continued. “What’s your name, sir?

He was pointing to me. “Hubert Jenkins,” I wanted to respond, but I was afraid Amy might start addressing me as such. That sounded even more unbearable than sitting through his stilted patter. So I decided to tell the truth. 

“Michael.”

“Michael-Michael on a unicycle, with curly hair and skin so fair.” I winced. 

One by one, he went around every table, doing card tricks and finding tortured rhymes for everyone’s name. At the end of the evening, he borrowed the d.j.’s microphone and asked everyone to stand up.

“There are approximately one hundred and twenty-five guests at tonight’s event, and I believe I met all of you. When I point to you and call your name, please sit down.” 

Was this guy for real? I couldn’t remember the name of the man sitting to my left, and I was introduced to him twice.

“Gary, please sit down.” The guy he pointed to looked surprised, then took his seat. Then he pointed to the woman sitting next to him. “Hensley, please sit down.” Hensley smiled broadly, astonished that for the first time in her life, someone had gotten her name right. “Esteban, sit down. Shea sit down, Lucy sit down…” At first, the audience reacted with quiet amazement, but that quickly turned to unabashed laughter as his feat became more and more impossible. Soon, the laughter gave way to silent self-loathing, as everyone jealously wondered how he could remember a hundred and twenty-five names, but we couldn’t remember what we ordered for dinner. Was it the chicken or the fish? This went on for five or so minutes, but he kept skipping over a tall woman in her mid-forties, whose name he was obviously struggling to recall. When she was the last person standing, he cautiously approached and studied her like a painting on a museum wall.

“Did you change your appearance since when we first met, ma’am?”

“Yes,” I muttered under my breath. “She got plastic surgery while they were bringing out the fish.”

“I was probably wearing my glasses,” she responded.

“Would you mind putting them back on?” The audience waited with bated breath as she placed her glasses over her eyes, completely changing her appearance. A big smile of relief came to his face.

“Carolyn, sit down!” And the crowd erupted in cheers.

It’s no great secret how he did it. It was just a matter of burning a thought into his head, then accurately recalling it. But still it was extraordinary to watch. He’s probably the best magician I’ve ever seen. If only I could remember his name.

That right there is my problem. There are so many moments of my life that I simply don’t remember. A friend might recount an hilarious event, and I’ll laugh uncontrollably as if it were the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Then he’ll remind me that I was there, and my laughter turns to embarrassment. Where does my mind go when it’s supposed to be present?

When I was a junior in college, I spent a semester in Spain. The stories I could tell would make you howl with delight… if only I could remember them. Sure, I can recall bits and pieces, but not enough to make a narrative out of it. At the time, I was renting a room from a widow who was raising her two teenage daughters. Her name was Maria Angeles, and even though she had dozens of students moving in and out of her small apartment, I could tell she liked me more than most. We’d hang out in the kitchen, like a couple of chatty housewives, while she taught me how to prepare a proper tortilla de patatas. We went to the market together,  she invited me to tea at her sister’s home… I was one of the girls. And when we learned that her fourteen year old daughter, Carmen, was going on a date, Maria Angeles and I insisted on meeting the boy first.

“I’m your mother!” shouted Maria Angeles. 

“And I’m your American!”

That’s typical of my memories of Spain. Fragments, but not the whole picture. If only I had kept a diary, I could point to a specific story and extrapolate the profound impact it had on my life  — like a Ted Talk.

There was no diary, but I did have the next best thing — daily letters that I wrote to my college girlfriend back in New Jersey. Her name was Jessica, and with her porcelain skin and jet black hair, she looked like a French model. Not the snobby, anorexic kind that are so intimidating. She was the friendly, cute kind you might bump into on the streets of New York City, holding a map and valise. “Excusez-moi,” she’d say, “I am looking for a handsome man to show me ze city.”

The first time I saw Jessica was at a Thanksgiving dinner. I could barely make eye contact, she was so pretty. That probably made me appear introspective and complex, instead of what I really was, awkward and wilting. We spoke for a few minutes, then she disappeared with her handsome boyfriend, who himself looked like he jumped off a movie screen and was preparing to kick a bucket of popcorn on my head. So I was shocked when in February, a handwritten letter from her arrived at my dorm room. She said she was moving nearby and we should get together sometime. I checked the envelope to make sure it was addressed to me.

On the day we hung out together, she mentioned her boyfriend was history. Sensing an opening, I jumped all over it.

“What’s his number? I’m gonna ask him out.”

Jessica laughed and immediately fell in love with me. I was a little more discerning, so it took me the rest of the afternoon. Over time, the love in our relationship grew deep. It wasn’t the kind of love that older people have, where they’re obliged to schlep to the drug store to pick up cold medicine for their spouse. This was much better love. Passionate and exciting better love. That’s what young love is. Our relationship was like a furnace, consuming our outside friendships so it could burn white hot. It was all sacrificed to the flame and the heat became everything. 

In public, I felt good about myself, enjoying how impressed people were that someone like her could love someone like me.

“Is she a hostage?” a waitress might ask. “Blink if you’re in danger, honey.” 

When I broke the news to Jessica that I’d be spending part of junior year abroad, we were both heartbroken. It was only for a few months, but at that age, it was impossible to imagine a moment without each other. 

While in Spain, we both counted the days until my return, and we swore our undying love. Exactly one year later, she was swearing undying love to someone else. The break-up took me by surprise. It wasn’t like we constantly fought or argued. There was none of that. She just decided it was time to move on. That’s what happens with young love. It burns hot then burns out.

Maybe it was because of how abruptly it ended, but I fell into a depression. It was so deep I felt like I was at the bottom of a well, where everything around me was cold and dark. My heart stopped, and so did my will. 

“How dare she continue her life without me! Well, I won’t!”

With few distractions from the outside world,I sat wounded and alone in the well I dug for myself, replaying the key moments of our relationship in my head. Sometimes I’d look for clues as to why she broke up with me, other times it was just because I missed her. I felt so horribly weak.

Eventually, I sensed that my memories were growing untrustworthy, making me doubt what I felt in my heart. What was real and what had I made up? An article I read explained why. Apparently, each time you recall a memory, you’re not recalling the original event, but rather the last time you recalled it. So the memory itself morphs, like a game of telephone, until it eventually becomes whatever it wants to be. Remembering Jessica felt like a fool’s errand.

Years later, I met Cynthia. We hit it off instantly even though I was still preoccupied with my groundbreaking research in the field of self-pity. Cynthia had a vulnerability about her too, but somehow hers looked like strength whereas mine felt like weakness.This became most obvious whenever uncomfortable emotions arose. Whereas someone else might change the subject and run away in fear, Cynthia always held her ground —acknowledging it, dealing with it, then letting it pass. When it came to difficult feelings, she could hold her ground like a matador in the ring.

On our third date, she invited me to dinner at her apartment in Hollywood and I discovered that even though she was in her early thirties, in some ways she lived like a child. I watched uneasily as she sautéed vegetables in a pan with a wobbly handle. It rocked from side to side, threatening to spill cooking oil onto the flames. I have no right to criticize in the kitchen. I’m the kind of person who thinks lemon water requires a recipe, but I do know a fire hazard when I see one. It’s something both of my parents would’ve scolded me for.

“Why isn’t anyone looking after her?” I wondered. I decided to buy something for her, but I was almost too embarrassed to give it to her. It was tucked inside a brown shopping bag, like something your grandfather might bring on a Sunday visit. Maybe a loaf of rye bread or a dozen eggs he couldn’t fit in his fridge. 

“Ooh, what is it?” she asked excitedly. Immediately, I felt stupid.

“It’s nothing really… it’s just something I noticed you didn’t have.” I cringed at the inappropriateness of my gift. It wasn’t romantic, it wasn’t cool, and it exposed me as a nerd far sooner than necessary. 

She opened the bag and pulled out the contents — a small fire extinguisher.

“Maybe just keep it in your kitchen.” I said. “Not that you’ll ever need it.”

I saw the smile fall from her face. She walked towards me, then hugged me tight. I could feel her tears against my cheek and then I was hers.

Years later, I was working on a project and I realized the stories from my time in Spain might help. I didn’t keep a diary back then, but I did send daily letters to Jessica. I put them on thin, onion skin paper that was so delicate, you almost had to be careful what you wrote.It would’ve been thirty years since she received those letters, but maybe she’d recall something about that time that might spur my own memories.

According to Facebook, which is the source of all information impartial and true, Jessica was now happily married with two kids. Surprisingly, even though our lives went their separate ways, we were now both living on the opposite side of the country, only a few miles apart. I considered reaching out to her, but stopped myself. What if I did and she responded with, “I’m sorry. Michael Jamin from….?” 

I didn’t think she’d completely forget who I was. That would be really crazy, but I did worry my call wouldn’t generate a warm enough reaction from her. It needed to be effusive, I decided. Anything less would mean that I was just one in a series of relationships she had, and if that were the case, I didn’t want to know. 

This was too much for me to contemplate on my own, so I floated the idea past Cynthia during one of our walks.

“I’m thinking of reaching out to Jessica. To see what she remembers about that time when I was in Spain.”

“Oh my God, you have to!” She said it without a moment’s hesitation. 

“Why?”

“Are you kidding? This is a window to your past. How often do you get that chance?” That’s the problem with Cynthia. If it’s about exploring an emotion, or opening yourself up to vulnerability, she’ll push you out of an airplane.

“I don’t know…”

“You have to,” she repeated as if my life depended on it. Here I was toying with the idea of connecting with an old girlfriend, yet my wife was the one saying, “Trust me.”

  *   *   *

I’m pulling up to Jessica’s house. She suggested I come at 9 am, and even though it’s only a ten minute drive, I don’t want to be late. So here I am — fifteen minutes early. I think that’s a new addition to my personality since Jessica knew me. Being overanxious. I don’t remember being this anxious when I was young. Whatever, I’m not gonna worry about it. 

Of course I can’t knock on her door so early. I don’t have that kind of relationship with her anymore. I’ll just sit in my car until I’m fashionably late. Like two minutes late. No. One minute late. But not here, though. That would be weird. I’ll park a few houses down, even if it means creeping out the owner who’s taking out her garbage.

The clock in my car turns 9:01. Let’s do this. I hop out and walk to Jessica’s house. How’s my hair? 

Damn, the houses here are nice. Expensive. You’re doing well if you live here. That one’s Jessica’s. It’s an old craftsman, twice the size of our house. Maybe more. Her husband is running laps around me. Maybe I should turn around. What?! Don’t even think about turning around. You still have a full head of hair. That counts for something. 

I press the doorbell. Bong! It’s an impressive chime. It sounds like someone important has arrived at the door — but instead it’s just me.

The woman down the street is staring at me. I smirk. “Hi, Sheila. You can stop looking now.”

Jessica swings open the door and it occurs to me, I haven’t given any thought as to what I should do next. What’s the right way to greet someone you were in love with thirty years ago? It’s not a handshake. God no, that would be awful. A hug would be fine. Hugs can be intimate or they can be collegial… there’s a whole range of hugs that are appropriate for every occasion. But now that moment has passed, and now I’m just standing here, getting soaked in a downpour of awkwardness. I should’ve just hugged her right when she opened the door.

“Should we high-five?” I offer.

She smiles and brings me in for a hug. Okay, good idea. A hug can just be a hug.

She’s now giving me a tour of her home. I don’t really want a tour, but I say I do. I just don’t have a lot of time. I want to talk about us, and that time when I was in Spain.  

“Relax,” I remind myself. “She’ll bring it up when she’s ready.”

It’s really a lovely home, though. Lots of original wood and old charm. Boy she did well. I find myself stepping lightly on the floor, like walking through a museum. I’ve never made a trip like this into the past. I’m trying to observe all of her actions and all of my feelings, the way Cynthia instructed. I’m completely in the present, now. Maybe too much so.

“Your house is amazing. I love it!”

“We got lucky. We bought it in foreclosure so it was great deal.”

“That’s smart!” 

I’m only pretending to know that it’s smart. I know nothing about real estate.

“The piano and guitar are my husband’s. He’s very musical.” I nod again. Seriously? You’re going to talk about him? Why do you think I want to know more about him, or even anything about him? I want to talk about you. What are you like now? Are you happy? Can I ask you a personal question — did you ever cry after we broke up?

“I like your sweater,” she says, interrupting my thoughts. I’m glad she noticed, and now I’m hoping she’ll compliment me on something else. Anything, really. Like the number of fingers on my hand. 

“I love the way you have five fingers,” she might say. “That’s something I always loved about you.”

“Well, if you loved my five fingers, you probably shouldn’t have broken up with me.” 

It’s an oddly insecure thought to have, especially given how happy my life turned out. I constantly tell Cynthia how grateful I am for her. And we make each other laugh, often through text messages which are full of dirty double entendres. Sometimes she worries that our daughters will see them. See what, that we’re in love? So I’m not the one who needs reassuring. The version of me that was tossed away, he’s the one who needs it.

“This is the sun room,” says Jessica. “When it’s nice, we spend all of our time here.”

“I can see why.” 

Jessica isn’t how I remembered her. Her hair is graying and she wears it differently, but it’s her energy that has changed the most. She’s a mother now, and she gives off that vibe. Concerned. Responsible. Her head seems to be elsewhere at times. Mothers always have a million things to worry about. People grow. They’re supposed to. That part doesn’t surprise me, but the way she dresses does. It’s conservative. Back in the day she was much edgier. Two steps ahead of what everyone else was wearing. She wears glasses now with thick, oversized frames. I see lots of wearing glasses like these and I don’t like them. It draws attention away from their faces, hiding their most important feature — their eyes. 

When my daughter was a toddler, I read her a picture book about a tiger. There was pivotal moment in the story, but the illustrator drew the tiger with her face turned away, so you couldn’t see her eyes. Was the tiger mad or was she resigned?

“I can’t see the eyes!” Lola cried. She turned the page, hoping to see the tiger’s face on the opposite side of the paper, but the story had moved on. “I can’t see the eyes!” 

I hope Jessica removes her glasses at some point so I can see her eyes. Is it rude to ask her to take off her glasses? If I did ask, she’d probably laugh. “I won’t be able to see you then.” But I don’t care. I’d like to see her eyes.

We’re in the backyard now, underneath the canopy of two ancient trees, soaring high above the roof of her house.

“Look at these incredible camphors,” I say.

“Wow, you really know your trees!” 

I don’t. I just know the names of certain trees. That part of me is definitely new to her. The guy who cares about trees. A few years ago, I downloaded an app that identifies them. The incessant sunshine of Southern California wears me down emotionally and I get depressed. Certain trees, like camphors, offer so much shade. It’s the shade that saves me. Learning their names is how I thank them. 

Jessica walks back to the house, but I stop to imagine the sound the raindrops must make when they hit the leaves of these massive trees. A paper orchestra, so tiny and delicate. 

“If I lived here,” I call out, “I’d force you to stand outside with me on rainy days.”

I’m wondering if she’ll ask why, but Jessica doesn’t take the bait. She doesn’t want to know me that well anymore, so she keeps her distance. Why won’t she give me that? When we were together she would’ve been curious. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my memories have been lying to me.

We’re back inside now and we pass her teenage daughter in the hallway. I try not to stare, but she looks so much like Jessica when I knew her. 

“This is Mae,” she says, and her daughter shakes my hand. She’s more interested in whatever’s on her phone. Still, I feel guilty, like I’m keeping a giant secret from her.

“I bet you’re wondering who I really am,” I say to her with my eyes. She doesn’t care. She probably thinks I’m a tax consultant or a financial planner meeting with her parents. Something grown-up and impossibly boring. My sweater isn’t helping any, but at least her mother likes it. I’m relieved when Mae continues on her way. 

I whisper to Jessica, “How much money did you save by giving her your face?” She laughs. I wonder if one day, years from now, something might trigger a memory in Mae.

  “Do you remember that man I met on the staircase that day?” she’d say to her mother. “The one who stared at me. What was that all about?”

How would Jessica respond? Would she say I was just an old friend? Or would she tell her our story? Some stories never get told again.

This is the basement and it’s the last stop on the tour. I’m leaving soon so I try to soak it all in. It’s finished and comfy, with family photos displayed on the shelves. One in particular catches my attention. It’s a picture of Jessica standing next to her husband. They’re both smiling. He’s smiling. She’s smiling. But something about it bothers me and I move a little closer.

“Why am I drawn to this?” I ask myself. Then I realize. His arm is draped around her shoulder. It doesn’t look right. Almost cordial. 

“Idiot. That’s not how you hold her. Put your arm around her waist and pull her in tight.” 

I’m surprised by how much this bothers me. I want her to be treated with more affection. I know it’s wrong for me to think this. You can’t learn anything about someone’s marriage from a few photos and who am I to pass judgment? And yet, I don’t stop thinking this way. I like it. It feels good to be protective of something that’s no longer mine.

“We can stop looking now!” yells Jessica. 

I’m busted — caught red-handed, making unsubstantiated decisions about her personal life. 

I turn towards her, my mind scrambling for an excuse. I’m relieved to discover she’s not talking about me, but a small, vintage suitcase that she just found. She carries it to the couch.

“Come have a seat,” she says. I pause for a moment. Do I sit on the couch next to her or take one of the chairs? The choice sends a message. The man I am sits on the chair, appropriate and at a distance. The man I used to be sits next to her on the couch. Who am at this moment?

I don’t want to take too long, so I sit on the couch. Not too close, though. Just out of reach. 

Jessica removes her glasses for the first time. There she is. Now I see her.  She slowly opens the suitcase.

“I kept everything,” she says with reverence, revealing a bundle of letters that I sent her from Spain. A ribbon holds them together to keep them from scattering the way memories so easily do. I’m surprised to see she actually kept all my correspondence, and for so many years. She reaches into the suitcase then stops herself, almost afraid to touch them. 

“Thank you for these,” she says quietly. 

There’s a tenderness in her voice and even though it’s been thirty years since last I heard it, I instantly recognize it.

We look at each other, a stack of yellowing papers between us — each note so fragile but full. It feels different with her now, and her eyes begin to tear.I try to think of something to say. Something kind and intimate. Something that would tell her exactly how I feel. But instead I say say nothing and just hold this moment in my head — content to be remembered.  

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Author Details
For the past 25 years, Michael Jamin has been a professional television writer/showrunner. His credits include King of the Hill, Beavis & Butthead, Wilfred, Maron, Just Shoot Me, Rules of Engagement, Brickleberry, Tacoma FD and many more.