My parents used to have the record to Cats. Even as an elementary schooler, I took great satisfaction in depressing myself, so I would put on the song, "Memories," and when it finished, I would reset the needle. Lying on the carpet, staring at the ceiling, my parents out to dinner and the babysitter upstairs, screaming at my brother that she was confining him to his room for the night for having disturbed her hair, I listened to a cat (a human playing a cat, but not in my head a human at all) freak out about being forgotten.
One line that killed me was, "the withered leaves collect at my feet/ and the wind, begins to moan," so upsetting because I've always had more empathy for animals than for people, and the thought of a cat outside in inclement weather nearly thrashed my heart to dust. But the line that just about swallowed my soul was, "I can smile at the old days/ I was beautiful then." Before I saw the musical, I pictured a feline Norma Desmond, pacing a dank, gothic outdoor cage at the local pound while clutching a necklace of Meow Mix beads (crumbling from age), singing to all the families passing her by as they searched for a Persian baby kitty with an adorably smooshed face. I badly wanted to take that singing cat home and Fancy Feast her until death. But my mom was allergic. And then I saw the Cats stage show, was repulsed by the music theateriness of it, the ratty leotards on its over-enunciating performers, and the general idea of performance.
I've been thinking a lot about the nature of memory since the Baby I Babysit For got a tropical fish tank. Popular wisdom says that fish have no long-term memory; that they forget things almost immediately like they've got automatic Eternal-Sunshine-Of-The-Spotless-Mind-machines inside their heads. The movie Finding Nemo further popularized this belief in the character of Dory, a blue Tang fish who, if not a fish, would be considered Disney's first Alzheimer effort. The Baby got a blue Regal Tang and also named her Dory. (Give the kid a break. She's not even three. And "Dory" is a big improvement over "Bill," which, for awhile, was the name being given to everything that crossed our paths, even all the rocks in her parents' courtyard.)
The Baby's Dory turns out to be a real hardass. Most of the other fish in the tank have come and gone, victims to a disease called, appropriately, Ick, but Dory, like Bruce Willis's character in Unbreakable, just won't die. But here's the thing: I think she knows that she's outlasted the rest. And in order for her to be capable of this awareness, she would have to have some kind of sustained memory.
When Dory first showed up in the tank with the original batch of fish, she was what old, jazzy ladies call a "Nervous Nellie." She hid behind rocks and coral. When the baby and I put our fingers up to the glass, Dory would jump and dart away like we were armed robbers who'd just told her to leave the bank before anyone got hurt. But then, within a few days, the fish grew increasingly cocky. This said to me that she understood that she had a sense of history, and history is a function of collected scraps of memory. If a tankmate was in her way, she'd budge it with her wide, flat body. She even, for a very short period of time before the Descent Of The Ick, became the ringleader of the two other Tangs introduced to the aquarium-- Singapore and Powder Blue. Powder Blue was very pretty, but lasted less than twenty-four hours, perhaps subscribing to the philosophy of leaving behind a beautiful corpse. Singapore I watched die, and doing so made me wish I could construct a tiny, tiny respirator and slide it over the fish's gasping mouth, even though it wouldn't have helped.
After her friends had been flushed down the toilet, Dory seemed to remember that they'd once been there. I'd heard that her memory was supposed to recycle itself something like every ten seconds, but even after ten hours Dory still appeared to be agitated by her loss, like an East L.A. gang leader stripped of fellow members. Last week the Baby and I stood at the tank, watching her zip around with hostile intent, like, "Hey, where's my mothafucking posse?"
And then I looked at the Baby, and I realized that if I were to disappear from her life at this moment-- if she moved to another city, if her parents no longer needed me-- her brain would erase me over time until I swirled invisibly with the rest of the other black hole mysteries of her pre-four-year-old life. But where and when would this happen? Because while the Baby can't remember her first birthday, she surprised me a few days ago when I was telling her about my new bikini, and she added, "Because Scooter chewed your old one." Months ago I'd told her that my rabbit had bitten through the strings of my pink string bikini. I was shocked that she hadn't forgotten this idle talk from the winter. At what point would this information become fuzzy, I wondered? If from day to day, month to month, the Baby could remember what had come before, what was the increment at which these moments would lose out to a larger narrative, like back cars snapping from the main train and rolling off toward the engine graveyard? (Okay, yes, I've been listening to a lot of Thomas The Tank Engine CD's with her as of late.)
Then I got a letter from my teacher, who said regarding a chapter I'd written about my ex-boyfriend, Ryan: "He seems to be going vague on the page...Put in more colors, more smells, brand names." And now I am currently troubled by the inherently maddening process of turning memory inside out for others to see. Returning to a Cats lyric: "I remember the time I knew what happiness was." It turns out that "time" was when I didn't have any notion of past, present, or future, and on top of that, had no obligation or desire to write about the three weighty hags.