The Fish Kite
Mary E. Lowd
Joan opened the door to see her ex-fiancÚ slumped against the door frame. Leland was a lion of a man. Tall, blond, preternaturally confident. She'd only seen him looking haggard and haunted like this once before, ten years ago, when his memory drugs had worn off. That had been the beginning of their end.
"Come inside," she said.
Leland followed her like a lamb through the apartment, stepping carefully around piles of toys that Joan's daughter hadn't put away. Kayla was at kindergarten, and Joan had another half hour before she had to go pick her up. Taping together an old ex wasn't what she wanted to do with the time, but she'd known this was coming. Ever since Leland had lost the election for governor.
Joan fixed tea for both of them, and they sat down at the kitchen table. She placed her hand on the book she wished she was reading.
Leland stared at his tea. He didn't say anything.
"How much do you remember?" Joan asked. He was clearly off of his memory drugs again.
"Everything," Leland said.
Just like last time. The idea of it--of Leland being his full self, not the self he liked to edit himself down to--hit her in a wave, crashing down, fanning out, seeping into the sand of her being. Moving on from Leland had been easy, because once he wiped his memory clean of her, it was like the man she loved no longer existed. Except in her own memories. But if he remembered all the time they'd spent together, all the in-jokes, all the suffering after their friend Michael had died, Leland was back for real. This was her Leland. She'd been married to Andrew for eight years now, most of them happy. She didn't want Leland back, but part of her soul reached out, desperate to reconnect with the person she'd lost.
But it wouldn't last.
"So, what is this?" Joan asked. "Some sort of second goodbye? Closure before you start taking the drugs again?"
"I'm not taking them."
Joan wanted to argue with him. To say, "For now." She wanted to believe that if he'd abandoned his memories with her that he was a man who'd always abandon his memories. A man defined by abandonment. But there was no room in his mood, his posture, his tone to question his words. He meant them. "Why this time?"
Leland looked up from his untouched tea. The sparkle that had always characterized his eyes had become a hard glint. His entire demeanor had taken on an edgy, soulful quality that he'd never had with her. It was hard to be edgy or soulful when you'd never experienced the slightest hardship. At least, not that you could remember. He'd always erased the slightest pain, so as far as he knew, he'd lived a golden life.
"Why do you think?" he asked.
Joan frowned. She'd never understood him taking the memory drugs in the first place. Why would she know why he'd quit?
"If I forget that I lost the election. . . If I forget that I ever ran. . . I'll want to run again." He sounded angry, frustrated. Either with himself or the world. Probably both.
"Right," Joan said.
He'd be stuck in a loop. Everyone knew about his memory drug addiction now. It had been all over the news. His campaign managers hadn't known to hide it, because Leland hadn't warned them. He hadn't remembered it himself. He never did, until something went wrong. Then the floodgates opened, and he remembered every failure he'd erased from his life, every moment of pain. Each painful memory reminding him of the next in a long chain.
Joan remembered finding Leland on the floor after Michael's death, sobbing over an orange bottle of pills, waiting until she got home to take them. He'd blubbered about the tiniest slights and insults; minor injuries from his early childhood were raw again like fresh wounds, especially a broken fish kite that he'd spent hours making as a child. He had made her look for that fish kite with him in his mother's attic over and over again, convinced that it must be carefully saved somewhere. Yet they could never find it. When he was on the drugs, he didn't remember it had been trampled, crumpled in the mud. He only remembered the joy and pride of making it.
The pain of Michael's death had brought all these memories flooding back, one painful memory leading him to the next. Leland had been taking the memory drugs for so long, returning to them any time anything went wrong in his life, he didn't know how to handle pain anymore, other than to pop the pills and erase the memories, one by one, again.
In spite of the addiction, Joan had hoped Leland would win the election. She'd told herself that his unending optimism, untouched by the slightest remembered failure, would be an asset to a politician. Mostly, though, she'd been afraid of this encounter, and as soon as his addiction had hit the news, she'd known it was coming.
How many of the days since the election had Leland spent crying? How hard had he worked to pull himself together simply to be here, sitting in front of her? Part of her admired that work and wanted to see him heal; part of her was mad that he'd barged back into her life after all these years.
This was not her problem. These were not her wounds to heal. But he'd come to her--out of all the people he'd erased--for a reason. Maybe she could help him start.
"It's time to grow up," Joan said. The words were harsh, but she tried to keep the tone gentle.
"I don't know how."
She wanted to snap, "No one does." Instead, she summoned the patience that she'd been developing with her five-year-old and said, "Start from scratch. Start small."
"It's all so big," Leland said, raising his hands and holding them wide. Then instead of dropping his hands back to the table, he held them there, in front of his face as if warding off blows from invisible monsters.
"Pick one wound. A symbol."
Joan cleared away the tea, tucked her book under one arm, and went to the craft closet. She pulled out an armful of Kayla's art supplies--paper in different colors, string, tape, glitter, glue, scissors. She dumped the stuff on the kitchen table in front of Leland, and then she fetched some kebab skewers from the kitchen to work as sticks.
When Kayla had spilled chocolate milk on a self-portrait she'd been drawing--a charming smiley-face person with stick limbs jutting out at weird angles--she'd cried and cried until Joan made her draw a new one. A replacement.
"Show me the fish kite," Joan said.
"I can't do that." Leland shoved the art supplies away from him, into the middle of the table. A tear formed in the corner of his eye. "I remember telling you about it. You know what it looks like, as well as I can describe."
"Make a new one." Joan checked the time on her phone. She still had plenty of time, but she needed to get out. She couldn't help her ex-lover make a kite like he was her child. He needed to do this alone. And even if he didn't, she needed to keep her distance. "Look, I have to go pick up my daughter from kindergarten. Make a kite or not. If you make one, I'm sure my daughter would love to help you fly it when we get back. If not, lock the door on your way out."
As she drove to the school, Joan argued with herself inside her head. She was sure that her harshness had sent Leland running. He was probably pouring a new bottle of pills down his throat right now.
When she got to the school, she sat in her car, listening to music, unable to focus on her book. She kept telling herself that she'd made the right choice, walking out like that. She could not blame herself for his weakness. No amount of gentleness had saved him last time. She would not be disappointed when she got home and Leland was gone. Run back to his drugs. His haze of forgetfulness. It would be easier.
And it would have been easier, getting home and finding him already gone.
Joan didn't expect to get home with her daughter and find the table covered in scraps of paper and Leland covered in smears of glitter and glue. She wasn't prepared for how helpless and funny he looked. She wasn't prepared for how interested she'd be in seeing the legendary fish kite. She didn't want to feel this invested.
The kite was a simple oval with a long triangular fin on one end. The whole thing was covered in blue, green, and gray scales--little triangles of paper, shimmering with smudges of glitter. It looked like something Kayla could have made. The five-year-old loved it.
"My kite didn't look anything like this," Leland said.
"I bet it did, and you've just built it up in your memory."
"My memories are clear."
Joan arched an eyebrow at him, and Leland grumbled something she couldn't quite make out about the drugs blocking memories rather than messing with them. She picked up the kite. "Come on, there's a park across the street, and I think there's enough of a breeze today."
The kite wouldn't fly, no matter how hard Kayla or Leland ran with it. But it shimmered in the January sunlight, and Kayla laughed every time it crashed down in the soggy grass. Her child's laughter was like fine Syrah--a deep, rich, red wine darker than Merlot--and just a few sips could make Joan drunk with love and happiness. It seemed to have a similar enough effect on Leland. His eyes started sparkling again, instead of glinting. Joan loved that sparkle.
If Leland had gotten clean of the memory drugs ten years ago, they might have been doing this with their own child. But then Joan wouldn't have Kayla.
After one more swoop-and-crash, Joan said, "It's time to go home."
"What do we do next?" Leland asked.
It was time for Joan and Leland to part ways. She needed to get back to her real life. "Kayla takes a nap, and I read the book you interrupted."
"No I mean--"
"I know what you mean," Joan said. "But I'm not your therapist. I'm not your fiancÚ. I'm not even your friend. We haven't spoken in years."
He looked away, hurt filling his eyes. He was so fragile now. He had been all along, but when he'd been on the memory drugs, he could hide it. A lion made of glass.
"Hang the fish kite up on your wall," Joan said. She hoped it would help him. Even if it didn't, this was all she had to give.
"It'll remind me of what happened to the original one. . ."
"That's the idea," Joan said. "If you're not taking the drugs anymore, then you can't forget the pain. What you can do is accept it, and move on."
He nodded. Pensive.
"Look at it when you miss the old one." That would be better than all the years he'd spent looking for it, forgetting it was gone. "Find other symbols. Other small wounds you can heal." She held a hand out for him to shake. He looked surprised and held his arms wide, offering a hug instead, but Joan thought that would be too much. She left her hand out, and finally he took it. A simple handshake. Yet his touch was a flash of magic--transportation for an instant back to her life ten years ago. A place she didn't want to go back to, yet missed nevertheless.
"Thank you," he said. "As soon as I remembered you, I knew you were the person I needed to come to. I'm sorry I erased you all those years ago."
Joan had never expected an apology. She didn't know how to feel about it. She wasn't sure that she wanted it anymore. She had once. Long ago.
Joan watched Leland leave. His steps were hesitant, like a baby lamb, scared of everything and uncertain. If his resolve failed, and he relapsed onto the memory drugs, he'd be back to perform this weird ritual again. Maybe not right away, but eventually.
Kayla pulled on Joan's hand and said, "Mommy, what was the fish-kite man's name? I can't remember."
"His name's Leland," Joan answered. "But you don't have to remember it. I don't think we'll see him again."