How absurd: that she would wake up one morning and begin pouring a cup of coffee from the carafe of the coffee maker in a kitchen that seemed familiar and yet realize halfway through the pouring that she didn't really recognize one thing in the room. She knew the names of the appliances and what they did, and she knew the names of the colors in the floor tile and the flowers printed on the wallpaper; that is, she knew the kitchen in the way she knew a Vermeer painting she'd seen only in a book. And the pantry—this couldn't be her pantry, could it? Narrow shelves on the door held small jars filled with whole cardamom and cloves and pink peppercorns, a tube of wasabi paste, a tin of celery seed, a cellophane package of dried seaweed. Reading the labels of these items she felt a detached interest, as though she was reading the explanatory notes posted beside exhibits in a museum. Tarragon's distinctive character has a special affinity for fish, poultry, and seafood. Though she understood it was likely she had arrived at this moment through ordinary means—days accumulating, leases signed, furniture moved, money earned, bulging grocery bags ferried home—the last thing she remembered was driving along I-80 in Knox's Honda hatchback. Do you have to put your feet up there? he was saying. The shoes pressed against his dashboard were a worn pair of grey mesh running shoes. So where had these terrycloth blue slippers come from? Had she actually sewn these yellow and white checked curtains? She opened a drawer beside the sink. She fingered a cluster of metal measuring spoons as though they were riddles or runes.
She and Knox had argued across Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming. He'd essentially kidnapped her, said they'd drive until she came to her senses. What exactly did she think she would do without him? Did she really think she could take care of herself? He took her general lackadaisicalness as evidence of helplessness: her refusal to prefer Mexican food over Italian food or vice versa, her perfectly well-paying but ridiculous part-time job, her choosing to spend her days off reading novels in Spanish rather than sweeping up her hair from the bathroom floor. The car interior smelled of Windex and Armor All. She guzzled bottled water and insisted they stop at every rest stop. Inside these air-conditioned oases she rattled change in her pockets and pondered her destiny. Perhaps there were two kinds of women—those who wanted to run away from men and those who wanted to run away with men. One of the latter had been Miranda, who finally did run off when they were seniors, with a fisherman, to Alaska, gone. She herself hadn't wanted to move in with Knox, she just hadn't wanted to live with her mother anymore. She had earned a permanent bruise and a dent in her shinbone from the bar on the hideaway bed in the living room of the tiny apartment that smelled like her mother's stale clothes. There were no paper towels in the restroom and the electric dryers were out of order. She ran her wet hands through her hair. She pinched her cheeks. In all of the creative writing classes she'd taken in college there was one student who wrote a story that ended with the protagonist waking up after a horrendous misadventure to discover it was only a dream. The professors always scoffed. That's cheating, they scolded. That's breaking your contract with the reader. But she thought those stories were profound. They spoke to the strong desire (universal? peculiar to her?) to transform some botched bit of disastrousness into something your subconscious had cooked up. You could just pinch your cheeks and rinse out your mouth and walk out the door, shaking off weeks or months or years, suddenly as free as she imagined she'd once been, as fresh as a new leaf unfolding, a girl about to board a train, a girl about whom no one knew her destination.
She'd read about strange phenomena, but this took the cake. She was sitting on a wooden bench in the waiting room of King Street Station in Pioneer Square looking at a suitcase and a trunk. The suitcase was shiny and red with a black handle; the trunk was cheap, battered, blue. She knew it was King Street Station because she and her girlfriends used to take the bus down here after school to smoke, goof off, and flirt with sailors on leave. She and Miranda always hoped something outrageous would happen—that one of them would run off with a guy or they'd lift a traveler's wallet stuffed with hundred dollar bills. So she knew exactly where she was, and she had the impression that the suitcase and trunk were important, but that was about it. She stood, turned her back on the luggage, and tried to walk away. She made it as far as the edge of the marble compass at the center of the entry hall floor, but her heart thudded like mad, as though her blood was solidifying. The air in the station had all been breathed before. She returned to the bench and her heart slowed. Her features, her causes—her actual self was as remote and unfathomable as the drab acoustic panels of the dropped ceiling. She was afraid to check her purse for a ticket. The last thing she remembered was falling asleep on Miranda's couch listening to Cat Stevens sing "Moonshadow."
"That's ridiculous." Miranda giggled into the phone. That is, she knew the voice belonged to Miranda, her best friend since the first grade, even though she couldn't see her. She knew herself to be Em, M, short for Melinda ever since Miranda decided in second grade that their names were too much alike. Surely Em was a moniker more suitable for an easygoing girl like Miranda who liked kissing and watermelon lip gloss and strawberry shampoo and rainbow sherbet, whereas Melinda was moody and contemplative and nursed darker proclivities—masturbation, bittersweet chocolate, and the poetry of Sylvia Plath. The Franklin family's rotund tabby purred beside her, his whiskers tickling her arm. Time shuddered inside her. The air in the remembered room was warm and dusty and she couldn't tell if it was sultry summer warmth or furnace-powered warmth. Was this a Saturday during the school year or one of hundreds of summer afternoons? Who was Miranda talking to? "I want butterflies," she was saying, "Three butterflies across my left shoulder, and Em wants a lizard. Can you do lizards?" Through a mostly plugged nose Em could still barely smell Miranda's lemony body spray, but she found she couldn't quite believe in Miranda or the Franklin's living room, and she was afraid to open her eyes as her history fell away from her, and the last thing she remembered was laying on the floor of the upstairs hallway listening for her parents' voices.
Or maybe this is the first thing she could remember, her earliest memory. (Was this possible—that she remembered nothing before she was eight?) She'd been drawing at her desk in her pajamas with Pluto whimpering outside her bedroom door because he wanted to be let in, which was forbidden because of her allergies. For dinner her mom had served Guenaoia over a bed of couscous, a dish she had learned to prepare in the Flavors of the Mediterranean cooking class she was taking at the junior college. Her father declared it "delicious and pretentious" and looked none too pleased, though he was a gloomy man. The only time Em can remember seeing him in truly high spirits was when Mr. Gunderson, their across the street neighbor, a mean-spirited BB-gunner of birds and cats and squirrels, got his sandaled foot caught on the gas pedal and ran his Impala smack through his garage door. Her father had hopped up and down and tears of laughter ran down his face. Em could still feel the slight burn of chilies on her tongue. She wondered if her parents would get a divorce. Several of her friends' moms and dads had split up, and in each case the breakup was foreshadowed by the mother getting a new job or hobby. Em looked up Tunisia in the World Book. She read about 1000-year-old olive trees in the Sahil region. She read that olive trees show a marked preference for calcareous soils, flourishing best on limestone slopes and crag—which she understood to mean they thrived in poor soil where other things didn't readily grow. This was a small cheering fact, for she worried that her own chance for happiness would be thwarted by her parents' profound inability to achieve it. On this night, Pluto wouldn't stop crying. She dragged her pink bedspread from the bed and pulled it out into the hall, closing the door behind her. She lay down with her back against the wall, face to face with Pluto. His breath smelled like dog biscuits and rubber ball and spicy lamb. She pressed her warm nose against his, shivery cool, like wet leather.