Lessons in Object Permanence
by Abigail Oswald
When the father leaves for work each morning, his daughter does not understand that he will return. Every goodbye is the last, and she mourns accordingly. As these mornings accumulate, the tears begin to take effect: the father begins to doubt his ability to come back.
One evening the father does not return. The daughter, still young, does not understand that people and things exist apart from her. She will mourn him as if he has died, though he is simply gone. To her these are the same.
Everything she calls precious she keeps in a knapsack strapped to her back at all times. It’s hard choosing what will stay with her and what will cease to exist as soon as she leaves the room—too much power in such small hands. Peach lip gloss, a diary with a golden lock and key, a book on ballerinas.
The mother throws boxes of the father’s belongings out on the curb. If the daughter refrains from looking out her bedroom window, these items don’t exist at all. Before the garbage is collected, though, she selects a single tie from the pile and folds it into the very bottom of her knapsack. A secret, a question she tucks away.
The daughter does not wonder about the mother’s internal life; she knows the mother does not have one. The mother does not drink alone at the dinner table, does not gaze with longing at other men—their Adam’s apples and taut, supple biceps—while walking to her car, does not starfish across her king-size bed in the middle of the night and wonder at her own smallness or feel that she is shrinking. No, the mother drops the daughter off at school and drives away. And the moment the mother exits the daughter’s field of vision, she and the minivan blink out of existence—until their prompt return at 3 p.m.
One day the daughter removes the lock and key from the diary and burns its pages. She watches their edges curling inward until they become nothing at all. But she still has the memories. The memories are always with her, even though she never chose to carry them.
In her mind, the daughter holds little funerals every day. For the boy who switches out of pre-algebra—gone now, forever. For the class goldfish in the round glass bowl who is inexplicably absent one morning, the teacher quietly distraught. For the old yellow school bus they rode on field trips, the one with the long, winding scratch in its side. Her days go by in streams of great loss.
Eventually the mother brings home a new father. He seems like the old father in some ways but aged backwards, getting younger instead of older.
Certain items in the knapsack lose importance over time, are forgotten altogether. One afternoon in pre-algebra, the daughter pulls a dried-up tube of lip gloss from beneath a wrinkled silk tie. She finds the peach color revolting and throws it away. And the tie itself—she can’t remember to whom it belonged or why she kept it.
The mother won’t let the daughter bring her knapsack to the wedding. She stands alone at her mother’s side, holding a bouquet of carnations as the sun beats down on her bare back. She squints at the new father as he begins to recite his vows: a series of promises offered up in monotone, memorized in advance. The whole scenario feels familiar to her, though she can’t put her finger on why. And it seems that the father has already begun to disappear, his elbows and his smile fading to nothing in a certain cast of light.
I'm interested in memory and its many configurations—the reasons we hold tightly to some experiences and let go of others over time. Forgetting can offer a kind of protection; remembrance can be reverent, or violent.
Abigail Oswald is a writer whose work predominantly examines themes of celebrity, crime, and girlhood. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and currently resides in Connecticut. Her writing has appeared in Anomaly, Fugue, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip, Sundog, and elsewhere. You can find her online at abigailwashere.com.