The Game of Memory
Emma is five and wants to win. Dozens of cards spread out between us, each the size of a saltine. They are thick like cardboard. I remember the storybooks my mother bought her when she was a toddler, the wooden pages with bright colors and few words. No chance my cousin might bite down on a paper page, choke on the shreds.
“Do you want to go first?” I ask.
Emma does not answer but flips over a card in the middle of the spread. We see a beach ball, lurid orange and urine yellow, outlined in thick black.
“Where’s the other one?” I ask.
She smiles and looks at me, shrugs her shoulders in the exaggerated manner of a precocious child star. Her finger poised at the corner of her mouth like a little adult, she surveys the cards, the sea of red backs floating atop the beige carpet. Finally, she selects another.
A cartoon airplane, bloated like a football. A novelty propeller spins at its tip.
Emma’s lower lip juts toward her nose in a frown. She is a poor sport. At her last birthday, she fled the McDonald’s in tears after fat, red-cheeked Sasha pinned the tail on the donkey first. This is why her father encourages me to play with her: I’m old enough to know when to lose.
“No one gets a match on the first try,” I tell her.
She does not respond but continues to stare at the cards.
I’m not trying to win, not trying to remember what object is hidden where. I choose a random card: a smiling, wide-eyed snail. Then another: a banana.
“You lose,” she says and bares her teeth.
“Guess I do.”
We continue the game. She finds the twin suns, the puppy dogs. She collects the twin elephants after I neglect to snag the set myself despite remembering where both were located. She has five pairs, I have one.
Emma turns over another card. Instead of a ghastly storybook illustration, on the other side is a photograph real enough to appear in a magazine, in a scrapbook. It is of a young man. His eyes are deep brown and his wide smile promises more than it yields. He is nineteen. I know this because it is a photograph of my ex-lover, Barney.
“Who is that?” she asks.
“I don’t know.” I rise from my knees, clutch them to my chest and rock on the balls of my feet. “Why don’t you see if you can find the other one?”
“He looks funny.”
“Yes,” I say, sucking in my breath. “Yes, he does.”
Knotted into a loose fist, her hand grazes the remaining cards. I have not seen Barney in over two years. It was April and he stood before my open car window as I idled the engine. He handed me an empty picture frame. He had removed the photograph of us together. Did he keep or discard it? Would he one day flip over our image while sifting through papers and be struck by a bold wave of shame? Emma turns over another card; it is a kitty cat with long, drooping whiskers.
“Where’s the boy?” She falls back on her bottom and crosses her arms over her chest.
“Maybe he’s gone.”
“No,” she says, “he’s here.” She points at the spread.
We continue to play. A blue shoe. A thick pencil. The second kitty cat.
I turn over the second image of Barney. Emma looks at me through narrowed eyes, wondering what I remember. I can’t help myself, I flip over the first image of Barney and snatch up the pair. I clutch the twin likenesses in my hand.
“I get to go again.”
Next, I turn over a card and find a photograph of our grandmother. Her face is finely ridged with age, her sun-white scalp visible through her curling wisps of hair. She has been dead three years. Emma, of course, does not remember her.
“Who is that?”
“An old lady.”
It only takes me two more turns to find grandmother’s second image. I grip those two cards next to the two of Barney. I can’t bear to place them beside me—I must hold them close.
Emma continues to find single images: a blackboard, an open hand, a cottony cloud. But she can find no match. She smacks her hands together in frustration.
I find an image of my childhood friend’s mother. I find its match. I find an image of the bong Corrigan and I smoked from in the dorm. I find its match. I find an image of Ryan’s musty twin bed, the cover pulled down, inviting me. I find its match.
“You’re cheating,” Emma says, pouting.
“No, I’m not.” I don’t bother to look up at her.
How can I explain this to her? How could she understand? Some day, when you are older, you will look down the solemn track of your life and each stake thrust into the ground will recede from view, never to be seen as clearly as it is at that moment. You are always losing your past. And you can lose only so many times before you promise yourself you will never lose again.
Two cards remain. Curiously, we have turned over neither of them during the game. It is still my turn.
On the first card is a picture of myself at Emma’s age. Balloons and small hands surround me. I flip over the last card and find the twin image.
It’s me. I found you. It’s me.
“No fair!” Emma shouts and springs to her feet. “You cheated!” She storms out of the room, crying for her father.
I’m not listening. I clutch the dozens of cards to my chest, eyes closed. I’ve won—after so long, I’ve won.