That night, as she did every night, Nell stood before the bathroom mirror and unzipped her skull. Her brain sat pink as punch inside her head; carefully, she lifted it free and set it in the sink. The day’s discomforts furred her thoughts—sour tastes and cobwebbed shapes in her mind. She felt her memories the way a mouth feels its teeth after sleep. She let the tap run.
That morning in class, after the students donned their goggles and gloves, Nell’s lab partner, Henry, turned the Bunsen burner on, then off. His lashes brushed the goggles’ lenses. He stared at their worksheet, tapped his pencil twice. “Please,” he said, looking at his hands. “Tell me what went wrong.”
Nell smiled, confused but bright with goodwill, the warmth of not-knowing.
“I wish you would.” Henry looked at her. He looked, and he looked, and he waited in the light of Nell’s smile, then turned away.
It is possible to scrub too hard, forget the wrong moments. When Nell was thirteen, she lost a weeklong vacation with her aunt, and ever since, she’d kept insurance—stacks and stacks of journals under her bed.
I wish you would, Henry had said, and she had no idea what he meant, so she’d said nothing. And yet, she had leaned toward him—leaned like a flower leans to the sun, or a dog leans toward a door, waiting for its owner to return.
After school, Nell biked home and searched her journals. Henry’s name never appeared. She found his absence strange. She passed the afternoon eating pretzels and watching reality television, pushing the possibilities around like furniture in her head. Henry was a bad memory, an excised stain. Henry was a good memory, kept secret even from herself.
The water in the sink threatened to spill over. The pink brain bobbled.
She wanted to remember. She wanted to remember.
Her brain outside of her head had a cuteness, a lumpen-ness, a rubber-duckie dumbness. The bathroom lights shone on its surface. Squeaky clean.
I’ve stolen something from myself, Nell thought, with that great distanced feeling of a brain sitting too far from its body. But this feeling was what habits were for. Her hands turned the water off and took a washcloth and soap from the cabinet. She scrubbed, suds sliding down her brain’s grooves, wetting the edges of her sleeves.
Red sweater. Spiced vanilla scent.
Nell paused. Imagination? Or the stubborn plaque of memory?
Her hands caught their old rhythm.
Nell patted her clean brain dry, set it gently in her skull. She zipped her forehead and ruffled her bangs over the seam. She slipped into her nightshirt, then into bed.