False Memory

I’m four, but not really. The place where I’m four is five thousand miles from the place where I’m sixty. Where I’m four, the signs are all in Magyar, a language I barely remember the sound of, jumbled letters and silence. I’m picking words and letters from the world like berries, calling out to them as they surface in paper and street. That voice was mine, but it isn’t anymore. I don’t even think those words now, unless one of the student workers corners me while I’m defragmenting the systems to speak them some Hungarian. English-speaking students of English lean on my desk and tell me they’ve always been fascinated by other languages. While old student database picks itself apart and back together, they put their childish fingers in my M&Ms, ask me thin questions and try to hear an accent. Tell me a word in your language, they say, any word, whatever one you know. The one I remember is ízletes, delicious. I’m four, echoing ízletes from the side of a van with a picture of bread in a circle. I draw it in flour with a finger, or in dust. I’m four, but this body has never been four. The cells were settled long ago by other cells, the way new memory squats in the old. It’s not a burying; there’s nothing to excavate. I call a friend in Omaha I haven’t seen in decades; he’s two years older and pretends to know. Did we have bread vans under Rákosi? Did we have cartoon loaves and the word ízletes? No, he says, none of that: sawdust sausage and cardboard slices with butter crayoned on. Squares of flaking paper, ashcans and toilets overflowing. You were only a baby. None of your memories are witness. The present rewrote the present and rewrote it and only the present is left. What do you call that in your language? I tell them I don’t remember.

Laura Breitenbeck is a freelance editor, writing tutor, and transcriptionist from the Midwest. She lives near Atlanta and is working on many things.