I don’t know where my cat is.
She’s gone missing. It’s not just that she’s not here. All her things are gone too. Her litter box. Her toys. The giant carpeted treehouse thing she always slept in. I looked in the cupboard where I kept all her food. That was gone too. It doesn’t make sense. And worst of all, I called up my girlfriend, who was already at work by the time this was happening, and I asked, “Where is Pearl?” All she said was, “Sweetie, who is Pearl?”
I wrote that yesterday.
A missing cat might have been enough to induce hysteria. You might imagine me roaming around town slapping up missing posters all over the place. Except the thing is, none of yesterday’s writing made any sense to me. I don’t remember writing it. I don’t remember any of it happening. I can’t recall ever having a cat named Pearl.
I probably would have written the whole thing off as some kind of practical joke. My girlfriend Mara sometimes liked to play elaborate tricks on me. Except today, my apartment was not only devoid of a cat, but it was also devoid of a girlfriend. All signs of her existence were gone. All her clothes. All her makeup and toiletries. Her collection of vintage anime. There was nothing left of her. It was as if she packed up in the middle of the night and left entirely.
Given what happened with Pearl, if I’m to believe that there was a Pearl, I’m writing this now as a sort of sanity maneuver in case the same thing happens tomorrow and I forget I even had a girlfriend. I don’t know what to do. She’s an adult, and it’s only been an hour since I’ve been aware of her disappearance. If I report her now as missing, not much will happen in a day. I suppose my next step should be to call her job or her mom or something.
So later that day after having confirmed my girlfriend no longer existed, I took notes on all of the objects in my apartment. My large-screen television. My collection of video games I never had time to play. The books on the shelf I never read. The paintings on the wall I didn’t paint. The half-dozen plants that were now drooping and thirsty, waiting for my girlfriend to water them.
The following day, to my chagrin, it was not my possessions that went missing. It was my job. I was a developer at a software company for the past seven years. I worked in this high-rise tech building in Manhattan. I commuted every day by train, worked from nine to five. I’d come home exhausted, eyes bloodshot, too tired to read or have sex or do anything that required much of an imagination. It was a soul-sucker of a job. So, unlike the loss of my cat and girlfriend, I wasn’t all that dismayed when I took the train into the city and found the building was no longer there. The company itself had been wiped off the face of the earth.
Something about no work felt like a consolation. Despite all the other troubling events, I thought it would be wrong not to at least somewhat celebrate the fact, however confusing, that I no longer had to work. What to do, I thought. Call up some friends?
You see where this is going. Struggling to even draw up a specific person’s name in my mind, I scrolled through my phone’s contacts, and the address book was empty. It was as if someone factory-reset it. I couldn’t even confirm whether or not any of the friends I thought I had actually still existed. I no longer had their numbers or their email addresses or links to their social media accounts, so that was as good as them being gone anyway.
I felt sort of empty, existentially speaking. But also literally. My stomach needed something in it. I figured I might as well eat as much of the food in my fridge as I could before it disappeared too.
After I woke up from my post-meal coma, I found myself in an empty apartment. It looked exactly like it did the day I signed the lease. At that point, my mood shifted from passive denial that anything serious was happening to bitter angst and resentment. Now I really had nothing. So I cried and had a bit of a freakout session, finally allowing myself to feel the loss of all that was important to me.
What did I have left to lose? Was the neighborhood going to cave in on itself? I panicked at the idea of that really happening. I considered the possibility I was facing a kind of silent apocalypse, or maybe even the end of my sanity. I ran out of the apartment in a frenzy. I started jogging around looking for familiar things, grasping for something that might have once inhabited my memory. I couldn’t find anything that looked right. There was nothing around that I recalled as having been there before.
I roamed around for about twenty minutes until I reached a big parking lot. What got me excited was that I recognized it as the macadam leading to my old high school. The familiarity drew me in. Almost as if it were a mirage, I felt compelled by it, lured by the intoxicating feeling of remembrance, which until now I’d all but lost.
I entered the high school. It was so quiet I could hear the echo of my footsteps on the linoleum. I walked straight ahead to the quadruple doors leading into the gymnasium. As soon as I peeked in through one of the rectangular glass windows, one light turned on in the center of the gym, like a spotlight. A roundish object hung in the distance under the glow.
I entered the gymnasium to find out what the object was. My shoes made awkward squeaking sounds on the hardwood. Wooden bleachers lined the walls, the same ones I sat on as a scrawny teenager. The place even smelled the way it did back then: like sweat and sports equipment.
As I got closer to my point of interest, I realized the spherical thing floating under the spotlight was a basketball hanging in mid-bounce. I reached out for the ball and plucked it out of thin air. It was leathery and somewhat greasy. Testing gravity, I let it drop from my hands. Relief came over me as the ball hit the hardwood and bounced back up the way it should have.
A flashback came over me of gym class, playing with bigger kids, better kids, kids who actually knew how to dribble and score the ball. Rapid scenes of athletically gifted classmates, six-foot everything, smacking the ball out of my hands, jostling for position, chasing after me, swatting the rock as I flailed about trying to put the ball in the hoop. When the bursts of memory fragments subsided, I felt the urge to shoot the ball. I missed, and the ball caromed off the rim, drifting out of bounds towards the bleachers, suspiciously continuing its roll long after its natural momentum should have sustained it.
I followed the ball out of the gym to the locker rooms. In the changing area near the showers, I looked around and felt another quick flash of memory. This time it was of classmates drying off. Their faces were blurred but their toweled bodies were clear. I found one locker conspicuously open. I peered inside and found some of my old high school gym equipment. My track sneakers. My old, sweaty phys-ed shirt. It was green and had a white box in the middle with my name written on it in sloppy penmanship with a permanent black marker. I pulled it from the locker and smelled it. It reeked of me from another time and place.
A metal screeching sound came from around the bend, drawing my attention to the rear gymnasium door which had somehow just been opened. It led to the outside. A strong draft of frigid air smacked my face. A shiver came over me as I realized the season had changed. I was now in a cold New Jersey winter, crunching my feet on fresh snow. I thought I saw a person up ahead, so I sprinted and called out, “Hey, who’s there? Help me! I just want to talk to you! Come back!”
I chased the figure around the bend to the football field. Running a hundred yards, I had the unnerving sensation of the snow getting deeper with each stride. I crossed what I imagined was the goal-line and exited through an opening in the metal gate forming the perimeter of the field. Beyond the gate was a group of sheds and outhouses. This was where all the art classes were held.
Art class was my favorite part of school. I remember this setting as the only part of my youth where I felt free. Creativity was the one thing that mattered to me back then. I wanted to stop and see what was inside the buildings. Part of me had hoped some of my old artwork was in there. But I couldn’t stop. I needed to keep following that person. I needed to find out what was happening to me.
The mysterious figure led me all the way around the school building. I re-entered through a side door to the wing where all the administrative offices were. The only thing I noticed was a lit-up sign that said: Guidance Counselor.
Inside the office was a woman with auburn hair wearing an ugly yellow and orange plaid shirt. Her back faced the doorway. I knocked on the open door, hoping to get her attention. She swiveled around in her chair. I recognized her as my actual guidance counselor from back in the day. I swallowed hard, preparing myself to speak to another human for the first time in what was probably days.
Still clutching the sweaty gym shirt in my hand, I approached the desk and said in an incomplete voice, “Mrs. Stano?”
“Hi, Timothy,” she said placing her palms down on the desk.
“Ah, it’s Tim now. Okay, Tim. It’s nice to see you again. Do you remember me?”
“Yes, sort of. I think. But it’s been hard to remember things lately. I can’t seem to trust—”
“What’s going on,” she said, completing my utterance. “You’re having a hard time grasping what’s real. Is that it?”
“Well, let me help you. Have a seat. Allow me to introduce myself.” Her voice was getting deeper, and I didn’t understand why.
“But I already—”
“Know me? No. You don’t.”
Mrs. Stano’s voice transformed into a resonant male baritone, the reverberations of which I could feel in my chest. Her physical appearance, however, remained the same, that of an approachable school counselor. “My name is something you wouldn’t understand. I’m only appearing as Mrs. Stano because she’s the—how do I say this—the pivot point. She represents a watershed moment of your reality. She is the embodiment of the most crucial bit of information that affected the entirety of what you perceived to be your life.”
“Yes, I say perceived because there’s been a mistake. A glitch is probably the word you’d best understand, given your line of work. Anyway, my name’s not important, but what I am is an architect. I’m one of the architects of your reality. And I’m here to apologize. You see, back in 2004 when you met with Mrs. Stano to discuss your life, your goals, your career, your future. You talked about what you wanted for yourself as a naive eleventh grader, and she advised you on what to be.”
“Yes, I remember. She told me I should—”
“Mhm. Which wasn’t quite what you wanted, was it? What she was basing her counseling on were the answers to a test. The test was one all kids your age take, it helps the architects figure out the best place for you in the scheme of things. Well, you took the test, and we scored it. However, we made a terrible mistake. We scored it with the wrong answer key. See, we’re not perfect. Even architects, despite all the power we are thought to possess, are prone to errors.”
“Mistake? Wait, so you’re saying all of—everything, me, all that I am, was wrong?”
“No, I’m not saying you were wrong. I’m saying all the other stuff was. That’s why we brought you back here. That’s why we’ve systematically been eliminating all the wrong things, bringing you right back to your watershed moment. You’re here to take the test again. You say you’re having trouble remembering. That so many things you found familiar have disappeared. Well, I’m here to help you figure out who you are. Because when it comes down to it, the most important question of all is this one: Who are you when all the things are gone?”
Beads of perspiration covered my forehead and upper lip. I was still clutching the gym shirt like it was some sort of comfort object. I felt ill, on the verge of fainting. “Okay, well, what do I need? I don’t—I don’t have a pencil or anything. Are we doing it right now?” I said in a shaky, delirious tone.
“You don’t need a pencil, no. This time we’ll take the test verbally. I’ll ask the questions, and you answer to the best of your ability.”
I swallowed hard, the back of my throat dry and sore, my vision getting blurry. “Oh … okay ...”
“The first is an easy one. Ready?”
“Yeah, no. I mean, yes. I’m ready.”
Slowly and in a voice more commanding than inquisitive, the counselor said, “What… is… your… name?”
What? I was getting dizzier and dizzier, the room was hot and my skin started to feel like it was on fire. Reality was closing in on me. “My… my name… oh…” It struck me that the shirt I was holding had the answer. I held up the fabric and examined the front, but all I saw was an empty white rectangle.
I was no one. I was starting over.
Text copyright © 2021 by Franco Amati. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.