Short Story: “As It Should Be”

A married man purchases a memory of himself having sex with another woman. His wife finds out and kicks him out. He returns to the memory shop to try and put things right.
man and woman

Close up shot of hugging man and woman. Couple of unrecognizable people. Passionate affair at office workplace. Copy space at right. © Lipik Stock Media /

October 08, 2023 04:50 EDT

Something to consider when reading/listening: Picture something you’ve always wanted to do. Would you rather do it and have no memory of having done so, or not do it but have a false memory of having done so?  

I’ve probably met this shop assistant loads of times, but he acts like he doesn’t recognize me. “I’m sorry sir,” he says, “we can’t do that.”

“But she’s going to leave me,” I say. “She’s furious, she’s… and I need to prove it was a one-off. So I… I want a record of all the purchases I’ve made here.”

“As I explained previously sir…”

“I know what you explained previously. I know what you’ve been told by your… your superiors… but please, this is the only thing that might save my marriage. And don’t worry, I’m not stupid. I realize there will be certain aspects… I’m sure our holiday to the Galapagos… the flight we took around the moon. I’m sure… I’m certain, yes, I know these memories were probably purchased here but that, in many ways, is my point. I need to show my wife that the things I’ve bought here have been, in the main, for her. You understand?”

I search his face for any hint of empathy. “One memory,” I say. “In twenty-two years of marriage, I purchase one memory of myself with another woman. I know it didn’t really happen. I know it’s just a memory. I know it’s harmless, really, but for some stupid reason I felt guilty and I told her about it and now… she’s… she’s going to leave me. Gina is going to leave me unless I can show her the full record, all my purchases, unless I can prove to her it was just a one-off.”

The shop assistant looks at my face but avoids my eyes. “It’s company policy to keep the records of all purchases strictly hidden, even from the purchaser. I can’t give you the record, sir. But, I’ll tell you what I can do. It might take a few hours to put together, but I can create a memory for you where you do successfully convince me to give you your record and it reveals precisely what you want it to reveal and then, in the memory, you’ll take that home and show your wife and she’ll forgive you and take you back. It will feel completely real and you’ll have no idea…”

“‘I’ll have no idea I was ever here.’ Yes, I’m familiar with your sales patter. But I don’t want a memory of my wife forgiving me. I want my wife to forgive me.”

I give up and turn to leave. 

“Hold on, sir,” says the shop assistant, “you haven’t bought anything.”

“Yes. And I don’t intend to. Ever again. I’m done with this. All of this. I can’t… I’m done. I’m going to go home and see if I can convince her to… and if I can’t, even if she does leave me… I’m… I’m never coming back here again.”

“Sir we have a whole catalogue of potential memories to sell you today. An exhibition to the North Pole. Climbing K2. You can attend any of the last four World Cup finals, sir.”

“I’m done.”

“But sir.”

“I said, I’m done.”

“Ok, sir. Mind how you go, sir.”

Outside the shop, it’s colder than I expected it to be; whirlwinds of dust blow past me, and there’s a purple hue in the air. I’ve got no idea where I left my car. Or what my car even looks like. I circle the block and see shuttered shops and smashed windows and the only people I encounter are a small group, heads bowed, huddled over a small fire. I don’t have any keys in my pocket.

I hail a taxi and tell him my address.

“You sure about that, sir? The fourth quadrant is known for its high levels of radiation, sir.”

I smile and nod. I don’t get the joke, and I don’t have time to engage.

There’s a thick plastic screen separating my seat from his.

On the journey, I mentally rehearse what I’m going to say to Gina. I know it was stupid, I know it was disrespectful, I know it was hurtful… but it was purely about sex, and the novelty of it… it meant nothing, it meant absolutely nothing. Even when I reflect on the memory now, the way the woman smiled at me from across the bar, the way she came over and did all the talking, the way she practically threw herself at me like no one ever has before… I’m pretty sure, I’m certain that I knew in the moment that it was only a purchased memory — not that there ever was a moment. And that’s the point, darling, there never was a moment where I was with that woman. It didn’t really happen. In the whole time I’ve known you, the only woman I’ve been with is you.

The only present, in-the-moment moments I’ve had have been with you. And when I’ve spent money on memories, it’s always been for both of us. And yes, I know that’s impossible to prove, but all the memories I carry around with me, all the ones I feel any desire to revisit, they’re all with you, darling. They are all… every single one of them is with you.

Meeting you in the concourse at Twickenham when England were playing the Barbarians. Thinking I needed to explain the rules to you, even though you knew rugby better than I did. Badgering you to take my number. The time you convinced me you were drowning and made me jump in after you, only to shoot off like a Marlin. Our wedding in Tonga. Holding James in our arms for the first time. His first steps. His first try. Watching him play for England. These are things money can’t possibly buy. This is our life together. And one stupid, ill-judged purchase, one slip-up in twenty-two years, it shouldn’t… it can’t… surely it can’t. I love you, Geen-Gina. I love you so much. 

“Here we are, sir,” says the taxi driver, “mind how you go, sir.”

“What is this?”

“This is the address you gave me, sir.”

No, but… dust and rubble… Everywhere is… I get out of the car and… this is where we… but it’s a ruin. Our house is a… our whole street. Roof tiles and bricks. Dust and rubble. And oh god… I can’t breathe. (Cough, cough, cough) My lungs fill with… (cough)…. oh god.

The taxi hasn’t moved. I struggle over to it and get in.

“Back to the shop, sir?”

I nod.

We don’t talk.

For the whole journey, my mind is fighting itself. Different memories are competing for the same territory.

I don’t dare look out the window.

I try to call Gina, but for some reason, I don’t have my phone, and I can’t remember her number even though I’m sure I must have…

Gina was…. Gina is… This morning when she kicked me out, she threw my things across the front garden.

But… whatever happened to our house, to our street, it happened a long time ago.

I burst into the shop and the shop assistant looks at me like he doesn’t recognize me and I want to grab him by the throat and… wait. Calm down. Breathe. Maybe I’m getting this wrong. Maybe that, just now. The taxi ride. My house reduced to rubble. The dust. The purple hue. Maybe all of that was just a… was just a… Maybe I didn’t even go outside. I mean, how would I know right? At this moment, I’m inside the shop. As far as I know, I’ve never been anywhere else. Everything apart from this moment right now is up for debate, so why should I assume…?

“Did I just purchase a memory?” I say to the shop assistant.

He looks at me without any hint of recognition.

“Just now? Did I buy a memory of… of… of my whole life falling apart? Of the whole world…Did I ask you to show me what it would be like if my wife didn’t exist? Is that what I did? Is that what’s happened.”

He looks at my face but avoids my eyes. “It’s company policy…”

“I know,” I say, “I know, I know. ‘It’s company policy to keep the records of all purchases strictly hidden, even from the purchaser.’ We’ve had this conversation before, haven’t we?” He doesn’t answer.

“Outside,” I say, “outside, is there… has there… what’s it like? What’s the air like outside?” He doesn’t answer.

“Is the fourth quadrant known for its high levels of radiation?” He doesn’t answer.

Ok, ok. Stay calm. You know your own life. You know Gina exists. She lives. She’s real. You met her at the bank where you both used to work. What? No. You met her at the England match. No, you didn’t start going to rugby matches until after James got into the game. It was definitely at the bank. Yes, yes that’s…

Wait. When did I work in a bank?

“Can I help you, sir?” says the shop assistant.

“This is you, isn’t it? This is you. This is your doing. This is a sales ploy or… I said I wouldn’t buy anything, so you’ve filled my head with… with memories I didn’t ask for. Haven’t you? This is you. The world outside isn’t bleak and broken. If I walked out there now, I’d see people strolling in the sunshine. It’s late summer. Everything is as it should be. That’s the reality. That’s what it’s really like out there. And I could go home and see Gina. It wouldn’t be a problem. That’s the truth, isn’t it?”

He looks at my face but not my eyes. “Is there anything you’d like to purchase today, sir?”

“You could do it, couldn’t you? You could create a negative memory. An awful memory. If that’s what the customer asked for?”

“It’s company policy…”

“I’m not asking to see a record. I’m just saying you could, couldn’t you? You could create bad memories as well as good? Wait, don’t answer. It doesn’t…”

I don’t look at him as I say this. I close my eyes and explain exactly what I want. 

“Ok, sir,” he says, “But we have to keep this a secret. I’ll get in a lot of trouble if my employer finds out.” He taps a few buttons. “Our records indicate you have purchased five memories from us in total.”

“Only five?”

“That’s what it says. One was a trip to the Galapagos with your wife and son.” I can remember James sprinting across the sand. Gina’s big white hat blowing off and nearly landing on a tortoise. I can feel the sun on the back of my neck. But I always suspected there was something not quite right about it.

“The second memory you purchased was a flight around the moon.” Well, I knew that one wasn’t real. Even at the time… not that there was a time. But the whole memory is infused with doubt and unreality. How could we possibly have afforded to do it for real?

“The third memory,” he says. “Are you sure you want me to tell you, sir?” I nod. “The third memory is of your son playing rugby for England.” What? “This was a package memory that included a full rugby career. We inserted a cohesive story of your son’s journey from Blackheath to Harlequins to the England team. But in fact, your son never made it as a professional player.”

No. No. Come on. This can’t… You can’t… All the matches we… I remember the tears of pride. The goosebumps. His injury. His recovery. The doubt. The elation. Singing the national anthem. The crowd clapping his name. Him introducing us to his teammates afterwards. Signing autographs. None of that was… None of that was… but ok… ok. Breathe. “James is still? Nothing else about James? It was just his rugby career?”

“I can only tell you what it says here, sir.”

“The fourth memory must be of me and that woman… the stupid mistake.” He nods. “And the fifth? The final memory?”

“The fifth memory, according to our records, was a negative memory. An awful memory. A memory where you exited this shop to discover that the world had fallen into ruin. It was cold. There was a purple hue. Your car was nowhere to be seen. You took a taxi ride to your home address to find your home had been reduced to rubble, and you returned here in a panic that your entire life was a lie and that none of your happy memories, none of the things that make you you, had truly happened.”

The relief is unbearable. “But it’s not true?” I say. “It was a false memory? The world outside is fine? My house is fine? Gina? James? They’re both… Everything I remember, apart from those five memories I purchased here, everything is true? Everything else is true?” He doesn’t answer. 

I get him to give me a printed copy of the record of my purchases. I’m so happy I kiss the paper. Every line of text. I drive home and show it to Gina. My wonderful Geen-Gina. She forgives me. She takes me back. It’s late summer. People are strolling in the sunshine. Everything is as it should be.

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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