February 5, 2003
Legitimate Memory

ytd: 98.74

Halfway through our Saturday morning ride, I finally pick up the phone and try giving her a call.

Lately I've begun carrying the cell phone with us everywhere we go ... especially on long bike rides. This morning the phone is stuffed into the little bag beneath my bike seat, along with a handful of limp Band-Aids, half a bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol, a purse-sized notebook and pen, a couple of ancient Power Bars ... all of the stuff we never actually use but like to carry with us anyway, just in case. While David is inside the little general store, buying us both a recovery soda, I stand outside next to the bikes and tap the 800 number into the teeny tiny keypad.

She'll be awake by noon on a Saturday ... right?

Over on the other side of the parking lot, a herd of young cyclists in full Power Ranger regalia are milling around, laughing and slapping each other on the back, chugging Calistoga. I recognize a lot of them: they zoomed past me on the road, four or five ascents ago. I turn my back to them now and press the phone flat against my ear, straining to hear the sounds of electronic connection. 

Clicks. Beeps. Far-away underwater ringing, followed by the familiar twinkly theme music. "Thank you for using AT&T!" chirps the Automated Operator Person, in her tinny, overbright Automated Operator Person voice. "For instructions in English, press 1 now." (A bilingual Automated Operator Person is cut-and-pasted into the message at this point: "Para instrucciones en espanol, prensa dos ahora.") I obediently press the correct number key: English, por favor.

And then I wait to be admitted into the AT&T phone card system.

While I'm waiting, I take a furtive look around ... not particularly wanting to make eye contact with anyone, if I can possibly help it. It's a beautiful sunny morning: blue skies, new poppies, just a tickle of breeze, absolutely no hint of the rainstorms they were predicting earlier in the week. We've been riding for about an hour so far: a series of rolling dips and ascents on Cañada Road in San Mateo, along the Upper Crystal Springs Reservoir. It's not the toughest ride I've ever been on -- it's not even the toughest ride I've been on this YEAR, so far -- but I'm sweaty and hungry and glad to be taking a break.

Plus I'm itchy to talk to her.

"Enter your card number!" the Automated Operator prompts. I flip the cell phone over and read the eleven-digit phone card number off the back of the phone, where I've written it in Magic Marker, and then I turn the phone right-side-up again and dial the combination of numbers, quickly, before they dribble from my short-term memory again.

I wanted to call as soon as we heard the news this morning ... as soon as I looked over David's shoulder and saw that first gutpunch of a headline on the Yahoo News website. NASA loses contact with Shuttle Columbia.  But I resisted the temptation. It was too early, and the news was too brutal. Even though she's not a teenager anymore, I know she still likes to sleep late on weekends. (That will end the moment she becomes a MOM. I figure we might as well let her enjoy it while she's young.) Still, she was the first person I thought about when I heard that the space shuttle had exploded ... the same way Patty Rae Patterson is the first person I think of whenever I see newsreels of President Kennedy's assassination, or the way the grumpy bartender at Dave's Place Tavern is the first person I think of whenever John Lennon's murder comes up in conversation. By default, Jaymi will always be the first person I think of whenever there is a shuttle-related tragedy.

That's because we lived through the first one together.

The Automated Operator Person suddenly comes back on the line, murderously cranky. "The card number you entered is not correct!" she scolds. "Enter your card number!"  

(Bite me very much, Automated Operator Person!!  YOU trying punching numbers into a teeny tiny keypad while wearing BIKE GLOVES!)   

I re-enter the string of numbers into the keypad -- trying to use a little more finesse this time -- and then I press the phone against my ear, one more time, waiting for connection. A few feet away, a fat man dressed in camouflage sits in a battered pickup truck, smoking a cigarette and glaring dourly at the Power Rangers. He probably thinks they're a big bunch of annoying showoffy goofballs, I'm thinking. But then I catch a glimpse of myself reflected in the store window -- top-to-bottom Spandex, blue lollipop helmet, ridiculously overpriced bike shoes, sweaty dirty hair hanging in my sweaty dirty face -- and I realize that in his eyes, *I* am probably one of those annoying showoffy goofballs.

I'm not sure whether this is good or bad, actually.

After a minor eternity, I achieve connection to the AT&T phone card system and the Automated Operator Person presents me with another choice. (She has forgiven me, apparently, for my incredible screw-up two minutes earlier: either that, or she's in early-stage Alzheimer's and doesn't remember that she hates me.) "To call within the U.S., Canada or the Caribbean," she says cheerfully, "please press 1."

I press "1" for TicTac.

She was four years old when The Challenger exploded, seventeen years ago. We were living in the little Kirkland house at the time: Jaymi, me, her dad, her two-year-old sister, a bazillion cats, a couple of scruffy dogs, a bloated goldfish or two. (Her baby brother was still safely in utero at that point, no doubt wondering if he really wanted to come out and join the dysfunction, already in progress.) I remember every moment of that horrible morning as if it took place twenty minutes ago, even without benefit of going back and checking the journals. But I'm curious: how much does she remember? Maybe that's why I want to connect with her this morning. How much of that day has she legitimately retained in memory? For instance ... does she remember bursting into tears when I explained to her what had happened? Does she remember sitting next to me on the living room floor, helping me fold the same four towels over and over again, while we watched the endless horrifying newscasts? Does she remember getting out her crayons, midway through the afternoon, and announcing that she was going to draw pictures for Christa McAuliffe's little girl? ("She doesn't have a mommy anymore," she said. "I don't want her to be sad.") Does she remember a shellshocked President Reagan on TV, calling for a one-week period of mourning? ... or running to hug me every time they replayed the video of that hideous corkscrew vapor trail? ... or looking at me, the day after the tragedy, exasperated because her cartoons were preempted again? ("Is that spaceship gonna splode again?" she asked ... her finite resources of four year old empathy exhausted finally.)

Or does she remember all of this stuff because -- like every other moment of her life -- I've remembered it for her, here on the website?

"Enter star, plus your Speed Dial Code," interrupts The Automated Operator Person, "or else the area code and number." I confidently tap the phone number into the keypad -- this, at least, is one number I don't have to double-check or look up in my address book or read off the back of my phone -- but then I abruptly stop dialing in mid-tap. It suddenly occurs to me that she may not have even heard about the Columbia blowing up yet. What if she checks her voicemail messages before she turns on the TV or opens a newspaper or logs onto the Internet today? Do I really want to be the one to break it to her? I don't think I do: at least, not like this. But I've already invested so much time and effort and *Emotion Molecules* into making this stoopid phone call, I figure I might as well see it through ... if only to keep the Automated Operator Person from reaching right through the Nokia and killing me totally dead. I finish typing the rest of Jaymi's number into the phone.

"You have 596 minutes of call time for the number you dialed," says the Automated Operator Person: her parting words to me. Then she disappears completely, and her voice is replaced by the sound of my daughter's automated voice, instructing me to 'leave a message at the tone.'

"Hi Puss," I say, as soon as I'm connected to her voicemail. "It's Mom. I'm in the middle of another hideous ride, and I just wanted to hear a friendly voice. Let's touch base later, OK? I've got something I want to ask you."

And then I disconnect from the AT&T long distance system, and I stuff the cell phone back into my bike bag, and I go into the general store to find my husband.

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