“Well,” Jane says. She kicks one foot up, crossing her ankle over her knee, and peers at August, hands behind her head. “What’s the point of life without a little danger?”
“Not dying,” August suggests. She can feel color flaring inconveniently in her cheeks.
“Yeah, I didn’t die my whole life, and look where it got me,” Jane says.
“Okay. Point.” August shuts her steno. “That was a big memory, though. We got ourselves a lead.”
* * *
August gives Jane her burner phone and teaches her how to use it and they experiment, like some kind of amnesiac scavenger hunt. Jane texts her snippets of lyrics or images from movies she snuck into dollar theaters to watch, and August tears through thrift stores for records familiar to Jane’s hands and a vintage Jaws lunchbox. August brings every food she can think of to the Q: sticky buns, challah, slices of pizza, falafel sweating through its paper wrapper, steamed sponge cakes, ice cream melting down her wrist.
“You know, this train used to be called the QB,” Jane remembers casually one day. “I guess it’s just the Q now. Weird.”
Things start coming back slowly, in pieces, one moment at a time. A box of greasy pepperoni split with a friend on a patio in Philly. Walking down the block in her sandals on a hot July afternoon to buy soft green tea cakes with nickels from the couch. A girl she loved briefly who drank three Arnold Palmers a day. A girl she loved briefly who snuck a bottle of wine out of her family’s Seudat Purim because they were both too poor to buy one. A girl she loved briefly who worked at a movie theater.
There are, August notices, a lot of girls that Jane loved briefly. There’s a secret set of tally marks in the back of one of her notebooks. It’s up to seven. (She’s completely fine with it.)
They go through Jane’s backpack for clues—the notebooks, mostly filled with journal entries and recipes in messy shorthand, the postcard from California, which has a phone number that’s disconnected. August takes pictures of Jane’s buttons and pins so she can research them and discovers Jane was something of a radical in the ’70s, which opens up a whole new line of research.
August digs through library archives until she finds copies of pamphlets, zines, flyers, anything that might have been pinned up or pasted or crammed under a door into a seedy bar when Jane was stomping through the streets of New York. She digs up an issue of I Wor Kuen’s newspaper, pages in Chinese and English on Marxism and self-determination and escaping the draft. She finds a flyer for a Redstockings street theater performance about abortion rights. She prints out an entire issue of the Gay Liberation Front’s magazine and brings it to Jane, a bright pink sticky tab marking an essay by Martha Shelley titled “Gay Is Good.”
“‘Your friendly smile of acceptance—from the safe position of heterosexuality,’” Jane reads aloud, “‘isn’t enough. As long as you cherish that secret belief that you are a little bit better because you sleep with the opposite sex, you are still asleep in your cradle … and we will be the nightmare that awakens you.’”
She folds the page down and licks her bottom lip.
“Yeah,” she says, smirking. “Yeah, I remember this one.”
To say that the papers unlock new parts of Jane would be a lie, because they’ve always been there. They don’t reveal anything not already spelled out by the set of her chin and the way she plants her feet in the space she takes up. But they color in the lines, pin down the edges—she thumbs through and remembers protests, riots, curls her hands into fists and talks about what made the muscle memory in her knuckles, hand-painted signs and black eyes and a bandana tied over her mouth and nose.
August takes note after note and finds it almost funny—that all the fighting only conspired to make Jane gentle. Fearsome and flirty and full of bad jokes, an incorrigible sweet tooth and a steel-toe boot as a last resort. That, August is learning, is Jane.
It would be easier, August thinks, if the real Jane weren’t someone August liked so much. In fact, it’d be extremely convenient if Jane was boring or selfish or an asshole. She’d love to do one piece of casework without the whole halfway-in-love-with-her-subject thing getting in the way.
In between, when Jane needs a break, August does the thing she’s done her best to avoid most of her life: she talks.
“I don’t understand,” August says when Jane asks about her mom, “what does that have to do with your memories?”
Jane shrugs, touching the toes of her sneakers together. “I just want to know.”
Jane asks about school, and August tells her about her transfers and extra semesters and her freshman roommate from Texas who loved Takis Fuego, and it reminds Jane of this student she dated when she was twenty and couch-surfing through the Midwest (tally mark number eight). She asks about August’s apartment, and August tells her about Myla’s sculptures and Noodles barrelling through the halls, and it brings back Jane’s neighbor’s dog in her Brooklyn apartment, one door down from the Polish lady.
(They almost never talk about 2020 and what it’s like above ground. Not yet. August can’t tell if she wants to know. Jane doesn’t ask.)
August sits next to her or across from her or, sometimes, on the seat beneath her, when Jane gets worked up and paces the car. They huddle by the map of the city posted near the subway doors and try to trace Jane’s old paths through Brooklyn.
Two weeks in, August has three notebooks filled with Jane’s stories, her memories. She takes them home at night and spreads them out on her air mattress and take notes of her notes, looking up every name Jane can recall, searching the city for old phone books. She takes the California postcard home and reads it over and over: Jane—Miss you. Catch me up? It’s signed only with the words Muscadine Dreams and a phone number with an Oakland area code, but none of the Jane Sus in 1970s San Francisco lead anywhere.
She buys two maps: one of the United States and one of New York, all five boroughs spread out in pastels. She tapes them on her bedroom wall and tucks her tongue between her teeth and presses push pins into every place Jane mentions.
They’re going to find Jane. She must have left things behind, places and people that remember her. August watches her light up over the steady shake of the train every day and can’t imagine how anyone could ever forget.
August asks her one afternoon, when she’s blowing off an exam review to make quiet jokes about the people who get on and off the train, “When did you realize you were stuck?”
“Honestly?” Jane says. She reaches over and gently swipes frosting from that morning’s donut off August’s bottom lip. The eye contact is so terribly close that August has to look down before her face says something she can’t take back. “The day I met you.”
“I mean, it wasn’t clear right away. But it was kind of … foggy before. That was the first time I was really aware of staying in one time and place for a few days. After a week or so, I realized I hadn’t moved. At first, I could only tell by counting when I saw you and when I didn’t. The week you didn’t come? Everything started getting blurry again. So…”
It drops quietly into the space between them: maybe it’s them. Maybe it’s August. Maybe she’s the reason.