Can You Miss What Was Never There?

Multi Cart Pile-Up

I don’t know how many times I’d had the clone dream. I had no context for it — or for them, since it wasn’t always the same dream — but I’d wake up shaking, thinking I was back in that cold, damp room, no one talking to me, not even acknowledging me. In the moments after realizing it was a dream, I always wondered: Why was I having different dreams about the same place? Why did it feel like I was back in that room? I figured the sense of deja vu was because it was a recurring dream, that I was “back” in the dream again, but the residue of that place could never be scrubbed clean.

The real evidence — though I’m sure this wouldn’t hold up in court any better than the dream — came at one of those super grocery stores that have thirty aisles and no employees, automated checkout lanes to take your cash and whisk you away before you cost them money by requiring human contact. I was always fine with that, because grocery clerks obviously get no training in small-talk, but this time I had a vegetable that I couldn’t remember the name of. I stared at it for a minute, waiting for the name to come to me, but it didn’t. It looked like a big, white carrot, but it wasn’t a carrot. I know carrots.With no clerk in sight, I clicked the little button that said “look up item by picture.” Up popped a Jeopardy-style grid of about 40 fruits and vegetables, and I was suddenly transfixed by something called cauliflower.

Had I ever eaten cauliflower? How do you even say cauliflower? I recognized the cabbage, carrots, celery, chard…wait, chard? What the hell is chard? I kept scanning the little pictures, and every fourth or fifth vegetable seemed completely foreign to me. Not simply that I couldn’t remember the texture or the flavor — I couldn’t remember ever having seen the word. Endive? Jicama? Okra? Someone must be fucking with me, because no way are those real food items. I clicked forward a page and saw a few more names I didn’t recognize, finally seeing a picture of the white carrot with the caption, “Parsnip.” But for the life of me, I couldn’t recall why I needed to buy a parsnip, couldn’t remember how to cook it, couldn’t even remember why I had put into my cart.

Was it possible that I had gone 38 years without being exposed to 25% of the vegetables in the grocery store? I tried to remember shopping with my mother, sitting in the cage-like cart like the kid was doing at the next self-checkout, tried to remember the texture of the metal, the flex of the welds, but there was nothing to recall. I took the rest of my food from the cart and climbed in, the hard metal pressing uncomfortably against my back, my legs bent at a steep angle to accommodate my size. No memories were shaken loose.

Apparently someone saw me on the video monitors, because a uniformed clerk materialized and asked if I needed any help. I asked her how long parsnips had been a thing.

“Had been what thing?”

“No,” I repeatedly urgently, suddenly self-conscious that I was sitting in a grocery cart.”How long have parsnips existed?”

“Um, existed? I don’t know. We get fresh parsnips about once a week, if that’s what you’re asking.”

That wasn’t what I was asking. “Wait, different question: Do you like okra?”

“I think it’s pronounced oh-crah, and no, I don’t. Too slimy.”

“Slimy!?” I replied as I carefully extricated myself from the cart, “I don’t think I’d like oh-crah either.” The clerk stepped back as I regained my footing, apparently concerned that I might do something unpredictable.

“Look, I’m fine,” I said. “I just suddenly feel like there’s a big section of my memory that’s missing, like a whole bank of the database is gone. I’m sorry for the mess, but I’ve got to go.”

She nodded at me, clearly happier to clean up my groceries than to continue our conversation. I kept stepping faster and faster through the bright fluorescence, my mind racing as I wondered how I could have forgotten so many things. I sat down in my car just as the security guard appeared at the front door. As I started the car, something strange occurred to me: What if nothing was missing? What if the memories of okra and parsnips and chard had never been there to begin with?

That’s when I started paying closer attention.

That’s when the dreams started up again.