Clack clack of her heels on the tile steps, she's a stair above you, looking back. Dress swaying against her hips. Key in the lock, the darkened apartment back lit by the streetlamps outside. She steps inward a little and looks back to you.
Another one today. Breathless from turning down too many wrong streets. I'm sorry, he'll start and Armand will nod. Is this...? trailing off, and Armand will nod fishing out his keys. Fifty Euros.
Sometimes the lad--and it is almost always a lad, will pay up gladly, Others, with others, Armand has push-back
"The cost is fifty Euros." Armand leaned in to his accent. This helped, particularly with Americans, who would rather pay the money than try and make themselves understood. Reluctantly, the lad handed over the money. Armand stood, body weight protesting against his aching, aging bones. Then they climbed the stairs together. How many times had Armand taken these stairs? How many in the company of some love-struck kid on holy pilgrimage?
The technology was about a decade old at this point. Synaptic encoding. Memory grafts. Great for learning, for training, fantastic for embedding journalists--for eliminating the need of journalists some said, for a black market in pilfered and repurposed memories.
Armand replayed the memory, a few times to make sure he got the details of her old apartment right. When she left the place it was in complete disarray. Clothes strewn about as she decided what was worth it to take. Bookshelves ransacked. The haste of a person on the run, and Armand had been minding this building long enough to know what that looked like. It wasn't long, two or three more lads showing up after she vacated, that he came up with the plan. They came from all over, sometimes three a week, enough that he didn't have to rent the place out again: he could set it up instead as a shrine in her honor. At first, Armand told the men she had died, but some of them would become inconsolable at this and difficult to move. Eventually he settled on vagueness. Try never to tell them what drove her away Young men never want ot hear they're part of the problem. It took him ages to replace the dress.
Too hot in the apartment, the two of you languishing in bed, the fan blowing wind from outside. Some joke you can't remember has her laughing. You wrack your brains but it's still gone. She is turning to you and it's the first time you know it. The first time you're certain.
"Do you know her?" the young man asked. Armand had little doubt the recording found its way to the brains of many an older man, but they were too jaded. They weren't as likely to board an--international, judging by this one's broken French--flight to Paris and storm the stairs of this inherited dream.
"Yes, I knew her." (Which was the truth.) "Quite well." (Which was a lie.) "She lived at this address five years." If the lad noticed Armand's use of the past tense, he gave no sign. Armand fumbled with the keys and opened the door and the lad stepped into his hand-me-down past.
Armand fumbled with the keys and creaked the apartment door open. "Just as she left it," he said, which was also a lie. The cramped studio had been subtly curated. The windows to the fire escape were open, and the noise from Paris below drifted in with the sunlight. She's all sunlight and water colors of birds, most of which, thankfully, she left behind in the haste of the move.
"Where'd she go?" The young man asked in almost a whisper. He moved through the tiny studio, brushing his fingertips against the furniture. Armand confessed that he didn't know. He left out the "why," as the young men who climbed the stairs (a few times it had been a woman, he wondered how the program shaped itself around that) didn't like to hear about every other young man who'd been there, fingering through territory he imagined was his alone to claim. It was best to let them down easy when it came to these things.
"What was she like?"
Don't you remember?" was Armand's standard reply. The lad sighed, frustrated. He remembered the week, of course. He remembered the apartment, but there were corners of it into which he never intruded. Seeing the place now, fully realized, made the memory flat and unreal, like visiting a childhood haunt after so many years away. Perhaps this, Armand suspected, was why he never saw the old men. It was a feeling by then they knew all too well.
Armand led no life of great adventure or acclaim. Indeed, to his lasting regret he hardly ever left Paris, though he supposed he should be grateful in this era of memory proliferation for that. Grateful that he never tarried too long with some girl through the lazy long afternoons of the last days of summer. His memories were worthless.
No. Not worthless. Unglamorous. For he had known love in his life, though perhaps not the desperate, longing, impossible kind of the type to be bought second-hand by eager and self-involved lads looking to define themselves.
She moved to Australia. After the first besotted young men armed with a life that was not theirs leaned in to her door bell and insisted that they had this connection, that they understood her, she packed her bags, and disappeared. It was only through the girl's parents, who rented the flat in the first place, that Armand knew any of this. Not that he would tell the lad. Not that he told any of them. And not that it would help. She may as well have moved to Mars.
"I'm not the first, am I?"
"Where did you get it?" Armand asked, by way of tacitly answering the man (Henry, he said his name was Henry)'s question. Henry explained that near his building in New York, a man set up a table with all sorts of strange and questionable wares. Knockoff handbags, bootleg movies on memory dot, and a thoughtstick full of memories. Henry knew what they were. He'd seen news specials. He walked by the stand every day, casually glanced out of the corner of his eye every day, found his pace slowing just a bit every day, until one day there was nothing. No stand, no sign of the man.
Months went by before the stall keeper appeared again. "I thought they got you!" Henry said in a jovial camaraderie that would later embarrass him. He was more relieved than he thought he'd be.
"They did," the stall-keeper said. "But this is a great land of opportunity for an enterprising man, and I am an enterprising man."
In the Parisian walk-up, Henry did his best impression of the stall-keeper, which Armand imagined did the man no justice. Henry didn't buy anything then, but struck up a rapport that would last until temptation finally overtook him. "I've never been in love," he confessed to Armand as he must have confessed to the stall-keeper. "It just never happened for me. I went to school, I got a job, there were dates, I guess, but..." he trailed off in the quiet stillness of the apartment. "Esau said he had just the thing."
"Would you like to be alone?" Armand offered. It was not an offer he made regularly. Sometimes the visitors could be violent. Other times they would masturbate into the curtains.
Henry's gaze moved about the room. "I just want something...something to remember her by."
She smokes pot on the fire escape that overlooks the city. You know what you are going to say. You are dreading it. Your mind now furious at your mind then. She's wearing the dress again, the dress from that night, bare legs dangling shoeless over the edge toward the noisy street below. You feel strange being out here after so much of the last few days in there. As though the apartment has been your world and sitting out here, watching the sunset, you may as well be astronauts.
A not-uncommon request. "Oh, well, Monsieur..."
"Henry. Just Henry."
"Monsieur Henry, by now you have surely deduced your friend Esau was hardly the first to pass along this lost week. I cannot very well pawn off the Mademoiselle's things to every young who climbs these stairs."
"Bad for business," Henry mused, another all-too-familiar aspect of Armand's dealings, the contempt of the customer, creeping in.
"As you say." Armand admitted. It took practice to make the next part sound unpracticed. "Although...New York City, you say?" Henry nodded at this, still sullen, still scanning the room for some magical trace of her. "Were you born there?"
"No, I grew up in Minnesota." His tone was absent-minded, though still vaguely contemptuous. Armand did not mind. He was a simple man. He chose not to dwell too long on the inherent unethics of charging admission to a departed woman's memory. He was paying nothing in upkeep for the place! And where was this fellow Henry to be so sneerful? What did he expect with such stolen goods?
"Monsieur Henry, I think we can come to an arrangement."
In the end, Henry took the dress. They always take the dress. And after the two of them visited a local memory transfer center, Armand brought out a new dress, incensed it with her perfume, and sat back in his office and remembered seeing New York for the first time.