The stranger purses her lips and then shakes her head sadly. “Well, I guess I didn’t make an impression on you.”
When she says this, we are standing in the busy playground across from Diva’s school. I’m happily passing a sunny late fall afternoon chatting with other parents I don’t yet know. Except that this one insists that I do know her. I suppose she may even be right.
Diva’s bumpy transition into kindergarten is long behind us; in fact, she now has so many friends that she somewhat intuitively splits them into camps, playing with one set one afternoon, and another set the next. But as she ricochets from swing to slide to playhouse and back, a ping pong ball of joy, I find myself playing a game of my own. I call it “Who Am I Talking To?”
In theory, I should be good at this game. I’ve always been a people person by nature, the boy who joined eight or nine clubs in high school and spent as much time socializing as studying in college. To this day, I’m a living Chatty Cathy, maintaining running jokes with the barista at my local Starbucks and making sure to ask my favorite cabbie how his kids have been doing since I saw him last six months ago.
So why am I so nerve-wracked now as The Hubby and I dive into this community of elementary school parents? Because I can’t remember any of their names.
Maybe it was after I turned 40, or maybe it was about the time I taught my 2,000th college student, but some kind of fullness has overtaken my cranium. If doctors were to do an MRI of my temporal lobe, I’m convinced they’d find it illuminated with a blinking sign: NO VACANCY. I can get around this problem with my students more easily, because the university provides me a handy list of their names, accompanied by teeny little photos. But I have no such cheat sheet for my fellow parents, nice folks whom I’ve presumably met at my town’s playgrounds, libraries, concerts, puppet shows, matinees, flu clinics, and fireworks displays in the five years leading up to Diva’s entrée to Kindergarten.
I’m not entirely hopeless; I can do reasonably well if I meet someone with an unusual moniker, like the mom I know who has an apostrophe smack dab in the middle of her first name. But the Susans and Mikes of the world have a significantly harder time claiming their places in my mental rolodex. If you’re a Bob, I’m just as likely to call you Scott or Paul, unless you have some helpfully memorable disfigurement for me to cling to. If I can associate a name with a particularly vivid visual—say you have a third eye, or an exoskeleton like a lobster—I’m sure to remember it forever. Otherwise, not so much.
I have tried discreetly typing the names of fellow parents into my i-phone as soon as they walk away, but I find that when I later review the list, some of my clever notes call to mind no picture at all. It’s like my brain is mocking me: nice try, mister.
What makes it worse is how many parents seem to remember my name. I try to tell myself that there are good reasons for this discrepancy. For one thing, I’m a Room Parent (one of three who organize fundraising events for Diva’s class), so the other parents all get e-mails from me. Moreover, The Hubby and I are the only two-Dad pair in our daughter’s school, so we do stand out a bit—and not just because we attended Parent Night with him clad in a leather biker jacket and me sporting a Parisian scarf.
Some folks, of course, are in the same recall-deficient boat as I am, and there are others who simply don’t mind at all, wisely not taking my forgetfulness personally. But because there are just enough people who do mind, I’m always a little on edge when I approach the playground. There’s Hip Mama, for instance, who makes sure to greet me by name every single time she sees me…and then every single time adopts a slightly wounded look when I don’t use her name in return. In longsuffering fashion, Hip Mama reminds me who she is week after week, yet I’m always so busy cringing, I go deaf with embarrassment and miss whatever she’s saying. In the end, she hasn’t taught me her name at all, but has inadvertently trained me like Pavlov’s pups: at the mere sight of her, I gorge on my own shame.
At least Hip Mama seems forgiving—not everyone is. This particular afternoon, the stranger/not-stranger, who insists that we have in fact met more than once, isn’t going to let me off so easily. “I don’t look at all familiar to you, really?”
She sees me struggling and reluctantly trots out her name, though she clearly feels I should have been able to come up with it on my own. “Now, does that ring a bell?”
In the ensuing silence, I swear you can hear a whistling wind right out of a Western. Cue tumbleweeds.
There is a part of me that wants to list for this woman all the details claiming the spot where her name would go: what time we need to leave the playground in order to be home for a playdate, what size Diva’s feet are now, which snack she no longer likes and will refuse to eat if I put it in her bag, which tights she’s outgrown and thus need replacing, which friend’s birthday party we have to get a present for by this weekend, which grandma sent a present for which we still haven’t written a thank-you e-mail, and how long it will take to get today’s homework done, once we factor in tears and supper.
Instead, I rack my brain—trying to place the pretty face and elegant clothes, envisioning this woman at parties or Diva’s recitals or maybe Groovy Baby Music Class 2007. Nada, zip, zilch.
For a moment, I consider faking it, going with something like, “Oh, right!” followed closely with “How are you?” the emphasis masking that I still have no clue. But then I ask myself: is false cheer any less rude than true forgetfulness? I decide to fess up, abjectly admitting my own failures. “I’m sorry,” I say, because I am.
Pained expression marring her lovely features, she repeats her name and I vow to remember it.
Or maybe Lauren.
Lila? Lois? Lee? Just one little name and still!
NO VACANCY blinks the sign I can’t see. No room left at all.