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The Forgetting

He thought about declining, of course. Everyone did--but he thought longer than most, sitting on the hard-backed orange chair of the immigration office, elbows on his knees. He had been there for two hours already, and the receptionist was watching him suspiciously.
For most of the people in the waiting room, who came and went while he sat, the decision seemed to take less than five minutes. Why not? It was an incredible procedure, almost entirely painless, completely free. And it would change everything. The people who had done it didn't regret their choice; he had spoken to many of them, before coming back.
It had been easier the first time he was here, when he'd come prepared to decline. He had been braced for pressure, had fortified himself against scorn, had marshaled his arguments. Yes, he understood the benefits of the procedure. He didn't want them. He was willing to learn the new language the old-fashioned way, to speak haltingly and with an accent for the rest of his life, to struggle through phone conversations and rely on his children to fill out his medical forms. It was worth it, to him.
But nobody had pressured him. Nobody had argued. They had shrugged, and stamped his papers, and turned to the next person.
He wondered, now, if they hadn't bothered arguing because they had known he would be back.
The others, who made their decisions so quickly, they understood instinctively what he had been forced to learn. It was too late to say no. The procedure was common, and so it was necessary. There were no pockets of people from the old countries who were comfortable only around each other, no neighborhood where the signs were in letters familiar only to them, no gatherings where everyone knew their ways and their habits and their prejudices. For those who refused, there would only be the life they had chosen, and they would discover that they had chosen to be foreigners, to hide their strangeness every single second of every single day.
He stood, slowly, heavily, and the receptionist narrowed her eyes as he approached.
"I would like," he said, with as much dignity as he could manage, "to speak to someone about getting the procedure."
The intake official was a short woman with a slash of red lipstick, who sat across the folding table from him and shuffled a pile of manila folders. Her impatience was like a scent--though the way she wrinkled her nose told him his scent was stronger. He had showered right before coming, so he knew she was imagining it, and he was offended.
(Though years later, when he washed his clothes every time he wore them and used deodorant sometimes twice a day, he thought differently, and was embarrassed.)
"We've been using the procedure for ten years," the woman began, in his language. She spoke it fluently, without a trace of accent. "We know there are no long-term effects."
If you consider ten years long term. But he just nodded.
She explained it again, in a monologue worn smooth by repetition: how they would reopen critical-period plasticity in his brain; how the changes would last for several months; how, during that time, he would effortlessly rewire his neural networks to cope with a new environment, the way children did.
How he would pick up his new language without even having to try.
She did mention, in the same weary monotone, that the new neural pathways would inevitably replace pre-existing ones. Neural plasticity was competitive; there was no space in the brain that wasn't in use. When his mind restructured itself to gain a new language, it would lose something else. Not necessarily his old language; they couldn't predict how the brain would re-map itself.
"It's usually something useless," she said. "Something you can learn again or do without."
By then, he had met plenty of people who had undergone the procedure. For some, he knew, it was obvious what they had forgotten--the words of a song they had loved, the road map of their home city, the stories their parents had told them. Others were never sure.
He wished there was a way to know what he would forget. So he could weigh the choices rationally.
Then he tried to think of something more valuable than the ability to speak.
"All right," he said. "I'll do it."
"You're making the right decision," the official said, and smiled thinly as she pushed the forms across the desk for him to sign.
Later, of course, he was happy with his choice; everyone was. And though at first he tried to figure out what he had forgotten, eventually he gave up--not because he didn't care, but because he didn't have time.
It wasn't until decades later, when his daughter did a report for school and he told her about his entry into the country, that he thought about it again. By then, the official had been proven correct; there were no permanent side effects.
She had been correct, too, about it being the right decision.
He remembered that interview now, with a faint echo of shame. He couldn't help wondering what would have become of him, had he declined the procedure.
But he also couldn't remember why he would have wanted to.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

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