It might be more appropriate to say that she dies a million times—each time in a different way or at a different point in her life. When she first realizes this is happening, she’s fifteen years old, a sophomore in high school, walking home with her best friend Vanessa after soccer practice when, in a moment of tenderness, after revealing that her parents are splitting up and her father is moving out to the Bay Area soon, Vanessa leans over and kisses her goodbye. In her surprise and sorrow, the girl thinks, This is different, and remembers: in her first life, her first kiss was with a boy, Alan, who barely knew her then and doesn’t know she exists now, only drifts by, on the periphery of her life, a shadow of the boy who did not know her name until after the bottle landed on her at a house party and they formally introduced themselves. She remembers thinking at the time how liberating it was to leave that boy and that milestone behind, how free she was to find her own love after the artifice that was high school flirtation. But after Vanessa kisses her on the sidewalk and leaves her standing alone in late-evening rain, she realizes she passed her whole first life not knowing this fundamental thing about herself, and her heart sinks at the wasted time. All those afternoons she spent in Vanessa’s room. All those nights spent staring up at the stars. If anyone knew, she would be presumed mad.
This second life is bittersweet: a quiet exploration of everything she never knew before—about herself and about the world. She studies mollusks, spends years examining and cataloging the delicate interiors of their shells, tucking mementos inside them as if building herself a house in hiding. No one knows her then. Not really. Even her best friends find her distant, distracted, as if each time she comes back to Earth, she leaves a part of herself behind in the clouds. In this life, she exists in a constant state of comparison: like last time, but not this time, next time. Her great love becomes just one of many, the first one to be lost and found ten, fifty, one hundred times throughout her neverending lives. Vanessa—sometimes, the name slips from her tongue unbidden, and she struggles to remember. I knew her once. We went through a bad breakup. Not the first or the last, but one she remembers, from time to time, like the complexities of math it took her many lives to grasp or the plot turns in novels she forgot she wrote, only to remember them, years later, after a thunderstorm knocks out power on her block and leaves her reading alone, by candlelight. How does one tell a story too long to remember?
At some point, she must have attempted to organize her memories (to categorize her lives and loves and experiences in such a way that they could be retrieved, like books from a shelf or a packet of seeds stored in a vast underground library, preserved from time and the elements by the impermanent Arctic permafrost), because after so many millennia her memories started returning to her in tidy packages of light. For instance: the night she falls in love with someone, the precise moment when, descending a flight of stairs after a concert, her date slips a hand out of her pocket and taps a lightbulb overhead. How that stops her in her tracks—how it takes her long minutes to think, Wow. When she remembers it now, their whole night unravels (the tap of the lightbulb, the choral music in the winter chapel, the taste of sage at dinner, the delicious anticipation of zipping her dress on the side and then, later, of unzipping it, of removing her gloves, using her mouth) so that she has to sit down, collect herself. She wonders, How could I forget? and spends long hours attempting to bring it all back, to hold all the versions of herself in her head at once. She thinks, I can’t do this anymore, and crawls into bed, waiting for time to at last tear her apart. Then it does. And she goes on living anyway.