On The Recklessness Of Our Memories


Memory can be destructive. Witnesses are often unreliable because of the mind’s capacity to transmute the truth, to invent, to recall things that never actually happened. As eyewitnesses to our own lives, we remember things the way we want to, or the way we think we’re supposed to, or, in the case of trauma, we remember things in a way we don’t want to, but can’t help. The trauma causes a glitch that can magnify, repeat, or intensify the original event in our minds.

We choose a story and narrate all memories to the specifications of that story. Or worse: a single memory, however blurry, can start a story, can be the one random moment that sets a lifelong story in motion. Thenceforth, each memory will have to fit into that first one, to perpetuate it, add to it, enhance it, exalt it.

Thinking over the same memory can actually distort it, not reinforce it. Every recollection of that memory risks being an increasingly faded facsimile of the original. Maybe sometimes the memory bounces back, sharpens, darkens, becomes closer to the original again. But how can we know which is the “best” copy, the most authentic copy, when we have traveled so far from the original?

On a gray day at the end of an era, he played a song whose lyrics had significance to us, or at least to me. What I want to have happened is that he chose it to serenade me with, a communication in place of one he was too afraid to make with his own voice. But I don’t remember enough to be a credible witness to that moment. I don’t remember whether it was during that song that I reached over to the knob to turn up the volume, and whether he laughed when I did, laughed nervously at — what? — my inability to disguise my feelings about the song and about him. I know that this happened, that I turned up the volume, and that I jerked my arm back into my lap, trying to be invisible while at the same time taking in every second of this day, to be some black box storing up all the information while trying not to affect the outcome of what was happening.

I wanted just to be a witness, distant and silent, if not objective. But at some point, during some song, I turned up the volume. It was another clue to him how important it was for me to be there with him. To acquire these memories. And then to replay them once gone, once far from him, not realizing that each replaying was a fresh wave on a shoreline, distorting the shape of the sand, eroding it, pulling some sand into the water, tossing some back. Every time a little different, but in a way that the mind couldn’t possibly quantify or map out.

I’m trying to apply science to memory, to something that even scientists don’t understand fully, in attempt to cure myself. To shut the door on one story and begin another. But one can still apply scientific principles to this murky phenomenon called love: if we can find the originating memory, the memory that started the story, perhaps we can work backwards from there, unwrite the story, undo the feelings.

But with us there is no first memory. There is an ocean full of them. An accumulation of riches. In a life of broken trails, of forks in the road, stalls and switching directions, there is this line, like the rope we used that afternoon to climb down the steep, wet trail to the pebbled beach, where I sat wishing to hold him, wishing to unleash my version of the story on him. It had knots every few feet, and it burned our palms because we were trying to clamber down quickly, nimbly. He more so than I: the boy, the risk-taker, though I had the more graceful form, lighter on my feet. He was the one to slip on the way down. I did not help him up as he sat for a moment in the mud, smiling, irritated with himself.

But it’s too much of a burden for him, for anyone, to be the rope that guides me through my meandering life across continents. He doesn’t need a rope. I want to not need a rope. But in order for that to happen I would have to make myself forget, to go back and live again, in one safe place, as he did, and also to have never met him. Because I think even if my life had been less peripatetic, I still would have found some reason to love him — some other reason.

As for him — what about him? The mind doesn’t need anyone else to create the world it wants to create. Even if he were repulsed by me, it wouldn’t matter.

But love is, along with many other things, a desire to slip into someone else, to become them, to find their strength and face them with that strength, to fight fire with fire. So I wonder how his memory works, what he witnesses. All I know for certain is that he doesn’t always want to feel, that he wants to feel far less than I do. Emotions are not his fuel, the way they are mine. He mollifies his feelings with drugs, so much so that when I find him out on the hot sand one afternoon, he can’t look me in the eye, and moves away in fear like a wild animal, and doesn’t remember the meeting later. He tries to stifle the thoughts, stop the chain reaction that, in my mind, at least, turns friendship into love, turns a bit of enjoyment into a fixation on that enjoyment, into a nagging desire to repeat that joy ad infinitum.

But here’s something I know he remembers: how our thoughts flowed one night like two churning currents into a whirlpool. I don’t need to bolster that memory with any tricks of light, any smoke and mirrors. It was dark, the sky was full of stars and a few strange lights across the water, we were high, and hot, and drunk on a beautiful, long day now gone, replaced by a fleeting night. I don’t remember the exact path of the conversation. I only remember a feeling, an atmosphere: one frame of film. Maybe the brain can live happily with these types of memories, not try to mess with them, because they are so brief, so simple. They need not be analyzed. They are the essence of a happy life. But the mind, especially a mind in love, is greedy. It wants all moments to be like that one. It wants to rewrite all the incongruous or illegible memories so that they look like that one.

Today, days away from him, bolstering sadness and greed by playing those other lacking moments on repeat until they look the way I want them to look, I fear I know him better, know him so well, just because I have reinforced the real person with so many pretty inventions of the mind. And somewhere in there, in between a second cup of coffee and the overcast day, an old favorite song and a reminiscence of something that never actually happened, I decide that we are soulmates. I “know” we are soulmates. And I wonder what the reason is for that: how one person can be so sure of something that neither person has come close to betraying — to admitting.

If you know someone long enough, you feel you are connected to them, that the connection goes beyond coincidence, beyond sharing, and that it actually has a genetic component. Siblings share many genes, yet have very different experiences of the same reality. If two strangers share enough experiences, it starts to feel as if they share a few genes, too. Or maybe it’s as simple as this: that if we see a face enough, and hear a voice enough, that it becomes as recognizable as a face made of our own blood.

But add a third component beyond this gathering of time and experience — add love — and it becomes even more intimate, yet more dangerous. Call up that face and that voice dozens of times a day and it becomes frighteningly familiar, almost as familiar as the face we see in the mirror. Love distorts reality better than anything, and more significant than that, it adds to reality. It builds upon reality. It makes a skyscraper out of a small building. It can make a skyscraper out of a hole in the ground.