I’ve already begun to forget.
In my pocket I carry a miniature notebook in case a particular perfume or echo evokes some memory. When those transitory moments of enlightenment occur, I feverishly transcribe the details. Once exposed to the air of the present, they begin to crumble into ash. If I have an epiphany at a restaurant and don’t write down at least a word of remembrance, or some rough sketch of the thought, the memory is lost by the time I return home. I’ve left an irretrievable part of myself entwined on that table with empty water glasses and heaps of napkins.
Even after my best conservation efforts to preserve memory and restore it to its original state, I find, after increased exposure to the now, the past begins to morph at will. The particulars of my youth—exactly what the sticker looked like that I gave Brianna Camm in second grade to demonstrate my love for her curly brown hair and asymmetrical smile. Was it the unicorn with the mirrored background or the embossed rainbow with the daisy at the base? Did she smile, blush, or slip the memento in her purse so the other boy she liked wouldn’t notice my advances? I’m pained by these questions because without the particulars my existence is void of substance. What did summer taste like when I was nine? Aside from contracting poison ivy on my fingers, face, and legs, what else did I do when I was eleven? Was that the year my grandmother died, or was that much later? Even if you manage to hold on to one of those sweeping memories, the finite particulars are hazy.
I approach the past with caution. I cannot control its slippery nature, surfacing like a dormant oil slick on the freeway at the first flash of rain. That’s the moment my driving instructor said traveling is the most perilous—not after its been raining for hours, when all the grease and grime that’s slipped from the undersides of cars has safely dissipated across the path—when our stories take shape into complete narratives that are manageable and easy to navigate. No, the real threat occurs the instant the first bead of thought pelts the road, awakening the concentrated patch of oil, memories assuming any glossy form they choose.
When I must engage in these intimate searches for the past, I’ve always visualized myself in some sort of blue submarine equipped with mechanical arms with gears. At the end of each arm is a two-pronged claw that lifts the folds of my brain to search the crevices for any trace of thought, as if I’m pulling cushions off the couch searching for house keys. This is how I’ve remembered, ever since my parents took me to see the 2000 Leagues Under the Sea ride at Disney World when I was two. The reason I’m able to summon the name of the ride is that I looked it up—otherwise it’s only swatches of a blue green background framing the porthole of a metal submarine. After minutes or even days of piecing together glimpses of stuffed toys, french-fries and Florida sun, the memories are replaced with more relevant concerns, such as whether it’s cold enough outside for me to start wearing my sweaters to work. The past dissolves back into the dark murkiness of my head.
Sometimes the misfires of memory are temporary. I stood before my class this week discussing the persuasive writing techniques Eric Schlosser utilizes in his book Fast Food Nation. As I began to write “persuasive” on the board I stopped writing after “p-e-r-s-u.” A fleck of chalk drifted to the floor as I tapped my chalk against the board. With my back to the class, I pressed my finger under each letter to sound out the word, forgetting if the next letter was an a or an s. I laughed and stood back from the board. One of the students in the front row rattled off, “p-e-r-s-u-a-s-i-v-e,” but he said it too hastily so I couldn’t remember what he said came after the u. I used the palm of my hand to wipe away the word and inscribed “Convince” on the board instead. “Okay, never mind how Schlosser persuades us,” I said. “Let’s discuss how he convinces us.” I laughed. They laughed. But as soon as class ended I ripped off a scrap of paper from my lecture notes to write out “persuasive,” repeating the process seven more times until I convinced myself that it wasn’t lost.
I confuse spring with fall—I pause every time I mention those two seasons in order to visualize the orange leaves of autumn. Somewhere in my mind the word “fall” lies fallow underneath an orange leaf; only after I visualize the leaf with its imperfections and brittle wings can I salvage the name of the season. “Spring” has no direct association—I must first establish fall in order to identify it by default. Many memories must be unwillingly extracted by force. September through November have lost their individual identities, so I must mentally run through all of the months to remember what follows August. I cannot add eight plus six without using my fingers. After winter break, I labor over my classes’ seating charts to re-familiarize myself with the names of the children that I’ve just seen two weeks before.
Although these lapses in memory are not new, I’ve just recently begun to pay more attention to them. At one point I considered recording everything in my notebook—not only appointments or childhood memories of piano lessons or eating M&Ms inside the canoe on stilts in my parents’ backyard, but more of a comprehensive log of each hour of each day—what I ate, whom I spoke to, and where I sat down. Before committing to such an exhaustive endeavor, I overwhelmed myself with the prospect of so much information. Too many words would fill the tiny lined pages to wade through. I surely couldn’t be strapped with the responsibility of choosing which memories were important and which should be discarded. I feared I might throw away something useful.
The regret of remembering and then losing the thought is far worse than not remembering in the first place. We’ve all had those memories that are on the “tips of our tongues,” as we strive to recreate the exact moment in which we first conjured the memory, hoping to trick it back into existence. Failing to re-remember invokes an anxiety that I’m missing a scrap of myself. The acknowledged loss gnaws away, a ghost ship floating endlessly, unable to ever dock.