“I realized that I could remember something and he could remember something different, and if we built up a store of separate memories, how would that work, and would it be okay? The answer, of course, in the end, was no.”
I just finished reading Rachel Khong’s new book, Goodbye, Vitamin. Mostly I related to the details the narrator remembers about specific days, the introspection and doubt that occurs after heartbreak, the strange closeness you can feel to family members while also feeling alien amongst them, the lies you tell under the pretense of protecting the ones you love, the dichotomy between how you remember something versus how the other person in a romantic relationship remembers something.
At the time she was reeling from a breakup, contending with the way a tanking relationship exposes a chasm between each partner’s memories of seemingly joint experiences. How can a person trapped in the morass of imperfect recall identify true north without signposts? “I’m terrified of forgetting. If I could remember everything, I thought, I’d be better equipped; I’d be better able to make proper, comprehensive assessments—informed decisions. But my memory had proved itself unreliable, and I needed something better.”
I have a strange habit. Maybe I fool myself into thinking that it’s a writerly habit: I devote a lot of my life to observing and remembering details. I comb through the past when I’m writing vignettes, but this sometimes prevents me from living fully in the present.
Things are stuck in my memory and I replay them like a repeating film. Such as: the types of people that showed up at the party and the time he left them all there to walk me home. Such as: the expression on her face when he introduced me to her. Such as: the way he said “goodbye” like he meant “forever.” Such as: the color of the sky while I drove away from him in California. Such as: the way he said “I love you” as he was falling asleep in a way that seemed like he meant it for someone else. Such as: how it felt to wait up until 3am while knowing exactly what was happening but pretending that I didn’t. Such as: the exact calendar dates on which things happened. Particularly, the exact calendar dates on which things that hurt me happened.
What am I trying to prove?
I also recently finished Sarah Manguso’s “Ongoingness” which conveys how the author confronts her own terror of forgetting anything important by writing it all down. How do we use memory to find sense in the swamp of time that we wade in throughout our lives? Does chronology matter, and do events matter more in how they happened or how we remember them? If we write something down to remember it, are we actually protecting ourselves from forgetting or preventing ourselves from experiencing life by anchoring to the past?
What could be more worth remembering than one’s own life? Is there a good excuse for forgetting even a single day?
(from Alice Gregory’s review of Ongoingness in the New Yorker)
I often think if I could just remember everything exactly as it happened, I will be more prepared. I will not be blindsided. I will have learned the right lessons. I think: “This time last year, you were ____ and I was ____, therefore I should ____.” I think: “This is exactly what happened to my mom and dad, and this is what I am doing the same or differently.”
As if relying on my memory of what happened and what didn’t happen — as if that will protect me. It’s so presumptuous. “I remember! This Bad Thing happened on this date last year, THEREFORE what if the entire future is doomed if I try this thing again, and THEREFORE I shouldn’t trust anyone right now or maybe ever.” As Khong writes, “Better presumptuous, I think, than a fucking sucker. Because I’m through doing things that don’t count. I’m through with things that don’t add up or amount. I’m just through.”
My memory is imperfect, but I place my bets on it anyway. My memory is imperfect, so I write things down imperfectly as if doing so will protect me. Do we write what’s true? Do we write about the pain we felt so that we prevent ourselves from that pain again? Or do we write what we desire to be true in order to find our way out of the actual truth? Rachel Khong admits, “Across the board, all my old diary entries are really emo and overwhelmingly about negative things.” Me, too.
So, consciously, I took out my notebook.
The thing I like about him is he not only endures but encourages my love of wearing athleisure and comfortable shoes to all events and plane rides.
The thing I like about him is when I tug on his sleeve and point to the kind of sunset we’ve seen a hundred times together (and apart), he stops everything and looks.
The thing I like about him is the way he reacts when I read a particularly tough passage in a book (probably about some dad cheating on the mom) and touch his arm. He is usually busy doing or reading something on his computer, but he takes time to respond to my bid for affection. He nuzzles me, tugs my hair and lands tiny kisses over my cheeks.
The thing I like about him is he knows trust doesn’t just come naturally to me, so he repeats things, writes them down, persists in convincing me.
The thing I like about him is the way his brow looks like a bumpy mountain range when I tell him something that bothered me, and he empathizes quietly, “That must be so tough.” Or he will stop me in the middle of something and say “I’m so sorry. For everything that happened.” And I think he really means it.
The thing I like about him is when he turns to me in the middle of a sun-spotted hike to ask, “Are we getting better at this?” I can’t help but answer “yes.”
And one of my favorite lessons from Goodbye, Vitamin:
You repeated about how nice the day was, either because you really wanted me to know it or because you’d forgotten you already mentioned it, but all of a sudden, it didn’t matter what you remembered or didn’t, and the remembering—it occurred to me—was irrelevant. All that mattered was that the day was nice—was what it was.
The sun is setting. I tap him on the shoulder and point outside. He puts away his laptop to watch with me. Without needing to look down, he finds and takes my hand.