the point at which we live
“perfect memory” and a train ride
It’s 1:30 a.m., and I’m on an Amtrak, trundling through a generic Westchester suburb. There are houses lined up alongside each other that look exactly identical, against a backdrop of tall, shabby apartment buildings with cages in front of their windows. In the distance is the skyline of New York City on a Saturday night, the ever-familiar spire of the Empire State Building, and the flickering dotted outline of the George Washington Bridge. There are 8 million lives out there, raging in their own directions.
Last night, I watched “The Notebook,” as one does. I spent most of the early-20s romantic comedy portion rolling my eyes but was cut deeply by one scene towards the end. It was the moment when an old woman with dementia, for a single brief instance, sitting across from her desperate husband, remembers. You can see it flash across her eyes, and she reaches out to clasp his hand—she remembers him, her children, and a long, full life. She forgets again in an instant, but the moment hangs in the air.
Along the Hudson River, we roll past a massive cluster of high-rise apartment buildings, stretching like a forest out into black perpetuity. The woman’s haunting eyes float in front of me, flashing to sudden recognition before subsiding back to lost distress. There might be a time, I think to myself, when I don’t remember any of this ride.
My memory has always been a strange gift. I have an uncanny ability to memorize—I am sure this is responsible for a good amount of the academic success I have had. I can remember, down to the minute, the majority of things that have happened to me since I was six or seven years old. I remember all of the poems I had to memorize for the poetry unit in second grade and every song I played in piano lessons through middle school. I remember every outfit I’ve worn, every book I’ve read. I learn lists of dates and facts after two or three reads, and can repeat back long lists of numbers without a second thought. Every moment of my life is subsequently stuffed into a filing cabinet, to be rifled through and referenced at will.
As I scroll through my phone, scheduling meetings for the upcoming week, logging into my bank account to check if I have enough money to buy coffee the next morning, and planning out my homework allocations, it strikes me just how much of my time I spend thinking about my future, even though surely the majority of my brain space is taken up by piles and piles of vivid memories. So much of this semester, the sixth of my college career, has been spent focusing on the months and years ahead, bogged down with applications, interviews, emails, making contacts, losing weight—all with an eye towards a stable future.
I suspect that the stable future will never actually come, that when I’ve settled down with the picket fence and the 2.5 children, I’ll still be looking ahead to promotions, to financing my children’s college, to saving for retirement. When I get off this train, I will wait for a bus, then wait to fall asleep in my bed. I will wake up the next morning, check off some classes and meetings, and repeat, waiting for summer to come, so I can begin waiting for school to start again. I suspect that when these goals fade into obscurity, others will take their place. I will keep waiting as new goals, wishes, hopes and dreams spring forth and fall back.
What do we all wait for? What do we all work towards? If at the end of this road lies an old and rickety version of me who cannot remember her times tables or her husband or anything that has ever happened to her, when do I stop devoting my present to paving my way to a better tomorrow? At what point do I live?
When I’m on long train rides, in cafeteria lines, or in boring lectures, I’ll often keep myself entertained by rifling through the filing cabinet and pulling out memories to watch little videos in my head. My melancholy subconscious selects, at random, a painful breakup from the end of eleventh grade. I remember locking myself in a classroom, collapsing on the floor, and sobbing, pressing my forehead into the varnished leg of a wooden chair. I remember scribbling into a diary how much pain I was in, how I’d never be able to think or feel the same way again. I remember walking through the woods later that night, and I remember the patterns of every single leaf that I crushed underfoot. I remember the song playing on my iPod the next time I ran into him in the school cafeteria (it was “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”). But I realize, as I replay those memories to myself, that as vivid as they are, something is missing. I don’t remember the actual pain. I feel so disconnected from the Me who went for that walk, played that song, that I have no recollection of what it was like to be her.
I flick through more memories: my first kiss with my boyfriend, hugging my parents goodbye at the train station, petting my dog for the first time in three months, sitting on a beach in Brooklyn at 2:30 a.m. and staring across the East River at the brilliant Manhattan skyline. I remember every sight and smell, but the memories are as clinical as a spreadsheet. I remember grey days in bed after the breakup, but I have no idea what my brain did to drag me from that hole to the present, to the peace of this train ride. I vividly remember living, but I can’t remember how or why I’ve lived in the first place.
I have always been terrible with change. I called my mother on the first day of my freshman year of college, sobbing that I wanted to go home. I cried equally hard on the last day of freshman year, unable to accept that it was over. Breakups send me spiraling into weeks of depression, growing distant from friends makes me a wreck, and every new dorm, new job, new life, brings mood swings and pain. When those times become memories, my brain files them away in its cabinet, to be reviewed at convenience, but with their most crucial element missing. It’s the way my “perfect” memory fails me. Maybe that’s why every change, every loss, hits me hard each time. I remember every name I’ve ever learned, but sadness and loss are brand new to me, every single time. Every breakup is my first breakup.
But happiness is new to me too, as are joy, excitement, love. Every time I feel one of these emotions beginning to course through me, I feel like I’ve discovered a brand new, beautiful room in an otherwise familiar house. I realize, as I revel in the beauty of the city lights and the trees outside my window, on a train carrying me to the university of my dreams, that while I wait for events to file away, I live in the emotions. The burst of affection when I hug my parents for the first time in months, the swell of pride as I read over a poem I’ve just written that I know will be great, the beauty of a clear summer night sky. These moments are what I live for. These moments are too strong, too real for the filing cabinet to contain.
That said, if you ever need someone to remember a phone number, hit me up.