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Memory and romantic revisionism (part ii)

This post is intended as a follow-up to a somewhat-lengthy collection of thoughts on memory (found here). Read the other piece first or not…up to you…but know it’s meant as a follow-up.

As I have been reading and thinking and writing about memory of late, I have also gone back through my metaphorical box of random broken bits of pottery (memories), examining the random pieces that my fingers find. There are fewer clearly defined memories than I’d like, making the fading of even our most important moments (discussed in my last post) a very real experience. I remember relatively little of high school, save a few highlights: a particularly important homecoming game, getting caught sneaking out of the house at 1am. When I strain, digging down through the more recent pieces, I remember my first date with K. tucked away in the corner of a hippie cafe in Rutland, Vermont. He is the smartest person I’ve ever met, though he also later earned the award for being the most destructive force in my adult life. But most of those details – the good and the bad – have been lost. Sometimes a piece will resurface with the right reminder, but most of it…gone.

So as I think and read and write about memory, I’ve been digging through the actual physical artifacts of past eras, looking for reminders to bring up ceramic bits from the bottom of the memory-box. A great many of them were about A., and…in one of the more sentimental moments I’ve had in quite a while…I decided to collect some of those memories into a story of what was. This memory-mosaic is incomplete, they all are. It leaves out a great many pieces that were a part of our story – moments of heartbreak, moments of contentment, moments of joy. Any narrative based on memory does this (as Dunn says, and as I discussed in my last post). It takes on this detached, story-like, poetic form in hindsight, no matter how painful or messy it was in the moment. Pain isn’t romantic in the moment, it’s crippling. Retrospect makes it poetic. Time gives it style, symbolism, foreshadowing, greater meaning.  Distance makes it beautiful, makes it bittersweet.

So this is an entirely incomplete 11-paragraph story of an era that included the rise and fall of a 3 year relationship, culled from journal pages, emails, photos, and the box of ceramic memory-bits. I chose the ones I liked, and left the rest. It’s what we do.


She’d been in love before. She’d been in love before, had her heart broken before, believed that she would never survive it before, and gotten over it before. Ostensibly this means that she should be confident, confident that she’ll survive and that everything will be ok, confident that she’ll even fall in love again. But that’s the problem with love, isn’t it? You’re sure, at least in that irrational part of your brain that makes love what it is, that your heart is most certainly breaking in that permanent way from which one is unlikely to recover.

For an independent person, she needs too much, and knows it. Aware of the hypocrisy of this self-identification, she added it to a long list of things that could be titled “Topics on Which People Who Know Me are Nonetheless Generally Wrong”. Misassumptions. Misreads. Misunderstandings. She begged the last one to stay, sat on the floor and cried while he packed up his stuff and left. She begged him to stay despite the lack of love, the lack of empathy, the lack of sanity. How independent does that sound? When he was gone and weeks had passed, when a friend had moved in with her big Philly attitude, stock of vegetarian cookbooks and emphasis on regular exercise, she began to recover. She put him in the “bullet dodged” category, began to feel better, began to live and move and run and laugh. She lost some weight and gained attitude.

She and the friend referred to it as the Summer of Fun. The benefit of having a multi-year relationship break down and end in May is that you have several months of healing time before you really need to think seriously about applying your brain to something. Did I mention that she was a student? A graduate student. So she had the summer and enough part time work to survive and enough breathing time to heal. They drank wine on balconies, went dancing on random Tuesday nights, canned tomatoes, ate waffles at diners at 3am, did yoga, listened to vinyl, gardened, and slept with handsome, intelligent men…men they’d later come to call close friends. She would realize much later in another period of self-reflection that replacing one crucial person with another crucial person, albeit a platonic one, is not really living independently. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When he entered her life, it was with attitude and humor and a laid back life philosophy that was absolutely nothing like the one before. She liked this. He rode a bicycle [his prized possession] everywhere, she liked this too. She liked that he made a cheese platter on paper towels when he invited her over for wine. She liked the way he talked about the places he lived and she liked the way he kissed her. And so began the romance. They danced and they laughed. She nonchalantly cooked him intricate and delicious things to eat while he sat on the counter admiring the nonchalance (and her). They got high, they watched movies, and they stopped watching those movies five minutes in because in those early days making out is so much more fun. They were nervous-excited; they were playing it cool. Quite quickly, he became a feature in her life.

He worked nights at a boutique inn, and would stop for coffee at a late-night cafe before going to work. He took to inviting her to join him for a while, and she would take the bus over to sit for an hour and talk about the world, travel, and the inevitability of living abroad. Somewhere. Anywhere. She spoke of the noisy streets of Hanoi, he of the cobbled streets of Rome. She described motorcycle treks through the mountains, he described overnight trains to Amsterdam. He drank his coffee black, she drank her’s with a bit of half & half and the natural sugar – though more because she disliked the packets than because she disliked the processing. Sometimes he’d invite her up to the inn, and she’d sit at the bar eating cashews and drinking seltzer while he went through the evening checklist, discussing his current fascination with Rilke and her semi-secret wish to have a pop-up restaurant; he stood there looking surprisingly sexy in his fancy vest and shirt. Sometimes he’d creep over to her house very early in the morning when the night-shift ended, crawling into bed for a few hours of cuddling and sleeping before she had to get up to go to class. She loved those moments, wrapped entirely in love and excitement and the thrill of waking up to his skin cold from the winter air and body tired from the work, slipping under the covers with her.

It was wonderful. It was fraught with anxiety. The Summer of Fun had not, quite unfortunately, rid her of the sadness and the fear. These were things that sat in the “relationship” segment of her mind, and while that was asleep they were also asleep. But as things became more serious, so did the mess. She began having nightmares, nightmares about the previous one, angry nightmares that made her moan in her sleep and that woke up the man next to her, a man who – in all fairness – didn’t know exactly what to do with the situation except hold her. If she was honest, she didn’t really trust him. Not because there was anything particularly untrustworthy, but because by virtue of dating her he was untrustworthy. She felt sure that he didn’t feel the same way about her, wasn’t as committed as her, was the one who would leave. And because she is an honest person with little ability to hide her feelings, she shared these things with him in those moments we take to talk seriously with another person about emotions and relationships and the like. He took it well (I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that he’s a nice guy from the Midwest – he is) but still – she didn’t trust him by virtue of his existence. She kept it mostly in check, knowing that to openly not-trust the person who has not earned such treatment is to schedule an expiration-date for some point in the future. Reigning it in, however, doesn’t include maintaining the attitude, the free-ness, the joie de vivre that she’d had in the early days of paper towel cheese plates and mugs of boxed wine. This was clear. He could see it, but he didn’t particularly know what to do about it other than wait, and plus he loved her and knew healing took time. He’d never met someone with so much love to give, even if it wasn’t the calmest or the cleanest, and he needed love. He was fighting his own battles, and this love was overwhelming but replenishing. She showed it in the food she cooked for him, in the travel stories they traded, in the way that she looked at him sometimes – a direct look that felt intense in a way he couldn’t quite describe. She listened to the darkest parts of him, held him, and guarded though he was, the desire to be wrong about his belief that he’d end up alone made him fall almost as hard as she did.

She loved those parts -the dark ones- as much as the smiling, dancing, story-telling parts of him, but she still worried. People talk about mending a broken heart, and maybe because it’s a muscle, we imagine it joining back together, becoming whole again. But she wonders if maybe there is always extra shrapnel, little shards of life that will always cause pain with particular movements. She felt, in those early months of a relationship after the word “love” has been uttered, that he didn’t love as intensely as she wanted, as she did.  Hypotheses explaining this unfortunate situation pointed to his own heartbreak and inability to let go, or to the fact that she just didn’t have the qualities necessary to be a “muse” of any sort to this introvert with yet-unfulfilled creative tendencies. Love had been so intense the last time, an all in way too soon, should have been a red flag beginning, followed by a year of peace and then a winding emotional roller-coaster of arguments that got progressively more mean. Somehow this felt beige, in comparison. Love was supposed to be highs and low’s, no? He could point out that this seemed a little bipolar, that love was comfort and stability and someone who is there with you, that with passion came intensity yes but also often pain. He could say these things but they would be interpreted as his own guards against loving passionately or even excuse-making to avoid the fact that she was just not someone who elicited passion. He did say these things, and they were so interpreted.

They had conversations about the extent to which he showed and expressed that he loved her. These were thinly veiled conversations about the extent to which he loved her, an unfortunate topic to talk about since it left both people feeling inadequate. Enough of these conversations and things start to feel like painful reenactments of a play you never liked that much in the first place. She cried more, he felt desperately unable to give her what she wanted more, and they spent a lot of time hoping that things would get better tomorrow.

They went on like this for some time, both wanting it to be something that it no longer was, both loving the potential rather than the reality, both hoping that tomorrow would bring a solution that they hadn’t quite been able to find today. They had long sad conversations, falling asleep exhausted, holding hands. There was more silence, less trading of stories. He told her less about his days in Rome. She spoke of work – the main thing she did besides sit with him contemplating their bleak future – and felt desperately unadventurous. He tried to address the anxious emptiness inside him, to quiet the voices with meditation and yoga and reading books by Thich Nhat Hanh. They went on vacation, but it lacked the joy and morning sex of trips before. It’s unfortunate, isn’t it, that you can watch the paths separating, not want it, and yet not be able to steer back towards a common future? I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, but it most certainly is. People are complex.

There isn’t an explosive “ending” to report. Sad moments stacked up, interrupting conversations and edging their way into most days. Pain was inflicted, in the unintentional way that happens when good people make mistakes. In a moment of strength, she ended things – wanting more than anything to hold on to a small amount of self-respect. She tried to take back that “moment of strength” for six subsequent days, but he found his own strength in her declaration, and directed his path away from her as quickly as possible. Their lives, entwined for years, untangled quite easily. He – always a minimalist – packed up the few things that mattered to him and went away. She was left in a flat full of memories, photographs, and household items representing the home she’d been trying to build with the person she loved. Somehow the light in that century-old French villa – always warm and hinting of eras past – changed. The emptiness overwhelmed her. A new flat solved one problem, new photos another, and the memories…well those she hoped would fade eventually like that Vanishing poem by Stephen Dunn promised they would. She bought a new motorbike and cut her hair. She told herself that she had a bad habit, but that awareness was the first step. She only thought she saw something that others didn’t; it’s like going to St. Vinny’s and being sure that if you stripped the wood paneling and yellow sponge-painting of baggage and bravado away from a truly messed up chest of drawers, there’d be something freaking amazing underneath. In reality, she told herself as she forged forward; most of the time what’s underneath is particleboard.

She felt numb most of the time, distracting herself with alcohol, loud parties, and one or two dates (only) with handsome, amusing men who for one reason or another she’d never really let in. As a person who always new what she felt about things, she had never been this gray. She couldn’t quite decide if she hoped this emptiness would fade to whole-ness, and that she’d again believe in the possibility of love, or if any re-believing she did was really self delusion because the alternative is too bleak to bear. She couldn’t decide if she wanted to forget that love inevitably ends in this kind of pain, a necessary forgetting if one wants to fall openly into love again. She felt sad but awake.

And that was it.

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Today entailed [scheduled, not emergency] outpatient surgery and Season 1 of community and Frank cuddles.
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