February 14, 2016

Memories trapped in time

We like to believe that our memories are captured in an amber-like resin, preserved unchanged through the years. Some polished as jewels, others left to fossilize in a dusty drawer. But of course that isn't how it works. We recreate our histories every time we access them either intentionally or by a random connection that prods them forward. We are not reviewing a recording, but rather re-writing a story. They are recreated each time they are recalled, the details changed inadvertently by our subsequent experience.

My older brother sent me an email the other day, "Do you remember someone named X? Someone you dated when you were 16?" The quick answer was no. First, no girl was interested in me, much less dated me when I was sixteen. Second, my dating history is hardly voluminous enough for me to forget someone. He replied that this person was sure she knew me, that we had worked together at McDonald's, and that she had described me pretty well (no one forgets the afro). The plot was thickening, which my brother found hilarious. I scanned my memory, walking through the past, trying to find someone by that name. The sixteen year old thing had to be wrong, but maybe she dated my roommate and the story was confused in the telling.

My brother had sent the email mostly as a heads up, as I would likely be running into this mystery woman in a few hours. Her daughter was in plays with my niece, and we were all going to a a fundraiser for the youth group that evening. The mystery woman had seen my name on the guest list, prompting her question.

My brothers and I met for a drink beforehand and tried to tackle the mystery. My brothers laughing, me starting to get concerned about senility. The mystery woman was married, so the last name didn't help. To the internet! My brother showed me her Facebook photo, but that didn't jog a connection. I scanned her friends list, looking to see if my old roommate's name might be there. Then I saw a last name amoung the faces that finally pried lose the memory.

My 48 year old brain tried to recreate the faces and places. She had gone by a less formal version of her name back then. We did indeed work at McDonald's together. She dated a good friend of mine, and the three of us often hung out together. I remember her as beautiful and confident, and their relationship as somewhat volatile. In the winter of 1984, they broke up. I will leave the details and justifications to the dusty drawer of history, but for two weeks she and I dated, before she broke it off to return to dating my friend.

It was a crazy two weeks. That first real moment when someone finds you desirable, among all your teenage anxiety and awkwardness. A whole new world was opened up to explore, and just like that it was gone. That two week aside showed me both the amazing and ugly sides of relationships. I lost both friends, walking away more of an adult for better or worse. Imagination surpassed, illusions shattered.

And here she was, more than thirty years later. Married, three kids, successful, and by all hopes, happy. She brought a copy of my senior picture to the fundraiser as proof that our memories were real, that those seventeen year old kids existed. My niece enjoyed seeing the photo with my out of control curly hair, encouraging me to grow it out again. I looked at that same kid in the photo and wondered about it all.

We hugged and chatted a bit about what was going on with our lives. I met her daughter, just a couple of years shy of the age when her mom and I knew each other. We didn't talk at all  about when we were seventeen together, and I wonder how she remembers that time. The scenes are shot from a different perspective, a different director calling out what she wants emphasized. The soundtrack is different, and I can't even be sure we would be reading off the same script.

I've often wondered this about my former wife. What would it be like if we caught up over coffee. Would we try to bring our past scripts into alignment, and try to show the other what we had seen through our perspectives. Could comparing our differing memories bring some sort of clarity, or would we just touch base on our sequels, sticking to the stories un-entwined. I used to long for that future coffee date, to find out what she saw and why it all ended, but these days I am less sure of any promise of clarity.

And of course what I really want is to unearth that original memory preserved unchanged, so we could look at it together with the fresh perspective of time. But those perfectly preserved moments don't exist. In addition to our different understanding of the exact same events at the time, our recalling would change the details and feelings enough to make understanding elusive once again. Even still, I am curious, be it for seven years of marriage or just two crazy weeks as a teenager,

Back in the present, as I drove away from the benefit, the first song on the radio was "Night Moves" by Bob Seger, a song about those teenage moments.

"Working on mysteries without any clues...
trying to lose those awkward teenage blues."

Seeing those memories in the flesh, thirty years on but only a few blocks away from where it all took place, all through some chance connection of the next generation. Every so often, the universe just gives you a wink.

Strange how the night moves.