Sometimes memories are beautiful simply because we know how damaged we were in that moment, that hour, that day – and in the present, we can look back on that former version of ourselves and understand what even still was waiting for us. How we managed to blunder through and come out the other side breathing.
I think back to a dorm room with sickly florescent light, knowing how lonely and sad my little sister was to be there, and how desperately she was trying to fake it for my mom. How we both were. I remember a store-bought chocolate cake eaten on university supplied couches, the fabric scratchy under our hands, catching on our clothes. I remember the empty hollowness that followed us around all day even though it was a remarkably warm day for January, the sun bright. We fawned over books and beads and Greek food as we always did, but we did it with the knowledge that we were all kind of bruised and limping. All of us faking it just because even one of us giving up and lying down on the side walk, please no more, would have given the other two permission to do the same. The car ride home, just my mom and me, both of us trying to play at normal and both of us just tired. So tired.
Funny how time goes on. Funny how you can think you were completely exhausted and at the end of your rope with no more drive to try. Funny how you do keep on trying because what the hell else are you going to do. Giving up would be weakness, the one weakness we crave more than anything. Not being weak becomes the only lifeline we have left to hold.
Funny how the memories that stick out the worst aren’t the most dramatic, the most tragic. Those are the memories we hide away in the deepest foot lockers of our hearts, because to acknowledge their reality would kick a big hole in our guts, a big hole like a fist through plywood. We forget about the big things – or we just bury them in slightly less sad memories, the more accessible ones, the more palatable ones. The ones that allude to the one great big sadness without forcing us to exactly deal with it. We make ourselves forget about ER waiting rooms and the soft beep-beep of machines, we make ourselves forget about the late nights up crying until the skull feels like cracked eggshells, about razor blades and candlelit vigils and broken wine bottles.
Instead, I remember what feels like a hundred stilted afternoon visits, our time controlled and limited around rickety folding card tables. The dull hum of vending machines, the chatter of other people’s children. The way there was always someone crying and pretending not to be. All of us, hiding, in our way.
I remember the same booth at the same tired Burger King, a hundred Friday nights, the salty kids meals –when we could even afford them – and the words of confusion or hurt or fear bitten back. Fries dipped in ketchup. The way all of it had become a pattern, a familiar thing – the ripped vinyl booths, the sadness none of us could explain, the heat between our parents’ calculated glances, the cold porcelain sink in the bathroom, one final pee break and hand washing before we hit the road again. A grown man crying, and the rest of us thinking, suck it up.
I remember mornings at a desk, staring down at black ink on thin textbook paper, breathlessly thin like tissue paper, it was always anthologies, wasn’t it. The way I couldn’t breathe, always. The way I was fighting back tears, always. I took to wearing my most giant sunglasses, all the time. Indoors as long as I could get away with it. Just so no one could see – the tears, the tears were what I wanted no one to see, but really it was the big crack inside of me. The tears were just the exit sign, take the ramp and I’d show you everything. The words always swam in front of my face, it felt like I was missing half of my jaw just because I couldn’t speak properly, couldn’t get it out, any of it — the fear and the worry and most of the all the questions…or, the one question, the one question that only ever mattered: why.
Those memories, looked at from the relative safety of the present, always seem so much more beautiful, because the sad truth is those feelings became common place, a recognizable way point as the years go by. We marvel at how we were the emotional equivalent of losing a limb, and somehow still staggering around like we hadn’t noticed. You want to find that version of yourself, the past version, and baby them. Cuddle them up. Because all they want is to get through it. They want to see a way out, and claw their frantic way towards it until they survive, or else give up, as we’re always threatening to.
And they will. That’s what we know on this side of things, after the fact. They – we – will get through it. They – we – always do.
But with the solidity of what happened then, and what happened, after, behind us – we know the only sad truth there ever is.
Those times will come again. There will be periods of brief tranquility, of happiness. Sometimes the periods will not be so brief. Sometimes, the happiness and safety will spin on and on for weeks and months and maybe years. We’ll be lulled into that false sense of security again.