I touched last week on the idea of us using narrative to shape our personal histories, but a thing that’s always fascinated me is our ability—as cultures, as well as individuals—to rewrite memory.
Everyone has that story where half of the family remembers “Narrative A,” while the other half are committed to “Narrative B.” It could be something as small as what was said, or how it was said, but my family seems to misremember the larger details – like whether or not our youngest sibling was born yet, or if “X” happened at the Beach Club or at a ski resort in Colorado.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t really matter who remembers what because memories are, on a neurological level, living. They’re made up of neurons that live and die and (contrary to popular belief) reproduce. So if we hear or tell a story enough times, our memory of the telling eventually replaces what we remember of the experience until, if we’re not careful, what we remember years down the line isn’t actually what happened at all.
I dated a girl about a year ago that reminded me of glass. She was from Lithuania and her name was impossible to pronounce, so we’ll call her Kara.
Kara moved to Glasgow after her alcoholic mother relapsed and her ex-boyfriend, enraged one night during an argument, hit her across the face. She said this on our first date without so much as a blink, and so a month later I told her that she was like glass. Not in the sense of being fragile—we are, each of us, incredibly fragile—but because of her transparency.
What worried me was the damage. She had a break or a fracture, a spider-web crack across the windshield and growing. There was no way for me to measure it—we were excited strangers—but I could feel the resistance whenever I reached out to her: a jutted corner, a razor-sharp edge.
I was talking to a friend, Jason, about this. We were drinking a pint in Merchant City Glasgow when he said, “Why do we pick the damaged girls?”
Jason likes to talk about women. He’s the kind of guy who will stop mid-sentence if a beautiful girl walks into the room, just to stare. On this night, though, he’s trying to forget a girl that was beyond his reach.
“Why do we try to fix broken things?”
“You want the Freudian answer?” I asked.
“I dunno," he said, eying the foam of his pint. "A part of me wonders if it’s to make ourselves feel better. Like if we could fix somebody who’s that broken, then maybe…”
He interrupted himself with his own laughter. “Or maybe,” he said, “Maybe I’m just full of shit.”
“Probably,” I said. “But it might be both.”
The night that I told Kara she was like glass, I also told her that I wouldn't be able to fix her. The metaphor had gotten away from me, from both us, so that it’d manufactured it’s own end. She wasn’t like glass—not even remotely—but at one point she looked up at me and said, “You’re right.”
As much as I’d like to rewrite the ending as that moment, to say that I nodded and that we went our separate ways, that’s not what happened. We spent the night together and were inseparable the next few weeks. When things finally tapered off, it wasn’t because she started seeing a shrink or reading self-help books. It just happened.
I later learned how Jason would’ve finished his sentence, and there’s some truth to it. Even the most perfect among us crave acceptance, forgiveness for lesser flaws, redemption.
But there is still our affinity for Academy Award-winning heartbreakers, our attraction to tragedy and soap operas. We love drama because of the feels. Because how can you deny that moment when the heart throbs and the stomach clenches and the girl in your arms says “forgive me,” even though you’ve no idea what you’re forgiving her for.
Kara recently moved to Belfast. She married her old boss, the (I like to think) sleazy owner of a corner store where she served ice cream, and we became “unfriends” on Facebook. I haven’t heard from her in months but, given the narrative of her new marriage, I imagine that my role in her transition to the UK has been mitigated, if not erased entirely. And I can’t help feeling as though I've done the same. That I’ve somehow reduced her to a speed bump, a detour on my road to PhD-dom.
If that’s the truth, then I’m agnostic about it. Because you can’t go back. Not really. Not to relive the past or to re-remember. You’ve just got to assume that the truth is buried somewhere in the mind, imprinted on the remains of replaced neurons or that, even if it isn’t still there—even if memory serves only as a mechanism to live and love and forget—that, maybe, it’s for the best. Because in the end, having a choice might just be the most remarkable, wonderful thing of all.
The paintings in this post are by contemporary impressionist
Anne Blair Brown