2009 :: Issue 5/Fall :: Haunting Memories
I saw her only the one time. The sex was good, but no better than I’d enjoyed with others during so many similar encounters. She spent the night, in the morning collected her clothes, dressed in the bathroom, left. There was the obligatory exchange of phone numbers, but I tossed hers in the trash as soon as she’d gone. That might have been the end of it had she lived; I have no way of knowing.
It was early that evening that I got the message, a voice on my voicemail asking that I call a Detective Josh Bradley at my earliest convenience. I dialed the number with a generic nervousness, having no guess about the nature of the pending conversation. He thanked me for returning his call, then asked me if I knew a Monika Braun. I said that I didn’t, then caught myself: I didn’t know her surname, I told him, but last night I’d met a Monika. My phone number had been found in one of her pockets, he explained, and that morning she had been murdered during a car-jacking. I was being contacted to see if I could help reconstruct her movements just prior to her death. As delicately as possible I informed him that she had spent the evening at my apartment. The approximate time of her departure apparently confirmed that she had been assailed while driving from my home to wherever she intended to go. He asked me if I would be available to come to the station if need be, though he doubted this would be necessary. I numbly queried as to whether they had apprehended the killer: they had. There had been several witnesses, and the stolen vehicle was spotted by a unit not thirty minutes later. I was thanked for my cooperation and was still holding the receiver to my ear as the line went dead.
I awoke the next morning with a thought of her—not about her death, but a detail of a moment with her: the feeling of her pelvic bone against my left palm as it rested on her right hip while we made love with her on top. I could easily join this to my overall conception of the evening, but that particular sensation seemed to have an independent existence for me, as vivid and present as when it actually occurred. At the time this did not seem strange. Neither did the memory I awoke with the following day—this one of her blinking once while looking at me just after she had inserted my number into her pocket and before we moved in for a valedictory hug—even as it remained with me in the same manner as the other continued to do. Although at some point I developed a vague conception that something unusual was occurring, it was not until about two weeks on that I articulated to myself what I was experiencing. By this point I was familiar with the rules of the elusive game my memory seemed to be playing: after every time I slept, I would find myself in possession of a new cognizance, recalled with an impossible precision that would not generalize with time. I told myself that this must be the expression of a subconscious horror of what had happened to her (for consciously I did not have a strong reaction, having known her on only superficial, carnal terms), that it would run its course, that it would pass.
After three months, I could no longer maintain my wishful self-deception and feared I was going insane. I began consulting with a series of doctors (general practitioners, neurologists, psychologists, psychiatrists), then moved on to spiritualists of all stripes, then to supposed experts on the paranormal. I was supplied with a gamut of theories and subjected myself to all manner of curative measures (drugs, meditation, seances), none of which ameliorated my condition in the slightest. Meanwhile, I engaged in a variety of behaviors as hopeful purgatives. For a while I debauched myself to a formerly unimaginable degree, thinking this might blur all of my life’s sexual activity. When this failed, I turned to a celibacy, going so far as to disallow myself even onanistic pleasure. This, too, proved fruitless. I watched TV endlessly, I listened to music constantly, I traveled from place to place, tried every exotic food I could lay my hands on—in short, anything to saturate my mind and senses in the hope that my brain would be too overloaded to continue to hold on and add to my memorious storehouse of my time with Monika. My greatest success came during the brief period when I experimented with sleep deprivation. By this did I succeed in keeping new remembrances in abeyance, but it did nothing to the ones already accumulated (although, predictably, it wreaked havoc on all of my other mental functions). And, of course, I had to sleep sometime. Finally, I resigned myself to one of two fates.
How many impressions can be made in a single moment? If you bring a violet to your nose, there is of course its aroma and appearance, there is the feel of the stem against your fingers; but there is also the light of the sun shining down on a part of the sidewalk that is visible in your periphery, there is your left heel pressing down on your sock against your shoe against the concrete, there is a beat of your heart and air entering your nose and lungs, there is the almost imperceptible breeze sounding in the pinna of your right ear. Although your consciousness attends to only a fraction of the data taken in, the rest are nonetheless registered and go toward creating your experience. And so how much variety can be yielded from half a day—even if half of that was spent in unconsciousness, and even if the input is confined to a single subject? How much is there that can be recalled from my six waking hours with this woman? I experienced a moment of true hopefulness when I realized that the answer is finite. But I was disabused of any thoughts of being relieved of my burden when, using my experience up till then as a model (over ten years by then, or in excess of four thousand permanent instances), I calculated that I would have to live to be very old indeed to have any chance of seeing an end.
A week ago I turned forty, and as I sat that night drinking a scotch before retiring, I did the math once again. If I live to be eighty and sleep once per day, that’s fourteen thousand six hundred ten additional fragments of my time with her. Fourteen thousand six hundred ten. Could that be all? I do not know. That’s less than one fragment per second, so it does not seem so. Already I hold so much more of those six hours than I would have thought possible of even the most important of my life’s events—and so it is easy to conceive of recovering what may have been lost, of what blanks there might be and that which may fill them in. Some morning I very well may awaken with the return of the feel of a strand of her hair falling into my mouth, its texture on my tongue. But she dressed in the bathroom, I left her to urinate at least once that I remember (so far)—seconds, minutes maybe, stretches of time in which I took in none of her. Fourteen thousand six hundred ten? Even if so, that is a long road to travel.
But that is the preferable destiny, the one in which an end is at least theoretically possible. The other concerns the way in which memory is thought to work: that every memory is not a replaying of that which was actually experienced (somewhat analogous to a frame of a film), but a recreation, the remaking—or even the out-and-out fabrication—of a past impression. Here the mind is performing a sort of fictionalization, something along the lines of “based on a true story”—and thus is not constrained to facts and their inherent fixity. In the permanent and delimited world of the true, if you were on your way to the store to purchase milk when you plucked the violet off the sidewalk, then that is that; but in the infinite world that allows for falsehoods, during one possible remembrance you are going to pick up orange juice, in another you’re on your way home, a gallon of milk already in hand. The possibilities for a just fraction of a second are limitless.
I tell myself that, just as my inviolable reconstructions of my time with this too-remembered woman do not conform to the conventional wisdom concerning mental retention, so neither do the workings of my memory where she is concerned—and so therefore I recall only input actually received. With this in mind, I sometimes fantasize about my last day of life in a distant, distant future. I imagine waking up that fateful morning with one last impression to be inserted among the rest, the final piece of the puzzle that, when completed, reveals the totality of my experience with this Monika, this absent companion whom I know better and better over time, and that I will recognize it as such. That day I will have what I had of her entirely. Perhaps this is what her spirit requires, and maybe it is only then that both of us can rest.