We moved from one house to another, not even two miles away, when I was twelve. On the last night in the old house, I wrote a letter that I’ve since misplaced to remind myself of who I had been when I lived in that house. (I’m not sure how I drew up quite as much sentiment as I did, since I was twelve, but I’ve taken myself as seriously as I do now for as long as I can remember so you can bet it was heartfelt. I likely used the words “heartbreak” and “disappointment” as intentionally as I do in this blog. It was hard out there for a four-foot-tall nerd with poor social skills and Coke-bottle glasses.)
My hypothesis was that as soon as we moved into that new house I was going to become a new person, the way I did for a couple weeks every summer when I went to visit my grandma and became, oddly, docile and mostly quiet. It was as if the simple act of flying to Pasco was enough to make me forget that I was a championship whiner, but only until I got home and slept a night in my own bed and woke up the next morning as cranky as I’d ever been. I knew that a letter was no amulet, and that I couldn’t move to a new house and be the same person that I was the day before, but I wanted to remember as best I could.
Place is evocative. When I leave a place, I envision myself leaving behind something like a husk; when I return, it’s as if I step back into that husk involuntarily.
I’m a writer who works less with imagination than with memory. The question that runs through all of my work is who was I then? The answer is elusive. It’s easy to recall a generic description—that ugly shirt you had in two colors that you wore to every party sophomore year, and the Regina Spektor album that you were always listening to on the way to those parties, and how excited you were when S___ from American Literature finally asked you out—but it’s harder to conjure the sense of what it was like to live at the center of the constellation of all of those things.
To step back into a place that you’ve left behind—that’s the closest you can get to slipping back into that husk. Sleeping in your childhood home after you’ve grown up and moved away. Drinking at the bar where you went on your first post-college first date—your first first date, let’s be honest—five years later, only now you drink beer instead of vodka sodas and you know how to leave before the second drink with a little bit of dignity.
I think sometimes about the husks I leave strewn around the many places I visit where I’ll never return: that there was a time when I was a person who sat on her boyfriend’s kitchen countertop in an apartment in San Francisco, legs danging and wine glass in hand, and that there was a time before that when I was seventeen and I was the same person, only the countertop I sat on was in a dressing room in the backstage of a theater and it was very special to be one of the elite dancers who got their own patch of mirror and countertop, not like the underclassmen upstairs who had to share.
I got dumped in Palo Alto a couple of years ago. Of all the places to have my heart broken, Palo Alto was particularly cruel—it’s sunny and everyone is blonde and wears Adidas slides and works like four hours a day, for one thing, and for another, I have to visit some four or five times a year. And for all that I’ve grown and healed and moved on, I can’t help but feel a little raw and disoriented, like the second I step onto University Avenue I remember what it was like to be thrown so harshly off of my equilibrium. (Or maybe I’m just disoriented because it’s February and everyone is wearing shorts, and Palo Alto is full of humanoid freaks who don’t cry on the street like New Yorkers.)
It’s kind of joyful, though, to step back every once in a while to a husk that I’m thankful to have discarded. I remember that constellation viscerally—the sunshine on my back and the sound of chatter around me in the company cafeteria, how the sensation of disappointment settled in my eyelids and my gut—and it’s a great relief to know that that’s not my life anymore, that that’s never going to be my life again, that certainly I’ll have my heart broken again but that it will feel different and look different and smell different. (And I’ll get to say “Well, I feel like shit, but this isn’t nearly as bad as the time I got dumped in Palo Alto and everyone was smiling and drinking boba and wearing shorts and I wanted to punch them all in the face.”)
I finished A God in Ruins last night on a plane and while I’m not sold on Kate Atkinson’s prose or even her plots, there’s no denying that when it comes to structure and conceit she is a master. It’s a book about memory and perspective and she uses a trope where the protagonist, toward the end of his life—but not the end of the novel, which is told out of sequence—goes on a “farewell tour” of the places that figured prominently in his life. It’s a stroke that is of greater genius than it sounds. What better way to describe how a person has grown and changed—or not—than to juxtapose who they were at a moment in a place with how they recall themselves in that moment decades later?
It’s easy to recast memories in a light that better flatters the narrative you’ve crafted for yourself. I’ve caught myself more than once writing an anecdote that didn’t happen in the way I first recalled it: there was a story about being coached to insert a tampon for the first time through the bathroom door at ballet camp, and I wrote it down and a few minutes later remembered that that wasn’t my story, it was my roommate’s. I tried to write a few paragraphs ago that I had been to brunch at the restaurant where I’d cried into a cocktail napkin during my sister’s rehearsal dinner the night before her wedding, then remembered that it was the restaurant where we’d gone to drinks the night before the night before her wedding, which doesn’t flow nearly as well. I remembered these stories in a way that suited me.
Like I said before, place is evocative; being there jars my memory in a way that the simple act of remembering can’t. It’s not that I remember the details more clearly—I could sit at the same patio table where I sat for three hours on my first date with my first serious boyfriend and I still couldn’t conjure up what shoes I was wearing—but I remember the sensation. I used the word “constellation” earlier but perhaps I should say “confluence” instead: to be, physically, somewhere where something happened is to get as close as I can to reliving the experience of being that person in that moment, replicating the sensations that form a memory and retelling the story to fill in the gaps.
But as delicious as it is to step into and back out of a skin that I’m grateful to have shed, it’s even more delicious to know that the nature of my life—spent, so far, in constant motion, in moving trucks and on planes—means that most of my memories are ephemeral. My childhood home is sold and so is the one where we lived after that. My apartments have been relet to strangers, my furniture donated to charity, my high school repainted. I couldn’t go home again if I wanted to and so I have the freedom to paint my memories whatever color I want to; they’re lost to time, and no letter or essay or novel can conjure anything more than a husk.
I think perhaps that’s best. I tell people I write to make other people feel less alone in the world but I think that the old Joan Didion quote, the opening line of “The White Album,” is truer: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I write to mold my memories into the shape I need them to take so that I can live with them. To return to Palo Alto and remember how powerless I was on that day in August is to warp the shape of the story I wrote that forklifted me from that hole. I avoid DC because I don’t want to remember what it was like to be thin and weak and sick; I gallivant around the East Village because I want to recapture what it was to be 22, when nothing was nearly as big a deal as everything seems to be now. But what I like best is to leave footprints in new places that I’ll never see again—an apartment in southwestern France, a coffee shop on New Zealand’s North Island—and to file them away using whatever system I like. I was ambitious here. I was artistic there. I was listening to Simon and Garfunkel and it made me feel wistful. I made eye contact with a stranger and all sorts of this could have happened if I hadn’t looked back at my book. I write in my journal like I wrote myself that letter, so that I might remember who I was in that moment, so I can better understand what it means to be me now because of who I was then—there.