Consider this, I was forty floors up, in an unoccupied room. A room I was supposed to be cleaning. The night was overcast and the wind felt like the weather was halfway through a thought. The balcony needs sweeping. I look over the edge of the railing and stare down at the strip clubs and party people and I get that urge I sometimes get when I am high up in tall buildings or on bridges. The urge to jump.
I pulled my phone out and dialed her again, the fourth time in the last two weeks. My forehead felt hot and my vision was blurred to the point of tears, the wind whipped cold salty air into my face, which couldn’t help. She picked up.
“Hey darling,” she drawled into the speaker like she always did, “How are you?”
“Are you busy?” I asked, agitated. I needed to talk, but only to her.
“Yes, I am free now, what is wrong?” She asked like she didn’t already know like it hadn’t been the reason for my other calls.
This time I spelled it out clearly, trying to trap her, but I could never say the words I dreaded as if they held back the flood of emotion that was just beginning to slip.
“You know how we talked about the dream I had, well how I remember and how I think we kissed, are you sure it didn’t happen?”
“Look, Mitch, I remember we had some action together but that was before Emily, you don’t have to worry.” I could feel her pity through the phone. I stared out of the window of the room I was supposed to be cleaning, down at the colourless beach of the night and off the coast.
“Are you sure?” I asked, waiting for an answer.
The ruckus was overpowering as we stood around the treated pine barrel and sipped at our drinks. The ice was melting away into empty glasses that were left behind by others and I kept casting furtive glances at the barkeep in the hope that our table would be cleared. I was distracting myself from Angus, who was giving me grief. He was snappy, the scotch biting into his stomach lining and spewing back venom into the night air. His smile was mean, but I sensed caution.
Emily had been traveling for three months at this point.
“So are you going to marry her?” He asked me.
I smiled in the way that drunks smile, trying to hide the truth from him.
“I don’t know. Of course, I love her, but I find marriage to be a weird idea. I like the idea of marriage just not the whole wedding thing.”
He frowned, “So, no wedding?”
“Yes, I would just like to go to town hall and do it privately. Do it for her.”
“But the wedding isn’t about you…” He said.
I interrupted, “it is about her isn’t it?”
“No. It is about the party. The joining of families and friends. The community aspect of it. You have the whole idea of marriage wrong.”
I shifted in my seat uncomfortably, but I was unwilling to back down. “I want my love to be private. I want to share it just with her.”
I’ve always had trouble with memory. My place in the universe, dictated by something as small as a neural pathway, the pea under the mattresses. Everyone has let something slip from their mind: names, dates, and promises. We think we have a complete picture of our past, all the important things collected and packed away.
It was in the last years of high school. Desperate to make my mark onthe College, I participated in every extra-curricular activity I could. There I was, driving to one, the second night of the ‘Grease’ musical, and interschool effort, which lead to many shy fawnings within the cast. My ute rattled underneath me and I distractedly looked at the night sky, peering into the orange reflection of the city in the clouds. I approached a light and saw smoke billowing from a car. It had run the intersection and slammed into the back of a Toyota Camry.
The car had skittered off the road into a light pole. I had missed this incident by mere seconds, a bare cresting of the hill. Coming to a halt, I faltered. People came from houses and the few cars on the road. Smoke rolled out of the crash. She pushed the door off and started screaming. She pulls a limp sack of flesh from the back. She coddles the limp sack of flesh and screams into an orange night. People were there and on phones, even though the hospital was close, and I was just a kid. So I left.
Manic. I pushed through the musical with the energy of a child, bouncing off the walls and chatting to everyone who would let me. I couldn’t stop talking, I was afraid if I stopped then the shaking would come back. My teenage angst was tempered by Catholic school, and trained to bear significant amounts of guilt, but not like this.
When I got home, I told my father and he said I was in shock. He used to be a cop and tells me that most car accidents look worse than they do. He is trying to comfort me.
“I know what I saw.” I can’t sleep, so he stays up and eventually calls the police station and asks if there was a fatal car accident that night.
“I know you can’t tell me details, but you can tell me that.” He says into the phone. He smiles and places it back.
It is the night before she leaves on her trip. We have been together four years, and by the time I see her again it will technically be five. A short time to be in love. We cry together and ply ourselves with the facts. We both know it will be hard, a long journey for me to be stuck at home, but I knew I had the strength for it. Our last days together had been filled with too much crying so we crack a joke and kiss each other. It was one of those nights that last forever and you never want to end, but time eats away at all things living and good, and the yellow sun slips across our chest like clothing and dresses us ready for a new day apart.
She has been gone for four months now. We stay in contact through skype, except when she visits Nepal. I am working minimum wage in a kitchen-hand job, chopping up cold onions that make me cry, in shoes that are like clown shoes on my feet. The hours are long and I can’t afford another pair so I bite through the pain. Three days into the week my legs muscles ache like I broke them and I struggle to make the five-am starts. I pull on the shoes that are too big and swallow some ibuprofen to help. My focus is on the money and how I could use it to go visit her.
The monotony of slicing vegetables allows my mind to wander, and with the force of a punch, an epiphany hits me. I remember Her, early on in my relationship with Emily. She was a friend, but we both struggled with a mutual sexual attraction. I remember inviting her over to my house. I am drunk, I remember asking her to stay the night. I remember thinking about Emily as I pulled her in close. So close that our lips were almost touching and her breathe was minty in my face. We stayed there for a long moment and then she goes rigid and leave.
My breath starts staggering into my lungs in short panicked bursts. My eyes burn and my leg still pounds from the pain and I quickly flee to the toilet and bite my hand until it bleeds. Blood curls slowly onto my thumb and drips onto the tiled floor of the bathroom. It falls into the gaps of grout and stains the white. How could I have forgotten?
I google side effects of ibuprofen on my phone and panic. It hits me again and for a moment the pain subsides. Maybe I dreamt it? Holding onto this, I wash my hand under the faucet and wipe it dry with a paper towel. I look at it and study the bite mark, the molars and canines that shredded my skin.
When I return to the kitchen I place gauze over the wound and wear two gloves.
Week by week the thought erodes at my mind, leaving me in a blank state of depression. Each day slowly blurs into the other days because what else could I do but work, and what else could I do but think about her. Am I letting myself off the hook? I should talk to Her and find out, but I am too cowardly to do so. Maybe if I talk to Her she will confirm it and then all my guilt wouldn’t be misplaced.
Late one night, I message Angus after work and drive back from the coast to see him at his parents’ house. He leads me into the spare room and lets me sleep. The bed creaks as I lay down and during the night I start to freeze, but I can’t stand to grab another blanket. In the morning, he makes me breakfast and we go for a walk around Brisbane. Everything I want to confess is on the tip of my tongue, staining every word that comes out of my mouth, and he knows it.
When I tell him he doesn’t believe me. Taken aback, I try to convince him otherwise.
“You would have told me when it happened,” he says.
“I must have filed it away as unimportant,” I replied.
“Have you spoken to Emily about it?” He asks.
“Good, don’t. You are lonely and depressed and you are fixating on a delusion. It isn’t healthy and all it will do is drive a wedge between you and her. A wedge that is unnecessary.” I think maybe I overplayed my confusion, so I tell him again emphasising the reality of the situation and once more he gives me the same stony response.
I re-live that night, but the details slip in and out. It must have been in the first year of my relationship, but I can’t pin-point exactly when. The memory becomes stilted the more I recall it. At a certain point, I start to doubt the memory. It starts to seem like maybe it was just a dream, but something seizes me by the throat and tells me I shouldn’t get off that easy.
She has been gone for six months and I am struggling. Each day I travel an hour-and-a-half too work, and an hour-and-a-half-back. Working late afternoon to late night. I become invested in podcasts, listening to them on the late night trips, one after the other, sometimes repeating ones I enjoyed. It is hard to drive the car in silence, and I become frightened that if I pause the sound then I might go crazy. I start to resent our Skype calls. The comfort of her voice and the stories she tells me just show how much I wasn’t doing in my life without her. A vast silence settles over me as we talk. I have nothing to say.
Every day at work followed the same pattern: working myself into a stupor, a sweaty beast, all the while fixating on the past. People spoke to me, but I didn’t actually listen and because of this I became good at knowing when people wanted me to laugh. Caitlin. Her name is Caitlin. Emily and Caitlin. When Emily comes back, we are to move in with each other, and I wonder if I can keep this up. I imagine that all I need is her to be back for me to explain what happened. If she was back I could convince her it was going to be ok. One night, on Skype I tell her. She responds exactly like Angus, her voice not even faltering and the way she does it isn’t so much with disbelief as dismissiveness.
This is the point at which I call Caitlin. I walk out of work and sit on a wooden bench. I collect myself. She picks up after the third time I call and apologises for taking so long to answer. Caitlin is managing a store at Arlie Beach, which means most late nights the store was filled with rowdy backpackers.
We chat, we small talk, for a few minutes I am distracted as if the situation became lost on me in face of Her, her voice. It takes some time, but I push myself to ask her. Her response is confusion, “What are you talking about?”
The waiting room pulsates with the sick and ancient, stiff carpet crunching underneath shuffling feet, morning television laughs echo across beige walls and soft skin. My eyes are heavy and my body feels low like the bones and muscle have to seriously work to give my body shape. I imagine that I am oozing out of my chair and onto the floor, a thick puddle of human filth, an oil stain on the underside of peoples shoes. I crick my neck as I nod off.
They call my names and I walk into his office. He looks like he is annoyed that I am back so soon, but then I might just be projecting. A boxer’s body bulges from the chair, and strains against the buttons of his shirt as he leans forward, mostly out of calculated interest rather than empathy. “Why are you back here?” He asked.
“I think I need to see a psychiatrist. Or a psychologist, I need to talk to someone.”
He paused to take off his glasses, “I need to ask why?”
I hesitate, but I am here for the help, so once again I confess my crimes.
“It seems as if your obsessive compulsive tendencies are manifesting. So you cheated on your girlfriend. Are you worried this woman will tell her?”
“Ahh so why are you worried then?” He smiled. I not sure if he wants to cheer me up.
“I am scared. I don’t know what happened? Caitlin says nothing happened, but I remember.” He had stopped listening, he wrote me out a prescription on the computer, printed the sheet off and signed it. “Take this, it will help with the obsessions and the depression.” He had his diagnosis.
Break-ups are the secret history of a person’s life. We spend so much time eating, sleeping, working and the difference is only ever tone. The tone of a conversation, the tone that colours our vision. The inner life is drained, but life goes on, it always does. Despite our best efforts it has to go on without us, either physically or emotionally. We wake up to find ourselves in a different climate. We shiver at the beach. We sweat in the river water. Either physically or emotionally, we have to catch up to everyone else.
Our break-up was almost innocuous: she was to be back in a month and I was dealing with my obsessions with the prescribed medication, and starting to push myself forward again. She rang me to tell me she wants to stay longer, another six months. I need a couple of days to think. I find solace in my friends, and get advice from them.
Rhys tells me I should break up with her. He feels that Emily and I had an unspoken contract, that she would be gone for the year and returned, it seems to him that she had broken that contract. He tells me I should do it theatrically, double drop some SSRI’s and have a party in the background of the skype call. Angus asks me, “Is what you want for her to apologise for going away?”
I found an excuse. I didn’t even know I was looking for one. History was the only thing we now had in common. The world stumbled and righted itself, and I couldn’t get out of the chair. Rhys orders some pizza and offers me some Medaphinal.
She has been gone for a while now. Two years on the thirtieth. The story is closer to now than it was before, fragments in my mind are being pulled out like glass after a car crash. It hurts to extract them. I am researching false memories for this story and google auto fills the search with, ‘false memories OCD’. There is a forum about OCD and anonymous users discuss their own problematic relationship with their recollection, and for the first time in years, I don’t feel so alone and crazy.
Echos and phrases that have repeatedly played out in my head are played out on the screen before me. A woman talks about believing she molested her cousin at a party, but her parents have assured her that she did not leave their side. Another woman is consumed with the thought of having run someone over in her car, but after calling the police she can find no evidence of it. A theme starts to unfold as I read further into the thread. Most of the false memories hurt the people they most loved in the world.
All of them worry if they will be able to carry on, the guilt is overpowering: a cloying, choking feeling that leaves many of them bereft of hope and contemplating suicide. They all ask the same questions: How do I know if my memory was false?
I had been fixating on ‘confronting’ Caitlin, trying to figure out the truth of what happened. When I interview Angus, I couched it in the language of, “I no longer believe this fantasy’, but it was a façade. I thought I wanted some form of truth, but it is only now I see I was playing out my obsessions.
I have this pocket knife, an American civil war replica. It has a beautiful blue handle, wooden and metal of course, but painted blue. Not the harsh sky blue, or the deep blue of the ocean. It is the blue of a cold winter morning before the sun comes up.
It came from overseas, bought online. Exact dimensions and similar material to those used by the Union in the war. It represents an interesting dynamic to me. Both part of history and yet not, simply a replica of what was.
But as a replica, it holds so much as a symbol. If I had written it was a Confederate replica knife you might have had completely different feeling towards this sentiment. I could say that the knife represents what I remember, a replica of guilt, but, honestly, it doesn’t. It is a thing, an item I found online that I chose, selected, paid for, and had delivered to me. It only becomes a symbol when I focus on it.
I imbue these things with power. That is my relationship with what I remember. I was in pain, for which I needed a reason, and certainly, I found it. But then again, maybe it is just a knife.
Citation: Author Unknown, “False Memory | OCD Action | The UK’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Charity.” False Memory | OCD Action | The UK’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Charity. Web. 4 June 2015. Available at URL: http://www.ocdaction.org.uk/forum/ocd-and-intrusive-thoughts/false-memory
Annotation: A discussion thread discovered while researching false memories relation to OCD. The thread has different instances of people talking about their interactions with false memories and how they dealt with them.
Citation: Bahr, Emily, email correspondence, 25th of July 2012 to the 15 of June 2013.
Annotation: Use as confirmation for a timeline of events. Also used to gain insight into my mental state during the time period of the piece.
Citation: Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.
Annotation: A book where Derrida coined the term hauntological and suggests the present exists only in relation to the past. Discusses the ghost nature of memory.
Citation: Fowles, Caitlin, phone interview. 1st of June 2015.
Annotation: Interview with Caitlin to clarify our relationship and our past interactions. Went into the interview expecting to trap Caitlin but was not fully satisfied. Allowed her to have an input on how she was presented in the piece.
Citation: Gordon, Angus, personal interview. 8th of May 2015.
Annotation: Interview with Angus to help establish a working timeline of my mental health during this period. The interview gave a second insight into this time and helped clarify some of my own reactions to what was happening. Also allowed Angus to have a voice in my piece.
Citation: Parry, Rhys, personal interview. 20th of May 2015.
Annotation: Interview to help collaborate facts about my state during the break-up.
Citation: Roth, Philip. The Plot against America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Print.
Annotation: A work of fiction where Roth provides an alternate history of the United States during World War Two where fascists are elected to power. Based off of autobiographical experiences, extensive research, and creative work.
Citation: Thean, Tara. “You Don’t Remember What You Think You Remember: False Memories Are Everywhere.” Science Space Remember That No You Dont Study Shows False Memories Afflict Us All Comments. TIME, 19 Nov. 2013. Web. 1 May 2015. .
Annotation: An article outlining the phenomenon of false memories and several studies which show evidence of false memories occurring with people who have highly superior autobiographical memory. Details instances of researchers planting memories.