I had the distinct pleasure of reading the following piece on an episode of the program "Live at Kelly Writer's House" that aired last night. I read alongside some writers/storytellers whom I respect immensely, including Angel Hogan, Tre Rials and the inimitable Katonya Mosley. It was a fun, special night. I'm not altogether sure if a link is or will be available for the broadcast, but in the meantime I figured I'd share the text of what I read.
I called it "Where Was I?" and it sort of stands alone as a small rumination on actively engaging in the creation of memory and a disconnect created by hyper-awareness of time. Eventually, however, it'll be folded into the longer work-in-progress "Lost & Found," which is about memory, geography, and evolving familial relationships. And taking pictures of food.
Mostly taking pictures of food.
Where Was I?
And so it was that I find myself in the passenger seat of a rented Subaru Legacy in Tacoma, Washington. It’s the present. A woman who looks like my mother but with different hair is standing outside of my window. A man who is a slightly older version of my father has just gotten out of the driver’s side. We’re in front of a SuperWalmart. There is a life-sized bronze statue of a moose in the parking lot. I am perplexed.
I’ve been daydreaming as the car traveled along, lost in a memory. As we venture southward I am sliding sideways through nostalgia. My proximity to the present waxes and wanes. I am changing tense. It takes me a second to get my bearings. We are on vacation, the three of us. I am 29. It is the second day of our 9-day road trip from Seattle to Crescent City. We have stopped at Walmart so that my mother can buy a map.
I step out of the car and briefly consider bringing my camera—I will take over a thousand photos before the trip is over, mostly of food—but I decide that should there be anything noteworthy in the store I can capture it on my iPhone. As we set out on the trip I was fascinated to find that each photo the phone takes is tagged with its location. When I pull up a map, a gallery of snapshots spill down the coastline. Besides this fun feature, my iPhone has proven to be an indispensable extension of my brain and sense of self, enabling me to research our destinations, sardonically update my Facebook status and follow our progress from anywhere as a blue dot on a map. This is my first trip out West and my first vacation with my parents in a decade but I am still tethered to the world I know.
My mother needs a map because she and my father have been bickering. Not about where we are or where we’re going. Moments earlier they were playing one of their new favorite games called: What’s The Name of That Guy We Like From That Show? (No, Not That One, the Other One…) which devolved in short order into a small argument and then full on bickering punctuated by high-pitched screams, which in retrospect seem to have been coming only from inside of my head. As we walk into the store my mother explains to me that when she and my father go on trips she’ll buy a Rand McNally map and follow along, occasionally getting distracted by some far off place and its geographical particulars. This occupies her and keeps her out his hair, she says, which eliminates the bickering.
I am confused by this but say nothing, choosing instead to head to the bakery section and take photos of muffins. I am still trying to get my bearings. My disorientation here on the West Coast is apropos, I suppose, as disorientation taken literally means “loss of the East,” but that’s of little consolation to me. My parents don’t bicker. But my parents don’t vacation either. And my parents aren’t this old. Over the last ten years I have been, unfortunately, cryptically absent and so this trip, a reunion of sorts, also serves as a jarring reminder that everything changes as we move through time.
...where was I?
We don’t stop very often as we drive. We’re on a mission. Plus my parents like to be in the hotel by sundown so they can watch re-runs of Bones. Occasionally, however, we’ll pause at a rest-stop or a strange knickknackery where they will immediately make friends with everyone, take pictures of everything and buy a magnet. I trot along behind them as if attached to one of those kid leashes disguised as a monkey tail. Sometimes I make eye contact with other sons on vacation with their parents and feel a certain kinship until I realize that they are 14 and I am 29.
Most of the smaller stores have signs in the windows that read “Parents must accompany their children at all times.” There are a few occasions when I reach the store first as my parents are dawdling, and, reading the sign, I get very anxious. Should I get my dad? I think. Am I cool? I mean, the sign is pretty clear. I’ll just wait. Well, I have to pee… I’ll just go in my pants.
As the day wears on I watch my parents intently, I watch the blue dot moving on the map on my phone, I watch my own face in the rearview mirror. Everything seems to be in order, but yet I remain suspicious. Somewhere in the mountains in Oregon we lose cell phone reception and the map on my phone dissolves into a blank grid. I am disconnected.
Slightly panicked by the idea that I won’t be able to Tweet in the foreseeable future, I dig through my carryon bag for a book in which to get lost. I have been working my way through a Jonathan Franzen essay about Alzheimer’s and neuropathology. You know, a beach read.
According to this essay, there’s an notion that though we may feel we remember events in short movies or images, little stories we tell ourselves constantly under the story of the present that we are telling, the reality is that memories are actually made up of a trail of synaptic impulses relating to the event. Memories are not the event, but an impression resulting from the cobbling together of sets of details, ideas and incidental data. So, when I say I remember riding in a car with my parents in August of 2010, what I’m really doing is firing the synapses associated with interstate roads, and those associated with my father and with my mother, and the few synapses associated with, say, mountains, and rest stops. Memories are maps, not destinations.
Which is perhaps why my memory of this trip is muddled and confusing at times in that when I picture the three of us in the car, a host of tangentially related impulses fire and I see my father as he looked when I was 10 and an image of my mother from a photograph taken in 1982 and the interior of the Dodge Grand Voyager they sold when I was in high school. The map I’m building for myself doesn’t have enough data, which is a fancy way of saying, all this was so new. As I said, I’d been lost for a while.
I am trying to create the memory even as it is happening. In my head new ideas and new images and the newly forged synapses spill out like the photo icons down the digital map of the Pacific coastline. I am telling myself the story of the trip over top of the present, and beneath it, and between it. I am reminding myself that I was here. I am here. We are here. Random memories coalesce in retrospect to create the illusion of being actual places that I can reach, locations in the geography of my perception. And so it was that I find myself in the passenger seat of a rented Subaru Legacy. It’s the present. We are not here. We are moving, together, through time and space and across the map and down the road.