This Is Us

I’ll Always Remember

How experiences become memories, which turn into stories

Photo: tttuna/Getty Images

My friend Lisa and I have a very specific, limited relationship: We make mix CDs (and more recently, playlists) of soundtrack music for each other. Yet it’s also oddly intimate: a shared love of music bares something in you — especially love of an uncool, schmaltzy genre like movie scores. I just finished a new mix for her, of ’80s film music — my own idiosyncratic ’80s cinema, as defined by the arty independent movies I saw at Shriver Hall on weekends in college: films like Blue Velvet, Repo Man, Brazil. Listening to this music has made me a little wistful for that period in adolescence and young adulthood when your mind is more receptive, more malleable than it will ever be again, when art has an impact on you that it can’t have later on in life, no matter how much you may hope to be astonished and moved and transformed again as you were then. In those years, the cement of your mind is still wet, the impressions of art indelible; eventually it sets, and becomes harder to mark.

While I was working on my ’80s mix I met my next-door neighbor, a postdoc in neuroscience who studies associative memory. We’d have cocktails out on our shared fire escape at dusk, and she’d tell me about her field. You probably already know, intuitively, that you alter a memory each time you retrieve it, which is why your stories slowly morph over time until you’re no longer sure whether you remember the original moment, or only the story. My childhood friend Felix and I used to re-tell each other the story of Andy Galton sliding into a broken sewage line during a kickball game in sixth grade until it passed into legend, and only the fact that we both remembered it assured us it had really happened. My neighbor tells me they’ve discovered that every time we consciously recall a memory, we have a window of six hours in which we can change its associations. Meaning, as I interpreted it, that if your old song with your ex has been Ludovicoed into a torture for you by a painful breakup, you still have a chance to reclaim it by, e.g., making out with someone new the next time it’s on. Which is also, I suppose, why movie scores, like other forms of programmatic music, are considered second-rate: their associations are fixed, immutable.

At a certain age you start to worry maybe there are no new emotional experiences to discover, just ever-fainter echoes of old ones, second- and third-rate imitations of the masterpieces of the past.

My neuroscientist neighbor’s personal policy, in light of these findings, is to try never to remember the things that are most important to her, lest she alter them by recall, so that she’ll be able to take them out of cold storage in her old age in mint condition. This makes logical sense and also seems insane; she reminds me of the character in Catch-22 who tries to remain bored at all times so that his life will seem to last as long as possible. Not only is it probably futile, but some memories and emotions grow richer, subtler, more multilayered over time as their associations accrue, like a wine maturing with age, a statue or antique acquiring a patina, or a cast-iron skillet being seasoned with the memory of every meal it’s cooked. The theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark was permanently defaced/enhanced for me because Felix wrote unforgettably idiotic lyrics to it when we were in middle school, which made that music inappropriately hilarious for me for a couple of decades, then inappropriately bittersweet after Felix disappeared from my life.

I’d mentioned all this in a letter to a former student of mine, who replied that she’d just been reading a novel about someone going through a painful friend breakup, who “thought it would be a helpful exercise… to make new memories in the same places as the old ones.” She reflected: “Listening to a song that brings back the old heartbreak can be so painful that it actually reaches the other end of the spectrum and becomes, if not exactly enjoyable, sort of life-affirming. It’s good to be reminded of how strongly I can feel, especially as I get older and emotions don’t always feel as strong as they did between the ages of 16–23.” It saddened me to hear my young friend was feeling this diminishment already, in her twenties. This dulling of affect is double-edged: although heartbreak is no less painful than it was when I was 19, I now have enough cushion of experience to know (in theory, at least) that it won’t last forever, that I’ll fall in love again someday. But, although falling in love is no less euphoric than ever, it, too, has become familiar, part of a cycle, ephemeral. At a certain age you start to worry maybe there are no new emotional experiences to discover, just ever-fainter echoes of old ones, second- and third-rate imitations of the masterpieces of the past. Life starts to feel like watching the previews for coming attractions and seeing they’re all re-makes of stuff that came out when you were in high school; you realize, This is where I came in.

But I wanted to tell my former student that there are some rarefied emotional experiences that only become accessible to us in middle age, that are only made possible by the weight of time and history. Admittedly, many of these fall into the darker end of the emotional spectrum: bottomless chasms of regret whose depth was at first foreshortened, and only becomes apparent with distance; abysses of loss that grow to intergalactic scale as we age and come to appreciate their enormity. But there are also varieties of joy that are to our childhood or adolescent happiness as briny East Coast oysters are to Pop-Tarts or Chef Boyardee. I’m thinking of the way I see my friend Annie, whom I’ve known since college, as 19 and 54 and all ages in between simultaneously, a chimera in time. Of those floating, dissociated moments when you have the sensation of viewing the present from the vantage of the past, mentally traveling back in time to tell your younger self how it all turned out. Of implausible plot developments like when Nory and I, being carefully civil with each other when we saw each other at a party for the first time after a bitter breakup, were seated next to each other at a Hibachi grill and made to sit like trained seals while the chef flipped stir-fried shrimp into our open mouths, making it difficult to maintain our important grudge. Or when my friend Otto and I, reminiscing about the night we snuck out of the house on a sleepover and encountered a man with a gun and a van full of scary teenagers, instinctively lowered our voices and edged away from our parents — now in their eighties, enfeebled and demented by Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s — so we wouldn’t get in trouble.

An experience is only a draft; it’s the revision of memory that makes it a story.

Most of all, though, I was thinking of when I was reunited with Felix, my best friend from elementary school. We’d met in fourth grade and remained friends through our thirties, until one day he disappeared on me — just suddenly stopped returning my calls. It took me a year to figure it out. He’d defriended me. It broke my heart, in a quiet, slow-motion way that went mostly unspoken, since we don’t have any protocol for acknowledging a friendship’s end in our culture, or for mourning one. I’d lost not only a friend but a repository of shared memories, an Alexandrian library of stories, like the saga of Andy and the sewage. Over a decade later I saw him again, at the funeral of another old friend, a guy we’d known since middle school who’d become mentally ill and an addict, and died, not unexpectedly, when we were in our forties. Felix told me later that he’d been apprehensive about running into me at the funeral, afraid I’d be mad at him. We made awkward small talk at the viewing, and ended up sitting next to each other during the memorial service. A thing we’d sort of forgotten about was that our deceased friend’s family, although the nicest people in the world, were Christians of an evangelical bent. A cousin of his, a lay pastor, delivered a eulogy whose gist was that if even a wretched sinner like Jack, someone who’d strayed so far from the light of God, could be redeemed by the love of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, then so, too, could we! It was not too late for us.

Now I had not seen Felix in over a decade, and had no idea what had happened in his life since I’d seen him last — for all I knew he’d been to rehab or already accepted Jesus as his personal savior — so I had no idea how he might react when I surreptitiously fished a painkiller out of my pocket, which I’d secreted there in case of just such an emergency, and tentatively waggled it at him, making a “?” face with my eyebrows. Instantly recognizing it, he nodded with an expression of the gravest gratitude and relief. We split it. The redemptive polemic went on and on, interminable, merciless: there was an extended metaphor whose allegorical import I forget, involving a very messy room with filing cabinets stuffed full of papers. It seemed as if it would not stop until we’d all gotten down on our knees there in the aisles of the funeral home and repented. Until eventually it began to strike Felix and me as funny.

Now this was a very bad situation, one we had faced together many times in grade school: Felix had a little bit of a problem with circumstantially inappropriate laughter, and once he got started it was like a fission reaction — it could get to the point of hyperventilation, muscle cramps, trips to the principal’s office even for innocent bystanders. So we both recognized the seriousness of the situation, the potential for disaster here, and so we sat side by side staring straight ahead, breathing carefully and deliberately, each very aware of the other undergoing the same silent struggle. In situations like these, Felix had once told me, he tried to imagine the saddest thing in the world, which, for him, was uneaten mashed potatoes. Luckily, I realized, I had a good friend lying dead right in front of me, so I could focus on that. I don’t know how to convey to you the complex, heady emotional cocktail of that moment: grief for a lost friend, euphoria at being reunited with another one, the giddy dread of accidentally cracking up at a funeral, a hyperconsciousness of time and age and death and friendship, and the acute awareness that Felix and I were now middle-aged men and this was exactly the same sort of shit that always used to happen to us in Mrs. Fielder’s class ca. 1976. It was an ecstatic overflow of feeling: I was so grateful I had lived long enough to experience this moment. At one point I risked an instant’s peripheral eye contact. This was a mistake. I squeezed my eyes shut tight. At any moment, I knew, we were both going to lose it.

Felix and I have stayed in touch since then. I never got any satisfactory explanation for his disappearance, other than that Felix is a very weird guy, but by then it had been so long, and I was so happy to have him back, that I didn’t care anymore; it was like getting to spend one more afternoon with my dead father. This, too, is something I think my younger self could not have understood: letting go of cherished grudges, shrugging off the demand for apologies or explanations, accepting someone for the fucked-up, difficult person they are and being content just to have them in your life. There is no feeling comparable to casually letting drop an in-joke from fifth grade, both of you remembering it but both too cool to acknowledge it aloud; even if you’re texting, you know you’re both keeping straight faces. It’s a kind of laughter that doesn’t register to younger ears. An experience is only a draft; it’s the revision of memory that makes it a story. The chorus of a song, or the main theme of a symphony, doesn’t really make sense the first time you hear it; the music becomes intelligible only in recapitulation, now that you know the tune so well, its meaning inflected by all the variations in between. Like at that memorial service, when Deanna Ephron, whom we’d known since seventh grade, now a middle school teacher herself, looked over at Felix and me desperately failing to mask our inappropriate mirth, and whispered the words we had heard many times before: “Am I going to have to separate you two?”

Tim Kreider is the author of two essay collections, and a frequent contributor to Medium and The New York Times. He lives in NYC and the Chesapeake Bay area.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store