Perfect Memory

If I tell you when I was six I remember climbing a tree, falling, and breaking my wrist, fine. Now let me tell you the tree was an elm whose leaves showed the first yellow tinge of the young autumn. Purple and white clovers dotted the yard my father hadn’t gotten around to mowing, and the coarse feel of bark on my hands reminded me of the gruff bristles of his unshaven beard. When I reached the first branch, I hung there by my arms and legs, unsure what to do next, terrified, dizzy, alone. I heard the wasp without seeing it, the sound of its wings stopping just before the tickle on the back of my neck and the explosion of pain. All I wanted as I fell to the ground was to feel his strong hands snatch me out of the air.

You read these stories with narrators looking back twenty, thirty years—piercing memories with details more vivid than anything you can put together from a few weeks ago, let alone childhood. I know my mom had this old vacuum that made the living room smell like burnt dust whenever she cleaned, and usually I’d go outside to play while she did housework. But I don’t remember whether the lines she vacuumed in the carpet that day were straight or haphazard.

I wonder about that kind of perfect memory. When you hit a crossroads in life, you could look back and with the simplicity of a child and the flourish of an artist recount some event to pull your entire existence into perspective. I would look at my inevitable divorce and realize my mistrust of marriage began the day my parents should have been watching me play in the backyard, but were instead having a frantic, whispered fight in the kitchen. With subtlety I’d recall the bars of shade crossing my face where I fell, how the moment after I hit the ground I heard what must have been a door slamming. It would all be right there:  the tree, the door, the wasp, the fragility of youth.

Left to mine my subconscious for answers as to why things fall apart, I can’t remember any of those distant details. Only vague notions of things like love and fear and loneliness ache through time, throbbing every now and then like a bone that never healed quite right.

[This story originally appeared in Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry]