God’s truth, I can’t remember where I was on March 4th ten years ago. If I ever had photographs, I've lost them. Nearly everything I own I’ve bought in the last seven years.
I do still have a blue sweater I found at Goodwill two decades ago when I was sixteen. My sweater isn’t powder blue, navy blue, or sky blue; it’s an unmistakable shade I call "Cookie Monster." The synthetic yarn is fluffy and a bit itchy. The shape is cartoonish: too short through the torso, too long through the sleeves. The brand label says “LOOK” in wide-eyed capitals. Holding that sweater, I sink my heels into memories like wet sand and my younger self emerges wrapped in a bluer than blue acrylic cloud, insulated from harm, shatterproof.
Recently, I read a study claiming memories aren’t—as we’d like to believe—real moments inexorably carved in gray matter. When remembering, our brain reconnects not to original events but to the last time we remembered them. We reiterate stories about ourselves in what the study called a lifelong game of “telephone,” one half-heard whisper shaping the next. Memories aren’t facts, they’re inflections.
In therapy now I recite facts of my life that are at odds with my memory. When I was sixteen my parents divorced: fact. They both moved out of our home; my brother stayed with me: fact. I dropped out of high school, started working three jobs, and bought myself a blue sweater: fact. A year later, I was sleeping with one of my much-older bosses. My other boss found out. He sexually assaulted me. At eighteen, I packed my sweater in a suitcase and fled my home state of Maine for southern California. These are verifiable facts, but they aren’t clear memories. I'd hung up the telephone.
I can recount facts from ten years ago, too: I was twenty-six, back in my hometown, and married to a man I adored. I worked two jobs while I finished my undergraduate degree. In the busy blue cloud of daily life, I was unaware my husband walked the razor's edge of a psychotic break. When I left one day with my old sweater in a laundry tote, I was unaware he'd never let me back into our home. I fled Maine again and moved to Washington state.
Trauma has a pinhole effect on memory. Semantic memory is disconnected. Episodic memory is placed on hold. The mind’s eye shifts to emotional memory and finds images frozen on dark relief. Of Washington, I remember a streetlight’s buttery glow and how rain fell on a man following me home from a bar, but I can't say what day it was, or his name, or what, if anything, he said when he forced himself inside my body.
After, I craved clarity—how else could I feel safe?—and tried self-interrogation: Why did I let him buy me a drink? Why did I flirt with him? Did I make this happen? My questions inflected fact with shame and shame became the story that I told myself about myself. Shame became memory.
Booze helps with that. Drinking wrapped my memory in yarn, layer after layer after layer until I couldn’t recognize the shape of it anymore. Assault, rape: abstract sculpture. But even toppling drunk I’d squint one eye at it, then the other. So finally, I walked my memory down to a pier on Puget Sound and dropped it under night blue waves.
Memory loss has a gathering gravity. Once you stop telling yourself stories there’s no logical place to start again. I hung up the phone on my twenty-sixth year, as I had my sixteenth: those years are resting on a deep blue seabed like disused telegraph cables. Before long, though, twenty-five was also static noise. Then twenty-four. Then twenty-three. And twenty-two. Sometimes I imagine my sixteen-year-old self still dialing an old number, phone ringing and ringing, waiting for me to answer.
But life goes on—fact—and if we’re lucky we go on with it. I got sober at twenty-nine. In recovery meetings, I sit in rooms with people like me who share their memories. Now I’m thirty-six and I live in Maine, again. I dote on my husband of three years and my beautiful stepdaughter. Along with a new house, car, dogs, and wardrobe, I still have my Cookie Monster sweater. When I pull its cuffed neck over my head my hair explodes in a static array, black and reaching like telephone wires. “LOOK,” the label says, and I do. Then I tell stories about everything I see.
Rosanna Gargiulo lives in an antique house in Maine with her family and the perfect number of dogs (six, in case you were wondering). She publishes under a matronymic as R.S. Wynn, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in New South, Guesthouse, Bacopa Literary Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the Editor of The Maine Review, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to making contemporary literature accessible to readers and writers of all incomes. Embody, The Maine Review’s weekly feature, is a home for nonfiction writing focused on the grueling, exhilarating, essential business of finding peace (or not) with the bodies we inhabit, considering age, sexuality, race, ability, gender identity, size, athleticism, substance disorders, trauma, illness, and the experience of occupying unfamiliar/hostile/wonderful spaces.