“So rarely do we remember the things that aren’t worth mentioning but that mattered so much.”
On that last day I saw Eric, a near-blinding Southern California light was cutting through the window, exposing his hospital room in a harsh brightness. The TV, looming over us, was turned on but muted, offering the comfort of colorful moving images to stare at when the conversations among the friends and family dried up. That final day I spent in the ICU, was like all the rest I had spent there that week: Eric motionless, loaded up on a six-figure pharmaceutical cocktail, under his cobweb of plastic tubes, wires, and sky-blue hospital sheets. The TV on mute. The rest of us hovering around, too afraid to say what we all knew: that Eric was going to die.
I try not to think of this as the last time I saw him though. Instead I think back to the last day I hung out with healthy, living Eric. I had only one day to see him on a short visit to San Diego. I went to his house and we watched football with his girlfriend and some other people. We drank a few beers. At half time, I took a walk to a local corner store for something to snack on. Eric came with me. It was a hot, cloudless day. The neighborhood was quiet except for the occasional sound of a lawn mower or a commercial jet flying by overhead. We talked about nothing significant as far as I can remember. It was probably the usual stuff: how the job was, the girlfriend, and the parents. The day was completely unremarkable.
Most of my days are like this one: filled with shit no one writes or cares about. The commute, eating lunch, running on a treadmill, going to the bathroom, and brushing my teeth. The routine. When I’m asked questions about myself from someone I just met, these moments that fill up so much of my life are what I don’t talk about. Instead, I mostly retell (and remember) whatever goes over well in conversation at a bar. And it’s these moments that I’ve constructed the narrative of my life around. My first kiss, first heartbreak, and first time I had sex. That time I flipped my truck after driving it into oncoming traffic. That one time I got into a fistfight in a Santa Cruz because I was drunk and a guy had parked in my spot. Or the time I found myself in Cairo without a dime to my name after getting scammed near the pyramids. With each retelling over the years, the stories are told with the red pen of a strong editorial hand to enhance the narrative and accentuate the conflict and suspense. But what is often lost in the stories I recall and retell are all these very seemingly inconsequential details stricken from the record– that scrap heap of forgotten quotidian: conversations on an empty roads with a best friend, late night confessions with a loved one, and the promises made too many drinks into the night.
Now I have a tattoo of Eric’s initials on my wrist. I am asked about it often and like my own life, I usually just mention the things that fit nicely into a story. We grew up together in the same unremarkable Southern California freeway town, bonded over a love for weird music – Jamaican dub, U.K. house – and became best friends in high school. We stayed friends until he died at 29. I got this tattoo of his initials.
But this offers so little into why I felt impelled to permanently memorialize him. Talking about the tattoo gives way to a diminished reality of why we were actually friends: for all the seemingly inconsequential things so small that they don’t fit easily into the grander narrative of our lives. It rarely includes the details of our idle teenage days – the times that were the real DNA of our friendship. We played a lot of Katamari Damacy on PlayStation. We used to get high and watch the Devo music video collection over and over. Super Antojitos II was our taqueria of choice because it had the best carne asada tacos in Orange County. It’s the details like these I’ve mostly forgotten now that sometimes come back in arbitrary flashes. They fail to fit nicely into a story I retell and, as a result, they disappear again. They are the things that we rarely speak about, but make up so many of the salient details that offer real insight to who we were and those we loved and kept close. “If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick in her novel Sleepless Nights. So rarely do we remember the things that aren’t worth mentioning but that mattered so much.
I have a tattoo on my other wrist of a skeleton key. It’s a tattoo that I had done with my now ex-girlfriend who got heart with a keyhole. We did it after we broke up. I know that sounds strange, but the idea was we were each other’s first love. We had met near the end of high school, both eager to escape a small town on the central coast of California that smelled like cowshit and had way too many churches. We ended up moving an hour away together at an age when many are experiencing their first freedom in college dorm rooms.
It was a terrible idea, but we made it work for a few years before we broke up and she moved back home. A few months later, I decided to move out of the state and I called her to let her know. She told me that I had better come see her one last time, to say goodbye. So I made the drive up the 101, past the rolling water-thirsty hills marked by the sad, skeletal hunch of the eucalyptus trees and back to the small town we met. A few hours after I arrived, we were walking out of a tattoo parlor. The funny thing is that we didn’t put them on opposite wrists. So, if we were to ever to hold hands again, we’d have to be facing different directions for our tattoos to link up. It was fitting.
This is usually the point in the story where I am asked whether or not we keep in contact. We did and I ended up visiting her one weekend. We had a bit to drink, and I spent the night. A few weeks later, she found out she was pregnant. No, she didn’t have it. And shortly after she said she never wanted to speak to me again. The end.
I’ve told this story so many times now that I struggle to really remember anything else about our relationship. The end is all that’s left when her name is spoken. So much of our past relationship is missing now from my memory. I couldn’t tell you what any of our conversations were about. I can’t remember what movies we saw, or who did the dishes, or who vacuumed. I do remember some of the fights but almost none of what was said during them. But like the rest of my life, I remember most of the big moments. The first time I met her (it was at a Jack in the Box) and the day she moved out. The time we got the tattoos. But I’m pretty sure these moments are not the reasons why I loved her. I think I loved her, mostly, for all the things I struggle to remember now. The reasons have escaped with the things that I have forgotten.
Instead, the memories themselves have become something entirely their own – a verbal veneer of what actually happened, the person I was, and why we were so madly in love. So much of what I tell about her doesn’t begin to describe who she was, nor do they account for the unseen hinges of our relationship. Those details are lost to “long drawn sunset of one’s personal truth” as Nabokov once wrote. And the more I share certain stories from memories, about Eric or my ex or the rest of my own life, the more they transform. A complex person I was deeply in love with becomes a single story. Details and nuance disappear. The tangled intricacies are sorted out and streamlined into an easy narrative.
Didion says “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She’s right, but she also reminds us these stories are mostly bullshit. The narratives we form lead us down false paths. We may tell those stories in order to better understand the world around us and ourselves, but the belief they are true can have paralyzing results when it’s all disrupted and revealed to be deceptively simplified and incongruous. “Subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory,” wrote Oliver Sacks. But how many of us accept that the chalk lines we draw with our memories only sketchily outline the vivid corpse of days gone by?
The memories of the ones we keep close in life are much the same. We snap photos of all that we deem important: our wedding, the vacation to Mexico, things we think will get a laugh or a lot of likes on Instagram. And this is how we write the story of our lives. But it’s all the stuff in between, the things that get deleted from memory cards and our own recollection, that makes up so much of why we love the people we love in first place.
Eric never deleted photos, though.
A few months after he passed, I was digging through some boxes of my old shit that had been gathering dust in my father’s garage. Amongst the contents included a handful of unmarked CD-Rs filled with photos Eric had taken and given to me. On one, there were hundreds of pictures that detailed a long weekend when Eric had come to visit me in Santa Barbara. The collection is like a B-roll of our lives. The instances lost in thought or conversation on your way from this place to the next and wherever after that. Many of the photos are blurry, but document the passing days with precise detail. A drive to the beach on an overcast afternoon. Breakfast tacos downtown with the entire ordering process photographed as well. Eric snapped away at all of this until his memory card was full. Only then, he’d inevitable pull out a backup memory card so he could keep taking photos of whatever else we were doing next, no matter how uneventful or meaningless it may have been. There are photos of us playing cards and drinking, watching a movie, tossing a Frisbee. There are photos of my girlfriend – the one the skeleton key is all about – making her lunch before she goes to work. There’s a photo of one of our roommates just hunched over in front of a computer – actually, there are four photos of this. Eric visited me during one of my work shifts as a parking lot attendant for the city and sure enough, there are photos of that too.
At the time, these photos seemed meaningless. I tossed them in a box and left the CD untouched until nearly a decade later. For years, I didn’t bother with them. They were just small shards of our lives. The parts no one besides Eric bothered to notice or to capture. The parts we never talked about and I still don’t. But it was for this very reason that those photos took on a new significance years later. They were uncurated and raw. Unbalanced and often out of focus. The subject matter was everything we do when friends visit. Not just the exciting, flashy moments – not just the moments that fit into our highly curated online personas and the honed narrative it tells about our lives. They are everything else. Throwaways. They are the photos that would be deleted from Facebook as we all become hyperaware of our personal brands. The photos of Eric’s visit on a worn CD-R resisted any of this conscious craftsmanship. Their subjectivity was dictated only by the random twitch of his index finger. It did not curate. It did not shape and paint and censor. It was also the most accurate photo documentation of our existence at the time; it was uneventful, unremarkable, and even boring. It was exactly just like all the ordinary, but vitally important days we always end up forgetting.
If Eric hadn’t died seven months after I saw him on an ordinary Southern California day, I would’ve have likely forgotten that day too. Most of the similar ones, I already have. I realize now those days were the most telling of why were friends in the first place. And now all I am left with is a question: How can one hold onto all these beautifully inconsequential moments as they happen?
As I stood beside Eric’s bed on the last day I would see him, looking at his unresponsive body in the purgatorial nightmare of that brightly lit ICU room, I wanted to say something of significance and sum everything about us up into something real and meaningful and profound. But I couldn’t. The most important things about our friendship were so small and nuanced that they were rarely even worth bringing up. So after I hesitated, trying to force out something, I opted to follow the superstitious code of an ICU room that still hopes: to not ever indicate that it was over. To just not say anything too final or important or just too much, anything that would seem like I was giving up and that the ballgame was ending and the stands were already emptying out. So I said something else to him. Then I walked out of the ICU.
I don’t remember what I said.