It was weeks after my wife and I separated and I had been fine until then but something broke that week. It’s all still a blur, five years later, but if I think hard I can make out some memories of that week.
I remember talking to my parents on the phone that Wednesday night when everything unraveled for me somehow. I remember my mother keeping me on the phone even though I told her I needed to go and, just before I finally got her off the phone, my father screeching up in front of the house, trying to get to me before I hung up the phone. She was obviously stalling me while he drove over. I don’t know what they thought about my frame of mind that night but I don’t really remember what my frame of mind actually was either. It makes me sad five years later that I worried them like that.
I remember that jag on Thursday morning in which I unfriended her and half the people I knew on Facebook. Given that I hadn’t really communicated with most of them in any real way in months I don’t know what that really accomplished, but it felt good.
I remember sending out a mass email to everyone we knew, letting them know what happened, selfishly grabbing the narrative before she could. The first few drafts were blood-on-the-page. By the time I got to a version I felt comfortable actually sending it had been scrubbed to something just this side of a Hollywood divorce cum conscious uncoupling in which we remained great friends and caring co-parents and we hoped the press would respect our privacy in this trying time. I still go back and read the earlier drafts sometimes. I’m glad now I never sent one of them as they would’ve served no one, but at the time I thought I was a coward for not sending them.
Saturday morning, after Game 7, I woke up at 5AM and decided that my bedroom was mocking me. It’s … beigeness. The curtains and comforter and the pictures on the wall – all things that she had picked out – were beige and neutral and I had to get rid of them. I ripped the curtains down off the rod, tore pictures off the wall and pulled the comforter off the bed, throwing them all into a pile on the floor. Half of the pictures broke, one of them cutting my hand. I wrapped a washcloth around it and kept it tight by bunching the loose ends in my fist.
I drove to the hardware store where I bought a half dozen paint samples and grabbed a handful of small rollers. When I checked out the clerk asked me if I knew I was bleeding. When I got home I made streaks all over the wall, trying to decide on a new color for the room.
Then I blacked out again. I reentered consciousness on a bench in the park across the street from my house. It was late afternoon. There was dried paint mixed with the dried blood on my hands and shirt. I walked back home, trying to piece together the past several hours. It was no use. I still don’t know what I did after putting those paint streaks on the wall late that morning. As soon as I walked in the door I realized that I had no energy or will to do anything so I collapsed on the couch. I woke up after midnight, got up, walked around and then collapsed on the couch again. I’d end up sleeping on the couch for two weeks, as the pile of curtains, broken pictures and blankets remained on the floor of my bedroom. The paint streaks remained on the walls for months.
While I couldn’t finish the painting project quickly, over the next couple of days I managed to go through the entire house and took down pictures and got rid of knickknacks which reminded me of or even suggested happier times. Every little trinket or tchotchke I came across brought with it a sharp emotion and a hard choice. A memory and then a decision to trash it, store it or leave it. Nothing was really left, though. Most things went into a box and then down into the corner of the basement. Others were trashed. There was a lot of glass and I cut myself several more times as I cleared out the memories. There were more blackouts as well, though they thankfully didn’t happen when the kids were with me. They only happened when I was alone.
Soon the blackouts stopped. They were replaced by time traveling. As the stuff with the pictures and knickknacks made clear, it was hard to think about the past in those days, but it was harder to navigate the present. Even with the curtains torn down, the broken photos thrown away and the cuts on my hands healing, there were dangers everywhere, so I kept reliving the previous 20 years dwelling on good times and forgetting bad times until the dissonance between the good of the past and the bad of the present could no longer be reconciled, which forced me to reconcile them by reliving the past few months in which everything went to Hell. Oh yes, that’s why things are how they are now. An entire mental process meant to cope with awfulness was forcing me to relive the awfulness again and again and again.
One night in early November I put in the Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The plot turns on a technology which can eliminate bad memories. Entire relationships. That’s what Carrey and Winslet were trying to do anyway. Erase the the memories of a romance which ended in pain. The idea seemed so appealing. How much simpler would life be if we could keep ourselves from traveling back in time and reliving those memories. How much easier would life be if we could get rid of everything that caused us pain?
Of course the past isn’t linear. You can’t cut out all the bad things and leave only the good. You can’t cut out your horrible fights, your broken heart and the crying jags while keeping the warm memories because the tainting and loss of those warm memories makes up a whole hell of a lot of what you were really crying about in the first place. Pleasure and pain have an awful way of becoming bound up together like that. Ultimately they become inseparable. You can’t be hurt by someone about whom you never cared. And you can’t move on from someone if you remember only the good and forget that went wrong in the end. If the technology from that movie really existed and you tried to eliminate the bad memories you’d kill too many good ones. It’d be emotional chemotherapy. More treatment than cure.
Maybe it’d be totally pointless even if it did work. Because, in reality, it’s easier to carry the pain than it is to remember the pleasure. At least the pain is an active thing, currently attacking you and triggering your defenses. Unless you’re totally defeated, most of the time you feel like you have a have a puncher’s chance against the pain. The pleasurable memories, however, beckon to you from way back. They’re close enough to get your attention but far enough away that there’s no way to get back to them. All you can do is glimpse them from afar and remember them. You realize that those good memories are mocking you. Making you feel like a sucker and a fraud.
And you wonder if maybe the movie didn’t get the idea exactly backwards. Maybe it’d be better to obliterate the good memories and keep the bad ones. At least those explain where you are now.