Nonfiction from Natalia Conte
If We Speak of Memories
“To let people begin again. It’s beautiful. You look at a baby and it’s so pure, and so free and so clean. And adults are like this mess of sadness.” – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Tucked into the artistic downtown stretch of Greensboro, North Carolina lies a strange museum. With no glass windows and a swing set that juts out into the street, it disrupts foot traffic as the weather begins to warm. The title is unassuming, the word “Elsewhere” printed in chalkboard white paint and curlicue lettering. Today, it serves as a residence for artists to take advantage of thousands of different textiles and materials, using them, repurposing them, and ultimately turning them into pieces of art that can one day, once again, be deconstructed.
In 1937, this space served as a creative business venture started by Joe and Sylvia Gray to stockpile surplus Depression-era materials from the north. During World War II and thereafter, Elsewhere became an important resource for army surplus. The first floor sold army supplies: khaki colored bags, tents of all sizes, and large water canteens. Boy Scouts training to one day take their fathers’ places in the next inevitable war of the worlds were their primary customers, but they sold their goods nationally, this little shop in Greensboro. The second floor served as a family boarding house for the nuclear family: Sylvia, Joe and their three children. The top floor was Sylvia’s personal workspace where she mended and sewed the goods for resale.
Joe’s death left Sylvia alone to raise three children and navigate life without the existence of her partner. From the pressure of the little ones, the deep depression she fell into after Joe’s death, and the stress of maintaining a business, Sylvia’s life began to fray at the edges. She looked to material items to mend the cracks forming under the surface, finding value in the obscure and underappreciated. She bought ribbon and upholstery from local North Carolina mills with little plans to sell them in the store. She frequented the Salvation Army and Goodwill, sometimes twice a day, to find things she deemed valuable—knick-knacks and furniture and beautiful blown glass, wigs of all different colors. She bought blue button down dresses and snip off the buttons to save in a mason jar. She piled up ribbons of all colors and take them home to wash, dry, iron, and eventually, wrap around pencils to give the wood a pop of color. She filled the first level from floor to ceiling with her treasures until only a tiny strip of walking space remained visible amidst the boxes and rolls of fabric. Walking became a great balancing act, all in pursuit of preserving her catalog of things. A catalog of new memories while his memory burned in her like a madness. Her store had become a collection, and her collection had become a hoard made up of possessions she could not part with, could not bear to let go.
I shoved all of your things into a ripped plastic bag without dwelling on each item for too long. Forgive me—the ripped bag was all I could find on such short notice. I didn’t know I would feel my stomach heave each time I caught sight of the poem you wrote for me hanging on the bedroom wall, the one line detailing how my mind is like a library with a thousand floors, feeling futile now that you decided you wouldn’t like to frequent them anymore. You gave up on floor ten, maybe twenty at most. I’m sorry that sometimes the elevator breaks. Don’t paint a girl with a thousand floors and expect an easy climb.
I didn’t know what I should keep. I wanted the journal, bound with rich mahogany leather from France and beautiful pages, unlined and yellowing. I wanted the bird hair pin which I used to mark my books, breaking my dog-earing habit after years of chewed up corners. I wanted the red paper boat most, but each time I read the tiny note written at the bottom, “No Matter the Wreckage,” a line borrowed from poet Sarah Kay, I reminded myself we had wrecked. We had wrecked and you had let the water seep in, standing back as I desperately tried to scoop it out with a wooden bucket. The water had only reached our ankles when you declared, exhausted, that we were destined to sink. I decided I would keep everything, but place it out of sight. A half-hearted attempt to push the thoughts of you out of my mind.
The first time I visited Elsewhere, my hands reached to hold everything. We were encouraged to touch as much as possible: a stark contrast to other museums I had visited with their thick black ropes meant to discourage the particularly handsy. I wanted to feel each textile for myself here, wanted to understand what would possess a woman to collect and collect until her memories created great velvet walls to enclose her from the outside world. I had always felt that in order to fully understand something, you had to touch it, to feel at the thing with your hands. I was the child the salesclerks scolded for not being able to keep my hands to myself, touching each thing on display with my gummy fingertips. The reader who hated Kindles because I couldn’t feel the crisp rustle of each page turning.
I hadn’t even met you then. I didn’t even know you existed—that someone could understand all the intricacies of me as well as I thought you did. That I too could want to completely disconnect from the outside world when you left me alone outside my apartment, shaking like something had been stolen from my grasp. My hands reached out for you as you drove away.
This was the place where my memories would begin to betray me, each night spent intertwined and breathing the same air turning ominous under the haze. I tried to hold onto them, to stop their lightness from growing dark, but I knew the futility of it all. That night you refused to hold me when you told me goodbye. Refused to let me touch you so I could understand.
But I didn’t know you then. It would be months before you wandered into my life, then cemented yourself there as a permanent fixture. So I wandered around Elsewhere, hands outstretched to meet each new wonder with childlike buoyancy, a stranger to the complexities of pain. I threw bouncy balls at drum sets and piano keys, reveling in the playful bursts of discordant sound. I spun teddy bears secured to a wheel, watching their plush heads and arms whip about, tiny dancers using me to spot their wild turns. I watched myself in a hundred overlapping mirrors and let the light catch my cheekbones at different angles, the shadows transforming me into strangers.
Once I wanted to read minds. I wanted to see right into people’s heads, understand their most intimate desires by watching the way their brows braided. How their eyes widened. Wanted to know all of their memories, because the memories we keep shape us in a way nothing else can. Now I don’t know if I want that anymore. The weight of a thousand strange memories might be too heavy for anyone to bear; I can barely carry the weight of my own. Some days it feels liberating to imagine being wiped clean of it all. A clean memory to start fresh and fill with things that won’t taste bitter in hindsight.
The first time I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I lay bundled in my bed, skinny jeans a pool of deep blue on the carpet, my cheeks banded with mascara. The movie is science fiction, detailing the falling out of a love affair between two tragically different humans, and their subsequent decision to both have their memories of each other erased through a medical procedure. Clementine, hair colored a different segment of the rainbow in every scene, underwent the procedure first, impulsivity carrying her to the operation table. Joel went next to combat the reality that one day Clementine would look into his eyes and see no one of importance.
“Now the first thing we need you to do Mr. Barish is to go home and collect everything that has anything to do with Clementine. Anything.” The words should have felt cleansing, but instead tasted cold and clinical coming from the mouth of the doctor. Why should a man who can erase the mind of anyone feel any emotionality? He had no reason to feel anything. Any unpleasant emotion could be erased.
“Well, I think it’s brilliant. If humans could create this type of technology, we could totally free ourselves from trauma.” You said this while sipping your coffee, nestled in the back room of a coffee shop in my hometown the summer we were doing okay.
“But don’t you think it’s kind of sad? I don’t know. Maybe I’m a sentimentalist but I just feel like people come into our lives for a reason. I feel like everyone is kinda meant to teach you more about yourself, even if things end badly.” I waited for your rebuttal. We lived for these big questions then, fed off of each other’s energy and curiosity. It was the pettiness of the small questions that broke us. The things that, in hindsight, mattered the least.
“Yeah but there are people that have changed me that I wish hadn’t, you know? Some people come into your life just to fuck you up.” You sipped coffee, adjusting the Ray Ban glasses that had started to migrate down your nose. I felt silly in that moment and I knew you were right. Perhaps if I had encountered more toxic people, seen more of the worst humanity had to offer, I wouldn’t be so quick to defend my own memories.
But a line Joel cried out in desperation kept replaying through my mind. A line he yelled before the memory of Clementine was completely eradicated from his mind.
I want to keep this memory. Just this one.
It reminded me of the night we spent together after we ended things where you held onto me like a memory you were desperate to keep. As if you would wake up and I would be gone if you slackened your grip for even a second. If you unburied your face from my neck to catch a quick breath. And I mumbled into your curly hair, half asleep, or maybe just bold because of where I lay, that you’re it. You’re the one. I’m sure.
You kept the memory book I gave you the Christmas we spent in different cities. Full of the pictures, quotes, and poems that colored our relationship, it had taken hours of work sitting on my bedroom floor, cross-legged and frazzled, to get it just right, to make each memory feel fresh on the page. I painstakingly painted the words “Our Adventure Book” on the cover in thin gold ink, an homage to the Disney movie Up. Even on my bad days when I questioned everything—so unsure of how you could still love me as much as you did—you would send me a picture of Ellie and Carl, old and frail but still holding onto each other. Still smiling. Still deeply in love. You wanted that to be us one day. Rocking chairs parallel. Liver-spotted hands clasped.
I smudged the gold ink once near the “A” with my pinky finger and tried to fix it but just ended up smudging it further. I thought you would notice the imperfection in the text but when we laid on top of your childhood bed, giggling, your whole body wrapped around mine, you never mentioned it. You told me you felt remarkably average on the scale of human excellence, but when you were with me, I made you a better man.
Maybe you forgot about the book. It sat on that shelf, unopened and ignored, for the last two months we spent together. It’s possible you won’t remember it until you leave that hellhole you live in now, moving boxes growing heavier from the memories of me packed inside. Maybe you knew if you took the book off the shelf, even for a moment to pack it into a plastic grocery bag, if you rubbed the dust and pollen off the cover, something would compel you to open it. To read the words and see our smiling faces and wonder why you had decided our story needed to end so quickly. How hopes of growing old together had turned into a need to grow apart.
The Elsewhere tour guide had a thick ring puncturing her septum, razor chopped hair with baby bangs. Sallow skin. Purpled crescents budding under her eye sockets. She adjusted her glasses as she spoke, fidgeted with the dark clothing that draped on her bones like a hanger.
“Can I help you?” I had come back after things ended. I don’t know why. Something about a place that could compartmentalize my longing into tiny rooms made the idea of coping more manageable. As if I could shelve each memory alongside yellowed book pages and old vinyl records, tucking each away safely. An artist sorted those vinyls, asking visitors to describe a distinct memory associated with an album or an artist as vividly as possible. As they palmed the album, the writer would tap out the responses carefully on a typewriter, gently pasting the paper square to the album cover, materializing that memory into a tangible thing.
“Do you still do tours here?” I bit at the raw skin around my nail bed. The nails were already chewed to the point of pain.
“You’re in luck. One starts in ten minutes.”
You came to my room the week after things ended palming the leather journal I had left in your possession by its binding. A bag of my belongings in your grasp. I reached for the ripped plastic bag I had stowed away in a drawer. Poking out of the tears was the colorful knit I had bought you for Christmas, your checkered boxers, a worn out t-shirt I had slept in on a particularly chilly North Carolina night where frost collected heavy on your windowsill. I thought about the sweater. I had bought it for you so sure you would hate it, so sure I would end up keeping it, but you pulled it over your shoulders immediately and wrapped me in its warmth. I pushed the thought away.
“Sorry the bag ripped. Couldn’t find one without a hole in it.” I sheepishly shoved it towards you. I didn’t know how to interact with you, didn’t know how much was too much to say. I took the journal from your hand, feeling the detail of the leatherwork against my fingertips. You fidgeted with your hair, a couple of stray ringlets peeking out from under your baseball cap. You wore hats everywhere now, keeping your curls contained. Your eyes fully covered. Maybe you had to change something now that I was no longer a part of you. You peered down at the journal in my hand.
“I was going to write something inside. On the front page? I had something written and everything but I …” You stopped yourself from saying more.
“You don’t see much of a point now, do you?” My voice was calm and even. I wanted to prove I could control my emotions. Reign in the hurt. Dull the memories.
I had been trying to quiet those memories for a while by self-medicating. Letting the numbness spread down my arms and into my shoes. Trying to wiggle my toes between each hiccup. Trying to click my tongue after each sip to see if I could still feel it. I realized it wouldn’t work. Fogging my brain wouldn’t stop the memories from creeping through the vodka haze; instead they became illuminated and grew more urgent.
I changed course and filled every minute of every day with activity, never allowing myself to fully be alone with my own thoughts. Sleeping on dorm room floors and friends’ couches with springs poking through the fabric, denying myself solitude to process the wrongness of it all. The immediacy in which a person can leave, and how heavily their presence can still linger in every object, every voice, every memory.
The tour guide stood in the hall, a mosaic of different papers overlapping on the wall, each wall lined with different contraptions. Everything here had been turned into art, even the holes that had been punched in were decorated with ribbons and colorful yarn, interwoven to make the mess more beautiful. She explained the residency process, described how the artists could not permanently alter any of the materials and that any of their art could be added to or be deconstructed entirely. The beauty of the piece was in its impermanence: the ability for the material thing to disappear but the memory to remain. A commodity that made the work even more special.
The creators of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind once said that they had pictured Clementine and Joel erasing each other fifteen times. Meeting, falling in love, falling out of love, and erasing each other fifteen times. Can you imagine, despite everything, falling back to each other every time?
I don’t know if that could ever be us. But I like to think if I did erase you, I would find you again and again and again. That we would begin again each time like we did the last, meet again at that party neither of us really wanted to attend. Would I step outside for air as I did the last time, overwhelmed and slightly bored with it all, looking to bum a smoke off any boy who wouldn’t make me pay? Would you spot the bit of teal in my hair, shining brighter under the streetlamp and remember me as the girl your buddies called a bit strange? Would you ask me what makes my days brighter, what makes the blood pump through my veins a bit faster, then spend the night reciting poetry off of our phone screens, asking each other questions too big to discuss with strangers?
I think we would.
Instead I blanket myself in these moments and these memories. These people and these places. Curate images and words like Sylvia to find beauty in this bittersweet and create something new from the ruin, to turn memories into art.
Natalia Conte is a student at Elon University in North Carolina pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Creative Writing. Currently, she works as the Editor-In-Chief of Colonnades Literary Art Magazine and has enjoyed the opportunity to magnify important voices within the community. This past year, she was awarded the Hartmann Prize in both Nonfiction and Poetry. Natalia’s works have been previously published in So to Speak magazine and Colonnades Literary Art Magazine. Find her on Twitter @talliecon.