Mike sips coffee and tries to jot down memories that come to mind. It’s an exercise he likes to do from time to time, especially when he isn’t making progress on his story.
As vast and powerful as the human mind may seem, it is not an efficient device for recording and storing memories. Mike knows that the notes that he jots down are, at best, simple snippets describing the most superficial aspects of his past. These snippets, however, have the ability to trigger certain feelings, and Mike, unsure why, values this.
On this sunny morning, Mike recalls the first day he showed up to summer camp in elementary school. He must have been third going on to fourth grade. The camp counselors, mostly high school students, gave out bright red t-shirts with white lettering on the front. He remembers seeing his friends Joe and Tommy, both wearing their new t-shirts, talking about something exciting that will happen later in the day. Amid the sunshine and bustle of activity that floats in his mind, there is an acute sense of feeling left out. Was he not a part of the summer camp?
It’s entirely possible. Mike remembers living only a couple of blocks from his school, where the camp was taking place. He would often wake up early to walk around the neighborhood and to hang out in the playground, where he loved to dangle from the monkey bars and navigate the jungle gym. He could have been out on one of his walks, unaware that there was such a thing as summer camp. He might have been surprised, and even pleased, to see his friends, but this feeling would have dissipated immediately, replaced by the envy of someone excluded. There may have been a feeling of resentment towards his parents for their failure to sign him up. Mike even thinks there may have been an awkward moment, when a counselor, seeing Mike without his red shirt on, approaches him and asks why he hasn’t checked in yet. Mike hears himself, embarrassed and nervous, telling the counselor that he’s not signed up.
The emotions feel real, and it hurts Mike to recollect. But he isn’t sure any of this really happened. Did he come home and complain to his parents? Maybe even shed a tear? He remembers that he was quick to cry and always full of self-pity as a kid. Or he could be wrong about everything. He might have attended camp but the feeling of being excluded may have been something else. The inability to fit in or being placed in a group with mean kids; it may have been as simple as finding out that his friends went to the swimming pool without him.
Human memory is unreliable, Mike thinks. There are many details that come to mind – the yellow and green paint of the playground, the open fields nearby, the red wall behind the school with the fallout shelter sign, the faculty parking lot, the streets lined with dogwood – but he knows they are not all from the same day or even the same year. What he sees in his mind are composites formed from various fragments that have remained with him through the years. Some memories may have come much more recently from an unrelated source. He cannot bet his life on the color of the jungle gym, but he’s somehow sure that it was mostly green.
If this is the nature of the mind, and if so much of what he feels is a result of speculation and uncertainty, how does he go about understanding what really happened between him and Olivia? Some memories are still fresh, but others become dimmer each day, selectively relegated by the brain to make room for new memories. He begins to believe that there is no way to completely understand. The emotions that felt so powerful and raw at the time have subsided and taken on different shades. There are only snippets now. The tear streaks on her cheeks, the lack of eye contact, and the piles of unwashed dishes.