Why did I remember that roll of dice from that game out of the hundreds I played that summer? What is it about that particular time I lost everything to that stupid hotel on Vine Street? How can it be of any significance, that emotion of clarity? These are questions I often ask myself. I suspect the answer, but it’s too vague and arrogant: too much of it is based in self-importance and curiosity to explain that which I do not know. I am told everybody has one of these moments of clarity. They are known to uncloud your sense of the world in a flash for a moment when you are doing the most mundane of things. (Crossing a road is the most oft cited example – “I was crossing the street one day when in a flash all the possibilities of everything that is or could have been or was burst in my mind.” Often, this is followed by an accident.)
I shall tell you what I suspect about myself, and you’ll know that my concerns aren’t unfounded.
Memories, especially human memories, are colored and heavy. They are filtered through layers of sensory perception and shaped by the emotional intensity of the person who owns them. They are anything but real, as is the world as we go through it every day. We expect that our memories shape us and tell us our history; they show us the person we are and tell us what we love about who we are. All of us, we constantly chronicle memories. We speak of them in stories, we tell them to ourselves. We index them and file them away for future reference. We expect that we are the sum of all our memories: we think that we have sieved through the endless possibilities of what could have been since we have experienced what was. We find finality in our memories, we resolve and we move on.
It is the ease with which we do it that puzzles me the most. Every moment between where one memory ends and the next begins in our mind: these moments are the ones on which our possibilities hinge. They are the roll of dice whose outcomes you might already know (the inevitable orange rectangle on which Vine Street stands); the moments in which there is no lucid transition between what is and what was – instead there is an immediacy of futures, no reality, no telling of tales. These are the moments in which we are stripped of everything that makes us us, moments without history or context, without form or content. These are moments of clarity. In one such moment of clarity (between Pall Mall and Vine Street, somewhere around Marylebone Station if you’re lucky) I saw that everything I knew (or indeed, we know) is so dangerously balanced on how we comprehend what we think we know.
Another memory of a summer afternoon. The smell of sweat dominates this one. It is a mild summer afternoon I spent in bed with someone I thought I was in love with. We spent the day drinking whiskey, having sex and eating the remains of the previous night’s dinner. I don’t particularly remember what we spoke about. We may not have spoken at all. There was no urgency to our sex: we were both lazily lying around in the bed, thinking our own thoughts and being our own person. Instead of doing it by ourselves, we did it together. Silently, thoughtlessly, claiming each other’s space as our own. The next day when I thought about it, I only thought about the heat and the sound of the slow, rusty fan. I thought about the whiskey and the headache it had brought. I thought about the sex and the cleanliness of the shower after. When I think about it now, I can hardly remember what the fan looked like. I don’t know what whiskey we were drinking, or what we actually ate that day. I remember the smell of our sweat, and really just that.
It stands alone by itself in my head, this memory. It is a completely pointless day on which nothing of significance took place. The kind of day that is most routine, the kind that is so inconsequential that you forgot it even happened if not for the crossing off of a day on a calendar and the moving of the hands of a clock. Which day which year what was I wearing what was the concern of my life at that point who were the people I was friends with what did I do the previous day what did I do the next day what soap was I using what book was I reading what was I watching on television how many places to the bright red hotel on Vine Street what did I roll on the dice? I don’t remember any of these things. Those things aren’t important for this narrative. What I did that day is simply noise. All day that day was the dice rolling, waiting for Vine Street to turn up on the map.
Imagine my surprise when what turned up was New York Avenue: and it bankrupted me just the same.
In old Telugu and Hindi cinemas, there is this trick they do with the picture. They take a single image, replicate it in six separate frames and make it go round and round the screen. The idea, I guess, was to escalate conflict and make the screen look full of emotion and turmoil. It used to fascinate me as a child. Why bother showing the same thing six times? Why make the picture smaller? What were the trying to prove?
One fine, unremarkable winter’s morning I was crossing the road when it happened when I was doing nothing of any consequence everything flashed before my eyes and then there was an accident. I woke up early from a nightmare. The sun had just begun to rise, so the sky outside my window was a blue grey only foggy winter mornings can achieve. In this nightmare, a monster was pursuing me. She was disguised as a beautiful woman with fair skin and the most stunning eyes I had ever seen. There was such depth in her eyes, such misery and loathing that I couldn’t imagine ever looking in them for longer than a second. In this nightmare, my whole world depended on my running away from her with all my teeth intact. Every time a tooth fell out, I would put it in a pouch and hope that the dentist will find a way to put it back in my mouth. When I reached the dentist, I realized I lost the pouch. I had to run back into her territory to find it. When I was running away again, she was gaining on me. That’s when I woke.
I was sweating profusely, my heart was beating very very fast and my stomach was clenched in fear. Now awake, I told myself a story about how I escaped her for sure. I tried to rationalize it. It was just a dream after all. I started to list everything I could have done to run away from her. Then I started to list everything I could have done to fight her. Then I started to list everything I could have done at all. For the rest of my day, I kept recounting that nightmare to myself in my head, and every single time, the story of what happened in the nightmare would change. Soon, it was not just a nightmare from my sleep anymore, it was a paranoia I saw everywhere. Everywhere I went, I started to list the possibilities of what was and what could be if she was there. In a couple of weeks, I could hardly tell between my memories and my imagined world. Did I really eat cornflakes for breakfast or was it one of the things I did on one of the lists of my ways to tackle her? Do I have a deadline for Tuesday or is it just my way of telling myself that the next time I expect to run into her it’ll be Tuesday?
What I knew for sure, what I had in my head as definite memories, what I thought was mine for sure, what I thought I knew for sure, everything I thought I had resolved, everything I had moved on from, every memory to which there was a beginning and an end: all of these were fading. The moments in which there were clarity (the moments in which there is nothing yet everything the moments in which there is only the roll of the dice no outcomes or inevitable hotels on Vine Street) were disappearing, and I was being left with possibilities of pasts and probabilities of futures. Things that may have been and things that might come to pass.
How I escaped from this spiral, I cannot say. When I was younger, I didn’t believe in magic. Nothing much has changed since. Magic is for people who can’t see wondrous things and wonder, or know that the magic is in the wondering. Was it Douglas Adams who said that he doesn’t need to believe there are fairies at the bottom of a garden to see its beauty? If there is magic, it’s not in the world you make up around you: it’s in the world there already is. But answer me this: how do you know the difference?
I can tell you for sure now, that I did indeed escape. I used my days in between as markers of days that are real. (days on which I did nothing but roll dice days on which I had lots of inconsequential sex with people I hardly remember days on which I crossed roads with no accidents). Time is a mystery of habit. It is in the movement of the hands of the clock and in days that are simply crossed off days on a calendar that I found myself again. Memories that I hadn’t bothered to bookmark, simply chronicled and filed away in non-descript cardboard boxes: It is in these that I found myself. Sometimes I slip, but I don’t know that I slip because these things are fuzzy in my head. Sometimes, I don’t know if a pipe is a pipe or a picture of a pipe in a frame within a frame. Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m standing on Blue Angel Islington next to a Station or on Oriental Avenue next to a Railroad.
But most of the time I ground myself in the things that are happening around me. In things that are being experienced, things I can see and smell and taste and know. I try to see the garden for the garden, its roses and thorns and rusting wheelbarrows and seeds and trees and bees and beetles. I try to feel the dew in the grass for the dew in the grass and the wind in my hair for the wind in my hair. If I hear a sparrow call or a mockingbird sing, I know these to be sparrows and mockingbirds. For these things are wondrous, and these things are magical, so in these things I will firmly place my two feet and try not to peek too hard in the clouds.