Amnesia doesn’t work the way it does in movies or fantasy novels. It’s a slithering trick that infiltrates your brain so slowly, you don’t even realize it until someone reminds you that you have it. It also isn’t all-encompassing. You don’t wake up every day completely forgetting the day before like Drew Barrymore in that Adam Sandler romcom. It’s a lot trickier than that. Almost unfortunately. You slowly just start to black out memories until the entire past of your life just becomes one long blur.
I hadn’t realize I was stricken until I had to fill out a form at a new doctor’s office and couldn’t remember my own birthday or where I was born. I underwent about a year of costly testing to confirm that I had a rather serious form of amnesia which had stripped a great deal of my memory. There are virtually no treatments for the disease, so I spent thousands of dollars on medical testing to be told “Congratulations, we confirmed your memory is fucked. There isn’t much we can do about it.”
I never thought the start of a solution to my ailment would come to me on my lunch break at work, bullshitting with the other guys in Q. A. in between small talk about fantasy football and the differences in the guitars players of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The fact that I couldn’t remember if I started Alex Smith of Jameis Winston the week before sparked the solution.
The Q.A. coordinator, Tyler, finished berating me for starting an injured player and slipped in a mention about something that will really kick this whole story off.
“You really need to sign up with Folds downstairs,” Tyler said.
“What the hell is Folds?” I shot back with turkey sandwich in my mouth.
“You really can’t remember shit.” Tyler said. “Holy hell. The thing everyone was freaking out about three months ago. They started this new department in the basement. Memory storage. It’s like a Black Mirror episode.”
“It’s like the new Twilight Zone. On Netflix. Not important, but you remember the thing where we bought that new technology last year and were super hush hush about it? Nick went down to work on it. He leaked everything about it to engineering.”
I had a vague memory of what Tyler was talking about, but my brain lacked details.
My co-worker friend Nick filled in the pieces.
I worked for a software company which made an outdated technology only used on desktop PCs that was desperate for a new way to make money. Apparently they purchased a controversial and mysterious technology developed in India that was able to read brain waves and store memories on micro hard drives. They set up shop in the basement of our office and reportedly had been making serious strides in perfecting the technology and getting it onto the market. They were in beta phase and desperately needed test subjects.
I walked down to the basement and put in my application. They were thrilled to have me—a sane, sober, gainfully-employed, 48-year-old, husband who legitimately suffered from amnesia was a huge step up from the gaggle of unemployable, borderline criminals who previously had been the only test subjects they could get to sign on the dotted line.
I didn’t tell my wife anything. I wanted to be able to regain some memory and just naturally impress her with the progress I made. I would remember the anniversaries, birthdays, and middle names soon and help repair the fractures in the bones of our relationship.
The testing was simple. I sat down in an office that looked like it belonged to a dentist, Nick hooked electrodes up to my temples, stuck some small tubes up my nose and ears and told me to relax for 10 minutes and try not to think of anything too complicated. I usually thought about how I thought the rest of the season was going to unfold for the 49ers, game-by-game. Embarrassing losses aren’t complicated.
I did this silently a few times, without protest before I started asking questions. Luckily, my technician was Nick, who used to work in my department—a bristly former stoner who seemed perpetually bothered ever since his wife made him give up weed after having a kid. The guy was that employee every company has who knows their systems inside and out so they have to keep him around, but everyone also knows he has a sever case of Oppositional Defiant Disorder and would love nothing more than to take down the company if he got the chance. He was more than happy to tell me exactly what was happening and the details he wasn’t supposed to share.
They system they were hooking me up to was subconsciously taking the memories of my brain (even the ones I couldn’t remember) and loading them onto hard drives about the size of a usual flash drive. It took a long time to download everything, but Nick told me the first three sessions had taken about 75 percent of my memory and stored it.
Nick revealed the company had no plans of ever sharing the saved memories with the test subjects and they slipped that fact into the fine print that I did not actually read. He said they would have a couple more sessions with me to see how well my memory was absorbed in storage, pay me the $100 per-session they owed me, show their investors how well their technology worked, and then use my recordings as a case study as they moved forward without ever showing me what it recorded.
Nick was more than happy to blow up the company’s plan. He promised to share my memories with me once the last 25 percent was taken in.
I was so excited I went home that night and told me wife about the whole thing. She was ecstatic. I was worried she was going to view the operation as an unnatural way of cheating to get my memories back instead of just simply caring and remembering enough to keep things in my mind that I should of, but I lied and said that my doctor was working on testing to officially diagnose me with amnesia. She was pleased.
I did the my last couple of sessions with Nick. He said it would take a couple of weeks to compile all my memory data and that it would be stored on about 100 different small drives so sharing it with me would be tricky. He would try to get me as many of them as possible at a time without drawing attention to ourselves and our unauthorized operation.
The day finally came when NIck was able to share my memories with me. He presented me with a case of memory cards that I could plug into my laptop and wished me good luck. He said he could get me the next case when ready.
He warned me that the memories wouldn’t be in chronological order since he had to grab what was available to him at the moment, but they would in fact be real memories that I could watch on a laptop. He also explained that not everything that happened in my life would be stored, only memories that my brain appeared to store as “important.” We weren’t going to get me at my desk, drinking coffee at 8:30 on a Monday morning and scrolling through Facebook. Only the good stuff.
I wondered how the hell this memory chip thing worked. Nick promised me it would be just like watching a movie. I plugged in the first chip and loaded up a video of what looked like a movie of my 10th birthday at the local bowling alley. I saw myself bowl a 100 for the first time in my life and jump into the arms of my dad.
It might seem like a somewhat miniscule memory, but that was the last birthday I would have with my dad. He died in a car accident just a few months later. It was the last golden memory I had of him. It was one thing that I could still remember pretty vividly even when I was losing the other valuable storage the past handful of years.
I went to the next memory. My wedding day with my wife. We married late in life. I was 41, she was 36. The ceremony was in her parents’ backyard in Oregon. I watched the highlights of the ceremony, some I admittedly couldn’t remember, possibly because of the amount of red wine and champagne in my veins that night. The memory collection closed on a shot of me looking out the window at the full moon as we took a shuttle to the airport to catch a flight to our honeymoon in Whistler, B.C.
Next up, the birth of our son Eli. I watched my wife hold him in her arms, the exhaustion of childbirth still on her face. I saw my point of view give her a long kiss on the forehead. I felt my entire body go warm with the full return of the feeling of this powerfully touching memories that had sadly withered in the fading power of my brain. I started to break down and cry in the courtyard of my office. Looked around to make sure no one saw me, before I shut down my operation for the day.
I examined the remaining cards that I had later that night. More of the same. Cherished memories that had crumbled in my feeble mind. I watched them before my wife got home from work and then surprised her with the news. We watched all four hours of what Nick got me into the wee hours of the night, until we fell asleep on the sofa, together this time.
The next day wasn’t quite as sweet. I exchanged my memory chip box with Nick for a new one. I started watching them at lunch in the office courtyard again. I had to shut them off because I was overcome with emotions again.
This collection of memories wasn’t the bright and cheery, sappy movie I watched yesterday. This cluster must have sucked the pain and tragedy out of the dark part of my brain. I watched a montage of seeing my dad the last time before he passed away, a bittersweet moment where he dropped me off at school and scolded me for taking too long to get ready, forcing him to be late for work. He would crash on the way to work, trying to make a risky move on the freeway to make up for lost time.
The next clip was one that had almost no context. It was just of me crying my eyes out in an empty hospital waiting area. I watched myself sob and convulse uncontrollably in a plastic chair until I fell out and wailed on the floor. I had no idea what the event was connected to.
The clip was interrupted with the flash of the lifeless eyes of a beautiful woman staring up at me as she laid on the hardwood floor of a beautiful home. I stared into her hollow, but piercing green eyes for a few seconds and felt my heart drop even though the entire scene was as foreign to me as a clip from a movie I had never seen.
The shot faded away into another setting I didn’t recognize. This one was much more dark. I stood on the edge of a bridge that I recognized from my hometown which towered hundreds of feet over a cold river in a rocky canyon. I saw myself standing on the edge of the bridge, body loose and slacked, and not the least bit worried about a gust of wind pushing me off the thing. Even just watching the footage on solid ground I got an uneasy feeling in my stomach.
I didn’t see the next feeling which leaked into my brain on the screen, it just appeared there like a lost emotion. I felt a heavy sadness in my brain and caught a flash of myself holding a small, cold hand in the dark, as hard as I could.
Then I flashed back to that bridge and watched myself walk back off the edge. I watched myself get honked at by a passing pick-up until I was off the structure and walking back towards a forest-lined highway.
I crumpled up into a ball before my wife got home. I started to regretting gaining my memory back. I thought about the ways my amnesia had been a slight blessing in disguise. There were memories that I WANTED to forget.
My wife talked me off the ledge. We watched some more memories. The good ones returned. I watched myself win a state football championship, meet my wife for the first time, the birth of our second child and a night at an all-you-can-eat prime rib event I won a ticket to when I was 40 that was possibly the most (non-family-related) enjoyable night of my life. Seriously. I like meat. All was right in the world again. The memory program was a success.
I cornered Nick as soon as I got to the office the next day at the Keurig machine as he impatiently watched the thing belch out watery coffee as if he would die if he didn’t get it in him within the next few minutes. He looked horrified to see me.
“Um, something crazy happened last night man. Did you see the police cars in the main parking lot when you came in?” Nick asked as he ushered me towards the bathroom.
Nick and I huddled in the single-toilet bathroom with the door locked with the fart fan on. The situation couldn’t have been more awkward, but I let it go and let Nick start telling me what “crazy thing” happened the night before.
According to Nick, someone broke into the facilities the night before and stole their stockpile of memory chips, including mine. He said it was rumored to be a competitor looking for a leg up. He said he heard there was security footage of the whole thing happening, but he hadn’t seen it yet.
The good news was Nick had already pulled almost all of my chips for our next meeting on that day. He said he ended up with all but about 10 percent of my memory. He shared what he had and said he would give me the last 10 percent if it ever surfaced along with an apology.
The next 40 percent of the memory that Nick gave me was much like the first 50 percent – a combination of major milestones and heartwarming days mixed with heartbreaking memories. I laughed and cried throughout the night by myself.
This memory collection featured more of the same mysterious element which haunted me from the first. Painful feelings and images which didn’t tickle the slight bit of memories in my head. The beautiful woman with the sad eyes and the images of me wandering around dark and dangerous settings with reckless abandon was back.
I felt more hollow than a dollar store chocolate Easter bunny. The mystery of those memories hurt me more than the painful ones which I actually started to remember. The unknown tortured that my brain and I couldn’t handle.
The only thing worse than the mystery of those memories I did get to see was knowing I was not able to see that missing 10 percent. I felt the answer may have been in that absent sliver. Something was missing in that 10 percent I didn’t have. I needed to have it.
Nick assured me the next few days that they have no idea who stole the memory chips and the only chance I ever had at getting them back was figuring out who they were. Unfortunately he heard they had zero true leads at the moment into the theft. I was disappointed, but understood.
The days and weeks crept by without a whisper from Nick about who may have stolen the memories or if I would ever be able to recover them. I started to come apart at the seams.
It was strange, but I felt like my entire being had started to come unglued once I began seeing those mysterious memories. It was like they had put puzzle pieces back into my brain which it actually didn’t want there and crippled my mind. I started calling in sick to work, dreading Nick swinging by my desk and telling me they might never find out about that last 10 percent and who was holding onto the pieces of my dissolved memory.
Then the day came that Nick delivered me the news that I wanted to hear. He bumped into me in the urinal line in the bathroom and whispered to me.
“I heard who stole the memories man, and you’re never going to believe this, but they think it all ties back to a woman.”
I grilled Nick until someone else came in having to piss and we moved it to the parking garage. The rest of my grilling of Nick proved fruitless, he had little information, but he did know one thing. A man was caught on video camera physically stealing the memories, but they were able to interrogate him and access his emails and saw he was hired by a local woman. Exactly who that local woman was, Nick had not learned yet.
I pushed Nick to find the information for selfish reasons. His little memory chip operation was beginning to haunt my dreams. I started waking up in the middle of the night with visions of the woman from the memories who I had yet to identify. I could feel her breath on my neck, smell her perfume, and finally feel a heartbreak radiate from her that felt like nothing I had ever experienced before.
Nick delivered just when I was running out of patience. He asked me for my personal email address and forwarded me an endless stream of emails between figureheads at the company discussing the investigation of the theft.
I read through all 58 of the emails locked in my stuffy car at the bottom of the basement of our office parking garage, barely able to breath. I lost the last of my breath when I saw the email address at the end of the thread which kicked the whole thing off by reaching out to the guy who was caught stealing the memories – email@example.com.
That was my wife Mary’s email address. I sat speechless in my car without any oxygen rushing to my brain. I felt I could pass out. My wife was the one who spearheaded stealing the memories? My memories? I didn’t even really know what to do.
A shot of good news was that Nick was able to help me. I got an email from him while I was in my car for an hour trying to recover.
Looks like they were able to recover the last 10% of your memories, they were just keeping it a secret. I found them on the drive though. Come into the office and I’ll hand them off to you.
I went back into the office and Nick slipped me the remaining files of my memory he had snagged off of the drive. I said I was feeling sick and headed home to watch what I was missing.
I started watching the videos as soon as I got home and the missing puzzle pieces in my mind quickly started to fall into place, though they were lubricated with tears.
The first video I watched was of me in high school. I stood on the edge of the slow dance circle at one of the after football game dances I could still vaguely remember. It was my usual spot once the intimacy of slow dancing was introduced. I could always joke around and dance to an upbeat track with my friends and have fun, but once the idea of having to approach a girl and ask her to dance hip-to-hip came, I had to duck off to the side and talk about the game with some of my other less than mature friends.
What played out before my eyes was different though. A doe-eyed young lady with soft cheeks and long brown hair dressed in the blue and gold of my high school alma mater strode up to me and sparked a conversation about the cheesy song broadcasting in the room.
I couldn’t hear the conversation we had over the blaring sounds of the power ballad, but my memory seemed to dub the script for me. She joked about how the guys in the forgettable hair metal band actually looked like hot girls. I laughed. I talked about how I actually liked my parents’ records from the 60s. She agreed. She said she still felt like dancing to the song though because it was better than the ultra pop crap they played in between the sappy ballads even more. We waltzed out onto the dark cafeteria floor.
I watched us dance until the final distorted note of the guitar solo of the track and then I found myself in the small Midwestern college town where I completed my higher education, taking the familiar walk from campus to my shit pile of a house I shared with some friends. There was a cold to the scene that came from more than just the Michigan October afternoon. I could feel the memory of being hurt and lonely.
I watched myself lay eyes upon that girl from the dance, standing on the steps of a rotting wood porch with a huge smile on her face.
I watched myself run up to her and wrap her in a hug. This scene was a silent movie, but I knew the words that were there. The two of us had been apart for a long time, but her appearance meant we were going to put an end to that. I could feel a warmth of future Fall and Winter cuddles in the barren and snowy plains of rural Michigan through the laptop broadcasting the video even though I was sitting in my heated house at the time.
I felt the next memory in the gut the second I saw the opening frame. A rustic church, candle-lit with just me with that beautiful woman who had been the ghost of my memories, a preacher I didn’t recognize and a scattering of a few family members. As an only child with two parents who had me in their 40s who wasn’t a social butterfly, I didn’t even have a wedding party. It looked to just be my closest family at the ceremony and what I assume was her family.
Then the name came to me. Anne. That was the lovely, gentle, sweet, kind woman’s name. She was my wife at an earlier point of my life. The space between these memories were still dark. The technology didn’t patch in everything, but these moments I had recovered with Anne were anchors that came back to me as soon as I saw them.
I almost couldn’t watch the next scene, the tears were falling so hard, but I watched through the moisture. Things began to sink lower from here.
A doctor’s office. A doctor delivering news to Anne and I. Her hand in mine. I felt the power of the squeeze she shot into me through the screen. The miscarriage. I could tell it wasn’t the first. I felt it wouldn’t be the last. I felt Anne painful tears on my shoulder. I couldn’t finish the scene. I skipped to the next.
I could see the next chapter was the last based on the amount of space left on the time bar of the video player. Part of me wanted to just leave it to mystery, but another part of me had to watch. I let it play.
I smelled hospital. No. No. No. No. The painful sting of heartbroken denial shot into my head as I watched the curtains lower on a hospital room populated by a younger version of me and a rail thin version of Anne with defeat in her eyes.
I felt her grasp in mine again, but it was nothing like that powerful squeeze she gave me when we received the horrible news about her pregnancy in that previous memory. I could barely feel a pulse in this one, and then I felt it slip away.
The memories came to an end. I sat alone in my house in the darkness, unable to move for an hour, until the front door opened and my wife walked in. I was almost shocked she arrived. I figured the company I worked for may have already found a way to get her arrested, but apparently not.
My wife picked up on the energy in the room immediately. She stood at a safe distance by the doorway as I looked over at her from my sunken position on the couch.
“You tried to steal the memories of my first wife so I couldn’t restore them?” I asked her the question which had burned in me for an hour.
“They weren’t going to do you any good. Do you feel any better now?” My wife immediately shot back.
“I needed to know what happened in my life,” I said.
“Your brain was so shocked by the trauma it started erasing all of it,” my wife pleaded. “It was what was natural. That’s when it all started with your memory, it went away because it didn’t want to remember the pain. It’s what got you healthy enough to where we could meet and start our lives together, our family. I just tried to save you from all of it.”
My wife rushed over to me and collapsed onto me on the couch. She started sobbing uncontrollably.
“I just wanted to help.”
I felt my wife’s hand grip mine even harder than Anne had gripped mine in those old memories. I felt the genuine wishful love which had pushed her to hire someone to steal from a Fortune 500 company and risk it all. The love of someone who wanted what she thought was best for me so bad that was willing to go to fucking prison for it. I returned the hardest squeeze I could force out of myself and we laid on that couch for another hour before we did anything else.
I sought out Nick as soon as I walked into the office the next day.
“Did they make any movement with the woman who set up the theft?” I asked him.
Nick said that they didn’t, but he didn’t think the company was going to push anything. What they were doing was far from 100 percent approved by the government and they didn’t want to draw any attention to anything that happened. They had found a way to recover the lost memories, scared the shit out of the guy who physically did it and confirmed it had nothing to do with a competitor that would ever affect their precious, precious money. They were fine.
I felt the warmth of relief wash over me, but I still had another very important question for Nick.
“Do they have any technology that can wipe those new memories back out of your brain?” I asked.
Nick gave me a very-complicated answer that essentially boiled down to “Yes.” I set up a time that night to meet up with him and get rid of those new bittersweet memories that I downloaded from him the past few weeks.
I loved Anne. I always will. I will always hold that love, and unfortunately sadness, somewhere subconsciously in my heart and soul. It’s that knowledge that will let me undergo the wiping procedure he scheduled for me in a few days. I will shed a few more tears for Anne before Nick plugs me into the machine that will make it all go away.
I know there will be days that I walk down the street and something just doesn’t feel right and I feel the tears rush into the back of my head. Or the night when that sappy 80s rock ballad makes me feel a lot more hollow than it should and I have to step out of the bar, collect my head. I know there will be nights when I wake up in the middle of the night with a loving whisper in my ear, the memory of a soft head on my shoulder, and a sad final kiss hanging on my soul, but I won’t know exactly why. I guess that’s okay with me.