He couldn’t remember that we broke up
I used to get messages like this from my ex-boyfriend, “Did we have a joke about flamingos? And: “How did I get the scar on my hand? “
They weren’t invitations to a trip down memory lane; he asked because he didn’t remember.
“We loved the flamingos for their flamboyance, ”I said. “The scar is from the moment you dropped a scalpel in your studio.”
I wasn’t just his ex-girlfriend; I had become the sole repository of our common memories.
I met Sam in London when he was 20 and I was 24. After three years, I felt him move away. We went to the pub, ordered a bottle of prosecco, and toasted our time together. We knew that when the bottle was finished, we would say goodbye; we cried when we reached the last drop.
“Everything I know about me came through you,” he said. “I don’t know who I am without you.”
“That’s probably why we have to break up,” I said. “So you can understand that. “
Six months later, Sam invited me over for coffee. We thought we missed each other. It might not have meant anything, but I’ll never know, as a few days later a friend called to say Sam had been in an accident.
After a night of partying, it had fallen 25 feet from a tree and landed on concrete. Doctors induced a coma to prevent the swelling in her brain from causing bleeding.
He and I had climbed a tree together on our first date. He was wearing Chelsea boots and I was in a miniskirt, but that didn’t matter. Climbing trees was part of the playfulness I loved about him. Now he might never climb a tree again. He might never wake up.
I used to kiss her closed eyelids and say, “I love your beautiful brain. I imagined him in intensive care, the same swollen brain, perhaps irreparable. I couldn’t rush to the hospital because I was just an ex and didn’t have a close relationship with his family. I could only send messages of support and wait.
A week later, his sister called me to tell me that the doctors had brought him back. “He asked you,” she said, “I thought you broke up?”
When I arrived, Sam was sitting in his bed. I tried to see past the bandages and tubes, the metalwork binding his bones. He was smiling.
We held hands. For a while I thought it was okay. Then he whispered, “I don’t know why I’m here?
“You had an accident,” I said, “but you’re safe now. “
Five minutes later he asked again.
The head trauma had caused short-term memory loss, severe enough that several times Sam had confusedly tried to get out of bed and fell. His mind would restart every few minutes, causing a flood of kaleidoscopic wanderings. He was still so articulate and charming in his inconsistency, as if trying to get out of the abyss of amnesia. He greeted each nurse as if they were visiting for tea.
I quickly realized that it wasn’t just his short-term memory. He didn’t know he was about to start a graduate program at Central Saint Martins or that he was living in a run down warehouse in Whitechapel with a pet rabbit. Her childhood was intact, but the last years – the length of our entire relationship – were gone.
He knew who I was but couldn’t remember what I had done or how we had met. He couldn’t have remembered, for example, that first tree-climbing date, or how the next morning he went to buy us breakfast and came back with three boxes of cakes from a French pastry shop, and we ate strawberry cream puffs naked in bed with our bare hands.
He didn’t remember our walks down Brick Lane in our Sunday clothes or our dances in a field with our friends. He didn’t remember the joy. And if he couldn’t remember the joy, it might as well never have happened.
To break up with someone is to lose the imagined future that you would create together, but you would still share the landscape of your collective past. If Sam couldn’t remember it, I would be alone in this landscape.
I left this first visit trembling.
Her doctor said we had a window of opportunity to restore her memories and the more we could help her remember now, the less permanent damage could be. I visited most of the weeks. His closest friends too.
As Sam struggled for his recovery, I came up with slideshows. Sam in the Paris Catacombs on our first trip together. Sam with the 18th century cavalry sword I gave him for his 21st birthday. I showed him pictures of our mutual friends. Sam cried with joy, as if a switch in her brain had flipped and let in the light.
I soon realized that while he didn’t remember our time together, he also didn’t remember that we had broken up. For Sam, I was still his girlfriend. On subsequent visits, I continued to intend to tell him the truth and I did not. His short-term memory remained spotty, which I used as an excuse. And I enjoyed our hours together, happily sharing memories that after our breakup had been so painful.
I also tried to be careful. I didn’t want my recounting of our story to influence her own nascent memories. Part of the fun – and the conflict – in collective reminiscence are the inevitable gaps. I dreamed of these differences. I wanted a tale of our history to exist apart from mine, but there was little I could do to prevent my tale of our past from polluting hers.
As an undergraduate student, Sam studied neuroscience. In his mind, he would find what was happening to him fascinating. Her brain was busy rebuilding its neural networks, triggering those patterns of synaptic activity that make up memory and, in doing so, slowly reestablishing her sense of self. Our memories make us who we are. They are the connective tissue not only between our past and present selves, but between us and the people we love.
About a month after his recovery, Sam said he wanted to talk. He had asked a friend why I didn’t visit him more often, and this friend had said that we weren’t together anymore.
Sam asked me what had happened.
– You’re not in love with me anymore, I say.
I did not know. It was at this point in our history that his experience moved away from mine. “You were ready to move on,” I said.
“I feel like I have to relive the emotions of the breakup,” he said.
By bike home, I realized that I too. By telling Sam stories about our past, I had created a new story, and it ended with our coming back together. I had let myself dream of this Hollywood ending without wondering if that was what either of us would want.
After five months, Sam was released. He was limping slightly and a metal toolbox in his bones, but he came out on his own with his beautiful brain intact.
We hadn’t talked about our relationship after this conversation, but it had become an important part of my life again. One evening, just a few weeks after her release, I was at a party when a friend said to me, “It must be really hard now that Sam has a new girlfriend. I left in tears.
I texted him to tell him that I didn’t want to see him for a while. I did not give an explanation.
“I understand,” he said.
He had given me a pair of red gloves for my last birthday, a gift I had recognized as a sign of his declining affection. Previous gifts included a hand-sewn cloak and a painting he had spent weeks finishing.
I went to the seaside, filled the red gloves with pebbles and threw them into the sea. It was over.
A few months later, Sam asked me to meet him. At a Soho cafe we had been to before, he said he was sorry and wanted me to know how important I was to him. I asked him if he remembered the coffee. He told me that I had taken him there and that we had ordered five different cakes between us.
I smile, relief overwhelming me. I realized that I hadn’t spent those months visiting him to save our relationship, not really, no matter how romantic that ending had seemed. I wanted to keep her memories of our relationship. Without a partner from the collective past, these memories became less real.
We create ourselves through the first relationships of our life, as Sam said when we broke up. And I wanted to be a part of Sam’s story. I needed to know that he remembered the joy. And he did.