Almost No Memory (On Solitude and Happiness)

Matt McCune moves to Seattle, where he knows nobody.

Photo courtesy of Rawhead Rex

At the end of last summer, I moved from Las Vegas to Seattle for a job.

I took the position even though I knew maybe a person and a half in the area, if I counted acquaintances as fractions of people, mere possibilities of fuller personhood. The guy I’d taken a fiction workshop with in college was an eighth of a person, odds seven-to-one against befriendment. The friend of a friend who had a kid was a sixteenth of a person at best, odds fifteen-to-one against the same. Despite this, I moved. I put myself up in a Travelodge in a part of town that used to be known for the local concentration of child prostitutes and successfully evaded questions from my new coworkers about the nature of my transitional accommodations. My first weekend in the city, I found an apartment in a 36-hour frenzy of calls to landlords and unit visits and credit checks and applications and deposits. I bought a coffee maker at Target and studied the bus system timetables while drinking hot coffee from a Solo cup.

These things — my still-empty apartment, the sour smell of the vinegar I flushed through the coffee maker to clean it, the disconcerting rattle of my kitchen’s exhaust fan, a fleeting yellow glimpse of a bus accelerating down the arterial road I live on — are the last things I remember. Or, if they aren’t, the things I can remember are unusual things, ones that took me somehow out of my Seattle present and into a past populated by family members and old friends. I flew back to Las Vegas in November to see my pals there and catch a UNLV men’s basketball game. I spent Thanksgiving with my family in Portland. I hosted guests in January and February. But if someone were to ask me what happened in the long stretches between those events, I wouldn’t be able to say anything at all. 

I wouldn’t be able to say, That was the night my car window was smashed and some neighborhood racists crossed the street and blamed a black man who did not exist, saying, You can’t see’m cause he’s standing in the shade. I wouldn’t be able to say, That was the day we went to the bar at ten-thirty in the morning to play pool and convinced the bartender to drag the pool league trophies out of the bar back to let us pose for pictures with them. I wouldn’t be able to say, That was the afternoon we went for a hike and a barbecue, when the wind was so strong our charcoal briquets consumed themselves in a fit of heat before we could cook even half the food we had brought with us. These are things I could say about my time in Las Vegas, whose weeks and months were populated by this species of occurrence, essentially trivial but memorable nonetheless, because my friends and I repeated and rehearsed the stories that grew out of these days again and again in bars and at house parties and on car trips across town to the movies or the mall.

In Seattle, my lack of everyday easygoing social contact meant that I couldn’t remember the things that happened to me in the way I could before. Was there a man on my bus, screaming to his girlfriend, “Why the fuck are you leaving me, I’m the only one to ever lick your goddamned pussy?” Did I back into another person’s car when trying to teach myself how to parallel park? How, exactly, did I strain a calf muscle sometime at the end of December, a strain that left me limping well into the New Year? Pulling these memories (or unmemories) back across the threshold of oblivion requires tremendous effort, and even now, they quiver uncertainly when I try to explain them, suggesting that really I just made them up. Because I can’t tell stories like these to friends on walks or while watching television or while cooking dinner, I’ve had to find other ways to pass the time, and I have found other ways. I read more than I ever did when I was in school, finding now that when I sit down to read I’m able to pay the sort of sustained attention that had, before, too often eluded me. I watch movies and TV series on the internet. I write letters to friends about the things I’ve read and watched.

My ability to recollect these things, however, exists outside of time and circumstance. I have no doubt that I will remember my first pass through In Search of Lost Time with some pleasure, but I will not have memories of it in the way that Marcel Proust has memories, connected to people or places, to aunts or rivers. In place of that certain view through the garden gate, that certain scent of lilacs, my memories of the book will exist suspended in generality. There I was, reading in bed, on night after night after night, and who will know whether that was the night I popped some popcorn or that was the night I made the mistake of drinking a Diet Pepsi too close to ten o’clock and couldn’t fall asleep until midnight? The metronomic progression of my days has worn my neural pathways smooth, and nothing catches in them now.

Despite this, despite the overwhelming sameness of my weeks and months, I have not been unhappy here. It took me some time to realize this. I supposed that, without many friends, I would be reduced to misery, but somehow I slipped past this misery and into a sort of steady contentment. Riding the bus, sitting in the sauna at my gym, reading Terry Castle write about lesbianism or John Berger write about the almost-incomprehensible immorality of global poverty, watching Inland Empire and Into Great Silence over and over, waiting first for the hellebores to bloom and then for the camellias to bloom — all of this has left me as happy as I’ve ever been. I’m grateful for the job I have, I like my neighborhood, and it’s not too long until major-tournament tennis will interrupt the boredom of baseball and replace college basketball as the sport I spend my spare minutes at work daydreaming about. The weather here has started to break springwards, and in this the Pacific Northwest is beginning to show the insane, seductive promise of its long summers. And I’m able to find a party to go to every couple of weeks, hosted by a coworker or a coworker’s friend or one of my fractional acquaintances, so I’m not always and completely stranded in myself.

If it took me a while to realize that I was happy, it has taken me a while longer to realize why. I am a dour shrug of a person. Listen to me talk about Barack Obama, whose good cheer I resent, or about the fearsome jollity of Dave Eggers, or about the girl from my university program who really never did anything worse than embrace a little multiculturalism and wear some flowy calf-length skirts printed in supposedly-traditional Nepali motifs. You will see that mostly I perceive horror and menace in the things that I notice. If the bright hard edge of my gloom cuts amusingly sometimes, well, that’s fine, but even when I am not funny I still complain. I point out the flaws in the books I read. I correct people’s grammar while they speak. Maybe it’s true that I love the things I like — the open-ocean tanks at expensive aquariums, trolling Craigslist apartment listings for cities I will never live in — but this proposition’s first corollary is that I hate the things I dislike. So, when I sit with friends on empty afternoons and offer my opinions on the week’s news or parse the events of my days, I draw the darkness closer and closer around myself. Only solitude and its enforced detachment from this pattern can afford me a little respite from the effects of my negativity. Only in being deprived of outlets for my spite can I be happy, can I fail to remember the bad things and settle into the good. At the end of the First World War, Kafka left Prague for the open space of the Czech countryside and spent his time composing aphorisms. Dealings with other human beings induce one to self-contemplation, he supposed. If my biliousness is the cause of the dull wash of unease that has crept along behind me for most of my lifetime, it is self-contemplation that I need most to avoid. Perhaps the only way to escape myself is to be alone.

I don’t doubt that I will find a group of friends in this city. It’s beginning to happen already. The inside jokes shared with coworkers, the conversations with fellow tennis fans at acquaintances’ parties, the occasional invitations to go hiking extended by neighbors — these things have begun to accrete, have begun to create for me a more and more solid set of folks with whom I share a little rapport, a little mutual esteem. Soon, then, I will be taken out of the smooth drift of my life, and I will be grateful for it. It’s good to know new people, and it’s good to talk about nothing, to mutter and complain, to be able to remember the little terrors of life. Even so, I don’t doubt that I will miss this season of living in absence, miss being at once part of the world and separated from it, dissolved into it and invisible. Watch a precipitate fall out of chemical solution. Something has appeared, now, but something has disappeared, too.


Photo courtesy of Rawhead Rex

Matt McCune is a fiction writer and essayist who comes from Las Vegas and lives now in Seattle. He’s always playing tons of awesome imaginary gigs with his awesome imaginary band Tremendous Emeralds. His spirit animal is the jellyfish. He blogs at mattmccune.tumblr.com.