Collage by Zoë Keeler 

Zoë Keeler
20 November 2020

How many places were there before this one?

I think about that a lot. How many moments were there that brought me here, to the little room in the little white house 1400 miles from home? Isolation is making time slip and slide in ways I haven’t felt since I was a child. I have dreams where I turn off the heat, where I take out my contacts, brush my teeth, take my meds, wake up, and fall asleep and wake up and fall asleep and I’ve gotten lost in the rhythm of it. I find my doors unlocked and my dishes washed, I find myself in bed at the strangest hours, replaying memories in an attempt to remember that, at one point, my life was more than the walls of my kitchen and the park down the street. 

I’ve never been very good with object permanence. The second anything ceases to exist physically in the world around me, I lose track of it. So living alone, away from everyone I know and almost every place I hold concrete memories in, has been like taking an eraser to nearly twenty years of consciousness. 

I keep trying to remember things before now. I fantasize about the sound of the Free Speech Movement Cafe on a Tuesday. I try to remember how exhausted I got after climbing the three flights of stairs to my friends’ apartments. I try to remember even beyond that, to Halloweekend, to living in a dorm, to the Airbnb my parents stayed in when they moved me out here. I can’t form complete memories in my mind; the details don’t fit together, they just float like unintegrated pieces of an unfinished collage. I see the sky lying next to the Strawberry Canyon pool in September, the Camellia flowers my sister pointed out in February, the Alameda in October light, and College in the rain. Bits and pieces of my past which are bits and pieces of me which I imagine hung up like fragments of shattered glass from a million different bottles. Little pieces of larger moments, hanging in the light, reflecting and refracting light and color like a kaleidoscope, changing based on the angle of the sun. This is how I imagine myself: a bunch of energy waves floating in incandescent space made up of odds and ends. For me, time is not an unsevered string leading from one moment to the next, but a discombobulated mess of senses that never stops shifting, shimmering–– memories that never settle.

Tonight, I am on the phone with the girl I’m seeing. I am recounting the evening I took the N train to Sunset Park, drunk, on my birthday the summer I lived in New York alone. And I can remember specificities: the way the light cut in and out over the East River on the Manhattan bridge, the feeling of bubble gum stuck to my bottom lip because it was dry, the cold metal pole clutched in my left palm while I tried to text my mom back. I have these fragments of the memory, but before they were fragments they were the whole thing. Before I was here, in bed, writing about telling her about this moment, I was within it. I stumbled into a subway car at the Union Square station and I couldn’t tell you now what that moment was in completeness because it no longer exists.

This is why I fail to maintain a sense of object permanence. It’s not just about a toy train being hidden behind a box the way they test object permanence in children. Object permanence exists in all dimensions, which is to say that the Brooklyn-bound subway car is a toy train and the nine months that have passed since that moment are a box. But the difference here is that the moment will never reappear. I will never find myself in exactly the same place because moments in time only exist once. They are unique and particular and irreplaceable. The sun will never be at that exact angle again, illuminating those exact pieces of broken history, and the colors they cast across the room will never dance in that exact way ever again.

Tonight, I am in my room, in my house, in this town, within and within and within a million layers of time and space. I do not move much these days. Just between the floor and the ceiling, the walls and the stove. I am watching my memories cascade like I can almost reach out and touch them, but they are nothing but light and shadow cast across the room. I am talking to a girl about a glass bottle memory of a subway car at sunset, a place when I didn’t know her, a time she was not in. I am thinking about the glass bottle memory, and how inside the glass bottle memory there is another chandelier of shattered glass bottle memories. I am thinking about how I walked the streets of New York trying to sweat the last boy I loved out of my skin, how each moment is a sum of other moments, how I was never simply on the N train or sitting by the East River, I was running barefoot along Baker beach at midnight, sticking my hands out of the sunroof of a gig car across the Golden Gate Bridge, I was hearing his heartbeat and listening to Cocaine Jesus in the backseat of a car speeding through Northside, and in each of those moments I was in sixteen hundred other moments–– in the backseat on the way to Boulder, feeling my feet hit the ground when I fell out of the car on prom night, in the IntaJuice drive-thru deciding where to go to college.

So I am not really in my bed or on my floor because the pressure of my body against the sheets is the result of a multitude of fragments of moments. Small apartments and Etcheverry 111, the softness of her lips, the dead fields of Colorado in March, cold granite of her kitchen countertop, the feeling of my mother’s rough fingertips on my shoulders, the dorm bed I slept in for a year, my best friend in a casket, my best friend in a sundress, snow in July from the top of Saint Mary’s, snow every winter for eighteen years, and all the times I told myself I would not live in San Francisco—

I am not trying to say that you can’t escape your past, or that all the things that have happened to you confine you. I am learning that all of the places before this one are a part of me, and while they may not feel connected, they will always linger like spilled air freshener on old carpet. A body disjointed is still a body. But those pieces, those places, those memories will bounce light differently at different times. In the same way ‘now’ is made up of moments from before, the future will also be made up of ‘now.’ Broken glass cuts when it’s fresh, but if you learn how to handle it correctly, you can build. I’ve been thinking about that a lot.

How many places will there be after this one?