Let’s think about our brains – our memory in particular – and envision them as though they were those tall, metal filing cabinets with the label slots in the drawers that nobody ever labels, so when you’re looking for a certain file, you end up having to pull all three drawers all the way out and thumb through each tabbed divider – also unlabeled – and usually the file you need is at the very back. The same file drawers with that little knob attached to the long spoke that runs the length of the drawer, just beneath where the file folders hang.

The process by which we purge our memories functions a lot like the Recycle Bin on a computer desktop. When we delete something to make room for more files, it is never completely erased. Even when you empty the Recycle Bin, it’s still there on the hard drive and, if you wanted it badly enough, able to be retrieved. We might forget about things, but the right trigger brings them back as though they’d never gone.
The trigger could be a person’s name or face [I used to work with a woman named Karla. We don’t work together anymore but I see her around now and then, and she always reminds me of Megan. Megan was one of the ones that got away and did so, quite literally, by moving to New York], a photograph taken in a certain city [pictures of Palm Springs make me think of a Bret Easton Ellis novel or a David Lynch film], the song that was on when you lost your virginity [I lost mine at five in the morning so I was not afforded the luxury of music], or a film starring Harrison Ford [the first one I saw was Temple of Doom and, as I child, I could never decide if I was afraid of or amused by the “Kali Ma” guy]. Suddenly, there’s the memory you haven’t recalled in months, years, maybe an entire decade, and you can’t believe you let it go. At the time you deleted it, it made sense, because you needed room for new, more important memories. But now you wish it had been with you all along and you vow never again to let go of it. If somebody is around who was there when the memory was originally created, you might mention it to them: You know who I thought about the other day? Do you remember Betty? I can’t believe I was ever attracted to someone who didn’t think Uncle Buck was funny. I actually had to turn it off after fifteen minutes because I was uncomfortable being the only one laughing.
So let’s imagine two file cabinets. One is material: you can see it and touch it, open its drawers and access all of its files. But it is finite. This is our short-term memory cabinet, and there are only so many files it can hold. You could cram more in there, but then they would bunch up and overflow and nobody wants that sort of mess in their brain. Beside this first file cabinet, there is a second, which is immaterial. You can’t see it but it’s not as though it were simply invisible; you forget it is there. This long-term, suppressed file cabinet has unlimited space. In fact, a person might fit a whole lifetime of files there. Its drawers – and the spokes that line them – could span for miles, depending on how exciting and noteworthy your life ends up being. It’s when one of these triggers is pulled that it becomes visible, but because it exists in the subconscious mind, it doesn’t look like the one that is always present, the cabinet you’ve become familiar with. It’s like seeing God: you are not able to look straight at it or you’ll go blind, in the metaphysical sense. A blindness of the soul.
The other stipulation is that when the long-term cabinet comes into view, one may not peruse at will. No, the trigger allows only for access to that specific memory that resurfaced as a reaction to the trigger. While the cabinet is accessible, you can remove the file for that particular memory and once you have, the cabinet becomes nonexistent once more.
The file you pull, depending on how much nostalgic value it is endowed with, may be one that you decide to keep in the short-term cabinet for a while. Or until you wear it out again or need room for still another memory. One can never say.
This leads to memory by association. Some files are more thoroughly detailed than others and within that individual file, you might have tabbed references to other related files, or post-it notes suggesting you see another file for relevant information. This is one distinct exception to the rule about having access to only one file at a time: what happens is that a specific long-term memory might, itself, be a trigger for still another or possibly a handful of long-term, deleted memories. If this is the case, all files involved with the chain of memory are placed in your arms in one stack, causing you to appear like an intern at an office job: say, Amelie Nothomb’s autobiographical narrator in Fear and Trembling.
Which brings us to the idea that started me thinking about all of this: If a particular file has already been placed at the front of your queue, no matter its size, we can assume it is the easiest one to access, or at least easier than it had previously been – which is worth taking note of, because it does not take long for files to begin moving, once more, further back in line as new memories are created moment by moment. In either case, if a file is made more accessible based on its relative location, we are more likely to reference files that correspond to it, within a given time frame. As an example to illustrate this point: an ex and I were discussing a friend of hers named Susan. On one occasion, we attended a screening of an eighties, kids’ movie from Canada, The Peanut Butter Solution, with Susan and her boyfriend. This movie was so bizarre that I don’t believe I can do it justice. To make it brief: a young boy sneaks into a haunted house and the ghosts give him such a scare that all of his hair falls out, which leads to teasing from the other kids at school. Later, the ghosts feel bad about what they have done and show up at the boy’s house in the middle of the night to make reparations through the concoction of a hair-growing solution made from peanut butter and other things. The boy puts it on his head and in the morning his hair has grown several inches. By the end of the day it is growing over his face and past his feet. When the creepy art teacher from school [a caricature of Salvador Dali if he showered less often] notices this, he kidnaps the boy and uses his hair to make paintbrushes. Actually, he kidnaps several children from the town and has this sweatshop kind of thing going where the kids make the paintbrushes out of the boy’s hair for him. I think at this point there’s still another half hour left in the movie. You really need to see it.
So my ex and I were at our apartment, talking about Susan, and The Peanut Butter Solution was not mentioned because it did not hold relevance in the conversation. Later that evening, my ex made a joke about something I said, and mentioned the title of the film within her joke. Nowhere in this second conversation was Susan brought up or alluded to. The file for The Peanut Butter Solution was attached to the file for Susan, so that earlier, when we had accessed our Susan file, The Peanut Butter Solution was also brought to the front of our memory. Had the second of the two conversations occurred in exactly the same way, but a few nights later instead of the same night as the first, my ex would have been less likely to mention The Peanut Butter Solution, because both the file about Susan and, consequently, the file about the film, would have already slipped that much further back.
If you pay attention to this in your everyday life, you’ll notice it happening even more than you’d suspect. In one of my discussion groups, I used the word amorphous, which is not a word I often use, but it was the appropriate word for the moment. A few minutes later, in the same conversation, another guy used the word amorphous to describe something else.
The fact that some memories are hidden and not retrievable at will, but occur instead by chance, makes life and its conversations both that much more interesting. Perhaps if we were able to control it, we would abuse nostalgia and it would be less of a pleasurable experience. What makes nostalgia so whimsical, like a drug with no drawbacks, is that it comes to you.
And this brings me to one last thought about memories. About nostalgia. One of the things that makes life such a surreal, punch-drunk adventure. Think back to a time when you were dating somebody new, preferably someone who still lived with their parents, parents who you had yet to meet, faceless parents, unaware of your presence in their house because when she opens the back door, she tells you, “Just try to be quiet, my mom is already asleep.” There’s this hysterical roaring in your stomach like the opposite of what you feel when you’re caught in a lie: this place is so foreign, yet so familiar in a way that none of your finger can pin down. Your brain and your guts are flooded by dozens of chemical reactions occurring, all at once. Your grandfather would call it piss and vinegar. At that moment, their house is like no other house that has ever been built on any street in the world. Every detail, each object is immeasurably interesting. Who is this person? How did I end up in their house? This isn’t my life; it’s the movie version.

Later, you meet her parents during the day and they think this is your first time in their house and soon enough you’re there daily, or at least on the days when she’s not at your place, and the namelessness is lost. Sneaking in at night is undone by achieving a first name basis with her mom. Nothing can recreate taking in as much as your eyes could devour that first time she hurriedly, but silently, dragged you from the back door into her bedroom and palmed her door closed while holding the cylinder in by the doorknob. But like I said: nostalgia only retains that quality it has because the moments it recalls are blissfully finite, like sprinkler rainbows or sunspots in camera lenses.