If there’s one thing we have in common, it’s that at some point, we were all just a moment younger than we are now, and a year younger, and a decade younger (depending on how old you are), and so on. Memories may fade as distance grows wider between ourselves and our young selves, but one thing remains constant: if we dig down deep into the recesses of our experiences, hold light up to the seeds of our current moment, brush off the dust, we might find something worth writing about. What follows is the result of that process.
To telescope, we start with a hunking 300 words and then slice it in half through each successive section. We stop when the numbers stop dividing evenly.
My dad tells the story of my triumphant growth out of night diapers at parties or with friends, just to break the ice a little bit. It goes like this: one day, I declared: “I’m done.” “Done with what?” “Done with pull-ups. I will never wear them again.” He claims he conceded in an experimentation of parenthood, perhaps anticipating the opportunity to barter a timeless cocktail party story for an extra load of laundry that night. He loaded my bed with a rubber sheet and I skipped the evening ritual of slipping on a diaper—a ritual so precisely and routinely practiced, I’d learned to do it myself—and got into bed.
Maybe he’s told the story so many times that the memory has formed itself through suggestion. I remember waking up, looking outside a sliding glass door into a sky more deep-blue than black, night sky splattered with sprays of stars, moonlight strong enough to light up the deck just outside my room. My pants were wet. I threw them off on the floor and cried until my dad came rushing in. The next night, he asked if I wanted to try again. I had to think about it, but tried another night and woke up in the middle of the night with a full bladder, rushing to the bathroom to relieve it.
I think my dad tells the story so often because of there’s something entertaining about the uncharacteristic resolve of a three-year-old child willing himself into bladder control. I try to excavate these stories, verify them against my own memories. But childhood memories are fickle if not fiction. Even revisiting this memory now, I notice I see it in a house I didn’t live in until I was ten, in a room that wasn’t mine, but my younger sister’s. A lot of my childhood memories are like this: unreliable, spliced conveniently, details shuffled around. Each time they’re revisited, they get corrupted by just the smallest detail, indistinguishable in the moment, but puzzling outward year after year, taking place in an entirely new house after twenty or so years of minor changes.
In pre-K, I fell hard for a girl whose name I honestly can’t remember. But I can remember her face, her tight curls. I remember the long hours of playtime we were allotted before grade school, the times I’d inch my nap mat closer to hers long after she’d drifted off.
I remember when we were sitting under the giant spider-web play structure, and I told her I liked her—I mean, like-liked her—and she stuck her tongue out and screamed “Ew!” and ran to the other side of the tan bark ocean, kept her distance for the rest of the day. After that moment, she sort of faded from memories of preschool, almost like she disappeared right in that moment. I’m sure she was there, I’m sure we still chatted all the time, but somehow, she sits on the fringe, salient in some moments, absent from others; quietly cut and paste around the primordial memories, just without the paste.
When asked to write a poem about my childhood in a poetry class I took last Spring, I wrote about the first memory that came to mind. My professor read my poem to the class, flung the sheet to the side, and uttered one word before ending the workshop: “Humiliation.” After class, I read over the poem, which detailed an episode in which I projectile vomited in front of my entire Kindergarten class, searched through all my childhood episodes that I could remember in search of just one memory that didn’t sting. Took longer than I’d have liked.
I sometimes ask people if they remember childhood fondly. The jury’s still out; I can’t really find a consensus. I would conjecture that I had a good childhood, but I need to look harder for the positive traces, the memories that are just good.
My bubble gum pink murmurs made her grimace and my sandy shoes lay where they did because she asked me not to put them there. In daylight we had bickered and thrown fits, little jealousies flaring into small fires that we had smothered with sunscreen. In the daylight we were giddy with spring break and being away alone, with just a deaf grandmother between us and the pools at hotels where our friends stayed. When I heard her roll over, I wondered aloud if she was still up.
The shades clacked against the open window, the bed creaked, rearranging itself, the toilet that only flushed sometimes ran in the bathroom where the marble floor and the garbage that hadn’t been emptied glistened in their dampness from the light of my hair iron.
Moments aren’t still in moonlight. They expand and contract like lungs. She answered me that the bed had bones. The bed had bones; it had little spines that fit like ribs along mine and dug into my chest when I tried to sleep. As soon as she said it I knew it was true. I ran my hands up and down its spine. The thin, old sheets were coarse under my fingers. She got up to take a sleeping pill, her white t-shirt flapping in the breeze and the light from outside. Her bare legs shown like they were underwater as she flipped crossed the room. She dug in her backpack and found a packet of Benadryl.
I said no. She drank from the bottle of water on the desk and then crawled back into the pullout bed.
“There’s no better way to fall asleep.”
She lay, eyes open, watching the slats of the window shade come together and separate into stripes of moonlight down the wall.
I was already not proud of the messes we’d left in the boys’ room that day at the hotel by the beach, not proud of having tried blowing smoke rings from e-cigs, berry flavored vapor that we were allowed because girls weren’t allowed to join them on their porches while they got so high they couldn’t see, shouldn’t break hotel glasses or forget the packet of plastic cheese in the microwave macaroni and start a fire. I was not proud of leaving her on the floor of a bathroom for five hours with a bottle of water and a “call me if you need anything,” or of the quiet room I had slipped into and out of, or the sordid deeds committed with its sordid inhabitant, or of sneaking back in at three because grandma was deaf and we were young and we didn’t care and neither did anyone else.
Grandma two rooms away in the little apartment wouldn’t have heard anything. She rented it winter months and the family portraits that hung on the walls were not of me or my cousins, though now we laughed at the heavy-lidded faces of someone’s grandsons because they were so familiar.
Grandma offered us grapes and crackers whenever we came in from wherever we had been, and we usually had some to be polite even though we were full of Dunkin Donuts and boxed wine and microwave macaroni.
The light from the window kept falling on her face and soon she was asleep, her bones and all the other bones underneath us made me scared to join her.
When I was in fifth grade, my school had an encampment overnight in the field behind the school, where everyone pretended that they were soldiers in the Revolutionary War. They did the encampment every year, and it was a whole production. I had to wear a blue shirt and khaki pants, and I stitched a cap and rucksack in Social Studies for the occasion. The teachers gave us all some fake shillings to spend on food or games, and we chopped wood and learned how to melt metal into bullets. It felt a little weird for us ten-year-olds to be acting like real colonial men. If we were actually living during the time of the Revolutionary War, we wouldn’t be soldiers. We’d probably be dead by ten. The infant mortality rate was pretty high, and then there were all those diseases that could get you.
After it got dark and we went back to our tents, none of us could fall asleep. The other girls and I started thinking about what would happen if we were really fighting in the war, crossing the Delaware or riding a horse on the battlefield or carrying a musket, marching to our deaths. It honestly didn’t sound great. We figured that the best case scenario would be for all of us to die at the same time, hopefully very quickly.
We went back to normal classes the next day, and by then I was glad to learn about moon phases and fractions. I didn’t want to pretend to to be some old soldier. I liked roasting marshmallows and playing games at the encampment, but I didn’t want to have to wear weird-looking clothes, or work, or die for my country. I realized then that it seemed like a lot more fun to try to stay young.
I hate being called “ma’am.” I know that the people in stores who call me that are just trying to be nice, but it makes me feel like jumped straight from high school to old age. The weird thing is that I kind of miss how things used to be, when I’d get a suspicious look from that one Rite Aid cashier. In middle school, that cashier, with her long black hair and red talon fingernails, absolutely despised all of us—probably because one of my friends tried to steal eye shadow. The cashier still looks the same, and she’s still there. When I go back to that Rite Aid now, sometimes I wish she’d look at me like I’m some punk kid who’s going to steal something or do something stupid. I know I’m not going to, but I just want her, even for a second, to believe that I could.
One of my most listened-to Spotify playlists is titled, embarrassingly enough, “My Tortured Teenage Soul.” I made it as a sort-of joke at the start of sophomore year, when I was about to turn twenty and felt compelled to commemorate my last days of real teen angst. It’s populated with songs from my middle school days, with plenty of my holy trinity of emo (Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, and Panic! at the Disco). When I listen to this playlist, sometimes I tell myself that I’m doing it ironically, or that I’m only here for the nostalgia, trying to travel back in time. But maybe I just really like the music.
A few months ago, I got my ears pierced at a Claire’s. I knew better than to trust an unsanitized piercing gun, but somehow it felt right—my ears getting infected could be exactly what I needed to reclaim my youth.
My first memory: looking up into Mia’s face, my chubby hand reaching to pat her cheeks. I think I drool onto her chest. I scrunch up my face to focus on the words she is cooing at me, and then my attention is divert- ed to the red of the couch and the light yellow of the wall. This is my first memory, true or not; it is a scene of little me held in the arms of someone who loved me. First memory, true or not.
There’s this other memory I have, true or not, of me and my best friend Jane. At her fifth birthday party, we potted daisies in her front yard. A gardening party for six, plus moms, plus cameras, plus yellow dresses (and aprons) to match our flow- ers. In the shade of the trees we created life – transferred life – adjusted life to fit into brown pots that had our names paint- ed on them. Jane and I, me and Jane, mostly true (or not).
Jane went to a different kin- dergarten but Isabella and I, two thirds of the trio, we stayed strong. On Tuesday afternoons the after-school walkers would lead us to the edge of the car- pool lot. Then we would traipse – trot – run – walk down the path, through the trees, to the little
n e i g h – borhood of ranch houes and split-levels. Isabella’s front yard had a mag- nolia tree. Its trunk was hardy and wide, its limbs long and twisted and curved; both low to the ground and high. We would climb this great big magnolia tree and hide ourselves behind its white blossoms, stroking the waxy leaves and breathing in
their scent. —
Mia Jane Isabella. Red yellow white. Touch sight smell. Drops in the bucket of naiveté and childhood and peace unrecog- nizable to me today.
I turned eighteen years old this past July, and I cried the day before it. I was watching Mamma Mia alone and when “Dancing Queen” came on, I realized that in a matter of hours it wouldn’t apply to me. Young and sweet, maybe, but seventeen I would not be. So I scrambled and found every song that mentioned sev- enteen and I wallowed.
“Furr,” Blitzen Trapper.
“Edge of Seventeen,” Stevie Nicks.
“17,” Youth Lagoon.
On the eve of eighteen, these songs were part of the soundtrack to my misery, the soundtrack to my stepping over
an invisible threshold. I was passing a milestone that I was not ready for.
And I would be going to col- lege, too, in over a month. I would completely lose the sheen of newness and excitement that had been a staple of younger years.
Dramatic, maybe, but it seemed my youth had vanished, evaporated in the summer night’s humidity.
I don’t know why, but sometimes I trick myself into feeling old, into being more jad- ed than I really am. I wake up with a deep sigh, lumber down pathways. I heft my backpack onto my shoulders as if I am Atlas when really it could be:
I wake up! I run down path- ways! I throw my backpack onto my shoulders, looking ahead.
My steps are heavy when they could be light soft delicate.
IV. So I am scared of aging and nostalgic for youth and it feels like I am far beyond childhood.
Is this youth, this rut I am in now? Or adolescence, maybe, or burgeoning adulthood, possibly.
Mia Jane Isabella. Drops in the bucket of naiveté and child- hood and peace unrecognizable to me today.
“It’s just a gun,” I say as my mother turns off the Xbox and ejects the tape. “I’ve told you more than once you’re not to bring violent games into this house,” she says. “How many times do I have to tell you before you listen?”
Mom doesn’t ask where I got it. She doesn’t care. Instead she snaps the disc in half and tosses it into the trashcan haphazardly. I scream in protest, but she doesn’t turn back as she leaves the room.
I throw the controller out of my hands, not regretting the smashing noise it makes as it dents the basement wall. Anger begins to consume me, and I barely think before kicking over the coffee table beside me. Instinctively, I pick it right back up, and can’t help feeling a faint delight as I notice that I’ve chipped the corner. Mom destroyed what wasn’t hers without care, it’s only fair that I pay back the favor.
It doesn’t matter that Mom is the one who broke it, I’ll be the one who has to go to the video-game store to pick a new one up for Nathan. It was stupid to think I could borrow it without consequence. The money will come out of my allowance, setting me back from purchasing something more interesting. Unless…
Dad is sitting on the couch in the den still wearing his suit. His eyes are glued to the work on his computer when I walk in.
“Hey Dad, Nathan’s game,” I hesitate. “Well see it’s a long story, but that’s really not important. Could you just lend me some money so I could buy him a new one?”
Dad slides the glasses down his nose and holds the edge in his mouth. He raises his eyebrows, but no words come out of his lips. “Have you learned your lesson?” he asks. I nod my head, so hard and so quick, that I begin to get a headache.
“Well alright then,” he says taking out his wallet. “Just don’t make the mistake again.” I run out to the store without looking back.
I didn’t expect to get so wet, but I guess that’s what happens when you get shot with a super-soaker. Nathan and I each bought our own guns at the corner drugstore, and nearly died of heat running back home. We threw down our backpacks and filled up the guns as fast as we could.
Nathan is faster than I am, but lucky for me, he runs out of ammo. I turn toward the driveway as I hear a noise, forgetting that my hand is still on the trigger. One squirt, and Mom is soaked.
“Boys! What on earth are you doing?” She shouts.
“We were just trying to cool off. A kid at school told us about these really cool water-guns he got at the store, and we just had to test them out,” I said.
Mom marches over to us and seizes the gun from my hands. “NO Guns,” she says through grit teeth.
“Sorry dude,” Nathan says. “Next time, we’ll play at my place.”
But I don’t care. I decide that the next time I have a gun, it will be out of her control.
On Tuesday during recess, Nathan tells me that I have to come over after school because he has some big surprise. We take the bus back to his house together. When we get there, he calls out to confirm that no one in his family is home yet.
“It’s right back here,” he says. “I saw Uncle Lenny hide it last night.”
I watch as Nathan reaches into a box at the back of his Dad’s closet. “Uncle Lenny always uses his same stupid birthday code,” he says. Nathan quickly punches in the digits and rests the gun on his palm. “Want to touch it?”
My hand reaches out instinctively. I’m excited to take control of my game.
Nathan and I go into the back and take turns holding the gun as we imitate the “pew, pew” noises from the game we know all too well. The thing is heavier than I expect it to be, and I fidget the position of my hand to try to get a better grip. A familiar voice interrupts.
“WHAT IS THAT?” Mom shrieks as she comes to pick me up. Trying to protect it, I pull the thing closer. But I pull too tight. I fall back as I hear an unfamiliar “pop” and an even louder thud. The last thing I remember before passing out is Nathan’s scream.
It was only supposed to be a game. My eyes are heavy as I sit on the church pew. The room is filled with family and friends and kids from my school. I should have listened, but I refused. “It’s not just a gun,” I say to myself. I breathe in deep, knowing that the realization is too late.