The other day, I deleted all my WhatsApp conversations. I even left inactive group chats, and risked whatever judgment people would lay upon me as they’d find that: “Mirha left.” My craving for a clean slate trumped my desire for social acceptance, and yet, I still squinted each time I tapped clear chat, and felt the sting of future regret reach into my second chakra.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve indulged in emotional and material cleanups. I don’t own a single love letter anymore, and that’s despite having listened to the song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” in my adolescence on repeat.
The text, written by Mary Schmich, is a mockup commencement speech on living a life without regrets. Among Mary’s main tip to “Wear sunscreen,” and advice like “Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts … Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours,” and “Get to know your parents, you never know when they’ll be gone for good,” there’s the line: “Keep your old love letters, throw away your old bank statements.” I kept the latter.
The last batch of ex-boyfriend memorabilia, I turned into an art project. At first, I planned to photograph every card, letter, and gift I had once received, and exhibit all of it online. I meant to explore the emotions and implications an act like that would bring up–or at least, that was my artistic justification. I might’ve just wanted revenge. In the end, I threw the evidence of our relationship into a trash container and made a photo series of that. I titled the project Memory Bytes.
While working on Memory Bytes, and writing the post that would accompany the photos, I wondered who the material evidence of a relationship or friendship belongs to once they end. When I looked at my ex-boyfriend’s letters, it was as if I was looking at a cargo of stolen confessions. I was in possession of his most intimate thoughts, and yet, now that we were half-strangers again, I didn’t think his vulnerabilities were mine to hold on to. And neither, I resolved, were some of the conversations I deleted recently.
In the past year, I entertained two friendships that I knew were bound to fail from the start. The other parties insisted on getting to know me and wanting themselves to be known to me at a relentless pace. Yet friendships, like bonfires, I’ve come to learn, are best build slowly. When we share our uncensored troubles and life stories too soon, with people who are still strangers and not yet friends, it’s like we set a couch on fire, and call it a bonfire.
In both cases, I tried taking a step back to allow some of the flames to subdue, and in both cases, I watched as the others threw a wooden chest on top of the sofa, signaling the end of us. With nothing left to confess, and our fire burned out, through the smoke, I’ll emerge as a reflection of their naked self, and worse yet, a living mirror image, capable of judging them. At this point, or so I’ve explained it to myself, they can’t bear to be in my presence any longer, and in an attempt to get rid of the evidence, their now exposed vulnerabilities, they get rid of me.
I’ll be left sitting in the ashes, heavier than before, burdened by all I know. I’ll feel used and angry, and part of me will want to unburden myself from their “i-never-told-this-to-anyone’s.” Being a writer, in a reasonable case scenario, I’ll change their names, and turn their stories into profound teachings. But in the gone-psycho case, I’ll publish their confessions as is. Luckily for all of us, I’m not my thoughts. Although I did once blackmail my mother and told her that the next time she’d lament about how I’m the cause of her existential suffering, I’d hack into her Facebook, and post screenshots of her texts.
My fantasies about revenge, however, always dissipate with time, and in their place, a relative degree of compassion emerges, which I’ll let build up until it’s absolute. With my wounds healing, and my rage out of the way, I resolve that my strangers must cringe at the thought of everything they shared with me, and as to absolve their unspoken worries, I’ll get rid of the secrets that weren’t mine to keep in the first place.
When I was younger, and not even that much younger, I’d perform this sort of clemency for myself, and the evidence that I’d be getting rid of would be mine. I would read messages that I had crafted to lovers, sometimes drunk, other times being my sober dramatic self, and my stomach would flip at the thought of having put my vulnerabilities in the hands of strangers, and all I could do to stop shaming myself was to trash the proof.
Even when I was a child, I’d hold regular cleanups and throw away anything I no longer wished to keep. Besides my love letters, the trash chute of my teenage years has also seen my grade books, my photos, Backstreet Boys sticker albums, and my collection of Flippos. I reasoned that I didn’t need my shortcomings in the form of grades and teachers’ feedback in print, that I didn’t look anything like me in these images, that Flippos were over, and I listened to rock now. And all this stuff was holding me back from the person I was becoming, while instead, what I needed, was space for my new self.
For a long time, I didn’t regret throwing away anything until recently. A past sting of future regret caught up with me, and I came to wish I had kept the Flippos, of all things.
Flippos were these round, plastic disks (also called milk caps), which one used to get in bags of Smiths chips. My friends and I collected them and played games with them on our lunch breaks. We’d challenge each other to see who could throw a Flippo the furthest, betting on the ones we still missed and winning or losing piles in the game. I remember how smooth they felt. And I remember my favorites: Sylvester holding Tweety in the palm of his hand and the Wild Coyote playing the electric guitar.
From here, my regret spiraled. I wondered if erasing my past so thoroughly contributed to my sense of feeling lost at times. I worried that covering up my tracks as I grew up could be why I don’t have many childhood memories. And when I looked around in the house, I found very little of me, and although this was part of the design, I now questioned the blueprint I had used. I was prepared to leave this world at any time, leaving as little evidence of my existence as possible. But was I not worth remembering? And what about my past?
I came to wish I could flip through the photos of my teenage years, and meet the person I was. To look my self in the eyes, and say, jeez child, you look fabulous, and not as fat as you imagine. I thought my grade books could help me discover the passion I had a hard time to find. I wanted to kick back on the couch, sticker books on my lap, and play some terrible ‘ol Backstreet Boys songs. And I wondered, wouldn’t my naive claims of love just make me smile? And what would I find that I lost in my quest to polish myself off?
Then, with no specific outcome in mind, I searched the net for Flippos, and to my surprise, I found all of them cataloged on a site. I scrolled up and down the page, zooming in and out, creating space for my memories and associations to arise. Tweety and the Wild Coyote looked just like I remembered. And so did Ping, the friend I used to play Flippos with and raced to do math homework. Ping had been my best friend, and though I hadn’t known it back then, I saw it now–and suddenly, nothing felt lost.
Curious about what else I could pull back from my past, I held my elementary grade books in my third eye, and without much effort, the film started rolling. At the end of each semester, when everyone was supposed to include a drawing in their grade books, I instead, submitted essays about my teachers, funny pieces in which I highlighted their flaws. In other scenes, many of them, I copied text just so that I could see my hand write, enchanted by the strokes that flow from the tip of a pen, amazed at these movements that produced words. I saw myself wishing to be a journalist, to write columns, and to own a magazine, and I saw the moments when I decided I could not. And in that same space of observation, I found the permission slip that I never meant to throw away.
From this moment on, a curious thing started happening: my past began looking for me. It uses my senses to find me and always arrives unexpectedly. Once it came in an oyster topped with pop rocks, and most recently, it rushed into me on the bike, disguised as the scent of sunscreen whisked into hot air. Since, I let my past envelop me, and follow it eagerly, chasing the clues back to the I’s, I once was. And what I discovered in the chase, is that nothing worth remembering is ever lost.