The Pain of Object Permanence

Do you ever get a sudden, sharp sense of…not quite nostalgia, but object permanence run amok?

You’re out for a walk and your shoe comes unstuck. The sole’s hanging off and slapping on the pavement. In your mind’s eye, you see your kitchen back home. You see a tube of Super Glue on the shelf where you left it, in the cupboard above the fruit bowl by the brown envelopes. You recall, with perfect clarity, the moment you left it—the way it stuck to your thumb when you dropped it in its clear plastic tube; the thin band of sunlight angling across your neck. You remember the fruit bowl. It was empty that day…that day, thirty years ago, when you had Super Glue. The temporal gap hits you, and you stand there, annoyed. That Super Glue feels so close, like you had it just this morning. But you left it thirty years ago, four thousand miles away. It’s gone, out of reach.

You see all of this in the blink of an eye. You remember your Super Glue (and your kitchen, and your fruit bowl, and the ghost-smell of apples). You remember your Super Glue and you know it’s gone. But a certain ache lingers, a sense that the past’s right there, close enough to touch. Close enough to get back to, if only….if only.

I had a desk in that same house, and its top drawer contained the following:

* a dissection kit in a blue plastic case;
* a piece of brown suède twisted into a funnel shape, used to blend graphite;
* two rulers, one wood, one plastic;
* a sketchbook full of charcoal drawings;
* a whole lot of pencil shavings;
* a prescription bottle full of paperclips.

In another house, in Cambridge, I painted two heart-shaped lockets into my bedroom wall. I did this so no-one would steal them, but then I forgot them there. They’re probably still there, under so many paint layers they’re just two wee bumps. I picture myself, sometimes, running upstairs to get them—but they’re not upstairs, are they? I don’t have an upstairs. They’re an ocean away, in a house that’s not mine. They’re out of my reach, but right there in my head.

I wonder sometimes, how much of that’s real. Did I really put Super Glue in the cabinet above the fruit bowl? Or is that where I think I might’ve kept glue, with a few added details thrown in out of sentiment? I haven’t bought Super Glue since I lived in that house, so of course I’d remember it as the place with the glue. But the cabinet, the empty bowl, the sun on my neck? Was that ever true, or just wishful thinking?

Maybe the truth is, I don’t care about the glue. Maybe it’s an excuse to recall a moment of peace in a place I was happy. Like, a couple of weeks ago, I thought I’d snack on some rhubarb. I got a piece from the fridge, and the moment I licked it, I remembered a beaker I had when I was a tot. I saw myself grabbing that from its place by the sink, washing it out and filling it with sugar. I hadn’t thought of that beaker since…I’m not sure I had thought of it since I saw it last. Since I was three, if memory serves. But before that, I did use it for dipping rhubarb in sugar. I hadn’t eaten raw rhubarb in nearly forty years, but the moment I did, I remembered my beaker.

I’ve only taken note of this phenomenon over the last few years—not because it’s a new thing, but because it only recently took on a shade of melancholy. The gaps have got longer, the sense of loss greater. Biting into a snap pea at fourteen, I might’ve remembered picking snap peas at four, but I was still looking forward then. Still eager for the future. Now I’ve got old, and it just feels unfair, how the past’s still right there. How it’s there but it’s gone—look, but don’t touch.

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