There are experiences in my life that act like time machines. Specific combinations of color, sound, odor, all churning together into a cyclone of sensation that I breathe in without realizing, like an unwitting sorcerer’s apprentice being experimented on by her master. A cloud of luminous gas resurrecting a previous time. Memory experienced as magic.
For example, while hurrying down a busy sidewalk, I spot a Coca-Cola vending machine, its side emblazoned with a model’s perfected face and upper body, her dimensions altered by the size of the machine into something an order of magnitude larger than life. Instantly, I am plunged back into the meaty middle of a sweltering Mediterranean summer, the crotch of my bathing suit riding up in the back, pellets of sand packed into the slimy layer between my skin and the black Spandex. I’m waiting outside, leaning against the brick wall beside the vending machine, sandaled feet toeing the dirt in the partial shade cast by a bar awning. My mouth is painfully dry. Every thought moves lethargically, like a stunned frog crawling through mulch towards the hazy promise of water. I pass the time by examining the model on the vending machine: her eternal smile, her slicked-back hair. The heat presses down like a huge wet hand curling into a fist around me. I am trapped on a family vacation to the beach, fantasizing about running away, feeling my emotions consuming me, like quicksand, but also growing more and more distant, becoming unrecoverable, irretrievable, jackknifing away when I try to hold on.
It lasts less than a second, but my experience of this memory is vivid, precise, and all-encompassing, grabbing my mind like a glove snatching a ball out of the sky. Inside the dark-eyed capsule of time, I remember what it felt to be living as this girl, in that body, in that mind. It was always dusk in my heart, then. Every part of me was exhausted by the fighting. I could summon neither the crystalline energy of day nor the meditative totality of night. I was a blurry, hazy point in between. I was anxious, ashamed, and impossible to love. I feared going home at the end of the day. I feared entering that starless, moonless vacuum, where nothing good could ever grow, where I—
The model on the vending machine smiles soothingly. The glass bottle of Coca-Cola sweats in her hand.
I blink and everywhere, everything has changed. I am back on the sidewalk, twenty-eight and carrying a canvas bag full of heavy plastic folders, already late for an errand. Cars roar past. I’ve walked past the vending machine and the memory has metabolized itself into a tide, then a froth, of feeling that bubbles around me before subsiding, leaving me untouched though not unharmed.
When I look at my writing from those times, I do have a sense that the girl on the beach didn’t get the chance to grow up and just died an invisible, undignified death. She was a comet crushed by orbiting bodies into shards of pus and plasma. She never knew real life or real release. In her place, I emerged, an adult with a mishappen soul, and I carry her decaying flesh inside me like a second skin. To travel back to her via memory feels as profane as reanimating a corpse. Every vein in my body twists into knots. Is this all I will be able to—
In Tokyo, looking up from where I lazily slide onions around a pan, I see a scrap of the city nightscape in the window: its dark and moody clouds, its red blinking lights. Tall buildings stare back at me. The dimensions of the window alter the dimensions of the city into something an order of magnitude smaller than life. I am transported again, but now I don’t know exactly where I have been taken. My hands are still my hands. My eyes are still my own. I am not remembering the past but the present. I am thinking about what it will be like to remember this moment, these moments, which stretch out in front of me like beads on a rosary. I am imagining myself opening the front door, coming up the stairs, and standing in front of myself in the living room. She doesn’t take my hand. She doesn’t speak gently. I watch her face change as she struggles to find the right words.