He sat down with no one except the spectre of what used to be. Surrounding him was a record player, the kind of one you find in the shopping sections in the back of Readers Digest magazines, a pair of headphones, an old vinyl of Hotel California and half a bottle of Jack Daniels next to a glass filled with some ice. Some might call it a ritual, but for him this was a retraction, or an expulsion, of what was stuck in his head.
Memories have a strange way of making the past recur in the present when it really shouldn’t belong. Much like listening to a band like the Manic Street Preachers or Smashing Pumpkins now when you used to listen to them in the 90s. Are you listening to them now because you like it, or because you’re living in the memory of when they were at their peak of musical creation? All those bands that you hear a new song from on the radio, or you get on CD as a birthday or christmas present because someone remembered you used to like them and it just seems like the right thing to have; they all get old. They all change. They all remove themselves from what they were because there comes a time when you simply cannot live there anymore.
He poured the first measure of his whiskey. It was a little stingy so he added some more. A bit too much. I can savour this one, he thought. He dropped the needle before quickly realising it needed a bit of a blow, to shake off the dusty collection of fluff. Then he dropped it again and the opening bars of Hotel California rang in his ears like an old friend that had come to stay and chat about old flames, lined up in perfect chronological recollection, like pretty maids all in a row. He ran through them all: the first, the other first, the one that should have been first, the one that came after, the one that stayed, the one that left, the one he left, the one they both walked away from, the one that hurt and the one that stung. Those were the memories that needed to leave.
The problem, his old friend sagely advised, was that there was no new kid in town. There was no way to stop that memory creeping in. The present wonderfully suppresses the past like the bourbon suppresses the clouded thinking for truth. It wasn’t the last resort to invite the friend in but it was needed, that clarity. The memory is like that old band, it hangs around waiting for the appreciation it feels its earned but all it does is outstay its welcome and give you heartburn. Acidic stinging making him drop his shoulders more than he comfortably should be and keeping him rearranging his pillow at night before his body is too worn out or just too drunk to stay awake.
“All of this time with the memory is wasted time,” the friend said. “You’re sitting here for what? A chance? A slice of that past? Well it doesn’t work. You don’t believe in fate, or destiny, or any of that fluffy pop crap. You think you’re sitting here pretending to be a victim of love, but you’re only the victim of your own ego.”
He sat and pondered this as he realised he needed to top up his drink and would need to flip the record over too. Ego, he questioned to himself? How can he have an ego if he wasn’t good enough to stay with, if he wasn’t good enough to move himself along? Surely that isn’t his fault? He’s no rich kid, or devil may care punk living life in the fast lane way beyond his years. He was distrustful of love by now. It kept bringing all these memories and old records and empty bottles of whiskey.
“Why do you distrust love?” the friend asked in the quiet moment where he flipped the record over to side B. “If you distrust something then it needs to be alive, an animal or something. The only animal in love is the one looking at you in the mirror when you stare too long after a shower and think your hair can do whatever you want it to. Love isn’t alive, love is a choice. It didn’t choose you and your ego took the hit.”
The memory rose to the closest point his mind has with his eyelids as he closed them and replayed a self-edited montage of what he wanted to believe. He took a sip from his glass and realised the memory was over very quickly, as quickly as the sip from his glass, but it just repeated and repeated like a CD that was skipping. “You see this?” The friend made him look at the vinyl. “This is pure. This has no cracks or blemishes that weren’t designed to be there. This isn’t skipping over same things over and over again. Take another look.”
He looked and the memory went a bit further. It looked at moments of silence, of being sat next to a phone or having social media show him everything he never wanted to see. “You chose this,” the friend reminded him. “Now you just need to realise that this is a choice, try and love again, and see what else is out there. The bands were great, but now they’re old. Not forgotten but hanging on before people chose to not to remember them anymore.” He poured his last generous glass and swirled around what little was left of the melted ice cubes. They had degraded to such a point that they almost weren’t even there, but the outline was hanging on to remind you they were.
He contemplated the choice as the last song played its way in to his headphones. It is a choice, he said. I choose… He pondered. He took the remaining bits of ice out of the glass and leaned back on the floor, his shoulders straightening and bringing relief like a massage. It felt like he was melting in to the floor enough for it to mould around him and capture him perfectly. He lifted his head up slightly and drank the last of the bourbon as the record spun around to the end and he closed his eyes. The memory was gone. The edited one, the full one, all of it. “See you next time,” the friend said, “but remember you chose to be here. Don’t choose to go somewhere you can never leave.”
He opened his eyes and put his hand in the slightly damp puddle the melted ice had left. He closed the record player and took his headphones off. He put the bottle in the recycling bin and went to his bed. He spun himself over once and flipped his pillow to a colder side. Then it was morning and the radio woke him up with a new song by an old band. He switched it off, got up and left.