Dreams are malleable1 — during sleep the brain rapidly processes the day’s events, diluting conscious reality with imagery from another time, bizarre fantasies and fears of the unconscious. Like some sort of mental auto-pilot, but on acid.
Memory, on the other hand, grants us access to an accurate account of events we have experienced — in chronological order and as recorded through the objective lens of sensory perception. Right?
I once saw a man get shanked in Philly. The poor bastard doubled over in silent disbelief, eyes like saucers. The shock and pain whipped his head forward. He was enshrouded by the hood on his over-sized sweatshirt. I never saw his face. As he came to his knees, he held his stomach trying to keep the deep crimson of his own blood from mingling with the red of his hoodie. The scene was as if someone had pressed the mute button and forgotten to add the subtitles first.
“Welcome to the city2 of brotherly love,” my dad said. “Now don’t stare.”
We kept walking.
Over the years, this scene has replayed in my mind at the most terrible of times. Memory is inescapable in that way. Like a piece of paper, no matter how small you crumple it up, it is still there and can be unfolded at any moment. Every so often I recall that day just to make sure I still can, but then struggle to force it back into its box for hours, sometimes weeks.
I recently realized that I can’t really remember if he was wearing a red sweatshirt or not. I’ve turned my memory into a vehicle for manipulation.3 Maybe Scorsese would have put him in red. I thought it was a nice contrast to the blackened hue of the truest of reds, bloodshed. Did I see his face?
Memory can be the grandest of all liars. The mind remembers what is convenient; it manipulates sequence and detail for cinematographic purpose like a director rewriting a scene to better accommodate a circuitous script or a demanding leading lady. But how far can we stray without compromising the veracity of our recollections?
When I think back to the scene from Philadelphia, I imagine a slightly sepia-toned view, perhaps with violin music wafting gently through the sticky summer air (or was it winter?). An eight-year-old girl in a polka-dotted dress4 cocks her head to the side as a man slowly loses life (did I even own a dress like that?).
I’ve never asked those who were with me on that day to confirm or deny the shanking of the man in the red hoodie. Mainly for fear that they will tell me it never happened. Maybe I’ve never even been to Philly. But as long as my memory tells me it is so, I am a slave to haunting images that I must accept as truth — for fear of a more earnest truth; the truth of having never been where my mind remembers.