The Life You Knew Is Dead
Earlier this week I found myself scouring my house for the pen to my Wacom table. I never did find it, but what I did find was a box of keepsakes from my adolescence.
In this box was an assortment of things: the passbook for my first bank account with the Bank of China, some photos of me with my friends and classmates, letters for my future self given to me by my closest friend when I left China, and my old Motorola cellphone.
I put the battery back in the phone, charged it up, and turned it on. The once-familiar startup tone greeted me as I was prompted with a passcode input. My heart sank; surely there's no way I remember it?
It took a few tries, but somewhere deep in my subconscious I still knew that code by heart.
With the phone unlocked I started scrolling through the messages.
There aren't many on it, but the few that are there tell the story of my final days in China. Well, half the story. The sent messages have been recently cleared, so most of the messages in the inbox are missing their outbox equivalent.
Reading between the lines, it seems I must have just gotten back from Thailand. I'm trying to organize some time for us to hang out, but schedules are complicated. One of my friends is also flying out a day or two before me and doesn't have time to hang out. My other friend isn't allowed to speak to me (it's a long story).
Many of the texts are just logistics. It looks like I'm trying to make it to the airport to see someone off before I possibly never see them again.
The last two texts on the phone are both from the same person.
rise and shine bro!
This friend had come over to help us get our luggage down from the apartment and to the van waiting outside of the complex.
The second text, received as we drove away, airport-bound:
This was the last message I ever received on that phone.
I felt like an archaeologist reading through stories etched into a piece of stone. A relic uncovered from the ashes of a place long-forgotten, but whose memory lives on through these recovered artifacts. These stories are etched into flash memory instead of stone tablets, but etched they are all the same.
And just as a volcanic eruption could lay an entire ancient city to ruin in an instant, so too did my life get buried before my very eyes.
In just over a month it will have been thirteen years since that final "c ya!", and I still don't think I've fully come to terms with the loss I experienced that day.
Thirteen years since I've set foot on Chinese soil.
Thirteen years since I've spoken to the majority of the friends I had while I was there.
Thirteen years tinged with the regret of taking my life there for granted.
When turning 28 I wrote:
27 has been marked by the crushing weight of my own existence.
The crushing weight I speak of is this burden of grief that I've been shouldering for the past thirteen years. All this time it's been weighing on me, pushing my body and soul down into the dust.
As I sat there reading through my phone and thinking about that period in my life, it made me want to reconnect with my old friends from back then. Despite not having spoken to most of them in over a decade, a small part of me wants to believe that one small "hey, how's it going?" is enough to pick up right where we left off.
This, of course, is wishful thinking.
With so much time passed and during incredibly formative years at that, it's unreasonable to expect that any of the friends I once knew are going to be the same as how I remember them.
These are living, breathing people who have changed, as I have, and are not confined to this snapshot of them that I cling to in the hopes that it can take me back to a time I ache for.
I had this same realization in "Returning to Games":
As I've thought about this, I now realize that these experiences with video games are just a stand-in for a deeper truth: there are some things in my life I can never return to in the way I want.
I spent some time on Facebook tonight browsing through some of the profiles of old friends of mine.
Many—like me—have all but abandoned the platform, their profiles devoid of activity except for a one-way barrage of birthday wishes once a year. Others have deleted their accounts entirely.
There are some who are active, posting photos of their travels or their kids; the sorts of things you'd expect.
However, what I wasn't expecting were the ones that truly exhibited this rejection of my memorialized versions of them.
On one person's profile I found a slew of pro-Trump and anti-masking posts and links to articles from far-right websites. Another was reposting QAnon material and promoting an antisemitic documentary.
These divergences from my idyllic mental picture came as quite the surprise. While these are almost certainly statistical outliers, I feel they are, in a way, indicative of the change I'd find were I to talk to any one of my old friends for more than a few minutes.
As a current friend of mine put it:
talking to childhood friends is pretty awkward past the first few minutes of discussing what people are doing for work and maybe meming a bit about the old days
After running through the routine factual catch-up and a bit of reminiscing about the "good old days", I suspect it would be rare for me to have much in common with anyone.
This excursion has confronted me with a truth I should have come to terms with a long time ago:
The life I had—the life I knew—is dead.
It died the moment I climbed into that van headed for the airport.
All these years I've been holding onto memories of that life and thinking that there was some way to make it a reality again. But the reality is that memories is all they are; memories of a time that will never be again.
For a long time now I've been able to fool myself into thinking otherwise. If I never open the box, then I can keep on living in ignorance to whether the cat—or in this case, an idealized snapshot of my youth—was alive or dead.
Now I've opened up the box, and from that there's no going back.
I still don't know how to feel about this, but it feels like I'm moving in the right direction.