A song can bring back a memory so vivid and poignant that it can break your heart. Our lives are so long, there are so many memories that get buried or forgotten when suddenly, a few opening chords can shuttle you back in time to a place you haven’t thought of in years. I wish I could catalog them all, make a mental scrapbook of all those little moments, those times I didn’t have the forethought to bring a camera with me. A song can remind you of those times that existed just outside of the frame.
One January night as I slept in a garden unit apartment, a frozen water main burst and sent water gushing down the basement stairs and into our building. When a frantic roommate pounded on my door, I woke up to see water rising to the level of my box spring, my furniture floating around me like buoys. Frantically, I fumbled for my glasses to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. I cringed as I got out of bed and plunged my feet into the icy water. It lapped at my knees while I pushed my floating trunk over to the window well so I could climb up and rescue my mewling cat from her hiding place. We ran upstairs to dry land and watched a current of water rush down Wolcott Ave from our living room window.
The next day, as the water slowly drained away, we salvaged our belongings from our waterlogged bedrooms. The floating trunk I had used as a stepstool was filled to its hinges with water. It was where I had stored away most of my mementos, things that I didn’t need on a daily basis but held onto for all of the memories associated with them–paper Walgreens envelopes stuffed with old photos, high school yearbooks, college notebooks and journals. This also included all of my mixtapes from junior high through my college years, before I eventually transitioned to burned CDs, then MP3s. I looked at the blurred ink of old playlists, shoeboxes filled with tapes that would never play again. I remembered making many of those tapes, afternoons after school spent meticulously tracking the time of each song as I added them so that the last track wouldn’t get cut off mid-tune. I had put thought into each transition, considering the way each song would complement the next.
Out of everything that I lost that night of the flood, those mixtapes are the most sorely missed. Though I hadn’t even owned a tape deck in years, I felt comforted knowing those tapes were close by, having those memories to slide back into like a favorite sweatshirt. A few staticky opening chords would transport me back to high school, riding shotgun in my best friend’s red Geo Metro while blaring Alanis Morissette. The building guitar chords of The Cure’s “Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me” would take me back to my college dorm freshman year. Any Beatles song reminded me of being in my parents’ house, curled up on the living room couch with a book while my mom played music and made coffee. Each tape held 90 minutes of memories, preserved like a pensieve until the flood took them away.
After the sudden destruction of my possessions, I felt an overwhelming loss tinged with a sense of freedom. Suddenly, I had so many less things in my life, and I was lighter, unencumbered. When I moved out of that apartment six months later to a third floor condo with zero danger of ever being flooded, I easily transported my possessions in a handful of trips in my 4-door car. In some ways, the flood had made the decision for me to let go of the memorabilia of my younger self. It forced me to admit that I wasn’t going to hang up that Trainspotting poster again. It didn’t just wash away an apartment full of things; it washed away a place in time.
A friend told me about a show he had heard on NPR that discussed how tapes lose their magnetic draw over the years until the sound quality erodes away, leaving the tape blank. As my memories associated with those lovingly slaved-over playlists would fade, so would the tapes themselves. The frigid flood waters that washed away the messages scrawled in my yearbooks only sped up the inevitable process of me forgetting the faces and names of the people who wrote them. We hold onto our things for so long to cling to those memories a little bit longer, to fight against the unavoidable advancement of time that takes everything away from us.
Though the tapes are gone, every once in awhile I will be driving in my car and a random song on the radio will suddenly transport me to another time. I’ll be suddenly back in my friend’s Geo Metro, driving through a sleepy suburb on a hot August day, savoring the last few days of summer break before school started back up. As the last notes fade away, my subconscious waits to hear the song it remembers following it on an old Maxell cassette with “Summer Jams 1995” written on its paper sleeve. I’ll smile and remember, for now.
Kim Nelson is a Chicago-based writer and performer. She is a regular contributor and co-editor of the literary blog, DrrinkersWithWritingProblems.com, and co-hosts their monthly live show, Lit Up. Her work has been published on sites such as WhiskeyPaper, The Vignette Review, and StoryClub Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @ponytailup.