March 19, 2024

Exposure to LightFiction by Michelle Lyn King

One morning I woke up to find that I finally felt ready to develop the roll of film from the last truly good day that the man who used to be my husband and I ever spent together. He was my husband on that day and he is no longer my husband. The film was from a disposable camera that we’d brought with us upstate. For over a year, I kept that camera on top of my bookshelf, next to the Bankers Box stuffed up with my graduate school papers, the Matryoksha doll from a family trip to Saint Petersburg in the 1990s that I possess not a single memory of, and a framed Polaroid of Bowie, the beloved lunatic rescue dog whose own death predated my marriage’s death by only a few months. All my past selves stacked high on a shelf.

I do not know why I woke up on this day feeling stable enough to see new images of the two of us together. I only know that I woke up and there it was, this feeling, frenzied as a fever. I chose to follow this feeling, to honor it. I chose to do this because I did not feel that I had any other choice.

I had to take three trains in order to arrive at the front door of a business that could develop this roll of film for me. It used to be that it was very easy to find a shop that developed rolls of film but this is no longer the case. These shops have gone the way of video rental stores and my marriage and a chain of discount department stores where my mother used to buy me flouncy Hollister mini skirts back in my adolescence. 

I stood outside of the building for a few minutes, trying to determine if I actually was ready to see whatever the camera had to show me. We’d already been divorced for six months by this point. Developing the film felt like checking off the final item on a to-do list. Both a relief and a sudden absence of purpose. 

Standing outside the photo shop, I allowed my mind to drift all the way back to the beginning of things, back when everything between the two of us was still suspended in potential. My ex-husband and I did not meet as children. We met as childish adults. We were not as smart then as we are now, but we were less damaged. We still believed that feeling something was enough to make it true. We were baby birds with the wrong kind of feathers. 

Back when we first started dating, I grew terrified that every pause in our conversations meant that we’d run out of things to say to one another. Now I understood that we would always have something to say to one another. It just wouldn’t always be something very kind. 

On one of our last nights together, we spoke without reservation, recounting our time together and studying the trajectory of our relationship as if we were anthropologists on the brink of some critical discovery. Remember this? one of us would ask and the other one would nod and then respond, Remember that? We’d really been in love once. That had been us. This seemed unbelievable but it was true. It had happened all at once and not too long ago and with very little effort. It was as if our normal, sensible brains had been replaced with warm, glowing brains that thought things like, Let’s spend the entire day in bed and I wonder what this person was like as a little kid and I wish I could have protected this person when they were a little kid and This person’s mouth tastes perfect, even in the morning. I’ve been waiting my entire life to taste this person's mouth. I didn’t believe I deserved it, something that beautiful and easy. But little by little, things changed, and our mouths tasted different now. Neither of us could properly navigate a way back to the past. Everything ends. I’d always understood that to be the one sacrosanct rule of life and yet I’d managed to believe that the rules of life didn’t apply to the two of us. 

I eventually walked into the shop and handed my camera over to the man behind the counter. He instructed me to return two hours later. When I did return, the man behind the counter greeted me with an apology. He said that he was very sorry but the film from the camera was all warped. There was nothing he could have done to save it. See? he said and began to leaf through the rectangles of photo paper, each one the color of curdled milk.

These, he said, are garbage, and then he turned his back to me and threw them in the garbage. 

On the train ride home, I closed my eyes and attempted to remember details from these photographs that I would never get to see. My ex-husband on a mountain top, a spot of cream cheese crusted on his chin from the bagels we’d packed that morning. My ex-husband on a rotted wood chair that we’d found living underneath a tree. We had joked that the chair looked as if it belonged to a ghost and when my ex-husband stood up after sitting in it, he said, I feel like I just got a lapdance from a dead girl. My ex-husband, smiling wide at the summit of the mountain we’d conquered together. Behind him, a sky threaded with flossy clouds, the sweet confection of summer. I remember the pearls of sweat dripping down the tip of his nose and onto the raised cleft of his giant lips. His cheeks flushed from both the sun and the climb. His tan, brutish shoulders marbled with sunscreen. 

It seemed silly that I would need photographs of these moments when I could still conjure up such vivid images up in my head. But those images wouldn’t stay fresh forever and I craved tangible evidence. I could not, for instance, remember what shirt he had worn on our hike. I could still remember all of his shirts, and so each time I pictured him on our hike, my brain dressed him up in a new shirt but I could not be certain which shirt he had actually worn. Now this was something that no one could be certain of, ever. When I lived with my ex-husband, he would often tell me that I needed to act as the historian of our lives. He’d started smoking weed too young in an attempt to impress his older brother. By the time he was in middle school, he was already spending every afternoon getting high. His memory, as a result, was shot to shit. That was his phrase, the corners of his mouth pulled up into a smile that couldn’t fool me. I knew how much it bothered him that he couldn’t recall the name of his second grade teacher or the location of his first kiss. Some party. Whose party? He did not know. Did he remember where our first kiss was? Not really. No. Sorry. He often said that I shouldn’t take his lack of memory personally. This was hard for me to believe then. This is hard for me to believe now. A large part of falling in love with someone is ignoring things about them. 

And, so, it became my responsibility to retain details from the moments that made up our life. For all of the years we spent together, I played the role of archivist. He would turn to me and ask a series of questions as if he had just woken up from a coma and was attempting to remember the life he was now tasked with reentering. Where had we spent our first New Year’s Eve together? What was the name of that bar we used to go to? Our first apartment, what street was it on? Most days he couldn’t remember if our anniversary was on the seventh or the ninth of March. 

Trust me, I would say to him whenever he doubted the veracity of my answers. I remember everything. 

But this vow, like all of my vows to him, is becoming less and less true. For a long while, I thought my love was large enough to sustain every impression that our relationship had left on my life. Now I see that everything has its limits. Recollections of recollections become pale and washed out, and I have to watch a video in order to remember the cadence of his voice. 

It was easier to recall facts than it was to recall feelings. I used to wake up early on Sunday mornings to make him coffee. I was no good at articulating my love for him, so instead I offered up symbols of my love. A cup of coffee with extra cream and no sugar, just how he liked it. A symbol. The Sunday Times purchased early in the morning at the bodega across the street from our first home as a married couple. A symbol. A kiss on that unnamed spot between his upper-lip and his nose. A symbol. A single poached egg on an English muffin brushed in melted butter. A symbol. 

Some days are so beautiful that it seems there will never be another bad day, but every day can’t be good. Eventually certain prodigious questions rose to the surface, filling every room and replacing every symbol. Do you think she’s pretty? Did you remember to take your medication? Did you move my shoes? How can you forget to renew a prescription that you need? Did you pay the electric bill? What gives you the right to tell me what I need and don’t need? I’m always the bad guy, aren’t I? How would I possibly know where your shoes are? Well, why don’t you fuck your mom if you care so much what she thinks? Are you mad at me? Why don’t you keep better track of your shit? Are you going to leave me? Do you still love me? Do you love me less than you once did? 

When I arrived home from the photo lab, I texted my sister. Don’t I at least get to keep the memories? My sister lives out in Connecticut, in a town known for its school district. She rubs snail mucus onto her body every night, from the tops of her nipples up to her hairline. She has a color-coded calendar fixed to the door of her refrigerator. She has made every right decision.

I have known that my sister thought my marriage was a mistake ever since she turned to me one day and said, I think your marriage is a mistake. When I called to tell her the news of the divorce she was still sleep-deprived from the new baby. I know you think this is a big deal, she said to me, but you’re not going to remember this one day, not really. You two didn’t even have kids. This is basically just an expensive break-up with paperwork. 

She responded to my question about memories with a photo of my nephew. In the photo, he was holding an ice cream cone the size of his torso and looked as happy as anyone ever gets to be. For a moment, I thought she was making a comment about how my nephew, a few months shy of his second birthday, would never remember this ice cream cone. He wouldn’t remember any of the details that currently made up his life, but that didn’t mean those memories still wouldn’t swim on somewhere deep inside of him, lodged away forever in some unknowable space of his body, in the spongy bone tissue and bundles of muscle fibers.

Then another text from my sister came in. Instead of whining about your EX!!!! husband, you should focus on learning to be HAPPY and GRATEFUL!!!!!!!!!!

I did not respond. Instead, I looked at the shelf that had, for over a year, housed the disposable camera and thought, It looks so empty now. Then I thought, No, it does not. 

I only wanted it to look empty because then there would be some visual representation of my loss. The truth was, the shelf looked just fine. If anything, it was less cluttered now. That had always been one of the things that bothered my ex-husband about me. All of my clutter. 

I began to wonder when exactly the disposable camera had become trash. I had let the camera sit in a spot that receives a fair amount of direct sunlight throughout the day. Did the heat and the light from the sun turn the camera into a piece of trash? Or had the camera always been trash?

Had we purchased a faulty camera, a camera destined never to take a single printable photo, and unwittingly hauled a hunk of garbage with us all the way upstate? 

After a while, the question of when the disposable camera became trash mutated into a new question. This new question was “Had our relationship always been doomed or could we have swerved to avoid the doom, if only we’d put in a bit more effort?” By this time, it was close to three in the morning, and because of the time, it was possible to think of this question as one that had a resolute answer. I wished for a resolute answer and sat on the floor of my apartment, which had once been our apartment, aching for certainty. 

My mind moved to the message that I thought my sister had been implying, this belief that all of our memories exist within us, even if we can’t access them. Our first steps. Our first time on a swing. Our very first night in the world, spent in that sterile white room with all the other brand new people. I wasn’t sure I believed that our bodies did hold onto those memories. We lost things and then they were gone forever. 

Perhaps I could decide this was a relief. After all, there were plenty of things that I did not want to remember about my marriage. These things were, almost as a rule, events and details that stayed in my mind with such great clarity. The morning he moved out of our apartment and the lame, meandering fight we’d had about how to divide the plants. The purple tie the lawyer was wearing on the first day I went to his office. The shame I felt when I had to tell my coworkers that I was getting a divorce and the disappointment I felt when it became clear that none of them cared. 

The sweet, tender facts of our life together appeared to me as a far-away dream, and I became aware that, in order to move on with my life, I would have to forget some of our glittering memories. The price of moving forward, out of the muck of heartbreak and into the realm of living, was forgetting the details of the world that we’d constructed together. We had our own language and no matter how long I lived or how many more people I loved, I would never again speak that language. 

I tried to find comfort in the fact that no one remembers everything, but this isn’t even true. Some people do, in fact, remember everything. There is a neurological condition some people have where they’re able to remember all of their life experiences in lurid detail. I could not remember the name of this condition, only that an actress from the television show Taxi has it. Once, during a teeth cleaning, I saw a clip of her describing her memory recall. The actress said that one of her earliest memories was of her baptism. She said that she could remember what the water smelled like. I didn’t take her for a liar. 

By this time, it was five in the morning. Day had turned to night and now night was turning into day. I opened my laptop and watched an interview where the actress described how her memory functions. At one point her son, a 17-year-old boy, was brought in for his own interview. I expected him to say that he found his mom’s memory disturbing, and perhaps make a rehearsed-sounding joke about how she remembered every terrible thing he did as a child. But that was not what he did. Instead, he looked directly into the camera and said, The idea that everything I’ve ever done is documented somewhere in her mind is very comforting to me. It’s like she’s protecting me from something.

This, I realized, was how I hoped my ex-husband thought of me whenever he found himself thinking about me, if that was something he ever found himself doing. I wanted to believe that my memory had protected him from the meaninglessness of life and that I was still protecting him, only from a distance now. 

I thought about calling him then. I even went so far as to pick up my phone and select his name in the long list of saved names, most of them useless to me now. His life, the actual facts of it, did not seem very real to me in that moment. I believed that if I called him, he would answer, even though he would almost certainly sleep through my call. I believed that, when he answered, I would be speaking to my image of him, not the actual person who moved through the world, going to work and paying rent and buying groceries. 

I sat like that for a while, my phone resting in the palm of my left hand, the morning light turning the room a wash of underwater blue. In the end, I decided to go to bed. Although I did wish to speak to him, that desire was muted out by an even stronger desire for there never again to be anything new between us. I did not want anything to disrupt my memories. 

Michelle Lyn King was born and raised in south Florida and now lives in Brooklyn. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Joyland magazine, and her work has been published or is forthcoming in Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, The Florida Review, Catapult magazine, and various other publications.