Unreliable narrators

Worm memories

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“You know, I’ve been in three traffic accidents on this block,” said my friend.

We’re walking somewhere in Southside, sometime around sunset. I can’t remember where, exactly — let’s say College Avenue and Haste Street. The sun is falling before our eyes, filling the street with a hazy, orange glow that grows dimmer with each passing second. 

He launches, well-rehearsed, into a description of each incident. We turn the corner and the sun disappears behind a row of houses, plunging the street, and us with it, into the realm of evening. I smile as I listen to him, in part because I enjoy the story, and in part because I have a sneaking suspicion that it isn’t true. And, on top of that, I smile because I know that in three weeks, when I repeat my friend’s story to a much larger audience, it will be even less true. (I know a guy who’s been in five accidents at this intersection. … Incredible.)

I’ll be the first to admit it: I make things up when I tell stories. Quite frequently, I’d say. To be frank, I doubt there’s a person alive who doesn’t, which is part of the reason why I feel no shame in being so open about it. I also have somewhat of an excuse. I’ve always been a bit scatterbrained and unobservant, with a poor memory to round it out, and sometimes my “lies” are just innocent mix-ups over numbers and figures. Two traffic accidents turns into three, three turns into five, and I genuinely believe each one to be a fair estimate. I was once asked how far my house was to the airport. I said, “I don’t know, 3 miles?” As it turns out, it’s about 20. 

But more often than not, these careless mistakes have a little more strategy involved. I believe that the perfect story doesn’t come organically; you have to practice it, rehearse the intonations, tweak it every once in a while to make sure the punchlines land just right. I take pride in my ability to craft a good narrative, and if I need to fudge the numbers every now and then, so be it. 

As my friend and I continue our walk — farther west now, somewhere near Telegraph Avenue — I hear the sound of a bee somewhere behind me, no doubt attracted by the bright red jacket I like to wear. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been stung at this point, or else followed home by the ones with commitment issues. I take a moment to reassess: What’s my sting count up to now? It could be 10, or it could be 11. It’s definitely far more than average. Fifteen? I like to tell people it’s 20. It’s as good a number as any, and it gets a much bigger reaction. Vaguely, I start to resolve to keep a journal for these bee encounters, beginning with the one currently hovering by my shoulder, but then we pass into a crowded section of the sidewalk and the stubborn little guy gets lost in the crowd. 

Sometime later, I’m sitting at work, using a red pen to mark up another person’s life. I’ve been charged with editing an oral history, or “lightly proofreading,” to be more accurate, careful not to interfere with the narrator’s natural language. On the page, someone has just been caught in a case of mixing up her dates, and the interviewer gently corrects her. The woman laughs: “Right! Of course.” She must have forgotten. I don’t blame her — I can hardly remember what I had for lunch on a given day, let alone my entire life story.  

I’ve realized there’s a lot you can learn from the way a person tells a story. They may fixate on certain details and ignore others; they may dodge the question entirely. What one person considers to be a tale worth telling may be something far different from what you want to hear, and at the end of the day, it may not be entirely accurate. But the more I read these interviews, the more I realize that I don’t particularly care who’s telling the truth. What I care about is the impression of truth, the small fragments of thought converging all at once to form something akin to memory. 

I don’t remember if the sun was setting when I walked through the streets of Berkeley with my accident-prone friend. I’d like to think it was. I’d like to think that there will always be a kind interviewer out there to correct me when I forget dates or times or the distance to my house, but oh well — I have learned to make do without one. All I know is that the memory of that day is a happy one and in my head, it lights up with a pale yellow hue, as though the streets were running with gold. 

My memories of the past may be fickle and fragmented, but through the retelling, they are made whole.

Lauren Sheehan-Clark writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and history. Contact her at [email protected].