It’s Only Memory

What can be safely discarded.

What the hell, I think to myself, and I hit the enter key.

A server in Calfornia that probably doesn’t have a name, maybe just a number, maybe a couple letters or a random word thrown in just to keep things clear in case something goes wrong, clicks a little bit more. I have decided to move the last three years’ worth of my e-mail onto Gmail. From now on, it will be entrusted to a publicly-traded company that will index it automatically and present it to me via a series of Web pages.

So what? It’s just e-mail.

There is another file on my hard drive, one I am not moving to Gmail. It’s so important to me that I’ve been keeping two copies of it without realizing it.

We didn’t use the word e-mail in college. It was called BlitzMail — my college was one of the first to get wired up, and one of the first to go with Apple almost exclusively, or at least so the brochures told me once. The upshot of it is that we had Macs all over the campus running a seriously ancient mail program. But who cares? It worked well.

“I’ll blitz you about it,” we’d say. I always thought it was a dumb thing to say — the word “blitz” is goofy, almost the kind of word used by Mountain Dew commercials. But who cares? It sounds right when you say it out loud.

E-mail was new to me in college. I got a Hotmail account in high school because I heard people talking about it on the bus (How could that possibly work? I thought — How could a Web page do e-mail for you?), but the only thing I used it for was to e-mail people I used to know who had moved on to college. What are high school students going to e-mail each other for, anyway? We talked on the phone so much that our parents got mad at us.

E-mail was kind of weird and fun. The fun part was the fact that writing an e-mail to the entire school was easy as writing to Student.FR, Student.SO, Student.JR, and Student.SR. BlitzMail was naïve enough to sit there and expand each name to the full list (maybe 300 addresses a pop), so sending each message took maybe two minutes’ worth of staring at a wristwatch cursor, which is a moderately long space of time when you’re an easily-bored college student.

But hey — when your buddy leaves himself logged in while he’s passed out, or if somebody just plum forgets to log out after getting up from the library, it’s a chance to be a witty text superstar. You don’t get to do that too often, and nobody got in trouble over it. People sobered up and sent out retractions that were funny most of the time too.

It was a game.

One time I found someone who had left themselves logged in at a computer in the library. I thought for a minute, then wrote a cute message addressed to “me” (BlitzMail was nice enough to expand this to your own address) reminding whoever it was that committed this grievous error to be more thoughtful.

I guess that’s the kind of dude I am.

The weird part was how you could talk to people without really talking to people. There have been lots of tools to accomplish this — I mean, I guess that’s why people came up with writing in the first place. But e-mail was fast enough to be almost like a conversation, but slow enough that a dweeb like me could think about what he was saying before he said it.

I thought Instant Messenger and ICQ were dumb, the kind of thing used by girls who were engaged to earnest but foolish boys three hours’ drive away. They had buddy lists. They chatted for hours on Saturday nights. They had nothing to say but talked anyway.

(Silence is tyrannical in Instant Messenger and always will be. When nobody’s typing, I sweat — Are they thinking about what to say? Waiting for me to say something witty? Wishing the conversation was over?)

I wrote e-mails. I wrote a lot to a girl who lived in the dorm next to mine. We were in a freshman creative writing class together. She thought the first story I got workshopped by the class was about Ocean City — something about how I described the Ferris wheel on the boardwalk. But I’d never been to Ocean City before.

She had a Southern accent, and I mumbled a lot then, just the same as I do now.

It was a weird way to start a relationship, but we were writers, and it was easy to write things to each other. I could duck into the library or a study lounge between classes and read little snippets of messages, and write my own replies.

We didn’t talk how people normally talk all day long, with topic sentences and well-phrased questions. We talked how people talk in the dark, the way I wish I could talk all the time.

There’s no time to be correct, so just tell the truth instead.

I read the first couple messages, where we’re talking shit about our thesis advisors, and slam the End key. The earliest messages come at the end of the file, Kurt Vonnegut-style, and I have no idea what most of them mean anymore. I never bothered saving what I wrote — I think I set it to remember at most three days’ worth of my messages, just in case I couldn’t remember if I sent something or not — and so most of the meaning is lost.

But it’s alright. There are so many things you remember after you forget the words. You forget how many steps you ran, what the date was, what you were wearing — even why it happened. It stops being a story and becomes a dream. You remember what it felt like to run without knowing why, to hear her running behind you, for her to catch you and tell you that it’s not over between you, for you to no longer have any idea about what’s going to happen to you next. All rules have been suspended; all plotlines disappear. The only thing that will likely help you is faith in yourself.

I scroll forward in time, just reading, not comprehending. The person that received these messages is no longer me. I remember who he was, though.

I tried really hard to find another girl to write e-mails to, but I never succeeded. Maybe it’s the way things go. I am a grown-up now, and have important conversations in real life, face-to-face. I’m braver now, and don’t mumble anymore — well, that’s what I wish I could believe.

But what the hell — maybe it’s just bad luck, the kind of thing that happens to you without you ever understanding why. And maybe it’s the kind of thing that only happens to you once, at least the precise way it did. There are other ways it happens to you — different, maybe better, maybe worse. It’s hard to say which. She’s never been a writer since … but then there are so few of them out there, anyway.

The only step left is to tell my mail server to redirect messages sent to my old address back to Gmail. That way, it’s all in one place, easily searched and organized, forgotten and remembered as need be. Complicated computer programs will do it all for me. If you look at a certain way, my e-mail will belong to them, not me.

I hesitate.

My sister often tells me that I get philosophical about the wrong things. Small things, like e-mail. Stuff that doesn’t really count.

The thing is, I don’t feel bad about giving up the past. The past three years of my e-mail have been mostly worthless. Maybe like 20 messages worth holding onto. The rest is just normal talk: Want to do something Friday? What are you up to these days? The kind of thing you scribble on a note left on the fridge, the kind of thing you wouldn’t even notice if it were gone.

I just feel bad about giving up the future.

It takes me a long time to decide.

“This isn’t right,” I say to myself. I don’t know why I say it, why right and wrong has anything to do with it.

I have strange dreams, and I wake up thirsty.

Article © 2004 by Chris Klimas