You Can Choose What You Remember

by Nicole Walker

“If we can, could, specutively, change how we think about our pasts, perhaps we could speculate on how we think about our futures.”

You can choose what you remember. You can even choose what you think about. When you think of love, you want it to flow like water. You want to go in it like you go into a stream, naked-toed and body-hot, like you want to lay your body against the warm waves of Bermuda, like you want to jump from the edge of granite into the murky brown lake water and come up swimming. You want love to swirl around you like it swirls through your hair. The currents of water you want to be the same as love: constant. Always in motion. And completely beyond your control. But love doesn’t work like that—it’s not all floaty and swirly. You can’t always feel the water move. Sometimes the current stops. To make motion requires the work of the swimming. It is up to you to make your brain swim in a loving direction.

We had only been dating three weeks when Erik woke up at six-thirty, whispered in my mostly sleeping ear that he would be right back. Two hours later, he returned. He dug through all his drawers and boxes. He upended his mattress. He lifted nightstands and checked in Levi pockets until he found the ring that his dad had given his mom. The metal was hammered. The stone was as dark, uneven, mottled with what might have once been lichen. His parents had been divorced forever. The ring didn’t mean perfection. It didn’t mean forever. It meant, I only have one of these. I’ll give it to you.

He asked me to marry him again on the deck of a cabin in Torrey, Utah and he asked me again by the Provo River in Sundance. He asked me to marry him all over Utah. I said yes every time.

I remember how I insisted you listen to me tell you who I’d slept with before to make sure you knew that I had a history, that I was a bit of a Superfund site, not pure Evian—that I wasn’t fresh, unsullied but complex, murky. I poison quickly. I could, if I wanted to, remember how we argued over the word “collateral.” You insisted it came from the idea to collect. That collateral couldn’t be avoided. I argued that no, collateral is what you owe me. If I don’t take out any loans, no one will be hurt accidentally. You didn’t understand. You brought up Iraq. I brought up gambling in Wendover, Nevada. That poor dog we tried to rescue. That dog that we waited with at a Humane Society that never opened. That’s collateral. Wendover owes me. You said, “only if the dog lived,” which led me to cry in the bathroom and to you driving off in the car with our dog named Cleo who we got at a Humane Society that was not in Nevada. I could remember this but instead I remember the way I went out to the car before you drove away and handed you part of a toenail that I had torn on the bottom of the bathroom door. I handed it to you and you shook his head but ate it anyway.

How else will I dive into him?

It is only through water that memories are made. Like oysters, nothing changes us too much, until it does. Erik read me a story from the Salt Lake Tribune even though we lived far away from Salt Lake and oil drilling at the time. He was bothered by the way the water turned oily in Liberty Park. A man-made lake that when he was young he rode paddleboats on and where when I was young I threw bread to the ducks and where when we were both young and both there at separate times and spaces, we threw sticks under the bridge to see the water usher them under but then later when we were old and almost stick-less, an oil pipe broke nearby flooding the lake and the ducks and the bread and the sticks. He took his metaphorical stick and raised it high. He said, they are ruining that lake. They must be stopped. And although neither oil nor spilling stopped at his very insistence, the stick he holds reminds me that memories float.

One day, we were talking, fighting really, about ‘pi.’ When our daughter asked how to define ‘pi,’ I said that ‘pi’ helps describe a circle. Erik said no. He laughed at me! He said, pi is used to define circumference. The area of a circle is pi times r squared. I know that. I hate it when people think I can’t do math. I took my wine and marched upstairs to watch TV without him. A divorce of staircases.

He did not apologize. Nor did I when I said maybe it’s not a math problem but an English problem since you don’t seem to understand the word “describe.” Scribe means to write. I’ll draw a circle for you. But he has a system. A three-touches-to-the-shoulder system. And then he says something stupid to me, instead of “I’m sorry,” he says, “you can never have too much cheese. Especially if it’s in a circle.” And I have no idea what he’s talking about but I laugh and I’m lost and the staircase carries me back to the ground floor where we avoid talking about cheese or circles ever again or at least for an hour.

It was Erik who told me the oysters were dying as the oceans turned acidic from global warming but it was also he who strapped on his camera and said let’s make a movie about people who are not fucking up. About how people are unfucking if not whole oceans than at least whole puddles of nitrate-ridden water, about how people understand how microclimates pinch their Grenache grapes cold but ripen their Chardonnay grapes sweet and how, if we begin to follow microclimates that maybe we can be like the grape and reorganize the way we bend into the flow of canyon air streaming down to us in Sedona from Flagstaff on high, that if we massage micropreemie babies they will go home sooner and sooner and he brought the information to me in the way the internet brings information, in a flow, similar to water when I’m sunk in sadness at the memory of water broken by oil spills, broken by stupid fights, broken by nitrates, broken by pi, broken by global warming, broken by choose, he stands in front of me and agitates. Like a washing machine.

We used to spend a lot of time in that cabin in Torrey, Utah. Right outside of Capital Reef National Park. Sandstone is dry and sculpted and you are in no need of clothes. I wore Levis without a shirt. Erik played guitar on the deck. We took hot walks to hot rocks and had hot sex on them. Once, we were walking up the river bed, (this is later. After we had kids) and I suggested that maybe the hot sand in the dry river bank would be a good place for hot sex but he said no, this is a thoroughfare. He was right, five minutes later, a man came from behind us carrying the morning paper and coffee in the middle of the desert in the middle of a dry riverbank and Erik knows more than most about the ways of rivers and dry people in dry lands.

Sometimes we did not live together and so coming back together was like bringing the water to a dry land. Erik had been in the northwest for school. He drove his truck there and he drove his truck back carrying this time thirty-six oysters for him and me to share in the desert city of Salt Lake, where I grew up loving oysters even if growing up there was the wrong place and time (desert. The eighties.) and he brought three dozen to my doorstep. We had lemon and an oyster knife and no real skill shucking. We’re from Utah. We know bees. But he found a notch. He knew where to place the knife and I watched to try to figure it out. I held the oyster in my hand. I pressed the knife against the lip although I couldn’t tell if I was springing the back hatch and prying upon the front hood. I pushed with the knife. The shell flaked. The lip closed tighter. The one time I managed to slip the knife wholly through, the oyster clenched his hinge so tight, I lost the blade to the creature. Well-armed oyster militia. Erik took the oyster and the knife and twisted like he whistles—so softly you can barely hear him. The oyster opened. The muscle revealed. I slid the knife under the oyster to cut foot from food. Erik had really done the work but he let me take credit. “A perfect one. Good job.”

There are water problems like flammable water. There are water problems like water full of dry cleaning chemicals, of rocket fuel, of nitrates, of pesticides, of birth control pills and Prozac, of coffee and of urine. There is dirty water. There are these awesome things though called water treatment brains and while there is a lot of water that can’t be helped there is a lot of water that can be helped. In the cerebellum, you expose the water to air. This deletes almost 50% of the bad memories. Then, you anaerobically contain the water. Putting a lid on it. This deletes almost 45% of the other bad memories. The last 5% of bad memories can have their pollutants dissolved by acts of kindness by microorganisms which turn the bad memories good. It’s like A Clockwork Orange for water although the water does not need to have his eyes peeled back. The microorganisms are more on the positive reinforcement side. They take a nitrate and say, hey you, let us mingle. I’ll toss off one of your oxygens and you will turn into sweet, sweet, nitrogen. Nitrogen is safe for all. Perfect nitrogen. Good job.

Of course there was the bad time when we were walking on campus and two women were walking toward us and he nudged me off the path to give them more room. And there was the time when he bought himself a new toothbrush but not one for me. He leaves beer bottles and towels everywhere. He does not cook or really clean. One time, he claimed we went out to eat more than anyone he knew, which would be a fine thing to say, if he ever cooked. Of course, when he tries to cook, I try to oversee, checking on the temperature of the onions (should be on low), of the seasoning (more than you would think), on the adding of cold oil to a cold pan (you can’t do that) so perhaps the cooking is less a won’t than a won’t be let to but sometimes he emails me to see which kid to pick up first and I say Max but then calls me when he can’t find Zoe’s dance room and I say, ask Max who is three but good with directions and he says I came to get Zoe first and I say I said to get Max first so he could show you where Zoe’s dance room is. Why did you email me twenty minutes of typing and I say the dance room is at the very end of the elementary school and I hang up all mad but I text and ask where is the bad husband room and he texts and says but my heart is pure and still we go to dinner and we take both kids, one who lies down on the benchseat, the other who still eats at age 7 with her hands and we sit and we talk all at once to each other and everyone is eating oysters and eating lots of cheese. We can talk about circles again. We have already forgotten what describes a circle. Nothing describes or defines a circle. Like love, like water, circles just are.

The oysters are not doing well but this is no time to waver in our love for them or for each other. We have a secret. One day, we are going to move north to where the oysters are. Erik is going to build a yurt. We are going to learn about harvesting biofuel from algae. We are going to have solar panels for the seven days that there is sun. We are going to live close enough to the water that we will insert, as into a womb an IUD, wires that will roll with the incoming and the outgoing of the waves, making turbines, filling batteries, making sure that the internet is off the grid but still turned to “on” because otherwise how would we know what kinds of oysters we should grow in these beds of ours down by the sea. Do we need a wooden box or some chicken wire? Do we need to feed the oysters or just sway the plankton over them with tree boughs from our nearby Douglas fir?

Speaking of Douglas fir. Perhaps I am wrong about love and water. Perhaps it is not the swirling of hair-in-water that is love. Perhaps it is in the choosing and felling of tree. Perhaps it is in the sewing and hewing. The measure. The determination of tools. It should not take more than one or two trees to make a large yurt. Perhaps this yurt is not sustainable exactly although once felled you do plant two new trees and these two-long-lived, long-limbed trees can serve to build your off-the-grid home. Erik, although he knows many things about water and oysters, is, almost preternaturally, a carpenter. He leaves more saws around the house than beer caps. He makes perfect circles with his planer and his awl.  I could describe them with pi but he will define them with sandpaper and oil. He will rub into them linseed and polyurethane. He will join and shim these circles. The circles will stack and the rooms will grow like hives. He will set windows through which sun will flow like honey and we will warm ourselves sustainably with the sun honey and the love that we chose to remember. Like misshapen rings inside this perfectly shaped circle on top of the impossibly polluted world, we will sit by the ocean, hoping our oysters learn to like a lower pH in their water as we will have learned to stop talking circles about the exact definition of words and instead circle our meaning in metaphor. Sometimes, when you’ve been hanging out in water for so long, you don’t even notice that water doesn’t need to move to be and that to be is still a verb.

First published in “Sustainability, A Love Story" by Mad Creek Books, an Imprint of The Ohio State University Press

This piece is speculative because it’s invested in both hope and fear. What is going to happen with climate change. I can roll out a million scenarios. Some good, some bad. The future, though, is a function of the past and how we remember our pasts will predict how we imagine our futures. If we can, could, specutively, change how we think about our pasts, perhaps we could speculate on how we think about our futures.


Nicole Walker is the author of two forthcoming books Sustainability: A Love Story and A Survival Guide for Life in the Ruins. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, EggMicrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg (only every third book has the word “egg” in its title)She also edited Bending Genre with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.