Snow makes an odd crunching sound when you step on it. It’s weird the things you forget after 3½ years. It’s like something breaking under your foot, a crunch or a slipping noise, like water splashing in slow motion, like slush slowed down. The snow on Kilimanjaro was glacial, slippery and hard, shiny when the sun rose, dry and brittle with age where it struck out thin and jagged over tourist-warn sandy paths along the ridge. But the snow today was soft, too wet and squishy to last more than a day or so, and its wet crunching was surprisingly reminiscent of the drier crunch of ice at 5,895 meters. I remember seeing the snow up there that morning and thinking it looked different; what I didn’t know until today was that snow is the same here or there, it’s just my memory that has worn down.
I forgot about snow like I forgot about this skirt I found in my closet, because a snow day is a good day to throw your clothes away, to lay the shoes all out on the floor, try them on and think “why did I ever wear these?” or “wow these make me feel tall.” I was wandering between the shoes on the floor and the shirts on the bed and the closet hung with dresses and scarves and the cardboard box mixed with summer clothes and winter hats and legwarmers, and suddenly like a blast from the past I reached in to blindly grab a hanger and came out with that skirt.
You know the one. The one you bought and always swore you’d wear but you didn’t, the one you thought you might aspire to fit into, the one you were going to build your new wardrobe around when you grew up and your style changed, the one that was going to be perfect for you someday when you were somebody else. It’s like the pair of jeans a size too small that you never throw away, the too-high heels you roll your eyes at vaguely when reaching for your sneakers in the morning, the impractical lace-up boots you can’t be bothered with, the absurdly fancy dress you bought abroad and will never wear anywhere, the stiff cotton dress you had tailor-made for you in Zambia out of cloth patterned in drums and water-carrying women and masks, which doesn’t quite fit you right and where would you wear it anyway but oh god you can’t throw that away what if you NEED it later?
This was that skirt. In my case, an insanely royal purple skirt with stripes of gentle floral linen and thick velvet and shiny satin, a hodgepodge of textured lines patterning down past the knees; something I bought to wear someday on my hypothetical future bohemian days when I would hypothetically own hippie-chic clothes and hypothetically wear them with scarves and boots and bangles; something that, of course, ultimately sat unused in my closet for years, waiting patiently for some cold Halloween when I would begrudgingly dig it out and wear it as part of a hastily-assembled gypsy-pirate costume. But I still kept it, because I was going to be the type of bohemian girl who might wear flowy floral purple skirts of various materials, one day. Or so I used to tell myself.
And there it was, four years later, some forgotten idea left skeletal and cold in the back of my closet.
It’s funny the things you forget about. Like:
Some clothes are dry-clean only. That means you don’t dump them in a plastic bucket and slosh them around in sticky blue soap and too-cold water until they are stretched beyond all recognition and then hang them on the clothesline to dry and fade in the sun, like you might do with your other clothes. Actually, you don’t do that with any of your clothes, here. Too cold, for one thing, and there isn’t the space for it—no sunlit outdoor clearing to do your laundry in, just closed-in insulated rooms where doing the washing by hand means a mess on the wood or tile floors. But the clothes that say “dry clean only” on the tags? Those you have to watch for—you have to actually read the care tags, rather then shoving them all in the bucket willy-nilly—and then you have to take them to this store where they wash them without water using chemicals or something, I don’t really understand it, but the point is it exists and it’s expensive and environmentally horrifying and completely (or mostly) necessary in order to successfully wear the clothes in public. I’m used to a world where you can wear what you want, sometimes two days in a row, and not worry about the state of wear of the fabric or how difficult it will be to keep clean, not worry if it pills or fades or stretches, not worry about the fashion or the weather-appropriate status of the garment; that world does not exist here.
People generally shower everyday, here. Not just the clean-freak ones with the wet wipes in their purses, not just the ones who work hard and need to shower often, but everyone, even the ones who don’t have anywhere in particular to be today, they’re still probably going to shower today. Possibly twice. And there’s no need to rush, either—there’s no real danger that the water is going to suddenly run out or turn cold, you can take a moment to just feel the hot water pour down and though you may feel slightly guilty and wasteful, you won’t actually make so much of a difference that you deprive someone else in the household of their cleanliness. And if you do rush—or if you shower for what you have come to see as a “normal” length of time—others will blink at you and say, “wow, that was fast.” Because daily showers can take a whole ten minutes here, and that is somehow normal.
New England is cold. You think you know cold when you’re sitting in your un-insulated mud hut during a thunderstorm huddled around a lit brazier that you probably shouldn’t have inside because of carbon monoxide but oh well it’s so windy through the windows the fumes will blow right out, but no, actually, that cold only felt cold because you were wearing sandals and linen pants. In fact, cold is biting, cold is red-faced and harsh, cold is slippery-white-salty ground and wet grass and dry air, cold is aching and pinching and awful. Cold is more than I remembered.
The American supermarket has approximately 80,000 different brands, sizes, flavors, and types of yogurt. The milk section has a minimum of four brands, plus at least two organic brands, and comes in skim ½% 1% 1½% 2% full cream, and then there’s rice milk and soymilk and creamers and whipping creams and sour creams and shaving creams and also, sometimes eggs are bleached a disturbing white color and come in white Styrofoam. The vegetables are all inside the store, the greens water-dusted in the corner, the fruits set up like altarpieces on pedestals, way too many types of berries and only one kind of banana. The avocados here are tiny; the apples here are huge.
The top drawer of the dresser in my room is a little off-sized and gets stuck in the edges when you pull it out or push it in one-handed; you have to use both hands and push/pull it straight or it will stick to the side and no amount of one-handed tugging will jar it loose. This has been the case for as long as I’ve had this dresser, which predates my own existence and for all I know was in my room waiting for me the first time my parents brought me home from the hospital, and yet somehow, miraculously, I forgot that the drawer sticks. It took me about four tries of opening it one-handed to realize that the drawer requires both hands and my complete attention and is too proud to be opened one-handed and carelessly while I’m getting dressed in the morning; it took me another seven tries to remember that this has always been the case. Somehow the muscle memory of always-opening-this-drawer-with-both-hands-no-matter-what had gotten lost, forgotten somewhere.
Coming home has been a long list of remembering things I have forgotten. Opening drawers and boxes that I packed in 2010 and thinking “oh, yeah, I remember that bowl” or “oh, so that’s where that umbrella went” or “hey, since when do I own so many winter hats?” Going out to dinner with my family and hearing names dropped and having to stop the conversation to go “wait, which work friend is this?” or “wait, have I met this person?” or “when did that happen?” It’s not just stories I’ve missed being gone; it’s people and places and events I’ve forgotten, how old someone’s son was when I left or where someone’s boyfriend is from, where the movie theater is or which exit I should take to get downtown.
This past week some relatives of mine had a pre-thanksgiving thanksgiving meal, since we would not be together for the actual holiday. I was bombarded with questions, as was to be expected, because this is what happens when you return from living in a mudhut in Africa, people want to know what it was like, they want to know what you did, what you saw, what it felt like to sit in a mudhut during a rainstorm. Peace Corps actually provides a few sessions toward the end of your service (in between bouts of end-of-service paperwork) about readjusting to life in America, about the disorientation of returning to a life that doesn’t quite fit the same way anymore, about freaking out a little every time you see how many types of milk there are at a grocery store, about the strange and sometimes awesome and often repetitive questions people would ask (like, “do they speak African there?”), and about the surprising number of people who actually wouldn’t be all that interested.
I have been very lucky; I have plenty of family and friends who are genuinely interested in what I’ve been through these past few years. And when they asked me specific questions—how long were you there, where did you go to the bathroom, were there spiders or snakes?—I was happy to answer, to ramble for as long as was socially appropriate about black mambas and pit latrines and the time my cat tried to take on a tarantula. I had no trouble bringing up these memories when prompted.
But some of the questions—the general questions, which of course were the most common questions, because who knows what to ask someone who’s been in the Peace Corps for three years? How can someone be expected to know where to start?—some of those more general questions left me stumped, left me tongue-tied and a little bit panicked, because in those moments I would get a chill up my back and think: I don’t remember.
Memory is a funny thing. It doesn’t always work the way you expect it to, and it isn’t some well-organized filing cabinet you can open at whim and comb through by file name or category. Things get lost in there, things burst forth into your consciousness unexpectedly and without reason, and the strangest moments can bring back a memory you didn’t even remember you’d forgotten. As I understand it, our brain stores memories in synapses connected by electric currents, and those currents wear down over time until the memory gets isolated and abandoned, so that the memory is still there but unreachable, which is why sometimes you can’t remember something no matter how hard you focus on it, and then if you think about something else for awhile the memory will come to you—your brain is finding a new way to the memory, because the old path is in disrepair. You might know vaguely your destination, but when you don’t care for the roads, don’t watch them or tend to them regularly, they become potholed and tree-fallen and steadily more difficult to drive on.
So it’s not that I don’t remember what Zambia was like, the taste and texture of nshima or the angle of the sun over my kitchen hut in the morning—it’s just that those memories are becoming more and more unused the further away they get, and like the forgotten dresser drawer the less I think about it the more likely I am to forget it entirely. When specifically prompted, I can describe the bamboo mat on my kitchen floor, the folds of the mosquito net over my bed, the patterns on my hand-sewn couch cushions, the black spots on my cat, because those memories are still there, but since I’m not accessing them regularly I forget the way back there, forget to even try. Sitting around the table this weekend fielding questions from earnest and interested family members, I was thrown by the number of questions I had to struggle to answer, the memory muscles I hadn’t stretched lately.
I am lucky that I kept a daily journal for the majority of my years abroad—that I wrote down what training was like, what my community was like, anecdotes about chameleons and falls from my bike, the day the cat stole my dinner while an inebriated neighbor was distracting me, the peanut butter and honey sandwich I ate that first night by candlelight. We think when we’re living something that we’ll remember it; that if it is important it will stick, or as my mother used to say, “if you can’t remember it then it can’t have been all that important.”
And maybe some of it isn’t that important, like that skirt, some remnant of someone I thought I was going to be, which is now sitting in a bag ready to be donated and forgotten once again. But there are other things I want to write down because I know I will forget them, like a little girl’s smile or the early lettuce shoots in my garden or the way snow sweet-crunches underfoot. Because the next day, like today, the weather may change, the rain may pour and the snow may wash away as if it were never there in the first place.