I still remember his phone number.
It is, however, not his phone number anymore; he had it changed some years ago. After that, realistically there shouldn’t be a reason to keep remembering an old, wrong phone number, the one that ends in: 4269.
But it is not like I have a choice of what I remember, realistically.
There could be some reasons, come to think of it. We had opened a CVS account together with that number. In one of those early, drifting days of settling on a new land, getting phone numbers, opening accounts—whether it is a bank account, student account, CVS account or blockbuster account—all seemed more figuratively important milestones than they materially are. After many years that account has gained some superior status that every time I use it, the machine spits out endless things. Even though the phone number is no longer a worthy phone number, the account is even more worthy an account.
But still, what was the initial reason of remembering a phone number? What kind of need was there to memorize a phone number, any phone number, so exactly?
Maybe it was the beginning of cellphone time, when phone number seemed a thing you remember about each other. Part of our identity, status, mystery.
Maybe I hadn’t had my own phone yet, and remembering someone’s number would help me find them when needed.
Maybe there was a time of some ambiguous longing and denying that had convinced me not to save his number as a contact, and as a result whenever he called instead of his name the number showed up, and many rounds of reinforcement after I remembered it.
The question of why only starts to matter when I realized, recently, how ludicrously well I know this number. I didn’t just remember it, I chewed on it, assimilated it, all the while without noticing that I did. Especially after it lost its usage as a phone number, it became a useless free being, and you know that I like all useless free souls.
But this is how I found out its uncanny existence in me.
First, for some background, if you are curious, bilinguals mostly still do arithmetic operations, such as counting, addition and multiplication, in their native language, even after years of shifting almost all other domains (such as reading, writing and daily living) to the second language. And counting down, other than up, somehow poses a great deal of difficulty. (I read somewhere that during wartime spies were asked to count down numbers during interrogation to test if they are truly native.) In a scenario where I am less conscious, such as counting down the last few seconds you have to hold a plank or do push-ups in a fitness training class, when I hear the instructor shouting out, “five, four, …” in the most bewildering way my mind involuntarily follows with “two, six, nine!”
4269. Whether it had been someone’s phone number no longer matters; it is now my 4321, my renewed reference of order, of time, progress, continuity. When it had been his phone number, maybe I had remembered it for him. But now the remembrance is entirely for myself. In the end, isn’t all remembrance personal and self-serving? In the sense that it matters only to yourself, and none of the subjects involved in the creation of it. And this particular wayward remembrance of mine even acquired a new utility so as to safely live on in me.
I learned that every grim and secret fear I have about time, order, cycle, transience and permanence, is manifest in it.
Don’t you see? It is time itself, in that it works in a loose but sure order. Everything in its own degree has its glamorous 4, its gloomy 2, its lusterless 6 and eventually turns around to find its moonlit 9. Doesn’t make much sense to you? Well it does to me.
It is what moves so slowly that you can barely perceive progress, but the entire definition of long-term lies in there.
It is what makes something from being meaningless to being imperishable.
It is what makes somebody from being invisible to being everywhere you look.
It is what makes us remember, and then forget what we remember for.
It is what permits us to say hellos and goodbyes in order, each with ultimate sincerity.
It is the voice that tells you, someday somewhere in this world, someone was born and somehow, becomes worthy of all of your attention and care.
It is what smoothes out the pain, the joy, the fluctuations of feelings, and leaves you questioning whether any of them was ever real.
But they are real. They are all real.
⋅ ⋅ ⋅
I really like the little epigraph in the beginning of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, “Why don’t you make something for me?”
I asked you what you wanted, and you said, “A box.”
“To put things in.”
“Whatever you have,” you said.
Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full.
It reminds me of Little Prince’s “Draw me a sheep.” Both have been very endearing to me—the idea of someone asking you to do something for them, in an almost willful way, but only because they know they can act that way in front of you.
Here is my version.
“What are you doing?”
“I am writing.”
“Why don’t you write something about me?”
“All my writings, are about you.”