In my mental stack of photos, here is the scene: he and I sit by the pool at his parents’ house. He holds a camera, a dented little silver point and shoot, and the grey string dangles in the annoying way that you know will end up blurring half the frame. He wields the camera haphazardly and our bare feet float in the water. I wear knockoff Ray Bans of my father’s that I found on the kitchen counter. My hair is in the half-wet state that happens when the sun is so hot it evaporates everything but laughter and the quiet in-between. He clicks and the camera’s aperture whooshes.
And I take in his pale skin, and then the blindingly bright turquoise water, and then the dangling grey camera string and I push it aside out of the next shot – one of many in the mental stack of photos I flip through.
As I typed his name into the little search box on Facebook, it was with an uneasy impulse, the kind that I act on to spite my better judgment. Never mind that the relationship’s been over for years (and I’ve been over the relationship for years). Having spent a disproportionate chunk of my relatively young life with the boy by the pool, these photo albums were heavy.
I ended up flipping through some sets he had made public before closing the tab with reddened cheeks. Ever since, I sift through these photo-memories and they remind me of people once loved. How do they become fleeting thoughts from something so permanent? This man, under ever-so-slightly different circumstances, probably would be here now, sitting across the room as I write. He’d look up over his glasses and cock his head and flip the long bang from his eyes and return to his very serious reading. It’s kept me up at night – that I hadn’t given him a thought for months, maybe even years. (For a very long time.) That my subconscious was so impolite to not offer him even a nod here and again. But now, look! He is stuck in my head taking photos.
Photos are powerful things. Maybe that’s why I have a difficult time keeping them around, why I never want to be frozen in anyone’s lens. The memory above is stop motion and lens flare on a sunny day. It’s all photographs: the ones tucked in some drawer in my childhood bedroom, the ones stuck on an old hard drive, the ones taking up space in the tiniest place in that far corner of my brain reserved for unrequited nostalgia. (For reference: it’s the same place old song lyrics hide, the ones you sing from heart ten years later with a huh.)
Involuntary memory. Proust and his tired madeleines, his volumes of things past reduced to tear-shaped cookies and an easy analogy. The truth is, I hate that people-as-memories come and go as they please. Forever is presumptuous. But we put so much stock in creating memories, moments, things to look back on when the trigger hits – with no assurance that it ever will.
Like Proust’s protagonist, my easiest analogies involve food, and here is another. Memories are the recipes we make over and again, only to forget them. The boy by the pool could have returned bearing many forgotten dishes: split pea soup or sweet-sour caponata… but he’s brought along aglio e olio. At first it seemed an odd choice – a hot day and hearty pasta, but it makes sense now. Starchy and familiar and comforting and just foreign enough – exactly what the person I remember would bring.
It makes me sad and hopeful at once, thinking about these memories I am still making. Maybe I should keep a recipe box of the very best ones to revisit years from now, knowing I will forget. Perhaps I should let others with cameras freeze me in time, that I may accidentally stumble out of their farthest corners one day. There: at the side of a swimming pool, holding hands, laughing.
Aglio e olio
There are many versions for this classic Italian peasant dish of pasta, garlic and cheese. Some use chili pepper flakes, which I omit. Others use anchovy at the base. This makes for a richer sauce – break a couple down in the olive oil before cooking the garlic if you use them. While most people chop the garlic, I slice the cloves thinly. It makes for a gentler sauce and crisp nibs through the pasta.
100g uncooked spaghetti
2Tbsp of your favourite cooking olive oil
6-10 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
a heavy handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2Tbsp shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, or another hard cheese like Gruyère or Asiago
salt and pepper, as needed
Bring well-salted water to a boil. Cook the spaghetti al dente. Drain in a colander.
In the same pasta pan, fry the sliced garlic over low heat in the olive oil, letting it brown just barely (any more and it will burn). This should take a couple minutes. Your kitchen will smell like heaven as garlic.
Remove the pan from the heat and add the pasta, stirring quickly. (It will sizzle like mad.) Toss in the parsley, cheese and cracked pepper. Taste for salt. Serve piping hot.
Makes one big bowl, with enough left for tomorrow’s lunch.