The years between the ages of 17 and 22 have gotten lost. When I run into an old classmate (which is not often), they recall the times easily and without hesitation. They speak of the time with authority. Maybe those were good years for them and those times stand out in their memories clearly.
They remember me better than I remember me. They say I did this or that, or said things they found interesting or funny. They have fond memories of me, of my personality and sense of humor. When they get going, I wonder who they are talking about. I smile. I listen and search the nooks in my mind. I try to find objects there like those they speak of.
Either the wash of life swallowed my recollections of that time or alcohol never allowed them to adhere to the synapses that keep them. Maybe, people who are in their fifties aren’t supposed to remember things over thirty years passed.
The odd thing is that I recall clearly and with some acuity what happened before I was 17. The terrible days of grade school and the transition to high school remain firmly fixed in my mind.
Similarly, I just wrote a book about my travels and motivations for them near the turn of my 23rd birthday. I laid out the scenarios and atmosphere of my days as a young winemaker in Germany. I have written extensively about the torture of falling in love with an American opera singer—a relationship that ended in disaster. My book shines a bright light on the circumstances in which I met people who would become life-long friends and companions.
The two years after my return from Germany also make sense to me, though increased consumption of alcohol obscures some of it. Even so, I have a clear timeline of events and situations that led me to my final drink and the beginnings of building a new life.
What I do remember from the almost-missing five years from 17 to 22 is sketchy, as if those images are playing on a television screen the sun shines on. The pictures shimmer and move but I can’t make out the details. I remember some scenes and stories—traumas, times of despair and of great joy and accomplishment. But these events and situations sit on no timeline. I cannot divine where these things belong.
“Why do you want to look? Why do you have to know?” a friend of mine asked me last night as we walked the dogs through downtown. The question penetrated my fleeting feelings about my youth. The question tacked down the free-floating canvas.
I suspect, I said, that those times will tell me more about myself. They are keys, I think, to my redemption.
“What do you think you will find?” he asked.
I don’t know. I have a notion that I will discover a man on the cusp of innocence. What I can recover will show me who I was and how I became who I am. I imagine that the person I will find looked at the world with his eyes wide open. What he saw and felt fascinated him. He sought something bigger than himself. He was trying to free himself of the fetters of his upbringing. He was hopeful and open.
What was he after and did he find it?
I told my friend that speaking of my “self” or former self in the third person reveals how little I know about who I was. I must build the “I” character, assemble his personality from the scraps and traces of him. I must know and understand what he did and why before I can claim the “I” as me. It’s all right, I think, for me to use the third person. I told my friend that Pirsig did it in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and so I can take on the third person for my personality, my past.
I do not claim to be a Pirsig. I do not have the talent and skill to take that on. But if a great writer like Pirsig can do it, I will allow myself to use that convention in the forensic inquiry that will help me discover who I was.
My friend told me to take it easy. Not everyone can remember their twenties. He said he can barely remember that time for himself. He then launched into remembering that time. I listened to him. He wasn’t conscious about what he was doing, but he revealed that his recollections of that time for him were much better than mine of that time for me.
Here are the bare bones: Around the age of 17, I had a car and was much more free of home than ever. I had a couple of friends who I drank with. They weren’t very bright. Their taste in music was terrible. They loved their cars and worked on them on weekends. It’s not that I didn’t like their company, it’s that I was shooting low. They didn’t talk about books or philosophy or think too hard about the complexity of life.
But they loved to drink and I loved to drink. This social bond provided me a group, a place where I belonged. I wasn’t ever much of a joiner, but nights at home by myself in my stuffy and religious house were lonely and sad. I would much rather be out with my dim friends than home by myself.
The summer between high school and college, I worked 56 hours a week at a gas station. I lost 60 pounds in three months. Girls began to take notice of me. When I started college, I met a whole new group of people, mostly older than me, who drank, though not to the excess that I did. They proved themselves interesting and smart. They talked about books and literature and philosophy. Some of them seemed to be seeking something larger than themselves.
I ceased hanging around with my old friends. Those times, I thought, were behind me. I was off into a new life. I pursued school seriously and started to write more. I drank and drank. I moved into my own place with two other guys who were smarter and more world savvy than I was.
This broad outline takes me through 17 and 22. The memories of specific nights, events, scenes, and feelings, however, float around there. Where do I put the night I first passed out at Mike’s and woke later to get drunk all over again? Someone spent a lot of time making out with me. I felt important and validated. Then, there was the night a friend of mine and I drove home from the school newspaper and stopped at the liquor store for pints of Wild Irish Rose. I was still at home then. But why does that stand out. It was just twenty minutes. But it was a good twenty minutes. Why, I don’t know.
There are many scenes like faded sepia photographs. They could have happened to someone else. But it was me, him, that guy I don’t know very well yet.
And that is perhaps what brings this back to the quest to know who I was, what my personality was like, what kinds of things interested me, and why I did what I did.
It may not seem to be a big deal and, in the end, it may not be. But for the time being, I have to look into that closet. It’ll be interesting to see what’s there, if anything at all.