I’m really good with names.
Tell me your name, or someone else’s name, and I swear I’ll remember it. I can name my grandmother’s childhood friend’s granddaughter’s ex-boyfriend’s sister. I know my first-grade teacher’s middle name, the names of all of my friends’ friends, the names of every character in every book.
Names aren’t the only things I won’t forget. Random facts are also seared permanently into my mind, not of my own volition but because my mind is like a mousetrap for that kind of thing. I’ll remember that your mom went to Wellesley and double-majored in French and psychology. I’ll remember that you’re one quarter Japanese, and that kids used to call you a certain variant of your last name—an epithet more forceful than “ignoramus”—when you were little. I’ll remember that your best friend applied early to MIT, was deferred, and then eventually got in, but she chose to go to Dartmouth for chemical engineering.
I can remember numbers, too.
When I was 10, my father and I walked into a Barnes & Noble. I had a gift card. I had fondled it lovingly on the way to the bookstore. Once there, I selected my books, coming in just under budget. But when we approached the cash register and I went to retrieve my gift card, I realized that tragedy had befallen me: the card was nowhere to be found. Searching furiously in my bag, my fingers came up against only a few stray orange Tic Tacs and a copy of Judy Blume’s “Deenie.”
The cashier watched with a bored expression, three-inch nails poised over the enormous register. My father began to shrug his shoulders and announce that we’d be leaving empty-handed, because if the gift card was gone there was really no point in our being there, but then I said, “Wait. What if I know the number of the gift card?”
The cashier faltered. “I guess…” she began, looking doubtful.
She and my father both stared, open-mouthed, as I rattled off the 16-digit number of the gift card. It turned out that on our way to the store, when I was staring at the gift card, I had ended up memorizing it.
It was a moment out of the Twilight Zone. My father later confessed that he was the most shocked he’d ever been—and he’s usually quite stoic.
In some circles, I’ve become known for having the memory of an elephant.
Actually, I’m sort of like the Rain Man, when it comes to remembering things. I’ll call myself an idiot savant, although that term is still really offensive. I’m not bragging, by the way; I’m bad at many things, but my memory is one of my only saving graces.
People are often freaked out by the things I remember. It’s weird to be able to recall things that people have told you years ago. When a friend mentions a friend she went to elementary school with, and I immediately start guessing names—was it Alex? Susan? Grace? Meriwether?—it does, admittedly, look as though I’m a stalker.
It’s amazing how much we forget. We ask each other the same questions, receive the same answers, and still struggle to keep it in, these details of other people’s lives. People tend to be way more surprised when something is remembered than they are when it is forgotten; we seem to tell other people things with the assumption that the information will be purged in a few seconds to a few days. Not everything we say is important enough to be remembered, surely—of course there are things we’d love people to forget, things that are embarrassing and irrational and portray us in less-than-flattering ways—and if we remembered absolutely everything about people’s lives, we wouldn’t have room for important things, like calculus and French. Names are my specialty; I won’t necessarily remember word for word what people have said, how they felt, or how they seemed.
Emotions, which are sometimes icky, are the first things that I try to forget. I was doing my quinquennial bedroom purge, tearing through old binders from high school and recycling huge piles of papers, and was stunned by how much I’d forgotten in the face of how much I remembered. I could recall, of course, every character in “Northanger Abbey,” and even most of the questions on my 10th grade chemistry exam, but it wasn’t until I saw my tear-stained and slightly crumpled algebra homework that I truly remembered—truly and viscerally felt—sitting in class, feeling the panic of not understanding numbers, feeling tears slide out of my eyes and onto the page.
Memories are precious. Our brains throw out most of the things that we’ll never use again, and that’s good, but it might be nice to sometimes remember things about ourselves and our friends that are more mundane: the tedium of long car rides on which someone told me about her mother’s double major; the feeling of walking home to the bookstore on a Friday after school, armed with orange Tic Tacs and Judy Blume books; the taste of the food my sister and I ate at our grandparents’ house; the dread of vocabulary quizzes and the anxiety over how to spell “catastrophe.” Maybe names and numbers anchor me to those unremarkable details that are actually somewhat astounding; names are bound up in a big web of associations and intricate pictures from the past. I don’t like forgetting; names and personal facts are just concrete enough for me to convince myself that I haven’t really lost anything.
But the one thing I cannot for the life of me recall are the courses you’re taking this semester. I swear, that stuff just goes in one ear and out the other. So don’t be offended, please, if I ask you that question over and over again: at least I know your mother’s middle name.
Davis is a member of the Class of 2017.