Why I Can't Delete a Digital Moment I Don't Even Remember

After a breakup, a half-minute-long forgotten iPhone recording takes on new meaning. 
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It’s been about three months since things ended, and for the most part, I try to avoid the remnants of him. I threw out his toothbrush. I don’t go to our favorite bar where we had our first date. When I have to be in his neighborhood, I refuse to walk down his street. I don’t listen to the radio on Sundays, because that’s something we would do together and now the sound of our favorite announcer’s voice makes my skin crawl.

But for some reason, I just can’t delete this one digital file. This stupid reminder of a thing I don’t even remember in the first place.

We spent our last weekend wandering around the city. It was one of those glorious spring weekends where you finally start to let yourself believe that the warmer weather is here to stay. I remember standing at the crosswalk on Prince Street waiting for the light to change, his arms wrapping around me like a heavy knit wool sweater in winter. We walked all the way to Brooklyn Bridge Park and sat opposite the sparkling East River, laughing at the toddlers with their faux hawks and their leather high tops. We went to a concert, we stopped into a comedy show. We vowed to do more and to see more. We found that amazing bar where the taps had metal pipes for handles. I can still taste that dark, chocolaty beer with just a hint of cherry swirling on my tongue.

I’ve heard people say that when you’re about to die, your whole life flashes before your eyes. But this death was of a thing, not a person. And the memories rushing in were what I was left with that following Saturday afternoon when he walked into my apartment, kissed me on the mouth, sat me down on my bed, and with my hands in his, he told me it was over.

It was more than I could comprehend. Some days, it still is. I find myself searching for him on the sidewalk and in my mind. And once I start rummaging through those old microfilms of memory, it’s hard to make myself stop.

Suddenly, I remember the recording.

I make documentary-style radio pieces, and am prone to recording sound a lot—not always with fancy gear, sometimes just with an app on my phone. And I record a lot, always with an ambitious plan that one day I’ll do something with it. I usually don’t. But for me, to hit record is to feel alive, to be moved to capture the times and places when I am happy and inspired—so much so that I want to take the moment home with me, so that later, I can go through my cherished collections like shiny pebbles brought home from the playground.

A few weeks before the big breakup, I decided to take the plunge and upgrade the operating system on my iPhone. I was annoyed because this meant clearing 3 gigabytes of valuable podcast space, or the other sound files I had cluttering the corners—the mother I’d followed through the European gallery at the Met, trying to discuss art theory with her young daughters in front of Monets and Renoirs; a particularly beautiful busker on the 2 train; a snippet of conversation, mostly filled with laughter, from my grandfather’s birthday celebration last year (it was a little late, the family was a little drunk). None of these files are recorded particularly well—you can barely hear the action above the jumbled ambient noise and the sound that clumsy fingers, surprised to be recording, make when they grip a microphone. Call me sentimental, call me a sound hoarder, but these little bundles of ones and zeros bring a smile to my face.

So I’m carefully combing through my portable catalogue to determine what I could live without, and that’s how I found it: 34 seconds of something called “drew dog beach.” I pressed play.

What you’re hearing might not sound like much, but for me, listening to this clip transports me to a place with weight and dimension and color. It’s mostly me trying to get my microphone-shy boyfriend to talk. To tell me what he feels in this moment when the relationship is new and everything seems right and beautiful. He’s laughing at me because I’m being ridiculous, although he was always a man of few, well-chosen words. And then the kiss. He probably kisses me to get me to stop trying to make him talk. I guess it worked, because that’s where the recording cuts off. But it’s a sound so sweet, and so genuine. In an instant, I smell saltwater, grass, and his shampoo. I feel skin and the late summer air and the feeling of not being afraid to be completely myself in front of someone I care about.

But the thing is, I have absolutely no memory of this even happening. I don’t remember taking this recording. I don’t remember being there. Drew dog beach? I gave it that name, but I have no idea what it means. The file has a date on it, but I wouldn’t have needed that to know it’s a scene from early in our relationship. It was late summer and Drew and I would take night walks along the Hudson, the sound of crickets reverberating all the way to the Palisades. It was a habit that started on our first date. We left the bar, dizzy on sour ale and nerves, and headed for the water, fumbling at expressing how we were feeling with our words and our limbs.

But something stuck, and things were good. Our river walks continued through the winter. We’d stand on the pier, huddled in down, watching drifts of snow make rippling patterns in the wind before disappearing off the ledge and into the angry, gray water. It’s hard to think of now, but it was a happy time. So I remember what it felt like to be in this 34 seconds of sound. But the actual experience is gone from my memory. And to listen to it, to be reminded of something I lost and miss, is agony.

I’ve been grasping at shreds of what I do recall, trying to solve the mystery of how this sound bite even exists. Lately my line of questioning has turned from how do I have it to why am I saving it. Is this recording a gift, a souvenir of a time that I loved? Or is it there to remind me that I’m still sad? If I delete it, will I be free of this memory that I don’t actually have?

Until I decide, it sits on my phone, a handprint in cement, evidence that we existed. Maybe one day I will be brave enough to erase it, the cement melting into sand, the handprint blurring in the rising tide.
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Jessica Miller is a writer and radio producer based in New York.

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