Believing in the past is an act of faith, and I am a raging heretic.
Hear me out.
Assuming that 2019 existed, my friend Benny told me about the Last Thursday Theory in our sophomore year of high school. We were shooting the shit outside our music classroom when he introduced the conjecture. “How can you prove,” he asked me, his hiking boots warping in their linoleum reflection, “that the universe wasn’t created last Thursday? Think about it. You just pop into existence with all your memories and stuff and live your life like it’s normal.” He stretched his arms above his head, exposing greasy pit stains and blushing, sweaty biceps. I looked at him, then down at the spotless hallway floor, light-headed from alpine deodorant and plumes of lemony Febreze.
“How would you be able to tell?”
At the time, I dismissed it as total bullshit. Sure, I couldn’t prove that I didn’t just materialize, fully formed, into the music hallway, but at the time it didn’t really matter. There were cacophonous renditions of Wonderwall to learn, lines of the Tempest to misquote, and digits of the tedious Unit Circle to fractionally forget. I dismissed the Thursday Theory as a weird comment from an eccentric friend. Nowadays, though, I return to the conspiracy in my Twin XL, scratching nervous rivulets into my ashy, scabbed calves.
Existentialism is a slippery slope. Why does the starting time have to be Thursday? Who’s to say the universe didn’t start last Monday? Or yesterday? Or an hour ago? Who’s to say it isn’t starting now! And now! And now! ?
By this logic, trusting memory is like fishing for mirages on hot asphalt. The closer you get to the slick iridescence without it disappearing, the more you trust that the illusion is concrete. However, no matter how much you believe in it, the mirage always melts in the end. It takes faith to believe in the unprovable past.
Neo, can you hear me? Which pill did I swallow?
Despite my dogmatic distrust, I look at old pictures a lot. My favorites are candids from the summer before college, sunburnt and smiling with my high school friends. Predictably, the subjects reveal more than the actual photos. One special boy makes himself at home at my kitchen counter, at home in my grandparents’ pool and in my blankets and in my arms, at home in my life over and over with no pictorial intention of leaving. I’m in those pictures too, filled with lotto-winner love, amazed at how he stays and how fervidly I want him to.
We planned out our family in my camera roll, recording video diaries for our unborn children and screenshotting Floridian retiree TikToks. As the months ticked by we became more and more enmeshed, creating a beautiful tandem past. I finally knew how my life was going to go. You can see my conviction in each post-sex kiss cam, each selfie of the two of us brushing our teeth. My future, my happiest future, was him.
And then we broke up and he attempted suicide, and the future and past stopped existing.
Why did I stop believing in time? Why am I removing myself from my own history?
It’s easier to confront impersonal concepts like time and space than my delicate, vulnerable self. You see, I didn’t drive my partner to suicide because he and the girl who broke him lie outside the realm of last Thursday. Secretly, I’m terrified of my internalized vengeance, and pleading guilty of hurting him would destroy me. But in leaving that girl in a liminal past, I free the present self I live in from blame, fear, and regret.
When I look at old pictures now, those smiling kids I see are strangers. For all I know, they may not even exist. They were a product of a time beyond last Thursday, after all.
Predictably, my moral relief came at a cost. I demolished my universe and reality and sanity, tearing dowels from spokes of omnipotent tinker toys. I had one memorable panic attack in the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, convinced that a chunk of the ceiling was glitching in and out. My dreams were plagued by TV static, of Chuck-E-Cheese ticket munchers guzzling family photo albums. I was living from Thursday to Thursday, existing in foundationless fragments.
Here’s the thing about my essay: it’s not unfamiliar. You’ve heard these quack theories before: what if the universe is a simulation, what if you’re the only real person alive, what if you’re stuck in the matrix or a deathbed flashback or someone else’s groundhog day? However, only some of you gave those theories credibility.
I admire those who’ve never been truly convinced that they’re really just a brain in a vat. Who settle into their flawed selves and realities with grace, content with the way they’ve shaped their living. I butchered mine, so I’m on the lam, throwing myself into conspiracies to hide from what I’ve lost. It’s a fragile living, but it buys me time.
You, my dear, have much more strength than I do.