Past Present

by Jim Nelson profile

Fiction
2022

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Winter TADS Jam Review: Past Present, January 20, 2022

We have a conception of ourselves that lives like we do, in the present, open to each new moment, brimming with our mornings, redolent with our evenings. Possibility always afresh a decision away, a self instantiated in each choice. Others have a conception of us that lives like we did, in memories, full of who we acted, bloated with yesterdays, stained with mistakes. Identity as a never ending apology.

Past Present opens upon this desolation desperation, as our protagonist, recently divorced, returns to take their things, as if they can take anything away from what has transpired: “Two years ago, we moved into this old farm house on the edge of a corn field to build a family and grow old together. Now it stands empty, haunted by a few odds-and-ends, dust, and a lot of regrets.” What is left to reclaim? The empty house echoes the answer: “Funny that this is called the “living room,” as it’s now so bereft.” Houses, in which we live, but do we really? At the end, what do we have to show for it? “Built into the wall over the tub is the little soap nook my wife used for all the soap slivers that accumulated over time. They’re all gone now.” Every dream, each anticipation, lies scattered, beaten, removed, an embarrassment of recall recoil: “This room was always a project-to-be for us. When we moved in, we had big plans for it, big designs. As time rolled on, and our ambitions and marriage cooled, we wound up filling it with boxes and old junk.” Relationships, with all their idealism, fade into the quotidian, with the thousand little ways we fail to live each day. Just boxes and boxes of stuff accumulating to nothing, weeks and weeks of us tattering to “the spills and messes of three years lost.”

Regret brings its wistful cousin hindsight, a fantasy of all the little things you could have done different, the present tense person you could be, if you could be back then. Past Present indulges the hope, letting the protagonist slip back into the past, flitter between ourselves as agency and ourselves as story, mending at everything, frantic to fix anything. Each mistake, signified in an object, something you could put in its rightful place, some action you can take to right the course: your wife’s vase, smashed in anger, you can pick up the pieces, “set the vase on the end table. It looks right. A brief rain shower of warm nostalgia sprinkles down inside me.” Destroy the napkin with the waitress’ name on it, annihilate the affair! The “rambling and raw apology” to an argument that you tore up, you can restore it, have her read it. Everything in its place, you can do it, you can be who both of you wanted you to be: “Something clicks—finally, a sense that I’ve made things whole, that I’ve revised our past enough to correct our mistakes and mend the tears. / No cheating or screaming. No early morning stuporous baths. No smashed vases, no discarded promises.”

But damage, cannot be undone, the damage most of all to their son Toby, as the past and present slip into a fugue: “This is the morning Toby ran away from home—after enduring our yelling and arguments and banging on locked doors and late night drunken returns home, daddy sleeping on the sofa and mama hiding her empties in the backyard shed, this is the morning Toby ran away from home.” Finding his backpack in a field, reminiscing on a disappearance which you could not force to disappear, the game forces you to WAIT as the protagonist swallows the emotive upsurge.

Yet we don’t give away our delusions so easily, because those delusions, they are us, aren’t they? All this suffering, as if it’s just a thing you can move past, as if there is again the present tense you can liberated that is freed of pasts: “The vase and flowers are gone. The old teacup has vanished. I’ve nothing to show her. I’ve left her nothing to remember me by other than some foul memories. / Last time we spoke to the sheriff department, they told us Toby is still being treated as a missing person case. I miss my little boy so much. / Some things in this explained world go unexplained. It feeds the doubt in our minds, and we start giving weight to its mystery. We listen to the very voice we should be shutting out. / I’ve seen all I need to see here. It’s time to open this door and put this place behind me. Down the front steps and past the oak, there’s something out there waiting for me to believe in it.” In this optimistic gesture, our protagonist’s solipsism leads them to shutting out the voice that haunts them, assured that they could put all the suffering behind them, find some self “waiting for me to believe in it.” How little we change from what happens to us. We cannot go into the past to save ourselves, because we are still that person. The oddness of being loathed: knowing that someone who knows you loathes you, that that’s a possible experience of who you are. Perhaps symbolically, our ability to travel to the past is described as: “I find myself surrounded by a stifling darkness crowding me out. The only exit I can sense is out.” A shadow you can climb out of. The darkness crowding us out: is there an out? Someone leaving us, the wish we could do the same.

Because, ultimately, all the protagonist’s attempts to fix the past are vague gestures, even selfish ones, aimed more at an embarrassment at failure than a genuine introspection on a broken love: “We painted it once after moving in, and a second time when my wife decided she didn’t like the first color. The paint I bought was cheap, and the first coat bled through the second, giving the fixture a bland dun-colored stain.” You try to fix your mistakes to appease your partner, but the effort isn’t there, the effect is cheap, and the wallpapering peels to reveal what the object now forever signifies, a compromised compromise. The relationship isn’t a *thing* to be fixed, it’s you, it’s them, it’s the innocent people you have hurt along the way. The protagonist’s failure to reflect is the falseness of its ending hope: “One day the cup slipped as she washed off the soap gunk, and it smashed to pieces in the kitchen sink. Her next bath was when she lost the ring.” So the protagonist puts the ring in their wife’s drinking cup, a passive aggressive attempt to bring things back together. But it wasn’t the ring that was lost. It was her. It was their son. And it was, is, the protagonist.