— This is the author’s very first literary award. —
NEW MILLENNIUM AWARD FOR NONFICTION
“False Memory” by Marsh Rose of Cloverdale, California
Marsh will receive $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.
By Marsh Rose
For almost three decades I have believed in this memory: when I was 40 years old I fell in love with a bush pilot in Alaska. He was rugged and unique and fearless. He thought I was amusing, a genuine California hippie, and he invited me to visit, showed me the sights and sent me home. But blinded by the wonder of him, I pursued him shamelessly. When I went back to see him and found out he had another woman I was mortified, I was angry, I recovered. Later, when I learned he had died in a plane crash, I was sad. And that was that.
And that, as it turns out, was not what happened.
I’ve kept a journal since I was 13. They’re piled up in boxes along the back wall of my bedroom closet, a vital but unremarkable presence, like my toothbrush or my shoes. Now and then I dip into that collection of notebooks and binders, words on napkins from truck stops or in the margins of maps, but usually the boxes remain closed, sometimes for years.
I knew that somewhere in that running narrative of my life was the brief story of my big romantic tragicomedy, me and the bush pilot. I never talked about it. Making a fool of myself over a man when I was approaching middle age was an embarrassing segue best forgotten. But in a nostalgic mood one frigid December afternoon, when the northern California monsoons were streaming my windows with rain and even the dog wouldn’t venture outside, I decided to relive the full measure of that experience in Alaska. So I fished that journal out of its box, draped a shawl across my shoulders and curled up on the couch to read.
I was feeling fragile in the spring of 1989. My long-term relationship had ended the previous year and there seemed to be no hope of finding love again. I would say that I would never need a man. However, if pressured I would admit that I wanted one. Wary of the singles scene with its illness and treachery, I remained lonely and alone until I heard of a magazine for women looking for romance. It featured bachelors in Alaska, the place where single men outnumber women by three to one. Meeting someone in absentia, from a distance, would be safe and controlled so I got a copy and there he was, a lanky, shaggy-haired Alaskan version of Crocodile Dundee. As I read my journal I smiled to think of the way I had gasped at the sight of him, standing barefoot on the pontoon of his float plane on a summer day, shirtless, innocently holding a slippery, wet, freshly-caught salmon at the level of his navel.
I wrote to him and he wrote back. There’s no copy of that exchange in my journal but I remember being galvanized by his response. He wanted to talk. How my heart pounded when the phone rang and I heard his voice for the first time.
So we began a telephone and letter correspondence. In my journal I wrote about haunting the mailbox for his envelopes filled with photos and stories of life in the harsh bowl of the Alaskan interior. But as I turned the pages in my notebook, the story wasn’t evolving as I remembered it. I heard a distant note of alarm and confusion. In my memory I was thrilled with the attention of this Renaissance man, fantasized about an affair with him, dreamed of life in the “last frontier.” So what was this journal entry from a few weeks after our first conversation?
May 20, 1989
He phoned last night at 11:30 p.m. and we didn’t hang up until after 1. I cringe to think of his phone bills. I know he’s interested in me but I get in my own way. That long, grainy Georgia southern drawl. I wonder if his father voted for Wallace. Hell, he was old enough to vote when Wallace ran in ’72. Maybe HE voted for Wallace! And he named one of his daughters Sheena Kay. Not only did he name her Sheena Kay, he calls her Sheena Kay. I mean, at least call her Elizabeth or Mary. The poor girl is going to end up wearing square dance outfits and singing karaoke in a biker bar.
When had I forgotten these doubts about him, this ridicule? I remembered only being swept up in the fantasy of him, blinded by love and oblivious to his indifference. Feeling unsettled by the unexpected tone, I read on.
Four months after our first conversation Rusty invited me to visit. I thought I remembered my reaction – as ditzy as a schoolgirl and behaving like one, raiding camping supply outfitters and used clothing stores for wear that might be suitable in Alaska. I remember my anticipation on that flight north, certain Rusty was falling in love with me as I was with him. But while my journal indeed told a love story, it wasn’t the one I remembered. Two days after I landed in Fairbanks I sat on his deck in the noonday sun with my journal on my lap and wrote.
August 16, 1989
Alaska has burrowed into my soul. Like an iceberg its depth is hidden. I felt it when I stood beside the river near his cabin. There was a shift and the landscape itself became sentient. Something darkly feminine seemed alive in the woods, the lumbering clouds overhead, water that appeared to have an intentional rhythm. I suddenly felt I knew what men experience when they fall in love with a beautiful, unattainable woman, those who invite a chase but can never be captured and will never be an ally. I craved her acceptance. The sense of presence dissipated. I decided it was my imagination, my thoughts moved to Rusty standing beside me in his lumberjack gear, all high cheekbones and auburn hair and wide-apart green eyes. But when I turned from the sight of him back to the river, my awareness of her returned, watching me, dispassionate. She’s been on the periphery ever since, coming up in dreams, sinking down like an ancient coelacanth.
And sadly, while I am in love, it’s not with Rusty. The social, cultural, spiritual and emotional chasms between us are too vast. I can get lost in his arms, I can thrill to flying with him in his little plane over the Denali Preserve near his home but lust and adventure will yield to impatience. His right-wing politics clash with my liberal attitudes. If a force consumes me, it isn’t Rusty. Alaska. I try to capture her with words and she flings herself against my cage, her hind legs scrabble, dig in, her claws draw blood from my opened palm. Or worse, she pulls in, tucks under, fetal position, silent, eyes like slits. Finally I give up, stalk away, heels down, not caring anymore damn it. Then when I’m beyond the realm of consciousness, asleep, there she sits at her opened door with her tail twitching. She stretches and saunters out, passes me, languorous, not bothering even to graze my cheek.
Reading my journal I felt as if I were in the darkroom again with my father, an amateur photographer. He taught me how to develop a black and white photo. We would plunge a sheet of exposed paper into a developing solution and swirl it until slowly, amazingly, an image would swim up out of the fluid, at first dim and indistinct and then more and more clear.
August 21, 1989
Last night I jokingly remarked that I was scattered all over his cabin and didn’t know how I’d pack up. He said, “Yes, you’re scattered all over this cabin. You’re on the deck writing, on the riverbank looking into the water. You’re with me trying to tear this bed apart and I don’t know how I can watch you pack up and leave. Can you stay awhile longer? Just one more week?”
That passage told a story so dissonant from my memory, for one moment I wondered if I’d made it up, violating my own rule about crucial honesty in my journals. But as I read the words I heard his voice saying them. And my journal brought back from the distant past the way he held my eyes as I prepared to board the flight home. “We’re not over yet,” he said solemnly. “I’ll see you again.”
In the following weeks, back home, although I never mentioned it in so many words, in my writing I sensed in myself a softening, a change. Qualities that I once found worthy of ridicule about Rusty were now endearing.
October x, 1989
We’ve spent so much time talking on the phone, I think I’m beginning to develop a Georgia accent. I’ll sound like a character from Gone With The Wind, my all-time favorite movie. I like its slow, lazy tone. Rusty carried his phone outside tonight so I could hear the sounds of crashing birch trees as the beavers worked on reinforcing their dam in the river. I was entranced by those small animals with their industry and determination. Rusty says that’s what it takes to fit in there, animal and human. I wonder if I could measure up?
He urged me to return, because I loved Alaska and because he felt our relationship had a future. Would I give him a chance? Yes, we were different but it was the heart that mattered. And didn’t I want to experience Alaska in the winter? Christmas in the frozen north is an acquired taste, he said seductively, like raw oysters, best licked and swallowed in the company of an experienced friend. He described that view from his deck, the light on the water and how the deepening autumn was changing the colors in the forest, always reminding me that I was welcome there “in my home and in my arms.” What force had caused me to skew my memory so that I was the supplicant? A pulse began to hammer in my throat.
November 10, 1989
Yesterday I got a hefty package from Rusty. Along with his photos and letter were the help wanted ads from the Anchorage Daily News, the only paper for an area the size of Texas and New England combined, with jobs that might appeal to me circled in red. Maybe he’s right. The pay is better in Alaska and I can see myself putting down roots there with Rusty, the very essence of the place, as my guide and mentor. When I think of going back, my blood sings in my veins. My best friend Dana cried on the phone. She said whatever happens, my life will never be the same. Mom and Dad are upset. They refer to Rusty as “that man.” When I speak of Alaska it’s a place on the map. It’s snow and ice, sun and shadow, wind and the tracks of animals. But in my soul Alaska is ancient artifacts and incantations, peace and fury. She lives in me now. And Rusty understands that part of me. It’s a part of him too.
I looked up from reading, shook off the images and took a few deep breaths to slow my heartbeat. My living room swam back into view, my books on their shelves, my dog curled up asleep beside me. If my altered version of this experience ever fought with this story of what really happened, my false memory won and the truths sunk down below the surface of my awareness. Those truths, now sparked, began to ignite others. They flickered in the back of my mind, not quite within reach. If this much of my memory was awry what would I learn now?
December 22, 1989
I am home, shaken but safe. Rusty is history. I was in the cabin alone at 10 a.m., dawn was a salmon pink line on the horizon, Rusty had gone to work and the phone rang. The machine picked up. A woman called him sweetheart, said the homeowners had accepted their offer on the house they were buying together. My blood froze. And there was more. It had been there all along. On a shelf behind the coffee cups, a large paper bag filled with letters. Now with the sound of that phone message still in my ears I sensed what they were. All bets were off now. All decent behavior. I spilled them onto Rusty’s scarred kitchen table. There were dozens and dozens on different stationery with different handwriting. The earliest postmarks were from nine months ago, when he appeared in that magazine. The most recent were mailed last week. I read. Some were casual, some were funny, some read like poetry and others were barely literate but all were from women who believed they were in a serious relationship with Rusty. The most recent, written on thick cream stock paper in delicate handwriting, was heart-wrenching. It was from a high school teacher in Oregon. She had quit her job! She was packing! And then he phoned to say he met another woman, a film producer named Susan. My name isn’t Susan and I can’t work my own camera. My letters were in there too. I felt nauseated. When Rusty called me all these months, half the time he wasn’t even in Alaska. He was calling from different towns along the west coast, cruising around meeting women in airports, homes, cafes and motels. Those gorgeous descriptions of the view from his deck as the seasons changed, were they all fabrications? Was he really in some woman’s bed in Seattle while she was in the kitchen making a post-coital snack?
The dog awoke suddenly and looked up at me. I must have made a sound of shock or surprise. I reassured her that I was OK – I probably sounded insincere – and went back to reading.
Each woman got the photographs. Some got the help wanted ads! Each one thought she was the love of his life. One was living in town with her teenage son, expecting to buy a house with Rusty. Her name wasn’t Susan either.
I was more frightened than angry, and packed with my fingers shaking. Then I bundled up, tucked my jeans into my boots and slipped and slid and ran to the cabin down the road. Bruce and Allison’s, I had met them. I begged a ride back to the airport with a story about a sick relative. Lies were in order. No holds barred. And I didn’t leave a farewell note. No confrontation, no accusation, why bother. Just that stack of letters on his table and the light blinking on his answering machine.
So that was the heart of the true story, the one I had been hiding from myself all these years. I needed a cushion of denial between my psyche and a painful reality. I had been duped in a dangerous game by a narcissist, possibly a sociopath. I don’t know why he did it, what pleasure he got from convincing vulnerable women that he was in love with them. I don’t know if any of the others had been furious enough to exact revenge. But reading on, I learned that something tragic had happened to one of them. It was in the news of his death, more details I had forgotten. Here in my journal was the clipping from the Anchorage Daily News, sent by that neighbor who had found my address among his belongings and thought I should know. April 21, 1990, off the island of Ruby, Alaska, two fatalities, a pilot and one passenger.
A witness saw the Maule M-5 suddenly bank left, upend and crash into the Yukon River. FAA records show that the person seated in the Pilot’s seat had his pilot license revoked in 1988 for operating a civil aircraft under the influence of alcohol. The toxicological report for this immediate incident showed that the pilot had a blood alcohol level of .195 percent. The passenger’s name is withheld pending notification of next of kin.
I shakily got up to make a cup of tea. In my mind’s eye, I was flying with Rusty on that August afternoon, looking down at the panorama of the Kahiltna Glacier 4,000 feet below. Only months after I had fled the cabin on that wintry day, he had been drunk at those controls when he pancaked into 40 feet of frigid water. Fate, blind luck and perhaps divine intervention had kept me from being the unidentified woman in the passenger seat. In Alaska, a place where personal aircraft are as common as motorcycles in the lower 48 states, where daredevil behavior is the norm and alcoholism is rampant, flying while intoxicated is not tolerated. Even jokes about it are met with narrow-eyed silence.
And that teacher in Oregon. Were it not for the overheard phone call and the telltale letters, I too might have been picking up the pieces of a shattered life. My journal showed that I thought of her more often than I thought of him in the following weeks, and considered writing to her about the lies and manipulation. But I never did. I’m not sure if I was guarding her vulnerability or my own.
After a few rocky months my journal never again mentioned me and the pilot. Soon my life in California changed for the better. I met someone to love and never went back to Alaska. Its hold on me shrunk to a well-worn copy of Robert Service’s The Spell of the Yukon. “There’s a land, oh it beckons and beckons.”
It was dusk when I closed the pages, wandered back to the closet and slipped my notebook into its place. For the next few weeks I eyed the row of journals with suspicion, as if they were jack-in-the-boxes waiting to spring another unwelcome surprise. But eventually I made peace with my false memory. We all rewrite the past now and then. Our slanted versions keep us going. Without them we might be stopped in our tracks by foolishness or shallowness or rage. I don’t know when the truth about this experience began to craze and fracture in my mind and my false memory took its protective hold. But I believe both stories are true in their own ways. They’re both now a part of my living past and my immediate present.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marsh Rose is a psychotherapist, freelance writer and college educator living in northern California. Rose’s short stories have appeared in a variety of publications in print and on-line. Her writing style is narrative nonfiction.
“False Memory” © 2018 Marsh Rose
Featured Image by Geran de Klerk.