“Relive the wonder. Relive the magic. Relive the excitement.” The sugary voice on the TV gave Cisco an uneasy feeling. He searched for the remote to turn it off.
“Your best years don’t have to be behind you,” the TV continued as Cisco dug through the cushions. “Render your memories today and relive the happiest days of your life. Youthtopia is waiting.”
Cisco shut the TV off just as Peter walked into the living room.
“Louisa’s tucked in and my mom’s on her way. Are you ready,” Peter looked at Cisco standing with a throw in his hands, “you don’t even have your shoes on?”
Cisco turned to Peter; he looked so handsome in his navy blue button down. He smiled. He thought about that commercial again. These, right now, were his happiest days.
“Yes, I’m ready, or at least I will be when your mom gets here,” he said. Just then the doorbell rang. He sighed a little and finished folding throw the sofa and went to grab his shoes.
Peter’s excitement at having a night out with friends was endearing, Cisco thought to himself. It made him happy to see him so happy. Cisco enjoyed the company and needed to get his mind to lighter things.
Peter chatted the entire ride to the restaurant. “Well my mother’s been wondering if she should pull from her retirement fund to get her memories rendered. She said her friends were doing it.”
“Doesn’t that cost, a lot? I don’t know, the whole thing creeps me out.” Cisco said.
Peter sighed, then said, “It’s not like she has to stay in the whole time, we can take her out for like holidays and birthdays and other special occasions.”
Cisco knew not to press but decided to just add one more thought.
“I would just miss your mom, you know. Her spending all that time as a child, well, I don’t know, I bet she’d come out of it like a child, you know, less like your mom and more like your mom at 4.”
Peter rolled his eyes, “That’s not going to happen, they’ve tested it before it went to market, I’m sure.”
“It just seems like a fad and so many people are wasting their money on it. Why would you want to spend all your time in your childhood memories?” Cisco shook his head unconsciously at the thought.
By the time they reached their friends, the conversation had shifted from Youthtopia to present concerns, like how Louisa had finger-painted a family portrait this morning and how Peter finally hired a new assistant professor for the department. The knot in Cisco’s stomach had all but eased by the time they were sitting in a corner booth in a “coffee shop by day, bar by night” establishment, with four of their closest friends.
“I just got my memories rendered yesterday. I’m really excited to see how they come out,” Jenna took a sip of her wine. “I figure,” she continued, “I should get them extracted and stored now before they fade too much, ya’ know.”
The warm glow of the faux incandescent lamps gave the room an almost sepia tone. Cisco had noticed this about three sips ago. He tried to focus on light fixtures and the ambiance of the room instead of the present conversation.
“Wow! That’s crazy, I didn’t realize they did that so early, like I just figured you’d have to be actually ready to retire.” Peter said.
Jenna laughed, “Well they’re actually encouraging it earlier now. I mean maybe not as early as I did it, but I like being prepared.” Jenna gracefully waived her wine though the air.
Cisco noticed her tipsy air. He loved Jenna, but sometimes she was oblivious and insensitive; at least that’s how he felt about her in that moment. He tried to change the subject.
“Anyone want an order of stuffed mushrooms?” Cisco pulled a menu from the table beside them. “I’m getting hungry.”
Mari leaned in, “So did you see any of your memories when they were extracting them? I haven’t really paid attention to the process.”
Jenna proudly answered her question, “Oh no, they just take your memories and use them as a framework, you know. Like they build the world around you but it’s not always just your memories — it’s not enough. I was asleep the whole time. I’ve heard some people dream vivid dreams but I didn’t, I’ve never really been a dreamer.”
Mari nodded. Cisco shifted in his chair. Then he said, a little too loudly, “Or what about these Korean BBQ wings? I haven’t had them in a while.”
“What are you going on about, Francisco?” Jenna said, hardly hiding her annoyance in her voice.
A light chuckle lifted Cisco into a state of numbness. Mari quickly added, “Mmm, wings sound great right now.”
That night Cisco tossed and turned all night. Why did it bother him so much? Was it the thought of some engineer seeing personal memories and constructing a world they thought reflected your experiences? Maybe the idea of escaping reality by living in a virtual representation of a semi-true memory bothered him the most. He couldn’t decide, but his anxiety about the whole thing relentlessly tormented him.
Cisco drifted between sleep and consciousness. He heard the sounds of music playing on a radio and bacon sizzling on a cast iron pan. He felt the warm breeze through an open window. Cisco got out of his bed and walked towards the door of his bedroom. It opened to his mother’s kitchen. The yellow tile reflected the sunlight through the orange glass of a window. Everything had a golden toned warm light as he walked closer to the woman in a yellow apron with white trim. His mother loved that apron. The rhythmic melody on the radio soothed him. He smelled coffee brewing. He watched his mother’s hips sway lightly as she worked. She hadn’t turned to him — as if he didn’t exist to her — and kept working. Suddenly, the silky voice of the Youthtopia commercial broke through, “Render your memories today and you too can live the happiest years of your life again, and again, and again, and again…”
Cisco’s heart pounded, his vision blurred, and he felt sweat roll down his forehead. A familiar marimba melody loudly played. Cisco covered his ears. His mother had disappeared.
“Mama, wait, Mama!” he screamed. Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder and realized he was back in his bed. Peter had his hand on Cisco’s shoulder.
“Darling, you okay?” Peter asked as he leaned over him.
The dream occupied his thoughts most of the morning. Peter ignored Cisco’s worried face for most of the morning, but by lunchtime he couldn’t take it anymore. Cisco watched Louisa swing through the kitchen window, “What’s going on, Francisco?”
“Nothing.” Cisco said.
“Don’t brush it off as nothing. I can tell when you’re upset. Was it Jenna? Are you upset because I didn’t stand up for you?” Peter put his hand on Cisco’s shoulder.
“What? No. Jenna’s a mean drunk, that’s not new.”
“Then what is it?”
“I just don’t understand why everyone is okay with shoving all the elderly into a sick fabricated world of their childhood. It’s bizarre and insulting.”
“You asked me.”
“I’m sorry, I’m listening. Really.”
Cisco took a deep breath and continued.
“It’s like saying that when we grow old we’re basically children so why not just act like it as if the life we’ve built after our childhood doesn’t matter.”
Peter sat down on a barstool.
“I don’t think that’s the intention, Cisco. It’s more like a chance to relive and remember all the wonder and joy of childhood. Look at Louisa, she’s so happy all the time, not a care in the world. Don’t you ever want to feel that again? Don’t you want to look at the world with wonder and excitement, like it’s the first time you’re seeing it?” Peter smiled at the thought.
“No? Why not?”
“Was childhood that happy for you? Was it for anyone?”
“I think so, at least that’s how I remember it.”
“Well Peter, what if it wasn’t only the happy parts? What if you remember yelling and screaming? What if you remember feeling small and helpless? Does any of that sound familiar?”
“Well, I guess there were—”
Cisco cut Peter off.
“What about all the times you were terrified at irrational things, like monsters under the bed, or tormented by bigger kids, or worse, what about people who were tormented by adults, what about those people?” Cisco’s face reddened and his voice grew louder.
“I’m sure the engineers adjust—”
Cisco cut Peter off again.
“That’s my point, it’s not real if those parts are taken out. But what’s worse, if all you can remember, what does your rendered world look like?”
Peter’s eyes grew wider. He shook his head dumbfounded.
“What if your strongest memories were being the last person picked up from preschool every day? What if you only remember being outside by yourself while your parents argued in the house? And all you could do was sing little made up songs to yourself so you could drown out the fighting? What if your only memory of your mother’s face is of her lying in a coffin? What if you remember smashed dishes and large hands hitting you? What if you worked your whole life to leave the world of your childhood in the past? What if you’ve told yourself you don’t have to remember? And for the most part you haven’t. You haven’t thought about those things, you haven’t thought about the black eyes, the lonely nights, the way you learned how to wash your own clothes at 5 because the teacher asked if you needed clothes since you wore the same shirt two weeks in a row because your dad was too busy working and drinking and who knows what to do laundry. But it’s okay, because you don’t need to remember— oh wait, let’s record all of this, so you can never forget about the nights you ate three saltine crackers for dinner because your dad had fallen asleep before making dinner.”
Peter’s eyes were filled with tears. He stood up to hug Cisco. Cisco hid his face in Peter’s shoulder. He sobbed to sobs, then took a deep breath. He lifted his head to rest his chin on Peter’s shoulder. Peter hugged him tighter. Cisco opened his eyes and noticed an open letter on the counter by Peter’s barstool.
Cisco read the letter from where he stood in Peter’s embrace. “Hey Peter, We can’t wait to see you at the rendering appointment for you and your husband on June 22 at 2 P.M. By paying in full you’re also eligible for memory expansion! We can’t wait to see you at your appointment. Happy Memories, Christina with Youthtopia.”