January 27th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Happy Rabbit Hole Day, the Day You All Pretend You Live My Real Life

For those of you who missed the clues that are doubtless all over your Friends list, today is the 2nd annual Livejournal Rabbit Hole Day, the day when everybody's supposed to post something deliberately surreal, weird, or impossible, as if they were posting from down the rabbit hole from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But then, heck, I do that every couple of months, and I really do have a couple of things on tap that I wanted to write about more pressingly. And of the two, it occurred to me that one of them does fit the theme, because it is about a time when I didn't go down the rabbit hole, the bloody rabbit hole came up around me.

My friend nancylebov was in town for a convention. Being, back then, from even further east-coast than she lives now, she urgently wanted to try something local, something that you can't affordably get back on the coast because the ingredients can't be as fresh. After brief discussion, what she settled on was a good-quality steak. This was convenient for me, because just a couple of miles from my apartment, next door to my favorite book store at the time, was a steak place that I ate at at least once a week. It was part of a small chain that I'm pretty sure no longer exists, called Stewart Anderson's Cattle Company -- imagine Longhorn Steak House with a much more upscale decor. So we jumped onto the highway, drove down there ... and reality went all wonky on me.

The restaurant wasn't there. OK, these things happen, even though I had just most recently eaten there a couple of days before. Neither was the building. Neither was the lot. The restaurant at which I'd been eating every week for most of a year had always been on a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the largest strip mall in north county and some low-cost apartment units. When we got there this time, the apartment units were right up against the edge of the strip mall parking lot. And no, there weren't more of them freshly built; same apartments, same number of them. It was as if space itself had folded and swalled up roughly 150 feet of frontage road, all the way back to the property line. This creeped me out intensely, as she'll no doubt attest, because there was absolutely no way I could be wrong about this. I'd been going to the bookstore next door to buy science fiction paperbacks pretty nearly every week for nine years, so I knew the lay of the land. I clearly and unambiguously remember the Sinclair gas station that was torn down before they built the restaurant there. I ate at that restaurant every week. So for the very land that the restaurant was on to no longer be there was absolutely unimaginable.

Eventually she got hungry enough to pressure me hard to get back on the highway and run a search spiral, to hit each exit in both directions, because obviously my memory was faulty. I let her talk me into this, but I'm telling you as I was telling her at the time, I have so many inter-related memories with that restaurant and the properties around it, for so many years of my life, that no, I couldn't possibly be remembering it wrong. But we found it anyway. Two exits east of there. So OK, I was wrong after all, right? Not so fast. The "correct" location would have been absolutely impossible for me to forget, for three reasons. For one thing, it was at the same highway exit that I'd lived at for my entire life; I knew every inch of that frontage road. For another, a friend of the family owned the land that that restaurant was now on; if anything had been built there, I would have heard about it, and I had no memory associating that restaurant with anything I'd heard from my family. As best as I can reconstruct, what was supposed to be where the restaurant ended up, in my memories, was an abandoned, no longer used, roadside fruit and vegetable stand.

But the third reason is even more compelling than that. Approaching the restaurant from the direction I would have approached it, not just every time I ate there but five days a week as I would have driven past it on my way to work, there was a hysterically funny joke that begged to be made. Because of the where the sign poles for it and the nearly a century-old small family business next door were, when seen from the road the two signs overlapped and blended together that they looked like one sign: Steward Anderson's Cattle Company Animal Hospital. And there is no way I could have been eating fresh steaks there, every week, and driven past it five more times a week in all weather, without seeing that obvious joke. That is just flatly incompatible with the way my head works and the way my world works.

Yes, I know how insane this sounds. Yes, I know that it seems to you like a much simpler, and therefore more probably, hypothesis that I remembered the location of the restaurant wrong that one time, went defensive, confabulated a metric ton of memories to justify my mistake, and those confabulated memories pushed aside any real memories. And I try really hard to make myself believe that. But it's hard to sustain that belief, because (as someone who fought against the whole Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax for most of a decade) I've done a whole lot of studying of how memory works and both the likelihood of and limits of confabulation, and I've never run into a case where the memories were that detailed, and that interwoven with so many important elements of the person's life. If I could confabulate those memories, then I have no reason to trust any of my memories. I'm not sure I have any more memories of my ex-wife than I have to back up my memories of where that restaurant used to be and how the parcels of land used to be laid out.

It's a very disconcerting feeling. And no, I didn't make this up for Livejournal Rabbit Hole Day, this is really what I remember.