Author’s Note: “The most precious artifacts in this world are the things that belonged to someone we loved and no longer with us. We can do our best to preserve these items, to tuck them away and save them from ruin… but on a long enough time scale, nothing is permanent. We come into this world with nothing. And we take nothing with us when we leave.”
TWO DAYS BEFORE, I didn’t even know this hard drive existed.
Losing its contents was like watching him die all over again.
My friend Ana handed me the hard drive at a wedding. It had been years. Years since I last saw her. Years since I had moved out of Baltimore. Years since she had moved out of Baltimore, out of the house she shared with Rust.
“I don’t know why I kept it. It’s for a Mac. I don’t have a Mac, so I’ve never been able to see what’s on it.”
I looked at the metal brick in my hands.
“I’ve carried it with me, from house to house—it’s amazing I still have it. I don’t even know if it still works.”
People die. Their entire existence breaks up into thousands of little pieces that fall into loved ones’ hands and living rooms. The parts of themselves they injected into the world, perhaps without even realizing: their handwriting on a whiteboard. The way they folded the corners of the pages of a book.
And over time, these pieces scatter throughout the universe and disappear. Pieces of a star exploding in slow-motion into the nothingness of space. The whiteboard is eventually erased. The pages of the book are smoothed out. Even the memories in our heads fade from overuse.
I remember the day after Rust died, taking careful stock of his room and the way he had left his things. I remember seeing the heart he had traced with a finger into the dust on his TV screen. I remember finding my hat sitting on his desk, because I had left it at his house the last time I was there, and he set it aside for me.
I was left with a lot of his things that suddenly became artifacts. A T-shirt he had lent me after I showered at his place. A dream catcher he had made me while sitting in his tent at a festival. The injector machine he taught me to use so I could roll him cigarettes while he drove on long road trips together.
His family took some things from his room and left the rest. The roommates were traumatized by what had happened—the way the CPR didn’t work, the way the first responders laughed and called him a junkie. They could only be in the room with me for short increments of time to divide and conquer the cleanup.
While people squabbled over certain pieces of him — his screen-printed artwork, or his handmade braided whips, for example — there were other pieces of him that were a burden to find a home for. The couch he died on, for instance.
We ended up smashing it with a sledgehammer. The splintered mess was carried down four flights of stairs to the dumpster in the alleyway.
WHEN I CAME HOME from the wedding, I mentally prepared myself to see what was on the hard drive. Math assignments he had been working on for school? Spreadsheets to keep track of his expenses that he had proudly shown me once? (And of course— the thought that it was simply porn didn’t escape me either.)
I found hundreds of pictures and videos from the trip he had made to Japan in 2011. He backpacked across dozens of islands to eighty-eight different shrines with his best friend Eddie. I remembered that specific number, for some reason, from when he had told me the story.
I went through every photo and video on the hard drive. I watched him walk down long roads on the edge of the ocean. I watched him write letters on the bus. I watched him laugh as he fed pigeons from his hand, looking like a scarecrow with his arms adorned with birds.
One video, in particular, I watched over and over again. Something had glitched so that the end of the last video bled into the beginning of this one. The first couple of seconds revealed sunshine leaking through a bus window. Suddenly the pixels scattered, and Rust’s face came into focus as he walked alongside the camera through the snow. He was laughing.
“Yeah, it’s kind of sad,” he said.
Eddie, his friend holding the camera, turned away from him and toward the empty graveyard ahead. He started to run, the camera jostling.
“You’re going to slip,” Rust chided.
“I’m not going to slip,” Eddie yelled back.
Then suddenly, the video fizzled out again, looping back to the beginning. Rust laughed again. “Yeah, it’s kind of sad,” he said.
SEVEN YEARS AFTER HE DIED, do I think about him all the time? I would be lying if I said I did. Most of the time it’s just like the scar on the back of my arm—not bleeding, not even stinging anymore. But sometimes I absent-mindedly draw my finger across it, and I feel the raise in my skin. I feel the way my flesh had to stitch together over the emptiness, and I am reminded of the way my life had to build around the absence.
The contents of the hard drive made me realize that I had forgotten, really, what he was like. What it was like to see him and hear him and talk to him. He wasn’t just appearing in my mind like a recording of a recording of a recording like he usually did, almost like a myth—something with a shape, but no defined edges.
But now I remembered him. I remembered the way he spoke to you when he was looking at you and smiling. I remembered the way he could focus his entire energy so completely on a project he could get lost in it. I remembered the way he drove, with one hand on the steering wheel, the other hand out the window with a freshly rolled cigarette between his fingers.
I remembered him in his entirety, including all the ways he was flawed — with the details I probably glossed over when I usually conjured his memory. The way he yelled too loudly when he drank. (“Jerry Garcia is dead!”) The way he never got along with my boyfriends. (“They can tell I have a crush on you.”) The way he wasn’t good at keeping even cacti alive. (“I’m less nurturing than a desert.”)
It was almost as if he were standing there in front of me, and all I had to do was reach my hands through the screen and feel the warmth radiate off him.
Of course, it was then that the hard drive went kaput. An old hard drive plugged into an old computer—I should’ve guessed something like this would happen. All of a sudden, just as quickly as they had appeared, the photos, the videos—everything was gone.
In the past year I’ve lost friends—good friends—to fires, drunk drivers, heart attacks, COVID-19. I’ve sat at my desk and written victim impact statements, eulogies, and endless emails to friends and family members.
You know it’s bad when your coworkers are sending you books called It’s Okay That You’re Not Okay. Friends talk to you in quiet, pitying tones when you tell them what you’ve been going through, their eyebrows slanted in a very obvious sad expression, like a clown. I want to shake them and tell them that the fact that I’ve lost so many people is not some rare, freak accident sort of thing—that on a long enough timeline, everybody’s survival rate hits 0 percent, and every person they know and love will perish too, maybe years from now, maybe tomorrow.
I sent the hard drive to a data recovery center, hoping the issue was small. It was just an old hard drive. It wasn’t crushed by a collapsing house. It wasn’t burnt to a crisp in a grease fire. It wasn’t run over by a car. It was just a piece of hardware that belonged to a man who died seven years ago.
The price of recovering the data was thousands more than I thought it would be.
“Maybe if a hundred of us chipped in twenty dollars, we could cover it,” Ana said sadly.
I wrote back and told them I couldn’t afford it. The data specialist told me that they were willing to negotiate on price.
I don’t want to undervalue your service,” I responded. “The files on that hard drive are not worth any money. They are just some of the last little pieces of my best friend who passed away seven years ago.”
A day passed. I wondered how often people came to data recovery centers with the crumbled fragments of a person’s faded life. Maybe they had a whole category of tickets they lumped these requests into. Maybe they gave discounts for “bereaving, broke best friends.”
The data specialist wrote back and told me I needed to send him thirty dollars to get it back or he would destroy it.
I USED TO ADMIRE STRENGTH MORE. But now I wonder if strength simply isn’t a choice. You have to endure. You have to accept. You have to stand up, or you get pulverized.
Last year my friend Mark died of a heart attack twelve hours after I saw him. I spent that week dissecting our last interaction, from the moment I had seen him pull up in the car, until the last second I had hugged him goodbye. Had I noticed anything different? Was there something I could have done to prevent it from happening?
At the end of the week, we all went to the funeral—masked of course. Only a limited amount of people were allowed in the viewing room at the time. I watched my Mark’s almost-four- year-old daughter—now fatherless—look at the still body on the table. She didn’t cry. She turned away with an expression I could only guess was a mix of curiosity and confusion and sat on the ground. Her mother knelt down and asked, “Do you have any questions?” But how could she—or anyone—explain to a child that her father, though lying there just a foot away, will never again hold her, kiss her, tuck her in at night?
His other child was barely one year old. I had watched this child grow up in Mark’s arms every Monday night when we video-called throughout the quarantine. This child, taking up more and more space on a computer screen every day. But whatever memories the child had of his father bouncing him in his lap will inevitably evaporate. And every day he wakes up is one more day without a dad.
“HONESTLY, the whole situation, that’s just like Rust,” Ana told me comfortingly. “I’m glad you got a chance to see his trip to Japan. It’s what he would’ve wanted. It was meant to be.”
I agreed that the whole situation, albeit tragic, weirdly matched Rust’s personality. Poetic and mischievous. Rust ran so hard after dreams he didn’t even realize he had left the ground. He told me he would do things—unbelievable things—and then I would watch, stunned, as he did them with such nonchalance. I watched him piece together a circus community out of detached Baltimore misfits. I watched him convert our friend’s Dundalk warehouse into an aerial silks studio. I even watched him install a stripper pole in his room.
I used to tell him that I had no doubts anymore—whatever he said he was going to do, he was going to do it. He told me he was going to start his own screen-printing business. He told me he was going to take all of us to Burning Man to perform in the conclave. He told me he was going to create his own Burning Man festival here on the East Coast. And I was 100 percent convinced that he was going to do all of that.
But then he died, and those dreams were cut down with him. In all the ways he brought people together, they just as quickly scattered. Traumatized, the roommates split. The troupe, without a clear direction, disbanded. And the remaining bits and pieces of his dreams faded completely from view. I saw his dreams like the fire he breathed on the shore of Ferry Bar Park, late at night when we had nowhere else to go — like a flash of light, reflected on the water, burst into the infinite darkness. It was like watching a flower grow, but in reverse.
I LIVE MY LIFE like it could all disappear any second.
Not a day goes by that I don’t look at my boyfriend as we lie together in bed, about to turn off the light, and think, “I could lose him tomorrow.” I memorize the way his shoes crowd the doorway. I stare at him for too long sometimes, too scared to blink. Will this moment become just another memory that I will strain to immortalize, replaying it over and over in my head until the colors are all wrong and the definition fades? Can I absorb every detail if I imprint it in my mind today? Can I download the way his shirt smells when it’s fresh from the laundry, or the way he knits his brow when he reads a book?
But even if I managed to compile the bits of him that make him a person and save it on a hard drive, even the hard drive wouldn’t last. Maybe someone would get one last chance to look at its contents, just in time to watch the files get corrupted and disappear forever. We cling helplessly to these memories even as they disintegrate in our hands.
TODAY I take stock of the pieces of Rust I still have. Some of them haven’t lasted. I left the dream catcher with a friend for safekeeping while living abroad and never saw it again. One of his handmade whips is in a box, although the cracker doesn’t really work anymore. The texts that we exchanged — which we religiously kept to haiku form — disappeared with my old phone long ago.
But his shirt is still in my closet. His books are still on my shelf.
And somehow the one plant that had survived his total lack of a green thumb — a small palm tree — is still alive. Although every day I count the dwindling leaves and wonder how long it has left.
And my most treasured possession — for a reason I can’t quite explain — his cigarette injector machine. I remember feeling panic right after he died, standing in his room, thinking that it was probably still in his pocket, carried with the body into the incinerator. I started picking up random cans of tobacco lying around the floor and shaking them, the way he used to in the car with me on long road trips, until I heard the familiar rattle. I opened the can, and I found the machine couched on a bed of tobacco fluff. I clutched it in both of my hands and told no one— but I don’t think anyone would have understood, even if I had.
And—I have this hard drive, which was sent back to me after paying the data specialist the stupid thirty dollars he asked for, right before he immediately asked me to fill out a customer survey. (I didn’t.) I hadn’t managed to save anything from the hard drive before the contents spilled out into the ether—except for that one video, the one that fascinated me, the way it had glitched and looped back onto itself.
“Yeah, it’s kind of sad,” Rust laughed, snow peppered in his dark hair.
I’D LIKE TO THINK there was some deeper meaning, and that maybe Rust really was behind it all—the magical rediscovery of the hard drive, the reawakening it stirred in me, and then the almost immediate tragic loss of its contents—as if he had really meant for me to see it and no one else.
But deep down I know, it’s all just matter, misplaced throughout the universe. Molecules exploding, scattering, and fading from view.
Thalia Patrinos, from Washington, D.C., is a science writer by day, fire dancer by night. During mornings and afternoons (and yes, many weekends), Thalia strategizes communications for NASA Headquarters via Mori Associates. When the sun sets, Thalia puts together elaborate circus performances under the stage name Tippy Ki Yay. And in the little bit of spare time in between, she works on her latest project: The Spacecraft Tarot. You can find it here: tippykiyay.com
Over its 15-year history, Delmarva Review has published new literary prose and poetry from 490 authors from 42 states, the District of Columbia, and 16 foreign countries. Forty-six percent are from the Chesapeake and Delmarva region. Financial support comes from tax-deductible contributions and a grant from Talbot Arts with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: www.DelmarvaReview.org