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On Letters from Jail, Particular Museums, and How I Like to Remember My Brother

by Michael Torres

I’ve been considering the word museum, because it interests me, because of its history, which seems fitting.

When I was born my brother was fourteen. My earliest memories of him are pleasant ones—how nice an adult with his own life could be to a kid, I think now. There were the places he took me: the park to play soccer, the movie theater. I remember how the light from passing ads on the movie screen gathered on the funny faces we made at each, each of us trying to get the other to laugh. I can still see the scrunched up look of his eyes, nose and mouth.

Museum has Latin origins meaning “place of study” and a Greek origin in mouseion, which is “a seat or shrine of the Muses.”

I have a muse tattooed on my left arm. Of all the siblings I chose Erato, the muse of lyric and love poetry. Her kithara rests atop my ulna. But I never finished her. I didn’t have the money or the time. I forget which. Her left hand is only sketched. She fades as time passes. Sinking into my skin, becoming less herself, more me.

My brother, at some point, saw himself a writer. I was young, maybe a pre-teen. Busy with trying to fit in at school, I remember only bits of this storyline of his. He’d taken a creative writing class. Community college. A story about an elderly woman who receives a bomb in the mail. His professor encouraging him to “send it out.” My brother didn’t. I think there was a fear of rejection, which now, I understand. For a long time I didn’t see any of his writing and he never talked about it until I became interested in writing poetry. Once, he’d mentioned poems of mine he read on our family computers. By this time he didn’t live at home anymore and was asked by our parents not come over if he’d been drinking. I thanked him for the compliment but wanted privacy. That day I saved those poems on another file and wiped them away from the desktop.

Go further and search muse. As a verb it means “to reflect, to be absorbed with light.”

My mind wanders. I like to say everything I do is a meditation. It’s at least true when the task at hand is a monotonous one. I take long washing dishes. My girlfriend has to ask for the good frying pan at least twice. It’s the slow motion of my scrubbing the plates and pots with the towel. It’s the warm soap-water that allows me to leave a moment, think back.

I think mostly about home. When I say home I really mean childhood. Or adolescence. I think about the high cuff my mom folded for all my jeans, jeans I walked with into that theater with my brother to see Super Mario Bros. and A Goofy Movie. I think of the jalapeños and peanut M&Ms my brother mixed into his popcorn. His laughter beginning small before erupting into near-shrill.

But sometimes I interview former versions of myself. Selves I’ve been: one bike-riding me who failed to kiss Lorena Moreno the entire month we dated after 8th grade; another me sitting passenger while my brother blasted LL Cool J on the way to my soccer practice. I imagine memory constructed of endless rooms where stories and images from a time I am no longer a part of are kept for me to see.

My brother tells stories he writes to me. I receive his letters from jail. How it isn’t that bad. Every day counts for two. Always jokes of an escape. Always a Haha that I overthink. (Legitimate humor or a just-so-you-think-I-really-am-doing-fine Haha?) Always, he loves me. And how am I doing and what have I been up to? Will I stay in Minnesota longer than he’ll be away? Always his signature—the most recognizable aspect of the brother I know, there.

A history professor friend of mine tells me there is no way to get back what has already happened. We sit at a coffee shop, catching up. He with his tea, me scraping up muffin crumbs from a plate. He says every bit of evidence—from artifacts to newspapers, anything that might be found inside a museum—is only a signature. In my head, I can name an event and its image shrinks, descends, only to be surrounded by more and more nothingness. Like falling down a well.

A museum is for remembering. In its noun form muse has Prot-Indo-European roots men, which is “to think, to remember.” The time before we watch from behind thick glass.

A museum is memory. A place past you can look back at but not touch for yourself.

I place the envelopes to my brother’s letters between pages of books I read. I can’t hide them in a drawer. I won’t. But as makeshift bookmarks, I don’t have to stare at them on my counter. Sometimes though they each stick out and become neighbors peeking over a fence wondering if I’m home.

Someone, I don’t remember who, once said, “There’s only so much truth you can have in a day,” or something close to that.

In the Scientific American article “What Happens in the Brain When We Misremember,” researchers say, “we construct memories using a blend of remembered experiences and knowledge about the world.” We misremember because our minds make the best guess approximating. A gist memory they call it.

The most interesting part of the article believed people used memories to deal with new situations—the mind acting as a defense mechanism. This is how false memories come to be. We mix together what we know of the world and what we keep from an event in our life to protect ourselves.

It’s not that I forget he’s in jail, but when I think of my brother behind bars or a thick piece of glass, holding a phone receiver to face that’s grown thinner, it surprises me. And as if a small voice calls into my ear from some dark, far void, I hear, Oh yes, that’s right, he’s there, I’m here.

If my mind is a museum I shouldn’t completely trust, it’s made of rooms built without blueprints; new rooms being built for every day that passes; rooms I ‘ve forgotten about. In one room I am a boy pedaling a bicycle. In every room I am, in some way, a boy. Even if he’s only a signature of me. If misremembrance is product of my meditation and self-preservation, this museum is open every day of the week, and whenever I walk through its doors I am always about to enter a place I’ve both never been to and will never quite be again, though I don’t know it. If my mind is a museum for the misremembered, my brother hasn’t gone to jail. He has new ideas for stories jotted on a napkin he folded into his pocket for later. He still works for the County of San Bernardino and has hurried home because soccer practice begins in half an hour.