summer solstice

Today is the summer solstice. I only know because my calendar says so. It doesn’t really correspond to anything tangible here, as we don’t have seasons on the station, nor do we have sunrises and sunsets, but it’s nice to celebrate little things from Earthside. We don’t recognize any nation or religion’s holidays on the station either, so the fact that it’s the longest day of the year for about half of Earth is something we can agree on as a marker of time.

I woke up around 5am and couldn’t get back to sleep. So I got dressed and went down to the zero-g room. The corridors were quiet. Once I was in the chamber and it was sealed, with the gravity falling gradually to zero, I pushed off lightly and floated up to settle in the middle of the room, horizontal as if lying face up. I closed my eyes as the lights dimmed to just a soft orange glow from the thin stripes that ran around the circumference of the chamber. In the old books they say that the weightlessness of swimming in water was like a return to the womb. For lab babies like me, I guess swimming is to the womb as floating in zero-g is a return to the tank of synthetic amniotic fluid that I was born from.

I remember one afternoon, after school, Rory came over to me looking conspiratorial. We were probably around 14 then. “Look what I got,” she said, holding up a tiny chip between finger and thumb.

As soon as plug-and-play memory chips had become common enough to be affordable for the masses, but before they became writeable, you could only get the read-only kind. Companies created these little themed bundles of memories, mostly Hallmark kind of stuff–birthday parties, Christmas, tropical resorts, Paris–and sold them as individual chips. Rory had bought one with her allowance so that we could try one for the first time.

“This one’s called Summer Solstice,” she said. “It’s the #1 bestseller right now, God knows why.”

“Guess we’ll find out.”

When we got to my room, she played it first, while I waited. It was just a few minutes of watching her sit there with her eyes closed. Then she gave it to me. I plugged the chip in behind my ear.

A series of scenes ensued, each no more than twenty or thirty seconds long: playing in the sprinklers, the sunlight glittering off the water droplets; splashing around in the swimming pool with other kids; sunbathing on the beach; a tent pitched next to a river, somewhere in the mountains; the banging of a screen door; fresh strawberries and iced tea; sheltering under the eaves from a summer thunderstorm; fireflies at dusk in the tall grass behind the house.

The last scene ended, with a little twinge of nostalgia, and I went back to seeing the inside of my eyelids. I opened my eyes.

“What do you think?” I asked first.

Rory shrugged. “It’s nice,” she said. “Even if it isn’t real.”

I knew exactly what she meant. Not just that the memories were manufactured, or at least lifted out of any real context they’d come from, which of course they were; but that they represented the memories of almost no one on Earth. It was a fantasy. Maybe it had been like that in real life a century ago, but neither of us knew anyone personally who could’ve had such experiences. Lawns and sprinklers and porches and camping were things I had learned about from watching movies. There were no trees or grass right outside of our houses. We lived in high-rises in the cities, as did everyone who wanted a shot at something in life. Outside of the cities, most of the land was being used for something; only the obscenely rich would use a piece of land for a purpose as pointless as putting a one- or two-story house on it, surrounded by grass, that consumed energy and water but didn’t produce any–and then only to show off how much they could afford to waste. Land reserved for recreational use, the closest thing to what you might call “nature,” was owned, developed, and very expensive to access. The few public beaches and parks were small and crowded, prone to on-and-off outbreaks of infectious disease. Perhaps they had such summers in other places, but this didn’t happen in America.

“Who makes these, anyway?” I said.

“You know who makes them,” Rory said.

“Yeah.”

White people.

We both cracked up for no real reason, other than a long-running joke we had. But she had an actual point. Her parents and mine had all been through labor camps as part of growing up in Asia. For “field trips,” they’d march everyone through the mountains for weeks, camping at night, walking all day every day carrying all their gear, through heat and rainstorms, until people collapsed, until people got infections or pneumonia. All in the name of “discipline” and “building character.” To escape that, our parents had gone through the humiliation of coming to America as refugees, a humiliation they knew would last all their lives. So the idea that someone would put themselves through hardships they didn’t have in their daily lives, would go without shelter and expose themselves to harsh weather, to mosquitoes and ticks, to hunger and fatigue, as a way to amuse themselves–it was absurd, almost grotesque. It was a form of entertainment that could only be conceived of by those who had never struggled to live.

Needless to say, we didn’t grow up camping during the summer. And as our parents weren’t farmers–another fate they had accepted humiliation to escape–our families didn’t adhere to any agricultural timing patterns, and summer changed nothing, except that we could do what we normally did without the nuisance of having to go to school. Schools still followed a centuries-old practice of pausing for the summer, as if we were all farmers. Instead, we read books, played Federation, stayed up all night chatting online, and learned cryptography and probability-based economics.

In any case, chatting in my room after we’d played the memory chip, Rory and I agreed that, in order to have become the bestselling memory bundle, Summer Solstice needed to be something most people actually hadn’t experienced before–because if you had your own idyllic memories of summer, you wouldn’t need to buy them–and yet, at the same time, all those people had to believe, in their heart of hearts, that this was everyone else’s experience of summer. That it was the classic, the quintessential experience of summer. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been convincing. In other words, the idea that the contents of the Summer Solstice chip represented something universal, and not just the experience of a select few, was a collective delusion. A delusion which many who lived in it were unaware of.

“So, if you think it’s lame,” I said, “can I keep it?”

“Hell no. Buy your own.” The collective delusion could nonetheless be blissful to sink into every now and then.

I did buy my own copy of Summer Solstice, although I didn’t buy any more memory bundles after that, and as far as I know, neither did Rory. Once they came out with writeable chips, it was infinitely more interesting to trade memories with other people than to buy pre-packaged ones.

Rory, being natural-born, would’ve been the perfect person to answer my question about swimming and the womb, except that swimming was maybe the last thing on Earth she would be willing to do for fun. “Standing water is gross,” she always said, though personally I think it was also the aggressive girliness of swimsuits that put her off, and that she had been thrown into the pool too many times by well-meaning classmates who assumed that she’d love it and forgive everything.

The first summer after Rory died, when I was still slowly merging in her memories, I started to have flashbacks of summer, a little bit reminiscent of the kind of stuff from Summer Solstice. And I knew for sure that they weren’t mine, but also that she hadn’t bought them or merged them from any other source. Just as the flood of unbearable sadness that had hit when I first started the merge was unmistakably hers, I knew that these were hers. In spite of all her jadedness from the time we were kids, she must have later met someone who really had a one-story house and a backyard. She’d been there, she’d seen a real firefly drawing a “J” shape in the darkness. A myrtle tree in the shape of a woman. I don’t know the names of any trees, but the name was in the memory. “Myrtle tree.” Things I’d never seen before. She’d watched this person run along the creek, scaring the bullfrogs into dunking themselves back into the water one by one. This person who would later hurt her unbelievably–that knowledge too was embedded in the memory, but not so as to make the memory less beloved. A telescope standing solitary in the living room, for looking at the stars on clear nights. It was as if from another world, but it was real.

These memories still came back to me from time to time, as they did today while I lay suspended in the chamber. After a while, I took a long breath, opened my eyes, tapped on the control bracelet, and the return of gravity lowered me gently to the ground. I left the chamber and went to get ready for work.