When I was nine years old, I saw a UFO. My father and I stood in the backyard in the dark, peering up at the stars, when a large ship full of multicolored lights suddenly filled the sky. We watched, stunned, as it glided over us in silence, then made its way across the rooftops of our neighbors’ houses until it disappeared from view. I ran, terrified, into the kitchen, shouting for my mother, then explained in rushed, unsure words, what we had just witnessed. That night, I curled up beneath my covers and dreamed of alien abductions and men with large eyes trying to touch me.
After the sighting, nothing felt the same. The world had become an unfamiliar place where supernatural events could occur at any moment. I found myself sitting very still in my room, willing ghosts to appear, or searching between the plants in the garden for fairies. My parents let me watch Mars Attacks and when the martians descended from their ship, I sobbed.
I quickly realized that my UFO sighting was not something that should be shared. When I did talk about it, no one believed me and so, as the years passed, I ceased to mention it at all. My father died when I was eighteen, which means I can’t ask him what he remembers. I can only rely on my hazy child’s memory, and even then, what I remember most is the way my stomach clenched and the utter panic that zipped through my body like lightning.
A few years ago, as I recalled the story to my fiancé, he asked, “Do you think maybe this is something you made up, and then just thought about so much that it became true?” I had read about false memories before, how many times they can be more real than actual memories, more detailed and specific. “Maybe,” I said. But when I asked my mom, she told me she remembered the night well, how my father and I came barreling in through the backdoor, words tumbling out of our mouths, faces red, eyes wide.
As a child I believed in many things—Santa Claus, snakes at the foot of my bed, dolls that came to life whenever I left the room. So when I think back on the night I saw the UFO, perhaps I am making up certain details, perhaps I am exaggerating. Aren’t all memories this way? We start with images and feelings, then create a narrative, a chain of events, a plot line. We tell our memory over and over again, to ourselves or others, until it becomes the truth. Until what actually happened never existed at all.
When I think of other childhood events, of the stories I’ve told, I worry sometimes that I’ve imagined it all. It feels, on rare occasions, that my youth was a fever dream, a hallucination. Memories are slippery; you can try to hold on to them, to make them yours forever, but sooner or later they begin to fade, and what’s left are only the stories we’ve made. I can recall certain images from my childhood home: the stained glass window in the bathroom, evenings that were always dusk and mosquito-laden, lining my rubber animals along the couch cushions, and the cherry blossom tree in the backyard. There’s a snapshot in my mind of my childhood dog sprawled in the living room, crippled by a tumor wrapped around her spine, as the vet slipped a needle into her vein. Shortly after she stopped moving, I felt as though something within me had split in two. Looking back, I realize her death prepared me for other deaths, other losses, other occasions in life that bend your heart in terrible ways. It was only later that I gave words to these images and feelings, strung them together, hung them before me and gave them an order, a pattern.
My sister remembers a childhood completely different than the one I remember. Although we are five years apart, a distance that seemed exhaustive when we were small, only now beginning to shrink as we get older, we still did many things together. We shared a room until I was eleven, we often slept in the same bed, we accompanied our mother on weekend errands, and we sat, very still, and listened to my father as he disciplined us. But he got sick when I was sixteen, already a teenager––my sister was only eleven. I had entire years with my father that my sister doesn’t remember. I remember a harsh father, a father who scared me, a father who, no matter how hard I tried, would tell me over and over again that I didn’t love him, until finally, I believed it to be true.
What also interests me are the years she was old enough to remember how he really was, but doesn’t. How can two sisters, who lived through the same experiences, recall their girlhood so differently? She remembers him in sickness, when his mind was clouded, when he became uncharacteristically sweet and pointed out objects in the living room we couldn’t see. She remembers him often asleep or in pain, and she remembers his thinning hair, his face yellow and gaunt. I remember this too, but juxtaposed to all that had come before. When he died, she tattooed the words “I love you” in his handwriting on her wrist. I didn’t attend the funeral.
When I think of my life, and the woman I’ve become now, it’s hard to not see the way my father shaped me, how I still find myself listening to his ghost, believing, after all this time, that what he said about me not being good enough is true. It feels at times that my sister and I didn’t grow up in the same family, didn’t witness the same bitter events, and yet, her memories are sacred to her, carrying within them a truth I cannot fathom. And so I’ve fashioned the story of my childhood, and she’s fashioned the story of hers, and they are different, contradictory even, but neither is more true than the other. Yet still, I think: if I’m the only one that remembers something, does that mean I made it up? What happens to an event that is no longer remembered by anyone? Where does it go? Perhaps we must all learn to live with the inconsistencies of memory, the fluid interpretations that take up residence in our hearts.
Maybe my memories never were. Maybe the things that my father said to me, he never said at all. Maybe the UFO was a military plane, maybe my dolls really did come alive when I left them, maybe ghosts are all around us and we just can’t see them. Maybe aliens do exist, millions of light years away, and maybe there are two of them, right now, sisters, holding hands and remembering scenes from their childhood in fondness, in anger. Maybe my sense of urgency with memory has more to do with my childhood narrative belonging to me, than with it being true. Perhaps my father is somewhere else, in some alternate world, remembering the UFO too, how its silence filled us up with such trembling, and how, years later, his body no longer belonging to the earth, the recollection is still an unspoken tie that binds us, however separate we are, however slippery the slope, forever.
Terra Brigando was born in San Francisco and was telling stories before she could hold a pen. She grew up barefoot and eating loquats in Marin, studied for four years in Southern California, traveled to Thailand to volunteer with elephants, spent some time in Germany, and eventually made her way back to the bay. She earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in English and Creative Writing from Mills College in 2012, where she was 1st runner up for the Amanda Davis Thesis Award in Fiction. Her debut novel, Rooms for Ghosts, was released by Wordcraft of Oregon in 2015. Her work has appeared in various literary magazines throughout the country, some of which can be seen here (Publications). She currently resides in the Bay Area where she enjoys reading, writing, and watching.