Truth and Fiction

Shuttle launch, circa 1990; picture from my uncle David

Since this past week marked the 25th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy, questions popped-up all over Facebook and Twitter asking: where were you?

This is my memory:

I am in Kindergarten. I am sitting cross-legged on the floor of the library. The carpet is rough. My best friend is sitting next to me. We are staring up at the screen on top of one of those high television carts. We see the shuttle break apart, fall to the sea. Someone quickly fumbles with the buttons on the television, and the screen turns black.

But that is not what happened.

It can’t be.

Because I was not in Kindergarten that year. Somewhere along the way, years ago, someone must’ve asked me this very question. And I must’ve done some (rather poor) math – and decided that 1986-1981 = 5, and 5 = Kindergarten. And then all the other pieces of the puzzle started filling in: details from my Kindergarten class, my best friend, other people’s stories filling the gaps of my own.

But here’s the problem. I turned 5 in the middle of 1981. Not in January. So I was 4. So I was in preschool. And I’m not even sure if I was in preschool that day. Or if I was home. If my mom was watching it. Or if I was completely oblivious. I don’t know if I even knew it happened, or whether it was something I learned about in school.

I’ve seen the image so many times in my life, I don’t know if I’m really remembering the actual event. Kind of like when I look at pictures from when I was a kid. I feel like I remember them. But I might just remember seeing the pictures.

It would’ve been cool if I’d kept a diary or something. Except I wasn’t the type of kid who kept a diary (also I was 4), and I’m not the type of adult who keeps a diary, either.

Which might be why I love fiction. Because there’s truth in fiction. It might not be accurate, but there is truth still. Bits and pieces from here and there, emotions I’ve felt, or thought I’ve felt, or been scared to feel, or wanted to feel. Things I imagine other people feeling. Fragments from other people’s lives. Other people’s stories.

Memories are a funny sort of truth – they’re not always accurate truths, even if you kept a diary. But there are other kinds of truth. Because in my memory, in that Kindergarten class, I am scared. I feel it, even now, thinking about it. I am scared. I don’t understand what is happening. My best friend is crying. And I am trying not to.

None of it happened.

But I think it’s real, all the same.