I Wish I’d Stayed, Too.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

My grandfather has an awful disease that, over the course of the past ten years, has taken away most everything from him, including his memories. He now lives in a nursing home near my grandmother’s apartment, a few blocks separating him from the one person he still remembers, his partner of over sixty-five years. She visits him often, despite how much it hurts her to do so. I went to see them at the nursing home recently, sat between him and my grandma for a couple hours. “The hardest part about all of this,” she tells me, “is that we can’t talk about the past. He doesn’t remember any of our life together.”

Joel Barish finds himself on a cold and windy beach one early February morning. Normally predictable as pie, Joel decides at the very last minute to ditch work and hop a train up to Montauk. It doesn’t make sense, even to him, yet here he is. He scribbles in a journal full of ripped out pages, the first entry in over two years. Today is the first day of the rest of his life.

Clementine Kruczynski is on the beach that morning as well, wrapped up warm in her bright orange sweatshirt, her curious blue hair blowing in the wind. Joel looks at her from a distance. He is too shy to approach her, kicks himself for it. They circle around each other for the next few hours, some magnetic force seemingly drawing them to one another. He sees her at the diner, she spots him later on the train platform. She waves, he smiles. A little while later, on the train, he sits sketching her from afar. She eventually says hello and wanders over to talk with him, her words carrying far more weight than either of them could possibly imagine in that moment: “Do I know you?”

And then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes.

Now, Joel is driving through the night, crying. We don’t know what to make of this at first: the film’s scrambled timeline and patch-work narrative has yet to be made clear. We have seen the first bright blooming of a brand new love and then the tattered aftermath of its apparent conclusion, all in the film’s first twenty minutes. We wait for the thread that runs through it. We wait and see.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a puzzle of a film, a fantastic Rubik’s Cube of memory, love, loss, and regret that collapses in on itself only to become stronger in the end. It’s clever yet tender, a near impossible line to walk. It jumps off endless narrative cliffs and continually finds its wings on the way down.

We all carry so very much around with us—hope, fear, joy, sadness, compassion, jealousy, love, hate, patience, selfishness—in these tiny little brains of ours. We are, often, simply over-matched; bombarded by external stimuli, beset by endless internal monologues. Things happen to us and we hold on to them, gathering them up to create the memories that eventually tell us about ourselves, about who we are and where we’ve been. Our mind has to keep all these things, an infinity of moments. And, in such a way, we each create our own lives.

My grandparents, Ruth and John, mid-1940s

But what if that weren’t so? What if there was a loophole, a short cut, an eraser of sorts? What if one could stretch out that great plain of memory and somehow extricate from among its many tangled branches a perceived thorn? What if you could forget—forever—that embarrassing moment, that traumatic event, that big regret? What if you could erase from your mind the girl that broke your heart?

Joel: Is there any danger of brain damage?

Dr. Mierzwiak: Well, technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage.

Clementine erases Joel impulsively, after a late-night argument, both of them at their very worst. Joel erases Clementine, initially, out of misguided revenge: if she did it, I’m doing it too. Soon, though, there will be no one left to remember the years they spent together.

Oh my darling, Oh my darling, Oh my darling Clementine / You were lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry Clementine.

There is within us all an aching need for connection. A buffer against the vast existential winds. Another person to cling to, to help fill the void, numb the pain, and ease the loneliness. As a writer, Charlie Kaufman has always understood this. For what else are his most successful films if not extended riffs on being alone, trapped inside of your own head, unable to truly connect?

My first girlfriend, the first real one anyway, broke my heart. One day I was young and in love and the next day my whole world had ended. She had found someone else. I spent days alone in my room, crying. I emerged, slowly, unsure. Full of anger and everything else. Had the opportunity existed in that moment, I would have chosen to erase her from my mind. It hurt too much to have her there.

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.

But what about the day we first met and the note she left on my bed for me to find later? Or that day at the fair when I realized I loved someone for the very first time and told her and my heart opened up in ways it never had before? Or all those lazy afternoons we spent driving around in her blue ‘67 Mustang, and how the entire world seemed almost brand new?

My heart was broken, but still, I wanted to keep those things.

Meet me in Montauk.

In the middle of the night, Joel changes his mind. He doesn’t want to erase Clementine. But the process has already been set in motion: he is hooked up to the oddly-shaped memory eraser contraption, fast asleep. Half of their relationship is already gone. Joel, stuck inside his own mind, tries to will himself awake, to no avail. Desperate to hold onto her in any way he can, he convinces Clementine to hide out with him in places they would never think to look for her. They hop around in his brain, a couple of Billy Pilgrims come unstuck in time.

They end up in his childhood. Little Joel sits under the table as his babysitter, now Clementine, talks with his mother before she leaves.

“I really want her to pick me up,” he says. “It’s amazing how strong that desire is.”

It works, momentarily. They are off the map.

But Dr. Mierzwiak finds them. The erasing continues.

Meet me in Montauk.

An invocation, a wish, a desire. This idea that there is a somewhere else out there, a something else that keeps us going, propelling us forward. That such a place exists at all, even if only inside of us. That love is a stronger force than memory. That you can’t eradicate it, not ever. That it is capable of moving through great fields of anger and disappointment, enormous skies of sadness, undeterred. That it finds a way to replenish itself and breathe once more anew:

Meet me in Montauk.

I asked my Dad, when we were in the car a few days later, if he’d ever had his heart broken. And how does one ever get over it. “Does it ever not feel like this?”

“Yes,” he said, “but it takes time.”

Clementine: This is it, Joel. It’s going to be gone soon.

Joel: I know.

Clementine: What do we do?

Joel: Enjoy it.

She is almost gone. The relationship has nearly been removed from Joel’s mind. They are down to the last memories, or in this case, the very first ones. He sits with her on the steps at the beach, at the party where they met for the very first time. She takes some of the food off his plate and eats it. This is how it all began. This is how it all will end. They feel the warm sun shining on them. They breathe in deeply.

Your absence has gone through me / Like thread through a needle. / Everything I do is stitched with its color.

My grandmother is the only one left with anything to remember. My grandfather no longer remembers the day they first met at the Boeing factory, the six decades of oatmeal breakfasts they shared, the struggles over money, or even the family they raised together. But my grandma does. And she tells him all he’s forgotten. She tells us, too, whenever we remember to ask. And in that way, maybe, nothing is ever really lost. At least not yet.

At the end of the film, in its final words, a leap of faith is or is not made. And whether or not you take that leap and choose to believe—in hope, in change, in redemption, in love—says everything about you.

Reader, I took that leap.