Take Only One Memory

how love. can define a life, or an after life


in Features • Illustrated by Kat Heller


If I could take only one memory into eternity, it would be the evening I fell in love with my husband. Long ago, I saw the film After Life by Japanese director, Hirokazu Koreeda. After watching two hours of an imagined purgatory set in what looked like an abandoned, unheated high school, I left the movie theater bored and restless. In my recollection, the palette of the narrative arc is set against different shades of submarine and charcoal grays. The main characters wear sweaters and overcoats, quietly resigned to the cold discomfort of their ethereal entrapment.  

My displeasure of sitting through this slow-moving, subtitled masterpiece made me assume that it would be forgotten. Eventually, the experience of it would recede into the recesses of my mind, and dissolve there without notice.  

Nevertheless, when people ask me how I met my husband, there is no other way to begin without prefacing a summary of Koreeda’s story. In the movie, the souls of the dead wind up in a grim, industrial setting, and are interviewed by employees who help them decide which single memory they will retain and relive for eternity. I would loathe watching the movie again, yet I’ve readily adopted Koreeda’s simple, fantastical premise with the hope that he has accurately predicted the future. 

I have chosen one memory and have not changed my mind in over 26 years. 

I had coffee with a friend of mine who recently got married. I asked him how his relationship changed or if it had at all. He talked about making a public declaration of love witnessed by friends, family, and the state. He talked about the security of having someone support him. He talked about officially being a family even though it was just the two of them. 

Despite his sincere sentiments, there was no mention of romance. I gently broached the issue with him, noting the intimacies of matrimonial interaction and conversation become shrouded in privacy. Where at once we were smitten and falling head over heels, we also broadcasted so much of our experience to the very people who accepted invitations to our weddings. A reminder of the point I was making is Tom Cruise’s energetic announcement of being love-struck atop Oprah Winfrey’s television studio couch. My friend seemed reluctant to discuss this any further, so we changed the subject.  

As soon as a gleaming wedding band fetters the finger, something happens. Couples I know begin to talk in terms of weekend getaways and date nights that include reservations and wine tastings. Conversations begin to sound like promotional lingo that might appeal to tourists. Where are the dramatically romantic gestures? They are henceforth neutered of potency if they are shared at all. Perhaps we kill romance prematurely by locking it away in puritanical reticence. 

That’s too bad because I love a love story. And since my friends aren’t going to talk about love and romance with me anymore, I have no other choice — I have become a voyeur. 


When I met my husband, Richard, we were both living in Graz, a beautiful medieval city in Austria. Graz’s claim to fame is its close proximity to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hometown. When Arnold turned 50, all around the city billboards were plastered with pictures of fireworks and his giant grinning face.  

With the influence of his Hollywood star power, Arnold arranged for Graz to host the international premier of the movie Batman and Robin in which he plays Mr. Freeze. On a rainy, bleak afternoon, Richard and I biked through the streets of Graz to catch a glimpse of the Terminator in the flesh. The whole event was underwhelming and strangely awkward. Arnold’s square body waving at the small crowd, his square face smiling broadly. The Austrians, damp and bedraggled from the rain, politely waved back, hardly making any noise except for the odd muttering in their Styrian dialect. On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has received only 12%. Perhaps the producers knew all along that it would bomb, and having its kick-off in a sleepy little European town was the best they could do.  

Graz is not normally a place where you’ll find many action heroes or glamorous starlets. Its cobblestone streets are lined with buildings painted pink, blue, green, and yellow. There’s a rumor that the municipality has a bylaw that dictates the pastel options owners can choose for their properties. You might think this a kind of aesthetic dictatorship, but the effect is satisfyingly sweet, like being immersed in a bowl of Valentine’s candy hearts.  

I moved to Graz knowing very little German, and even less about falling in love. My previous boyfriends were nice people I met at school and we enjoyed each other’s company. Everything that defined my relationships up to that point was wrapped up in campus life: lectures and exams with pitchers of cheap pub beer in between. Once I graduated, I didn’t foresee the possibility of love as the driving trajectory in my life, the possibility of love shaping and transforming who I was and what I thought of myself.  

Upon my daughter’s recommendation, I started to watch Bachelor in Paradise. I have been making my way through the canon of dating-based reality television shows for years now, and with the advent of paid streaming platforms, my consumption of these highly produced productions has increased at an exponential rate.  

Certain habits in my life seem to cause unnecessary friction between my peers and myself.  Once I was at a girls’ night out party. Dolled up and filled with vodka cocktails, I asked a friend of mine who she had been rooting for on the Bachelor. It never occurred to me to ask her if she actually watched the show. A vivacious bombshell and newly divorced, she herself was on the lookout for love. I thought I was heading into a delightful conversation that we would both enjoy.  

I was wrong.  

She was aghast at my dedicated viewership and was even more so when I admitted that I encourage both my daughters to watch with me. “What kind of example are you setting for your children and how they should be treated by men?” “I dunno,” I thought. I wasn’t watching the show as an inspirational feminist tale.  

In the first few minutes of watching Bachelor’s Paradise, I was hooked. Apart from the comfort of seeing the familiar faces of cast-offs from Bachelor and Bachelorette seasons gone by and the fit physiques of contestants in mandatory swimwear, I am happy to see couples finally falling in love. The Paradise version of the Bachelor franchise is essentially a second kick at the can. The anguish caused by previous rejections still pulls on my heartstrings. So, I am over the moon for Johnny and Victoria. Tyler is connecting with Brittany! And Brandon is canoodling with Serene on a brightly colored divan, under an open starlit sky. Sigh.  

Another time I became a target of criticism, I was at home, curled up on the sofa, thoroughly enjoying Sex and the City, the movie, for the up-teenth time. I have come to the conclusion that the sparkling performances in this film are not deserving of a single abysmal review. How can the opinions of professional film critics be correct when I am willing to watch this cinematic triumph multiple times? My daughters think this reasoning is deeply flawed, but I cannot detect any weakness in it. My logic is airtight Aristotelian syllogism.  

My husband was hosting a folk-rock jam session in his basement man cave when a couple of the guys came up for fresh air. They walked through the living room wondering what I was watching. Soon, I found out they were neither SATC nor SJP fans. They scoffed, insulted, and told me to watch something “smart” instead. I have never forgiven them for this intrusion.  

When I moved to Europe, I was desperately trying to organize my life into a series of well-conceived goals. I was young and groping at ways to move forward, thinking that independence would lead to success. I had lofty notions, but not enough concrete life experience to find inspiration. It never occurred to me that satisfaction could come from love.  

The evening I fell in love with Richard, we wandered through Graz, exploring the city, its cafes, and art galleries. Finally, we found ourselves at a Spanish restaurant seated upon kindergarten-sized chairs at a ludicrously small table. We laughed and laughed until we cried, making a spectacle of ourselves and affronting the other quiet patrons in the dimly lit dining room.  

When I called him a few days later to ask if he wanted to see an exhibit entitled, “Heaven and Earth” at a local museum, he responded, “Take me to heaven, baby.”  

We are an unlikely couple with very different backgrounds. Richard was born and raised in County Wicklow, Ireland, and comes from a Quaker family. I was born in Canada, and both my parents are Chinese-Jamaican. Our relationship should have been doomed from the beginning, not because of our racial and cultural differences, but because of our star signs. He’s a Capricorn. I’m a Gemini. This particular earth and air pairing is a combination for disaster. If astrology had anything to do with our destiny, we were never going to make it past our first lover’s spat. Richard insists that our rising signs must be compatible, but neither of us know what they are. 

I thought I had been in love before. I’ve been wooed, serenaded, and pampered. All of which can produce feelings of deep attachment and fondness. I yearned to spend oodles and oodles of time with other people I was deeply connected to and wanted to discover everything about them. But when I fell in love with Richard, Cupid’s arrow must have been replaced with a serrated blade. It tore through my heart, making it swell and ache in completely new ways. My brain fogged with a lethal concentration of dopamine and ordinary life quickly moved out of focus. Thoughts of Richard spun in kaleidoscope shape and color. I lost all self-control.  

Now, after so many years of marriage, I think it’s perfectly normal to sometimes imagine my life without Richard. Maybe we’d get divorced or he’ll tragically die. Whatever the reason, the first thing I would do is de-clutter Marie Kondo-style. Then I’d rearrange all the furniture. Richard is a creature of habit and averse to change. A lot of things in our home have stayed exactly the same for decades despite my suggestions to refresh and reorganize.  

Of course, there’d be a period of grief, but eventually, time would pass and maybe I would start dating again. Circumstances would dictate that I set up an account with an online service and try my hand at swiping right on a digital album of strangers’ smiling faces. I’d swipe and swipe and swipe and then . . . this is exactly where my macabre fantasy ends. I can’t actually picture myself meeting another person who I could love. I don’t believe I can do it again. With Richard, it was glorious and it was only that one time, that once in a lifetime.  

My favorite television shows and movies all have the same premise that can be summed up in the inimitable words of Carrie Bradshaw: “I’m looking for love. Real love. Ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live-without-each-other-love.” This search is never easy, and more often than not, involves a good deal of heartache and disappointment. I live vicariously through on-screen romances; I am enraptured and swept away. Something flickers and flutters inside me and I remember the early days of my infatuation with Richard. I remember being drawn to him and how it startled me. I remember the excitement of doubt, not knowing if my feelings were reciprocated, my future uncertain. 

In After Life, the characters choose very different memories to take with them. An affectionate moment with a mother, the beauty of the cherry blossoms, fun at an amusement park. Some characters have difficulty making decisions and others outright refuse. We often hear talk about a legacy people want to leave behind. They want their name and reputation to live on for generations. The purpose of life, according to Koreeda, may very well be the opposite of that. What if we’re here just for self-discovery? Perhaps our experiences are meant to be private keepsakes, our memories the only heirlooms allowed to cross the River Styx. What memories would you choose? Would you choose love? 

In the past, present, and future, on a continuous loop for eternity, Richard and I have just sat down to dinner. Our knees are drawn up to our chests sitting on little wooden chairs. Brimming before bursting with laughter, we are simultaneously on the verge of a new joy and already falling in love. •


Joylyn Chai is Chinese-Jamaican Canadian and teaches English to newcomers in Toronto, Canada. She loves gardening, watching NFL games, and caring for her gnome collection. Her work has appeared in Thin Air Magazine, This Magazine, The Fiddlehead, The Under Review, and other publications.