The text reads, “let's tango,” but I’m sure we never did. At 3:30 p.m. on a summer Saturday, it’s more likely that he was outside my house, picking me up so we could find an empty parking lot to hook up in. I received and responded to countless similar texts that summer, often at weird hours. Three-thirty seems as good a time as any to indicate the on-demand availability he expected of me.
The message has been locked since July 2010. Maybe I could justify holding onto it when I was 18. The bar I’d set for romance — getting picked up in a car — was low. He’d come up with a slightly more inventive way of saying, “here,” a text I’d received countless times before, and the novel approach probably made me laugh. But reading those two words at 23, all I can see is a girl in bed, wasting a sunny afternoon waiting for her phone to buzz.
I don’t know if this is normal or clearly symptomatic of hoarding, but I still have every cell phone I’ve ever owned. From the Motorola 120t Candybar with the black-and-white display to the yellow iPhone 5c I use today, my techno-social timeline remains intact — or at least as complete as memory cards, batteries, and compulsive outbox purging have allowed.
There are limited logical reasons for preserving outdated technology. One could argue that the phones are good backups; contract-breaking replacements are expensive, and I have a long history of water damage. Some parents pass their discarded phones on to their children after they update — to be reactivated, or used as toys. But I’m not saving my obsolete tech for the next generation. My justification for keeping these relics is purely sentimental. In the same way that I periodically scroll to the bottom of my Facebook profile, or dig up (and subsequently destroy) old diaries, I turn on the deactivated devices, seeking information about my former selves.
I hope you’ll know what I mean when I say that Joan Didion was onto something with all that “nodding terms” business. It can feel like I’m just looking for trouble when I resurrect my high school yearbook and reread the inscriptions on its inside cover. Or when I discover crumpled, college-ruled notes in the drawers of my desk, then study them for clues. The picture of the past that these fragments form doesn’t always match my memory. And when the pieces do add up, they usually bring me back to a moment that’s been buried for quite some time, deep, with good reason. Why dig up any of it? Because I find that my sense of control over history is greater when I pursue it.
“It all comes back,” Didion writes of the memories she associates with her notes. She is able to recreate in great detail the scenes where she recorded cursory observations, and I feel similarly about my own annotations. But the connection between content and context is much less visceral when it comes to text messages. People text while walking to work, using the bathroom, and driving to the gym. They send texts to escape bad dates and boring movies. It’s not that the messages we send are incapable of communicating time and place; in fact, a 2012 Pew survey found that 41 percent of respondents had used their phones to arrange plans at least once within the previous month, and of course, all texts come with a time stamp. Typing these messages, though, is a distraction from one’s surroundings. The homeless woman on Eighth Avenue, your reflection in the full-length mirror, the traffic lights — they don’t come back, if they were ever there at all.
My mother has used the same flip phone for an unbelievable decade and spent the time curating a collection of meaningful messages:
“I dont know . . . ive bought a lot of food and souvenirs plus toiletries when theyve run out” — me, on a teen tour in Canada, justifying the addition of funds to my bank account (July 13, 2007)
“Hey just checking to see how everythings going” — me, asking after my brother’s well-being when he broke his arm (Aug. 29, 2007)
“He trippin sorry bout that ” — a stranger apologizing for earlier accidental messages (Oct. 16, 2008)
“You are nice” — me, no context (June 3, 2009)
“I JUST SURFED” — me, after catching a wave in Huntington Beach, California, home of Hollister & Co. (Aug. 2, 2009)
“It’s fine I assure you; we’ll bring Sean home ” — me, casually using a semicolon after my brother got in a minor car accident (April 6, 2010)
“I love college ” — me, probably lying/cosplaying Asher Roth (Aug. 21, 2010)
The texts I’ve saved seem, in comparison, inconsequential. This is hardly surprising. Most days leave no physical trace, moving by atmospherically, and a 28-MB flip phone can only hold so many locked texts while still receiving new ones. Moreover, most of the day-to-day discussion that takes place over text is logistical and/or food-related. I found this especially true of the messages in the phone I used as a first-semester college freshman:
“Are you awake?”
“Where are you! I’m leaving the lib!”
“Any chance you want to gym?”
“Are you in [campus dining hall]?”
“When you getting lunch?”
“Where are you?”
“where are u?”
Most of the phones I’ve held on to have finally reached the point of no return. A borrowed BlackBerry World Edition I used while visiting a close friend in France now has a dangerously swollen battery — one that might have started leaking at the bottom of my sock drawer had I neglected it any longer. (PSA: If you have any old phones hanging around at home, they might be oozing radioactive waste and ruining your SmartWools. Worth a look.)
I’ve also misplaced and/or broken plenty of chargers, and by now almost all of them are discontinued. My first phone serves as little more than an art object; I bedazzled it with rhinestones, thinking they might add some pizzazz to its gray plastic exterior, which lacked the personality that a pink Razr or a Sidekick exuded. The phone I used while studying abroad, a brick of a thing, is impossible to charge without buying a U.K.-to-U.S. adapter, and I don’t have any strong desire to revisit the loneliness I felt while living in Edinburgh.
On the phones that still function are messages I can mostly contextualize. They’re from my late-high school and college years, and make more syntactical sense than the messages I received in middle school probably would today:
“For chem on the graph did you plot sample mass and sample volume or total mass and total volume?”
“Holy shit i love everything about nj”
“just pooped alone. with the door closed and locked.”
“I actually think that we might be life-long friends.”
I know these messages won’t last for much longer. The phones that have kept them in their original formats will warp over time and fill my drawers with battery acid if I’m not mindful of their deformities. Everything — even the phone that seemed invincible, the one that fell in the toilet and survived — eventually shuts down for good.
For the time being, my old phones continue to provide me with small thrills: the Verizon loading screen lighting up, accompanied by a jingle; the grainy selfies taken with my first front-facing-camera phone; the nicknames I’ve mostly retired from my contact book; and the texts that meant so much to some other me.
Reprinted with permission from Human Parts. Want more? Check out these related stories: