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Watching Eternal Sunshine With my Ex on Valentines Day

musings on love and loss through the dusty lens of a favorite film

By Kerry KehoePublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 12 min read
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The first time I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the 2004 film directed by Michel Gondry and written by Andy Kaufman, I was learning what jet lag feels like. I was in a movie theatre in Reading, England, having landed that morning in London and taken the train to visit a friend from Virginia who was studying abroad. I’d never flown internationally before. I was a few days shy of turning 21.

My friend, a seasoned traveler, thought a dark movie theater would be a good way to stay awake while acclimating to the new time zone. My circadian rhythms thought otherwise. I became nauseous and had to stop eating the popcorn we were sharing. But the story unfolding on the screen before me enraptured me anyway. I left the theater with a new favorite film.

I was two years out from meeting the love of my life.

He caught my eye from across the room at a party in 2006, and I contained enough liquid courage to uncharacteristically approach him and strike up a conversation. Our pieces fit, and I adored him. We moved in together nine months later.

I can’t remember if Jake had already seen Eternal Sunshine before we met, but I remember watching it with him once in those early days, and he asked how long the main characters had been in a relationship. I told him two years. “Geez,” I distinctly remember him responding with an empathetic knowing. He’d had several two-plus year relationships under his belt in his 24 years. I’d never had one last for even a year.

For those unfamiliar with the film, here’s the premise (via Google): “After a painful breakup, Clementine (Kate Winslet) undergoes a procedure to erase memories of her former boyfriend Joel (Jim Carrey) from her mind. When Joel discovers that Clementine is going to extremes to forget their relationship, he undergoes the same procedure and slowly begins to forget the woman that he loved.” Google bills it as a romance/comedy, which is itself laughable. Tears, almost definitely, laughs unlikely. It’s a cerebral sci-fi drama all the way if you ask me.

It is now 2024, a solid 20 years since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind debuted. Jake and I have separated. My sadness is pervasive and piercing. I’m moving back to my hometown, and I’m temporarily back in the house we own, dividing up our life together and neatly packing my half into boxes, securing it with bubble wrap and packaging tape. I’ve been finding myself thinking a lot about the plot of Eternal Sunshine lately. Would I erase our years together if I could? My DVDs are already boxed up and at my new house, but I find the film streaming on the Criteron Channel. I haven’t watched it in several years, maybe over a decade. I think about how different it might feel to me now, having truly experienced the intimacy and the fallout of a long term relationship. A thought occurs to me- what if Jake and I watch it together? Examine how we relate to it now, as a couple ending their relationship? The irony of the experience could make a good story.

Today is Valentines Day, and I realize it’s my first one single since 2004. I’m grateful that I’ve never been a fan of the holiday, insisting on never celebrating it when I was in a relationship. It makes today much easier to swallow- not much of a contrast between how I observe or don’t observe it, single or as part of a couple. I spend the day working remotely and take some time on my lunch break to box up my cookbooks and pots and pans. Jake comes home from his workday and I propose we watch the film together. He’s not interested. I can’t blame him. He’s fighting a head cold and goes to bed early.

Our house has an open floor plan, and the master bedroom is in the loft. The TV den is also in the loft, on the other side. I decide to watch the movie by myself, but find it fitting he’s sleeping only 20 feet away. Good enough. I can still write a story about watching it “together,” it will just be one-sided now. I queue up the movie, wondering if the audio will filter into Jake’s sleeping state and dance with his nostalgia.

The film opens on Joel waking up in his bed the morning after the procedure, unaware of what he’s just had done to remove Clementine from his memory. Jim Carrey’s voice opens the audio with an internal monologue: “Random thoughts for Valentines Day 2004. Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.” I had totally forgotten, at least consciously, that this movie takes place over Valentines Day. In addition to the opening scene taking place on Valentines Day, the memory erasure office (Lacuna, Inc.) makes several references throughout the movie that the holiday makes this their busiest time of year. People want to forget their pain, and Valentines Day, it seems, is wrought with those tender pain-evoking memories.

We first see Clementine walking on the beach in Montauk in a bright orange hoodie. She stands out against the pale winter beach as a vivid spark. I myself bought an orange hoodie sometime in my 20s because it reminded me of this character. I wonder where it is.

Later in the film Joel’s voiceover talks about the day he and Clementine first met. “You were down by the surf, I could just make you out in the distance. I remember being drawn to you even then. You were wearing that orange sweatshirt I’d come to know so well, and even hate eventually. At the time I thought ‘how cool, an orange sweatshirt.’ ”

“And even hate eventually.” What a line. In our 17 years together there was much I began to hate about Jake, and I’m sure more he began to hate about me. That was the end of things really- one day in an argument I told him I hated him. 17 years of I love yous couldn’t undo that damage.

I notice while watching Jim Carrey that he has a few wrinkles around his eyes and I Google his age. He was 42 in 2004. Jake is 42 now. (Kate Winslet was 29- funny how the characters seem more or less the same age. I’d never noticed the age discrepancy.) I spent a long time believing and expecting Jake and I would grow old together, and have now spent a year trying to adjust to the idea otherwise. But in our nearly two decades together we did grow old, in a way. I have seen his hair turn from brown to half gray. I’ve seen his gorgeous blue eyes dim with years of stress and loss. I’ve seen the deep crevices form in his forehead. It is an honor to witness the people you love growing older. Their wrinkles and silver hair are testaments to the longevity of knowing them. I truly find Jake no less beautiful today than the day I first laid eyes on him, and it’s crushing to know I likely won’t witness how he continues to age over the next several decades. That his aging, in my mind's eye, will stop at 42, just like Jim Carrey is preserved at 42 on this film reel.

The doctor explains the memory erasing procedure to Joel, saying: “There’s an emotional core to each of our memories and when you eradicate that core it starts it’s degradation process. By the time you wake up in the morning all the memories we’ve targeted will have degraded and disappeared, as in a dream upon waking.” I rarely remember my own dreams, but attempts to recall them are always like chasing fireflies. Trying to keep sand in a sieve. This seems like sound science. Joel asks if there is any risk of brain damage. “Technically speaking, what we do is brain damage, but it’s on a par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you’ll miss,” Dr. Mierzwiak testifies with confidence.

Yet as his memories with Clementine are being erased, Joel realizes how important the memories are to him despite their associated pain. The brilliance of Kaufman’s script is in the humanity of that notion. It’s essentially a close examination of the concept of “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” When my sister died in 2018 I remember wishing she’d never been born, to save me the agony of losing her. I no longer see things that way, but when the pain is new and deep it’s hard to remember the beauty of the memories. It’s hard to keep our perspective when pain drives the narrative. If a memory erasing procedure had been available to me in the summer of 2018 I might have impulsively eradicated my sister’s existence from my mind. I’m certainly glad now that the option only appears in fiction.

“I want to call it off! Do you hear me? I don’t want this anymore, I want to call it off!” Joel’s subconscious screams out, unheard by the technicians erasing his memories. I’ve had similar thoughts in processing this breakup. My brain knowing this is for the best, my heart still beside itself.

Joel begins an attempt to “move” his memories of Clementine to unmapped, hidden parts of his brain where the technicians won’t be able to find them. He is briefly successful. “I can’t remember anything without you,” he tells Clementine. But science often bests our good intentions, and the erasure process continues.

I don’t see a lot of my relationship in Joel and Clementine, but there’s enough universality in their characters to find something to relate to. The reasons for my own breakup are complicated and varied, but among them was my growing restlessness in wanting to carpe diem the rest of my life in response to my sister’s death, compared with Jake’s lack of desire to spend his free time doing anything but relaxing to recover from work stress.

“My life isn’t that interesting. I go to work, I come home. Don’t know what to say. You should read my journal, I mean it’s just, blank” Joel says (unaware he had ripped out the last two years from his journal as part of the detail of erasing Clementine.)

“Really? Does that make you sad or anxious? I’m always anxious thinking I’m not living my life to the fullest, taking advantage of every possibility, making sure I’m not wasting one second of the little time I have.” Clementine replies, landing on my ears with a thud.

“I should have left you at the flea market, maybe you’d find an antique chair to die in.” Clementine says in a flashback to their last argument. Thud.

“I can’t see anything I don’t like about you.” “But you will.” Thud, followed quickly by tears.

I notice also the variety of representation in the relationships of the tertiary characters. There’s the young receptionist, Mary, and her youthful fling with Stan, the technician. Mary’s obvious crush on the much older Dr. Mierzwiak. The doctor’s relationship with his wife. Joel’s friends Carrie and Rob, who are constantly bickering. Each relationship is explored thoughtfully even with little screen time. The outcome is always the same- no relationship is unscathed by time. We all enter them as flawed humans and leave them as ever more flawed versions of ourselves. If we’re lucky the good outweighs the bad, but bad is par for the course. You can’t have one without the other. The message is clear. To love is to hurt, to some degree or another.

The explanation for the film’s unusual title happens about ¾ of the way in - Mary (played by Kirsten Dunst) has been reading quotations from Bartlett’s, and collecting those related to the work of Lacuna Inc. (Lacuna, I’m now learning, is a word meaning an unfilled space, often referring to a gap or missing portion in a book or manuscript. Clever.) Mary cites a line from “Eloisa to Abelard,” a 1717 poem by Alexander Pope.

“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.”

Eloisa and Abelard, it appears, were two lovers from the 12th century who were forced to separate following a brief marriage. She entered a convent, he entered a monastery. Decades later they wrote impassioned letters to one another that have captured the attention of scholars ever since. Eloisa, also known as Heloise, is considered a pioneer of feminism, and wrote much on the topic of spiritual versus romantic love. In the end her memories of her time with Abelard served to be precious. Pope envisions Eloisa here envious of her fellow nuns who had never known the touch of a lover, their chaste minds a clean slate, more fit for communion with God. Her memories of love lost keep her beholden to the earthly realm.

Or, more to our modern point: ignorance is bliss.

“Do we still love each other?” I asked Jake through tears last year, emotional maturity temporarily evasive. I already knew the answer, but I wanted to hear it from him. “On some level, yeah, probably.” he replied. It’s his way of saying and my way of knowing: you don’t stop loving someone you’ve loved this long. We aren’t in love, because in love is an emotional state of rapture that knowing someone long and well negates. But there’s a deep level of caring and knowing that won’t be easily dismissed, even as we go on to love other people and become strangers to each other. He’s fused into my bones, the version of him from age 24 to age 42, every inch of his skin, his nature, his presence. His childhood stories, his hearty laugh, his goodness with animals and children, his habits and hobbies. He’s wrapped into half of my memories, folded neatly into my essence. Our paths have diverged, but are forever intersecting. I am aware that wouldn’t trade my countless memories with him for any measure of reduction in the pain of loss. He’s a major part of my story, and the story is as a part of me as my bones. And though the memories may dull and fade over time, they’ll still be walking with me every day, fluttering about in my subconscious, dancing with my own nostalgia.

“This is it, Joel. I’m going to be gone soon,” says Clementine (at least, the figment of Clementine that Joel is desperately trying to cling to in his subconscious.) “What do we do?”

“Enjoy it,” Joel says, at last giving in to the erasure and choosing to spend his last moments with his memories indulging in them. I think Eloisa would have approved. I finish the film through my tears and gently creep into bed next to a soundly sleeping Jake, wrapping my arms around him in a gesture of swan song.

Two days after Valentines Day I go out with some girlfriends and notice Eternal Sunshine on the marquee of a local movie theatre. The film, like our memories of love, endures.

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About the Creator

Kerry Kehoe

badly navigated excursions into form and light >>>

self-indulgent attempts to write personal essays on the subject of being human + whatever else pours out

all photos are my own.

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  • Test2 months ago

    Outstanding work, Bridget!!!

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