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False Recollections
by Elina Kumra

     For nearly thirty years, I clung to a memory. At forty, I fell for an Alaskan bush pilot. Rugged, unique, fearless. He found me amusing—a true California hippie. Invited me over, showed me his world, then sent me packing. Blinded by his allure, I chased him shamelessly. Discovering his affair, I felt mortified, angry, then moved on. Learning of his death in a crash brought sadness. And that was it.


     Or so I thought.


     I've kept journals since thirteen. They stack in boxes along my closet's back wall—essential, yet unnoticed, like a toothbrush or shoes. Occasionally, I'd dive into those notebooks, scribbles on napkins from truck stops, margins of maps. Yet, often they stayed shut, sometimes for years.

     Somewhere in the continuous narrative of my life lay the brief, intense story of my affair with the bush pilot. I kept it to myself. The embarrassment of foolishly pursuing a man as I neared middle age was a chapter I preferred to forget. Yet, on a cold December afternoon, with northern California Pineapple Express blurring my windows and the dog refusing to step outside, nostalgia took over. I retrieved the journal from its box, wrapped a shawl around my shoulders, and settled on the couch to revisit my Alaskan adventure.


     In the spring of 1989, I felt fragile. My long-term relationship had ended, leaving me without hope for love. I professed independence from men, yet, deep down, I longed for companionship. Distrustful of the singles scene, its risks and deceit, I stayed alone until a magazine caught my eye. It catered to women seeking romance with Alaskan bachelors—where men outnumbered women three to one. The prospect of meeting someone from afar seemed safe, controlled. I found him in those pages—a lanky, shaggy-haired Alaskan, reminiscent of Crocodile Dundee. Reading my journal, I smiled, remembering how I gasped at his photo. He stood barefoot on his floatplane's pontoon, a summer day around him, shirtless, innocently holding a slippery, freshly- caught salmon by his navel.


     I wrote, he replied. My journal lacks the exchange, but his response electrified me. He wished to speak. My heart raced as his voice first reached me over the phone.


     Our correspondence through calls and letters began. I'd wait by the mailbox, eager for his letters, photos, and tales from Alaska's unforgiving lands. Yet, flipping through my journal, the story twisted away from what I recalled. A sense of alarm and confusion whispered to me. I had been captivated, imagining a life with this adventurous spirit in the wilds. But what was this entry, written weeks after we first spoke?


May 20, 1989


     He called last night at 11:30 p.m.; we spoke until past 1 a.m. I think about his phone bills and cringe. He's interested, but I complicate things. His voice carries a long, grainy drawl from Georgia. Did his father support Wallace? He was of age in '72. Perhaps he even voted for Wallace himself. And his daughter, named Sheena Kay, whom he insists on calling by her full name. It's as if he's setting her destiny towards square dances and karaoke nights in biker bars.

     I had lost these doubts, this mockery, in my memory. Swept up in the fantasy, love blinded me to his indifference. The tone in my journal surprised me, unsettling.


     Four months in, Rusty invited me over. I remember prepping like a giddy schoolgirl, hitting camping stores and thrift shops for Alaska-appropriate gear. The flight north filled me with anticipation, convinced of our mutual falling. Yet, reading my journal, the love story it tells differs from what I remembered. Two days into Fairbanks, I sat on his deck under the noon sun, journal in lap, and wrote.


August 16, 1989


     Alaska has seeped into my being, its true magnitude hidden like an iceberg. Standing by the river near his cabin, the landscape shifted, awakening. A darkly feminine force in the woods, the brooding clouds, the rhythmic water, felt alive. It mirrored falling for a stunning, elusive woman, always out of reach, never an ally. I longed for her acceptance, then the feeling faded, dismissed as imagination. My thoughts shifted to Rusty, with his lumberjack look, auburn hair, and green eyes. Yet, turning back to the river, the presence returned, dispassionate, watching.


     I realize my love isn’t for Rusty. The divides between us—social, cultural, spiritual—are too vast. His arms, flying above Denali, offer brief escapes, but our differences in beliefs mark the true distance. Alaska, not Rusty, consumes me. I try to capture her essence, but she defies me, leaving scars or withdrawing completely. Exhausted, I turn away, indifferent. Yet, in sleep, she approaches, indifferent to my existence.


     Reading my journal, I'm reminded of developing photos with my father in a darkroom. Dipping exposed paper into the solution, an image would slowly emerge—faint at first, then sharply defined.


August 21, 1989


     Last night, in jest, I mentioned how my presence seemed to fill his cabin, unsure how I'd gather myself to leave. He echoed my sentiment, noting my essence lingered everywhere— writing on the deck, gazing into the river, beside him, challenging the bed's integrity. "I dread seeing you pack. Could you stay another week?" he asked.


     This entry contradicted my recollections so starkly, I doubted its authenticity, questioning the fidelity to my journaling rule. Yet, his voice rang true as I read. My journal revived the intensity in his gaze as I faced departure. "We're not done," he assured. "We'll meet again."


     Back home, my writings, though not explicitly, reflected a shift. Rusty's quirks, once subjects of my mockery, now felt charming.


October x, 1989


     Our phone conversations have grown so frequent, I'm catching his Georgia accent. Soon, I might echo a character from "Gone With The Wind," my favorite film. I savor its unhurried cadence. Tonight, Rusty took his phone outside so I could listen to the birch trees falling, work of beavers at their dam. Their persistence and effort captivated me. Rusty believes such traits are essential for survival there, both for animals and humans. Could I belong?


     He invited me back, sensing not just my love for Alaska but potential in us. "Give us a chance," he proposed. Our differences were secondary to what our hearts held. And winter in Alaska? He painted it as an exotic experience, akin to tasting raw oysters, best enjoyed with someone who knows the way. His descriptions of autumn's touch on the forest and the light dancing on the water were invitations, extending a welcome to his home, his arms. Why had my memory recast me as the one pleading? A throbbing pulse took hold in my throat.


November 10, 1989


     Rusty sent a hefty package yesterday. Photos, a letter, and the Anchorage Daily News help wanted ads circled in red. He might be onto something. Better pay in Alaska, and I can envision a life there with Rusty as my guide. Thinking of returning, my veins pulse with excitement. Dana wept over the phone, warning my life would change irrevocably. My parents are wary, dubbing Rusty “that man.” To them, Alaska is mere geography. To me, it's a realm of ancient magic and raw nature. Rusty gets this part of me; it's in him, too.


     Reading, I paused, letting the room and reality drift back. If my altered memories ever clashed with this truth, the fabrications won. These reignited truths sparked more, lurking just out of reach. What more might I uncover?


December 22, 1989


     Home now, Rusty in the past. Alone in the cabin, a dawn call revealed his double life. A woman spoke of a house they were buying. A bag hidden behind coffee cups held countless letters from women misled by Rusty. From poetic to simple, each believed in a unique bond with him. My letters were among them. Rusty's calls, often not from Alaska but various West Coast locations, deceived me. Were his vivid descriptions of Alaskan seasons just lies?


     The dog, sensing my shock, looked up. I reassured her, though doubtfully.


     Each woman received photos, some even the job ads, all duped into thinking they were his one. Learning another was planning a life with Rusty shook me to the core.


     Packing in fear, I fled to neighbors, lied for a ride to the airport. No note for Rusty; the letters on his table and the unanswered machine spoke enough.


     That was the heart of the true story, hidden from myself for years behind a cushion of denial. Duped by a narcissist, or worse, a sociopath. I never understood his motives, the pleasure he found in deceiving vulnerable women. Did any seek revenge? My journal revealed more, including his death, details I'd forgotten. A clipping from the Anchorage Daily News, sent by a neighbor, detailed the crash off Ruby, Alaska, on April 21, 1990—two dead, including the pilot.


     A witness described the Maule M-5's sudden, fatal maneuver into the Yukon River. The pilot, license revoked in 1988 for drunken flying, had a blood alcohol level of .195 percent at the crash. The passenger's identity remained undisclosed, awaiting family notification.

     I rose, unsteady, to brew tea. Memories of flying with Rusty over the Kahiltna Glacier surged, the landscape sprawling beneath us. Merely months after my escape, he had been drunk at the helm, crashing into icy depths. Fate, perhaps divine intervention, spared me from being that unidentified passenger. In Alaska, where small planes outnumber bikes in the lower 48, and where bravado often masks recklessness, flying drunk breaches an unspoken code, met with stony silence even in jest.


     The teacher from Oregon haunted my thoughts more than Rusty. Had I not stumbled upon the call and letters, our fates might have intertwined in tragedy. My journal reflected frequent ponderings about reaching out to her, sharing our woven lies and manipulation. Yet, I held back, unsure if I was protecting her heart or mine.


     After a turbulent period, my journal ceased to mention the pilot and me. Life in California took a brighter turn; I found love and never returned to Alaska. Its influence dwindled to my cherished copy of Robert Service’s "The Spell of the Yukon," a reminder of the land that once called to me.


     By dusk, I closed my journal and returned it to its spot in the closet. The following weeks found me eyeing those journals warily, half-expecting more revelations. Yet, with time, I reconciled with the altered memory. We often reshape our pasts, crafting versions that sustain us. Without these narratives, raw emotions—foolishness, pettiness, anger—might immobilize us. When exactly the truth about Alaska began to blur, replaced by a protective illusion, I can’t say. But I've come to see both versions as facets of my history, integral to my story.

Elina Kumra is a young poet from San Jose, California. She is Reed Magazine’s 2024 Emerging Writer, a fiction finalist for Quarterly West, Fractured Lit and TABC Poetry, 2022 Sunnyvale’s Youth Poet Ambassador, Honored by Scholastic Writing and published in over 15 literary magazines. Her primary goal is to tackle illiteracy by promoting equity and accessibility within the educational system. @velvetpoets and Twitter (X): ElinaKumra1

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