I made a history professor look like an idiot once. It was great. In fact, it is one of my most treasured college memories. This professor didn’t like to talk about history, although I think it was his job. He instead liked to spend 90 minutes twice a week explaining how stupid all of us were, and how inferior we were to the students at West Point. Yes, it confused us too. But the class was required and the professor didn’t care if we did any actual work, so we kept showing up.

One day the professor paused after an impassioned burst of disgust, in which he had uttered the word “extirpate.” He then stated that none of us probably knew how to spell that word, let alone what it meant. He paused again. I thought maybe he’d realized that this wasn’t an English class after all, but was instead History, and maybe he should talk about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act or something. But he continued to look at us as if we had fed his dog a poisoned toad, so I spoke up and spelled the damned thing for him. After flash of aggravation, he riposted with the equivalent of a schoolyard challenge, “Sure, you can spell it. But I bet you don’t know what it means!”

I gave this boob the definition of “extirpate.” He grunted like an alligator that’s been kicked in its scaly green scrotum, paused another moment, and went on painting his word picture of the glorious West Point quadrangle. If I recall, I made an A in that course, and I earned a memory to hold dear throughout all the subsequent years.

Until last week, when at the grocery store I ran into a college classmate I hadn’t seen since graduation. In fact, we barely recognized one another. But after we’d each bragged about our jobs and families and so forth, we naturally reminisced about college. And I brought up the “extirpate” incident with a certain amount of glee. As I began to remind him of the details, an uncomfortable feeling arose in my belly. My friend was not nodding at me in shared joyful recollection. He was squinting at me in puzzled incomprehension and possibly suspicion that I might be on drugs. I asked him what was wrong. Didn’t he remember this blow that I had delivered on behalf of all us moderately annoyed students?

He remembered it. But he didn’t remember it the way I was describing it. He maintained that the professor never talked about West Point. He talked about Notre Dame. In each class he only spent 30 minutes talking about how stupid we were. He then spent 30 minutes talking about actual history, and 30 minutes talking about his investments. He was especially excited about silver, and he advised us all to buy it quickly while it was still at $20 per ounce. With regard to the incident, the professor did make a “spell extirpate” comment, and I had taken the challenge. But as I spelled the word correctly, most of my classmates lounged behind me rolling their eyes. The professor did not issue a ringing challenge to define the word. He mumbled a “probably don’t know the meaning,” and without pausing he drowned out my definition with some bullshit about the New Deal, ignoring me as if I were an aggravating freshman. Which I was.

As my classmate’s re-sculpting of the past sank in, I felt as if I’d just discovered I was nothing but a six foot tall Ken doll. This had thrown my entire history into question. Not just my college history. Everything was uncertain. If I was so mistaken about the “extirpate” incident, what memories could I count on? And memories are important. I felt sure about that. Almost my entire understanding of my existence depended on my memories. In fact, everything except the moment that is currently in progress is nothing but memories.

I sat down in the produce aisle, squishing two grapes and a kiwi with my right buttock. I began hyperventilating. My friend couldn’t find a paper bag, so he tried to help me breathe into a plastic produce bag. I inhaled the plastic and almost suffocated. While I was blacking out, so many things became clear to me. I recalled the dozens of times I had felt sure my wife was crazy for telling me I’d seen a movie, when I knew perfectly well I hadn’t. She hadn’t been crazy after all. I had just failed to grasp the reality of my own existence. When I’d met people from a recent party, and they looked at me with admiration because I’m such a fun guy—those looks were full of something other than admiration, weren’t they?

Shit. I owe my sister a whole lot of apologies.

When I got home from the hospital I sat in my office, reconstructing my entire life from a whole new perspective. I wondered if I could buy “Sorry I was an unfathomable jerk” cards at a quantity discount. After a time the uncertainty made me want to move into a mountain cabin and grow a beard that could be woven into a bathmat.

And then I grabbed for a branch of sanity. I got on the internet and looked up that surly squid of a history professor to see what had happened to him. It took a while, but I tracked him down in an insignificant article from an obscure newspaper. A number of years after I graduated, he was “arrested after a student claimed he had tried to lure her into a prostitution ring.”

Ah, salvation. Although the charges were later dropped, this fact halted my memory’s mudslide into oblivion. If I’d been right about that bastard, maybe I could count on some of my other recollections. I launched another Google search and found the official definition of “extirpate.” It was close enough to the one I’d flung at that unwholesome chunk of liver in a tacky JC Penney sport coat. “To exterminate; to do away with.” As in to extirpate my sense of existential panic. At least I got that right. Who knew what else I could salvage?

But for now, I have to go apologize to my wife for bitching about all those movies I “never saw.”