I don’t want to be here. I feel like the depressing blue wallpaper found in unused sitting rooms; observing everything but unable to participate in anything. Larissa, the girl beside me, gives me an encouraging smile that reaches her memorable bright-blue eyes. I know she wanted me to talk along with everyone else, but I didn’t feel up to performing tonight. I was told that she was my best friend, although I couldn’t recollect why she was--and after a certain amount of time, she would probably wonder too. Soon enough she would stop trying to help or fix me once her guilt subsided.
Nonetheless, I force a smile back, pretending I am okay. A few other girls surround us at our table, but I don’t bother remembering their names since they ignore me anyway. I tune out of their conversation and stare at everyone else enjoying their dinner in the dorm cafeteria. They all seem so at ease with themselves. Conversations fill the room but I keep silent as jealousy creeps into my heart. I want to scream for it to be over, but I keep my mouth shut.
From behind me a male voice whispers, “Guess who?,” quickly covering my eyes.
Because he would be the only one to do such a thing, I answer with feign enthusiasm, “Jason.” He uncovers my eyes and gives me a quick kiss on the cheek. I try my hardest not to cringe away from my boyfriend. All of the girls glare at me with envy but stare at him with wide eyes, batting their eyelashes.
“You betcha!” He grabs a chair from the table next to us and places it between Larissa and I to sit. “How are you feeling today?”
I stare at the untouched plate of spaghetti to hide my exasperation. I hate that question. I’m not sick and hate how everyone treats me like I am. I don’t have the flu or cold that simply goes away after a week. I didn’t know when this would end, and even if it did, I wouldn’t be the same person as before.
His emerald eyes meet mine and I can see the hope behind them, wishing that today would be the day where everything went back to normal.
He reaches for my hand tenderly, but it feels like letting a stranger touch me instead of the comfort I should feel from the boy who has loved me for the past three years. I know he wants the old me back and I wish I could give it to him, but it is out of my control. I pull my hand away from him, sensing his disappointment at my continual rejections of his affections.
My cell phone rings, giving me an escape route. “I need to take this,” I say to no one in particular. I turn to Jason to say good-bye, but he’s already up and walking away, probably frustrated.
“I’ll talk to him for you,” Larissa offers, getting up from the table before I can stop her.
My phone continues to cry for my attention and I see my mother’s face upon the screen.
“Hi Mom,” I answer, exiting the cafeteria into the autumn air. The sun has already set and a million stars twinkled signaling the approach of winter.
“Hi baby, are you coming home this weekend?” I can tell she’s worried and I imagine my dad right next to her trying to listen in.
“Yes, I need a break from this routine.” My voice shakes a little, but I pretend to cough to distract her from it.
She sighs. “I know it’s hard, but the doctor said the best thing you can do is keep living your life, and eventually you’ll get them back.”
“Or I will never get them back,” I reply finishing the doctor’s diagnosis. I pass by one of the windows from the dorm lounge and catch a glimpse of my reflection. The girl I don’t know stares back at me. Her grey eyes are tired and exhausted from crying last night, and her long blonde hair that used to shine has become dull from neglect and lack of care. “Everyone’s waiting for the day I get them back and I won’t.”
“Don’t say that,” she said with a sharp edge in her tone.
I try to bite my tongue, but I can’t help it. “And so are you and Dad,” I say bitterly grinding my teeth.
She doesn’t disagree so I end the call without saying good-bye.
The pressure from everyone’s expectations is slowly killing what is left of me. It’s been almost two months and ever since then, I have woken up every day completely lost, like a wanderer with a broken compass trying to find my way home.
My phone rings again, I shut it off, not wanting to hear any more assurances that things will somehow work out.
I look back at my reflection and wonder what she was like. Who was she? I wanted to hear it directly from her mouth, instead of stories about her from others. Pulling up my sleeve from my left arm, I carefully trace the quarter-sized purple butterfly tattoo upon my wrist with my index finger. It’s the only thing I like about her. I wish I knew when she had gotten it, what it stood for, and what compelled her to get it.
Trying not to dwell on it any longer, I head to the campus gardens, a place where I know no one would be, since it was dinner hour. The garden is the only place I could find peace, escaping the confusion I feel raging within.
The air is crisp and cold and overhead the bright stars shine in contrast to the dark sky. The rustle of fallen leaves in the silent breeze reaches my ears welcoming me to a safe haven. White flowers spring from the grass with intentions of reflecting the sky above my head. I start towards the white gazebo in the center seeking solitude, but coming closer I can make out an outline of someone already occupying it. Afraid that I am intruding, I turn to find somewhere else to go but a deep voice stops me.
“I promise I don’t bite,” he says jokingly. “Nor am I a monster or mythical creature.”
The absurd greeting makes me smile genuinely for the first time in what I can remember. Cautiously stepping forward into the darkness of the gazebo, I notice that the sliver of the crescent moon offers us no light, making it hard to distinguish any physical features of the other. Hands searching, my fingertips brush the smoothness of flat, sanded wood. I take a seat on the bench and from the sound of his measured breathing, am aware that he is only about a foot away.
“How do I know you’re human then?” I ask finding my voice, playing along. “I can barely see you.”
He makes a shuffling noise and I can hear the zipper of a bag being opened. After a few more minutes of what seems to be searching, a small flame sparks from a match and he lights a red pillar candle held in his other hand. The flickering flame dances between us, encompassing us in a soft glow.
The oddness of the situation prompts me to ask, “Do you normally carry candles?”
His messy brown hair falls a bit over his hazel eyes, and he smiles at me with perfectly straight teeth, “No, not usually.” He seems to be around my age, give or take a year. He cups the candle into his hands and sniffs. He offers it to me so I lean in and do the same, distinguishing traces of cinnamon and something floral.
“I made it. In a crafts class,” he explains, placing it on the bench between us. “My turn to ask a question. What is your name?”
He looks at me expectantly and I hesitate, not liking my name and wondering if I ever did before the incident. I try to conjure up a false name, but decide not to use it.
“Did you forget your name?” he says jokingly.
“Names are unnecessary, don’t you think?” I say. I run my index finger through the orange part of the flame, feeling the delight of the warm tingle.
“In this situation or in general?”
I concentrate on the flame as it flickers from the restlessness of the wind. “Both. It’s just an empty label for an identity.”
“Well, how do you identify yourself?” He challenges.
I stop and think for a minute, not sure how to answer. Pulling up my sleeve, I expose the purple butterfly. In the dancing flame it seems to flutter, changing its color from yellow, red, then back to purple.
His eyes roam over it with genuine interest. “What does it mean?”
His question is simple and expected, but hearing it said out loud pierces my heart. It was the question that I wanted but could not answer. The question I ask myself every night before I go to bed. The question I ask everyone who say they know me, only to find out that no one even knew I had it.
The guilt of forgetting everything washes over me. Priceless memories lost as I think of my family, Jason, and Larissa all waiting for me to return. I feel dead inside, returning as a ghost; haunting them of what used to be, of who I used to be. Everyone would have been better off if I died instead of me trying to play a role I no longer fit. I hate seeing the disappointment in their eyes. I hate hurting them.
My head begins to throb and my body becomes warm, although the cold night air is pressing on me from all directions. My eyes begin to water, and I can feel the hot tears wanting to spill over the rim. My throat constricts and my heart tightens, making it hard for me to breathe. Don’t cry right now. Don’t cry right now, I repeat in my head like a mantra but it has the opposite affect, intensifying my emotions.
Extremely embarrassed by my loss of composure, I try to gather my strength to leave to find a private place to let it out, but he reaches around the candle and softly lays his hand over mine, stopping me. I can feel its warmth and instead of pulling away, I accept the comfort because he’s not hoping that I remember him like everyone else did when I first opened my eyes.
His eyes are apologetic. So I take a deep breath to steady myself and explain, “I have amnesia. Retrograde amnesia to be more specific, which means I don’t remember anything before my accident two months ago.” I quickly wipe away a few tears that escape with my untouched hand.
I turn and look out into the dark void where the gardens are hidden. I didn’t want to see the look of sympathy I normally receive when I explain my situation, especially not from him.
“Do you mind if I ask how it happened?” His voice is honest, caring, unwavering.
For some odd reason, I want to tell him everything to get it off my chest. “I don’t know. During the summer break, my friend Larissa and I went back to our old high school to help decorate for a welcome back rally. Her little sister, who was the student body president, needed the extra help setting up. It was the day before the quarter began, so we thought we could just do it quickly and drive back to school during the night since our hometown is only two hours away. I was hanging posters up using a ladder. I don’t know how, but I must have lost my footing and fell.”
“No one steadied the ladder for you?”
“Larissa was supposed to, but she was grabbing something for me to hang up. She was the only one in the room at the time.” I try to imagine it in my mind, but I can’t make the image form. “She’s been feeling guilty ever since, trying to help me adjust back to school,” I add, trying to assure myself that her account was the truth.
“So what did you forget? Just memories or how to function?”
“Memories are completely gone. I forgot how to drive, so I’ll have to relearn during the winter break. My language skills seem fine, I can still read and write, which is all my major requires of me.” My words come out easily and I wonder why I can be so comfortable with a complete stranger. Maybe because I know I may never see him again. This campus is too large for us to cross paths again.
He shakes his head, “I can’t imagine going through that.”
We’re both silent for a moment and I can faintly hear the sound of crickets chirping.
“I want to remember. Maybe then everyone would be happy,” I say more to myself then to him.
“They are happy. You’re still alive. That’s more than others can say.” He looks down at our interlaced hands and quickly takes his back. Jason crosses my mind and another wave of guilt comes over me.
I contemplate leaving to head back to my dorm, but his eyes that were warmly lit by the candle just moments before turn solemn and he closes his eyes. “There are some things I wish I could forget.”
His change of reaction compels me to stay. Assuming he’s referring to a bad memory I say, “I’m sorry,” but realizing it’s the first time that I’ve said it to someone else since the accident, I wish I could have taken it back instantly, knowing that they are empty words.
He struggles for a moment as if deciding what to say. “My brother died.” He swallows hard. “Today would have been his eighteenth birthday,” he says, voice trembling slightly. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I normally keep to myself.” He opens his eyes and stares at me for a moment as if trying to decipher a puzzle before continuing on, “It was three years ago, the summer before I started college. I took him to a stupid party on the roof of some abandon building back home. I was stupid.” He looks into the distance and his voice becomes quiet. “I was smashed, we both were. Had a few drinks too many. It was really crowded and the music was loud, I couldn’t hear what he was saying.”
He takes a moment to compose himself, “We started pushing and shoving each other. Just messing around. I didn’t know how close to the edge we were.” He stands up and slowly begins pacing in the small space. “I didn’t know how hard I was shoving. I pushed him. He stumbled. He couldn’t catch his balance. Next thing I know I’m running. Scared shitless, not comprehending what happened, but knowing it was unforgiveable.”
He sits back down in defeat and stutters, “I pushed my own brother off a three-story building.”
I can hardly move.
He puts his head into his hands. “I wish it never happened. I wish I could just forget it.” He lifts his head and I can see the regret, agony, and guilt etched into his face. “It was an accident.” He says, almost pleading.
My throat is dry and my words come out hoarse, “I don’t know what to say.” I want to reach out to him, but I’m afraid to. “I’m so sorry,” I say, hoping the words actually mean something this time around.
“I don’t know why I’m dumping this on you. Sorry, I should just leave.” He stands up.
“I know why.” My voice stops him. “You just want someone to listen.”
He sits back down and leans back against the gazebo. “Yeah, I guess so.” He takes a deep breath and asks, “What were you like before?”
I shake my head not wanting to answer.
Seeing my reluctance, he clears his throat. “I’m fine, really. I rather hear about you, then be left with my thoughts.” He does his best to erase his break in composure. Slightly humiliated, he runs his hand through his messy hair and sits up straighter.
I hesitate for a moment, but his eyes urge me on. “Well, it depends. Everyone had different opinions of me, but they were all vague. My parents said I was driven, always and only focused on school with high ambitions to be a lawyer. Larissa said that I didn’t care about school or anything, too carefree and reckless.” These descriptions contradicted, which I didn’t like; they weren’t the same person.
“The closest people in your life can’t define you. They can’t tell you what your secrets are, your insecurities, or the things that run across your mind in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep,” he tells me which makes me wonder what his thoughts had been earlier tonight when he was sitting all alone. Did he come here thinking about his brother? What could have been? Wondering if he really knew his brother, now that he was gone?
I think about her and the image of her room fills my mind. It was neat with everything in place and not even the slightest bit personalized. “Looking at her things, she seems so plain. No journals, notes, or clues but what’s on my wrist. She’s a blank canvas to me.”
“Why don’t you paint yourself a picture?”
I give him a confused look.
“Take your accident as a blessing. You get a second shot. You can create the identity you want. Pick your own name. Unlike the rest of us, you don’t have the past to hold you back.”
I give his advice some thought. Would it be better to start over? Be a brand new person instead of the person everyone wants me to be, who I used to be? Would it be better waking up and not having to dread every day of forced smiles? Would I stop crying myself to sleep? Is it possible that I could finally be at ease, like everyone else in the dorm cafeteria tonight?
I think of my parents and wonder if they would still love me if I became someone different than the little girl that they raised. Could Larissa and I really become friends again, even if I forgot all of the promises and secrets we shared, or would her guilt and my past not allow us to be? And what about Jason? I loved him before, but I don’t think I love him now.
And if I did try to be me, whoever that is, and my memories came back--who would I be then? Would I regret the changes I made or was this what she wanted to do all along? Would I just be hurting them all more than I am now; dismissing the past like it didn’t matter?
I trace the butterfly again, hoping it can answer my questions.
“Your family and friends will be happy if you are happy with yourself. Completely cliché but nonetheless the truth.” His voice is sincere, making me want to believe in him.
Had I been going about this the wrong way? I woke up and took in everything everyone told me. Not questioning it, just believing it, and trying to be what they said, so I wouldn’t disappoint the people who loved me now; despite the fact that I was a stranger in a familiar body. But who am I besides a stranger? A stranger that’s alive, at least.
Create my own identity, is that what I need to do? Personalize her, or I mean my, neat and empty room. Find friends to eat dinner with who don’t ignore me. Embrace kisses from someone I care about instead of cringing away. Decide for myself if I am driven or careless. And maybe pass by my reflection and see me instead of someone I don’t know… Is that how it should be? I think of his brother, someone I never knew and would never get to. This is my second chance.
A slight breeze runs through the gazebo and through my hair, blowing it over my face. The dead and dull yellow strands tickle me, reminding me of her. All of the stories I’ve been told; all of her pictures. Things that are no longer mine. I take a hair tie from my pocket and gather my hair, making a low ponytail beneath the nape of my neck. “Do you have scissors?”
He looks at me curiously. “You’re lucky I had my crafts class today, because normally I wouldn’t.” He shuffles his bag around and after finding them passes it to me.
I take a deep breath with scissors in hand and carefully reach behind me to cut off the ponytail. After three snips it comes off.
“This is who you want to be?” he asks, surprised by my boldness.
I run my fingers through my hair, noting the lightness to it now; finally free of her and realizing how fortunate I am. “I’m not sure yet. I guess it’s just the first brush stroke on my canvas.”
He nods and stares at the flame, lost in thought.
“I know I can’t remember my past, but you can forgive yourself for yours.” I offer, thinking of his brother.
He nods. “I miss him. I wish I could tell him how sorry I am. I wish he could have been alive for his birthday. I would trade my life for his in a heartbeat if I could.”
“I’m sure he knows that,” I say trying to console him.
He gently reaches for my wrist displaying the butterfly into the candlelight once again. “So, can you tell me your name now?”
My grey eyes lock onto his, now prepared to answer.