The empty boxes deposited in the corner look like a cardboard rendition of the city I have just arrived in. The apartment that is my new home is tiny and decrepit, almost nothing more then a room with a sink and toilet at one end, an unenclosed shower stall looming with threatening rust and mold beside them. The walls are no color but all of them, a grayish plaster falling off of brilliantly red brick, all splattered with the paint and markers of a dozen artists before me. The wooden floor is discolored and polished smooth by the feet of the dancers that lived here for years. A joke of a kitchen cowers in another corner. I eat out a lot now.
This tiny apartment in its run down building lives in the sweet little bohemian section of the city, just across from the darker side of china town, a hop skip and a jump from the gaping pavement mouths of subways that bring me to school.
I moved here only three fast weeks ago, and already the rhythm of the building has become my heartbeat. I just wish I could let go, I could…. no. I could never let go. And it was what was killing me. That was what was pulling me down, drowning me in darkness.
I couldn't forgive and forget, and that's why I left.
I turn away from the boxes and wander to my brother's left behind guitar, and lift it from its stand. Simple and cheap, but I'll never let it go. Its surface is littered with the graffiti of a lost soul, stickers and badges and silver sharpie trails forming pictures and words of a life forgotten. I plunk down on the lumpy futon mattress, both my bed on the floor and my couch when propped up against the wall, the base of it yet unassembled and unfound.
The first notes of a Spanish rendition of Hotel California come easily to my fingers, vibrating like a satisfied lover and rumbling gently through the small battered amp crouching on the floor. I don't sing the words but they entwine between my ears, my brother's voice whispering along to the memories the notes evoke.
But the magic, though flowing as strong as any ancient river, doesn't last long. My vagabond fingers wander away into a different song, traveling into the forest of my own stagnate creativity. It's recently written and not yet taken into fine-tuning, but it may never make it there. I'm not happy with it, I'm not happy with any of them. Every time I touch this god-forsaken guitar it teases me with promises of loving melodies and soaring songs, but all it ever does is cry. It doesn't laugh for me anymore, it doesn't scream or play or shine. It only gives me graveyard winds whistling in notes of mourning, a crying resonance reflecting something deep within me that I haven't acknowledged yet.
It doesn't sound the same anymore, its not like it had been, not since…not since… it doesn't matter anyhow. I don't let these notes reach any other ears than mine. Not anymore. It's not good enough, it never was.
The band moved on without me and I ran away from the shreds of my life.
I tried to start over here; I begged whoever listened in the clouds above to give me a new lease on life. We all pray to someone sometimes. But no kind ears turned towards my pleas this time.
Although my art improves by leaps and bounds with teachers and classmates to encourage me, I essentially paint the same thing all the time. When I try to deviate down a less beaten path the heart and the passion are gone. The paintings are beautiful, yes, technically perfect…but dead inside. No light reflects from the center, no soul pulls you in.
In a student show I had two paintings, one a surgically clean and beautiful painting of a nubile girl sinking through pastel water, the other a battered and mistreated canvas full of holes, stitched together, painted in tones of abuse and beatings, a naked girl trying to pick herself off the ground, demon's wings tattooed over her back.
The people flocked to the beaten girl, calling it new and brave. But their other words were more accurate; broken, lost, bleeding, crying, pained.
Like all my broken songs. Like all my failed paintings. I hated them, I hated them all.
I couldn't even take pictures of innocence and beauty with my darling camera.
The beauty wouldn't stay in my frame, only harsh rusted architecture felt correct in the boundaries of four by six. My camera, older then me, had lost touch with my eyes.
All my outlets had failed me, and I couldn't outrun my lost talents.
I'm stuck in my muddy imposed rut, and I refuse to move on.
I stop, just noticing my song has moved out of its boundaries as I had let my thoughts run on. The light slanting through the dingy windows speaks of a setting sun, the transparent bottles on the sill leaving diaphanous shadows of color stretching across the floor, staining strips of wood orange and red. Light crisscrossed with shadows from the windowpane dividers falls across the matte black of my brother's guitar, changing it to shades of gray.
When had it gotten so late?
I look up, listening carefully as the last notes tremble away, searching for the clapping rhythm of the tap dancer upstairs. The footsteps are gone; he must have left for his night classes. Standing up, I walk around the futon to lovingly place the guitar on its stand, unplugging it and turning off the amp like a timeless ritual of putting it to bed for the night. Right on cue, the neighbour on my right turns on her shower. I don't have to look at my clock to know what time it is; the girl next door is better than a kitchen timer. And right now, it's time to go to work.
I've learned the tricks of this endearing building and its various tenants, and these two above me and to my right have become something of timed alarms to me.
I walk across the short space to the ancient wardrobe that had come with the apartment, the loving hands that had brought it to life had not measured the door to be sure it could be taken out. And thus it lived here, as permanent a resident as the ancient olive fridge.
I run my slender fingers over its high top, stopping to brush over the orange and black patterned strap that attached to my '77 canon camera. I open the cupboards heavy wooden doors; they swing open on nicely oiled hinges. It's strong, solid. Beautifully crafted.
Inside it holds a caricature of my mind, sharply divided between the current two halves of my always-dual life. There were always two parts to me, the girl I was in front of my mother spliced with the girl my friends saw, the girl I was to strangers fighting the girl I was to those who knew me. And this; the girl I was at school trapped with the girl I was at work.
Half the shelves reflect what I wear now, paint splattered jeans well loved and worn, t-shirts silk screened with random words and messages, plain tank tops running the gambit of colours. The other half is silky black with occasional slices of blood crimson, deep amethyst, midnight blue and cold greys. Highly textured with fishnets, velvet and satin it screams for attention and touch, all while pushing away. Gothic and violent, it creates a sexy vixen out of me, someone I pretend to be.
I shed my current clothes like snakeskin, dumping them on the floor. I'll deal with them later, already stained and splattered by the shrapnel of my art I care not for their cleanliness.
I reach down to the drawers below to choose more appropriate underwear for the outfit I already know I will be wearing. I select something brilliantly red with black roses scattered across the cups. It will look brilliant peeking out from under the fishnet shirt I will wear, meant for catching boys, not fish.
I wander off to the bathroom section of the apartment in my underwear, planning to do my makeup first. Usually I wear next to none, but that will not do for my line of work.
A bartender at a hot little neo-gothic place must indeed look the part.
I look at my reflection in the mirror, running a black nailed hand over my head.
I'd cut all four long feet of my hair off, leaving nothing but an uncomfortably short buzz cut. I looked like some kind of lesbian. Or feminist. Or cancer patient.
I pick up a chain from its spot curled snakelike around the soap dish, pulling it on and clicking its two cold ends together with a small heart shaped combination lock. Fun things could be found in flea markets, if you looked. The medicine cabinet mirror swings off to the side, slightly off kilter.
I grab its edge and try to yank it back, but its well stuck somehow. A light reflects off of it, tungsten burning brightly as I try to push it away harder, turning my head away from the light.
"Now look miss, I know it stings but you've got to let me stitch you up. How would you like to be left with a nasty scar, hm?" The woman asks me, standing above my prone body as I push her hand away and turn from the needle she holds.
"Sorry?" I ask, or more or less say, my head throbbing with pain as I turn back to her, the examining lamp shining into my eyes.
"Its alright, just stay still so I can finish and get you out of here. It's a damn busy night, what with the parties and all, and we need the beds." I stay still as her gloved hands skilfully fly trough the air above me, needle flashing and points of pain stinging where it enters and exits my forehead.
I lay back without a fight; my heart's beat beginning to race.
I…hit my head?
But, I had been doing my makeup. I had been home. Did…I fall on the stairs? Get into a scuffle on the way to work?
I push my brain back, trying to find the path between my bathroom and this room, trying to place the pudgy little nurse in her proper place in the crawling chain of time that seemed to have lost its links. I stretch and scratch and pull like a cat climbing curtains, but my claws find nothing. No pain of fall or panic of fight, no bloody faced trip to the hospital, no steps out of my apartment door. Just me, in front of my mirror, running hands through shorn hair, light shining in my eyes.
Scissors flash above me, the final stitches in. The nurse swabs away stubborn bits of clinging blood.
"There we are. Good as new. Its nice and shallow, should heal up enough in about a week to take out the stitches." She says.
I nod, and begin to sit. She places a hand between my shoulder blades to steady me, but it's unnecessary.
"I'm okay. Not dizzy or anything." No, not dizzy, not in pain, no ringing in my ears or fuzziness. Nothing to explain this…loose end.
"Now, your sure you don't have anything to talk about miss? Its perfectly confidential, and we can help you." She asks me, looking at me with the eyes of an inner city nurse that has seen her share of abuse and rape and fear. Looking at me like a victim, like I had something to be scared of. "You'll forgive me for prying, but blaming a fall is so common in these kinds of things, and that is a nasty big bruise beginning there." She says, dusting latex gloved fingertips over my cheekbone. "You're not letting your boyfriend beat you up, are you?"
A fall? Was that just my explanation, or was it true?
Why couldn't I remember? Had I gotten myself into trouble again? Had my past caught up with me here, in this city that was supposed to be a new beginning? Was I covering for something that happened at work? Was I in an abusive relationship?
No, never. I would never let someone treat me like that. One time cheating, one hit, and it would be over. I wouldn't stay for anything.
The nurse is still looking at me with those deep brown eyes that had seen more in this emergency room than I ever would in my life.
"No, just a fall. Happens, you know." I smile, reassuring. Believe me. Let me out.
My mind runs back to a time I do remember, a time of small town gangs and drugs and living on the streets. A time when your rivals may be waiting for you on the other side of the emergency room doors. If I had gotten myself into trouble again, I need to get out of here, and fast. Out a different exit.
But… my memory loss. What if I had seriously damaged something? Should I tell the nurse something? Not fall asleep for twenty-four hours? How much memory had I lost?
"Alright. But, if you need anything at all, you call a help line girl. It's the only way it'll get better." She doesn't believe me. But she's giving in. A busy night she said, lots of parties. "Off you go then."
Had spring break came around? But no. Spring break was just over. I think.
I stand on surprisingly steady feet, and follow her out of the room. She walks down the green hallway and slips into another room not far from mine, leaving me unsupervised in the echoing tunnel in the belly of this unknown hospital. My injury must not seem that bad at all.
But I don't remember the way out. Left or right down the minty hallways, florescent lit and hygienic scented? It could be a single turn to the main entrance; it could be a twisting maze of hallways leading to the center of a medical sitcom nightmare.
I look left, after were the nurse went, and see nothing promising. On the wall is an arrow and sharp block lettering leading to 'radiology' and 'day patients'. To my right, more letters promising a path to 'emergency main entry' and 'atrium'. Yes, right was my turn. But what then? To the emergency desk, and therefore exit, where it may be my worried boss or kindly neighbor who picked me up after my fall and drove me to the hospital, or to a group of attackers, who had followed me here after I ran for safety?
I know it seems so paranoid, but after a life like mine, after an ending like my brothers, I know that a person in danger isn't necessarily safe in even the police's hands.
Should I head to the atrium, the main exit, and simply head home? Would someone stay here, worried and pacing, waiting for me to come out? Worried about me after my fall? Would it be an abusive boyfriend who had hit and pushed me, like the nurse assumes, waiting for me to come out so he makes sure I keep my mouth shut?
Would they come looking for me?
I step forward, and it's now that my feet seem unsteady with uncertainty in my lost memory.
Why can't I remember anything, any memento, at all? Nothing, no cloud or mist or darkness surfaces. To my mind, only minutes ago I was in my apartment doing my makeup. My legs carry me towards the emergency waiting room, and I stop, standing like a statue frozen in marble, just before the corner. Would there be a familiar face around it? Or nothing I know? I peer like a deer scenting for danger around the corner into the unfamiliar room, no remembrance of it coming forward. I look over the people in it to see if I can spot a face I know, someone who may have brought me here.
And old man like a beanpole in a graying sweater, a ragged looking mother with a silent baby, a crying and whimpering soccer player with a torn open knee.
I lean further, spotting a group of inebriated teens dressed in an odd assortment of costumes. Parties…lots of drunken injuries coming in tonight then. A Goth boy with a bloody nose, maybe broken. A random assortment of your regular suburban driving coffee drinking sheep, perhaps parents.
I grasp the wall lean a little further, to see the line of seats on the other side. Three boys, in their mid twenties, in kakis and sweater vests. One sits with his face in his hands as another rubs his back for comfort. Another broken nose perhaps….
"Miss?" I nearly jump out of my skin at the strong male voice behind me. "Can I help you?" The doctor asks, looking calm and polished in his long white lab coat, his stethoscope seeming to give him the confidence it gives all doctors. The confidence of a big paycheck pushed by a heavy education, of giving and sacrificing and sports car rewards. He looks at me over half-moon glasses.
Yes, help me. I don't know how I got here, I don't know what day it is, I don't know what happened to me and if I'm in danger. Help me, fix me, and bring back what I don't remember. Tell me its okay, tell me it's a dream, tell me nightmares never end.
"I don't know…" My voice falters, I can't do it. "…Where the bathroom is."
He nods, points with strong assurance. "Just down on your way to the atrium miss."
I mumble thanks and scamper down the freshly polished linoleum hallway in the direction he had pointed me, my heels clicking a staccato beat of my insecurity and rising fear, rising like the bile in my throat as panic overtakes me.
I don't know. I don't know anything.
I've misplaced my balance and my place in time and life, forgotten and forgetting and simply gone astray.
I see the bathroom ahead, its blue sign with right-side up triangle and circle head representative of the female body plastered to the door. I'm almost running by the time I reach the door, my heart trying to beat through my chest and escape from the inside.
The three stalls inside are empty, the bathroom abandoned. I turn on a dime and slam the door behind me, twisting closed the cold steel lock. Choking cries come from me as I try not to freak out, the walls seeming to collapse on me. I don't remember.
Relax, relax, relax, relax.
Why is this throwing me so bad?
Again and again I repeat it, pushing down on the panic of uncertainty. Of not knowing, not knowing what happened or what hospital I'm in, or what city, or what day it is, or anything at all.
Down girl, down, relax.
You fell down the stairs on your way to work. You called yourself a cab. Its just a minor concussion or something, like the one you got back in grade school, you'll remember it all soon. You're not in danger.
My heart relaxes back into its natural rhythm as I force my breathing into a calm, pulling and centering my escaping jigsaw pieces of self.
Its okay. Almost funny.
I let out a little laugh, but it sounds false and hollow as it echoes off the steel stalls and tiled walls. This was supposed to be a fresh start, and here I've let my past hold on like a leech. I've gotten away from he streets and the gangs and the drugs and the hell life was before. I've got an honest job and I'm going to school and everything is fine.
Just a bump on the head. I'd lost a few hours, at the very most.
No reason to lose it.
I take one more deep breath and head to the mirror to survey the stitches and bruising.
Looking in the mirror nearly kills me.
This…this wasn't me. An imposter stood there, a false image, another self.
I, I couldn't have, not if there had been years of time to change, I couldn't be this.
A sheep. A follower. A country club girl.
I stare at the image, the pleated white skirt, the pink v-neck sweater with brown and white diamond pattern, and the perfectly waved blond hair that falls past my shoulders. If I had a little dog shoved in a designer purse I could have been any page out of a teen magazine.
Perfect opalescent pink makeup, perfect curled black lashes, perfect glossy porn star lips. Perfect little diamond stud earrings matching perfect little gold chain necklace, perfect little diamond tennis bracelet.
Perfect little diamond engagement ring.
This…this can't be me. It just can't.
Where were the messy old jeans? The wise ass t-shirts? Where were the vintage suit jackets and well loved high tops?
These little pink high heels do not belong on my feet.
What had I become?
How did I get here, with no memory and only questions?
My hair is so long now. It would have taken a year or two, at least, to get to this point.
So much for the trip and fall theory.
I look at the damage on my face, the six stitches crossing my eyebrow and not quite reaching my hairline, the deepening bruise kissing over my cheekbone. It did, indeed, look as though someone had bashed me in the face with a two-by-four.
What was I? Some abused, kept woman?
I reach up, running my unsteady hand through bleached blond hair that felt like plastic. I get all this fancy jewelry and clothes and get cheap extensions? But then, it's not all real hair. Maybe it hadn't been years then. I reach up higher, searching for where the real hair started.
But I don't find it. In fact, it's all fake.
I'm wearing a wig. I pull at it, tugging it off of my head, staring at the awful blond thing in my hands.
What. The. Fuck.
Have I officially fallen through the looking glass? Am I the tea mouse at the mad hatters party, sleepy and endlessly confused?
White rabbits have been leading me on. I've been following them through dark tunnels into worlds where I'm preppy and lost without breadcrumbs to lead me back.
But I don't remember tunnels, or falling, or white rabbits. Just this wonderland here.
I look back up at the mirror, at the horrifying outfit, and wish I had something else to change into. Something that matches my…
Hair. Yes, I have hair now. So it has been a while. But my hair is dyed jet black, and it clashes with the outfit horribly. I look closer, checking jewelry, checking clothes tags. The jewelry is as fake as the hair; the clothing is a Wal-Mart brand.
I'm a fake. And not just sheep fake, real fake.
I wouldn't wear this to school. Not even as a joke. I wouldn't wear this to work; I'd lose my job.
Unless I got another job. I have no clue what I'd ever do dressed like this; it's not even an appropriate stripping outfit. Maybe a disguise then? A costume?
Polite rapping on the door disturbs my thoughts and I turn away from the mirror. I whip the wig back on quickly, tugging and pulling till it fits again. I hurry over to the door as the knock gets more insistent.
I unlock it and open it shyly. The woman on the other side looks a touch peeved, her daughter gripping her hand stares up at me. Her darling little daughter with a painted face, whiskers and a little pink nose matching her white rabbit suit.
White rabbit, are you late?
I step back, holding the door open for them.
"What an adorable Halloween costume." I try as they pass me. If its not, well, I can blame the head injury.
"I'm a bunny!" The little girl proclaims. "I got lots and lots of candy, but then my stupid brother fell and broke his arm so we couldn't get more."
"Oh, Annie." The mother says, looking embarrassed for her child's lack of empathy. I just smile, as if knowingly, and walk out into the hallway.
Halloween. So then, this is a costume. And a horrible one at that, whatever possessed me?
But then…it's October.
I'm missing months of my life.