"And did you see the look on the doctor's face when she asked them to cut off her head? I thought he was going to swallow his tongue!"
"Did Jason call yet?"
"Not yet, Mads. He said he'd call at seven. Anyway, what about when that really hot doctor – what was his name? I can't believe he just walked in—"
I tuned them out, shutting my gritty eyes and making myself as comfortable as I could on the buttery leather sofa in my parents' living room. It was me they were talking about, me whose actions they were dissecting with the glee that can only come to an observer rather than the main participant. I didn't remember a single thing that they were going on about, and the events were second-hand memories that I'd heard often enough that I could sort of tell them myself, but only in that detached way of someone who heard it from someone who heard it from someone else.
Hi, my name is Madeleine, and I was lucky to be alive.
That sounded so, so dramatic. I'd always hated drama, but it was hard to avoid when it was the truth. Four months ago, I survived a horrible car accident, that was, unfortunately, also my fault. My best friend was in the car with me on what seemed to be a normal day, but that one split second that drew my attention elsewhere changed that for everyone.
Even now, wrapped up in plaster and plastic, it didn't seem quite real. My elbow and shoulder weren't really dislocated. I didn't really break my arm, or a rib, or my foot. I didn't really collapse a lung or bruise my heart. And the neck brace, still propping up a broken neck, was really just there for decoration.
My best friend walked away. Barely a scratch on her, although bruises blossomed brightly over the next several days. She injured her wrist in the wreck, a by-product of an incorrectly placed seat belt. No abdominal injuries from the seat belt or any of the other numerous ailments she could have received from when the car flipped over and over like a tiny toy spilling out of its box.
The car was mine, hard-earned from baby-sitting and odd jobs around the neighborhood when I was too young to drive --- I knew I was saving up for something. And then, when I did finally get my license, it was I and not any of my friends who started driving us to school instead of taking the bus, because no one else's parents could afford or though they deserved a car. Taryn, my neighbor and best friend, whined and cried about it for weeks, but it didn't do her any good.
I wondered what she would say if I told her I didn't find the stories they were telling hilarious, nor did I want to hear them.
A month ago, they'd wired my neck together because it wasn't healing. I'd been told repeatedly how lucky I was – another fraction of an inch and I would have been paralyzed for life from the neck down. It was really hard to make this mean anything to me, because I didn't remember causing the accident or any of the pain that followed.
It was just the here and now, and even some of those details were spotty.
Taryn always played the sympathy card better than anyone I know. It didn't matter that her injuries weren't nearly as bad as mine, because she wasn't the one at fault. I had both the injuries and the guilt, and I could tell you without a second of hesitation that it was always the guilt that was worst. It didn't matter that she had her wrist hanging out the window in an awkward position or that the doctors said that was what probably caused the damage.
In the end, it was my fault, and it didn't matter that she healed those injuries before I was even out of the hospital.
And I wondered if it was because of that that I found it too easy to hate her for her vicious retelling of some of my worst moments. She did it all in fun, of course, wasn't it just hilarious? I guess you had to be there, but physical presence was only half the battle. I wanted to scream, to tell her that I don't want people to know these things. To just leave me the fuck alone. But every time I tried she only brushed it off as meaningless.
"Don't be so sensitive," she said, not even thirty seconds ago.
It hurt to have your faults paraded out in front of the world to see, and was only worse when it wasn't something you had control over at the time. I often wondered what she would say if I tossed her secrets so blithely to everyone I knew.
But for all of that, I knew that her careless slander wasn't really the problem. It was just so much easier to hate her than to hate myself, and hate and guilt tasted almost the same anyway.
I was so tired, all I wanted to do was to lie down and go to sleep. I couldn't remember what they were talking about five minutes ago or what was said, and the pressure to do so was giving me a headache. And above it all was that overwhelming sense of guilt.
It was my fault.
I repeated these words over and over in my head as if saying them repeatedly would help me remember, as though I wasn't reminded every chance someone got. Taryn took special delight in it.
"Mads, do you remember when the neurosurgeon came in?"
I looked blankly at her. She knew I didn't remember, so why did she even bother asking? "No," I said, "I don't."
She turned back to our friend Amber, who was visiting with a cautious, half-smile plastered across her face, as though she wasn't sure whether she should really be laughing. I could admit that most of the stories were pretty funny. Those I didn't mind sharing. It was the personal ones that I wanted to keep to myself.
Taryn addressed Amber with a smug smile on her face. "He came in and gave her three words to remember: apple, book, and car. He made her repeat them a few times, then he started a conversation with her. Mads, are you sure you don't remember this?" I shook my head negatively and she continued, "Anyway, he talked to her for a little bit, then asked her to repeat the three words. The first time, no problem. But the second time—" Here, she expelled a cute little giggle. "She couldn't remember anything, so he gave her hints. For the first one, he said, 'It's something you eat,' and she remembered that it was an apple. The next one he told her was something you read. First she looked confused, but then eventually she remembered that it was a book. And for the last one he told her, 'it's something you ride to school.' When she said, 'A fish?,' he turned around and walked out!"
This one I'd heard multiple times before, enough that I remembered it on my own, and it didn't bother me nearly as bad as some of the others.
I waited for her laughter to subside before I asked, "Did Jason call today?"
Jason was my boyfriend of six months, or two if you didn't count the interlude where I didn't actually remember that I was dating him.
Taryn rolled her eyes. "You just asked that, Mads. He said he was going to call at seven, remember?"
There was that word again. Amber smiled sympathetically at me, and I smiled weakly back. "Are you feeling okay, Madeleine? You look kind of tired."
I knew she could see the faint crinkling at the corners of my eyes where the pain showed through no matter how hard I tried to hide it. "Do you need one of your pain pills?" she asked.
I couldn't tell her that the pain was mostly just a dull ache that I didn't even acknowledge anymore, the kind of friend that you'd rather do without but that never left your side. No, it wasn't the physical pain that got me these days, not now that my memory was starting to stick like the Post-It notes on the refrigerator door.
It's living with what you've done that hurts the most.
I honestly don't know what I can say about this, and even if the last line is a cliche, it's so, so true. Take it for what it's worth -- it's based (loosely? partially?) on true events, but isn't bound by them.