I remember only one thing. I think it's of the moment itself. There was a bright light and then complete darkness. That's my perception of it, anyway. Everyone else insists there was no burst of light, no pyrotechnics, just an old-fashioned act of violence. There wasn't even a gun, so it couldn't have been a muzzle flash. So maybe this picture in my mind is actually one of those compassionate delusions the brain dreams up to protect itself, a one-time case of synesthesia. The blinding light was actually blinding pain, thankfully seen instead of felt.
Or, perhaps, it was all purely symbolic, the proverbial light separating from the void, my own personal genesis, giving life to a brand new self.
Or, perhaps, I should call it my denouement, the ending of that other person I used to be, that I no longer remember. It's funny, really, how the beginning and the end go hand-in-hand, so that they're nearly indistinguishable from one another. I mean, honestly, who's really to say that the other life is the authentic one? Maybe it was just a warm-up, a practice session, the opening act, and this, now, is the main event.
Maybe that old life was just so messed up, beyond all repair, that the only answer was a clean slate. And so, what has happened is not a tragedy but a second chance, a rare and true gift.
I find myself trying on all these explanations, looking for something that fits. I need a way to understand what's happened to me. And God knows, I have nothing but time on my hands. So I work on the same puzzle for hours on end: Why don't I remember who I am?
Sometimes, it hurts too much and feels too cramped in my head to do any clear thinking. So I end up saying these theories of mine out loud. Sometimes, I don't even realize I've done it. Not until someone reacts. And that's why I'm learning to be more careful, why I'm trying to consider the impact of my words before I say them. I don't want to hurt any of these people I don't remember, who have feelings for and about me that I can't even begin to imagine.
Even this little bit of understanding came to me as a revelation. To me, they're all strangers. So somehow I just assumed they'd view me with the same sort of civil detachment that I feel toward them. A silly miscalculation, I realize now. But it's hard to keep in mind all the time how imbalanced the scales are. I know nothing about them. They know everything about me. It's an unnatural condition.
I guess that's why I didn't understand at first that my musings were upsetting the big, serious guy. Jim. The one who can't seem to keep himself from hovering at my bedside, keeping his eye on me as if he's afraid I'll just mysteriously disappear into thin air.
It doesn't seem to matter to him that his presence doesn't really signify anything to me. He sticks with me anyway. In the end, I suspect hanging around the hospital is more for his benefit than mine. But he's not bad company, really. He's uncannily good at predicting what I'll want and getting it for me before I even know I want it. It works out nicely. And I don't know how I'd stand it if I had to lie here all day, every day, utterly alone. Jim may be a stranger to me, but I am a known quantity to him. Right now, that's all in the world I have to hang on to.
So I'm trying to be a lot more careful with him. Before I understood how it was affecting him, I used to ramble on and on, about possible explanations for the amnesia, for want of other things to talk about. I have no clue what used to pass for conversation between us, and he doesn't seem especially inclined toward words. So I just say whatever comes to mind. Or, at least, I used to.
I think the thing that upset him the most was when I said that I probably couldn't remember because there's some part of me that doesn't really want to.
It made him turn paler than a human being really ought to be, and he asked, "What makes you say that, Chief?"
I shrugged. "Just makes sense. I mean, it sounds like what happened to me was pretty traumatic."
He relaxed a little when I said that, which I thought was weird.
"Oh, yeah. I see," he said. "I guess that could be part of it. But isn't it more likely that it's the injury itself that's keeping you from remembering? I mean, what that perp hit you with--" he broke off.
He can never quite make himself talk about what happened that night. I've noticed that. I'll ask him something, and he'll start to answer. But then he won't be able to finish, and someone else will have to supply the details, if there's anyone else around. If not, the question just sort of evaporates, as if I never asked it.
I guess it makes sense that it would upset him. I'm his partner on the force. So they tell me. On television, cops always have strong feelings for their partners. This is the only frame of reference I have now. I depend on the Law and Order and NYPD Blue reruns I watch every afternoon to fill in the gaps in my knowledge.
And, frankly, now that I've heard the story of how I was injured, I can't really say that I blame the guy for being a little worked up, a little over-protective. It was harrowing for me just listening to it. And I was hearing it in this kind of disembodied way, as if it happened to somebody else, which for all intents and purposes it did. I can't imagine what it must have been like to be there, for them to find me like that after I'd been injured.
It was a drug bust on the waterfront. One of the PCP-hyped suspects made a run for it. They say I chased him into one of the warehouses down there, but somehow he managed to double back and get behind me. He attacked me with a two by four, hitting me across the back of the head. My skull was fractured, and I was unconscious, in a coma, for six weeks.
I suppose it's not all that surprising that I don't remember the details of the attack. I can't say I have any real desire to remember it, either. It's not even much of a wonder that I don't recall that afternoon or that day or even the whole week before. What does surprise the doctors is the profound loss of memory I've suffered--everything gone, like my brain has been wiped clean. No matter what they portray on TV, the doctors say that this is really beyond the scope of traumatic amnesia, especially now that I've been awake for a week and nothing has come back to me. They came right out and said that it sounded more like hysterical amnesia to them, that I don't remember because there are emotional reasons not to.
This is how I upset Jim, by trying to explain to him what the doctors told me. It made the muscle in his jaw go tense and start twitching. I've learned this is a bad sign.
"Hysterical amnesia. I don't know, Chief. It sounds like bullshit to me. It's not as if doctors know everything about how the brain works," Jim argued. "Even they admit that. And given what happened to you, it's just a miracle that--"
He clenched up again.
"But can you think of any reason that I'd block out everything about my life?" I asked, desperately wanting someone to put the puzzle pieces together for me.
He looked away and shook his head. "I can't think of anything," he said, in a way that led me to suspect he could probably compile an entire list of reasons.
But that was all he would say about it. The blinds came down, and the shutters slammed closed. That's what it looks like when he shuts himself off from me. He settled into the chair beside my bed, so we could watch the Jags game together, apparently something we used to like to do. Maybe it was the meds or all the unanswered questions, but I couldn't concentrate. I kept getting distracted, looking out the window or staring unseeing at the television screen.
Why don't I want to remember my life?
I couldn't stop wondering.
The weirdest thing is that he didn't tell me about our living arrangements until yesterday, when the doctors finally agreed to release me. Of course, I hadn't thought to ask about it either. There's just so much I don't know, and I get overwhelmed. I lose track of questions I want to ask, things I need to find out.
When I did think to inquire where I'd be going when I left the hospital, Jim spoke up quickly, "You'll be coming home with me, Chief."
"For how long?" I asked.
That made him cringe, and I felt bad. I had no idea what I'd said, but it must have been the wrong thing.
"For good," he said. "You're coming home for good."
Simon was there, too. He's my captain on the police force. Yet another bizarre notion. I still haven't gotten over the idea of being a cop. Somehow, it doesn't quite line up with how I feel inside. Still, I've seen the pictures of my graduation from the academy, my badge, even my name plate. Detective Blair J. Sandburg. A complete stranger.
Anyway, when Jim said I'd be going home with him, Simon stared at him like he couldn't believe what he was hearing. Not for the first time, I felt undercurrents in what was going on around me, the sense that things were not exactly as they seemed on the surface.
And then it hit me, the import of Jim's words.
"What did you say again?" I asked, just to make certain I'd heard it right.
"We live together," he said.
"What?" I repeated, coloring a little, the information sinking in.
It occurred to me that I really might have completely missed the boat when he told me we were partners.
"Not like that," he said, as if he were inside my head. "You needed a place to stay. I had an extra room." He shrugged. "It just worked out."
"Why did I need a place?" I asked.
Simon laughed. "Because you didn't have better sense than to live next door to drug dealers."
"I don't understand," I said.
"When we first met, you were renting space in this warehouse," Jim explained. "You didn't realize that the reason the price was so good was because there was a narcotics lab next door. There was some trouble, an explosion. It pretty much wiped you out. That's when you moved in with me. It just made sense."
I stared at him. I couldn't help the uncomfortable feeling it gave me. All I could think was that Jim had taken me in like I was some kind of stray puppy. Not that he would have put it that way, I was sure. But that's how it sounded to me. And I didn't like it. I wasn't quite sure why.
"How long ago was that?"
"I never left?" I asked.
Jim and Simon exchanged looks.
"No," Jim said quietly, something strange in his voice, something I couldn't interpret since I didn't know him well enough.
Since I didn't know him at all.
Simon stared at Jim meaningfully, yet again, but he still wouldn't acknowledge it.
I frowned, trying to piece together what they might not want me to know. "I stayed too long?" I guessed.
Jim shook his head emphatically. "No, Chief. Not at all."
"You have an uncanny knack for growing on people, Sandburg," Simon said.
I frowned harder. "Does that mean you never wanted me to stay with you in the first place?" I asked Jim.
Then it was Jim who gave Simon the hard look.
"Of course, I wanted you to stay with me. I wouldn't have offered otherwise," he assured me.
Simon rolled his eyes. "You didn't offer, Ellison. You gave in to the eyes. At least, that's the way I always heard the story."
"You're not helping here, sir," Jim said, his voice tight, displeased.
"He needs to get an honest sense of his life and his personality, the Sandburg we all know and love," Simon argued.
"Wait," I said, feeling kind of left out with both of them talking about me as if I wasn't even there. "So you're saying I invited myself, that I horned in where I wasn't welcome?"
"No!" Jim said.
Simon sighed. "All I'm trying to say is that you have a gift for persuasion, and you grow on people."
I nodded, not really believing him. Jim immediately picked up on that. His odd knack for knowing what I'm thinking and feeling was beginning to seem less helpful and more creepy.
He took my hand in his and held it. "Blair, it's been four years. It's your home. It's where you belong. You'll see that when they let you out of here tomorrow."
Simon directed another of those meaningful glances in Jim's direction. But to me, he said, "Yeah, Blair, hopefully everything will start to become clear once you get home."
I hoped Simon would be right. So I probably set myself up for disappointment. But I couldn't help wishing for some technicolor miracle when I finally returned to my own environment, to my old life. There'd be another flash, and everything would grow really vivid, and I'd finally know who I was.
Unfortunately, as I stood there in the doorframe of the bedroom, surveying my little corner of the world, things were anything but clear. It's not just that it didn't look even remotely familiar to me. It's not just that it was so tiny and sparsely furnished. Something told me that I didn't really belong here, intuition or instinct or some vague, wordless memory.
Or maybe it was simply that I didn't want to belong there. I didn't want this to be my life. I don't know how to explain it. But the first thing that sprang to mind when I stepped into that tiny, little room was: Oh, God, how much time have I wasted here?
I don't know why I thought that exactly. I must have been picking up on something. There was some feeling in the air, a sense of constriction, of something stale and desiccating, both expectant and sad, like I'd been waiting around for something that was never going to happen, for way too long. I couldn't help wondering what I had been doing here, what had held me in limbo for four years, why I wasn't getting on with my life, why I didn't have a wife or children or even an apartment of my own. I couldn't help wondering how sad I must have been.
It was a pretty ungrateful reaction. I mean, I'd been something of a charity case, living in Jim's apartment without even paying rent. Beggars can't be choosers and all that. I was lucky he rescued me. He didn't seem to expect any sort of gratitude for it, either. In fact, he almost seemed to feel I was the one doing him the favor.
"I know it's not much," Jim said, suddenly standing behind me in the doorframe, startling me. "But you've always seemed comfortable here."
"I'm sure that's true," I said, more out of politeness than any real sense of conviction.
"I-- uh, straightened up a little," he said. "That might make it seem less familiar."
"I'm not too tidy, huh?"
"No, Chief. I'm afraid that you and tidy are two words that don't often occur in the same sentence," he said with a smile, his voice light and teasing.
Something about that struck me. I felt certain this was the fabric of our friendship. It wasn't an actual memory, just an observation. I could tell from the easy way he fell into it. This wasn't the first time he'd kidded me like this.
It made me think that perhaps we were just friends and partners on the job who also happened to share the same living space, as far-fetched as that might sound. I hadn't been particularly convinced by Jim's denial the other day, not after all those meaningful glances between him and Simon. I could easily see that they might not know how to tell me I was gay, that Jim and I were a couple. The guy did hover around my bedside the entire time I was recuperating. I'm sure he was there every minute of the six weeks before I regained consciousness, too. It wouldn't have surprised me if we had turned out to be lovers.
But as I stood there in the doorway, I realized that we weren't. I don't know how I knew. I just could tell that I really had lived in this little room all by myself, slept in this bed alone. Unsatisfied. I shook my head to clear that away. I didn't know what it meant or where it had come from. I had the sudden feeling that I didn't want to know.
I began to understand that there really might be reasons why I didn't want to remember my life.
"You want to lie down for a while? Take a nap?" Jim asked. "The doctor said you should rest."
"Yeah. But there's something I need to do first. The bathroom?"
He pointed. I went inside and stood in the semi-darkness for a moment.
All the time in the hospital, I hadn't looked in the mirror, not even once. I'd made them hang a towel over it in the bathroom, so I wouldn't accidentally catch my reflection when I went in there to pee. I don't know what I was afraid of exactly. Maybe I just didn't know how my inner sense of self would match up against the image in the glass. Somehow, that was a really scary prospect.
But finally, I couldn't put it off any longer. I needed to know.
I flipped the switch. "Shit!"
"Chief?" Jim materialized in the doorway.
"Oh, my God."
"It looks bad now, but it'll heal. I promise."
It hadn't occurred to me to worry about looking like Frankenstein, but apparently, this should have been my primary concern.
"I guess I see why people in the parking lot were staring," I said.
The doctors had performed surgery to relieve the pressure on my brain from the injury. They had shaved my head, and it left my skull looking so pale and vulnerable, the flesh purpled and raw, crisscrossed with jagged scars.
"Your hair will grow back and cover it all up," Jim reassured me.
"Do you have a picture of what I looked like before?"
He frowned. "Are you sure you want to do that now?"
"I need to."
He watched me, our eyes meeting in the mirror. Finally, he nodded. "I'll go get one."
He brought back a snap shot in a frame. It was of Jim and Simon and a third person I figured must be me. We were all wearing hip waders, standing in a river, with fishing rods in our hands. I had on a coat, and the leaves were golden in the background. I was smiling, and the sky was so blue above me. It was a lovely scene, but the way postcards of places you've never seen before can seem so beautiful.
"That was our first fishing trip together," Jim told me. "You'd never gone before. I had to teach you how to cast your line, but you picked it up really quickly, like a natural. Hell, you caught more fish that weekend than Simon and me put together."
He smiled as he recounted the story. I stared into the mirror and then looked hard at the picture, as if I could get inside the mind of my former self, unlock my own mysteries. But in the end, it was just a photograph, a fishing trip, a beautiful fall day. If it held any secret information, I couldn't see beneath the surface to discover it.
"You said it was the first trip. But not the last?" I asked.
"We go camping a lot. It helps me to clear my head. You like having time to think."
"Mmm. Do I always wear my hair so long?"
"Since I've known you."
"And that's not a problem?"
"On the force, you mean?"
He shook his head and smiled. "It was your line in the sand. Simon pulled a few strings so you wouldn't have to cut it when you went to the academy."
I frowned. "Why would he bother over something like that?"
Jim shrugged and looked away. "I guess because it's one of those things that makes you-- well, you."
I squinted at the picture. "You don't think it looks like I have some kind of 80s rock star complex?"
His lips quirked. "It works on you."
I wasn't convinced, but I handed him back the photo anyway. "Thanks," I said.
He nodded and took it back, stopping a moment to study it. "That was a good day," he said.
His voice broke, just a little, but it was enough. I finally understood all the hovering at the hospital, his shadowing my every step since we'd returned to the apartment. Now that I was able to step a little outside my own confusion, I could see just how much he had suffered, how terrified he must have been for me.
He stood there, helplessly, looking like he wanted to reach for me, but he didn't allow himself to do it, probably uncertain how I would react. Honestly, I was a little surprised by my own response. It was just an instinct or something. I took a step toward him, giving him permission. He still hesitated, so I went even closer. Finally, he gave in and hugged me, like he must have wanted to do ever since I woke up.
From the way he touched me, I could tell that he really just wanted to squeeze the hell out of me. But he held himself in check and hugged me carefully, as if I might break. Still, I could feel the depth of his affection for me, in the very set of his body, the way his arms wrapped around me. I could feel so many other things as well--the burden of his sorrow, the lightness of his relief.
And yet, it was as if all those charged emotions were coming from a stranger. It was nice, in a way, to know that someone had so much good will towards me. But it was also supremely strange, to be privy to his vulnerability, to feel the power of the intimacy and friendship we must once have shared, even though he was now no more familiar to me than someone I might stand in line behind at the grocery store.
After a moment or two, I realized he was shaking, his back heaving. He was crying. There was no sound and no tears, just a raw, wordless anguish half choking him. Something tightened in my chest. He was such a big, capable guy that it was a little like seeing your parent cry. It gave me that same feeling, like the world was all turned upside down and I had no idea how to fix it.
"It's okay," I said, my voice low and soft, trying to soothe him.
He tightened his grip on me, but he couldn't seem to stop the flow of his grief now that it had worked its way loose.
I returned his embrace, as hard as I could. "I didn't die," I told him, wishing I remembered how to comfort him. "I didn't die."