Amnesiac who believes the answer to finding herself is in an old suitcase.
| “Look, look, look!” shouted my brother from the seat next to me. “The river is low!” My eyes followed his gangly adolescent finger to view the river as we crossed the bridge.
“And?” I really didn’t see the point in him making that observation. Out loud.
“See the sand bars? That means I get to go camping this year,” he sings and is literally bouncing up and down, the seatbelt doing nothing to constrain him.
Nineteen hours in a cramped, rented SUV with my eleven-year-old brother is enough to do damage to what is left of my dysfunctional brain. He’s not a bad kid really, not that I have a lot to compare to. Ben’s just really excited.
All the time.
Seriously, I thought he was going into convulsions when we went through the underground tunnel in Maryland. For a second there I wondered what would happen if we couldn’t get through to 9-1-1 if he started foaming at the mouth. But there was no foaming. Pretty soon he was squealing instead of shaking, and I realized the kid was just overwhelmed with excitement.
We drove mostly through the night so that we would arrive at our destination by noon the next day, and twice I was awakened by an obnoxious whoop. I didn’t bother to see what Ben was actually whooping about, but I did have to bite my tongue to keep from asking the stereotypical and totally annoying traveling question, “Are we there yet?”
As if reading my thoughts, my mom calls out from the front seat, “This is it.”
I take a look around trying to see just what it is, but I can only see woods on either side of us, and the only thing that interrupts those woods is the ‘low’ river with the sand bars that we passed ( I don’t count the occasional gas station or house).
“What’s it?” I ask.
Mom waves her hand in front of her apparently indicating it as if I’m supposed to actually see it. “Oh, sure. Now I see it,” I say as I throw up my hands, roll my eyes, and then slink back into my seat.
This trip is ridiculous.
I force myself to stare out of the window so that I can’t see Mom drop her head in…disappointment? Regret? Sadness? I don’t really know what she’s feeling when she does it, but I do know that I always feel guilty when I see it. I know I’m acting like a spoiled brat, but it’s an automatic response now. Sarcasm just flies out of my mouth because people just don’t get me. They have no clue how I feel. And I’m not just your average teenager who feels misunderstood. I actually have a valid reason for having this attitude.
But I don’t need to take it out on Mom. “Sorry, Mom.”
“It’s okay, Honey. I understand.” No, you really don’t.
“Why are we doing this again?” I ask inquiring about our trip.
“Everyone thought it would be good for you to get away.” Her voice is weak, unconfident, like she isn’t quite sure if it is, in fact, a good idea.
If ‘they’(meaning Doc, Mom and Dad) would have asked me, I would have said stay home in our familiar New York apartment. With my familiar brown and green comforter and the familiar bookshelf that houses dozens of books that I supposedly read. Where I could be looking at the familiar faces in the pictures that outline the mirror over my dresser and the oblivious reflection that stares back in that mirror. I surely don’t want to be going to small town Georgia to visit people I don’t even know. For the whole summer.
Why is it a good idea to take The Amnesiac out if its comfort zone?
In fact, I was just getting used to that New York apartment, let alone my room. I barely know the people in the pictures that adorn the mirror. Those books on the shelves tell me stories that I do not recollect reading the first time. And the reflection? Well, that is what I know the least about.
See, apparently a year and a half ago I fell from the top of the wooden bleachers in my high school gymnasium, hitting my head on several of the rows on my way down. I can’t tell you for sure what happened and what caused me to fall, because well…I don’t remember. I’m actually kind of thankful for that too. No memory means no embarrassment.
The very first memory I have of my entire life is waking up in a hospital room surrounded by a group of curious and worried faces that I didn’t recognize. The people who said they were my family were as familiar as the chubby faced doctor. And I’ve spent the last year and a half getting to know these people.
When Doc told me that I had a form of amnesia, I thought it was strange that I woke up remembering how to walk, talk, jump, read. Everything I ever learned was there; I just couldn’t remember the act of learning it. Doc told me that it was common for head trauma, a fact that neither comforted me nor helped me. He called it retrograde amnesia, where I can’t recall memories prior to my head injury, which affected my declarative memory. Meaning that all of my procedural memories are intact, but my personal episodes and identity had been wiped out. His words exactly, “wiped out”, like I was some surfer dude catching a wave.
And this coming from the same guy who said it was a ‘good idea’ for me to trek across the country. I was just starting to get comfortable with my new surroundings and instant family, and going to Georgia just means having to get used to yet another set of new people and new surroundings. So again I ask, why is it a good idea to take The Amnesiac out of her comfort zone? Oh well, maybe it will add some memories to the handful that I have accumulated so far.
I had begun to believe that the key to myself was locked away in this medium sized suitcase that I found under my bed a few weeks after the accident. It was not a normal suitcase. I would call it antique because it was not made out of cloth fabric but hard plastic instead. It had colorful graffiti written all over it that I assumed I had done, but there was no way of knowing. The thing about this suitcase is that it has this old combination lock where you have to turn the three dials to the correct combination of numbers, and do you think I knew the combination? No. I couldn’t get in the thing. But I just knew that if I would find out anything about my previous self, it would come from that suitcase. So, I carried it almost everywhere I went. It eventually became a security blanket for me. I think Mom got a little concerned after I started taking it to school with me. She probably talked to Doc about it, but if she did, Doc never said.
I glance down where my suitcase lays between my feet as Mom turns around to face me and says, “The Roundtrees are our oldest friends. Besides, we used to do this every summer, until…” She stops herself before she mentions the unmentionable. Until the accident, is what she would have said had she not had a difficult time dealing. In her mind if it’s not mentioned it doesn’t exist, or at least it’s easier to pretend that it doesn’t.
Even in my therapy sessions Doc never mentions how I am feeling about my amnesia. He asks about my week, about what’s happening at school, things like that. He has yet to attempt to help me recover any memories. And I’ve researched how. Take hypnosis, for example; he could totally put me under to see if there is any subconscious memories lurking around in my brain.
Honestly, I think old Doc is trying to drag out my case for as long as he can in order to suck as much money out of the Deloach account as possible. And he’s apparently convinced Mom and Dad that mentioning my situation would make things worse. I , for one, am sick of everyone walking on eggshells or pretending that nothing is wrong. Things couldn’t be more wrong.
But we’ve been here before. About six months ago I stopped making smart remarks about Mom ignoring the situation, so I don’t do anything now about her comment, or lack thereof. So, I decide to make the most of the trip and try not to make Mom feel bad. “So, this is where you guys grew up, huh?” I ask taking another look around. The woods have started to thin out, and I can see more and more houses, even some businesses start to come into view.
“Yup,” Mom says, her voice a little brighter. “Of course, it’s grown up a lot since we lived here. I love coming back every year to see what’s changed.”
I’d hate to have seen it in their day if this is supposedly grown up. We enter what looks to be a historic downtown area. The road is narrow and only two lanes with a blocks worth of old brick buildings on either side. I can imagine the tiny little shops that probably used to be there. A drug store, a general store, probably a furniture store. The majority of the shops are now antique stores with a few clothing shops and an occasional restaurant, or just plain empty.
The light in front of us turns red stopping us in the middle of the block, giving me a chance to look closer at the shop we are next to. It is a used bookstore called On The Shelf. It’s decorated with bright greens and pinks with a great display of artwork in the front window, most likely done by locals. It’s very inviting. I will definitely have to visit it while I’m in town.
I’m trying to peer past the display to the interior of the shop when my view is obstructed by a guy leaning over a car that is parked in front of the shop perpendicular to our vehicle. He is leaning over the passenger window apparently talking to someone inside. He has a button up shirt on that is untucked with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows to show tanned forearms. His faded jeans have just the right fit: not too tight and not too loose. I can’t see much of his face, but he has a head full of sandy blonde hair that is ‘fashionably messy’, as my friend Farrah would say.
I don’t know why I am so absorbed in every detail of him. It’s not like he is the stylish guys of New York. He’s pretty ordinary leaning there. I think it must be something about his comfortable stance that keeps me staring. New Yorkers are usually stiff and robotic. This guy is fluid and casual. Then he flings his head back with laughter, and I am over taken with a strange déjà vu feeling, and I have to look away. But only for a second. My eyes are drawn back to him, and when I look again, he is looking intently at me. And he is beautiful.
He straightens himself from the car without looking away and slowly smiles. There is a brief second when his eyes fall to the ground almost as if he is shy, but they find mine again and a swarm of butterflies soar in my stomach. I don’t realize I have been smiling back until I feel the car moving. It takes a quick glance at the light to see that it’s now green. The beautiful blonde is still smiling at me, and he picks up his hand to give a half wave as we drive off. I keep my eyes on him until he is completely out of sight, wondering why I am so affected by this small town guy. Because he is so not what usually attracts my attention.
“Not much longer now,” Dad says as we leave downtown. It actually seems like we are driving back out into the middle of nowhere. And it might as well be because ten minutes, many trees, and the longest dirt road ever later, we pull up to a very large, very typical southern home. With two stories, windows everywhere and a porch that wraps around the whole thing, it looks like it came straight out of a magazine. Flower baskets hang here and there, the hedges are perfectly trimmed, and the grass literally looks like carpet. It’s a bit intimidating, not because of the size, but because of its beauty.
The huge oak door opens and a quaint little family walks out smiling from ear to ear. I hear Mom squealing like a little girl from the front seat and then everything is a blur of kissing, hugging, oohing and awing. Before I realize what is happening I am on the front porch being passed around, embraced and introduced to the Roundtree Family. Ben is already huddled in the corner with the Roundtree’s son Kohler who is only three months older than Ben. They slide easily back into their friendship. You wouldn’t know that they hadn’t seen each other in over a year. The adults are the same way. There are about three separate conversations going on at one time, and I don’t even try to keep up. I just stand off to the side watching the scene as if watching it on television. Detached. But with a huge fake smile plastered to my face. I’m inwardly trying to process everything.
I catch the tail end of Emma Roundtree trying to explain that her other son, Grady, has to work late but will meet us at the restaurant. I have been wondering about him. We were supposedly best friends, but I’ve been nervous about seeing him. Mainly because I feel like I have to live up to something. And I have no idea what that something is. The fact that he, this person I have never met in my recent life, knows more about me than I do, scares me, you know, just a little bit. He will remember everything that we ever did together, and I will not. He will know everything about me, but he will be a perfect stranger to me. I’m scared that he will resent me for having to learn him all over again. And I’m even more scared that I won’t actually like him. What if the new me doesn’t want him as a best friend? Then a new thought comes to me. What if he doesn’t like me and doesn’t want me as a best friend?
Ugh! This is more than I want to deal with right now. If I only knew a little bit about my old self, I could try to act that way. But I don’t dare broach that topic with my family. Nuh uh. No way. Heaven forbid, or Doc forbid, you bring up anything that might actually do me some good. If only I could get into my suitcase, I wouldn’t be having this problem.
“Well, let’s get y’all settled in,” Emma says, saving me from my thoughts. “Ben, you can sleep in Kohler’s room. Regina, Gerold, you guys can have the usual guest room, and I will take Jos…ephine to her room.” She throws a quick apologetic look at Mom after the name stumble. That would be my fault though. I asked everyone to call me Josephine. Josie seemed like another person, and I wasn’t comfortable with the nickname yet.
“Come on Sweetie. I’ll show you.” Emma reaches out as if to take my hand, but my grip remains locked on my suitcase. To Emma’s credit she recovers quickly, seemingly unaffected by my insecurity, and continues to lead the way. She leads me to a room with yellow walls and antique floral prints. There is a full sized bed with a floral quilt and a night stand that has a small bouquet of fresh flowers. I fear for a second that the sight of so much flora will make me nauseous, but it is surprisingly cozy and comforting. Good news considering I’d be waking up to this brightness every morning for the whole summer.
“Well, this is your room. The closet’s over there. I’m sure your dad will bring your stuff up soon. Feel free to make yourself at home here. The bathroom’s down the hall if you want to freshen up. Towels are in the linen closet.” Emma, I could tell, loved entertaining guests.
“Thank you, Mrs. Roundtree.”
For the first time I see this completely confident and comfortable woman pause in what looks like awkwardness…maybe even sadness. She blinks twice, waves her hand in the air, and goes about fluffing the pillow on the bed. “Oh please,” she says, “call me Emma.” It looks like she wants to say more. Something along the lines of “because we are practically family”, maybe. But she thinks better of it. I watch her struggle inwardly for a moment and realize that apparently this is just as hard and uncomfortable for others as it is for me. But I have no idea what to say. It’s not like there is a book of etiquette on this sort of thing. So, I stand there and stare.
“Anyway,” Emma says turning to face me, once again confident. “You be sure to let me know if you need anything. Anything at all.” And with that she leaves me alone in the room.
Four hours later, after unpacking, a hot shower and a nap, I make my way downstairs in search of, well, anyone really. Now don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed my four hours spent in solitude, but I don’t want anyone to think I’m hiding out. Plus, I really am curious about this family that we’ve apparently spent every summer with since I was born.
At the bottom of the stairs I hear the sound of muffled voices and try my best to follow it, but I can’t quite tell where it’s coming from. I poke my head into several doorways. The dining room, the kitchen, a massive office, all empty. I have walked through several corridors and adjoining rooms that I soon realize I am so turned around that I can’t find my way back to the stairs and can no longer hear the voices. I knew the house was large, I just didn’t know it was a maze.
Somehow I find myself in a circular type room that is brightly lit by the summer sun. The walls are ceiling to floor windows that overlook the backyard. It has to be a sun room with the wicker furniture and plants spilling out of every empty space. To my left I see a huge patio and realize why I can’t locate the voices. Everyone is outside on the patio. I stand there for a moment watching. Dad and Lowell, Mr. Roundtree, are leaning comfortably on the railing engrossed in conversation. Mom and Emma are sitting at the patio table looking through some kind of book, their heads bent together. Ben and Kohler are laying on the ground both completely zoned into their handheld games.
All of a sudden Mom throws back her head with laughter causing both boys to glance simultaneously at her. It is the first time I have seen her laugh without constraint. She looks ten years younger and at complete ease. I’m almost jealous of the fact that these people, after only four hours, can make Mom really laugh. I honestly thought that Mom felt guilty if she laughed around me. Josephine must be miserable, so let’s all be miserable. What a big burden to carry; because of me, my family isn’t happy.
I can’t take my eyes off of Mom. She is looking at the book again smiling and pointing. She really is beautiful with her mousy brown hair and delicate features. She fits right into this Southern setting. You can’t tell that she is a big time New York city business owner with a penthouse apartment and a bank account the size of….well it’d make you sick.
Even with her mask that she constructed for me, I learned over the last few months that she’s not the typical tycoon. Neither is Dad for that matter. They are both very simple, down to earth people who are humbled by their status rather than haughty. They live comfortably, not extravagantly. They cook, they clean, they even do their own laundry. Their biggest extravagance is sending my brother and me to an expensive private school.
Standing there watching them from the window gives me a glimpse into the real Deloach family. Even Ben sprawled out in the shade of a tree looking all adolescent and innocent, looks more relaxed and at home. Maybe ‘they’ were right. Maybe this vacation would be good for all of us. And I promise myself right then, that I’m going to do my best to try and help my family relax around me. I will do whatever I can to strip those masks and facades away.
And I’m not angry about them being completely different people away from me. I find myself smiling. Because the truth is that I’m starting to care for them. As Mom flips a page I see that it’s a photo album. My heart sinks. Photo albums were put out of sight at home. I don’t really know if they were hidden for me or for Mom. She seems to be enjoying memories now. After a few minutes she pauses, and her smile fades. She looks melancholy, yet another face I have not seen her wear. I would love to go out there to see what it is that is making her look so sad, but I don’t dare. The carefully crafted self-control would come back; masks would be back in place. All under the pretense of saving face for The Amnesiac.
A minute later something draws both families inside, and I decide it’s safe to go find them, so I turn to go but am startled by a figure leaning in the doorway.
“Hello, Josie,” the figure says with a grin. It’s the guy I saw in town in front of the bookstore. There are several reasons I am startled into speechlessness. One being the fact that I’m seeing him again and wondering if he recognizes me from earlier, too. Surely he did or else he would not have waved. Two being that he obviously knew me because he called me Josie, almost defiantly. And then three occurred to me; he must be Grady, my supposed best friend. But four is the most powerful; he is still beautiful. I probably could go on with this list because I don’t regain my ability to speak until much, much later. Fortunately, I’m saved by Emma coming down the hallway.
“Grady, I thought you were meeting us at the restaurant?”
Without looking away from me, Grady, my best friend, southern hottie – yeah this will take some getting used to – says, “Mr. Dan let me off early.”
“Well, that was nice of him.” Emma replies as she comes to the doorway, everyone else behind her, and spots me. “Oh,” she says looking back and forth between the two of us, her face going pale. I can tell this is not how she planned our reunion. She and Mom had probably laid out a very organized comfortable greeting that would lessen the awkwardness. But I don’t think that the best laid out plan would keep a reunion like this from being awkward.
Seconds later both families are crowded in the tiny opening of the door. Grady, still leaning comfortably against the jam, is still looking at me with those penetrating eyes. He doesn’t seem at all uncomfortable with the situation. Easy enough for him; he doesn’t have seven pairs of eyes on him. Mom and Emma looking worried. Dad and Lowell trying to look nonchalant. Ben and Kohler just plain curious.
Are they waiting for me to say something? What can I say? Especially with a knot the size of a softball in my throat. So I just stand there like the rest of them. A silence hanging over all of us, until…
“It’s nice to see you again, Josie,” Grady says without a care in the world. And just like that the silence is broken with a domino of events. First by Emma smacking Grady in the back of the head, followed by two big sighs from the dads and giggles from the boys. I think Mom is still holding her breath. Obviously Emma had told Grady not to call me Josie. But he did it anyway. I wonder why. I am strangely okay with it, and I like him immediately for it. Everyone else would have – and will- bend over backwards to make sure they did whatever they could not to upset me or my comfort zone.
I swallow down the knot and attempted a hello, but it’s pretty weak. Which is weird for me because I’ve always been confident when meeting people for the first time, striking up conversation easily. But I’m not meeting Grady for the first time, really. Circumstances are completely different. Especially now that I got a look at him. How can I act like a best friend when my stomach keeps flipping?
“Well, shall we all get ready? Reservations are in half an hour,” Lowell explains as he heads down the hallway, breaking up the show. Grady pushes off the door and follows the crowd. I let out a huge breath of relief. How strange all of this is.
Supper is a small distraction from the weirdness I am feeling. The restaurant is a pleasant southern buffet with real homemade ice cream in a huge bowl set in a tub of ice. It’s a bit strange to me until I taste it. I don’t think I’ll eat ice cream from a carton again.
Our table is busy with conversation ranging from the trip down, to what’s been happening the past year. Mom and Dad ask Grady about his plans for college which he replies is all pending an interview for a baseball scholarship. Mom certainly keeps things comfortable by keeping everyone included in the conversation where there are no one on one. For all her tactics to keep my problem hush hush, this one helps me the most. I don’t feel like I have to talk only to Grady, which I’m not ready for, and Mom makes sure that she talks about topics that are subtly helping me to get to know the Roundtree family.
And it’s effective. In only two hours time I find out that Grady works at the cute little bookstore where I saw him standing earlier. Kohler is a mini genius having skipped two grades. Lowell and Emma own an extremely profitable business that practically runs itself allowing them to work other jobs. They attend church on a regular basis. Grady graduated with honors and has that potential for a scholarship.
I soak in everything. And while all of this is great and will surely help me to know these people better, there is not one question directed at me, nor is there any useful information that will help me to know me better.