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I am no good at waiting and yet I’ve been waiting all my life. What a contradiction, but it is the simple truth. Perhaps I am only bad at waiting when I notice it. Now, right now, there is nothing to distract me from the waiting. Nothing but the melting ice in the tea I cannot stand to drink.
I am afraid of so much. Afraid that the clock on the wall will stop ticking, afraid time will stand still, each slow second hand stinging like poison. I am afraid I will not have enough time, or too much and I will discover I’ve been waiting for a falsehood. I am afraid she has lied to me, that she is not coming. But most of all I am afraid that I will wait here long into the night and she’ll never arrive. Afraid she couldn’t hang on long enough to find me, or simply didn’t care. It’s second nature to be afraid when you’ve been waiting as long as I have.
I see pieces of her everywhere I look, as if someone has torn her apart and scattered her, created a torturous treasure hunt where the grand prize is realization that she was always greater than the sum of her parts. The waitress wears the same shade of bright red lipstick; the woman standing in line has her voice. A girl with her hair walks past the window, the photograph on the wall has her dark eyes. But none of them are her; they are missing her heart and soul and mind. They are incomplete puzzle pieces. I have grown so used to mistaking others for her; have become accustomed to the pang of disappointment that stabs me in the heart each and every time. But the waiting makes it worse; everything is heightened and horrid.
The first day I met her I remember so clearly, as if I took photographs and plastered them in my mind. It was October 28th, three days before Halloween and the last day of Indian summer. The trees were skeletal and the Technicolor ground the very last remnant of summer. I was fifteen years old and knew only a portion of what there was to know. I was starving to fill my mind with the rest. Each new piece of knowledge was fresh bliss, another puzzle piece of the universe. I was in love with the delusion that I could know how everything worked before I died and had made it my mission to do so.
There was no better dispenser of knowledge than William Terrell, our neighbor. He was a widow and my mother liked to call him over to fix things, trim hedges, and share dinner. She saw him as an improved replacement part for my father, who had left her two years before. William wasn’t interested but happy to spend time with us. Nobody save us seemed to care for him at all; he was unpopular, eccentric, socially incapable, and extremely private. Yet he was kind to mother and I, happy to satisfy my curiosity on the ways of the world. He lent me the works of any classic author I could name from his dusty, neglected library. He explained to me the laws of physics, the ins and outs of both world wars and the fine details of evolution. Most importantly, he left his baseball cap at our house on October 27th while he was repairing our air conditioning.
William Terrell is dead now. Perhaps his neighbors have found him slumped over in his armchair. They might have noticed he stopped bringing in his newspapers, or his curtains were perpetually closed. Maybe he simply began to reek. I wonder what they thought of the broken glass scattered about his mantle place. The point is, that cap will still be on his head.
The cap was the color of dishwater, and embroidered sloppily on its front was what appeared to be a puddle and above it a fat firecracker shooting out green sparks. This was intended to look like a palm tree. The cap was from a cheap hotel in the Caribbean, where he and his wife had spent their honeymoon. Even though it was ugly as death, William Terrell wore it always. I wonder how he didn’t notice it missing.
My mother was going to return his hat to him herself but I volunteered. I had finished one of his books and wished to pick out another. So I walked, cap in hand, paperback in the other, across the street.
If we could predict the future, nothing would ever happen. Everything has consequences, and if we could see these consequences we would lock ourselves in our closets and stand still out of fear that the next step forward would trip us. If I could predict the future I would have let my mother return the hat, because what I found is not worth the waiting.
He was practically at the door when I knocked. His eyes went straight for the cap in my hand. “Thank you, Clara,” he said. “I was worried I’d lost it.”
“We brought it over as soon as we found it,” I told him. “I brought you back your book; can I get another one.”
“Of course. What would you like?”
“Could I see what there is?” The last books I’d borrowed were recommended by William; I hadn’t had a chance to choose for myself and felt a bit cheated by this.
“Why not.” He smiled at me again but this time there was unease. I got the sense he hadn’t had a soul in his house since his wife died. “Come in.”
His living room was simple and sparse. There was just a powder blue couch, a television, an empty coffee table and a wide fireplace. I had expected the foyer of a nobleman’s castle and had instead found a half-completed showroom. He told me to wait and ran off through a doorway, leaving me alone.
There was nothing to look at but the mantle place and even if the room had been a museum my eyes would have lingered above the fire. At first I thought they weren’t really moving, that it was just a figment of my imagination, but no. They were moving with fluidity that only living things possess, and therefore, despite any logic I had, they were alive.
There were a half dozen of them, each in a plain glass jar as if they were bugs. Most of them were talking animatedly, their words muffled by the glass. Some were laughing, one looked angry, others looked content. They didn’t seem to notice me or any of the others. They all seemed to be human.
There was a man with bright blue hair, a little boy in a business suit, an old man who was shouting and throwing punches. There was a little girl in a pink dress with an empty smile, and a woman in black with long red hair. She didn’t speak, just leaned against the glass and wept. The last one, the girl on the end of the row, was my age or a bit older. She had thick dark hair cut like a woman from a black and white film, and bright red lipstick. She was laughing wickedly, like a villain when they think they’re winning. As I neared closer, she alone seemed to see me. She stared out through the glass, issuing an unspoken challenge. I accepted, picking up the jar, opening it, and dipping in my hand. She clung to my fingers and I pulled her out.
“It’s been a while,” she said, standing on my palm. I’d expected her voice to be squeaky but instead it was rich and full.
“Since what?” It seemed like the only sensible thing to say.
“Since I’ve seen anyone new. I’m sorry they don’t notice you. I’m afraid they’re simply not as clever as me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Put me down,” she instructed. I moved to the mantle. “No. On the floor.” I put my hand to the carpet and she strolled off.
In movies, when someone grows in size you watch it happen slowly, so you realize that this is weird or bad or magical. When she grew I blinked and she was full size, nothing to suggest she’d just been talking to herself in a jar.
“Who are you?” I asked, even though it’s a stupid question.
“I’m Eliza.” She shook my hand and smiled at me, showing off perfectly white teeth. She was wearing a blouse, a black skirt that fell to her knees, and shiny black shoes that showed a reflection of the ceiling.
“What are you?” I tried. This worked a bit better.
“I am a memory,” she told me, nodding to her fellows. “So are they.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” I was laughing now at the pure ridiculousness of the situation.
“I’m impressed you could open the jar. I thought William had crafted them so only he could but I suppose he could have let his guard down. It’s not like anyone ever comes here after all.” I heard William in the hall, walking back towards the living room. Eliza swore. “Put me back!” she ordered, shrinking with the blink of an eye. I returned her to the jar, wondering at the impossibility of this, of her.
When William came in I felt guilty like he’d caught me stealing. Despite this he didn’t seem angry, just melancholy.
“You found them. I should have known you would.” He laughed without humor. “You were talking to Eliza. What did she tell you? Did she tell you how terrible I was for keeping her here, even though I keep her alive?” The last three words were nearly shouted, and for the first time I was afraid. It seemed impossible this was the same kindly man who lent me books and taught me history.
“What are they?” I asked, because once again it was the simplest question.
“Memories. That,” he pointed to the blue-haired boy, “is Zach as remembered by his mother after he was killed in a school shooting. That is Jonathan, a rather jumbled description I’m afraid, from his sister. That is Eric, recalled by a man he argued with frequently. The little girl is Chloe, just two months before she died of fever, remembered by her father. That is Eliza on the end of course, as recollected by her friend. And Judy, described by me.” He fondly touched the glass that held the red-haired woman. She looked up at him, smiled, and wept again.
“Your wife,” I whispered.
“You wouldn’t know how all-consuming it is to lose someone, how suddenly they are everywhere and nowhere at once. I had a psychiatrist who asked me to describe her and I did so with such force she appeared before my eyes. She ran away from me and I followed her for days until she simply disappeared. Memories cannot last long without someone to protect them. I described her again and put her in a jar. I couldn’t stay in one place so I drove around the country to find people who had lost someone they loved. I had them tell me about that person, and usually nothing happened. But sometimes I found I had a new memory to take with me on my way. I lost a few; I let them out for too long or they faded. But I take good care of these, my favorites.”
Eliza was sitting in her jar, looking out sadly through the glass at me. She put her hand against the wall and tried to smile. I’d never seen someone look so alone.
I took the paperback William had brought me and went home. I read it cover to cover just so I could return to his museum of memories. The first time I went back I still felt ashamed. I spoke to Eliza quickly, afraid that William would come back and be angry. The second time I simply asked him if I could speak to her. He was delighted somebody else could care about his treasures. I stayed and talked to her for hours.
These memories are not as vivid, just like the ones William lost they have faded, but they are there. She told me about the past, about the nineteen-forties and world war two. I wanted knowledge and she was overflowing with it. Everyone should have the opportunity to speak to someone from another time. I introduced her to my mother as a friend from school, but I think she got a little bit suspicious. Eliza looked like she’d walked off of a movie set and always wore the same outfit.
Even then I was afraid. I was worried Eliza would fade away, even though I never kept her away from her jar for more than a few hours. I was worried they all added up but she stayed solid. I could fool myself into believing she was real.
But I was afraid of more than that and this time my fears came true. I know I am not the first and yet my case is unique, for she is not my own memory. The simple matter remains unchanged however; people aren’t supposed to fall in love with memories, even when they aren’t their own.
She had an old fashioned edge to her; in her own time she must have been a shocking rebel, because even know she’s on the edge. She was smart and just as inquisitive as I was. She wanted to know all about cell phones and computers, color television and video games. She wanted me to read to her because she said she loved my voice. When she smiled, I knew she’d thought of something wicked, and I wanted nothing more than to listen to her forever, to watch her. She was fascinating.
I was afraid anything I did would break the spell of her. She was precarious, dangerous, and all of this combined made her incredible. When I first kissed her I was afraid it would be like kissing a photograph but I shouldn’t have. She was as real as anything. Once, she told me I was the one who made her real. Not the friend who remembered her, not William, but me. Because I saw her not as a museum piece or a perfect memory, but as a real, flawed, beautiful individual. Strange as it seems, she made me real too. I needed someone to validate me, to rescue me from the prison of my own mind. I think everyone does.
Three years isn’t a long time. Three years won’t even have its own section in the books of world history. Three years is rarely enough time to change the world but when you’re young it feels like lifetimes. Maybe it still does when you’re old. I am not old, I tell myself. Old is white hair and nursing homes and walkers. I am not old, that is still far in the future. By that time even this day, this waiting, will be a memory. And like a black and white photo, it will fade. I am afraid of the day I cannot remember her voice, her eyes, her laugh. I cling to her with everything I have.
For three years I had her. For three years I ignored the fact I would have to leave her behind. But then came college application forms and praying for a scholarship and SAT’s. I was entering a world she didn’t belong in. And yet incredible things dared to happen. She was aging, her hair was growing, her fingernails needed trimming. She was changing with me. I was overjoyed when I noticed; I no longer had to be afraid of out-aging her. It was one less thing to fear.
She never told me outright what to do, not since that first day. But I always knew when she wanted something. Just a week before I was to leave she told me she didn’t need the house or even William Terrell and his strange brand of magic to survive. All she needed was the jar, and maybe not even that. Maybe I was enough. So I knew what I had to do.
She came to me on the last day. We cried like we really were parting, and kissed and clung to each other like it was the end of the world. I didn’t tell her my plan; I wanted to surprise her. I wanted her to be overjoyed.
I came to William Terrell’s house that night after my mother was asleep. I didn’t have to say a word; he knew what I wanted. “I wish you well,” he said. “Bring her back to me someday.” And he handed me the jar; Eliza was asleep inside. She didn’t wake up until I brought her back home, and then she nearly cried of joy. I hid her in my luggage, and punched air holes in the lid of the jar, just to be sure.
My roommate must have noticed something odd. Eliza explored the town and campus because she couldn’t bear to stay in the jar for very long, but always ended up back in the dorm, unsure of what else to do. Finally she got a job and bought an apartment, returning to her jar only at night. I helped her to live in a world that was so strange to her, a world full of television, cell phones and skyscrapers. She was happy; the world delighted her. There was nothing she’d ever wanted more than to simply be real again. Sometimes I’ve thought that was the only reason she loved me; because I brought her to life.
I thought, for one simple year, I’d finally figured out what made things work. Everyone I met seemed happy just to be alive. I looked at them, their smiles, their walks, and I knew they were in love. Maybe not with a person, but perhaps with a job, a place, a hobby. If everyone could just find something and someone that they loved, and focused on that, maybe they’d all see that the world worked through that love. Let me dream of how perfect the world could be if this was true. Don’t remind me it takes one small thing to break that illusion. No matter how much you love something, it can still be broken. No matter how you care for someone, you can still lose them.
One evening I was walking to a restaurant where we planned to meet for dinner and then go peruse the music scene, find a place to dance. She ran to me, panicked. When she reached me she didn’t shout or cry; she spoke softly, as if conveying a secret. “I’m fading,” she told me and held up her hand. I grabbed for it but my arm went right through. When William Terrell described to me the others and how they disappeared, he made it sound quick, but this seemed much more torturous. I knew there was little time; I knew there was only one option. She had the jar in her purse but there was no time to pack anything else. No remnant of the life she could have had could come with her. We climbed into my car and we drove across the state. It took us three hours. I tried to drive quickly, to save her, but I knew somehow that every moment was one to be cherished. We talked about the serious things, about the future, about war and death.
“Do you remember anything,” I asked her, “between when you died and when you became a memory?”
“I don’t even think I am the real Eliza,” she said. It seemed like she thought I’d feel betrayed, like she had been walking around in my life with a false identity.
“It doesn’t matter who the real Eliza was or is,” I promised her because I knew what I believed mattered to her. “You’re real enough for me.”
“If I die, do you think I will be gone forever? If you bring me back as a memory, will I be the same or just some sort of copy.”
“That doesn’t matter either because you’re not going to die.” That was a promise and to keep it I broke the speed limit in five counties. I passed a police car once but he must have known that what I was doing was more important because he just let me zip by, twenty miles too fast.
Sometimes I think William Terrell has always been able to read my mind. He has always been at the door when I needed him. I always thought he was foolish for clinging to his wife’s weeping memory, but I am no better. I respect him now that it is too late.
I told her I would come back for her, swore to her I would visit. She told me not to, told me every time she saw me she’d see the life she could have had. She told me not to waste my love on a girl who wasn’t even real. So I stayed away, distracting myself with school and work and all the world had to offer. I was happy most of the time, but that didn’t change anything. I missed her so much, got so close to seeing her again, once only a block away. But I was afraid. More than anything I was scared she wouldn’t be the Eliza I remembered. I was afraid she wouldn’t want to see me anymore.
I have been waiting for the fear to stop. I have been waiting to forget her. I have been waiting for her to find me. I have been waiting to stop waiting.
Last week a woman came to my door. She was pale and redheaded, dressed in a black coat and black heeled boots. “Judy,” I said. I knew her instantly.
“My husband is dead
,” she told me. “The others are gone.”
“She is on her way. She asks you to meet her at the restaurant where you never got to eat, at the time you never reached.”
“I don’t know if it’s even still there.”
“She thinks it is. Come in a week, she said. She wants to see the world a little more.”
“Does she have that long?” I asked.
“Perhaps. The others had no reason to stay. They disappeared as soon as William died.”
“Thanks,” I said, wondering if I should offer her drink. This didn’t seem to be a situation where common courtesy applied. “Can I ask you something?” She nodded. “Why were you crying the first day I met you?”
“I was trapped. The others could retreat into the recollection of those who recreated them, but I couldn’t. I was imprisoned because I’d rather be dead than trapped. So I wept.”
“And you’re free now?”
“Of course. He’s dead, the only thing keeping me real is my task and now that is complete, I am free”
“Thank you,” I repeated, though the words seemed far too simple to express gratitude. They were overused and watered down but there was nothing else I could think of.
“My pleasure.” She walked away from my door and as she moved she faded away. By the time she reached the road she was no more.
In a few moments, I will see Eliza again and then I will watch her too fade away. This time there will be no saving her, no final hours. This is the last and final time.
I hope, more than anything that once she disappears I’ll finally be able to stop waiting. After all this time, I too will finally be free.