These memories aren’t mine.
I first remembered my sister three weeks ago, while sitting in my cubicle and moping over a mug of coffee. It came like a musty memory, sealed away in the crypt of my mind and only just resurfacing. I saw her toothy smile in my coffee, swirling in the black liquid with the hint of a laugh playing off it. Then I felt her grab my arm, yelling at me to not walk so slow, and I saw her eyes shine as she told me that she was engaged.
I don’t have a sister.
These ghosts, these whispers of a past long slipped between fingers — they’re not mine. Not my ghosts. And I don’t know why I remember them.
I’m a simple person; I live alone, have a cat, and I drink more coffee than I probably should. I have a mother in Florida who struggles to remember my name, and a father buried with the rest of my family in Virginia. I have no siblings, no children, no husband, no friends…so when I remembered my sister, a person who never existed, naturally I was alarmed.
At the time I brushed it off as a trick of the mind, a result of working on only three hours of sleep. I laughed at myself that night as I heated up instant noodles. Me? Have a sister? Sure, as a girl I had always begged my parents for a little sibling I could play with, but I think that after I was born they swore off the prospect of having more children. I never had a sister, and I was being delusional.
That was until I remembered my husband. I heard his voice first, a song in the back of my mind, and he was laughing, laughing at me. I felt a blush coming on, and I told him to quit teasing. He only laughed again, and then I saw his wallet lying on the counter, that pitiful, falling-apart piece of leather that he insisted on using despite me buying him newer, more expensive ones.
But I was never married. I never had a husband.
The next day I remembered my childhood friend, a long and lanky girl with buckteeth that were every dentist’s nightmare. I remembered growing up beside her, and I remembered her chasing me down the rows of chairs after high school graduation, her gown billowing and her cap flying out behind her. I remembered her crying as we parted for college, her cheeks smudged and black from running make-up. As I stood in the back of the bus on the way to work, I could still hear her crying.
Slowly, these memories took over my life.
They came in flashes, each more vibrant and horrifying than the last. I would be in a conference meeting and suddenly my daughter’s voice would screech out, “Mommy!” and I’d jump to my feet, calling out a name that I didn’t even know I knew. “Angie!”
I’d wake up in a cold sweat at three in the morning, remembering how I forgot to tell my husband goodbye, how I forgot to apologize. But apologize for what? I didn’t know.
It got to the point where the memories consumed my life, and I’d stay in my room, weeping and laughing and moaning and wondering and weeping some more. I saw places, too. A cottage nestled in a cliff by the sea, with dogs running wild on the beach. A high rise hotel in the city, with silver walls and a hundred post-it sized windows. A vacation, a family portrait, in front of Niagara Falls, the faces of my family nipped by wind and wet from spraying water. No, not my family. They weren’t my family.
Or were they?
I didn’t go to work. The phone rang, but I didn’t answer it. I became absorbed by these memories, by this world, by these people. I replayed images in my head. I re-experienced the moment when my husband and I met. I watched as my sister walked down the aisle, her gown shimmering with sequins that I helped her sew in. I relived the birth of my daughter. I remembered watching her grow up.
I became attached. I became obsessed.
And I questioned what was real.
I wanted this family, these shining people with their beaming smiles and complete lives. I wanted to feel their love again, or for the first time, or for real. Maybe they were my true family; maybe I was trapped in a bad dream, or lying comatose in a hospital somewhere. Or maybe it was from an alternate world, a universe where I was happy, where I had what I wanted. Or maybe it was what could have been, the life I could have lived if I had done something differently, been someone else.
I didn’t know anything…not anymore.
That weekend I sat on the edge of my bed, staring out the window on the muddled street below, watching as cars creeped along the roads like slugs and people scampered about like roaches. This life, this world…what even was it? What was the point of this monotonous routine, this rigid schedule of droning events, when I could have this other life? I had always considered myself sub-par, not entirely useless but mediocre enough to lead a dreary existence. These memories brought an escape, they offered an alternative that I could’ve never imagined, a world where I had what I wanted, one where I had friends and got married and had a child and loved a sister.
But why? Why me? Why now? And what for?
My questions are snakes that worm through my mind, eating away at every sense I thought I possessed. Now I’m left with nothing but bare instinct, and I shrink away into my mind, fitting my thoughts with armor and blocking out the world. I live in the memories now; they are everything.
And I become them.
Then I remember the car crash. It’s an explosion of metal and sound, a fireworks display of blood and blaze. I don’t remember the impact, but I remember the pain. And then I remember the black.
It’s a warm sort of blackness, thick and wet and suffocating, and as I remember I close my eyes. For so long the black has just been there — a dull and lonely piece of oblivion that I sit in, blind and deaf. Then I remember my dreary life, the life of budget meetings and tasteless coffee and watching reality television. The two converge, and the life I abhor becomes the swallowing black. A bleak hole of dark, pointless nothingness.
The voices start out as soft, spindly wisps, brushing against me like feathery tendrils. Voices, calling out to me. Calling a name that must be mine. They build up, pressing in around me and looming high over in staggering towers. Then all at once, they tumble, and I’m buried in noise. Weeping, calling, singing, laughing. The voices of my family, my family from a dream. And ringing clear over all the others is my sister’s voice. “Wake up.”
The black melds into gray, and the gray breaks into a million shades. A million shades that brighten and lighten and whiten…
“Wake up.” A voice choked by tears.
I open my eyes.
I’m in a room with white, speckled walls, lying on a frameless bed with tubes snaking up my limbs and needles sticking out of my skin. My sister’s voice cracks in a flood of emotion, and she begins to sob, clutching my arm with rigid fingers. I blink back the crust that rims my eyes and open my peeling lips. I try to speak, but my throat is tight and my voice a muffled croak. She blubbers nonsensically, her tears gathering at her chin and dripping off onto the covers.
My sister…I don’t have a sister…
But I do. I know I do, because here she is, with her gleaming eyes and toothy grin, so real and alive and here.
She calls out to someone, and a doctor arrives, his pink lips parted as he mutters, “Not possible…”
My sister’s grip tightens over my fingers, and she says something about my husband and daughter. Then I know…this is real. This is more real than anything.
They told me that after the delivery truck plowed into my mini-van, the doctors had little hope for me. They gave my family three months, and they said that by the end of it if I hadn’t woken up, I never would.
It has been two years.
I often think back on that drab and depressing life I lived in my mind. I think back on it, and I’m happy that it wasn’t mine. When I feel a stab of morose for my dementia-ensnared mother, I remind myself that she was a figment of my comatose mind. She wasn’t real.
But then I wonder…is this life real?
I live with the fear that I’ll wake up one day in that bleak apartment, with a hundred missed calls and an endless list of unread emails. I try not to think about the unpaid bills and my unfed cat. Because this life, with my whole family and close friends, is the one I want to live. It is the real one.
But what if it’s not?