The reason I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the old diner escaped me. I squinted at the golden symbols outlined in black and painted on the large picture window next to the door. Above me, a red awning filtered the glare and heat of the midday sun. A couple inside turned from their steaming plates of food to share a quick yet intimate kiss. Not wanting to intrude on their moment, I gazed back at the inscrutable symbols.
No matter how I tilted my head, the characters were undecipherable. What was wrong with me? I knew they were letters and that they formed the name of the restaurant. It occurred to me that I stood here for some purpose — meeting someone for lunch, perhaps? If the name was illegible, how would I know this was the place?
Felt like the right place, though. But why? I drew a blank. A complete blank.
Oh God, could I even remember my own name? I couldn't. How could I forget something so basic? I tapped my fingers against my forehead, trying to knock the information loose. Nothing. Did it start with an A? Amanda? Alison? No, that didn't sound right. Maybe Brenda? Crystal? Denise? I pressed cold fingertips against my temples. Why was this so hard?
My name would be on my driver's license or my phone. I should have thought of it earlier. My purse was missing, and a search of my pants pockets came up empty. What should I do? At that moment, the strongest feeling swept through me — my memory would return if I could read the restaurant's name or see the person I was meeting. The feeling was as strong as the one telling me, mere moments ago, I knew my name and had been speaking to someone who knew me as well. It was almost as if my memory had slipped the moment they stepped away.
Across the street something crashed like cymbals or a trash can lid. Was someone trying to get my attention? The sidewalk on the other side of the road was empty. A low, static noise filled the air, and I searched for the source. The sound hissed from all directions, making it difficult to locate where it originated from. Then an unusual streetlight caught my eye.
Despite the sun burning high overhead, the light cast a brilliant halo near the center of the road. Drawn to it, I stepped toward the street, mesmerized … afraid.
A car sped by and disappeared into the light. I waited for it to come out the other side, but it never did. Adrenaline rushed from the base of my neck, dripped past my trembling chest, and pooled in the pit of my stomach. Somehow, that streetlight was worse than the memory loss.
I went back to the window, determined to read the name and figure out what was going on. Without looking, I stumbled into the path of an old man walking his dog and quickly jumped out of his way. He made no attempt to move or avoid me and passed without a scowl in my direction.
The static noise rose from a rumbling hiss to the screech of metal scraping against metal. Covering my ears did little to dampen the shrill. Shards of audible glass sliced through my brain. How could I work out the letters if my mind hemorrhaged? I peered inside the restaurant, expecting to find everyone doubled over in pain, but no one seemed to notice the shrieking.
The couple from earlier opened the door to leave. Strange that they'd finished their meal so quickly, but with the unbearable noise I couldn't give it another thought and dashed around them.
Once inside, the sound became bearable enough that I could focus on the instrumental version of a pop song I didn't know playing from speakers in the ceiling. The diner scent was so faint, I wondered if the food had any taste at all. I took a moment to scan the room, searching for anyone recognizable. The tables were filled with couples or families. No one looked like they were waiting for anyone.
Giving up on the crowd, I turned my eye to the interior, maybe I'd been here before? It was an eclectic mixture of styles. Metal chairs surrounded wooden tables and vice versa. A large modern chrome clock — both hands pointed at twelve — hung in the middle of one wall. On either side hung a dozen or more pictures of faded yet serene landscapes. Nothing that jarred any memories loose.
I chipped at my pink nail polish and waited and waited for someone to return to the empty hostess stand.
Just when I was beginning to wonder if I should seat myself, the hostess approached. Her head rose a few inches above the stand. Frizzy brown hair, stiff with gel, ringed her pudgy, round-as-a-pancake face. She sneezed and straightened a stack of menus.
"Bless you." I said. "Excuse me. Can you help me? I'm supposed to meet someone. Can't remember who. Maybe a man. Not even sure this is the place."
She stared off into the distance, blinking as though not hearing me. Was she deaf?
The noise from outside grew louder again as a woman opened the door and entered. Covering my ears, I stepped away until the door closed. Why was I only affected?
The hostess greeted the woman and led her to a table. How dare she overlook me when I had been there first? Had anyone else seen this? Indignant, I looked around at the other patrons. A man at the nearest table took a picture of his food with his phone. A table of four laughed at something one of them said. A woman at the bar sipped her water, her gaze fixed the book in her hand.
My frustration boiled over. I wanted to run to each person, shake them, throw their plates in their laps, make them see me. Make them tell me what was happening to me.
As I waited for Frizzy Hair, I imagined pushing over the stand or tossing a chair through the window, shattering those incomprehensible golden letters. Anything to get some acknowledgment. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. Throwing a fit might make me feel better for that moment, but it wouldn't get answers. I needed to stay focused.
"You know I was here first. I demand to be seated!" I said as soon as the hostess came back. Why did I snapped at her instead of remaining calm?
Frizzy Hair disregarded ignored me and toyed with the menus again.
"It's common decency to respond to someone when they're talking to you." I leaned over the stand. One of the wait staff stopped and whispered something to the hostess that caused her to bite her lower lip. I waited, my anger rising once again, as the two continued their hushed conversation.
"I want to speak to a manager. Right now!" My words echoed within me.
"Whatever," she said, sniffling slightly as she watched her coworker walk away. Frizzy Hair wiped the inside corner of her eyes with both index fingers and suddenly headed towards the back. What was going on? I overreacted, but not enough to cause her to storm off in tears. Whatever it was, I hoped she had gone to get the manager and not to hide in the back.
But why had I made such a scene? I wanted to run after her and apologize, or maybe leave the restaurant. I realized, with a sinking feeling, that there was no place to go and I wouldn't make it far with that mind-shattering racket outside.
It was best to stay here — for now. Besides, like before, no one noticed. They sat there, cutting their meat or chewing their food or telling their jokes. No one paid any attention to me. If I screamed and shed all my clothes, would they blink?
Someone left and the shrill sound from outside drove me to an empty table along the wall, near enough to the hostess stand that the girl would see which table to bring the manager to, and far enough from the door that my eardrums wouldn't explode every time it opened.
While waiting, I studied one of the pictures hanging to the left of the clock. In one photograph a stream meandered through a rolling green field. The scene was so peaceful and serene compared to this confusing nightmare of a day that I longed to be transported through the frame, sit on that creek bank, and let the sun warm my face. The longer I immersed myself in the tranquil image, the less I heard the conversations around me.
The picture hung at eye-level, and I skimmed my fingers over the glass. The texture felt wrong, as though my fingers were numb.
Studying the portrait, my eyes adjusted to the hazy reflection of the diner behind me. Light from outside glared where my reflected face should have been. As I leaned in for a closer inspection, something odd happened. The restaurant was now empty, the sky outside dark. When I looked towards the room, the clamor of jovial discussions resumed, each table was full and the sky bright. It was all too overwhelming and I let my mind wander elsewhere.
A boy, maybe two or three years old, wearing a red triceratops T-shirt ran around and around the neighboring table. He stopped in front of me, tugging on his shirt as if showing off the character printed on it.
I smiled. "Is that your favorite dinosaur?"
The boy howled and burst into tears. His mother glared through me, flung her napkin on the table, and scooped him into her arms. Sobbing, he buried his face into the crook of her neck.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare him."
The mother headed to the bathroom without another glance in my direction.
I turned to the father. "I swear. I didn't mean to upset him. Let me —" Let me what? Pay for his meal? I had no wallet, no money, nothing to offer. Why had I even talked to the child? Without acknowledging me, the father paid the bill and gathered their things, then waited by the front door. For the first time, I was happy to be ignored.
A short while later, the mother and son emerged from the bathroom, and the family left. But the hostess still hadn't returned. How long had she been gone? Ten minutes? Thirty? Longer?
The clock still read noon. It must have been broken; the arms were in the same position as when I entered. A thick layer of dust had accumulated on the picture, which seemed impossible. I only looked away for a few moments.
A taller girl walked from the back and stood behind the hostess stand. She was the type whose subtle beauty would make even her best friend think twice before bringing a new boyfriend around. Behind her, the sky outside had turned to night. When had it gotten so dark? I glanced around the room. Every single diner that had been there earlier was gone and new ones filled the tables. When had everyone else left? The air froze in my lungs and my entire being urged me to flee. Where could I go? Nothing made sense.
I didn't know what to do and kept glancing at the picture, hoping to ease my panic. But each time I looked at it, day became night and night became day, new staff and diners occupied the room. Nothing was logical in this place, and I lost hope of remembering. Whatever was going on here was more than memory loss.
Then a man walked by the window. Something drew me to him. I had the strongest urge to run my fingers through his rust-brown beard and his short, curly hair. Inexplicably, I knew the dark blue jeans, the denim button-up shirt, and the russet corduroy jacket he wore composed his favorite outfit.
Staring toward my table, he entered the restaurant. A peace, stronger than the kind I felt when first looking at the picture, settled over me. Then Beauty Queen greeted him with a hug, and I couldn't help but imagine a bus crashing through the wall and plowing into her. I bit on my thumbnail and glanced at the floor. Where did that come from? I had no claim to this man.
Beauty Queen didn't seem to want to let go. The entire time she held him, he remained tense, keeping his arms at his side and his gaze in my direction. Finally, she released him and went behind the hostess stand. To my amazement, he walked towards me, sat at my table.
I stared at him, waiting for him to speak.
"David." Beauty Queen waved a menu in front of him. "You forgot this."
"I'll have the usual." His gaze never left my face.
"No, thank you."
She took the menu away. He still didn't say anything.
"Do you know me?" I asked.
His eyes dropped as if weighed down by a basket of infinite sorrow. A moment later, he motioned to the bathroom and headed that way. This was the first person to fully acknowledge me all day. He might be the only one with any answers.
I followed him, my heart pounding. In the privacy of the bathroom, he embraced me and caressed my cheek. I didn't want to push him away. Nor could I — he felt like home. He belonged to me. Yet, like the picture, something was strange about his touch, as if his fingers were brushing my skin through layers of blankets.
"Molly, I missed you."
My name. He knew my name.
"I'm sorry I stayed away these past months," he said. "I couldn't bear it if you had gone. But you'd said time moved differently for you now, that a month passed like a few hours."
I didn't know what this man was talking about, but he looked at me with a desperate stare as though I should. Why couldn't I remember anything?
His lips met mine, sending a wave of memory through me. This man — David, my husband — had stood on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. I stepped into the street. The car turned a corner, careening down the road. Hitting me. Dragging me. A crowd gathered. He had pushed through, held my hand, begged me not to leave.
Pulling away from his kiss, I buried my head against his chest.
Now I knew why his embrace felt strange — it was more like a memory of the thousand times he touched me before — and why the light outside gave me chills. It meant stepping into the great terrifying, impenetrable unknown and leaving him and this world behind. So after waking in death to find the light beside me, I had turned from it and avoided it ever since that terrible day, just to have these moments with him.
"I was afraid you would be gone." David pressed his lips to my forehead. "You kept saying that you were losing yourself by staying. That each time I left, more and more of your memories slipped away."
He pulled away and wiped his damp cheeks with the back of his hand, his blue eyes searching mine.
"When I came in today, I thought you had forgotten me. Have you?"
"No," I said, even though I didn't know how we met or the details of our life. What I did remember was just as important.
I remembered running my fingers through his beard. The way his curly locks would stand in disarray after I tousled them. How his voice deepened when he whispered in my ear or how it rose when he told the punchline to a joke. I remembered our little girl, with hair like her father's, her ringlets bobbing up and down as she ran around the playground.
It wasn't fair. We still had so much life to live together. A daughter to raise. Her prom dress to buy. Her wedding to plan. Grandchildren to spoil. Gray hair. Rocking chairs. And now it was all gone. Our future erased in one moment.
We returned to the dining room. An instrumental version of "Tiny Dancer" played as we sat down. "You always liked this table. And that picture..." His voice cracked. "You always said it was what your heaven would look like."
"It is a peaceful picture." I slipped my hand into his. Even though his touch felt muffled, I couldn't get enough of it. My gaze rested on the streetlight outside. I didn't want to leave him. Not if it meant losing him forever. For all I knew I would cease to exist the moment I stepped into that brightness. Could I take that chance?
Beauty Queen returned to the table with a pitcher of water and placed her free hand on David's arm a moment, before picking at lint on his collar.
Gritting my teeth, I clutched my fork.
The woman leaned against him, her breast brushing against his shoulder, while she filled his glass. It was one step too far. Without thinking, I stabbed her arm with the fork.
No blood. No shrieking. I stared at my empty fist and the fork still next to the plate. My earlier panic threatened to return as I opened my palms and let them rest on the table.
When she walked away, David entwined his hand with mine again. His touch still felt padded — how I longed to feel his flesh without the barrier.
"I—" He dragged his hand over his face and spoke in a whisper so low, I had to lean forward to hear him. "I've dreamed of joining you a thousand times and in a thousand ways."
I contemplated this. We'd be together and I wouldn't be alone, ignored.
Then I shook my head. As much as I wanted to be with him, it couldn't happen. Our daughter needed him, and he deserved more than accompanying me in this nightmare. I'd completely forgotten myself until he came in. It was only his kiss that saved me.
If he joined me, we would become drifting phantoms, unaware we ever meant anything to each other. What kind of existence would that be? Floating around with no idea who we were.
No, I loved him too much to let it come to that. He had to move on and I had to let go. I couldn't continue hurting him. Haunting him. Prolonging his grief. Only one choice would end his suffering and give him the life he deserved. Would he ever forgive me? At first, it would crush him, but as time wore on, I hoped he'd understand it was the right decision.
His meal came, and he spoke in whispers about our little girl. How smart she was and which colleges she was applying to. A couple of times, Beauty Queen stopped to ask if he wanted something. David would smile and apologize for talking to himself. She'd give him a sympathetic look and move on. Then he showed me pictures of our daughter on his phone. The teenager staring back at me held only traces of the little face I expected to see. I memorized every detail, each of his words, and studied every inch of his movements.
When he finished, we walked hand in hand along the street. I rested my head on his shoulder, wanting to hold onto this moment for as long as possible. At least the noise wasn't as loud as before, as if whatever was making it sensed my decision.
"Always remember," I placed my hand on his cheeks and stared into his eyes, "that I love you and want you to find peace and happiness."
David brushed a strand of hair from my face. "I know."
We kissed goodbye, then he moved away, but our fingers remained intertwined. Once again, I realized how unfair it was. I didn't want to leave him and would give anything to finish out the life we should have had together. But this wasn't life and I couldn't stay.
He stepped far enough away that my fingers slipped through his. The space around me felt so empty and I longed to rush to him but held tight to my reasons for going instead. For a moment, he stared at me with misty eyes and rubbed his beard like he did when trying to keep his composure. Then he abruptly turned and walked away. The farther he moved away, the more my remaining memories slipped.
He paused at the edge of the building. I blew him a kiss and said goodbye. He mouthed, "I love you."
I nodded. Please, forgive me.
David walked around the corner, and I nearly forgot why I was standing in the street. In a matter of moments, I would be puzzling over those golden symbols on the window once more.
The static noise began hissing again as I paced toward the light. Whatever it held — be it oblivion, torture, or heaven — would be worth it knowing that David and my daughter would have a chance at a full life. The noise grew louder as I reached the light. I needed to hurry, yet a part of me still feared leaving. My few remaining memories were slipping away — it couldn't wait any longer.
So I closed my eyes and stepped into the light.
The moment I crossed the threshold, I opened my eyes to a stream burbling though a lush, green meadow, inviting me to sit and sun myself on the bank while I waited for my family.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Carrie Schweiger (twitter, instagram and website) investigates how the magic smoke escaped from electronic circuits by day and dreams of magical places and people by night. When she's not writing, she learns new languages and travels.