To Still Exist
By Molly Ketcheson
Sometimes she woke up crying.
In Annie’s dreams, the Blank Year still existed. Or so she presumed whenever she was dragged from sleep with heaving sobs but no recollection of why the tears ran down her face. She wasn't sure if she was crying because the memory was devastating or simply because she would never get to have it again. She had always taken great care of her memories. She often pulled up old ones from the cob-webbed areas of her mind, replaying the seconds that she remembered of her third-grade dance recital, the endless joy of twirling in a pink skirt rushing back to her.
But now there was an entire year of memories that were shut away in a safe without a lock. That year was gone. Like puddles in the sun, it had evaporated; no trace but a longing forever hooked in her stomach. Logically, she knew the Blank Year included her high school graduation, her 18th birthday, slick summer nights and brisk winter days. But whenever she tried to reach for those memories they melted into a heavy nothing. It was hard to mourn when you didn’t even know what you were mourning.
But Annie still woke up crying. And often she would sit for a while, letting herself sob, letting herself ache, for something that could only barely be considered real anymore, before wiping her eyes and going back to sleep.
One day, after a particularly fitful night, Annie was walking to class (she attended the University of Toronto but had no idea why she'd chosen it, so she tended to avoid that subject, shoving down the question whenever it arose like bubbles in a Diet Coke), when a boy almost knocked her over as he passed, obliviously chatting loudly on the phone.
"Hey!" she shouted, stumbling, but thankfully not falling into the hedge alongside the sidewalk.
The boy turned, saying "one sec" to whoever he was on the phone with.
"Watch -" Watch where you're going! was where that sentence had been headed, but Annie lost the words as soon as she saw his face, all sharp edges except his soft brown eyes. Her mind roiled, searching, begging, for an answer to the involuntary movement of her hand as it lunged towards him. "Do I know you?" The words creaked from her lips as if they were ancient and had long been awaiting their use.
For a moment his eyes widened, but then he furrowed his brow. "I don't think so," he said. He turned and walked away. Annie continued on to class, but she couldn't stop replaying his words. I don't think so. The more she considered them, the sadder they sounded as if he too were grasping at any sort of connection. But memory couldn't be trusted. Not anymore.
"He was just so familiar, Erica," Annie said, phone pressed to her ear as she walked home from the library that night.
"You probably knew him from the Blank Year," Erica replied. Erica had been Annie's best friend since third grade, and so she knew where Annie's thoughts were headed. "Don't go seeking him out. Dwelling on it isn't going to make the Blank Year suddenly re-appear to you. You should move on."
"I know. But…"
"But you can't let it go." Erica sighed. They'd had this conversation before. Erica's philosophy on the Blank Year was to act as if it had never happened, to focus on the memories she could make now, not those that were lost. "Annie, I'm worried about you. The past can't be all you have."
"I'm trying. But don't you think about it? Think about how you'll never know what it felt like to graduate high school or that you've lost countless conversations?"
"But I did know how it felt to graduate. And I had those conversations. Just because we don't remember doesn't mean they didn't happen. It was real. But so is right now."
Annie swallowed. She'd reached her apartment, and was putting the key in the lock as she said, "Yeah, you're right."
"Of course I am," Erica said, and they both laughed. When Annie had woken up, as everyone else on the planet had, and didn't remember an entire year, the first person she had called was Erica. They had spent the day on the phone, slowly collapsing as they tried to tug at memories that they could not force to exist. "Now go get some sleep. Only fourteen more nights until I see you!"
She hung up. Erica went to school across the country in BC, but she was coming to visit in two weeks, on her reading week. How would Annie explain the nightly breakdowns? How would she explain that her own subconscious wouldn't allow her to move on?
She saw the boy again in Starbucks a week later. He didn't see her, but she was once again shocked by a sense of bone-deep knowing. And then, a day later, he was at the library when she walked in, near her usual spot. Then the gym. The drug store when she went on an emergency 10pm tampon run. He was suddenly everywhere. And every time she saw him, his dark, scraggly hair and clean-cut grin, she was accosted by one thought, one thought that she hadn't voiced to anyone, not even Erica: I feel like I don't know anyone anymore. And then, a beat later: But I know you.
The next time she saw him at the library, this time sitting at the desk right next to her usual one, she decided to be brave.
She set her stuff down, and then she tapped him on the shoulder and said, "I'm sorry I yelled at you on the street the other day. I'm Annie."
He smiled slightly and said, "Grant. And no problem about the yelling. I did hit you with my bag, so I'm the one who should be sorry." And then he turned back to his work. Annie nodded to herself and pulled out her textbook, ready to let organic chemistry lull her brain. She had introduced herself. And though she still felt that overwhelming familiarity, she had done what she could. She wasn't going to chase him for memories that he couldn't give back, no matter who he was.
They worked in silence until about two hours later when Grant stood up and packed his things. Right before he left, he leaned down to her and said, "I think I knew you too."
He was gone before she could ask what he meant. Knew. Past tense. He didn't want to know her now, then. He, like Erica, wanted to move forward, forget that there was anything forgotten.
And, she realised as she continued to puzzle over his words on her walk home that night; she was okay with that. Maybe it was enough to know Grant had been there, had been a part of her memories. She could imagine it. Imagine laughing with him, imagine getting ice cream, going to the movies and sitting in the park. She would never have her memories back, but she could fit him into possible moments. The Blank Year would always be just that - blank. But he had existed there. Suddenly the Blank Year felt more tangible. Empty, instead of hollow. She had existed then.
She awoke the next morning having slept through the night, not even the lightest tear stain on her pillow.