In a field of white tombstones, draped in flags, seven stood out to me. They weren’t the most recently buried, made evident by the young grass that was sprouting. The graves had to have been at least a few months old, and they were perfectly identical to every other grave in that section of the cemetery. But it was the names and dates on them that made them important.
Jacob. Jude. Melissa. Makayla. Charlie. Kit. Haley. All died on February 22nd.
As I read their names, faces flashed through my mind. I could see memories of all of us on kitchen duty, laughing and teasing one another. We worked hard through basic training to get to where we were. I recalled the nicknames we earned along the way. Jacob was Andre or The Giant. Charlie was just C, so we didn’t get him mixed up with the military alphabet Charlie. Jude got the Beatles treatment, and Haley was Weeaboo.
I could remember all of them and the good times we’d had. But I didn’t remember my nickname, and I couldn’t recall how I had been involved in most scenarios. There were some memories with me on the team, but not many. Maybe I was just the odd one out.
As I stared at the white marble in front of me, I didn’t know what to think. There were too many things to think about.
I never got to stay goodbye.
Why didn’t you take me with you?
So, this is what true loneliness feels like.
“Addison?” Kimmika called. “Are you ready?”
No. I’ll never be ready. Never again. “Yeah,” I lied.
Kimmika pushed my wheelchair through the grass and dirt, doing her best to get me as close to the tombstones as we could. We took a moment to stop at each one and place yellow lilies on the ground.
“Why do you want yellow?” Kimmika had asked when she took me to the flower shop. I hadn’t had a concrete answer for her. It just felt right, just like the black ribbons around the flowers felt right. Kimmika didn’t understand, but I could tell she was more than happy to accommodate my request. Part of her flexibility came from feeling like she couldn’t tell me no under the circumstances, given these little requests were no skin off her nose.
But there was more to it than that. She was hoping the little eccentricities would help me regain some of the memories the explosion had taken from me. We had been doing light oral therapy for almost a week when I wasn’t doing physical therapy to awaken my body and prepare for my new leg. We hadn’t made much progress in memories or coping with the extreme emotions I was having. So Kimmika held on to any little thread she could pull.
One by one, I laid the lilies at the eternal resting places of my friends and comrades in arms. I only spoke in my head, not yet comfortable with letting Kimmika hear what I had to say.
I’m sorry. I miss you all. We were supposed to save the world together. How the hell am I supposed to do this alone?
“Here we are,” Kimmika said as she placed a lunch tray in front of me. Back at the hospital cafeteria, we sat comfortably at a window table.
It was summer in New York. The sun was shining, and it was hot as hell. Normally, such a bright sunny day would be beautiful, but my eyes were still getting used to being open after three long months. They were still sensitive to the light, especially the sun, when it was uninhibited by clouds.
“The sun is good for you. After being cooped up as long as you were, you need it,” Kimmika would tell me. I knew she was right. That’s why I was willing to indulge her. I knew and believed she genuinely had my best interests at heart.
I looked down at my plate, examining the food Kimmika had gotten for me. It was your typical plate of hospital food. One-third of the plate was meat-based protein, pan-seared chicken breasts. Another third was mash-potatoes for starches. The last third was oven-roasted asparagus for my vegetable for the day. There was also a cup of fresh fruit for dessert and a glass of apple juice. Everything was terribly healthy and did nothing to excite the taste buds.
“What’s gonna be your first meal when you get out of here?” Kimmika asked, trying to make small talk as she sat across from me with a similar plate. She was good enough to eat the same diet I was on rather than tempting me with everything else she could eat. “What is that one meal you’re looking forward to? I know you’ve thought about it.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I did the same thing,” Kimmika smiled to herself. “By the time I got out of the hospital, all I wanted was my mama’s sweet potato pie. God love her. She was more than happy to make it when she heard I was craving it. She dropped everything and took the day off from work to make it for me so it would be ready by the time I was discharged. So what is that one meal you’re looking forward to?”
I knew the answer before she even asked the question again. “I can’t remember what it’s called. But it’s like this weird, sweet salad made with marshmallows, coconut, pecans, maraschino cherries, and citrus fruits.”
“Oh, yeah!” Kimmika said in recognition. “My Greek neighbor always brings that to the neighborhood cookouts. She calls it Ambrosia? Really good stuff.
Are you Greek?” she asked me curiously.
“I must be.” I shrugged, not knowing how to answer the question. No family had made a grand appearance to help me put the pieces together. Apparently, my mother had been reported missing years ago, and my father had died in combat. He was a soldier too.
“Must’ve been where you got it from,” Kimmika teased. There were no records of any siblings. Except for Kimmika and Lieutenant Colonel Arnold, I was truly alone.
“Well, there ya are, Betsy!” The lieutenant colonel’s booming voice made me jump in my wheelchair as he slapped me on the shoulder. Speak of the devil. I held my hand over my chest, trying to calm my racing heart. Does he have to scare me like that? I already don’t like him without him giving me a heart attack every opportunity he gets.
Yes, during the week, I had learned I did not like my CO. Something about him just rubbed me the wrong way. It’s probably the fact he’s tactless, I would think to myself frequently. Ever since the day I met, or re-met, the man, he had been jovial and light-hearted. Like he wasn’t in a military hospital surrounded by people who had given their lives for a greater good and come out half of the people they used to be. He barely seemed to register that I had lost my leg and people I loved. Apparently, he didn’t even know my name.
“My name is Addison,” I corrected.
“Oh, no.” The lieutenant colonel laughed as he stumbled and caught his mistake. “No, no. Betsy was the nickname your team gave you. They said you were just like Betsy Ross.”
I shook my head. “No, she was so much more creative than I will ever be.” I took a few bites of food off my plate before I realized my CO and Kimmika were staring at me in shock. “What?”
“How do you know Betsy Ross was more creative than you?” Kimmika asked with a tilt to her head.
I hadn’t even thought about it before she pointed it out. I looked down at my stuffed lion, Ares, who was always perched in my lap. How did I know Betsy Ross was so creative?
“Well, I mean, she designed a flag for an entire country. I could never do that.” That’s what I said, but it wasn’t how I actually felt. Betsy Ross seemed more than a historical figure to admire. When I heard her name, I felt close to her. Almost like she was…a friend.
But that was impossible. Betsy Ross had died at least three hundred years before I was ever born. When was I born anyway? I had to keep looking at my hospital band to remind myself. 7/17/94.
“Don’t sell yourself short, Betsy.” A look from me was all it took to correct Lieutenant Colonel Arnold. “Addison. You’re super creative.” Without invitation, the lieutenant colonel pulled up a chair and joined us at our table. Do you have to? “I remember that event you planned for Valentine’s day last year,” he wheezed out through heavy laughter. “It was the most hilarious thing in the world.” The lieutenant colonel kept laughing for a solid minute until he got a good look at our questioning faces. “Oh! Right! You organized this Anti-Valentines day party. You even made a pinata for the occasion. It was in the shape of Cupid with this stupid look on his face. Everybody hit that thing as hard as they fucking could.”
I gave a little laugh. “Well, he’s an asshole, so he deserves it.” Again, it took me looking at the lieutenant colonel and Kimmika to realize what I had said and the clues it held to my identity.
“Sounds like someone got her heartbroken,” the lieutenant colonel teased as he slapped me on the back again. Do you have to do that? But his statement didn’t feel incorrect. I think I have had my heart broken. And it’s all Eros’s fault.
Wait. Why did I call him Eros and not Cupid in my mind? I mean, that’s who he was to the Greeks, but no one really called him that anymore. The man’s not even real. What does it matter what you call him?
“We should eat before our food gets cold,” Kimmika prompted, hoping to end the lieutenant colonel’s insensitive comments. Unfurling her disposable napkin into her lap, my therapist grabbed the salt shaker and began sprinkling it over her entire plate.
Time seemed to slow down. My sensitive eyes hyper-focused on the grains of salt as they cascaded out of its container onto the cafeteria lunch. Watching the grains fall was hypnotizing, and the world fell away. My vision tunneled only on the salt. The hustle and bustle of the cafeteria around me fell silent.
In a gentle way, you can shake the world. I couldn’t find the source of the voice speaking these words, but it was a familiar voice. Its steady tone and pace were comforting. It was male and fatherly, but it wasn’t the voice of my father. At least, I didn’t think it was. Thinking of the voice as the voice of my father didn’t sit right in my brain. It felt more like it was the voice of a friend. A mentor. Someone who I respected.
“Addison?” Kimmika’s concerned voice pulled me back to the real world. She and the lieutenant colonel stared at me in uncertain worry. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I said, clearing my throat and shaking my head. “I’m fine.”
“You looked like you remembered something.” The statement was Kimmika’s way of asking a question without asking it.
“I don’t think so.” Or if I did, it wasn’t a helpful memory. How many times must I have seen someone salt their food?
“Any little thing could help you. What did you remember?”
I shook my head again. “I just feel like someone once said to me in a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
Lieutenant Colonel Arnold’s blank face showed he was clueless, but Kimmika lit up. “That’s a Gandhi quote. I know it well.” Gandhi. Just thinking of the man and his name seemed to ease my body in ways my body hadn’t done since I woke up in the hospital. “Look at that smile,” Kimmika said, smiling. She was right. I was smiling. For the first time since I woke up to this messed up life. “Gandhi must be really important to you.”
He must be. But why?
After lunch, Kimmika decided to take me for a ride around the hospital. She was desperate to keep me out of the room I had been trapped in for three months. I didn’t have the strength to argue with her or demand she take me back. I was willing to indulge her while our food was digested.
The entire time, I couldn’t help but play with Kimmika’s sports jacket. She had laid it over my legs…my leg to help me maintain some sense of privacy and dignity. People still stared at me and my missing limb from the corner of their eyes, but it brought some comfort.
I was pulled from my thoughts by a group of teenagers. It looked like a school or group choir that had come to entertain patients like me with their singing. I immediately recognized the song they were singing in beautiful harmonies. It was from that musical about Alexander Hamilton that was so popular. I would hear music from that show or people talking about it almost everywhere. People were obsessed with it.
I mean, the music is good, but it got some things wrong. I would think that exact thought every time I heard that music. I never knew what my mind was referring to when it pointed out the show’s historical inaccuracies. All of these corrections my mind made didn’t feel like they came from academic knowledge. I hadn’t read those things in a book. It felt like I knew things no one else could know because they didn’t have the first-hand knowledge I did.
The more random clues my mind dropped about my past, the more confused I became. How could I have personal knowledge about Hamilton or Gandhi or Cupid or Betsy Ross? One of them wasn’t real, and the others had died decades ago. Maybe I knew them in my past lives, I joked in my head. I didn’t believe in past lives. Or maybe I’m immortal.
That time, I didn’t laugh. Not even in my mind. Why did that sound right?