My life has been largely uneventful, which I suppose is something of a blessing. I’ve had caring parents, a good education, and a handful of talents. Maybe two handfuls of friends. We were never wealthy, but I never wanted for anything.
Even my name is a common one, rolls off people’s tongues with the ease of practiced use.
It annoys me, sometimes, that ease. I feel like it should be more of a struggle, like it’s missing a syllable or two.
Sometimes it takes me a second too long to react when people call me, when I’m not paying attention. They laugh and call me a daydreamer. Or they frown and call me lazy. I’m not especially bothered by either, or by the oddness of the hesitation itself. Most people are trained from infancy to react to their names instantly, like a dog being brought to heel.
I suppose I’ve just never been skilled at coming to heel.
I am my parents’ only child, the only one whose pictures grace the walls, the only one whose accolades are proudly displayed and bragged about to occasionally mortifying effect. It has never been otherwise, and yet I have always felt the lack of another person. Like a phantom limb.
Once, when I was old enough to conceive of the possibility, I asked my mother if I’d had a twin in her womb, a sibling that never succeeded in breathing air. (Too late I realized what an insensitive question it was.)
She looked at me strangely before shaking her head. She was confused, and maybe a bit worried, and I was no closer to an explanation than I had been.
As one does with prolonged sensations, I simply grew used to it. To the lack. But getting used to a thing does not mean becoming unaware of it, and not for a second did I forget the feeling that something was missing.
I fell in love with girls. I fell in love with boys. Freckles and smooth skin, alabaster and ebony and gold. I even managed to spark relationships with a few, which was nothing short of a miracle considering my tendency to trip over my own feet when faced with anyone remotely attractive.
But none of them ever lasted. None of them ever felt right. It was as if something was preventing me from giving myself wholly to anyone, no matter how much I wished I could, and they all sensed that in the end. They left and I couldn’t blame them. Part of me was saddened, but a more traitorous part was relieved.
I don’t know what I had to be relieved about. I had no interest in growing old alone and surrounded by cats, which seems a melodramatic conclusion to leap to in retrospect, but not so for a confused teenager. I didn’t understand what was wrong, why I seemed incapable of more than a passing attachment to anyone.
My last girlfriend called me flighty. The boy before her had declared me terrifyingly intense.
I’m not sure if either of them were right.
I dream often.
I dream of war, of the cacophony and chaos of battle, of a scorching plain and a walled city beyond. I dream of skin boiling in armor and sweaty palms grasping the shaft of a spear, of dust in my eyes and the stench of blood and the sound of thousands roaring their war cries. Screaming and dying. But this is not the worst.
I dream of a boy lying dead at my feet. His head has split open like a dropped egg, white shards of bone poking out, blood oozing sluggishly into the grass. His eyes fix on mine in silent accusation, his mouth a rictus; he looks as stunned as I feel. I know I have killed him, just as I know my life as I know it has ended. Just as I know that his shade will haunt me for the rest of my life. But this is not the worst.
I dream of dying, of being flung from an impossible height. (I am terrified of heights.) I dream of being stabbed through with another man’s spear, skewered like a fish, the spearhead pushing through my abdomen and out again through my spine. The pain is incredible, an agonizing heat destroying me from the inside out, turning me to ash; it goes on and on and still I do not die.
I do not die until the man comes forward to reclaim his spear. Only then do I begin to feel true terror (but for what? I am already dead, what have I to be afraid of now?).
The man finishes me, stirs my insides like a stew and I wake in bed, drenched in sweat and gasping for air, feeling for holes in my flesh where there are none. Only a pair of identical birthmarks, one on my front and one on my back, that I have had since I was born. They are not scars, I tell myself. I have never been stabbed, never suffered that kind of agony except in my nightmares. Still, I do not sleep again after this dream.
But this is not the worst.
This is the worst:
This (golden hair catching the light, small fruits tossed gracefully into the air, a laughing mouth);
and this (long fingers caressing a lyre; those same fingers gentle on my face, his laughing mouth pressed to mine);
and this (sprawled out breathless side by side, hands clasping mine, clasping the promises that I want to believe he can keep).
These should be the good dreams, I think, empty as they are of tragedy or of bloodshed. These should be the good dreams, but I always wake from them in tears.
I have lost something. I know I have.
It shouldn’t be possible to lose something you can’t remember ever possessing, something that’s been missing since you were too small to realize there was anything to miss.
It shouldn’t be possible, but the fact remains: Something is missing. I’ve lost it, somehow, and it feels like part of my soul has gone along with it.
More than anything I wish I knew how to get it back.
The morning I leave the nest for higher education dawns crisp and clear, autumn sharp in the air. My mother buries her face in my shoulder and my father grips the other shoulder and it’s all very normal. I suppose I should be grateful for normal.
And then I am on the train to my future, whatever it is (the immediate future, anyway, seems to consist of a great deal of debt and sleep deprivation; I don’t need psychic powers to foresee that much). I stare blankly out of the window and watch the sky turn gray and foreboding. By the time I reach the train station, a gash has opened in the clouds and rain is pouring out. I contemplate starting the walk to the school anyway.
My eye snags on someone in a corner, a young man leaving the station.
My feet move without my permission. I follow.
Outside the crowd of people becomes more dense and I panic, irrationally terrified that I will lose this stranger in a sea of them. My lungs are tight. I feel like I am drowning.
But just as clarity is said to come to men at the moment of their death, so knowledge comes to me just as I feel I can no longer breathe: A name. His name. A name I can’t know, but do with impossible certainty.
There are no doubts. I call.
He stops in his tracks. Hesitates. (Perhaps I am not the only one who has trouble coming to heel.)
Then, finally, turns.
He doesn’t look the same. His mouth is a bit thinner, nose a bit wider, skin a bit darker. His hair is no longer the gold that I remember (how, how do I remember that?). Not even his eyes are the same.
But it’s him. I would know him in death, at the end of the world, and there is no question in my mind that it is him.
I see the recognition in this face I have never seen before, this face I know better than my own. I see his mouth open and it is like watching a dream. And suddenly I know what he will say.
“Patroclus,” he says.
Like pennies dropped into a well: One, two, three.
It is not my name. But it is. It is mine, like nothing else ever has been.
We move toward one another like magnets, pulled as if by the tides. I wonder, distantly, how someone can look so strange and so familiar at the same time. I wonder if I look the same to him, now.
We stare. The crowd moves on and dissipates around us.
There is nothing golden in his coloring now, yet I look at him and he shines.
“I think I searched for you,” he says, wondering.
All I can do is nod.
He takes my hand, and at long last I am whole.