In my dream, everything was black.
Or maybe it was nothing. Just nothing.
Nothing and noise.
How can that be?
Broken sobs echoed through me like ghosts passing in and out.
Trying to stay quiet, but I’ve never heard silence, poorly contained, so loud.
There were other voices, all of them muffled in the background except for one.
He was hot tears and unfinished prayers.
Never knowing who to pray to, who to ask, who to beg.
“Please, please,” he choked out. So desperately, I longed to wake up.
I wanted this dream to end so I could give him his wish.
In my dream, he wished for me.
Somewhere in the dark, he reached his hand out for mine.
I wonder if I’ll ever find it.
“Wake up. Please, wake up. Please don’t leave like this.”
In my dream, I think—no, I’m afraid, I was dying.
All I know is that I can’t leave him all alone.
“You’re so lucky you survived.”
“We thought you’d never wake up.”
“The doctor kept saying—“
The human mind is such a fragile thing.
“You will have to stay for some time. We need to make sure you’re stable.”
“Do you want anything special from home, sweetheart?”
“It’s imperative that you begin clinical therapy before we can discharge you.”
So delicate. So easily destroyed.
I look down at my lap as faces around me try to talk. They are so hushed and careful, like tiptoeing around glass, afraid and alert.
What are they so afraid of?
“Should I call Jinyoung?”
Without thinking, my eyes find my mother’s and it’s the second time I’ve looked at her today. She is still trying not to cry. I wish I could comfort her, but I’m afraid I don’t know how. I feel so cold again as it sinks in.
I don’t know how to talk to my mother.
It rolls off my tongue like water spilling through my hands.
With shaking hands, my mother holds mine. She couldn’t hold it in. The tears have already fallen without her permission and she is trying to hold in her sobs by biting down on her lip.
Somehow, I think I should be crying too. In fact, I want to. I so badly want to just feel something, anything familiar. I just need to feel like me.
But who am I?
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, afraid to upset her more. My head throbs, but I don’t feel any pain, and I try squeezing her hand back.
Please understand. I don’t want to be this way either.
Dr. Kwon, the doctor in charge of overseeing my recovery, stood at the end of the hospital bed. He holds his clipboard like a shield, always holding it up to his eyes instead of putting on the glasses around his neck. His white coat is blinding under the lights as he just not quite blends in with the bleach colored walls. My eyes burn from looking at him.
I want to ask to go home, but I didn’t want to ask not knowing where that would be. I want to wrap my arms around myself, but I can’t let go of my mother’s hands. I don’t want her to think I don’t love her. Or that I’ve forgotten how to. Either possibility would break her heart.
“Fortunately,” Dr. Kwon speaks finally, “Your injuries were very minor, with the obvious exception of blunt force trauma to the head. Based on what we’ve gathered asking your family since you woke up, we will have to keep you for several days, maybe longer. This seems to be, hopefully, a case of retrograde amnesia—“
“Am I dying?”
Beside me, a now audible sob escapes. My mother squeezes my hands back now, so hard her knuckles are white and my fingers uncurl from them, captive as she cries. But all I could feel was that throbbing pain in my head.
I stare ahead at Dr. Kwon, not knowing what else I could do, besides wanting to cry too. If I only could.
He shakes his head and approaches us, placing his chapped hand on my mother’s shoulder and reassures her gently, inaudibly as my ears start ringing. Softly at first.
“You’re not dying. When you’ve recovered some, we can take a look at the x-rays together. There’s no severe damage to the hippocampus, but there does appear to be a possibility of post-traumatic amnesia. However, rest assured, that’s only the worst possible scenario. You see, in cases of such rapid acceleration, the brain—“
I’m so tired. My fingers feel numb now. Or just heavy. Or do I feel light?
I lean back onto the bed and look up at the fluorescent bulbs as heavy lightness takes my whole body. Like a lullaby, coaxing me to sleep.
Don’t worry, the sensations echo along my body, caressing my eyelids to fall close. Don’t worry. You’ll be okay. I promise.
Whose voice was it in my dream?
The crying, or the coaxing?
The worst day after waking up had to be day 4. I was beginning to remember things, in either painful clarity or I had to piece together all the things remembered. Somewhere between far-off dreams, the hardest part was not knowing which pieces had been reality.
Of course, this was only temporary.
On day 3, after many questions, a lot of tear-filled sighs of relief from my parents, and some scientific explanations I can’t repeat, there were some clear cut answers. I have forgotten the last year to about two years of my life.
On day 2, I remembered my parents’ names. I reassured my father that I did remember his birthday. I recalled the house we lived in, the warmth from the Victorian windows of my room when the sun shined. I remember how much they embarrassed me at my graduation, what schools I was accepted into.
“Who is Jinyoung?”
Watching my mother squirm at the question made me uncomfortable. I knew he had to be someone important. I had retrograde amnesia, but I was not an idiot. Or a child. Between these hospital visits, it’s hard to tell which of the two they keep treating me like.
It frustrated me. To no end, it frustrated me to hear my own parents say, “You’ll know when you see him.”
How? I want to ask, How will I know? How will you know?
But instead, I smile. I blink slowly and smile before yawning.
“Are you tired?”
“No, no,” I feign another yawn, “I just-you know, I’m a little—“
And they get up to leave.
No, they insist, I’m tired. I need my rest. They’ll be fine. They’ll come see me again tomorrow.
And they leave me. In my bleak, off-white hospital room.
When I’m sure they’ve gone, that’s when I cry. Or scream. And I want to break everything in sight, but they don’t let anything within reaching distance and I’m too frustrated to want to get out of bed. I end up curling into a ball with bleach-scented sheets over my head.
And I try and try and try to remember that name until it hurts. My lip from biting down so hard. My eyes throbbing with black and green squiggles blurring my vision. My knuckles from gripping the sheets so hard, white and shaking.
I’m so terrified that I could be going insane. Either from trying so hard to remember or the possibility that I could never remember.
By the end of week 1 – the hospital staff count the days for me – I am so sick.
I am sick of my hospital room and the off-putting whites that surrounded me. I miss looking at color.
I miss the sunshine when the night starts to fall. I long to feel the warmth of the sun.
I’ve tasted so much bland hospital food, I only look forward to the things my parents bring. My mother’s homemade soups and perfectly wrapped meals, my father’s futile attempts to cook and brightly wrapped packs of fast food he ends up bringing instead.
I miss them more and more as I collect what I remember of them, of our home and all the things this accident has taken away from me.
I feel empty when they go.
I even miss Dr. Kwon on my worst days.
I was deemed ready for clinical therapy on the 9th day after I woke up. But before everything was ready and tests were run, I was allowed to walk about, participate in any activities the children’s or elderly ward had planned.
They didn’t get too many young people here. At least, that’s what the nurses tell me.
It’s funny, in that really frustratingly fucked up sort of way, but I don’t get very far from my room. I don’t want to see people. I don’t want to go back and forth between the wards, to the very beginning stages of life and the very end. I can’t. I’m afraid I’ll really go insane.
So I curl up at the window just outside. It’s one of those big ones, with just enough room for your legs to stretch out. I press my hands against it, revel in the heat of the sun and try to feel warmth as I once knew it.
Outside, I see people. I see life moving forward and with so much fear, remind myself that the world has not stopped moving. Not even once. Not for me.
I wonder if I’ll ever catch up.
Pressing my forehead against the glass, I try to think. I see the pictures moving, like old films, like silent footage as I closed my eyes and wished for all the world to just not see. I feel chills at my neck, or was it sweat?
I hope to god that it isn’t what I thought it was, but ever since I woke up, my body and mind never do what I want it to when I ask. Especially when I beg.
“Please,” I whisper, “Please, please, please…”
I try to listen. Clear my mind and listen for the footsteps of nurses on rounds or wheelchairs rolling on the floor, for crying children or or or—
It is so loud. Like war drums in my ears, beer bottle green hues in my vision, I brace myself against the hollow walls of the window. I’m hot and cold at the same time, heavy and light again.
I cover my ears as the drums bang louder, throbbing as the sounds travel upstream to my head. Faintly, I feel his hands on my shoulders, but numbly, I focus all strength into my hands to block out the noise.
“It’s okay! It’s okay, it’s okay—“
It’s not, but I hear him better now. His voice echoes in the long corridor of my headache, trying to find its way to my ears. I wish I could guide him there.
“Repeat after me, okay? Repeat after me, I can help you, I’m going to help you—I’m going to help you, okay?”
I try to nod. I think I nod.
“One thousand minus seven is? What’s one thousand minus seven? One thousand minus seven. One thousand minus seven. One thou—“
“Nine hundred ninety-three,” I gasp.
“Nine hundred ninety-three minus seven is? Nine hundred ninety-three minus seven?”
“Nine hundred eighty—“
“The whole thing,” he cuts me off, shaking my shoulders gently, “Nine hundred ninety-three minus seven is?”
I hear him. “Nine hundred ninety-three minus seven is nine hundred eighty-six. Nine hundred eighty-six.”
“Okay. Now keep counting. Nine hundred eighty-six minus seven.”
“Nine hundred seventy-nine.”
“Nine hundred seventy-two.”
“Keep going. Nine hundred seventy-two minus seven?”
“Nine hundred sixty-five. Nine hundred fifty-eight. Nine hundred fifty-one. Nine hundred…”
He called it a good luck charm. Dr. Kwon said the technical term was survival mantra.
Either way, on day 9, I learned that when I felt an anxiety attack coming on, I can count down from one thousand minus seven.
My first contact with someone outside these four white walls was with a boy who taught me how to save myself.
“Do I know you?” I ask him once a nurse has helped me back inside.
I can tell I must have. Known him, I mean.
The last few days of reading body language instead of hearing actual words helped me understand people in ways they never wanted to be understood. But with this person, it was hard.
Hard didn’t mean impossible.
Though he could look at me, unlike my parents who chose to look anywhere but, his eyes fell somewhere between my nose and mouth. Never meeting my eyes unless I spoke. So I asked him again.
“If I do, I’m sorry. But I may not right now.”
Warm tears well up in my eyes, but I force out a breath of laughter, shaking my head despite him not having said a word. I was ready to disappoint him. After all, this accident has taken nothing from me if not tried to take all the people I cared about.
“Why are you crying?”
I look up and this time, his eyes do meet mine. I can’t read his expression, if there even is one because there’s such a blankness in it, it could compete with the walls.
“You are,” he says, so bluntly I press a hand to my face and quickly catch the tears before he sees more of them.
“I’m sorry, I just—“
What the hell is this guy’s problem? He didn’t want me to cry, but he didn’t want me to apologize. He helps me through my panic attack but was completely cold.
“I don’t know who you are,” my voice lowers almost to a growl, “And I hope I don’t because you have no idea what I’m going through.”
He says nothing. Of course, he wouldn’t say anything. No one knows what to say to amnesia.
“Thank you for helping me. But I’m not in the mood for this. I don’t think I ever have been. My family treats me like a child, my friends all think I’m dumb or may as well be dying. I want to cry and vomit and scream, but I can’t do anything without a nurse checking my reflexes or giving me pain killers so I can sleep and stop bothering them. So you need to get the fuck out.“
This time, the door of my room opens with a loud click, interrupting me trying to kick this guy out. Of course, why would anything go my way?
“Mom, I’m tired today. Can you take this guy with you before you go?” I ask her harshly, but she doesn’t even flinch. She just stops and stares at the boy sitting at my bedside, like a deer in my headlights.
“Mom,” I say to get her attention. “Mom, are you listening?”
“You stupid girl.”
My fingers twitch. I’m the stupid one?
She shakes her head, pursing her lips together.
“I know it’s not your fault you don’t remember.”
“Mom, what are you saying?”
“If it wasn’t for this boy, you wouldn’t even be here.”
It all happens so quickly, but time has been so unforgiving to me.
I am looking at him now and he is finally meeting my eyes again. Like a blow to the head, I can no longer see his face as the green hues come up to blind me, like clockwork the throbbing in my temples and the back of my head return.
I shut my eyes and it’s the only way that I can see him. And I recognize him, I know him. I do know him.
His eyes are still burning into me as my mother comes closer now. I faintly hear her footsteps as I try to cradle my head in my now numbing hands.
One thousand minus seven is nine hundred ninety-three. Nine hundred ninety-three minus seven is nine hundred eighty-five. Nine hundred eighty-five minus seven is…
“’This guy’,” her voice echoes to touch my mind, “is Im Jaebum. He saved your life.”
I found out from my psychologist in the psych ward that Im Jaebum volunteered at the hospital for school. He came often, though, and many of the nurses and doctors here liked him, for obvious reasons.
He was good looking, but quiet and kept to himself. He took care of his responsibilities and took orders well. He was one of the youngest among the volunteer staff and helped the elder patients with their routinely exercises in the rehabilitation ward.
Dr. Kwon also assigned him to escort me to the clinical psychologist after that day. “A familiar face, a very important one, will be good to help you recover.”
If I recover.
For them, as in the doctors and my parents, recovering the last year to two years wasn’t the actual recovery. It was coping.
Coping with the sadness, or emptiness, call it what you will. They’ve called it everything they could. They think that if they just give it all these names, they could fix me and that everything will be okay, but everything is not okay and I’m the one who has to live with that.
I know it’s so selfish, but am I wrong?
I know I’m not the only one who’s suffered. I know my parents are grieving, so scared that I could relapse and forget them. My mother is praying after visits, my father unable to forgive himself because his daughter doesn’t mean to break his heart, but he’d rather I break it than not recognize it at all.
“Don’t I get to feel scared too?”
I look up at Jaebum, who has stopped walking in the hall. He stands behind me, silent and still. Like stone. Cold and unfeeling. I stare at him, wanting him to look back. I want to share some semblance, even a small shred of the pain I felt to someone who could not judge me for it. Someone like Jaebum who’s heart couldn’t be broken.
He walks towards me and tries to take my hand, but I pull it away from him. He tries to take it again, this time his fingers are firm around my wrist but doesn’t hurt me.
“Come on,” he says gently and leads me to the elevator, “Let’s go outside for a little bit.”
The air tastes free. Or rather, it tastes real. I lifted my hands to touch the leaves of trees planted around the grounds, kneeled into the grass to touch velvety flower petals of roses, tulips, and carnations and other flowers.
Around me, people talked and laughed. Some were hushed together, silent in their intimacy. So much more alive than the droning inside the hospital. I said this to Jaebum as he followed me, pointing out people and children, but he would only nod or murmur an agreement. There was something about him that felt so far away.
I went over to one of the white benches under the shade, him faintly trailing behind me. I nodded for him to sit and he sat at the opposite end, like some kind of robot. It was discouraging, but I have to remind myself that after we first met, I’d told him to get the fuck out.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted out before I could stop myself. “For being rude to you.”
“Ah, well you should be.”
I pursed my lips as I turn to him, ready to rip him a new one when I see him smiling at me. Not a big smile, no. Jaebum wasn’t the kind of person who smiled wide. But I saw it in the way his eyes crinkled and one side of his mouth tugged like he was sharing a secret to himself.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that I used to know that look.
He cradles his cheek in one hand, leaning against the end of the bench as he smiles down at the ground. Still sharing secrets, but somehow, he didn’t feel so far away.
I did know Im Jaebum, didn’t I? Otherwise, how can I feel so at ease now knowing he forgave me? How did I know he forgave me without saying a word?
His eyes meet mine again. “What are you smiling about?”
“I don’t know. But thank you, for saving my life.” My eyes started to sting with tears, probably just another side effect to my depressive mood. I was so used to crying now, especially when I didn’t know why. Dr. Kwon would remind me that my brain did.
Jaebum moves closer to me and I prepared myself for the blunt end of his personality. Ready to tell him why I was crying, because I don’t know why. I don’t have any answers and no one has any for me, yet I’m the one who will have to cope with that.
I have to live with parts of my life, myself, hidden in the dark. Not knowing, not being able to tell what were memories and what were just dreams I desperately hoped were lost pieces.
I was in pain.
His hand is warm on mine. My eyes shut immediately at his touch, startled by his sudden touch and even more terrified that my body welcomed it. Under the shade, Jaebum’s hand basked me in the sun.
“It must be lonely,” he says so softly. Not careful, just soft. I allow myself this single selfish wish, and I allow myself to want his understanding. “You’ve been suffering all this time, haven’t you?”
As I open my eyes, what started out as warmth in my chest fell to a sinking dread pooling in my stomach. Like I was doing something wrong or that it didn’t feel right. Or it shouldn’t.
I take my hand back, blinking rapidly now as I looked around for something.
What am I looking for?
Where will I find it?
As Jaebum tried to comfort me, I kept turning around, despite his gentle orders to start counting again. I was having a panic attack again.
One thousand. Nine hundred ninety-three.
I could see him now as Jaebum tries holding my shoulders.
Nine hundred eighty-six. Nine hundred seventy-nine. Nine hundred seventy-two.
It was clear to me now even as the world began to blur and fade.
Nine hundred sixty-five. Nine hundred fifty-eight.
It was Jaebum’s voice in my dream, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. You’ll be okay, I promise.”
Nine hundred fifty-one. Nine hundred forty-four. Nine hundred thirty-seven.
But the beautiful boy in front of me, the one catching his breath and trying not to cry at the same time. I know it because I see it in his tear-filled eyes and hear it in the pleading of his voice.
It was his voice in the blackness, “Please wake up. Please don’t leave me like this.”
I know him. I don’t know him now, but I must have known him then from the way he’s looking at me and the pain in my chest, so hot and tight, I was afraid it’d smother me.
Jaebum had me in his arms, both of us still, but I could hear his teeth clench as he bit out,
“Where have you been, Park Jinyoung?”