Proxy: Chapter One

Chapter One

We think that memory is something solid, something real. Something that we can hold in our hand, like the souvenirs we bring back from beaches and mountains and national parks. Something that has weight and heft and reality.

But memory is really just the stuff we use to fill in the gaps between the real things. We build most of our memories from scraps that we treat like bedrock, acting shocked when it crumbles beneath us under the weight of what really happened.

I used to think, for example, that I really did remember what my mother looked like and sounded like. There was a face and a voice that came to my mind, after all, when I conjured up memories of Christmas time and after school snacks and afternoons with picture books. It was so bright and perfect that I believed it was real.

I was eleven years old before I realized that I was picturing one of the wise and bitingly smart mothers from a sitcom, not my real mother. I had to pull down the photo albums and confirm the reality-- my real mother had short red hair, not salon perfect flowing brown hair, she wore outrageously printed sweatshirts and comfortable jeans, not neatly pressed floral dresses.

My mother died of stomach cancer when I was seven years old. They caught it too late and it moved too quickly-- they found it when school started and she was buried by spring. I remembered her sick more than I remembered her well. I remembered her dead more than I remembered her sick. It would feel unfair, I suppose, if I felt much about it at all. It always felt like a misfire, how I could never cry and sob like my father did. I could feel him shake and heave in the pew beside me when the choir sang her favorite hymns, but I stayed still. I just went all quiet. I fell down on the inside, not outside.

It was strange at first. She was there, and then she wasn't, and then she was never coming back. For the first few months after she died, we couldn't eat our meals in the dining room, sitting at the table with my mother's empty chair, or watch TV in the living room, next to her knitting basket full of unfinished projects. My father broke down in tears even looking at the basket.

But people are hardy. People can adapt to anything. My father and I were no exception. As the year wore on, her chair became just a chair, and the basket vanished for parts unknown. I looked for it once, seized by the desire to hold one of the half-finished hats and imagine she would come back in and chatter away about how far behind she was for Christmas preparation.

My father and I became a team, an unbreakable set. He was there for everything, cheering me on-- my school plays, my Bible quiz competitions, my church concerts. I was there for him as much as I could be, as a kid could. I even went with him for rounds at the hospital every Saturday morning. I knew to be ready by 6:45 with my backpack full of books. It was our routine.

I never expected anyone else to show up. If we weren't on our own, we were together. If he wasn't at work, he was with me. If I wasn't at school, he was with me. We were the Leonards. We were all the family we would ever be. I was sure of that. I mean, I'm sure he could have dated, he wasn't hideous looking, even handsome, I confirmed it in his pictures-- a strong, sharp comic book jaw, bright blue eyes, wavy blond hair, short but muscular and fit, a toothpaste ad smile. But he didn't. I thought that he sensed as much as I did that a third person would be an intruder rather than an addition.

That's why I was so surprised to see two shadows falling over my book that morning at rounds. I was settled into what the hospital staff called my office at the corner of the nurses station. Someone even made me a sign-- "Corinne's office." I looked up and saw my father, dressed in his white lab coat and his tie, instantly familiar and recognizable. The second shadow, the person at his side... I didn't know her. She was a little bit shorter than my father, with a mess of curly black hair down to her shoulders, dressed in a red sweater and a pair of gray slacks, wrinkled like she'd rushed out of the house in a hurry.

"You must be Corinne," she said, her round, freckled face lit up with a gentle smile. She offered me a hand, and though I recognized the gesture, I glanced over to my father, waiting for his nod before I offered her my hand. Her hand was soft, and she let me go quickly. I looked over to my father again, waiting for the introduction and the explanation. He glanced down for a moment, and I noticed that he was flustered, even tongue tied. That wasn't normal. He always knew what to do and what to say. He never flubbed a line in his life.

"Corinne, this is Sheena. I... Sheena and I have been seeing each other. For a while now, I mean. I... I know I should have introduced you sooner, but I wanted to make sure it was really, you know... serious..."

Sheena laughs, elbowing my father lightly. "I'd say it's pretty serious, Lonnie."

My father sputtered out something I didn't catch, but I had already caught sight of the little white diamond glittering on her finger. I looked back over at my dad, and he finally hit his stride, winding an arm around her shoulders. "We're engaged. The wedding is in June."

I nodded slowly, not sure what I could or should say. I packed my books into my backpack, put on my coat, and slipped my backpack onto my narrow shoulders. It was time to go.

I should have expected it, but Sheena followed us out of the hospital and into the diner across the street, sliding into our usual booth for our usual Saturday morning breakfast. She settled next to my father, and they were already caught up in a whirlwind conversation about the wedding, something I had no real place in. So I opened up my backpack and took out my book. Before I could get even halfway down the page, my father placed one of his hands over mine on the page, his voice gently scolding me. "Corinne, honey, please. Put the book away, okay? Be present."

"You're a big reader, huh?"

My father beamed, forgetting for a moment that he was scolding me. "Corinne's a big bookworm. We taught her to read when she was four! Her preschool teachers didn't believe us until she started reading them The Sneetches." He said "we," and maybe that's what he remembers, but in my memory, it was my mother who sat with me for hours teaching me the alphabet, rewarding me with a chocolate chip for every answer I got right. I remember how I used to let the chocolate sit and melt on my tongue, letting the sweet taste spread all over my mouth as I savored it.

I nodded and tried to duck back into my book.

"What do you like to read?"

I shrugged. "Lots of things. I just like to read."

"What are you reading now?"

I showed her the cover-- So You Want To Be A Wizard by Diane Duane. She nodded thoughtfully. "Is it good?"

"I like it so far."

"Nice! You ever read any James Patterson?"

"I think James Patterson is a little old for her, honey--"

Sheena waved a hand in a gesture of playful dismissiveness. "Pfft. That's just what grownups say when they're trying to hide the really good stuff from you. Besides, he writes some young adult stuff too."

"Well, regardless, Corinne, honey, please, put the book away. It's rude to read at the table."

That was a new rule, but I closed the book and did what I was told, instead watching the cars pass by on the slushy January street outside. I started counting and sorting them out in my head. By the time our food arrived, I had counted five black cars, nine blue ones, four red cars, two white cars-- twenty in total. The waiter set down my father and I's usual breakfast orders-- a huge platter of scrambled eggs, sausage, and toast for my father, fuel for his afternoon at the gym later, a fruit and yogurt parfait for me. Sheena had a plate of chocolate chip waffles, dripping with syrup and whipped cream.

"Is that all you're gonna eat?"

My father broke in again, his voice and his smile proud. "Corinne loves it. She's a very health conscious eater."

Sheena was looking at me, but she didn't seem disdainful or judgemental, or even concerned. She was just curious. "Is it good?"

"I like it."

"Can I try a bite? You can try a bite of my waffles if you want."

I thought about it for a moment, after looking over to my father and finding that he seemed just as baffled as I was, his brow furrowed as he tried to puzzle out the situation. When I saw that look on his face, I took a chance and offered Sheena a spoonful of my parfait, trying to portion out the right balance of fruit and yogurt in a single bite. In turn, she offered me a forkful of her chocolate chip waffles with a dollop of whipped cream.

I closed my eyes and let the sweetness rest on my tongue for a moment, sorting through the strange familiarity of the sweet taste.

I wasn't sure that I liked it, but I didn't think it would hurt me.

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